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April 28, 2009



So, it's been quiet around here. Too quiet.

I can explain. I've been sick the past four days or so, and have been keeping down. But since I had to make a one-day run down to San Diego for a meeting just before I got sick, there was a minor flurry of concern that this really bad cold/flu wasn't just a really bad cold/flu. Fortunately, a check-in with my doctor confirmed that I'm not a victim of the Aporkalypse.

So that covers the last few days. How about earlier? The Institute for the Future's Ten-Year Forecast event, where we present the year's work over the course of several days, took place last week. Many weeks of increasingly frantic work culminated in a big affair, rolling out the Superstruct results, along with some ancillary content that wasn't directly Superstruct-driven but very much in alignment.

I had three presentations to give -- one on geoengineering, one on intelligence and evolution, and a big one for the opening night: The Human Crisis. This was the presentation of the Fifty-Year Scenarios, a set of three timelines I crafted for the Institute, taking us from 2009 to 2059 (with a preview of 2060).

Here's the first of those timelines to be released, The Long Crisis (5mb PDF). IFTF put it out in concert with the first bit of content coming from Superstruct. Check it out. I suspect that you'll find much to argue with.

The presentation was exhausting to do, both physically (in the way that giving any presentation in front of a crowd can be) and emotionally. These are not happy scenarios, as the first one -- which is by no means the scariest of the three -- will attest. Living with those three worlds over the past few months has been draining.

There was a fourth scenario in my presentation, though. Let me quote the brief description:

In this fifty year period, a massive depression, coupled with the collapse of a key resource, undermines traditional economic models. Even as the global economy recovers, a global war erupts, a horrifying accident triggered by political systems overwhelmed by increasingly rapid communications, a tragedy multiplied by the almost casual use of chemical weapons. The end of this war coincides with the emergence of a pandemic the likes of which the world has never seen, killing millions upon millions -- and, combined with the war, almost eliminating an entire generation in some parts of the globe.

After the pandemic ebbs, a brief, heady economic boom leads many to believe the worst has ended. Unfortunately, what follows is a global depression even more massive than the previous one, causing hyperinflation in some of the most advanced nations, and leading directly to the seizure of power by totalitarian, genocidal regimes.

What follows is perhaps predictable: an even greater world-wide war, nearly wiping out a major culture and culminating in a shocking nuclear attack.

At this point, you’ve probably already realized that this scenario covers the end of the nineteenth century through the end of World War II.

Fun stuff. To my surprise, only about half the audience caught that it was the first half of the 20th century before I "flipped the cards" in my slide, showing period-appropriate images for each major event. But whether or not they saw through the very light deception, the reaction was uniform: they were stunned. This was the after-dinner entertainment, and people just left quickly afterwards. I usually have a handful of folks come up after a talk to ask questions or press me on various points, but this time, nothing. A few people even avoided eye contact as they hustled out.

The next day, after people had an evening to digest it, I got the questions and comments. But clearly this set of stories -- including one about our own recent history -- rocked them. The scenarios certainly had done so to me, and I wrote them.

And to go from a multi-day meeting that focused on Superstruct (with its "Quarantine" threat) to a real-world proto-pandemic was just too much. Still is, really. I think I need a bit more down time.

See you soon.

April 22, 2009

Scale-Based Antitrust

Crypto-blogging in a meeting, but...

One of the questions that came up after my "Resilience Economy Model" post was precisely how we could prevent businesses from becoming "too big to fail." A report on NPR's Marketplace offers one suggestion:

Scale-Based Antitrust. Bob Moon interviewed Zephyr Teachout.

MOON: So how do you augment these antitrust laws to apply to the banks?

TEACHOUT: You could pass a new act, which would join the other antitrust law acts -- Clayton and Sherman acts. This new law would look at size as an independent variable. That could be a combination of looking at profit, assets or market value but would have a default rule that says no company can become larger than a certain size depending on the industry.

Teachout wrote a piece for The Nation, "Trustbusting 2.?" that spells out this argument in more detail.

I haven't had a chance yet to think this through, but it strikes me as a promising direction.

