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October 30, 2007


SubtleThe hard-right Swiss People's Party -- the SVP -- is not known for its subtlety. I took the picture to the right, a campaign billboard for the SVP, when in Zurich last month; to be fair, while I ran across several of the billboards during my stay, this was the only one that wasn't hit with anti-racist graffiti. Nonetheless, cartoon ovine discrimination isn't the only way that this political movement gets its message out: it now uses video games.

Ian Bogost, over at Water Cooler Games, notes the SVP's "Zottel-Game" website. Zottel the goat is the SVP's symbol, and at this website, the player can use Zottel to carry out a variety of political goals, from blocking immigration to shooting EU tax collectors (symbolized by EU hats) to attacking Green party activists. All of this happens in a cartoonish style, of course, and the immigrants are once again symbolized by black sheep. There are four separate games, all done in Flash.

Bogost provides this context:

To understand the games, though, you have to first know something about the party itself. It was once a centrist agricultural party, but took on right-wing populist interests in the last twenty years. Since 2003, the party has been very strong in the Swiss National Council. Their right-wing policies have included attempts to ban the construction of minarets, drawing accusations that it wanted to rid the country of Muslims, and the deportation of criminal foreigners, which some compared to Nazi deportation policies.

(For more context on the SVP, see this long (English-language) piece at the German newsmagazine Spiegel)

The SVP is not a marginal, fringe party; it's actually the largest single party in the Swiss parliament, holding about a quarter of the overall seats. Its use of online videogames as a way of spreading its message underscores how games have become an increasingly mainstream medium for political communication, linking blunt symbolism and simplistic rhetoric. While I wouldn't expect an identical set of games to do as well in the U.S. (mostly because the racial aspects would be hard to dismiss), I wouldn't be at all surprised to see some kind of online games offered up by candidate or party websites in the 2008 elections.

Sadly, it's likely that such political games would be as mindless as the SVP games (regardless of partisan angles). Despite the significance of the very real challenges facing the U.S. and the planet, modern political discourse doesn't seem to lend itself to deep discussions and multivariate analysis, and Flash-based applications are rarely well-suited for complex gameplay. I would love to see candidates and parties offering up versions of SimCity or Civilization embedded with their perspectives on how the world works, giving players a chance to "live" in those worlds as they consider their votes -- or, perhaps, to offer up games of how the world would be if their opponents won.

Imagine such a world. Rather than candidates and parties describing the worlds that they'll make in broad, unprovable language, they'll have to show how such a world would work. They'll need to hire teams of programmers, of course; I'd imagine that coders able to design both good simulation systems and enjoyable interfaces would come at quite the premium. Transparency would be critical, since it would be too easy to cheat and bias the model to only produce beneficial outcomes. With that transparency, however, comes another channel of argument. Debates would take place in the form of alternative source code, with savvy partisans pointing out errors and omissions in opposing models. "Many eyes make all partisan distortions of the simulation shallow" would be the rallying cry.

Instead, we get goats kicking out black sheep and hippies.

Is too much to ask for a little nuance and intelligence in our politics?

October 27, 2007

The Second Uncanny Valley

second uncanny valley.jpg

The "Uncanny Valley" is the evocative name for the commonplace reaction to realistic-but-not-quite-right simulated humans, robotic or animated. Most of us, when encountering such a simulacrum, have an instinctive "it's creepy" response, one that is enhanced when the sim is moving. Invented by roboticist Masahiro Mori, the Uncanny Valley concept is typically applied to beings (broadly conceived) as they become increasingly similar to humans in appearance and action.

But what about beings as they become less similar to humans -- following the path of transhumans and, eventually, posthumans?

An article in the latest issue of New Scientist (subscription required) prompted this question. Thierry Chaminade and Ayse Saygin of University College London began to investigate how the Uncanny Valley phenomenon worked, and performed brain scans on people encountering simulacra of varying degrees of human likeness. They found spikes of activity in the parietal cortex.

This area of the brain is known to contain "mirror neurons", which are active when someone imagines performing an action they are observing. While watching all three videos, people imagine picking up the cup themselves. Chaminade says the extra mirror neuron activity when viewing the lifelike robot might be due to the way it moves, which jars with its appearance. This "breach of expectation" could trigger extra brain activity and produce the uncanny feelings.

The response may stem from an ability to identify - and avoid - people suffering from an infectious disease. Very lifelike robots seem almost human but, like people with a visible disease, aspects of their appearance jar.

Clearly, such a reaction does not require that the observed "human" actually be sick, only that its behavior and/or physiological characteristics seem a bit off. This could, conceivably, include human beings with "enhanced" characteristics -- "H+" in the current jargon.

Science fiction visions of space-adapted posthumans with hands for feet or wings for low-gravity flight would obviously seem at least "a bit off," but the enhancements need not be that radical. In fact, it's possible -- even likely -- that the less-radical changes would end up being more disturbing. Enhancements to optical capabilities might change the appearance of the eye. Improved neuromuscular systems might make everyday actions -- grabbing a coffee cup, picking up a child, even walking along the street -- look unnatural. Accelerated cognition might make verbal interactions disjointed, even bizarre.

As long as these changes fall into the broad ranges of current human variety, we'd be unlikely to see an unusually negative response. But if they are clearly outside the realm of the "expanded normal," and if they have external manifestations that are readily identifiable, it may very well be that the reactions of unmodified people -- and perhaps even the reactions of other "H+" individuals! -- are significantly more negative than one might expect. In this scenario, the enhanced person wouldn't just seem weird, he or she would seem wrong.

If this is possible, then it has profound social and political implications for transhumanist and other H+ advocate agendas for human enhancement technologies.

For example, if the typical reaction of unmodified people to enhanced humans is "that guy really creeps me out," it may be easy for opponents of these technologies to generate a legal and cultural backlash.

Similarly, if the gut reaction to a moderately modified human is to see him or her as no longer human, political struggles could get very ugly very quickly.

It's unlikely that the first generations of human enhancement technologies -- which would most likely just be adaptations of therapeutic medical technologies -- would engender this kind of response. But if we follow the logic of the human enhancement model, we will at some point over this century start to introduce changes to the human physiological and behavior model that will fall well outside the realm of human variability. It's possible that we'll have enough other kinds of simulacra and non-human persons in our midst that we'll take such modifications in stride, and have no qualms about keeping the transhumans in the human family.

But it's also possible -- arguably, more possible -- that the emergence of significant modifications to humanity will trigger deep responses in the human brain, ones that we may very well not like.

