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100 years: Imagining the future

100 years: Imagining the future

After 100 years of publishing an alumnae/i magazine, we are looking ahead. What will the next 100 years bring? Will technology solve pressing issues? Will the planet be sustainably livable? We spoke to six Goucher professors to see what they hope—or fear—will happen in the future of their fields.

By Molly Englund

ALEX EBSTEIN ’01

Director of Exhibitions and Curator

Non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, have received a lot of news coverage recently, the tone often bewildered, the explanations a little vague. So what are they? Basically, an NFT is a kind of data stored on a blockchain, “this weird way to assign value or uniqueness to an object,” says Alex Ebstein ’01, director of exhibitions and curator at Goucher College. NFTs can be attached to digital files to give something like a meme or short video a token value. The token value can’t be copied, providing a sort of bragging rights for the owner of the file, even if copies of the file are available for others to see.

It’s a little confusing. This spring, an NFT of a New York Times column sold for $560,000, although anyone can read it online. What does ownership mean, then? Is that particular file really a unique piece of art? The future value of such an object is mostly speculative at this point, but NFT enthusiasts believe these early tokens will be valuable one day.

Ebstein is less sure of that. NFTs are certainly going to be a big part of the art market, though, which in general provides a lot of cover for wealthy people to move money around, and that could happen even more easily with NFTs. But Ebstein sees a lot of opportunity for the technology. “I really like the potential for artists to make money or make an additional fee as works resell and accrue value,” she says. “If I sell a work in my gallery and we assign an NFT to it, if someone goes to resell that, they transfer the NFT. There’s a digital record of where it is now, who owns it, and how much it sold for. And that can be updated.”

Right now, a young artist might sell a painting for $1,000, only to see it flipped at auction for $100,000. Counterintuitively, this can ruin a painter’s career if they aren’t able to keep selling work at that inflated price. With NFTs, artists could make royalties off future sales of their work, which usually only benefit dealers and collectors. “If artists are getting paid a percentage of that inflated value, at least they can invest in themselves, put money away to make sure that they can still afford their studio,” says Ebstein. “Then they’re not relying on new art sales to sustain a practice going forward.”

AILISH HOPPER

Associate Professor of Peace Studies

We make the future what we want it to be. That may sound glib, but according to Ailish Hopper, poet and associate professor of peace studies, we create a kind of logic as a society that drives our collective decisions and actions. “We’re always in evolution, as individuals and as groups,” says Hopper. “How and who do we want to steer that evolution? What is the logic that we want to apply?”

Our collective logics often change, many times for the better. “For instance, when I was growing up, it was very logical that adults would smoke cigarettes around their kids and drive in cars with their kids rolling around in the backseat [without seatbelts]. This was what made sense,” says Hopper. And logics can change fast. “Even in the last two decades, I’ve seen many logics become extinct.”

One issue around changing logics, to Hopper, is that fake change can get in the way of real change. Fake change is about the appearance of change—it might be sincere, but it’s still ineffective. A lot of money has been put into making cars more efficient, for example, but not as much effort has been put into transportation systems that would make us less car-dependent. Or a corpora­tion might start an initiative to hire more people of color, but if the people in charge are still all white, the culture won’t really change.

Logics change when the stories we tell ourselves change. “Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot regarding white people is that the current conversation about anti-racism is ready for another phase of develop­ment,” says Hopper. “If it’s going to spread beyond leftist politics, which I think it must do, then it needs to find a different story. It needs to have a different logic to it.”

It can be difficult for many white people to imagine new structures of power and, specifically, what role white people will have in that new structure. Partly because of this, as Hopper says, “a lot of white people experience anti-racism as being ashamed of their identity, and it’s why a lot of white people are defensive.” This approach to anti-racism leads many white people to think of the future in dystopian terms. But white people can fight for anti-racism without focusing on their own identity and instead on what their identity group has done—and could do differently. Collectively, it’s time to change the story.

ASHA SHEPARD

Assistant Professor of Economics

Asha Shepard’s work is in applied microeconomics, which “thinks about how individuals, businesses, and firms make decisions,” he says. It uses data analysis to answer questions.

Shepard’s research is about the effect of education policy on crime. For a paper he’s currently writing, Shepard is using a dataset of people arrested over a 20-year period to look at the effect of school starting-age on criminal behavior. He wants to find out if people commit crimes at the same rate when starting school at different ages.

Shepard sees a future where we collect all kinds of data that previously wasn’t available, with easier access to more powerful computers that can analyze it. “By having access to more data and better data, we can answer questions in a different way,” says Shepard. There already is new data out there that people can study—medical data, consumer spending data, and data on criminal behavior, for example. “That creates a larger pool of data in which we can do better analogies. We can answer questions a little bit differently or even ask old questions in a better way.”

