« October 2006 | Main Page | December 2006 »

Monthly Archives

November 30, 2006

If You're in the SF Area Tonight...

Philip Rosedale, one of the founders of Second Life, will be speaking at the monthly Seminars About Long-term Thinking series run by Long Now. (He's a last-minute replacement for Frank Fukuyama, who apparently nearly reached his own End of History with a motorcycle crash last week.) From the announcement:

Philip Rosedale didn't just create a company with "Second Life," he created a world--- or rather, he set in motion a world to be created by its occupants. (In this he is like other SALT presenters, Jimmy Wales with Wikipedia and Will Wright with "Spore.")

Building a digital world teaches a lot about rethinking and better managing the real world. That's part of the attraction of "Second Life," and of tonight's talk...

"'Second Life:' What Do We Learn If We Digitize EVERYTHING?" Philip Rosedale, Cowell Theater, Fort Mason, San Francisco, 7pm, TONIGHT, November 30. The lecture starts promptly at 7:30pm. Admission is free (a $10 donation is welcome, not required).

The talk will be made available for download in a few weeks (typically), so if you're not in SF, you'll still be able to hear it.

I wonder if he'll talk about CopyBot...

November 29, 2006

Say Hi

Today through December 13, I'm interviewing Suzanne Stefanac, author of Dispatches from Blogistan, over at the public Inkwell conference at the Well. You don't have to have a Well membership to get involved -- come by and say hi!

A sampling:

As I began doing research for the book, the sheer number of bloggers all around the world seemed, well, boggling. I started looking back through history trying to make sense of it all. What was it that was driving the phenomenon? What I started to realize is that the urge is innate and that bloggers are just the latest in a long line of humans struggling to make their points of view known. That throughout history, new advances in technology would inspire, at least for a time, a flowering of open discourse. Repeatedly shut down by subsequent repressive regimes, these voices might lie dormant for a century or three, but again and again, as soon as there was an opening, a new mechanism for exchange, humans would leap at the opportunity to make their voices be heard, to find others with similar viewpoints.

I'm crossing my fingers that this Inkwell interview goes better than the last, and Suzanne doesn't suffer from any personal traumas that leaves her unable to complete the conversation...

Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that the WorldChanging book tour is finally getting around to San Francisco. Hey, WorldChanging only started here. Anyway, perhaps in consolation, the Bay Area gets a double-helping of the WC crew. A party on December 5th at 111 Minna, and a Commonwealth Club panel on December 7th. Because of the IFTF project in Washington, DC, I won't be around for the party on the 5th, but I will be attending the Commonwealth Club panel. As an audience member only, of course.

November 27, 2006

Terraforming the Earth, Now In the Spotlight

globalwarmingfuturama.jpgGeoengineering -- aka planetary engineering, aka (re-)terraforming the Earth -- has once again popped up into the public limelight. The latest issue of Wired has an article about Nobel-prize-winner Paul Crutzen's proposal to spray sulfur particles into the high atmosphere over the arctic, reflecting sunlight and cooling the region, allowing icepack to reform. Coincidentally, the November 16 issue of Rolling Stone (of all places) has a profile of Dr. Lowell Wood, former nuclear weapons designer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Wood has proposed a sulfur-seeding plan essentially identical to that of Dr. Crutzen. The idea that we may have to engineer the planet to avoid climate change disaster is taking off.

I wrote about geoengineering for my Futurismic column at the beginning of October, and it's a subject I've been following for a few years. The potential methods abound, from orbiting solar shades to bioengineered plants or microbes slurping methane or CO2. They're all big, expensive, and hold the potential to be cures even worse than the sickness. We know so little about the complex interrelationships of our geophysical systems that a clumsy intervention could easily lead to catastrophe.

Unfortunately, global warming is coming on so fast, and the effects have the potential to be so devastating, that we will almost certainly see someone -- a dramatically-affected country, for example, or as Bruce Sterling suggests, a well-heeled tycoon with a rocket fixation -- attempt some measure of geoengineering.

Asserting that it's a bad idea won't stop a desperate effort. If global warming gets as bad as it could (and there's an all-too-great chance that it will), human civilization will not go quietly. We'll try everything we can think of to forestall climate disaster.

Dismissing the notion because it's wrong to conduct a planet-wide experiment in climate engineering neglects the fact that we're already conducting a planetary climate experiment, only we've lost the lab notes, don't have a control, and got massively drunk the night before. We've dumped massive amounts of garbage into the atmosphere with little consideration of the long-term results. Now we get to see what happens.

If a geoengineering attempt is (as I suspect) highly likely in the next decade or two, we damn well should know a bit more about what we're doing. We need to have a major research project already underway to figure out which re-terraforming options are likely to have the best results at the least-disastrous costs. We need to be able to warn people off of the really terrible options by being able to point them to the less-bad (and potentially helpful) alternatives. Fortunately, this will require a great deal more knowledge about geophysical systems, knowledge that will prove beneficial even if we manage to avoid the more desperate solutions.

To paraphrase Stewart Brand, we are as planetary engineers, so we may as well get good at it.

November 25, 2006

Feel the Burn

Along with some site design modifications, I've added a Feedburner link for my syndication (RSS/Atom) feed. The current RSS/Atom feeds will continue to work for a short while, but if you're already subscribing to one, please please please move over to the Feedburner version:


(If you're not using a feed link, or don't even know what one is, don't worry about it -- this won't affect you in the least.)

November 22, 2006

Mr. Cascio Goes To Washington

triptodc.jpgI will be heading to Washington, DC, in a couple of weeks, ostensibly to take part in a short workshop for the Institute for the Future. I'll be coming in a few days early, however, in order to hit a few of the sights (and to spend some time with a good friend). I'll be arriving late on Saturday, December 2nd, and will have free time available for most of Sunday and Monday.

So: suggestions? There are obvious places to try to see, albeit briefly, but anything special or transitory I should make a point of getting to? Any "be sure to get a coffee/hamachi nigiri/blintz at..." ideas? Or "be sure to do [X] in front of the [Y], and get a picture!"

It will be my first time to DC, but I recognize that two partial days is nowhere near enough time to see even a fraction of the features. That, plus the fact that it will be early December (and I'm a born-in-Southern-California boy), may mean a "just the highlights" visit, but I'd love to see something that hasn't already been shown in a million movies.

Irony Can Be Pretty Ironic, Sometimes

John Petersen's Arlington Institute (a Washington, DC think-tank) just posted a copy of the very brief nanospam talk I gave at PopTech. Coincidentally, I'm suddenly being inundated with actual nanospam. Not in the "junk spewing from my desktop fabber" sense, but in the "junkmail extolling the virtues of nanotechnology investments" sense. Most begin:

Score with Nanotechnology!

[...] It is widely predicted that nanotechnology will be the next booming industry for our economy. Our feature is in the perfect place at the good time.

You may be getting them, too, so I won't inflict any more of the content upon you. But if spam is any kind of early indicator of how a meme moves from radical idea to commonplace jargon, nano is really on its way.

November 21, 2006

Tuesday Topsight, November 21, 2006

visitormap.jpgIt's a holiday week here in the US, and my posting will be a bit more sporadic than usual. Happy Thanksgiving, US readers...