October 25, 2007

New Audiocasts

A couple of new radio/Internet radio interviews went up this week:

• Part II of the "Future of the Web" conversation over on Spark, at the CBC. As with the last one, my bits are intermixed with comments from William Gibson. I'm told that the MP3 of the full interview will be up Real Soon Now. (MP3 of Show)

• Rick Kleffel interviewed me at the Singularity Summit, on the topics of the Metaverse, science fiction, and understanding the future: "Science Fiction is a really nice way of uncovering the tacit desires for tomorrow...." (MP3 of the interview, runs about 24 minutes)

October 24, 2007

The Politics of Geoengineering

geoengineering.jpgGeoengineering -- or, as I sometimes call it, re-terraforming the Earth -- is back in the news, with a sobering editorial in today's New York Times by Carnegie's Dr. Ken Caldeira. Caldeira's commentary arrives in the wake of news that the geophysical mechanisms for cycling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere are beginning to slow down, thereby increasing the degree to which CO2 accumulates as a greenhouse gas. This is exactly the kind of news that makes one suspect that we may not have the time to re-imagine our urban systems, transform our agricultural methods, and move to a carbon-free economy. Geoengineering seems to provide a solution (of varying appeal) for just this kind of situation, focusing not on resolving the causes of global climate disruption, but on ameliorating the symptoms.

I've addressed the question of support for or opposition to geoengineering in the past, and given its increasing visibility, debates among scientists, environmentalists, and engineers are not hard to find. But these debates center on the scientific risks and merits of the re-terraforming proposals. Few people, regardless of position, have focused on a fundamental non-geophysical risk of the method: political control, costs, and stability.

To put it bluntly, global-scale efforts don't happen without global-scale reactions. Should we see geoengineering efforts, there will certainly be struggles over control of the program(s), conflicts over liability for problems, and -- most troublingly -- independent. "rogue" geoengineering projects undertaken in defiance of established guidelines.


Of the three kinds of political dilemmas regarding geoengineering, this is probably the easiest to grasp.

The question of control over geoengineering parallels to a surprising degree the question of control over (or legitimacy of) warfare: both emerge from considerations of a nation's ability to survive. It's reasonable to assume that the United Nations would expect to authorize and provide oversight for any re-terraforming project: the benefits would be transnational, so the costs should arguably be spread; the risks are transnational as well, so international oversight helps to defray blame; and given the scale of such projects, nations that would be affected one way or another would demand consultation.

But like warfare, it's entirely possible that a state with the capacity to undertake such a project independently might decide that international restrictions are irrational, or that its survival is so threatened that the bureaucracy of a transnational body is unacceptable. Smaller nations following such a course would be declared "rogue nations" (and are addressed below); when a hegemonic nation does it, such as the United States or China, there may be little the international community can do in response.

Little, unless rival hegemonic powers come to believe that such independent geoengineering efforts threaten their security and environmental survivability. Then, like any other security threat, this could be a trigger for war.


There's very little doubt that any geoengineering efforts begun without sufficient study could have a significant chance of triggering unforeseen results, simply due to the complexity of the geophysical systems involved. In a situation of imminent risk of (say) Greenland's ice sheet collapsing into the ocean, such unforeseen results may be an acceptable trade-off for avoiding certain disaster (to be clear, I don't think we're likely to see Greenland's ice sheet showing signs of imminent collapse within the decade, but it's precisely the kind of situation that would push even opponents of geoengineering to consider its use). But geoengineering strategies can have dangerous externalities. Take the solution Dr. Caldeira suggests for discussion in the Times:
What can be done? One idea is to counteract warming by tossing small particles into the stratosphere (above where jets fly). This strategy may sound far-fetched, but it has the potential to cool the earth within months. [...] If we could pour a five-gallon bucket’s worth of sulfate particles per second into the stratosphere, it might be enough to keep the earth from warming for 50 years. Tossing twice as much up there could protect us into the next century.

Sulfate particles can be found in the atmosphere as the result of volcanos and human industrial activity, and can measurably reduce radiative forcing. Sulfate particles are not benign, however, and can be linked to a variety of human diseases, as well as to acid rain and changes to cloud formation. Pumping more sulfate particles into the air -- even high up -- is highly likely to lead to greater incidences of these problems.

Such problems resulting from sulfate particles would not be limited to the nation or nations leading the project; neither is it likely that they'd be distributed evenly around the globe. It's highly likely, instead, that the problems resulting from pumping five gallons of sulfate particles per second into the atmosphere for an extended period would affect some nations more than others. If history is any guide, the nations most likely to bear the burden of these health and environmental problems are those that are the poorest and least stable. Will the countries and institutions pushing for the geoengineering strategy be equally as eager to pay for reparations and recovery?

This assumes that everything goes as expected. If there's an accident, or a wildly destructive unanticipated side-effect, the financial, environmental and human costs could be dramatically higher.

(This raises the interesting possibility that the insurance industry -- especially the re-insurance companies -- may exert tremendous pressure on governments and institutions not to adopt a geoengineering strategy as anything but a final fall-back.)

Rogue Projects

The first two political dilemmas arising from geoengineering efforts are heightened versions of relatively conventional international issues: political control and distribution of costs. The third dilemma, conversely, has few precedents.

It is possible that, should the international community refrain from geoengineering strategies, one or more smaller, non-hegemonic, actors could undertake geoengineering projects of their own. This could be out of a legitimate fear that prevention and mitigation strategies would be insufficient, out of a disagreement with the consensus over geoengineering safety or results, or -- most troublingly -- out of a desire to use geoengineering tools to achieve a relative increase in competitive power over adversaries.

It's entirely possible, even likely, that the hegemonic international powers will decide, after careful study, that the potential risks of substantive geoengineering outweigh the potential benefits, and that no such strategies should be pursued. However, we know that the negative impacts of global warming are distributed unevenly, and what may be acceptable levels of climate disruption for the major states may be utterly devastating for poorer, smaller nations. It is in this context that a scientifically-powerful developing nation -- India or Brazil, for example -- may decide that it is unwilling to abide by UN decisions about re-terraforming, and begin to undertake such a strategy.

It may have concluded that the impacts of climate change would hit it too quickly for carbon reductions around the world to have an effect; it may see geoengineering as its only choice. Conversely, it may have concluded that the scientific arguments against geoengineering were faulty, and that such an effort could be undertaken safely, regardless of the success of other solutions. Would this rogue effort be backed up by a threat to use all means necessary to defend the project? Would the UN or the hegemonic powers be willing to use sanctions, interdiction of project-related materials, even war to stop the rogue?

Moreover, with the geoengineering technologies on the table, there's no guarantee that they'll only be used for environmental purposes.

As nuclear proliferation and open-source warfare make conventional war effectively obsolete, geoengineering weapons may offer the potential to disrupt one's enemies over a long, subtle campaign. As I put it earlier this year:

No nation that sees itself as a great power is going to be willing to risk having its climate and environment completely in the hands of another nation. Research into methodologies for geoengineering will happen simply out of self-preservation -- after all, nobody wants to fall victim to a "terraforming gap."

Imagining the Unthinkable

Finally, we have to recognize that the "rogue actors" need not be states. While the costs of geoengineering strategies may be enormous, they wouldn't necessarily be out of the range of some of the global billionaires. The movie scenario's not hard to imagine:

In a world on the verge of destruction... while nations delay and scientists bicker... one man sees a way to save us all.

