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May 29, 2007

The Surface of the Metaverse

leeloodallasmultitouch.jpgTonight, Microsoft announced its new "Surface" multi-touch interface and hardware system. Looking for all the world like one of those old Ms. Pac Man video game tables found in older bars and pizza joints, the Surface device combines a high-power Windows computer with a 30" display, set horizontally. Surface is controlled by touching this screen with one or more fingers, manipulating images in a reasonably intuitive manner.

The system bears a remarkable resemblance to the multi-touch display Jeff Han demonstrated at TED in 2006, but it's unclear just how much (if anything) he had to do with the Microsoft product. Surface does include some nifty features that Han's vertical-mounted screens couldn't do, such as recognizing when a digital devices has been put onto the table and reacting accordingly -- downloading pictures from cameras, opening up a jukebox app for a MP3 player, etc.. I was impressed by the gestural controls for these features (such as "tossing" a file towards a device to upload it); a key aspect of a usable kinesthetic interface has to be a subtle sense of physics, so that "objects" (virtual though they may be) have a perceived mass and momentum.

Okay, nifty tech, undoubtedly terrifically expensive for the foreseeable future, but if it's at all functional -- and my guess is that it will be -- it's probably a progenitor of a device we'll have in our homes by the middle of the next decade, and will find in cereal boxes not too much longer after that.

What struck me while watching the demos and reading the breathless write-up in Popular Mechanics (of all places) was that the multi-touch display system is probably the apotheosis of the two-dimensional interface model. It comes the closest to treating virtual objects as having 3D space and weight without compromising the utility of more traditional flat documents and menus. Users aren't limited by a single point of contact with the display (e.g., a mouse pointer), breaking a ironclad law dating from the earliest days of computers. In the end, a mouse pointer and a text insert cursor are making the same claim: here is the sole point of interaction with the machine. Multi-touch interfaces (whether Microsoft's Surface, Apple's iPhone, or whatever) toss aside that fundamental rule.

The appeal of Surface (etc.) for computing tasks, however, will be limited in many commonplace arenas. Multi-touch isn't going to make spreadsheets, blogging or surfing the web any simpler or more powerful. It will have some utility in photo and video editing, although here the question of whether greasy fingers will prove a regular problem rears its head. No, the real market for multi-touch is in the world of the Metaverse, especially in the Augmented Reality and Mirror Worlds versions.

(The final version of the Metaverse Roadmap Overview will finally be out in the next couple of weeks, if not sooner, btw.)

The core logic of both Mirror Worlds and Augmented Reality is the intertwining of physical reality and virtual space, in large measure to take advantage of an information substrate to spatial relationships. This substrate relies heavily upon abundant sensors, mobile devices and a willingness of citizens to tag/annotate/identify their environments. The Augmented Reality form emphasizes the in situ availability of the information substrate, while the Mirror Worlds form emphasizes the analytic and topsight power. In each case, the result is a flow of information about places, people, objects and context, one which relies on both history and dynamic interconnections. This may well be the breakthrough technology that makes it possible to control information flows.

Both of these manifestations of the Metaverse could readily take advantage of an interface system that allowed complex kinetic and gestural controls, with Mirror Worlds working best with a massive table/wall screen, and Augmented Reality working best with a hand-held device -- or maybe just the hand. One of Jeff Han's insights while developing his multi-touch system was that human kinesthetic senses need something to push against to work right. "Tapping" something virtual in mid-air may look cool in the movies, but runs against how our bodies have evolved. Our muscles and minds expect something to be there, offering physical resistance, when we touch something. Rather than digital buttons floating in mid-air (or a total reliance on a so-called "conversational interface"), mobile systems will almost certainly have either a portable tablet or (in my view the eventual winner) a way to use one hand drawing on another to mimic a stylus and tablet. The parallel here is to the touchpad found on most laptops: imagine using similar gestures and motions, but on your other hand instead of on a piece of plastic.

There are some obvious downfalls to this interaction model -- from the aforementioned greasy fingers to the ergonomics of head and arm positions in extended use -- but my guess is that the number of innovative applications of the interface (most of which haven't even been imagined) will outweigh any initial physical clumsiness.

May 28, 2007



I've been traveling this long weekend, attending the wedding of our good friends Taylor and Jeremiah. I served as the wedding photographer (I've been doing photography for years, as a nice non-textual hobby).

Normally I post about ideas and futures, but it is my blog. I thought Taylor looked so beautiful in this picture, I had to share it. Congratulations, you two!

May 24, 2007

City Planet

Wednesday, May 23, 2007. Remember that date. It's the day the Earth became an urban planet.

Working with United Nations estimates that predict the world will be 51.3 percent urban by 2010, the researchers [demographers from North Carolina State University and the University of Georgia] projected the May 23, 2007, transition day based on the average daily rural and urban population increases from 2005 to 2010. On that day, a predicted global urban population of 3,303,992,253 will exceed that of 3,303,866,404 rural people.

For the first time in history, more people live in cities than in rural areas. This is, in many ways, the single most important indicator of whether we'll survive this century. Here's why:

Urban centers support people more efficiently than do small towns, villages, and the countryside. This isn't just true environmentally or economically; it's arguably also the case when it comes to the kind of intellectual ferment that drives innovation. New ideas are the sparks coming from the friction between minds -- and you get a lot more friction in the city. Urban growth, over time, makes us all stronger.