• They Came From Around the Planet: Why the repeated references to US visitors? As the map shown at right reveals, it turns out that the people coming to Open the Future visit from nearly every continent (I haven't noticed anyone coming in from Antarctica yet...), and a much greater variety of countries than I expected. I installed Sitemeter to get a better sense of the traffic flows; it's currently only set up to register the front page, so it's not picking up RSS visits or people going directly to interior pages. I'm not really focusing on the raw numbers, though -- what's really given me a charge is the global nature of OtF visitors. Welcome, folks!

• The Origin of Species: Stanford's Fred Turner has written what sounds to be a cool new book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. As the title suggests, it's the story of Stewart Brand, and his influence from the early days before Whole Earth all the way through GBN to his most recent work with Long Now. RU Sirius (who tends to travel in circles that overlap Brand's) interviews Turner for a terrific article in the webzine 10 Zen Monkeys, and the interaction between Sirius and Turner is delightful. RU Sirius was there for much of what Turner discusses, without being at the focal point -- he's able to offer an insider's-outside-view, mirroring Turner's outsider's-inside-view.

RU: I also think there’s a punk influence in this whole thing that gets ignored. Stylistically, Brand couldn’t be more different than the punk culture. But there’s a direct and important link between Whole Earth and punk culture and that’s DIY — Do It Yourself; start your own institutions, anybody can grab a tool and use it.
FT: Very definitely. And Brand briefly embraced punk in his late-70s magazine, “Co-Evolution Quarterly.” And got a lot of hate mail from his audience.

I met Fred Turner a few years ago, while he was working on the book, and I've been kind of frustrated at how poorly my schedule has lined up with his local appearances now that the book is out. He's actually speaking at GBN in a couple of weeks, in conversation with Stewart, but that event happens on the same night as the WorldChanging event at the Commonwealth Club in SF. I figure I really should go to the WC gig... Update: W00T! GBN changed the night for the Turner conversation, so I can hit it as well as the WorldChanging event.

• At a Loss for Words. Seriously.: Dr. Eric Keroack is the newly-appointed head of the US government's Title X program, the only federal program with a family planning and reproductive health mandate. If that sentence gave you a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, you're right. Keroack is an abstinence-only crusader, and has actually argued in public that... well, let this frame from his powerpoint make his case:


Modern germ warfare. And those of us in the US pay this man's salary.

• Paradoxical Terror: Political science professor John Mueller asks a provocative question in the pages of the last issue of Foreign Affairs: what if there's no longer any substantive threat from al Qaeda and similar terrorist groups?

A fully credible explanation for the fact that the United States has suffered no terrorist attacks since 9/11 is that the threat posed by homegrown or imported terrorists -- like that presented by Japanese Americans during World War II or by American Communists after it -- has been massively exaggerated. Is it possible that the haystack is essentially free of needles? [...]

Intelligence estimates in 2002 held that there were as many as 5,000 al Qaeda terrorists and supporters in the United States. However, a secret FBI report in 2005 wistfully noted that although the bureau had managed to arrest a few bad guys here and there after more than three years of intense and well-funded hunting, it had been unable to identify a single true al Qaeda sleeper cell anywhere in the country.

This is, in effect, the "Fermi's Paradox" argument for terrorism.

Mueller makes some strong points about the meaning of the lack of al Qaeda (or related) activity in the US in the years since 9/11, as well as the lack of evidence of al Qaeda (etc.) groups even existing in the US. And while high-profile events like the bombings in Madrid and London remain seared into our consciousness, the reality is that they are one-off events. Mueller further argues that these high-profile attacks are signs of al Qaeda's (and so forth) weakness, not strength.

I'm not entirely convinced by his overall argument, largely because of the old saw that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." Although Mueller is undoubtedly right that no single typical explanation for the lack of subsequent attack is itself valid, it's possible that the combination of factors has some explanatory value. Still, it's clear that AQ (etc.) are nowhere near as pervasive and dangerous as they were described in the months and years following 9/11.

I'd really be interested in John Robb's take on this essay.

November 20, 2006

A Life or A Person?

Well, that didn't take long.

Back in September, I pointed to news that the sleeping drug zolpidem (sold in the US as Ambien) could awaken patients in persistent vegetative states about 2/3s of the time; that post led to ensuing discussions of the ethical and legal issues that could emerge from this discovery (see here and here). The first of what may end up being many legal battles over the use or non-use of this treatment has now taken place in the UK. Perhaps surprisingly, the position taken by the family of the patient was to reject the use of zolpidem, and to allow their relative -- who had suffered serious brain trauma -- to die in peace. The doctors, conversely, wanted to try the drug, and the high court agreed with the doctors.

The family clearly realized something I mulled in the last of the three pieces from September: that just because zolpidem may "awaken" the PVS patient, the severe physiological trauma that produced the state remains, and the quality of life of the newly awakened patient may be torturous for both the patient and family.

We already live in a world in which medical science can keep a body alive despite horrific damage; we're approaching a world in which the same will hold true for the brain. But what does "alive" mean in this context? The more we understand life as a purely mechanical function -- the muscular action and the chemical flows and whatnot -- the more it becomes necessary for our culture to separate being "alive" from being "a person." Our norms and values around human life emerged from a time when the "breath of life" and the "beating heart" were truly indicative of a living person; now we can instill both in a body, almost regardless of any other trauma. We now declare death to be the lack of brain function... but what happens when we can stimulate some level of brain function, almost regardless of any other trauma?

For some of us, these are academic questions, provocations to be discussed around a lecture hall or coffee table; for others, they are moral questions, with a clear, immutable answer. But, as this case should remind us, for some people, these are deeply personal questions, about a loved one who once laughed, and felt, and thought, and truly lived. Let's not lose sight of that.

November 19, 2006

CopyBot and the Abundance Economy, Revisited

stuffstation_sm.jpgLots of good observations in the comments to my post from a few days ago, Second Life, Economic Evolution and the CopyBot. Rather than try to address them in the comment thread, I thought I'd go ahead and bring them to the front page.

New World Notes writer James "Hamlet" Au argues:

Jamais, I think it's highly debatable whether SL is a scarcity-based economy, to begin with. If you visit SL and explore it at any great length, the immediate thing you'll be overwhelmed by is *stuff*, content of all kinds, high quality stuff, too. That's always been true. (Indeed, there are numerous "newbie junk yards" where clothes, weapons, etc. can be bought extremely cheaply, or free.) So I think it makes more sense to think of SL as a reputation, brand, or even *personality* economy, in which there's a high premium in owning content from the most successful, popular, and/or admired creators. Those are qualities that can't be replicated by CopyBot.

It's true that Second Life is more of a mixed-mode economy in toto than a purely scarcity-based economy, but the part of the SL economy that (a) has attracted a great deal of attention (due to its convertability to real money) and (b) CopyBot attacks directly is one where there is a "high premium" for original content. Nobody is going to get upset about the use of CopyBot to duplicate the "newbie junk yard" stuff. Some people (and it may be a small minority) are getting upset precisely because the application seems to allow the kind of duplication that both reduces a revenue source and undermines the reputational glow of ownership of particular items. It's human psychology -- part of the cool of having a special object (or whatever) comes from it being unusual and not commonplace. If it's not only (potentially) commonplace, but there's no obvious way to distinguish an original from a knock-off, it loses its special cool.

What's scarce in this economy isn't the product per se -- it's just bits, so there's no marginal cost of making a million instead of a dozen -- but that coolness premium. That's what people are paying for. This app makes it possible for an individual to gain the reputational/cool benefits of particular purchased content without paying the economic cost, while simultaneously shortening the period during which the content will be unusual (and thereby attractive). Designers who can put out new ideas quickly will do relatively well in the resulting economy of novelty, while designers that have counted on ongoing sales of existing designs to build up their in-game bank accounts will suffer.

