Main

March 19, 2014

Watching the World through a Broken Lens

It's often frustrating, as a foresight professional, to listen/read what passes for political discourse, especially during a big international crisis (such as the Russia-Ukraine-Crimea situation). Much of the ongoing discussion offers detailed predictions of what one state or another will do and clear assertions of inevitable outcomes, all with an overwhelming certainty of anticipatory analysis. Of course, these various prognostications will almost always be wrong; worse, they'll typically be wrong in a useless way, having obscured or confused our understanding of the world more than they've illuminated it.

It's not just a peculiarity of Central European crises. We can see a similar process play out in nearly every global-scale system with consequences beyond the immediate, economically, militarily, or politically. Detailed claims about imminent inflation or the arrival of an Iranian nuclear weapon by the end of the year get treated as gospel up to the moment when the assertion is shown to be wrong, after which the previous statement drops down the memory hole and is replaced by one about a new threat of imminent inflation or the arrival of an Iranian nuclear weapon by the end of the new year. Those who inflict this Potemkin futurism on us -- predictions without substance portrayed as careful analysis of future outcomes -- never suffer the consequences of being wrong. Anyone offering more subtle or complex analysis will be treated at best as having just another opinion, or even actively ignored if what they say runs counter to the conventional wisdom.

This prediction-error-prediction cycle isn't just a feature of television or Internet punditry. As I've mentioned before, I did my graduate work in political science, and ultimately erroneous predictions dripping with certainty are commonly found in this realm as well. Unlike most other social sciences, political science has to balance both analysis of past+present conditions and grounded forecasts of the implications of those conditions. When there's a revolution in Country X, you'll rarely see an Anthropologist or Social Psychologist quoted in mainstream discussions of What This Means; conversely, you're almost guaranteed to get a juicy quote or two from an academic in the Department of Government and Conventional Wisdom at Ivy-Covered Halls.edu.

This is not a dilemma without a solution, however. Professional Foresight (aka Futurism) also went through a period where specialists would offer up a single prediction of a certain future. In more recent decades -- arguably since Hermann Kahn's On Thermonuclear War in 1960, but more generally since the advent of Shell-derived Scenario Planning in the 1990s -- futurism has been more comfortable with uncertainty, and more willing to offer multiple rival forecasts of possible outcomes instead of singular, certain predictions. Multi-scenario foresight has evolved various iterations since then, but they all come down to a core idea: you can't predict the future, but you can see the shape of different possible futures.

So what would this model look like if employed by political pundits and political science academics? To be honest, it would probably be confusing, and make for bad television. We as a civilization have a bias towards spectacle and a preference for detail over generality; a talking head saying "this could happen, or that, or this other thing, they're all plausible outcomes" will be squished by someone with a loud voice and absolute certainty.

Certain but wrong usually beats complex and observant. Enjoy your future.

October 28, 2013

Secession in the Valley, and the End of Politics

Andrew Leonard has a short, sharp piece in Salon entitled "Silicon Valley dreams of secession," about a recent talk by tech entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan calling for the Valley to secede from the US on a wave of 3D printers, drones, and bitcoins. Here's Leonard's capsule of the talk, along with Srinivasan's money quote:

Virtual secession, argues Srinivasan, is just natural evolution. Once upon a time, people seeking better lives left their broken states to immigrate to the U.S. Now, it is time for their descendants to emigrate further, except this time they don’t need to go anywhere physically, except into the cloud.

“Exit,” according to Srinivasan, “means giving people tools to reduce the influence of bad policies over their lives without getting involved in politics… It basically means build an opt in society, run by technology, outside the U.S.”

Long time readers will have guessed what part of Srinivasan's quote bothered me the most: "without getting involved in politics."

In 2009, I wrote a piece entitled "The End-of-Politics Delusion," about a broadly parallel set of arguments emerging from the bowels of Silicon Valley. Democracy is bad, and what we really need is a technology-enabled society to get rid of politics, or so the true believers would have us think. I reacted with this:

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."

Anyone calling for an end to politics, whether via secession or technocracy or singularity, either has no understanding of how human societies work (the generous interpretation) or has an authoritarian streak itching to show itself (the less-generous version). Srinivasan's version is even worse due to its dependence upon a thoroughly unreliable, opaque, and politically-biased substrate, "the cloud."

Here's what I mean: technologies fail, sometimes briefly, sometimes disastrously, whether because of physical damage, bad code, or intentional attack; telecommunication systems, in particular the commercial telecom carriers in the US, are notoriously unwilling to divulge operational details and abide by network neutrality; and all of these technologies embed norms and choices that are inherently biased [just as one example, the vast majority of home internet connections in the US are asymmetric, with much faster download (consumption) speeds than upload (creation) speeds -- that's a choice, not an inherent fact of the technology]. Using this as the basis of a political system seems... unwise.

November 15, 2012

#War

What's the hashtag for terror? For propaganda? I've been talking about the role of social media as a possible enabler of political violence for years. In my June 2009 talk at Mobile Monday in Amsterdam, I argued that Twitter and similar media had the potential to serve a role similar to the radio stations used to drive the 1990s Rwandan genocide. I went into more detail on the idea in this article at Fast Company a short while later.
In noting the potential power of social networking tools for organizing mass change, I thought out loud for a moment about what kinds of dangers might emerge. It struck me, as I spoke, that there is a terrible analogy that might be applicable: the use of radio as a way of coordinating bloody attacks on rival ethnic communities during the Rwandan genocide in the early 1990s. I asked, out loud, whether Twitter could ever be used to trigger a genocide. The audience was understandably stunned by the question, and after a few seconds someone shouted, "No!" I could only hope that the anonymous reply was right, but I don't think he was. [...]

At the end of my brief exploration on this idea at Mobile Monday, I asked--in a bit of gallows humor--what the hashtag would be for something like genocide. The audience's nervous laughter reflected my own recognition that this wasn't an entirely rhetorical question. I'm sad to say that we're almost certain to get an answer, probably far sooner than we'd like.

The Israeli Defense Forces has taken to Twitter to drive its narrative of the current conflict in Gaza. Using hashtags (including "#PillarOfDefense") to shape the conversation, the IDF isn't trying to play the role of a neutral observer here, unsurprisingly. This seemed too close a parallel to go unremarked. One tweet in particular stood out to me: This isn't the first time we've seen this kind of use of social media, and it certainly won't be the last. Pro-Israel/IDF, pro-Palestine/Hamas, it doesn't matter here: this is a step forward in what we might term the "weaponization of social media" -- the use of Twitter and similar platforms as a parallel battlefield, trying not just to direct the global narrative but to shape the outcome of the fight, as well.

November 6, 2012

Teratocracy Triumphant?

Two of the most important pieces I've produced here at Open the Future concern teratocracy -- a neologism meaning "rule of monsters." The first, Fear of Teratocracy, outlines the core concept: American democracy is shifting from debates over policy to debates over legitimacy. The second, Teratocracy Rises, offers a set of examples of how attacks on the legitimacy of one's opponents is becoming attacks on the concept of democracy itself.

As I noted in Fear of Teratocracy, democracy isn't just defined by how you win -- i.e., with a majority/plurality of the vote.

Democracy is defined by how you lose, not (just) how you win.

The real test of whether a society that uses a plebiscite to determine leadership is really a democracy is whether the losing party accepts the loss and the legitimacy of their opponent's victory. This is especially true for when the losing party previously held power. Do they give up power willingly, confident that they'll have a chance to regain power again in the next election? Or do they take up arms against the winners, refuse to relinquish power, and/or do everything they can to undermine the legitimacy of the opposition's rule?

I strongly encourage you to re-read the entire essay. Here's why it matters: I strongly suspect that, regardless of who wins the US presidential election today, the United States is likely to be entering a period of a crisis of legitimacy. If Romney wins, the claims of voter suppression and out-and-out shenanigans (this is a less ambiguous example) will potentially leave many Democrats incandescent with anger, even more so than after the 2000 Supreme Court selection of George W. Bush -- because now it will be a "we can't let them get away with this again" scenario. If Obama wins, the already widely-extant opposition to his legitimacy as President among Republicans could explode; expect to see Twitter storms about secession and armed revolution, as well as the very real possibility of violence.

Compounding the misery of this moment, the impacts of climate disruption are very likely to become much more visible and painful over the course of this next presidential term, requiring both decisive action and a long-term perspective to head off (or at least mitigate) disasters -- but in a crisis of legitimacy, decisive action and long-term perspectives are even more difficult than usual to produce. The President, whether Romney or Obama, will be focused on dealing with an opposition that doesn't just disagree with his ideas, it doesn't believe that he has the right to be President.

I hope I'm wrong; I hope that the venom of this campaign and the frustrations of the past four years will be transcended by a political leadership (of both major parties) willing to seek out the best long-term solutions for truly complex problems. I also want a pony.

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.

August 29, 2012

Lies, Damn Lies, and Twitter Bots

PinocchioBear with me -- this is going to get twisted.

I've been paying quite a bit of attention to the use of deception as a tactical method, from real-world griefing to deception as a means of protecting privacy. I'm particularly interested in the political uses of technology-enabled deception -- uses that I suspect are likely to become more prevalent in the near future.

Two of my rules for constructing useful and interesting scenarios are to (a) think about what happens when seemingly disparate changes smash together, and (b) imagine how new developments might be misused. In both cases, the goal is to uncover something unexpected, but (upon reflection) disturbingly plausible. I'd like to lay out for you the chain of connections that lead me to believe that we're on the verge of something big.

  • Twitter bots: One study suggests that nearly half of the Twitter accounts following corporate Twitter feeds are actually bots -- simple programs that mimic a human user, sending out messages, responding to keywords, and the like. Bots can be set up to retweet each other, and could potentially drive up the visibility of various hashtags and links on Twitter results.

  • Algorithmic trading: Increasingly, financial market trade decisions are executed by software, based on programmatic rules; such rules can include responding to news feeds. Some algorithmic trading systems have branched out beyond mainstream news sources, and have connected up to Twitter feeds.

  • High-Frequency trading: A special form of algorithmic trading, high-frequency trading involving rapidly purchased and re-sold shares, with positions held for as little as a few seconds. Because of the speed of execution, high-frequency trading is even more dependent upon breaking news feeds (and, likely, Twitter) than regular algorithmic trading.

  • The Flash Crash: In May of 2010, the US Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped over 998 points (about 9% -- the biggest one day point decline in DJIA history), only to recover within a few minutes. The apparent cause? "Order flow toxicity," when a large seller exhausts available buyers, triggering a cascade of selling by intermediaries -- particularly high-frequency algorithmic traders.

  • United deja-vu stock crash: In September of 2008, Google News posted as current a six-year-old article about United Airlines filing for bankruptcy; as a result, the value of UAL stock dropped by 75%, but recovered as the error was spotted.

  • Media hacking: Here's where this starts to get good. It's surprisingly easy to spread a piece of juicy misinformation, in part due to the speed of digital media, in part due to the need for news services to fill 24 hours of broadcast time, and in part due to the related need for news services to be first to break a story. Pranksters have had a field day spreading rumors, and activist groups such as The Yes Men have built a cottage industry out of making political statements through hoaxes.

    But this is taking on a more sobering form. According to The Verge:

    ...the hackers who planted fake news stories on Reuters's website earlier this month weren't doing it for fun. Reuters was caught in the middle of an "intensifying conflict in cyberspace between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad," in the words of one of its reporters, as hackers attempted to co-opt the news agency's credibility in order to support government forces in the Syrian national conflict. [...]

    To Americans and anyone accustomed to a free press, it should have been easy to spot the one-sided propaganda in the middle of less histrionic material. But the hackers tried to pass their message off as news. The fake posts were written in a plain, straightforward, newsman-like style, with appropriate headlines ("Riad Al-Asaad: Syrian Free Army pulls back tactically from Aleppo") accompanied by appropriate photos.

    The goal wasn't to draw attention to an otherwise ignored issue, or simply for the lulz; the hack was done to sow confusion and to poison the information stream.


    Okay, the pieces should be falling into place at this point. Algorithmic trading, particularly high-frequency trading, is extremely vulnerable to disruption; as it becomes more deeply connected to rapid news inputs from Twitter, the potential increases for misinformation flows to trigger flash crashes and stock price drops. But financial systems aren't going to respond to a single tweet -- they're going to pay attention to "legitimate" news feeds and to sudden bursts of tweets about a particular (relevant) subject.

    A black hat hacker could, with ease, create a network of Twitter bots set to retweet each other on command, send @messages to important information hubs (a few of which would retweet stories further), and drive up the visibility of certain hashtags and keywords. Done with the right target and message, and at the right time, such a network could potentially trigger sudden swings in value of targeted shares. The drop in value need not last for long; trading systems that know the stories to be false could swiftly snap up the briefly-undervalued stock. Conversely, the attack could be done in a way to cripple a particular company or stock market, or even to distract journalists from another story.

    Similarly, a Twitter bot network, retweeting/spreading misinformation, could potentially cause a media firestorm if the target was a politician. Even if the misinformation was corrected within the hour, the spread would be impossible to fully contain. Could something like this even swing an election?

  • 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.

    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.]

    September 6, 2011

    Teratocracy Rises

    FrankOne of the fundamental jobs of a futurist is to keep an eye out for the tentative signs of emerging changes -- sometimes referred to as "early indicators" or as "weak signals" (or, in my preferred phrase, no doubt shaped by my study of international politics, "distant early warnings"). Sometimes, those tentative signs are subtle, easily misinterpreted, and opaque; sometimes, they hit so hard they leave you dizzy. Consider this the latter.

    I've been following indications for awhile that democracy as practiced in the post-industrial world is increasingly under threat; in February of this year, I wrote a piece ("Fear of Teratocracy") that explored the increasing attacks not just on the policies of leaders, but the on very legitimacy of leaders. In this world, it's not enough to say that your opponent is wrong, you have to say that your opponent simply has no right to lead. As democracy depends on the losers stepping aside gracefully as much as the winners ruling fairly, I tried to be clear in saying that attacks on the legitimacy of opponents were implicit attacks on democracy itself.

    Apparently, I just needed to be patient; what was implicit has become explicit.

    Over the last week, I have encountered three separate (and seemingly unrelated) attacks on democracy, written by residents of the US and Europe from highly-visible spots in the political-economic media system.

    The first of these was by far the most blunt. At the conservative website "American Thinker," Matthew Vadum argued on September 1 that "registering the poor to vote is Un-American:"

    Registering them to vote is like handing out burglary tools to criminals. It is profoundly antisocial and un-American to empower the nonproductive segments of the population to destroy the country -- which is precisely why Barack Obama zealously supports registering welfare recipients to vote.

    On September 4, libertarian news site "The Daily Bell" published an interview with influential investment advisor Doug Casey. The interview provides a wide-ranging discussion of coming social and economic apocalypse (and how you can invest now!), and in the midst of it we get the following:

    Daily Bell: Is democracy a good thing?

    Doug Casey: No. Democracy is just mob rule, dressed up in a coat and tie. It's too bad people conflate democracy, which is mob rule, with liberty and freedom. Democracy in most of the world is everybody voting for the person that promises him or her the most stolen goods from other people. Democracy is a political system, and all political systems rest on institutionalized coercion. I don't care whether it's a king, a president, a congress, or a mob of chimpanzees that tell me I have to pay 50% of my income over to them so they can fund wars, welfare programs, the police state, oligarchic corporations, or whatever. That's what democracy is today.

    Finally, on September 5, Rich Miller and Simon Kennedy at Bloomberg.com opened a piece entitled "Economies in Peril Proving Voters Aren't Careful About What Is Wished For" with the line "The world economy is paying a price for democracy." Perhaps not as aggressive as the others, but certainly in the same vein.

    If the first thing that you notice is that these are all conservative outlets, you're missing the bigger picture. All three are offering views of the institutional mainstream: Bloomberg is about as conventional-wisdom as you get; American Thinker is a regular player in the Conservative web/Republican Party network; and while the Daily Bell appears to be an outlier, Doug Casey himself is said to be quite influential. For any one of them to be adopting this position would be a (weak signal) blip; for all three -- and undoubtedly more that I just didn't encounter -- to take this position is, for me, a sign of something much larger, especially when coupled with existing attacks on the legitimacy of leadership (and the legitimacy of government itself). Getting this kind of argument from the institutional mainstream tells me that it's not going away any time soon, and is likely to become more pervasive.

    Winston Churchill famously said "democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." There is no reason to pretend that democracy, especially as structured today (19th century voting model immersed in a 21st century media environment), is even close to perfect. But the hallmark of a free society is transparency, and the ultimate expression of transparency is to have a voice in shaping society's future.

