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August 30, 2006

Continuous Partial Social Attention

Working on the big IFTF project today, I discovered that a phrase I'd been playing with did not exist anywhere in Googlespace (and if you can't Google it, it doesn't exist, right?). I thought I'd go ahead and stake a claim now, in case the term has any legs.

Continuous Partial Social Attention: the maintenance of multiple constant social connections through networked tools so as to maintain ongoing relationships, with links on the "awareness periphery" but always accessible.

Continuous Partial Attention (CPA) is a concept originated by cybertheoretician Linda Stone back in 1998, describing the modern phenomenon of having multiple activities and connections underway simultaneously, dividing one's time between them as opportunities arise. Here's how Stone defines it on the CPA wiki:

Continuous partial attention describes how many of us use our attention today. It is different from multi-tasking. The two are differentiated by the impulse that motivates them. When we multi-task, we are motivated by a desire to be more productive and more efficient. We're often doing things that are automatic, that require very little cognitive processing. We give the same priority to much of what we do when we multi-task -- we file and copy papers, talk on the phone, eat lunch -- we get as many things done at one time as we possibly can in order to make more time for ourselves and in order to be more efficient and more productive.

To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention -- CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter.

We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention. This artificial sense of constant crisis is more typical of continuous partial attention than it is of multi-tasking.

Continuous Partial Social Attention (CPSA) plays off of this concept, describing the smart mob social world in which many of us -- especially younger people -- live. With active buddy lists, real time location tags indicating who's nearby or in town, virtual world chat, a near-constant flow of text messages (and, less often, email or voice), and even webcams, many of us maintain an ongoing set of multiple connections, paying just enough attention to maintain a link. The connections remain on our awareness periphery, but can easily float to the surface when they need more complete attention.

The purpose of CPSA connections is not to pursue constant conversation; indeed, more often than not the other people on the network remain in the background of one's activity flow. The purpose is to maintain a social relationship that could otherwise wither if left only to transient links like email, phone calls or in-person visits. CPSA is, in essence, a way of saying "I'm thinking about you" to a wider variety of people than one could engage with otherwise.

The difference between CPSA connections and more traditional email-type connections roughly parallels the difference between using RSS feeds to follow a weblog and visiting a weblog via a web browser. The RSS link allows the connection between blogger and reader to remain viable, even if the blogger (or reader, for that matter) is temporarily unavailable; people who visit weblogs solely via a browser tend to be less tolerant of extended periods of bloggers not blogging.

If CPA "involves an artificial sense of constant crisis," however, CPSA involves an artificial sense of constant intimacy. Keeping Skype open in order to allow buddies to call or text any time maintains a continuous connection, but is arguably far less personal than devoting one's attention to someone in conversation. Nonetheless, if someone who has had you on a buddy list suddenly drops you, or no longer pops up as being available, you can feel almost unreasonably injured. The intimacy may be somewhat contrived, but it is real.

As more of the MySpace generation moves into the adult world, CPSA will become as commonplace as CPA is now, and those of us unaccustomed to that kind of Internet intimacy could well find ourselves at a competitive disadvantage as significant as the one that faced the generation unable to deal with email and mobile phones.

August 29, 2006

Hawaii 2050

hi2050sust.jpgIt's the classic dilemma of both foresight and environmental consulting: how do you get the people with the power to act to pay attention? Political leaders rarely pay sufficient attention to issues of systemic sustainability and planning for long-term processes, at least before events reach a crisis. There are numerous reasons why this might be, ranging from election cycles to crisis "triage" to politicians not wanting to institute programs for which they won't be around to take credit. It's nearly as difficult to get leaders to pay attention to complex systems, with superficially different but deeply-connected issue areas. If you were to try to bring together political, business and community leaders for a day-long discussion of, say, what life might be like at the midpoint of this century, with a focus on environmental sustainability coupled with economic, cultural and demographic demands, how much support do you think you'd get?

In Hawaii, over 500 leaders showed up on Saturday the 26th for just such an event, including numerous state legislators and former Hawaii governor George Ariyoshi. Legislative support for the Hawaii 2050 Sustainability project was so great, in fact, that funding for the project received a near-unanimous override of the current governor's veto. The meeting hall was filled to capacity, and the buzz of excitement from the participants grew throughout the day. They could tell: this was the start of something transformative.

The Hawaii 2050 Sustainability project is remarkably ambitious, seeking to create, over the course of the next 18 months, an entirely new planning strategy for the state's next half-century. This strategy will shape how the state handles a tourist economy, a swelling population, friction between cultures and, most importantly, an increasingly dangerous climate and environment.

Saturday's event kicked off the process, mixing a variety of traditional presentations on Hawaii's major dilemmas with four immersive scenarios created by Dr. Jim Dator, Jake Dunagan and Stuart Candy at the University of Hawaii's Graduate Research Center for Future Studies. (Jake and Stuart, of course, invited me to Hawaii this last week to talk to some of the grad students and to attend the Hawaii 2050 event; I got a chance to meet and converse with Dr. Dator, as well.) The four scenarios represented a diverse array of possible futures for the state, and included a high-growth world, a limited-growth outcome, a collapse scenario, and a near-Singularity possibility. Participants each stepped into two of the four, and had an opportunity to discuss and evaluate one of the two they saw.

Details of the four scenarios, including links to relevant resources, can be found in this PDF.

The goal of the scenario presentations was to illustrate different possible outcomes, giving the participants a context in which to think about their present-day issues around sustainability. This can be a powerful technique, as it reminds us that choices have consequences, but that sometimes events outside of our control can shape how our choices play out. Scenarios remind us of the complexity of history, by showing how that complexity can evolve in the days and years to come.

