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August 27, 2009

New Fast Company: 3 New Economies, Part II

The second part of my "Three Possible Economic Models" post is now up, with extended scenarios for Resilience Economics, Just-in-Time Socialism, and Robonomics.

Resilience Economics (RE) emerged out of the realization that Neoliberal Globalized Corporate Capitalism made money hand-over-fist when everything was working right, but was like a rapidly-spinning top--seemingly stable, but if it hit too rough a patch, it went wildly out of control. The RE world, conversely, is less-lucrative during growth periods, but weathers downturns so well that most folks don't even notice when "recessions" hit. [...]

[Just-in-Time Socialism] While the U.S. went for Resilience Economics in the wake of the Great Retreat, Japan took a different path. Two developments allowed Japan to try something radical--well, two developments plus a population already accustomed to heavy automation and a fledgling government desperate to push Japan in a new direction.

Of the two new technologies, the most visibly critical was the development of the Aoki-Marr Prediction Demand AI in 2016. [...] The other technology key to the success of Just-in-Time Socialism was ultra-rapid 3D printing, bordering on nano-manufacturing. [...]

[Robonomics] The U.S. slowed down, Japan took control, and Europe... well, Europe got wired. Or got weird, depending on your perspective.

On the surface, you still have the same kinds of big companies, same kinds of consumption patterns, same kinds of advertising that you did a few decades earlier. But the twist is that almost nobody works--maybe about 25% of the population engages in income-generating employment, and at least half of that consists of educators, bureaucrats, and the self-employed. Manufacturing, transportation, and most basic services are done with robots, semi-autonomous systems that nobody even pretends have real intelligence, but work well enough to keep the economy humming. Personal service jobs remain in human hands, but those are often performed by recent immigrants, trying to earn the right to a BIG [Basic Income Guarantee] Card.

As always, these are provocations, not predictions. I also only look at the US, Japan, and the EU -- leaving open the question of what happens to China, India, Brazil, South Africa, etc.

August 24, 2009

Paranoia is a Pre-Existing Condition (Updated)

Fact #1: I am self-employed American.

Fact #2: I have a severe, chronic medical problem.

These two facts don't mix nicely.

As a self-employed worker, I don't receive the benefits that usually accrue to salaried professionals doing similar work: employer-contribution 401K; paid vacations; and, in particular, employer-provided health insurance. I knew going in that this would be the case and decided that the other, non-material benefits of working for myself outweighed the material drawbacks. For the most part, I can provide the equivalent benefits to myself -- a retirement savings account and money set aside for vacation time.

But not health insurance.

Because I have a "pre-existing condition," I can't get insured. I've tried. The coverage I have, through COBRA, will run out soon -- and at that point, I could be in trouble*.

I bring this up not to elicit suggestions or sympathy, but to identify myself as someone with a personal stake in the current health insurance reform process underway in the United States -- and someone who would clearly benefit from that reform's success. I'm following the debates closely, and am thoroughly depressed by what's been going on (which probably qualifies as another pre-existing condition). Opponents of reform have successfully triggered a level of political and social paranoia in a significant subset of the American public that hasn't been seen in years, possibly decades.

Two friends of mine living outside the US -- one an American ex-pat, the other a UK citizen -- both wrote lengthy and smart pieces about the American health insurance reform debate. Their arguments sum up my feelings very nicely, and I want to encourage you to read them both.

Adam Greenfield offers "On Systems, and What They Do," examining the healthcare and insurance process in the US from a systems-thinking perspective, and uses it as a jumping off point to talk about how we make data-driven decisions -- and how easily they can be disrupted.

The collectivites arrayed against the “Obamacare” bogeyman construct the body politic as a zero- or even a negative-sum game. They’ve identified a loophole, a vulnerability in the operating system of American democracy for which as yet there’s no patch. And because their victory conditions don’t require the affirmative production of a workable solution, the challenge before them is much (infinitely!) easier: all they have to do is drive a wedge through that vulnerability and they’ve won. The foreshortened, truncated, mutilated human lives that will result are collateral damage, an acceptable side effect. And the damage to the health and functioning of the republic? That’s a feature, baby.

