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November 30, 2007

Misinformation, Identity, and Power in the Internet Age

In a world of networked transparency, misinformation is increasingly more powerful than privacy.

During my presentation at the Metaverse Meetup last night (video available soon), I got into a discussion about what happens to control over one's own information in a world of information saturation. If privacy is effectively unattainable, or the institutions to protect privacy are too weak to withstand the relentless expansion of Internet observation, what recourse would those wishing to maintain some control over their external visibility have available?

One possible alternative: intentional misinformation about oneself, reducing the "signal to noise" ratio of networked transparency.

This misinformation would need to be widespread, and at least match in abundance the "real" information. The various automated tools for gathering personal data would be hampered by this approach, and if the false information became sufficiently abundant, it might render the real data effectively invisible. Such a technique probably wouldn't work well for those of us who have long-standing Internet histories (a quick check to the Internet Archive would confirm when new stories first appeared), but might work beautifully for people just starting to leave a footprint. That is, misinformation could be a very effective defense for everyday folks who would prefer not to have their life stories available to anyone with access to Google.

One can readily imagine small service providers appearing, offering to produce a wealth of garbage info to spoof one's online identity. Powerful digital engines like the "Storm Worm" network of zombie PCs might be pressed into service, spewing out misinformation by the gigabyte. If the false data made its way into trusted repositories, it might be nearly impossible to eliminate.

The flip side of this, however, is that misinformation appearing in trusted locations can be quite damaging to the people who have built careers online. I learned this for myself just today.

Someone, a few months ago, changed the Wikipedia entry for Worldchanging to completely eliminate references to my having co-founded the site. Gone. Down the memory hole. I have no idea who would do this, but (judging by the page history) it was clearly intentional, and was not an accidental over-zealous edit. In the intervening several months, numerous stories have been written in print and online media about Worldchanging; to the degree that journalists would check Wikipedia for "objective" info, my contributions to the site's development would have been invisible.

As annoying as this might be, it was easily corrected -- at least on Wikipedia. I have no way of knowing where this misinformation might have spread, or whether any of the places using it as a reference could in turn be used as a reference for others. I'm hopeful that it was an isolated event, and will have no lasting impact. But that's the thing -- as I said, I have no way of knowing.

Increasingly, the balance of power for information and identity is not the clash between transparency and privacy, but between transparency and misinformation. Some might find this a useful way to protect themselves; others might find it a real threat to their livelihoods. But as Internet information and identity become more important, the creation of misinformation about individuals is likely to become an intentional, strategic act, another way of asserting power in the Internet age.

November 29, 2007

Subscribe by Email

I am occasionally asked if there was a way to get the updates to OtF by email, rather than try to remember to come here and check to see if I've decided to post, or to fiddle with an RSS app.

Now there is:

Subscribe to Open the Future by email.

I've added the link to email subscriptions to the sidebar, as well. If you decide to give it a try, do let me know how this works for you. I'm particularly curious how well the feed works for people on Blackberries, iPhones and the like.

Futurism and its Discontents

The deputy editor of the Economist, Robert Cottrell, thinks he knows what I'm up to. Well, me and the myriad other folks working to analyze what the future could hold, in order to make better choices. In "The future of futurology," Cottrell argues that the only way to have any credibility as a futurist to think small, think short-term, and shut up.

So there you are on the moon, reading The World in 2008 on disposable digital paper and waiting for the videophone to ring. But no rush, because you're going to live for ever-and if you don't, there's a backed-up copy of your brain for downloading to your clone.

Yes? No? Well, that's how the 21st century looked to some futurologists 40 or 50 years ago, and they're having a hard time living it down now.

There's a long-standing canard in most conversations about "thinking about the future in a formal way" (a term to avoid the legacies of "futurism," "futurology," and "foresight" -- call it TATFIAFW, or TATF for short). It is rooted in the concept that TATF is a behavior, not a process, and that people who think about the future today do so in exactly the same way as those who did so 50 or 100 or 200 years ago. It's like singing -- some people do it better than others, and there's some training one can do, but people today as a whole aren't any better or worse at singing than people of centuries past. Criticisms of TATF based on past failures or lunacies (pun intended), from this perspective, are equally valid when carried to modern TATF.

If we think of TATF as a process, a skill, or a practice (avoiding the loaded term "social science"), however, it stands to reason that techniques can improve over time. That it's possible to learn from past mistakes. That the changes in our various academic understandings of the world -- greater cross-disciplinarity, greater awareness of systemic processes, greater reliance on peer review -- have influenced the practice of TATF, too. Ultimately, that we can say that what we do when we think about the future today is measurably more useful and insightful than what was done 40 or 50 years ago.

