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January 30, 2007

Tuesday Topsight, January 30, 2007

climatechall.jpgMultiple deadlines this week, plus meetings -- but interesting stuff keeps rolling in.

• SimCollapse: Green LA Girl Siel gave me a heads-up about "Climate Challenge," a Flash-based simulation game produced by the BBC that gives players a chance to control Europe's climate and economic policies for the 21st century. Your goal: bring down overall carbon emissions without crashing the economy or being driven from office. The designers have done an excellent job of making the simulation complex enough to be hard without being so abstract as to be impossible. It's easy to end the game with one of the three conditions (climate, economy, popularity) doing great, and possible with some thought to end the game with two of the three doing at least reasonably well. I have yet to hit the right balance of all three.

The choices you're given are plausible, but not overly timid. Not all of your choices are particularly green, and you have to pay attention to issues like water and food supplies on top of everything else. It's a game that lends itself to experimentation. Fortunately, the game moves quickly, so that you can play multiple rounds in one sitting without feeling like you've just blown your whole afternoon.

I still have my default lament for simulations, though: it's neither open nor transparent. There's no way to tell what assumptions went into the underlying algorithms, let alone add in new options. Still, as a lunch time diversion, it's pretty cool.

• Altruistic Forensics: BoingBoing's Xeni Jardin reports regularly for National Public Radio's "Day to Day," typically on the kinds of nifty but superficial topics that BoingBoing readers love: new tech at a porn convention, emotion detection gear, 3D digital brain maps, and the like. Her latest set of stories, however, looks at much deeper and important topic: a group called the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala, which provides expertise in forensics to groups hoping to identify the remains of people lost to political violence and natural disasters. FAFG does the work that few people can, but all too many people need.

Xeni has illustrated and expanded upon the stories in the series at BoingBoing.

If your only experience of Xeni Jardin is that of a flirty blogger, you really need to read and listen to these stories. This is powerful, meaningful work. The first two stories are now up, and the pieces will continue through this week. Thanks for doing this, Xeni.

• Digital Protest -or- Hey Hey! Ho Ho! 1011100!: Despite there being all of about 14 people who actually spend any time there*, Second Life is definitely the virtual world flavor of the year. All sorts of organizations are opening up virtual homesteads in SL, from IBM to the government of Sweden. The World Economic Forum, taking place right now in Davos, Switzerland, is another group with a Second Life footprint. Reuters in-world reporter, "Adam Reuters," has interviewed quite a few of the WEF attendees who have created digital alter-egos, including Arianna Huffington, Peter Gabriel, and Fareed Zakaria.

The security at the real WEF is notoriously robust, but apparently that obsession with security hasn't yet translated to the virtual world: a protester with the group DaDavos waltzed into the WEF area in SL with a big anti-Davos placard. As he was apparently quite polite about the whole thing, no attempt was made to wrestle the avatar to the ground.

* I know there are more than 14. Even Clay Shirky admits that there are more than 14. I kid! I kid!

January 28, 2007

Happy Birthday, My Love

I adore you, Janice.

GRM Warfare

Denise Caruso's new column at the New York Times kicks off with an essay on patents in the world of biotechnology. Most of the piece looks at how to build an intellectual property regime for biotechnology that serves the interests of society, not just a handful of companies. She cites a troubling, if not surprising, statistic: more than 20% of the human genome has already been patented, mostly by corporate biotech.

She also mentions the case of genetically-modified potatoes from biotech firm Syngenta. Not only are the GM spuds patented, they've been modified to be sterile without the application of a particular chemical. Potato farmers can't "copy" the crop without paying a fee.

The combination of these two facts is frightening. She doesn't use the term, but it's very clear as to what's going on here:

Genetic Rights Management.

Genetic Rights Management (GRM) is copy-protection for genes, a direct parallel to Digital Rights Management for CDs, DVDs, and other media. It's a term I came up with in 2002, as I was writing Transhuman Space: Broken Dreams. It's a way of preventing the duplication of patented genetic modifications by preventing unlicensed reproduction of individuals bearing those genes. It was an idea that struck me as the nearly-absurd but utterly plausible extension of trends in both biotech and intellectual property law; it now appears to be another case of successfully predicting the present.

Biotech companies are unlikely to successfully put GRM onto naturally-occuring human genes that they have patented. They'll try, but it seems likely to be a legal loser; despite the current situation of biotech companies having a strong monopoly on the genes they patent, ownership of one's own naturally-occuring genes is a sufficiently common-sense notion that, even if the courts upheld the patent rights, legislatures are likely to jump in to fix the laws. Biotech companies will be on firmer ground if they GRM-protect genemods that do not naturally occur in human beings, but can be used as a genetic treatment or enhancement.

The tools to make this possible already exist. One way would be through the use of Human Artificial Chromosomes (HACs). Bacterial genetic research often uses artificial chromosomes inserted into a bacterial nucleus, allowing researchers precise control over the placement and replication of the new genes. The same is possible with human biology, giving a cell which would normally have 46 chromosomes an extra, 47th, micro-chromosome with a small number of DNA base pairs. Case Western scientists reported the development of HACs in 1997, but the technique is not known to be in common use at this point. HACs would make the application of genetic rights management simple, either by applying the genemod directly via the artificial chromosome, or by putting the control mechanism in the HAC.

The notion of introducing sterility in a genetic modification recipient to prevent unlicensed duplication is a staggeringly awful idea, yet is the logical result of current practices. Human genes are, as Denise Caruso describes, already subject to strong patent rights.

As Tim Hubbard, a Human Genome Project researcher, noted at a 2001 conference: “If you have a patent on a mousetrap, rivals can still make a better mousetrap. This isn’t true in the case of genomics. If someone patents a gene, they have a real monopoly.”

This monopoly gives patent holders total control over patented genetic materials for any use whatsoever — whether for basic research, a diagnostic test, as a test for the efficacy of a drug or the production of therapies.

And biotech companies are already employing crude forms of GRM on genetically-modified plants and animals: so-called "terminator technology," blocking the reproduction of modified crops, has been around for years; and the recently-introduced hypoallergenic cats developed by Allerca arrive to their new owners pre-neutered/spayed.

It may be that GRM goes too far, and that any attempt to roll out such a system will result in backlash against the underlying notion of genetic patents. I hope so, at least; already, too much of what had been in the commons has been locked up as private intellectual property. But as we work to raise awareness of and resistance to overreaching by big bio, we need to recognize that things are not nearly as bad as they might yet be.

(Update: Be sure to look at the first comment, from Rob Carlson.)

January 27, 2007

We Win the War; Now the Fight Begins

bigmike2.gifBruce Sterling's Viridian Note #00487, sent today, is something of a victory announcement for the Viridian movement. The idea -- the truth -- that the planet is in the midst of an extraordinary climate disaster is no longer a fringe notion, and is no longer something that we have to spend our time repeating. Now comes the effort to do something about it, and that effort will not be easy.