Cities require complex support systems, however. Complex infrastructure offers plenty of opportunities for failure, whether via natural disasters or human causation. Isolated failures will happen, and not pose a systemic threat. But repeated -- or un-repaired -- system failures would inevitably drive people out of the cities, by choice or by necessity.

As long as the overall proportion of urban dwellers to rural denizens continues to grow, we can reasonably conclude that human civilization is doing a decent job of maintaining its overall system integrity. If that pattern reverses -- if we start to see the proportion of urban to rural edge back towards rural dominance -- it's time to look for signs that civilization's systems are collapsing.

Here Be Dragons

blackholeofmars.jpgThis is a picture of a mystery -- and a tantalizing possibility.

Click on it for the original. It's a picture of a "subterranean void" on Mars, taken by the HiRISE ultra-high-resolution camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The resolution on that photo is 25 centimeters per pixel; the void shown is about 100 meters across.

This is one of seven holes in Mars; all seven are along the flank of Arsia Mons, the southernmost of the Tharsis volcanos. Presumably they're cave entrances, but -- so far -- even the HiRISE camera can't see anything in there. Mars has a dusty atmosphere; if these were shallow depressions or cave openings, scattered light would be visible in enhanced images. But absolutely nothing is visible. At the very least, that means they're really, really deep.

What's particularly exciting about these caves is that they may be the best places to find extant life on Mars. According to USGS scientists (PDF):

Subterranean void spaces may be the only natural structures on Mars capable of protecting life from a range of significant environmental hazards. With an atmospheric density less than 1% of the Earth’s and practically no magnetic field, the Martian surface is essentially unprotected from micro-meteoroid bombardment, solar flares, UV radiation and high-energy particles from space.

Thermal imaging of the voids show that they maintain a relatively constant temperature, remaining relatively warm in the cold Martian night.

Who's up for a bit of spelunking?

May 23, 2007

Web Heaven

n800.jpgOkay, this is kinda cool.

I'm posting this entry via my new Nokia n800 interwebtube tablet (tubelet?). As much as I've long been fascinated by mobile devices, most tend to be better-suited to information consumption than creation. The n800 is the first one I've tried that makes posting to OtF at least a reasonable option.

What makes this device particularly appealing is that it uses Linux as its OS, not Windows Mobile. It will be my first everyday Linux box.

I'm entering this post via the touch screen keyboard. It's not perfect, but it's far better for text creation than a phone's number pad. I wouldn't want to write a novel this way, but the occasional blog post won't be too bad. When I get a bluetooth keyboard to go with it, I'll be set.

What is it missing? A decent camera, for one thing. The little pop-out camera is cute, but very low rez. I'd also like to see it be able to sync with my laptop, pulling over bookmarks and contacts automatically.

Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to seeing what I'll be able to do with this.

May 22, 2007

Tuesday Topsight, May 22, 2007

Plowing through interesting links accumulated during my travel.

• Lucky to be Alive: All of us are. Lucky to be alive, I mean. It turns out that, about 13,000 years ago, humankind came very close to extinction, courtesy of a 2km-3km comet smacking into the Earth.

A group of US scientists [...] report that they have found a layer of microscopic diamonds at 26 different sites in Europe, Canada and America. These are the remains of a giant carbon-rich comet that crashed in pieces on our planet 12,900 years ago, they say. The huge pressures and heat triggered by the fragments crashing to Earth turned the comet's carbon into diamond dust. 'The shock waves and the heat would have been tremendous,' said West. 'It would have set fire to animals' fur and to the clothing worn by men and women. The searing heat would have also set fire to the grasslands of the northern hemisphere. Great grazing animals like the mammoth that had survived the original blast would later have died in their thousands from starvation. Only animals, including humans, that had a wide range of food would have survived the aftermath.'

This discovery manages to explain several roughly simultaneous but previously hard-to-connect events, including the "Younger Dryas" mini ice age, megafaunal mass extinctions, and the utter elimination of the first wave of Homo sapiens migrants into North America. Details of the discovery will be presented this week at the American Geophysical Union meeting in Acapulco. (Session One, Session Two, and Session Three abstracts.) More details at New Scientist.

• Artifice 1: Remaking Nature: Nature presents the arguments around geoengineering in the May 9 edition, offering what looks to me to be a reasonably even-handed examination of a variety of potential re-terraforming projects. The "we don't know enough to do anything" position is well-represented, as is the "we may be forced to do it, so we should do it right" view. I was particularly pleased to see the explicit argument that, should geoengineering be required, it should be done "as carefully and as reversibly as you can." A good argument is made for my personal view, that more research into geoengineering is especially important in order to know what not to do:

[In reference to Roger Angel's massively multi-mirror sunblock idea:] Ralph Cicerone, a climate scientist and president of the US National Academy of Sciences, singles the paper out for praise for the painstakingly careful way it was done. "He went back to it again and again," Cicerone says. "In its standard of elegance and completeness it was exemplary." For him and many others, such academic excellence is the main point of publishing research on geoengineering. For these researchers, the aim is not to find feasible solutions but to do good science that provides a standard against which to judge the less good, or flatly foolish, schemes that might otherwise accrete around the idea. Cicerone points to quack schemes for ozone replacement in the 1980s as the sort of thing that needs to be forestalled: back then, he says, "poor ideas got as far as they did because of [the community's] silence."

