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The Open Future

crowduk.jpgThe future is not written in stone, but neither is it unbounded. Our actions, our choices shape the options we'll have in the days and years to come. We can, with all too little difficulty, make decisions that call into being an inescapable chain of events. But if we try, we can also make decisions that expand our opportunities, and push out the boundaries of tomorrow.

If there is a common theme across our work at WorldChanging, it is that we are far better served as a global civilization by actions and ideas that increase our ability to respond effectively, knowledgably, and sustainably to challenges that arise. In particular, I've focused on the value of openness as a means of worldchanging transformation: open as in free, transparent and diverse; open as in participatory and collaborative; open as in broadly accessible; and open as in choice and flexibility, as with the kind of future worth building -- the open future.

Creating an open future requires foresight, to be sure, but it also requires that we embrace a way of looking at the world that emphasizes responsibility, caution and (perhaps paradoxically) a willingness to experiment. It requires that we recognize that the status quo is contingent, and that we can never be in full control of our environment. Even the most powerful among us live at the sufferance of the universe.

The tools that we depend upon to enable effective, knowledgable and sustainable responses are neither surprising nor obscure: information about the planet, its people and its systems; collaboration and cooperation among the world's citizens; access to the means by which we expand our knowledge, feed our people, and cure our illnesses. Actions taken to restrict information, hinder collaboration, and centralize power in the hands of the few will, almost invariably, cut off our options. Actions we take that expand what we know, how well we work together, and how readily the people of the world can build their future, conversely, almost invariably increase the options we have for a better tomorrow.

As a planet, we face a handful of truly profound dilemmas taking shape in the first part of this century. It's no exaggeration to say that the decisions we make about how to handle these dilemmas will make the difference between a flourishing of global civilization and a fate akin to extinction. And while there is a small variety of world-ending challenges that could emerge at any moment -- from an asteroid impact to a naturally-emerging pandemic -- the key dilemmas of this century are entirely in our hands.

The first, and most certain, is the threat from global climate disruption. The more we learn about the changes now taking place in our planet's climate systems, the greater the challenge appears. We are unaccustomed to thinking about slow-moving problems with long lag times between actions and reactions; there is a real risk that the first serious efforts to cut carbon emissions will coincide with an acceleration of problems arising from decades-old changes to the atmosphere. Successful response to this challenge will require us to think in terms of big systems and long cycles far outside our every day experience.

The second, and as yet still incipient, is the impact of molecular nanotechnology. I've followed the development of this discipline for well over a decade, and our understanding of how self-replicating molecular engineering could be built is moving at a startlingly rapid pace. This may seem like an obscure concern, and it's true that molecular nanotechnology is not nearly as immediate an issue as the other two challenges. But molecular nanotech is an enabling technology that can create enormous differences in economic, technological and military power between the haves and have-nots. I don't fear a bolt-from-the-blue catastrophe like "grey goo" nearly as much as I worry about the race among nations to be the first to wield this technology and, as we've discussed here numerous times, there's no reason why focused work in developing nations can't come up with the necessary engineering breakthroughs. Students of political history know that periods where the balance of power shifts are often the most violent and dangerous.

The third, and most painful, is the growing difference between the hyperdeveloped and the most poverty-stricken parts of the world. It's not simply the moral crisis that a fraction of the planet swims in abundance while a larger fraction drowns in misery; the greater the number of people who take desperate measures for survival, the greater the number of societies rendered powerless by the status quo, the harder it will be to navigate the other global problems successfully. Starving people do not have the luxury of being thoughtful planetary guardians; weakened societies will not hesitate to take advantage of the immediate power arising from a new technological paradigm. To be blunt: unless we solve the problem of global poverty, we will not be able to solve the other two world-ending challenges.

But thinking of these solely in terms of the problems they present is not the WorldChanging way. It's clear that the steps necessary to meet each challenge can enable better solutions for the rest. The innovations in technology and lifestyle required to avoid climate disaster could dramatically reduce the resource competition that drives a significant part of the global zero-sum political game, scaling back both the threat of conflict over nanotechnologies and enabling the kinds of energy and agricultural infrastructure that can lift up poverty-stricken societies. The emergence of a responsible model for molecular manufacturing could enable multiple orders-of-magnitude leaps in efficiency of production and energy use, even while enabling the poorest societies to start building a universally high quality of life. And the efforts needed to solve problems of famine, unclean water, disease and privation will shape the course of research in energy and material technologies; the more we grapple with global poverty, the more we'll see the potential for solutions emerging from our technological choices.

