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Novel:
vCity 1.0
by Dr. Adam L. Gruen

20 days in the life of a 21st century virtual city simulation.

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vCity 1.0
Chapter 9

"...many of the seemingly routine aspects of city administration, like police, housing construction, and school administration, need not be routines, but opportunities for community life, thereby revitalizing the people directly concerned."

-- Richard Sennett --

In my e-mail there is a request from a professor Jan Heiden of the vCity Internet University to engage in a realtime multilogue with his students at such-and-such a time about the development of virtual reality technologies. I think he teaches a history course, but maybe it's political science, or possibly electrical engineering -- anyway, what I find fascinating about the whole thing is that Dr. Heiden is in Holland, I am in the U.S., the students are scattered all over the world from China to Chile, and the "class" would take place by means of a combination of HTML and VRML-based internetworking as well as telephone and video-conferencing. Very funky.

One of the most significant curiosities about the vCity is how often it mocks the real world. Sometimes, existence in the vCity is not about the future, it becomes the future. Electronic services advance to the point that they compete with, and expose the flaws in, their real world counterparts.

At the dawn of the 21st century, the modern university was indistinguishable from any other corporate entity. It owned a variety of assets including real estate and facilities; engaged in basic and applied research in many different areas; employed, insured, and provided health care benefits for thousands of people; prepared (and overran) annual budgets; provided a plethora of services in return for money; and generally competed against members of its own kind in the marketplace for revenue and profit. Many universities had their own security forces, their own computer networks, and their own form of currency. Universities formed associations, paid lobbyists, and obtained fat government grants and contracts. In sum, they were players in the global marketplace.

However, what a university actually achieved was a little vague; every now and then you would see a real world university struggling to decide if it had a fundamental purpose other than self-preservation. But then again, the same could be said of many transnational conglomerates that asked from time to time: "what business are we in?"

The general assumption was that a university was in the business of educating people, advancing knowledge, and possibly both simultaneously. It was a strange industry in the sense that people could actually educate themselves and advance knowledge without need of an elaborate infrastructure. Nevertheless society seemed to prefer individuals who glistened with the lustre of having associated with an institution. There was a lot of brand name loyalty in that market. A university could charge stiff tuition fees -- sometimes three times that of its competitors, for essentially the same product -- simply because it had a reputation for excellence or prestige (or both).

Unfortunately for universities, free-lance professorship and self-education made a comeback via the Web. Some of the smarter real world universities anticipated an erosion of their revenue base and tried to re-invent themselves. But the really ugly surprise even for these enlightened administrators was the discovery that a university was not a place, but a concept, which anyone could create overnight.

In uptown, to the west of Confluencia on the other side of the three rivers, there is an area called the vCity Internet University or "VCIU" for short. Many people think that VCIU is a simmcorp, but it is not. It is actually registered in the U.S. state of Delaware as Virtual City Internet University, Incorporated. It is a for-profit corporation whose stock is held principally by its employees -- the administrators, managers, engineers, and teachers. University employees receive their salaries in the form of convertible stock, but they also receive cash commissions for bringing in revenue.

In this system, the highest paid professionals are actually the teachers (content & analysis providers), since it is they who bring in the most revenue from the mass base of students (end-users). The heart and soul of the VCIU as a means for the expression and communication of knowledge is its computer network hardware and software. In a nutshell, the VCIU network links those who wish to teach with those who wish to learn.

The fundamental principle of the education business is that students (end-users) must cover the costs of teachers (content providers). By charging for library research or education on a per-use basis, VCIU encouraged efficiency throughout the entire system. First of all, students didn't goof off while learning, because it was their money that was being seamlessly transferred to the university. Secondly, teachers didn't waste time or effort with irrelevancies, because they quickly lost their student base. Within a matter of days, in fact. Professors quickly learned how to attract large swarms of end-users, either by providing quality content, insightful analysis, or outright amusement (like clowns at a circus).

