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June 30, 2006

My Big New Project

This was a quiet week on the blog, but not for my work load. On Tuesday, I signed a contract with the Institute for the Future to serve as the guest editor of the 2007 Ten Year Forecast project. This project will run through the end of December, and will be published in March of 2007 (initially for the IFTF membership, although they will likely publish parts of it online later on). This is IFTF's big annual project, and this will be the first time they'll have used an outside editor -- in short, this is a big job, and a bigger honor. Part of being asked to work on this project includes joining IFTF's team of Affiliates, a network that includes such worthies as Howard Rheingold and Jerry Michalski.

The Ten Year Forecast (TYF) is something IFTF has been doing for a couple of decades now; you can find a few of the earlier versions at the IFTF website:

2005 TYF Perspectives (PDF)
2004 TYF Perspectives (PDF)
2003 TYF "Map of the Decade" (PDF)

I'm excited about this project for a variety of reasons, but I'm especially happy because it will give me a chance to work hands-on with a foresight methodology that differs significantly from the GBN processes with which I'm most familiar. Foresight/"futurism" is still far more of an art than a science (although academic programs such as the University of Hawaii at Manoa's Research Center for Future Studies are clearly trying to create a formal process); in that spirit, I'm eager to learn new artistic styles.

Best of all, this won't be a 24/7 project, so I'll still have time for other pursuits... such as Open the Future.

June 26, 2006

Monday Topsight, June 26, 2006

futuramalgore.jpgLight blogging week (of course, the week when I get a hat tip from BoingBoing). I'm spending the next few days at the Institute for the Future's Health Horizons conference (PDF), including serving as the keynote speaker tomorrow. I'll be talking about the role of current and emerging mobile interactive technologies as a catalyst for change in the healthcare system (i.e., the medical aspects of the participatory panopticon).

I'll also be one of the leaders of a major project at IFTF starting next month; I'll provide more details when I can.

Al Gore, Futurama, and Me: My shameful secret. When I met Al Gore last February at the TED speakers' dinner, after exchanging a few pleasantries, and before mentioning anything about WorldChanging, I told him that I was honored to meet the "first emperor of the Moon" -- Gore's title when he appeared as a guest character on the cartoon Futurama. I was pretty happy when he responded with his line from that episode, "I have ridden the mighty Moon Worm!" (and somewhat less happy when he turned to Stewart Brand and explained that his daughter was a writer on the show, and that it had "something of a cult following").

But Gore's back in cartoon form in this promo for An Inconvenient Truth ("the movie that will make you feel like you should probably do something!") shown at Grist, wherein he mentions his "hybrid pimp-mobile" and delivers a sound thrashing to the robot Bender. Sigh. What could have been...

Speaking of An Inconvenient Truth...: I finally got a chance to see it this weekend. Little of the material was new to me, unsurprisingly, not just because I had covered so much of it on WorldChanging, but because Gore delivered his slide show (Keynote, not Powerpoint, btw) at TED. Stirring, effective, and all that, but I have to admit to feeling a bit disappointed at how little discussion there was of the bigger kinds of changes that are necessary to fight climate disaster. He did mention Robert Socolow's Stabilization Wedges, but there was more emphasis on buying hybrids and compact fluorescent bulbs; what we really need to do is reimagine our urban systems and transform how we deliver energy, and so forth. For the scale of the disaster underway, it was a bit... frustrating... that the solutions mentioned weren't very Big Picture.

Janice's response to my criticism was that Gore was trying to talk about what we as individuals could do, while those Big Picture ideas are out of the hands of most of us, and she undoubtedly has a point. Still, I wish there was more recognition that avoiding climate disaster will mean changing how we live, not just what we buy.

The Scale of the Problem: You've probably heard that the US National Academy of Sciences has come out with a report on the evidence for human causation of global warming, with a particular focus on the so-called "hockey stick" model showing a sharp jump in CO2 and temperatures. Unsurprisingly, people with their fingers in their ears going LALALALA have tried to cherry-pick lines from the report to continue their denial (and no, I don't link to crap like that, it's easy to find), but I was suprised at how few of the reports of any stripe actually link to the report itself.

