Update: a little while after I wrote this, I wrote something else which might be a little less provocative and a little more reasonable.
Seth Godin wrote some interesting things about higher education, but his blog post starts out with a questionable assertion:
For 400 years, higher education in the US has been on a roll. From Harvard asking Galileo to be a guest professor in the 1600s to millions tuning in to watch a team of unpaid athletes play another team of unpaid athletes in some college sporting event, the amount of time and money and prestige in the college world has been climbing.
Wait, what? Never mind the idea that college basketball represents an increase in prestige from fucking Galileo. Leave that aside for now. What was that stuff about Galileo being offered a guest spot at Harvard? Galileo was hounded to the death by the Catholic Church for heresy. Why would he have not bailed for a deal like that?
Wow, this Inquisition is fun! I'm so glad I stayed in Italy.
Time to get my Google on.
I found this on snopes.com:
This is chronologically possible since Harvard College was founded in 1636 and Galileo died in 1642, but I'd say it's unlikely because:
a) Galileo spent the last nine years of his life under house arrest in Florence.
b) The early Harvard College's emphasis was on producing "literate [Protestant] ministers," so they probably had no interest in bringing someone like Galileo on board.
c) At its founding in 1636, Harvard College had "nine students with a single master," so they probably weren't looking to spend money on recruiting foreign professors from abroad.
Why would he even want to go there? 17th Century Boston was a backwater colony. It would be like Steven Hawking leaving Cambridge to accept a seat at a one-room schoolhouse on the African Savannah.
Looks like a professional writer with no qualms about plagiarism found it too, and put it in a newspaper article for the Guardian in the UK:
I was once told that when he was having a spot of bother with the church, Galileo received an offer from Harvard. Harvard was founded in 1636, Galileo died in 1642, so it is just barely possible. Still, it is rather like hearing that the University of Notre Dame came in for Adam and Eve when they were denied tenure in the Garden of Eden.
That's the most reputable source I've been able to find that says anything about it at all, so I'm going to guess Seth didn't use his bullshit detector on that one. But the argument with which he follows up on his unforunate introduction holds together much better:
Pick up any college brochure or catalog. Delete the brand names and the map. Can you tell which school it is? While there are outliers (like St. Johns, Deep Springs or Full Sail) most schools aren't really outliers. They are mass marketers.
Side note: I went to St. John's for a year. Loved it. Godin continues:
Why do colleges send millions (!) of undifferentiated pieces of junk mail to high school students now? We will waive the admission fee! We have a one page application! Apply! This is some of the most amateur and bland direct mail I've ever seen. Why do it?
Biggest reason: So the schools can reject more applicants. The more applicants they reject, the higher they rank in US News and other rankings. And thus the rush to game the rankings continues, which is a sign that the marketers in question (the colleges) are getting desperate for more than their fair share...
Back before the digital revolution, access to information was an issue. The size of the library mattered. One reason to go to college was to get access. Today, that access is worth a lot less. The valuable things people take away from college are interactions with great minds (usually professors who actually teach and actually care) and non-class activities that shape them as people. The question I'd ask: is the money that mass-marketing colleges are spending on marketing themselves and scaling themselves well spent? Are they organizing for changing lives or for ranking high?
Godin's argument here holds solid as a rock. But the title of his blog post - The coming melt-down in higher education (as seen by a marketer) - promises an apocalypse and delivers only a numbers racket. I would love to deliver the promised apocalypse, like a mid-May Santa Claus with a bag full of Mad Max for all the good boys and Tank Girls, but I'm going to stick to what I can prove.
Godin leaps from "I have discovered a numbers racket" to "this house of cards must fall" without any stated reason. I'm going to assume, for the sake of argument, that his reasons are a presumptive confidence in the triumph of goodness and light, and a faith that ugly stupidity always collapses because it's evil. I'm also going to assume, for the sake of argument, that a twelve-year-old could spot the hole in that theory.
I had to write a script recently for an acting class. I wrote it on my iPad and sent it to myself via e-mail so I could print it at Kinko's, but the Microsoft Windows machines at Kinko's couldn't even display the PDF properly. In order to print my script with the correct fonts, I had to experience the latest version of Word.