The two scenarios I encountered were the near-Singularity world and the collapse world. In the first, nanotechnology, biotechnology and a broad enthusiasm for human and social enhancement technologies allowed widespread radical longevity, thriving colonies on the Moon and Mars, and near-complete management of geophysical processes on Earth. With one minor exception (the existence of point-to-point teleportation), this was, if anything, a fairly conservative take on the Singularity scenario, but the near-universal reaction I witnessed from participants was fear and displeasure. Few of the participants wanted the kinds of enhancement technologies offered in the scenario dramatization, and all lamented the decline of the "natural" world and local culture. I noted at the time that I was the youngest person in my sub-group(!), and easily in the youngest 10% of the conference as a whole; I do wonder what the reaction to this scenario would have been from a larger younger-person contingent.

The near-Singularity scenario was presented in a fairly tongue-in-cheek fashion, and even those who found the world unsettling left the room in relatively good humor. This carried over to the second world my group saw, the collapse scenario, positing an independent, militarized, and resurgent royalist Hawaii struggling to deal with a peak-oil energy collapse, climate disaster, and global economic meltdown. One person stated quite vocally that he found the conceit offensive, but most participants accepted the scenario's elements -- it may have been a dangerous, depressing world, but it was more familiar than one with rejuvenation biotechnology, nanofabbers and Mars colonies!

I'm told, however, that those who entered the collapse scenario first were fairly traumatized by the presentation (attendees were treated as newly-arrived refugees), and this shock carried through when they swapped over to the near-Singularity world.

The main caution I have about the set of scenarios is the translation from "this is a world of tomorrow" to "these are choices you'll have to make about tomorrow." The collapse world had a clearer pathway from the present than did the near-Singularity world -- and in some ways, that makes sense -- but all would have been better-served with a minimal set of bullet-point-style summaries outlining which choices and dilemmas today lead to or militate against the various scenarios. It's too easy for participants, when confronted by future stories that are too disturbing, to wave them off as impossible or "silly" if they don't have explicit links to the present.

But even without the easy-mode handouts, this was a remarkable event. Think about it: community, political and economic leaders of an American state spending a day living in different futures, all with the goal of figuring out sustainable pathways. Imagine doing the same thing for California or New York, or even a national government. What would it take for leaders outside of Hawaii to start thinking about the future in terms of systems and sustainability?

Hawaii had a secret advantage. 36 years ago, the state convened the Hawaii 2000 project (PDF), helping the decision-makers of 1970 to think about their choices and planning strategies. Futurists from Alvin Toffler to Arthur C. Clarke attended, as well as some of the people -- such as Jim Dator -- still working on Hawaiian futures. The set of scenarios about the state's condition in the distant future of 2000 ranged from paradise to commercial near-disaster. Dator tells me that the general consensus, unfortunately, is that the subsequent legislatures ignored the project's recommendations, and that the real world Hawaii of today best matches the near-disaster world feared in 1970.

Such a combination of accurate projection and dismally wrong choices arguably made the Hawaii 2050 project possible, as the earlier project demonstrated both how relevant foresight workshops can be and what happens when their results are discarded. Hawaii 2050 is the state's chance to make up for what happened to Hawaii 2000.

I'm cautiously optimistic about this process. The argument that Hawaii ignored the last scenario project to its own detriment dovetails nicely with the growing prominence of the "Inconvenient Truth" memeplex. More and more people in positions of civic responsibility are realizing the existential risks associated with climate collapse, but in Hawaii, they've had the tools for figuring out strategies for success in their kit for over three decades. I have no doubt that more than one attendee at Saturday's conference realized that, if Hawaii becomes a leader in the field of local and regional environmental response, it has the potential to be an economic dynamo in the years to come.

I hope that Hawaii's project becomes more visible. If Hawaii hadn't experimented with a futurist project 36 years ago, it's unlikely that the state would have even considered such an oddity today. If Hawaii is successful with the 2050 Sustainability endeavor, however, it could in turn serve as a role model for other political entities looking for a proven set of techniques for grappling with uncertainty.

A great deal is riding on the shoulders of this project, even more than its supporters might suspect.

August 28, 2006

Home Again, Home Again


"Red eye" flights=fun!

The trip went well, though; the folks at the UHMGCFS were great to work with. I'll have updates when I'm actually alive.

August 22, 2006

Future of the Future

The next five days will see a potentially interesting -- at least to me -- intersection of a variety of important dynamics I've been following closely.

Global guerillas, or the reaction to them. What should be an hour wait for the flight will be several hours as Janice & I wrangle with security. This habit we in the West seem to have of responding to the most recent security brouhaha, no matter whether the threat was actually new or persistant, is just one of the ways the bad guys win. Frankly, I suspect that "foiled" plans are more disruptive than "successful" attacks. If a plane blows up, we all freak out, but eventually get back to normal. If a terror cell is arrested preparing for an underwear bomb, suddenly we'll all be subject to even more intrusive inspections for years to come.

The stickiness of virtual communities. This trip will be the longest I've gone in quite some time without at least poking my head into my current preferred metaverse, World of Warcraft. It's not that I'll miss the raids and battlegrounds and whatnot all that much, but I'll really miss the cameraderie of my friends and colleagues.

Climate awareness. Weather in Hawaii is close to perfect -- a balmy mid-80s, with occasional passing rainshowers. But lurking over the horizon is what could be the strongest Pacific storm season in quite a while. No tropical storms are predicted for this stay, but it's inevitable that Hawaii will get hit in the near future. What happens to a city under weather siege when there's no place to run? The Sustainability 2050 project will have to confront the question of what conditions like that would do to the state.

Immersive futurism. My talk on Thursday night will address the changing face of futurism, with the emergence of "experiential futurism," whether using role-playing, immersive environments or artifacts. I see this as part of a larger trend towards the democratization of futurism: no longer will we be content with experts telling us what the future will hold, now we want to be able to experience it -- and to change it, through our own choices.

See you on the beach.