- Here's the NAS Press Release, with the short summary of findings.
- Here's the Report in Brief (PDF), giving more aspects of the article. This is probably the one to read for the best balance of details and brevity.
- Finally, here's where you can download the full article for free or buy a print copy; you'll need a free sign-up to the NAS website to download the PDF.

More Self-Promotion: I'll be a keynote speaker at the upcoming International Association for Public Participation conference to be held in Montreal, Canada, in November. Anybody have any hot tips about things to see and do in the late Fall in Montreal?

June 22, 2006

Stephen Hawking, Global Warming, and Moving Out

mchawking.jpgLast week, at a talk in Hong Kong, Stephen Hawking made what struck me at the time as being such a reasonable and obvious observation that I didn't think it needed commentary:

''It is important for the human race to spread out into space for the survival of the species,'' Hawking said. ''Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of.''

To my surprise, Hawking's comments have been taken by otherwise intelligent people to mean that Hawking believes that the Earth is, or should be, "disposable," and that moving into space would be a way to escape global warming rather than mitigate or reverse it.

I'm 99% certain that this is not what Hawking meant (I can't find a transcript of the speech, so I'll leave that remaining fraction of a possibility open for now). It's pretty clear to me that what Hawking is talking about instead is the fragility of the planet, and the recognition that, for human civilization to survive over the long run, we can't keep ourselves limited to a single home. As Hawking suggests, we face a multitude of existential risks, and the best efforts to eliminate one won't come close to eliminating them all. Even if we manage to avoid a "tipping point" threshold for global warming, for example, we would still face threats from pandemic disease, nuclear war, or the classic asteroid impact.

In the face of such risks, the wise approach is to do what we can to prevent the problems from arising, as well as to do what we can to make certain we can recover if the problem happens too swiftly, too aggressively, or too unexpectedly to be countered. In short, to borrow from the familiar realm of computer tech support, we need to perform both planetary maintenance and civilization backups. Programs and projects to head off global warming, to shift incoming asteroids so that they miss Earth, to improve global health and development, and so forth -- the kinds of good, incredibly important efforts described every day at places like Gristmill, Treehugger, and WorldChanging -- exemplify what I mean by planetary maintenance; looking to a future where humans live on more than one world, what Hawking is talking about, exemplifies what I mean by civilization backups.

I've talked about other kinds of civilization backups before, starting with Norwegian seed archive vaults to muse about information access in a post-disaster world. These are massive projects, and could take decades to complete, but letting us rebuild after planetary-scale disasters. Off-Earth colonies are just another variation -- not because they'd let us leave Earth behind, but because they'd help Earth recover.

But backups are not substitutes for maintenance. Dealing with disasters after the fact is always far more costly, time-consuming and frustrating -- and, on the scale we're talking about, life-threatening -- than performing regular maintenance. Maintenance projects (fighting global warming, eliminating global poverty, eradication of pandemic diseases) reduce our need to use backups; backup projects are our last hope when maintenance fails.

Hawking's comments weren't calling on us to abandon efforts to keep the Earth healthy, or to plan to abandon the Earth, period. They were a reminder that sometimes maintenance fails, and that if human civilization is worth keeping around, we need to think big.

June 19, 2006

Monday Topsight, June 19, 2006

stinkphone.jpgTurning Greenhouse Gases into Greenhouse Glass: One of my mantras when I was writing at WorldChanging was that "we can't assume that all the tools we'll have for fighting global problems have already been invented." Today brings another example of why this is true: Italian researchers have found that carbon dioxide, under very high pressure, can be turned into something very much like glass.

...by subjecting CO2 to even greater pressures – 400,000 to 500,000 atmospheres (40 to 50 gigaPascals) – the researchers created a novel, solid material. The CO2 molecules react to these conditions by forming a chaotic structure with oxygen molecules. The resulting material is transparent, tough, and has an atomic structure resembling that of ordinary window glass.