Taran Rampersad (who wrote for WorldChanging for awhile, and maintains his own blog at Knowprose) observes:

"CopyBot alone may not be the doom of the current model of the Second Life economy, but it's a sign that doom is in the offing."

What?! Seriously, Jamais, there is no premise.

I don't want this to be a debate about the details of CopyBot specifically; my point isn't that the CopyBot application in and of itself is going to destroy SL. It's a broader category of threat, and a narrower target. CopyBot may be shut down, but the larger issue will persist; at the same time, it's not SL as a whole that's in danger, but a very particular way of making money within SL.

Generally speaking, systems that make it possible to make effectively-free duplicates of content make economic models predicated upon the relative scarcity of that content (whether the content itself, or the coolness surrounding the content) nearly impossible to maintain. If your industry is based on selling music, systems that make it effectively free to distribute copies of that music are a serious threat to your existing economic practice. This doesn't mean that new models won't emerge, or that it's impossible to make money (dollars or Lindens) in a free-duplication world, only that economic practices that assume persistent scarcity are doomed.

Drawing this back to my original larger point, this aspect seems intrinsic to "bit-based" economies, where the products being bought and sold (or traded...) exist as digital information. That's what the music industry found, what the movie industry is wrestling with, and what served as the key catalyst for the development of new institutions such as the "Creative Commons." Arguably, the emerging world of commonplace fabrication systems (leading to nanofactories or whatever) seems to be one in which atom-based (i.e., physical goods) production takes on characteristics of the bit-based (i.e., information) world. This strongly suggests that we will see similar fights about duplication of previously scarce products, and similar threats of traditional economic practices being undermined.

What happens in Second Life with this situation is important, therefore, because it will serve as a possible model for how the fabrication future will deal with abundant duplication. My interest isn't in seeing SL market models collapse -- my interest is seeing what comes next, and how people operating in this economy of novelty and abundance learn to thrive.

November 18, 2006

Clouded Futures (Updated)

If you take a look over to the right sidebar (and scroll down a bit), you'll see a new addition to the Open the Future site structure: a "tag cloud." That's what I was trying to get working yesterday when all hell broke loose and I had to re-create my main page template.

Most of you have probably seen tag clouds on other sites over the last year or so, but if you're not familiar with the concept, it's simply a weighted display of the various keywords (or tags) I've assigned to my posts. The more often a tag shows up, the larger the text appears in the cloud. It's a way of seeing, at a glance, the main topics under discussion. No surprises here, though: my primary tags appear to be Climate Change, Fabrication, Futurism, Global Politics, the Metaverse, Nanotech, the Participatory Panopticon and, um, myself (kind of an embarrassing revelation).

I'll likely be fiddling with it over the next few days, and might turn off the display of tags that I've only used once. That would make the cloud much smaller and more precise, but would do so at the expense of indicating the breadth of discussion here. Any suggestions?

(I have now gone ahead and disabled the display of the least-used tags; it does appear to be a bit easier to read now.)

November 17, 2006

Obviously a Major Malfunction (Updated)

Apparently my backup of the site doesn't include backups of the templates. Unfortunately, a misbehaving plug-in appears to have overwritten my main index template. I've re-installed the default, and will be working on restoring some semblance of normalcy to the site.

Okay, I managed to get everything more-or-less back the way it should be. Please let me know if you run across something that isn't working right.

November 16, 2006

Second Life, Economic Evolution and the CopyBot

copybot_protest.jpgTwo related quotes from previous Open the Future posts:

When you are able to manipulate atoms as easily as you do bits, the rules of the bit world apply.

The rules we come up with to grapple with virtual objects of real value will haunt us for decades to come, if we're not careful.

The big news from the metaverse this last week has been "CopyBot," an application that allows a Second Life user to duplicate... well, just about anything, including clothing and objects other Second Life denizens have created for sale. James "Hamlet" Au offers a recap of the situation at his New World Notes site; be sure to read the comments to get a sense of how upset many SL residents are about this program.

As Sven Johnson suggests, the important story here isn't about Second Life per se, but about the clash between a scarcity-based economy and an abundance-based world.

The Second Life internal economy was predicated on the notion that designers could produce in-game objects that they could then sell; these objects would ostensibly be scarce (in the economic sense) because the designer could put limits on how many copies s/he would sell, and because -- in principle -- other residents couldn't make copies except by tedious efforts to reproduce a design by hand. Although the only "raw material" involved in the creation of Second Life goods is the memory & storage space needed on the SL server, the capability to design desirable objects serves as a market-generating form of scarcity. No matter that everyone can have the capability to make limitless numbers of in-game objects -- unless you can design something that other people want, you're just making digital junk.

But with CopyBot, these limitations are less meaningful, because it eliminates the barriers to making your own duplicates of other people's designs. It's not tedious or challenging, it's a click of a button. As a result, apparently over a hundred in-game designers have shut down in protest, and threats of lawsuits and copyright-infringement actions are flying.

If the ability to make copies continues to exist, these vendors argue, the basis of the SL economy will be destroyed. And since there's a direct conversion between in-game money and real-world money, anything that weakens the SL economy threatens the real-world economic livelihoods of many SL residents. They're right -- but is the Second Life economy worth saving?

What Linden Lab has tried to do is replicate the atom-world scarcity rules in a bit-world environment. Nobody should be surprised in any way that this doesn't work for long. It is the nature of bits to be easily copied. Even if Linden manages to shut down CopyBot, it will arise again in another form, and probably as something much harder to squelch. The death of Napster becomes the explosion of Gnutella and Bit Torrent; the death of CopyBot will mean the emergence of something more powerful and less easily eliminated. It's delightfully Darwinian.

Bit world economies based on scarcity are inherently fragile, and cannot survive. To the degree that Second Life is a test bed for a future of abundance, then, the way that the Second Life community (both the builders and the players) responds to this reality will give us an early indication of how the real world will respond to the economic challenges of nanofactories and distributed fabrication. The question is, will Second Life be a model of successful evolution or a painful failure to adapt?

(Update: I wrote a follow-up to this article: CopyBot and the Abundance Economy, Revisited)

OLPC Laptops Arrive (Updated)

olpc.jpgI've had my doubts in the past as to whether the One Laptop Per Child project (aka, "$100 Laptop") was taking the right course. After all, mobile phones have far greater penetration in the developing world, and a system that piggybacked on the mobile phone networks -- and used a device that could double as such a phone -- seemed a safer, and more likely to succeed, plan. Nonetheless, the OLPC group has done a good deal that's right with this project, and if it succeeds, it would certainly have a greater positive impact than would the fancy cell phone approach. The OLPC system is much more open than a phone would be, from the underlying Linux kernel/GNU OS (hi, Glyn!) to the use of WiFi mesh networking instead of a proprietary cellular network.

The OLPC headquarters received their first shipment of working computers today, and have posted a series of "unboxing" photos to the web. A few things stand out: these are cute machines, from the bright green highlights to the "rabbit ear" antennae; they have some features I'd love to have on my Macbook (the twisting screen and ebook mode, in particular); and these suckers are small -- that's a 12" notebook used as a size reference!

Congratulations to the OLPC team!