"But the UN hasn't decided on liability and safety!"

"I don't care about the UN, I care about the world!"

As the planet burns, Warren Gates-Branson III crosses the line no nation dares cross.

"All my money counts for nothing if the world's gone to hell!"


Unfortunately, the less-heroic version's not hard to imagine, either: a cadre of scientists and engineers willing to say anything to test out pet ideas, a multi-jillionaire who believes himself smarter than those bureaucrats at the UN, and a planet already on the tipping point of catastrophe, just waiting for some kind of event to trigger an unstoppable cascade of environmental tragedy.

(To quote Dr. Farnsworth, "oh, I made myself sad.")


When I argue that we need to start studying geoengineering now, I don't simply mean the climate scientists and geophysicists. I mean everyone who worries about policy, embraces activism, works with NGOs and movements, or considers herself or himself a stakeholder in the well-being of the planet. If we ignore this possibility, decisions will be made without our consent, even without our knowledge. We need to understand the kinds of choices we'll face if we continue to delay action on global warming. Geoengineering might, with the wrong moves, be catastrophic; it might, with the right knowledge and technologies, be our final hope. But it must not be a decision made by ideology, or as a military maneuver, or out of convenience.

October 22, 2007

Monday Topsight, October 22, 2007

Smoky_The_Nanobot.jpgBecause technically it was still Monday when I started this.

• Oooh, Spooooky! What's more appropriate for Hallowe'en than Spooky Technology? Except this isn't ghosts and goblins (and Count Floyd!), it's research into communication, sensing and perhaps even weapons technologies that take advantage of weird quantum effects, famously referred to by Einstein as "spooky action at a distance." Wired's Danger Room blog quotes Cambridge University's Charles Tahan:

Spookytechnology encompasses all functional devices, systems, and materials whose utility relies in whole or in part on higher order quantum properties of matter and energy that have no counterpart in the classical world. These purely quantum traits may include superposition, entanglement, decoherence (along with the quantum aspects of measurement and error correction) or new behavior that emerges in engineered quantum many-body systems.

(Note that Tahan goes for the domain-name-friendly "spookytechnology," but doesn't bother with a courtesy intercap. Yes, spookytechnology.com and .net are both taken, but .org remains tantalizingly available.)

Tahan's full study is available at Arxiv (pdf). What's particularly interesting is that it's more about language than about actual technology. Tahan is especially anxious to avoid having "spooky-" fall victim to the same kind of inappropriate overuse that damned "nano-."

Nor do we want to incite a prefix-fest as in nano-everything. “Spooky,” being defined more specifically, has fewer tendencies towards this than “nano,” which alludes to an entire length scale. Terms like “spookynet” or “spookytronics” may make sense, but selectively.

I am so ready to start overusing "spookytronics."

• Sleeping In on Sunday: I'm not a religious person, but I recognize the importance religion has in understanding the future trajectories of culture, society and politics. So studies like the Barna Group's recent survey of religious views of 16-29 year olds really fascinate me -- especially when they show glimpses of a major cultural shift at work. And it's not one that'll make traditional Christian political-religious institutions very happy.

The Barna Group is an expressly Christian survey research firm, focusing on understanding American religiosity. In this survey, Barna finds a striking increase in critical views of Christianity among 16-29 year olds, far higher than earlier generations at the same point in life. These critical views are especially strong in non-Christian youth:

Currently, however, just 16% of non-Christians in their late teens and twenties said they have a "good impression" of Christianity.

(Emphasis mine.) On topic after topic, young people in the US have a strongly negative view of mainstream and evangelical Christianity, using terms like "judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), old-fashioned (78%), and too involved in politics (75%)." Similarly, the number of young people identifying as Christian has dropped dramatically. Barna's research suggests that this is not the kind of trend that will shift significantly as this generation ages.

For me, the most interesting point is that the critical factor for both Christian-identified and non-Christian youth in shaping their views of religion is the strident homophobia of institutional Christianity.

Today, the most common perception is that present-day Christianity is "anti-homosexual." Overall, 91% of young non-Christians and 80% of young churchgoers say this phrase describes Christianity. As the research probed this perception, non-Christians and Christians explained that beyond their recognition that Christians oppose homosexuality, they believe that Christians show excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards gays and lesbians. One of the most frequent criticisms of young Christians was that they believe the church has made homosexuality a "bigger sin" than anything else.

This is a powerful indicator of a tremendous cultural shift underway in the United States today. The hardcore right-wing religious voters are set to become increasingly marginalized, and organizations offering distinctly different -- and inclusive -- forms of social networking and community are likely to become much more visible.

(Via Orcinus)

• Nano-Ecosystem: My first official essay as the Director of Impacts Analysis for the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology is now up over at Nanotech-Now. It's entitled "The Nanofactory Ecosystem," and it's a look at the non-technical aspects of what the development of a nanofactory is likely to take. For example...

• Health and safety evaluations
Who, ultimately, is responsible for regulating what can be made with nanofactories? Since a nanofactory can, in principle, self-replicate, would it be possible for modified versions of nanofactories to be evaluated for safety concerns while still "baking?" Relying on individual users to self-police and to undertake informed evaluations of new designs and nanofactory models is a pleasant fantasy, but what other options could there be? And what happens when self-policing and informed evaluation fails?

My goal with this essay was to ground the development of nanofactory technologies in the everyday world of consumers, regulations and safety. These kinds of tools will certainly have substantial economic and social impacts, but we can't let them exist in our minds as transcendent technologies. They're human-made tools, with all of the compromises and fuzzy thinking that can imply.

(By the way: if anyone can identify the artist who created the image used at the top of this post -- "modernmonkey.com" now is a spam site -- I would love to give a link and credit.)

October 21, 2007

RSS Trouble?

I've received reports that the Feedburner feed for this blog's RSS may be broken. I've fixed what appears might be an error, and this post should poke Feedburner to get the new feed.

Word on whether the feed is now working from those of you following via RSS would be greatly appreciated!

(Update: All seems to be well now. Thank you!)

October 20, 2007

Green Leap Forward

nanocraig.jpgWhat does a future world of photovoltaic material look like? How do smart walls, "Watt Torrent" power-sharing networks, and electric hyperbikes sound to you? In Metropolis' latest issue, these scenario fragments come to life -- or, at least, show up in a 2017 version of Craig's List. I wrote the piece a few months ago, and it was easily the most fun I've had building a scenario in quite some time.

Metropolis has long been one of my favorite magazines. It's design porn -- I spend as much time gazing at the ads for beautifully-crafted pieces of furniture and appliances as I do reading the articles -- but it's planted itself in the design world intersection of sustainability and futurism. Viridian Pope-Emperor and friend of the blog Bruce Sterling regularly shows up in the pages of Metropolis, so when the magazine asked if I'd be interested in penning a short piece for them, I jumped at the chance.

I went with the Craig's List conceit because it gave me a chance to play with some different manifestations of this future, and to hint at some of what it might include. Not just in terms of solar power and materials, but little bits of plausible surreality, like carbon quota checks in apartment applications.

