Your Turn Archives

December 19, 2003

Robophilia or Robophobia?

Robots, long the key symbol of The Future in fiction, are pushing their way into the present. But as with most futurism-made-manifest, the reality of robots will likely be quite different from cinematic or literary musings.

What prompted this for me was coming across the new website built as part of the promotion for the upcoming film version of I, Robot. Setting aside the question of whether the movie will be any good -- although I'm tentatively hopeful, given that it's neither a retelling of Frankenstein nor of Pinocchio -- what struck me about this website was that it effortlessly emulated the feel of a modern computer manufacturer website. In effect, one could imagine that this is a robot built by Apple. Rather than portraying a robot as a grim harbinger of humanity's doom or a tinkertoy echo of a person, the site presents the robots as consumer products, there to take care of tedious household duties.

Of course, that's already the reality for robots. It's hard to avoid commercials for the Roomba vacuum-bot; despite mediocre reviews, it does seem to be selling well. The Roomba represents one scenario for the increasing presence of robots in our lives -- non-humanlike, behind-the-scenes servitors taking care of duties that require little creative thought. That the current version of the Roomba doesn't quite live up to its hype isn't important -- one that does isn't too far off.

The other scenario for robots in our lives was just demonstrated by Sony. The QRIO has a very humanlike shape, and (given the dancing and running routine in the Sony demo) not intended to remain quietly sweeping up out of view. While the QRIO is not intended to serve a particular function (other than demonstrating technology), it is a beta test of future "outstanding entertainment robots highly suited to the co-existence with humans," according to the Sony site.

Now: forget the specifics of each of these, and think of their longer-term potentials. Instead of it sweeping your carpets, imagine a future Roomba cleaning up minefields; instead of it doing a Noh dance, imagine a future QRIO serving as a 24-hour assistant for the aged. Neither of these possibilities is too far off. If we are finally in the early days of the age of robotics, how do you want them used to make the world better?

January 9, 2004

What Is The Law?

"What is the law? (No spill blood.)
"Who makes the rules? (Someone else.)"
-- D. Elfman, "House of Pain"

The Edge, a site run by John Brockman as a forum for some of the smartest/most interesting/oddest folks around, poses an annual Big Question for them to answer. This year's is "What's Your Law?" (And since the Edge's exploration of this question begins with a quote from Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau, I thought I'd start ours with a quote from Oingo Boingo's updated version.)

Over 150 of Edge's luminaries have contributed answers to this question, including WorldChanging favorites such as Bruce Sterling ("Sterling's Law of Ubiquitous Computation: First, your home is a constant, while the Net is a place you go; then the Net becomes a constant while your home is a place you go."), Pamela McCorduck ("McCorduck's Law: A linear projection into the future of any science or technology is like a form of propaganda — often persuasive, almost always wrong."), and Stewart Brand ("Brand's Asymmetry: The past can only be known, not changed. The future can only be changed, not known.").

A few contributors are more interested in being funny than being insightful (a sin of which I'm often guilty), and a few others are more interested in being garrulous than pithy (another sin of mine). Still, as a whole, the list of "laws" is well-worth reading and pondering.

But now, it's your turn: what are your Laws?

January 14, 2004

What to Read Next?

We're always on the lookout for interesting, informative, and just plain cool new books to stimulate world-changing thinking. I know that Alex just finished something great (and will post about it soon), and I have a stack I'm going through now. But what else should we read? Here are some that I'm thinking of picking up, to get you started.

Small Is Profitable, a book by the Rocky Mountain Institute, was selected as the 2002 Economist Book of the Year. It argues for a radically distributed/decentralized electricity grid, making the power network more flexible in a crisis, more economically resilient, and more environmentally sustainable. It looks to be a handbook for people trying to change the world in both a dramatic and practical manner.

The Mystery of Capital is Hernando de Soto's exploration of why capitalism has, more or less, worked in the developed world but failed to work in the developing world. The first chapter is available on Google. This is one of those rare books that has been celebrated by both the neoliberal right and the electric-green left as a clear-headed look at how the modern economy functions (or doesn't function).

Finally, Future Evolution appears to be a nice bit of brain candy. It's a discussion of how evolution works and what forces are at play now that would shape natural selection over the millennia to come. It is, of course, highly speculative, but that's just fine for me. This one is on my desk right now, and I will get to it shortly.

So... what else should we be reading?