(Update: Greetings, WorldChanging readers! I see that Alex linked here in reference to the mobile phone alternative argument, so it might be useful for me to go into a bit more detail.

Information tools evolved from mobile phones have several key advantages over the OLPC model. These include: very low power requirements, easily met by cheap power generation and/or storage technologies; an existing infrastructure across much of the developing world, requiring very little in the way of new routing hardware; near-ubiquitous usage, reducing the likelihood of theft -- potentially a huge problem for the OLPC project; broad utility, so that the device can serve more than the education market (mobile phones are a major economic driver in the developing world); portability, for near-constant information and communication access.

There are disadvantages in comparison to the OLPC unit, of course. The most glaring is the usability of the interface: a typical mobile phone screen is just tiny, and even a PDA-sized phone (akin to a Palm device or Simputer) is less useful for reading and graphics than the OLPC laptop; and the lack of a real keyboard imposes significant limits on composition beyond short text-message length prose.

I do think it would be useful to offer phone/PDA type information tools as learning devices in the developing world, simply to allow a real comparison. I'm not sure it will happen through a dedicated, OLPC-type effort -- chances are, it will be an accidental result of the increasing dependence upon and power of mobile phones.)

November 15, 2006

The New World: the Rise of the New Culture of Participation

The following is the text of the talk I gave this morning at the International Association for Public Participation conference in Montreal, Canada. Where useful or necessary, I've added the relevant slide images. Updated: added links.

My name is Jamais Cascio, and I'm a foresight specialist by trade -- that's a fancy way of saying "futurist." Now, when most of you hear the word "futurist," you probably imagine the guys telling us about personal jetpacks and honeymoons in orbit, or maybe the marketing types eager to identify new trends and fads. I like to think that I fall into a third category, however: futurists who take seriously the call to serve as society's radar, giving us all early warnings of big changes ahead.

I know you've heard a bit already about the increasingly critical role that Internet technologies play in the world of public participation. Whether we think of this new world as "Citizens 2.0" or some less catchy phrase, it's clear that the emergence of these network-empowered tools is serving as a catalyst for some important changes in how we relate to each other, our governments and -- most importantly -- our civil societies.

Think of it as the emergence of a new participatory culture.


And like many new cultures, it has its own language. The terms you see here are some of the jargon from the Internet movement sometimes referred to as the "open economy" or "Web 2.0." This movement is the technological engine of the new participatory culture. Some of the terms are fairly self-explanatory, while others may sound like some crazy moon language.

But they all have something important in common. These terms, and the tools they describe, all build on the concept that working together in ad-hoc, emergent ways, we can accomplish far more than we can either as individuals or as part of some top-down hierarchy. These are all ways of allowing interested, eager participation in efforts that would be too big for any single person, and too "out of control" (in Kevin Kelly's phrase) for any traditional organization.

This list covers some of the characteristics of this emerging participatory culture.

  • Collaboration
  • Distribution
  • Networks over hierarchies
  • Transparency
  • Ownership of reputation vs. ownership of property
  • Ideas are catalysts for more ideas
  • Technology-enabled, not technology-focused

These aren't "rules" so much as descriptive properties, recurring themes across the models, tools and ideas that make up the new world. Some are likely familiar -- people have been talking about the power of collaboration and networks for some time -- and some are likely less so.

The last point on this list, "technology-enabled, not technology-focused," is the most subtle, but I think the most important point to understand. You've undoubtedly heard a great deal about different technologies so far, and I'm going to be talking about more of them. But the key idea here isn't simply how cool the toys, gadgets and online widgets are, it's what people can do with them.

Take, for example, open source. You're probably familiar with the term as something related to computers. The operating system Linux, the web server software Apache, and the web browser program Firefox are three of the better-known pieces of open source software.

The underlying logic of open source is straightforward: don't just give someone a new application or product, give them the instructions -- the "source code" -- for how to make it, too. Allow the recipients to modify it as they deem necessary, to fix problems or to fit their local requirements, and adopt the improvements other participants have contributed. Finally, let them give away their own changed versions -- with the only rule being that they have to pass along their own source code, too.

There's obvious idealism in this model, but it has worked surprisingly well in the world of software. Open source programs are widely used, and many are considered to be the best in their categories. Open source has gained quite a bit of traction in the developing world as a way of simultaneously building up a technological infrastructure for little money, while offering the opportunity for users of software to become creators, as well.

Moreover, this model -- give it away, allow changes, adopt the best, repeat -- has come to be used in other realms, from architectural design to grassroots organizing.

Open source as an engine of creation isn't alone. The world of scientific publishing has been shaken up in recent years with the advent of Open Access. It's a new term for a familiar concept: the publication of scientific research for free, knowing that the broader availability of the research will allow more people around the world to participate in further scientific discovery. It's a return to the idea of science as global exploration, not patent acquisition.


The Public Library of Science journals, shown here, have been at the vanguard of this movement, but even the more traditional scientific publishing houses have begun to use the open access model in limited degrees. The argument behind open access is hard to dispute: science is a collaborative process, made stronger by more people engaged in the practice. The fewer the barriers to participation, the better.

Even more radical is the idea of "open source science," where it's not simply the results that get published freely, but the instructions for the underlying research and development. The most energetic work in this realm has been in the biomedical disciplines, where the results have direct social applications. This has not been without controversy; some open source science projects, like the Biological Innovation for Open Society group, actively promote the dissemination of biotechnology know-how. Unsurprisingly, some people fear the misuse of this information.

Open source science advocates argue that this kind of scientific transparency actually makes us safer, rather than putting us at greater risk. They note that restrictions and proprietary control haven't proven terribly good at preventing misuse of scientific and technological breakthroughs in the past, but have made it harder for affected populations to get the information necessary to combat the problems that arise from misuse. Just like open source software has fewer security flaws than commercial code, they suggest, open source science will be safer because of the presence of the expanding community able to fix problems that might occur.

These three concepts -- share the code; share the results; share the applications -- are the early indicators of a participatory earthquake in the making.

Of course, it's not just scientists and engineers that work in the world of participatory innovation. Tens of millions of people around the globe, likely including many in this room, have begun to experiment with weblogs, putting up their ideas on the web for everyone to see. Weblogs, or blogs, go beyond simple digital diaries: their power comes from their links to other sites, which immediately provide documentation and resources beyond what a single person could produce, as well as from the emergent communities participating in the blogs, turning conversation into action.


A growing number of blogs have tapped into their communities to provide support for issues they deem important, from the environment to free speech. Last week's election in the US was a visible example of the blogging world flexing its muscle: Daily Kos, one of the sites shown here, was a catalyst for bringing attention, funding and support to dozens of obscure candidates around the country -- nearly all of whom won their races. The Kos site often talks about the power of the "netroots" (as opposed to grassroots), and indeed that power is growing.

Not everyone has the time or inclination to build a weblog. That doesn't leave them out of the new participatory culture, however. Wikis are another collaborative information tool open to just about everyone online. Wikis are web pages that can be edited by the people reading the site. This is a simple but startlingly powerful concept: no longer are you a passive reader; if you have something to add to a document, wikis allow you to do so. Organizations eager to take advantage of the power of participatory culture have begun to adopt wikis in great abundance, from social investment groups to environmentalist resources; even political parties -- the Green Party of Canada, for example, made its entire party platform a wiki document open to any party member to edit.