Across all of these issues, the fundamental tools of information, collaboration and access will be our best hope for turning world-ending problems into worldchanging solutions. If we're willing to try, we can create a future that's knowledgable, democratic and sustainable -- a future that's open. Open as in transparent. Open as in participatory. Open as in available to all. Open as in filled with an abundance of options. There are few other choices that see us through the century.

We can have an open future, or we might have no future at all.


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Comments (12)

Ted Wolf:

This is a very fine manifesto, Jamais. Is there a way to get it out more broadly now, to eyes that won't necessarily see worldchanging.com? It would be nice to have in translation, and placed on the editorial pages of major newspapers in 6-10 countries.

"Turning world-ending problems into worldchanging solutions" is powerful language. It's good to read such straight talk.

jim moore:


The carbon cycle in the soft wet nano fab world begins (as much as any cycle can begin) with carbon dioxide gas bobbling in sun lit tubes of water and algae. Every day you filter out a few kilos of algae which provide the raw material for two separate streams of products. One stream is food and the second is material goods. Juices, jellies, and jerky come from the food fabricator and tools, toys and tech come from the machine fabricator. In both systems the algae is processed through a series of bio/chemical micro reactors then “ink” jetted out into a pattern to form an artifact that is ether eaten or used.

If eaten the carbon is metabolized in your body and the carbon is exhaled as carbon dioxide. Some of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere gets taken up by plants. Plants are processed into bio-fuel and burned in small local electric generators. The carbon dioxide generated in that process is fed back into the sun lit tubes of water and algae.

The carbon that comes out of the machine fabricator never has to go back into the atmosphere. ( I think that if all 6.5 billion people took 20 tons of Carbon out of the atmosphere we could return to pre-industrial levels of atmospheric CO2) The products can have a very long lifetime and when you do want to recycle the products, you burn them in the same small electric generators that you burn your bio-fuel. The carbon dioxide generated is fed through the sun lit tubes of water and algae, starting the cycle again.

Now in order for everyone on the planet to have a soft wet nanofab it should be able to make all (or almost all) of components of its system with just carbon dioxide, water and sunlight.

The world changing problem (opportunity) is developing the capabilities of bio-fed nano fabricators.


Funnily enough, none of it is certain, least of all climate disruption. Can you make a regional prediction for the next 5 years? No, you cannot. The future is more uncertain than ever.

You're right to single out three major concerns, except - I'm sorry - to me they're no-no's. I think 'we' had better focus on the short term (this is already uncertain enough): no more than a year or two ahead. What I see is that the hydrogen economy may be faster upon us than anyone ever thought (Honda's FCX, but also www.formulazero.nl (english available)) and various geopolitical conflicts - these worry me more than MNT of any changing climate.

I thought MNT was stuck in expert 'it's possible, but not worth doing', which sounds naive to me. Perhaps a push prize behind it?

ps. a bolt-from-the-blue might be best; if only to wake up political leaders.

Thank you, Jamais. A nice piece of writing, with a clear, and cautiously optimistic message.

I like openness as a paradigm, and I found Brin's 'The Transparent Society' a real eye opener.

However, it faces opposition as a result of the very issues you seek to address with it. In short, openness suffers when people panic, systems of support and communication break down, and it feels like it all comes down to 'memeME!' and no one else. Thus, as you say: Starving people do not have the luxury of being thoughtful planetary guardians; weakened societies will not hesitate to take advantage of the immediate power arising from a new technological paradigm. Factors that cause this must be attended to as a priority if openness is to be effective.

A real problem that openness faces in the short term are those people at the top that have already adopted an exclusive bunker mentality, either because they are overwhelmed and panicking, or because, as powerseeking psychopaths (as in Narcissistic Personality Disorder), they don't see it as their problem. The former need to be educated. The latter need to be weeded out, and kept out.


"Funnily enough, none of it is certain, least of all climate disruption. Can you make a regional prediction for the next 5 years? No, you cannot. The future is more uncertain than ever."

Quite a few Climatologists would disagree with this sentiment. While it's true that we will not have the capability to predict climate for years to come we can still see some trends developing and they are worrying to say the least. If we do not decrease our carbon output into the atmosphere SOON the climate disruption will be wildly unpredictable to the detriment of most life on this planet. It's the UNPREDICTABILITY of our tinkering with the Carbon cycle that has alot of us quite concerned...

"You're right to single out three major concerns, except - I'm sorry - to me they're no-no's. I think 'we' had better focus on the short term (this is already uncertain enough): no more than a year or two ahead. What I see is that the hydrogen economy may be faster upon us than anyone ever thought (Honda's FCX, but also www.formulazero.nl (english available)) and various geopolitical conflicts - these worry me more than MNT of any changing climate."

