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June 30, 2008

Monday Topsight, June 30, 2008

floodedlondon.jpg• Flooded London: Media designers Squint/Opera have come up with a project they call "Flooded London: 2090," a set of illustrations of London in a late global warming world. As a piece of anticipatory illustration, it's startlingly idyllic -- pictures of a city that has gone past the crisis stage, to a "life goes on" mode for the survivors. To be sure, it's not a happy scenario -- one can only imagine how many millions of people would have perished to get to this point -- but it does illustrate just how resilient humankind can be.

I do have to admit, though, that the first thing I thought when I saw them was that these were paintings of the world of Freak Angels.

• Happy Sky-is-Falling Day!: One hundred years ago today the Earth saw its last major asteroid strike. The Tunguska event is no doubt familiar to old X-Files fans, but it really is one of those moments that could have changed everything. The current estimates for the size of the Tunguska blast range from five to 15 megatons, the latter being a thousand times the power of the Hiroshima bomb. The rock itself -- which exploded a few kilometers above the ground, not actually hitting -- was probably a few tens of meters in diameter. Just a little guy, really.

The asteroid strike happened way out in the middle of Nowhereski, Siberia. If it had happened near a populated zone, it would likely still be considered the worst natural disaster in human history -- and we would have had a much more sophisticated asteroid-hunting system in place by now.

• Schizmatrix Reloaded: The Anglican Church -- generally known as the Episcopal church in the US, and the Church of England in, well, England -- faces a growing likelihood of a full-blown schism between modernists and traditionalists over the subject of ordainment of female and gay ministers, and a broader acceptance of homosexuality. A gathering last week in Jerusalem of over a thousand representatives of Anglican churches denounced the gay-acceptant policies of the Anglican leadership, and sought to create a new "power bloc" within the church community representing the traditionalists.

What's particularly notable about this incipient split is its geographic distribution. The vast majority of participants in the Jerusalem gathering came from Anglican churches in Africa, South Asia, South America and Australia. The language used has a strong anti-colonialist tenor:

They depicted their efforts as the culmination of an anti-colonial struggle against the church’s seat of power in Great Britain, whose missionaries first brought Anglican Christianity to the developing world.

The conservatives say many of the descendants of those Anglican missionaries in Britain and North America are now following what they call a “false gospel” that allows a malleable, liberal interpretation of Scripture. [...]

The conservatives also challenged the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The current archbishop, Rowan Williams, has been a disappointment to conservatives, because he did not discipline the liberal North Americans or engineer their eviction. The Archbishop of Canterbury historically has not had the power to decree policy in the Communion, but in the past he determined which churches belonged to the Communion.

The conservatives’ statement said that although they acknowledged Canterbury’s historic position, they did not accept the idea “that Anglican identity is determined necessarily through recognition by the Archbishop of Canterbury.”

It's unlikely that the North American Anglican churches will change to suit the desires of the traditionalist churches in the global south; there's a clear shift towards broader acceptance of homosexuality in the US and Canada. Although the Jerusalem group says that they are not seeking a schism, such a result seems inevitable. One critical question is whether either faction will end up strengthened by the development.

• Cyborg Rights: The Boston Globe has a profile of MIT's Hugh Herr, a specialist in the development of prosthetic limbs. As is typical for current articles about prosthetics, sprint Oskar Pistorius makes an appearance. Herr makes an astute observation about the cultural tension regarding prosthetics and the potential for super-enabled disabled:

Twenty years ago, he was accused of cheating in competitive rock climbing; he had competed wearing prosthetic legs he had designed for the sport. "With Oscar, it was like, 'Here we go again,' " says Herr, 43. He is bemused by the fact that when amputees run or climb more slowly than "intact-leg competitors," their athletic displays are considered courageous. But as soon as amputees prove they can actually compete with able-bodied athletes, accusations of cheating follow, he says.

This seems likely to be a recurring theme as augmentation technologies and prosthetic enhancements move from the "good enough" to the "better-than-normal" level, and is a trend worth watching.

(Thanks, Rebecca!)