Of course, this material -- named "amorphous carbonia" -- is currently unstable outside of the ultra-high-pressure environment, so there's no guarantee that this will end up a real-world tool. But imagine how the game changes if carbon dioxide sequestration wasn't just an exercise is finding places to hide the gas, but was a resource for construction and art. (Via Brian Wang's Advanced Nanotechnology Blog)

Mobile Phones of Tomorrow: Nokia asked design students at London's Central St Martins College of Art and Design to come up with mobile phones for the year 2015; the winning design was made into a non-functional prototype for display. Nokia's press release provides the most information, but other reports on the competition can be found at: Silicon.com, which also has photos of five of the phone designs; Cellular News; and Tech Digest. The winning design offers a "scent display" to accompany voice and image, giving the user a better sense of the environment surrounding the person at the other end of the line.

I love these "artifacts of the future" stories, in part because they give us some foreshadowing of what people could really end up doing with new technologies, and in part because they give us an unconventional perspective on present-day needs and concerns. This aspect is quite visible in the St Martins College designs, from the mobile phone built for blogging to the system providing new features as add-ons for old phones. But what problem, exactly, is the stinkphone "scent display" phone trying to resolve?

Fly by Day, Please: Green Car Congress reports the findings of a study from the University of Reading that the contrails formed by aircraft at night are disproportionately responsible for the "radiative forcing" (i.e., global warming) caused by air travel. Although night air travel makes up only 25% of flights, it accounts for 60-80% of the climate impact. This is because contrails act like thin, high-altitude clouds, both reflecting incoming solar radiation and trapping warmth eminating from the Earth. Sunlight reflection only happens during the day, obviously, but the contrails trap warmth all day and all night.

Air travel is still a relatively small part of the global warming picture, but it's one that (a) is likely to keep increasing, (b) is damnably hard to fix (there just aren't that many good alternatives to hydrocarbons for aircraft fuel), and (c) is something that those of us with a strong global focus are loathe to give up. That said, reducing nighttime air travel as much as possible may be a reasonable step towards reducing the climate footprint of airplanes. Some night travel is unavoidable for certain destinations -- SF to London, for example -- but cross-country "red eye" flights may soon be a thing of the past.

June 16, 2006

Responding to Bruce

saturn_encedalus.jpgBruce Sterling did me the honor of devoting an entire Beyond the Beyond blog post to my Twelve Things... item from a couple of days ago. He provided an additional service by disagreeing with part of my post, and explaining precisely why. I figured I should pay close attention.

Bruce, while stating that the "draft of a list of twelve principles here is pretty good," grabs onto the apparent contradiction between my point #1 ("Nobody can predict the future") and my point #2 ("Not everyone is surprised by surprises"). If someone has successfully identified an upcoming change before it happens, haven't they predicted the future? He writes:

((((If I frame an obvious truism as a "prediction" and you feel any genuine surprise, then prediction, as a social act, has taken place. I'm like an Egyptian priest with some elementary understanding of astronomy, who can and will win awestruck admiration when he foretells an eclipse. If somebody foretells that the sun will go dark and nobody else expects the sun goes dark, that is a major revelation. That's not a measure of the absolute unlikelihood of the predicted event. It's a measure of the social distance between specialized insight and general incredulity.)))
(((It makes no pragmatic difference how the predictor found these astounding things out. Frankly, nobody much wants to know that. Generally a futurist spots future trends by spending a lot of time closeted with obscure geeks. He does some groundwork and he scrapes up some poorly distributed future. That's not second-sight. It's kind of a lot of work, and for most people it's rather boring. The whole point of hanging out with futurists is that they will do that kind of thing for you. They can also generally talk about it in some persuasive, jazzy way that eases your native incredulity.)))

Bruce is largely correct, of course, and his point here about "the social distance between specialized insight and general incredulity" is worth emphasizing. Futurists are, in some ways, a different species; for better and for worse, most people don't think in the same ways or about the same things that futurists do. But remember that what I wrote wasn't a Field Guide to Futurism (although, now that I mention it...), it was a set of reminders for journalists approaching futurists for the purposes of reportage. The purpose of point #1 derives from the very same social distance between specialized insight and general incredulity that Bruce describes.