As much fun as it was to come up with the entries, the work done by Team Pro-Am in creating the graphics for the piece just blew me away. It's a two-page spread of a user interface of the era, managing to hit the right notes of feeling familiar and utterly bizarre at the same time.

Thanks for pointing them in my direction, Bruce!

October 17, 2007

Hear Me in Canada (and on the Interwebs)

walkandtalk.jpgSpark, a show on CBC Radio 1 and on Sirius Satellite 137 hosted by Nora Young, interviewed me last month on a variety of subjects. Part one of that interview is now available, part of the October 17 show (along with a handful of other stories). What's particularly cool about the episode is that my interview is mixed with an interview with William Gibson!

On this episode of Spark:
  • Matthew Seiler brews some do-it-yourself root beer
  • Sherry Huss on Maker Faire and the DIY movement
  • Jamais Cascio and William Gibson on smart environments and the future of the Internet
  • Journalism student Catherine Rolfsen interviews Andrew Keen [ugh --jc]and Rahaf Harfoush about the future of newspapers (more on The Future of The Future of News forum)
  • Your reactions to cell phones on airplanes
  • Nora and Tom Howell try to change traffic lights using magnets

Direct access to the MP3 here. If you want to jump directly to my section (hi Mom!), it starts six minutes and 53 seconds in.

October 15, 2007

The Deep Beyond

Oh, and my contribution to Blog Action Day? Simply this:


It's a picture of Saturn, taken by the Cassini probe. It's a shot of Saturn eclipsing the Sun -- a view that we could never get from Earth. Cassini was launched a decade ago, and has given us incredible science and beautiful images of our solar system's second most awe-inspiring planet. But look closely at the picture, just above the rings on the left side.


That little blue smudge visible above Saturn's ring, barely 2-3 pixels across?

That's us.

Everything we have done, every life lived, everything we are, is little more than a tiny dot. Our world is far more fragile than we might wish, but there's nothing else like it that we've yet found. We abuse it at our peril.

Blog Action Day

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day I suppose I should have held the "Solving the Climate Crisis" post for today. Blog Action Day is a world-wide project to get as many blogs as possible to post today, October 15, about the environment. At last count, over 15,000 sites registered to participate -- and that doesn't include the blogs that post about the environment every day anyway.

Blog Action Day is an interesting concept: make the environment a topic of conversation by making it essentially unavoidable for people who read blogs. If it's successful -- and in this kind of effort, success is measured not in practical results, but in levels of participation -- I'd expect to see this become a regular type of event, across a variety of issues.

From a foresight perspective, it's been interesting to watch the evolution of the blog format, and the kinds of roles it has come to dominate. Blogs are attention engines, if you will, serving as filters to promote or diminish a panoply of ideas. If a story, a concept, a meme catches hold, it can spread across thousands upon thousands of weblogs in a matter of a few tens of minutes, and even if the perspectives on the given idea vary dramatically, the important point is that this particular story -- Al Gore winning the Nobel, for example -- is suddenly impossible to avoid. Since blogs function to feed conversations, online and off, there's a good chance that what's buzzing in the blogosphere reflects what's important, for that moment, in connected offline communities. There's obviously a long tail aspect to this; certain ideas may be buzzing in the blogs covering a diversity of subjects, and some may be dominant only within particular sub-categories.

I find the rise of meta-blog events, like Blog Action Day, to be particularly fascinating. These are attempts to manipulate the attention engine, and in doing so, alter the broader, connected conversation. My suspicion is that the impact of this particular Blog Action Day will be hard to see, lost in the glare of the continued discussion of Al Gore's Nobel Peace Prize win -- that is to say, getting people to talk about the environment is not that hard when people are already talking about the environment. That said, a Blog Action Day that tried to raise an unrelated issue -- the monks in Burma, for example -- would almost certainly fail to change the steamrolling conversation already underway. Blog Action Days, and similar memetic engineering efforts, are likely to be most effective when there isn't currently a dominant story being discussed.

We're still in the early days of figuring out how to use this Web thing for good.

October 13, 2007

Solving the Climate Crisis

sunset.jpgWith Al Gore and the IPCC wining the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday, lots of people are talking about global warming. The remaining holdouts and dead-enders continue to bray about hoaxes and imaginary disputes, but by and large the dominant focus of conversation about climate disruption boils down to a simple question: what do we do about it?

A simple question, but not a simple answer, in part because there are multiple possible responses, and they're not necessarily mutually-compatible. They cover three broad categories: Prevention (actions that reduce the risks of global warming or soften its eventual impact); Mitigation (actions directed at reducing the harm of global warming, and as possible reducing its sources); and Remediation (actions intended to reverse global warming and its effects). Each of these entails its own set of political, economic and environmental risks.

One of the reasons why the answers are not cut-and-dried is an aspect of global warming that, as yet, still does not receive the kind of mainstream attention it deserves: climate commitments. It turns out that, no matter what we do, we are committed to a certain amount of continued warming and climate change. Moreover, the longer we wait to start acting seriously, the more of a commitment we'll build up.

Much of this commitment comes from the physics of climate change. There is an enormous amount of lag in geophysical systems. We see that in particular in the delay between actions that increase or decrease climate forcings and the resulting climate impacts. Some of that lag comes from how long it takes for certain chemicals to cycle out of the atmosphere, some comes from how warming itself changes natural cycles, and much of it comes from the thermal inertia of the oceans -- the slow pace at which ocean temperatures change. Climate scientists generally describe this climate lag as being around 20-30 years -- so, even if we were to cut off all additional carbon emissions right this very second, we'd still see another two to three decades of warming.

That's if we're lucky. If, in that 20-30 years, the rising temperatures start triggering climate feedback effects (such as large-scale methane emissions from melting permafrost, or the reduction of the polar ice cap causing more heat to be absorbed by the dark water), problems could continue even past the 20-30 year mark. And, of course, we're not going to cut off all additional carbon emissions any time soon, so that 20-30 year countdown hasn't even started.

It should be clear at this point that the longer we wait, and the more of a climate commitment we build up, the more likely it is that we'll see feedback effects.

So with that, here are the three key solution arguments for climate disruption:



The potential for dangerous feedback effects and other disasters forms the key driver for the Prevention argument. Given that we simply don't yet know how damaging to our environment and our civilization these feedback effects could be, wisdom dictates that we do all we can to start eliminating the anthropogenic sources of greenhouse gases, in order to hold the committed warming to the lowest possible amount.

There are two leading versions of the Prevention argument.

The first is that, while no one single solution will solve all aspects of the global warming crisis, we have at our fingertips a sufficient variety of partial solutions that, in combination, would be able to reduce and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions in a short enough time-frame to avoid the worst of the climate disruption threats. This version is best captured in Robert Socolow's "Stabilization Wedges" model, which appeared in An Inconvenient Truth, and I covered in WorldChanging back in 2005. With the wedges approach, we could start to reduce our emissions by the 2050s -- and likely before then, realistically. This would be enough to avoid disaster, at least as long as we don't have substantial feedback effects kicking in before then.