If you've not used this latest version, but you've used previous versions and you're confident Word could not have gotten worse, I'm going to have to shatter that confidence. You would be amazed. If Michael Richards, after the insane, racist rant that killed his post-Seinfeld standup career, had toured the entire planet in blackface instead of slinking off into obscurity, that would be kind of similar to the latest version of Microsoft Word. Back in the 90s, what I had thought was the worst software I'd ever see in my life was, for Microsoft, just the beginning, and nothing to regret or learn from, let alone atone for; only something to expand upon.
Progress is a myth, and the reality is monsters like Bill Gates, and the hideous code-beasts he's polluted our lives with. Evil does not always collapse under its own weight. Sometimes it just mints money like there's no tomorrow. Sometimes it lasts forever.
Here's something from a previous rant:
When the Roman Empire fell, its gigantic nervous system stayed intact and transformed into a religious organization. The aristocracy who controlled the Empire, and enjoyed a powerful transnational network for amassing and transferring wealth, dropped their military and their government but kept [their powerful transnational network for] amassing and transferring wealth. They got so good at rhetoric that they threw away their swords.
I'm not saying the Catholic Church is evil - but there's no doubt that between the pedophiles today, the Inquisition which destroyed Galileo, and guys like Il Papa Terrible, the Warrior Pope - I'm not making this up - the Catholic Church has certainly harbored evil from time to time throughout its long and varied history.
And if you can't tell this guy's a fucking vampire who's about to feast on human children, you'd never survive even the first fifteen minutes of a horror movie.
But that's not the point. The point is that the Catholic Church owns an unholy fuckton of real estate, and therefore represents the longest-lived real estate empire in human history. This real estate empire began as part of the Roman Empire, outlasted that empire's alleged death, and (in its headquarters) still speaks that allegedly dead empire's allegedly dead language. And although the Catholic Church has done great good in the world, building orphanages and schools, etc., it has also been a terrible instrument of evil. The myth of progress gives us no explanation for the near immortality of this real estate empire, and the idea that evil automatically collapses on itself the moment it's shown to be bad does not explain the Warrior Pope or the Pope we have today, who very long ago was a member of the Hitler Youth, and very recently exonerated a Holocaust denier.
And even if the idea that evil collapses in on itself did somehow account for the Catholic Church, it sure as hell can't explain Bill Gates. Logically, if evil collapses in on itself, then Redmond should have turned into a black hole decades ago.
Redmond, WA: Theory
Redmond, WA: Practice
The myth of progress deludes most programmers and tech marketers. Why do people say "Flash is dead" the minute they find out that some mobile devices don't support it? Why did people expect Linux to kill mainframes, when in fact it was Linux that revived the mainframe market? There's that idea that every new thing kills all the previous things. It's false. It's a myth.
It's even there in the title of my blog post: "College is bullshit. I am the future." What I meant to say, before I got off on this tangent, was that selling information products, like I do, is a better educational model than four-year colleges. But think about my phrasing - is future the opposite of bullshit? A better title, with no myth-of-progress taint, might have been "College Is Bullshit. There Is No Future." But it's not really that there is no future; it's just that there is no the future.
The myth of progress suckers would-be innovators into giving up. For instance, if you listen to this idiot from Forrester Research, Steve Jobs has not created a brilliant product; instead he has discovered the future. And in so doing, he has not created a new market, demonstrating that all you need to do to create a new market is build something so awesome everybody wants it; he has found the way, discovered the future, and in so doing rendered every other future that could have been "discovered" not only moot but also provably false.
It's thanks to idiots like this Forrester Research muppet that we are getting lifeless, soulless me-too products from companies like Google, which could be (and has in the past been) an engine of terrific innovation.
Rant over. Let's get back to Seth Godin and his criticism of conventional American universities. Godin identified some serious bullshit afoot; however, to be fair, serious bullshit in academia is nothing new. I once visited a friend at Yale; she showed me cargo cult architecture. Yale's architects set this extraordinary high water mark for insecurity by copying distinctive features of prestigious British universities like Cambridge and Oxford - including "features" like lead reinforcement of broken windows, applied to windows that were broken specifically in order to be "repaired" this way, and pedestals with no statues on them, because British universities had traditions of students stealing statues from pedestals as pranks. They also splashed their buildings' walls with acid in order to give them a false patina of age, in a move so dementedly retro it makes Ayn Rand's caricatures of history-worshipping architects in The Fountainhead look naturalistic.
