The Market University

Context Narrative:

The day begins for Jamin: he wakes up, takes a shower, and, over coffee, looks at the  class feed for the next week. Twenty, well-off, Jamin attends a medium sized technical college in the northeast where he is in his third year of study. The day’s classes scroll by on Jamin’s phone, and he notes that the upcoming section of psych 402 has a high market value and makes a note to attend if he doesn’t see anything better by the next time it rolls around, but moments later, business 300 scrolls by with a higher market value though a worse work to profit ratio. Jamin selects it, it is added to his schedule, and he switches out of the class market feed to answer a few emails.

On his way in to school the next week, Jamin worries a bit about having not gone to too many other business classes in the three hundred level, but if it doesn’t work out, it won’t drop his net worth too much, especially not in cultural capital—it is only a business class, after all. And even so, it’s only for a week and he will be on to better things.

Jamin takes an isle seat of the small lecture hall. “I am Professor Stangard, and I am the only full professor in the school of business. I know that you might have had classes with the adjuncts, but I promise you that this will be a different experience. The class has been a bull for this last year for a reason and it is because I have the time and resources to the research that the adjuncts simply do not, and I use those resources to help push you hard.” Jamin looks to his left to see two students walking out of the class. He considers following, but decides it might be worth his while. If he can get another business skill line on his resume, it will be worth it.


Process & Background:

The project started as a collection of speculative objects that could illustrate the corporatization of the university: a receipt instead of a diploma, a fast-food style name button for the professors, a “gamified” report card full of badges that signify mindless repetition, and, most interestingly, a stock ticker for universities ratings. The last idea was inspired by Bill Readings’, The University in Ruins, in which he discusses the idea of “excellence” as the guiding star for the university that has replaced reason and culture: “Excellence is clearly a purely internal unit of value that effectively brackets all questions of reference or function, thus creating an internal market” (27). Readings clearly condemns excellence as being somewhat hollow self-referential, but I thought the idea was worth exploring further. A stock ticker that measures this different kind of value, but also, like a stock ticker, shows it as a kind of abstract and relative system.

Here, the process becomes somewhat messier: I wanted to hold onto the idea of the stock ticker as an icon of the market but link it differently with the university in a way that “real time” information might make more sense. I decided to go with a reconceptualization of the university that depended on taking many one-week long courses that had their content evaluated in real-time based on a number of factors: reported salaries of those graduates who taken the course, the average amount of work time put in by students, live student course evaluation, and number of students enrolling. Students check out the feed at the beginning of the week and keep track of it throughout the week: if it begins to drop too much they might drop the course before its one week is over. It isn’t necessary to complete every course that you begin during a given semester.

The application does work on the android phone, though the feed information is all fictitious. I developed it using Processing. Working on a fictional application has a lot in common with developing a diegetic prototype, but lacks the physicality that folks like Dunne and Raby consider particular to speculative design. It still functions on a platform with which many of us are familiar, the smartphone, but it is only functional in a future in which universities had an alternative structure and this particular kind of big data was collected. Still, it does work as Bleeker might hope a diegetic prototype would, by offering the idea of this university structure a more immediate “cultural legibility:” we are familiar with the everyday form of phones and apps and this can create a bridge into the speculative future.

While this project could have been more satisfying if, as I had originally hoped, it offered a Tonkinwisian affirmational future, the lure of dystopia was too strong. I understand a little more of the practical challenge of creating the kind of affirmational fiction that Tonkinwise describes: in this case, it felt like it would not engage people in the same way, or, at least, the kinds of artifacts that it would be practical to make around an affirmational future would be a lot trickier make engaging that dystopian objects.


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