DAILY MAIL & GUARDIAN 27-October-1999

New World

Down to Earth

JAMAIS CASCIO advises suits and other Hollywood weasels on what could happen over the next hundred years. He worries about being called a futurist.


ife in Los Angeles isn't just about movie star sightings and basking in the sun. It's also about earthquakes that wake you up at 3 AM and wondering if the unusually warm autumn is a sign of things to come... and it's about using your computer to connect up with others to make sense of it. Welcome to LA on the verge of the new millennium.

There have been a series of fairly impressive earthquakes around the world over the past few months. The most recent -- and least damaging -- took place just outside of Los Angeles on October 16th. Although it was a magnitude 7.1, it wasn't a disaster largely because it was centered out in the desert. Still, after being awakened at 3 AM by my bed rolling for nearly a minute (trust me -- 50 seconds of an earthquake feels a LOT longer than that), I found more reliable information on the web than on television. One of the more interesting sites was the CalTech Community Internet Intensity Map. This is a site that makes the web live up to its potential.

What you'll find at the CIIM is a questionnaire about what you felt during an earthquake, and where you live. Your answers are then added to the database, which is used to create a map of quake intensity across the region. By looking at the map, you can instantly see where the quake was centered, and how the shockwaves moved through the ground. In the LA quake, for example, the waves clearly went west, towards the ocean (and my apartment). The more people who add their information, the more accurate the mapping becomes. This is invaluable information for seismologists, and pretty cool, as well.

We are finally beginning to acknowledge that what makes the Internet interesting and useful is its ability to connect people in novel ways. We can work together to accomplish tasks or to generate information that each of us alone would find impossible. The SETI@Home project is a great example of this, and now this model -- distributed computing across the Internet -- is being applied to the study of the climate. The European research group RAL is putting together a distributed system using the so-called "Casino21" model. Like SETI@Home, the Casino21 study will run as a screensaver, using your computer when it is otherwise unoccupied.

The Casino21 model is one of the most sophisticated simulations of the climate available today. Unfortunately, it requires a great deal of computing power, and has a number of "tunable" parameters that can be changed to reflect different interpretations of the effect of trees, for example, or deep-ocean cooling. By distributing different variations of the Casino21 model to thousands of machines around the world. the people at RAL hope to come up with the best possible representation of the climate, in order to better understand climate change.

And the climate is changing. Scientists from around the globe have concluded that the Earth is, in fact, getting warmer, and that humans will have to deal with this. The controversy about global warming comes largely from the question of whether it is human-caused, or is simply part of a larger cycle of climate shifts. Whether or not global warming is caused by humans, carbon-generating activity is widely acknowledged to contribute to it. Carbon-generating activity includes power generation (particularly from coal) and automobile exhaust.

Bruce Sterling, who writes both science fiction and non-fiction works, wants to change this, wants to reduce the carbon impact that humans have on natural cycles. But his plan of action is not to heckle or nag people into reducing their energy consumption. No -- he wants to make pollution tacky. He has launched a new movement known as Viridianism, with the intent to change popular culture perspectives on what is considered tasteless. Recognizing the power of "cool", he is pushing a new design ethic, one that "makes the invisible visible", such that we consumers tend to buy those products that do the least damage. Not because it's the right thing to do, but because it's the cool thing to do.

The Viridian movement currently lives on a mailing list, moderated and edited by Sterling. Archives of list postings -- including some of Bruce's best rants -- can be found at The Viridian Archives.

Early Internet philosophers who thought that the Net would separate us from the Earth couldn't have been more wrong.

© Daily Mail & Guardian - 27-October-1999

* Jamais Cascio is a consultant and writer specializing in scenarios of how we may live over the next century. His clients have included mainstream corporations, film and television producers. He has written for many publications, including Wired and TIME, and is currently working on a screenplay. He is an active member of the oldest and most influential online community, The Well, and believes that new technologies are pushing people into new social, economic and political realms.

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* Arthur Goldstuck: Webfeet
* Gavin Dudley: Dr Byte
* Rupert Neethling: Toolbox
* Douglas Rushkoff: Online


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Published weekly by the Electronic Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg, South Africa. Send email comments to the editor, Gavin Dudley