Not for Cottrell. He'd rather that we not worry about what's down the road, and focus only on the immediate future.

You can still get away (as we do) with predicting trends in the world next year, but push the timeline out much further, and you might as well wear a t-shirt saying "crackpot".

I'll keep that in mind next time the Economist prints a story about energy use projections (nearly always going through 2020 or 2030), population projections (2050), or any economic analysis (particularly of climate change) that declares with great certainty the impending financial doom of trying to reduce carbon footprints.

The problem may not be the reach, but the scope. There are fields in which it's acceptable to talk about timelines far greater than 1-2 years. We regularly see mainstream discussions of very long-term trends in energy and finance (e.g., Social Security) that talk about points in the future still decades away. What doesn't seem acceptable -- at least to Cottrell -- is any effort to combine these various narrow projections to look for contradictions or reinforcing systems.

But that's exactly what a futurist -- sorry, TATFist -- does.

It's clear, however, that Cottrell (who actually goes on the speaker circuit as a futurist) has an extremely dated view of what TATF really is all about.

Small wonder that futurology as we knew it 30 or 40 years ago-the heyday of Alvin Toffler's "Future Shock", the most popular work of prophecy since Nostradamus-is all but dead.

Because, as we know, no other form of study or intellectual analysis has changed form or approach in the last 30 or 40 years. Oh, wait.

Economic analysis as we knew it 30 or 40 years ago is all but dead.
Political analysis as we knew it 30 or 40 years ago is all but dead.
Environmental study as we knew it 30 or 40 years ago is all but dead.

...and so forth. In those cases, many of the books from 30-40 years ago are still used in understanding the history of the disciplines, but the same can be said of books like Tofflers in the handful of academic futures studies departments.

The larger point is that professional TATF long ago dropped any pretense of offering predictions or prophecies. Single-point predictions are rarely even broadly correct; of greater value are sets of possibilities, offering insights into what kinds of forces are at work shaping how the present becomes the future. For some professionals, this means scenarios; for others, this means mapping. Regardless of the exact methodology, the purpose is to uncover unexpected potential outcomes, allowing strategists and decision-makers to come to more sophisticated and productive conclusions.

One of Cottrell's pieces of evidence is that you don't see TATFists in the media these days.

There are plenty of them about, but they have stopped being famous. You have probably never heard of them unless you are in their world, or in the business of booking speakers for corporate dinners and retreats.

Or you watch the news (where Paul Saffo shows up all the time), or listen to NPR (where Stewart Brand shows up all the time), or work for the US government (where Peter Schwartz shows up all the time), etc.. But I'll concede Cottrell's larger point: there are no celebrity futurists, and there used to be (at least Alvin Toffler). But back in the 1960s, there were celebrity academics of all kinds. That era's efforts to market celebrity would seem primitive today, and social/cultural elites had more say over what names and faces appeared in the narrow forms of popular media. That the celebrity culture has changed, so that more people are conversant with Paris Hilton than Bob Johansen, is not in and of itself a useful measure.

But Cottrell compounds his errors by claiming that, in actuality, there wasn't much interesting going on in the 1960s, so the West listened to TATFists out of boredom.

We can see now that the golden age of blockbuster futurology in the 1960s and 1970s was caused, not by the onset of profound technological and social change (as its champions claimed), but by the absence of it.

Remind me -- when did the civil rights movement, the women's rights movement, the last great uprising of the IRA, the opening of China, the acceleration of the end of imperialism in Africa, all of that -- when did that happen?

Oh, right, the 1960s and early 1970s. Good thing profound social change was absent, or else things would have been *really* chaotic.

Futurologists extrapolated the most obvious possibilities, with computers and nuclear weapons as their wild cards. The big difference today is that we assume our determining forces to be ones that 99% of us do not understand at all: genetic engineering, nanotechnology, climate change, clashing cultures and seemingly limitless computing power.

Implying that, back in the day, a greater percentage of people understood computers and nuclear weapons. Look at the popular media of the era, and it's damn clear that they didn't know how computers worked. Nuclear weapons are another story, because the ultimate impact of nukes is hard to mistake -- that said, I'd be surprised if Cottrell (or the Cottrell of 1970) could adequately explain how a hydrogen bomb works, what a permissive action link is, or how mutual assured destruction differs from massive retaliation (the two big deterrence models of the era).

