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August 30, 2011

Living in a Scenario

There's something of a rule-of-thumb among professional futurey-types: scenario elements that sound plausible are almost certainly wrong, while scenario elements that sound utterly implausible are very likely on-target. That's generally true, although it applies more to the disruptive aspects of a scenario than to the everyday aspects. (That said, a scenario that said "most people in the West continue to live quiet lives, using their barely-sufficient income to pay for disposable commodity goods and overly-processed food," while both plausible and very likely on-target for the next decade or three, is more depressing than illuminating.) Good scenario disruption points should be things that, in the here-and-now, would make you say "oh, crap" if you heard them in the news.

Oh, crap.

Nanotechnology researchers in Mexico, France, Spain, and Chile have been targeted by a terror group calling itself "Individuals Tending Towards Savagery," and claiming to be inspired by the Unabomber.

Unabomber-copycat terror cell hits nanotech researchers in the developing world and Europe -- I'm not sure anything could sound more like a headline from a scenario exercise.

anti-tech terror bombingYou can find the manifesto of the group (in Spanish) here (this is not the group's website, but a site that republishes relevant material); a Google translate version in English is here. The translation is a bit spotty in places, but gets the message across. For me, the most unsettling part is that (a) I know several of the people they mention as villains, and (b) I fit their criteria for potential targets.

Reading the piece is like a checklist for a scenario's anti-technology movement: beyond the approving Unabomber citations, they have quotes from Bill Joy's Why the Future Doesn't Need Us, misunderstandings of what nanotechnology is and isn't, and intimations of further violence against researchers, along with (now trendy!) attacks on Facebook for destroying the ability of young people to think. For the record, I don't believe that Joy or any of the other non-Unabomber folks whose writing they cite approvingly (explicitly or implicitly) would in any way support this group.

But this is why I keep writing pieces like "Not Giving Up" and "Sanity" -- reminders (especially to myself) that the way forward is going to be filled with danger, but we can't let danger -- and chaos, and despair, and the relentless demands that we just give up -- be the only option.

I've been thinking, recently, that one way to define "progress" is "when the future turns out better than we expect it to be." Given how grim things seem to be, and how many signals of disruption we seem to be getting, I can only hope that we'll be seeing a bit of progress any time now.

August 22, 2011


In many sustainability circles, "bioengineering" = "bad and scary," while "biomimcry" = "cool and useful." Biomimicry usually doesn't involve bioengineering, and in fact often relies upon completely non-biological processes to mimic biological effects. And it is, in fact, pretty cool and useful.

I wonder if some of the negative reaction to "geoengineering" comes from its linguistic parallel to bioengineering. Such a parallel seems to suggest that there's a connection; I have attended more than one event where the two were lumped together, even though there's almost no material or process relationship. And since "bioengineering," by definition, involves the engineering and manipulation of biological systems, the immediate conclusion is that geoengineering must be operating with the same level of invasiveness, with similar risks.

There's no doubt that some forms of geoengineering involves the direct manipulation of geophysical systems, and (in general) the term remains the most appropriate one. But there's a very wide variety of approaches and ideas that fall under the geoengineering umbrella. Some -- but not all -- of them actually intentionally mimic existing geophysical processes, with the intent of producing similar geophysical effects.

A proposal, then: it might make sense to start referring to the forms of geoengineering that intentionally attempt to reproduce known geophysical processes as geomimetic technologies, or more generally, geomimicry.

This idea has a couple of benefits. The first is a bit of reframing: talking about "geomimetic" proposals can counter some of the subtle negative connotations of "geoengineering." This isn't an attempt to make geoengineering seem benign, but an attempt to balance the discussion a bit more, so that we can make smarter decisions.

The second is that it's actually a useful category. Right now, discussions of geoengineering are typically divided into discussions of "Solar Radiation Modification" (i.e., blocking a bit of incoming sunlight to hold temperatures down) and "Carbon Dioxide Removal" (i.e., directly taking CO2 out of the atmosphere). This is a pretty useful split, but still leaves us lumping together ideas like orbiting mirrors and cloud brightening above the oceans, or carbon capture at factories and attempts to boost mid-ocean algae blooms.

Geomimetic technologies would be those that seek to replicate known geophysical processes, so stratospheric sulfate injection (which attempts to reproduce the high-atmosphere effects of a large volcanic eruption) is geomimetic SRM, while white-rooftop programs (which attempt to increase urban/suburban albedo by literally painting rooftops white) would be, um, let's call it infrastructure SRM. Similarly, large-scale tree-planting projects could be called geomimetic CDR, while CO2 scrubber towers would be infrastructure CDR.