April 20, 2009

Next Big Thing: Resilience

A few months ago, the editors at Foreign Policy magazine asked me to contribute to a section on the "Next Big Thing." My piece, on resilience, is now on the FP website -- and will appear in the May/June edition of the print magazine. [Link updated to local PDF copy.]

Again, it'll be familiar to regular readers -- I think we're still at the point where it's important to introduce new audiences to the concept.

How can we live within our means when those very means can change, swiftly and unexpectedly, beneath us? We need a new paradigm. As we look ahead, we need to strive for an environment, and a civilization, able to handle unexpected changes without threatening to collapse. Such a world would be more than simply sustainable; it would be regenerative and diverse, relying on the capacity not only to absorb shocks like the popped housing bubble or rising sea levels, but to evolve with them. In a word, it would be resilient.

I'm particularly happy to discover that the other contributors to this issue include Juan Enriquez (Next Big Thing: A New You), Martin van Creveld (Next Big Thing: Anger Management), and Alvin Toffler (Next Big Thing: A Bigger Big Bang?).

That will likely be the last general, intro-to-resilience piece I do. Time to focus on what it means.

April 16, 2009

The Sea Level Rise Mystery

Twenty inches per decade -- that's the estimate of how rapidly the oceans rose in the last interglacial period about 121,000 years ago, in research appearing in Nature. That's eight feet over 50 years, in a world just 2°C warmer than we are today.

Not good.

But one little detail bugs me: while we can make educated guesses as to what triggered the sea level increase (glacial melts, presumably), there's no way of knowing from the fossil evidence when that trigger happened. That is, how long between the prehistoric Antarctic ice sheet collapse (for example) and the resulting surge of ocean water actually making it to the rest of the world?

It turns out that, due to some major currents and the sheer mass of the ocean, dumping megatons of ice (or rock, or whatever) into one part of the sea doesn't make the whole world's sea level pop up immediately. It will, eventually, but it takes time, potentially decades -- or even centuries.

That was the conclusion of a 2008 article in the Journal of Geophysical Research modeling sea level increases resulting from Antarctic and/or Greenland glacial melts.

According to this research, it takes a surprisingly long time for a massive glacial melt to actually increase sea levels outside of the initial melt zone. Here's the relevant quote from the New Scientist article at the time:

... the majority of Greenland's meltwater will stay in the Atlantic Ocean for at least 50 years, causing sea levels here to rise faster than expected. "The Greenland ice cap is much less of a threat to tropical islands in the Pacific than it is for the coasts of North America and Europe," he says. [...] Antarctic meltwater could be prevented from reaching much of the world for centuries due to strong currents in the Southern Ocean, says Stammer.

Here's the link to my summary, with graphics, from last year.

Basically: meltwater from Greenland takes a decade or so to hit the western Atlantic (i.e., US East Coast), and doesn't notably affect the Pacific at all in the 50 year model run. Meltwater from Antarctica -- although much greater in volume -- never substantially leaves the Antarctic Ocean for the same 50 year model.

Obviously there would be eventual equilibrium, so this study doesn't contradict the paleo results of rapid sea level increases -- once the surge gets to a region, at least. But it does make the situation more complex. If those of us with our hair on fire about global warming make what we think to be well-substantiated claims about sea level increases coming from temperature increases, and nothing (seems to) happen, we'll be accused of "crying wolf," lying about the danger just to get our pet socialiberatheislamofascist projects through.

But here's the problem: I haven't seen any follow-up work to the JGR article. Nothing backing it up, nothing rejecting it, nothing criticizing the model... It's like this study just kind of got ignored. Anyone out there know anything more?

April 15, 2009

New Fast Company Column: Social Networks and the Brain

This week's Fast Company column is now up: Social Networking and the Brain: Continuous Partial Empathy? asks whether the way we use social networking technologies is ultimately making us better people -- or worse...

Social technologist Linda Stone talks about "continuous partial attention," a condition of modern life where we need to pay ongoing attention to multiple streams of inputs, but can only provide limited degrees of attention to each. Superficially similar to multitasking, the real point of continuous partial attention is that it's continuous--it's not just a workload issue. While we may be able to handle the demands of continuous partial attention for awhile, it eventually becomes exhausting, and even the limited levels of attention suffer.

