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July 28, 2006

Nature as an Information Economy

pajaro_sunset_060306.jpgA Friday afternoon thought experiment.

The natural world was once thought of solely as a provider of resources for production. Wood, oil, water and other raw materials held value inasmuch as they were part of the industrial production cycle. This is a consumption perspective, one in which the natural world only has value if it contributes directly to the short-term economy. This is the industrial economy vision of nature.

A more nuanced perspective holds that the natural world is a provider of ecosystem services, ranging from clean air to soil formation to pollination. The ecosystem services concept doesn't deny that nature provides raw material for industry, but asserts that the sustained value of the services provided by nature can greatly exceed the short-term value of the raw materials. (A 2005 study from the Canadian Boreal Initiative demonstrated that Canada's forests are worth roughly C$37.8 billion in resource extraction, but C$93.2 billion in service provision; the study (PDF) is also an excellent primer on how ecosystem service value is calculated.) This is the service economy vision of nature.

But what happens when we think of nature as an information economy? By this, I mean thinking of nature not just in terms of the value of physical products or processes, but in terms of the value of the information about and derived from the natural world. We're not accustomed to thinking about nature in this way, but doing so has some interesting -- and, I think, useful -- implications.

Traditionally, we think of the value of a forest in terms of resources such as lumber or in terms of services such as oxygen creation through photosynthesis. We can also think of a forest in terms of information such as the plant DNA or the forest's role in various natural cycles such as storm mitigation, carbon sequestration, and habitat creation (in essence, how an ecosystem provides its services). Similarly, we can think of the value of water as deriving from its immediate use, from its sustained availability, and from the knowledge of characteristics such as location, volume, evaporation cycles, cleanliness, etc.. Arguably, ecosystem information has even greater potential value than immediate use or sustained services, in that the information can be used as the seed of new products, services and information, as well as to enhance the industrial and service economic value of the ecosystem and/or protect the ecosystem against industrial and service economic losses.

What makes the the information economy model different from industrial and service economies are two big factors: replicability and non-uniformity. Replicability means that information, especially digital information, can be copied without reducing its use value or its availability to the original possessor of the information. Biological aspects of an ecosystem clearly meet this condition, through the existence of DNA and built-in (if slow) copying mechanisms such as seeds. I can give you the "information" from my tree without losing value, even while you gain new value. Non-uniformity means that information has its greatest value in the context of other, different, kinds of information. Information can compete, leading to a "survival of the fittest" paradigm (a core concept of memetics), and can combine, leading to new kinds of information. In terms of ecosystems, diversity improves survivability, while uniformity increases vulnerability to threats (think here of monocultures).

The difference between industrial, service and information economies becomes important when we think about the implications each model has for how we work with the global ecosystem.

If we think about nature purely in terms of resources and consumption, the underlying model is competition over scarcity. Each participant in the economy has an incentive to over-consume in order to gain an advantage over competitors (or to avoid being penalized when others over-consume), and while cooperation is possible, it's not a given. The "Tragedy of the Commons" is the classic example of this paradigm.

If we think about nature purely in terms of services, the underlying model is sufficiency. Every participant in the economy gains a benefit from the maintenance of the system, but the cost of maintenance is borne by individual actors. "Free riders" gain the benefits of the system without paying the cost of maintenance. The result is that the system is typically in a state of bare sustenance, with participants acting to keep it going only when the alternative is system collapse. Ecosystem services are here considered a "public good."

If we think about nature in terms of information, however, the underlying model is abundance. Participants in the system create the most value for themselves not by hoarding or by passivity, but by adding more information into the system. The greater the amount and diversity of the ecosystem information, the more that can be done with the knowledge.

Sadly, the industrial economic concept of ecosystems still dominates; the ecosystem services concept is gaining ground among environmentalists, but has yet to take root (so to speak) in the popular mind. The ecosystem information model would need much more development before we could consider it an alternative approach, but it has a couple of things going for it: as the overall information economy continues to expand (especially as fabrication systems start to bring information economy patterns into the world of physical objects), we'll be more amenable to thinking about other aspects of the world in this way -- it may even prove to be a useful method of integrating ecological principles into the economy; and as we are forced more and more to bring climate disruption and environmental collapse to the forefront of our planning and politics, more of us will realize that we need more information about and from the ecosystem to be able to manage the situation successfully.

There are undoubtedly many holes in this idea, and I'd be more than happy to have them pointed out.

(Photo: Pajaro Sunset, Jamais Cascio © 2006)

July 26, 2006

Listen to Me

RU Sirius interviewed me for his Neofiles podcast this past weekend, and the results are now available (MP3).