(this, by the way, is our 300th entry)

January 31, 2004

Tell Jamais Where To Go

I will be in London, England from February 4th through February 10th. What WorldChanging-type sights or activities should I hunt down? Whom should I seek out for wisdom? What will wake me up out of a jet-lagged stupor and kick me for a paradigm-breaking loop? Send me email or post here.

I may be taking a day trip through the Chunnel and hitting Paris, so I wouldn't mind suggestions for quick WC-related activities there, too.

I'll be bringing my camera and laptop (and will be posting my observations/discoveries/drunken, rambling commentaries), so bonus points for photogenic people/places/things.

February 17, 2004

Self-Decontaminating Materials

The current generation equipment used by the American military (as well as most other armed forces around the world) for decontaminating equipment after a bio/chemical weapons attack -- or, much more commonly, after training for a bio/chem attack -- is hazardous, nasty stuff. DARPA (the US military research agency) is now looking for material which can self-decontaminate with little or no resulting hazardous waste. This material should be able to coat all manner off equipment, including electronics, and be effective against a wide array of biological threats.

This strikes me as a material which could have applications beyond the battlefield. It seems to me that this is just the sort of technology which could "spin-off" into the world of environmental clean-up. What green uses would you suggest for this material?

July 16, 2004

Speaking of Good Resources

A few new URLs for interesting technology-related weblogs have been written on bricks and thrown through my window -- all well-worth reading. is Rajesh Jain's weblog on new technologies and their business and social implications, from the perspective of a Mumbai writer. It has a distinct IT/entrepreneur orientation, but Jain covers a wide-enough array of technology issues from an interesting-enough perspective that Emergic has a welcome place on my RSS list. His essays on Transforming Rural India have particularly valuable insights into the IT components of leapfrog development.

Macroscopic is a Slashdot-style news and discussion site looking at the intersection of science, design, technology and nature. The posts are brief and wide-ranging; the site was created by John Humphrey, a student in Stockholm working on his MS in sustainable energy engineering. Although the site itself is fairly busy in appearance (lots of little animated doodads), the links are useful and interesting.

Finally, Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends is a wonderful example of the value of focused attention. Many tech blogs give you little more than a headline about a subject, but lots of them; RPTT goes the other direction, giving you abundant information (with multiple illustrations and links) about a subject, but typically only does a single post per day. Best of all, Roland provides insightful analysis in his posts, helping the reader understand why the given subject is important.

Okay, your turn. What sites out there -- particularly those places which haven't (yet) popped up as references on WorldChanging -- do you find useful as sources of information and news about technology, design, development, and the environment? What links do you think we should add to our small list of sites (right hand column, down towards the bottom)?

August 13, 2004

Swept Away

Imagine being in the position to receive this (fortunately quite fictional) report:

President's Daily Brief Date: May 7, 2008


Seismologists have detected an increased amount of seismic activity on the island of La Palma in the eastern Atlantic ocean. The USGS believes that this is the first warning of an imminent collapse of its north-western landmass. This will trigger a "mega-tsunami" of approximately 60-150 feet in height, traveling at approximately 560 miles per hour, continuing for approximately 15 minutes, hitting the entire length of the continental United States eastern coastline. The entire east coast will be flooded for fifty to one hundred miles inland, depending upon elevation. Port cities will be hardest hit, as harbors will channel the wave. We will have nine to twelve hours between the collapse of La Palma and the initial arrival of the mega-tsunami on the American coast, an insufficient time to evacuate the approximately 100 million citizens who will be affected by the disaster.

USGS estimates the likelihood of La Palma collapse within the next two weeks to be 35%, increasing to a 75% chance by 2016.

If that bit of terriblisma sounds like the pitch for a particularly silly science fiction movie, think again. The only imaginary numbers in that scenario are the date and the estimated chances. La Palma, part of the Canary Islands off of Africa, is very likely to collapse during a violent seismic event -- and given that La Palma is volcanic, seismic events are not unknown -- dumping a chunk of rock the size of a mountain into the Atlantic ocean, triggering a massive tsunami. The west coast of Africa would be hit by a 300 foot swell, while the eastern coastlines of North, Central, and South America would be hit by a somewhat smaller -- but still utterly devastating -- inundation.

