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January 30, 2008

The Big Picture

You don't have to believe in incipient singularities to recognize that 2028 -- just twenty years from now -- will bear very little resemblance to 2008.

A small cluster of rapidly-accelerating drivers promises to dominate the first quarter of this century. Each of these drivers, alone, has the potential to remake how we live; together, the likelihood of a fundamental transformation of our lives, our politics, our world, becomes over-determined. Moreover, these drivers are distinct but interdependent: each one exists and would be transformative on its own, but how it plays out -- and the choices we'll face when confronting it -- will be contingent upon how the other drivers unfold. Twenty years isn't a long time to make the needed changes to turn potential disaster into a new world; we have all of five US presidential terms -- maximum -- to completely transform, globally, every significant aspect of our material civilization.

These drivers will be familiar to anyone who has been reading my writing here at Open the Future, and previously at WorldChanging.

Climate Chaos: Twenty years is the outside limit of how long we have to make the global changes (in our energy grids, urban designs, transportation networks, agricultural processes, industrial processes, taxation policies, trade policies, etc.) required to avoid real disaster. It's also probably about right for figuring out which geoengineering strategies are the least likely to make things worse. We know what we need to do -- we simply need to do it.

Resource Collapse: Oil. Water. Topsoil. Fisheries. Seeds. Arable land. Copper. Food. Name a resource fundamental to the maintenance of our civilization, and it's probably at risk of collapse in the next two decades. All of these can be mitigated, managed or replaced in time; again, it's a matter of making the decision to do so. Some of the solutions will require transient sacrifice, but many will make our lives demonstrably better. Unfortunately, all require upsetting the status quo.

Catalytic Innovation: A number of potentially-transformative technologies have a real chance to show critical breakthroughs by the late 2020s: Molecular manufacturing; artificial general intelligence; synthetic biology; human augmentation biology. Individually and combinatorially powerful, how they emerge will depend on political, economic and cultural choices made today. As catalysts, they can reshape the tools we have to manage the other drivers, offering new pathways to succeed, and new models of risk.

Ubiquitous Transparency: The catalytic innovations change what we can do, but ubiquitous transparency changes what we can know. Sensors, cameras, networks, augmented reality, lifelogs, mirror worlds -- these change our relationship to each other, our communities, and our planet. These technologies are quite far along, meaning that in twenty years, systems for ubiquitous transparency will be deeply-embedded, mature and unavoidable. Whether they'll be one-way or two-way remains an open question.

New Models of Development: The 20th century model of global development has demonstrably failed, but nothing has yet emerged to take its place. Potential alternatives abound: leapfrogging, offering development through local technology innovation; Islamic renaissance, offering a non-Western vision of the interaction of state and religion; G20+, offering new rules of development by "embracing and extending" the old ones; Bollywood, offering culture as the new engine of development; copyfighters, offering a shot at breaking the rules for a greater good. Over the next twenty years, the relationship between the "core" and the "periphery" will be upended.

The Rise of the Post-Hegemonic World: Finally, the end of the American global hegemony without a clear alternative hegemon or set of hegemons signals a fundamental change in the structure of global politics. Major system shifts have, historically, been signaled by war; the presence of nuclear deterrence and fourth generation warfare as brakes on conventional conflict makes that outcome less likely. By the late 2020s, the new structure of the global system won't necessarily be in place, but its outlines will be coming into view. The United States may have accepted by that point that it's no longer the #1 power in the world, no matter how many missiles it still has. I wouldn't count on that, though.

My goal is to start talking over the next few days and weeks about how these intersect.

As always, this is meant not as a prediction but as a provocation. What happens as these drivers take hold depends upon our choices and our actions, and the potential remains for us to use these forces of history as a catalyst for building the kind of world we want. The capacity to do so rests upon an ability to recognize these forces, and to act on that recognition. We must not be passive victims of the future.