A couple of corrections are in order, though:

• I don't write for MSNBC (they did, however, talk about some of my writing).
• The evolution case is "Kitzmiller."
• Steve Mann's website is wearcam.org, not "wearables."

The conversation was wide-ranging, and the experience as a whole was quite fun. Thanks, RU!

July 24, 2006

Monday Topsight, July 24, 2006

20060724_soho.jpgThe temperature here hit 100° in the last hour or so; it's a bit insane to say that this cooling trend is welcome, but when a projected max of 103° is the lowest max temperature in about a week, it's unfortunately accurate. 108°, well above today's projected 103°, so never mind that. Heat records are falling all over the place, from the US west coast to Europe. The old saying is that "there are no atheists in foxholes" (arguably subject to dispute); perhaps the new one will be "there are no global warming skeptics in 110° heat." (Photo of the Sun from NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observer website.)

• Droning On: An unrelated pair of reports about unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) -- also referred to as "drones" -- should be looked at together. On July 14, an Israeli warship was hit by what was reported to be a cheap UAV outfitted with explosives, operated remotely by Hezbollah. Although subsequent reports attributed the blast to a conventional anti-ship missile, military analysts note that Hezbollah has been testing UAVs for just this sort of attack. Around the same time, New Scientist reported that Lockheed-Martin's new "Polecat" UAV, designed as a technology demonstrator, consists largely of parts printed in a 3-D printer.

The technique is widely used in industry to make prototype parts - to see if, for instance, they are the right shape and thickness for the job in hand. Now the strength of parts printed this way has improved so much that they can be used as working components.

About 90 per cent of Polecat is made of composite materials with much of that material made by rapid prototyping.

"The entire Polecat airframe was constructed using low-cost rapid prototyping materials and methods," says Frank Mauro, director of UAV systems at the Skunk Works.

You can see where I'm going with this. As the costs of 3D printing technology continues to plummet, and the capabilities of fabber systems continue to improve, we're heading into a world in which 4th Generation Warfare groups don't have to rely on shipments of weapons such as attack UAVs, but can simply print up a batch themselves. Mike Treder at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology has written some important essays on the question of the intersection of molecular manufacturing and military capacity. What the combination of stories about possible Hezbollah UAVs and Lockheed-Martin 3D-printed UAVs is that we won't have to wait until the advent of nanofactories to see what this problem looks like -- or to start thinking about ways it can be handled.

• Noah Way: Régine at We Make Money Not Art offers up the ARK movement, an art/design/political "collective" in Europe trying to change how we deal with disruptive change by advocating a post-apocalyptic design, investment and behavioral aesthetic.

This is an example of the "we've lost, we give up, let's figure out what to do next" concept that a variety of green bloggers recently attributed to Stephen Hawking (incorrectly). As such, I find the ARK movement proposal to be enormously irritating, especially its calm assertions that disastrous global warming, peak oil and similar problems are simply inevitable. (That the ARK page is filled with misattributed references, scientific fuzziness, and annoying grammar/spelling errors simply compounds the problem, at least for me.)

But ARK has managed to come up with a truly interesting proposal amidst all of this: the Paradigm Index. From the WMMNA post:

The paradigm index is a reworking of a stock-market/share index. It is a way of measuring your investment. However you are investing in intrinsic value as it relates to world collapse, as opposed to investing in abstract value as it relates to market growth. The paradigm index takes a set of date from C02 level rise, peak oil production predictions and social and political trends such as wars and social break down. It works as a means of gauging your investment in a certain scenario or set of scenarios. As intrinsic value is linked so closely to a certain set of external parameters you can gauge its increase against proof of the manifestation of those external parameters.

From the ARK page:

The paradigm index is a calculation of many global factors into an index between 0 and 10. 0 being the complete sustainability and 10 being complete global collapse. Of course it’s a little more complex than that but that’s the basis.

You can track your value against the paradigm index by investing in products and skill sets that are designed for a specific index rating. As you track the progression of the index towards that paradigm rating, the value of your products and skill sets increase. This in-turn will increases your value and appeals to Ark collectives.

There's no reason why a Paradigm Index must only have negative elements, of course. An OtF-style Paradigm Index might also include measurements of (for example) the use of open source software internationally, the readership of open access science journals, the approach of molecular nanotechnology, and so forth. One could assemble portfolios focusing on projects and programs that drive the overall Paradigm Index towards 0 (in the ARK model, this indicates high sustainability), or look for investment/action opportunities that would undercut the factors pushing us towards 10. Presumably, one could also "sell short," and profit from civilizational collapse, but those folks will be first against the wall.