Charlie Stross, in "Merciless," looks at the US healthcare debate by asking the question, what happened to mercy? It's a quality that seems sorely lacking the US today, and this fact is excruciatingly visible in the arguments around healthcare.

The subjects vary — crime and penal policy, healthcare, don't get me started on foreign policy — but there is an ideological approach in America that is distinguished by one common characteristic: words and deeds utterly lacking in the quality of mercy.

There is a cancer in the collective American soul — a mercy deficit that has in recent years grown as alarmingly as the budget deficit. Nor is it as simple as a left/right thing: no political party has a monopoly on merciless behaviour. Rather, a creeping draconian absolutism has cast its penumbra across the entire arena of public discourse, tainting every debate, poisoning and hardening attitudes across the board.

Calls for revenge on a sick and dying man are part and parcel of the pathology, as are shrieks of outrage against the mere idea of subsidizing healthcare for the indigent or unlucky, or rough talk about "every now and again ... pick[ing] up a crappy little country and throwing it against the wall just to prove we are serious".

It's sad, and frustrating, and shameful. And, for me, it's not theoretical. As I watch this debate happen, I am ever-conscious that when politicians and pundits talk about the mass of people without insurance, they're talking about where I could be in a few months.

I have options; I'm "lucky." I could give up being self-employed and try to find a full-time job, with benefits (emphasis on the try: this is difficult for someone with an eclectic background in good times, but would be near-impossible right now). I could push my wife to leave school and have her try to get a job with benefits. But to the extent that entrepreneurialism and self-improvement through education are supposed to be core to the American ideal, it's more than a little frustrating to have to set them aside simply to be able to continue to walk.

[*UPDATE: I'll be in less trouble than I feared, as I should be able to get a HIPAA policy. It's a grim prospect, though: the rate will be about double what I was paying under COBRA (where I'm paying both employee and employer costs for insurance), and the rules are such that, once I get a HIPAA policy, I can never change it, even if rates go up.]

August 20, 2009

New Fast Company: 3 New Economies

My new Fast Company essay is up: Three Possible Economic Models talks a bit about what 21st century economics might look like, given certain disruptive drivers. Yes, Resilience Economics is there, but so is "Just-in-Time Socialism" and "Robonomics."

Speaking as a social futurist, not an economist, the three emerging conditions that ride high on my list of potential breaking points for the modern economy are as follows:
  1. Brittle Strength: The current global economy seems to exaggerate booms and busts, and the ongoing consolidation of corporate actors into "too big to fail" entities means that when busts happen--and they do--the system tends towards failure rather than "soft landing." It's getting harder and harder for governments to step in and serve as safety nets to prevent total collapse; the current economic downturn may well be the last one the system can stand.

  2. Griefer Economics: Information is power, especially when it comes to finance, and the increasing use of ultra-fast computers to manipulate markets (and drive out "weaker" competitors) is moving us into a world where market position isn't determined by having the best offering, but by having the best tool. Rules are gamed, opponents are beaten before they even know they're playing, and it all feels very much like living on a PvP online game server where the referees have all gone home.

  3. Robots Stole My Job!: Think you can't be replaced by a machine? Think again. Robots are becoming more dextrous, able to do a growing number of tasks requiring precision and strength, and computer systems are becoming smarter, able to tackle jobs needing pattern-matching and creative skills. Humans are still cheaper, for now, but this puts downward pressure on wages--and the old rule that new technology opens up entirely new fields of human labor won't hold true forever. Smarter, more capable machines will snap up those jobs, too.

All exaggerations, to be sure, but indicative of where trends seem to be heading. All are issues that could, over the next decade, explode in a way that pushes us to try innovative economic and social models.

Next week, I'll examine the three resulting models in more detail.

August 17, 2009

New Fast Company: Rust Never Sleeps

Ug99 is a scary fungus that could DESTROY THE WORLD... well, actually, could devastate global wheat crops, which is a pretty fair approximation if you dislike famine. It started in Uganda in 1999 (hence Ug 99), but is now being found in Afghanistan and Pakistan, on its way to India and China.

And who might save the day?

So here's where Bill Gates steps in.

In 2008, the Gates Foundation donated $26.8 million dollars to the Durable Rust Resistance project, a multinational effort to track the spread of stem rust, and to quickly develop resistant strains of wheat. Cornell University coordinates these efforts, and the project is now starting to see results. Earlier this year, researchers found a gene complex that seems to kill Ug99.

