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March 30, 2009

One Model for a New World Economy

If the Industrial-Era economic system is, in fact, on its last legs, it would be useful to think through some of the possible post-capitalism models that might emerge.

I don't think we have enough early indicators to create a solid vision, so anything we talk about will have to be something of a thought experiment. What kinds of constraints would we face? What kinds of demands? Consider the following, then, at best a scenario sketch.

Resilience Economics

[Update: To clarify, as requested: this is written as a scenario set in the unspecified (but probably ~late 2020s) future, from the point of view of someone living in that future.]

The trigger was a phrase we'd all become sick of: "Too Big to Fail." The phrase had moved quickly from sarcasm to cliché, but ended up as the pole star for what to avoid. Any economy that enabled the creation of institutions that were too big to fail -- that is, whose failure would threaten to collapse the system -- could never be thought of as resilient. And, as the early 21st century rolled along, resilience is what mattered, in our environment, in our societies, and increasingly in our economics.

Traditional capitalism was, arguably, driven by the desire to increase wealth, even at the expense of other values. Traditional socialism, conversely, theoretically wanted to increase equality, even if that meant less wealth. But both 19th/20th century economic models had insufficient focus on increasing resilience, and would often actively undermine it. The economic rules we started to assemble in the early 2010s seek to change that.

Resilience economics continues to uphold the elements of previous economic models that offer continued value: freedom and openness from capitalism at its best; equality and a safety net from socialism's intent. But it's not just another form of "mixed economy" or "social democracy." The focus is on something entirely new: decentralized diversity as a way of managing the unexpected.

Decentralized diversity (what we sometimes call the "polyculture" model) means setting the rules so that no one institution or approach to solving a problem/meeting a need ever becomes overwhelmingly dominant. This comes at a cost to efficiency, but efficiency only works when there are no bumps in the road. Redundancy works out better in times of chaos and uncertainty -- backups and alternatives and slack in the system able to counter momentary failures.

It generates less wealth than traditional capitalism would, at least when it was working well, but is far less prone to wild swings, and has an inherent safety net (what designers call "graceful failure") to cushion downturns.

Completely transactional transparency also helps, giving us a better chance to avoid surprises and to spot problems before they get too big. The open-source folks called this the "many eyes" effect, and they were definitely on to something. It's much harder to game the system when everyone can see what you're doing.

Flexibility and collaboration have long been recognized as fundamental to resilient systems, and that's certainly true here. One headline on a news site referred to it as the "LEGO economy," and that was pretty spot-on. Lots of little pieces able to combine and recombine; not everything fits together perfectly, but surprising combinations often have the most creative result.

Lastly, the resilience economy has adopted a much more active approach to looking ahead. Not predicting, not even planning -- no "five year plans" here. It's usually referred to as "scanning," and the focus is less on visions of the future than on early identification of emerging uncertainties. Resilience economists are today's foresight specialists.

What does this all look like for everyday people? For most of us, it's actually not far off from how we lived a generation ago. We still shop for goods, although the brands are more numerous and there are far fewer "big players" -- and those that emerge tend not to last long. People still go to work, although more and more of us engage in micro-production of goods and intellectual content. And people still lose their jobs and suffer personal economic problems... but, again, there's far less risk of economic catastrophe, and some societies are even starting to experiment with a "guaranteed basic income" system.

Is it perfect? By no means. We're still finding ways in which resilience economics isn't working out as well as past approaches, and situations where a polyculture model doesn't provide the kinds of results that the old oligarchic/monopoly capitalist model could. But those of us who remember the dark days of the econopalypse know where non-resilient models can lead, and would rather fix what we've made than go back to the past.

Okay, I'll be the first to admit that this isn't as complete a picture as we'd like, but the core idea -- that resilience becomes the driver of new economics -- strikes me as very plausible. It's a pretty technologically conservative scenario; no AI-managed "just-in-time socialism" here, nor any nano-cornucopian visions. But it's very much the kind of model we could create in the aftermath of a disastrous economic crisis, in a world where the importance of resilience is becoming increasingly evident.

March 28, 2009

The New World

It's not often that we get to see a historical catalyst in action.

This is no mere "bad recession." All of the assumptions we have about fundamental elements of the economy, from finance to trade to efficiency, are increasingly coming under scrutiny. The shape of the global economy at the end of this period of economic transformation will likely be unrecognizable to those stuck in the previous paradigm.

What will this new economy look like? Good question -- I don't think anyone knows yet. But it won't just be 2005 plus a few more regulations, or even 1939 with a digital upgrade. It will very likely be something entirely new, something that will take some time to understand or even characterize. I have a very tentative guess, but I'll post that tomorrow.