(((We are winning because we were ahead of the curve: we Viridians were an avant-garde who understood, almost ten years ago, that something like this was bound to happen. That does not make us the proper people to actually carry it out. First, we don't have the scale, the resources, or the ability. Second, and let me be very clear to you here: the primrose path to sustainability, even it is construed as sexy, trendy and stylish, will be dark and thorny. Behind Corporate Green is its darker, bloodstained cousin, Khaki Green, and we'll be seeing a lot of that. Sustainability will be a comprehensive revolution in the tenor of daily life. There will be blood on the hands of the people who bring it about. Not because they are bloodthirsty. But because there is so much blood.)))

(((Genuine climate mayhem is underway. It is intensifying fast. People are going to die: of heat, of disease, freezing, starving, drowning and dying of thirst. Not in mere tens of thousands as they did in the Paris heatwave, but in hecatombs. We have a global climate crisis. A real one, not a futurist speculation. People are going to make agonizing sacrifices in increasingly frantic efforts to ameliorate that and redress that crisis. Then, next year, they will discover that the situation is vastly worse than then imagined, and the spillage of blood and treasure and sacred honor that they thought would surely help is a fraction of what was necessary.)))

This isn't a "mission accomplished" celebratory note; it's more the stunned realization that after a decade of pounding one's fists against a stone wall, that wall has now started to crumble.

This new reality is something that the environmental movement had better adjust to quickly. Any green group still banging the drums about trying to "wake us up" to the danger will quickly become irrelevant. The conversations now need to be about how do we handle this in a smart way, with solutions that don't make matters worse, and don't put more power into the hands of the people, the companies, and the movements that brought this disaster to begin with.

Take geoengineering. Treehugger notes today that the Bush administration is now lobbying for "smoke and mirrors" options for blocking sunlight. As someone who has written in abundance on the topic, this galls me. Geoengineering is a last-ditch option; any proposal that it be an early choice is dangerous. Fortunately, the remaining years of this administration are insufficient for any real re-terraforming effort to launch.

That said, I do support academic research into geoengineering methods. Not because I want to see them deployed, but because when pressure mounts to do something big, we need to be able to show precisely why the more obvious options are bad ideas, and -- as may be necessary -- to be able to choose the least-bad options when all the good options are gone. Even if the Bush plans for geoengineering are slowed or stopped, the topic will re-emerge, especially if, as Bruce says, the situation is vastly worse than then imagined.

This is the moment that we've been waiting for. The tipping point has passed, and the voices calling out for real solutions are growing louder by the day. Those of us who have been working on, writing about, thinking about how to deal with this crisis need to step up and be heard. If we hold back, or if we continue to fight the war we've already won, we run the risk of seeing our futures determined by those most culpable for this disaster.

January 26, 2007

Good Ancestors, and Heading South

Looks like both February and March are going to be starting out with some travel.

At the beginning of February, I'll be part of the Uplift Academy's Good Ancestor Principle workshop. This will be a small, invitation-only affair with some very cool folks in attendance (including David Brin, Vernor Vinge and Judith Rosen). What is the Good Ancestor Principle?

Jonas Salk said, the most important question we must ask ourselves is, “Are we being good ancestors?” Given the rapidly changing discoveries and conditions of the times, this opens up a crucial conversation – just what will it take for our descendants to look back at our decisions today and judge us good ancestors?

Any conference that includes as a major section "Towards a Positive Singularity" is one for me.

If it's for you, too, you're in luck: video recordings of the various presentations will be made available at the Uplift Academy's "Better World Network."

In early March, I will once again be speaking at South by SouthWest Interactive. This time, I'll be on Jerry Paffendorf's panel entitled "On The Edge of Independent User-Creation In Gamespace," talking about the Metaverse Roadmap Project. This panel is part of SXSW's "Screenburn" event, focusing on video games. If you'll be at SXSW and want to say hi, my panel is on Sunday, March 11, from 5pm-6pm. If you'll be at SXSW and want to say "happy birthday," catch me on Saturday, March 10.

I'm particularly looking forward to SXSW because I'll be getting a chance to say hi in person to some folks I know only via bits. The list of speakers for Screenburn and SXSW Interactive in general is pretty amazing. This will be the first time since 1998 that's I've been to SXSW, so while I'll miss the old Bruce Sterling end-of-the-show house party, I'm really excited about seeing the festival again.

January 24, 2007

Wednesday Topsight, January 24, 2007

clock.jpgLet's see, lots of apocaphilia lately...

Five Minutes to Midnight: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has a well-known icon, shown here: the ticking clock, counting down to midnight. Throughout the Cold War, as tensions between the superpowers rose and waned, the Bulletin would move the minute hand closer or further away from the 12 o'clock mark. The closest it ever got was 2 minutes to midnight, in 1953 (after the first H-bomb test), and it has reached 3 minutes to midnight twice. In 1991, as the Cold War ended, the minute hand was moved to 17 minutes out as a demonstration of the more relaxed relationship between the superpowers. But in the intervening 16 years, the minute hand has crept back, reaching 7 minutes to midnight in 2002; this month, the hand was moved to 5 minutes to midnight. What's notable about this isn't simply the move, but why it moved: the threats arising from global warming, and the potential for weapons derived from biotechnology and molecular nanotechnology, have joined nuclear proliferation as a cause for concern about our fate.

These are familiar issues to readers of OtF and WorldChanging, but up until recently the discussion of civilization-level threats beyond nuclear war rarely made it out of think tanks and futurist websites. With the Bulletin adding climate and bio/nanotech to its concerns, it's starting to look like efforts to push for greater mainstream awareness of major threats -- and their possible solutions -- may finally be paying off.

Carbon Info at the Supermarket: Given the reaction to the cheeseburger footprint story, it should come as no surprise that the notion of identifying the greenhouse impact of food is gaining currency. The idea hasn't peaked; in fact, it looks like it's only going to get bigger. The UK supermarket chain Tesco announced late last week that it would put carbon labels on the products that it carries.

...the UK's biggest retailer, which produces 2m tonnes of carbon a year in the UK, said it would put new labels on every one of the 70,000 products it sells so that shoppers can compare carbon costs in the same way they can compare salt content and calorie counts. [...] The new carbon labelling programme will not be immediate. Tesco said it would first have to develop a "universally accepted and commonly understood" measuring system.

If Tesco wants this to work, they need to make the carbon label available to other retailers, so that it truly does become a universal system.

Into the Gap: The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology published a press release today that's worth checking out. A project on the "Software Control of Matter" has come up with a series of molecular manufacturing development projects that could well launch the era of the nanofactory far sooner than most expected.

CRN's concern, and it's one that I share, is that there are as of now no real plans for handling the emergence of a technology this powerful. As Mike Treder puts it, "Existing nanotechnology policies, and most proposed policies, do not address huge new areas of concern raised by tomorrow's revolutionary manufacturing potential. That gap could be calamitous."