When journalists report on people who describe themselves as futurists, they may not understand why a futurist would make a given observation; what we often get as a result are assertions of certainty. I doubt there are many professional foresight workers out there claiming perfect predictive knowledge, so I have to assume that this comes from how some journalists perceive futurists operate. Point #1 was meant to inoculate reporters against such beliefs.

The kind of reportage prompting point #1 is most visible in the generally superficial articles about emerging trends and upcoming technologies. But as I say later on, Gadgets are not Futurism. Bruce reminds me that the more important kinds of foresight work is heavily science-based, and can make accurate predictions of future events based on existing research. We shouldn't treat a climate scientist (as a pointed example) with the kind of jaded skepticism that we might have for a pop culture trend guru.

So here's how a reworked point #1 should look, taking into account this diversity:

1. "Prediction is very hard, especially when it's about the future." -- Yogi Berra Completely accurate foresight is a rare thing; most of the time, good futurism means getting key elements right, even if the superficial details are wrong. Predictions based on physical principles and scientific knowledge tend to do better than those based on "trendspotting" and "cool hunting," and are more likely to be corroborated by other specialists. In every case, however, the most important question to ask is "why?" Why would the suggested change happen? Why would people make the predicted choice? Why would we see this particular outcome?

What do you think?

(BTW, the picture of Saturn and Encedalus at the top of the post is a call back to Bruce's own Saturn/Encedalus post earlier today.)

June 14, 2006

Twelve Things Journalists Need To Know to be Good Futurist/Foresight Reporters

J. Bradford DeLong is a professor of economics at UC Berkeley, and was an economic advisor to President Clinton; Susan Rasky is a senior lecturer in journalism at UC Berkeley, and was an award-winning reporter for the New York Times. Together, they have compiled for the Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard lists of what economists need to know about journalists, and what journalists need to know about economists, in order to result in useful and accurate economic reporting. The lists are straightforward, and if followed would make a world of difference.

This is a remarkably good idea, one with direct application in a number of disciplines that are important for society but prone to obfuscation and confusion in the press: environmental science; bioscience; computer science (pretty much all sciences, in fact); developments on the Internet; and, of particular focus here, futurism and foresight. It's too easy for poorly-informed journalists to skim off unrepresentative (but sound-byte-friendly) examples and concepts, and help to further public confusion instead of help to clear it up.

This isn't because journalists are corrupt or stupid or anything like that: by and large, they're generalists talking about fields that they probably didn't study, under time and financial pressure from editors and publishers who almost certainly know even less. It's a wonder that reportage about science, technology and the future isn't worse than it already is.

Although I think the "12 Things Journalists Need To Know" model has broad application, I'm only going to look at the futurist/foresight area here, and am only going to compile the list for journalists writing about futurists. Fortunately, the instructions for economists about journalists is quite applicable to academics and specialists across disciplines.

Here's my initial draft of 12 -- what would you change?

1. Nobody can predict the future. This should go without saying, but too often, reports about trends or emerging science and technology tell us what will happen instead of what could happen. In fact, most futurists and foresight consultants will avoid making any predictive claims, and you should take them at their word; any futurist who tells you that something is inevitable probably has something to sell.

2. Not everyone is surprised by surprises. The corollary to #1, be on the lookout for people who saw early indicators of surprises before they happened. Just like an "overnight success" worked for years to get there, the vast majority of wildcards and "bolt from the blue" changes have been on someone's foresight radar for quite awhile. When something happens that "nobody expected," look for the people who actually did expect it -- chances are, they'll be able to tell you quite a bit about why and how it took place.

3. Even when it's fast, change feels slow. It's tempting to assume that, because a possible change would make the world a decade from now very different from the world today, that the people ten years hence will feel "shocked" or "overwhelmed." In reality, the people living in our future are living in their own present. That is, they weren't thrust from today to the future in one leap, they lived through the increments and dead-ends and passing surprises. Their present will feel normal to them, just as our present feels normal to us. Be skeptical of claims of imminent future shock.

4. Most trends die out. Just because something is popular or ubiquitous today doesn't mean it will be so in a few years. Be cautious about pronouncements that a given fashion or gadget is here to stay. There's every chance that it will be overtaken by something new all too soon -- and this includes trends and technologies that have had some staying power.