(The collapse of La Palma was started by an eruption of its volcano in 1949, and the next volcanic event could possibly -- but not certainly -- finish the job. Eruptions of La Palma are sporadic; the most recent one was in 1971, but the last one prior to 1949 was in 1712. The 2001 study of the geophysics of La Palma which first alerted people to this possibility is available here (PDF), and a summary is here.)

Even moreso than an asteroid impact, this is one of those very possible wild cards that is nearly impossible to wrap one's head around. Earthquake in the Canaries, and nine hours later, whoosh! Everything from Rio to Nova Scotia is under 50+ feet of water. There's very little that could be done to stop such an event from happening -- we couldn't build a barrier strong enough to resist such a swell, and dismantling the rock is a formidable challenge at best and might itself trigger the collapse. The effects of such a disaster are almost unimaginable.

What we can better imagine, though, are the choices facing researchers and global leaders. Right now, there are few seismic sensors on La Palma -- we are unable to get any real warnings of imminent collapse. Putting in sensors could give an early warning of a possible disaster, but such an alert would put leaders in the position of needing to decide whether to evacuate at-risk areas, knowing full well that seismic warnings are inexact, and the actual collapse could still be years -- even decades -- off. Leaving La Palma without seismic sensors, conversely, would make it impossible to be wrong, but could doom millions of people when the island eventually does collapse -- whenever that actually happens. It's not an easy choice.

Knowledge that such a disaster is not just possible, but perhaps inevitable, is one of the side-effects of our increasingly better understanding of the Earth's physical systems. In centuries past, a disaster such as this would have taken us all by surprise, and maybe even resulted in new mythologies (such as how the Mediterranean breaking through the Bosporus and creating the Black Sea may have been the source for the various flood myths of the Asia Minor religions). Today, the potential for such a disaster is a cause for concern, a spur for better understanding of seismology, and a reminder that we are not masters of this planet, but temporary residents.

My question for the readers, then, is: if you were President (insert Prime Minister, Governor, etc., as desired), what would you do about the inevitable -- but possibly far-off -- collapse of La Palma?

August 27, 2004

WorldChanging On The Well

Bruce did it (repeatedly). Howard did it. Cory did it. And now it's our turn. That's right, WorldChanging is the guest on The Well's public "Inkwell.vue" discussion forum. For the next two weeks, WorldChanging founders Jamais Cascio and Alex Steffen, as well as contributors Dawn Danby, Emily Gertz, Jon Lebkowsky, and Taran Rampersad will be answering questions, asking questions, batting around ideas, and looking for inspiration on the world's best-known virtual community. Even if you're not a Well member, you can participate, and we hope the conversation will be wide-ranging -- come on by and talk to us.

December 30, 2004

The Architecture for Humanity/WorldChanging Tsunami Reconstruction Appeal

We've been working to bring you both useful information and insightful thinking on the unfolding tsunami disaster these last few days. But words don't house people.

That's why we teamed up with Architecture for Humanity on December 27 to launch the AfH/WC Tsunami Reconstruction Appeal. Our initial goal? To raise $10,000 by the end of the year.

Much to our delight and gratitude, the response to our joint appeal has been phenomenal. WorldChanging readers contributed far more than our original target -- over $25,000.

Which makes us think that together we can do even better.

This is an opportunity to do something big. As Cameron noted in his Fund Update, Architecture for Humanity and WorldChanging now want to raise $100,000 by the end of the year. Our original goal of $10,000 could build a school; $25,000 could build a medical clinic. But $100,000 can change the destiny of a town. As before, all money raised will go to reconstruction.

This last week has demonstrated that the WorldChanging community -- readers, writers, allies -- are not only smart and caring, but enormously generous. Please join us in taking this extra step in proving that another world is in fact here.

The WorldChanging Team

January 8, 2005

The Best of 2004

wcsun.jpgWe had imagined that, at the end of 2004, we would undertake a semi-elaborate set of posts looking back at the year gone by and forward towards the future. We were talking scenarios, elaborate summaries of ideas, maybe even a bit of podcasting. The December 26 tsunami and the resulting days of reportage, discussion and analysis tossed all of that out the window, of course, and for the better: the insight, openness and collaborative spirit demonstrated by the team in its efforts to bring meaning from tragedy were the best possible examples of what WorldChanging seeks to accomplish.