Two Tickets for Apocalypse II: Electric Boogloo, Please: This rocks -- the website A Futurist at the Movies, which examines the plausibility of speculative fiction on film, has used my Eschatological Taxonomy to grade the level of threat in a variety of science fiction movies. Some examples: The Road Warrior (Class 1); The Matrix (Class 2); Children of Men (Class 3a); Star Wars (Class X -- the destruction of Alderaan).

A couple of the apocalypse classes have no example movies. Any ideas what would fit in Classes 3B and 4?

January 23, 2007

Eschatological Taxonomy -- Now Suitable for Framing

Apocalpyse Scale.jpg

(click for larger version, of course)

January 22, 2007

The Virtual Workshop (Or, How To Run A Scenario Event In Your Pajamas With Nobody the Wiser)

This past weekend, I ran a virtual scenario workshop for the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology. All 15 or so of the attendees participated solely by voice and Internet connection, for nearly eight hours over two days. I had never been a part of a workshop done in this way, and to the best of my knowledge, this may be the first time a scenario exercise has been held using this particular set of tools. All in all, the event seemed to go well, with both a sense of accomplishment in the end and a laundry list of improvements to make for next time. But one thing is absolutely certain: it is entirely possible to run a futures event using distributed technology and still retain participant interest -- and generate useful, novel content, as well.

I'll leave aside the particulars of the scenario ideas themselves right now, as we're still working on them and have not yet made them available to the CRN Task Force members. I'd like to talk a bit about the process itself, and why this may end up being not just a functional alternative to traditional scenario workshops, but potentially a preferred approach.

Approximately 15 people participated in the CRN scenario event, including the two CRN leaders, Mike Treder and Chris Phoenix. I served as facilitator. The attendees represented a reasonably broad variety of disciplines and backgrounds, although all had sufficient interest in and knowledge of molecular manufacturing to be a part of the CRN discussion. Most resided in North America, but one participant attended from New Zealand, and another from Europe; we chose a start time that would be minimally-disruptive to the sleep of the broadest number of participants.

The workshop ran over five forms of media:

  • Voice, in our case a free conference call system;
  • EMail, for private messages;
  • A Shared "Whiteboard" Document, using Google Docs;
  • An Online Spreadsheet, for making quick lists (see below), using Google Spreadsheets;
  • A Text Chat Channel, in this case the one built into Google Spreadsheets.

    Read on to see how we did it.

    The Process
    Most of the content generation happened by voice, with conversations taking place via the conference call system. Rather than a cacophony of multiple speakers trying to get a word in edgewise, we went with a "raise your hand to speak" approach -- which is essentially what happens in an live workshop, as well, when you have more than five or six group members. This went quite smoothly, and people who were not speaking could mute their phones, reducing the interruptions of sneezes, mobile phone ringers and the like.

    Chris served as scribe, and was the only one normally authorized to write into the Google Docs page. We asked the attendees to keep this page open, however, as it was important that they be able to correct any errors (in spelling, emphasis, or meaning) that Chris might make; this also served as a good way for attendees who might have stepped away for a moment to catch up. As the conversation ensued, Chris recorded the main ideas, and as many of the useful phrases or terms as he could -- this was not a transcript, but was certainly more than an outline.

    Mike served as moderator for the online chat, and the router for voice questions. We used the Google Spreadsheets in a simple way, with a list of the names of the participants, a separate, changing list of who had asked to speak, and the built-in chat window (similar to IRC) as the participant channel.

    Mike and I would watch the chat window, looking for comments indicating confusion or a need to comment. We asked anyone who had a question or observation to type HAND into the window, as an obvious signifier that they wanted to speak; Mike would then put their names into the second list, in order, putting the name in bold when the person was speaking, and deleting when done. Occasionally, if it seemed necessary or appropriate, I would call on someone directly when I saw either the HAND entry or a question/comment that seemed worth pursuing in group.

    The chat window was, by far, the most useful and novel aspect of this exercise. Everything else mentioned above is, more or less, a parallel to a live event approach or tool. The chat window, however, does not have a parallel in the conventional scenario workshop (note: I recognize that back-channel discussion via wireless & laptop is commonplace in tech conferences, but in most scenario/futures events, attendees are asked to keep laptops closed to avoid distraction). This channel allowed attendees to make quick comments, add URLs, ask each other questions, and otherwise illuminate the primary, voice conversation. The audio channel could continue on, uninterrupted. In a live workshop, with voice the only mass conversation method generally available, any attempt to carry on a secondary discussion is typically met with glares and requests by the moderator for "one conversation, please." With the chat window, at no point did it appear that the text discussion was blocking or distracting the speaker.

    Note that this is not the same as people firing off emails to each other, no matter how many people are CC'd. Inevitably, someone is left out of the loop -- usually the facilitator, at least -- and since email tends to arrive in clumps (as the server gets checked), it's much more likely that the reader will end up missing out on the voice discussion while reading a series of email messages. Chat is quick, transparent, and far less distracting. When email did get used in the course of the event, it was for quick "note-passing" between organizers (and, I presume, between attendees).

    In terms of scenario methodology, this worked (by and large) like a straightforward GBN-style exercise. Brainstorming, clustering, voting, and the like, all worked reasonably well using the tools we had (although I would like to see if a multi-user "mind-mapping" application would work as a way of brainstorming & clustering). An attempt at a more "open mic" segment for working on the scenario narrative was less successful than the raise hand to speak method -- more than one person felt unable to get a word in, despite active attempts on the part of the moderator and myself to watch for that very problem. It was clear that the combination of voice & text was a far superior approach, as it allowed people who excelled in a particular medium to work to their strengths.

    A particularly useful aspect of the virtual workshop method, from a post-event perspective, is the totally-digital nature of the result. No problems with getting flip charts transcribed, no trying to get photographs of notes people had put onto documents -- and no worries about forgetting what a given participant said, as the whole event can be downloaded as a digital audio file from the conference call system.

    For a non-profit like CRN, one especially important aspect of all of the tools we employed was that they were all no-cost. Many non-profits have little funding for multi-user software systems, let alone flying a dozen people in from around the country and world. These kinds of tools allow for even the most shoestring operation to engage in effective, collaborative strategy & planning activity, no matter how far dispersed the members may be.

    The Path Not Taken
    We considered and tested alternatives to the voice conferencing system. My initial suggestion was one of the voice chat utilities used by multiplayer gamers, as these can support the necessary number of attendees, offer features such as secondary "rooms," and would be available to international users at no additional charge. Upon testing, however, we discovered that the latency between saying something and the others hearing it was just great enough for people to start talking over each other, stop, start to talk over each other (thinking the other had paused), stop, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. The protocols we ended up deploying for voice conversation may mitigate that problem, however, so we will likely be testing this set-up again.

    Skype and other VOIP systems had problems of scalability (number of attendees), privacy, and/or platform (we needed to be able to work on Windows, Mac and Linux).