August 16, 2006

Less Than Meets The Eye

I'm getting on a plane in a few days, and I'm not relishing the thought of the wait in the airport beforehand. I normally allow about 90 minutes; this week, I'm going to try to arrive a good three hours early. The reason, of course, is the new set of screening rules arising from the arrest this last week of a group in the UK apparently prepping to unleash a wave of airplane bombings.

Unfortunately, the old adage that the first reports are always wrong holds true yet again.

As more details of the arrest emerge, the more things don't quite add up. My best friend, Mike, who lives in London, pointed me to a blog post by the former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray. His essay detailed the reasons why the terror plot may well turn out to be not nearly as frightening as it first appeared:

Unlike the great herd of so-called security experts doing the media analysis, I have the advantage of having had the very highest security clearances myself, having done a huge amount of professional intelligence analysis, and having been inside the spin machine.

So this, I believe, is the true story.

None of the alleged terrorists had made a bomb. None had bought a plane ticket. Many did not even have passports, which given the efficiency of the UK Passport Agency would mean they couldn't be a plane bomber for quite some time.

In the absence of bombs and airline tickets, and in many cases passports, it could be pretty difficult to convince a jury beyond reasonable doubt that individuals intended to go through with suicide bombings, whatever rash stuff they may have bragged in internet chat rooms.

Moreover, the main source of information about this group -- which had been under surveillance for a year, without any signs showing up that a bombing run was imminent -- was someone wanted in the UK for murder but captured and "interrogated" in Pakistan.

Does this mean that the UK suspects are innocent? Not at all. As Ron Suskind's powerful and depressing The One Percent Doctrine illustrates, folks operating under the al Qaeda brand have assembled some pretty awful tools for terror, and intelligence services foiled a very similar plot to use liquid explosives against aircraft over a decade ago. It does mean, however, that the presumption of innocence at the center of the Western legal tradition remains relevant, and that all official announcements, especially those presented without evidence, should be treated skeptically.

This points to a conundrum for those of us who try to think seriously about what tomorrow might hold. Very often, events transpire at such a pace that we need good analysis and strategic foresight now if we're to respond intelligently to emerging changes -- but information about recent events, especially those with a strong political element, is all too often dangerously inaccurate. This is why there's no such thing as a finished scenario or foresight-based strategy, only temporarily stable ones. Useful futurism must undergo a process of constant iteration and redrafting, as more information -- and more accuracy about existing information -- becomes available.

Our insights into the future are perpetually in beta.

August 15, 2006

Tuesday Topsight, August 15, 2006

asteroid_strike.jpgToday's Topsight Tuesday is all about things that worry and frighten us: massive asteroid impacts, terrorism, and Powerpoint.

• Boom: This video at YouTube apparently comes from a Japanese program on global disasters. It shows what would happen if we had a major asteroid strike on Earth. And by "major," I mean "essentially hit by another planet" -- the asteroid in the video is far larger than anything that has struck the Earth since the earliest days of planetary formation. The asteroid shown is orders of magnitude larger than the one that hit the Earth at the end of the Cretaceous Period, wiping out the non-avian dinosaurs. It's quite literally a planet-killer.

Link to version on YouTube with great instrumental soundtrack. Link to version on YouTube with Japanese commentary.

The History Channel's "Mega-Disasters" series included a more likely scenario -- the impact of an asteroid a few miles in diameter. Los Angeles is obliterated in the show. The US History Channel doesn't have a repeat of this episode on the schedule, but it will show again in the UK -- and the UK site includes a preview video with some of the highlights.

• Smart Mob Security Concepts: Social networking pioneer Valdis Krebs has written a concise and readily-understood description of how social network analysis can be used to combat global guerillas. Connecting the Dots lays out how social network analysis works, and provides a real-world example using the 9/11 hijackers. Once suspects are identified, through traditional investigative/intelligence means, SNA takes over:

What do you do with these suspects? Arrest or deport them immediately? No, we need to use them to discover more of the al-Qaeda network. Once suspects have been discovered, we can use their daily activities to uncloak their network. Just like they used our technology against us, we can use their planning process against them. Watch them, and listen to their conversations to see...
  1. who they call / email
  2. who visits with them locally and in other cities
  3. where their money comes from
The structure of their extended network begins to emerge as data is discovered via surveillance.

Not blanket, omnivorous surveillance, but targeted, narrow-but-deep surveillance, taking care to avoid guilt-by-association and looking for repeated patterns. Krebs underscores this point with an update about the recent UK capture:

It appears that this terror network was not disrupted by data mining of massive phone & financial records -- Big Brother was not involved. An entry point was found into the network, allowing the activity of the network to reveal the structure of the network -- all without bothering the other 60,000,000+ UK residents.

Counteracting terrorist/global guerilla groups through law enforcement tools and careful surveillance with warrants -- why didn't we think of that before?

(If you find this subject interesting, Krebs wrote a much longer and more detailed piece in early 2002 for First Monday, entitled Uncloaking Terrorist Networks.)

• Uses and Abuses of Powerpoint: Powerpoint is one of the necessary evils of the consulting world. Not necessary in the sense of being required to do your job well, but necessary in the sense of being required by many clients as an artifact of your work. It's entirely possible to construct useful and informative digital presentations (see, for example, Al Gore's Keynote deck in An Inconvenient Truth), but all too often these slideshows end up confusing more than illuminating.

Exhibit A, cited by Crooked Timber, in the wonderfully-titled Powerpoint Corrupts the Point Absolutely:


This is a slide from a Pentagon presentation on the reconstruction of Iraq, pulled from Thomas Ricks' book Fiasco. Setting aside the viability of the strategy, it's mind-boggling that anyone could think that this would be an enlightening construction of information.

My Powerpoint strategy? Pretty pictures, with a minimum of text, that underscore what I'm saying without distracting the audience.