The scale of this situation is clear from the language we use. Mere "depression" doesn't seem to capture the sense of danger. Bruce Sterling catalogued a few examples in mid-March, with "Econopalypse" and "Collapsonomics" of particular note; I wouldn't be surprised to see "Financeageddon" show up at some point, too. (Sign of how my mind works: the first term that popped into my head was "Cha-chingularity." I doubt anyone will pick that one up.)

I'm not deeply trained in economics, so much of my thinking about this situation has been focused on getting a better understanding of what's happening. I suspect that some of you are in a similar state, so let me pass along some of the better pieces I've found over the past few months. Links and excerpts in the extended entry.

In December, 2008, Michael Lewis (author of the book that summed up the 1980s, Liar's Poker) wrote "The End" for Portfolio. This offers a bit of history, as well as a useful exploration of just who was in a position to spot what was happening.

This was what they had been waiting for: total collapse. “The investment-banking industry is fucked,” Eisman had told me a few weeks earlier. “These guys are only beginning to understand how fucked they are. It’s like being a Scholastic, prior to Newton. Newton comes along, and one morning you wake up: ‘Holy shit, I’m wrong!’ ” Now Lehman Brothers had vanished, Merrill had surrendered, and Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley were just a week away from ceasing to be investment banks. The investment banks were not just fucked; they were extinct.

Matt Taibbi's piece for Rolling Stone, The Big Takeover, is also useful. Taibbi starts to outline the extent to which the financial industry has captured the US government (and, more generally, wester post-industrial governments in general). This is a vicious telling of how this came about, with an emphasis on understanding the politics of the situation -- not in a partisan sense, but in a power sense.

In essence, the bailout accelerated the decline of regional community lenders by boosting the political power of their giant national competitors.

Which, when you think about it, is insane: What had brought us to the brink of collapse in the first place was this relentless instinct for building ever-larger megacompanies, passing deregulatory measures to gradually feed all the little fish in the sea to an ever-shrinking pool of Bigger Fish. To fix this problem, the government should have slowly liquidated these monster, too-big-to-fail firms and broken them down to smaller, more manageable companies. Instead, federal regulators closed ranks and used an almost completely secret bailout process to double down on the same faulty, merger-happy thinking that got us here in the first place, creating a constellation of megafirms under government control that are even bigger, more unwieldy and more crammed to the gills with systemic risk.

Paul Krugman probably gives the best frequently-updated analysis of the situation, in both his New York Times column and his blog. His latest piece for the newspaper, "The Market Mystique," takes a sharp jab at the notion that the financial market will eventually self-correct.

Underlying the glamorous new world of finance was the process of securitization. Loans no longer stayed with the lender. Instead, they were sold on to others, who sliced, diced and puréed individual debts to synthesize new assets. Subprime mortgages, credit card debts, car loans — all went into the financial system’s juicer. Out the other end, supposedly, came sweet-tasting AAA investments. And financial wizards were lavishly rewarded for overseeing the process.

But the wizards were frauds, whether they knew it or not, and their magic turned out to be no more than a collection of cheap stage tricks. Above all, the key promise of securitization — that it would make the financial system more robust by spreading risk more widely — turned out to be a lie. Banks used securitization to increase their risk, not reduce it, and in the process they made the economy more, not less, vulnerable to financial disruption.

Reading these pieces readies you for Simon Johnson's "The Quiet Coup" in the May issue of The Atlantic. Johnson is a former chief economist for the International Monetary Fund, and he makes clear that he sees in what's happening in the United States (and, to a lesser extent, Europe) as the same thing he saw in developing nations pushed to the brink of economic collapse: financial oligarchies running the show. And he has a clear prescription: root them out.

In my view, the U.S. faces two plausible scenarios. The first involves complicated bank-by-bank deals and a continual drumbeat of (repeated) bailouts, like the ones we saw in February with Citigroup and AIG. The administration will try to muddle through, and confusion will reign. [...]

Our future could be one in which continued tumult feeds the looting of the financial system, and we talk more and more about exactly how our oligarchs became bandits and how the economy just can’t seem to get into gear.

The second scenario begins more bleakly, and might end that way too. But it does provide at least some hope that we’ll be shaken out of our torpor. It goes like this: the global economy continues to deteriorate, the banking system in east-central Europe collapses, and—because eastern Europe’s banks are mostly owned by western European banks—justifiable fears of government insolvency spread throughout the Continent. Creditors take further hits and confidence falls further. The Asian economies that export manufactured goods are devastated, and the commodity producers in Latin America and Africa are not much better off. A dramatic worsening of the global environment forces the U.S. economy, already staggering, down onto both knees. The baseline growth rates used in the administration’s current budget are increasingly seen as unrealistic, and the rosy “stress scenario” that the U.S. Treasury is currently using to evaluate banks’ balance sheets becomes a source of great embarrassment.