    We initially considered setting up the Google Docs whiteboard as a fully-shared space, but too many people simultaneously editing the document resulted in far too much text "jumping around," leading to mis-entered content. We chose to use a single scribe (Chris), with a few others occasionally making small changes or additions to the page with fore-warning.

    It might be useful to have a secondary shared doc as a group scribble board, but that butts up against logistical issues of screen space.

    Finally, we briefly considered using an immersive 3D world for this, such as Second Life, but decided that the learning curve would be enough that the first few tries would be all about trying to figure out the interface. As these technologies mature, we'll likely revisit this idea.

    The tools necessary for this event were essentially just a phone line and an Internet-connected computer.

    We used FreeConferenceCall.com for the voice conversation, and it worked well. It does not have toll-free numbers, but the growing popularity of flat-rate long distance plans (especially on mobile phones) makes the use of a toll number for a call a non-issue. The conference call site was based in the US, so international callers did face a higher rate; fortunately, our European attendee was able to use Skype to three-way-call a US attendee, then join his connection to the conference.

    On the computer side, the tools we used were quite simple, and required only a recent web browser for live updates of content. By and large, the faster the connection, the better, but this setup should work with even a modem hookup. That won't be true if/when we use a voice over IP setup like TeamSpeak or Ventrilo; these require a broadband connection, and a relatively capable computer.

    The two pieces of hardware that I found to be the most useful were a lightweight headset for the phone (I couldn't imagine trying to hold a regular phone to my head for five hours, and speakerphones would degrade the sound quality) and an extra-wide monitor (or, in my case, a big monitor hooked to a Macbook with its screen open, allowing for dual-screen use).

    I would most definitely use this process again. No travel in cramped seats on CO2-spewing flying tubes, no sleepless nights on a lumpy hotel bed, no trying to decide if the suit jacket is too wrinkled. I had all of my resources at my fingertips, and (since I work at home) the ability to pop into the kitchen as needed. As indicated in the subtitle to the piece, I could even run the workshop in my pajamas.

    While it was a shame not to be able to have easy side-discussions with attendees during breaks, I didn't feel like there was significant distance between myself and the group during the event itself. The fact that I couldn't see whether they were looking away or had slipped out to the bathroom didn't have an appreciable impact, as the ongoing chatter in the backchannel window was a good proxy for level of engagement. The use of HAND to indicate a desire to speak kept the number of interruptions to a minimum, so that frequent speakers weren't quite so dominant over the more occasional participants (who, as noted, were often much more "vocal" in the text chat).

    The computer tools worked about as well as we hoped, and while there are certainly ways we could make better use of them (pasting images and graphs into Google Docs, for example), the only limit I felt in their use was based on the lack of screen real estate for most users -- I would have loved to have had one or two more documents open as a middle-ground between the scribe's record and the chat window.

    The real question, I suppose, is whether a client would want this. The CRN folks seemed pretty happy with it, but how would an organization accustomed to in-person workshops respond to the idea of everyone sitting around in different places, on phones and text chat? Would that feel less serious? Less like work? Or, conversely, would it feel too much like the day-to-day grind of making phone calls and updating documents?

    I don't see this as a replacement for in-person workshops, I suppose, but as complements. Do a first meeting virtually, for getting everyone up to speed. Do a second in person, with the usual social bonding and business networking opportunities. Do the follow-up virtually, as the participants will now have a good working relationship, and see this not as a toy, but as a tool.

    I'd give that a try.

  • EZ in NS

    ezuck.jpgMy good friend and colleague Ethan Zuckerman shows up as this week's interview in New Scientist, talking about the way in which the increasing global use of the Internet is changing its nature. It's a good read -- and Ethan looks quite dashing in his pictures (not an example above) -- but unfortunately the online version is behind the subscriber wall. Here's a sampling:

    What are the effects of increased connectedness on our society?

    There's an optimistic take that says the challenges we want to tackle today are global ones. Pandemics, global warming and poverty are all inherently cross-border. The interesting problems are international ones. At the same time, the internet frees us from the limitations of where we're born and where we grew up. As we build networks and friendships that cross boundaries, it stretches our sense of identity. When I get off an airplane, I can find other bloggers. My social circle now includes young hackers in Cambodia, as well as media professionals in Bahrain. My life is richer for it, but it also helps me think about the problems I want to solve in a really different way. For years, the environmental movement said "think globally, act locally". Now we can think globally and act globally.

    The issue just came out (cover date January 20), so check it out now.

    January 18, 2007

    Co-opting the Participatory Panopticon?

    Is it still "sousveillance" -- watching from below -- if it's going straight to The Man?

    The city of New York, in a rather clever move, has decided to equip its 911 (emergency) and 311 (non-emergency) call centers with the ability to receive cameraphone pictures and videos. In his State of the City address, Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared:

    To build stronger trust and cooperation between the public and the police, we're also going to empower more New Yorkers to step forward and join the fight against crime.

    This year, we'll begin a revolutionary innovation in crime-fighting: Equipping "911" call centers to receive digital images and videos New Yorkers send from cell phones and computers something no other city in the world is doing.

    If you see a crime in progress or a dangerous building condition you'll be able to transmit images to 911, or online to NYC.GOV. And we'll start extending the same technology to 311 to allow New Yorkers to step forward and document non-emergency quality of life concerns holding City agencies accountable for correcting them quickly and efficiently.

    This is one of those developments that makes so much sense, it's a wonder that nobody made it happen earlier. I have no doubt that we'll see other cities adopt this approach in the months to come, both in the US and internationally. As much as it has the potential for frivolous or malicious use -- just as regular 911 calls do -- it has the potential to give first responders a better idea of an emergency situation, allowing the professionals and the civilians to work together to evaluate conditions.

    It's also an example of how a participatory panopticon society can be embraced by traditional channels of authority and social control. This will undoubtedly have some benefits, but it also raises uncomfortable questions. Will the photo/video 911 calls be given greater priority than the voice-only calls? Conversely, will the police respond as quickly to a situation where they can see the color of the victim (the NYC police is known for having issues in this regard)? And for me, the big question: will the existence of an "official" channel for using cell phones to capture images and videos of emergency and non-emergency problems eliminate non-official versions?

    If the participatory 911/311 panopticon stands alongside other emerging community response networks, then this is, on balance, likely a positive development, as the citizens will continue to have channels to report problems that the city personnel might neglect. If the program results in pressure to shut down or block non-official networks, these citizen systems won't go away, of course, they'll just be driven underground, making them less reliable and pervasive.

    This could be a moment for civic empowerment -- or a moment where an early version of the participatory panopticon is smothered by bureaucracy. Let's hope they don't screw it up.

    (Thanks, Anthony Townsend!)

    January 17, 2007

    Funny Numbers

    Please read the updated and complete version of the cheeseburger footprint story, found here.

    This is, I hope, the last post on cheeseburgers for a long while.

    I need to address a couple of issues here about the numbers used in the Cheeseburger Footprint articles. The first will clarify the one moderately controversial assumption. The second is to acknowledge and rectify a math mistake.