Say it with me: if climate disaster hits faster and harder than anticipated, desperate people will try desperate measures, including geoengineering. We need to be able to identify the choices that won't just make things worse.

• Artifice 2: Robo-Brothers in Arms: Joel Garreau has a terrific piece in the Washington Post called "Bots on The Ground," discussing the growing use of robots (remote-controlled and semi-autonomous) in the U.S. military. The piece is worth reading for the opening anecdote alone, which underscores just how powerful emotional relationships with machines can be.

Without using the term, Garreau makes it clear that these technologies are as much a form of emotional augmentation as they are ability augmentation. The animate devices become extensions of the self, even as they take on at least the superficial appearance of independence. This is new territory for technologists, but in many respects it's a long-standing element of our culture. In the past, though, we just called them "pets." Will we be able to think of robots in the same way?

My cat is sleeping on the desk next to my keyboard as I write this. As I look at her, I find myself unsure of whether I'd be able to have the same emotional bond with something artificial. Will this be the real 21st century generational dividing line?

• Join an Institute for the Future Project: The following was sent to me by my colleagues at the Institute for the Future, and they agreed to let me repost.

The Institute for the Future (IFTF) is an independent nonprofit research group. We work with organizations of all kinds to help them make better, more informed decisions about the future. We provide the foresight to create insights that lead to action. We bring a combination of tools, methodologies, and a deep understanding of emerging trends and discontinuities to our work with companies, foundations, and government agencies.

We are currently recruiting for a new research study called "Boomers in the Next 20 Years". For the purposes of this study, people who were born between 1946 and 1964 qualify as Boomers, and you do not need to identify as a Baby Boomer to participate. The study is about how you will respond to the changes and challenges in the next 20 years. We want to know about your experiences and the decisions you are making and foresee making in the areas of health, finance, work, family and community.

Participation would include a response to this survey, followed by a brief telephone interview and a 2 hour interview in your home to be scheduled between June and August, 2007. Not all people who complete this survey will be selected for further interviews. Participants who complete of all phases of the project will be given a stipend of $100, paid by American Express gift card.

We are particularly interested in interviewing people who live within 100 miles of city center of these cities:

Denver, Colorado
San Francisco, California
Austin, Texas
Seattle, Washington
Miami, Florida
Louisville, Kentucky
Minneapolis St. Paul, Minnesota
New York, New York

Take our brief Recruitment Survey to get involved, or forward this message on to people you know who may be interested in participating. Thank you for your time!

If you have any questions about participating in the project, please direct them to mlueck@iftf.org.

May 21, 2007

Security Theater of the Absurd

(This post written in the departure lounge for my return flight from London to San Francisco, about 2am Pacific Time, and posted upon my arrival home.)

Security specialist Bruce Schneier uses a particular term to refer to the practices that are highly visible but ultimately of little value: "security theater." One of the canonical examples of security theater is the requirement that one remove one's shoes at the airport, or more recently, the 3 ounce limitation on liquids carried on-board a plane. These are demands that have little practical effect, but -- in large measure by inconveniencing travelers -- they give the appearance of doing something about aircraft security.

Today, just about fifteen minutes ago, I saw the normal level of security theater taken to new heights.

In the past, my flights to London have been on British Airways; this time, for a variety of reasons, I gave Virgin Atlantic a try. The SFO to LHR leg was generally pleasant, at least as pleasant as trans-Atlantic flights can be (i.e., I was constantly feeling guilty about the carbon footprint of my flight). The security theater in San Francisco was perfunctory and reasonably efficient.

Heathrow proved to be a different story. For whatever reason, the initial x-ray screening went more slowly than at SFO; moreover, the inevitable shoe-removal was actually a second line & screening, rather than just part of the initial pass-through. It turns out that this wasn't the end of it, however. Upon arrival at the departure gate, I discovered that Virgin has put together yet another security screening, requiring me to:

• Allow the screener to poke through my carry-on bag. Given what later transpired with the laptop, I was surprised that he didn't seem particularly interested in my unusual-appearing camera or multiple mobile phones (the woman being grilled next to me spent much of her time struggling to remove the battery from her lone mobile).
• Open and drink from the bottle of soda I had purchased from the vendor around the corner from the gate (and well-within the departure area).
• Remove my shoes again, so that the screener could... well, all he did was lift each boot. I'm not sure what that told him, other than I have reasonably lightweight boots.
• Open up my laptop screen so that he could run his fingers across the keyboard. He didn't care whether the laptop was on or off, or whether it worked -- just that the keys moved.
• He then told me to remove the battery. I told him no, that I needed to shut the machine down first so that I didn't lose data. I felt perversely amused that the laptop seemed to take three times longer than usual to shut down. Once the laptop had finally shut down, and I had removed the battery, all he did was look into the battery slot for about a second, if even that long. "All clear."

