The libertarian iCapitalists wouldn’t have anything to do with the state … would they?

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The libertarian iCapitalists wouldn’t have anything to do with the state … would they?” was written by David Priestland, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 19th June 2013 17.58 UTC

As Google reels from stinging condemnation for its tax avoidance from Margaret Hodge’s parliamentary committee, and the hi-tech companies are embarrassed by allegations of state surveillance, the general response has been one of astonished disbelief.

But we should not be surprised. The “iCapitalists” have long been zealots for a radically neoliberal vision of capitalism. It is their skill at making this harsh approach palatable to the modern zeitgeist which will probably save their skin – though with potentially disastrous consequences for our economy.

Big tech, originating in California’s Silicon Valley, has always been about more than cutting-edge engineering. It embodies a value system that merges a counter-cultural 60s romantic individualism with a cold-eyed commitment to free markets. Apple’s Steve Jobs, the Zen Buddhist of canny entrepreneurialism, captured the worldview with Apple’s famous 1997 slogan: “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers …”

And it is this rebellious pose that reconciled a whole swath of the educated professional classes – the “creatives” – to free-market capitalism. In the 1980s, it was besuited corporates who were in the vanguard of Thatcher’s and Reagan’s neoliberal revolution – people such as the hard-faced, downsizing financier Mitt Romney. The iCapitalists, however, presented a far more appealing vision to liberals – one of denimed democracy, of gender-blind and colour-blind egalitarianism. For many of us, Google’s own Big Brother house-style offices, with their Play School sofas and pool tables, seemed the very epitome of a creative, “happening” workplace; while Facebook’s Silicon Valley HQ was a mini-utopia of subsidised gyms, dentists, and personal stylists.

But this is an egalitarian utopia only for the networked and highly educated, not for the many. For the iCapitalist culture is not so much liberal as libertarian, and is founded on the belief that we should be led by elite hi-tech businesses and their shinily packaged semi-conductors and microchips; the state, a lumbering, bureaucratic drag on creativity and innovation, has a minimal role.

This worldview lies behind Eric Schmidt’s defending Google’s tax affairs with reference to the company being “a key part of the electronic commerce expansion of Britain, which is driving a lot of economic growth for the country.” It is not necessary, it seems, to worry about taxation, and indeed the state, as long as company profits are trickling down to the rest of us. The PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has taken this anti-state view to its logical conclusion, and contributed funds to “Seasteading” – a project inspired by the libertarian writer Ayn Rand, to create mobile “islands” of entrepreneurs on cruise-ships and oil-rigs, where they can be free of tax and state regulations.

As the iCapitalists have become richer, they have aspired to project this libertarian vision beyond their sunny, frisbee-friendly Californian campuses to society more generally. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has set up FWD.us to lobby American politicians. It has been pressing for looser rules on immigration – a cause his critics argue is primarily driven by company’s appetite for foreign tech-engineers, and a cheap alternative to improving the American education system.

Of course, we need hi-tech, and Britain should be investing more in the sector. But the iCapitalist vision of society is deeply flawed, and potentially destructive. It is based on the false premise that the tech industries are a triumph of and justification for pure laissez-faire economics – refusing to acknowledge, of course, that the US department of defence drove the development of Silicon Valley. Also, it erroneously assumes that economic growth can be driven by a small group of super-wealthy, highly educated individuals, producing technologies that allow employers to cut wage costs for the majority, while resisting taxation and redistribution. This was precisely the highly inegalitarian economic model that led governments to maintain consumption by allowing a debt build-up among us lesser mortals – contributing to the crisis of 2008.

Since the financial crisis, the iCapitalists, like the bankers, have come under more scrutiny. They will clearly now have to pay more tax, at least in the UK, and they are under pressure elsewhere.

And now we have the possibility that the tech companies have allowed the US government wide access to their users’ data, something that they have denied. If true, it leave them open to the charge of gross hypocrisy; for despite their much-vaunted libertarianism, it seems, they can also collaborate with an overbearing state.

It may be this scandal, rather than the tax-dodging, that undermines faith in big tech.