When the popular sense of direction is baffled, there is no conventional wisdom for futurologists to appropriate or contradict.

And in this one sentence, Cottrell demonstrates his profound misunderstanding of the purpose of thinking about the future. If you recognize that TATF is more than just trying to spot marketing trends, this moment -- "when the popular sense of direction is baffled" -- is precisely when thinking about future possibilities is the most valuable.

But Cottrell will have none of that. He would much rather we think only about marketing niches.

But the best advice for aspirant futurists these days is: think small. The best what-lies-ahead book of 1982 was "Megatrends", by John Naisbitt, which prophesied the future of humanity. A quarter-century later, its counterpart for 2007 was "Microtrends", by Mark Penn, a public-relations man who doubles as chief strategy adviser to Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. [Oh, great -- JC] "Microtrends" looks at the prospects for niche social groups such as left-handers and vegan children. The logical next step would be a book called "Nanotrends", save that the title already belongs to a journal of nano-engineering.

And that is the only reference to an emerging technology with the potential to disrupt existing economic, social and even military models. But there's no sense that it might be a wee bit useful to think through the implications of emerging issues like that; instead, we're told to follow the path of Faith Popcorn, consumer marketing guru of the early 1990s.

The next rule is: think short-term.

And by short-term, he means consumer behavior. Snapshots of the next five minutes, not maps of tomorrow.

A third piece of advice: say you don't know. Uncertainty looks smarter than ever before.

This is one rule that I agree with wholeheartedly. Could Cottrell be on a path of now making sense?

A fourth piece of advice for the budding futurist: get embedded in a particular industry, preferably something to do with computing or national security or global warming. All are fast-growing industries fascinated by uncertainty and with little use for generalists.

No, he's not. Setting aside issues of being biased by being embedded (something journalists learned about recently in Iraq), this is simply more misunderstanding of what we're trying to do. Generalism is the heart of TATF, because that's what makes the practice valuable: being able to see the connections that would otherwise be hard to spot for people embedded in a particular industry.

Cottrell cites climate scientists being unwilling to make projections of possible impacts, and asks how TATFists can think they'd do better. Well, for one, the TATFist is likely to have a better chance of seeing new models for dealing with certain and possible problems. And more likely to see unexpected combinations with non-climate issues. And to provide a context for the climate scientists to imagine how the possible effects might emerge.

A fifth piece of advice: talk less, listen more. Thanks to the internet, every intelligent person can amass the sort of information that used to need travel, networking, research assistants, access to power.

And here's his other rule that I agree with. But then he goes and ruins it.

The most heeded futurists these days are not individuals, but prediction markets, where the informed guesswork of many is consolidated into hard probability.

Because we know that these hard probabilities are in no way providing a false sense of certainty and bias confirmation, and are always accurate.

Honestly, what this all says to me is that this guy really doesn't know much about what he's talking about, and assumes that because he hasn't been following the field, the field hasn't changed.

November 26, 2007

Metaverse Meetup, now with More Information!

The Metaverse Meetup organizer, Henrik Bennetsen, provides greater detail -- along with directions for both real and virtual attendance:
For our second Metaverse Meetup we are truly pleased to present Jamais Cascio one the authors of the Metaverse Roadmap. Our first meetup [with IFTF's Mike Liebhold] turned out to be very well attended by some very interesting people both at Stanford and in Second Life. We know we have an interesting speaker and topic for this second event and once again will open the floor for some nice and geeky conversation afterwards, so please come join us.

The man: Jamais Cascio writes about the intersection of emerging technologies and cultural transformation, focusing on the importance of long-term, systemic thinking. His work regularly appears both in print and online, and he has spoken around the world on issues such as the global environment, technological transformation, and political change. In 2003, Cascio co-founded WorldChanging.com, the Utne Independent Press Award-winning website identifying models, tools, and ideas for building a "bright green" future. In March, 2006, he started OpenTheFuture.com as his online home. Cascio presently serves as a research affiliate at the Institute for the Future, as the Director of Impacts Analysis for The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, and as a founding fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

The talk: The Metaverse -- what does it include, where is it going, and how will it change our lives? Based on my work for the Metaverse Roadmap Overview, I'll look both at the underlying technologies of the Metaverse and at the social, cultural and economic impacts it could have.