When I said that this all seemed rather absurd, given that I'd just gone through a screening a short while before, he sniffed that this was being done because I was flying to the United States, and that required extra precautions. I asked if British Airways was doing this, too, and he said that he hoped so -- but when I said that they weren't when I flew just a few weeks earlier, he just shrugged.

This wasn't done to me as a special random (or lone-male) screening. Every passenger on the 747 received this treatment. Given the screener's replies, I have no reason to believe that this was a just-added layer of security in response to a new threat.

Okay, I understand that, on the grand scale of things, this is at worst an inconvenience. But in many ways, it's the perfect illustration of just how brain-dead the current security model has become. This is all about going through ritualized motions without any actual utility. It's cargo-cult security.

And that makes it dangerous. To the extent that flyers -- citizens -- believe that this kind of time-consuming and vaguely humiliating inspection (the crotch-grabbing pat-down really should have a safeword) actually makes the flight safer, they're less-likely to pay attention to their surroundings. Someone who decides to do something evil on the flight has a greater chance of being successful, simply because passengers are made to think that the security theater actually made a difference.

The combined self-interest, awareness and reason of the public is our greatest source of defense against the unthinkable. This is true whether we're talking about human-caused or natural disasters. Anything that mutes these defenses without offering compensating benefits works to our ultimate detriment.

May 18, 2007

Second RU Sirius Show Now Up

The second podcast emerging from the conversation session with RU Sirius last week is now available.

RU Sirius Show #109 (Weekend Edition): Why Big War is Becoming Obsolete: Jamais Cascio of WorldChanging fame leads us in a discussion about being good ancestors and why networked global guerrillas are rendering Big War obsolete.

MP3 link.

This is, of course, based on the "Lost Hegemon Part 2" piece from May 7.

(In London. In the workshop. Suddenly amazingly jet-lagged.)

May 16, 2007

Back to the UK

Waiting to LeaveAnd today, I'm once again chalking up the carbon debt, heading back to London for the next part of the Open University engagement.

I normally fly British Airways, but I've been annoyed enough at their service (especially with regards to using accumulated FF miles for upgrades) that I decided to try Virgin. Gotta make sure that Sir Richard has the $25 million he needs for his geoengineering challenge, you know.

Unless absolutely necessary, I don't fly United -- not since the engine caught fire on a flight to Philadelphia, while still on the tarmac, and because we were already late the crew didn't respond until quite literally the whole passenger cabin was yelling. Fool me once, shame on, shame on you, fool me -- can't get fooled again. Or something like that.

May 15, 2007

RU Sirius show with Justin.tv and me now up

Just a quick note: one of the two podcast segments recorded this weekend with RU Sirius is now available at the MondoGlobo website:
RU Sirius Show #108: Justin from Justin.tv Brings It Justin Kan has shared his view of the world with all of us… literally, since March 19, when he hooked a mobile camera to his hat and started streaming live video 24-7 (more or less) on his justin.tv site. He joined us live in our studio for this program. And check out “Stereotypes” by Bos105, Justin’s brother!
Here's the MP3 link.

May 13, 2007

Participatory Panopticon in Action

justintvspam.jpgJustin of Justin.tv was the guest at today's recording of the RU Sirius podcast. A pretty genial guy, he seems reasonably conscious of the implications of his ongoing project. For those of you unfamiliar with Justin.tv, he wears a live-streaming wireless camera on his hat all day, every day, recording everything he sees. These recordings are available as archives.

You can see the archive of today's RU Sirius interview here -- scan ahead to 2:45 to see his arrival.

(Yes, I'm walking with a cane. It's not a two-bit Warren Ellis impression, I'm having an arthritis flare-up. Yes, arthritis. Yes, it sucks.)

The conversation is lively, and worth listening to. As pictured, I have the honor of being the very first person ever to try to spam the justin.tv video feed -- unsuccessfully, as the resolution on his camera is pretty lousy. Fortunately, he was nice enough to read out what I wrote: the URL for Open the Future.

I'm sure the money will start rolling in any second now.

Open Source with a Bullet: John Robb's Brave New War

brave_new_war.jpgThe U.S. is Microsoft. Al Qaeda is Linux.

That, at least, is the grossly-oversimplified version of John Robb's new book, Brave New War. Such a parallel has nothing to do with politics, but with position. The United States, and other centralized, conventionally powerful global actors, fill a role in the geopolitical ecosystem akin to Microsoft: big and slow to respond; wealthy and wasteful; hierarchical and ossified. Al Qaeda, and other distributed, guerrilla insurgency and terrorist movements, fill a geopolitical role more akin to Linux: decentralized and nimble; open to new entrants; innovative out of necessity. It's for good reason that Robb refers to the conflicts now underway as "open source warfare," and the distributed participants, "global guerrillas."

I'll leave it to others to address the military implications of Robb's argument; it's enough to say that I found his ideas compelling (this should come as no surprise, given how often I link to his site when I write about global politics). I'd like to focus, instead, on what he calls out as the proper response those opposed to the global guerrillas should adopt.