    Those who attack democracy may claim to do so for a variety of reasons (in this instance, for economic efficiency and/or growth), but make no mistake: attacks on democracy arise when voters express opinions that don't agree with the attackers'.

    Sometimes, attacks come from those who feel that the world isn't paying attention to their wisdom, that their voices aren't being heard (such as the numerous times I've heard climate activists lament the short-sightedness of the average voter). In this case, however, the attacks are coming from those who already have a major stake in the system, whose voices already receive (arguably disproportionate levels of) attention.

    It's the business of the future to be dangerous, as Alfred North Whitehead said, and you don't get much more dangerous than attacks on the legitimacy of democracy. By no means is it guaranteed that this movement will win; in fact, I think it's more likely than not that they prove unable to get rid of democracy, although they are more likely to weaken it considerably, at least for a time. But that they are willing to attack the fundamental philosophy of the modern state in such blunt language, and have the resources to do more than just write noisy blog posts, suggests that this fight will be neither brief nor insubstantial.

    In Fear of Teratocracy, I said this, and it remains true:

    The question, then, is (as always) what is to be done? My answer is (also as always) more transparency, but that isn't enough. We also need to see a shift in the larger culture away from spectacle and attention-grabbing stimulation, and towards illumination and empathy-building consideration. But that shift doesn't seem like it will happen any time soon.

    It's the business of the future to be dangerous; apparently, it's the business of the futurist to be depressed.

    [Teratocracy: Rule by Monsters]

    February 17, 2011

    Fear of Teratocracy

    What is a democracy?

    I've been thinking about the nature of democracy over the past few weeks, for both obvious (Egypt) and less-obvious (potential for social change under conditions of disruption) reasons. The definition of democracy that most people are familiar is something along the lines of "rule by the people through voting, where the recipient of a majority of the vote wins." That's a decent description of the mechanism of democracy, I suppose, but I don't think it captures the important part.

    Democracy is defined by how you lose, not (just) how you win.

    The real test of whether a society that uses a plebiscite to determine leadership is really a democracy is whether the losing party accepts the loss and the legitimacy of their opponent's victory. This is especially true for when the losing party previously held power. Do they give up power willingly, confident that they'll have a chance to regain power again in the next election? Or do they take up arms against the winners, refuse to relinquish power, and/or do everything they can to undermine the legitimacy of the opposition's rule?

    The last bit is possibly the most important. It's easy to see that a political faction unleashing civil conflict or refusing to give up power after an election loss is anti-democratic. The line between "appropriately tough attacks on an opponents' policies" and "attacks on the legitimacy of the opponent," however, can be somewhat more difficult to recognize. One key element is where the attacks come from: are they vitriol from the fire-breathers in the streets, trying to shift the Overton Window? Or are they coming from duly-elected, theoretically responsible figures? The former is part-and-parcel of a spectacle-driven media culture; the latter is a much more serious problem, as it's not a disagreement based on policies (and subject to negotiation), but one based on identity. The current leadership is bad not because the policies are bad, but because they have no right to lead.

    (This is all made more complex by the possibility that a seemingly legitimately-elected leader may in fact be illegitimate due to corruption of the process.)

    All of this matters from a futures perspective because in times of disruption there is likely to be substantial disagreement over the correct strategies needed to deal with big/dangerous changes. If the political discourse in a democracy is such that policy disputes get overwhelmed by (or become triggers for) arguments over legitimacy, then the potential to come up with approaches to the world that embrace long-term thinking is dramatically reduced. Difficult decisions get pushed off in order to avoid (or to focus on dealing with) fights over whether the in-office leadership has the right to lead.

    Unfortunately, it appears that attacking the in-power opposition's legitimacy may be an increasingly effective way to derail policy initiatives. When a substantial portion (at least 30%, perhaps up to 50%) of the Republican party, for example, believes that not only does Obama have bad policies, he has no legitimate right to be President, compromise and negotiation become difficult at best. Republican leaders willing to negotiate aren't just compromising principles, they're aiding and abetting a violation of the Constitution. And while this is currently a Republican problem, there's nothing to say that Democrats -- the political leaders, not just the activists -- won't learn the lesson that this is an effective way to fight once Republicans retake the Presidency. This is also a situation just begging for a Participatory Decepticon moment.

    The question, then, is (as always) what is to be done? My answer is (also as always) more transparency, but that isn't enough. We also need to see a shift in the larger culture away from spectacle and attention-grabbing stimulation, and towards illumination and empathy-building consideration (watch this video for what I'm referring to). But that shift doesn't seem like it will happen any time soon.

    In the meantime, then, we watch the initial signs of emerging democracies around the world, ignoring the signs of fading democracy at home.

    [Teratocracy: Rule by Monsters]

    November 29, 2010

    Real Eschatological Taxonomy Poster

    Peer-pressured into it, but it was quite fun to play with:

    taxB.png

    Available at Cafe Press.

    The text reads:

    Being a scale for comparing, contrasting, and understanding the sundry manners in which the Apocalypse may arise, as structured by Jamais Cascio.

    The layout was done by the brilliant Ariana Osborne, who knows more about design than I could ever hope to.

    September 16, 2010

    Full Comments to Nature

    Nature's Nicola Jones asked me to comment on Singularity University for an article she was putting together; that article is now available. She included a couple of brief observations of mine, but I thought it would be useful to show the full context of my thoughts.

    Here's the full text of my response to Ms. Jones:

    Here's the problem: if the Singularity University actually has a mission of "preparing humanity," it's going about it in a superbly counter-productive way.

    First-hand reports from people I know confirmed many of my fears about the curriculum (and, to be clear — many of the people I know who have attended were quite enthusiastic about it, so I'm not simply relaying their disappointments). There is far too much emphasis on the potentially spectacular, without any real grounding in how technologies and society co-evolve; this gives the students no meaningful way to filter the flashy from the transformative. There seems to be no discussion of dead ends, bugs, and failures, the kinds of things that actually serve as the catalyst for the process of innovation; without that in mind, it's difficult to evaluate the plausibility of timelines and forecasts. And the various issues talked about seem to be discussed in isolation, with no sense of external pressures or non-market drivers that might be pushing the innovation process in unexpected directions.

    In short, there appears to be an abundance of "look at this cool stuff we'll be able to do real soon now!" with little countervailing skepticism or caution, and without any real greater context other than a vague Singularity concept.

    Moreover, and I think more dangerously, the parts of the curriculum that do address non-technological issues — economics and policy — don't actually talk about these issues. Instead, the economics section focuses on financing (certainly a big issue for investors and inventors, but hardly the way to understand the impacts of a purported Singularity), and the policy section actually seems to focus on the problems that politics and regulation pose, with an emphasis on how to avoid being caught up in that dirty political stuff. That was actually how a recent attendee described it to me.

    If you think the Singularity is something unprecedented in human history, the biggest transformation civilization will ever face, or even the End of History, then a curriculum that is supposed to encourage deep insights into how such a thing comes about needs to be more than just advice for venture capitalists and cheerleading for true believers.

    I think the most important bit there (and I'm sad she didn't choose to excerpt it) is the comment that the curriculum seems to "give the students no meaningful way to filter the flashy from the transformative." Sadly, while the details about Singularity University included in the Nature article do offer encouraging signs that the emphasis isn't solely about how to profit from technological change, they ultimately don't argue against my assertion. Saving the world requires more than breakthrough engineering.

    March 23, 2010

    New Fast Company: World Water Day

    My latest Fast Company piece went up last night, in commemoration of World Water Day 2010. This was the perfect opportunity to talk a bit about my time at the LAUNCH inaugural event, which focused on -- surprise -- water. In the essay, I talk a bit about three of the ten innovative ideas we got a chance to explore at the LAUNCH meeting. Here's one:

    Dutyion Root Hydration System, a mouthful of a name for something that's actually pretty remarkable. The system takes a specialized form of hydrophilic plastic and converts it into heavy-duty tubes suitable for below-ground irrigation. If you run saltwater (or similarly brackish/unusable water) through the tubes, the plastic wicks the water out as vapor, permeating it into the soil, which can then support many kinds of food crops and trees. That is, this plastic would let you irrigate orchards and farmland with sea water.

    There are still plenty of questions, most critically about how long the plastic lasts and how to bring down production cost (it's not cheap, at present), but the utility of something like would be enormous. Test uses in the Middle East have already shown quite a bit of promise; one use that could be of particular value would be to maintain trees to fight desertification.

    This was actually the first item we talked about at LAUNCH, and it really set the tone for the meeting. A technology in the early stages of development, with some good test results already available, and with incredible potential for transforming the landscape. The pilot projects really underscore just how powerful this kind of tech might be: rows of fruit trees growing in the sands of Abu Dhabi, watered only by seawater pumped from the Gulf through the dutyion tubes. As I say at the end of the Fast Company post:

      On this World Water Day, 2010, it's hard not to feel a bit of hope for the future.

    January 6, 2010

    New Fast Company: Innovation as Resource

    I'm back to blogging at Fast Company, and my latest piece is now up: Innovation as Resource and China's New Magnetism.

    The U.K.'s Independent reports that China has been gradually cutting the amount of rare-earth elements it exports, now down 40% from seven years ago. China now exports only 25% of the rare-earth elements it mines. [...]

    So what are our options? We (as in, the non-China parts of the industrialized world) could try to pressure China to sell more, but that's unlikely to work--and China tends not to respond well to even mild criticism. We could try to rapidly reopen the now-closed rare-earth element mines, but mining is, frankly, an environmental nightmare and incredibly dangerous--hardly a sustainable practice.

    Our best option is to innovate our way out of the problem.

    China, and to a lesser (but increasing) extent India, can be seen as "leapfrog superpowers" -- undergoing a rapid shift in global status, a shift which remains incomplete. China has more influence and importance on the global stage than it is willing to admit (preferring to call itself a developing nation), but not nearly the power that some fear.

    The question is, does the immense potential power of China (and India) make a leapfrog transition easier or harder?

    December 25, 2009

    Cold War Over Warming Already Underway?

    Seems like it.

    Mark Lynas, who worked with the Maldives group at COP15, was literally in the room when the final negotiations took place, and wrote about it for The Guardian. The key section:

    To those who would blame Obama and rich countries in general, know this: it was China's representative who insisted that industrialised country targets, previously agreed as an 80% cut by 2050, be taken out of the deal. "Why can't we even mention our own targets?" demanded a furious Angela Merkel. Australia's prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was annoyed enough to bang his microphone. Brazil's representative too pointed out the illogicality of China's position. Why should rich countries not announce even this unilateral cut? The Chinese delegate said no, and I watched, aghast, as Merkel threw up her hands in despair and conceded the point. Now we know why – because China bet, correctly, that Obama would get the blame for the Copenhagen accord's lack of ambition.

    China, backed at times by India, then proceeded to take out all the numbers that mattered. A 2020 peaking year in global emissions, essential to restrain temperatures to 2C, was removed and replaced by woolly language suggesting that emissions should peak "as soon as possible". The long-term target, of global 50% cuts by 2050, was also excised. No one else, perhaps with the exceptions of India and Saudi Arabia, wanted this to happen. I am certain that had the Chinese not been in the room, we would have left Copenhagen with a deal that had environmentalists popping champagne corks popping in every corner of the world.

    [...] With the deal gutted, the heads of state session concluded with a final battle as the Chinese delegate insisted on removing the 1.5C target so beloved of the small island states and low-lying nations who have most to lose from rising seas. President Nasheed of the Maldives, supported by Brown, fought valiantly to save this crucial number. "How can you ask my country to go extinct?" demanded Nasheed. The Chinese delegate feigned great offence – and the number stayed, but surrounded by language which makes it all but meaningless. The deed was done.

    I figured something like this would happen. I just didn't expect the signs to show up so quickly.

    December 9, 2009

    A Cold War Over Warming

    sunset.png

    What happens if global efforts to set and abide by strong carbon emissions cuts fail?

    The standard answer to a question like this is that "we all suffer." While that's probably true, it misses the point -- we may all suffer, but we don't all suffer equally. Some nations will be hit harder by storms or droughts than others; some nations will have the resources and technologies to adapt better than others. And therein lies the potential for what may end up as a nasty tool of international competition.

    There is, I believe, a non-zero chance that an extended period of climate instability could induce a state that believes itself to be better able to adapt to global warming to slow its efforts to decarbonize in order to gain a lead over its more vulnerable rivals.

    Hear me out.

    We know that while carbon emissions may come from particular locations, the effects of carbon in the atmosphere are global. If only China, or only the US (or Europe, or Japan) cut carbon emissions to zero, the net result would be at best a delay of the onset of significant climate effects. This is one reason why climate negotiations are such a mess -- we don't just have to change our own systems, we have to make sure that (essentially) everybody else is changing their systems, too. No one nation can cut carbon emissions enough to stop global warming by itself. As a result, we could have a situation where we still get bad climate impacts -- that is, climate agreements have effectively failed -- even if some or most of the treaty signatories have met their commitments.

    In such a scenario, there's no doubt we'd see widespread calls to decarbonize as swiftly as possible -- but "as swiftly as possible" may itself be problematic, if the effects of climate disaster hit the world's economy hard (as it likely would).

    This is the kind of scenario that would push some people to call for geoengineering, and while I do think that would end up being considered, it's not the focus of this essay.

    It's very likely that one of the political impacts of climate problems would be to increase tensions between nations. This would come about due to people assigning blame (rightly or wrongly), competition over resources such as arable land, and just the defensiveness and hostility that seems to inevitably happen when a powerful state comes under significant pressure. Even countries that have had historically close relations (such as the US and western Europe, or the US and post-WWII Japan) could see wedges driven between them; countries that have had a more complicated history could see a level of hostility unmatched in recent years.

    Just imagine, for a moment, how China would act if it had cause to believe that American or Russian intransigence over carbon reduction was a leading trigger of global warming-induced problems such as droughts and massive dust storms? Or how America would act if they felt they had cause to blame the Chinese or Russians? It's unlikely that this would be enough to bring about a shooting war; at the very least, nuclear deterrence would still apply. But it would definitely lead to angry rivals trying to undermine each other.

    In this scenario, the leadership of a powerful state might come to believe that:

  • The effects of decarbonization would be slow and diffuse, but
  • Said powerful state was well-suited to engage in adaptation projects, while
  • The rival(s) of said powerful state were more vulnerable to the impacts of anthropogenic global warming, so that
  • The rival(s) would be weakened relative to said powerful state if the effects of global warming persisted and said powerful state adapted.

    In short, a powerful state believing itself better-able to adapt to or withstand the effects of global warming might see a persistent advantage to its rivals being hurt by global warming, and slow its decarbonization accordingly.

    If all of that sounds ludicrous to you, you've probably forgotten about (or never lived through) the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. This kind of thinking wouldn't be new. The US feared that a Soviet nuclear first strike would sufficiently degrade the potential US response that, in combination with widespread bomb shelters and other civil defense mechanisms, the Soviets could "ride out" retaliation (making the Soviets more willing to launch a first strike). This fear led the US to embrace a "launch on warning" posture, meaning that the US declared that it would launch an attack on the USSR upon receiving alerts that a Soviet attack was starting.

    It doesn't matter whether or not the fears were justified -- simply recognizing the possibility resulted in altered behavior.

    How, then, would the recognition of the possibility of the strategic use of differential climate adaptation change international behavior? What could we as citizens do to prevent this kind of action?

    More troublingly, how could we tell if something like that was happening already?

    The irony in all of this? Geoengineering may start to look like the less politically-fraught alternative.

  • September 1, 2009

    Social Transition Stress Disorder

    In 2002, I wrote Broken Dreams, a guidebook for the Steve Jackson Games "Transhuman Space" role-playing game series. Broken Dreams covered global traumas such as conflict, social disorder, economic decline, and intellectual property. Part of the book concerned how various societies reacted to the big changes underway in the world, and in that section I included a brief description of a common response: Social Transition Stress Disorder, or STSD.

    Here's how the description read:

    Social Transition Stress Disorder, or STSD, first identified in 2052, is a chronic memetic illness affecting millions of people around the globe. Originally described as a traumatic reaction to interaction with robots (hence the common name, "cybershell-shock"), STSD is now recognized as encompassing a broad range of psychological effects arising from rapid, discontinuous social change. Known triggers for STSD include significant economic disruption or transitions, encounters (particularly unpleasant or threatening encounters) with new technologies, and paradigm shifts resulting from assimilation of new memeplexes. Symptoms vary, but usually manifest as depression and apathy; less frequently, paranoid anxiety or irrational hatreds (sometimes including violence) can result.