5. The future is usually the present, only moreso. Conversely, don't expect changes to happen quickly and universally. The details will vary, but most of the time, the underlying behaviors and practices will remain consistent. Most people (in the US, at least) watch TV, drive a car, and go to work -- even if the TV is high definition satellite, the car is a hybrid, and work is web programming.

6. There are always options. We may not like the choices we have, but the future is not written in stone. Don't let a futurist get away with solemn pronouncements of doom without pressing for ways to avoid disaster, or get away with enthusiastic claims of nirvana without asking about what might prevent it from happening.

7. Dinosaurs lived for over 200 million years. A favorite pundit cliche is the "dinosaurs vs. mammals" comparison, where dinosaurs are big, lumbering and doomed, while mammals are small, clever and poised for success. In reality, dinosaurs ruled the world for much, much longer than have mammals, and even managed to survive a planetary disaster by evolving into birds. When a futurist uses the dinosaurs/mammals cliche, that's your sign to investigate why the "dinosaur" company/ organization/ institution may have far greater resources and flexibility than you're being led to believe.

8. Gadgets are not futurism.Don't get too enamored of "technology" as the sole driver of change. What's important is how we use technology to engage in other (social, political, cultural, economic) activities. Don't be hypnotized by blinking lights and shiny displays -- ask why people would want it and what they'd do with it.

9. "Sports scores and stock quotes" was 1990s futurist-ese for "I have no idea;" "social networking and tagging" looks to be the 2000s version. Technology developers, industry analysts and foresight consultants rarely want to tell you that they don't know how or why a new invention will be used. As a result, they'll often fall back on claims about utility that are easily understood, familiar to the journalist, and almost certainly wrong.

10. "Technology" is anything invented since you turned 13. What seems weird and confusing will become familiar and obvious, especially to people who grow up with it. This means that, very often, the real utility of a new technology won't emerge for a few years after it's introduced, once people get used to its existence, and it stops being thought of as a "new technology." Those real uses will often surprise -- and sometimes upset -- the creators of the technology.

11. The future belongs to the curious. If you want to find out why a new development is important, don't just ask the people who brought it about; their agenda is to emphasize the benefits and ignore the drawbacks. Don't just ask their competitors; their agenda is the opposite. Always ask the hackers, the people who love to take things apart and figure out how they work, love to figure out better ways of using a system, love to look for how to make new things fit together in unexpected ways.

12. "The future is process, not a destination." -- Bruce Sterling The future is not the end of the story -- people won't reach the "future" and declare victory. Ten years from now has its own ten years out, and so on; people of tomorrow will be looking at their own tomorrows. The picture of the future offered by foresight consultants, scenario planners, and futurists of all stripes should never be a snapshot, but a frame from a movie, with connections to the present and pathways to the days and years to come.

When talking with a futurist, then, don't just ask what could happen. The right question is always "...and what happens then?"

June 12, 2006

Monday Topsight, June 12 2006

amnestyinttransad.jpg"Topsight" is one of those words that deserves wider use, especially within the scenario/futurist/early indicators community. It means a view, or understanding, of all aspects of a problem or situation: the components, the context, the drivers, the participants... everything. The Big Picture, but with less emphasis on broad structures and more emphasis on completeness. Computer scientist David Gelertner may have coined it for his 1991 book, Mirror Worlds, but I've seen it used in reference to military planning, so it may have earlier origins (any etymologists in the house?).

As part of my goal of blogging a bit more often (but not too often), I'm hereby instituting a regular "Topsight" post, gathering together a diverse selection of interesting items, offering a distant early warning of changes on the way.

It's Not Happening Here, But It's Happening Now: An utterly brilliant advertising campaign for Amnesty International now underway in Zurich, Switzerland. Under a headline reading "It's not happening here, but it's happening now," images of torture, prisoner abuse, and utter privation appear to be taking place just beyond the sign. Under the right lighting, the signs look transparent (they're not, for a variety of reasons), and the effect is electrifying.