January 28, 2008

Notes for "Battlefield Earth"

batearth.pngForeign Policy has just published a substantially updated version of my article "Terraforming War," on the potential strategic/military use of geoengineering, under the title "Battlefield Earth." As it is not FP policy to put links in articles, I thought I'd go ahead and add a list of links not previously appearing in the earlier version of the article. (Updated January 30.)

  • "A start-up company called Climos and the government of India have each begun to prepare tests of “ocean iron fertilization” to boost oceanic phytoplankton blooms"

  • Project Popeye: Amy Lewis, "Controlling the Weather," for Weather.com, 2000.

  • Weather as a Force Multiplier: Owning the Weather in 2025: Col Tamzy J. House, Lt Col James B. Near, Jr., LTC William B. Shields (USA), Maj Ronald J. Celentano, Maj David M. Husband, Maj Ann E. Mercer, Maj James E. Pugh, presented to US Air Force in August, 1996

  • "One proposal would pull cooler water from the deep oceans to the surface in an explicit attempt to shift the trajectories of hurricanes..." I'm told by Philip Kithil, the founder of Atmocean (the leading group looking at pulling cooler water to the ocean surface), that their research now shows that this process won't shift hurricane paths.

  • 1977 Environmental Modification Convention: US Department of State, signed in May 1977, entered into force October 1978

  • Happy Birthday, My Love

    Don't get exhausted, I'll do some driving. You ought to get you some sleep.

    I love you forever, Janice

    January 24, 2008

    Data Points: Urban Futures

    Coastal Impact: What Does Sea Level Rise Look Like?: Architecture2030 gives us a taste of what bad case global warming means for coastal cities in the United States.


    Leaving Home: For a growing number of people, the optimal response to collapsing home value is simply to mail the keys to the bank and walk away.

    I calculated that somewhere between 10 million and 20 million U.S. homeowners will owe more on their homes, than their homes will be worth, over the next couple of years.

    As I've noted before, one of the greatest fears for lenders (and investors in mortgage backed securities) is that it will become socially acceptable for upside down middle class Americans to walk away from their homes. These are homeowners with the "capacity to pay, but have basically just decided not to".

    Wachovia is seeing that happen now. Imagine what will happen as house prices fall this year and next.

    Hub2: Prototyping New Urban Environments in Virtual Worlds: Emerson College professor Eric Gordon uses Second Life for "rapid urban prototyping," engaging both designers and stakeholders. (Via Fringehog)

    Hub2 employs emerging 3D virtual world technologies to enhance community engagement in the urban planning process. It will enhance the city's current community outreach methods by providing a deeper engagement with the design process and greater accessibility to good ideas emerging from within the community.

    Hub2 will build a virtual representation of the Greenway to enable non-technical people to design public spaces together. Recent projects like WebLab’s “Listening to the City” dialogues in New York and the Penn’s Landing Forums in Philadelphia all have sought to engage communities in their public spaces. These efforts have shown how to bring together diverse individuals to talk about their shared spaces in an asynchronous web format. The unique contribution of Hub2 is using 3D virtual worlds as a new “language” for having these conversations. Hub2 enables people to communicate their passion for public spaces in a collaborative setting. Participants don’t just talk through ideas – they build their vision in a realistic 3D world. Unlike a 2D or 3D representation, a 3D virtual world allows individuals to inhabit spaces as virtual representations of people who can move through and interact with that space.

    Adam Everyware Greenfield talks Ultradense Cities in Science Fiction: His new book, The City, out real soon now -- I'm really looking forward to it. (Via io9)

    The relentless emphasis on high urban density as driver and incubator of pathology I encountered in the SF of my youth now strikes me as more than a little parochial. Much if not most of humanity dwells uncomplicatedly at levels of concentration higher than those the genre routinely depicted as catastrophic - and has for decades. To offer a single developed-nation example: Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station at its sleepiest is about as crowded as the busier sidewalks of Manhattan at peak load, rarely dipping below LOS-D, at least during daytime.