    Incidence of STSD rises with the speed, degree, and surprise of a given change, and is typically cumulative – a succession of moderate cultural shocks can be much more damaging than a single large event. STSD is most commonly found in societies undertaking a rapid transition from Third Wave (or pre-Third Wave) to Fourth Wave culture and technology, although cases have also resulted from advanced regions falling into rapid decline (due to environmental or economic disasters). Treatment, typically a combination of memetic therapy and designer drugs, is well-understood, and can be very effective. Unfortunately, many of those most in need of STSD treatment are those least able to afford it.

    I intended STSD to be something arising in a world of too-rapid change, a more medical/psych update of "future shock" -- something appearing late in this century, in a world of uploaded minds, self-aware AI, bioengineered robots, and so forth.

    Looking back on this, however, it looks more like a description of the present. Set aside for a moment the in-game jargon about "Third Wave" and "Fourth Wave," cybershells and memes, and just think about what's being described here: psychological dislocation triggered by the social effects of big technological (or political, or demographic) changes.

    One could easily diagnose the "keep government hands off my Medicare" screamers at political gatherings this Summer as suffering from STSD; certainly, the paranoid delusions about Obama's ancestry fit here. And it's not just politics. Moral panics around Facebook and anti-vaccination fears seem like manifestations of STSD, as well.

    So what does this all mean?

    Honestly, I'm not sure yet. It's definitely not just "new technology freaks people out, man," nor is it "[fill in the blank] just can't handle The Future." It's something more subtle, about perceived losses of control attributable to a world that differs in significant ways from the world they believed to be real.

    My guess is that we're going to be seeing a lot more of it in the years to come.

    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 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.

    June 18, 2009

    New FC: #cleanse

    My new Fast Company article went live this morning, "The Dark Side of Twittering a Revolution." It looks at some of the less-savory implications of the heroic use of Twitter in Iran.

    Consider, for a moment, what we're seeing happening in Iran: mass-action coordinated, at least in part, through Twitter; traditional media in Iran having lost any legitimacy for the angry populace, alternative media--like Twitter--increasingly becoming the sole source of information; and a growing sense of persecution and crisis, abetted by the limited streams of rumor-heavy news. Let me again emphasize that I don't think that what's happening in Iran is a misuse of social media; what I do think is that the same kinds of dynamics that have allowed for a potential democratic revolution in Iran could emerge just as readily in support of something far darker.

    Just as radio was used to great effect by those seeking to unleash genocide against ethnic rivals, social media like Twitter is likely to be used at some point to do others harm.

    (The title of this post -- and the image above -- will make sense when you read the FC article.)

    June 15, 2009

    BREAKING: "San Francisco Futurist" Causes Exploding Heads

    Imminent Death of Wall Street Journal Expected

    Apparently, I'm a "kook," "insane," an "idiot," and should be "tied to a rocket ship and shot into the Sun."

    At least according to the people who took the time to write to the editors of the Wall Street Journal in response to my essay. (All of the letters-to-the-editor emails on the article are being forwarded my way.) Sometimes, they noted that they were canceling their subscription to the Journal, and one person graciously included the letter that he had sent -- via paper mail -- to the editor-in-chief, who may not know what his devilish underlings had gotten themselves into.

    A good friend of mine who braved the free-fire zone of the actual comments section reports that the nicer things people had to say were that I should "sell [my] mansion", "write science fiction" and "dress like dr. evil." (Sorry, I don't look good in all-white.) Others report ongoing jokes about my name, and a couple of folks who apparently now hate me with a white-hot passion.

    So it goes.

    March 30, 2009

    One Model for a New World Economy

    If the Industrial-Era economic system is, in fact, on its last legs, it would be useful to think through some of the possible post-capitalism models that might emerge.

    I don't think we have enough early indicators to create a solid vision, so anything we talk about will have to be something of a thought experiment. What kinds of constraints would we face? What kinds of demands? Consider the following, then, at best a scenario sketch.

    Resilience Economics

    [Update: To clarify, as requested: this is written as a scenario set in the unspecified (but probably ~late 2020s) future, from the point of view of someone living in that future.]

    The trigger was a phrase we'd all become sick of: "Too Big to Fail." The phrase had moved quickly from sarcasm to cliché, but ended up as the pole star for what to avoid. Any economy that enabled the creation of institutions that were too big to fail -- that is, whose failure would threaten to collapse the system -- could never be thought of as resilient. And, as the early 21st century rolled along, resilience is what mattered, in our environment, in our societies, and increasingly in our economics.

    Traditional capitalism was, arguably, driven by the desire to increase wealth, even at the expense of other values. Traditional socialism, conversely, theoretically wanted to increase equality, even if that meant less wealth. But both 19th/20th century economic models had insufficient focus on increasing resilience, and would often actively undermine it. The economic rules we started to assemble in the early 2010s seek to change that.

    Resilience economics continues to uphold the elements of previous economic models that offer continued value: freedom and openness from capitalism at its best; equality and a safety net from socialism's intent. But it's not just another form of "mixed economy" or "social democracy." The focus is on something entirely new: decentralized diversity as a way of managing the unexpected.

    Decentralized diversity (what we sometimes call the "polyculture" model) means setting the rules so that no one institution or approach to solving a problem/meeting a need ever becomes overwhelmingly dominant. This comes at a cost to efficiency, but efficiency only works when there are no bumps in the road. Redundancy works out better in times of chaos and uncertainty -- backups and alternatives and slack in the system able to counter momentary failures.

    It generates less wealth than traditional capitalism would, at least when it was working well, but is far less prone to wild swings, and has an inherent safety net (what designers call "graceful failure") to cushion downturns.

    Completely transactional transparency also helps, giving us a better chance to avoid surprises and to spot problems before they get too big. The open-source folks called this the "many eyes" effect, and they were definitely on to something. It's much harder to game the system when everyone can see what you're doing.

    Flexibility and collaboration have long been recognized as fundamental to resilient systems, and that's certainly true here. One headline on a news site referred to it as the "LEGO economy," and that was pretty spot-on. Lots of little pieces able to combine and recombine; not everything fits together perfectly, but surprising combinations often have the most creative result.

    Lastly, the resilience economy has adopted a much more active approach to looking ahead. Not predicting, not even planning -- no "five year plans" here. It's usually referred to as "scanning," and the focus is less on visions of the future than on early identification of emerging uncertainties. Resilience economists are today's foresight specialists.

    What does this all look like for everyday people? For most of us, it's actually not far off from how we lived a generation ago. We still shop for goods, although the brands are more numerous and there are far fewer "big players" -- and those that emerge tend not to last long. People still go to work, although more and more of us engage in micro-production of goods and intellectual content. And people still lose their jobs and suffer personal economic problems... but, again, there's far less risk of economic catastrophe, and some societies are even starting to experiment with a "guaranteed basic income" system.

    Is it perfect? By no means. We're still finding ways in which resilience economics isn't working out as well as past approaches, and situations where a polyculture model doesn't provide the kinds of results that the old oligarchic/monopoly capitalist model could. But those of us who remember the dark days of the econopalypse know where non-resilient models can lead, and would rather fix what we've made than go back to the past.


    Okay, I'll be the first to admit that this isn't as complete a picture as we'd like, but the core idea -- that resilience becomes the driver of new economics -- strikes me as very plausible. It's a pretty technologically conservative scenario; no AI-managed "just-in-time socialism" here, nor any nano-cornucopian visions. But it's very much the kind of model we could create in the aftermath of a disastrous economic crisis, in a world where the importance of resilience is becoming increasingly evident.

    March 28, 2009

    The New World

    It's not often that we get to see a historical catalyst in action.

    This is no mere "bad recession." All of the assumptions we have about fundamental elements of the economy, from finance to trade to efficiency, are increasingly coming under scrutiny. The shape of the global economy at the end of this period of economic transformation will likely be unrecognizable to those stuck in the previous paradigm.

    What will this new economy look like? Good question -- I don't think anyone knows yet. But it won't just be 2005 plus a few more regulations, or even 1939 with a digital upgrade. It will very likely be something entirely new, something that will take some time to understand or even characterize. I have a very tentative guess, but I'll post that tomorrow.

    The scale of this situation is clear from the language we use. Mere "depression" doesn't seem to capture the sense of danger. Bruce Sterling catalogued a few examples in mid-March, with "Econopalypse" and "Collapsonomics" of particular note; I wouldn't be surprised to see "Financeageddon" show up at some point, too. (Sign of how my mind works: the first term that popped into my head was "Cha-chingularity." I doubt anyone will pick that one up.)

    I'm not deeply trained in economics, so much of my thinking about this situation has been focused on getting a better understanding of what's happening. I suspect that some of you are in a similar state, so let me pass along some of the better pieces I've found over the past few months. Links and excerpts in the extended entry.

    Continue reading "The New World" »

    January 19, 2009

    Grim Meathead Future

    So with the (welcome) return of a Democrat to the White House, we get the (not so welcome) return of militia loons. This time around, the right wing gun clubs seem to be organizing around something called "Molon labe" (usually written in the Greek, "Μολών Λaβέ"). It means "Come and get them!", generally interpreted as "over my dead body," and comes from the supposed response of the Spartans to Persia's demand that they surrender their weapons. These guys are organizing and buying up weapons in fear that Obama's going to take their guns away (pure fantasy on their part, of course -- President O has much bigger issues to wrestle with).

    The last time we had this kind of thing, we got bombings of the Olympics and federal buildings, deadly attacks on doctors and radio commentators, and myriad attempts to intimidate government officials.

    This time around, we have the Iraqi resistance as a model for really engaging in some "system disruption."

    Oh, goody.

    January 12, 2009

    Hurt Feelings and China

    Even if China isn't likely to be a drop-in replacement for US hegemony in the 21st century, it will certainly be a key player on the international stage. It's useful, then, for futurists to pay attention to the interesting details of how China interacts with other nations.

    Last month, the Atlantic's James Fallows posted a fascinating set of items about the use of the term "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people" in diplomatic communiques from the Beijing government.

    Ah, it "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people." This is the phrase I wait for in every Chinese government statement on matters of international disagreement.

    Yes, there is a real concept buried beneath this boilerplate slogan. The concept might be expressed other places as "an insult to the dignity of our nation," or "disrespect for our people and their principles" or something. But it is generally used quite sparingly in other nations' pronunciamentos, because in the end listeners don't find it that persuasive.

    Joel Martinsen at the Danwei blog lists the number of times the term has popped up in various diplomatic disputes, and with which countries. The biggest inflictor of hurt to the Chinese people? Japan, unsurprisingly, with "hurt the feelings..." used 47 times in official statements. The US came in second at less than half that number, 23 times. NATO, the Vatican, and the Nobel Committee have all hurt the feelings of the Chinese people more than once, as well.

    It's a term that has some resonance in Chinese language and culture, apparently, but as Fallows notes, is less persuasive outside the Chinese borders. Outsiders are unlikely to take the phrase with the intended level of anger; the phrase has great potential for massive miscommunication, and it will be interesting to see whether China learns to speak diplomat-ese, or whether the rest of the world has to learn what China means when it says something odd.

    The potential for "hurt feelings" is a two-way street, however.

    Shanghaist links to a video of Chinese elementary students reciting a poem; the video is apparently whipping its way around the Chinese Internet, gaining quite a bit of attention and play in China. The poem includes the following lines:

    Lead: Earthquakes, shifting back and forth like the positions of Sarkozy, with his dirty tricks, trying to shake the great China
    Lead: Did China retreat?
    All: No. The Shenzhou-7 launched. We are victorious!
    Lead: Pathetic Europe will never stop the insurmountable force of our great dynasty
    All: Just the aftershocks from the earthquake would destroy France!

    [...]

    Lead: Do not waver, do not slow down, do not make big changes

    Lead: Do not change the flag, Do not turn back

    All: Step ruthlessly over all anti-China forces

    China and the West both have a lot to learn about diplomatic engagement with each other, it seems.

    December 12, 2008

    Knock and Drag

    I learned a new term in conversation last night with a former GBN'er now involved in voting access work: knock and drag.

    ...if volunteers find a [registered voter] who hasn't voted, the volunteer is not to leave the doorstep until that person is off to the polling site.

    The term is most closely associated with Democrats, but is clearly of use to any partisan (and not just in terms of party politics).

    This phrase stuck with me while listening to GBN Network member/UC Berkeley political science professor Steve Weber dismiss the importance of the Internet in the Obama election. He said -- rightly -- that Obama won due to old-fashioned get-out-the-vote/on-the-street activism. But Weber missed something important, falling into the trap of thinking of the Internet and the physical world as somehow divergent.

    Yes, Obama's team did a masterful job of getting out the vote -- of knocking and dragging. But they were able to do so because of dense, rich, swiftly-updated information about voters, districts, and volunteers, information collected and made available via Internet tools. I suspect that Weber was thinking of Internet media in his dismissal of the Internet as a whole; while still a debatable point, there's at least a plausible argument that Internet media such as blogs and YouTube were less influential than they were visible.

    For Weber, it seems like there's the Internet, and then there's the Real World, and you use either one or the other. But the concept of the Internet as even metaphorically a separate place no longer works. It's all around us, embedded into a rapidly-increasing portion of our technologies and our activities.

    Weber's confusion actually strikes me as a good indicator that the Internet is well on its way to becoming metaphorical electricity: critical and ubiquitous, and effectively invisible. But like electricity, the Internet will only work for you when you use the tools it enables. The people who recognize this are likely to have a growing advantage over the people for whom the Internet remains a separate entity -- commercially, strategically, and politically.

    December 11, 2008

    Nanopolitics

    Two reports out this week hint at a new political alignment in the coming decades. Both reports focus on nanotechnology, but have implications well beyond.

    Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows a strong correlation between moral doubts about nanotechnology and embrace of religion.

    In the United States and a few European countries where religion plays a larger role in everyday life, notably Italy, Austria and Ireland, nanotechnology and its potential to alter living organisms or even inspire synthetic life is perceived as less morally acceptable. In more secular European societies, such as those in France and Germany, individuals are much less likely to view nanotechnology through the prism of religion and find it ethically suspect.

    "The level of 'religiosity' in a particular country is one of the strongest predictors of whether or not people see nanotechnology as morally acceptable," says Dietram Scheufele, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of life sciences communication and the lead author of the new study. "Religion was the strongest influence over everything."

    At the same time, Yale researchers have determined that doubts about nanotechnology align with larger cultural views about commerce and equality.

    The determining factor in how people responded was their cultural values, according to Dan Kahan, the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor at Yale Law School and lead author of the study. "People who had more individualistic, pro-commerce values, tended to infer that nanotechnology is safe," said Kahan, "while people who are more worried about economic inequality read the same information as implying that nanotechnology is likely to be dangerous."

    According to Kahan, this pattern is consistent with studies examining how people's cultural values influence their perceptions of environmental and technological risks generally. "In sum, when they learned about a new technology, people formed reactions to it that matched their views of risks like climate change and nuclear waste disposal," he said.

    This combination shatters the Right-Left stereotype that dominate American politics. Religiosity is typically seen as conservative, while worries about economic inequality fall into the liberal bucket. Yet both map to strong concerns about nanotechnology.

    (It's important here to note that "nanotechnology" has been somewhat corrupted as a useful term, and gets used to mean everything from dumb nanoscale particles to scary Drexlerian nanobots, often without clear distinction. It's unclear, without access to the relevant journal articles, how nanotechnology is defined in these studies.)

    If the opinions uncovered in these surveys does map to larger views on science and technology, it suggests the shape that a new political alignment might take. Party politics aren't static; partisan evolution means more than just flipping which party means "right wing" and which one means "left wing." There could well be a reshuffling of positions in the coming decades, especially if religious evangelicals begin to see faith-as-stewardship as being more important than faith-as-moral judgment.

    One pair of surveys does not necessary portend a massive cultural shift, but it does offer a distant early warning of a possible change. This is definitely worth watching.

    November 7, 2008

    80 Hours in the Air-Conditioned Nation

    Singapore

    "What do Americans think of Singapore?"

    Three different people, all government officials, asked me some variant of that question. And all three times, they eventually made it clear that they were wondering how often "caning" came up in discussions of the country.

    I had to tell them: Pretty much every time.