June 28, 2008

Singularities Enough, and Time

brain-sil.pngA few people have asked me what I thought of Karl Schroeder's recent article at Worldchanging, "No Time for the Singularity." Karl argues that we can't count on super-intelligent AIs to save us from environmental disaster, since by the time they're possible (assuming that they're possible), things will have gotten so bad that they won't matter (and/or won't have any resources available to act, or even persist). It's a pretty straightforward argument, and echoes pieces I've written on parallel themes. In short, my initial reaction, was "yeah, of course."

But giving it a bit more thought, I see that Karl's argument has a couple of subtle, but important, flaws.

The first is that he makes the assumption that nearly every casual discussion of the Singularity concept makes, in that he defines it as "...within about 25 years, computers will exceed human intelligence and rapidly bootstrap themselves to godlike status." But if you go back to Vinge's original piece, you'll see that he actually suggests four different pathways to a Singularity, only two of which arguably include super-intelligent AI. His four pathways are:

• There may be developed computers that are "awake" and superhumanly intelligent. (To date, there has been much controversy as to whether we can create human equivalence in a machine. But if the answer is "yes, we can", then there is little doubt that beings more intelligent can be constructed shortly thereafter.)
• Large computer networks (and their associated users) may "wake up" as a superhumanly intelligent entity.
• Computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent.
• Biological science may provide means to improve natural human intellect.

The first two depend upon computers gaining self-awareness and boostrapping themselves into super-intelligence through some handwaved process. People don't talk much about the Internet "waking up" these days, but talk of artificially intelligent systems remains quite popular. And while the details of how we might get from here to a seemingly intelligent machine grow more sophisticated, there's still quite a bit of handwaving about how that bootstrapping to super-intelligence would actually take place.

The second two -- computer/human interfaces and biological enhancement -- fall into the category of "intelligence augmentation," or IA. Here, the notion is that the human brain remains the smartest thing around, but has either cybernetic or biotechnological turbo chargers. It's important to note that the cyber version of this concept does not require that the embedded/connected computer be anything other than a fancy dumb system -- you wouldn't necessarily have to put up with an AI in your head.

So when Karl says that the Singularity, if it's even possible, wouldn't arrive in nearly enough time to deal with global environmental disasters, he's really only talking about one kind of Singularity. It's this narrowing of terms that leads to the second flaw in his argument.

Karl seems to suggest that only super-intelligent AIs would be able to figure out what to do about an eco-pocalypse. But there's still quite a bit of advancement to be had between the present level of intelligence-related technologies, and Singularity-scale technologies -- and that pathway of advancement will almost certainly be of tremendous value to figuring out how to avoid disaster.

This pathway is especially clear when it comes to the two non-AI versions of the Singularity concept. With bio-enhancement, it's easy to find stories about how Ritalin or Adderall or Provigil have become productivity tools in school and in the workplace. To the degree that our sense of "intelligence" depends on a capacity to learn and process new information, these drugs are simple intelligence boosters (ones with potential risks, as the linked articles suggest). While they're simple, they're also indicative of where things are going: our increasing understanding of how the brain functions will very likely lead to more powerful cognitive modifications.

The intelligence-boosting through human-computer connections is even easier to see -- just look in front of you. We're already offloading certain cognitive functions to our computing systems, functions such as memory, math, and increasingly, information analysis. Powerful simulations and petabyte-scale datasets allow us to do things with our brains that would once have been literally unimaginable. That the interface between our brains and our computers requires typing and/or pointing, rather than just thinking, is arguably a benefit rather than a drawback: upgrading is much simpler when there's no surgery involved.

You don't have to believe in godlike super-AIs to see that this kind of intelligence enhancement can lead to some pretty significant results as the systems get more complex, datasets get bigger, connections get faster, and interfaces become ever more useable.

So we have intelligence augmentation through both biochemistry and human-computer interface well underway and increasingly powerful, with artificial intelligence on some possible horizon. Let's cast aside the loaded term "Singularity" and just talk about getting smarter. This is happening now, and will under nearly any plausible scenario keep happening for at least the next decade and a half. Enhanced intelligence alone won't solve global warming and other environmental threats, but it will almost certainly make the solutions we come up with more effective. We could deal with these crises without getting any smarter, to be sure, and we shouldn't depend on getting smarter later as a way of avoiding hard work today. But we should certainly take advantage of whatever new capacities or advantages may emerge.

