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September 30, 2008

Tuesday Topsight, September 30, 2008

walmerica.pngNew site logo -- what do you think?

• Spam spam spam spam: C Sven Johnson has a post up today at Futurismic that's definitely worth a look: When 3D Spam Got Old. It actually takes place in the Superstruct future, but does a good job of describing what the world looks like when spammers get into your home fabber.

I can remember the first “fab spam” outbreak like it was yesterday.

Ever walk through a field and come out on the other end with burrs clinging to your clothes? Well, imagine something like those little burrs spilling out of your home fabber. Embedding themselves in the shag carpet. Attaching to an angry cat. Perforating your foot.

If you bothered to look closely, you might even have seen the maker’s mark … right beneath the words “Firewall Protection Software” or “Network Security Services”.

In a constantly-networked world, the most powerful decision you make is to shut off the connection.

• It's Alive! Alive!: Take a look at this map of the growth of Walmart across the US, from 1962 to 2007. It's the most powerful argument I've yet seen for treating the study of markets as a form of epidemiology. It's a flash animation, so give it a minute.

Walmart's dominance rests on three key factors: cheap oil; cheap labor; and limited transparency. All three of these factors have been called into question, and at least two are very likely to go away in the near future (cheap oil & limited transparency). Cheap labor may take a bit longer, but it's probably not long for the world, at least priced in dollars.

Of course, the fabbers referenced above may end up being the final coffin-nail for companies like Walmart.

I wonder what the map of this giant's collapse will look like.

• Santa Claus Conquers the Martians: Well, not yet, but with the north pole turning into a big pond, Santa & company will be looking for new digs. Where better than Mars, where the Phoenix lander has now detected the presence of snow falling in the thin air.

A laser instrument designed to gather knowledge of how the atmosphere and surface interact on Mars has detected snow from clouds about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) above the spacecraft’s landing site, the researchers reported. Data show the snow vaporizing before reaching the ground.

“Nothing like this” has been found before on Mars, said Jim Whiteway of York University, Toronto, lead scientist for the Canadian-supplied Meteorological Station on Phoenix. “We’ll be looking for signs that the snow may even reach the ground.” No photographs were taken of the purported snow.

Mars Phoenix is at the planet's south pole, and the long Martian summer has now turned to autumn. It's likely that the lander will go quiet before conditions would allow snowfall closer to the ground.

September 24, 2008

Methane: It's Not Just From Your Cheeseburger

I noted at the end of August reports of methane "leaks" in the Arctic circle. The Independent has another report, offering more detail on the findings. Alex at Worldchanging put up a piece about it today, bringing a lot more attention to the risk.

This is (potentially) huge. Potentially, because the reports remain spotty on some critical details. Most important question: is this coming from frozen methane hydrates? If it's not, the potential release of methane could be bad, but probably something we could deal with. If it is... we're in a lot of trouble.

Here's why: according to (soon to be published) details about the region, that's 50 gigatons of methane that could be released. And methane, as has been reiterated time and again, is 23 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2.

Except it's not. It's actually worse. That 23x figure refers to the impact of a given quantity of methane over a 100 year period -- a standard way of comparing the effects of different gases. But methane cycles out after a decade, so a better way of comparing its impact is over a shorter time period -- say, 20 years. Compressed to two decades, then, the relative power of methane as a greenhouse gas is 72 times that of carbon dioxide.


So that 50 gigatons of methane? That's the equivalent of 3600 gigatons of carbon dioxide, in terms of greenhouse effect.

To put that into comparison: the Earth's atmosphere holds a total of about 3000 metric gigatons of carbon dioxide.

This would more than double the concentration of CO2e in the atmosphere.

So this is not just huge, it's really freaking huge.

There's still nothing conclusive showing an overall increase in atmospheric concentration at this point, though, so hopefully that means that we haven't seen a catastrophic level of release (yet).

As I said, we still don't know if this is the methane hydrates beginning to melt. If it is, then even going to zero CO2 emissions now won't do a damn thing. Ocean thermal inertia will keep the temperatures up undersea for a good while, even if we stopped all carbon outputs now. Thermal inertia alone would keep us warming on land for a couple of decades, too, after we zero out, but that's comparatively less catastrophic than the hydrates.