Shepard says the work is about finding a concrete relationship between certain things. “That’s what we’re doing with data analysis. We’re trying to establish causal relationships,” he says. “If I change this policy, what do I think is going to happen to people’s test scores, or how often people are arrested, or how many people have jobs and lose jobs? If we have more available data as to what happens when these things actually change, and we’re able to keep track in a very efficient manner, then we can say, ‘This is definitively an answer to this question.’”

JAMIE MULLANEY ’95, P ’22

Professor of Sociology and Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs

One problem with thinking about the future is that humans simply aren’t very good at it. Jamie Mullaney ’95, P ’22, professor of sociology, researches the connections between time and the self. She thinks that, to most of us, the immediate future (tomorrow, the day after that) can be a bit mundane, a little boring, and the distant future (30 years from now) difficult to conceptualize. But the intermediate future—five, ten years from now—that hits our cognitive sweet spot; it is close enough to imagine and be excited about but not so distant that it becomes abstract.

We also tend to be overly optimistic about the future, according to studies. Although there can be a failure of imagination when we think about the future, Mullaney says, it makes sense that optimism would be kind of self-protection. “We don’t want to go through the world thinking worst-case scenario all the time,” she says.

Yet there are still reasons to be hopeful about progress to come. For instance, much of Mullaney’s work concerns gender. “I think about my own daughter and how—within just one generation—how much our language has changed, our acceptance has changed, our imagination has changed.”

We think social change happens slowly. “To me, this is a hopeful moment that shows, ‘No. It can be pretty fast and radical,’” says Mullaney. “I think about the difference from when I started teaching to now, how much that’s changed. It’s remarkable to me, honestly.”

EDGAR KUNZ ’10

Assistant Professor of Creative Writing

“It’s a thrilling time to be a poet,” says Edgar Kunz ’10, who teaches in Goucher’s Kratz Center for Creative Writing. The genre is becoming more democratic, he says, in terms of which voices are being championed. “Writers with disabilities, writers of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, writers of different classes, trans writers, gay and lesbian and bisexual writers— there’s excellent poetry being written from tons of different perspectives, not just the wealthy straight white male status quo.”

Kunz believes poetry is gaining cultural relevance again after a long period of obscurity. It’s a genre well suited for social media, after all. “Poems are easily shareable,” he says. “They’re fast; they happen like a small explosion.” It’s possible to come across poetry just by scrolling on your phone. “I think those kinds of surprise encounters are really powerful,” says Kunz.

Social media can be a powerful force for poetry, while poetry can be a powerful force for social justice. “Poetry has a way of articulating social problems and giving them a human face and human complexity,” Kunz says, “taking those systems, subtle things, and making them intimate.”

While people have access to poetry in an entirely new way, there are still barriers to publishing. “Even in our current moment, what we have is a system where mostly white editors are foregrounding the voices of people of color, and that’s great,” says Kunz. “What I think we need to have are more writers of color as editors themselves.”

While the genre will probably continue to ebb and flow, there is no future without poetry. It is innate to who we are. Poetry helps us make sense of the world, ourselves, and the humanity in each other.

GERMÁN MORA

Associate Professor of Environmental Studies

When we think about what the world will be like in 100 years, climate change is at the heart of it. Will the world be sustainably livable? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, released in 2018, recommended that to limit global warming, the world should, by 2030, cut carbon dioxide emissions by 45% and, by 2050, achieve net-zero emissions.

There’s reason to be hopeful, as Germán Mora, professor of environmental studies, points out. According to a UN report, “By early 2021, countries representing more than 65% of global carbon dioxide emissions and more than 70% of the world economy will have made ambitious commitments to carbon neutrality.” Amazon has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2040, as has Walmart. On a local level, students in Mora’s class are working on a proposal for strategies for Goucher to achieve carbon neutrality in the next 20 years.

While Mora teaches climate change courses, much of his work concerns water quality. In many ways, worldwide, our water systems have improved in recent history (with notable exceptions, including in Flint, MI). However, there are two emerging threats to our drinking water that Mora expects scientists will focus on in the next century: microplastics and medications.

Microplastics are now everywhere on the planet. “In Antarctica, they are present there; in the deep ocean, they have found microplastics,” says Mora. “And it’s still unknown whether microplastics have long-term effects on human health or the health of other animals, plants, and insects.” Currently, there is no method to remove microplastics from water. Mora is concerned microplastics might be similar to mercury: They could become so prevalent in our oceans that they are impossible to remove, even if the technology is eventually created.

The presence of medications in our water is also worrisome. “As the population around the world is aging,” says Mora, “people are taking medications and excreting them. Most of the water treatment plants are ill equipped to purify the water.” Those medications are gradually becoming more predomi­nant in ecosystems, which could negatively affect aquatic life. Technology does exist to remove medications from our water, but it is expensive.

We should make sure to prevent a future where only the wealthy have special in-home systems to remove medication and microplastics from their drinking water. Perhaps we need to fight the problem as we hope to fight climate change: Governments and corporations must take responsibility, and change must happen at the top. We only get one future.