Although we'll continue to respond to the evolving situation in Southeast Asia, we thought we'd take a moment to mark the new year (albeit a week late) with something a bit simpler. We asked our contributors to look back over 2004 and pick their three favorite stories, including (at least) one of their own. Most were able to grab a moment to do so (and we'll update with any stragglers as they come in). In the extended entry, you'll find our picks for favorite posts, along with short explanations of why the stories were selected. There was a little overlap, but quite a bit of difference -- highlighting the intellectual diversity of our contributors.

We'd like to hear from you, too. Please take a moment to tell us which stories stood out for you as being the most interesting, provocative and worldchanging of 2004. And If you're a new reader, this is a good opportunity to see what we feel best represents what we've been trying to do at WorldChanging. Let us know what you'd like to see more of.

Thank you for reading WorldChanging. Let's keep building a better world and a bright green future.

Continue reading "The Best of 2004" »

July 7, 2005

On A Day Like Today

As many of you know, London is a regular destination for many of the WorldChanging contributors -- and (currently) home to one, as well. Alex is set to visit there shortly, I was just there a couple of months ago, and it's no secret that I look forward to a more permanent move there at some point. It's a city many of us love, for its history, its diversity, its rhythms and life. It's not perfect by any means, but it's a pretty damn good model of what a bright green megacity can be like.

It's hard, therefore, not to spend hours reading through the personal accounts of survival, not to dig through the growing number of personal photos posted to the web by people who managed to make their way through smoke-filled tunnels. But I won't -- I have a job to do.

On a day like today, it's especially hard to write about solutions, but on a day like today, it's all the more important to do so.

It's important to remind ourselves that we have in our hands the tools for our own transformation, and we can make the world a better place through our own actions. There are some who wish to change the world through fear and violence, but there are far, far more of us who want to change the world through knowledge, cooperation, democracy and a long-view wisdom about both our responsibilities and our opportunities. The future is on our side.

The solutions we write about here, no matter how seemingly trivial or transient, are part of a greater constellation of possibility. The latest green design, networked gadget or open-source model won't, in and of itself, solve the problems the world faces. But no one item or idea will do so -- only the ongoing, combined efforts and inspiration of the growing community of people who know that another world isn't just possible, it's here, and it's in our hands.

July 28, 2005

Making the Asia-Pacific Partnership for Clean Development and Climate Our Own

There's a lot of talk about the Asia-Pacific Partnership for Clean Development and Climate, a new climate agreement between the US, Australia, China, India, Japan and South Korea, but few details as of yet. Given the secrecy with which this agreement was crafted, and the expressed reluctance of three of the six partners (Australia, India and the US) to engage in any kind of actual enforced limitations on greenhouse gases, it's easy to be cynical about what this agreement will actually do. I suspect that, once the details are known, there will be quite a bit of justifiable dismissal from sustainability analysts.

However, I'd like to suggest something different.

When the details of the APP4CDC come out, I'd like us all to start scouring it for potential pressure points. What are the elements of the agreement that could turn out to be useful tools for forcing more change, faster change, better change than the negotiators intended? How can we use it in ways that actually can get us to where we want to go? What parts of the treaty can be re-framed in ways that strengthen the bright green approach, moving us to real emissions reduction and disaster avoidance? Think of it as memetic judo, cognitive tai chi, an attempt to use the energy of the agreement in ways that the signatory governments wouldn't expect.

It may not be possible. The Asia-Pacific Partnership for Clean Development and Climate may be impossible to reframe because there's no content to it. But we shouldn't let an opportunity to turn the tables on those who would undercut real efforts towards radical reduction in greenhouse emissions pass us by.

August 2, 2005

Future Democracy

Dale Carrico consistently comes up with some of the most perceptive and novel observations about life in the rapidly-evolving 21st century. He's one of the originators of the concept of technoprogressivism, which can best be defined by the subhead of his blog Amor Mundi: "Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All." Dale's critiques of those who wish to shun technologies that might disrupt the social status quo, and of those who wish to shun the social context for the technological endeavors, are both insightful and (for me) compelling. Dale has been an occasional contributor to WorldChanging, and I'm happy to count him as a friend.

His latest essay, Live Long and Prosper: A Program of Technoprogressive Social Democracy, is a challenging foray into what will be, if not the key defining question of the early 21st century, the issue that will underlie our collective responses to the myriad challenges we will face in the years and decades to come. How can democracy, founded on the principle that all people should have equal rights and an equal say in political outcomes, survive the explosion of technologies made to increase personal wealth, knowledge and power? In a world where some people live to be 140 while others barely make 35, is democracy even possible?