Albedo-modification geoengineering (stratospheric sulfates, "space mirrors," that sort of thing) won't do much to change ocean temperatures in a short enough period to stop hydrate melts. At best, it would moderate atmospheric temperatures enough to stave off some of the most disastrous effects of a temperature spike. It seems highly likely to me that this is going to be a major point of political and scientific debate in the next few years, and we'll probably see some early attempts by early in the next decade.

CO2 sequestration geo (iron or urea dumps in the ocean, bioengineered supertrees, that sort of thing) won't do a damn thing about methane, even if it worked.

Probably the only possible geoengineering response with a direct impact on the methane would be some kind of in-situ methane conversion to CO2, either with chemistry or with methanotrophic bacteria.

It's hard to imagine a geoengineering project gone wrong that would be worse than a methane hydrate melt; a big methane hydrate event appears to be connected to one of the largest extinctions in geological history (bigger than the KT event killing the dinosaurs). 90+% of all species gone.

I've made it abundantly clear that I don't think geo is a good idea. It's a pretty damn crazy idea, in a lot of ways. But if this methane report is as bad as it looks to be, crazy ideas may be all that we have left.

September 23, 2008


(Getty | Chip Somodevilla) | (lifted from Atrios)

Pushed with little time to examine or debate, with explicit demands for no transparency and no oversight, and at a scale that undermines (frankly, destroys) our flexibility to deal with emerging problems. This "rescue" package for Wall Street is pretty much a textbook example of how not to embrace tomorrow when thinking about today.

September 22, 2008

Superstruct Begins

GEASlogo.pngToday is the "preview" launch for Superstruct, the massively-multiplayer forecasting game. The game goes live on October 6, but there are already people out on the intertubes starting to do very cool stuff. For those of you who use Twitter, I've started a Superstruct in-game feed @cascio2019. All signs are that this is going to be big.

Here's the content that went live today.

Video reports on the five superthreats:

And "The Final Threat" -- the overview report from the Global Extinction Awareness System.

The human species has a long history of overcoming tremendous obstacles, often coming out stronger than before. Indeed, some anthropologists argue that human intelligence emerged as the consequence of the last major ice age, a period of enormous environmental stress demanding flexibility, foresight and creativity on the part of the small numbers of early Homo sapiens. Historically, those who have prophesied doom for human civilization have been proven wrong, time and again, by the capacity of our species to both adapt to and transform our conditions.

It is in this context that the Global Extinction Awareness System (GEAS) offers its forecast of the likely extinction of humankind within the next quarter-century.

(Yeah, I wrote it. At some point, I need to learn how to write in a mood other than "solemn big picture.")

September 20, 2008

Tomorrow Matters

(Every now and again, it's useful to remind readers -- and myself -- just why structured thinking about the future should matter to people intensely concerned about today's problems. Long-time readers will find much of this familiar, but I hope you will also appreciate a straightforward encapsulation of the argument.)

When the world seems to be falling down all around us, can we afford to spend our time thinking about the future?

In the midst of ongoing wars, accelerating economic collapse, and cascading environmental ruin, it's easy to dismiss futurism as self-indulgence, a superficial pastime devoted to spotting the next hot gizmo or telling us all how some coming development changes everything. What really matters is the here-and-now. Serious people know that thinking about the future is frivolous; anyone (or any business) not focusing laser-like on the problems of today is wasting time and money. Right?


Thinking about the future is fundamentally important to dealing with the challenges of today. In order to confront these problems successfully, we have to think carefully about the implications and results of the steps we might take, not just in the immediate moment, but as conditions continue to evolve. As we've seen time and again, it's all too easy for actions that seem reflexively correct to lead to far greater crises down the road.

Futurism -- or, as I prefer to articulate it, structured thinking about the future -- is a means of putting both the problems we face today and the solutions we might try in a larger context. It does so in three key ways:

  • It expands our understanding of the scope of the situation. How do these various problems connect to each other? Are there underlying similarities? How would the outcomes that we fear would arise from problem X affect the course of problem Z? Would the steps we want to take in one arena positively or negatively affect outcomes in another situation?

Now, to be sure, good present-focused analysis will give you much of this, too. And doing this sort of thinking about a problem is far, far better than the "ooh shiny!/ooh scary!" model we seem to reflexively use, especially in major crises. But futurism does more.