Honolulu Bound

uhrcfs.jpgThe life of a consulting futurist can be trying. Take next week, for example: I'll be flying off to Honolulu for five days, a guest of the University of Hawai'i Research Center for Future Studies. While I'm there, I'll be giving a presentation at the Hawai'i Future Salon (on Thursday the 24th), and will be an observer at the kick-off event for the Hawai'i 2050 Sustainability Task Force (on Saturday the 26th), wherein the UHRCFS group will present an interactive, immersive exhibit illustrating multiple scenarios. When I'm not pontificating (or listening to others pontificate), my wife and I will be enjoying an unexpected trip to Oahu, undoubtedly involving doing a great deal of very little.

Your sympathy is greatly appreciated.

(More seriously, I'd be happy to entertain any suggestions of interesting sights or quick trips for the stay.)

August 10, 2006

UK Terror Plot

The unfolding news about the aircraft bombing plans in the UK hits me pretty hard. I travel to London once a year or so, and two of my closest friends (and their families) live in or around the city. Given that the UK authorities managed to nip this plot early in its life, there's no way to know just how long it would have taken for the plans to be carried out.

The panic among the authorities in the UK and US is indicative of just how unprepared we really are for these kinds of possibilities. The likelihood of dying from terrorism is no lower than being struck by lightning, but unlike lightning strikes -- or auto accidents, or slips in the bathtub, or the other commonplace sources of mortality against which terrorism can be compared -- death from terror events hits large numbers of people at the same time. The statistics of terrorism may be reassuring, but statistics rarely trump emotion.

Here are the web resources I'm following for this subject:

  • W. David Stephenson -- lots of coverage of homeland security, with a strong smart mobs perspective.
  • Global Guerillas -- the single best site for understanding the nature of "4th Generation Warfare."
  • Schneier on Security -- Bruce Schneier is the world's leading security guru.
  • Defense Tech -- looking at military issues through a tech lens. Surprisingly progressive.
  • Homeland Security Watch -- from the folks who run Defense Tech.
  • Counterterrorism Blog -- a new one for me, so I don't know yet how good it is, but it's interesting so far.

  • August 9, 2006

    You're On Notice


    Open Taxonomy

    As noted below, I'm starting to think again about how open source scenario planning might work. First issue to look at is the question of what it means to be open.

    Not all open systems are open in the same way. Although most uses of the term open as a modifier for a system (open source, open society, open bar) reflect open's broad meaning of "freely available for use," the details of how each of these kinds of open systems operate can vary considerably. This becomes a real issue when we encounter -- or create -- new jargon. When we speak of "open biology," for example, what kind of open do we mean? One in which anyone is free to participate? One in which anyone is free to receive the results of research? One in which all research is shared? More abstract variations, such as "open future," only confuse the issue further.

    Experts and insiders may grimace at specialized terminology becoming common language, but it usually doesn't help to attempt to narrow the terminology only to its root meaning. In most cases, the democratizing of the term (if you will) happens because the word or phrase expresses something important or useful in a powerful or colorful way. Moreover, the version used in the broader vernacular gains its utility by having a direct link to the original meaning. If we describe something as a "black hole," for example, we probably don't mean that it's literally a body of such immense gravity that nothing can escape, but the popular meaning builds on that core definition.

    With that preemptory defense in mind, here's a taxonomy of open systems, derived from the original, technical meanings, but with broader application:

    Open Source:

    Original version: a category of software in which the underlying programming instructions, or source code, is made available at no cost to interested developers, usually with the stipulation that derivative work should be equally freely shared. (Example: Linux)

    OtF version: a system that allows you to reproduce at no cost the underlying design, methods and instructions, as well as the results of the system (if digital), and allows you to build upon either without significant restriction.

    Open Access

    Original version: a category of scientific publication in which articles are made available at no cost to the reader, who may also duplicate and share the material with others. (Example; PLoS)

    OtF version: a system that allows you to reproduce its results or description freely, and to build upon these results without significant restriction.

    Open Standard

    Original version: a category of technical design made publicly available and implementable, in order to guarantee compatibility across components. (Example: HTML)

    OtF version: a system that allows you to build upon its results, including building compatible systems, without significant restriction.

    This taxonomy allows for a re-examination of the concept of "open source scenarios" (OSS).

    In my original OSS concept, scenario creators would make freely available the scenario model (the key question, potentially the structure of divergent worlds), the scenario narratives (the stories and descriptions of each divergent world), and the scenario drivers (the various uncertainties, driving forces, and catalysts of change identified by the workshop participants). This falls squarely into the "open source" definition above. A number of scenario and foresight professionals responded to the OSS concept with the argument that even among the clients willing to see the scenario narratives published, few would want to open up the list of drivers, as these are most likely to illustrate where an organization sees internal vulnerabilities.

    An open access model would be more comfortable, then, as it would omit the scenario "source code" -- the driving forces, uncertainties, and the like -- but still make the results freely available for examination.

    The open standard approach would offer up the key questions and, perhaps, the scenario structure, allowing other scenario creators to consider the same basic set of divergences. This is probably the least useful form of open scenario planning, but might have some application as a learning tool.

    OtF Core: Open Source Scenario Planning

    I was surprised at how much attention this article, one of the last I wrote at WorldChanging, garnered from the foresight/scenario community. Open Source Scenario Planning is clearly an idea with weight, and it's time to start looking again at what it might entail.

    As with the other OtF Core pieces, I'm very happy to have the originals at WorldChanging, but it's important to have the material here, as well.

    Scenario methodology is a powerful tool for thinking through the implications of strategic choices. Rather than tying the organization to a set "official future," scenarios offer a range of possible outcomes used less as predictions and more as "wind tunnels" for plans. (How would our strategy work in this future? How about if things turn out this way?) We talk about scenarios with some frequency here, and several of us have worked (and continue to work) professionally in the discipline.