Some of the wedges Socolow proposes are technological, but many would best be described as "behavioral" -- changes to how we move around, for example, or how we build our cities (as exemplified by the BedZED project in the UK, shown above). Although it isn't as shiny as new technology, behavioral changes can be quite powerful. Most of the behavioral changes that advocates of the Prevention strategy suggest are beneficial across multiple problems, for example. Greater emphasis on public transit reduces automobile pollution of all sorts, and helps to ameliorate the impact of peak oil; bicycling and reducing meat intake can vastly improve one's health; local diets and recycling can boost regional economies.

The primary risk of a behavioral model for avoiding climate disruption, conversely, is that, if we assume a realistic transition from current ways of life to the more sustainable versions, it will take a generation or more to make happen. Again, as long as we don't hit a dangerous tipping point in environmental systems, this relatively slow pace could still allow us to avoid global disaster -- but there's still tremendous uncertainty around the likelihood and triggers for those tipping point changes.

Another risk of the behavioral approach is the very likely countervailing pressure to avoid making changes. Whether due to cost, convenience, tradition or politics, the social and economic changes necessary to reduce greenhouse emissions will face stiff opposition. These can be overcome, but not without time and effort. And if, in fact, the necessary behavioral changes do have a short-term negative impact on global competitiveness and economic capacity, lagging adopters may have an even greater motive to avoid undertaking the necessary adjustments.

Fortunately, technology changes will help. This is the reason that I suspect that the wedge model would succeed well before 2050. The wedges Socolow proposes implicitly assume no significant breakthroughs in performance or capabilities over the next fifty year period, an assumption that's hard to justify.

It's also the crux of the second version of the Prevention argument. This version takes the idea of technological change and runs with it, arguing that making the necessary changes now would mean adopting technologies still in flux, when they're overly expensive and likely to be replaced by cheaper, better versions soon. According to this argument, even waiting ten years to start implementing big changes (to infrastructure, transportation, energy production and the like) would mean a significant reduction in overall cost and a likely improvement in how quickly improvement would result.

In a way, this is a variant of the "leapfrog" concept I've talked about frequently: countries that adopt the current versions of sustainable technology would see immediate benefits, but at a high cost and a likely lock-in of particular technologies; countries that wait would be able to adopt cheaper, better technologies down the road, and would soon overtake the earlier generation nations.

Because proponents of this version of the Prevention argument often use it to dismiss making significant behavioral changes, critics often deride it as a "techno-fix" approach. The bigger flaws, in my view, are that it adds to the overall risk by pushing the climate commitment point further out, assumes the development of radically improved technologies (very likely, but not guaranteed), and -- most importantly -- sets up a social psychology of wanting to wait for the next big thing before acting. The danger of the leapfrog model is that waiting just a bit longer can mean being able to deploy even better technologies... but by the time those roll out, even better systems would be on the near horizon, making it tempting to continue waiting (and, given the desire by economic and political incumbents to continue to accumulate power and wealth in the existing model, there would be no lack of pressure to do just that).

My view is that behavior + technology gives us the best chance of success at preventing climate disaster, and that the possibility of climate feedback makes it imperative to start making changes as quickly as possible. The likelihood of major technology improvements, however, suggests that our best strategy would be to focus our investments in systems that can be improved relatively quickly and can be replaced relatively easily. In a period of survival pressure, the best evolutionary strategy is iteration and experimentation.



The second response pathway is that of Mitigation. The underlying argument is that climate disaster is already at hand, and we should be able to deal with its results, even as we try to eliminate its sources. This is an explicitly pragmatic approach, acknowledging the likelihood that climate commitments and feedback effects will make our best prevention efforts too little, too late, but recognizing that we still need to reduce the worst of the threats.

The Mitigation argument couples the need for major social, economic, political and technological changes to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions with a focus on making sure that the near-term results of climate disruption can be handled in a way that is ultimately in support of ongoing survival. Because of the split focus, this would likely mean that the Prevention-style changes would come about more slowly, thereby guaranteeing that we'll see climate impacts that we'll need to mitigate. (Of course, Mitigation proponents argue, an emphasis on Prevention doesn't guarantee that these impacts won't happen -- and then we'll have to engage in catch-up mitigation anyway.) Still, proponents of Mitigation argue that we're better off working in this way today than we are waiting until it becomes necessary.

Mitigation efforts could include recognized practices like levees and seawalls, although a smarter approach would be to rely on mangroves, marshes and wetlands as storm buffers. It would also likely include developing standards for handling environmental refugees, mechanisms for engaging in climate-disrupted farming, and aggressive deployment of urban agriculture and green roofs. Water rationing, strict limits on energy consumption, and other top-down forms of resource control could be possible elements of a Mitigation model.

In many respects, the behavioral changes required by the Mitigation strategy could be as radical as those in a Prevention approach, and in some cases possibly more so. Mitigation is not a best-case response; of all of the different responses discussed here, it's the one most likely to be thought of as a form of "green fascism," especially if the climate disruptions hit faster and harder than initially expected, requiring an equally vigorous response.

Mitigation is also a possible gateway to significant environmental manipulation. We could see focused efforts to alter the genomes of critical plants to make agriculture possible in disrupted ecosystems, or to allow more rapid consumption of CO2. It's likely that we'd see attempts to engineer microbes to consume atmospheric methane at an accelerated pace, in order to stave off some of the faster feedback effects. Such developments wouldn't be so radical as to be considered geoengineering, but could go well beyond what would be considered politically or scientifically acceptable today.

Although it shares many of the same characteristics, the Mitigation argument should not be confused with "adaptation," a buzzword that seems to be popular among the denialists who can't really deny the problem any longer. The crux of the adaptation argument seems to be "lie back and take it:" the disruptions from global warming are too far along to do anything about now, so we may as well do what we can to deal with the results. In many cases, there's an implicit "...and if you can't or can't afford to deal with the results, tough luck." The adaptation concept emphatically denies the need to make any significant behavioral or radical technological adjustments -- what we have works, and trying to impose such changes on a population under pressure just reduces our ability to adapt.

The fallacy at the heart of the adaptation concept is that climate disruption is an either/or deal: either we're in the good present climate, or we're in the bad global warming climate. Unfortunately, climate disruption is a process, not a result. Adaptation without active efforts to prevent worse results simply means having to adapt continuously to increasingly worse and worse environmental effects.

My view is that Mitigation is an increasingly likely approach as we continue to delay serious preventative strategies. If we do see the effects of climate feedback (such as methane excursions or rapid melting of Antarctic and Greenland glaciers), Mitigation strategies become almost over-determined, as -- due to climate commitment -- there would be simply no way for preventative measures to have a great enough impact swiftly enough to head off disaster.