  • It expands our understanding of the horizon of the situation. Not just how does this affect us now, but how would this affect us over time? In parallel, it allows us to think through what happens with different kinds of solutions we may want to use to deal with a problem. What's the potential for undesirable consequences? What kind of conditions result after this "solves" the problem?

Again, you might say, "this isn't futurism, it's simply responsible thinking" -- again, sorely lacking in much of our current discourse. But you might notice that conventional analysis that looks at horizon issues (implications, blowback, and the like) rarely gets combined with conventional analysis that looks at scope issues (relationships, reinforcement, interdependencies). Carrying off that kind of combination is hard to do, and especially hard to do well.

That's why few of the discussions of (for example) the current global financial meltdown will include more than a cursory reference to energy (and even there, will almost entirely focus on oil), a glance at demographics (and only in regards to pensions and, in the US, Social Security), or anything at all about climate disruption, migration patterns, and the role of participatory technologies. Yet all of these issues both helped to create the conditions that made the financial panic possible, and will shape both the kinds of responses we can undertake and how well those responses will work.

But futurism has one more, critical, trick up its sleeve:

  • It expands our understanding of the kind of world we want. By bringing into focus both the scope of connections among issues, and the potential impacts and implications on the horizon, futures thinking allows us to begin to see the path we'd need to take to get to a better world -- or, at minimum, the paths we need to avoid in order to forestall a worsening situation. Futurism, structured thinking about the future, clarifies the responsibility and capacity we have to create a tomorrow worth living in.

Heady stuff. And a bit presumptuous, too -- how can we think that we can see the future?

We can't. We can only see possibilities. But that's okay. We're not trying to predict what will happen tomorrow; we're trying to understand possible consequences. We're trying to lay out maps of the landscape ahead, in order chart a better course. These maps won't always be accurate -- sometimes they'll be completely wrong. But the process of creating the maps will give us a more detailed look and clearer perspective on where we are today. Even being completely wrong has value: figuring out why we were wrong, what we missed, can sometimes be even more illuminating than being right.

There's a rapidly-growing variety of methods available to us, from scenario planning to simulations to futures-mapping to so-called "prediction markets." Perhaps the most exciting is something new: massively-collaborative forecasting. I have the good fortune to be part of the Superstruct project, a "massively-multiplayer forecasting game;" Superstruct will begin in early October, and thousands of people will work together to explore what the future could hold.

With all of these tools, the goal is to examine tomorrow to give us a better understanding of how to deal with today.

I've sometimes called futures thinking a "wind-tunnel," a way of testing plans and ideas. Now I think that's a bit limited. Futures thinking is perhaps better understood as an immune system for our civilization. By examining and testing different possible outcomes -- potential threats, emerging ideas, exciting opportunities -- we strengthen our collective capacity to deal with what really does transpire. Thinking about the future, and doing so in a careful, structured, open and collaborative way, makes us a stronger civilization.

Focusing only the challenges of the present may seem imperative, especially when those challenges are massive and frightening. But without a sense of what's next, a capacity for understanding connections and horizons, and a vision of what kind of world we want, our efforts to deal with today's problems will inevitably leave us weakened, vulnerable, and blind to challenges to come.

By ignoring tomorrow, we undermine today.

September 18, 2008

A Few Quick LInks

Nothing of any particular depth, but all worth a glance:

You Can't Destroy the Earth. Really. Not even with a Death Star.

• Prediction Markets as Futurism? Eh, not so much.

Petabyte-scale Climate Modeling. GEAS, here we come.

Not a supernova. Not a star. What is it? (Here's the science.)

Here's my panel at UX week.

• The latest appearance of the Cheeseburger Footprint? Fox News.

Obama Suddenly Panicked After Gazing Too Far Into the Future

Anybody Home?

I'm alive, recovering, and will resume blogging shortly.

September 12, 2008

Massively-Multiplayer Decepticon

A new pandemic is sweeping the planet. Police fired on secessionist demonstrators in Oregon. The Chinese government is trying (unsuccessfully) to suppress news of eco-terrorists bombing multiple coal-fired power plants. We're looking at climate refugees numbering in the tens of millions. The human race will go extinct by 2042.