But there is little sign of any rebellion yet. For the iCapitalist vision of liberation and creativity still resonates with many of us, and particularly the young. British polls show that those born since 1979 are more likely to be socially liberal on race, gender and sexuality, but also more pro-market and anti-state than their older peers. They are also less likely to engage in boycotts of companies guilty of tax avoidance.

One explanation may be that this generation came of age when the iCapitalist vision seemed to be working and jobs were plentiful. And it may be some years before the hollowed-out neoliberal economy takes its toll and the flaws of iCapitalism are finally exposed.

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Boot up: Google Glass privacy, Facebook video ads, iOS 7 apps threat, Kazam smartphones and more

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Boot up: Google Glass privacy, Facebook video ads, iOS 7 apps threat, Kazam smartphones and more” was written by Stuart Dredge, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 19th June 2013 06.30 UTC

A quick burst of 10 links for you to chew over, as picked by the Technology team

Privacy authorities issue Google a ‘please explain’ on Glass | ZDNet

Josh Taylor:

In April, Australian Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim requested a briefing with Google on the device, and today he, and nine of his colleagues from Canada, New Zealand, Israel, Mexico, and Switzerland, among others, have written to Page asking for detailed information on Google Glass, stating that their knowledge on it comes "from media reports, which contain a great deal of speculation".

The commissioners state in the letter that Google has not approached them to discuss the associated ethical issues with Google Glass while the product is in early testing stages with developers.

They have asked Google eight questions around the associated privacy issues, including asking Google to explain how Glass complies with data protection laws, what the privacy safeguards are, what information Google collects through Glass, who that information is shared with, and whether Google has undertaken a privacy risk assessment.

The suspicion is that Google itself doesn’t understand all the ethical issues yet: that’s partly what the early tests are for. It’s a reminder that outside the early-adopter bubble, Glass’ privacy implications will be on the agenda for politicians as well as the public.


Facebook’s Video Ads Now Likely Delayed Until Fall >> Advertising Age

Cotton Delo:

As of late last year, Facebook was prepping video ads for their debut in the first half of 2013, but the launch was pushed back to the summer. Now it’s unofficially been pushed back until mid-October, according to a source familiar with the product. The given reason is that there are new features Facebook wants to release concurrently with video ads, and they require more software development.

Facebook needs to tread very carefully with this one to avoid a big user backlash, even if its sales teams are champing at the bit as AdAge suggests. I’m intrigued to see how video ads are handled on mobile, to avoid users hurtling through their data limits.


Radical iOS 7 Design Is Threat To Some Existing Apps >> ReadWrite

Brian S. Hall:

iOS 7 is a truly audacious redesign of Apple’s chief operating system. I have been using the beta version since last week and it’s abundantly clear that Apple is determinedly focused on ensuring that iOS–the software underpinnings of the iPhone and iPad–remains the simplest, purest OS on the planet. It’s also obvious that the new iOS 7 design and enhanced functionality will kill off many non-Apple apps, including some good ones.

Weep for the flashlight-app makers. The claim that "iTunes Radio should choke off all but the very best most-entrenched streaming music competitors" is debatable too – or, at least, there are plenty of other reasons why the not-so-best competitors will fall by the wayside.


Kazam Is Another European Startup Hoping Against Hope To Inch In To The Smartphone Hardware Market >> TechCrunch

Natasha Lomas (hat tip to @modelportfolio2003):

Details of how exactly Kazam plans to assault the Samsung and Apple smartphone duopoly were not forthcoming when I asked. Atkins declined to answer the bulk of my questions — including such specifics as whether Kazam’s planned smartphones will run Android and be skinned with a custom UI or keep the experience familiarly stock. Instead, he trotted out a repeated PR mantra: "Today we are just announcing that the Kazam brand is here, for the rest you will have to wait and see."

Remember the days when the UK had its own smartphone manufacturer, Sendo? That didn’t end so well. Now Kazam, launched by two former HTC executives, is having another crack at the market, with plans to launch devices later this year. But for now, it’s all brand and no (public) hardware.


The Humble Bundle with Android 6

The latest games bundle for Android devices:

Pay what you want for the underwater fantasy action-adventure game Aquaria; the chromatic minimalist puzzler Fractal: Make Blooms Not War; the retro zombie survival game Organ Trail: Director’s Cut; and the nail-biting stealth strategy platformer Stealth Bastard Deluxe. You’ll also receive a bonus game: the rhythmic audio-visual game Pulse: Volume One. If you pay more than the average, you’ll also get the intense tactical combat sim Frozen Synapse and the classic mystery point-and-click adventure Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars – Director’s Cut!