If Bill Gates manages to head off global famine for what amounts to pocket change (for him), all is forgiven.

Except Clippy.

August 13, 2009

What's Going On

Okay, it's time for a confessional. I'm well aware that I haven't been blogging as frequently I used to, and too much of what gets posted here simply points to stuff I've done elsewhere. While I have made the occasional foray into blogging more, and do still get some new stuff unique to OtF up here, Open the Future circa mid-2009 simply isn't what it was even a year ago.

Here's why.

I'm busy, yeah, and I've been doing a lot of traveling, yeah, but what it comes down to is that my health sucks. I was diagnosed with a form of rheumatoid arthritis ("palindromic rheumatism") back in 2001 (at 35, fun), but managed to control the occasional flare-ups with relatively simple treatments. About a year ago, the flare-ups started happening more often, regardless of the treatments; about three months ago, the flare-ups started hitting multiple joints at the same time, something that hadn't happened before. This would leave me literally unable to walk, and in constant pain. If you haven't had the pleasure, constant pain is not very good for the thinking process. Moreover, the drugs that I take to beat down the flare-ups just make me want to sleep all day.

I'm going through one of these episodes right now.

I'm shifting to a new treatment regimen, but that will take a couple of months to settle in. In the meantime, I'm doing what I can. This means that some days I'll get stuff up, but many days I won't. It doesn't mean I don't want to, it just means that I simply don't have the energy.

I am not posting this in a bid for sympathy. If you choose to reply, in comments or email/twitter, I would be much more appreciative of a simple "thanks for letting us know" acknowledgement than of well-intentioned words of comfort. This is an incredibly frustrating experience, but I just felt that it was important to talk about what was happening, rather than just shutting up and disappearing.

August 6, 2009

The "End of Politics" Delusion

You have my express permission to kick the next person -- especially someone advocating the embrace of radical forms of technological advancement -- who tells you that they wish nothing more than to get rid of, move beyond, or otherwise avoid "politics." Kick them hard, and repeatedly. They have adopted a profoundly ignorant and self-serving position, one that betrays at best a lack of understanding of human nature and society, and at worst a malicious desire to preemptively shut down any opposition to their goals.

The trigger for this bit of anticipatory violence is the still-smoldering debate over the writing of one Peter Thiel, a poster boy for socialist revolution. Staggeringly rich, he espouses a form of "I got mine, Jack" libertarianism that is openly and gleefully anti-democratic. In a widely-criticized essay for the Cato Institute, Thiel claims that the extension of the vote to women and the poor has undermined capitalism; unsurprisingly, this argument hasn't gone over well, and even his apologists -- happy to continue getting his money for their projects -- have distanced themselves.

But my focus here is on another line from his essay:

In our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms...

Unless Thiel means that libertarians must live in splendid isolation from society and each other, he's going to have a problem.

He's not alone in making this claim, of course. I've heard the sentiment that advocates of Revolutionary Technology X "must seek to escape politics" repeated in various forms time and again, even by people and groups I otherwise respect. It's a fascinating and sad delusion, characteristic of a movement that sees itself as both smarter than everyone else and unbound by the problems of the past.

In the early days of the dot-com era, this attitude resulted in the absence of digital tech industry voices in Washington, DC, allowing the incumbent telecom and entertainment industries free rein to write laws and buy politicians without opposition. Companies and industries that had considered themselves beyond politics found out just how wrong they were. Stung by that experience, today's advocates of the "escape politics" position usually articulate it as more of a wishful whine, as with Thiel's line quoted above.

It's a position I've fought hard against for quite awhile. It was the heart of the presentation I gave at the 2007 Singularity Summit (where I heard a lot of people making the "let's escape politics" cry). More recently, I talked about it in my interview with the Dutch consulting group FreedomLab; here's a video clip of that part of the conversation. It runs just over two minutes:

Technology is Political from Jamais Cascio on Vimeo.

