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Earth Phone Speech

Presented at TED 2006.

I want to talk to you today about how the future we will create can be a future that we will be proud of. I think about this every day -- it's my job. I'm co-founder and Senior Columnist at WorldChanging.com, a website that you've heard a bit about this week. Alex Steffen and I started WorldChanging in late 2003, and since then, we and our growing global team of contributors have documented the ever-expanding variety of solutions that are out there, right now and on the near horizon. In a little over two years, we've written up around 4,000 items: replicable models, technological tools, and emerging ideas, all providing a path to a future that's more sustainable, more equitable, and more desirable.

Our emphasis on solutions is quite intentional. There are tons of places to go online and off if what you want to find is the latest bit of news about how quickly our hell-bound hand basket is moving; we want to offer people an idea of what we can do about it. We focus primarily on our planet's environment, but we also cover issues of global development, international conflict, responsible use of emerging technologies, the rise of the so-called "second superpower," and much more. The scope of solutions we discuss is incredibly broad, reflecting both the range of challenges that need to be met and the kinds of innovation that will allow us to do so.

A quick sampling barely scratches the surface, but to give you a sense of what we cover...

Tools for rapid disaster relief, such as inflatable concrete shelters; innovative uses of bioscience like flowers engineered to change color in the presence of land mines; radical improvements of energy efficiency in our homes and offices; distributed power generation using solar, wind, ocean and other clean energy sources; plug-in, flex-fuel, and advanced hybrids getting a hundred or more miles per gallon; urban environments that de-emphasize the need for cars in the first place; biomimetic design principles that take advantage of high-efficiency natural systems; collaborative, distributed computing models mapping out the future of the climate. Many of the ideas you've heard about this week have been detailed and analyzed on WorldChanging: "cradle-to-cradle" production methods; MIT's Fab Labs; the consequences of extreme longevity; the One Laptop Per Child project; GapMinder.org. We cover a world of overlapping, mutually-reinforcing changes.

As a born-in-the-mid-1960s GenX'er, hurtling headlong to my 40th birthday, I'm naturally inclined to pessimism. But being part of WorldChanging has, much to my own surprise, convinced me that successful responses to the world's problems, while difficult, are nonetheless possible. Moreover, I've come to realize that focusing only on negative outcomes can blind one to the very possibility of success. As Norwegian social scientist Evelin Lindner has observed, pessimism is a luxury of good times. In difficult times, pessimism is a self-fulfilling, self-inflicted death sentence. The truth is, we can build a better world, and we can do so now. We have the tools -- you saw a hint of that a moment ago -- and we're making new ones all the time. We have the knowledge, and our understanding of our planet continues to grow by leaps and bounds. And we have the motive -- we have a world that needs fixing, and nobody's going to do it for us.

Many of the solutions I and my colleagues seek out and write up have some important aspects in common: transparency, collaboration, an appreciation of science and a willingness to experiment. The majority of models, tools and ideas posted on WorldChanging encompass combinations of these characteristics.

Let me give you some concrete examples of how these principles combine in worldchanging ways.

We can see worldchanging values in the emergence of tools to make the invisible visible -- that is, to make apparent the conditions of the world around us that otherwise would be largely imperceptible. We know that people often change their behavior when they can see and understand the impact of their actions; as a small example, many of us have experienced the change in driving behavior that comes from having a real-time display of mileage, showing precisely how one's driving habits affect a vehicle's efficiency. The last few years have seen the rise of innovations in how we can measure and display the aspects of the world that can be too big, or too intangible, or too slippery to grasp easily. Simple technologies such as wall-mounted devices that display how much power you're using in the house -- and what kind of result you get by turning off a few lights -- have a direct impact on our energy footprint; community tools like text message alerts when the local pollen count rises, or smog levels are up, or a natural disaster is unfolding give us the information we need to act instead of react; data-rich displays like maps of campaign donations or the disappearing ice caps allow us to better understand the context and flow of processes that affect us all.