Many games developers criticise Android for its users’ perceived unwillingness to pay for content. Yet with 13 days to go, more than 68k people have stumped up just under 0k for the latest Humble Bundle. There’s life beyond the Google Play store…


Premium Smartphone Market: Why the Apple vs. Samsung Duopoly is Misleading >> Tech-Thoughts

Sameer Singh (hat tip to @HotSoup):

The chart above shows the ratio of premium (0+) smartphone shipments from other vendors to Apple’s and Samsung’s shipments. While the share of "Others" in the premium smartphone market doubled from 7% in May 2012, to 15% in May 2013, the pattern with respect to Apple & Samsung is quite interesting. In May 2012, premium smartphone shipments from "Others" were just 10% of Apple’s shipments and about 35% of Samsung’s shipments. By May 2013, the shipments from "Others" had grown to nearly 40% of Apple’s shipments and remained at 32% of Samsung’s shipments.

A smart look at the data, but do you agree with the conclusion that "the 0+, premium smartphone market may begin to lose its relevance in a year"?


Musical Identity >> The Echo Nest

From the music technology company’s new Musical Identity blog:

Can your music taste predict your taste in other forms of entertainment (books, movies, games, etc)? This post focuses on some (hopefully) amusing, interesting examples of what our Taste Profiling technology can uncover about the relationship between one’s taste in music and one’s taste in movies.

BREAKING: Fans of romantic comedies also like Céline Dion. But there are some interesting insights here, and implications for how the likes of Amazon, Apple and Google may be able to learn from our preferences in one area to recommend things in others.


Rihanna Passes Justin Bieber as Most Viewed Artist on YouTube >> The Hollywood Reporter

William Gruger:

Some time early Tuesday morning, June 18, Rihanna passed Justin Bieber as the most-viewed artist on YouTube. The 77 videos on Rihanna’s official VEVO channel now have a combined 3.784 billion views in total, surpassing the total view counts of the 79 videos on Bieber’s official VEVO channel by roughly two million views.

It’s all about the subscribers, apparently: Rihanna has 8.73m while Justin has 4.9m. Still, Bieber remains Twitter king with 40.6m followers. Perhaps he should start tweeting more YouTube links at them.


One year later, the Nexus 7 has gone from the best to worst tablet I’ve ever owned >> Android and Me

Dustin Earley:

I don’t remember when it first started happening, but most say it was when Android 4.2 began hitting devices. The new features and changes in Jelly Bean, 4.2, were certainly welcome additions, but my Nexus’ new found love of life in the slow-lane was not. I have not spent a full year using the Nexus 7 as a daily driver, only the last six months. So at first, I didn’t notice just how bad things had gotten. I thought maybe it was an illusion from using so many high-end Android phones. Until I started asking around.

Commenters suggest (a) SSD hitting the end of its read-write life (b) Google Currents sucking up resource (c) too little free disk space (d) he’s been mistreating it.


Why can’t Facebook help Emma Watson with her naked photo problem? >> Graham Cluley

So, if I’m seeing these messages, and readers of this blog keep seeing these messages, why isn’t Facebook’s security team seeing these messages?

Or is it that they *are* seeing the messages, but they either:

a) don’t care?

b) aren’t capable of doing anything effective to stop them?

Whatever the explanation, it’s disturbing to continue to see spams and scams spreading so effectively across the world’s most popular social network.

There aren’t any nekkid pics. The app pretending there are will take a lot of liberties, though.


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Do online courses spell the end for the traditional university?

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Do online courses spell the end for the traditional university?” was written by Carole Cadwalladr, for The Observer on Sunday 11th November 2012 00.01 UTC

Two years ago, I sat in the back seat of a Toyota Prius in a rooftop car park in California and gripped the door handle as the car roared away from the kerb, headed straight towards the roof’s edge and then at the last second sped around a corner without slowing down. There was no one in the driver’s seat.