    But before I begin, I want to say this: the Cheeseburger Footprint is about much more than raw numbers. It's about how we live our lives, and the recognition that every action we take, even the most prosaic, can have unexpectedly profound consequences. The article was meant to poke us in our collective ribs, waking us up to the effects of our choices.

    It just happens to turn out that the effects are even more dramatic than I first thought.

    Three per Week?!?
    Of all of the numbers tossed around in the Cheeseburger Footprint posts and audio bits, the one that draws the most attention is the assertion that the average American eats three burgers every week. That's an extraordinary number, if you think about it, and since it's an average, for every one of us that rarely or never eats a burger, someone must be gobbling them down like candy. Where does that number come from, and (perhaps more importantly) is it accurate?

    My reference for that figure was an article in the Economist, but other sources include Google Answers (ascribing it to a Dr. Kathleen Aicardi) and The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink (as cited here). But you'll notice in all of these, the 3/week number is offered as an assertion; I couldn't dig up a direct research or study reference for the number.

    It turns out that the claims for burger consumption in the US are all over the map, and 3/week -- or about 40-45 billion burgers -- seems to be at the high end. Eric Schlosser, in Fast Food Nation, is at the other end of the spectrum, claiming 13 billion in the US annually. It's not hard to find groups asserting 15 billion, 25 billion, 30 billion, etc. -- there really doesn't seem to be a hard number for this.

    100,000 SUVs?
    Now I have to admit a math error. A reporter asked about the 100,000 SUVs number, whether I mean the annual output or something different, and in going back to double-check my notes I found something that made my heart sink. In my calculations, I left out a step, and the 100,000 SUVs parallel is wrong by a large margin.

    The real number -- if we stick with the 3/week assumption -- is closer to 13 million SUVs. Even if we cut that by two-thirds to go with the Fast Food Nation number, the American cheeseburger habit still puts out every year the equivalent to the annual greenhouse gases of over 4 million SUVs

    Here's the math, so that my calculations are clear. The kg/burger value is from the original Cheeseburger Footprint post, and is the low end of the range. A Hummer H3 SUV emits 11.1 tons (imp.) of CO2 over a year; this converts to about 10.1 tonnes, so we'll call it 10 to make the math easy:

    300,000,000	citizens
    * 150 		burgers/year (~Economist, Dr. Alcardi)
    * 2.85 		kilograms of CO2-equivalent per burger
    / 1000		kilograms per tonne (metric ton)
    = 128,250,000	annual tonnes of CO2-equivalent for all US burgers
    /10		tonnes of CO2-equivalent per SUV
    =12.8 million SUVs 
    300,000,000	citizens
    * 50		burgers/year (~Fast Food Nation)
    * 2.85		kilograms of CO2-equivalent per burger
    / 1000		kilograms per tonne
    = 42,750,000	annual tonnes of CO2-equivalent for all US burgers
    /10		tonnes of CO2-equivalent per SUV
    =4.3 million SUVs

    In my original post, the calculations I used missed the step of multiplying by the number of burgers per year -- the final results shown at the time actually amounted to the output if everyone only ate one cheeseburger a year. So I was off by anywhere from a factor of 40 to a factor of over 100. Whoops -- my apologies. Things are much worse than we thought.

    But does that really matter? These are all pretty fuzzy numbers to begin with, and even these revised values are themselves likely to be off by a significant margin. And how many people would be thinking, "4 million? That's different, then. A hundred thousand SUVs, that's nothing." These are big numbers either way, and both 100K and 12M SUVs offer stark comparisons for our cheeseburger footprint.

    Ultimately, this is about awareness, not math. Too few of us recognize the climate and environmental impact of our day-to-day activities, and if the cheeseburger post woke some people up -- as it seems to have done -- then it's accomplished its task, even if the real numbers are far worse than initially thought.

    But a mistake is a mistake, and I apologize for mine.

    January 15, 2007

    Cheeseburger Steamroller, Redux

    The final hurrah -- for the moment, at least -- of the Cheeseburger Footprint phenomenon: my full-length monologue (not really an interview when the interviewer can't get a word in edge-wise) for Treehugger. They liked it enough to want to put the whole thing up.

    Jamais Cascio on the Footprint of a Cheeseburger (Audio)

    They even grabbed the Carbon Facts panel I hacked together last week as illustration...

    Let me know what you think.

    Sock Mobs and Sock Bots

    Doug Rushkoff has come up with a clever neologism: Sock Mobs. It refer to the gang of bogus names and voices -- usually the work of a single person -- that can swarm the comment sections of blogs and other online communities. The term derives from "sock puppet," a term used to refer to a faux personage used in online debates to back up the arguments of the real person (thereby demonstrating the position to be popular). Rushkoff sees an important political element to this concept, and defines a sock mob as "a faux mob, constructed for no other purpose than net propaganda." As the worlds of blogging and online communities take on greater important in the world of politics, expect to see more of these "sock mobs" showing up.

    Moreover, as politics and political figures move into the virtual worlds such as Second Life, we should also expect to see a parallel phenomenon there, taking advantage of the unique characteristics of the space.

    Let's call the fake personae that are likely to show up in a virtual world trying to appear as a political mass Sock Bots.

    Sock Mobs take advantage of the structure of discussion fora, where entries are shown in a chronological (and typically linear) order -- each new comment follows the last. A sock mobster can log out from one account and log in as another (using whatever spoofing mechanisms needed), over and over again. From the reader's perspective, it's a mass of voices, even if they show up one at a time. But you can't take that approach in a virtual political gathering. Rallies and speeches in virtual worlds would be more akin to a real world event, with each participant in the audience able to express him/her/itself without having to do so one-at-a-time.

    In this setting, members of the "mob" need to appear at the same time. If you're a propagandist looking to boost an otherwise unpopular position, you can't count on having a real person behind each virtual figure. Instead, you're going to need to run multiple characters simultaneously. Sounds hard -- but running two and even three characters simultaneously is a regular occurrence in online game worlds such as EverQuest and World of Warcraft. Given the relative lack of fireballs and aggressive dragons in online worlds like Second Life and There, running two, three or even four virtual world figures at the same time would likely be less demanding upon a single person's agility. Get a few people to cooperate in this endeavor, and suddenly you have a dozen or so protesters (quite a large number in the typical virtual world political event).

    Once, this would mean having to run two, three or four computers side-by-side; in online games, this was referred to as multi-boxing. The advent of easy-to-run "virtual machine" software, however, makes it possible to run two or more operating systems side-by-side on the same computer, at the same time, limited only by memory and processor speed. In principle, it would be possible to run multiple instances of these virtual world apps on a single computer. Imagine: a whole Second Life protest rally, run off a single laptop. Yet as startling as this may sound, it's still a clumsy first approximation of a real Sock Bot world.