This is an important campaign for a few reasons. The first is that they drive home the point that these kinds of abominations are happening right now, not in a hazy past for later documentation and condemnation. The second is that, despite the language of the headline, the ads leave one with the unsettling realization that these kinds of abuses could happen here, too; it wouldn't take much for us to be living in societies where prisoners are treated in this way -- and maybe we already are. The last is that they are early indicators of what life will be like with pervasive augmented reality tools: advertisements that layer onto the world we see, even interacting with it (imagine how much more powerful these ads would be if they were animated, or could somehow respond to the presence or absence of people). It's good that Amnesty brought this ad series out now, before the technique was too debased by pseudo-transparent ads for macaroni and cheese or disposable diapers. (via Unmediated, 37 Signals, AdLand; see examples on Flickr: 1, 2, 3, 4.)

PLoS Blogs: The good folks at the Public Library of Science noted my recent piece on the PLoS ONE project, and wanted me to know about another new endeavor. PLoS Blogs will offer "an insider's view of the latest developments at PLoS;" they've launched two different blog pages, one focusing on publishing issues (and new publishing plans), the other on the technology of what they're calling "Open Access 2.0."

[I'd like to call for a temporary moritorium on the use of "2.0" for identifying variants of existing movements or ideas. Not a permanent ban -- it's a useful meme, just a bit over-used for now. Too often, "2.0" is used not to indicate a wholly new version of something, but a tweaked version that the creator wants to differentiate for marketing purposes.]

There's not much upon the PLoS Blogs right now, but that will undoubtedly change. I would like to see PLoS consider offering blogs to regular participants, much like the "diaries" at sites like Daily Kos. The tension between citizen science and traditional science research often comes down to the legitimacy offered by peer review. If the PLoS Blogs included science diaries, allowing citizens (students, researchers between jobs, autodidacts, etc.) to "publish" their own ideas for review by other participants, we might see some of that legitimacy get distributed. PLoS Blogs -- from Science Journals to Science Diaries. Yeah, that has a ring to it.

This Is Your Brain On Drugs: My friend and occasional colleague Joel Garreau has an interesting piece in the Washington Post about the growing use of neuropharmaceuticals among students and knowledge workers. Anti-ADD drugs like Ritalin and Adderall, as well as the anti-narcolepsy drug Provigil, are changing study habits for a startlingly large number of people. While these are therapeutic drugs for some, they clearly have value as temporary enhancements, improving mental focus and alertness.

For a senior project this semester, Christopher Salantrie conducted a random survey of 150 University of Delaware students at the university's Morris Library and Trabant Student Center.
"With rising competition for admissions and classes becoming harder and harder by the day, a hypothesis was made that at least half of students at the university have at one point used/experienced such 'smart drugs,' " Salantrie writes in his report. He found his hunch easy to confirm.
"What was a surprise, though, was the alarming rate of senior business majors who have used" the drugs, he writes. Almost 90 percent reported at least occasional use of "smart pills" at crunch times such as final exams, including Adderall, Ritalin, Strattera and others. Of those, three-quarters did not have a legitimate prescription, obtaining the pills from friends. "We were shocked," Salantrie writes.

The traditional perspective is to be shocked that such things are going on. But how, aside from effectiveness, does the use of Adderall or Provigil differ from the use of caffeine? All have mild side-effects, and all alter brain chemistry. Caffeine is "natural," but that's not much of a defense for a brain-chemistry-altering drug. The cost of prescription cognitive enhancers should drop when generics become available, albeit not likely down to cup-of-coffee levels.

The difference, of course, is our familiarity with them. There's an old saying that "technology" is "anything invented after one turns 13." For the generation brought up in a world where these drugs are commonplace -- even given to 8 year olds, as someone in Joel's article points out -- these chemicals are hardly scary and unfamiliar.

And that does point us to where the risks come from. Office workers are free to not drink coffee, but if they consistently fall asleep on the job, or are regularly too tired to work effectively at some point in the day, they're going to face not-so-subtle pressure to start drinking something caffeinated. It's not a required drug, per se, but it's one that society assumes will be used casually when needed. A similar fate may lie ahead for neuropharmaceuticals like Adderall and Provigil. You won't be forced to use them, but work and school life may slowly become structured around the assumption that you will. If staying up 48 hours straight to finish a job is as easy as popping an aspirin, and has as few side-effects, organizations with employees ready, willing and able to do so will have a notable competitive advantage -- and employees not ready, willing or able will face some real questions about their viability in the job market of the not so distant future.

