Dry Spell

Dry Spell

The Din has quieted. 

After enduring month after month of political acrimony, Madisonians have spent the summer staring out onto a parched land. The only thing available at the farmers’ market is organic, locally grown dust.

Surely things will get better. They must. Soon milk and honey will rain down once again on Madison and we will regain our perfect world.


But what if that doesn’t happen? What if this is the beginning of a new era for our most livable Madison? Could it be that the global economic crash and rise of Scott Walker is just the harbinger of more unsettling changes for the city by the funky lakes?

In short, is Madison in for a run of hard luck?

Both the economy and Scotty conspired to undermine our previously unassailable economic base of public workers. Madison is a company town, and right now that company is government. If government becomes smaller, and its workers make less, what becomes of Madison?

Well, take comfort, friends. We still have the UW. It is the amazingly large, wonderfully brilliant institution that keeps Madison from being Sheboygan. Surely it is secure. Just look at it. It has managed to grow relentlessly during the worst economy in a century. Building after building has erupted from the soil along University Avenue, even while the rest of town lay dormant.

A fault line could never open beneath our beloved university!

Or could it?

Well, there is the cost issue.

The sum total of outstanding college loans is now greater than our aggregate national credit card debt. The enfant terrible of the NBA, billionaire Mark Cuban, recently predicted that the next bubble to pop after the cataclysmic real estate bust will be … drum roll … higher education.

That ain’t gonna help our lawns.

Now couple Cuban’s predictions with the career of another wild man, with surprisingly close ties to Madison, and you have a recipe for more volatility for our town, not less.

That other man is Steve Jobs, who, even from the grave, continues to stir things up.

This unplanned son of a UW professor and young woman from Green Bay managed to help creatively destroy the following industries: music, movies, television, cell phones, Sony Corporation, consumer electronics, photography, the entire U.S. Postal Service and, to a certain extent, the art of civil, undistracted, text-free conversation.

Jobs and his exquisite inventions turned individuals all over the world into digital beings, the repercussions of which are just beginning to be felt in large, slower moving institutions—like UW–Madison.

Just before his passing, Jobs turned his creatively destructive eye on education with a foray into textbooks. Whether folks like it or not, the book bag and every library on campus are about to become an iPad.  

And Jobs wasn’t the only one eyeing education with the notion of seismic change.

Take Salman Kahn. The Harvard and MIT grad was a hedge fund manager when he began to tutor his cousin Nadia in math. Kahn created a short, innovative video to help her. Others found it helpful, too, so Kahn created more videos. Then he quit his hedge fund job. Now just six years later Kahn Academy has 3,000 tutorial videos on a variety of academic subjects with more than 150 million views on YouTube. Google is backing the Kahn Academy with the notion that anyone can learn anything, anywhere, anytime, for free.

Think that notion might affect college towns like Madison? To answer “no” is folly.

Even though there will be the constant need for humans to bump into each other to make our ideas better, the student population and rhythms of a university city in the digital era are bound to morph, with profound economic implications. 

If you can learn anytime, anywhere, doesn’t that make semesters passé?

These evolutions will come faster than we think. Already great minds at UW are pondering changes for the campus.

Madison needs to ponder too. Will our economic landscape become as parched as last month’s lawns? Not necessarily.

But we have to become better at doing something that, as a supposedly progressive city, we don’t do very well at all.


Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at johneroach@mac.com