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May 28, 2012

Astana: Impressions

If you follow my Twitter stream (or my Flickr account), you'll know that I just got home from a week in Kazakhstan, participating in the Fifth Astana Economic Forum, or AEF.

Kazakhstan is a geographically massive but lightly-populated Central Asian country, spinning off 20 years ago from the Soviet Union. Its population is a mix of ethnic Kazakh and ethnic Russian, with both languages spoken almost interchangeably. Economically, it's a big exporter of raw materials, and is apparently sitting on quite a bit of oil and natural gas. Its president Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been in charge since 1990 (and if you're playing along at home, you'll note that this is prior to the split with the USSR), showing no signs of wanting to move along from the position.

Astana became Kazakhstan's capitol about a decade ago, shifting rapidly from a sleepy town to a modern city. My first impression upon arrival (one that a couple of other attendees mentioned having) was that of Las Vegas -- lots of bright lights, diverse and showy architecture, all in the middle of desolation. The architectural diversity is worth calling out; if you like unique-looking, retro-futuristic skyscrapers, you'd love Astana.

On the surface, Astana seems like any other global city (smooth roads, reliable power, strong mobile signals, etc.), but just stepping outside the center of the "new city" is a reminder that Kazakhstan is very much a developing nation, one that is heavily dependent upon extractive industries. Small but telling example: in the "ethno-memorial complex" called Atameken (a park in the shape of the country, with miniature dioramas depicting aspects of Kazakh society and history), the very first model you see is that of mining/oil drilling.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the AEF, which bills itself as being a forum for discussion of "solutions to socio-economical, legal and cultural issues of Kazakhstan and the world's economic development," is so heavily dominated by mining and fossil fuel industries. Again, a small but telling example: in the opening plenary, alongside speeches from Nazarbayev, Prime Minister Edrogan of Turkey, and a UN representative, we got to hear from the CEO of ExxonMobil.

Energy companies are hungry to get access to Kazakhstan's resources. I saw this first hand. Much to my surprise, I was asked at nearly the last minute to be the "moderator" for a panel on the future of fossil fuels, a panel that doubled in size in the final week prior to the event. The 90 minutes essentially consisted of high-level executives from places like Conoco-Phillips, SA Total, the World Petroleum Council, and numerous others going on and on about how rich Kazakhstan is going to be. Oh, and how unimportant renewables will be for the next fifty years, at least. (Efforts on my part to push the conversation were undermined by a format of too little time for executives unused to being brief.)

One thing that didn't come up was the big presence of China in the oil industry here -- SINOIL is a major refiner, buying up Kazakh oil then selling it back to them as gasoline. In fact, now that I think of it, China -- a country which borders Kazakhstan, and is said to have a bit of importance in the global economy these days -- was conspicuous by its absence throughout the Forum.

The panel for which I was a speaker, not a moderator, went much better. But even here, in a panel on sustainable development, much of the conversation orbited around the idea of seeing just how much fossil fuel development Kazakhstan could get away with. My talk (you can see the slides I used here), which went from an originally-scheduled 30 minutes down to 10 minutes, tried to talk about the conditions under which sustainable development would be occurring over the next 20-30 years. Had I known how the panel was to go, I would have done something with more detail on the environmental context.

The most notable part of the event was the roundtable discussion on the final night, bringing together political leaders (current and former Prime Ministers and Presidents), a half-dozen Nobel Prize laureates in economics, a couple of executives and a couple of media figures to talk about the world's economic situation. About a quarter of the way in, I started "live tweeting" the event -- I simply couldn't believe what was being said, and I knew that others would have the same kind of aghast reaction.

(Storify user Eric Calkins assembled my posts into a coherent stream, which was then shared around the web. You can see it here.)

Again, a single telling example: in the 90 minutes of the discussion, unemployment was mentioned once (about 45 minutes in), and briefly, while inequality or similar concepts never came up. What received the most attention was the need for even more austerity (and how to handle the annoying groups of citizens who don't like it), alongside casual discussions of tossing Greece out of the EU.

Here's the problem: AEF is a prime example of how the global conversation about development and economics takes place without much regard for anything beyond the interests of the most wealthy and powerful. This is hardly a surprise; what was surprising was the utter lack of subtlety about it. Nobody bats an eye at the obsequiousness of Nobel laureates and global media executives towards the President-for-Life of an up-and-coming petrokleptocracy. Jokes are made about how democracy is ruined by having to rely on voters. The fate of the planet gets decided over bad (and infrequent) coffee and semi-functional translation.

And I was there as a witness.

(You can see the full set of images from my trip on Flickr.)

May 17, 2012

Nine Meditations on Complexity

Complexity not as a mathematical concept, but as an almost intuitive sense of both complication and interconnectedness. Both are necessary components of a truly complex system or situation.