The buying and selling of education-minutes is effected by sophisticated VCIU software, the details of which will remain unpublished for obvious reasons. Basically, information content is encrypted and keyed by password. Therefore, it is not only impossible to "eavesdrop" on a discussion group or read material provided by a teacher, but also impossible to reproduce that information (unless the teacher codes it for reproducibility in either electronic or hard-copy form). As far as VCIU knows, no one -- including the National Security Agency -- has ever cracked its security. But it allows students to try. For a fee, of course. And if anyone does figure out this ultimate hack, why then, s/he would easily be able to get a job with the university as a security expert. Or with any terrorist and/or government organization in the world.

The efficiency of the VCIU was staggering to education professionals. Back in '98, the average cost of education-minutes was approximately $0.30/minute, figured by dividing total tuition costs by credit hours, not including incidental costs and lost opportunity income. The average billable cost of an education-minute channeled through VCIU today is approximately $0.08/minute.

It was like accidentally knocking down a hornet's nest. I remember very well how university administrators came flying at us from every direction, more juiced than a bunch of Yellow Jackets nursing from a can of Jolt cola. Threatened to sue our corporation for something or other -- I don't think their lawyers were ever very clear about what, certainly ours were mystified -- and ended up blacklisting anyone who participated in VCIU. They twisted the arms of corporations not to treat a VCIU degree as a legitimate degree and waged a vicious disinformation campaign against the value of electronically-based research and education. There was even a lobbying effort on Capitol Hill to get Congress to apply taxes to universities which "did not own physical facilities".

It was all a magnificent failure, indeed, a textbook case of how to foment a PR disaster. The more advertising and lobbying money the universities threw at the problem, the worse it got. All they were doing was purchasing huge gobs of negative publicity.

Undergraduate students began to seriously weigh their needs -- those who were not treating college life as a four-year jaunt paid for by their parents, that is -- and decided that it was cheaper to buy a PC and get an Internet connection and join a tele-university.

Foreign governments quickly latched on to the notion that it was far better to have their students learn from people in the developed nations than to have their best brains drained to the developed nations. Indeed, by opening up a virtual university, they could keep home-grown professors, too. Not a year after VCIU opened, Singapore opened its own virtual university, followed quickly by the vUniversity of Cape Town in South Africa.

Professors broke ranks in droves. Not the tenured ones, of course, but the vast numbers of graduate students and journeyman scholars and assistant professors who suddenly realized that they did not have to move to some obscure part of the globe in order to earn a living wage. Even more revolutionary: the idea that wages were roughly commensurate with teaching ability and/or actual knowledge.

The coup de grace, however, was delivered by corporate personnel managers and those Human Resources professionals who set hiring policies and staffing requirements for most of the transnational corporations around the world. The university system, after all, had been created for their convenience.

The idea that a university degree symbolized a standardized or minimal level of knowledge was important in order to save time for managers wishing to hire for a particular position. It allowed them to sort and sift resumes initially without talking to the applicants. The same applied to the exam-and-grading system, which had been established neither by students nor teachers, but by managers and administrators who had sought a cheap and effective way of determining relative value.

The dirty secret of the university system, however, was that it had functionally broken down in many parts of the world. By the late 1990s it was painfully obvious that many students graduating universities, so-called "freshouts", did not in fact have a significant grasp of their professed areas of expertise; furthermore, with the onslaught of massive grade inflation, the process used to determine relative value had become useless. More and more, managers were forced to initially examine individual applicants and talk with them, even though the resumes hinted at some level of competence. What the hiring managers discovered was that people who had acquired knowledge electronically were no more or less ignorant than people who had learned via a physical university.

The net result was that corporations accepted the validity of a VCIU degree and judged its value as roughly commensurate with that of a "real" university degree. Since the virtual university concept offered so many other advantages, and since a VCIU education was roughly 70% cheaper to acquire than its real-world counterpart, there was no end to the amount of market share that virtual universities might grab. The early participants in VCIU made small fortunes selling their VCIU stock at 100 times its original value.

A year or so ago, I received a letter from an old friend of mine, formerly a professor at Benjamin Thompson University, now a Dean. His new title is Director for Special Policy or something like that. BTU was one of the first "real" universities to realize the terrible dilemma that any business faces when it is saddled with an aging infrastructure and eroding market share. They had been working on some document called "University 21" or "Reinventing the University", I can't remember which, and kept re-issuing the damn thing for about five years. They were very good at saying where they wanted to go, but somehow, they were having trouble getting there. So he wrote me a letter asking for my advice and response to the annual draft of the policy document.