    With its genealogy reaching back to Cold War think tanks and global oil multinationals, however, scenario planning tends to be primarily a tool for corporate and government planning; few non-profit groups or NGOs, let alone smaller communities, have the resources to assemble useful scenario projects or (more importantly) follow the results of the scenarios through the organization. Scenario planning pioneer Global Business Network has made a real effort to bring the scenario methodology to non-profits (disclosure: I worked at GBN and continue to do occasional projects for them), but we could take the process further: we can create open source scenarios. I don't just mean free or public scenarios; I mean opening up the whole process.

    Let's see what this would entail.

    Imagine a database of thousands of items all related to understanding how the future could turn out. This database would include narrow concerns and large-scale driving forces alike, would have links to relevant external materials, and would have space for the discussion of and elaboration on the entries. The items in the database would link to scenario documents showing how various forces and changes could combine to produce different possible outcomes. Best of all, the entire construction would be open access, free for the use.

    As a result, people around the world could start playing with these scenario elements, re-mixing them in new ways, looking for heretofore unseen connections and surprising combinatorial results. Sharp eyes could seek out and correct underlying problems of logic or fact. Organizations with limited resources and few connections to big thinkers would be able to craft scenario narratives of their own with a planet's worth of ideas at their fingertips.

    This is what a world of open source scenario planning might look like.

    In software, the difference between "freeware" and "free/open source software (F/OSS)" is whether you can get access to the underlying instruction code for the application, which would then allow you go in and make modifications. With freeware, what you download is what you get; you're welcome to use the tool, but can't change it to fit your own needs, and you'd better hope that the programmer will fix any bugs you find. With F/OSS, conversely, if you have the necessary skills, you can read the program code in order to find ways to improve it for your particular needs, or to fix problems that might crop up. Although most folks will go ahead and use the code as-is, availability of source code means that, with enough interest, the software can be made more robust and useful over time.

    Most readers probably understand all of that already, and can see how the model can be applied to similarly code-based processes like biotechnology and fabrication/design. But scenarios are qualitative exercises, not quantitative; scenarios often read like stories, or at least fictional encyclopedia entries, and the explanatory material that usually surrounds them shows how those stories fit with the plans laid out by the particular organization. There's no unique "DNA" or "source code" for scenarios, right?

    Not quite.

    Now it's true that there's no quantitative, logical process behind scenario creation -- no combination of factors that always leads to a particular scenario result, no matter the author -- but there is still a methodology that can be opened up. The pieces that go into the creation of the scenarios, even the pieces that don't end up in the final narratives, can be valuable in their own right. By making these pieces "free" (as in speech, not beer), the overall capacity of scenario-builders to come up with plausible and powerful outcomes can be improved.

    [For this to make real sense, it's important to have a basic understanding of how the scenario process works. Martin Börjesson, in his terrific set of resources about scenarios, describes it this way:

    Scenario planning is a method for learning about the future by understanding the nature and impact of the most uncertain and important driving forces affecting our future. It is a group process which encourages knowledge exchange and development of mutual deeper understanding of central issues important to the future of your business. The goal is to craft a number of diverging stories by extrapolating uncertain and heavily influencing driving forces. The stories together with the work getting there has the dual purpose of increasing the knowledge of the business environment and widen both the receiver's and participant's perception of possible future events.

    In addition, Katherine Fulton wrote a book on scenario planning specifically for non-profit organizations; GBN has made that book, What If?, available for free download.]

    Collections of scenarios from massive corporations and tiny communities alike are easy to find online; what's more difficult to uncover are the lists and discussions of driving forces, critical uncertainties, and the various events and processes that could shape how the future unfolds. These are the scenario planning equivalent of source code, and can be far more useful to groups crafting their own sets of scenarios than the final narratives.

    In any scenario planning exercise, participants will spend time early on generating long lists of potential issues and events related to the project's underlying question. These suggestions can be as broad as "global warming" or as narrowly focused as "next version of Windows delayed again." They can, unfortunately, also be quite silly; nearly every scenario brainstorming exercise ends up including at least one reference to whichever science fiction movie is currently popular -- or, at the very least, something from Star Trek. Nonetheless, the list of brainstorming suggestions represents a snapshot of the concerns of the group at that moment in time.

    These long lists then get consolidated first by consolidating similar items into meta-categories, setting aside those suggestions that are either too trivial, too unrelated, or too silly to be part of the ensuing discussion. They aren't tossed out completely, however; even the silly items can shape and inspire the ongoing idea generation, and can lead to insights that wouldn't be obvious from the final set of issues.

    Traditionally, through some combination of voting and discussion, the list of meta-categories gets narrowed to two key issues that are simultaneously highly important to the question under debate and highly uncertain as to their outcome. They should also be fairly distinct, so that the outcome of one issue doesn't unduly influence the outcome of the other. These two key drivers are crossed to produce four divergent scenaric worlds. The other big drivers remain important, and usually (but not always) get introduced into the resulting scenario narratives.

    What starts as dozens and potentially hundreds of issues of varying complexity and relevance gets narrowed first to a smaller set of big issues, then to two key important and uncertain drivers. In most cases, the documentation and explanation surrounding the scenarios includes some discussion of the two key drivers, but little reference to the other issues that the group considered important. The problem is, these other elements often helped shape how the scenario team came to understand the key issues.

    An "open source" scenario process, conversely, would retain all of these earlier elements, not as explicit parts of the final narratives, but as a separate "source code" document. Ideally, the long list of issues would include brief explanations and indications of who offered the idea (think of it as "documenting your code"), but even without these additional notes, the content would be useful. Readers could go through the scenarios as before, or could seek out a better understanding of how the scenarios came about by digging through this source material.

    As a first pass, simply by publishing online this "source code" alongside organizational scenarios could be enough to allow the development of this open source scenario future. Ultimately, though, there would need to be some way of looking at the various drivers and issues from various sources side-by-side. The Scenario Thinking Wiki looked like a decent start, but it remains a limited and infrequently-maintained effort. The biggest problem is that a wiki requires active effort to keep going. If a similar project managed to develop a following that echoes that of Wikipedia, it would be quite useful; without that collection of devotees, however, the likely result is a slow death.