    And if the high-density favelas and sprawling squatter colonies Robert Neuwirth explores in his impressive Shadow Cities can hardly be said to offer “wholesale hope,” they do at least constitute a surprisingly stable way of life for a billion of us.

    Saudi Arabia: Urban Experimentation in the Heart of Islam: Saudi Arabia tries to get ready for a post-petroleum world.

    Drawings of these new towns depict a cross of the futuristic “Blade Runner” and traditional Arabic design. But the new cities are also expected to become new industrial centers that focus on four main sectors: petrochemicals, aluminum, steel and fertilizers.

    According to SABB, these cities together will have four times the geographical area of Hong Kong, three times the population of Dubai, and an economic output equal to Singapore’s. Other plans include building four refineries, two petrochemical plants and a modern graduate-level university with an endowment of $10 billion.

    SimCity Goes Open Source: Too bad it's the first version, from 25 years ago, but it's a start. (Via BoingBoing)

    EA wanted to have the right to approve and QA anything that was shipped with the trademarked name SimCity. But the GPL version will have a different name than SimCity, so people will be allowed to modify and distribute that without having EA QA and approve it. Future versions of SimCity that are included with the OLPC and called SimCity will go through EA for approval, but versions based on the open source Micropolis source code can be distributed anywhere, including the OLPC, under the name Micropolis (or any other name than SimCity).

    January 22, 2008

    Six Degrees

    six-degrees.jpgSix Degrees is the National Geographic Television program that flew me to Colorado to talk about cheeseburger footprints while wandering around a cattle ranch and a burger joint. The show now has a time and date: Sunday, February 10 at 8PM eastern and 9PM pacific time.

    I was told by the producers that my segment is included in the show, but looking at the website for the program, I'm baffled as to how something as goofy and lightweight as cheeseburgers fits in with dire scenarios of destruction and catastrophe.

    I'm of two minds about the value of extreme catastrophe scenarios. On the one hand, they fall into the realm of the possible, and underscore the potential risks of not doing anything. On the other, they aren't certainties, and help to reinforce the argument that climate disruption arguments are fear-mongering. As it stands now, the website for the show doesn't help the positive case.

    The site explores risk scenarios in graphic detail, but only offers as responses to these disasters a link to "Call2Recycle" (sorry, but recycling your cola cans isn't enough) and an exploration of geoengineering proposals. I'm the last person to talk about the over-use of geoengineering as a topic, but come on. No discussion on the site of redesigned cities, new models of infrastructure, ubiquitous solar power, and the myriad solution spaces that are neither token responses nor top-down climate management.

    I hope the show is better than the site.

    January 21, 2008

    Singularity Summit talk: the video

    The video of my talk at last year's Singularity Summit is finally available. As always, feedback welcome.

    Read These:

    After empire, then what? -- Mike Treder looks at what happens when empires fall.

    International peace, security, and stable all are strengthened by economic ties; financial integration and interdependence tend to promote harmony and tolerance. But if we experience a hard takeoff scenario for advanced nanotechnology -- a sudden and uncontrolled flood of products -- the resulting economic disruption might then destabilize international relations to the point where a hard landing for the former American empire is only one part of very bad outcome.

    The Fallacy of Reversibility -- Stuart Staniford examines the apocaphile assumption that higher priced oil means the collapse of industrial agriculture.

    So when you industrialize a society, is that a reversible process? Can you take it on a backward path to a deindustrialized society that looks in the important ways like the society you had before the industrialization? As far as I can see, the "second wave" peak oil writers treat it as fairly obvious that this is both possible and desirable. It appears to me that it is neither possible or desirable, but at a minimum, someone arguing for it should seriously address the question. And it is this failure that I am calling the Fallacy of Reversibility. It is most pronounced in Kunstler, who in addition to believing we need a much higher level of involvement in agriculture also wants railways, canals, and sailing ships back, and is a strong proponent of nineteenth century urban forms.