  1. Complicated systems have many parts, or take many steps, or have many rules; complex systems are complicated systems connected to and interdependent with other systems (likely also complex).
  2. There are rarely simple resolutions to complex (complicated+interconnected) problems; because a resolution must take into account the effects of changing a complex situation on the connected systems, the resolution will of necessity be at least as complex as the problem.
  3. The associated complexity of a seemingly simple resolution generally shows up in unintended or unexpected consequences; complicated interconnections cannot be cut without repercussions.
  4. For this reason, over time, simple solutions tend to increase complexity.
  5. Complication can be the perverse result of simple interactions, but complexity is rarely so; because complex situations are also complicated, the two can be easily confused.
  6. In situations where "complexity itself" is asserted to be the problem, the actual crisis is often around complication; the trick is to devise ways to reduce the complication without damaging the interconnections.
  7. Unfortunately, that's not simple; in many cases, it may not be possible.
  8. The only way to reduce and resolve the complexity of a given situation is to reduce its level of interconnection with other systems; doing so, however, can undermine the value or power of the given system, and will alter the systems to which it was once connected.
  9. In other words, the opposite of "complex" is not "simple," the opposite of "complex" is "isolated."

[Just thinking about how the world works as I prepare for another intercontinental journey.]

May 1, 2012

The Pink Collar Future

Mechanical Staff

The claim that robots are taking our jobs has become so commonplace of late that it's a bit of a cliché. Nonetheless, it has a strong element of truth to it. Not only are machines taking "blue collar" factory jobs -- a process that's been underway for years, and no longer much of a surprise except when a company like Foxconn announces it's going to bring in a million robots (which are less likely to commit suicide, apparently) -- but now mechanized/digital systems are quickly working their way up the employment value chain. "Grey collar" service workers have been under pressure for awhile, especially those jobs (like travel agent) that involve pattern-matching; now jobs involving the composition of structured reports (such as basic journalism) have digital competition, and Google's self-driving car portends a future of driverless taxicabs. But even "white collar" jobs, managerial and supervisory in particular, are being threatened -- in part due to replacement, and in part due to declining necessity. After all, if the line workers have been replaced by machines, there's little need for direct human oversight of the kind required by human workers, no? Stories of digital lawyers and surgeons simply accelerate the perception that robots really are taking over the workplace, and online education systems like the Khan Academy demonstrate how readily university-level learning can be conducted without direct human contact.

With advanced 3D printers and more adaptive robotic and computer systems on the near horizon, it's easy to see that this trend will only continue.

Except for one arena, that is, and it's a pretty interesting one. Jobs where empathy and "emotional intelligence" can be considered requirements, often personal service and "high touch" interactive positions, have by and large been immune to the creeping mechanization of the workplace. And here's the twist: most of these empathy-driven jobs are performed by women.

Nursing, primary school teaching, personal grooming -- these jobs require varying levels of education and knowledge, but all have a strong caretaker component, and demand the ability to understand the unspoken or non-obvious needs of patients/students/clients/etc. We're years -- perhaps even decades -- away from a machine system that can effectively take on these roles; a computer able to demonstrate sufficient empathy to take care of a crying kindergartener is clearly approaching True AI status. As a result, we appear to be heading into a future where these "pink collar" jobs -- empathy-driven, largely performed by women -- are the most significant set of careers without any real machine substitute, and therefore without the downward wage pressure that mechanization usually produces.

This raises some big questions, of course, and not the least of which is how this will affect the social and economic status of these professions. Nurses may be more valued than surgeons; kindergarten teachers paid better than university professors. Would this lead to a shift in the gender composition of these jobs? In a culture that remains beholden to the concept that men are the "breadwinners," might we see efforts to "masculinize" these roles? Recall that in the United States after World War II, there was a great deal of pressure on women to give up the "Rosie the Riveter"-type jobs they held during the war.

Conversely, if accelerating mechanization of jobs triggers the emergence of large-scale social support systems (like the Basic Income Guarantee) paid for by "robot taxes," does this mean that outside-the-home jobs are largely performed by women, while men stay at home?

What I'm saying is this: there is a terrible habit that many of us in the futures game seem to have of generalizing potential disruptions. That is, if robots are taking our jobs, then they're taking all of our jobs (except, ideally, for the jobs of futurists) and we start thinking through the implications from there. But disruptions aren't so easily flattened; when Gibson said that the future's here, it's just not evenly distributed, he wasn't just talking about geography, or even class. Big sociotechnoeconomic shifts don't just appear and redraw the landscape, they have to adapt to the existing conditions, and will themselves be disrupted by deeply-rooted cultural forces. We also have a habit of expecting that the most well-off financially are the most likely to resist big changes -- but what happens when the underlying notions of value themselves are changing?

New Pollution

I spoke last month at the Swissnex office in San Francisco (Swissnex is kind of the Swiss embassy for technology issues), at an event entitled "Data is (sic) the New Oil." The focus of the event was the tension between privacy and "publicy" (Stowe Boyd's term for the intentional revelation of aspects of one's life, the opposite of privacy). A video of the entire event is now online, and below you'll find the 15 minutes or so of my talk.

Jamais Cascio on Polluting the Data Stream from Jamais Cascio on Vimeo.

This talk covers what I wrote about in "Opaque Projections," but this is a moving image, with sound.

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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