I still say that the Singularity is not a sustainability strategy, and agree with Karl that it's ludicrous to consider future advances in technology as our only hope. But we should at the same time be ready to embrace such advances if they do, in fact, emerge. The situation we face, particularly with regards to climate disruption, is so potentially devastating that we have to be willing to accept new strategies based on new conditions and opportunities. In the end, the best tool we have for dealing with potential catastrophe is our ability to innovate.

June 25, 2008

Do Not Taunt Massive Quake Ball

Image by Guillaume Paumier / Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-sa-3.0

As anyone who has built a tower out of blocks or LEGO knows, as they get taller, the more small movements at the base can be magnified into catastrophic motion at the top. This is just as true for skyscrapers, increasingly so as we get closer to building kilometer-high towers. It turns out that there's a solution: tuned mass dampers. Using mass as a way of counteracting vibration, tuned mass dampers can be found in a variety of systems, from transmission lines to bridges. The biggest ones can be found in huge towers. "Biggest" and "huge" meaning, for example, the 730 ton tuned mass damper ball built into the 509-meter Taipei 101 tower, currently the tallest occupied building in the world.

Given the magnitude of the Sichuan earthquake, it should be no surprise that it was felt hundreds of miles away in Taipei. Given the rise of the Participatory Panopticon, neither should it surprise that someone was there to video the sway while the earthquake struck.

Four stories high, the tuned mass damper at Taipei 101 is actually part of the building tour. Bring the family! (via Gizmodo; the Long Now Blog has more)

June 24, 2008

Advanced Griefing in the Material World

eve.pngThis happened a couple of years ago, but I was just reminded of it again recently (and it didn't receive the attention it deserves).

The story of the Guiding Hand Social Club and the Valentine Operative offers one scenario of how advanced griefing functions: it zeroes in on trust and community.

EVE Online is one of those lesser-known massively-multiplayer online role-playing games that scurries in the shadow of World of Warcraft. It's a science fiction game, wherein you fly around the galaxy fighting pirates and shipping goods, tricking out your successive generations of starships. The game itself is free, with a 30-day free trial (like nearly all other MMORPGs, ongoing play requires a subscription). The game developers update the universe on a regular basis, and the tens of thousands of players seem to enjoy the game quite a bit. (Incidentally, EVE has an on-staff economist to help them shape the game world, adding to its complexity.)

There's one other bit of information about EVE that's important to know: you can (and probably will) fight other players. It's not a safe universe out there.

The Guiding Hand Social Club (GHSC) is a "corporation" in EVE -- a player organization that, in another game, would be called a "guild." GHSC bills itself as a group of mercenaries, willing and able to go after other corporations, stealing ships and cargo, for a (hefty) fee. In 2004, GHSC was hired (by a still-anonymous client) to attack the corporation Ubiqua Seraph and kill its leader, Mirial. But GHSC took the contract a bit further than expected -- after ten months of infiltration, a galaxy-wide coordinated attack netted billions in in-game money (worth approximately $16,500 in real-world money at the time), stole dozens of ships and other hardware, and destroyed Ubiqua Seraph's "Navy Apocalypse" flagship. GHSC operative Arenis Xemdal pulled the trigger on Mirial, after having risen in Ubiqua Seraph's ranks and reportedly developing a relationship with the target CEO.

"Arenis Xemdal is what we call a Valentine Operative." [GHSC leader] Shogaatsu explains. "Essentially his job is to seduce and entice an objective into a state of trust and confidence. As such, we'd call Mirial's relationship to him moments before the strike... 'endeared'."

The entire story is worth reading, and if you're particularly fascinated, the GHSC announcement of the strike remains on the EVE message boards. All in all, it's a remarkable story of coordinated treachery, malicious intent, and griefing severe enough to drive people out of the game.

But what does this have to do with the real world?

It's tempting to look at the GHSC strike in financial terms, focusing on the loss of money. But to me, the monetary theft aspect was secondary; the real point of the action was to make the target, and her comrades, miserable. In this, GHSC was eminently successful:

They claim this was a "kill contract" to destroy the player Mirial.....