It was the prototype of Google’s self-driving car and it felt a bit like being Buck Rogers and catapulted into another century. Later, I listened to Sebastian Thrun, a German-born professor of artificial intelligence at Stanford University, explain how he’d built it, how it had already clocked up 200,000 miles driving around California, and how one day he believed it would mean that there would be no traffic accidents.

A few months later, the New York Times revealed that Thrun was the head of Google’s top-secret experimental laboratory Google X, and was developing, among other things, Google Glasses – augmented reality spectacles. And then, a few months after that, I came across Thrun again.

The self-driving car, the glasses, Google X, his prestigious university position – they’d all gone. He’d resigned his tenure from Stanford, and was working just a day a week at Google. He had a new project. Though he didn’t call it a project. “It’s my mission now,” he said. “This is the future. I’m absolutely convinced of it.”

The future that Thrun believes in, that has excited him more than self-driving cars, or sci-fi-style gadgets, is education. Specifically, massive online education free to all. The music industry, publishing, transportation, retail – they’ve all experienced the great technological disruption. Now, says Thrun, it’s education’s turn.

“It’s going to change. There is no doubt about it.” Specifically, Thrun believes, higher education is going to change. He has launched Udacity, an online university, and wants to provide mass high quality education for the world. For students in developing countries who can’t get it any other way, or for students in the first world, who can but may choose not to. Pay thousands of pounds a year for your education? Or get it free online?

University, of course, is about so much more than the teaching. There’s the socialising, of course, or, as we call it here in Britain, drinking. There’s the living away from home and learning how to boil water stuff. And there’s the all-important sex and catching a social disease stuff. But this is the way disruptions tend to work: they disrupt first, and figure out everything else at some unspecified time later.

Thrun’s great revelation came just over a year ago at the same TED conference where he unveiled the self-driving car. “I heard Salman Khan talk about the Khan Academy and I was just blown away by it,” he says. “And I still am.” Salman Khan, a softly spoken 36-year-old former hedge fund analyst, is the founding father of what’s being called the classroom revolution, and is feted by everyone from Bill Gates (who called him “the world’s favourite teacher”) down.

The Khan Academy, which he set up almost accidentally while tutoring his niece and nephew, now has 3,400 short videos or tutorials, most of which Khan made himself, and 10 million students. “I was blown away by it,” says Thrun. “And frankly embarrassed that I was teaching 200 students. And he was teaching millions.”

Thrun decided to open up his Stanford artificial intelligence class, CS221, to the world. Anybody could join, he announced. They’d do the same coursework as the Stanford students and at the end of it take the same exam.

CS221 is a demanding, difficult subject. On campus, 200 students enrolled, and Thrun thought they might pull in a few thousand on the web. By the time the course began, 160,000 had signed up. “It absolutely blew my mind,” says Thrun. There were students from every single country in the world – bar North Korea. What’s more, 23,000 students graduated. And all of the 400 who got top marks were students who’d done it online.

It was, says Thrun, his “wonderland” moment. Having taught a class of 160,000 students, he couldn’t go back to being satisfied with 200. “I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill,” Thrun said in a speech a few months later. “I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen wonderland. We can really change the world with education.”

By the time I sign up to Udacity’s beginners’ course in computer science, how to build a search engine, 200,000 students have already graduated from it. Although when I say “graduate” I mean they were emailed a certificate. It has more than a touch of Gillian McKeith’s PhD about it, though it seems employers are taking it seriously: a bunch of companies, including Google, are sponsoring Udacity courses and regularly cream off the top-scoring students and offer them jobs.

I may have to wait a while for that call, though I’m amazed at how easy Udacity videos are to follow (having tips and advice on search-engine building from Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, doesn’t hurt). Like the Khan Academy, it avoids full-length shots of the lecturer and just shows a doodling hand.

According to Brin, if you have basic programming ability – which we’ll all have if we complete the course – and a bit of creativity, “you could come up with an idea that might just change the world”. But then that’s Silicon Valley for you.

What’s intriguing is how this will translate into a British context. Because, of course, when it comes to revolutionising educational access, Britain has led the world. We’ve had the luxury of open access higher education for so long – more than 40 years now – that we’re blasé about it. When the Open University was launched in 1969, it was both radical and democratic. It came about because of improvements in technology – television – and it’s been at the forefront of educational innovation ever since. It has free content – on OpenLearn and iTunesU. But at its heart, it’s no longer radically democratic. From this year, fees are £5,000.