Under this kind of pressure, and faced with the prospect of a national and global collapse, minds may become more concentrated.

The New World emerges from the ashes of the old.

March 24, 2009

New Column Kicks Off

Starting today, I have a ~weekly column at Fast Company, covering technology, ethics and the environment, and innovation, all from a futures perspective. My editor, Noah Robischon, asked me to kick off the column with a topic near-and-dear to my heart: what happens to social relationships when we live in the era of immersive visible data.

When 'Mad Men' Meets Augmented Reality

...The more top-down control there is in the digital world, the less spam and malware we'll see -- but we'll also lose the opportunity to do disruptive, creative things. Consider Apple's iPhone App Store: Apple's vetting and remote-disable process may minimize the number of harmful applications, but it also eliminates programs that do things outside of what the iPhone designers intended.

Blended-reality technology could play in a limited, walled-garden world, but history suggests that it won't really take off until it offers broad freedom of use. This means, unfortunately, that ads, spam, and malware are probably inevitable in a blended-reality world. We're likely to deal with these problems the same way we do now: Good system design to resist malware, and filters to limit the volume of unwanted ads. All useful and necessary, but there's a twist: Filtering systems for blended-reality technologies may allow us to construct our own visions of reality.

All familiar stuff to long-time readers of Open the Future, but hopefully a nice bit of provocation for the Fast Company audience.

March 23, 2009

A Thin Slab of Book

Not very bigThe Kindle is one of those devices that tends to elicit one of two responses: "waste of money" or "must have it now." For quite awhile, I had the first reaction. Then, after what one might call a "context shift," I found myself squarely embracing the second.

When the second-generation Kindle came out last month, I found its updated styling a bit more appealing than the first generation version, but I couldn't get past the idea of paying $359 for a book reader. I'm not a one-a-day reader by any means; I do most of my reading online these days. That $359 would easily pay for a year or two's book purchases. Feh, I said, and went back to ignoring it.

The recent flap over whether the Kindle's text-to-speech feature should be considered the equivalent of an audiobook brought it back to my attention. In the course of looking around for various relevant arguments, I stumbled across a single blog entry that changed my mind about the device. Randall Munroe, the creator of the genius XKCD webcomic, blogged about his recent purchase of a Kindle 2. He wrote:

I’m surprised at the talk of the cost being too high. For me, the comparison is to a laptop with a cellular broadband internet card — $1440 for a standard two-year contract. The Kindle 2 doesn’t have a full web browser, but if you’re favoring text-heavy websites (news, blogs, mail, wikis), it’s perfectly sufficient. Plus, it’s a nice screen and has many-day battery life. All in all I think it’s a more-than-reasonable price for something that lets me read reddit on the street corner so as to better shout at sheeple about government conspiracies.

Shifting context: if I compare it to a stack of books, the cost is high; if I compare it, instead, to a web device -- one with a full-time 3G wireless connection and no monthly fee -- suddenly the price looks almost like a bargain.

(More geekery follows.)

I already have a mobile web device (or three), so what would I need with another one? Two reasons came to mind pretty quickly:

  • A battery life of one-to-two weeks, even with regular use. Yes, weeks, not days.
  • It also serves as a highly-functional ebook reader.

I don't mean to downplay the Kindle's intended function. As I commented to a friend recently, the Kindle is the only way to carry Neal Stephenson's entire Baroque Trilogy without injuring oneself -- and it even can hold Anathem at the same time. Since I have a great deal of travel coming up, the ability to bring a bunch of books with me without stuffing my suitcase or laptop bag is enormously appealing.

Still, what made me eventually decide to buy it wasn't the idea of having an ebook reader, but the idea of having a flat slab web device. Here's what I've found after a couple of weeks of use:

    I Want To Go To There
    The screen is just beautiful in bright light, and reading it outside is more than comfortable. The battery life is astounding. The weight is, too -- just 10 ounces, or less than a third of a kilo. It's not pocket-sized per se, but it does fit into a jacket pocket and would fit fine in a typical purse. The web browser is, as Munroe suggests, entire adequate for text-heavy sites, including email. Anything with a mobile version will work quite well; the grey-scale screen is even sufficient for online maps.

    The 3G connection relies on Sprint's EVDO network, so it's reasonably fast and reasonably commonplace (but only works in the US and parts of Canada). And, as noted above, the $359 pays for all-you-can-eat wireless without monthly charges.

    As a book-reading device, the Kindle has a few tricks that bound paper books can't match. Most obvious is the ability to search the text of a book, and the text-to-audio is passable (not a challenge to voice actors, but just fine for non-fiction documents). Best of all, though, you can lay it flat. No spine-breakage, no need to jam something between pages. That's one of those features that isn't something that gets played up, but is enormously useful.