  • When: Thursday, November 29th 2007 from 6pm to 7:30pm PST/SLT
  • Where: Wallenberg Hall, Stanford University and at Spaceport Bravo in Second Life courtesy of the excellent ISM

A few more bullets for good measure:

  • Feel very free to forward this email or blog about this.
  • RSVP is voluntary but appreciated
  • Write me (Henrik Bennetsen - hbe@stanford.edu) if you have any questions.
  • The next of these events has not been scheduled as of yet, but feel very free to suggest speakers or topics
  • The Stanford Humanities Lab is delighted to welcome MediaX as cosponsor for this event
If you can't make it to Stanford on Thursday night, but want to check out the talk live, try the Second Life link. For people unable to make either, a video of the talk will be posted fairly quickly afterwards.

November 21, 2007

Metaverse Meetup

I'll be speaking next week at the second "Metaverse Meetup," on the subject of the Metaverse Roadmap Overview.

When: Thursday, November 29th 2007 from 6pm to 7:30pm

Where: Wallenberg Hall, Stanford University (mapped).

The event is free -- come on by and say hi!

(Edit: Date Fixed)

November 20, 2007

Green Tomorrows: the Scenarios

Opportunity Green scenarios

This matrix served as the core of the presentation I gave at Opportunity Green this past weekend and, in a somewhat different form, at the Behavior, Energy and Climate Change conference the week before.

(I'm also looking at it as the core for a book.)

The four boxes represent a variety of "response" scenarios, each embracing elements of the prevention, mitigation, and remediation approaches to solving the climate crisis. Certain approaches may receive greater emphasis in a given scenario, but all three types of responses can be seen in each world. And while individual readers may find some scenarios more appealing than others, none of these stand out for me as indisputably "bad" response models.

The Drivers
The two critical uncertainties used as scenario axes aren't meant to cover every possible force driving change; rather, they're what I've come to see as issues that are fundamental to how the next few decades play out. It should be noted that the drivers are not particularly "green" in emphasis: this matrix structure can be used to think about different scenarios regarding (e.g.) nanotechnology, military developments, even social networks.

The first driver is Who Makes the Rules?, with end-points of Centralized and Distributed. This driver looks at the locus of authority regarding the subject (in this case, climate responses) -- are outcomes dependent upon choices made by top-down, centralized leadership, or made by uncoordinated, distributed decision-making? Centralized doesn't necessarily mean government; a world where a small number of wealthy individuals or corporations play key roles in shaping results would be just as "centralized" as one of state dominance. Similarly, distributed doesn't necessarily mean collaborative; a world of competing actors with diverse agendas and little ability to exert decisive power is as distributed as one of bottom-up civil society movements.

Although my bias tends towards distributed/collaborative, top-down models are often better-able to respond quickly to rapid developments, and can also offer a more predictable environment for business and organizational planning.

The second driver is How Do We Use Technology?, with end-points of Precautionary and Proactionary. This driver looks not at the pace of technological change (something of a canonical scenario driver), but at our political and social approaches to the deployment of new tools and systems. The "precautionary principle" and "proactionary principle" concepts are related, but not identical: this driver is as interested in why we deploy our technology choices as it is in which technologies we choose. Precautionary scenarios can encompass worlds in which governments, academia and/or NGOs fully examine and evaluate new technologies before use, worlds in which customers increasingly demand technologies for prevention or amelioration of possible adverse events, and worlds in which legal liabilities and insurance requirements force slow and careful deployment of new technologies. Similarly, proactionary scenarios can encompass worlds in which developers can test and deploy any new systems meeting limited health and safety requirements, worlds in which customers (whether top-down or bottom-up) strongly favor improved capabilities over limited footprint, and worlds lacking clear mechanisms (legal, political, economic) for stopping deployment.

My bias here is towards a limited precautionary approach, but the need for rapid response may end up pushing towards a proactionary world.

The Scenarios
The combination of these two drivers give us four distinct worlds.

"Power Green" -- Centralized and Proactionary: a world where government and corporate entities tend to exert most authority, and where new technologies, systems and response models tend to be tried first and evaluated afterwards. This world is most conducive to geoengineering, but is also one in which we might see environmental militarization (i.e., the use of military power to enforce global environmental regulations) and aggressive government environmental controls. "Green Fascism" is one form of this scenario; "Geoengineering 101" from my Earth Day Essay is another.