Hah, did I say rant over? I have not yet even begun to rant. And by the way, speaking of Ayn Rand, yes, she was a lunatic on amphetamines, but that lady could rant. There's a fantastic but very obscure anime about her called Logical Demon Yenta High School. It's amazing. Giant oni invade a steampunk St. Petersburg; 16-yr-old Ayn Rand rants at them until their heads explode. You won't find it on Hulu, but believe me, it's something to watch. It's kind of like Last Exile with tentacles and lots of ranting. Plus some incomprehensible romantic subplots.
Anyway, so, when I was 19ish, I went on a road trip and discovered Yale's insane architecture. It was on this road trip, where I also visited a friend at Harvard - or actually, I suppose, several - that I began to suspect "serious bullshit afoot" was par for the course in academia. The numbers bear me out. Researchers in Australia found "that higher levels of educational attainment are associated with lower self-rated happiness or life satisfaction."
And here's a graph from Godin's post:
It shows college tuition increasing much, much faster than cost of living. It also shows medical costs for some insane reason, but skip that for now. Let me call your attention to what it doesn't show. What's missing from the graph: the rise in wages, over the years, to match the rise in tuition costs. And it's not just missing from the graph; it's missing from the world. Wages have declined or stagnated since the late 1970s.
Of course, the Internet will save us all, with free, high-quality online courses.
Also of course, the Hacker News community responds to the discovery of these free, high-quality online courses in moronic ways:
Free online accredited college/school is an idea up for grabs and needs to happen.
Let's skip the part where somebody sees an idea executed and claims that it needs to happen, as if it hasn't already just happened right in front of their eyes. We can even skip the part where you can already find loads of excellent video from existing accredited universities on iTunes for free. This response fails on much deeper levels than that. Building online schools with college credentials is exactly the same moronic bullshit the Yale architects engaged in when they built "broken" windows "repaired" with lead because the great, prestigious universities in England had broken windows repaired with lead. College credentials patch over a problem the same way that lead patched up windows in the Middle Ages in Europe (and as recently as 1931, at Yale). Accredited schools exist because many people don't want knowledge, they just want a credential. That's why the astronomic rise in college tuition accompanies no rise at all in the wages a degree can bring you.
Wages have not risen since the 1970s for workers with college degrees. Wages have diminished since the 70s for workers without college degrees. However, in that same period of time, CEO pay has gone from 40 times worker pay to 500 times worker pay. What's happening here is class distinctions growing tremendously, and in a society where class distinctions matter a great deal, the perceived value of a college degree skyrockets, even as the economic advantage that it used to give you deteriorates into nothing. In a society where social class and family background can profoundly distort economic achievement, a mark of prestige like a college degree goes way up in price, because without it, you're just a member of the working class. (Oh noez!) Colleges are selling liferafts on a sinking ship, and that gives them a license to print money.
I'm going to skip the myriad idiotic "solutions" to this problem, because this problem could not be simpler: if the only type of pay that's risen at all in the last forty years is CEO pay, then the only sane career choice is CEO.
That's assuming for the sake of argument that your career goals center around rising income. It's a huge assumption. It doesn't hold true in my case; I want to make movies, make music, write, draw, act, and code way more than I want to make money. But it still kinda holds true. The people who make money as musicians today tend to be CEOs, whether it's informal co-CEOs like Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn from Pomplamoose - who would never call themsleves CEOs, because of the term's horrifying cultural baggage, but have in fact pioneered a new business model - or gigantor musician/CEOs like Jay-Z and 50 Cent. Cartoonists support themselves as the CEOs of tiny online comics like Questionable Content, xkcd, and Drow Tales. Even for artists, taking on the CEO role makes good career sense.
Jay-Z meeting Bill Gates
Because of this, I'm doing monthly micro-business launches. In November I launched an uninteresting experimental project. In December I launched a career coaching service. In January I re-launched it. In February I think I forgot to launch anything. In March I launched a business selling videos. In April I launched another video, using a different launch tactic, and this past week (in May) I quietly launched a new video using another different launch tactic, as an experiment to compare launch tactics. My experiment in launching mini-businesses monthly resulted more in a series of products than a series of businesses, but it's a year-long experiment, and it's not over yet.
By the way, although these businesses exist primarily for experimental purposes, they are already paying my rent. I work for myself today. If you want to know more about that, you can buy an excellent video about it from me for $197.
