Yglesias has always written very thoughtfully about the university, so I'm a little disturbed by his recent forays into fortune telling. (I wonder if its a matter of that product differentiation he's always talking about.) His argument is that newspapers have been dying out because delivering information online is very cheap, and their business is delivering information in a more expensive way, and the university's business is also to deliver information, and so the university is imperiled. No, not imperiled, which implies there's some chance it'll survive. It's just doomed in its current form. As is usual with this sort of "digital revolution" talk, essentially evidence-free speculation is married to a rhetoric of certainty.
Now, I could respond to this in several different ways. I could point out the vast differences between what newspapers do and what universities do. I could point out that everything but the feel and smell of the newsprint can be delivered entirely digitally, but that only a tiny fraction of what universities do is adequately digitized. I could point out that universities are willing to offer this content online for free precisely because they know it represents no threat to them. I could point out the simple fact that the purpose of the university has never been solely, or even primarily, or even largely to deliver information, that this is not why they are funded, and that this is not why students attend them. If I'm provoked enough, I might write all that out.
But let me try a different tack and take Yglesias's analogy in a much more convincing direction: paid blogging is doomed. Utterly, totally doomed. It's only a matter of time, and anyone who maintains otherwise is simply standing against progress.
How do I know? Well, many, many people are willing to blog for free. Thousands. Some of them are quite good at it. And since the costs of starting a free blog are close to zero, and even poorly paid bloggers cost a lot more than zero, professional blogging is doomed. You might well argue that the quality of blogs would decline without for-pay blogging, and I might even concede the point. But as Wikipedia shows, pretty good and free trumps great and for pay all the time. So clearly, professional blogging is dead. Like me, Yglesias should be hitting the want ads, because our professions are doomed.
Of course, I haven't remotely proven anything at all, and I would never act as if I had. That kind of speculation can be fun, but it doesn't have anything to do with genuine knowledge generation. It's perfectly reasonable to think that paid blogs, like other paid media, aren't going to survive. And, indeed, analogizing paid blogging to paid newspaper writing is vastly more coherent and convincing than the analogy to college. But reasonable analogies can be applied to an entire host of topics without having any genuine predictive value at all. Life is like that: difficult to predict. Yet there isn't the remotest indication in his post that Yglesias believes his prediction could fail.
As it happens, pay blogging has actually been on the uptick, as Yglesias himself has pointed out-- with reference to evidence, making this post vastly more valuable than his recent ones on college. If he treated them in that way, I wouldn't mind the conjecture, but that's not the case. There is no indication in these posts that Yglesias takes one more seriously than the other, or that he recognizes the value of empirical evidence and the poverty of speculative claims about the future. This is a really good example of what I was recently complaining about on Balloon Juice, the conspicuous lack of epistemological distinctions and accountability in the blogosphere. Yglesias is essentially making things up here, whereas he was responsibly reading empirical data when it came to the blogging boom. Yet there's no consistent system of knowledge generation that privileges the latter over the former, and no accountability to be found within blogging to correct his poor reasoning.
Somehow I doubt that Yglesias will sign on to my claim about paid blogging, even though consistency would seem to require it. Personal investments are like that, and adopting a breezy, showy certainty about the supposed doom of a cherished institution strikes me as cruel.