What Damasio's work suggests to me is that there's a point where an insufficient amount of attention given to a potentially moving encounter means that little or no empathy--compassion or admiration--will result. And while paying attention to another person is important, offering empathy is much more critical. Social numbness simply can't be healthy for a functioning society.

Let me know what you think.

April 10, 2009

Dark Optimism


Shaun Chamberlin has written a book that, in my view, absolutely needs to be read by anyone who follows this blog.

The Transtition Timeline: For a Local, Resilient Future combines a scenario-based look at how we as a global society can respond to the combination of global warming and peak oil, with a practical manual for building the kind of world that can successfully manage such a crisis.

I saw a late draft of the work, and Shaun asked me for my reaction. Here's what I wrote, and I'm happy to see that it's included in the book's lengthy list of endorsements:

It's been said that pessimism is a luxury of good times; in bad times, pessimism is a death sentence. But optimism is hard to maintain when facing the very real possibility of planetary catastrophe. What's needed is a kind of hopeful realism -- or, as Shaun Chamberlin puts it, a dark optimism.

In The Transition Timeline, Chamberlin offers his dark optimism in the form of a complex vision of what's to come. He imagines not just a single future, or a binary "good tomorrow/bad tomorrow" pairing, but four scenarios set in the late 2020s, each emerging from the tension between two critical questions: can we recognize what's happening to us, and can we escape the choices and designs that have led us to this state? Chamberlin demonstrates that only an affirmative answer to both questions will allow us to avoid disaster -- and that's where the story he tells starts to get good. The Transition Timeline isn't another climate jeremiad, but a map of the course we'll need to take over the coming decade if we are to save our planet, and ourselves.

The Transition Timeline is a book of hopeful realism, making clear that the future we want remains in our grasp -- but only for a short while longer.

Buy this book.

April 9, 2009

New Fast Company Column: Machine Ethics

My latest Fast Company column is up. "Machine Ethics" explores the question of what kinds of responsibilities we have with regards to the increasingly autonomous systems we create. It's based on the "Laws of Robotics" talk I gave a few weeks ago.

You don't have to be a science fiction aficionado to appreciate the importance of the latter narrative. All you need to do is look at this past week's headlines: "ADAM," a robot scientist, making discoveries about genetics; "CB2" ("Child robot with Biomimetic Body") learning to recognize facial expressions and developing social skills; and battlefield robots taking on an increasingly critical role in American military operations. Autonomous and semi-autonomous systems are becoming extraordinarily complex, and our relationship with them differs significantly from how we use other technologies. How we think about them needs to catch up with that.

[...] We may not fully realize just how profound the ongoing introduction of autonomous systems into our day to day lives will prove to be. These aren't just more gadgets, or dumb tools, or background technologies. These are, increasingly, systems that -- despite being mechanical, created objects -- operate in the same emotional and social-intelligence space as animals and even people.

I hope that this proves to be a jumping off point for a good discussion...

April 8, 2009

Topsight, April 8, 2009 (part II)

Read these:

• Sid, not Andy: In the movie Toy Story, did you think that the neighbor kid, Sid -- the one that hacked different toys together, blew them up, and generally played with them "inappropriately" -- was the bad guy? You're wrong.

What we need in our education system is a belief in Sid, not Andy. That’s not the dominant strain in today’s schools. We’re intent on producing functioning Andys — children who follow the rules, who don’t violate any product warnings, who know the pre-cooked answers. [...] A Sid-based education would encourage children to invent and explore, to chart their own paths, to defy conventions, to explore dead ends as well as promising boulevards. It would demand rigor — I have very little patience for education that doesn’t require the accumulation of key, basic knowledge.

I agree with this 110% -- I always thought that what Sid did looked fun (plus, he was funny-looking, and I really hate the "ugly=evil" trope).

• Biobatteries: Genetically-modified bacteriophage viruses engineered to produce lithium-ion batteries at room temperature with no toxic materials.


• Starships Rule (what remains of) Iceland's Economy: My friend Dan Johnson offers this observation:

Iceland's economy has effectively collapsed. But one of the stronger online games is EVE Online, which is owned & run by an Icelandic company. EVE has a vibrant economy, and a functioning (if unofficial) exchange rate between the in-game currency and real-world currencies. EVE's currency is a virtual version of the Icelandic Króna.

