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September 28, 2012

Momentum Interview

Shortly after the Aspen Environment Forum, Momentum, the journal of the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, interviewed me by phone. That interview is now available in the latest issue (Fall 2012) of Momentum (Flash version here, PDF version here).

The main thrust of the interview is the process of foresight and futurism, and I get to trot out some favorite ideas, such as "legacy futures." As is typical for phone interviews, I could have phrased a few things more elegantly, but by and large I'm happy with the result.

Here's a taste of the conversation:


Cascio:There’s certainly a role for governments and government institutions. They are ultimately the ones who make policy into laws, and there has to be buy-in at that level for anything to be able to move forward because they can really get in the way. But more importantly, they’re one of the handful of institutions that have the potential to have a longer term perspective, an institutional memory that lasts longer than any one person. Religions are one example; universities are another and governments are yet another. So there’s definitely a role.

Now, that doesn’t mean governments are the perfect source. And it certainly doesn’t mean they can’t become problematic. I think we’re at a particularly pathological era in American government, but that doesn’t have to last. It can’t last.

Thank you to the IoE and UMinn's Jon Foley for the platform!

September 24, 2012

Melancholia, the Game

Plague, Inc., by Ndemic Creations, is an iDevice game* with a simple story: you're a plague, and your goal is to wipe out the human race. As you spread, you accumulate "DNA" points allowing you to mutate, taking on traits allowing you to better adapt to the various ways those pesky humans fight back. Depending upon the stage of the game, you could be anything from a humble bacteria or virus to a nano-device or bio-weapon.

While neither accurate nor complete enough to truly be considered a "simulation," Plague, Inc. touches enough of the key points to cause more than a little discomfort. Vectors include various animals, blood, air and water, and the symptom options give you a hypochondriac's cornucopia of potential ways to get sick and die. Shipping and air travel routes are animated, giving you early warnings when an infected vessel is on its way. Viable strategies vary based on the type of pathogen; with some, remaining stealthy (fast to spread, but slow to cause harm) is best, while others call for a more aggressive approach. The only way to actually win a level is to cause complete extinction, although from a narrative perspective wiping out all but a few hundred thousand people in New Zealand may seem close enough.

If all of this sounds more than a bit morbid, it is. It's a kind of dark humor that reminds me most of the classic table-top game "Nuclear War" (where scoring is done in megadeaths and mutual destruction isn't just assured, it's inevitable). Nuclear War was an ideal artifact of the Cold War, a game for those of us who grew up doing "duck and cover" drills in elementary school. You knew that atomic annihilation was just a matter of time; may as well have fun with it. Plague, Inc. offers a similar kind of amusement: we know that a deadly pandemic is an ever-present possibility, so we may as well laugh in the face of death. That said, it isn't quite as over-the-top as Nuclear War -- the humor is present, especially in the news headline ticker running across the top of the screen, but it never pushes too far into parody. You'll laugh, but it will be a nervous laughter.

Victory offers an exquisite combination of pleasure and regret. I asked on Twitter/Facebook for suggestions for a name for the feeling of pleasure and regret one has for destroying the world. The best answer was "Shivafreude" (thanks, Ariana!).

In other words:

Yay! I've wiped out humanity!

Uh-oh. I've wiped out humanity.

You probably shouldn't get this game if you're prone to nightmares, or only play iDevice games while flying. A world map with biohazard symbols and a running death tally may not get you the kind of attention from flight personnel you want.

* Sadly, there does not appear to be an Android device version; one seemingly similar game in the Google Play store has received mostly negative reviews, some noting how poorly it compares to Plague, Inc.

September 23, 2012

Digital Diplomacy, of a Sort

Headline topic mashup day:

Japan and China are currently facing off over a set of tiny, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea: the Senkaku Islands (according to the Japanese)/the Diaoyu Islands (according to the Chinese). The current issue of The Economist ponders whether the two countries could come to blows over this -- with the troubling conclusion of "yes."

Seemingly unconnected: Apple's new iOS 6.0 operating system includes a new Maps application, one that is entirely created by Apple. It's received less-than-glowing reviews, in large measure because it's surprisingly inaccurate, especially outside of the US.

But since Apple's Maps should cover the entire planet, Foreign Policy wondered how they listed the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Here's what they found:

Apple Map Diplomacy

Rather than choose one name or the other, Apple went ahead and just cloned the islands. It's as good a solution as any, I suppose -- it's not like you were going to drive there any time soon...

(Extra credit assignment: are there other disputed locations that Apple has given the "double trouble" treatment? Not the Falkland Islands/Las Malvinas, I checked.)

September 17, 2012

Presidential Ambitions

"Look, my job isn't to make everything beautiful. My job isn't to make living life a good time. My job is to keep the majority of the people in this country alive. That's it. If fifty-one percent eat a meal tomorrow and forty-nine percent don't, I've done my job... My job is just to keep things the way they are. Everyone stays the same. I do the job, I keep the money coming."
-- The President, Transmetropolitan, fictional
"There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it... And they will vote for this president no matter what…[M]y job is is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
-- Mitt Romney, at a recent fundraiser, sadly not fictional

Looks like the Smiler, talks like the Beast.

September 5, 2012

Future is Now, Part 58

It's always a bit unsettling when reality has the temerity to confirm a speculative scenario. It's rarely a 100% match; more typically, it's a parallel event that reinforces the underlying logic of said forecast. Better still, this one, as it turns out, is a two-fer.

In India last week, as-yet unidentified individuals sent mass text messages to Hindus in the north-east of the country, sparking a panicked evacuation of thousands from the state of Assam. The text messages -- which were entirely false -- told people that Muslims were attacking Hindus in retaliation for violence against Muslims earlier in the year. According to New Scientist, one typical message read:

"Madam, do not get out of your house. There is a lot of trouble. People from your caste are being beaten. Seven women have been killed in Yelahanka [a suburb of Bangalore]."

As of recent reports, the refugees are returning to their homes -- but slowly.

This story underscores the power of networked social media as a medium for political rumors, one of the key points from my previous post Lies, Damn Lies, and Twitter Bots. Although in this case the specific medium was text messaging rather than Twitter, the larger argument fits: in a social environment primed to treat rumor as fact, properly coded and targeted messages can prompt a mass upheaval.

It also fits with an argument from a few years ago, in my Fast Company article "The Dark Side of Twittering a Revolution." The genocide in Rwanda was driven, in part, by the use of local pirate radio stations targeting particular ethnic communities. The broadcasts reported tales of rival communities killing helpless individuals of the target ethnicity, encouraging (in this instance) people to rise up and kill their neighbors while they still had the chance (the ambiguity of my language here reflects the fact that both Hutu and Tutsi ethnic communities used this method, apparently).

I wrote:

This shouldn't be read as an indictment of social networking technologies in general, or of Twitter in particular. As I said at the outset, I'm thrilled at how critical this technology has been to the viability and potential success of the pro-democracy demonstrations. […] What I'm arguing, however, is that we shouldn't see the positive political successes of emerging social tools as being the sole model. We should be aware that, as these tools proliferate, they will inevitably be used for far more deadly goals.

In India, the text messages prompted an evacuation; next time, the results may be much worse.

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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