    "The Martin Luther King You Don't See on TV" -- FAIR shines a light on what MLK was focusing upon at the end of his life. (via Amor Mundi)

    From Vietnam to South Africa to Latin America, King said, the U.S. was "on the wrong side of a world revolution." King questioned "our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America," and asked why the U.S. was suppressing revolutions "of the shirtless and barefoot people" in the Third World, instead of supporting them.

    In foreign policy, King also offered an economic critique, complaining about "capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries."

    10-Fold Life Span Extension Reported -- Yeast re-engineered to live 80 days or more (that's 800 years to you and me).

    Longo cautioned that [...] longevity mutations tend to come with severe growth deficits and other health problems. Finding drugs to extend the human life span without side effects will not be easy, he said.

    An easier goal, Longo added, would be to use the knowledge gained about life span “in a fairly limited way, to reprogram disease prevention.”

    January 20, 2008

    ...And Boy Are My Arms Tired!

    [insert boilerplate "boy, I've been busy" text here]

    Extra-long meetings at Institute for the Future, covering both the Ten-Year Forecast program and IFTF's own organizational forecasts.

    Helping a new innovation consultancy called Collective Invention formalize its methodologies and client-facing media.

    And the usual conference calls, last-minute meeting changes, and the like.

    Upcoming Events:

    • Writers with Drinks, San Francisco. Saturday, February 9. (open)
    • Alliance to Save Energy "Energy Efficiency Summit," San Diego. Monday, February 11. (ticket needed)
    • Technology Horizon-Scanning event, London. February 19-20. (I will be in London from Feb 17 to Feb 24) (closed)
    • Bay Area Future Salon, San Mateo. Thursday, February 28. (open)
    • Better Buildings:Better Business Conference, Wisconsin Dells. Thursday, March 6. (ticket)
    • South-by-SouthWest, Austin Texas. March 7-11. My poster session ("The Whole World is Watching") is on Saturday @5pm; my two panels ("Futurists' Sandbox: Scenarios for Social Technologies in 2025" and "Visualizing Sustainability") have yet to be given definite schedules. (ticket)

    There are a couple of other items bubbling for this spring, but these are the ones that are all confirmed. If you're in the area, please come by and say hi!

    January 14, 2008

    "Techno-Doping" and the New Olympics

    pistorius.jpgOscar Pistorius, AKA "Blade Runner" -- the South African sprinter who uses carbon fiber prosthetics in place of the lower legs amputated as a child -- has officially lost his bid to run in the 2008 Olympics. He's going to give one last appeal to the International Association of Athletics Federations, but his chances of success are slim. The official reason, according to the BBC:

    "...his prosthetic limbs give him an advantage over able-bodied opponents..."

    For now, Pistorius' artificial legs make him fast, but still human-fast (he came in second at a recent meet); although his prosthetics reduce his energy requirements by 25%, he has yet to hit the qualifying speed for the 400m race. It's entirely possible that, even had the IAAF accepted his bid, he wouldn't have made it to this Olympics.

    But it's also entirely possible that, in 2012, he'd be breaking records right and left. And shortly thereafter, he wouldn't be alone in doing so.

    The evolution of technological augmentation is progressing faster than natural human biology, and it's clear that it won't be long until these physical enhancements will completely out-class natural human sports capabilities. The growing likelihood that, within the next decade, the fastest humans alive will be "disabled" holds the potential for profound "future shock." As I wrote about last year (in "The Accidental Cyborg"), young athletes facing the choice between rehabilitation and amputation for leg injuries are starting to pick amputation, knowing that the prosthetics could be an improvement, not an impairment.

    One of the arguments against doping in sports is that it puts young athletes in the position of choosing between potentially injuring their bodies or having a serious disadvantage. Don't be surprised if someone starts making the same argument about amputation. Once augmented athletes start breaking records, will desperate-to-win young men and women consider intentionally injuring their legs in order to get access to prosthetic augmentations? With people already talking about "techno-doping," this question seems painfully close to an answer.