Here is what I wrote in e-reply:

[snip]

Dear Pete:

Look, the first and most important rule of university administration

for the future is: if it is possible to provide an educational service

by telecommunication, then *don't* build an infrastructure to provide

that same service. After all, buildings, facilities and equipment

cost a ton of money to construct, maintain, and refurbish.

Secondly, in cases where infrastructure must be created,

adjust your fees to assure that primary users are primary providers.

Subsidize only at the behest of wealthy patrons or the government;

facilities that prove to be unprofitable should be sold off to a competitor.

What kinds of facilities remain? Largely, any activity that is physical.

For example, to teach someone how to play tennis,

one needs a tennis instructional facility where both teacher

and student can work up a sweat.

There's only so much one can do with bioengineered telepresence, after all.

HMD/MSE technology can only go so far, at least for now.

Here, the university must assess whether this is an infrastructure

that it wants to build, knowing that it will be competing with private courts and lanes.

The university must adjust its expectations to the specifics of the marketplace.

If it does build and operate a facility, the life-cycle costs must be passed on to the users.

But obviously, fees cannot be significantly higher than those charged

by other corporations unless the university adds value in some way.

So adding value is the key. The real world university of the future will probably

become very much a social club offering state-of-the-art

sports and entertainment practice facilities and clinics.

It will also become a fun place to go to engage in all kinds of social events

that are not necessarily mainstream.

(if they were, they would likely be offered by someone else more cheaply).

In fact, the only thing that will provide the university of the future

with the high margin revenue it needs to survive and expand

is that its employees will be creative and willing to take risks

in stretching the boundaries of art, music, theater, performance & exhibitions,

etcetera. New services and ideas, by definition, have no

established pricing structure -- so when something becomes

sufficiently mainstream and competition arises,

that will be your signal to sell off a facility to private interests and try something new.

The real world university will also provide some facilities

that abet research and development in medicine, science and technology.

After all, despite some incredible gains in modeling software,

there are still some things that need to be tested physically,

if for no other reason than to assure engineers that their

modeling assumptions about such things as airflow or

tensile cohesion are really true.

Some systems, such as biological organisms, are so complicated

that modeling them is well-nigh impossible, and again,

a physical laboratory is often necessary to test new methods and products.

 

He e-wrote back:

[snip]

But wouldn't that put us squarely in competition

with many corporations involved in R&D in industries

including pharmaceuticals, robotics, construction, et al?.

 

To which I e-replied:

[snip]

Yes. So what you should do is be willing to assume

high risk ventures in return for guaranteed funding from

a number of other corporations.

That way, highly competitive corporations in a well-established field

avoid nasty surprises and yet lower their risk and cost

for any specific R & D adventure.

The university would get the benefit of steady revenue flow

and anchor tenants for their facility,

which may or may not prove profitable

in either the short or long-term.

Later, he e-wrote me another note thanking me for my comments, which he said

he had passed on to others for study. Then he added:

[snip]

I think you have some valid points here, but one thing that does

worry me is the potential for lack of access. Not everyone has

access to a computer or to the Internet, especially in the poor

nations of the world. What's your solution to that one?

Not one to fail to get the last word, I responded:

[snip]

Dear Pete:

No education system is perfect. If a society expects to enjoy

the fruits of a decentralized educational process that effectively

removes problems of bureaucracy, racism, sexism, religious bigotry,

and all forms of discrimination based on physical appearance or abilities,

it will also have to deal with the roots of poverty.

Because obviously you can't expect someone to telelearn

if he or she can't afford a computer and a modem,

or whatever particular technical form of access exists.

With all due respect to you and my alma mater, however, your question

borders on hypocrisy. It's a lot easier to take out a loan

to purchase a PC, a cable modem and Internet access than it is

to take out a four-year loan to matriculate at BTU, that's for sure!

I mean, what gives you the idea that access to education

was universal under the old system?

EFG

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