While they did destroy her Navy Apoc and pod her.... they went beyond that.

They stole everything from UQS Billions of isk [the EVE currency] that dozens of players have spent over a year building up.. seriusly [sic] hurting many players feelings and causing emotional stress outside the game... (I'm not gonna die over it... but my mind shouldn't be taken up by game thoughts like this has caused)

Why is this different than past Corp thefts?????


(Emphasis mine.)

People who don't spend time in immersive digital worlds may not realize just how emotionally intense they can be. These are often games, yes, but they are built to enable visceral reactions akin to those arising from real-world experiences: danger, exultation, fear, anger, humiliation and sometimes even "endearment." And the more that 3D immersive worlds blend with the physical world, the more intense these emotional cues will be.

In the comments to yesterday's post, my friend J. Eric Townsend argues that there's little real difference between griefing and "hacking" (in the commonplace sense) -- viruses and malware written not to steal, but simply to be perversely destructive. I see his point. Like most griefers, the "skr1pt k1dd13s" and virus-makers so prominent in the early days of the web had little motivation other than attacking other computer user for the fun of it.

But there is a difference, and it's a big one. While hacking and malware can destroy data and one's sense of security, griefing goes after trust and social cohesion. The teammate who shoots me instead of the opposing team isn't just attacking my datastream, he's attacking me. The prevalence of malware on the Internet seems environmental, like some kind of biohazard -- the origin of a virus or scam may be useful for the digital epidemiologists, but what I care most about is making sure my immunities are up to date. There are no such protections from griefing, because its presence depends on the social behavior we value in the participatory web. You can eliminate griefing by eliminating social interaction; it becomes necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.

And here we have the dilemma of the blended era. The appeal of social technologies, immersive technologies, is their extraordinary capacity to link us together, to build resilient and complex communities out of little more than thought and light. But those same luminous pathways enable malice of startling power. We built the metaverse and social web as ancillary networks, parallel to (but less meaningful than) our physical world communities. That pairing has quickly reversed itself, however, and the digital links have become -- for a rapidly growing number of us -- the primary social bond. But the norms and ethics of online life haven't evolved as rapidly, leaving us in a moment of transition: we are enraptured with the power of connection and painfully surprised by it at the same time.

June 23, 2008

The Griefer Future

Nice little future you got there. Hate to see something bad happen to it.

The blending of the physical and immersive digital worlds -- the metaverse -- inevitably produces bizarre results. I've noted (and we've started to see examples of) the possibility of hacking digital-physical objects. The potential for nano-spam continues to haunt us. But the mash-up between the virtual and the real worlds likely to affect the greatest number of us is "griefing."

Griefing is, simply put, making someone else's online game session miserable. It's not simply beating someone in player-vs.-player competitions, or even annoying someone as the side-effect of otherwise game-focused actions. Griefing means taking action intended to harm the game-play of someone else -- these can include attacking someone ostensibly on your own team, blocking passageways, intentionally crashing your vehicle into someone else's, leading masses of monsters to attack unsuspecting players ("training"), using known software bugs to force another player to "crash out" of the game, and so forth. While many of these might happen by accident, griefing is all about intent.

As the technologies and habits of the metaverse expand past the world of gaming, so too do social dilemmas like griefing. We've already started to see its appearance: just a couple of months ago, someone the posted flashing images to an epilepsy support website, triggering seizures and fugues for many of its visitors. If that sounds like harassment, it is -- griefing definitely falls into that category. But griefing has two characteristic elements, unique in combination: the use of system flaws or unintended consequences to abuse people with less-sophisticated system knowledge; and the griefer's belief that the griefing action is funny. For many griefers, it's just another kind of prank.

As long as griefing was limited to online games, the prank argument made sense. As the epilepsy attack demonstrates, however, when griefing moves into other online arenas, the line between pranks and harassment becomes harder to see. This will only increase over time. Emerging metaverse technologies lend themselves to various forms of griefing, such as intentional errors added to augmented reality or mirror world databases, pollution of simulated spaces with inappropriate content, or intentional creation of false public data -- the "participatory decepticon" I wrote about recently is a prime example of metaverse griefing.

