I’ve been asked a few times now what I think about the new University of Austin.
Whenever I encounter new efforts to disrupt the contemporary university, the first question I ask myself is: “What's their implicit theory of technology?” If they don’t have a first-principles thesis on what technological acceleration is doing to traditional institutions, then one should not expect their new institution to enjoy a different fate than traditional institutions. Namely; accelerating decline, sclerosis, and irrelevance in the face of wild, bottom-up, charismatic, niche, contagion dynamics with crypto-anarchist characteristics.
It seems that the implicit theory behind UAustin is that currently existing universities suffer from problems related to personnel, values, and funding.
They seem to be proposing the thesis: If you can get the right teachers—good intellectuals with a commitment to free speech—and you give them financial security through the deep pockets of private investors/philanthropists, this can create a new and superior version of the traditional university. Presumably they believe that something about these variables will not just make UAustin a superior model, but specifically on the dimension they seem to differentiate themselves with: sustainable intellectual freedom, freedom of speech, etc. Everything else is carried over: accreditation, degrees, the undergrad/graduate division, all the way down to the ivory and wood-paneled aesthetic.
Well, of course I wish them the best, and I'd love to see them succeed. It will certainly "work" for as long as Joe Lonsdale and co. wish to subsidize it. But so will the contemporary university, so long as governments and banks wish to subsidize it.
When people ask about the prospects of a new project, they’re not really asking how long it will exist with some semblance of functioning. The question is to what degree will this really “take off.”
So what are the chances that UAustin will unleash a non-trivial quantity of sophisticated and deeply free intellectual output? Or the chances that it will produce a demonstration effect that leads to more university instances on this model? Or the chances that it will cause any kind of societal-scale defection of academics from mainstream academia, in favor of independent universities? Or the chances that this model will become the main way our society turns young people into educated adults?
If that’s what people are wondering, personally I’d put the probability of any of these results at close to zero. But hey, if the probability of hitting any one of these goals is only .5%—maybe Joe Lonsdale considers that a worthy moonshoot. In which case, all the power to ‘em.
The reason I don’t think it will succeed is that I have a core theory of how and why technology is short-circuiting all currently existing institutions. Developing this theory has been the focus of this newsletter for the past couple years, so I won't try to restate the whole thing here. (For a few angles relevant to the present question, try Technology, Class, and Ideological Realignment; Durkheim Meltdown; and The Psychology of Prohibiting Outside Thinkers.)
One of the major reasons technology is short-circuiting most institutions today is that most institutions today are built on structures that ultimately rest on mass broadcast media. And mass broadcast media is over.
Take the very concept of bureaucracy. For all of pre-digital Modernity, bureaucracy was a world-historical improvement in the organization of human energy. It significantly improved our ability to order massive amounts of social energy across time and space, but bureaucracy is tightly aligned with mass-broadcast media logic. Arguably, it is dependent on it.
When communication is expensive, there are brutal economies of scale in communicating. Corporations, big media conglomerates, prestigious universities... These are all big bureaucracies that once could afford to be slow, they could afford to suck the soul out of employees and customers through routinization and standardization, they could afford to tell lies to boost corporate morale and win public support. Why were they able to afford these things? Well, historically you needed a ton of capital to print a national newspaper, or broadcast something from a television studio, or even just to send a memo to 1000 employees! So the few people who enjoyed these economies of scale in communication were often the same people who could build and run these massive bureaucracies. And it worked; they were powerful, and rich, and influential, for a long time, especially over the twentieth century and the golden age of broadcast media.
Once the cost of communication starts plummeting toward zero, all of the little tricks that made bureaucracy work—the standardization of roles and routines, the chain of command, and especially the white lies required to make deeply inhumane relationships sustainable—all of these tricks became huge liabilities, like existential poison pills that set all of these institutions on ineluctable death spirals.
This is perhaps the most drastic and differentiated implication of the theoretical perspective I have been advancing in the past few years: These institutions are not "struggling," they don't need to be "disrupted" or "reformed" or even "replaced." They are already and absolutely dead in the water, it will just take a while before people get the memo and fully evacuate them.
The future of higher education or perhaps even the vita contemplativa in general will manifest as the university being stripped for parts by the individuals who possess the most cultural capital within them. Namely, professors, whose education, skill, and sophistication is the primary core value backing the brand equity of universities. The cultural capital possessed by university professors can be understood as a kind of equity in the university system. Professors can cash out this equity (like I did) and exchange it or use it, however they please, on the open market.