Robb makes it clear that the tactics the United States (and, to a lesser extent, Europe and other post-industrial nations) now employs are bad, bad ideas. "Knee-jerk police states" and "preemptive war" fall into a category Robb borrows from security specialist Bruce Schneier: "brittle security." The big problem with brittle security is that, when it fails, it fails catastrophically; moreover, by employing these tactics, the U.S. (etc.) undermines the very moral suasion and memetic influence that are among the most important tools to fight empowered extremism.

He proposes instead the adoption of "dynamic decentralized resilience:"

It is simply the ability to dynamically mitigate and dampen system shocks. Specifically, it is those things we (and our state) can do to change the configuration of our networks to ensure that intentional or naturally occurring attacks on our society don't do much damage or spiral out of control.

This is a welcome argument. The concept of resilience is useful as a response to a spectrum of threats, as it emphasizes not the specific counters to a particular challenge, but the broader ability of a society or network to survive and thrive even when faced with major threats. Robb uses it here as a way of dealing with open source warfare; a few months ago, I used it as a way of dealing with environmental disruption:

"Resiliency," conversely, admits that change is inevitable and in many cases out of our hands, so the environment -- and our relationship with it -- needs to be able to withstand unexpected shocks. Greed, accident or malice may have harmful results, but [...] such results can be absorbed without threat to the overall health of the planet's ecosystem. If we talk about "environmental resiliency," then, we mean a goal of supporting the planet's ability to withstand and regenerate in the event of local or even widespread disruption.

Robb and I are not alone in the use of resilience as a fundamental part of surviving the 21st century. The Resilience Alliance greatly expands on the notion of environmental resilience, and links it to concepts such as adaptive cycles and Panarchy. (I'd love to see how Robb would make use of the Panarchy argument in his own work -- there are definite connections.)

This isn't simply a coincidental use of the same word. The overlaps between social resilience and ecological resilience are quite profound. A small example of this can be seen when Robb leads us through reconfiguring an existing system to make it more resilient. He argues that the power grid could be made much more resilient -- that is, much better able to absorb and mitigate threats -- by becoming much more decentralized, with individual buildings becoming power generators as well as power consumers. To be clear, this isn't a call for energy isolationism -- he doesn't want to go "off-grid." It's a call for a much more deeply-networked grid. And it happens to be an argument very familiar to those of us looking at ways to deal with environmental crises, not simply because it supports greater use of renewable energy, but because of its resiliency under stress.

Looking more broadly, Robb lists three rules for successful "platforms," or sets of services, operating under his resiliency model: transparency (so all participants can see and understand what's happening); two-way (so all participants can act as both providers and consumers of the services); and openness (so the number and kind of participants isn't artificially limited). Again, these rules should sound very familiar to readers of (among other sites) Open the Future and WorldChanging.

I make a point of highlighting these similarities in order to demonstrate that the concepts that Robb discusses as a way of dealing with a particular kind of challenge actually have far broader applicability. An open, transparent, distributed and resilient system is precisely what's needed to survive successfully threats from:

  • Natural disasters, such as tsunamis, earthquakes, and pandemic disease.
  • Environmental collapse, especially (but not solely) global warming.
  • Emerging transformative technologies, such as molecular manufacturing, cheap biotechnology and artificial general intelligence.
  • Open source warfare.
  • Even (should it happen) the Singularity.

    John Robb addresses some of these when referring to "naturally occurring attacks" or the value of sustainability as a way of supporting resilience. Because he focuses on the military/security manifestations, however, he doesn't make a strong connection to the broader utility of the concept. I hope that he starts to look more closely at these other arenas as sources of innovation and even alliance.

    The one element that Brave New War lacked, and would have been well-received, is some exploration of what kinds of counter-global guerrilla strategies might be in the offing. He's clear that the current approach is disastrous, and the resilience argument does a good job of showing how post-industrial nations can better survive the threat of global guerrillas without surrendering their values. But I found myself wondering what kinds of tactics and technologies will emerge as a way of meeting the open source warfare threat head-on. Is it something as obvious as re-tooling conventional militaries to adopt more "open source" style techniques? Is it something as surprising as a shift in focus towards what might be thought of as an "open source peace corps"? Maybe it will require a major technological leap, where we find that the best counter to open source guerrillas is ultra-high-tech swarming bots, or nano-weapons, or something even more startling.

    The question I have for John Robb is, then, if we build the open future, how do we defend it?

  • Outsourcing the Future

    This strikes me as an important indicator:

    Pasadena news site outsources local government coverage to India
    PASADENA – The job posting was a head-scratcher: “We seek a newspaper journalist based in India to report on the city government and political scene of Pasadena, California, USA.” [...] Outsourcing first claimed manufacturing jobs, then hit services such as technical support, airline reservations and tax preparation. Now comes the next frontier: local journalism.

    The editor who ran the ad argues that, since the Pasadena city council now puts its meetings online, reporters covering the city can be anywhere. And while this particular example may not hold true this time around -- city governance is more than city council meetings -- it's clearly going to be possible at some point soon.

    Of course, the editor's job isn't going to be so stable, either. Whether because of automated selection software ("botsourcing," as with Google News) or social filtering software ("crowdsourcing," as with Digg), specialized editor skills are of declining value. And there's really no reason why editorial duties couldn't be outsourced, too. Add in remote collaboration and presentations, and the same will hold true for lawyers, accountants, even (gulp) consultants.