    Singapore is a nation coming to terms with its own identity. The habit of many of the people I conversed with was to speak of Singapore as a developing country. But, at least in terms of infrastructure and commerce, Singapore is clearly an industrial -- or, really, post-industrial -- nation. Singapore is the quintessential leapfrog society: from the mass transit to the information grid, from the sparkling malls to the global cuisine, it could easily stand as a full citizen of the first world. But that shift, from a tiny, scrappy "spot" in the heart of Southeast Asia to world-class city/state, has been a bit jarring. Practices that they saw as appropriate for the former -- like caning -- now seem vaguely embarrassing.

    The "air-conditioned nation" label in the title of this piece comes from a book of the same name, by Singapore journalist and essayist Cherian George. It's more than appropriate: Being a mere two degrees off the equator, Singapore's weather defines humid. As a lifelong California boy, the heat didn't bother me, but I reeled from the moisture in the air. While the residents clearly tolerate it better than I could, a shift is underway that adds to the identity crisis.

    Over the past couple of decades, according to the locals I spoke to, Singapore has started to put air conditioning everywhere. Head down a sidewalk, and every open business doorway offers an arctic blast. I started to expect to see micro-storms emerge as the warm, moist air from the outside runs into the cold, dry air in the stores.

    As a result of the increasing ubiquity of "aircon," complaints by locals about the humidity are on the rise, as well. More than one person I spoke to described Singapore, sheepishly, as a "nation of whiners." I didn't see that, myself, but that's hardly the point: It's how they see themselves.

    But there's one last twist to the evolving identity of the country. Singapore was, originally, a near-barren island off the tip of Malaysia, with little in the way of population. The country's populace is entirely a result of colonialism, as people from a variety of nearby nations came in to work and trade with the British rulers. After post-British rule by Japan and then Malaysia, Singapore gained independence in 1965. The architecture of the city is a lovely mix of ultra-modern and century-old buildings, and many of the streets carry the names of colonial-era British personalities.

    Walking back to my hotel last night, after wandering the riverfront -- where boats that once carried small trade cargo now carry tourists, and where colonial government office buildings now hold restaurants and shopping centers -- it struck me: Singapore has turned its colonial past into an amusement park.

    Underlying this evolution, however, is a stark sense of insecurity. I was invited here to talk about risks and uncertainty, and nearly every group I spoke to asked about terrorism and technological threats. Environmentally, Singapore is utterly dependent upon its neighbors and global trade for its resources. If there ever was a country vulnerable to open source warfare and system disruption, Singapore is it.

    So on the minds of many Singaporean government officials, and likely many citizens as well, is a troubling dilemma: Who are we -- and how much longer will we even be around to ask that question?

    November 4, 2008

    Thank You

    Even thousands of miles away, the intensity of this moment is incredible.

    October 29, 2008

    Dear Mr. President...

    The good folks at Worldchanging asked me to offer up a hundred words for what the new president of the US should do in the first hundred days in office. I figured that most of the folks they asked would come back with some kind of environmental thing (and I guessed right), so I went a different path. Here's my reply:

    Jamais Cascio, Co-Founder, Worldchanging/World-Builder-in-Chief, Open the Future
      Although the present crises demand much of our time and attention, the next president must have a longer-term view of the challenges we'll face this century. The creation of an official Foresight Agency -- pulling in talent and insights from across the spectrum of official government departments -- would both formalize and legitimize the practice of looking ahead at emerging threats, technologies, and opportunities. The UK's Foresight Directorate offers an example of how this might work. We can no longer afford individual departments looking only at their narrow areas of interest; we need a cross-disciplinary view of tomorrow.

    Mildly self-serving, perhaps (although I wouldn't expect to get a job with said Foresight Agency), but it's something that I strongly believe. Futurism is a tool for making better decisions about an increasingly complex and uncertain world -- and better decisions are desperately needed right about now.

    Other folks weighing in include Bill McKibben, Simran Sethi, Hunter Lovins, and (of course) Bruce.

    October 23, 2008

    Presidential Insights

    Time magazine's Joe Klein has a lengthy interview with Barack Obama, covering a variety of subjects. One section that leapt out at me, of course, was Obama's observations about energy, the environment, and the bigger picture:

    The biggest problem with our energy policy has been to lurch from crisis to trance. And what we need is a sustained, serious effort. [...] I was just reading an article in the New York Times by Michael Pollen about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it's creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they're contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs. That's just one sector of the economy. You think about the same thing is true on transportation. The same thing is true on how we construct our buildings. The same is true across the board.

    For us to say we are just going to completely revamp how we use energy in a way that deals with climate change, deals with national security and drives our economy, that's going to be my number one priority when I get into office, assuming, obviously, that we have done enough to just stabilize the immediate economic situation.

    A (potential/likely) president who can talk about monocultures and complex systems? Swoon. And that opening line about lurching from crisis to trance -- a perfect encapsulation of our broader response to a variety of long-term problems.

    October 10, 2008

    Nobody Would Expect This

    Paul Krugman:

    The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Fear and negative equity … The two things we have to fear are fear itself and negative equity, and the depleted capital of financial institutions … Amongst the things we have to fear are fear itself, negative equity, and the depleted capital of financial institutions.

    September 23, 2008

    Epic

    fail.jpg
    (Getty | Chip Somodevilla) | (lifted from Atrios)

    Pushed with little time to examine or debate, with explicit demands for no transparency and no oversight, and at a scale that undermines (frankly, destroys) our flexibility to deal with emerging problems. This "rescue" package for Wall Street is pretty much a textbook example of how not to embrace tomorrow when thinking about today.

    August 26, 2008

    Viropiracy?

    avian-flu.jpg

    Here's a term to add to the jargon pile: Viral Sovereignty.

    This extremely dangerous idea comes to us courtesy of Indonesia's minister of health, Siti Fadilah Supari, who asserts that deadly viruses are the sovereign property of individual nations -- even though they cross borders and could pose a pandemic threat to all the peoples of the world.

    The Indonesian argument -- now set to be ratified by the Non-Aligned Movement general gathering in November -- is that the information derived from viruses found in a particular country should be the property of that country to control as it sees fit.

    The analogy here is to the properties of local plants and animals. In the past, it wasn't uncommon for big country companies to come in to a developing nation, look around for interesting naturally-occuring products, and patent globally anything that they found -- a practice that became known as "biopiracy." Brazil, India, and other leapfrog powerhouses started to push back both politically and legally, often successfully using claims of "prior art" to defeat patents. Traditional Knowledge Libraries and similar data-gathering projects hope to make biopiracy a thing of the past by carefully documenting local uses.

    Yay, good work, and all that (seriously). But the assertion of sovereign control over virus strains seems to push the boundaries of legitimacy.

    The focus of Indonesia's complaint is Avian Flu, H5N1. Despite Indonesia being a hot zone for H5N1 infections, the Jakarta government no longer cooperates with the World Health Organization, refusing to provide samples of the virus taken from infected people, or even providing timely notification of outbreaks.

    Indonesia claims that the US Naval Medical Research Unit in Indonesia, which has focused its attention on H5N1, is actually a front for biowarfare against the Islamic world, corporations looking to monopolize treatments for the viruses, corporations looking to use the viruses to make people sick to be able to sell more treatments, and even the source of H5N1 in Indonesia.

    All of this would be silly and tragic, were it not for the endorsement of the concept of viral sovereignty by the Indian Health Minister, and the agreement of the Non-Aligned Movement to formally consider endorsing Indonesia's claims in its next meeting.

    As Richard Holbrooke and Laurie Garrett make clear in their editorial earlier this month -- and as I've written about, myself -- it's extraordinarily important for information about potential pandemic diseases to be made as open as possible, if we want to avoid a global health disaster. Withholding viral data, and refusing to provide samples of the viruses, out of a misplaced fear of viropiracy (or more paranoid fantasies), is simply criminal.

    June 23, 2008

    The Griefer Future

    Nice little future you got there. Hate to see something bad happen to it.

    The blending of the physical and immersive digital worlds -- the metaverse -- inevitably produces bizarre results. I've noted (and we've started to see examples of) the possibility of hacking digital-physical objects. The potential for nano-spam continues to haunt us. But the mash-up between the virtual and the real worlds likely to affect the greatest number of us is "griefing."

    Griefing is, simply put, making someone else's online game session miserable. It's not simply beating someone in player-vs.-player competitions, or even annoying someone as the side-effect of otherwise game-focused actions. Griefing means taking action intended to harm the game-play of someone else -- these can include attacking someone ostensibly on your own team, blocking passageways, intentionally crashing your vehicle into someone else's, leading masses of monsters to attack unsuspecting players ("training"), using known software bugs to force another player to "crash out" of the game, and so forth. While many of these might happen by accident, griefing is all about intent.

    As the technologies and habits of the metaverse expand past the world of gaming, so too do social dilemmas like griefing. We've already started to see its appearance: just a couple of months ago, someone the posted flashing images to an epilepsy support website, triggering seizures and fugues for many of its visitors. If that sounds like harassment, it is -- griefing definitely falls into that category. But griefing has two characteristic elements, unique in combination: the use of system flaws or unintended consequences to abuse people with less-sophisticated system knowledge; and the griefer's belief that the griefing action is funny. For many griefers, it's just another kind of prank.

    As long as griefing was limited to online games, the prank argument made sense. As the epilepsy attack demonstrates, however, when griefing moves into other online arenas, the line between pranks and harassment becomes harder to see. This will only increase over time. Emerging metaverse technologies lend themselves to various forms of griefing, such as intentional errors added to augmented reality or mirror world databases, pollution of simulated spaces with inappropriate content, or intentional creation of false public data -- the "participatory decepticon" I wrote about recently is a prime example of metaverse griefing.

    Simply put, as the power and ubiquity of immersive digital technologies increase, so too do the opportunities for griefing -- as does the potential for unintended and unanticipated problems. The result is likely to be a world of pranks gone horribly awry, civil authorities treating minor insults as potential terrorism, and a general diminishment of trust in immersive digital technologies. I'd also expect to see griefing-type activities done with a political or economic purpose, easily dismissed as just more pranking, but with potentially greater consequences.

    So, griefing: threat or menace? Both and neither, really. In the gaming world, griefing can be a way of exposing software flaws and exploits, leading (once they are fixed) to a more resilient online environment. Abstractly, the same will hold true for non-game griefing -- software holes allowing for bad results (whether by intent or accident) will be repaired, disproportionate results from authorities will be called out and examined, people will be more skeptical about the reliability of digital information, and so forth -- but at the cost of hurt feelings, hurt bodies, and passing social disorder. We may not like the trade-off, but we're likely going to have to live with it.

    (Looking for a suitable image to illustrate this post with, but finding nothing that's clearly Creative Commons licensed...)

    June 3, 2008

    A Day to Savor

    6a00d8341c59aa53ef00e55000c9e18833-800wi.jpg

    Doesn't matter whether you were for him or for someone else, today is truly an inflection point in history. It's the delivery of a promise made in the years long past and sometimes thought abandoned. It's a sign that we can make ourselves better, that transformation for the good remains in our grasp.

    (Hat tip to Wil for the idea...)

    February 13, 2008

    The Renewable Proliferation Treaty

    The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT), originally promulgated in 1968 and entering into force in 1970, has three key provisions: that nuclear weapon-free signatory states refrain from developing nuclear weapons; that signatory states with nuclear weapons work to disarm; and that signatory states remain free to develop nuclear energy technologies. The treaty has worked reasonably well in preventing weapons proliferation (the current post-treaty nuclear states either did not sign the NNPT or dropped out of it prior to testing), but may face an unexpected threat from climate change. One change to the treaty, however, could help on both the proliferation and climate fronts -- and serve as a perfect example of an economy of scope.

    Arguably, the covert (if as-yet unsuccessful) proliferation programs in a small number of countries suggests that the provision of the NNPT allowing for nuclear energy technology conflicts with the provision prohibiting nuclear weapons development. The unfortunate fact is that some of the technologies enabling ongoing nuclear power generation also enable nuclear weapons development; as the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, said in October of 2007, enrichment and reprocessing technologies "could be the Achilles’ heel of the nuclear non-proliferation regime." The relative success of the NNPT has relied upon the relatively limited development and operation of nuclear power plants outside of the industrialized world. But that's changing.

    Half of the nuclear plants now under construction can be found in the developing world. As the risks from global warming highlight the problems with fossil-fuel power -- especially coal -- we're seeing a growing number of calls for greater reliance on nuclear energy as a non-greenhouse gas alternative. The need to avoid carbon-intensive generation will only serve to accelerate global nuclear power deployment.

    But the choice isn't just between greenhouse-gas-producing coal plants and proliferation-enabling nuclear plants. Imagine if there were an amendment to the NNPT offering support for the development and deployment of renewable energy technologies to nations that refrain from both nuclear weapons development and nuclear energy development. Support could come in the form of financial assistance, technology transfers, even outright grants, all intended to accelerate the deployment of renewable power in place of both fossil fuel and nuclear energy.

    Support could be contingent upon shutting down coal plants, and the details would be specific to the signatory nation's geography. Aside from providing clean energy, this could also serve as a catalyst for the economic development of participating nations, helping them join the "green economy."

    People who dismiss this idea based on the argument that renewable power can't match the scale of coal and nuclear haven't been paying attention. Renewable power efforts such as the 500-850MW solar Stirling farm and the 1,500MW wind farm projects now underway in Southern California offer generation levels comparable to larger nuclear power plants. Moreover, what's important is meeting power demands, not keeping all power generation in one building: a hundred 10MW generators offer the same power as a single 1,000MW power plant, and with greater resilience.

    Renewables offer a few key advantages over nuclear that may be of particular value to developing nations:

  • No operational waste to dispose of, either with an expensive local facility or by paying to have it shipped off;
  • No conflicts between water needed for cooling vs. water needed for agriculture, likely to be the biggest inhibitor to nuclear power deployment in the coming decades;
  • Location flexibility, with the systems either deployable in a single large site or distributed across a variety of appropriate locations, and with far less local resistance than with nuclear;
  • Fewer insurance risks;
  • Most importantly, far greater flexibility for incremental changes.

    This last one is worth elaborating upon. Solar (photovoltaic and Stirling), wind, and (to a lesser extent) hydrokinetic power rely upon a multitude of small units generating power, while present-day nuclear technologies rely upon small numbers of big reactors. If demands increase, additional renewable power units can be added onto the grid with relative ease. Both new units and existing systems can readily adopt (or retrofit) the latest technology refinements, and broken units (from accident or sabotage) can be taken offline without bringing down hundreds of megawatts of generation.

    Intermittency (energy only being produced when the sun is out or the wind blows) is less of an issue than critics sometimes contend, and can be dealt with through distribution (taking advantage of micro-climates), diversity (not just relying on a single renewable source), and over-production & storage (so that the systems can work at peak capacity even when demand is low).

    With one step, we could reduce the potential threat of nuclear weapons proliferation, reduce carbon footprints arising from power generation, and help developing world economies leapfrog into 21st century markets. When I talk about "economies of scope," where multiple, unrelated problems are handled by a single solution, this is precisely what I mean.

    How likely is this idea? It's not on anyone's agenda -- I haven't heard anybody else talking about the notion. But for a new president looking for ways to deal with big global problems efficiently... let's just say my email address isn't hard to find.

  • February 1, 2008

    The Big Picture: Climate Chaos

    wildfirescali.jpgThermal Inertia. Get used to that term, as it drives the relationship between climate disruption and human civilization, now and over the next twenty years. Its meaning is simple: even if we were to stop all greenhouse gas emissions immediately, right this very second, we'd still see continued warming and disruption for the next two or three decades. Changes to ocean temperatures (in particular) lag climate forcings, committing us to at least a bit more warming, probably about half a degree celsius, bringing us close to the hottest we've been in a million years. Unfortunately, we're not stopping right this second; we probably won't stop increasing our carbon output for another decade, at best. This means that our climate will still be warming well into the 2030s, no matter what.

    Political leaders pay little more than lip service to dealing with climate disruption (most visibly in the U.S., but few Kyoto signatory nations have actually met their required targets). As the signs of climate chaos mount, however, we'll start to see climate taking on greater prominence in public and political discourse, often eclipsing other big issues. If global warming was the sole big driver for the next twenty years, I'd pessimistically assume that we wouldn't see real action until the first big impacts start to appear. The interaction of the climate change driver with other drivers, however, may accelerate that timeline.

    Climate Chaos and... Resource Collapse
    Of all of the big drivers for the next two decades, climate chaos and resource collapse have the most complex interaction. On the surface, it's clear that each can make the other worse: agricultural collapse can push people to tear down rain forests faster (both reducing a carbon sink and putting even more carbon into the air by burning); greater storms & droughts can produce massive refugee movements, overwhelming local resource bases; drivers and industry looking for an alternative to oil pushing for biofuels, driving up the cost of food; desperate communities choosing survival over the careful maintenance of ecosystem services. It's a truly vicious cycle.