    Does Not Want!
    The screen is beautiful... as long as the image is static. Any movement -- such as a cursor sliding around a window -- leaves artifact trails. Going from one page to another triggers a brief flip-to-black refresh of the screen that, while not extremely annoying, is a reminder that you're using a device. The keyboard is terrible -- I've used keyboards on phones that are easier to type on. Any illusions of composing blog posts or lengthy emails on the Kindle died quickly; this is at best a Twitter-scale communications device.

    Bafflingly, the Kindle can't read PDF documents; you have to go through a conversion process run by Amazon (free if you just have it sent back to your computer, a small charge if they send it directly to the Kindle). The Kindle requires one-click purchases for the Amazon account, meaning that it's all too easy to accidentally buy something (a risk when you hand it to someone to check out). And there's the perennial DRM issue.

One more item that's not really a problem, more of an observation: nearly every person I've showed the Kindle to has, when first picking up the device, tried to turn the page by swiping a finger across the screen, iPhone-style. The screen on the Kindle is dumb, and not touch-sensitive. It's fascinating to note, however, just how quickly we've become habituated to that particular interface modality. A mobile device with a big screen that doesn't have touch-control seems broken.


I still have, sitting on a shelf behind me, my original-generation Newton MessagePad. I mean original generation, before it was ret-conned into the MP100 or Episode 4 or whatever Apple decided it should have been named. I was apparently one of the handful of people on the planet for whom the handwriting recognition worked well enough to be useful. I loved that little thing, but it was too heavy, too proprietary, and ultimately too isolated from the rapidly-growing Internet to remain useful.

But the MessagePad left its hooks in me, and in the subsequent years, I've kept looking for the device that could live up to the future that the Newton promised would be just around the corner: something that can get me online anywhere, would be as light and easy to carry as a paper notepad, and would let me enter text as easily as I could read it. It should have a vertical orientation (optimal for reading), it should support as many open standards as possible, and -- the biggest catch -- it shouldn't require me to recharge it every day. I've tried a Treo, Nokia Internet tablet (x2), iPod Touch, G1, an EeePC netbook, and now the Kindle. Some I've purchased, some I've been given. Each has abundant promise, but each also has noticeable drawbacks in some combination of interface, readability, openness, connectivity, and (especially) battery life.

No device has yet to offer the full mix that I'm looking for -- but increasingly, it seems like the pieces are all coming together.

March 21, 2009

Laws of Robotics

Here's a sneak preview of the talk I'll be giving tomorrow.

March 20, 2009

Talking About the Future on NPR (Updated)

NPR's "Day to Day" said its final farewell today, and the send-off show included a discussion of The Future, featuring author Joel Kotkin talking about the future of the city, and me talking about the future of technology.

Day to Day, March 20, 2009 · As Day to Day goes off the air after nearly six years, we're thinking about endings — but we begin by looking forward. Joel Kotkin, who studies metropolitan development and urban planning, talks with Madeleine Brand about how people might be arranging their lives in the coming five years. And author Jamais Cascio talks with Alex Cohen about where technology might take us.

I can't embed the audio, unfortunately, but I can link to it: Looking Forward

(UPDATE: James Hughes points me to a downloadable MP3 version of the entire Day to Day episode here. The segment I'm in starts at about 2:56 in, and my part starts at 6:21. Thanks, James!)

We recorded the interview yesterday, and afterwards I was quite happy to see Alex Cohen post a comment on her twitter feed, saying that it was the "first time i've felt good about the Future (with a capital F no less) in a while...".

March 19, 2009

Cascio's Laws of Robotics

roboticlaws.pngThat's the title of the talk I'm giving this Sunday (March 22) at the "Bay Area Artificial Intelligence Meetup Group" meeting-up that's meeting in Menlo Park (the one that's next to Palo Alto). The subtitle is "Building Intelligence in an Uncertain World."

Most of the conversations we have about the potential for powerful machine intelligence focus on the technological aspects. Jamais Cascio, senior fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, wants us to think about the social aspects, too. What kinds of legal, ethical, and cultural drivers will shape how we develop intelligent systems? How can we make AI a tool for resilience in a rapidly-changing economic, political, and ecological environment?

The meeting appears to be free, and (as of Thursday night) there are still seats available. Come by and say hi, call me names, or ask impertinent questions!

And what are those laws? I'll let you know once I come up with them.

March 16, 2009

Geoengineering: New Problems, Old Politics

I've been writing about geoengineering since 2005, and have even published a short book on the subject (Hacking the Earth), looking primarily at the ethics and politics of the issue. The political aspects are, in my view, the most important, yet they've received little attention. Up until recently, my 2007 essay, The Politics of Geoengineering (and its follow-ups, Terraforming War and Global Climate and Global Power) offered the only detailed argument about the complexities and consequences of geoengineering efforts in a world of global rivalries.