None of these are true. All of these are draft plot elements of Superstruct, the "massively-multiplayer forecasting game" I'm working on with Jane McGonigal and the Institute for the Future. The game -- which Jane describes as "real play, not role play" asks participants to imagine themselves in 2019, and to tell us (and the world) about the kinds of challenges they face, and the choices they make with their lives. We're asking participants to use a variety of media, from YouTube videos to Twitter posts, to document their future lives.

Here's the dilemma: some people are going to believe that it's real. We're going to be playing at the edge of the Participatory Decepticon.

The use of plausible-but-fake media has a long history, but increasingly, we live in a media-saturated culture that makes it hard to distinguish between the real and the realistic. And this has consequences.

Earlier this week, Google News posted as current a six-year-old article from the South Florida Sun, reporting on the 2002 bankruptcy filing of United Airlines (UAL). The article in the Sun archive didn't carry a date record, and the Google algorithm decided (not unreasonably) that it was new. Although United isn't going into bankruptcy, it -- like all airlines--faces a decidedly tough market, so a seemingly new announcement of bankruptcy proceedings seemed just reasonable enough to send United's stock price plummeting by 75%. After traders realized the mistake, the stock price regained most of its value by the end of the day.

As anyone who knows the story of Orson Welles' War of the Worlds radio broadcast can attest, a story doesn't have to be true to cause a panic. But Welles' radio show had a limited audience; with the Internet, and with various news-pushing tools (from email to RSS to Twitter to texting to...) that emphasize short headlines, the reaction is both orders of magnitude faster and orders of magnitude stronger. It has to come from a reasonably-trusted source; it can't be just some random email or Twitter post (although the current spam trend of using plausible-but-provocative headlines to get you to open the message plays on this tendency, too).

A quirky misalignment of the Sun archives and the Google News spider? Probably. But think about this for a moment: the sudden appearance of something easily proven to be untrue, but just plausible enough to be believed, was enough to cut three-quarters of the market value of a major corporation. Anyone who bought UAL at $3--the bottom of the drop -- made quite a tidy profit when the stock bounced back to around $11. (Bloomberg's mistaken publication of an obituary for Steve Jobs on August 28 would likely have had a similar impact, had it occurred during trading hours.)

The UAL event appears to have been entirely accidental. The next time probably won't be. My only question is whether it will happen as a plot for a crime drama episode before it happens in real life.

It's remarkably easy for false-but-plausible images, video, and stories to be used to muddy the waters of a economic, social, and political conflicts. I'm honestly a bit surprised that we haven't yet seen clear examples of this happening in the current US presidential election (photoshopped images of a vice-presidential candidate in a bikini notwithstanding); as the campaign grows more rancorous, though, I expect to see faked recordings showing up at any moment. Palin's relative obscurity would make it easy to create plausible-enough media of her doing or saying ridiculous or offensive things; the 20-30% of the American public willing to believe just about anything bad about Obama would make it easy to do the same thing to him. McCain and Biden could get their turns, too.

It doesn't have to be anything close to real -- it just has to be realistic, and sufficiently believable to cause a quick "market" collapse. Even after the market recovers, the meme has been planted.

What does this mean for Superstruct? Hopefully, we won't have too many people taking the various posts and videos to be real. But expect the Participatory Decepticon to have a prominent place in the world of 2019 -- and don't believe everything you read.

September 11, 2008

Read This Now

Adam Greenfield on America's rejection of the future.

For a long, long time thereafter, I’d sit in idle moments and wonder just when future shock was going to happen. In my childish conception, it was something that would happen all at once, be precipitated by some obvious event - the proverbial straw - and stand out just as vividly and obviously as an outbreak of the flu when it did roll across the land. It took me years to understand the words as pointing toward something more poetic and metaphoric than clinically diagnostic. It’s a thought I’ve had occasion to dig up and reconsider this last week. Because this is what I’ve come to understand: Here we are. This is it.

Must read.

September 8, 2008

This Changes Everything

You have my permission to slap the next futurist (foresight thinker, scenario strategist, or trend-spotter) who uses the expression "this changes everything" seriously. Slap them hard. Maybe a shin-kick, too, if you're into it.

The notion that some new development -- usually a technology, but not always -- "changes everything" manages to combine the most uselessly banal and the most pointlessly wrong observations in the field.