Simply put, as the power and ubiquity of immersive digital technologies increase, so too do the opportunities for griefing -- as does the potential for unintended and unanticipated problems. The result is likely to be a world of pranks gone horribly awry, civil authorities treating minor insults as potential terrorism, and a general diminishment of trust in immersive digital technologies. I'd also expect to see griefing-type activities done with a political or economic purpose, easily dismissed as just more pranking, but with potentially greater consequences.

So, griefing: threat or menace? Both and neither, really. In the gaming world, griefing can be a way of exposing software flaws and exploits, leading (once they are fixed) to a more resilient online environment. Abstractly, the same will hold true for non-game griefing -- software holes allowing for bad results (whether by intent or accident) will be repaired, disproportionate results from authorities will be called out and examined, people will be more skeptical about the reliability of digital information, and so forth -- but at the cost of hurt feelings, hurt bodies, and passing social disorder. We may not like the trade-off, but we're likely going to have to live with it.

(Looking for a suitable image to illustrate this post with, but finding nothing that's clearly Creative Commons licensed...)

June 20, 2008

My Talk at the Moodle Moot

Here's the talk I gave at Moodle Moot San Francisco last week. It runs about 70 minutes -- yeah, I spoke for over an hour -- and the slides aren't visible. Fortunately, I really only use slides for illustrations, and you shouldn't have a problem understanding what I'm talking about.

(Update: I've added a link to the slides below.)

Slides can be found at SlideShare. I have to tap the laptop to advance the slides, so it should be pretty easy to follow along.

While the talk ostensibly focuses on the future of education and educational technologies, it wanders across a much broader landscape. It's more of a "what's shaping the next decade?" kind of talk, with an education spin.

As always, I'm eager to get your reactions.

June 17, 2008

Playing Catch-Up

Okay, back from DC and a long weekend trip away. Rested and ready, as it were. Here are a few items piled up in the old Intertube drift net. More serious stuff coming.


• My Old Workplace: Stephen Colbert discusses a scenario report from Global Business Network, describing the document in this way:

The Future of Arctic Marine Navigation in Mid-Century, written by Global Business Network, the world leader in vague, uninspired names for organizations. [...] It’s like a futuristic disaster movie where only the rich guys survive. Mad Max meets Wall Street … on ice!

Yep, that's GBN.

• Artifact from a Win Scenario: It's all-too-easy to come up with scenarios and narratives outlining just how badly things are falling apart, the center is no longer holding, and mere anarchy is getting ready to be loosed upon the world. Positive futures, "win scenarios" as I sometimes call them, can be much harder to imagine. That's why this page, which offers a vision of what a Google News page would look like in a wonderful near future, is so terrific.


Headlines include "A New Era Dawns for China and Tibet," "Long-awaited spray-on solar coating now available," even "Music publishers: DRM has been unprofitable". Nearly all of the headlines offer at least plausible stories, with some being clearly based on work already underway. The author ("Andrea") created the page in 2007 as a way of dealing with relentlessly depressing news.

What's notable about this page is that we read it and immediately see it as a fake; if someone had mocked up a Google News page with nothing but horrible news, we'd be much more likely to accept it as true.

So, my question: why? Is it because the media culture focuses on negative stories? ("If it bleeds, it leads!") Is it because we're acculturated to expect negative outcomes? (And if so, why?) Or is it because our brains are wired to pay the most attention to threats, out of sheer survival instinct? (And if so, how do we adapt around that?)

• My New Motto: "I am aware of all internet traditions."

June 10, 2008

The Participatory Decepticon

lincoln-douglas1.pngWhat happens when not only have the tools of documenting the world become democratized, so too have the tools for manipulating our interpretations of reality?

The rise of technologies of ubiquitous personal observation -- what I've termed the "participatory panopticon" -- has already begun to transform how we relate to each other socially and politically. The acceleration of mobile media creation capabilities maps to a growing desire by individuals of all ages and backgrounds to have greater control over their personal media technologies. These tools move quickly from dubious to ubiquitous, and streaming video from cameraphones offers the best example.