That's now changed, with the publication of Stanford Law professor David Victor's "The Geoengineering Option" (PDF) in the pages of Foreign Affairs. Victor's article is a detailed run-down of the various political drivers, dilemmas, and implications of geoengineering. His piece covers much of the same ground that I've written about, and little of it will be surprising to readers of my book; he even includes the possibility of hostile use of geoengineering technologies and the potential for non-state actors to get in on the fun, although he misses the liability issues surrounding implementation of geoengineering.

Unsurprisingly, his conclusions are similar to my own:

The scientific academies in the leading industrialized and emerging countries -- which often control the purse strings for major research grants -- must orchestrate a serious and transparent international research effort funded by their governments. Although some work is already under way, a more comprehensive understanding of geoengineering options and of risk-assessment procedures would make countries less trigger-happy and more inclined to consider deploying geoengineering systems in concert rather than on their own. (The International Council for Science, which has a long and successful history of coordinating scientific assessments of technical topics, could also lend a helping hand.) Eventually, a dedicated international entity overseen by the leading academies, provided with a large budget, and suffused with the norms of transparency and peer review will be necessary.

Abundant research, deep transparency, and global cooperation are the only ways to deal with geoengineering safely.

It's heartening to see that the kinds of ideas I've been hammering on for a few years now are starting to trickle out into the mainstream. I doubt that Victor has seen my work on geoengineering; what's happening is that the debates about geoengineering in the green blogosphere (where my stuff gets read) and the high-level debates in the academic punditocracy have started to converge. And because this is in Foreign Affairs, it's likely to become a topic of discussion in Washington, DC.

One sign that this is underway is the announcement that DARPA -- the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- is hosting a colloquium on geoengineering at Stanford this week. Ken Caldeira will be there, of course, and I would be shocked if David Victor wasn't also invited. DARPA is a weird agency that is ostensibly under the Pentagon, but has historically supported a number of projects without clear military applications. Still, the very fact that a Department of Defense agency is looking at geoengineering is raising hackles, even among attendees.

“The last thing we need is to have DARPA developing climate-intervention technology,” says Caldeira. He says he agreed to go to the meeting “to try to get DARPA not to develop geoengineering techniques. Geoengineering is already so fraught with social, geopolitical, economic, and ethical issues; why would we want to add military dimensions?”

Unfortunately, we don't need to "add" military dimensions -- they've been there from the beginning. A technology with the potential to alter critical aspects of the global environment, with differential effects across regions, and not dependent upon a massive industrial base (so even available to non-state actors)? As I said in 2007, only partially tongue-in-cheek, no state wants to find itself facing a "terraforming gap." Wise or not, smart or not, geoengineering is a geopolitical issue, with all that entails.

Geoengineering's Drawbacks

Because I'm not reflexively opposed to geoengineering research, and because I increasingly suspect that some level of albedo-management geoengineering will be necessary simply due to climate disruption happening faster than previously expected, some people tend to assume that I'm a geoengineering advocate. I'm not -- but as I've noted before, I do believe that it would be less disastrous than climate-driven depopulation. Nonetheless, geoengineering is all-but-certain to have undesirable consequences, both politically (see next post) and environmentally.

This week we got an excellent example of the latter.

Using well-established data on the light-diffusing effects of aerosol particles, Daniel Murphy [at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) Earth System Research Lab] calculated that the geoengineering scheme currently envisioned could reduce incoming sunlight by about 3%. That squares with data from the Mount Pinatubo eruption.

The geoengineering scheme would also mean 3% less sunlight reaching flat photovoltaic collectors that generate electricity. But the aerosols would cut the available solar radiation even more to dish- and tube-shaped collectors that use mirrors to concentrate sunlight. Murphy's research shows that for every watt per square meter of sunlight diffused by the aerosols, as much as 5 watts per square meter would be made unavailable to mirrored collectors on the ground.

This is a problem, but not a fatal one. Commercially-available photovoltaic cells remain painfully inefficient, so one of the best ways to increase the energy returned from a solar array is to use concentration. High-atmosphere particles tend to scatter light, however, and diffuse light doesn't concentrate as well as direct sunlight.

There are a few caveats:

  • Solar isn't the only renewable option, and concentrated solar -- while the best energy-producer per square meter -- isn't likely to be the dominant form, at least once cheap solar plastics become more widely available.
  • Concentrated solar doesn't become useless, just less-efficient.
  • Most importantly, the leading proposal for stratospheric sulphate injection geoengineering would have it happen primarily at the poles; warming at the poles has a much greater feedback effect than equatorial warming, and is much more critical to prevent.

    Solar, concentrated or otherwise, isn't likely to be a critical energy source at the poles, so the reduction in solar efficiency resulting from stratospheric sulphate geo would be less important if the geo focuses on polar regions.