    But look more closely, and one can see that many (not all, but many) of the solutions for one issue have a positive impact on the other. Smarter agricultural practices boost food production, improve soil, and sequester more carbon. Improving urban and transportation models (from bicycles & buses to electric cars) to fight global warming avoids a "peak oil" disaster. Climate and resource activists alike extol the virtues of localism. The need to deal with one of these issues can make dealing with the other easier and faster.

    Response model: Look for economies of scope, those opportunities where a single solution approach can handle seemingly unrelated problems.

    Climate Chaos and... Catalytic Innovation
    The relationship between climate chaos and catalytic innovation is a bit simpler. In general, climate disruption can serve as a focus for technological innovation, and these innovations offer ways to accelerate our shift to a post-carbon economy.

    The scenario "Breaking the Fever," part of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology's molecular manufacturing scenario series, offers one example of how climate and catalytic technologies can interplay. An excerpt:

    During the time between the first Carbon Crisis Summit, in 2017, and the roll-out of early molecular manufacturing systems four years later, the global climate continued to degrade. It became obvious that a third approach beyond the carbon reduction and greenhouse reversal endeavors was needed, and that strategy -- effects mitigation -- soon became the dominant effort. While zero carbon teams worked to drive down the cost of nanopolymer photovoltaic materials (used today on nearly every product that needs power, and quite a few that don't) and greenhouse reversal teams experimented with ways to pull carbon dioxide and methane out of the atmosphere without causing unanticipated problems, the mitigation groups became a new kind of "first responders" to climate-related disasters. From the rapid fabrication of sea walls and flood barriers to the overnight construction of housing and infrastructure for millions of environmental refugees, effects mitigation teams had the closest relationship with the everyday victims of global warming; correspondingly, they soon had the greatest popularity, and even became the subject of a top-ten holovision show.

    Other catalytic technologies, such as artificial general intelligence and advanced synthetic biology, could also be readily focused on analyzing, mitigating, and remediating the effects of climate chaos as they are developed.

    Response model: As the timing and capabilities of catalytic technologies are inherently uncertain, we can't depend on them fixing the climate problem for us. However, we need to be ready to take immediate advantage of such technological developments.

    Eco SousveillanceClimate Chaos and... Ubiquitous Transparency
    Augmented reality, mirror worlds, lifelogging, sousveillance, even the participatory panopticon -- whatever we call it, we're already seeing the rise of the transparent world. This isn't simply a technological phenomenon; increasingly ubiquitous transparency also appears in the form of open access science, open source production models, and (less appealingly) the broad dissolution of privacy. Of all of the big drivers for the next twenty years, this is the one that is likely to feel the most intimate and inescapable.

    The interplay between climate chaos and ubiquitous transparency is likely to take at least one of two different forms.

    The first is the "participatory sensor" model, where the proliferating monitoring and information systems focus on the changes happening to the environment. The various mobile devices that we carry become part of this network, too, so that everyone who participates adds to our improved understanding of what's happening to the planet. This was the focus of the talk I gave at TED in 2006.

    The second is the "green panopticon" model, where these monitoring and information networks focus on behavior, whether by institutions or individuals. If we see carbon emissions as literally a life-or-death issue, it's not hard to imagine us using whatever means we have at our disposal to make sure that people aren't putting the planet at risk. The longer we wait to act, the more desperate our response will be, and the more likely we are to take measures like this.

    Response model: if we focus the sensors on the planet rather than at each other, we can better our understanding of what's taking place and (as mobile devices become more important to this system) may be able to boost the level of participation in environmental protection among younger people.

    Climate Chaos and... New Models of Development
    The intersection of climate chaos and new models of development has three broad categories of outcomes; we're likely to see all three happen in various developing nations.

    Climate chaos may serve as an accelerant to new development models, by opening up new economic niches (in green energy, for example) or making the traditional alternatives either unavailable or unappealing. Brazil as a "biofuel Saudi Arabia" is an example of this path.

    It may serve as a fence to new development models, by making the short-term costs of the new models greater than the costs of traditional development; this can then serve to make the climate disruption problem worse. China and India's reluctance to move off of fossil-fuel-based growth is an example.

    Finally, it may serve as a killer of new development models, by unleashing so much environmental devastation on a nation or region that any kind of development seems impossible. Storms, drought, and famine can bring even the most promising developing country down.

    Response model: since the fence result makes climate disruption worse, and the killer result, well, kills millions, developed world policies should focus on helping the growth of green industries in up-and-coming developing nations.

    Climate Chaos and... The Rise of the Post-Hegemonic World
    The relationship between climate chaos and the rise of the post-hegemonic world is tricky. Climate disruption isn't causing the decline of US hegemony, nor is it caused by that decline. However, global warming underscores the weakness of the American hegemony, and that the decline of American hegemony weakens the potential for a near-term coordinated response to global warming. Moreover, this decline has the potential to make dealing with climate chaos more difficult.

    The best example of this situation occurred at the Bali global warming conference in December. The US delegation refused to sign an agreement accepted by essentially the rest of the participants, instead arguing for its own alternative. Kevin Conrad, the delegate from Papua New Guinea, then stepped to the microphone and said this:

    There's an old saying: If you are not willing to lead, then get out of the way. I ask the United States: We asked for your leadership; we seek your leadership. But if for some reason you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us; please get out of the way.

    A weakened American hegemon is one that is most likely to either try a costly attempt to shore up its power, or lash out at rising competitors, distracting national and world leadership at a time when distraction is most problematic. Of all of the risks to our global capacity to deal with global warming, this is the most dangerous.

    Response model: I'm open to suggestions.

    January 30, 2008

    The Big Picture

    You don't have to believe in incipient singularities to recognize that 2028 -- just twenty years from now -- will bear very little resemblance to 2008.

    A small cluster of rapidly-accelerating drivers promises to dominate the first quarter of this century. Each of these drivers, alone, has the potential to remake how we live; together, the likelihood of a fundamental transformation of our lives, our politics, our world, becomes over-determined. Moreover, these drivers are distinct but interdependent: each one exists and would be transformative on its own, but how it plays out -- and the choices we'll face when confronting it -- will be contingent upon how the other drivers unfold. Twenty years isn't a long time to make the needed changes to turn potential disaster into a new world; we have all of five US presidential terms -- maximum -- to completely transform, globally, every significant aspect of our material civilization.

    These drivers will be familiar to anyone who has been reading my writing here at Open the Future, and previously at WorldChanging.

    Climate Chaos: Twenty years is the outside limit of how long we have to make the global changes (in our energy grids, urban designs, transportation networks, agricultural processes, industrial processes, taxation policies, trade policies, etc.) required to avoid real disaster. It's also probably about right for figuring out which geoengineering strategies are the least likely to make things worse. We know what we need to do -- we simply need to do it.

    Resource Collapse: Oil. Water. Topsoil. Fisheries. Seeds. Arable land. Copper. Food. Name a resource fundamental to the maintenance of our civilization, and it's probably at risk of collapse in the next two decades. All of these can be mitigated, managed or replaced in time; again, it's a matter of making the decision to do so. Some of the solutions will require transient sacrifice, but many will make our lives demonstrably better. Unfortunately, all require upsetting the status quo.

    Catalytic Innovation: A number of potentially-transformative technologies have a real chance to show critical breakthroughs by the late 2020s: Molecular manufacturing; artificial general intelligence; synthetic biology; human augmentation biology. Individually and combinatorially powerful, how they emerge will depend on political, economic and cultural choices made today. As catalysts, they can reshape the tools we have to manage the other drivers, offering new pathways to succeed, and new models of risk.

    Ubiquitous Transparency: The catalytic innovations change what we can do, but ubiquitous transparency changes what we can know. Sensors, cameras, networks, augmented reality, lifelogs, mirror worlds -- these change our relationship to each other, our communities, and our planet. These technologies are quite far along, meaning that in twenty years, systems for ubiquitous transparency will be deeply-embedded, mature and unavoidable. Whether they'll be one-way or two-way remains an open question.

    New Models of Development: The 20th century model of global development has demonstrably failed, but nothing has yet emerged to take its place. Potential alternatives abound: leapfrogging, offering development through local technology innovation; Islamic renaissance, offering a non-Western vision of the interaction of state and religion; G20+, offering new rules of development by "embracing and extending" the old ones; Bollywood, offering culture as the new engine of development; copyfighters, offering a shot at breaking the rules for a greater good. Over the next twenty years, the relationship between the "core" and the "periphery" will be upended.

    The Rise of the Post-Hegemonic World: Finally, the end of the American global hegemony without a clear alternative hegemon or set of hegemons signals a fundamental change in the structure of global politics. Major system shifts have, historically, been signaled by war; the presence of nuclear deterrence and fourth generation warfare as brakes on conventional conflict makes that outcome less likely. By the late 2020s, the new structure of the global system won't necessarily be in place, but its outlines will be coming into view. The United States may have accepted by that point that it's no longer the #1 power in the world, no matter how many missiles it still has. I wouldn't count on that, though.


    My goal is to start talking over the next few days and weeks about how these intersect.

    As always, this is meant not as a prediction but as a provocation. What happens as these drivers take hold depends upon our choices and our actions, and the potential remains for us to use these forces of history as a catalyst for building the kind of world we want. The capacity to do so rests upon an ability to recognize these forces, and to act on that recognition. We must not be passive victims of the future.

    December 4, 2007

    Reversing Gandhi

    The web is full of references to a Mahatma Gandhi quote:

    First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

    This line gives solace to people working on obscure or seemingly hopeless endeavors, wondering if the entrenched incumbent systems will ever give way.

    After reading Andrew Leonard's latest post to "How the World Works," about a ridiculous US Chamber of Commerce advertisement trying to scare people away from supporting a relatively mild carbon regulation (the Lieberman-Warner cap-and-trade bill) (PDF), however, it strikes me that the reverse is true for those entrenched incumbents.

    For those in power unwilling to accept change, the pathway is:

    First they fight you, then they laugh at you, then they ignore you, then you lose.

    As Leonard's post demonstrates, as we work against the powers-that-be that seek to avoid any effort to head off climate disaster, we've now moved solidly into the second stage of this path.

    November 14, 2007

    Village Greens

    Shellenberger and NordhausAttention sustainable blogosphere: Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus don't dislike you. They just don't care much about you.

    Shellenberger and Nordhaus are the authors of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, a book building on their 2005 grenade-in-the-form-of-an-essay, "The Death of Environmentalism" (PDF). The conceit of both the essay and the book is that environmentalism, as it has been practiced, has failed to achieve its goals, and should be abandoned in favor of a new model of dealing with the planet's problems, one that emphasizes solutions, optimism, and the utility of technological progress and economic growth as engines of environmental repair. It's an interesting argument, but it's one based not on the rich history of innovations in environmental policy and politics, but on the entrenched inside-the-Beltway culture that has become known among political bloggers as "the Village."

    I got a chance recently to see Shellenberger and Nordhaus in person at a GBN event; accompanying me was my former WorldChanging colleague (and new Bay Area resident) Dawn Danby. (I took the picture accompanying this post during this event.) After the presentation, I managed to snag a few minutes of Ted Nordhaus' time, and my thoughts here reflect my take on the evening.

    During their talk (and my subsequent conversation with Nordhaus), my reactions flickered between strong agreement and painful frustration. If you peel away the way that Shellenberger and Nordhaus (hereafter S&N) deliver their message, much of what they say makes good sense, and in fact parallels what the WorldChanging team has been arguing since late 2003. Talking about solutions and the pathways to success with a tone of "clear-eyed optimism" (as Alex called it) can be much more persuasive and empowering than talking only about the unfolding disasters. New technologies, markets, and political realism are important parts of these solutions, not instead of behavior changes, regulation and knowledge but in addition to. A planet of seven billion should be able to live at a high quality of life without destroying our future. The old models of establishment non-profits taking your donations and sending you annual pretty pictures doesn't cut it any longer.

    But while WorldChanging spoke to the large numbers of people who felt a strong desire to embrace the new models of social networks and bottom-up organization to make environmentalism stronger, S&N's audience seems to be the power elite most threatened by these models. S&N targets for attack the environmental movement as it's seen in Washington, D.C. -- sluggish institutions that don't play the lobbying game well, with memberships largely comprising rich boomers who write checks every year (but that's about it). Moreover, to the degree that their view acknowledges the role of citizen stakeholders, it's in the form of "DFH" protestors still stuck in 1973. While web activism, green blogs, and the like certainly exist, their only real useful role is either as sources of funding or as mouthpieces for the establishment. That's my paraphrasing of their argument, to be sure: S&N, as long-time D.C.-based political strategists, are much more diplomatic than that. While they'll happily agree that green blogs (and web-based activism, social networks, and the like) are "really important," they don't go much further than that; all of the strategies and ideas they want to discuss focus on the leadership and power of the incumbent political and corporate institutions. The citizens are just a footnote.

    I realized, about a third of the way through the presentation, that S&N are fully paid-up members of The Village, the acid term for the Washington, D.C. coterie of strategists, pundits, media figures, and policymakers, all more interested in ensuring their mutual approval than actually confronting problems. The Village has set narratives, and information or opinions that run counter to these set narratives are variously declared "irresponsible," "offensive," or (worst of all) "un-serious." The point of the Village is to perpetuate the Village; political figures who don't pay obeisance to the Village and its narratives are either ignored (if they're insufficiently powerful) or venomously attacked.

    Much of the discussion of the Village (at Digby's, at Orcinus, at Atrios) focuses on the Village's jihad against anyone opposing the war, especially the DFHs who opposed the war from the outset. But this same mindset -- of focus on establishment power (political and corporate), of dismissal of grassroots action, of ignorance (and abuse) of opinions that didn't come from fellow Villagers -- fits the perspectives that S&N embraced at the GBN event.

    S&N seemed like affable, smart people, and I am convinced of their commitment to wanting to bring about a sustainable world. But they seemed stuck in a previous era, and didn't really seem to notice that the world of political organization, the distribution of information, and citizen power has changed. As incumbent institutions across the business and political spectrum have discovered, this ignorance can be dangerous.

    It's possible that it's just a pose. Bashing fellow environmentalists was, in this way, something of a "Sister Eco-Souljah" tactic: demonstrating one's legitimacy to the establishment by attacking outsiders who agree with you. If so, it could be a smart move for S&N, if more than a little Machiavellian. There is a clear need for the power centers in Washington, D.C. to make faster and more aggressive moves towards dealing with the climate emergency. If environmentalists Shellenberger and Nordhaus (and they are environmentalists, of that I have no doubt) need to repudiate other environmentalists and dismiss the netroots in order to be heard by the rest of the Village, then I'll weather the attacks.

    I hope that this is the case, because if not -- if S&N are undermining the people who have been fighting for the environment for decades while simultaneously spiting those of us who have adopted participatory technologies to open a new front because they really believe they're right -- that's just depressing.

    October 30, 2007

    SimPolitics

    SubtleThe hard-right Swiss People's Party -- the SVP -- is not known for its subtlety. I took the picture to the right, a campaign billboard for the SVP, when in Zurich last month; to be fair, while I ran across several of the billboards during my stay, this was the only one that wasn't hit with anti-racist graffiti. Nonetheless, cartoon ovine discrimination isn't the only way that this political movement gets its message out: it now uses video games.

    Ian Bogost, over at Water Cooler Games, notes the SVP's "Zottel-Game" website. Zottel the goat is the SVP's symbol, and at this website, the player can use Zottel to carry out a variety of political goals, from blocking immigration to shooting EU tax collectors (symbolized by EU hats) to attacking Green party activists. All of this happens in a cartoonish style, of course, and the immigrants are once again symbolized by black sheep. There are four separate games, all done in Flash.

    Bogost provides this context:

    To understand the games, though, you have to first know something about the party itself. It was once a centrist agricultural party, but took on right-wing populist interests in the last twenty years. Since 2003, the party has been very strong in the Swiss National Council. Their right-wing policies have included attempts to ban the construction of minarets, drawing accusations that it wanted to rid the country of Muslims, and the deportation of criminal foreigners, which some compared to Nazi deportation policies.

    (For more context on the SVP, see this long (English-language) piece at the German newsmagazine Spiegel)

    The SVP is not a marginal, fringe party; it's actually the largest single party in the Swiss parliament, holding about a quarter of the overall seats. Its use of online videogames as a way of spreading its message underscores how games have become an increasingly mainstream medium for political communication, linking blunt symbolism and simplistic rhetoric. While I wouldn't expect an identical set of games to do as well in the U.S. (mostly because the racial aspects would be hard to dismiss), I wouldn't be at all surprised to see some kind of online games offered up by candidate or party websites in the 2008 elections.

