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Agency by William Gibson

Published in January 2020

Right now, across higher ed land, William Gibson’s latest novel, Agency, is being read for clues about our possible futures.

Gibson famously said, “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.”

Those two sentences, perhaps more than any other combination of 11 words, describe most accurately how those of us who think about the future of higher ed think.

Agency, like Gibson’s other recent novels, is set (partially) in the near-adjacent future. The last election has gone differently, but the risks of nuclear confrontation (Syria/Turkey/Russia), and climate change-induced societal collapse (the jackpot), remain present.

Like many books that higher ed futurists are reading now, Agency is about artificial intelligence.

If there is a pervasive worry across our ecosystem -- beyond the usual suspects of public disinvestment and adjunctification and precarious institutions -- it is AI.

We wonder if the blending of AI, big data, sensors, ubiquitous networks and robotics will cause this latest technological revolution to be different -- jobwise. Where in the past, the coming of steam engines and tractors and assembly lines and word processors did not result in mass levels of technologically driven unemployment, the next wave of technologies just might.

In Agency, Gibson makes a compelling case that the real singularity we should be worried about is not advanced AI, but a long-term refusal to recognize the existential risks posed by climate change.

Agency allows us to glimpse, if fleetingly but perhaps with some acuity, how near-future technologies are likely to be used and misused.

Drones, AR glasses, robots and AI are all coming. Their impact will not be what we expect. Reading speculative fiction may be our best shot at preparing for our possible futures.

The heroine of Agency, the app whisperer Verity Jane, provides one model of how to behave when things spin out of control. Her skill set is that of empathetic listening rather than technical wizardry or physical prowess. Higher ed could use more Verity Janes.

The genius of Gibson, entirely on display in Agency, is to build the future from elements of the present.

Agency manages to combine a story set in post-post-apocalyptic 21st-century London with a techno-corporate espionage thriller. Somehow it all works.

What speculative fiction do you recommend that helps you think about the future of higher ed?

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