• Marin Börjesson Is Right: Martin Börjesson runs Futuramb, a futurist consultancy in Sweden, and is one of the most thought-provoking futurist bloggers I've yet encountered. Martin does me the honor of writing an essay this past weekend taking on my "12 Things Journalists Need to Know..." post from awhile back.

Martin starts out by saying that most of the items on the list were "missing the real point" of futurism -- although he notes that he's not the target audience for the post, in principle, so the advice doesn't necessarily apply to him. (He's correct, here; I wrote the post with general-feature journalists in mind, not foresight specialists.) His rationale is that most of the points on the list pay too close attention to the individual prediction and the "one-issue-at-a-time" approach to thinking about the future. I'd disagree somewhat, as part of the point of the list was to try to break journalists out of the "futurism=spot prediction" mindset, but I see what he's saying, and agree fully: thinking about the future isn't imagining future events, it's uncovering the processes that will drive future events.

Martin puts it this way:

When focusing on the quality of individual predictions I think we fail to see that they really are small parts of an emerging pattern or lens we collaboratively are putting together. The more pieces we can integrate the better lens we will get. A lens through which humanity can perceive and identify what is relevant for our long term future. [...] I think the best futurists are those that have identified and described the best pattern which helps organizing the zillion of facts we can see around us. Futurists are in a sense (like poets?) “synthesists” who are interpreting to world around us and is involved in formulating and developing lenses which help the rest of us see the whole world in “a grain of sand”.

Martin Börjesson is right.

July 22, 2006



July 20, 2006

Thursday Topsight, July 20, 2006

30 years ago today, the Viking 1 robotic lander touched down on Chryse Planitia on Mars, becoming the first US visitor to the Martian surface, and the first visitor of any kind to take high resolution images of the Martian landscape. Vikings 1 and 2 (which landed in September of 1976) lasted for six years, taking pictures, recording weather data, and undertaking the first biological exploration of another world. The Mars Exploration Rovers ("Spirit" and "Opportunity") have carried on the tradition of hardy robotic explorers showing us a new world, and we will continue to build a menagerie of robotic proxies for decades to come. 30 years ago today, Mars became a place, not simply a reddish light in the night sky.

Viking is not alone with this anniversary. 37 years ago today, human beings first set foot on the Moon. While Michael Collins orbited overhead, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin stepped from a landing vehicle (with walls no thicker than aluminum foil) onto the surface of another world; their footsteps will remain there for eons, proof that Earth once held a civilization able to reach beyond its home. It was an achievement that was, in the end, ahead of its time. The Apollo program was too big, too expensive, too wrapped up in Cold War competition to be sustainable as the catalyst for expanding human civilization off of one planet. Not that it was the wrong choice, but our expectations were perhaps too great for Apollo's potential. Sometimes, symbols are enough.

• Lightning Unleashed: Tesla Motors has unveiled its new all-electric sports car. If you've hit a green or gadget site, you've probably seen the particulars: 250 mile range; top speed of 130 mph; redline at 13,500 rpm; 0-60 in 4 seconds; double the energy efficiency of a Prius; and a price tag of $80K-$100K. On the one hand, it's a nice symbol of the potential power of electric vehicles -- this isn't a souped-up golf cart. On the other, it's a foreshadowing of the potential transfiguration of the automobile industry.

Ford, GM, BMW, Toyota -- traditional car-makers attained their current prominence by perfecting the increasingly complex internal combustion engine. By comparison, electric cars are incredibly simple, and the organizational capacities needed to make them viable have as much to do with the computer and electronics industry as they do with the traditional automotive industry. The idea of Apple, Sony or even Microsoft making an internal combustion engine car would be laughable, but the idea of those same companies working on the design of electric vehicles is much more plausible. They'd likely collaborate with automobile manufacturers at first -- but likely not the traditional big car-makers. Imagine an electric car designed by Apple, built by various suppliers in Korea and Taiwan, and drop-shipped to your driveway by Amazon.

• Google Earth At War: Want some photos of secret North Korean military facilities? Got Google Earth? Get 'em yourself, then.

Open Source Radio reports that, because the North Korean government doesn't actually speak to anybody on a regular basis, Google/Keyhole hasn't ever been asked to dial-back the resolution of certain areas (as they've supposedly done at the request of other governments). As a result, it's possible to find a variety of military installations that Pyongyang might not want you to see.

A less ominous version of Google Earth at war (at least, possibly less ominous) is "Google Earth Battleship:"

University of Southern California's Julian Bleecker has a very interesting summer project going: Playing Battleships using Google Earth as a game board, but with the twist that you have to physically visit the location on the board you want to attack, using your mobile phone to "call in" a strike. [...] Julian has an interesting notion to describe this kind of gaming: It's a "1st Life/2nd Life mashup", in that real-world actions impact the state of a virtual world.