Wikipedia is probably the best-known example of a wiki in action. If you've not heard of Wikipedia before, it's simply an encyclopedia that uses a wiki model. With well over a million entries, it's one of the largest repositories of information available online. And it's an encyclopedia that anyone can edit.

You might think that this would be a recipe for chaos and vandalism, and indeed there have been some high-profile cases of people making malicious changes to pages. Less often reported, however, is the fact that these malicious changes usually get repaired within moments -- the millions of participants serve as the watchmen of the site. If that process sounds familiar, it should. It's an example of what open source science advocates claim is the primary engine of security in an open world: the collaborative action of the crowd.

Given that anyone can edit Wikipedia, without regards to expertise, you might also imagine that the quality is marginal. Certainly its traditional competitors, like Encyclopedia Britannica, seem to make that suggestion. But Nature magazine, my pick for the world's best science journal, recently compared Wikipedia's entries on a variety of scientific disciplines to those in Britannica, which is generally considered to be the best print encyclopedia around. Much to their own surprise, they found the two to be effectively equal in utility and accuracy.

Participatory online tools aren't just for information creation; they're also for communication. By far the fastest growth in online activity is in communities of interest, from social sites like MySpace to photo repositories like Flickr. Admittedly, few of these are open source, although that's slowly changing. The more important aspect of these networks is their use as engines of rapid information exchange. For a quickly-growing number of young people, these social networks, along with tools like instant messaging, have become absolutely critical forms of communication.

Such networks aren't just limited to teenagers. Similar social networking services have appeared for professional groups, political movements and parents.

Even if most of the communication that takes place in online social networks is personal, similar tools can provide a broader social information function. Increasingly, this open exchange of information has been formalized as "citizen journalism," where the members of the public serve as reporters, offering their own "first draft of history" from the scene, and working together to follow stories that the typical poorly-funded newsroom cannot.

Don't discount this as the digital equivalent of an office newsletter or small town weekly. Local analysts credit OhMyNews, a Korean citizen journalism site, with playing the key role in bringing down the previous Korean administration by uncovering corruption that the traditional media wouldn't touch. OhMyNews has now expanded to international coverage, with an English-language edition.

And the proliferation of cameraphones has begun to affect how news is gathered, as well. People on the scene can take pictures -- sometimes pictures that will haunt you afterwards -- and transmit them as easily as a text message. In addition, some cameraphones have come to offer video capabilities, and we're starting to see this as part of the ongoing evolution of participatory journalism.

But it's not simply the availability of cheap video cameras and cameraphones that has triggered this evolution; it's the ability of those who make the videos to put them up on the web for global access. Sites like YouTube claim millions of daily visits. And while the overwhelming majority of content on these video sites is, to be generous, mediocre, the sheer number of visitors means that the good stuff -- the important stuff -- soon bubbles to the surface. The traditional news networks are no longer the gatekeepers for video documentation of the world.


Imagine: a kid with a cheap cameraphone could take a picture or video that changes the practices of a business, the course of an election, or the policies of a nation. But the kid wouldn't be doing it alone: it requires the knowing, active cooperation of masses of digital allies.

The notion of collaborative efforts to raise awareness and offer ideas isn't limited to the conventional media of text and video; the explosion of 3D, immersive virtual worlds, collectively called the "metaverse" by insiders, offers the opportunity to share not just ideas, but experiences. Some try to replicate the real world to the smallest detail, while others offer utterly unreal, but still compelling, environments.

You may think of these as just games. But 10-15 million people around the world take the time to immerse themselves in virtual worlds, and these settings have played host to political protests in China and policy speeches in Europe (link coming). One US-based virtual world, Second Life, has become an online home for dozens of emerging organizations looking at the intersection of technology and politics.

So, first we have the openness model, which encourages sharing not just tools but the instructions for making, modifying and using them. Second, we have the collaborative information networks including blogs, wikis and citizen journalism, which encourage the use of networks to build on each other's ideas. Both of these are already powerful engines of public participation. But together, they can be revolutionary.

Consider: we're moving into a world where the public, through the use of collaborative tools and open models, can be as effective -- sometimes even more effective -- than traditional top-down authorities in gathering and analyzing useful information. The originator of the term "open source" once said that, with enough eyes, all bugs -- all problems -- are shallow. That is, with enough people working together on a project, details that individuals or small teams could easily miss are instead easily spotted. What the Internet has done, and continues to do at an ever-increasing pace, is make that collaboration simpler, faster, and far more wide-ranging.


There's Open Source Intelligence, the name for open collaborative efforts to follow global threats, taking advantage of commercial satellite images, digital maps, non-classified information sources, and the ability of software to collect it all...


...There are projects to monitor local environmental hazards, again combining multiple information sources into a single easily-understood presentation...


...There are projects to spot patterns in urban crime...


...and patterns in national politics. This site is FundRace.com, which mapped contributions in the 2004 presidential campaign in the US, using data from the US Federal Election Commission. Every contribution over $200 was identified by contributor, and the results plotted geographically, uncovering patterns that would have been hard to spot just by looking at lists of numbers and addresses. FundRace offered its hundreds of thousands of users a way to track the minutiae of campaign money, providing far greater visibility into the political process than US citizens had yet seen.


Such practices aren't limited to government information. Troubling patterns sometimes emerge from the collaborative examination of the details of corporate contributions to non-profit organizations and activist groups. ExxonSecrets shows the funding links between the oil mega-corporation and the various groups disputing global warming.


This drive to follow the actions of those who hold political, economic and social power has come to be called "sousveillance." Where "surveillance" means "watching from above," "sousveillance" means "watching from below." It isn't a new idea, but the active collaboration of hundreds, thousands or even millions of online participants gives it far greater strength.

Author David Brin refers to this as "reciprocal accountability." Sousveillance doesn't make surveillance go away; instead, it tries to hold those in power to their own standards. It's an attempt to answer the old question of "who watches the watchmen?" It turns out that, increasingly, we all do.

We saw an example of sousveillance in action at the 2004 Republican convention, where citizen media groups videoed police arrests of protestors. The New York police videotaped the arrests as well, but, according to the New York Times, the citizen media recordings proved that the police had edited many of their own videos to make the protestors appear guilty. Up to 90% of the arrests were thrown out.

This was with traditional video cameras. In the next presidential race in the US, the citizen cameras will be digital, and many will be providing live streaming over the web, making it possible for armies of viewers around the world to catch abuses while they happen.

The shift from traditional video to digital video is more than just a jump in technology and a change in gadgets. It's a change in medium, and it has a global impact. The human rights group Witness has, in the past, given video cameras to activists around the world, in order for them to document human rights abuses. These recordings need to be smuggled out, however, placing every participant in that process in danger. This year, Witness opened the Human Rights Video Hub, in collaboration with the weblog Global Voices Online, offering a central location to upload and store digital video from camera phones and the like. Now anyone with a cameraphone is a potential activist for human rights.

This is a profound development.

Imagine if this...


...had instead been this, sent out and passed along as fast as the communication networks allow, rather than held in secret until someone let it slip.


Now imagine this visibility being the potential result whenever those in power seek to torture and abuse.

We are moving into a world in which keeping secrets will be harder and harder, and secrets like this will be the hardest of all to keep hidden. Most of us know right from wrong instinctively, but too many of us lack the capacity to do something meaningful when we encounter that which we consider wrong. But we're moving into a world in which nearly all of us will have the necessary means, quite literally in our pockets. This is a remarkable, even transformative, kind of empowerment.