Riskiest of all is the Remediation argument. Superficially a mashup of the techno-fix Prevention and the Mitigation strategies, Remediation doesn't look at ways to change greenhouse emissions or deal with direct consequences; rather, its emphasis is on changing the game entirely by altering the core geophysical processes that relate to global warming. Geoengineering (or "terraforming the Earth") is broadly synonymous with Remediation.

I've written quite a bit about geoengineering in the past, so I won't fully rehash those arguments. In short: the risks associated with geoengineering are massive, considering how poorly we understand the complexities of geophysical systems; nonetheless, if preventative and mitigation efforts fail, it is a near-certainty that someone (nation or wealthy corporation) will attempt to engage in geoengineering to head off utter disaster, allowing sufficient time for slower preventative solutions to take hold. Because of that possibility, it would be wise to study potential geoengineering strategies now, so that if the time comes, we'll be able to make smarter decisions about which ones to try and which ones to avoid.

However, it's not hard to find people who think that Remediation strategies, such as triggering algae blooms to extract large quantities of atmospheric CO2, or filling the skies with SO2 in order to block a percentage of incoming light, should be attempted now, rather than as a last-ditch response.

[The classic Futurama episode "Crimes of the Hot" includes three major league examples of Remediation: in the first, global warming is staved off by dropping a giant chunk of ice -- harvested from Halley's Comet -- into the oceans every now and then , thus solving the problem once and for all (ahem); in the second, a giant mirror is placed in orbit to block out a percentage of sunlight (failing when hit by an errant asteroid); finally, our heroes manage to solve the problem by nudging the Earth into a slightly greater orbit, reducing the solar input (and extending the year by a week).]

For some, the logic is seductive: by undertaking a grand-scale fix, we don't have to make any behavioral changes, nor would we have to direct technological efforts towards prosaic subjects like energy and efficiency. Geoengineering projects have the advantage of not requiring the cooperation of the global community; efforts to block sunlight or prompt algae blooms can be attempted even if nations like China or the United States continue to drag their feet on preventative measures.

It's worth noting at this point that, although much of the discussion about geoengineering and Remediation has occurred in the United States, the U.S. is by no means the only nation capable of carrying out such an endeavor. Because of this, any broad decision not to attempt geoengineering at this time must be accompanied by stepped up efforts to watch for independent programs.

There are two significantly problematic aspects of Remediation solutions. The first, and greatest, is that their success depends on not unleashing an unanticipated complex interaction. As an example, it's possible that triggering a large-scale algae bloom could "sterilize" a great portion of the ocean (such algae sterilization can be seen in the "dead zones" found in the Gulf of Mexico near the Mississippi, off the Pearl River in China, and at over 200 more locations around the world). More speculatively, efforts to weaken incipient hurricanes by cooling the ocean surface with deep ocean water might instead trigger more frequent (if weaker) storms. The more we come to understand geophysical systems, the more we recognize that they're precisely the kinds of complex systems in which small changes can sometimes have massive results. In short: we fiddle with them at our peril.

Over the longer haul, the second problematic aspect of Remediation solutions is that they require a great deal of effort and risk, yet are ultimately temporary. A certain amount of CO2 may be pulled from the atmosphere, or a certain degree of insolation may be blocked, but unless the existing process of increasing greenhouse emissions causing more heat to be retained is stopped, the crisis will simply return a few years or a few decades down the road. Any effective Remediation program has to be accompanied by a crash process of emissions reduction (behavioral and technological) in order to be effective over the long term.

My take on Remediation remains what it's been now for awhile: it's only valid as a last-ditch, if-we-don't-try-it-we're-dead strategy. For now, the alternatives are abundant, and the risks are far too great. That said, we need to embark on deep, ongoing study of its potential so that we can make informed, productive choices if faced with the need to try geoengineering.

So, can we solve the climate crisis? I think that the evidence is clear that we can, and that we actually have a wealth of potential strategies to do so. My preferred strategy would be a Stabilization Wedges-style approach that emphasizes rapidly-evolving and readily-replaceable technologies, along with spot efforts to mitigate the early signs of climate disaster. At the same time, more robust mitigation techniques (involving bioengineering) and programs for geoengineering should be under controlled laboratory study, so that we can deploy them if needed.

The most important element, though, is time: the longer we delay, the harder it will be to avoid the worst effects of global warming. We simply can't wait until the big problems start happening -- at that point, we'll have committed ourselves to even greater peril over the coming decades, even with a crash preventative effort. This kind of long, slow problem is outside of our common experience, but (as I've argued) is increasingly a key characteristic of the challenges we face as a civilization. We can't count on our problem-solving habits to get us out of this one; we need to learn how to integrate foresight and forethought into our policies and everyday lives.

The end result, if we're successful, may be far greater than we dare hope. Not only would we find ourselves in a world of sustainable wealth, abundance and efficiency, we'd be living in a civilization that, for the first time, had really started to think like a mature, adult society.

I'm looking forward to seeing what it's like.

October 12, 2007

Good Work, Al!


Original photo by Robert Leslie

October 11, 2007

Thursday Topsight, October 11, 2007

aeron.jpgI have too many windows open to pages that I really would like to post extensive commentary on if I can just get around to it.

• Virtual Ownership: Herman Miller makes the Aeron chair, and (quite appropriately) doesn't like the idea of somebody else making an identical chair, especially if that somebody then calls that reproduction an "Aeron." But what about somebody who takes a picture of an Aeron, posts it on (say) a blog, and labels it "Aeron." Can Herman Miller claim ownership of that, too?

Most of us would likely say "no" to that scenario. But just this week, Herman Miller started going after Second Life designers who were making virtual chairs for the SL avatars, chairs that looked like Aerons and, at least in some cases, were called "Aerons."

"[W]e've contacted those parties and informed them of our trade dress protections, copyrights and trademarks they are infringing, asking politely but firmly that they cease and desist," the firm's spokesman, appropriately named MarkSchurman HermanMiller, tells me. "Some have complied, others have countered with proposed partnerships, and some have yet to respond."

And with that announcement, the first public salvo has been fired: a real world corporation is loudly and actively asserting its real world intellectual property rights against Resident-made objects which allegedly infringes them.

These Second Life knock-offs aren't "chairs" in any conventional definition of the word: they're database entries comprising a few lines of code. This code, under certain conditions, will put up an interactive cartoon of a chair that looks like an Aeron. You can't actually sit in it, you can't use it to build a physical Aeron (at least not yet), and it can appear or disappear with a few keystrokes.

What Herman Miller seems to be arguing is that what it actually owns is the concept of the Aeron chair look, no matter the medium in which it manifests.

This is a pretty striking assertion, but it's one that I would not be surprised to see reproduced as more companies start paying attention to the metaverse and more virtual worlds with user creation tools open up. I hope that it doesn't go unchallenged. Should Herman Miller be able to go after designers who made virtual chairs that looked like Aerons, but didn't in any way take that name? Should they be able to go after designers who make virtual chairs that share some attributes with Aerons, but are able to do things that real ones (or the "real" virtual ones) cannot?