At the top end, it's part of what I'm starting to call the "cinematic bias" in futurism: the need to describe future developments in ways that startle, titillate, and would probably look pretty cool on-screen. Quite often, the items that fall into this category are simply impossible, or so implausible as to make me struggle to avoid lashing out with Dean Venture's infamous "I dare you to make less sense!" I'm not shocked when people from client companies offer up suggestions like these -- cinematic science fiction is the common language of futurism right now -- but I'm boggled when I see people who get paid to do this for a living coming up with misfires like "teleportation eases traffic problems!" or "population pressure solved by Moon colonies!"

Sometimes, it's not just implausibility, it's an unwillingness to deviate from The One True Future. Logic is irrelevant, except for the narrow conjectural pathway that leads the futurist from Point A to Point Stupid. Complexity goes right out the window, as do any notions of co-evolution, competing drivers, mistakes, or push-back. This is the kind of thinking that tells us that we don't need to worry about global warming/hunger/poverty/ocean acidification/resource depletion because NewTechnology will fix all of our problems, for ever and ever amen.

I'm not saying this out of pessimism, or even realism. It's I'm-not-trapped-with-my-head-up-my-posterier-ism.

At the opposite end of the "this changes everything" spectrum are those people who use this cognitive abortion of a phrase to describe something that might merit a page 14 mention in Widget Fancy. No, a new form of text messaging does not change everything. A new teen language trend does not change everything. And the latest update to an MP3 player most decidedly does not change everything.

You might think that the people offering up such exaggerated praise for minor developments are novice marketeers, trying on their big hyperbole pants for the first time. You'd be wrong. More often, such an utterance comes from someone who should be paying attention to such things discovering a new toy or trend that half the people sitting around the table already knew about (most likely the underpaid under-30 interns & employees). Simply put, saying that a new widget will "change everything" is just one step more articulate than holding up a napkin drawing and saying "ZOOM! WHOOSH! PEW PEW!"

What frustrates me most about the ascendence of the "this changes everything" meme is that its implicit opposite is "this changes nothing." Left out are the changes that really matter: the widgets and methods and practices and ideas that change the little parts of our lives, the everyday decisions, offering us new perspectives on old problems -- not solving them with a wave of the hand, but letting us see new ways to grapple with old dilemmas. This doesn't change everything -- in the real world, like it or not, we change everything. The longer we wait for magical technology or new MP3 players to do it for us, the sorrier we'll be.

September 5, 2008

Heads Down, Thumbs Up

Sorry that OtF has been so quiet lately; I've been focusing on getting the scenario narratives built for Superstruct. I should have something more substantive to post this weekend.

In the meantime, here's a newly-posted article at Discover magazine's website about Superstruct, including a couple of painful quotes from yours truly. I really need to learn to be less... colorful... with my phrasing when I talk to journalists.

Oh, and the brilliant and subversive Richard Stevens -- artist behind Diesel Sweeties -- was kind enough to craft a portrait of me as the 8-Bit Futurist.


The cheeseburger is going to haunt me 'til I die.

September 2, 2008

Singularity Summit 2008

singsum08.jpgSo, the official announcement for the 2008 Singularity Summit is now up, and for folks looking to get their fill of conversations about the transcendent, here's your chance to sign up. This time around, the Summit will take place on Saturday, October 25, at the Montgomery Theater in San Jose. Seating is limited to 500 attendees, so it's a bit smaller than last year (I think).

There's a bit of a usual-suspects element to the speaker list this time around, with a few Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence-associated names on the stage as always, and a mix of reasonably well-known tech pundits and lesser-known (but probably more provocative) thinkers. I do give the Singularity Institute credit for including a skeptic or two in the mix. I'm not sure if the Singularity concept is yet mainstream enough to get a really wide mix of perspectives, but I hold out hope that at some point, we'll have more non-technologists than technologists on stage at one of these.

Since I spoke last year, I won't be on stage this time around; however, I will be giving the closing keynote for the Singularity Institute/SciVestor Emerging Technologies Workshop happening at the San Jose Tech Museum on Friday, October 24. Seats are limited to 50 for this. I don't know yet what I'm going to talk about, but I suspect it will involve some mix of environmental futurism, take-responsibility encouragement, and a panoply of new terminology.

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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