    Sadly, it's likely that such political games would be as mindless as the SVP games (regardless of partisan angles). Despite the significance of the very real challenges facing the U.S. and the planet, modern political discourse doesn't seem to lend itself to deep discussions and multivariate analysis, and Flash-based applications are rarely well-suited for complex gameplay. I would love to see candidates and parties offering up versions of SimCity or Civilization embedded with their perspectives on how the world works, giving players a chance to "live" in those worlds as they consider their votes -- or, perhaps, to offer up games of how the world would be if their opponents won.

    Imagine such a world. Rather than candidates and parties describing the worlds that they'll make in broad, unprovable language, they'll have to show how such a world would work. They'll need to hire teams of programmers, of course; I'd imagine that coders able to design both good simulation systems and enjoyable interfaces would come at quite the premium. Transparency would be critical, since it would be too easy to cheat and bias the model to only produce beneficial outcomes. With that transparency, however, comes another channel of argument. Debates would take place in the form of alternative source code, with savvy partisans pointing out errors and omissions in opposing models. "Many eyes make all partisan distortions of the simulation shallow" would be the rallying cry.

    Instead, we get goats kicking out black sheep and hippies.

    Is too much to ask for a little nuance and intelligence in our politics?

    October 24, 2007

    The Politics of Geoengineering

    geoengineering.jpgGeoengineering -- or, as I sometimes call it, re-terraforming the Earth -- is back in the news, with a sobering editorial in today's New York Times by Carnegie's Dr. Ken Caldeira. Caldeira's commentary arrives in the wake of news that the geophysical mechanisms for cycling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere are beginning to slow down, thereby increasing the degree to which CO2 accumulates as a greenhouse gas. This is exactly the kind of news that makes one suspect that we may not have the time to re-imagine our urban systems, transform our agricultural methods, and move to a carbon-free economy. Geoengineering seems to provide a solution (of varying appeal) for just this kind of situation, focusing not on resolving the causes of global climate disruption, but on ameliorating the symptoms.

    I've addressed the question of support for or opposition to geoengineering in the past, and given its increasing visibility, debates among scientists, environmentalists, and engineers are not hard to find. But these debates center on the scientific risks and merits of the re-terraforming proposals. Few people, regardless of position, have focused on a fundamental non-geophysical risk of the method: political control, costs, and stability.

    To put it bluntly, global-scale efforts don't happen without global-scale reactions. Should we see geoengineering efforts, there will certainly be struggles over control of the program(s), conflicts over liability for problems, and -- most troublingly -- independent. "rogue" geoengineering projects undertaken in defiance of established guidelines.

    Continue reading "The Politics of Geoengineering" »

    October 1, 2007

    New World, Old World

    tmobtower-bp.jpgMy arrival in Budapest yesterday afternoon was largely uneventful*, and today's my first full day in the city. Already, however, I can see what the primary theme of the visit will be: transition.

    Hungary is still in the midst of its transition from a beaten-down member of the Eastern Bloc nations into a fully-fledged part of the family of Europe. It's been a member of the European Union for a few years, but is not yet in the Euro zone. Advertisements for mobile phone systems are ubiquitous, but the communication infrastructure offers mixed quality, at best. Western mega-chains are present, but by no means ubiquitous -- I've seen numerous McDonald's, for example, but apparently Starbucks remains unknown. Individually, none of these are particularly deep observations, but they seem to link together for me.

    Transition is an old theme here: Hungary was part of the Ottoman Empire at its peak, and many of the churches here still show signs of once having been mosques.

    I'll be posting pictures to Flickr, under the tag "Budapest trip."



    (* The flight in from SF was actually pretty uncomfortable, and I'm going to avoid flying KLM in the future, but not worth going on and on about.)

    September 25, 2007

    Turning the Body Against Itself

    Is the most effective form of warfare akin to an auto-immune disease?

    System disruption, attacks upon infrastructure and the other basic networks allowing a society to function, is a core goal of the "open source warfare" model. Not system destruction -- disruption, or partial damage and degradation, which reduces legitimacy and undermines the ability of the state to fight. Normally, we think of such damage to infrastructure coming from the direct action of attackers: blowing up power plants, attacking food shipments, etc.

    But it seems that a potentially more effective form of system disruption happens as the result of actions taken by the state itself in response to a threat (or perceived threat) from insurgents. The disruption to critical networks happens not as a direct result of attacks, but as the (usually unintended) result of defensive measures taken to head off an attack.

    This post from Bruce Schneier today makes illustrates this idea. He points to a blog post by Eric Umansky about the emergence of cholera in Iraq. The cause of the cholera outbreak is already known: the lack of chlorine to use to purify water.

    "We are suffering from a shortage of chlorine, which is sometimes zero," Dr. Ameer said in an interview on Al Hurra, an American-financed television network in the Middle East. "Chlorine is essential to disinfect the water.

    Chlorine is hard to come by because of a series of unsuccessful "chlorine bomb" attacks a few months ago; chlorine is now under tight restriction. The intended result of the restriction was to make it harder for insurgents to use chlorine to create improvised chemical weapons, even though the various attempts to do so resulted in no actual fatalities. The actual result was to disrupt the water infrastructure by putting a stranglehold on the ability to purify water, in turn leading to cholera outbreaks. As Umansky puts it:

    In other words, the biggest damage from chlorine bombs -- as with so many terrorist attacks -- has come from overreaction to it. Fear operates as a "force multiplier" for terrorists, and in this case has helped them cut off Iraq's clean water. Pretty impressive feat for some bombs that turned out to be close to duds.

    To be clear: the chlorine bombs, while scary, had no serious military impact. But they were exactly the kind of weapon that could trigger an overreaction. The same can be said for the various threats against airplanes that served as catalysts for security measures that slow air travel (although obviously with less dire consequences).

    It struck me that a minor attack triggering a defensive response which continues long after the attack, and causes much more damage than the original attack ever could have, is pretty much a description of an auto-immune disorder. In a wide variety of diseases, the body has turned against itself, with the immune system attacking what should be seen as healthy, normal tissue. Lupus, multiple sclerosis, and (most personal to me) rheumatoid arthritis are common examples of auto-immune diseases.

    Interestingly, recent research suggests that a low level of auto-immunity is useful as a way of developing and testing the rapid immune response; the wikipedia entry suggests that this is akin to "play fighting" in animals that need to learn how to hunt.

    Similarly, it's likely that many of the useful steps that can be taken to block or create resilience towards system disruption attacks may engender a bit of "auto-immune" disruption, such as requiring that more time be taken to examine cargo containers at shipping ports. What's needed is an ability to recognize when an "unhealthy" auto-immune disruption is underway -- or, better still, when it's a likely result of a tactical or strategic choice. This, in turn, requires a greater willingness to admit to bad decisions, and to rescind mistakes. Unsurprisingly, it all boils down to greater transparency about the decision-making process, and more efficient channels of communication between the people who determine strategy and the people who have to live with the results.

    September 13, 2007

    Greetings from Rüschlikon

    Ruschlikon-LakeZurich-pan.jpg

    I write this gazing out over Lake Zurich, in a hotel room that seems quintessentially European: spare, vaguely futuristic, extremely stylish. I'm here as a guest of Swiss Reinsurance, the second-largest reinsurance company in the world, and a long-time leader in grappling with the implications of climate disruption on global systems. This is Swiss Re's "Centre for Global Dialogue," and I go on stage in just about two hours.

    I'll be delivering a talk tonight, and two more tomorrow, in my guise as an affiliate of the Institute for the Future, but I was asked to do this more because of the breadth of work I've done outside IFTF. And when asked to speak at Swiss Re, I jumped at the chance.

    Thinking about my presentation got me musing about the difficulty of imagining a future that's neither identical to the present, nor on the verge of apocalypse. Not a utopia, per se, but a future that gives us a bit more to hope for than to fear.

    I think it's because, to reverse Tolstoy, all unhappy futures are identical, but every happy future is happy in a different way. Unhappy futures, no matter their province -- environmental disaster, technological doom, bird flu, peak oil, civilizational suicide-by-spam -- are really about three basic fears: deprivation, pain and death. The relative balance of the three will vary, as will the proximate causes, but for the starving masses, it ultimately doesn't make much difference whether their demise was at the hands of a global climate collapse or a super-empowered high-tech terrorist.

    We know all too well, conversely, that definitions of happiness vary considerably between cultures and between individuals. A bucolic life of growing my own food and living amidst nature doesn't work as a "happy future" for me, but would be idyllic for some of you; neither of us, however, would likely welcome a future that would be a happy one for a religious zealot.

    Or, to put it in a more considered (and less pointed) fashion, we tend to recognize that happiness is contingent, and because we can so easily imagine how any given happy future could become less happy -- and have trouble imagining how a disastrous future, once underway, could become less apocalyptic -- it's far harder to accept that we might succeed (at avoiding doom, at improving our society, at changing our values, etc.) than that we might fail. It's my job to make those happier, or at least less-apocalyptic, futures easier to accept.

    Sometimes, being a futurist isn't about making forecasts or spotting trends.

    Sometimes, being a futurist means acting as a civilizational therapist.

    September 4, 2007

    Visionary (?)

    "Don't be deceived when they tell you things are better now. Even if there's no poverty to be seen because the poverty's been hidden. Even if you ever got more wages and could afford to buy more of these new and useless goods which industries foist on you and even if it seems to you that you never had so much, that is only the slogan of those who still have much more than you.

    Don't be taken in when they paternally pat you on the shoulder and say that there's no inequality worth speaking of and no more reason to fight because if you believe them they will be completely in charge in their marble homes and granite banks from which they rob the people of the world under the pretence of bringing them culture.

    Watch out, for as soon as it pleases them they'll send you out to protect their gold in wars whose weapons, rapidly developed by servile scientists, will become more and more deadly until they can with a flick of the finger tear a million of you to pieces."

      – Attributed to Jean Paul Marat (May 24, 1743 – July 13, 1793), but likely from Paul Weiss' play Marat/Sade

    (BTW, if anyone has a direct source for this quote, I'd love the precise reference.)

    (Please check the comments for discussion of attribution.)

    July 18, 2007

    This Really Says It All

    [BusinessWeek] Would you consider a position in business or on Wall Street?
    [Condoleezza Rice] I don't know what I'll do long-term. I'm a terrible long-term planner.

    Source: "A Resolute Condoleezza Rice," BusinessWeek July 23, 2007

    July 9, 2007

    Solving Problems by Getting Away From It All

    Musing a bit recently about the intersection of crisis-response thinking and transformational-future thinking, and it struck me that this slogan:

    The Rapture is not an exit strategy.

    ...has a useful parallel in:

    The Singularity is not a sustainability strategy.

    (It's too much of a tongue-twister to make a good bumper sticker, for better or worse.)

    The second line may be speaking to a somewhat smaller audience than the first, but I've seen more people advocating for ignoring climate disruption because the Singularity Will Change Everything (tm) than people clamoring for the Rapture to make the Iraq war moot.

    July 4, 2007

    Don't Forget

    [Kind of unsettling to read this in 2007.]

    When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

    He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

    He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

    He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

    He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

    He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

    He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

    He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

    He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

    He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

    He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

    He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

    He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

    He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

    For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

    For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

    For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

    For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

    For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

    For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

    For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

    For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

    For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

    He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

    He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

    He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

    He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

    He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

    In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

    Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

    We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

    June 19, 2007

    F in Citizenship

    fsindexmapsm.jpgForeign Policy magazine has come out with its annual listing of "Failed States. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the media attention to this list has focused on Iraq being #2 on the list, behind Sudan. Of greater interest to me, however, are two of the subsidiary pages: the methodology of the analysis of failure, and a chart showing a relationship between failed environments and failed statehood.

    Foreign Policy's graph mapping the correlation between sustainability and stability shows clearly that the two are positively connected: failed states are almost invariably environmental disasters, and stable states are in nearly every case reasonably sustainable. On the surface, this is entirely unsurprising; people living in fear for their lives are not apt to be good stewards of the environment. But two unanswered questions leap to mind that could dramatically change the analysis: the definition of sustainability (I couldn't find a reference for FP's sustainability ratings updated*); and the direction of causation.

    FP's brief definition of sustainability is "a country’s ability to avoid environmental disaster and deterioration." That, of course, sounds more like "resilience" to me, and says nothing about a country's ability to maintain functioning ecosystems, clean water, and the like. It's very likely that the environmental resilience of a state will closely match the political and social resilience. But even states that manage to get their political acts together could be unable to survive if key ecological systems and resources are lost or insufficient.

    An even bigger question is the direction of causation. To what degree is the environmental degradation or collapse in these states the result of the failure of governance, and to what degree is the environmental degradation or collapse a contributor to the failure of governance? Both can be true, of course, but is there a clear trend or pattern? This is an important question, because if environmental degradation tends to precede state collapse (not as the sole factor in the collapse, but as an important political "forcing"), the acceleration of global warming-related ecosystem disruptions will mean more than economic loss and climate refugees.

    Given the potential importance of this factor, it's odd that while it appears in the Foreign Policy discussion, it's not an element in the analysis.

    For this study, Foreign Policy looks at 12 factors for failure, including demographic pressures, the economy, delegitimization of the state, and external intervention. Each of these is rated on a 1-10 scale; the worst four failed states (Sudan, Iraq, Somalia and Zimbabwe) all include lots of 10s. These factors, and the ratings, are derived by a method referred to as CAST: Conflict Assessment System Tool. The 12 failure factors are matched against five core "capacities to cope," then run up against STINGS:

    STINGS are the unanticipated factors that act as catalysts to accelerate or decelerate the immediate risk of conflict

    STINGS is an acronym used here to describe:

  • Surprises (e.g., currency collapse)
  • Triggers (e.g., assassinations, coup d'etats)
  • Idiosyncrasies (e.g., non-contiguous territory, a deference to authority)
  • National Temperaments (e.g., cultural or religious perspectives)
  • Spoilers (e.g., disgruntled followers, excluded parties)
  • (No, I don't know where the "G" in STINGS comes from; shouldn't it be STINTS?)

    Security analysts have been trying to assemble a workable quantitative assessment of geopolitical stability for decades. Most have had readily-identifiable flaws (for example, the RAND Strategy Assessment System, built by the RAND Corporation in the 1980s and early 1990s, used a model of US-Soviet friction that had, as its least threatening level, a conflict equivalent to the Cuban Missile Crisis). CAST is no exception -- one clearly missing element is the degree to which neighboring states add pressure for failure, whether due to their own failure or as a means of undermining geopolitical opponents. As with the environment, Foreign Policy recognizes the importance of this factor in its own discussion, but it really should go into the core analysis.

    Failed states are the end-point of "system disruption" warfare. We need to get a lot better at understanding all of the operational factors if we're going to have any chance of figuring out a way to respond effectively. And in this struggle, global guerillas and global warming operate hand in hand.

    * UPDATE: Carolyn O'Hara from Foreign Policy wrote to tell me that the environmental ratings were based on "environmental sustainability scores provided by the 2005 Environmental Sustainability Index produced by Yale and Columbia." Thank you, Carolyn.

    May 21, 2007

    Security Theater of the Absurd

    (This post written in the departure lounge for my return flight from London to San Francisco, about 2am Pacific Time, and posted upon my arrival home.)

    Security specialist Bruce Schneier uses a particular term to refer to the practices that are highly visible but ultimately of little value: "security theater." One of the canonical examples of security theater is the requirement that one remove one's shoes at the airport, or more recently, the 3 ounce limitation on liquids carried on-board a plane. These are demands that have little practical effect, but -- in large measure by inconveniencing travelers -- they give the appearance of doing something about aircraft security.

    Today, just about fifteen minutes ago, I saw the normal level of security theater taken to new heights.

    In the past, my flights to London have been on British Airways; this time, for a variety of reasons, I gave Virgin Atlantic a try. The SFO to LHR leg was generally pleasant, at least as pleasant as trans-Atlantic flights can be (i.e., I was constantly feeling guilty about the carbon footprint of my flight). The security theater in San Francisco was perfunctory and reasonably efficient.