    As the scripting and construction tools for these virtual worlds get more powerful, we're likely to see virtual protesters run by real people augmented by mobs of in-game simulations and "bots," made with enough detail in both image and behavior to convincingly appear as a swarm of real players. They may have scripted replies to questions, and would be coded to appear and disappear in the same way that human-operated denizens of the virtual worlds do. It wouldn't be hard to figure out that they were bots if you pay enough attention, but as a mob -- especially if human-operated figures were dispersed throughout -- they'd be rather impressive.

    Ultimately, just as rampant sock mob activities can devalue conversation and comments, sock bots will no doubt in time make it harder to engage in political activity in virtual worlds. If a political figure knew that her very appearance in a virtual world setting would trigger the appearance of dozens or even hundreds of marching, chanting protesters -- who look at least as "real" as the human-operated purple monkeys, giant phalluses with hands, flying unicorns and the like that inhabit the virtual environments -- said political figure would likely find little to gain by making that appearance.

    At some point in the next five years or so, we'll probably read about a massive demonstration and counter-demonstration happening in a virtual world, with thousands of participants... only to later discover that the entire event was a set of scripts and bots, with no actual humans in attendance beyond the virtual puppeteers.

    Welcome to politics in the 21st century.

    January 11, 2007

    This Quite Literally Makes No Sense

    Sayeth Condoleezza Rice:

    "It's bad policy to speculate on what you'll do if a plan fails when you're trying to make a plan work."

    At the hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as quoted in the Washington Post.

    Beauty and the Beast

    iphone.jpgDamn, that iPhone is pretty.

    I am primarily a Mac user, so I follow the annual announcements at Macworld fairly closely. This year, most folks expected Steve Jobs to unveil a phone, so when he announced it, few people were terribly surprised. But when he demonstrated it... geek lust heaven (or, as Brent at PvP put it, "Jesus has come back and he's a phone now.") The gestural interface, the Jonathan Ive design, the way it gets the little things right (like shutting off the touchscreen when you lift it to your ear), all of these inspired a near frenzy among a broad array of mac geeks, tech geeks and design geeks. It was just that cool.

    Then I discovered something that turned this beauty into a nasty little beast.

    The iPhone is a closed device. Users cannot install any applications on it, not even the little mobile Java apps that run on pretty much every phone with a color screen. This may not sound like a big deal; after all, the iPhone will do everything you need it to do already, right? And even if it doesn't, look how pretty it is!

    Here are a couple of reasons why this is a big deal, from an Open the Future perspective:

  • It runs counter to one of the most important trends in the online and offline world right now: DIY culture. This is becoming a fairly common observation, so I won't spend too much time on it. In brief, the mixed and mashed contributions and creations of individuals drive innovation, and we're increasingly building a world (both online and off) that enables and encourages these contributions. From open source to "Web 2.0," Second Life digital LEGOs to Wikipedia, the future is being built by collaborative creation. A locked down system prevents the iPhone from being a part of that world, to its detriment, and to the detriment of its users.

  • It's dangerous to Apple and Cingular (really!) One of the reasons why Steve Jobs doesn't want to allow outside applications is that he doesn't want poorly-written (or malicious) programs to cause problems. As he says in Newsweek:

    You don’t want your phone to be an open platform,” meaning that anyone can write applications for it and potentially gum up the provider's network, says Jobs. “You need it to work when you need it to work. Cingular doesn’t want to see their West Coast network go down because some application messed up.”

    Here's the problem, Steve: keeping the system closed won't stop that from happening -- in fact, it makes it more likely. It's a dead certainty that the iPhone will be cracked, will be turned into a defacto open platform, whether through taking advantage of system or application flaws -- as was done with the just-as-"closed" Playstation Portable -- or through simply turning it into a Linux box -- as has been done with the original iPod. A security plan cannot be based on the concept that nobody will do the obvious.

    Once the iPhone was cracked open, people who would have been inclined to use it to do nasty things to the Cingular network (or other users on that network) would still be able to do so -- and regular users would have no tools at their disposal to counter or circumvent that threat, other than those from Apple and Cingular. Which one takes the blame (and possible lawsuits)? That's a situation that's absolutely ripe with the possibility of finger-pointing, instead of solutions.

    At the same time, the potential for accidental damage to the network is greater in this scenario, as non-malicious hardware hackers and garage programmers poke around, trying to figure out what the different components and programming interfaces do. A home-brewed application that should be just fine might in fact be disastrous, simply because of a hidden undocumented feature. Realistically, while the chances of this happening are pretty slim, they're still greater than if the iPhone was open to developers, with officially documented interfaces and commands.

    In short, a closed iPhone will be no less subject to malice, and probably more subject to accident, than an open iPhone.

    The iPhone is still six months away, so there's still time for policies and technologies to change. Given the way Jobs talks in interviews in both Newsweek and the New York Times, however, he may be digging in his heels on the matter, holding his position even when it's no longer tenable. In that case, Apple may be in for a painful lesson in the dynamics of the new world.

  • Cheeseburgers on the Radio

    Please read the updated and complete version of the cheeseburger footprint story, found here.

    thr.jpgThe Cheeseburger Steamroller continues, as I show up on Treehugger radio (playing online and on Air America) talking about the cheeseburger footprint story. The conversation is actually excerpted from a much longer description of how and why I undertook this investigation. The folks at TH tell me that they're going to put that longer audio clip up either later today or tomorrow.

    In the meantime, here's the official Treehugger Radio connection.

    Geeze, I talk fast.

    January 10, 2007

    Mash Notes

    cascio_greenstein.jpgIf you just can't get enough of the sound of my voice (so this may be a post meant only for my mother -- hi Mom!), I have a link for you.

    It's to talk I gave, with Howard Greenstein, at Meshforum 2006, waaaay back in May of last year. ITConversations has been running the various panels and presentations as occasional content, and they've finally gotten to (or dredged up, you decide) our conversation on mash-ups and "breaking networks." Here's how ITConversations describes it:

    A mashup is an application that takes data from one source and combines it with data from another source. Often, the result is a new use for the data or targets a new user group. A good example is Frappr, which lets users combine Yahoo map data with their own locations.The means by which a mashup accesses the data can be authorized by the vendor, as seen in the Google Maps API. But technically, it doesn't have to. What is visible, can be "mashed up".

    Jamais Cascio and Howard Greenstein present some examples of mashups and introduce some interesting questions: Who of the big data providers like Google, Amazon or others actively plays the game by providing APIs and who doesn't? Why? What are the legal issues? What role do the creators of mashups play? Are they stealing data or boosting innovation in Web 2.0?

    It's a bit Web2.0apalooza, and it feels like it might be kind of dated at this point, but overall it's not too bad. They had to yank out my example of a music mashup that I played at the outset, though (Lenlow vs. J-Lo vs. K-Co vs. S-Wo). Darn you, copyright laws!

    (Speaking of copyright laws, the picture is by my friend Jon Lebkowsky.)