We can see worldchanging values in research projects that seek to meet the world's medical needs through open access to data and collaborative action. Some people may emphasize the risks of "knowledge-enabled" dangers, but knowledge-enabled solutions are far more important. Open Access journals like the Public Library of Science make cutting edge scientific research free to all readers, and a growing number of publishers are adopting this model. Last year, hundreds of volunteer biology and chemistry researchers from around the globe sequenced the genome of the parasite responsible for some of the worst diseases in the developing world: African sleeping sickness, leishmaniasis and Chagas disease. That genome data now can be found on open access genetic databanks worldwide, an enormous boon to biomedical scientists working on a treatment. But my favorite example is the global response to the spread of SARS in 2003-2004, which relied on open worldwide access to the full gene sequence of the virus; the US National Research Council, in its follow-up report on the outbreak, cited the open collaboration as a key reason why an effective treatment could be developed so quickly.

And we can see worldchanging values in something as humble as the mobile phone.

I could probably count on my fingers the number of people in this room who do not use a mobile phone, and for many of us, cell phones have become almost an extension of our selves. But we're only now beginning to see the social changes that mobile phones can bring about.

You may already know about some of the big-picture aspects. Globally, more cameraphones were sold last year than any other kind of camera, and a growing number of people live lives mediated through the lens and shared across digital networks -- or occasionally, history books. In the developing world, mobile phones have become economic drivers. A study by the London Business School last year showed a direct correlation between growth of mobile phone use in Africa and increases to GDP; in Kenya, mobile phone minutes have even become an alternative currency. And Howard Rheingold has done a wonderful job of documenting the political role that mobile phone-based communications has played around the world, from text message swarms in Korea bringing down a government to the "Blair Watch Project" in the UK keeping tabs on politicians who avoid the press.

And it's just going to get more wild. Pervasive, always-on networks, high-quality sound and video, even devices made to be worn instead of carried in the pocket will transform how we live on a scale that few really appreciate. It's no exaggeration to say that the mobile phone is among the world's most important technologies. And in this rapidly-evolving context, it's possible to imagine a world in which the mobile phone becomes far more than a medium for social interaction.

I've long admired the Witness project, which provides video cameras to human rights activists around the world in order to document violations and abuses. I was particularly happy to see the recent news that Witness plans to create a web portal to enable users of digital cameras and cameraphones to send in their recordings over the Internet, rather than just as hand-carried videotape. Not only does this add a new -- and potentially safer -- avenue for documenting abuses, it opens up the program to the growing -- and global -- digital generation.

Imagine a similar model for networked environmentalists: imagine a web portal collecting recordings and evidence of what's happening to the planet, putting news and data at the fingertips of people of all kinds, from researchers and activists to business and political figures. It would highlight the changes that are underway, and would give voice to people who are willing to work to see a new world, a better world, take shape. It would give everyday citizens a chance to play a role in the protection of the planet. It would be, in essence, an "Earth Witness" project.

Just to be clear: in this talk I'm using the name "Earth Witness" simply as a shorthand for what this imaginary project would aspire to, not to piggyback on the good work of the Witness organization. It could just as easily be called "The Environmental Transparency Project," or "Smart Mobs for Natural Security." "Earth Witness," however, is a bit easier to say.

Many of those who participate in Earth Witness would focus on ecological problems, human-caused or otherwise, especially environmental crimes and significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions. That's understandable; we need better documentation of what's happening to the planet if we want any chance of repairing the damage. But the Earth Witness program wouldn't need to be limited to problems; in the best WorldChanging tradition, it would also serve as a showcase for good ideas, successful projects, and efforts to make a difference that deserve much more visibility. Earth Witness would show us two worlds: the world we are leaving behind, and the world we are building for generations to come.

What makes this scenario particularly appealing is that we could do it today: the key components are already widely available. Cameraphones, of course, would be absolutely fundamental to such a project, as for a growing number of us, they're as close as we now have to always-on, always-connected information tools. We may not remember to bring our digital cameras with us in our day-to-day travels, but we rarely forget our phones. You could even imagine a version of the phone that's entirely created by its users: over the course of the last year, open source hardware hackers have come up with their own usable Linux-based mobile phone designs, and the Earth phone could spin off from one of those projects.

At the other end of the network, there would be a server for people to send photos and messages to, accessible over the web, combining a photo-sharing service like Flickr, a social networking platform like MySpace, and a collaborative filtering system like del.icio.us. You "Web 2.0" folks in the audience know what I'm talking about, but for those of you for whom that last sentence was in a crazy moon language, I mean simply this: the online part of an "Earth Witness" project would be created by the users, working together, and working openly.