The core of the argument is straightforward: Politics is part of a healthy society -- it's what happens when you have a group of people with differential goals and a persistent relationship. It's not about partisanship, it's about power. And while even small groups have politics (think: supporting or opposing decisions, differing levels of power to achieve goals, deciding how to use limited resources), the more people involved, the more complex the politics. Factions, parties, ideologies and the like are simply ways of organizing politics in a complex social space -- they're symptoms of politics, not causes.

Calls to get rid of politics can therefore mean one of two things: getting rid of persistent relationships with other people; or getting rid of differential goals. Since I don't see too many of the folks who talk about escaping politics also talking about becoming lone isolationists, the only reasonable presumption is that they're really talking about eliminating disagreements.

It's the latest version of the notion that "a perfect world is one where everyone agrees with me." It rarely gets expressed like that, of course. It's more like...

After the Singularity, we'll be too smart to have politics...
[Or] Once we develop strong (and friendly) AI, we'll let them make decisions for us, as they will be far smarter and wiser...
In a post-scarcity, nanotech world, nobody will have politics because everyone will have what they need and want...
Once we get off-world, politics will go away because you can always move away from someone you disagree with...
After we can reengineer the brain, we can do away with conflict and disagreement...

No. Wrong. Bad technophile, no upload!

This is why I was so frustrated at the deprecation of politics in the Singularity University curriculum -- there's a profound ignorance across the tech advocacy community of the importance of politics to human society. Politics means conflict, debate, and frustration. It also means choice. A world without politics is a world where disagreement is illegitimate. It's a world where your ability to choose your future -- to make your future -- has been taken away, whether you like it or not.

New Fast Company: New Rules for the Photoshop Era

My new Fast Company essay, "Five New Rules for the Photoshop Era," takes on the participatory decepticon, and discovers that it was apparently born in Kenya.

If you're annoyed by the "birther" churn, get used it--this kind of political hack is here to stay. It's easy and effective. Cheap digital tools make the work of faking official documents, "candid" images, and behind-the-scenes videos readily possible, even for rough amateurs.

Moreover, the hacks don't have to convince skeptics--they only need to strengthen believers. Faked materials just need to be convincing enough to cause doubt in the minds of people already inclined to believe a lie. For people trying to undermine political opponents, uncertainty is both easy and useful. Imagine if the hoax Obama birth certificate had been produced in October of 2008, instead of August of 2009: it's all too likely that the chaos surrounding the document could have cut his percentage in closely-contested states.

By the way, you, too, can make your own Totally Official and Not At All Hoaxed Kenyan Birth Certificate!

August 3, 2009

Expiration Date

Slate's Josh Levin kicks off a series of articles on the possible future dissolution of the United States today with a piece about how a few different "futurologists" see the possibility. In "How Is America Going To End?", he talks to Peter Schwartz and Stewart Brand (for GBN), and to me, covering the Fifty Year Scenarios I did for IFTF.

Cascio clearly believes that humanity has the ingenuity and the smarts to beat back threats to its continued existence. He doesn't, however, assume that the persistence of the United States is necessarily the most-desirable outcome. It's possible America will collapse as we try desperately to save it—or perhaps the country will shrivel up and go away when its time has come and gone. "It's not necessarily how America will survive," Cascio says, "but how do the values we hold dear … survive even if some of the institutions don't?"

I have to say, it's fairly rewarding to be held up shoulder-to-shoulder with Peter and Stewart.

Amusingly, the piece also includes a short -- six minute or so -- video interview. Embedded below, it's notable for me as a dire warning that I really shouldn't wear white.

The video embed sometimes forces a 15-second advertisement for (of all things) Amway at the beginning, so if you're ad-adverse, but have to have your Jamais-on-video fix, you can watch it at the Slate page.

Levin's series also includes a make-your-own Apocalypse game!

August 2, 2009

Cascio's Laws of Robotics: The Motion Picture

Last March, I gave a talk in Menlo Park entitled "Cascio's Laws of Robotics." I've already posted a link to the slides I used, and to essays and interviews covering related topics. Now -- finally -- the video of the talk is available.

It was shot in HD, and looks pretty good if you make it full-screen. It runs just under 70 minutes, but is -- if I do say so myself -- a fairly interesting talk.

Thanks to Monica Anderson for organizing the event, and for the terrific job she did editing the video.

Jamais Cascio

Contact Jamais  ÃƒÂƒÃ‚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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