In America, Thrun is not the only one to have taken the pills. A year on from the Stanford experiment, and the world of higher education and the future of universities is completely different. Thrun’s wasn’t the only class to go online last autumn. Two of his computer science colleagues, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, also took part, with equally mind-blowing results. They too have set up a website, Coursera. And while Udacity is developing its own courses, Coursera is forming partnerships with universities to offer existing ones. When I met Koller in July, shortly after the website’s launch, four universities had signed up – Stanford, Princeton, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Just four months later, it has 33 partner universities, 1.8 million students and is having venture capital thrown at it – $16m (£10m) in the first round. And it doesn’t stop there. It’s pretty remarkable that Coursera and Udacity were spun out of the same university, but also the same department (Thrun and Koller still supervise a PhD student together). And they have the dynamic entrepreneurial change-the-world quality that characterise the greatest and most successful Silicon Valley startups.

“We had a million users faster than Facebook, faster than Instagram,” says Koller. “This is a wholesale change in the educational ecosystem.”

But they’re not alone. Over at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Anant Argarwal, another professor of computer science, who also cites Khan as his inspiration (and who was, in a neat twist, once his student), has launched edX, featuring content from MIT, Harvard, Berkeley and the University of Texas System.

Argarwal is not a man prone to understatement. This, he says, is the revolution. “It’s going to reinvent education. It’s going to transform universities. It’s going to democratise education on a global scale. It’s the biggest innovation to happen in education for 200 years.” The last major one, he says, was “probably the invention of the pencil”. In a decade, he’s hoping to reach a billion students across the globe. “We’ve got 400,000 in four months with no marketing, so I don’t think it’s unrealistic.”

More than 155,000 students took the first course he taught, including a whole class of children in Mongolia. “That was amazing!” says Argarwal. “And we discovered a protégé. One of his students, Batthushig, got a perfect score. He’s a high school student. I can’t overstate how hard this course was. If I took it today, I wouldn’t get a perfect score. We’re encouraging him to apply to MIT.” This is the year, Argarwal says, that everything has changed. There’s no going back. “This is the year of disruption.”

A month ago, I signed up for one of the Coursera courses: an introduction to genetics and evolution, taught by Mohamed Noor, a professor at Duke University. Unlike Udacity’s, Coursera’s courses have a start date and run to a timetable. I quite fancied a University of Pennsylvania course on modern poetry but it had already started. This one was 10 weeks long, would feature “multiple mini-videos roughly 10-15 minutes in length”, each of which would contain a number of quizzes, and there would also be three tests and a final exam.

It’s just me, Noor, and my 36,000 classmates. We’re from everywhere: Kazakhstan, Manila, Donetsk, Iraq. Even Middlesbrough. And while I watch the first videos and enjoy Noor’s smiley enthusiasm, I’m not blown away.

They’re just videos of lectures, really. There’s coursework to do, but I am a journalist. I am impervious to a deadline until the cold sweat of impending catastrophe is upon me. I ignore it. And it’s a week or so later when I go back and check out the class forum.

And that’s when I have my being-blown-away moment. The traffic is astonishing. There are thousands of people asking – and answering – questions about dominant mutations and recombination. And study groups had spontaneously grown up: a Colombian one, a Brazilian one, a Russian one. There’s one on Skype, and some even in real life too. And they’re so diligent! If you are a vaguely disillusioned teacher, or know one, send them to Coursera: these are people who just want to learn.

Four weeks in, Noor announces that he’s organising a Google hangout: it’s where a limited number of people can talk via their webcams. But it’s scheduled for 1am GMT on Sunday morning. I go to sleep instead. However I do watch the YouTube video of it the next day and it’s fascinating viewing. Despite the time, Richard Herring, a train driver from Sheffield, is there, bright and alert and wanting to tell Noor how much he’s enjoying the course.

“Richard!” says Noor. “Nice to meet you! Your posts are amazing. I often find that before I have a chance to go in and answer a question, somebody else has already answered it, and it’s often Richard. Thank you.”