These professors, and also the next generation of professor-types who may not even enter the university system, will simply disintermediate the university admin from the value chain.
In short, current professors or young aspiring professor-types will ask themselves: How can I provide to individuals directly, in exchange for payment, what I'm currently expected to give to universities, in exchange for a salary?
What the traditional professor provides is actually a bundle, including mainly knowledge transmission, charismatic inspiration, and community (the constructively competitive peer-pressure of the classroom). Notice that professors do not really provide credentials, and the greatest geniuses on any campus are usually the most oblivious to these philistine concerns.
Credentials are the opportunistic value-add that administrator-types insert into the value chain to give themselves a reason for being there.
Credentials are a value-add, which is why the business logic works, they're just not an intellectual value-add. Basically, administrator-types have captured the intellectual value-chain by inserting the credentialing layer, and credentialing a large number of normal young people is a way bigger market than the market for elite intellectual sophistication (small almost by definition). So once credentialing became the primary driver of university financing, it quickly dwarfed everything else, which is the real reason it's become a hostile work environment for thinkers (all the political stupidity in the news is just a late-stage consequence of bureaucrats and businesspeople running the place for the past several decades).
With the cost of communication approaching zero and info networks going global, one professor-type can now use a standard and reproducible playbook to provide elite intellectual sophistication to a small number of capable students for a modest fee—and earn more than they would from any university. This is disintermediation of the intellectual value chain, and the future of higher education is simply thousands of professor-types doing this. Perhaps they may bundle other things, or federate, we’ll have to see—but this is how it will work, I believe.
I have some reason to be confident, because I'm already doing it. In my modest little private "college," I can now gross $30,000 for one course that meets once a week for 8 weeks. I’ve only just started, and I’m not even that big yet. The economics work because I’m just one small professor, but I write and teach what I really think, with a personality, for a growing audience that likes my differentiated perspective and my provocative community more than whatever they can find elsewhere.
I’m not an administrator so I couldn’t care less about accreditation, which I don't have and won't seek. I couldn’t care less about credentialing, which I don't offer. But my model has real potential for society-scale disruption because it's a reproducible playbook, which any professor-type can use to enjoy permissionless intellectual freedom and make more money than they would at even a prestigious university. I'm not personally going to "disrupt” the contemporary university system; I don't really care about it. I’m just taking what’s mine, and inevitably many others will too. Wild, bottom-up, charismatic, niche, contagion dynamics with crypto-anarchist characteristics.
I wouldn't take an offer from UAustin because they wouldn't be able to match my long-term earning power as a truly indie professor. So places like UAustin will probably only get the less ambitious or less technologically-savvy professors in the long run. I’m sure they’ll get some great ones in the short-term, because of all the great talent currently stuck in bad institutional situations. But in the steady state, the greatest talent will choose the indie-thinker model simply because the freedom, impact, and earnings will all be greater.
UAustin won't be able to achieve the kind of radical charismatic authenticity that individuals on the internet can achieve, so they won't be able to grow through authentic viral dynamics.
Now, you might say I'm just a freak example, that my playbook of offering paid courses and private community does not represent a societal-scale response to the death of universities. I hear this a lot, but I think it’s just a brain worm of older people—especially ambitious Gen X men—who cling to top-down, social-engineering fantasies. I'm not personally a societal-scale impact, but as other professor-types learn about my playbook, I really do believe we’ll see a societal-scale demonstration effect and contagious viral dynamics.
We'll look back and realize that what is currently called "the creator economy"—clearly a societal-scale megatrend that hardly anyone would deny at this point—hides a whole bunch of more specific but imperceptible dynamics. One of those dynamics is a massive sucking sound, which you can't hear if you're outside of academia, but you can definitely hear it if you're inside of academia. That sucking sound is the already active evacuation of intellectual life from the universities and onto the internet. The only steady state is where the most talented thinkers and writers and teachers accrue audiences, teach courses, and provide nourishing social-intellectual community to all of the small minority of individuals in the world who seek sophisticated intellectual life. In fragmented niches highly conditional on personality, demographics, etc.
Then there will be trade schools, of course. In the steady state, perhaps UAustin trains workingmen to become employees of Lonsdale's portfolio companies. If these workingmen can quote Shakespeare while they do modern office work, that’s genuinely no small feat, and perhaps worth every penny.