    Even if this turns out to be a minor drawback, it's an important indicator that no one response to global warming is perfect. Even carbon emission reduction has negative repercussions -- up-front expense in some cases, time required in others, and even the possibility of a short-term increase in warming due to the removal of atmospheric particulates (shutting down coal plants means more than reducing CO2, it also reduces soot and other pollutants -- yay for our lungs, but clearer skies mean warmer Earth). Still, geoengineering, because of its scale and the complexity of its subject, is highly likely to offer up more of these dilemmas.

  • March 15, 2009

    Topsight, March 15, 2009

    waltsimonsondoom.pngHappy Happy Joy Joy edition.

    • Doom!: If you're still feeling chipper after reading about the latest incipient disaster, and you use Twitter, perhaps you should consider following Low Flying Rocks, a Twitter stream that mentions every near-Earth object (NEO) that comes within 0.2 Astronomical Units (or a fifth of the distance between the Earth and the Sun, roughly 19 million miles). It's relatively low-traffic -- usually just a few per day, if even that -- and most NEOs fly by at a good distance. Occasionally, though, you get one of these:

    2009 EW just passed the Earth at 13km/s, approximately three hundred and forty-four thousand km away. 7:37 PM Mar 5th from Twitter4R

    To put that in perspective, that's a bit further out than the Moon. Or, in astronomical terms, buzzing right past our figurative ear.

    • DOOM!: Like half of Blogostan, I'm going to point you to Clay Shirky's piece on the death of newspapers. If you haven't read it, you really should -- it offers useful insights into what happens during big changes of all kinds. This section stands out:

    That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.

    Exercise for the reader: re-read the piece, and substitute "politics," "economics," and "social cohesion" for "newspapers."

    • DOOM!: I just caught a link to this, from late last year. It's a bit of info that deserved greater visibility: your share of the global derivatives bubble? $190K.

    According to various distinguished sources including the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) in Basel, Switzerland -- the central bankers' bank -- the amount of outstanding derivatives worldwide as of December 2007 crossed USD 1.144 Quadrillion, ie, USD 1,144 Trillion. [...]

    1. The entire GDP of the US is about USD 14 trillion.
    2. The entire US money supply is also about USD 15 trillion.
    3. The GDP of the entire world is USD 50 trillion. USD 1,144 trillion is 22 times the GDP of the whole world. [...]

    8. The population of the whole planet is about 6 billion people. So the derivatives market alone represents about USD 190,000 per person on the planet.

    This will never be paid out. The question, then, is how do we disentangle the global economy from all of this?

    March 11, 2009

    Living in the Green Future

    Popped into Costco today to pick up a couple of items, and what did I see?

    Cheap Home Solar

    Just in case you can't read that too well, it's a 60W solar panel setup, with inverter (allowing it to power 110V devices), junction box to hook the four panels together, cabling, and frame... for under $300.

    Stacked like tires at Costco.

    This is a beautiful example of why I talk about the banality of the future. Cheap solar power systems readily available to the unwashed masses was once something out of science fiction; today, it barely elicits a glance from shoppers stocking up on cases of pickles and TVs by the six-pack.

    The future isn't here. The future was here awhile ago, ate all your donuts, and took off to get some beer.

    Twitter FAQ

    (I'll re-post or re-link to this every time I get a flood of new followers on Twitter.)

    So you've decided to follow me on Twitter. Thank you! I'll try to make the experience an enjoyable one.

    So, don't take this the wrong way, but who are you? I just added you because [other Twitter user] suggested it.
    I'm Jamais Cascio, and I write/speak/consult about emerging ideas and issues, all with a strong future-focus. My bio is here, if you're interested in the details.

    What kinds of things do you Twitter about?
    A mix of surreal commentary, short observations about world events, links to new posts on the Open the Future blog, interesting Twitter posts that other people have made, replies to questions, and whatever else pops to mind.

    You're going to overload me with your Twitter posts, aren't you? I knew it.
    Heavens, no. I tend to post to Twitter just a few times a day, under normal circumstances.

    "Normal circumstances?" That sounds suspicious.
    I just mean that sometimes I'll find myself in a flurry of back-and-forth Twitter postings, but those are few and far between.

    So you're going to follow me back, right?
    Probably not. I tend to follow people that I know, for the most part. But engage me in conversation, comment on the blog, and there's a good chance that I'll add you.

    By the way, you keep using the term "Twitter posts." I thought they were called "tweets."
    Look, it's bad enough that the service is called "Twitter" -- yeah, let's give it a name that'll make it really easy to ridicule, what a great idea -- but I simply refuse to call the individual messages "tweets." That term lives in the uncanny valley between asinine and humiliating.