    The combination of increasingly smart software, social network-based activities, and highly-educated low-cost workers around the world looks likely to hit knowledge workers as hard -- if not harder -- than previous waves of automation and outsourcing have hit ostensibly less-skilled jobs. Botsourcing/crowdsourcing/outsourcing knowledge work may turn out to be a very attractive option, given that these tend to be higher-paying jobs. Ironically, it's entirely possible that the carbon footprint of shipping may add so much cost to outsourced manufacturing that those jobs get re-localized, whereas the knowledge jobs (needing only an Internet connection) end up being globalized.

    So are we headed to a world where the only stable jobs are those that absolutely require hands-on contact -- health maintenance, grooming, and the like? Or to one where wages even out across the world of skilled workers? Neither strikes me as terribly appealing or stable.

    In the past, economic transitions that resulted in lost jobs inevitably led to arguments that such losses were transient, as new technologies and industries would be opening up, and new skills would lead to new jobs. But that argument rests on the assumption that there were categories of work that couldn't easily be de-coupled from the workers, because of highly-specialized skills. In a world where the only job characteristic that can't readily be de-coupled is proximity, is it even possible to come up with new jobs that can't immediately be shipped out or chipped out?

    This, coupled with the likely rise of molecular manufacturing over the next 20 to 25 years, strikes me as a key early indicator that we're shifting into an entirely new kind of economy.

    May 11, 2007

    Video of Video Presentation

    takeawaytalk.jpgGiven that the folks at the Takeaway Festival weren't recording the talks for posterity, I didn't expect to see how the Skype-video presentation I did on Wednesday turned out. It turns out, though, that British designer Cubicgarden brought his trusty videocamera to the event, and one of the talks he recorded was mine!

    The sound quality isn't all that great -- certainly more my fault than anyone else's -- and it's pretty clear that I'm coming in over a web cam... but it's another interesting example of using web tech to carry out work that previously would have demanded travel.

    Thanks for taping the talk, Cubicgarden!

    May 9, 2007

    Interesting Gigs

    takeaway.jpgThis is a busy week (aren't they all), but with some unusual events thrown in:

    Yesterday, I was an invited guest at a World Economic Forum meeting on global risks. The WEF personnel tasked the attendees with helping to figure out key focal points for next year's Forum in Davos. I can't say much more until the official report is out (soon, apparently), but to give you a sense of what the group works on, here's a link to the Global Risks 2007 document(pdf) published in February.

    Main conclusion I reached: the corporations represented in this meeting were all very cognizant of the risks coming from global climate change, and none of them tried to push back on the science at all. At the same time, they remained focused on the near-term implications, and seemed blind-sided by some of the suggestions of likely future results I offered. Nothing I said would have come as a surprise to regular readers of the leading green blogs, but there were some worried looks when I was done (all related to the policy implications, not the geo-science).

    Today, I spoke to the Takeaway Festival in London. I did so via Skype video, from the comfort of my home office.

    The positives: did not have to fly to London for a 20 minute presentation, a win-win-win for me (no 10 hour flight to deal with), for the festival (no international plane fare to pay for), and the Earth (far less carbon output from the videoconference than from a flight). I could sit comfortably (arthritis flare-up again today). Got a chance to try something new.

    The negatives: no way to get realtime feedback from the audience, whether in terms of confused looks, laughter or applause. Couldn't talk with my hands (i.e., gesticulate for emphasis or balance while I talk), because I was too close to the camera -- but if I pulled back enough to see my entire upper body, the graininess of the Skype video connection would have left my face indecipherable. Couldn't see the space, since the London camera was on a laptop stuck in the back of the room, blocked by a crowd of people standing.

    I don't think I'd want to do video presentations on a regular basis, but I'm glad I got a chance to do this one.

    Finally, RU Sirius has asked me to serve as co-host for this weekend's Neofiles podcast. The guest will be Justin, of Justin.tv. Should be fun -- and I'll link to the audio file when it's up.

    May 7, 2007

    I Own This Number

    24 EB 93 14 E0 4B C0 BD 99 44 65 AD 86 CC DE 92

    ...and I'd better not catch any of you using it!

    (See here for explanation... and to get your own 128-bit number!)

    Monday Topsight, May 7, 2007

    squirrel_img.jpgBusy week coming up: working a panel on the future of sustainability tomorrow; delivering a talk to the TAKEAWAY festival of DIY media, in London (I'll be presenting remotely); lots of IFTF stuff; and prepping for a return to London for the next leg of the Open University project.

    In the meantime...

    Green Panopticon Begins: UC San Diego's Shannon Spanhake has come up with a small pollution monitor built to send data to cell phones. She calls it Squirrel.

    Squirrel fits in the palm of your hand and can be clasped to a belt or purse. The small, battery-powered mobile device can sample pollutants with its on-chip sensor. The current prototype measures carbon monoxide and ozone, but eventually the device will be able to sample nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide in the air, as well as temperature, barometric pressure and humidity.