“I just love science,” says Richard. “I was never any good at school, but I’ve just picked it up along the way. It’s a brilliant course. To get something like this without paying anything is marvellous. I’m loving it.”

So is Sara Groborz, a graphic designer who was born in Poland but now lives in Britain. And then there’s Naresh Ramesh, from Chennai, who’s studying for a degree in biotechnology, and Maria, who lives in the US and is using the course to teach her students in a juvenile correction institute. Aline, a high school student in El Salvador, comes on. She took the course, she says, because she goes to a Catholic school where they don’t teach evolution. “And you’re the best teacher I’ve ever had!” she tells Noor.

How gratifying must it be to be a teacher on one of these courses? When I catch up by email with Noor the next day, he writes. “I’m absolutely LOVING it!” By phone, he says it’s one of the most exciting things he’s ever done.

What’s more, it means that next semester he’s going to be able to “flip the classroom”. This is a concept that Khan has popularised and shown to be successful: students do the coursework at home by watching the videos, and then the homework in class, where they can discuss the problems with the instructor.

There are still so many issues to figure out with online education. Not least the fact that you don’t get a degree out of it, although a university in the US has just announced that it will issue credit for it. At the moment, most people are doing courses for the sake of simply learning new stuff. “And a certificate, basically a pdf, which says this person may or may not be who they say they are,” says Noor.

And while computers are excellent at grading maths questions, they’re really much less hot at marking English literature essays. There’s a preponderance of scientific and technical subjects, but the number of humanties courses is increasing with what Koller says is “surprisingly successful” peer assessment techniques. “It can’t replace a one-to-one feedback from an expert in the field, but with the right guidance, peer assessment and crowd-sourcing really does work.”

And in terms of content, the course I’m doing is pretty much the same as the one Noor’s students take. At Duke, they have more interaction, and a hands-on lab environment, but they are also charged $40,000 a year for the privilege.

It’s a lot of money. And it’s this, that makes Udacity’s and Coursera’s and edX’s courses so potentially groundbreaking. At the moment, they’re all free. And while none of them can compete with traditional degrees, almost every other industry knows what happens when you give teenagers the choice between paying a lot of money for something or getting it for nothing.

Of course, education isn’t quite an industry, but it is a business, or as Matt Grist, an education analyst from the thinktank Demos tells me, “a market”, although he immediately apologises for saying this. “I know. It’s terrible. That’s the way we talk about it these days. I don’t really like it, but I do it. But it is a market. And universities are high-powered businesses with massive turnovers. Some of the best institutions in Britain are global players these days.”

Grist has been looking at the funding model of British universities, and sees trouble ahead. The massive rise in fees this year is just the start of it. “We’ve set off down this road now, and if you create competition and a market for universities, I think you’re going to have to go further.” He foresees the best universities becoming vastly more expensive, and the cheaper, more vocational ones “holding up”. “It’s the middle-tier, 1960s campus ones that I think are going to struggle.”

When I ask Koller why education has suddenly become the new tech miracle baby, she describes it as “the perfect storm. It’s like hurricane Sandy, all these things have come together at the same time. There’s an enormous global need for high quality education. And yet it’s becoming increasingly unaffordable. And at the same time, we have technological advances that make it possible to provide it at very low marginal cost.”

And, in Britain, the storm is perhaps even more perfect. This is all happening at precisely the moment that students are having to pay up to £9,000 a year in fees and being forced to take on unprecedented levels of debt.

Students, whether they like it or not, have been turned into consumers. Education in Britain has, until now, been a very pure abstraction, a concept untainted by ideas of the market or value. But that, inevitably, is now changing. University applications by UK-born students this year were down almost 8%. “Though the number who turned up was much lower than that,” Peter Lampl, the founder of the Sutton Trust, tells me. “They were 15% down.”

The trust champions social mobility and nothing accelerates that more than university. “That’s why we’re so keen on it,” says Lampl. “We’re monitoring the situation. We don’t know what the true impact of the fees will be yet. Or what the impact of coming out of university with £50,000 worth of debt will have on the rest of your life. “Will it delay you buying a house? Or starting a family? People compare it to the States, but in America one third of graduates have no debt, and two-thirds have an average of $25,000. This is on a completely different scale.”

