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Virtual Reality, Economic Collapse, Environmental Degradation, and 'Children of the New World’

Dystopian near future science fiction that hits this edtech optimist a bit too close to home.

November 27, 2016
 

Children of the New World: Stories by Alexander Weinstein

Published in September of 2016

Higher education makes an appearance in Weinstein’s thought provoking and worrying collection of short stories Children of the New World.  In the story Migration - amongst the best of the 13 stories in the book - a literature professor carries on an affair with one of his students.  The twist is that the school is virtual, the affair is digital, and the wife approves. (She is having an avatar fling with her digitally well-muscled gardener).  

Amongst the themes that run through Children of the New World are the personal costs of advanced virtual reality and robotics, economic collapse, and environmental degradation.

The literature professor teaches his courses online because everything has moved online, with the only “outside” activity coming from the vehicles that deliver groceries and consumer items. 

Fall Line tells the story of what happens to an extreme skier and the ski resort where he works when global warming has made it too warm to snow. In the story that gave the book its name, a family copes with the grief inflicted on them when their virtual children become corrupted with viruses. 

And in Saying Goodbye to Yang, a father tries to figure out how to manage family life when the robot boy he purchased to take care of his (non-cloned) daughter goes on the fritz. 

All of these stories are just close enough to home to disturb even the most ardent of techno-optimist. We don’t need a future of disappearing jobs and rising seas to envision our future going off the rails.  

The disappearing distinction between real and virtual experiences should perhaps be cause enough for worry.  

Moving from digitally mediated relationships to relationships with digital creations might just open up new world’s of suffering and regret.

In Migration, virtual academic life mirrors real academic life in all but the most important ways. Classes are held in (virtual) classrooms. Office hours are scheduled in virtual offices - where virtual students also fail to show up. The technology of online teaching is lifelike in every way, save any real connection between real people.  This human disconnection extends even to the professor’s affair with “Kira” - as who the real person may be controlling the avatar is an unknowable mystery. 

Will relational separation be the endpoint of all of our investments in educational technologies?

Is fiction the tool we have for thinking through the implications of our headlong rush to replace the expensive and messy business of small-scale relational based teaching with the efficiency and scalability of adaptive learning platforms?  

Can I convince Bryan Alexander to include Children of the New World in his Near Future Science Fiction Book Club?  

Should Children of the New World be required reading for every EDUCAUSE 2017 attendee?

What are you reading?

Why I have you here - any recommendations from your Thanksgiving break (fun) books? 

I have two:  

Ian McEwan seems to have a big academic following - and his latest novel Nutshell (a murder plot as narrated by the would be killer’s fetus) will not disappoint his university fan base.  

Higher ed people seem to read police procedurals at rates higher than the general population.  Why this is so I have no idea.  (Maybe you have a theory).  I have no doubt , however, that I’m not alone in reading everything that Michael Connelly writes. His latest Harry Bosch novel, The Wrong Side of Goodbye, is one of his best yet.

 

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