Kinda spooky putting those two together, no? There's a SciFi Channel movie of the week just writing itself right here.

• Seeing Spots: HP has announced the development of "memory spots," a form of radio frequency ID tag that includes significantly more computational capacity than traditional RFID units.

The chip has a 10 megabits-per-second data transfer rate – 10 times faster than Bluetooth™ wireless technology and comparable to Wi-Fi speeds – effectively giving users instant retrieval of information in audio, video, photo or document form. With a storage capacity ranging from 256 kilobits to 4 megabits in working prototypes, it could store a very short video clip, several images or dozens of pages of text. Future versions could have larger capacities.

Information can be accessed by a read-write device that could be incorporated into a cell phone, PDA, camera, printer or other implement.

Standard RFID is essentially a form of barcode on steroids -- a passive information instrument, readable at a distance. The memory spot is really an entirely different beast, despite superficial similarities. As readable-writable CMOS devices, they are arguably much closer to smart digital cameras. The potential uses are pretty amazing. This kind of device (no larger than a grain of rice), for example, could easily be embedded in any number of material products, providing detailed information about both the capabilities of the product and its current status -- a built-in self-updating instruction manual. Or how about Stuart Candy's "ambient foresight" project with these devices instead of pre-downloaded MP3s?

July 18, 2006

Radical Religion

It's the number one religion (by proportion of adherents) in the states of Washington and Idaho; it's the number two religion in California, Utah, Massachusetts and Arkansas. In most states, in fact, it ranks as the #2 or #3 belief, and in only a few is it #4 or #5. Nationwide, it ranks #3 overall, just behind Baptist (#2) and Catholic (#1). Yet very few elected officials profess this faith, and a significant plurality of US voters say that they'd never vote for someone who believes this. What is this religion?

It's no religion at all.

Much to the surprise of both the very religious and the entirely irreligious, non-theism consistently shows up as the second or third most popular belief across most states. According to the American Religious Identification Survey (PDF), assembled by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2001, over 14% of US citizens profess themselves to be atheist, agnostic, humanist or secular; this compares to 16% Baptist, and 24.5% Catholic. This map from USA Today shows the breakdown by state (Flash required).

It's worth remembering this in light of recent statements by Sen. Barack Obama about the importance of religion to the Democratic party. Non-believers aren't just a tiny fringe element in American society, and they aren't just found in coastal "blue states." Non-religious people make up a higher percentage of the populations of Idaho, Montana, and Nevada than they do of those of California, Massachusetts or New York. This isn't the narrative we're given by popular culture or media, but it's reality.

I find this useful info for those of us thinking about the future for this reason: the stories we're told about how a society works may not match the reality, and we shouldn't build our models and scenarios based on what we assume to be true.

July 17, 2006

Monday Topsight, July 17, 2006

• Swarmy Weather: The animated image on the left comes from the US National Weather Service, but it's not showing weather per se. The mass that emerges, grows and drifts along the Mississippi River is actually a swarm of mayflies:

A large mayfly hatch occurred along the Mississippi River Friday evening, June 30th. The hatch began just after sundown, around 9 PM, and continued through the early morning hours. [...] Some roads across the Mississippi River in and around La Crosse were covered with bugs, piling into "drifts" on bridges over the Mississippi River and its tributaries. [...] Notice the rapid increase in radar echoes along the Mississippi River channel...occurring simultaneously the entire length of the channel. The ambient wind flow was from the south on Friday evening, with the entire swarm of mayflies drifting north with time. The radar loop starts just before 9 PM CDT and ends around 1030 PM CDT.

Reasonable reactions will vary from "eww!" to "cool!" What struck me, however, was that this is a foreshadowing of a world in which we have web-enabled tools for early detection and monitoring of emerging pestilent threats. As one of the results of global warming, we're likely to see the increased spread of opportunistic species, such as mosquitos and other parasitic insects. I would not be surprised to see the appearance of "insect forecasts" matching current weather forecasts on local news programs. (Via Unhindered by Talent)

• Welcome to the World of Tomorrow! (BEEEEEEP): Stuart Candy, a graduate student at the University of Hawaii's Research Center for Futures Studies and recent intern at the Long Now Foundation, just received word that a project that he and fellow future studies student Jake Dunagan call "ambient foresight" has been awarded a "bright idea" grant for further development. The "ambient foresight" project will build audio tours of urban environments that tell stories about the future of tour locations (rather than the past or present), in this case Honolulu's Chinatown.

This project is akin to the smart environment concept under development by groups such as "yellow arrow" and "denCity," among others. These projects create what I've called "locational folksonomies" -- an overlay of emergent metadata upon the physical environment. Candy & Dunagan's ambient foresight project won't necessarily allow for the collaborative creation of future histories, but it's certainly a possibility.