Hence, "Iceland has collapsed so thoroughly that at this point, it's only economically viable export may very well be an internet spaceship game, and that internet spaceship game's króna is for all intents and purposes a more real and valid and valuable currency than the actual country's actual money."

We truly live in a future designed by Charlie Stross.

• Future of Education: The Knowledge Works Foundation and the Institute for the Future have put up a site talking about the future of education. I worked on this project, but I think it has some good insights anyway. Check it out.

This 2020 Forecast illuminates how we are shifting toward a culture of creation in which each of us has the opportunity – and the responsibility – to make our collective future. People are creating new selves, organizations, systems, societies, economies, and knowledge.

We are seeing “educitizens” define their rights as learners and re-create the civic sphere. Networked artisans and ad hoc factories are democratizing manufacturing and catalyzing new local economies. These creators are highlighting the significance of cooperation and cross-cultural intelligence for citizenship and economic leadership.

Furthermore, advances in neuroscience are creating new notions of performance and cognition and are reshaping discussions of social justice in learning. Communities are beginning to re-create themselves as resilient systems that respond to challenges by replenishing their vital resources and creating flexible, open, and adaptive infrastructures.

Together, these forces are pushing us to create the future of learning as an ecosystem, in which we have yet to determine the role of educational institutions as we know them today.

Can you guess which section I worked on?

• Personal Urban My Accessibility!: I'm split between thinking this is silly and thinking that it's potentially quite interesting; I'll probably decide that it's silly, but then lament that the useful stuff got lost in the induced giggles.

PUMA -- Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility -- is a joint project by General Motors and Segway. Two seater, electric, 35mph max/35 mile range... all very standard city golf cart stats. The Segway style balance aspect is cool, especially given that the machine is very maneuverable as a result, but what really sets it apart is the use of the ad-hoc vehicle network to manage traffic flows.

"Project P.U.M.A. represents a unique solution to moving about and interacting in cities, where more than half of the world's people live," said Larry Burns, GM vice president of research and development, and strategic planning. "Imagine small, nimble electric vehicles that know where other moving objects are and avoid running into them. Now, connect those vehicles in an Internet-like web and you can greatly enhance the ability of people to move through cities, find places to park and connect to their social and business networks."

Bonus points for using "social networking" in a press release about a car.

(Well, booger. I meant to post this in draft for tomorrow, but too late now. I guess I should write something else for tomorrow. In my copious spare time.)

Topsight, April 8, 2009

Participatory Panopticon edition!

I've been pounded with work, and haven't been keeping up with my bloggy duties. Here are some of the issues I've been following:

• Sigh, Eyeborg: Yeah, "eyeborg" -- a guy in the UK Canada (thanks @clothbot) has built a micro-camera into his vacant eye socket.

The eye will include a 1.5mm CMOS camera, an RF transmitter “smaller than the tip of a pencil eraser” and a lithium-polymer battery. Footage will probably be sent to recording equipment in a rucksack, which will presumably be worn by Spence.

His aim, aside from breaking technological boundaries, is to raise awareness of the issues surrounding surveillance in our society.

I have to say, there are ways to raise awareness of this issue without implanting a camera in your eye socket, but that's just how he rolls, apparently. (Via Futurismic)

• Hope It Doesn't Conveniently "Break": The company behind the taser stun weapon -- Taser, appropriately enough -- is set to release a wearable digital camera and recording system for use by law enforcement officers. The Axon system (PDF) provides real-time recording, from the officer's perspective, of everything that happens on duty. The recording, which can't be altered in-system, and gets uploaded to a secure off-site location at the end of a shift, can then provide documentary evidence of precisely what happened in every policing encounter.

This actually sounds pretty good, although I'd love for it to have a streaming upload mode so that the evidence gets locked up as it happens, instead of at the end of the day. Still, this is exactly the kind of thing that should be a mandatory part of the police uniform, for the protection of both the police officers and the citizens.