June 8, 2006


plosonelogo.jpgThe Public Library of Science -- PLoS -- was a pioneer in the field of open access science, making high-quality scientific research results available for free (through a Creative Commons license) to readers around the world. Part of the strength of the PLoS effort was that, aside from the publishing model, the Public Library of Science journals were otherwise standard, rigorous research publications. It turns out, however, that this was just a way of getting its foot in the door of science publication; today, PLoS unveiled PLoS ONE, and has made clear its real agenda -- nothing short of a revolution in science communication.

PLoS One will be a multi-discipline online journal offering rapid publication, interactive papers, a selection method that focuses on rigor instead of novelty, and -- most importantly -- an ongoing reader review system that changes the peer review process from a gateway to a conversation. Readers will be able to annotate papers, and to share their commentary and links with other participants. The authors, in turn, will be able to update their work, bringing in additional experimental data and improving the language of their papers for greater reader comprehension (the original version will always remain available, however).

For me, the most exciting aspect of the PLoS ONE project is its inclusiveness:

The boundaries between different scientific fields are becoming increasingly blurred. At the same time, the bulk of the scientific literature is divided into journals covering ever more restrictive disciplines and subdisciplines. In contrast, PLoS ONE will be a venue for all rigorously performed science, making it easier to uncover connections and synergies across the research literature.

The era of the siloed, isolationist scientific disciplines is finally passing. The more that biologists understand physics, that climatologists understand demography, that chemists understand epidemiology (and on and on), the better. We can no longer afford for scientists to be functionally illiterate across disciplines.

Although many of the features of PLoS ONE are familiar mechanisms for readers of blogs, wikis and other web-citizen media, this is pretty radical stuff for the world of scientific publishing. With high-end journals such as Nature or Science, the legitimacy of the research published comes from the high barriers to entry; you don't get into Nature if your work doesn't meet some pretty serious requirements. PLoS ONE will have much less restrictive barriers to publication; the legitimacy of the research will come instead from the community of readers evaluating, testing, challenging and arguing the findings.

It's unclear, as of now, whether readers will have some way to rate the contributions of other readers, building up a Slashdot-style reputation score for participants. I expect that it will. Ideally, participants would evaluate the claims and observations made during the discussion by looking closely at the ideas. Realistically, however, good rhetorical skills and a powerful online personality can cover up gaps of logic or methodology, and new participants should be able to see at a glance who they should watch closely.

PLoS ONE will begin active publication later this year, but interested readers can sign up now for progress reports and submission guidelines.

June 6, 2006


Suzanne Stefanac is writing a book called Dispatches from Blogistan and, like all good web-related authors, is doing so online, in front of everyone. The core of her book includes a variety of interviews of bloggers and social critics, now including yours truly. Suzanne has also interviewed Bruce Sterling (of course!), Cory Doctorow (of course of course!), Farai Chideya, Denise Caruso, and Craig Newmark.

My interview was written and posted in one day, so please let me know if you spot any typos or grammaros. (Mmmm... grammaros... those are awfully good for breakfast!)


mcworldrun.jpgAh, only if this were real...

The International Serious Games Event in Birmingham, UK, was very likely pranked today by an anti-McDonald's activist group claiming to be a division within McDonald's called "McDonald's Interactive." Supposedly a group helping to train executives through business strategy simulation, McDonald's Interactive added modules to improve the realism of various game elements. But when they added a global climate model to the system, something funny kept happening:

The world kept ending.

The announcement of the results -- along with the slide show used at the Serious Games conference [PPT] -- tell a compelling story, one that could almost be true. After all, major corporations do use business "wargame" simulations for training; I know, I've worked on them (and even wrote a non-computer version of one). And the kinds of results that this group supposedly saw by adding the climate model do match up with what I and others have written about time and again at WorldChanging. There was nothing in the setup for the story that seemed too implausible, except for one thing:

The game was far too good.