"Functional Green" -- Centralized and Precautionary: a world in which top-down efforts emphasize regulation and mandates, while the deployment of new technologies emphasizes improving our capacities to limit disastrous results. Energy efficiency dominates here, along with economic and social innovations like tradable emissions quotas and re-imagined urban designs. The future as envisioned by Shellenberger and Nordhaus could be one form of this scenario; the future as envisioned by folks like Bill McDonough or Amory Lovins could be another. Arguably, this is the default scenario for Europe and Japan.

"We Green" -- Distributed and Precautionary: a world in which collaboration and bottom-up efforts prove decisive, and technological deployments emphasize strengthening local communities, enhancing communication, and improving transparency. This is a world of micro-models and open source platforms, "Earth Witness" environmental sousveillance and locavorous diets. Rainwater capture, energy networks, and carbon labeling all show up here. This world (along with a few elements from the "Functional Green" scenario) is the baseline "bright green" future.

"Hyper Green" -- Distributed and Proactionary: a world in which things get weird. Distributed decisions and ad-hoc collaboration dominate, largely in the development and deployment of potentially transformative technologies and models. This world embraces experimentation and iterated design, albeit not universally; this scenario is likely to include communities and nations that see themselves as disenfranchised and angry. Micro-models and open source platforms thrive here, too, but are as likely to be micro-ecosystem engineering and open source nanotechnology as micro-finance and open source architecture. States and large corporations aren't gone, but find it increasingly hard to keep up. One form of this scenario would end with an open source guerilla movement getting its hands on a knowledge-enabled weapon of mass destruction; another form of this scenario is the "Teaching the World to Sing" story from my Earth Day Essay.

The Choice
Which scenario is most likely? It depends a bit on how fast the truly disastrous manifestations of climate change hit. Climate catastrophe happening earlier than currently projected would push towards the more proactionary worlds. It also depends a bit on whether governments and corporate leaders continue to lag community and activist groups in terms of willingness to embrace big changes to fight environmental risks. Centralized responses may end up being too little, too late if wide-spread bottom-up models take root.

Ultimately, which one of these scenarios comes to dominate depends on the choices we make today. We simply can't go on pretending that we don't have to deal with this problem for awhile yet, that "the market" or "the government" or "new technologies" will fix everything in time, that we aren't responsible. The more we abandon our responsibilities, our agency, the more likely it is that the world that emerges will not pay attention to our interests. Acting now is no guarantee that we'll get the world we want -- but not acting is as close as you'll get to a guarantee that we won't.

November 17, 2007

Opportunity Green

Opportunity Green is underway now over, and I'm glad I got a chance to play a role. The event struck me as a case study of the cultural transition underway in the center of gravity of the green movement, from activism to business. This is not a painless change, but arguably a necessary one. If environmentalism is to have a persistent mainstream presence, it has to make the leap from imperative to normative -- that is, from environmentally beneficial action being something driven by guilt or morality to being something commonplace and assumed. The question, for me, is how to navigate that transition without losing the elements of the activist culture that bring energy, enthusiasm, and -- most importantly -- a long-term perspective to the party.

The lesson I took from the Opportunity Green event is that activist passion doesn't necessarily translate well into business passion. This is less a result of the transformation from "green movement" to "green markets" than a dilemma inherent in a change in the dominant participats: the most successful voices of the movement are often not as successful as market advocates, and (at the same time) the most effective salespeople are often not as deeply immersed in the underlying science and the complex tapestry of the broader issues. As a result, there's a noticeable tension between these different perspectives.

As a result of this conference, I'm increasingly convinced that the core dilemma of sustainability today is how to make environmental responsibility mainstream and normative while responding effectively and quickly to an accelerating crisis. To paraphrase the old tech joke, our situation appears to be: "Rapid response, broad adoption, affordability -- choose two."

[Edited significantly at 10:35 pm PST.]

November 14, 2007

Village Greens

Shellenberger and NordhausAttention sustainable blogosphere: Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus don't dislike you. They just don't care much about you.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus are the authors of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, a book building on their 2005 grenade-in-the-form-of-an-essay, "The Death of Environmentalism" (PDF). The conceit of both the essay and the book is that environmentalism, as it has been practiced, has failed to achieve its goals, and should be abandoned in favor of a new model of dealing with the planet's problems, one that emphasizes solutions, optimism, and the utility of technological progress and economic growth as engines of environmental repair. It's an interesting argument, but it's one based not on the rich history of innovations in environmental policy and politics, but on the entrenched inside-the-Beltway culture that has become known among political bloggers as "the Village."