But think back, for a moment, on the examples I began with: collaborative projects like open source science and wikipedia. These are efforts to improve our lives, not simply by highlighting what's wrong, but by building up what's good. Knowledge. Education. The ability of people around the world to improve their own societies and their own lives.

What if, along with the use of these participatory tools to bear witness to what we should be ashamed of, we make a point of using them to celebrate what we should be proud of?

The technologies of participatory culture can be catalysts for progress, expanding our capacity to understand the world and share that understanding with others. Such capabilities are sorely needed now.


We hold the world in our hands. We are rapidly developing the tools to allow us to work together, openly, transparently, responsibly, for our mutual betterment. It's idealistic, but oddly enough, it's a practical idealism. We know these tools work; we're only beginning to understand their power. This is, more and more, an era of remarkable possibility -- and we all have a role to play.

November 12, 2006

The Future of Public Participation

I'll be speaking on Wednesday morning at the International Association of Public Participation conference in Montreal, Canada. My topic will be the future of public participation, and I'll be riffing on the effects of the intersection of collaborative technologies, empowered networks, and the DIY culture. I'll post the highlights from the talk when I'm back.

In thinking about public participation in its various forms, however, it strikes me that enabling broad participation isn't enough. Some people, perhaps most, won't have the time or the inclination to be active parts -- or even substantive passive parts -- of the bottom-up world. As more power shifts to these emergent groups, however, this means that the the "netroots" (to use the Daily Kos term for the active Internet-empowered political base) will have a disproportionate influence over political and social outcomes. Abstractly, this is no different than the narrow constituency of consultants and elite power-brokers exerting control in the pre-Internet era, but few of them tried to make the assertion that they spoke for "the people" in any real way.

In an environment where these tools of "citizenship 2.0" have the potential to give power to large sections of the populace, actions taken by the small portion that take advantage of such tools could easily come to be seen by the media, by the non-active citizens, and eventually by the netroots themselves as representing the will of the people. For this not to become a crowd-sourced dictatorship, alongside the development of the tools of citizenship 2.0, we need to be developing the culture of citizenship 2.0.

Okay, I Was Wrong

In my interview for Suzanne Stefanac's excellent guide to blogging, Dispatches from Blogistan, I make the following assertion:

Hint to writers encountering blog backlash for the first time: the three most powerful words in the English language in this kind of situation are “I was wrong” — you’ll be amazed at how quickly opinion will shift about you when you own up to your mistakes.

I'm not seeing any backlash regarding my prediction that Republicans would be the ones crying "we wuz h4x0red!" after last week's election, but still: I was wrong. Possible vote-tampering seems to have hit both major parties more-or-less equally, and in the major elections where the Republicans might have made a stink -- Tester/Burns and Webb/Allen -- they didn't, and the defeated candidates conceded after a day or two.

I hate it when the world doesn't live up to my cynical expectations.

November 8, 2006

Wednesday Topsight, November 8, 2006

plasticsolar.jpgOkay, giddiness over, back to business.

• Super Elastic Solar Plastic: Say "solar power" and what normally comes to mind are those hard, dark slabs of silicon solar cells. But if folks at companies like Nanosolar and Konarka have anything to say about it, you'll soon think instead of slick, flexible plastic. Polymer photovoltaics have the potential to be the nifty energy technology of the coming decade, in part because they're cheap and rugged, and in part because they can be produced easily and with few toxic chemicals. Wired News has a good one-pager on the current status of polymer photovoltaics (and, of course, I wrote about them fairly often over at WC).

The value of photovoltaic plastic isn't as a direct replacement for rooftop solar panels, but as a fabrication material to add energy production to locations or products that normally wouldn't be thought of as energy sources -- window shades, for example, or patio umbrellas, car roofs, or even the backs of jackets.

Unmentioned in the Wired piece, unfortunately, is anything about the energy production efficiency of plastic solar. While silicon solar runs in the 15% or so efficiency range (that is, the material produces about 15% of the energy potentially available from insolation, about 1kw per square meter), polymer solar has been stuck down in the 3% realm. And while it may be possible to boost polymer photovoltaic efficiency to 10-15%, silicon solar in the lab has been pushed as far as 60% efficiency. Those hard, dark slabs won't be going away any time soon.

• Presidents Need To Know Science? Berkeley Physicist Richard Muller teaches a course called "Physics for Future Presidents," and the entire course content can now be found online. His goal with the class is to provide, every session, information that every world leader should know about how the physical universe works. Topics include energy, radioactivity, light (useful for understanding capabilities of spy satellites), and basic quantum theory (important for understanding modern electronics, solar power, and lasers).

Interestingly, it's clear that Muller knows physics, but doesn't understand other subjects quite as well as he should. He dismisses the Tesla Roadster, claiming it will cost a million dollars and weigh well over three tons -- all on the basis of a comment in a Wired article about the kinds of batteries it employs. In reality, the Tesla runs about $100,000 -- not cheap, but 90% less than Muller asserts -- and weighs about one ton. Maybe somebody needs to teach a class on Googling for Future Physics Professors.

• Eco-Socialism: Pan Yue, China's deputy director for the State Environmental Protection Administration, has long been startlingly outspoken, declaring in an interview awhile back that China's so-called "economic miracle" was going to be strangled by the runaway environmental degradation. Now he's back, talking about the concept of "eco-socialism," and what real sustainable development might look like.

The scientific view of development seeks a comprehensive and sustainable change of politics, economics, society, culture and theory – a transformation of civilisation. And so, the period between now and 2020 will be crucial in determining whether China can complete this transformation from traditional to eco-industrial civilisation.

China faces some difficulties in achieving this. Firstly, there is a tension between our population, resources and environment. Secondly, in today’s world, each country vies for energy, resources and the environment. We cannot export our pollution as developed countries can. We must resolutely work towards to a new style of industrialisation, whatever the price. Japan is a good example of this.

I know that Pan Yue is hardly representative of China's leadership as a whole, but we can dream...

The Right Was Right

Now we can admit it. Our new 25-point agenda.

My favorites:

3. Introduce the new Destruction of Marriage Act

13. Freeways to be removed, replaced with light rail systems

23. Ban Christmas: replace with Celebrate our Monkey Ancestors Day

November 7, 2006

Obligatory Voting Post

It appears to be a requirement for bloggers who are citizens of the US to report on their voting activities on election day. My voting activity consisted of adding a trip to the voting station to my morning walk, where I dropped off the absentee ballots for me and Janice. We registered as "Permanent Absentee" in California a few years back, meaning that we get our ballots early and can fill them in as we learn about the candidates and issues. We could have mailed them in as late as last Friday, but chose to just drop them off at a polling station instead, thereby combining the convenience of "vote by mail" with the security of traditional paper balloting.

I'd like to agree with Kos that today's e-voting debacles mean the end of the electronic voting experiment, given that they seem to be hitting high-profile Republican voters as often as Democratic voters. I'm more cynical, however; I think that this will be the prelude to a loud campaign by the Republicans to declare e-voting fraud behind the (likely, but obviously not yet certain) Democratic surge. I mean, when you've tried deceptive robocalls (a campaign practice I'd like to see banned in all forms), lying on sample ballots, and outright voter intimidation, post-facto lawsuits are almost a given.

(And while I won't make a habit of it, because this site is not trying to be a non-profit organization, I'm under no restrictions on partisan content, as I was at WorldChanging. I doubt my political inclinations will come as a tremendous surprise, however.)