    Heathrow proved to be a different story. For whatever reason, the initial x-ray screening went more slowly than at SFO; moreover, the inevitable shoe-removal was actually a second line & screening, rather than just part of the initial pass-through. It turns out that this wasn't the end of it, however. Upon arrival at the departure gate, I discovered that Virgin has put together yet another security screening, requiring me to:

    • Allow the screener to poke through my carry-on bag. Given what later transpired with the laptop, I was surprised that he didn't seem particularly interested in my unusual-appearing camera or multiple mobile phones (the woman being grilled next to me spent much of her time struggling to remove the battery from her lone mobile).
    • Open and drink from the bottle of soda I had purchased from the vendor around the corner from the gate (and well-within the departure area).
    • Remove my shoes again, so that the screener could... well, all he did was lift each boot. I'm not sure what that told him, other than I have reasonably lightweight boots.
    • Open up my laptop screen so that he could run his fingers across the keyboard. He didn't care whether the laptop was on or off, or whether it worked -- just that the keys moved.
    • He then told me to remove the battery. I told him no, that I needed to shut the machine down first so that I didn't lose data. I felt perversely amused that the laptop seemed to take three times longer than usual to shut down. Once the laptop had finally shut down, and I had removed the battery, all he did was look into the battery slot for about a second, if even that long. "All clear."

    When I said that this all seemed rather absurd, given that I'd just gone through a screening a short while before, he sniffed that this was being done because I was flying to the United States, and that required extra precautions. I asked if British Airways was doing this, too, and he said that he hoped so -- but when I said that they weren't when I flew just a few weeks earlier, he just shrugged.

    This wasn't done to me as a special random (or lone-male) screening. Every passenger on the 747 received this treatment. Given the screener's replies, I have no reason to believe that this was a just-added layer of security in response to a new threat.

    Okay, I understand that, on the grand scale of things, this is at worst an inconvenience. But in many ways, it's the perfect illustration of just how brain-dead the current security model has become. This is all about going through ritualized motions without any actual utility. It's cargo-cult security.

    And that makes it dangerous. To the extent that flyers -- citizens -- believe that this kind of time-consuming and vaguely humiliating inspection (the crotch-grabbing pat-down really should have a safeword) actually makes the flight safer, they're less-likely to pay attention to their surroundings. Someone who decides to do something evil on the flight has a greater chance of being successful, simply because passengers are made to think that the security theater actually made a difference.

    The combined self-interest, awareness and reason of the public is our greatest source of defense against the unthinkable. This is true whether we're talking about human-caused or natural disasters. Anything that mutes these defenses without offering compensating benefits works to our ultimate detriment.

    May 13, 2007

    Outsourcing the Future

    This strikes me as an important indicator:

    Pasadena news site outsources local government coverage to India
    PASADENA – The job posting was a head-scratcher: “We seek a newspaper journalist based in India to report on the city government and political scene of Pasadena, California, USA.” [...] Outsourcing first claimed manufacturing jobs, then hit services such as technical support, airline reservations and tax preparation. Now comes the next frontier: local journalism.

    The editor who ran the ad argues that, since the Pasadena city council now puts its meetings online, reporters covering the city can be anywhere. And while this particular example may not hold true this time around -- city governance is more than city council meetings -- it's clearly going to be possible at some point soon.

    Of course, the editor's job isn't going to be so stable, either. Whether because of automated selection software ("botsourcing," as with Google News) or social filtering software ("crowdsourcing," as with Digg), specialized editor skills are of declining value. And there's really no reason why editorial duties couldn't be outsourced, too. Add in remote collaboration and presentations, and the same will hold true for lawyers, accountants, even (gulp) consultants.

    The combination of increasingly smart software, social network-based activities, and highly-educated low-cost workers around the world looks likely to hit knowledge workers as hard -- if not harder -- than previous waves of automation and outsourcing have hit ostensibly less-skilled jobs. Botsourcing/crowdsourcing/outsourcing knowledge work may turn out to be a very attractive option, given that these tend to be higher-paying jobs. Ironically, it's entirely possible that the carbon footprint of shipping may add so much cost to outsourced manufacturing that those jobs get re-localized, whereas the knowledge jobs (needing only an Internet connection) end up being globalized.

    So are we headed to a world where the only stable jobs are those that absolutely require hands-on contact -- health maintenance, grooming, and the like? Or to one where wages even out across the world of skilled workers? Neither strikes me as terribly appealing or stable.

    In the past, economic transitions that resulted in lost jobs inevitably led to arguments that such losses were transient, as new technologies and industries would be opening up, and new skills would lead to new jobs. But that argument rests on the assumption that there were categories of work that couldn't easily be de-coupled from the workers, because of highly-specialized skills. In a world where the only job characteristic that can't readily be de-coupled is proximity, is it even possible to come up with new jobs that can't immediately be shipped out or chipped out?

    This, coupled with the likely rise of molecular manufacturing over the next 20 to 25 years, strikes me as a key early indicator that we're shifting into an entirely new kind of economy.

    May 2, 2007

    The Lost Hegemon (pt 2): The End of Conventional War

    (Previously: The Lost Hegemon (pt 1) and A Post-Hegemonic Future)

    Few would dispute that the American military is, far and away, the most powerful conventional armed force on the planet, even as depleted as it is by the Iraq war.

    At the same time, few would dispute that this military force is, and by all signs will continue to be, insufficient to quell the insurgency in Iraq.

    While this particular result has dramatic implications for the global position of the US, as well as for the political and economic future of the region (and the world), the larger meaning of this conflict is only beginning to become clear: conventional militaries, as a means of compelling a desired behavior on the part of a national populace, have become obsolete. The question now is how long it will take political leaders to recognize this fact, and adapt to it.

    The reasons for this obsolescence are clear: conventional military forces appear to be unable to defeat a networked insurgency, which combines the information age's distributed communication and rapid learning with the traditional guerilla's invisibility (by being indistinguishable from the populace) and low support needs. It's not just the American experience in Iraq (and, not as widely discussed, Afghanistan) that tells us this; Israel's latest war in Lebanon leads us to the same conclusion, and even the Soviet Union's experience in Afghanistan and America's war in Vietnam underline this same point. Insurgencies have always been hard to defeat with conventional forces, but the "open source warfare" model, where tactics can be learned, tested and communicated both formally and informally across a distributed network of guerillas, poses an effectively impossible challenge for conventional militaries.

    To be clear, this isn't a crude argument that networked insurgency forces are "stronger" than conventional militaries. In a stand-up fight against a modern army, whether on attack or defense, the guerillas will lose; in an insurgency, where stand-up fights are avoided, the modern army simply cannot win. But even talking about winning and losing in this context is simplistic. Networked insurgencies are best at forcing costly stalemates. When on the offense, networked insurgencies are less about compellence than about provocation (making the enemy more likely to engage in acts that horrify the populace and undermine the enemy's support); on the defense, they're less about protection than about disruption (making the enemy expend increasing amounts of force, money and attention on maintaining its own critical support systems). As a result, a networked insurgency can best be thought of as a deterrent force, promising (and able) to exact a high cost in retaliation for a perceived attack.

    (John Robb's site Global Guerillas, along with his new book Brave New War, document the emergence and capabilities of the open source warfare concept, so I won't try to replicate that here. And, to be clear, my arguments here are my own, not his.)

    If deterrence as a way of making conventional militaries obsolete sounds familiar, it should. Such obsolescence actually began in 1945, with the beginning of the nuclear era. The risk of escalation made conventional conflict between nuclear-armed states functionally impossible, by making it something that must be avoided. While this didn't stop the US and USSR from building up considerable conventional military forces, it meant (for example) that the Soviets could field a significantly larger conventional army than could the Americans without changing the balance of power. All of the money poured into the conventional militaries by the superpowers was functionally meaningless when it came to the threat each posed directly to the other. The Cold War military build-ups had other drivers -- power-projection against non-nuclear states (albeit with limited effectiveness), institutional bureaucracies that needed to be fed, and a conventional way of thinking that simply couldn't quite believe that the underlying system of military power had changed.

    Nuclear weapons make conventional conflicts extremely unlikely between nuclear states. Historically, this meant that nuclear states could still mess around with conventional conflicts against non-nuclear states, with varying degrees of success. The growing empowerment of insurgent forces has now made conventional conflicts extremely costly and nearly impossible to win, as well. In time, this should come to make them extremely unlikely at the low end, too.*

    Because this empowerment looks set to accelerate both technologically (such as with the advent of inexpensive fabbers or the proliferation of ultra-cheap, ultra-smart embedded processors and programming know-how) and organizationally (as the increased participation of various globally-distributed guerilla movements increases the pool of tactics and ways to test them), fights against networked insurgencies will only become more and more dangerous. If the lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon don't sink in this time, the next attempt to use conventional military forces will lead to even costlier failure, and the next after that costlier still -- and, eventually, the fading hegemons, rising superpowers, regional badasses and so forth will finally realize that the Great Game they thought they'd been playing ended years ago.

    But what's the new game? Networked insurgencies are just the latest in a long evolution of conflict. How, then, will the powerful again come to dominate the weak?

    That remains to be seen, but it's almost certain to involve figuring out ways to achieve networked supremacy, rather than simple force supremacy. It will very likely be much more automated, in part due to the growing reluctance of post-industrial nations to give up the lives of soldiers, and in part due to the growing ability of semi-autonomous machines to carry out tasks beyond the capacity of the human body. Ideally, the proliferation of networked systems in the service of "politics by other means" might even allow for the development of tools that minimize casualties on all sides. (The stalled but brilliant web comic Spiders is one intriguing scenario of what that kind of world might look like.)

    Despite the end of the utility of conventional force, the lack of certainty as to what the next wave of global compellence power will look like will inevitably lead to strategic mistakes. As we look ahead, it's clear that if another state -- say, China -- decides to take America's place as the leading hegemonic power on the planet by emulating the current American model of extreme emphasis on conventional force projection, that state has already become another Lost Hegemon. The system has changed, and the meaning of power has changed.

    Conversely, the first group that cracks this problem has the potential to leapfrog the others in assuming the role of global powerhouse. Given the speed with which technology and organizational models are evolving, we can't assume it will be a state. Corporations seemed poised to take on that role in the 1990s; non-governmental groups are the lead candidates today. It's entirely possible that the kind of social organization that will become the next hegemonic force has yet to be invented. One thing is clear: the next superpower, whoever or whatever it is, will be the actor that finally figures out the new meaning of power.







    * So what about India and Pakistan? They're both nuclear armed, and yet continue to shoot at each other. Ironically, this seems to be a result of the empowerment of insurgency. Nuclear rivals, not willing to risk the potential escalation of a conventional fight, may turn to the use of networked insurgency techniques as a way of maintaining a fight. As the power of networked insurgency continues to grow, however, even this may become untenable

    April 30, 2007

    Responsibility to the Future

    It's a troubling sign of the modern political culture that being repeatedly and horrifically wrong about important subjects doesn't seem to make one less popular as an advisor. In fields where the subjects of professional analysis are granular and readily quantifiable, making crucial mistakes over and over again is a clear pathway to unemployment. Yet when the subjects are expansive and globally important, such as the politics of war or climate, repeated errors apparently aren't worth notice.

    If these mistakes were simply signs of professional buffoonery, they'd be annoying but not worth comment. But these errors in analysis come from people with a great deal of influence over both policy-makers and semi-informed voters. Moreover, they focus on a subject that I follow closely: foresight.

    In the era leading up to the current war in Iraq, the United States (as well as other nations) heard a cacophony of assertions about the inevitable results of the war. Some of these assertions were on-target; some were wildly (and tragically) off-base. Sadly, the voices that were most wrong still regularly appear on television news, on the editorial pages, and featured prominently in talk radio. The voices that were the most right, conversely, remain more-or-less invisible in the popular media.

    So, following a blog trend, let me just say: What Digby (or, in this case, Tristero) Said.

    It's high time that those who were right all along about Iraq have a significant national voice. [...] Whether or not [the high-profile pundits like William Kristol, Ken Pollack, and Tom Friedman] now recognize they were wrong, the fact is that they were when it counted most. Time to listen to those who got it right from the start.

    I've written before about the responsibility that ethical futurists have to the future.

    ...the first duty of an ethical futurist is to act in the interests of the stakeholders yet to come -- those who would suffer harm in the future from choices made in the present. [...] Futurists, as those people who have chosen to become navigators for society -- responsible for watching the path ahead -- have a particular responsibility for safeguard that path, and to ensure that the people making strategic choices about actions and policies have the opportunity to do so wisely.

    Implicit in this responsibility is the necessity of admission when one's analysis was wrong. But missing from this is the parallel admonition to the people and organizations that listen to foresight analysis: if your chosen "navigators for society" repeatedly run you into rocks, yet repeatedly deny having done so, you have a particular responsibility to stop listening to them.

    March 19, 2007

    The Lost Hegemon (pt 1)

    Rolling Stone assembled a round-table discussion with Richard Clarke, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Bob Graham, Juan Cole and others (from the military, diplomatic and intelligence services) about three scenarios for the end of the US involvement in the Iraq conflict (note I didn't say the end of the conflict itself). These are no wild-haired radicals; for the most part, they're conservative, traditional DC players. And what they see is grim.

    Best Case: "Civil War in Iraq and a Stronger Al Qaeda."

    Scheuer [former CIA head of the bin Laden unit]: No matter what happens now, the Islamists will have beaten both of the superpowers -- first the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and now the United States in the heart of Islam. The impact of that in Islamic civilization is going to be enormous. We have made bin Laden a prophet: His organizing concept for Al Qaeda was "The Russians are a lot tougher than the Americans. If we can beat the Russians, then we can eventually beat the Americans." Even more important, Al Qaeda will have contiguous territory on the Arab peninsula to attack from.

    Most-Likely Case: "Years of Ethnic Cleansing and War with Iran."

    McPeak [former member, US Joint Chiefs of Staff]: We're going to see a full-scale intercommunal war that may not burn out until one side is all dead, all gone. The Kurds would like to sit on the sidelines, but I don't see how they stay out, especially up in the Kirkuk area, where they sit on a lot of oil. This is going to be ethnic cleansing like we had in Kosovo or Bosnia -- but written big, in capital letters. And we can't stop it.

    Worst Case: "World War III."

    Freeman [former ambassador to Saudi Arabia]: This could become the Islamic equivalent of the Thirty Years War between Protestants and Catholics in Europe in the 1600s -- a religious schism that blossoms into overt mayhem and murder and massacres and warfare. The various Iraqi factions will obtain the backing of other Middle Eastern states as they conduct their ideological and ethnic struggles. It will be a free-for-all that spreads beyond the anarchic zone of Iraq.

    The American presence at the top of the international heap couldn't last forever, but the decline need not have been this fast and this devastating to the planet. It's clear that the Bush administration has so weakened American international power -- military, economic, moral -- that there are few plausible scenarios for American hegemony continuing much longer. We're moving into what may be the most dangerous period in world history, with the confluence of accelerating climate disaster, super-empowered "global guerillas," the likely emergence of singularity-grade material technologies by the end of the next decade, and (of course) the global repercussions of the Iraq catastrophe. But we'll enter this period without any broadly-recognized, broadly-respected international leadership.

    Does that make things all the worse?

    Or does that give us an unexpected opportunity to adopt unconventional strategies?

    January 11, 2007

    This Quite Literally Makes No Sense

    Sayeth Condoleezza Rice:

    "It's bad policy to speculate on what you'll do if a plan fails when you're trying to make a plan work."

    At the hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as quoted in the Washington Post.

    November 12, 2006

    The Future of Public Participation

    I'll be speaking on Wednesday morning at the International Association of Public Participation conference in Montreal, Canada. My topic will be the future of public participation, and I'll be riffing on the effects of the intersection of collaborative technologies, empowered networks, and the DIY culture. I'll post the highlights from the talk when I'm back.

    In thinking about public participation in its various forms, however, it strikes me that enabling broad participation isn't enough. Some people, perhaps most, won't have the time or the inclination to be active parts -- or even substantive passive parts -- of the bottom-up world. As more power shifts to these emergent groups, however, this means that the the "netroots" (to use the Daily Kos term for the active Internet-empowered political base) will have a disproportionate influence over political and social outcomes. Abstractly, this is no different than the narrow constituency of consultants and elite power-brokers exerting control in the pre-Internet era, but few of them tried to make the assertion that they spoke for "the people" in any real way.

    In an environment where these tools of "citizenship 2.0" have the potential to give power to large sections of the populace, actions taken by the small portion that take advantage of such tools could easily come to be seen by the media, by the non-active citizens, and eventually by the netroots themselves as representing the will of the people. For this not to become a crowd-sourced dictatorship, alongside the development of the tools of citizenship 2.0, we need to be developing the culture of citizenship 2.0.

