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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.


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