Broad global simulations are hard to do; so far, there are simply too many factors that have to be included for something like this to work. Narrow, issue-focused simulations are much more viable, and I could totally imagine McDonald's (or any other global corporation) using a market sim as a training tool. When the announcement mentioned crime rates, though, I was dubious; when it claimed changes to global poverty and hunger rates, too, I knew that this was (sadly!) a hoax.

But it's the best kind of hoax: one that is just possible enough to be believable (and apparently the organizers of the Serious Games International conference believed it!). Better still, it's the kind of hoax that will make people say, "well, why not? Why don't we do something like this?" There are many of us out here just waiting for a broad global sim to hit the market -- something akin to the WorldRun game out of Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net, perhaps.

If we're lucky, this is the kind of hoax that won't just be a hoax for too much longer.

(Update: It looks like famed culture-jammers RTMark may have been responsible for the hoax.)

June 1, 2006

Sustainable Cities

sffromspace.jpgSustainlane's Warren Karlenzig is now blogging for the organization, and the opening of his site coincides with the release of Sustainlane's 2006 US Cities Ranking. The top cities include Portland (#1, up from #2 last year), San Francisco (#2, down from #1), Seattle (#3), Philadelphia (#4) and Chicago (#5); New York hits #7, Austin #14, and #50 is Columbus, Ohio.

Responses are predictable. Places near the top (e.g., Chicago, Oakland) trumpet their ranking, while places near the bottom of the list (e.g., Fort Worth , Columbus) complain.

Although the exact rankings vary from the 2005 list, the overall thrust is pretty similar: big coastal/blue state cities generally do well, middling size/red state cities generally do poorly. The relative proportion of density, politics and history as underlying dynamics undoubtedly varies from city to city.

This list is related to but the same as the ranking that Sustainlane released a few months ago, the top ten cities best able to withstand an oil crisis. The same cities show up on both lists, albeit in different orders -- the top ten oil crisis cities have nine of the top ten sustainable cities, with New York #1 for oil crisis.

The rationale behind the creation of lists like these is as much boosterism as it is education. While it's certainly important for the residents of a given urban area to know how well their city will do in a changing environment, Sustainlane quite explicitly wants to see cities competing for sustainability ranking in the same way they do with their sports teams. Imagine if the local news had a sustainability/environment segment as long as the sports segment. (The corresponding mental image of fans gathering for pre-sustainable-list-release tailgate parties is muted by the realization that few hybrids actually have tailgates.)

For me, the biggest question arising from a list like this purely practical: what do you do about it?

That may seem like an odd question coming from me; after all, how many dozen articles did I write for WorldChanging talking about how cities can be more sustainable? But speaking in terms of big picture issues and ideas, while extremely useful, can be pretty frustrating for the people employed to turn ideas into action. I've seen this with pretty much every consulting job I've been on: clients excited by the possibilities and frustrated by the implementation.

It's all well and good, for example, to say that cities need strong public transportation systems. But how does a city that has built itself around the hub-and-wheel suburban road network, with streets sized for cars (not buses) and structured for quiet neighborhoods (not mixed use) make that happen? I'm not saying that they can't, only that it's a hard problem, and those of us who believe passionately in the need for greater sustainability and in the importance of urban centers need to recognize the implementation challenge.

In an ideal world, a listing like this one, showing where ranked cities are succeeding and where they're falling short, would have a corresponding document for each city, outlining the concrete steps that could be taken, given the geographic, financial, and/or political conditions unique to the location. This would be an enormous amount of work, and by no means am I criticizing Sustainlane for not doing this, too. But at the end of the day, while civic leaders may be thrilled or annoyed by where their cities have fallen on the list, these emotions are not enough. They need to have an answer to their inevitable, and entirely appropriate, question:

What now?

Jamais Cascio

Contact Jamais  ÃƒÂƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚¢Ã‚€Â¢  Bio

Co-Founder, WorldChanging.com

Director of Impacts Analysis, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

Fellow, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

Affiliate, Institute for the Future


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