As physical form becomes just another bit-based medium, we're starting to see many of the mistakes and controversies of the earlier generations of digital information (software, music, text and the like) replicated yet again. When will we be able to learn from the past?

(via open...)

• Mobile Phones vs. Sheer Evil: Ethan Zuckerman posts an astounding item over at "...My heart's in Accra."

Across the developing world, counterfeit pharmaceuticals have become a massive problem. Up to half of the packages of the anti-malaria drug artesunate sold in Southeast Asia contain no actual drug. More than 80% of the drugs sold in Nigeria in recent years, according to the head of Nigeria's Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, were fake. And legitimate pharmaceutical companies are apparently intimidating anyone trying to report this information to the broad public.

Fortunately, a new project called mPedigree may save the day:

The project, called mPedigree, seeks to build a system first in Ghana, and then throughout Africa, that tracks drugs from their original producers all the way to the pharmacy shelves, allowing each buyer in the chain to ensure that they’re dealing with a legimate product. The idea of this system comes from the ePedigree system being implemented to track medications in the US using RFID tags.

It’s probably prohibitively expensive to put RFID tags on every box of medicine coming into Ghana. But a system that takes advantage of the ubiquity of mobile phones in Ghana, allowing a purchaser to check whether the pills she’s buying in a pharmacy are registered and tracked would be a great use of appropriate technology to tackle a difficult problem. That’s what mPedigree proposes to do.

It's hard to imagine a more despicable act than counterfeiting lifesaving drugs. It's an enormous relief to see that a distributed, participatory solution may be at hand.

• Diesel-Electric Hybrids Go to War: Military.com reports that a new Army scouting and ground exploration vehicle is set to hit the streets of Baghdad -- and it's a battery-dominant (read: high-mileage) hybrid.

A wider, 66-in. body design makes room for high-performance acceleration -- as military vehicles go -- with the second-gen Aggressor set to rev from 0-40 mph in four seconds and top out at 80 mph. But speed is not the main attraction here; stealth is. The Aggressor’s design provides battery-only operations, allowing it to switch into “silent mode” with a reduced thermal signature. Combine that with extended range and exportable power, and this should be one tough-to-detect AMV for missions involving communications, surveillance and targeting.

There's a sub-culture in the US that values signifiers of aggression and power above other attributes in vehicles (primarily); this vehicle may broaden the symbolism of the hybrid car to include just these kinds of signifiers. Moreover, just like the HMMWV became the "Hummer" when it went civilian, there may be a stateside market for a street-legal version of the "Aggressor." If it keeps its battery-dominant diesel-electric drivetrain, it could even be among the higher-mileage hybrids on the road. Imagine that: a vehicle that could be both a phallic symbol and a green icon.


simsoc.jpgThe new version of SimCity -- SimCity Societies -- is due out in about a month, and I'm really looking forward to it.

As long-time readers may recall, I've been an advocate of the use of simulation games as a way of experimenting with plans and strategies for quite some time. SimCity is the canonical example of a game that manages to remain fun even while offering surprisingly complex system management choices. Unfortunately, the recent versions of SimCity have added to the complexity and eye candy, but are still just the same underlying game as the one introduced way back in 1989: granular, fiddly, and missing any real underlying model of how society works other than basic supply & demand.

SimCity Societies takes a different path. Rather than worry about building zones and water supplies, the new game gives the player the tools with which to build the kind of society she or he wants: agrarian, totalitarian, creative, and so forth. The challenges that one faces depend on the kind of culture that has emerged:

In addition to building up simolians (the game's currency), each city generates "social energies." These energies come in six forms: Industry, Wealth, Obedience, Knowledge, Creativity and Devotion. Different buildings give off specific energies and citizens adapt according to the city's vibe. By using this design, players can toy with various social experiments that include eco-friendly buildings, whacky Creative cities with gingerbread houses or dystopian police-states. Or players can go for it all and even try for a free-wheeling eclectic society.

As followers of the game industry might already have surmised, this version of SimCity has been crafted by an entirely new team; in fact, given that it was originally going to be called SimCity 5 but had its name changed, at this point I would happily accept that this is essentially "SimSociety," with the SimCity branding there for marketing purposes. I actually find that more appealing than just another SimCity update.

What makes this game idea especially attractive to me, however, is the new emphasis on the impact of energy choices. British Petroleum initially approached EA Games about a specialized version of SimCity that dealt with energy and global warming; rather than undertake a one-off project, EA agreed to partner up with BP to integrate these ideas into SimCity Societies. While this has elements of crass product placement -- all of the gas stations in your city are BP, for example -- it also suggest an intriguing opportunity to look at not just how energy and environment affect economic results, but how they change social behaviors, too.

The big question, then: will SimCity Societies live up to its promise?

October 10, 2007

The Pharyngula Mutating Genre Meme

There are a set of questions below that are all of the form, "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is ...".

Copy the questions, and before answering them, you may modify them in a limited way, carrying out no more than two of these operations:

*You can leave them exactly as is.

*You can delete any one question.

*You can mutate either the genre, medium, or subgenre of any one question. For instance, you could change "The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is..." to "The best time travel novel in Westerns is...", or "The best time travel movie in SF/Fantasy is...:, or "The best romance novel in SF/Fantasy is...".

*You can add a completely new question of your choice to the end of the list, as long as it is still in the form "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is...”.

You must have at least one question in your set, or you’ve gone extinct, and you must be able to answer it yourself, or you’re not viable.

Then answer your possibly mutant set of questions. Please do include a link back to the "parent" blog you got them from, e.g. Open the Future to simplify tracing the ancestry, and include these instructions.

Finally, pass it along to any number of your fellow bloggers. Remember, though, your success as a Darwinian replicator is going to be measured by the propagation of your variants, which is going to be a function of both the interest your well-honed questions generate and the number of successful attempts at reproducing them.


My great-grandparent is Pharyngula.
My grandparent is Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.
My parent is Sentient Developments.

1. The best Post-Singularity Novel in SF/Fantasy is...
Feersum Endjinn by Iain Banks

2. The best romantic movie in Comedy is...
Groundhog Day

3. The best sexy song in rock is...
In This House That I Call Home by X

4. The best cult novel in serialized graphic storytelling (comic books) is...
Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis & Darick Robertson

I shall attempt to disseminate my seed to:

Amor Mundi
Green LA Girl
In Situ
On Lisa Rein's Radar
The Skeptical Futuryst

Anyone else who wants to accept my meme can also join in the game.

October 9, 2007

Tuesday Topsight, October 9, 2007

solarpowerpaper.jpgTrying to get back into the blogging groove I found just before my Budapest trip. Here are some of the items of note I've stumbled across recently.

• PowerPaper: This came up in August, but some recent work reminded me about it.

Researchers in Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute announced in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences the invention of a paper battery. Infused with carbon nanotubes, this material is currently able to hold a reversible charge of >>110mAh/g -- a bit better than the typical alkaline battery, a bit worse than the typical lithium-ion battery.