    Instead, an open source scenario database might work better as something more like Technorati, searching for relevant linked and tagged documents to compile into a database. This would still require some active effort on the part of scenario authors, but it would be limited to simply putting the source material up online and adding specific keywords to alert "Scenariorati" that it should include the document.

    Most plausibly, however, an open source scenario system could arise through the efforts of a limited number of people, perhaps within a single organization or small collection of organizations, consciously deciding to share their "scenario source code" to help each other out. Ultimately, as a result, all of their scenario exercises would be stronger because of it.

    If the open source software mantra is "many eyes make all bugs shallow," perhaps the open source scenario mantra could be "many minds make all futures visible."

    August 7, 2006

    OtF Audio

    A surprising number of people told me, after hearing my interview on Neofiles a couple of weeks ago, that I should give podcasting a try.

    Consider this a try.

    I recorded a spoken version of my first Futurismic column, "Futurism Without Gadgets." It's in MP3 format, and runs a few seconds over five minutes. There's no fancy opening and closing music, and I don't know when I'll do another one. Still, if you want to hear my voice again, here's your chance.

    Open the Future Podcast #1: Futurism Without Gadgets

    Let me know what you think.

    Futurismic, and Slashdot

    I'm now a regulary (monthly) columnist at Futurismic, and my very first piece, A Gadget-Free Futurism, is now up. This is, by and large, a good thing, and I'm happy to have the chance to do the column.

    The Futurismic editor submitted the post to Slashdot and, much to my surprise, it was accepted. There's something terribly surreal about seeing one's name as part of a Slashdot headline. Surreal in a different way is the level of vitriol coming from the Slashdot commenters. Not because of what I wrote, per se, but because I have a funny name, or because they had never heard of me before, or because they'd seen ideas something like those in my post before, or maybe just because somebody had pissed in their Lucky Charms. I've never had anyone actively hate me before, at least not in print, so to see such anger over so little provocation is a bit mind-boggling.

    Fortunately, I've been a Slashdot reader for years (four digit /. user ID), so I know just how much weight to give the comments.

    August 2, 2006

    The Fall of Lebanon

    In the Spring of 1990, I wrote my Master's thesis in Political Science at UC Berkeley. The paper, "Passionate Intensity: Consociational Democracy and the Civil War in Lebanon," was reasonably well-received, and after receiving my MA, I filed it away with my other papers. Recent events in Lebanon reminded me of this work, however, and I dug it out this morning.

    I won't burden you with the entire thesis. It runs close to 30 pages, is written in a somewhat dense academic style, and spends a lot of time talking about the history of political organization and underlying political theory. However, the concluding section, looking at some of the dynamics that drove the collapse of Lebanon's "consociational" electoral model (in short, a structure where various sub-cultures have explicit political roles and formal bloc voting), provide some useful grounding for understanding what's happening in Lebanon right now. If you're curious about how the situation in Lebanon evolved the way it did, follow the extended entry.

    [From Passionate Intensity: Consociational Democracy and the Civil War in Lebanon, by Jamais Cascio, 1990]

    One of the most important components of social change in Lebanon was the alteration of the demographic balance. [...] While the Maronites struggled to maintain their power, the Shi'ites began to express theirs. Norton estimates that the Shi'ite community numbers up to one million people, making it (at thirty percent of the population) the largest sectarian group (Norton, Augustus Richard, Amal and the Shi'a: Struggle for the Soul of Lebanon, 1987:17). Like the Maronites, the Shi'ites perceive themselves to be a minority sect in the Middle East; also like the Maronites, the community is politically divided. The radical Hizb Allah movement and the more mainstream Amal organization compete for the allegiance of the Lebanese Shi'ites; whereas Hizb Allah is heavily influenced by the example of revolutionary Iran, the politics of Amal is "far less concerned with issues of orthopraxy or apostasy than with political reforms of an `ordinary' and familiar sort" (Norton 1987:13). Significantly, neither group arose from the traditional Shi'ite leadership. Both Amal and Hizb Allah grew in opposition to the conservative feudal leadership, which had long been co-opted by the government; in the fierce fighting of 1975 and 1976, Cobban reports that "so strong was the tide of Shi'i radicalism in those months that old-style Shi'i leaders such as Kamil al-As'ad and Kazim al-Khalil had to seek protection in the Maronite-held enclave throughout the war" (Cobban, Helena, "The Growth of Shi'i power in Lebanon and its Implications for the Future" in Shi'ism and Social Protest Juan R.I. Cole and Nikki R. Keddi, eds., 1986:142). Clearly, when the Shi'ite leaders hide with the Maronites out of fear of their own people, there is much room for a new generation of leadership to arise.

    Changes in population growth rates are not the only sources of instability. Urbanization, education, economic disparities, and a generational change in sectarian leadership have all contributed to the demise of traditional political patterns in Lebanon.

    Urbanization in Lebanon was a function of both internal migration and the influx of refugees, particularly Palestinians (Khalaf, Samir, Lebanon's Predicament, 1987:220). As discussed earlier, continued Israeli raids into the south of Lebanon resulted in a massive internal migration of the Shi'ites into the slums of Beirut, 60 percent of the southern rural population by 1975 (Nasr, Salim, "Roots of the Shi'i Movement" in Merip Reports, June 1985:11). They brought with them not just numbers, but the militancy and beliefs developed during the conflict in the south. By the 1980s, the Shi'ites dominated the once-Sunni West Beirut (Friedman, Thomas, From Beirut to Jerusalem, 1989:241). Although Lebanon in general, including the largely rural areas, displays many of the social characteristics of urbanized communities-- Norton quotes Iliya Harik as saying, "In many respects, Lebanon is one big suburb of Beirut" (Norton 1987:31)-- the uncontrolled growth of Beirut accentuated and accelerated processes of social division. In particular, Hourani cites the emergence of a "growing gap between rich and poor," in the 1960s and 1970s, "a gap which was more obvious as wealth became more ostentatious" (Hourani, Albert, "Visions of Lebanon" in Toward a Viable Lebanon, 1988:5). Khalaf also cites divisive class distinctions as a result of over-urbanization, but goes on to discuss a "peculiar feature of Lebanese urbanization: the survival of communal and traditional loyalties... In other words, the intensity and increasing scale of `urbanization' as a physical phenomena has not been accompanied by a proportional degree of `urbanism' as a way of life" (Khalaf 1987:221). In combination with sources of confessional and social fragmentation, the survival of communal loyalties meant that there could be no greater "Lebanese" identity to unify the divided groups.