I've argued before that this kind of live streaming video from phones will likely be abundant and potentially quite important during the 2008 general election campaign in the US. We saw in 2004 how "video vigilantes" could demonstrate that the NY police had edited their arrest videos, resulting in a near-90% dismissal rate for protestor arrests during the Republican national convention. In 2008, anyone with a cheap Internet-enabled cameraphone will be able to serve the same "watching the watchmen" function.

To get a sense of the potential scale of this phenomenon, take a look at these fantastic photos by Scout Tufankjian, who has followed the Obama campaign since well before the Iowa caucuses. Ignore for a moment the political context, and look at the crowds. In nearly every shot involving masses of people, you'll see cameraphones held up to record the moment. Most are likely to have been used for still photos, but a significant -- and growing -- percentage will have been used to record video (here's an example of what they get).

We are flush with video documentation of our political world, and have become increasingly comfortable with checking out YouTube or Google Video links for political content.

But just as the tools for recording the world have come down in price (sometimes in a dramatic fashion), so too have the tools for editing and reshaping video recordings. Both the MacOS and Windows come with decent to good free applications for movie editing, and the commercial packages offer even more power. It's entirely possible for a professional video productions to be crafted on the same kinds of hardware you might use for playing games or blogging.

This progression of technological capacities coincides with the increasing polarization and visibility of personal political discourse. People rant daly on blogs, produce fist-pounding videocasts, record angry podcasts. Political videos become viral hits, sometimes spawning parodies.

The initial result of the combination of easy video documentation and political polarization can be summed up in two words: "Macaca Moment."

But add easy video manipulation to the mix, and another possibility emerges: the crafting of political videos documenting candidate insults and errors that never happened. Not in a clumsy, easily-detected form, but as a sufficiently-believable web video. There are more than enough audio recordings out there of most major political candidates to allow political pranksters/"dirty tricksters" to make that candidate say just about anything; the cameraphone and flash video media offer insufficient clarity to be able to see if a candidate's mouth is truly saying the words he or she seems to be saying.

Such a deception wouldn't stand for very long, but would almost certainly last long enough set off a wave of furious blog posts and mainstream media attention. Initially, claims that the video was fake would be characterized as "campaign denials," and only after a bit of forensics (and people coming forward with alternate videos of the same events, but with different words) would it be clear that the video was a fake. Call it three days of chaos.

Then it happens again. And again. Against other candidates. The returns would diminish rather quickly, but the percentage of Americans who believe firmly that Barack Obama is a Muslim suggests that the effects of faked videos would linger. The right "wrong" message, unleashed at the right time, could shift an election.

Moreover, a proliferation of faked political videos would undermine the legitimacy of the YouTube/web video medium for political purposes. Any video showing a candidate -- or, just as easily, police officers, or neighbors, or musician, or anyone else -- saying or doing something offensive could be dismissed as "just another Internet video hoax."

Is there a way to counter this kind of participatory deception? The answer that comes initially to mind is labor-intensive, but very amenable to a bottom-up approach. Constant monitoring of new additions to video sites, looking for claims that a video shows a candidate (or candidate's spouse) doing something untoward. If the campaign can jump on and discredit the video before it takes hold, it might be able to head off the three days of chaos.

I suspect that, once we see a faked video score a hit on a candidate, that we'll see myriad counter-attacks and follow-ups. Some will be so ridiculous as to be easily dismissed; others will be so close to reality that they'll be hard to refute. Some will even be real mistakes or insults, but ignored by the press as yet another hoax.

But don't worry: things will be even crazier for the 2012 election.

("Participatory Decepticon" phrase suggested by my friend and colleague Matt Chwierut)

June 7, 2008

The Carbon Footprint of Art

Off to the NEAI spent the last few days in Washington, DC, a guest of the National Endowment for the Arts. Not many people know this, but design -- particularly architectural and built-environment design -- falls within the purview of the NEA. This last week, the NEA design group held its selection panel for the "Access to Artistic Excellence - Innovation" funding, and I served as the official "layperson" on the panel.

(It turns out that NEA funding panels include one person from outside the discipline -- the "layperson" -- to ensure that the awards go to projects with appeal beyond the specialists.)