Firstly thinking in the election cycle paradigm is a fatally stupid mistake on your part. Reducing our impact with long term plans is what we need to do, not make a two year plan which does not accomplish much and then when those two years are up re-evaluate and switch directions and gears all of a sudden is suicidal to say the least. It takes years to forumlate plans of action let alone put them into practice. Any good plan is always re-evaluating themselves and making adjustments as necessary not setting arbitrary limits on said projects.

Secondly the Hydrogen economy will be stillborn. Time and time again engineers have been saying that it's just moving the problem from one area to the other with even more efficiency losses adding in to boot. Plug-in flexi-fuel hybrids are the future stepping stone to fully electric vehicles. Electric Vehicles cut out a number of efficiency losses that are very problematic with the Hydrogen economy which the H2 Zealots choose to ignore for some reason. I guess it's the whole "Water out the tailpipe" thing that has them blinded.

"I thought MNT was stuck in expert 'it's possible, but not worth doing', which sounds naive to me. Perhaps a push prize behind it?"

Wow. This comment just shows just how ignorant you are about technology in general. I think the High School system should mandate Science education up to Grade 12 immediately. Oh that doesn't fit in with the Dumbing down paradigm IC. I guess we will just have to make do with answering the same questions over and over and over and over...ad nausium.

Please keep the discussion civil, folks.


Jamais, this concept of 'openness' is extremely ambiguous don't you think?

I can imagine many instances where openness leads to disasters: free market capitalism (the 'open' variant of economic systems), is based on individuals making individual choices, in full transparency. But the sum of those open choices has proven to be catastrophic (to the planet, to the environment, to the wellbeing of people, to colonial subjects, etc...).

Openness is also very much a modernistic notion which only works in technocratic bourgeois societies. Often it acts as a tool for the State, contrary to what most of us think (but indeed you make the distinction between, e.g. the State's Panopticon and the 'Participatory Panopticon'). Michel Foucault has written nice things about the rise of this concept and about how popular forms of openness are often very welcome to the State's version of it (openness was invented by the State in order to subject individuals to its control -- see his work on "the will to know".)

Similarly, Baudrillard has written the history of the "tyranny of transparency". He holds a bit of a plea for the re-introduction of "closedness", of "myths", things that counter-act the push towards transparency, because myths work too (much better often).
Myths are similar cultural machines, and like openness they can determine how we behave. For example, when the neoconservatives and Christians in the US are now going green, they use their myths as a powerful tool of (self-)persuasion. It might work even better than purely rational, open and transparent scientific inquiry and debate.

Finally, another anthropologist, Claude-Lévi Strauss has written extensively about why myths are such powerful machines - they fuse communities and make them act collectively towards goals. The paradigm of openness can only arise in post-mythical, modernistic societies, consisting of groups of individuals who have lost collective ties. But it is by no means a successful paradigm.
What we label to be 'irrational' myths -- discourses which cannot be questioned by those who belong to the mythical community -- in fact embody a fantastic body of knowledge and experience, accumulated over generations, and which cautions individuals against behavior that is detrimental to the survival of the group (such as polluting the environment, or not obeying the precautionary principle).

Maybe myths are better to steer people's behavior than openness. I don't know. Maybe we should make a distinction between tools to guide the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge ('openness' would come in handy here), and tools with which to guide our action (maybe 'myths' are more appropriate here).
I know one thing for sure, and that is that global warming for example will not be counter-acted in an 'open' environment and by open means; on the contrary, we will need a Strong State and an elite of decision makers who cut the knot. Because modern citizens do not use the 'openness' at their disposal to change their behavior.

Anyway, I'm having trouble with this extremely ambiguous notion of openness. It's not a very 'open' and 'transparent' concept. :-)

Useful questions, Lorenzo, although I disagree with a number of your assertions.

For example, you're correct in saying that free market capitalism is supposed to comprise individuals making choices in full transparency; however, that's not how it works in the real world, where people make choices in conditions of -- at best -- translucency, with often-important pieces of information remaining hidden. And while it's abundantly clear that real-world capitalism can lead to pretty unhappy environmental and social conditions, only recently have we (the global we) been able to grope towards an economic system that isn't worse (the environmental conditions in the "communist" countries -- which were also nowhere close to their own ideal model -- were even worse than in the West).

Openness that is solely a tool for the state (or, more broadly, institutions of authority) isn't really open, at least not in the sense that I'm endorsing. It seems to me that openness is a functional requirement of an ethical "modern" society (in the Weberian sense), and that a modern society that avoids openness is putting itself at risk of both social abuses and competition from other, more open, societies.