    Education, also typically a source of new social identity, became, like urbanization, another medium of fragmentation. As discussed earlier, educational institutions fell under the consociational rubric of subcultural autonomy. Although close to one hundred percent of primary school-age children in Lebanon attended in the late 1970s (Norton 1987:32), during the same the period calls from communal leaders for more complete sectarian control over education were becoming more strident (Bashshur, Munir, "The Role of Education: A Mirror of a Fractured National Image" in Toward a Viable Lebanon, 1988:55).

    Economic disparities between the various confessional groups have their origins as far back as the 1830s, under Ibrahim Pasha and Amir Bashar II. Capitulations initially granted to the Europeans were gradually extended to the local Arab Christians. Continued discrimination throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century has left Lebanon with an economy still greatly segmented on a sectarian basis.

    The Shi'a have suffered the brunt of the social and economic inequalities in Lebanon. Lebanon's Shi'ites "have long been considered the most disadvantaged confessional group in the country." The wide-spread nature of the economic and social divisions in Lebanon are vividly described by Chamie:

    With whatever reasonable criterion one wishes to employ-- such as education, occupation, female labor participation, income, movie attendance, membership in associations-- the socioeconomic differentials which emerge between the religious groups are unmistakably clear: non-Catholic Christians and Catholics at the top, Druze around the middle, Sunnis near the bottom, and Shi'a at the very bottom."

    (Chamie, J., "Religious Groups In Lebanon: A Descriptive Investigation", International Journal of Middle East Studies, April 1983:181)

    Threats to political order arise from within a community, too. The domination by a small number of families of the political system left those outside the "club" to develop alternate political movements. The leadership of these alternate groups are typically young and not of the traditional leadership families. The membership, too, is of the `dispossessed' of Lebanon (Norton 1987:129); the traditional leaders have become irrelevant.

    The combination of demographic and social shifts with the explosion of over-urbanization, non-secular education, economic discrimination, and intergenerational rivalry brought ever closer the breakdown of society. When outside forces with their own selfish interests began to use Lebanon as a playfield, that breakdown became inevitable. New movements arose and sought out their own places within the chaotic panoply of Lebanese politics. Hourani writes that

    The more the various groups which make up Lebanon have entered its public life, the clearer it has become that they are moved not only by different interests and a desire to have their share in the profits of power, but also by different ideas of what Lebanon is and should be. The point of danger comes when they try to reach out beyond their sectional interests and link them with some general principle of politics and to draw from that principle a vision of Lebanon.

    (Hourani 1988:7)

    In short, in the words of Kamal Joumblatt, "the opium of ideology is frequently more noxious than the opium of religion" (Joumblatt, Kamal, I Speak for Lebanon, 1982:94).

    Underlying the dissolution of Lebanese society was the rigidity of the governmental system. Had the National Pact addressed the possibility of change, much of the bloodshed of the last fifteen years could have been avoided. But by consecrating a particular order of sectarianism, and by being tied so intimately to the traditional leadership, Lebanon's consociational system was forced to commit a particularly violent suicide.

    The lessons that can be drawn from the demise of Lebanese consociationalism are varied. The ability of Lebanon's system to survive for thirty years certainly is indicative of the possibilities inherent in consociational democracy. In comparison to other consociational governments, however, an important criticism comes out. In Austria, Belgium, and even to some extent Switzerland, consociationalism was not an end in and of itself; it was an important step toward building a national identity and, crucially, building inter-segmentary trust. The value of democracy is not in how a group wins, but how it loses-- knowing that it will have another opportunity to win in the near future, and that the opponent will then also accept defeat. Consociationalism, by calling for a grand coalition and an extreme emphasis on minority rights, allows that trust to develop. Lebanon never took the next step, dismantling the consociational structure to leave a genuine democracy.

    The important lesson in this is that subcultural autonomy should not be allowed to control all other aspects of the political structure. There is a critical line between allowing a subculture to regulate its own members and allowing it to dictate to the national government. Obviously, part of subcultural autonomy entails the central authority giving up certain powers; the other half of this is the subculture recognizing the legitimacy of centralized rule.

    In Lebanon, such a subordination of segmentary power to the national government was not possible as long as the state was seen to be a tool of a particular minority, the Maronites. A further vital lesson, then, is that a consociational democracy needs to have guarantees of proportionality that actually reflect the national composition. Whether the National Pact, at its inception, actually did that is open to debate; what is clear is that the Pact made no provisions for altering the sectarian ratios in accordance to changing demographics.

    Closely related to this is the importance of co-opting new political movements into the system whenever possible. When a state is so clearly divided into rival segments, leaving any out is asking for trouble. When the electoral system itself makes entry of new groups into the government extremely difficult, whatever short- or medium-term stability gained is lost forever when the alternate movements gain a significant following, and turn to violence and rejection of state authority. The lesson of this is clear-- a consociational republic must not discourage the creation of novel political movements, unattatched to any traditional leaders, and must allow them to work with the government, and not against it.