    January 8, 2007

    The Cheeseburger Syndrome: Carbon Transparency

    carbonfacts_sm.jpgThe "Footprint of a Cheeseburger" post continues to reverberate around the web, and not just in the so-called "Green Blogosphere." I have an interview about the story coming up that might make it to national radio. The Cheeseburger Footprint popped up on business sites, on hamburger and foodie sites -- heck, it even got linked to by a well-known slavering right-wing website Which Shall Not Be Named or Linked (I've read too much Lovecraft and Stross to take that risk), with readers there wondering if I was serious.

    For the record: yes, I was serious.

    That doesn't mean that the post wasn't a bit tongue-in-cheek. It was, ultimately, an attempt to take a remarkably prosaic activity and parse out its carbon aspects. After all, we're all increasingly accustomed to recognizing obvious, direct carbon emissions, but we're still wrapping our heads around the secondary and tertiary sources. This is another example of a recurring theme for me: we're good at cause and effect, not so good at cause...
    ...and effect. Exercises like this one help to reveal the less-obvious ways that our behaviors and choices impact the planet and our civilization.

    I doubt that we'll have to go through this process with everything we eat, from now until the end of the world. As our societies become more conscious of the impact of greenhouse gases, and the need for very tight and careful controls on just how much carbon we dump into the air, we'll need to create mechanisms for carbon transparency. Be they labels, icons, color-codes, or arphid, we'll need to be able to see, at a glance, just how much of a hit our personal carbon budgets take with each purchase.

    Will information alone make a difference? Probably not; after all, nutrition info panels on packaged foods didn't turn us all into health food consumers. But they will allow us more informed choices, with no appeals to not knowing the consequences of our actions.

    January 6, 2007

    Updating Geoethics

    As it's been a year and a half since I wrote Geoethical Principles, I've had some time for my thinking to evolve. Over the next week, as I can, I'll be updating the Geoethical Principles document, probably adding it as a permanent side-link.

    OtF Core: Geoethical Principles

    (Jon Lebkowsky, over in the conversation with Bruce Sterling at the Well, reminded me of one of my favorite and most difficult posts over at WorldChanging, one that's worth bringing over here. It's an exploration of "geoethical principles" -- the values we'd need to hold, and to hold tightly, should we ever be faced with the need to engage in geoengineering. Originally written in July of 2005, here it is in its entirety:)

    The pace and course of global warming-induced climate disruption is such that, even with an aggressive global effort to cut greenhouse gas output starting today, temperatures will continue to rise for two or three decades. If the effect of rising temperatures hits a "tipping point" resulting in far-more-radical changes to the Earth's ecosystems than one might otherwise expect, we may be forced into using riskier, planetary-scale engineering projects to mitigate the changes and return us to "Earth-like" conditions. In Terraforming Earth, I looked at some of the proposals for large-scale reversals of temperature increases and CO2 buildup; In Terraforming Earth, Part II, I looked at the complexities of bioengineered adjustment instead of geoengineered mitigation.

    But whether we end up taking the mitigation or the adjustment course, we will want -- need -- clear guidelines to help us make the right choices. Such guidelines would, for some, seem like common sense; indeed, their use would not be to tell us what to do, but as a consistent metric against which to test proposals. These principles would not tell us whether a given strategy would succeed or fail, but whether the strategy would be the right course of action.

    As an explicit parallel to bioethics, these guidelines would be known as "geoethics."

    Bioethics are the guidelines against which biomedical researchers and practitioners measure their own difficult decisions. While the concept is by no means new, it was first formalized in 1979, in a book entitled Principles of Biomedical Ethicsby Tom Beuchamp and James Childress. Beuchamp and Childress conceived four core principles: autonomy, the personal responsibility over our own lives, and the ability to make decisions for ourselves; non-maleficence, essentially "first of all, do no harm" (a notion derived from Hippocrates, but not actually part of the Hippocratic Oath); beneficence, a positive obligation to advance the welfare of others; and justice, the allocation of healthcare resources according to a just standard. These have become widely-accepted core principles for many working in the medical practice and medical research fields.

    Like bioethics, the term "geoethics" is not new; unlike its biological cousin, there is no consistent definition of what geoethics covers, let alone its core principles. The closest I've found comes, not altogether surprisingly, from a WorldChanging ally. Mike Treder at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology posted recently about the 1st Annual Workshop on Geoethical Nanotechnology. Treder defined geoethics thusly:

    "Geoethical" means widely agreed-upon principles for guiding the application of technologies that can have a general environmental (including people) impact, much like bioethical principles (autonomy, beneficence, nonfeasance, justice) guide the application of curative technologies that specifically impact one or more patients.

    Suggestive, but still vague. How is "technology" defined -- would cars be included? Highways? Cities? Fire? What about practices that are not explicitly technological, but demonstrate an observable environmental impact (such as deforestation, agriculture, and mining)? How much of an environmental impact is enough to be covered? Subsequent literature searches (detailed below*) only muddied the waters further.

    The upside of this lack of consistency is that we can define geoethics and geoethical principles for ourselves without too much worry about disagreement with an established definition.

    I will propose a draft definition of geoethics, along with some suggested principles, but I'm looking for input (in the comments, preferably, but in email, too) from the larger WorldChanging community as to the phrasing and value of the concept.

    Proposed phrasing:

    Geoethics is the set of guidelines pertaining to human behaviors that can affect larger planetary geophysical systems, including atmospheric, oceanic, geological, and plant/animal ecosystems. These guidelines are most relevant when the behaviors can result in long-term, widespread and/or hard-to-reverse changes in planetary systems, although even transient, local and superficial alterations can be considered through the prism of geoethics. Geoethical principles do not forbid long-term, widespread and/or hard-to-reverse changes, but require a consideration of repercussions and so-called "second-order effects" (that is, the usually-unintended consequences arising from the interaction of the changed system and other connected systems).

    Proposed core principles:

  • Interconnectedness -- planetary systems do not exist in isolation, and changes made to one system will have implications for other systems.
  • Diversity -- on balance, a diverse ecosystem is more resilient and flexible, better able to adapt to natural changes.
  • Foresight -- consideration of effects of changes should embrace the planetary pace, not the human pace.
  • Integration -- as human societies are part of the Earth's systems, changes made should take into consideration effects on human communities, and the needs of human communities should not be discounted or dismissed when considering overall impacts.
  • Expansion of Options -- on balance, choices made should increase the number of options and opportunities for future generations, not reduce them.
  • Reversibility -- changes made to planetary systems should be done in a way that allows for reconsideration if unintended and unexpected consequences arise.

    Going into a bit more detail:

    Interconnectedness is a recognition that the various planetary systems have deep and sometimes subtle cross-dependencies. Changes directly affecting a given system cannot be assumed to be neutral with regards to other systems; changes to (say) surface reflectivity, such as in the urban heat island effect, can in turn result in changes to rainfall patterns, influence the level of atmospheric ozone and particulate matter, and help determine the degree to which light from the Sun is absorbed.

