Back when UD was a hippie, Theodore Roszak’s book, Where the Wasteland Ends, was an enormously influential attack on technocracy.

Technocracy won, of course, and, in the case of universities, we now see, in both the for-profit and non-profit realms, a move toward the onlining of most higher education.

At the moment we’re in a transition phase, with rapidly increasing numbers of face to face classes featuring laptop use by students and PowerPoint use by professors. More and more professors also make lecture content available online.

A moment’s thought about this in-class arrangement tells us it cannot last, that it’s only a matter of time before everyone realizes you can accomplish online exactly what’s being accomplished in laptop/PowerPoint/downloadable content classes.

If you’re right now in a class of this sort, it will in a few years disappear from the physical realm and become part of the metaphysical.


The problem with online is that practically everyone cheats. Short of constant video surveillance of you in your home, it is impossible to determine that you are taking the course, and not someone else. It’s equally impossible to determine that the professor assigned to the online course is teaching it.

It is easy to envision a time when low-salaried drudges will play the parts of professor and student in this transaction – the professor-simulacrum will get a cut of the actual professor’s salary, while the student-simulacrum will receive a stipend from the actual student. One can also anticipate formal enterprises growing up around these needs. There is already a business professor at George Washington University who charges professors for outsourcing their reading of papers and exams, and their grading, to people in India.


Let’s estimate that, with several years of popular and easily available online courses behind us, we now have ten thousand Americans walking around who received A‘s in statistics courses in respectable American universities but who did not themselves take the courses. That means ten thousand Americans who do not know the difference between a statistic and a spastic colon.

Off they go to the workforce.

What we’ve done, see, is we’ve mainstreamed the old diploma mill problem. The old embarrassing disreputable diploma mill problem — it’s a problem schools as burnished as UC Berkeley will soon be up against. No one taught the diploma mill course; no one took the course. Money was exchanged, a degree was awarded. Now you’ve got this person working for you who doesn’t know shit – you begin to realize – about anything.

Same thing with lots of online courses.


Is this where the simulacrum ends? With the online high school statistics instructor who doesn’t know what statistics is, teaching statistics to students whose parents pay someone to take the statistics course for them?

No. It could go on like that forever. There’s no end to simulation.

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10 Responses to “Where the Simulacrum Ends”

  1. Robert Says:

    About a decade ago I had occasion to consult a knowledgeable academic lawyer about something my R-1 university did. Among other important things, he said to me (roughly):

    “The two greatest sources of liability that give university lawyers nightmares are (1) students and (2) faculty. What your administrators are trying to do, since they want to sleep soundly at night, is to keep them from interacting with one another and with each other. This is the wave of the future in the academic world.”

    I’ve been thinking about that conversation more and more as I’ve been reading your blog the last few years. Some of the things you highlight in it are not just due to laziness and indifference, or to greed and corruption, but may be part of an unspoken grand strategy to minimize liability.

  2. Rita Says:

    Wouldn’t the simulation end when employers stop relying on degrees as a proxy for knowledge and start administering statistics exams to job applicants?

  3. bfa Says:

    The reason employers prefer to go on the basis of academic degrees is because administering employment exams is legally problematic.

    If administering the exams results in a racially-disparate workforce, then the employer can be sued, and they’d be forced to demonstrate that the exam they’re using covers bona fide job requirements and isn’t designed to exclude minorities. Academic degrees are given out by a neutral third party that’s accredited by the government, so there’s no question about them.

    I expect some employers would switch to exams- engineering firms, for example- but the rest would just make do.

  4. MattF Says:

    I guess it’s nice to have a new theoretical explanation for incompetence in the workplace, but it’s not a new phenomenon– the world is what it is, in any case.

  5. cloudminder Says:

    i think wendy brown captured it quite nicely when she talked about administration’s desire to develop a model that runs on “efficient instructional delivery systems” (profs) that “generate human capital” (students) –producing new bits of linked in human capital–

    “it’s a problem schools as burnished as UC Berkeley will soon be up against.”
    yep, that’s pretty much where we are at now

    (its at the end of her teach in speech from last year:

  6. Margaret Soltan Says:

    I’ve seen that speech, cloudminder, and was really impressed by it.

  7. cloudminder Says:

    i forgot to also say that prop 19 died (happy and unhappy hippies over that one)
    and we gave the middle finger to prop 23 too!
    but, as revenge, the Tesoro refinery had an incident yesterday in the northern suburbs– puffy clouds or something–
    part of the family was on lockdown-closed windows,doors stay inside and without power
    only to then get on BART and have some stations closed due protests
    all of this city and suburban strife reminded me of three books from a seminar in undergrad days where we covered:
    1-Don Delillo White Noise
    Variations on a Theme Park:
    2-The New American City and the End of Public Space
    Edited by Michael Sorkin
    3- Edge City: Life on the New Frontier by Garreau

    when i thought of that – i also thought of UD (!) and wondered if you’d read #2 and #3?

  8. cloudminder Says:

    full correct title:
    #2 Variations on a Theme Park:The New American City and the End of Public Space Edited by Michael Sorkin

  9. Margaret Soltan Says:

    cloudminder: I’ve read bits and pieces of 2 and 3. Am about to read White Noise for the trillionth time. (I’ll teach it next semester.) Couldn’t be happier.

  10. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Robert: The desire to minimize liability by minimizing contact is certainly one aspect of the very large picture we’re all beginning to discern here. You can see the process you’re talking about in terms of universities adopting ever more absurdly specific speech codes — can’t say this, can’t say that. Don’t let people be in the same room. Don’t let them say anything.

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