• Meat and Greet: Last week, writer Traci Hukill published a piece on AlterNet entitled "Would You Eat Lab-Grown Meat?" Since I had written a few times on WorldChanging about research into "cultured meat" -- real meat that comes from vats, not animals -- I eagerly read the piece (see "Bioprintersa>," "Fighting Global Warming with Lab-Grown Meat," and "Bioprinters, Revisited" -- originally "The Rise of the Meat-Jet Printer"). Sadly, rather than being an objective look at the promise and challenges of such research, the article was essentially an anti-cultured meat screed that barely acknowledged the existence of other opinions. I was set to write up a scathing response, only to find that my friend Dale Carrico had already done so -- and had crafted one that was far better than I could have hoped to produce.

In "When Meat Culture Meets Cultured Meat," Dale is as mystified as I about the over-the-top "yuck" reaction evinced by Hukill, and he draws the connection between this response and other celebrations of the so-called "natural:"

Certainly, this reminds us what we should do with those bioconservatives who claim there is some special "wisdom of repugnance" (whether Hukill's aversion to a stream of electricity pulsing through organic matter in a petri dish, Leonard Kass's aversion to the very idea of cloning, even if it comes to be a safe and desired procedure, Margaret Somerville's aversion to gay marriage, or any random racist's aversion to an interracial kiss). Shudders of repugnance must simply never trump democratic deliberation and contestation, the offering up of arguments to one's fellow citizens to educate, agitate, and organize and so facilitate what come to be more generally desired outcomes.

Barring unexpected problems, cultured meat will be an ethical vegetarian's dream: food that retains the flavor, consistency, chemistry and utility of "real" meat, but requires no harm be done to either animal life or the ecosystem as a whole. Given that cultured meat could be engineered with better biochemistry than traditional meats (e.g., including fish oils as replacement for fats), it might even become appealing for health vegetarians, too.

Occasionally, I find myself asked to imagine what behavior we find commonplace now will be looked upon by future generations as baffling and possibly repugnant. Just as we today find slavery to be horrifying, and most of us find cruelty to animals to be barbaric, what do we do today that will undergo a similar cultural transformation? Other futurists might answer smoking, or driving, or unprotected sex (or physical sex entirely), but I'm convinced that folks a couple of generations from now will look upon a global industry predicated upon the breeding of animals to be killed and devoured as a stunningly awful practice that they are thankful to be past.

July 13, 2006

Real Journalism

The job of a journalist is to report on facts, even if that makes someone in power look bad or undermines someone's dearly held myth.

It's nice to see at least one journal that gets it:

As politics go, we're surprised so many readers expect us or any publication to provide "balance," which reflects a belief in the fallacy that there are two equally valid sides to every story. You see this in the debate over global warming and evolution. Thousands of scientists stand on one side of the issue, recognizing that global warming is a problem and that evolution is firmly established, while only a few detractors stand on the other.

The journal in question? Not the New York Times or the Washington Post. The quote is from Playboy.

(Via Pharyngula at Scienceblogs)

July 12, 2006

Tomorrow Makers

anticipatorydesign.jpgIf scenario creation was the poster-boy for futurism in the mid-1990s, artifact creation looks to play that role for mid-2000s futurism. Combining strategic foresight with what amounts to concept-car design, efforts such as the Institute for the Future's "Artifacts from the Future" and Management Innovation Group's "Tangible Futures" seek to give clients a sense of what tomorrow might hold through the use of physically (or at least visually) instantiated objects. These objects make up in conceptual weight what they may lack in detailed context; holding a fruit carrying a label showing the various pharmacological products added to its DNA is far more arresting than reading a story about big pharma taking over big farmers, let alone a simple listing of this development as a possibility.

As I've mentioned a couple of times, I'm doing a bit of work with IFTF right now, and I had a chance to handle some of the Artifacts from the Future that Jason Tester and his team devised -- do not underestimate the memetic power of good photo editing skills and a quality color printer.

Business 2.0: "5 Hot Products for the Future"

What makes this method so intriguing is that, often, the objects aren't presented as imaginary possibilities, but as real-world products from a few years hence. The greater the verisimilitude, the greater the sense of dislocation and anxiety. The notion of drug-laced fruit isn't an abstract concept if you can hold what appears to be one in your hand; we're forced to ask what kind of world makes something like this possible -- and just how plausible is it that we could soon find ourselves in that world?

This sort of anticipatory creativity isn't new; product designers have been doing it for decades, as have science fiction writers, game designers, even strategy and innovation consultancies. The game book I wrote a few years ago, Toxic Memes is effectively a big book of future artifacts, albeit mostly social ones (political movements, urban legends and the like). I even managed to come up with something that had a real world manifestation a couple of years later.