    Diversity is an argument against monocultures arising directly from and as an unintended consequence of human activity. Direct monocultures include commercial forest stands; unintended monocultures include the proliferation of aggressive invasive organisms (e.g., "weeds") after environmental shifts open up new niches. Monocultures make ecosystems less able to survive shocks.

    Foresight is not a new concept at WorldChanging, even if expressed in somewhat different language. Ecological and geophysical changes tend to be slow, in human terms, and it's important when considering the implications of proposed actions to think in terms of the planet's pace, not just society's pace. An example would be the (as of now uncommon) recognition that global warming involves slow but relentless changes, such that quick shifts in human behavior will have no noticeable immediate effect.

    Integration is an explicit counter to the "die-off" line of thinking that places the needs of human societies below all other systems on the planet. Not only does the "die-off" argument result in ecological disaster as desperate societies try to grab remaining resources, its logic leads to the argument that (a) since human society is inherently unsustainable, and (b) since the planet, given sufficient time, can recover from any environmental burden we place on it before we die, there's no reason to be cautious, and we should do as we like with no concern for the future. Seeing human societies as part of the planet's systems, and as worthy of preservation and protection as any other part, allows for a longer-term perspective.

    Expansion of Options encompasses "sustainability," but is a larger concept. This means more than simply finding a sustainable balance of use and preservation; expansion of options means actively seeking behaviors that return more resources to the planet than they take, that emphasize renewal and reuse, and that provide a growing, diverse basis for future innovation.

    Reversibility is an attempt to capture the idea that, where possible, we should bias towards those choices that allow for reconsideration if unanticipated and undesirable consequences arise. Reversibility will not always be an option -- indeed, when matched with the Foresight principle, we may not recognize a problem until well after the option of reversal has passed. But when reversible options are available, they should be given special consideration.

    These principles and the statement of geoethics are obviously works-in-progress, and need greater refinement, elaboration and vision. I welcome and encourage suggestions and argument.

    Jamais Cascio, July 26, 02005

    * It turns out that a clear and consistent statement of geoethics is difficult to find. A USC seminar on Environment and Ethics defines it as "the idea of applying a range of moral principles according to the context of a given situation." In Peripheral Visions: Towards a Geoethics of Citizenship, authors Eve Walsh Stoddard and Grant H. Cornwell assert that "[by] a geoethics of citizenship we are suggesting a project of seeking understanding quite literally through the triangulation of different points of view." Ethicist Martine Rothblatt, in Your life or mine; how geoethics can resolve the conflict between public and private interests in xenotransplantation, looks at geoethics as a global set of rules to balance private and public interests in issues such as cross-species transplantation of tissues. Czech economists Vaclav Nemec and Lidmila Nemcová (DOC) propose geoethics as

    a new discipline (in both Earth sciences and applied ethics) in order to help in decision making whenever ethical dilemmas occur in problems connected with the sustainable use of non-renewable mineral resources (mainly in the fields of geology, mining activities and energy resources).

    As this variety suggests, although the term "geoethics" has been floating around for well over a decade (Nemc and Nemcová claim to have used it since 1991), there is no agreement as to what it means.

  • January 4, 2007


    (Cue "Powerhouse," by Raymond Scott)

    Nanofabbers are on my mind right now. They've shown up in some work I'm doing with IFTF; they're the focus of a project underway with CRN; and they're one of the manifestations of the "software control of matter" conversation underway at the EPSRC Ideas Factory.

    An imaginary (*ahem*, "scenaric") version of a nanofabber shows up occasionally here at OtF: the StuffStation Deluxe ("...for when you want more stuff!"). Looking oddly like a fancy dishwasher, the StuffStation Deluxe offers its users a way to make things at the touch of a button. Enter in some code (no doubt grabbed from the AppleZon iStuff Store or downloaded from Forgeforge.org), press a button, and minutes later, ding! ("Honey, I think the laptop's done!")

    But these aren't magical Star Trek replicators, they're machines that put things together, teeny tiny piece by teeny tiny piece. How does that work? Here are two videos that will make things clear.

    The first is the latest version of the nanofactory designed by none other than Dr. Eric "Engines of Creation" Drexler, and turned into animated reality by John Burch. It's a five minute clip of a nanofactory making a foldable computer for an engineer (who apparently lives and works in the Uncanny Valley). There was an earlier version floating around the web last year, but this one has been updated, and can be downloaded in its high res, no artifacts, 77 megabyte glory from the animator's own site, Scintillating Science.

    The video, along with the accompanying narration, explain how a device comprising literally trillions of synchronous molecular robots could, in fact, work, and hints at what could be done with such a device.

    But if you think that's unbelievable, you have to see this:

    It's a car factory. No, not just that. It's a robotic car factory. No, wait.

    It's a robotic factory... made of LEGO, that makes LEGO cars.

    Using only LEGO parts, this guy ("knusel111" from Germany) group of teenagers from the robotics group of the Veit-Hoser-Gymnasium in Bogen, Bavaria, built an entirely automated device to make LEGO car after LEGO car. You even get to choose the color of the components!

    It's a YouTube video, so don't expect great quality; if I can find the original mpeg/mov/wmv, I'll post that link. But even with the grainy Flash video, you can see this is something amazing. Sure, it takes six minutes to build a rinky-dink toy... but it's done completely in LEGO! It's also an extremely primitive example of how a nanofactory could (in principle) work.

    Next challenge, Veit-Hoser-Gymnasium: make one of these that make make a duplicate of itself.

    January 2, 2007

    Make Your Own Artifacts from the Future


    Here's a site that allows you to make your own newspaper headlines, appearing to be straight out of a real dead-tree edition. (In my case, the New Youngston Gazette. What? You thought it was something else?)

    Bruce Sterling on the State of the World, 2007

    brucesinbw.jpgBruce Sterling has kicked off his annual "State of the World" conversation over at the public Inkwell conference at the Well. For the next ten days or so, Bruce will be interviewed by Jon Lebkowsky (an old friend of mine, and one of the first people we brought on to WorldChanging lo these many years ago), and open to questions from both Well members and the general public (the latter through an email link).

    This is a great opportunity to see the Bruce Sterling Show in action. Here's a taste of what we've seen so far:

    I love Worldchanging; those guys rock, but it may be time to stop throwing so much visionary spaghetti at the walls and try to converge on some set of notions that might become real solutions. That may not be a proper job for people with Worldchanging's considerable talents. It wouldn's surprise me much to see something seriously freaky emerging: a rich guy's Worldchanging, something like a covert, hugely wealthy, braniac, mogul-saturated Project for a New Atmospheric Century. You might see the occasional white-paper pop out, and the rest of it would just be... vast mechanical grinding.

    Even in a world like that one, though, the visionary a-ha thing shouldn't be neglected or dismissed. It's honest work. It does matter. Doesn't take much of a budget... that's its drawback and its saving grace.

    I've seen worse suggestions.

    To give a sense of how this conversation can evolve, here are the links to Bruce's 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, and 2001 musings.

    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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