Update: watch this video and, if you haven't yet, go vote.

November 6, 2006

WorldChanging Book

wcbook.jpgWell, my contributor's copy of the WorldChanging book -- WorldChanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century -- finally arrived today (albeit with mangled slipcover). I can't really review the book, of course; I'm way too close to the material (both as a direct contributor, and author of a significant portion of the WC posts that influenced book content). I will say that, if you like the WorldChanging website (especially in its current iteration), you'll like the book, no question. It's not as aggressively future-focused as I saw the WC site in my time, but that's probably appropriate: the goal is to show that (nearly) all of the solutions we need are available now, not in some future scenario we just decide to wait for.

I find it hard to express the complex jumble of emotions I feel when I look through the 600+ pages of the tome, though. There's some pride, to be sure, along with sad nostalgia for a part of my life now ended, all mixed with what I can best describe as disconnectedness: much of the book comes from my words, yet they aren't, quite. I don't think any of my articles -- whether new pieces I submitted during the book's construction, or pieces derived from posts at the WorldChanging.com website -- survived the editing process intact. Sometimes the new versions sound like my writing, and sometimes they sound utterly alien (with recognizable phrasing remaining as memetic flotsam and jetsam); in a few cases, I even spotted familiar phrasing showing up under somebody else's byline (an understandable result of the hurried and dynamic editing process).

I suppose this dislocation comes from encountering a new version of something I poured my life into for over three years. It's more than just the unfamiliar form, though. Considering how much of myself I put into WorldChanging, holding this book in my hands is like encountering an alternate-universe version of myself.

November 5, 2006

New Futurismic Column: Ethical Futurism

My November column for Futurismic is now up, asking the question, what does it mean to be an ethical futurist?

...the first duty of an ethical futurist is to act in the interests of the stakeholders yet to come -- those who would suffer harm in the future from choices made in the present.

I know that a number of professionals in the field read Open the Future occasionally, and I'd be quite interested to get your reaction in particular to the essay.

November 3, 2006

RAIDs Against Global Warming

microshades.jpgThis has "duh... why did we think of this before!" written all over it: a "redundant array of inexpensive disks" to cool the Earth.

Everyone with a bit of sense knows that the only way to combat global warming-induced climate disruption is through aggressive action to boost energy efficiency, shift to non-carbon energy production, and change our urban systems to increase lifestyle efficiency. Problem is, because of thermal inertia, we may already be too late to avoid catastrophic levels of planetary warming. We could well face a scenario in which our best efforts to cut carbon emissions end up still not happening fast enough to avoid a "tipping point" disaster (choose your apocalypse here: methane clathrates melting; complete collapse of ecosystems; heatwaves, wildfires and droughts killing millions; all of the above). That's why some of us argue that, on top of aggressive action (etc.), we need to look into plans for emergency cooling of the planet -- geoengineering, or as I like to call it, terraforming the Earth.

I've covered this idea before. What's new is the plan from Roger Angel at the University of Arizona. He's taken the tried-and-true solar shade concept -- a big umbrella between the Earth and the Sun blocking a small percentage of sunlight, enough to cool us down by a degree or two -- and given it the 21st century twist: Instead of a single solar shade thousands of miles in diameter, he proposes putting up (literally) trillions of tiny, 2 foot diameter microshades, acting as a distributed array of cooling. Such an approach would be cheaper than the single megashade, more robust (a nasty accident might damage hundreds or more, but have little overall impact on the swarm), and within our current technological capacity. No Moon base or asteroid capture required.

The lightweight flyers designed by Angel would be made of a transparent film pierced with small holes. Each flyer would be two feet in diameter, 1/5000 of an inch thick and weigh about a gram, the same as a large butterfly. It would use "MEMS" technology mirrors as tiny sails that tilt to hold the flyers position in the orbiting constellation. The flyer's transparency and steering mechanism prevent it from being blown away by radiation pressure.

How do we get 'em up there? Not with a rocket -- too expensive for that many (even at a gram apiece, the whole cloud would still weigh a total of 20 million tons). Angel proposes using 20 electromagnetic launchers (railguns, essentially), launching a stack of flyers every five minutes for ten years. Okay, that part sounds a bit sketchy, but make it 200 railguns and once an hour for ten years... or every five minutes for one year. And while the energy for launching this massive cloud of microshades would best come from renewable sources, Angel calculates that even the worst-case (coal power) scenario is that the disks would mitigate the effects of a thousand tons of carbon for every ton of carbon produced in powering the launchers.

It wouldn't be cheap -- amortized over its lifetime of about 50 years, the system would cost about $100 billion per year... or roughly the cost of the Iraq war. But considering the planetary devastation that would result from a climate tipping point (remember, melting methane clathrates look to be responsible for the worst mass extinction in Earth's history, even bigger than the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs), it's a bargain.

November 2, 2006

Does Your Vote Count?

DREvoting.jpgWhen American voters go to the polls next Tuesday, nearly 40% will encounter a so-called Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machine, usually referred to as a touch-screen voting machine, and another 40% will encounter optical scan voting machines. The security risks involved in the current model of electronic voting are so abundant and so varied that it's almost too big of a problem to consider, but Jon "Hannibal" Stokes at Ars Technica has produced a wonderful non-techie explanation of the nature of the problem (a PDF version, appropriate for printing out and giving to everyone you know, can be found here). Reading Stokes' document won't make you feel better about the situation -- if anything, it will make you even more worried about the fate of American democracy -- but understanding the problem is the first step to solving it.

If you're at all concerned about the state of the democratic vote in the US, you need to read this document.

For me, this all boils down to a crisis of transparency. The disaster that we will face in a few days isn't that the machines will be hacked, it's that we won't know whether they have, and we will have no real way of checking. Without an independent trail of vote verification (such as voter-checked paper records) actually examined by the board of elections, there's simply no way of knowing if malicious code has been inserted in an electronic voting system to alter the outcome. No way of knowing. And that's worse, in some ways, than proof of election tampering, in that all electronic votes become suspect. Up to 80% of the votes cast on Tuesday could be considered inherently illegitimate.

Even if nobody hacks the election this time around (and again, we have no way of knowing), there are few computer vulnerabilities that have never been attacked -- and, as the Stokes article demonstrates, electronic voting computers have many vulnerabilities.

Moreover, the threat isn't limited to a wily hacker fiddling with the electronics to subtly alter vote totals; Stokes points out, quite accurately, that deliberate vandalism of an electronic voting system is virtually indistinguishable from a machine malfunction. and since the result of a broken or vandalized machine is that all votes it has tallied are discarded, a close election can be thrown simply by targeted physical attacks (which can be as simple as cutting a security tape) in districts known to have been gerrymandered to emphasize one party or another.

The underlying issue is that most of the steps in the process of programming, distributing, and gathering vote machines and information is hidden away from the public, under the guise of "trade secrets." Diebold, ES&S, and the various other DRE manufacturers can claim with a straight face that nobody should be allowed to examine their code because it's proprietary -- never mind that what the software controls is literally the most fundamental act of a citizen. This is so breathtakingly wrong-headed that it's staggering; if we're to use electronic voting, there should be broad public scrutiny at every step of the process, and once loaded, it should be impossible to change the code or touch the recorded votes in the field. It goes without saying that there should also be voter-verified paper trails, subject to random spot checks.