The Spacer Tabi

The web has opened up a vast arena for just this sort of playful construction, and it's not too hard to stumble across what appear to be corporate websites for products and services that really shouldn't yet exist. Sometimes, the viewer is let in on the gag with subtle jokes, or even small disclaimers; sometimes, the site presents itself with a completely straight face, leaving even the most skeptical visitor wondering if such things might really be possible -- and if not now, how soon?

Many of these future product websites imagine products and services arising from commonplace genetic engineering. There are numerous reasons for this, both practical and emotional. It's easier to make a plausible modification to a living form than to make a non-living object that looks desirable to consumers without looking like a knock-off of a present-day object. At the same time, we're much more prone to fascination and dismay over biomodification than we are to new pieces of consumer electronics. If the goal is to provoke a visitor response, imaginary bioengineering is the way to go.

GenPets -- mass produced bioengineered pets
Human Upgrades -- biomodifications for human bodies (Warning: some pages are extremely unsafe for the workplace, and potentially startling even for the jaded. I'm serious.)

Provocation is precisely the point of linking conceptual design to strategic foresight. Those of us who spend time crafting imaginary products, services or trends from the future aren't trying to come up with marketable ideas (even if that sometimes happens), we're trying to offer a glimpse at what might be possible, with the goal of pushing the viewer to ask questions about the ways in which the world is changing. Is this the kind of world we'd want? How might we do this differently? How could we make it better? What would have to change before I would use something like this? What would something like this mean for my organization, my family, my life?

Many, perhaps most, future artifacts trigger this provocation by offering up products or services that would be taboo (or, at least, very hard to get past the FDA) today. What we need to see more of are anticipatory designs that provoke us into imagining ways in which the world could be better than it is today. We're starting to see that in vehicle design, from the Aptera hypercar getting 330 mpg to the Daimler-Chrysler "bionic" car echoing the streamlining of the boxfish. Bruce Sterling's Viridian Movement, and his more recent work leading design classes in California, also mix of positive provocation with anticipatory artifacts.

I can't imagine doing a major futurist project now without using some kind of tangible element of the future, even if it's just an article from a magazine of a decade or three hence. These artifacts provide an anchor for the recipients, not in the sense of holding them back, but in the sense of giving them a grounding from which to explore.

In Transmetropolitan, by Warren Ellis, Darick Robertson, and Rodney Ramos, the story's future society has built the Farsight Community, tasked with trying out new technologies for extended periods in order to see what the real-world effects might be. This way, society can make educated choices about widespread adoption of new systems, and can better prepare for risks. We don't have the luxury of a Farsight Community; what we do have are foresight tools, the ability to learn from both successes and mistakes, and -- most importantly -- our imaginations.

July 11, 2006

Tuesday Topsight, July 11, 2006

netease.jpgI had the somewhat surreal experience last night of participating in a focus group on the California energy industry. My experience was odd because, about a quarter of the way through, the moderator was called out by the faceless folks behind the mirror, and when he returned, he asked that I, in essence, keep my mouth shut. I literally knew too much about the world of energy production, distribution and efficiency to make a good focus group participant. I was told that they'd love to hear what I had to say at the end, if there was enough time. I did manage to sneak a couple of comments in here and there, but I ended up being more an observer than anything else.

Some things about the focus group are worth noting, however. The primary California power company, Pacific Gas & Electric, is going all-out to make itself into a leading renewable/"green"/"clean" energy producer, with upcoming programs including state-wide smart meters, wave power, and a goal of 20% of California energy coming from wind and solar by 2010. More importantly, every one of the participants in the focus group (which included stay-at-home moms, retirees, pink collar workers, executives, and a few hard to categorize folks) wanted to see PG&E do more to drive to renewable energy. Even the one guy for whom lower energy prices was a top priority put increased renewable power as his number two. That the power company is trending green is heartening; that the citizenry is leading them that way is even more so.

Phrase of the Week: "Aspirational Terrorists." David Stephenson notes the term in the coverage of the apparent plan to bomb tunnels between New York and New Jersey. The wording seems to encompass both those who talk tough but don't have realistic plans for carrying out their threats (so-called "jihadi bravado," a fascinating language mix used by the FBI) and those who may be a bit more capable, but have no direct links to existing groups and have yet to turn plans into action. This is an important piece of re-framing, as it is a sign the people engaged in counter-terrorism work are moving away from casting any possible terrorist cell as "al Qaida" (as if it were a structured organization with branch offices) and towards the "netwar" view articulated by John Robb (among others), in which "al Qaida" isn't an organization, it's a brand.