    It’s what happens next that makes Squirrel a powerful tool in the fight against pollution. Using a Bluetooth wireless transmitter, the device connects to the user’s cell phone. A software program called Acorn allows the user to see the current pollution alerts through a screensaver on the cell phone’s display. The phone also periodically transmits the environmental data to a public database on the Internet operated by the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), which is funding Squirrel’s development.

    Hmmm. Any of this sound familiar?

    Great work, Shannon!

    Micro-Dam It!: Gregg Zachary writes in the May 2007 edition of IEEE Spectrum about the growth of micro-hydro in Africa as a way around the ongoing energy production crisis across most of the continent. Small dams, which can produce anywhere from a few kilowatts to a few megawatts of power, have proven to be more reliable, more environmentally sound, and more flexible than traditional hydroelectric megaprojects. The microhydro dams, which produce no more than 100 kilowatts, have become especially popular, as they can be built and maintained with minimal demands on government or outside support.

    It will come as no surprise, then, that most African governments are opposed (or at best unwelcoming) to microhydro. The primary reason, though, is interesting:

    It's a reminder that the electricity issue in Africa, as elsewhere, is as much political as it is technical. Big dams are prestige projects, symbols of national power that drive employment and industry. Small hydros, dispersed and difficult for the government to keep track of, let alone manage, seem vaguely subversive.

    That reminded me of something I dug up back in the late 1980s, doing research on Pakistan's development of atomic weaponry. The driver for most Pakistanis wasn't military might or even deterrence against India, but prestige: building an atomic bomb would demonstrate to the world that Pakistan was as advanced, as capable, as any other top-ranking nation.

    The connection between mega-projects and national pride -- especially in areas historically the target of other nations' whims -- should not be ignored by those of us seeking to change behavior.

    You Don't Live Longer, It Just Feels Like It: Calorie restriction, aka cr, is a long-recognized path to longevity. Cutting the diets of mice by 40% gives them 50% longer lives than mice fed a normal, healthy diet. I'm sure we're all ready to jump on that bandwagon.

    So biogerontologists are looking for so-called "cr-mimetic" drugs, just as resveratrol, that trick the body into behaving as if it is receiving a limited diet. That search just took a big step, with the discovery of a particular gene, pha-4, that is tied directly (and, apparently, exclusively) to the calorie-longevity tradeoff. The usual disclaimers apply: still early research; may not work in humans as it does in other animals; the influence of genes isn't as well-understood as popularly believed; don't expect your insurance to pay for it.

    Maybe for Cell Phones Next?: New Scientist reports on the development of a $10 DNA-replicating device, a cheap, pocket-sized PCR (polymerase chain reaction) system. PCR is pretty much a cornerstone process of nearly all genetic testing and engineering.

    The device has no moving parts and costs just $10 to make. It runs polymerase chain reactions (PCRs), to generate billions of identical copies of a DNA strand, in as little as 20 minutes. This is much faster than the machines currently in use, which take several hours.

    It still needs a way to isolate DNA samples for replication, so don't expect it to show up at Target any time soon. Still, once it's ready, the medical applications, especially in the developing world, will be outstanding. Perhaps of even greater impact, though, will be the uses developed by open-source hardware hackers, looking for ways to make the system do what the designers never anticipated.

    And just wait until someone figures out how to hook the $10 DNA device to the $100 laptop...

    The Roof, The Roof, The Roof is Oddly Bright: And finally, Summer has arrived. Less than a week ago, it was windy and rainy here; today, it's set to be in the low-to-mid-90s. Good thing we had to replace our roof.

    One of the first pieces I ever wrote for WorldChanging that got a bit of attention was Green and White, talking about some research done by the Lawrence Berkeley Labs indicating that light-colored (or, best of all, white) roofs made such a dramatic difference in warmer climes that replacing a roof with white shingles would save more power (from cooling) than would be generated by replacing that roof with solar panels.

    When it came time to replace the roof of our house, you'd better believe we went white. Or Ash Grey, which was a newer generation shingle with a slightly better efficiency rating than the white shingles. The additional cost over the basic cheap shingles (which only come in faux-wood dark colors) will be easily matched by the greatly reduced air conditioning bills and the one-time rebate from PG&E, the local power company. Best of all, no more sweltering at midnight.

    Behavior changes matter. System changes matter. But let's not forget the value of offering people a chance to do the right thing when they need to meet existing needs.

    White Roof

    May 2, 2007

    The Lost Hegemon (pt 2): The End of Conventional War

    (Previously: The Lost Hegemon (pt 1) and A Post-Hegemonic Future)

    Few would dispute that the American military is, far and away, the most powerful conventional armed force on the planet, even as depleted as it is by the Iraq war.

    At the same time, few would dispute that this military force is, and by all signs will continue to be, insufficient to quell the insurgency in Iraq.

    While this particular result has dramatic implications for the global position of the US, as well as for the political and economic future of the region (and the world), the larger meaning of this conflict is only beginning to become clear: conventional militaries, as a means of compelling a desired behavior on the part of a national populace, have become obsolete. The question now is how long it will take political leaders to recognize this fact, and adapt to it.