Foucault's observations about the role of openness as a tool for the state, however, makes sense in a paradigm of transition from a Weberian traditional society to a modern one, where the tools of modernity (mass technologies, efficient communication, etc.) are used by traditional-authoritarian governments to assert control.

It's an open question how myth functions in an open society. In principle, there should be little conflict: myth at its core is about ascribing meaning, and in an open/modern society where questions of function and cause-effect are widely understood, *meaning* remains an important non-rational consideration. However, as we've seen in recent weeks in reaction to the Danish cartoons, openness can clash in significant ways with myth in societies where myth is given primary importance. (Note for believing Muslims: I'm not using "myth" here in the common "made up story" sense, but in the anthropological "culturally-rooted, institutional depiction of the world" sense.)

As for whether global warming can be better countered by openness or authoritarianism, I remain of the opinion that fuller knowledge of the effects of our actions and behaviors will drive a more effective and long-lasting change than will top-down commands.


I agree with Ted (from the first comment). You could do somekind of press release or something, to spread the word and have more people reading it and thinking about it.

I don't want to sound arrogant, but you're preaching for the converted here.


How about this? Are the psychological implications you discribed (impoverished humans not caring about the environment) explainable solely as a function of poverty, or could they be more or less equal to a function of inequality? The practical implications of viewing the situation from both views differs drastically. Although poverty can prove to be an elusive term in and of itself, it is generally accepted as a more concrete and reasonable goal than to eliminate inequality (of which elimination of poverty is but a minor function). But the question arising out of this is fairly simple. Will nations that have overcome poverty be fundamentally different in their treatment of the environment?

Now when we talk about poverty, we must assume that elimination of it results in a subsistence still nowhere near first world countries (for the obvious reason that making the definition otherwise would be a question of elimination of inequality and not poverty, and would presuppose a different argument alltogether). But is the assumption that inequality could not be responsible for the same types of behaviors manifested by impoverished nations a safe one?

I personally could see further debasement of the environment in the face of countries not necessarily impoverished, and yet far behind the most advanced countries and therefore willing to take greater environmental risks in order to catch up. Also, almost as a side note of great importance, the environmental consequences of elevating the standard of living of any population are great (for at least the short run, the immediate consequences of which could cause an unnecessary acceleration toward the 'point of no return' warming while attempting to simply lift the poorest countries out of poverty).

What kind of models are we assuming? The kind of immediate environmental effects of lifting countries out of poverty are detrimental. If our model under assumption is near the breaking point, this course of action could be foolish.

In all of this I am of course assuming that the environmental impact of elevating the subsistence level of a population are negative, and vastly so. Dispute that if you will, but if you agree the argument follows.

Since two of the problems cited, global warming and global inequity, are so enormous and complex, I doubt we'll have them solved by the time the third problem, molecular nanotechology, emerges.

If we look closely at the first two problems we see that they are closely linked. Raising standards of living in the developing world comes at the cost of adding more greenhouse gases, reducing the carbon sink of forests and potentially more desertification. This poses a dilemma, a seemingly unbreakable gordian knot. What do we do?

The only answer I can see, that doesn't involve fantasies of mass abandonment of technology or horrors of global war and gigadeath, is to keep advancing science and technology to build more efficient tools and to change policy and economies to increase efficiency in the social realm.

To me, molecular nanotechnology is merely the end stage of that technological advance. It will help to reverse much of the ecological damage of the last century and vastly reduce the ecological impact of our economic activities.

But we can not and should not pretend that nanotechnology is some panacea waiting in the wings to save us all. It will help a great deal but, I argue that we should be well on the way to solving the first two problems long before advanced nanotechnology arrives.

Why? Because the political, social and economic changes we'll have to make in solving the first two problems will render us better able to deal with new problems that molecular nanotechology will generate (And it will generate some big ones I assure you!) when it matures.

Lorenzo, I think myths work best as behaviour mediators when they are 'open' (ie everyone who subscribes to them understands their origin and moral). That allows people to interpret the spirit of the message as they see fit.

We can see what happens when a 'closed' myth directs behaviours in the case of the Danish cartoon furore. I suspect that few, if any, of the protestors have gotten beyond the kneejerk 'infidel insult to Islam', and asked as to the nature of the insult, or its gravity.

The real appeal of openness lies in its empowerment of the individual to contribute directly to their society (rather than via the power base of your average Straussian overlord)

Just as we are doing in these comments.


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