Unfortunately, because the major DRE manufacturers have both strong Republican connections and poor verbal control (e.g., Diebold executives promising to "deliver Ohio to the Republican Party"), fears about the legitimacy and security of electronic voting systems has taken on a partisan bent, making it harder to move forward with strong reforms. Never mind that many Democratic officials have been captured by the DRE manufacturing lobby, too. People expressing concerns over DREs get slapped with a "Left-wing conspiracy theorist" label, and ignored.

Here's my scenario for Tuesday's election, then:

Nearly all polls show the Democratic Party having a dominating lead versus the Republican Party in most national and state-wide races. Some of the votes are going to be close, however. I think that the outcomes will nominally match the polls, but that the Republican Party will be at the forefront of loud complaints about electronic election fraud. They'll immediately be seen as legitimate complaints, in part due to voting machines normally being a "Democratic" issue, and in part due to overly-subservient national media. Whether that will lead to calls for re-votes, selections by governors, or more trips to the (Republican-partisan) US Supreme Court remains to be seen. But come Wednesday, November 8, the shrill cries of computerized vote tampering will come, in abundance, from the Right.

November 1, 2006

A Post-Hegemonic Future

Here's a question to muse about while awaiting the results of Tuesday's election in the US: what happens after the United States is no longer the dominant global power?

This is a question that doesn't get asked often. Public figures who even mention some possible far-off future date when the US is no longer #1 are excoriated for their lack of patriotism. And when there are no obvious contenders for a new #1, it's easy to think that the status quo is how it shall ever be.

But anyone who has taken a world history class can tell you that no king of the mountain ever stays there. States that may once have led the world can later be relegated to geographic footnotes; even nations that might dominate for more than a century -- Pax Britannica, anyone? -- eventually fall by the wayside, becoming, in the words of Johnny Rotten, just another country.

Eventually, the US, too, will become just another country. This is not a partisan position, but a historical observation. And as fundamental changes to the international power structure rarely happen without major disruptions, it's wise to think through what might lead us to a world where the US is no longer king of the hill.

Falling or Just Rising Slowly?

The first issue to grapple with as we think about this future is the nature of the decline of the American hegemon. For this, we can learn a great deal from history. Very broadly speaking, a state loses its position of dominance in one of two ways: absolute decline or relative decline.

Absolute decline means losing enough territorial, population, military or economic power that the state is measurably worse off than it was in earlier years. The collapse of the Soviet Union could be described in this way; the Russia of 2000 was weaker in nearly every way than the Soviet Union of (say) 1980. Relative decline, conversely, means that the state continues to grow more powerful than it had been in past years, but does so at a pace that can't match the growth of its competitors. The post-World War II United Kingdom is an example here; in the early 1950s, the UK still had notions of imperial leadership, but the United States took a greater and greater role in the management of the West, pushing the UK aside. Few people would argue that the UK of today is weaker -- militarily, economically, culturally -- than the UK of fifty years ago, but the modern Great Britain has no pretence of global dominance, functioning more as America's sidekick.

Looking at the future of American hegemony, then, we must ask whether the US will suffer from an absolute decline -- where the America of (say) 2030 is measurably weaker than the America of (say) 2010 -- or from a relative decline, where the future America is more powerful than today, yet significantly less powerful than the other international actors that pushed the US aside.

The Few or The Many?

The second issue to consider is the nature of future global competition. In this case, the historical lessons are less clear. It's easy to assume that future competitors with the United States will be the same kinds of nation-states we have today -- after all, that's the way the international system has worked for centuries, why would it change? But the nation-state model is not a law of nature; we should ask, then, if there are any aspects of modern international power that suggest that a post-nation-state model is on the rise.

As it happens, there's a big one. The main political story of the current era is the rise of sub-national and transnational civil society actors with characteristics of national power -- that is, organizations without state size or authority that nonetheless behave like states on the international stage. A decade ago, this observation would focus on the global reach of multinational corporations; today, the focus is on fourth-generation warfare (4GW) groups, more popularly (if less usefully) called "terrorists."

The last five years have demonstrated quite convincingly that small groups with global ambitions can, by relying on the technologies, international communication networks and financial systems built by states, significantly alter the policies and behaviors of hegemonic nations. Decentralized, coordinated by ideology rather than by strategy, and heavily-networked, these 4GW organizations hit harder than their numbers might otherwise suggest, and are nearly impossible to destroy through traditional military means. The question for the American future, then, is whether the primary competitors the US will face when it's no longer the big kid on the block will be other major states (e.g., China, India, or a more unified EU) or distributed groups of guys with cell phones, nuclear bombs and an attitude.

Imagining the Unimaginable

If we think like futurists here, this gives us a traditional four-box set of scenarios: Absolute Decline/Great Powers; Relative Decline/Great Powers; Relative Decline/Non-State Powers; and Absolute Decline/Non-State Powers. Without going into far more detail than I have the energy for, my first blush "high concept" stories for each would be:

  • AD/GP: "Untied States" - US falls apart internally, letting other states take lead;
  • RD/GP: "Last Among Equals" - US is slow on a key innovation (e.g., molecular nanotech), and other big states rise in power faster than the US can match;
  • RD/NSP: "The Linux Option" - Great power national structure becomes irrelevant, as non-state actors are able to out-compete by being more flexible and responsive, and nearly as mighty;
  • AD/NSP: "Hell" - US goes down to rampant "systempunkt" attacks by super-empowered non-state actors, likely including weapons of mass destruction. None of these are happy stories, but this is the least happy.

    Add to each of these scenarios large-scale problems such as pandemic disease, the impact of global warming (as the Stern Report shows in graphic detail), and peak oil, along with the continued acceleration of technological change, and (to quote Tom Barnett) you got yourself a party.

    In fact, it's easy to see how any of those issues could become a tipping point leading to these hegemonic decline scenarios. Their effects could be so damaging and disruptive to the American economy and society that the country slows or (effectively) collapses. Conversely, efforts to mitigate, adapt to or even take advantage of the challenges could come too slowly and too ineffectually in comparison to other actors, and the US simply gets left behind. Depending upon how other nation-states weather these same problems, the international system of Great Powers could be strengthened, or the door could be open to non-state actors becoming more dominant.

    As scenarios go, these are not terribly satisfying. There are no obvious solutions arising from the set, nor are there clear points of influence to be strengthened or (at least) watched. This exploration, however, wasn't meant as a trigger for action; rather, it was my attempt to poke around at a subject that doesn't get as much attention as it deserves. Decline is the great taboo subject in American political discourse. This wasn't always the case, but past periods of self-examination were usually linked to an obvious challenger, most recently Japan.

    The current inability of American political thinkers to imagine what might lead to a post-hegemonic US has unfortunate, even deadly results: arrogance; over-estimates of US power; belief in a kind of exceptionalism that puts the US above international laws, treaties or needs; and a belief that the US should be, must be, the global leader. While these attitudes are abundantly evident in the current American leadership, they infect both major parties.

    I'm not calling on us to actively plan for decline, or to assume that the end is near. As the set of scenarios sketched out above shows, the range of possibilities is so diverse that there's not much we could do today to prepare for the end of hegemony. Rather, I think the lesson here is that we need to act in the world with the understanding that, eventually -- maybe not soon, but eventually -- the US will no longer be number one. Right now, we're setting a standard for hegemonic behavior that might not be in our best interests when we're no longer in charge. We might want to rethink that.

  • 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


    Creative Commons License
    This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
    Powered By MovableType 4.37