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June 26, 2012

The Internet is a Brittle Weapon

The Daily Beast/Newsweek has just posted a short essay of mine on the disruptive nature of the Internet. It's a bit "Digital World 101," but they really wanted something straightforward. Still, I think it's a decent articulation of the basic idea of why the Internet is a useful tool for activism, but one with important vulnerabilities.

The notion of the Internet as a force of political and social revolution is not a new one. As far back as the early 1990s, in the early days of the World Wide Web, there were technologists and writers arguing forcefully that the Internet was destined to become the most important tool for cultural change in human history. They were (mostly) right, but not for the reasons they believed; in retrospect, strident manifestos such as John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace seem almost preciously naive about the nature of power and participation online. The ability of the Internet to alter the course of nations and economies does not come from being independent of the material world, but from being deeply enmeshed in it.

In fact, it turns out that the Internet is a rather brittle weapon of transformation.

The last sentence of the main paragraph excerpted above really makes the key point:

The ability of the Internet to alter the course of nations and economies does not come from being independent of the material world, but from being deeply enmeshed in it.

I'm surprised by how many Internet activists still don't quite get that.

June 18, 2012

New Legacies

Jet packOne of my favorite posts from my time here at Open the Future has to be Legacy Futures, from late 2008. The concept of a legacy future is simple: it's a persistent but outdated vision of the future that distorts present-day futures thinking. As I suggest in the original piece, the "jet pack" is the canonical legacy future -- just about every futurist you'll ever meet could tell you about being asked when we'll get our personal jet packs. Nine times out of ten, the person doing the asking thinks that they're being clever.

Some of the other legacy futures I brought up in the 2008 essay include Second Life, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, and population projections that don't account for technological (especially healthcare) changes. I'm less-inclined to include the third one at this point, though -- one important characteristic of a legacy future is that it can conjure up a vision of tomorrow with a simple, usually two-word, phrase. "Jet packs!" "Second Life!" "Fuel cells!" Maybe the future population vision of "overpopulation crisis!" would count.

It's important to remember that the problem with legacy futures isn't that they're actually impossible, but that they're wrong in a fundamental way. The reason we don't have jet packs instead of cars today isn't because jet packs don't exist, nor because of a grand conspiracy -- it's because there are basic, practical problems with jet packs that would be too difficult to solve today.

But of increasing interest to me is the question of what present-day "plausible" visions of the future will be the legacy futures of the next generation. What are the scenarios and assumptions about the world of tomorrow that seem almost inevitable -- or at least common-sense -- today, but will in a few years (or a few decades) be seen as hopelessly off-base, but still shaping how people view The Future?

One obvious candidate is a perspective I found myself immersed in during my trip to Astana: the idea that fossil fuels will remain the primary source of energy for at least the next 40 years. The notion that coal, oil, and natural gas will still be the dominant energy sources in 2050 is utterly conventional wisdom in the energy industry -- unsurprising, perhaps, but it's a perspective that shapes how many political and economic figures think about energy. The only challenge to that view that is considered acceptable is the notion of "peak oil," and then only to dismiss it. The idea that climate disruption would cause a radical shift in energy consumption patterns gets laughed off with comments along the lines of "it would take too long/be too expensive/be simply impossible to replace fossil energy with 'alternative' energy." But you don't have to be a hardcore green to see that the trajectory of energy and industrial technologies is moving quite decisively away from reliance on fossil fuels; even the current spike in natural gas has some big underlying problems (not the least of which is the fact that fracking can and does trigger earthquakes).

Those who are familiar with my work will find this particular argument unsurprising at best. However, I suspect that an equally problematic vision of the future can be found in the scenarios that posit a total civilization collapse due to global warming. While the "global apocalypse" future is pretty commonplace, I'm not sure the global warming variant counts as a potential legacy future -- it's not a concept that's widely-embraced by the public at large, at least not yet. Zombie Apocalypse futures are more popular (but are not true legacy futures, as the idea of a Zombie Apocalypse doesn't really change our behavior).

This doesn't mean that I don't think that global warming will be a problem. But it seems likely to me that the 2012 vision of what a global climate disaster looks like wouldn't really match the reality. It seems more likely, for example, that we'd see parts of the world able to adapt more readily than others -- so an overwhelming catastrophe in (say) India is only a series of manageable disasters in (say) the US. Or a series of rapid-fire improvements and setbacks, unstable but never quite tipping into collapse. Or maybe, just maybe, a catalyst for profound beneficial change.

Reality is always more complex than popular visions of the future would have us think.

But, as I said, what I want to figure out are the legacy futures yet to come. Some candidates:

  • The Singularity
  • End of Scarcity
  • Functional Immortality
  • Everyone on Facebook
  • Robot wars

    All of these are presumably possible in some way, but strike me as very likely to come about in ways that differ considerably from present-day visions.

    The first three of these tend to be more popular with the Wired/io9/futurist crowd than with the popular culture in the West. The Facebook is everywhere future and the Robot/drone warfare future are more widespread. I can't off the top of my head think of other commonplace in pop culture proto-legacy futures -- the majority of future visions that you find in the mass culture tend to already be legacy concepts.