The video's an hour and a half long and includes a two-hour bonus video where I follow up by answering questions posed by the first 50 purchasers of the product (who got it for half price - remember, kids, the early bird gets the worm). Note that some of my answers to the questions are offensive and/or obnoxious. The video is called Internet Marketing For Alpha Geeks and represents a very haphazard but awesome overview of my research and experiences so far.
Of course if you buy it and you're not thrilled to bits, you can request a refund.
Anyhoo, this brought me back to information products, which completes the circle, so let's spend a moment to observe how information products may replace accredited colleges and universities.
First, let's consider why you might want to replace accredited colleges and universities in the first place. Researchers found a negative effect on quality of life (see link above). Colleges and universities operate on a one-time training model, but training should be perpetual and continuous. And higher education fails at teaching technical topics, because technology moves too quickly for academia to keep pace. As the great Alan Kay once said,
"Once you have something that grows faster than education grows, you’re always going to get a pop culture."
"Pop culture" fits. Information products are not prestigious. When I began marketing information products, this one dude who hates me for some reason (I think he works for Microsoft) posted satirical "pictures of me" on Hacker News and Twitter:
If you're wondering why the fuck this guy thinks I'm the Riddler, well, so was I. But don't riddle me that, because you're not looking at the Riddler. You're looking at some hokey salesman for some hokey information product or products. His name is Matt Kelso or something like that.
The funny part: hokey is a good sign. It means my business is onto something. In 2008 I wrote a blog post called How To Dodge Corporate Monkeys, where I explained how both Google and Ruby on Rails - huge successes which started small - targeted low-hanging fruit with superior technology. The canonical example of information products online is an ebook about the care and feeding of parrots. It works because the niche is underserved, but at Internet scale, when you can reach every member of that niche worldwide, it's a lot of people. Using the Internet to sell an ebook like that, to an underserved niche that conventional publishers can't target effectively, is a textbook case of targeting low-hanging fruit with superior technology.
The next step, in many successful technology businesses, is to scale up. For example, another example in the Corporate Monkeys blog post is Propellerhead Reason, which has four times the installed user base of its fancier competitors Logic and Ableton Live, and probably an even stronger advantage over their competitor Pro Tools, which is only for serious, professional musicians. At the time I wrote that post, Reason restricted itself to virtual studio music-making - if you wanted to use real instruments, you had to go to the big boys. Virtual studios were the low-hanging fruit. Since then, Propellerhead released a product targeting higher-hanging fruit like recording audio (and, therefore, real instruments). They released it to a huge user base.
Information products may replace colleges and universities because they start down at the bottom, and therefore can build from there to the top. Already, ebooks have graduated from PDFs to complex web sites full of video, with numerous subscription options and add-on software. After you target low-hanging fruit with superior technology, you look for ways to get the fruit that's just a little higher up without losing your technological edge.
As John Gruber says, discussing Apple's history of doing exactly that:
It’s a slow and steady process of continuous iterative improvement—so slow, in fact, that the process is easy to overlook if you’re observing it in real time.
Paul Graham echoes that with a comment about toys:
Don't be discouraged if what you produce initially is something other people dismiss as a toy. In fact, that's a good sign. That's probably why everyone else has been overlooking the idea. The first microcomputers were dismissed as toys. And the first planes, and the first cars. At this point, when someone comes to us with something that users like but that we could envision forum trolls dismissing as a toy, it makes us especially likely to invest.
We can all see the Internet changing the way people do business right before our eyes. Futurists and science fiction writers have been telling us this would happen. The question is how much it will change, and how fast. Is it difficult to believe that the entire way we share information and conduct business will change on every level? Everybody who does entrepreneurial work in some way expects that to happen; the VC culture, especially in places like Google, expects that change to come from the best universities in the world. Google gives massive hiring preference to grads from schools like Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and Yale (hopefully not including the school of architecture, although that would explain Buzz).
Many of my friends and classmates from high school went on to the best universities in the world. I visited them at these universities and I was not impressed. I went to a great high school, and I'm very grateful that I got to study Latin and Ancient Greek when I was 16, but not everything about that school was great. The other night, I did some reading on the history of Facebook, and I had a flashback to some of the unethical, corrupt, rich-kid bullshit I saw in my high school days.
Not infrequently, [Mark Zuckerberg] acted like he was captain of a pirate ship. Among the few possessions he had brought to Silicon Valley with him were his fencing paraphernalia, which he left lying in a pile. Often he'd grab his foil and start swinging it through the air. "Okay, we've got to talk about this," he would declare, one hand held behind his back, lunging forward with this foil. Often the sword would get uncomfortably close to people's faces. "I'm the personality type where that would get me sometimes," says co-founder Dustin Moskovitz. "It was a pretty small room." Later Moskovitz and the others banned fencing from the house.