The difference is that this paper battery -- which can also function as a high-discharge super-capacitor -- is extraordinarily flexible, and can be torn, folded or cut without damaging the energy storage properties.

Given that blood and sweat can serve as an electrolyte for the battery, much of the speculation has focused on biomedical applications. But what struck me was that this was a perfect partner for photovoltaic polymers -- "nano-solar" -- as an integrated, flexible power generation and storage system. Imagine buying power by the square meter: the combination of solar plastic and paper battery means that issues around intermittence can be mitigated, and the flexibility means easy installation by non-specialists.

One likely first use: self-powered animated bumper stickers.

The current production methods are time-consuming and fiddly, but another RPI announcement just a few days later might change that: desktop printing of carbon nanotube "ink" onto paper, using an off-the-shelf ink-jet printer.

• Must Wear Silver Jump Suit to Drive: If I could, the first thing I'd stick some of that combo solar paper on would be a new Aptera.

aptera.jpgThis is the 3-wheel car that gets over 200mpg as a plug-in hybrid, and looks like it's straight out of a 70s science fiction movie. I first wrote about the Aptera back in early 2006, at WC; as with most of the hypercar designs I ran into, I expected the Aptera to be an exciting proposal that would fade away as the designers got bored or funding dried up. Much to my surprise, the Aptera site is now taking orders for a middle-of-next-year launch. While (as expected) the specs have been reduced some (it was originally supposed to hit over 300mpg, for example), this is still very much the funky hypercar the "Accelerated Composites" folks proposed 18 months ago.

Here's the deal: a refundable $500 deposit gets your name on the waiting list for the first production run. There are to be two models: an all-electric, with a decent (100+ mile) range, and a diesel-electric hybrid. Prices are supposed to be in the mid-$20K range. Getting this information is like pulling teeth, however, because Aptera has the worst, least-accessible, most frustrating website I've encountered in a long time: all Flash, launches with music, and does without any kind of summary page.

Still, despite the lack of web design skills, I'm really, really tempted.

• Cracks in the (Bio)Brick House: Rob Carlson notes that the emerging biotechnology of using standardized, modular biological parts to assemble synthetic organisms (or "genetically engineered machines") is already seeing its first intellectual property dust-up. From early on, these standardized, modular biological parts (SMBPs) have been referred to as "biobricks" -- a pretty common-sense term, evoking both the classic image of basic components for building structures and the snap-together, make-what-you-want construction fun of LEGO. It was so common sense that the organization seeking to create and referee standards decided to call itself the BioBricks Foundation (BBF), and to slap a trademark on the term "biobrick." The BBF is now actively admonishing people who use "biobrick" in a generic way to describe SMBPs.

Rob notes the underlying difficulty of this argument, and asks some damn good questions:

Obviously, the idea of Biobricks Biobrick parts (Argh!) is itself new and interesting, but I wonder what the effect on innovation will be under an apparently new kind of IP regime if one organization is in a position to "defend" not just a standard but also parts that conform to the standard. What happens if the leadership (or control) of the BBF changes and suddenly the "open and free-to-use collection" becomes not so open? And am I free to build/identify a new part as a Biobrick part (!) without submitting it to the Registry or the BBF? Can I even advertise something as being compatible with the standard on my own, or do I have to have permission from the BBF to even suggest in public that I have something other people might want to use/buy that works with all the other Biobrick™ parts? And who exactly controls the Registry?

If transparency is important for standards surrounding relatively staid technologies (such as bolt sizes or network protocols), it's absolutely fundamental for technologies that elicit concerns about health, safety and the environment. If Rob Freaking Carlson can't readily get the answers to these questions, how can everyday citizens do so, let alone get answers to the potentially more troubling concerns about the uses and abuses of the new technology?

October 3, 2007

Visions of the Future conference, Budapest

Talk #2The point of my trip to Budapest, the Visions of the Future conference brought together representatives from two different Hungarian technology institutions and representatives from the Institute for the Future: research directors Alex SK Pang and Anthony Townsend, along with me. Alex and Anthony discussed some of their current Institute projects, while I -- for the third time in as many weeks -- presented the overview of the 2007 Ten-Year Forecast. I also got a chance to give an updated version of my Participatory Panopticon talk.

(I know that Alex and some of the conference folks took pictures during the talk; when I have links, I'll add them.)

For both of my presentations, I went entirely script-less. I don't do this often; I have a writer's appreciation of language precision, and while the way I speak bears a close resemblance to the "voice" of my writing, I know that my scripted presentations end up with a more powerful narrative. Unfortunately, memorization of the scripted pieces is usually not an option, so I end up having to read the presentations. This actually works out reasonably well, but it does reduce my contact with the audience. Because of this -- and because I'm told that I speak more slowly when I'm extemporaneous rather than scripted -- I'm now making more of an effort to go naked (verbally, at least).

Sunset Over the Danube 2Budapest is an interesting city. Most of the guides make a point of mentioning that people (guide-writers, at least) call it the "Paris of the East." This is actually not an unreasonable description: with a mid-city river, a mix of historic and modern architecture, and a rich cultural tradition, Budapest does have a Parisian aura. Café culture isn't at a Parisian level, but it's certainly more developed than (say) London. (The fact that Starbucks has yet to make it to Hungary may have something to do with that.)

I'm heading home tomorrow, and amidst the overly-adventurous menus and consultant shmoozery, I think the most memorable moment was a quiet conversation at dinner last night. Speaking with one of the young conference organizers, he told me about the moment 18 years ago when, sitting in a classroom, he listened to a live broadcast of the Hungarian leader's announcement that Hungary had become a republic, and was no longer a de-facto dictatorship. The classroom erupted in cheers, only to fall silent when the teacher asked, simply, "how do you know it will be better?"

As ten-year-olds, they had no answer, but I do have one:

They don't -- but they know, better or worse, it will now be their choice.

October 1, 2007

New World, Old World

tmobtower-bp.jpgMy arrival in Budapest yesterday afternoon was largely uneventful*, and today's my first full day in the city. Already, however, I can see what the primary theme of the visit will be: transition.

Hungary is still in the midst of its transition from a beaten-down member of the Eastern Bloc nations into a fully-fledged part of the family of Europe. It's been a member of the European Union for a few years, but is not yet in the Euro zone. Advertisements for mobile phone systems are ubiquitous, but the communication infrastructure offers mixed quality, at best. Western mega-chains are present, but by no means ubiquitous -- I've seen numerous McDonald's, for example, but apparently Starbucks remains unknown. Individually, none of these are particularly deep observations, but they seem to link together for me.

Transition is an old theme here: Hungary was part of the Ottoman Empire at its peak, and many of the churches here still show signs of once having been mosques.

I'll be posting pictures to Flickr, under the tag "Budapest trip."

(* The flight in from SF was actually pretty uncomfortable, and I'm going to avoid flying KLM in the future, but not worth going on and on about.)

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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