    So what's your Twitter account again?
    You can follow me at @cascio. Or don't. I'm happy either way.

    March 9, 2009

    Topsight, March 9, 2009


    • Geoengineering Hits the Big-Time: My guess is that 2009 will be seen as the year geoengineering hit the mainstream. Just in the last couple of weeks, we've had:

    Interestingly, as of the last time I looked, my book Hacking the Earth remains the only general-audience book on geoengineering available. I don't expect that to last long, though.

    What would it mean for geoengineering to go mainstream? Bad discussions on cable news, blogospheric screaming fits, mistaken conclusions that geoengineering would mean not having to cut carbon emissions (mistakes made by both geoengineering supporters and detractors)... and that's just the first week.

    • Get Your RED MARS: In old-school terraforming news, Kim Stanley Robinson's genius Red Mars is now available as a free download. Direct link to PDF here, and it's also free on the Kindle.

    Warning: it's the first of a trilogy, and you're likely to want to pick up and read the next two in the series, Green Mars and Blue Mars (the latter containing one of the best pieces of science fiction around the gritty details of governance I've yet seen).

    • Galactic Sustainability: Jacob D. Haqq-Misra and Seth D. Baum write in the latest issue of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society that the answer to the Fermi Paradox -- if the universe is teeming with life, how come they haven't already said hi? -- may be found in sustainability:

    In this paper, we argue that this conclusion is premature by introducing the “Sustainability Solution” to the Fermi Paradox, which questions the Paradox’s assumption of faster (e.g. exponential) civilization growth. Drawing on insights from the sustainability of human civilization on Earth, we propose that faster-growth may not be sustainable on the galactic scale. If this is the case, then there may exist ETI that have not expanded throughout the galaxy or have done so but collapsed. These possibilities have implications for both searches for ETI and for human civilization management.

    Haqq-Misra provides a bit more detail in a post at the Lifeboat Foundation blog, noting that issues of carrying capacity are fundamental to ecological analysis. I like this line of argument, as it parallels the point I tried to make with my own argument about the Fermi Paradox (in short, that a rapidly-expanding civilization limited by the speed of life would likely result in isolation and divergent social/biological evolution).

    Funny how a bit of knowledge about ecoscience and political science can change your perspective on the future.

    • Instant Immunity - Just Flip the Switch: I had to check twice to make sure this wasn't an April 1 gag, but it's apparently solid science: Scripps University researchers have developed a "covalent" immunization method that allows for near-instantaneous immunity.

    The scientists injected these mice with chemicals specifically designed to trigger a programmable and "universal" immune reaction. They developed other chemicals, "adapter" molecules," that recognized the specific cancer cells. Once injected into the animal, the adapter molecules self-assembled with the antibodies to create covalent antibody-adapter complexes.

    "The antibodies in our vaccine are designed to circulate inertly until they receive instructions from tailor-made small molecules to become active against a specific target," Barbas says. "The advantage of this method is that it opens up the possibility of having antibodies primed and ready to go in the time it takes to receive an injection or swallow a pill. This would apply whether the target is a cancer cell, flu virus, or a toxin like anthrax that soldiers or even civilian populations might have to face during a bioterrorism attack."

    You have to know what you're going to be targeting, of course, so this won't help defend against unknown pathogens. Still, this kind of immune system boosting could be an extraordinarily useful augmentation in an era of increasingly aggressive zoonotic diseases.

    • Go Read This: Charlie Stross' 21st Century FAQ is great fun and a smart idea, but there's one question & answer that stands out as mandatory reading:

    Q: Politics? Which of (Socialism | Capitalism | Libertarianism | Fascism | Democracy) is going to save us?

    A: Probably none of the above.

    ...and he goes on to describe why we have yet to see the form of political organization that will shape the century (I won't spoil it by reprinting it here). I'm working on a similar idea, and all I could say is "hell, yes!"

    • Futuresonic Presentation: So my appearance at Futuresonic in Manchester, UK, has been confirmed, and -- much to my pleasant surprise -- they've given me the kickoff slot, at the opening night event on Wednesday May 13. Best of all, the opening night event is FREE. If you're in the area, please come on by.

    March 6, 2009

    Rise of the Participatory Panopticon

    I'm at a future of video workshop at the Institute for the Future today, and the topic of the participatory panopticon has come up. For people who are new to the concept, here's the original discussion of the participatory panopticon, the text of a talk I gave in May of 2005. I'd been talking about the PP since early 2004, but this was the best summary of the argument (at least as it stood in 2005).

    The Rise of the Participatory Panopticon

    Soon -- probably within the next decade, certainly within the next two -- we'll be living in a world where what we see, what we hear, what we experience will be recorded wherever we go. There will be few statements or scenes that will go unnoticed, or unremembered. Our day to day lives will be archived and saved. What’s more, these archives will be available over the net for recollection, analysis, even sharing.