Language matters, and the terms we use to describe or categorize things can greatly shape how we react to them. I'm a strong advocate for research into all forms of geoengineering, not with the goal of immediate deployment, but to see which ones might have dangerous (and unexpected) side-effects that should bar deployment, no matter how bad things get. Having clearer labels on the processes, and using terms that are less likely to provoke an emotional reaction, will help us take a more thoughtful look at our options.

August 9, 2011

About Foresight (a minor rant)

Why worry about tomorrow? After all, according to one of our most respected thinkers, "always in motion is the future."

It's a reasonable question. Consistently accurate predictions about interconnected complex systems are functionally impossible, at least at any real level of specificity. It's long been known that even people paid far too much money to make predictions about a constrained system (such as the stock market) usually do no better -- and typically worse -- than a chimpanzee flinging darts (or whatever else the chimp feels like flinging). One of the best-selling books about foresight in recent years -- The Black Swan -- essentially argued that trying to glimpse the future was worse-than-useless, because it would get you locked onto the understandable (but actually unlikely) and make you miss the seemingly impossible (but actually inevitable). Failed predictions and futurism go hand-in-hand, to the point where the first thing that someone identifying himself/herself as a futurist is typically asked is some variant of "where's my jetpack?"

The conventional image of a "futurist" is that of someone who speaks with certainty about the yet-to-come, making bold predictions of headline-generated changes... and never really being held to account when those predictions fail to be realized. (In fact, there's a weird pathology at work in the traditional media and political worlds: the only way to be taken seriously is to be repeatedly wrong, but in acceptable ways. Being right, when the conventional wisdom was wrong, will get you ignored.) J. Random Futurist gets quoted on CNBC one day saying that Facebook is undervalued, and will soon be rich enough to buy a small country, and quoted on FBN the next day saying that Facebook is doomed, DOOOOOMED, because of what Google just unveiled. This isn't informative, and it isn't illuminating; at best, it's infotainment.

Conventional futurists are the Michael Bays of the intellectual world: what they produce can be spectacular and amusing, but is ultimately hollow and depressing.

August 3, 2011

Sword of Taxation, +5

MoneyBlizzard Entertainment, the game company behind hits like Starcraft and World of Warcraft, just announced the details of its (relatively) soon-to-be released game, Diablo III. The original Diablo and Diablo II were big hits, and although D2 came out in the late 1990s, it still sells in numbers high enough to make annual top ten sales lists in 2010. Millions of people still play Diablo II on the "Battle.net" multiplayer servers, and millions more likely still play in solo mode. It's likely that D3 will be the biggest hit of whatever year it ends up coming out in, simply out of pent-up anticipation. It's no exaggeration to say that tens millions of people will likely play Diablo III on a regular basis.

But the news about the game that has really captured people's attention -- and even New York Times headlines -- is Blizzard's introduction of an in-game player-to-player market for items discovered in the game. Unlike the auction houses and trading systems that have been found in games for years, this one will allow players to buy and sell for real money, not simply imaginary gold pieces or space credits or whatnot. Any player can participate in the auction house, and any player may run across a valuable item in the game (as they are randomly generated).


When you win a prize in a game that has cash value, that prize is taxable at the fair market value, even if you do not sell it. This is true in the United States, and (from my cursory Googling) appears to be true in the UK and India (and likely many other locations). So when you stumble across that Massive Staff of Infection or Red-White-Blue Shield of Copyright Infringement, items that could be sold in the Diablo III Market for $20, $50, or even $100, you're legally supposed to declare those winnings on your taxes. While that might seem like common sense if you sell them and end up with a few hundred dollars in your PayPal account every year, it will likely come as a surprise if you're just playing and avoiding the auction house entirely.

D3 isn't the first game to implement a real-world-sales feature (Project Entropia made noise a few years ago trying to do something similar), but it will be the first one with sales likely amounting to tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. The Internal Revenue Service and Other Appropriate Tax Ministries pay attention to numbers like that.

In everything I've read about D3, I haven't seen any reference to Blizzard even being aware of this problem. And in an era where governments are scrambling to find any income they can, I really doubt that the IRS will ignore this pot of not-so-virtual gold.

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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