    I don't have a grand conclusion at this point, but wanted to toss this out there for the massmind to consider. I'll very likely come back to this topic again soon.

  • On My Mind

    A few of the things that have popped up on my radar of late:

    "Zero-day" exploit sales should be key point in cybersecurity debate

    It turns out that in the last year or so a new market has sprung up: people discovering (or, much more troubling, creating) exploitable flaws in software then selling the knowledge of these flaws to the highest bidder, government or corporate.
    France-based VUPEN is one of the highest-profile firms trafficking in zero-day exploits. Earlier this month at the CanSecWest information security conference, VUPEN declined to participate in the Google-sponsored Pwnium hacking competition, where security researchers were awarded up to $60,000 if they could defeat the Chrome browser’s security and then explain to Google how they did it. Instead, VUPEN—sitting feet away from Google engineers running the competition—successfully compromised Chrome, but then refused to disclose their method to Google to help fix the flaw and make the browser safer for users.

    Why would someone (other than a criminal) buy an exploit? Spying on competitors, corporate or state.

    (Related: Crypto breakthrough shows Flame was designed by world-class scientists
    The Flame spy-trojan, used against Iran, showed clear signs of being designed by top cryptographers.

    John Hempton at Bronte Capital:
    The Macroeconomics of Chinese kleptocracy

    Fascinating piece outlining the role that corruption plays in the Chinese economy, particularly around the misuse of the large amounts of money put into savings accounts. Why so much money being saved?
    In most developing countries the way that people save is they have multiple children hopefully to generate a gaggle of grandchildren all of whom are trained to respect their elders. Given most people did not live to old age if you did you became a treasured (and well cared for) family member.

    This does not work in China. Longevity in China is increasing rapidly and the one-child policy results in a grandchild potentially having four grandparents to look after. The “four grandparent policy” means the elderly cannot expect to be looked after in old age. Four grandparents, one grand-kid makes abandoning the old-folk looks easy and near certain.

    Nor can the elderly rely on a welfare state to look after them. There is no welfare state.

    So the Chinese save. Unless they save they will starve in old age. This has driven savings levels sometimes north of fifty percent of GDP.

    Paul Krugman points out that this massive savings rate is a time bomb that will go off soon, as the "four grandparent" Chinese start to retire in large numbers, pulling money out of savings.

    International Energy Agency:
    Global carbon dioxide emissions increase by 1.0 Gt in 2011 to record high

    But that's not the really interesting part of the story. In the United States, emissions are dropping; since 1996, the US has reduced annual emissions by 430 megatonnes (tonne=1000kg, 10% more than US ton), "the largest reduction of all countries or regions." This is due primarily to the switch away from coal and towards natural gas, coupled with a mild winter (so less demand for heating) and a sluggish economy. Still, this actually means that the US is well on its way to meeting its Copenhagen Accords commitments.

    (graph from Vancouver Observer)

    Bonus WTFOMG: The "Blue Marlin" meta-carrier, designed to carry 75 megatonnes of cargo... such as an oil rig, two submarines, or a dozen and a half cargo ships.

    June 6, 2012


    I was 13, and a freshman in high school (that would make it, um, 1979). A local community college, Mt. San Antonio College ("Mount Sac" -- funny that I didn't realize at the time how dirty that sounds), announced a science fiction writing contest, to be judged by special guest Ray Bradbury. My mom encouraged me to write something.

    A short story. Very short -- maybe 1500-2000 words, tops. A "twist" ending you could see coming a mile away.

    And I won. At this point -- 33 years later -- I don't remember whether I won the "under-18" group, or came in 3rd overall; I know I didn't win the whole contest, but I did well enough to meet Mr. Bradbury. My most vivid memory of the event is walking alongside him, outside, looking up at him and grinning like a fool.

    A few days later, my English teacher offered to read the story to the class. That twist ending? Wasn't so obvious to other 13 & 14 year olds. My other vivid memory of this moment in time is hearing Mr. Brechbiel (the teacher) finish the story, then a beat of silence, then one of the other kids saying "Ooooh!" in realization of what the ending meant.

    That second, that sound, that excitement of witnessing the reaction... it told me, with no uncertainty, that words have power. That what I write can make people think, affect their emotions, change their ideas. That "Ooooh!" put me on the path to where I am today.

    And Ray Bradbury, by giving a bit of attention to a 13 year old me, pointed me in that direction.

    Thanks, Ray. Rest in peace.

    June 5, 2012

    The Future, in San Francisco

    Baasics2 poster

    On Monday, June 18, I will be speaking at the Bay Area Art & Science Interdisciplinary Collaborative Sessions (BAASICS) multimedia event in the city of San Francisco. It's open to the public, but seating is limited. More info here.

    The title of my talk is "Ready or Not...", and here is the description I sent the organizers:

    Everybody talks about the end of the world, but is anyone going to do anything about it? Take a tour through the next few decades, checking out the various ways we could end it all. (The one end-of-the-world scenario you don't need to worry about? Zombies.)

    As you can probably tell, it will be a sober discussion of the various existential threats facing human civilization, and an exploration of the role of eschatology in the practice of foresight.

    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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