I got a chance recently to see Shellenberger and Nordhaus in person at a GBN event; accompanying me was my former WorldChanging colleague (and new Bay Area resident) Dawn Danby. (I took the picture accompanying this post during this event.) After the presentation, I managed to snag a few minutes of Ted Nordhaus' time, and my thoughts here reflect my take on the evening.

During their talk (and my subsequent conversation with Nordhaus), my reactions flickered between strong agreement and painful frustration. If you peel away the way that Shellenberger and Nordhaus (hereafter S&N) deliver their message, much of what they say makes good sense, and in fact parallels what the WorldChanging team has been arguing since late 2003. Talking about solutions and the pathways to success with a tone of "clear-eyed optimism" (as Alex called it) can be much more persuasive and empowering than talking only about the unfolding disasters. New technologies, markets, and political realism are important parts of these solutions, not instead of behavior changes, regulation and knowledge but in addition to. A planet of seven billion should be able to live at a high quality of life without destroying our future. The old models of establishment non-profits taking your donations and sending you annual pretty pictures doesn't cut it any longer.

But while WorldChanging spoke to the large numbers of people who felt a strong desire to embrace the new models of social networks and bottom-up organization to make environmentalism stronger, S&N's audience seems to be the power elite most threatened by these models. S&N targets for attack the environmental movement as it's seen in Washington, D.C. -- sluggish institutions that don't play the lobbying game well, with memberships largely comprising rich boomers who write checks every year (but that's about it). Moreover, to the degree that their view acknowledges the role of citizen stakeholders, it's in the form of "DFH" protestors still stuck in 1973. While web activism, green blogs, and the like certainly exist, their only real useful role is either as sources of funding or as mouthpieces for the establishment. That's my paraphrasing of their argument, to be sure: S&N, as long-time D.C.-based political strategists, are much more diplomatic than that. While they'll happily agree that green blogs (and web-based activism, social networks, and the like) are "really important," they don't go much further than that; all of the strategies and ideas they want to discuss focus on the leadership and power of the incumbent political and corporate institutions. The citizens are just a footnote.

I realized, about a third of the way through the presentation, that S&N are fully paid-up members of The Village, the acid term for the Washington, D.C. coterie of strategists, pundits, media figures, and policymakers, all more interested in ensuring their mutual approval than actually confronting problems. The Village has set narratives, and information or opinions that run counter to these set narratives are variously declared "irresponsible," "offensive," or (worst of all) "un-serious." The point of the Village is to perpetuate the Village; political figures who don't pay obeisance to the Village and its narratives are either ignored (if they're insufficiently powerful) or venomously attacked.

Much of the discussion of the Village (at Digby's, at Orcinus, at Atrios) focuses on the Village's jihad against anyone opposing the war, especially the DFHs who opposed the war from the outset. But this same mindset -- of focus on establishment power (political and corporate), of dismissal of grassroots action, of ignorance (and abuse) of opinions that didn't come from fellow Villagers -- fits the perspectives that S&N embraced at the GBN event.

S&N seemed like affable, smart people, and I am convinced of their commitment to wanting to bring about a sustainable world. But they seemed stuck in a previous era, and didn't really seem to notice that the world of political organization, the distribution of information, and citizen power has changed. As incumbent institutions across the business and political spectrum have discovered, this ignorance can be dangerous.

It's possible that it's just a pose. Bashing fellow environmentalists was, in this way, something of a "Sister Eco-Souljah" tactic: demonstrating one's legitimacy to the establishment by attacking outsiders who agree with you. If so, it could be a smart move for S&N, if more than a little Machiavellian. There is a clear need for the power centers in Washington, D.C. to make faster and more aggressive moves towards dealing with the climate emergency. If environmentalists Shellenberger and Nordhaus (and they are environmentalists, of that I have no doubt) need to repudiate other environmentalists and dismiss the netroots in order to be heard by the rest of the Village, then I'll weather the attacks.

I hope that this is the case, because if not -- if S&N are undermining the people who have been fighting for the environment for decades while simultaneously spiting those of us who have adopted participatory technologies to open a new front because they really believe they're right -- that's just depressing.

November 12, 2007

Green Tomorrows

br2_med.jpgOpportunity Green arrives on Saturday, presenting an impressive line-up of sustainable business leaders, green bloggers, environmental policy experts, and at least one eco-futurist. I am humbled and honored that they've asked me to present the opening keynote for the event. That talk -- "Green Tomorrows" -- will give me an opportunity to describe the different kinds of futures our environmental choices can produce.

