15th September 2012: What I’m Reading

What I’m reading this weekend:


Evgeny Morozov on The Naked and the TED (The New Republic). The Khannas’ use of Technik comes from Oswald Spengler’s Man & Technics (1931) which I read as an undergraduate. Morozov is scathing about populist futures consulting and writing in a way that resonates with strategic foresight colleagues and that recalls Mark Dery’s writings for 21C and other publications. I read Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (1970) in the office of Newcastle’s This Is Not Art festival.


Situational Awareness (Ritholtz). Money manager Barry Ritholtz makes some excellent points about how to prioritise daily work and to cut through the noise and unimportant/non-urgent tasks.


Anatomy of a Campus Coup (New York Times). Andrew Rice’s profile of the University of Virginia crisis involving president Teresa Sullivan is a glimpse of the Machiavellian politics and patronage systems that university administrators work in, daily. The role of trader Paul Tudor Jones and disruptive innovation proponent Clayton Christensen are a harbinger of what is to come in higher education. The “high-finance mentality” of private equity and hedge funds is reshaping university boards and driving cost reduction initiatives.


How Michael Jackson Made Bad (The Atlantic Monthly). Joseph Vogel analyses the media backlash and record industry politics that led Jackson to experiment with technological innovation. “Study the greats, and become greater.”


Who Wants To Be A Billionaire? (Vanity Fair). The inside track to the startup incubator Y-Combinator and its opportunity evaluation and venture capital screening processes.


Obama’s Way (Vanity Fair). Michael Lewis’s profile combines his interviewing and narrative gifts with some shrewd insights worthy of Richard Neustadt about the decision-making challenges and processes of the executive branch.


Your Brain on Pseudo-Science (New Statesman). Coauthor Ben Eltham alerted me to Steven Poole critique of “junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry” including popularisers like Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer. Poole’s targets include popular writers and publishing marketing. Poole is on the mark about how to write a genre bestseller. There’s actually a deeper history here about what happens when pseudo-scientific methods diffuse from their original context into sales, marketing, and self-improvement arenas. For instance, neurolinguistic programming (NLP) was originally developed by Richard Bandler and John Grinder as a methodology to model human excellence: “embedded commands” came from their study of Milton H. Erickson’s clinical hypnotherapy. Go back to the original research and run your own experiments.

7th August 2012: Are Universities Dead?


My brother Cam Burns pointed me to the above talk by Y Combinator founder Paul Graham. Cam suggested “universities are going to be replaced.”


I’m not so sure. Universities act as credential mechanisms for many careers. HR gatekeepers and recruiters still look for specific degree pathways to Masters level. There’s a lot of good knowledge in top university programs and in academic journals — although this is controlled by international publishing conglomerates. Access and diffusion controls mean you won’t find this knowledge on Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, or in information marketing courses. It’s mostly locked up in proprietary databases and publisher sites.


Instead, universities have become what sociologist Peter Frase calls “rentism“: a stratified, positional hierarchy that uses intellectual property regimes (which academics do not control) to enforce artificial scarcities of knowledge (which Graham points out the internet and entrepreneurial networks have changed), and that stratifies productive researchers from teaching-only academics and administrators.


Universities are responding to a volatile international environment and high cost structures by attempting to create more entrepreneurial, organisational structures. Academics are persuaded to become rain-makers for competitive grant funding and industry collaborative partnerships, whilst research administrators act in ‘guard roles’.


Cam was partly right: If you start young, have risk capital and networks, are successful, and can scale up, then you might earn billions without an academic degree.