I can't say anything about what we selected, of course; the recipients won't even know for a few months. I can say this, though: I was amazed at how many of the proposals included requests for support for travel. In some cases, the travel would be undertaken by guest artists from elsewhere in the world, coming to participate in a function of some sort (yes, I'm being intentionally opaque). In other cases, the travel would be undertaken by the award recipients, jetting around checking out some building or project. Whatever the focus, a majority of proposals submitted to the NEA for this award included some level of request for travel support.

So when Maurice Cox, the newly-appointed head of this group at the NEA, asked if I had any suggestions about the ongoing evolution of this project, I had an immediate reply: "carbon footprint records." I suggested that the NEA, as part of the application process, ask applicants to make preliminary measurements of the carbon footprint of the travel they seek to have supported. There are dozens of websites out there that can do a quick & dirty calculation of the carbon impact of flying around (as I noted recently, the travel-plan-sharing site Dopplr just added carbon footprinting to its services, for example). All the applicants would need to do is enter the trips into one of these calculators and list the results.

The numbers wouldn't determine the selection (for now, but I'm patient), but would make explicit the impact of the travel portion of a proposal. Many of these projects had an explicit 'green' theme; I have to expect that at least some of these applicants would have reconsidered the travel requests once they saw the carbon impact.

Like the Cheeseburger Footprint concept, this is not meant as a stick with which to beat the impure, but simply as a lens with which to look at the unanticipated results of our actions. Art is important, and it was a massive honor to serve on this NEA panel; I would like to see more funding for the arts & design in the future*. But everything we do has consequences -- and the more we recognize those consequences beforehand, the better the choices we'll make.

(*...and a note to my readers in the world of design: a recurring theme in this panel was "why don't more designers take advantage of this program?" They're giving money away to interesting projects, folks, and I know that some of you out there could come up with even cooler stuff than I saw this last week...)

June 3, 2008

A Day to Savor


Doesn't matter whether you were for him or for someone else, today is truly an inflection point in history. It's the delivery of a promise made in the years long past and sometimes thought abandoned. It's a sign that we can make ourselves better, that transformation for the good remains in our grasp.

(Hat tip to Wil for the idea...)

Tuesday Topsight, June 2, 2008

• OUtunes: Last year, I was part of a project helping the UK's Open University to re-imagine itself, with a heavy emphasis on taking advantage of new technologies and social tools. One of the ideas we came up with during a brainstorming session was to use iTunes as a gateway to OU's educational content. Students would be able to download course videos, playable on iPods and iPhones (yes, yes, there are other portable media devices, but let's be realistic). It would be a small step, but a signal of OU's willingness to embrace new educational service models.

Well, look what's happened.


The OU is on iTunes (link will open iTunes if you have it, which you probably do). Videos (and transcripts of videos) can be downloaded for free. Some of the videos are pretty short, so I'm not sure how many would count towards actual OU degrees. It is, as we suspected, a small step -- but it's also a promising sign of things to come.

• Uncivil Society: The June National Geographic has a number of stories about China, and one stood out in particular for me. "What's Next?" examines the possible future pathways for China's development. The author, Peter Hessler, watches the progression of a number of rural factory towns, and the ways in which the communities deal with problems. He makes an observation that strikes me as absolutely critical:

In China, though, new cities are strictly business: factories and construction supplies and cell phone shops. Local governments focus on profiteering, and the Communist Party has always discouraged the kind of organizations that contribute in other societies. This is perhaps the nation's greatest human rights challenge. Westerners tend to focus on the dramatic—dissidents, censorship—but it's the lack of institutions that actually hurts most Chinese. Workers are left to fend for themselves: no independent unions, no free press, few community groups. Through sheer willpower, many succeed, but the wasted potential is staggering. In the reform years China has unleashed its remarkable population; the next stage is to learn to respect this wealth.

Emphasis mine. We simply cannot ignore the importance of civil institutions for the healthy development of society, and need to pay very close attention to how new developments (in technology, in demographics, in politics) change the capacity of these institutions. Moreover, we in the futures world need to be especially conscious of the possible emergence of new civil institutions.