    And we will be doing it to ourselves.

    This won't simply be a world of a single, governmental Big Brother watching over your shoulder, nor will it be a world of a handful of corporate siblings training their ever-vigilant security cameras and tags on you. Such monitoring may well exist, probably will, in fact, but it will be overwhelmed by the millions of cameras and recorders in the hands of millions of Little Brothers and Little Sisters. We will carry with us the tools of our own transparency, and many, perhaps most, will do so willingly, even happily.

    I call this world the Participatory Panopticon.

    March 3, 2009

    The End of Long-Term Thinking

    My intent, from this point forward, is to stop talking about the "long-term." No more long-term problems, long-term solutions, long-term changes. No more long-term perspectives.

    In its place, I'm going to start talking about "multigenerational" issues. Multigenerational problems, solutions, changes. Multigenerational perspectives.

    The advantage of the term "multigenerational" is threefold.

    Firstly, it returns a sense of perspective that's often absent from purportedly "long-term" thinking. In a culture that has tended to operate on the "worry about tomorrow, tomorrow" model, looking at the next year can seem daring, and looking ahead five years can seem outrageous. But five years out isn't very long for long-term thinking; even ten years is better thought of as mid-range. Multi-generational, conversely, suggests that whatever we're thinking about may require us to think ahead 20+ years.

    Secondly, it reinforces the notion that choices we make today don't just impact some distant future person (subject to discounting), but can and will directly affect our physical and cultural offspring. (Even those of us without kids of our own recognize that we have a role in shaping subsequent generations.) That is to say, "multigenerational" carries with it a greater implied responsibility than does "long-term."

    Finally, it doesn't let us skip over the journey from today to the future. "Multigenerational" demands that we include generations along the way -- and while the core meaning of the term refers to human populations, one could stretch the concept to include other systems that show generational cycles.

    This is a key difference between "long-term" and "multigenerational," but it's a subtle one. When we talk about the long-term, the corresponding structure of language -- and thinking -- tends to bias us towards a kind of punctuated futurism, pushing us to look ahead to the end of the era in question while leaping over the intervening years. This skews our perspective. "In the long run, we are all dead" John Maynard Keynes famously said -- but over that same long run, we will all have lived our lives, too.

    I'm increasingly convinced that, when looking ahead, the focus should be less on the destination than on how we get there. Yet that's not how we discuss long-term issues. When we describe climate change as a long-term problem, for example, we inevitably end up talking about what it would look like down the road, after some "tipping point" perhaps, or at a particular calendar demarcation (2050 or 2100). Although there's no explicit denial that climate change is something with implications for every year between now and then, our attention -- our foresight gaze, as we might think of it -- is drawn to that distant end-point, not to the path.

    My thoughts about "long-run" vs. "long-lag" problems cover a similar issue, looking at how our articulations of the future shape our thoughts of it. But this is a deeper problem, one that the "long-lag" concept only hints at.

    "Multigenerational" has two drawbacks, however. The first is that, simply put, it's a bear of a word. Multi-syllabic, 17 letters in length, it requires a bit more effort than "long-term" to write or say. While not an insurmountable barrier, this does mean that sheer laziness will bias me towards "long-term."

    The second is a bit more serious. As noted above, multigenerational implies looking ahead twenty or more years. If we consider a ten-year horizon to be the outer edge of medium-term, there's still the "near-long-term" range between ten and twenty years out to worry about. It's definitely not multigenerational -- hell, it's really not even generational. Yet it's still well beyond the comfortable "foresight window" for most people (which, in my experience, tends to be about five years). At this point, I'm likely to just roll that time range into multigenerational, but the inherent inaccuracy leaves me wanting a better solution.

    I first started thinking about the multigenerational vs. long-term language a month or so ago, while talking with colleagues working on a new foresight-driven non-profit. Its utility was solidified, however, when Emily Gertz pointed me to this essay by science fiction writer and green futurist Kim Stanley Robinson, "Time to end the multigenerational Ponzi scheme," which looks out at what's needed to develop a postcapitalism perspective. KSR is one of the best world-builder science fiction writers out there, in my opinion, and he has an excellent sense of historical patterns. If he's taken to using "multigenerational," then I feel confident of its value.

    Language matters, especially when considering something that's intrinsically conceptual rather than physical. "Long-term" has a lengthy (!) history and deep cultural roots; I expect that I'll find myself using the phrase for some time, even as I try to shift to "multigenerational." But right now we're facing a century of what could easily be the greatest overlapping set of crises our civilization has ever seen. If we're to get through this era intact, we'll need all the tools at our disposal -- and to be thinking about the consequences of our actions with as much acuity and clarity as humanly possible.

    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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