(By the way, if you haven't read The Advent of Netwar, by John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, do so soon -- it's easily the best articulation of the changing nature of conflict I've ever read, and its observations about the role of guerrilla movements come across as prescient, given that Advent was published in 1996!)

Of Red Suns and Ethnic Cleansing Online: Netwar of a different sort. Terra Nova links to reports of nationalist/ethnic conflict in Asian online games. One report tells of Korean Lineage players hunting down Chinese players, while the other discusses a virtual uprising in the Chinese game Netease over an in-game symbol looking something like the Japanese WW2 battle flag -- an uprising organized by a now-disbanded guild with a virulently anti-Japanese name.

It's probably a good thing that World of Warcraft doesn't allow the players who can speak to each other to kill each other (outside of easily-ignored duels). I could otherwise totally imagine "red state" and "blue state" players hunting each other in WoW as the 2006 and 2008 elections draw near.

Participatory Panopticon goes Mainstream: Janet Kornblum of USA Today writes about the growing ubiquity of digital cameras and cameraphones, and the trend (primarily among young people) of posting images and videos of themselves for easy downloading by others. Kornblum's piece covers some of the same topics I've talked about in my various participatory panopticon explorations, and raises some new concerns, chiefly around young people telling too much about themselves, potentially ruining their own futures.

Most kids are posting for each other, but quickly are learning that the world also is watching.
Internet expert Nancy Willard has been warning parents about the possibly incriminating pictures their kids' friends may post online after graduation parties.
"Kids go to these parties, and everybody's going to have a camera," she says. "And when they finally wake up (the day after the party), they'll post all these really fun pictures on the Internet and maybe post names to go along with the pictures. Nobody has any ability to control what's going to happen with those images. And they can be damaging."

Such concerns strike me as artifacts of a pre-ubiquitous camera age ("ubicam?"). It's entirely possible that as we grow more accustomed to pervasive recording of ourselves and of others, and as more of the MySpace/YouTube/camerphone generation moves from school to the workplace, these worries will die down. There's a distinct scent of moral panic about these fears, as if stopping photos and videos of underage drinking or teen sexuality will somehow prevent the activities from taking place to begin with.

July 10, 2006

Meme Therapy Interview

Jose Gacia at the weblog Meme Therapy -- tagline, "Life from a Science Fiction Point of View" -- interviewed me recently on a variety of subjects. The first part of that interview is now up, covering a couple of questions on technology and politics.

The function of blogging, and other political social network tools, is simply this: to counter-balance the official narrative, and to find the holes -- the failings and falsehoods -- in the elite worldview. That is to say, blogs serve the purpose of hyper- aggressive fact-checking, digging out even the most minute lies and misdirections, making it far more difficult for the political elites to construct a narrative about the world that reinforces their own power.

There was much more to the interview, and I'll link to subsequent updates.

(Meme Therapy has interviewed some very interesting folks in the recent past, including Dale Carrico on Technoprogressive Politics, science blogger Jennifer Griffin on the love of molecules, and science fiction author Alistair Reynolds. Check 'em out.)

July 6, 2006

Thursday Topsight, July 6, 02006

renewablebayarea.jpgMonday doesn't come until Thursday this week.

Green Nuclear: "Don't get me wrong: I love nuclear energy! It's just that I prefer fusion to fission. And it just so happens that there's an enormous fusion reactor safely banked a few million miles from us. It delivers more than we could ever use in just about 8 minutes. And it's wireless!"

- William McDonough, ecological designer, author of Cradle to Cradle, quoted at Z+ Blog.

Success Stories: In my talk at TED, I called for the creation of a mashup of cameraphone uploads, satellite maps, and sensory data on environmental change. At one point, I said this:

Many of those who participate in Earth Witness would focus on ecological problems, human-caused or otherwise, especially environmental crimes and significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions. That's understandable; we need better documentation of what's happening to the planet if we want any chance of repairing the damage. But the Earth Witness program wouldn't need to be limited to problems; in the best WorldChanging tradition, it would also serve as a showcase for good ideas, successful projects, and efforts to make a difference that deserve much more visibility. Earth Witness would show us two worlds: the world we are leaving behind, and the world we are building for generations to come.

It looks like bits and pieces of this idea are sprouting up. Treehugger points to "The Renewable Planet," a Google Maps mashup that pinpoints the locations of a multitude of renewable energy projects around the world, including wind power farms, solar arrays, biofuel facilities, and "other" (largely hydrokinetic power).

Seems to me they need to add an option for zero energy footprint and ultra high efficiency buildings, too. Who's up for making a LEED Map?