    The reasons for this obsolescence are clear: conventional military forces appear to be unable to defeat a networked insurgency, which combines the information age's distributed communication and rapid learning with the traditional guerilla's invisibility (by being indistinguishable from the populace) and low support needs. It's not just the American experience in Iraq (and, not as widely discussed, Afghanistan) that tells us this; Israel's latest war in Lebanon leads us to the same conclusion, and even the Soviet Union's experience in Afghanistan and America's war in Vietnam underline this same point. Insurgencies have always been hard to defeat with conventional forces, but the "open source warfare" model, where tactics can be learned, tested and communicated both formally and informally across a distributed network of guerillas, poses an effectively impossible challenge for conventional militaries.

    To be clear, this isn't a crude argument that networked insurgency forces are "stronger" than conventional militaries. In a stand-up fight against a modern army, whether on attack or defense, the guerillas will lose; in an insurgency, where stand-up fights are avoided, the modern army simply cannot win. But even talking about winning and losing in this context is simplistic. Networked insurgencies are best at forcing costly stalemates. When on the offense, networked insurgencies are less about compellence than about provocation (making the enemy more likely to engage in acts that horrify the populace and undermine the enemy's support); on the defense, they're less about protection than about disruption (making the enemy expend increasing amounts of force, money and attention on maintaining its own critical support systems). As a result, a networked insurgency can best be thought of as a deterrent force, promising (and able) to exact a high cost in retaliation for a perceived attack.

    (John Robb's site Global Guerillas, along with his new book Brave New War, document the emergence and capabilities of the open source warfare concept, so I won't try to replicate that here. And, to be clear, my arguments here are my own, not his.)

    If deterrence as a way of making conventional militaries obsolete sounds familiar, it should. Such obsolescence actually began in 1945, with the beginning of the nuclear era. The risk of escalation made conventional conflict between nuclear-armed states functionally impossible, by making it something that must be avoided. While this didn't stop the US and USSR from building up considerable conventional military forces, it meant (for example) that the Soviets could field a significantly larger conventional army than could the Americans without changing the balance of power. All of the money poured into the conventional militaries by the superpowers was functionally meaningless when it came to the threat each posed directly to the other. The Cold War military build-ups had other drivers -- power-projection against non-nuclear states (albeit with limited effectiveness), institutional bureaucracies that needed to be fed, and a conventional way of thinking that simply couldn't quite believe that the underlying system of military power had changed.

    Nuclear weapons make conventional conflicts extremely unlikely between nuclear states. Historically, this meant that nuclear states could still mess around with conventional conflicts against non-nuclear states, with varying degrees of success. The growing empowerment of insurgent forces has now made conventional conflicts extremely costly and nearly impossible to win, as well. In time, this should come to make them extremely unlikely at the low end, too.*

    Because this empowerment looks set to accelerate both technologically (such as with the advent of inexpensive fabbers or the proliferation of ultra-cheap, ultra-smart embedded processors and programming know-how) and organizationally (as the increased participation of various globally-distributed guerilla movements increases the pool of tactics and ways to test them), fights against networked insurgencies will only become more and more dangerous. If the lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon don't sink in this time, the next attempt to use conventional military forces will lead to even costlier failure, and the next after that costlier still -- and, eventually, the fading hegemons, rising superpowers, regional badasses and so forth will finally realize that the Great Game they thought they'd been playing ended years ago.

    But what's the new game? Networked insurgencies are just the latest in a long evolution of conflict. How, then, will the powerful again come to dominate the weak?

    That remains to be seen, but it's almost certain to involve figuring out ways to achieve networked supremacy, rather than simple force supremacy. It will very likely be much more automated, in part due to the growing reluctance of post-industrial nations to give up the lives of soldiers, and in part due to the growing ability of semi-autonomous machines to carry out tasks beyond the capacity of the human body. Ideally, the proliferation of networked systems in the service of "politics by other means" might even allow for the development of tools that minimize casualties on all sides. (The stalled but brilliant web comic Spiders is one intriguing scenario of what that kind of world might look like.)

    Despite the end of the utility of conventional force, the lack of certainty as to what the next wave of global compellence power will look like will inevitably lead to strategic mistakes. As we look ahead, it's clear that if another state -- say, China -- decides to take America's place as the leading hegemonic power on the planet by emulating the current American model of extreme emphasis on conventional force projection, that state has already become another Lost Hegemon. The system has changed, and the meaning of power has changed.

    Conversely, the first group that cracks this problem has the potential to leapfrog the others in assuming the role of global powerhouse. Given the speed with which technology and organizational models are evolving, we can't assume it will be a state. Corporations seemed poised to take on that role in the 1990s; non-governmental groups are the lead candidates today. It's entirely possible that the kind of social organization that will become the next hegemonic force has yet to be invented. One thing is clear: the next superpower, whoever or whatever it is, will be the actor that finally figures out the new meaning of power.

    * So what about India and Pakistan? They're both nuclear armed, and yet continue to shoot at each other. Ironically, this seems to be a result of the empowerment of insurgency. Nuclear rivals, not willing to risk the potential escalation of a conventional fight, may turn to the use of networked insurgency techniques as a way of maintaining a fight. As the power of networked insurgency continues to grow, however, even this may become untenable

    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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