Yesterday's NY Times carried a story about how Silicon Valley is once again booming, with market caps for internet-based companies outstripping revenues by enormous margins. The story poses the question whether this is just another bubble of the sort we saw in the late 90s, and thus doomed to burst, or whether the new paradigm has finally arrived. I lean strongly towards the first explanation, not because I don't think that the internet is a great new phenomenon, but because I think that its very newness makes accurate predictions almost impossible and to some extent, leads people to take leave of their senses.
For example, at a dinner party I attended last night, a historian whose work focuses on the early Renaissance made the following provocative and interesting claim: We are now going through a transition not unlike the one that occurred with the invention of print. At that time, university professors faced a crisis. With text now available to every student in their classes, the point of class could no longer be simply to read Virgil or some other classical author. There had to be some new justification for the class, and thus was born the lecture as we know it. Likewise today, with universities making lectures available over the web, we must come up with some new reason for students to attend our classes.
To be fair, the historian acknowledged that his argument applied mostly to large lecture classes in the humanities, but even in this domain, the claim seems to me far-fetched. Once printed books were widely available, the large lecture format was already a ridiculous means of imparting information. Just about anybody attending a university can read faster than a lecturer can talk, and so, without back-and-forth interaction, the large lecture is inferior to reading. Even if one thinks that there is something to be gained from listening as opposed to reading, relatively cheap forms of audio reproduction (e.g., cassette tapes) have been around for decades, without any noticeable effect on the way in which universities operate. Students go to class because of social norms (and in some instances mandatory attendance policies) requiring them to do so. (Except in my classes, where they happily attend to be dazzled by my ever-changing hypothetical conundrums. ;-) )
Does this mean that university education will never change substantially? Of course not. What it means, I think, is that the coming changes to university education---and to the way in which people will live more broadly---are nearly impossible to anticipate. Well, I should qualify that. It is possible to anticipate that some changes will not catch on. People who invested their life savings in Pets.com deserved what they got.
But with respect to other innovations, it's just very hard to predict which ones will take. It's too early to say that e-books will never replace paper. When someone invents an e-book reader that feels almost exactly like a book, can be produced cheaply, and is also edible (okay, it doesn't need to be edible), that product could replace paper books. For now though, I'll leave my paper copy of yesterday's NY Times under the Kozmo.com paperweight that I received free in 1999, when I ordered a rental video delivered to my door for less than Blockbuster charged in the store.