What might those new institutions look like? I think many of these nascent social models will embrace aspects of "smartmob" and open-source behavior. The question that comes to mind for me is what would be the big picture trigger that would serve as a catalyst for institutionalization.

• Diesel Bad?: For a few years now, I've been waiting for the advent of a diesel-electric hybrid car. Diesel cars get better mileage than gasoline cars, so a diesel hybrid should truly rock (and, in fact, prototype diesel hybrids regularly got over 70mpg). But if Joe Romm is right -- and he usually is -- more diesel cars may well be the last thing we want.

It turns out that the soot particulate matter in most forms of diesel fuel may itself introduce greenhouse carbon. Romm cites Dr. Mark Jacobson, Co-founder and Director of the Atmospheric Energy Program at Stanford University's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and quotes him as saying that "diesel vehicles emitting particles continuously at a particulate matter emission standard of 40 mg/mi or 80 mg/mi may warm climate more than gasoline vehicles." Newer diesel vehicles, emitting 10 gm/mi, would warm less, but still have a negative impact. Filters added to trap particulate emissions end up eliminating the overall mileage advantage of diesel engines.

The important take-away is that, with older diesel vehicles -- the kind in use in much of the world -- the lower CO2 emissions may be outweighed in greenhouse impact by the increased "carbon black" particulate emissions.

The entire article is worth reading, including the comments. I'm not sure we can call this as a certainty, but the evidence looks strong.

• Manic Panic: Amanda Ripley has an interesting piece in TIME magazine entitled "How to Survive a Disaster," and that's exactly what it's about. In the wake of recent natural disasters, Ripley examines some of the ways in which groups have managed to avoid dying in a variety of catastrophic settings. She's a specialist in disaster narratives, and has interviewed numerous survivors of unexpected dangers.

She emphasizes the importance of rehearsal in dealing with disaster -- escape drills and the like, to be sure, but also just thinking through how to cope. This dovetails with an emphasis on participation, in terms of both aiding disaster response and not simply waiting to be told what to do.

A couple of her observations stand out.

In many disasters, people running in a panic are at less risk than those who just freeze. "Crowds generally become quiet and docile. Panic is rare. The bigger problem is that people do too little, too slowly. They sometimes shut down completely, falling into a stupor. [...] Our brains search, under extreme stress, for an appropriate survival response and sometimes choose the wrong one, like deer that freeze in the headlights of a car."

Groups that take an active role in responding to disasters fare better than those waiting to be ordered around. "All of us, but especially people in charge--of a city, a theater, a business--should recognize that people can be trusted to do their best at the worst of times. They will do even better if they are encouraged to play a significant role in their own survival before anything goes wrong."

June 2, 2008

Upgrades and Updates

I've been fiddling with the Movable Type installation running Open the Future, and after a couple of missteps, the system seems to be operating correctly. There are a couple of side-effects of the changeover: the comment entry "password" is no longer required (although I'm looking for a replacement), and the handful of commenters who have been pre-authenticated to be able to post immediately will need to be re-authenticated. That's something I have to do, but don't be confused if suddenly your comments are back in a queue.

This next week looks to be a busy one.

On Wednesday, I fly to Washington DC to serve on a National Endowment for the Arts jury, selecting recipients for a sustainable design award. I'm the token "lay person" (shut up), and it should be quite an interesting process. The request letter emphasized that this is a solemn duty and a service to the country, which was oddly unsettling; I've never been terribly comfortable with group affinity as motivation.


On Tuesday and Wednesday of next week, I'll be part of the "Moodle Moot," a conference in San Francisco focusing on the uses of the free/open-source education technology platform, Moodle. I'll be giving the Wednesday morning keynote, "Education 2018." The talk will take some of the work I've been doing for the past couple of years on both education futures and big picture drivers, and map out the kinds of unexpected changes that people in the education field should expect to encounter over the next decade, along with some new ways of thinking about and looking at education. I'll discuss design technologies, amplified sense-making, new literacies, and civic resilience. This will all go in a context of global warming, resource constraints, and a shifting political landscape.

Should be fun. I'm really looking forward to finding out what I have to say.

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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