Mapping as Politics: Yesterday's ruminations about the right terminology for futurism notwithstanding, I have a serious fascination with the use of geography and geographic representation for social and political change. Maps serve both functional and symbolic purposes, showing us the relationship between locations as well as showing us our place in the world. The rise of networked, interactive and dynamic maps heightens both the symbolic power and the representational capacities of maps. Regine at We Make Money Not Art (a blog I'll always think of under its original alternative name, Near Near Future) reports on the Terminal Air project, a proposal to link dynamic maps, data from the US Federal Aviation Administration, and so-called "planespotters" to chart the path of the torture taxis -- the planes used by the CIA and other US government groups to ferry prisoners out of the country to enable allies to interrogate them as brutally as they'd like.

We need a term for mass bottom-up observation of official activities. Sousveillance is useful, but it seems to apply most often to individual activities -- I'm talking about "crowdsourced" sousveillance. Now that I mention it, "Crowdsourced Sousveillance" isn't bad, but is a real mouthful of jargon. "Participatory Panopticon" might work, but although the term is resonant when spoken, it is also too ungainly for widespread use. Any suggestions?

Next Stop, Alpha Centauri: In the computer addiction game Civilization, the most idealistic way to win is to launch a space ship to the (currently) closest star system, Alpha Centauri, with the goal of colonization. New research suggests that this might someday be a plausible goal. The astronomy weblog Centauri Dreams reports that Alpha Centauri's dim, sullen member Proxima Centauri is at just the right distance to serve as a catalyst for flinging comets into the Alpha Centauri system. While we quite reasonably worry about comets giving us a serious smack, it turns out that they're critically important in planetary evolution, as they provide water and other "volatiles" -- molecules that would have been boiled away in the earliest stages of a planet's existence, but are necessary once a planet cools in order for Life As We Know It to emerge.

(The Y10K-compatible dating format is a hat-tip to a new friend, Long Now intern and University of Hawaii Center for Future Studies grad student Stuart Candy.)

July 5, 2006

Shorter Version of Below

The future is an ongoing conversation.

Our futures are words yet unsaid.

The Unspoken Word

"But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?"

     —Wm. Shakespeare, Hamlet

The idea that tomorrow is a destination, an "undiscovered country," is the lifeblood of classic futurism. We wish to see where we are headed; we want to know what hidden shoals to avoid, and which strong currents to follow. It's this idea of the future as a place just over the horizon that allows us to imagine the "end of history," to fear getting to the future as a race to be lost, to see tomorrow as a land we have yet to conquer.

But what if we instead imagine tomorrow in wholly different terms. What if tomorrow is a word we have yet to speak? The future can be an ongoing conversation, filled with phrases and pauses, debates and soliloquies, a conversation in which all of our voices can be heard. A conversation is larger than any single sentence, although each word is important. It has a narrative and flow, but can head off in surprising directions (although often quite predictable, in retrospect) as new ideas occur to us and new participants enter the scene. A conversation may have had a beginning, but it need not have an ending, as long as we have something to say.

If the future is an undiscovered country, it belongs to none of us (except, perhaps, those who we might displace when we take possession); if the future is an unfinished conversation, it belongs to all of us, as it only matters as long as there are voices to be heard.

The notion of tomorrow as a land just out of reach is an artifact of an age long past, when those who sought to change the world did so by seeking out its most distant edges, whether for trade, treasure or empire. The concept of the future as conversation, however, resonates with today's world, where changes come through mutual creation, collaborative innovation, and the growth of our networks. Inspiration is far more meaningful than exploration in today's world; anticipation -- of the next word, of the next moment -- far more powerful than expectation of what's over the horizon.

An undiscovered country could be found and given name by a lone explorer; conversations, by definition, require more than a single voice. Some speakers will stand out, to be sure, and individual voices may guide the course of the discussion, for a time. But a conversation is not owned by any single person, no matter how vocal; the words move on, the subjects shift, and in due course the conversation bears little resemblance to past debates.

This isn't simply philosophical mumbling. How we speak shapes how we think. As long as we speak of the future in geographic language, we'll continue to look at our choices for tomorrow in terms of ownership, demarcation and, ultimately, limits. Where is the future when there no more lands left to discover?

A conversational metaphor for tomorrow has neither the history nor the breadth of the geographical metaphor, and we will likely speak of horizon-scanning and frontiers and such for some time to come. But it is to our benefit to pay attention to the words we use, and what they truly mean, rather than allow the language of exploration and conquest to remain as unexamined jargon, words that unknowingly shape our vision. It's more important now than ever before that we as a civilization learn how to build an understanding of how the future is shaped into our present-day decisions. We shouldn't let that understanding be created through language with diminishing relevance to our lives, our ideas and our tomorrows.

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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