The conference takes place in Los Angeles, which may not be at the top of the list of most-sustainable cities. But when Green LA Girl Siel asked me to talk a bit about what could make LA's green future unique, I gave her this reply (which she printed in full in her blog at the LA Times):

Los Angeles is a city built on competing visions of the future.

On the surface, LA seems to be the realization of all of the leading environmental risks: the auto-centric culture; the suburban sprawl; the overburdened water table; the celebration of all things consumer, from media to merchandise. There's truth to this caricature, unfortunately. And while these environmental burdens could once be seen as persistent annoyances, they're now nothing less than engines for catastrophe.

At the same time, LA embraces constant reinvention. The immigrants passing through, both from outside the U.S. and -- even more often -- from other American states, churn the culture, the economy and the society of Los Angeles in ways that would be hard to replicate anywhere else. With them come new ideas, and the desire for a space to see the ideas flourish. The media industry is itself founded on the notion of creative destruction, entrepreneurial cycles accelerated a hundred-fold; and while the media companies themselves may sometimes forget this underlying truth, and instead seek the comforts of stagnant incumbency, the thousands upon thousands of creative people working in and supporting the industry live the life of creative destruction every day.

Fortunately, Los Angeles doesn't ignore the environmental challenges it faces, and the number of organizations and companies looking for ways to handle these dilemmas is staggering. The solutions won't be simple, and won't be cheap, but will -- if and when they arise -- be globally transformative. If they can work in Los Angeles they can work nearly anywhere, especially in the explosive cities of the developing world. Lessons (and innovations!) from Los Angeles are far more likely to be applicable in Beijing or Bangalore than would techniques copied from Portland or New York.

The quandary that Los Angeles faces, then, is whether to see the environmental risks as the leading driver for innovation and reinvention, or to allow them to turn the megalopolis into the first big failed city-state of the 21st century.

Let me re-emphasize the (buried) point: Los Angeles, with its sprawling, polycephalous geography, overloaded resources and ecological services, chaotic infrastructure, legendary (if a helluva lot better than when I was a kid living there) pollution, and struggles to get out from under decades of bad planning, has the potential to be a model for developing megacities around the world. Despite its many challenges, Los Angeles has the capacity to be experimental, and to iterate its way to a greener future. In doing so, it will allow the world's megacities to follow in its footsteps.

If LA becomes a reasonably sustainable megalopolis, it's a strong indicator that we'll be able to make it through this global crisis with our civilization intact.

(Image from Blade Runner, set in 2012 Los Angeles, in a most decidedly un-green tomorrow.)

November 11, 2007

I Spy With My Orbital Eye...

flaring.jpgOne of my favorite early pieces for WorldChanging was the essay Greens In Space, arguing that space exploration, particularly robotic exploration, is ultimately in support of the Bright Green future. Of particular importance are the satellite systems used to observe changes on the Earth's surface. Two articles this past week nicely underscore that point.

The first (via James Hughes) comes from a report at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene conference in Philadelphia: NASA satellites help health policy experts around the world watch for and respond to disease outbreaks, and can potentially help head off a pandemic.

The use of remote sensing technology aids specialists in predicting the outbreak of some of the most common and deadly infectious diseases today such as Ebola, West Nile virus and Rift Valley Fever. The ability of infectious diseases to thrive depends on changes in the Earth’s environment such as the climate, precipitation and vegetation of an area. [...] Remote sensing technology not only helps monitor infectious disease outbreaks in highly affected areas, but also provides information about possible plague-carrying vectors -- such as insects or rodents -- globally and within the U.S.

It's a simple story, but a useful reminder: we have the tools to fight these crises.

The second (via Ethan Zuckerman) is even more directly Bright Green: the use of satellite imagery to detect natural gas "flaring," in order to track its impact on the environment.

Natural gas often comes along with oil drilling, and -- amazingly -- some companies find it cheaper to burn off the gas onsite ("flaring") than to capture and sell it. This, in turn, appears connected to acid rain and lung disease, and simply dumps more carbon into the atmosphere without even generating useful work out of it. In 2002, Norway and the World Bank initiated the Global Gas Flaring Reduction partnership, trying to reduce the frequency of the practice. In order to enforce the agreement, and get a better handle on just how much gas flaring is underway, the GGFR brought in experts in satellite analysis to begin poring over data stretching back nearly 20 years.