That's enough, right there, to start to build a compelling chronicle of what is now happening to our planet. But we could do more.

An "Earth Witness" site could also serve as a collection spot for all sorts of data about conditions around the planet, picked up by environmental sensors that attach to your cell phone. You don't see such devices as add-ons for phones -- yet -- but students and engineers around the world have come up with a wide array of projects attaching atmospheric sensors to bicycles, handheld computers, and cheap robots. They've even been stuck on the backs of pigeons -- that being an experiment now underway at the University of California, Irvine, using bird-mounted sensors to measure smog-forming pollution. It's hardly a stretch to imagine putting the same sensors on a phone carried by a person, too.

The idea of connecting a sensor of some kind to your phone is not new. Tech companies around the world offer phones that can sniff for bad breath or warn you about too much sun exposure. Swedish firm Uppsala Biomedical makes a mobile phone add-on that can process blood tests in the field, uploading the data and displaying the results. Even the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has gotten into the act, designing a prototype phone that contains small radiation sensors for discovering "dirty bombs." There's now an enormous variety of tiny, inexpensive sensor chips on the market. We could easily build phones with environmental add-ons that measure temperature, CO2 and methane levels, the presence of biotoxins -- potentially, in a few years, even viruses like H5N1 avian flu. Something like this might even be a part of Larry Brilliant's INSTEDD project.

All of this data could be tagged with geographic information and mashed-up with online maps for easy viewing and analysis. That's worth noting in particular: the impact of open access online maps over the last year or two has been simply phenomenal. Developers around the world have come up with an amazing variety of ways to layer useful data on top of the maps, from bus routes and neighborhood crime statistics to the progress of avian flu. "Earth Witness" would take this further, linking what you see with what thousands or millions of other people see around the world.

It's kind of exciting to think about what might be accomplished if a system like this existed. We'd have far better knowledge of what's happening on our planet, environmentally, than could be gathered with satellites and the handful of government and academic sensor nets alone. It would be a collaborative, bottom-up approach to environmental awareness and protection, able to respond to emerging concerns in a "smart mobs" kind of way: we could increase the density of sensors at a given spot simply by having more people show up. And you can't ignore how today's global youth rely on mobiles -- this is a system that could put the next generation at the front lines of gathering environmental data. As we work to figure out ways to mitigate the worst effects of climate disruption, every little bit of information matters. A system like Earth Witness would be a tool for all of us to participate in the improvement of our knowledge and, ultimately, the improvement of the planet itself.

As I suggested at the outset, there are thousands upon thousands of good ideas out there. So why have I spent the bulk of my talk telling you about something that doesn't exist?

Because this is what tomorrow could look like: bottom-up, technology-enabled global collaboration to handle the biggest crisis our civilization has ever faced.

We can save the planet, but we can't do it alone. We need each other. Nobody's going to fix the world for us, but working together, making use of technological innovations and human communities alike, we can fix it ourselves.

We have at our fingertips a cornucopia of compelling models, powerful tools, and innovative ideas that can all make a meaningful difference in our planet's future. We don't need to wait for a magic bullet to solve the world's problems; we already have an arsenal of solutions, just waiting to be used. There's a staggering array of wonders out there, across diverse disciplines, all telling us the same thing: success can be ours, if we're willing to try.

As we say at WorldChanging, another world isn't just possible, another world is here. We just need to open our eyes.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Earth Phone Speech:

» Earth Phone Speech from Smart Mobs
Alex Steffen submitted a link to the the Worldchanging speech of his colleague Jamais Cascio at the TED conference 2006 on 'The Future we will create'. It's it's central scenario is one of direct interest to SmartMobsters. [Thank you Alex... [Read More]

Comments (5)

Jacqueline CASCIO:

Congratulations Jamais! A powerful and compelling speech. I hope everyone was/is listening.
Also, I am so proud of you.

Cathleen Corlett:

Tonight is the first time I have visited your web site. What a compelling vision for collaborative change!


Inspiring hopeful vision! Thank you!

what a tremendous speech. you make me believe we can do it, Jamais.

Daniel Johnston:

Good on you, mate. Glad to see the world finally recognising what an important place this is and a little proud to have recognised it early! Keep up the good work


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