During today’s acceleration of political polarization and fading enthusiasm for democracy, this rather oddball novella aims to inspire new solutions. It paints a picture of learning in the far future, and provides a sketch of how it will change American democracy and society.

Two audiences in particular may find value. The first is e-learning professionals who are concerned about national politics. The second is political experts (in academia, journalism, or government) who would like to see a concrete picture of just how game-changing the advancement of e-learning is going to be, and how it will work.

In this future world, people for the most part no longer learn by reading (though there will still be reliance on text for law, research, etc.) Social learning is still central, though a lot of it is online, and much of it is with automated tutors and assistants. For core topics, massive, advanced resources are built: simulations, animation libraries, interactive movies... all with personalization capabilities barely dreamed of today.

Technology and systems will evolve, but people in the future will be just as emotional, mentally lazy, and tribalistic as today. The human mind has certain quirks that must be accommodated. Short-term memory capacity—even in our greatest scientists—is extremely limited. Evolution has programmed us to fear people outside of the clan and to unceasingly scan our immediate environments. Learning must be designed to work within these kinds of constraints, and this is illustrated in the novella through examples of people learning about their economic and political worlds.

The novella interweaves two different, parallel “threads”: one thread is in the form of a Spy Drama which is there for fun but is not to be taken terribly seriously; and the other thread is a set of scenes of Learning, aimed to inspire. The technology depicted is advanced, though not magical (I’d hope that no computer scientist today would roll their eyes at any of it.) It incorporates lots of AI under the hood. I did not focus on the advances in user interfaces and devices that will surely come, as these would distract from the more important points about learning content. Each Learning scene includes some editorial commentary.

For your reflection as you read, let me suggest a framing question that is relevant in both threads:

“Given where US democracy has evolved to…
what kind of knowledge do voters now need
for democratic government’s effective functioning?”


The answer is not simple. But it is pivotal.

The title “Looking Backward” is borrowed from Edward Bellamy’s 1887 sci-fi novel. Someday I will turn this into a “real” book – feedback is appreciated!

David Foster

Introduction Video (2:24)