    Moreover, what happens if the "Paralympics" -- the competition for disabled athletes -- becomes an arena for the best runners (and more?) in the world. Would there be a need for a "Supralympics" for technology-enhanced competitors? Would that become a home for "gene-doping," or even some forms of traditional, biochemical enhancement?

    Could the Olympics of (say) 2020 be the same kind of sideshow as today's Paralympics, with all of the advertising and attention going to the super-athletes doing things that everyday humans couldn't imagine?

    January 11, 2008

    Paul Saffo on Forecasting

    Brand & SaffoPaul Saffo gave the Long Now Seminar tonight. Here are some of his more telling observations:

    The biggest mistake a forecaster can make is to be more certain than the facts suggest.

    When changes cluster at the extremes, it's a certain bet that more fundamental change lies ahead.

    The future constantly arrives late and in unexpected ways.

    Good "backsight" is necessary for good foresight.

    Cherish failure -- we fail our way into the future.

    January 10, 2008

    The Medical Panopticon

    654343he2.jpgWeb-enabled personal medical information technologies have been a standard item in the futurist's scrapbook for a few years now. It's one of those concepts that's hard to imagine not happening: the demographic, technological, and market pressures for Internet-mediated health technologies aimed at the elderly have terrific momentum.

    So it comes as little surprise to see this post in Medgadget, describing the HealthPoint Home Telemetry system. The only thing it's missing are smart implants doing direct somatic monitoring:

    The recommended starter kit for the IL service includes the Home HealthPoint, three motion detectors, and an emergency pendant. The motion detectors are strategically placed around the home during the professional installation in the bedroom, at the entrance to the primary bathroom, and in the main trafficked area such as a foyer or living room. Additional sensor devices such as additional motion detectors, access contacts on the refrigerator or doors, a smart pillbox, or IP cameras can be utilized to supplement the monitoring data sets being produced within the home. Safety, comfort, and energy saving devices for the senior can be added such as a networked thermostat, safety lighting in or outside the home, appliance and lighting control accessories, gas leak detectors, air quality & fire detectors, or an IP-based intercom system. 4HM, a member of the Continua Alliance, is a strong advocate of open standards in medical devices and its ControlPoint ™ in-home software is able to support a wide variety of medical diagnostic devices to further supplement the health and well-being information for the senior, including a digital weight scale, a blood-pressure cuff, a glucose meter, or a pulse oximeter, depending on the needs of that particular monitored senior. Lastly, to battle psychological duress and the frequent isolation of a senior living alone– a common difficulty among the elder population that has proven negative health repercussions—4HM has integrated into the solution set friends-and-family photo sharing, interactive health surveys, and health and wellness video education.

    It's like Facebook, but with your family and your doctor always looking over your shoulder!

    The one big question about home health monitoring that too few people ask is whether the people being monitored want to give family, doctors, and random packet sniffers personalized Total Information Awareness about their every trip to the refrigerator or bathroom. This may end up being a catalyst for health-care robots ("Roomba, MD") -- a system that can pay attention to the patient 24/7 without being judgmental, distractible, or far too personal.

    January 9, 2008

    Global Guerilla Swag

    As-Sahab is the media wing of Al Qaeda, the "network" used by all the current Al Qaeda videos put onto the web; as with nearly all modern video producers, their programs include a little "bug" logo in the lower right corner of the screen identifying the network. Wired's Danger Room blog noted that this logo isn't limited to the video itself -- As-Sahab also has logo coffee cups.


    (Picture from IntelCenter)

    This is worth noting both as it suggests an increasingly sophisticated institution -- and the inability of even an avowedly anti-Western organization to avoid the trappings of Western media culture.