And it’s amid this uncertainty and this market pressure that these massive open online courses – or Moocs as they’re known in the jargon – may well come to play a role. There are so many intangible benefits to going to university. “I learned as much if not more from my fellow students than I did from the lectures,” says Lampl. But they’re the things – making life-long friends, joining a society, learning how to operate a washing machine – that are free. It’s the education bit that’s the expensive part. But what Udacity and the rest are showing is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be.”

The first British university to join the fray is Edinburgh. It’s done a deal with Coursera and from January, will offer six courses, for which 100,000 students have already signed up. Or, to put this in context, four times as many undergraduates as are currently at the university.

It’s an experiment, says Jeff Hayward, the vice-principal, a way of trying out new types of teaching “I’ll be happy if we break even.” At the moment Coursera doesn’t charge students to receive a certificate of completion, but at some point it’s likely to, and when it does, Edinburgh will get a cut.

But then Edinburgh already has an online model. More than 2,000 students studying for a masters at the university aren’t anywhere near it; they’re online. “And within a few years, we’re ramping that up to 10,000,” says Hayward.

For undergraduates, on the other hand, study is not really the point of university, or at least not the whole point. I know a student at Edinburgh called Hannah. “Do you have any lectures tomorrow?” I text her. “Only philosophy at 9am,” she texts back. “So obviously I’m not going to that.”

She’s an example of someone who would be quite happy to pay half the fees, and do some of the lectures online. “God yes. Some of the lecturers are so crap, anyway. We had a tutorial group the other day, and he just sat there and read the paper and told us to get on with it.”

Max Crema, the vice-president of the student union, tells me that he’s already used online lectures from MIT to supplement his course. “Though that may be because I’m a nerd,” he concedes. “The problem with lectures is that they are about 300 years out of date. They date back to the time when universities only had one book. That’s why you still have academic positions called readers.”

I trot off to one of them, an actual lecture in an actual lecture theatre, the old anatomy theatre, a steeply raked auditorium that’s been in use since the 19th century when a dissecting table used to hold centre stage, whereas today there’s just Mayank Dutia, professor of systems neurophysiology, talking about the inner ear.

He’s one of the first academics signed up to co-deliver one of the Coursera courses come January, although he defends the real-life version too: “Universities are special places. You can’t do what we do online. There’s something very special in being taught by a world leader in the field. Or having a conversation with someone who’s worked on a subject their whole lives. There’s no substitute for this.”

There isn’t. But what the new websites are doing is raising questions about what a university is and what it’s for. And how to pay for it. “Higher education is changing,” says Hayward. “How do we fund mass global education? There are agonies all over the world about this question.”

There are. And there’s no doubting that this is something of a turning point. But it may have an impact closer to home too. Argarwal sees a future in which universities may offer “blended” models: a mixture of real-life and online teaching.

Coursera has already struck its first licensing deal. Antioch College, a small liberal arts institution in Ohio, has signed an agreement under which it will take content from Duke University and the University of Pennsylvania. And a startup called the Minerva Project is attempting to set up an online Ivy League university, and is going to encourage its students to live together in “dorm clusters” so that they’ll benefit from the social aspects of university life. Seeing how the students on Coursera and Udacity organise themselves, it’s not impossible to see how in the future, students could cluster together and take their courses online together. For free.

There’s so much at stake. Not least the economies of dozens of smallish British cities, the “second-tier” universities that Matt Grist of Demos foresees could struggle in the brave new free education market world.

At Edinburgh, fees are having an effect – applications are down – but “most students seem to see it as mañana money,” says Jeff Hayward. “It’s still hypothetical at the moment.”

But this is the first year of £9,000 fees. An English student at Edinburgh (it’s free for Scottish students), where courses are four years, is looking at £36,000 of debt just for tuition. And maybe another £30,000 of living expenses on top of that.

These websites are barely months old. They’re still figuring out the basics. Universities aren’t going anywhere just yet. But who knows what they’ll look like in 10 years’ time? A decade ago, I thought newspapers would be here for ever. That nothing could replace a book. And that KITT, David Hasselhoff’s self-driving car in Knight Rider was nothing more than a work of fantasy.

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