The results found with this new tool are surprising. Conventional wisdom says that gas flaring is decreasing - the study found that it’s actually been pretty constant from 1995 to 2006. It’s been accepted that Nigeria is the biggest offender in gas flaring, conducting 20% of worldwide gas flaring. But the Nigerian government - in part driven by activism and violence in the Niger Delta, as well as concerns about health and environment - has been attempting to reduce gas flaring. [...]

According to the analysis by NGDC, the real bad boys of gas flaring are the Russians, who flare twice as much gas as the Nigerians. Russia, unfortunately, is not a member of the Global Gas Flaring Reduction consortium - having data that shows that they’re the largest offender might help bring them within the fold.

Ethan's notes on the details of the gas flaring analysis are well-worth reading, and I encourage you to follow the link.

Back at WorldChanging, I used to post quite frequently about the variety of satellite-based projects underway to make information about the environment, human rights, agriculture, disease, etc. etc. more transparent and available. I haven't done that much over here at OtF -- in a way, the eyes in orbit have just been an assumed baseline. But with massive cuts to NASA's environmental satellites division, such an assumption is no longer warranted. We should take note of, and celebrate, the remaining satellite-based efforts while we can.

November 7, 2007

Green Talk Tour

Sorry about the silence this week; I've been prepping for back-to-back green talks this week.

Tomorrow, I'm giving the keynote for the Behavior, Energy and Climate Change conference in Sacramento, in front of a large crowd of policy-makers, academics and NGOs. The title of the talk is "Technology, Culture... and Cheeseburgers."

The upshot of the talk -- which I will be doing unscripted: every choice matters, even (especially) the little ones; we still have a say in what kind of future we create; bottom-up solutions can beat top-down solutions, but only when we make an effort -- and that neither will take the form we might expect.

New graphics, for the talk:




Friday, I'll be speaking at the Green Business Conference in San Francisco. I presume that the audience there will be more business-folks and interested civilians. I'm a late substitute for my fellow IFTFer Bob Johansen, and will be talking about the ideas in his book Get There Early, and how they apply to the green business space. Fortunately, GTE talks about the IFTF processes, so it's reasonably familiar territory.

This weekend, I'll be taking a bit of a break to see Lisa Rein perform all-new songs -- including one written as a result of her attendance at the Singularity Summit -- at her birthday party on Sunday. Happy Birthday, Lisa!

November 1, 2007

Make It So


How soon until we see one of these? The "artifact from the future" shown above is my visualization of a bluetooth headset with an embedded cameraphone-style camera, able to send the video to one's handheld for recording and display. Given that fairly decent cameras can be put into the very small, low-power space of a phone, it stands to reason that -- very soon, if not today -- clever designers could successfully build one into a headset.

The vision of the "Lifelogging," Participatory Panopticon future assumes that the network-enabled personal cameras be used to capture images and video of one's life in a serendipitous fashion, and not require the few seconds of fumbling with a camera or phone to get it ready to shoot a picture. Current test versions of such technologies use medallion cameras (such as Microsoft's SenseCam or ExisTech's WearCam), offering all of the style of a wearing a big piece of weird technology around your neck, and all of the social appeal of an accessory that absolutely demands that people look at your chest. The canonical non-goofy medium for future always-enabled cameras would be camera-enabled eyeglasses, offering both a view of the world equivalent to what one already sees, and a potential avenue for display.

But this medium isn't perfect, either. The necessary technologies remain some ways away, but more importantly, the social role of eyeglasses is changing. The increasing popularity of laser eye surgery is steadily reducing the number of people in the hyperdeveloped world who have to wear corrective lenses, and for those people who choose to continue to wear eyeglasses, the frames have become something of a fashion item. It's not unusual to find people who have a variety of eyeglasses to match different outfits and situations. In short, the idea of eyeglasses-based cameras seems to run counter to current trends.

Conversely, the use of bluetooth headsets for mobile phones seems to be on an upswing. They're still far too ungainly to be considered fashion items, but it's getting to be difficult to find a public setting in which there aren't people appearing to suffer from the early stages of Borganism. The calls for laws banning the use of handheld phones while driving will only accelerate this trend.

Headset-mounted cameras for Lifelogging and the Participatory Panopticon would have many of the advantages of the eyeglasses versions, but would require simpler technology to produce. The processing and recording of images would still take place in the phone, minimizing the power demands of the headset cam. A device like this would be an ideal partner for a Nokia N800 tablet or one of the myriad iPhone-copy touch phones on the market.

So, who makes the first bluetooth headcam? Nokia? Apple? One of you?

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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