    Overton Window

    The Overton Window is a memetic engineering concept in use among political wonks, but with broader applicability. Wikipedia describes it thusly:

    It describes a "window" in the range of public reactions to ideas in public discourse, in a spectrum of all possible options on an issue. Overton described a method for moving that window, thereby including previously excluded ideas, while excluding previously acceptable ideas. The technique relies on people promoting ideas even less acceptable than the previous "outer fringe" ideas. That makes those old fringe ideas look less extreme, and thereby acceptable. Delivering rhetoric to define the window provides a plan of action to make more acceptable to the public some ideas by priming them with other ideas allowed to remain unacceptable, but which make the real target ideas seem more acceptable by comparison.

    The resulting spectrum is, then:

    Unthinkable • Radical • Acceptable • Sensible • Popular • Policy

    This is a familiar notion, but with a formal name. In the US, movement conservatives have used this technique to great effect, but it's now starting to show up in discussions among progressives/liberals.

    I think that the Overton Window model could prove to be a decisive tool for shifting perspectives in the US about environmental risks, and in fact provides a counter-argument to the "Village Green" types who claim that extreme eco-rhetoric is damaging to the environmental movement.

    Hey! Look Over There!

    Massively busy, but the world continues. I'll be posting *very* terse entries over the next day or two in order to clear out some of the stuff I want to comment on, but haven't been able to. As per the discussion in my last topsight post, I'll add these as separate entries for easy linkage.

    January 6, 2008

    Not Dead Yet

    Going through another cluster of consuming work. I do have some blog items lined up, though, so I'll be overloading your RSS feed soon enough.

    January 2, 2008

    Bruce Sterling's 2008 State of the World

    chairmanbruce.pngOnce again, Chairman Bruce weighs in on the insanity wrought in the year past and the hopes, fears, and snarky asides in store for us in 2008. It's part of the Well's "Inkwell" site, viewable by the public and open to questions via email (or directly in the discussion if you're a Well member). My old friend and colleague Jon Lebkowsky is handling the moderation duties.

    The State of the World conversation will take place ostensibly over the next two weeks, so come by often to see what's new.

    Here's an excerpt from his initial take on what the new year holds:

    So: I don't expect too much to happen in 2008: except for that intensified smell of burning as people's feet are held to the fire. "Nothing changes if nothing changes." But if nothing changes, then more and more china is going to flat-out shatter and break.

    THEN they'll move. If they see somebody making money at it, they might move pretty fast.

    See you there!

    (URL updated with correct link. Thanks, Stefan!)

    January 1, 2008

    Best of 2007

    Here are the posts from Open the Future 2007 that, for me, rank as the ones I'm happiest to add to my cv. They aren't all necessarily the finest pieces of prose, but they each offered me an opportunity to wrestle with some of what I believe will be the most critical issues of the coming years.

    If you're so inclined, please let me know which of the posts from 2007 you found to be the most provocative, interesting, and/or fun...

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

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

    June 12: The Accidental Cyborg

    I expect that, over the next decade, hearing aid technologies will have improved enough that most of the drawbacks will have been rectified, and I'll have access to hearing capabilities better than ever before; over that same time, we may see biomedical advances that can fix deficient hearing, restoring perfectly functional natural hearing. Augmentation for therapy slides inexorably into augmentation for enhancement. Should I give up my better-than-human hearing to go back to a "natural" state?

    August 29: The Problem of Cars

    To be clear, I'm not dismissing urban redesign and greater access to public transit & walking out of hand; the former is a terrific medium-term goal, and the latter is certain to be part of the solution to the looming climate disaster, especially as better urban designs make non-car transit more efficient. But demands for the immediate adoption of these approaches seem blind to the underlying reasons why the automobile culture is so deeply entrenched in Western society, and why it has become so attractive to nations seeing rapid economic development. [...] One way of re-examining this subject is to stop thinking about cars as "cars," and to start thinking about them in terms of the services they offer. This sort of abstraction is commonplace in the business consulting field -- it's not a carpet, it's a floor covering service. Surprisingly, that simple shift in perspective can sometimes elicit novel ideas. But it's important that new services that replace the old can replicate or improve upon the capabilities of the previous model.

    October 13: Solving the Climate Crisis

    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.

    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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