The house at 819 La Jennifer Way, with a resident population of seven guys, felt like a dorm. Some people -- female and male -- stopped by for days and just hung around. Stanford University was only a mile away, so the housemates would announce parties using a Facebook feature that enabled them to target specific schools. They were mobbed by Stanford students and townies. Hanging out by the pool was a major activity, and broken glass would simply be swept into the water. One housemate strung a wire from the top of the chimney to a spot on a telephone pole beyond the pool. With a pulley, he turned it into a zip line, so partiers could ride down the wire and drop into the pool with a massive splash. (When the owners finally returned in the fall, they were shocked. In a later court case, the owners described the house as "in total disarray and very dirty.")
One of the crew's edgiest pranks in those days was a presentation made to the blue-chip venture-capital firm Sequoia Capital, known in the Valley for a certain humorlessness. Sequoia éminence grise and consummate power player Michael Moritz had been on Plaxo's board. Sean Parker, one of Zuckerberg's first Silicon Valley advisers, had been been fired from Plaxo by its board, and he saw Moritz as having contributed to his downfall. "There was no way we were ever going to take money from Sequoia, given what they'd done to me," says Parker. The firm wanted to invest in Facebook, so as a joke the boys offered to pitch the partners a Zuckerberg side project called Wirehog, a peer-to-peer file-sharing program.
Zuckerberg and another partner showed up deliberately late for an 8 a.m. meeting, in their pajamas. They didn't even make a pitch for Wirehog. Zuckerberg showed a PowerPoint presentation David Letterman-style: "The Top Ten Reasons You Should Not Invest in Wirehog." It started out almost seriously. "The number 10 reason not to invest in Wirehog: we have no revenue." Number 9: "We will probably get sued by the music industry." By the final few points it was unashamedly rude. Number 3: "We showed up at your office late in our pajamas." Number 2: "Because Sean Parker is involved." And the number one reason Sequoia should not invest in Wirehog: "We're only here because [a Sequoia partner] told us to come." The partners seemed to listen respectfully, recalls Zuckerberg, who says he now regrets the incident. "I assume we really offended them and now I feel really bad about that."
Facebook's final fling of sophomoric adventures came in late 2006, when the company was starting to get billion-dollar takeover offers from major corporations. For its holiday party that December, the entire company, now about 150 people, took buses to the Great America Theme Park in nearby Santa Clara. From the minute people got on the buses they started drinking. By the time they arrived at the park many were already drunk. Facebook's employees celebrated a successful year on the park's thrill rides that spun, dropped, twisted and inverted them. On the way home an employee threw up in an air vent of one of the buses. The company had to pay several thousand dollars to repair the damage.
The VC vision says these kids are the brightest hope the world has. They are our shining future. Do they really sound like the brightest people on the planet? A lot of who gets into Harvard comes down to whose parents have a lot of money. There's work to it, there's talent, but there's also a great big funnel that feeds spoiled rich kids from expensive school to expensive school.
This idiot graduated from Yale.
College marketing and Western traditions might tell us that this funnel will bring us the glorious high-tech future, but if you actually look at the history of successful technology projects, the overwhelming theme is targeting low-hanging fruit with superior technology. That's how a scrappy little mammal takes out a lumbering dinosaur.
Rule number one in information products: target a niche. Low-hanging fruit defines this entire industry, and the marketing and sales systems completely outstrip what I've seen as a programmer, in terms of sophistication and effectiveness. Information product marketers like me are already nabbing that low-hanging fruit and using superior technology to do it. It's way too early to say for sure, but from where I'm standing, I'd say the mammals are the ones publishing ebooks, and the dinosaurs are the ones who bring their European fencing swords with them when they move from Harvard University to Palo Alto. I did fencing at St. John's, and I loved it, but it's not exactly futuristic. I mean it could be, if there were lightsabers involved, but there aren't.
By the way, I wanted to thank my sponsor for sponsoring this blog post. My sponsor is a video called Internet Marketing For Alpha Geeks. You may remember it from above. It's awesome, and it's only $197.
I made it, and it paid me to write this. Thanks, Internet Marketing For Alpha Geeks!
Update: some caveats.