    The lessons of Lebanon's consociational democracy are apparent but not simple to follow, and may in fact be discouraging. Ethnic, linguistic, and religious nationalisms will increasingly become the methods used to express dissatisfaction with the situation; we are already beginning to see this in a number of countries. If these movements are not handled wisely, chaos seems a likely result. Lebanon was once looked upon as a model to be emulated in these matters. There seems to be little chance of peace and democracy returning to Lebanon in the near future; Lebanon, however, can still serve as a model-- of a system to be avoided.

    August 1, 2006

    Tuesday Topsight, August 1, 2006

    Haleakela_1999_Cascio.jpg"The guns of August." For anyone with a background in military/political history, that phrase is redolent with sadness. It's the title of Barbara Tuchman's highly-regarded book on the first world war, but it has come to suggest the sense of foreboding that arises in the early days of a war, especially one that begins at the peak of northern hemisphere summer. The current conflict in Lebanon generates that "guns of August" sadness in me, in part because of what has been lost in the destruction of the fragile re-democratization of Lebanon, and in part because of how much more will be lost as Israel ramps up its invasion, Hezbollah fires off more of its rockets, and Syria contemplates entering the fray -- all egged on (explicitly or implicitly) by an American administration that sees a cleansing fire as the only path to salvation for the region... and if it happens to fit in with their own rapture delusions, so much the better. Rationality may still take hold, and the participants could still pull back from the brink of disaster, but it's hard to be optimistic when civilians are dying.

    In 1990, I wrote my Master's thesis in Political Science on the last downfall of democracy in Lebanon; if I can dig up an electronic copy, I'll post it here.

    • On Democracy Part 1: I was once told, in passing, by a political science professor that the sign of a successful democratic institution isn't how the winners win, but how the losers lose. Do they accept the results of a fairly-counted vote? Do they seek to claim that national security, or the higher public interest, or the "silent majority" overrules the balloting? Do they attempt to manipulate the vote, or (less obviously) resist those who seek to oversee and guarantee a fair accounting? In short, do they accept that they have lost, and act as a "loyal opposition," trying to perfect their arguments for the next election, or do they resist relinquishing power?

    I have the feeling that this will be a set of questions we'll all be paying closer attention to in the months to come.

    • On Democracy Part 2: One important tool for insuring the fairness and accountability of political figures is transparency, and the first step to transparency is easily-accessible information. The Sunlight Foundation's new "PopUp Politicians" script makes it easy for bloggers and other website writers to embed links about American politicians into web pages. By adding a single-line script onto the main page template, then an easily-remembered HTML code around a politician's name, any reference to political figures can jump to their Congresspedia pages, their Campaign Finance profiles, and their voting records.

    Just mouse-over the sun icon next to the congressperson's name to see how it works:

    (my Rep in the House).

    As of right now, the PopUp Politicians script only works for current US Members of Congress. The setup is simple enough, however, that I expect to see versions for They Rule (linking to corporate information) or ExxonSecrets (linking to information about bought-and-paid-for "climate skeptics") in the near future.

    • Get Ready!: Whether you'll need to deal with an earthquake, a hurricane, a heatwave-related power outage, terrorist attack, or pandemic disease, chances are you'll be confronted by a significant loss of infrastructure support in the near future. Those of us growing up in California learned from an early age to have an emergency kit ready in case of a big quake, but there's no place in the world immune from major disasters. The US Department of Homeland Security set up Ready.gov to provide information on disaster preparation, but it sucks. That's why the Federation of American Scientists organization has built ReallyReady.org as a better, more complete and more useful resource for disaster prep.

    ReallyReady includes specific information for people with disabilities, easy-to-use checklists of supplies, and specific instructions for understanding and dealing with a variety of disaster types, from earthquakes, hurricanes and extreme heat to pandemics, "radiation threats," and "explosions." What makes this all the more remarkable is that the whole ReallyReady site was built by an FAS intern in two months, even while the DHS Ready.gov site has struggled for years towards usability.

    SustainLane's Warren Karlenzig sees a bigger picture here, and blogs about ways in which society can better prepare for heatwave-related emergencies through better urban design.

    • Make Backups!: You may recall a piece I posted a little while back arguing in support of the idea of building an archive for civilization to help overcome a planet-wide disaster. The little secret of the posts here at Open the Future and WorldChanging is that I've been playing with this idea for quite awhile. Back in July, 1999, I wrote a piece called "The Retrospect Project" for a column I had in the Johannesburg Mail & Guardian, making more-or-less this same argument.

    There must have been something in the water, because at around the same time, a group of scientists in New York and Boston began to assemble the Alliance to Rescue Civilization. As described by an article in today's New York Times:

    Cue the Alliance to Rescue Civilization, a group that advocates a backup for humanity by way of a station on the Moon replete with DNA samples of all life on Earth, as well as a compendium of all human knowledge — the ultimate detached garage for a race of packrats. It would be run by people who, through fertility treatments and frozen human eggs and sperm, could serve as a new Adam and Eve in addition to their role as a new Noah.

    [...] “It makes sense to protect the things you value,” [Dr. Robert Shapiro, co-founder of ARC] said. “But we, as a civilization, we don’t have anything like that.” [...] “But I’m not here to predict doomsday; I’m here for sanity,” Dr. Shapiro said. “When we’ve gained what we’ve gained, we should fight to keep it."

    The "new Adam and Eve" aspect strikes me as a bit silly, and very likely to provide more controversy than value, but the planetary backup theme is exactly right.

    Everything we do as environmentalists and as futurists comes down to a belief that human civilization is worth saving. If all we cared about was the Earth, and not the people on it, we could easily ignore the vast majority of incipient ecological disasters. The planet has withstood far greater problems than global warming or antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and will undoubtedly do so in the future, too. But if we care about human civilization, our own survival, we need to devote ourselves to maintaining an ecologically diverse, thriving, world. Knowing that some disasters are outside our control, however, it makes sense to devote some attention and resources to ways in which to recover from catastrophe.

    Maintenance and backup.

    (Photo: Haleakela, Jamais Cascio © 1999)

    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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