Continue reading "Future Democracy" »

September 8, 2005

People Finder Tech

pfif.jpg(Note: I should have remembered that Emily linked to this in her post from the other day about distributed responses to disaster. And I should have noted that WorldChanging's Jon Lebkowsky and Ethan Zuckerman have been critical to getting this project going. Still, it's worth calling out for additional attention, as it's suggestive of the lessons being learned from this disaster.)

There are over 50 sites on the web set up to help New Orleans evacuees and their loved ones find each other. Problem is, none of these sites talk to each other, so people trying to find their family and friends end up having to find and search every one of the sites, just in case the names they were hoping to see only ended up in a single database. The PeopleFinderTech team has set out to implement a standardized data format (PFIF, or PeopleFinder Interchange Format) for these sites, making it possible to search many (hopefully all) of the databases in one go. The database, when completed, will live at

The project is well underway, but still has some major hurdles to leap before it's ready -- and here's how you can help.

Continue reading "People Finder Tech" »

September 21, 2005

Biodiesel 101

biod6.jpgBiodiesel seems too good to be true. Substituting processed vegetable oil for petroleum-based diesel is as much a political act as a technical one, and tends to inspire thoughts of being able to say goodbye to Big Oil. Plant-based fuels are inherently close to carbon-neutral, and biodiesel is non-toxic, as well. It's especially appealing to those worried about being able to shift to new vehicle technologies before oil runs out, too, since we already know how to make diesel engines. There has to be a downside, right?

Well, yes. Commercial biodiesel is still pretty expensive, where available, and questions remain about just how energy-efficient the whole process is. Biodiesel has some disadvantages as a fuel, such as a higher "gel" temperature than regular petro-diesel, meaning that your car will stop working in colder weather. On top of this, in the US, at least, diesel cars are actually pretty hard to come by these days.

But let's say you do have a diesel car, live where it's still relatively warm, and want to give this whole biodiesel thing a try. While some truck stops may have biodiesel/petrodiesel mixes available (usually "B5," 5% bio, or "B20," 20% bio), most biodiesel aficionados actually make it themselves. And that remains one serious advantage of biodiesel: it's the only fuel for your car you can make at home in the kitchen.

Instructions for making biodiesel at home aren't too hard to find online, but one of the better recipes comes from a site that's rapidly becoming one of my favorites: inhabitat, a site which mixes innovation, design and sustainability. Inhabitat writer Sarah Rich gives a detailed DIY guide for "brewing biodiesel," using a process that she uses herself. It's a good mix of science and straightforward step-by-step instructions, and makes me long for an as-yet-unavailable diesel hybrid.

How many of you use biodiesel in your own vehicles? Tell us your stories...

October 13, 2005

In The Year 2040...

thingstocome.jpgThe political science journal Foreign Policy celebrates its 35 year anniversary this month, and in comemoration, they've asked sixteen leading thinkers to answer the following question:

What are the ideas, values, and institutions the world takes for granted that may disappear in the next 35 years?

The answers are intriguing. Some of the replies aren't terribly surprising, if you're familiar with the authors: Lawrence Lessig argues that The Public Domain will be gone within 35 years, for example, and Esther Dyson suggests that Anonymity won't last (Lessig's article freely available, Dyson's requires free registration). These two are among the most technology-focused essays of the group; there are no Kurzweilian predictions that the human species won't be here in post-Singularity 2040.

Continue reading "In The Year 2040..." »

January 27, 2006

What's Next for Google Earth Mashups?

Okay, I admit it: I've become a bit enamored of Google Earth. It's fun to play with, sure, but the real reason is how well it illustrates big concepts. Avian flu progress and monitoring of polar environmental conditions are just two compelling WorldChanging-relevant examples of what can be done with the Google Earth application and networked access to structured data; additional WC-type examples that popped up this week include an overlay showing global fire data from NASA's Earth Observing Satellite network, and an overlay showing South American trade from the UN Comtrade database.

So what's next? Or, rather, what would we want to be next? What kinds of information about the planet, or human activity on the planet, would be enhanced by a digital world display? The ability of Google Earth to display multiple overlays at the same time -- the key information difference between Google Earth and the satellite view in Google Maps -- suggests that we might want to start thinking in terms of combinations. What pieces of global information would you find useful to compare & contrast?

About Your Turn

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to WC Archive in the Your Turn category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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