    Okay, I Was Wrong

    In my interview for Suzanne Stefanac's excellent guide to blogging, Dispatches from Blogistan, I make the following assertion:

    Hint to writers encountering blog backlash for the first time: the three most powerful words in the English language in this kind of situation are “I was wrong” — you’ll be amazed at how quickly opinion will shift about you when you own up to your mistakes.

    I'm not seeing any backlash regarding my prediction that Republicans would be the ones crying "we wuz h4x0red!" after last week's election, but still: I was wrong. Possible vote-tampering seems to have hit both major parties more-or-less equally, and in the major elections where the Republicans might have made a stink -- Tester/Burns and Webb/Allen -- they didn't, and the defeated candidates conceded after a day or two.

    I hate it when the world doesn't live up to my cynical expectations.

    November 8, 2006

    The Right Was Right

    Now we can admit it. Our new 25-point agenda.

    My favorites:

    3. Introduce the new Destruction of Marriage Act

    13. Freeways to be removed, replaced with light rail systems

    23. Ban Christmas: replace with Celebrate our Monkey Ancestors Day

    November 7, 2006

    Obligatory Voting Post

    It appears to be a requirement for bloggers who are citizens of the US to report on their voting activities on election day. My voting activity consisted of adding a trip to the voting station to my morning walk, where I dropped off the absentee ballots for me and Janice. We registered as "Permanent Absentee" in California a few years back, meaning that we get our ballots early and can fill them in as we learn about the candidates and issues. We could have mailed them in as late as last Friday, but chose to just drop them off at a polling station instead, thereby combining the convenience of "vote by mail" with the security of traditional paper balloting.

    I'd like to agree with Kos that today's e-voting debacles mean the end of the electronic voting experiment, given that they seem to be hitting high-profile Republican voters as often as Democratic voters. I'm more cynical, however; I think that this will be the prelude to a loud campaign by the Republicans to declare e-voting fraud behind the (likely, but obviously not yet certain) Democratic surge. I mean, when you've tried deceptive robocalls (a campaign practice I'd like to see banned in all forms), lying on sample ballots, and outright voter intimidation, post-facto lawsuits are almost a given.

    (And while I won't make a habit of it, because this site is not trying to be a non-profit organization, I'm under no restrictions on partisan content, as I was at WorldChanging. I doubt my political inclinations will come as a tremendous surprise, however.)

    Update: watch this video and, if you haven't yet, go vote.

    November 2, 2006

    Does Your Vote Count?

    DREvoting.jpgWhen American voters go to the polls next Tuesday, nearly 40% will encounter a so-called Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machine, usually referred to as a touch-screen voting machine, and another 40% will encounter optical scan voting machines. The security risks involved in the current model of electronic voting are so abundant and so varied that it's almost too big of a problem to consider, but Jon "Hannibal" Stokes at Ars Technica has produced a wonderful non-techie explanation of the nature of the problem (a PDF version, appropriate for printing out and giving to everyone you know, can be found here). Reading Stokes' document won't make you feel better about the situation -- if anything, it will make you even more worried about the fate of American democracy -- but understanding the problem is the first step to solving it.

    If you're at all concerned about the state of the democratic vote in the US, you need to read this document.

    For me, this all boils down to a crisis of transparency. The disaster that we will face in a few days isn't that the machines will be hacked, it's that we won't know whether they have, and we will have no real way of checking. Without an independent trail of vote verification (such as voter-checked paper records) actually examined by the board of elections, there's simply no way of knowing if malicious code has been inserted in an electronic voting system to alter the outcome. No way of knowing. And that's worse, in some ways, than proof of election tampering, in that all electronic votes become suspect. Up to 80% of the votes cast on Tuesday could be considered inherently illegitimate.

    Even if nobody hacks the election this time around (and again, we have no way of knowing), there are few computer vulnerabilities that have never been attacked -- and, as the Stokes article demonstrates, electronic voting computers have many vulnerabilities.

    Moreover, the threat isn't limited to a wily hacker fiddling with the electronics to subtly alter vote totals; Stokes points out, quite accurately, that deliberate vandalism of an electronic voting system is virtually indistinguishable from a machine malfunction. and since the result of a broken or vandalized machine is that all votes it has tallied are discarded, a close election can be thrown simply by targeted physical attacks (which can be as simple as cutting a security tape) in districts known to have been gerrymandered to emphasize one party or another.

    The underlying issue is that most of the steps in the process of programming, distributing, and gathering vote machines and information is hidden away from the public, under the guise of "trade secrets." Diebold, ES&S, and the various other DRE manufacturers can claim with a straight face that nobody should be allowed to examine their code because it's proprietary -- never mind that what the software controls is literally the most fundamental act of a citizen. This is so breathtakingly wrong-headed that it's staggering; if we're to use electronic voting, there should be broad public scrutiny at every step of the process, and once loaded, it should be impossible to change the code or touch the recorded votes in the field. It goes without saying that there should also be voter-verified paper trails, subject to random spot checks.

    Unfortunately, because the major DRE manufacturers have both strong Republican connections and poor verbal control (e.g., Diebold executives promising to "deliver Ohio to the Republican Party"), fears about the legitimacy and security of electronic voting systems has taken on a partisan bent, making it harder to move forward with strong reforms. Never mind that many Democratic officials have been captured by the DRE manufacturing lobby, too. People expressing concerns over DREs get slapped with a "Left-wing conspiracy theorist" label, and ignored.

    Here's my scenario for Tuesday's election, then:

    Nearly all polls show the Democratic Party having a dominating lead versus the Republican Party in most national and state-wide races. Some of the votes are going to be close, however. I think that the outcomes will nominally match the polls, but that the Republican Party will be at the forefront of loud complaints about electronic election fraud. They'll immediately be seen as legitimate complaints, in part due to voting machines normally being a "Democratic" issue, and in part due to overly-subservient national media. Whether that will lead to calls for re-votes, selections by governors, or more trips to the (Republican-partisan) US Supreme Court remains to be seen. But come Wednesday, November 8, the shrill cries of computerized vote tampering will come, in abundance, from the Right.

    November 1, 2006

    A Post-Hegemonic Future

    Here's a question to muse about while awaiting the results of Tuesday's election in the US: what happens after the United States is no longer the dominant global power?

    This is a question that doesn't get asked often. Public figures who even mention some possible far-off future date when the US is no longer #1 are excoriated for their lack of patriotism. And when there are no obvious contenders for a new #1, it's easy to think that the status quo is how it shall ever be.

    But anyone who has taken a world history class can tell you that no king of the mountain ever stays there. States that may once have led the world can later be relegated to geographic footnotes; even nations that might dominate for more than a century -- Pax Britannica, anyone? -- eventually fall by the wayside, becoming, in the words of Johnny Rotten, just another country.

    Eventually, the US, too, will become just another country. This is not a partisan position, but a historical observation. And as fundamental changes to the international power structure rarely happen without major disruptions, it's wise to think through what might lead us to a world where the US is no longer king of the hill.

    Continue reading "A Post-Hegemonic Future" »

    September 26, 2006

    The Transformation of War

    George Mokray writes:

    I posted my rather extensive notes from Martin van Creveld's The Transformation of War on dailykos at http://www.dailykos.com/story/2006/9/22/02622/8960

    Heartbreaking that it was published in 1991 and seems so fresh and pertinent today. I wonder what he is thinking about the recent Lebanese adventure.

    An example:

    In the future, war will not be waged by armies but by groups whom we today call terrorists, guerrillas, bandits, and robbers, but who will undoubtedly hit on more formal titles to describe themselves. Their organization are likely to be constructed on charismatic lines rather than institutional ones, and to be motivated less by "professionalism" than by fanatical, ideologically-based, loyalties. While clearly subject to some kind of leadership with coercive powers at its disposal, that leadership will be hardly distinguishable from the organization as a whole; hence it will bear greater similarity to "The Old Man of the Mountains" than to institutionalized government as the modern world has come to understand that term.

    A combination of factors: the nuclear weapons revolution; the global reach of modern media; the socialization of the armed forces in most of the developed world, where they are seen as part of the society, not apart from it; all of these, and more, have contributed to a situation where the modern Great Powers are unable to use force against each other successfully. Nuclear deterrence countenances no conventional assault; the worldwide audience for military acts -- and for the rarely-successful-for-long censorship of the acts -- magnifies brutality into atrocity; and the public will not long sit still for bloodshed. Conventional war, as we last saw prosecuted effectively in the first half of the 20th century, has little future.

    But how the state, which has historically sought a monopoly on violence, can handle the spread of open source warfare, remains an unanswered question.

    September 18, 2006

    Renewable Energy and Global Stability

    oil_fire.jpgAn Agence France-Presse article, reprinted at Terradaily.com, got me thinking about some of the unanticipated results of a radical shift to renewable energy systems.

    In "OPEC Casts A Dark Eye On The Greening Of Energy," writer Peter Capella quotes sources from within OPEC and Saudi Arabia on the increasing emphasis on green energy in the EU, US and globally. Their reactions aren't terribly surprising -- ranging from wholesale denial:

    Yet, oil remains "the leading fuel in the global energy mix for the foreseeable future," said OPEC acting Secretary General Mohammed Barkindo.

    ...to defensiveness:

    Oil producers are also concerned about new anti-pollution regulations that not only aim to drive down consumption, but also oblige oil companies to supply more costly, highly-refined "cleaner" fuels.

    "Some government policies which artificially curtail demand, and create demand uncertainties irrespective of market signals, will have economic ramifications that could jeopardise (the) global energy future," [Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-]Nuami complained.

    ...with an overall sense of injury and insult than anyone would dare consider moving rapidly away from petroleum.

    It's easy to respond to this with more than a little schadenfreude, an ever-increasing delight at their dismay. Few people in the West are happy with the behavior of oil exporting nations, so sticking a thumb in their eye has a certain base appeal. As folks like Tom Friedman have made a career of late out of calling for a shift to renewables primarily as a way of de-funding unpalatable regimes, such a response is entirely predictable.

    For reasons that have more to do with environmental stability than global amity, I feel even more assertive than they about the need to get off of petroleum (just in case there was any question).

    But the reaction from OPEC and Saudi Arabia to comparatively mild greenish policies (such as -- hold onto your hats -- replacing 20% of oil consumption with renewables, nuclear and "clean fossil fuels" by 2020) strikes me as a huge early indicator of the next phase of global instability coming from the Middle East, Venezuela and Nigeria.

    It is possible that we see well over a 20% reduction in oil consumption by 2020 due to a combination of alternative energy production, carbon taxes, political considerations, oil peaking and (of course) greater use efficiency. 50% seems outrageously high, but I'm not willing to say that's impossible; the situation we're in now, with the overlap of climate crisis, energy security concerns, and markets looking for new sources of innovation seems ripe for a "tipping point" transition. With a big chunk of oil revenues gone, the nations with economies built entirely upon petroleum exports would find themselves in serious economic and political straits.

    This is not hard to predict; in fact, it's almost a certainty (few of the major oil exporting countries have demonstrated a real aptitude for managing rapid change). The OPEC ministers would see this as readily as we do. This is a tremendous threat to their well-being. Some of the oil exporting nations will become more accommodationist in order to secure support from richer countries (although it strikes me as likely they'll turn to China before they turn to the US or Europe). But some will spiral apart, using the increasingly-common tools of global disruption to weaken neighbors and trip up the West.

    What are the odds that we'll see a significant system disruption "terrorist" attack against a factory producing solar cells, a major wind farm, or some other visible and symbolic part of the emerging renewable energy infrastructure in the next ten years? These are not facilities that would currently be considered high-priority (or high-security). I haven't seen anyone talking about the possibility of global guerilla strikes against non-petroleum energy facilities as part of the spasm of collapse in the OPEC world -- if any of you have, please send me pointers.

    I think this is going to be fairly big. How readily could these nations deal with the loss of a big chunk of their income in a comparatively short time? If I were in charge of the transition away from fossil fuels, I'd have some contingency plans in store just in case decline become collapse far faster than expected.

    In no way does this make me think we need to slow the move to non-fossil fuels. We should, however, pay very close attention to the unexpected changes such a move could unleash.

    August 16, 2006

    Less Than Meets The Eye

    I'm getting on a plane in a few days, and I'm not relishing the thought of the wait in the airport beforehand. I normally allow about 90 minutes; this week, I'm going to try to arrive a good three hours early. The reason, of course, is the new set of screening rules arising from the arrest this last week of a group in the UK apparently prepping to unleash a wave of airplane bombings.

    Unfortunately, the old adage that the first reports are always wrong holds true yet again.

    As more details of the arrest emerge, the more things don't quite add up. My best friend, Mike, who lives in London, pointed me to a blog post by the former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray. His essay detailed the reasons why the terror plot may well turn out to be not nearly as frightening as it first appeared:

    Unlike the great herd of so-called security experts doing the media analysis, I have the advantage of having had the very highest security clearances myself, having done a huge amount of professional intelligence analysis, and having been inside the spin machine.

    So this, I believe, is the true story.

    None of the alleged terrorists had made a bomb. None had bought a plane ticket. Many did not even have passports, which given the efficiency of the UK Passport Agency would mean they couldn't be a plane bomber for quite some time.

    In the absence of bombs and airline tickets, and in many cases passports, it could be pretty difficult to convince a jury beyond reasonable doubt that individuals intended to go through with suicide bombings, whatever rash stuff they may have bragged in internet chat rooms.

    Moreover, the main source of information about this group -- which had been under surveillance for a year, without any signs showing up that a bombing run was imminent -- was someone wanted in the UK for murder but captured and "interrogated" in Pakistan.

    Does this mean that the UK suspects are innocent? Not at all. As Ron Suskind's powerful and depressing The One Percent Doctrine illustrates, folks operating under the al Qaeda brand have assembled some pretty awful tools for terror, and intelligence services foiled a very similar plot to use liquid explosives against aircraft over a decade ago. It does mean, however, that the presumption of innocence at the center of the Western legal tradition remains relevant, and that all official announcements, especially those presented without evidence, should be treated skeptically.

    This points to a conundrum for those of us who try to think seriously about what tomorrow might hold. Very often, events transpire at such a pace that we need good analysis and strategic foresight now if we're to respond intelligently to emerging changes -- but information about recent events, especially those with a strong political element, is all too often dangerously inaccurate. This is why there's no such thing as a finished scenario or foresight-based strategy, only temporarily stable ones. Useful futurism must undergo a process of constant iteration and redrafting, as more information -- and more accuracy about existing information -- becomes available.

    Our insights into the future are perpetually in beta.

    August 10, 2006

    UK Terror Plot

    The unfolding news about the aircraft bombing plans in the UK hits me pretty hard. I travel to London once a year or so, and two of my closest friends (and their families) live in or around the city. Given that the UK authorities managed to nip this plot early in its life, there's no way to know just how long it would have taken for the plans to be carried out.

    The panic among the authorities in the UK and US is indicative of just how unprepared we really are for these kinds of possibilities. The likelihood of dying from terrorism is no lower than being struck by lightning, but unlike lightning strikes -- or auto accidents, or slips in the bathtub, or the other commonplace sources of mortality against which terrorism can be compared -- death from terror events hits large numbers of people at the same time. The statistics of terrorism may be reassuring, but statistics rarely trump emotion.

    Here are the web resources I'm following for this subject:

  • W. David Stephenson -- lots of coverage of homeland security, with a strong smart mobs perspective.
  • Global Guerillas -- the single best site for understanding the nature of "4th Generation Warfare."
  • Schneier on Security -- Bruce Schneier is the world's leading security guru.
  • Defense Tech -- looking at military issues through a tech lens. Surprisingly progressive.
  • Homeland Security Watch -- from the folks who run Defense Tech.
  • Counterterrorism Blog -- a new one for me, so I don't know yet how good it is, but it's interesting so far.

  • August 2, 2006

    The Fall of Lebanon

    In the Spring of 1990, I wrote my Master's thesis in Political Science at UC Berkeley. The paper, "Passionate Intensity: Consociational Democracy and the Civil War in Lebanon," was reasonably well-received, and after receiving my MA, I filed it away with my other papers. Recent events in Lebanon reminded me of this work, however, and I dug it out this morning.

    I won't burden you with the entire thesis. It runs close to 30 pages, is written in a somewhat dense academic style, and spends a lot of time talking about the history of political organization and underlying political theory. However, the concluding section, looking at some of the dynamics that drove the collapse of Lebanon's "consociational" electoral model (in short, a structure where various sub-cultures have explicit political roles and formal bloc voting), provide some useful grounding for understanding what's happening in Lebanon right now. If you're curious about how the situation in Lebanon evolved the way it did, follow the extended entry.

    Continue reading "The Fall of Lebanon" »