Just one problem, though: "One-Touch “Privacy Mode” temporarily suspends recording"

Sigh. Yes, I know that the cops don't want to be recorded while they go to the bathroom, but this just screams "abuse me" -- both to the cops & prosecutors and to defense attorneys trying to find a way to dispute a recorded encounter. I would hope, at the very least, that the GPS and time tracking don't get suspended in "privacy mode."

• Plausibly Surreal: This iPhone application, described on the "TidBITS" website, is, unfortunately, just an April Fool's joke. That said, there's no reason why "Invisibility" couldn't happen -- and, I suspect, there are quite a few people who would want it.

Invisibility works by creating a profile of each person you want to avoid, using a variety of inputs. [...] The tracking screen uses Google Maps to show you the current location (if known) of anyone you've profiled, along with a circle of probability and a timestamp. This is useful when you're taking a stroll and want to make sure the coast is clear.

Invisibility can also use Bluetooth and Wi-Fi signals to identify someone's cell phone within a range of 30 to 100 feet. [...] The program can also tap into Facebook messages, Flickr geotagging information, Skyhook Wireless location updates, Twitter, Dopplr travel logging, Blogger posts, and all kinds of other public and private (once you've connected it to your accounts) social media and buddy services.

The best part? The description of the app as "Asocial Networking" -- a way to avoid constant availability. This is so inevitable, it's not even funny.

April 7, 2009

Quick Update -- New Hampshire & Australia [Updated]

Lots going on.

Tomorrow (Wednesday) morning, I'll be interviewed live for New Hampshire Public Radio's "Word of Mouth" show; I think it's carried outside of New Hampshire, so if you happen across it (I'll be on 12:08-12:15EDT/9:08-9:15PDT), let me know what you think. I'll be talking resilience and sustainability (and a little bit of Superstruct).

This will be a somewhat unusual experience, in that nearly all of my radio appearances of late have been pre-recorded and edited, cleaning up the "ums" and "ahs." I'll have to be on the ball -- let's hope I'm awake enough. I'll also try to avoid any gratuitous swearing, but no promises.

[UPDATE: Audio of the interview can be heard here.]

On a completely different note, I'll be presenting at an event in Sydney, Australia, in late June. My talks (which, unfortunately, are not open to the public) will be on Wednesday June 24 and Thursday June 25, but I'll be in town through Saturday the 27th. Any AU readers who'd like to meet up should give me a shout.

April 2, 2009

Resilience and Robots

My second column for Fast Company is now live: "Resilience in the Face of Crisis: Why the Future will be Flexible" is a "let's talk about resilience" piece for people who haven't encountered the argument before. Although it echoes some of the points I made in the "Resilience Economy" post here at OtF, it's more of a discussion as to why the concept itself is important.

One reason why the idea of resilience resonates with those of us engaged in foresight work is that, as troubling as it may be to contemplate, the current massive economic downturn is likely to be neither the only nor the biggest crisis we face over the next few decades. The need to shift quickly away from fossil fuels (for both environmental and supply reasons) may be as big a shock as today's "econalypse," and could easily be compounded by accelerating problems caused by global warming. Demographic issues--aging populations, migrants and refugees, and changing regional ethnic make-ups--loom large around the world, notably in China. Pandemics, resource collapse, even radically disruptive technologies all have the potential to cause global shake-ups on the scale of what we see today... and we may see all of these, and more, over the next 20 to 30 years.

Also new is a conversation for the CBC radio show "Spark," talking robots -- in particular the empathetic and emotional interaction we increasingly have with robots. You can play the streaming version on this page, or download the MP3 for the show; my part starts around 11 minutes in, and lasts about five minutes. But check out the Spark page anyway -- the picture of the kitten and the Roomba is sure a sign that the kitty singularity is upon us.

Never Mind. Not Doomed Yet.

Sorry, don't know what came over me.

April 1, 2009

We're Doomed

Yep. Sorry to have to say it, but there's really no way around it.

We're doomed. Hosed. Pining for the fjords.

We have maybe a decade or two before things really go to hell, but, honestly, it's going to get pretty bad much sooner than that. Yeah, this may sound hopeless, but who can be optimistic in a time like this?


(For those of you reading this via RSS: the main page banner has been changed to reflect this new clarity. I may get around to updating the individual item pages, but it's frankly hard to even find the motivation now.)

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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