Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2010

Posted by on January 6th, 2010

Chairman Bruce

It’s not the new year without another State of the World Q’n'A with Chairman Bruce on The Well.

He kicks things off by dispensing some advice to his pal Cory Doctorow:

Okay, you’ve treated your future as an “unpredictable lurching thing…” and now you’re all morose about that… You and your generation CREATED that situation! Ever heard of “disruptive innovation,” “disintermediation,” “offshoring,” “small pieces loosely joined,” “de-monetization,” “plug and play,” “the network as a platform”? Of course you’ve heard of all that crap, because you’ve been tub-thumping it your entire adult life, but what the hell did you think that was all about? Did you think you were gonna bend every effort to virtualize reality, and then get a gold railway-retirement watch and a safe place to park the cradle? Guys with stacks of gold bars and working oil wells don’t have any stability now! Much less guys like you, who move their fingers up and down on keyboards for a living.

And, from the discussion of the dismantling of yet another institution, via the rise of participatory medicine:

If medicine gets the big wikipedia treatment, you don’t get a computer-literate doctor, you get a doctor-literate web activist.

Doctors are keenly jealous of their pre-eminence. They spent hard
years in med school, unlike Joe Keyboard. Doctors also earn much, much more money than they would if arteriosclerosis was re-defined as some kind of hardware problem to be scanned by an iPhone app.

It’s scary/exciting times, that’s for sure.

The discussion is still on-going, so jump on over and contribute.

Note: pic taken from a recent German interview with Bruce, auto-translated into something resembling English here.

Did You Know 4.0

Posted by on September 18th, 2009

The latest installment of the “Did You Know” video series.  This time on the topic of Convergence.

See also: Did You Know 3.0, and Did You Know 2.0.

On Sleeplessness, the iPhone, and You

Posted by on September 1st, 2009

It is 4:46am, I can’t sleep, and I have a question.

The future, as seen by the internet is often expressed by gadgetry, and there’s a particular trap involved in writing about outbreaks of the future in that gadgetry is often really shiny.

And if you’re writing about the future, chances are pretty good that you really like shiny objects.

But, gadgets are not the future. Look at the iPhone.

The iPhone is a fantastic bit of gadgetry, but it’s not the future – no matter how many proto AR apps get developed for it, there’s no way to escape the essential limitations of the device. The iPhone is simultaneously fiendishly useful and completely useless at the same time. It’s filled with a lot of really useful little apps and features, but it’s still handicapped from reaching a certain horizon of real productivity. Without extensive hacks, the iPhone is unable to connect to a variety of external devices for both input and output. It is extremely limited in what programs it can run.

It is essentially a closed system, and the reason for that is that it is designed by a company that holds true to a business and design philosophy that states that you do not own the product that you purchased. While a pervasive business philosophy in many fields (you don’t own your iPhone, you don’t own your music, your movies or your books, your food is made from genetically modified or patented seeds that are never actually owned by the farmers who grow it) it’s not future friendly — or to be more specific, it is a design philosophy that is friendly to a future that is, simply put, a retail opportunity.

The iPhone’s use to any sort of a future worth having is in changing the way that many people relate to technology. It’s now cool to have a computer in your pocket. It’s cool to be on the internet (via 3G and EDGE and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth) 24/7. In the countries where the iPhone has been able to saturate the market, it’s instigated a real sea-change in the way that people react to electronic mediation of their relationship with their environments. Unfortunately it has come with the baggage of corporatization and loss of ownership that is also as pervasive as the new environmental relationships is helps negotiate.

I say that the iPhone is not the future, but what I mean by that is that the iPhone is not representative of a future I want to see. The future is not just a retail opportunity and a finer world is not built entirely of consumer goods. I’m not keen on a future where the major technologies of environmental and social mediation are owned and controlled by corporate ideology. As AR creeps closer and closer, the question of who gets to plant a flag in the liminal space of a technologically re-mediated environment becomes a more pressing concern – with new horizons there are always new forms of colonialism.

The question is, or at least my question is: How do you separate the positive technological and sociopolitical advances of the iPhone and its ilk from the anti-open source, anti-democratization, future unfriendly ideology that they bring with them?

Bionic Athlete Aimee Mullins To Speak At TEDMED 2009

Posted by on August 11th, 2009

From Chris Jacob at

Mullins has been instrumental in changing the public perception of prosthetics. After setting multiple world records at the 1996 Paralympic games, she has used her modeling, athletic and film careers to end the idea that prosthetics are a mark of disability. Instead, she’s shown the world that bionic limbs can enable some amazing things. As a guy who’s barely 5’8″ on a good day, listening to Mullins talk about how easy and fun it is to change her height on a whim does sound like a pretty incredible ability to have.

TEDMED has speakers on:

Karl Schroeder on ‘Rewilding’

Posted by on August 1st, 2009

The following speech by Karl Schroeder is an excellent summation of the future we’ve been documenting here, the world that lies just around the corner:

YouTube Preview Image

His thoughts on, well I guess you have to call it Nature 2.0, are a nice progression on some of Kevin Kelly’s ideas in his book Out of Control.

via BoingBoing | Futurismic

The Grinder Dialogues: Any Tool is a Weapon If You Hold it Right

Posted by on July 30th, 2009

So a while back comrade-in-arms David Forbes wrote this: This time, let’s get it right

…in response to our very own M13KY’s It’s Going to Get Worse, Before it Gets Better.

M13KY followed up with this, which led to David posting the next part of what was now being called The Grinder Dialogues, a weekly back and forth between the Grinding staff and Mr. Forbes.  This was… err… much longer than a week ago.

But now we’re back, and I’m taking M13KY’s spot in the ring with the next part of what really will be a weekly thing.

Starting with the implications of the arrest of the French anarchist collective known in the press as the “Tarnac 9″:

A communal set-up of their particular variety can be useful, even quite admirable, but it’s hardly futuristic. Indeed, as a solution, it’s generally proven to be rather limited, because larger communities quickly break into factions.

I’m not even sure a media blitz of the kind you, M13KY and I are probably imagining would even be necessarily beneficial to their “cause”.   Sure, they could get people behind their identity as simple-living anarchists and parts of a small, thriving rural community, but that sort of thing jars with the main example of their communicated agenda: The Coming Insurrection.   Certainly it’s not the most dangerous book in the world as pundits like comedian Glenn Beck like to paint it, but it portrays an active form of self-reliant anarchism similar to French and Italian anarchist texts of the 70′s or some of CrimethInc’s work that finds little purchase anywhere in the mass-market media.

I’m not sure how they could sell it, you see.  And sadly, as you later point out, the always-shifting illusory culture/counter-culture divide is based on the language of capitalism.    ”Make it cool and they will beg to join” generally means figuring out how to get the “overculture” or what have you to buy in. The only way to “win” is to play the game you’re trying to not play.

The maxim should be “any port in a storm and any friend in a fight.” This is everyone’s future, not just ours, and it’s long past time to stop falling prey to the old assumptions and strategies.

I couldn’t agree more.  And while there are groups within what we generally refer to as alt-culture that still haven’t grasped that, there are many groups who are certainly are thinking of new way to network and new ways to be heard and influence “the system”.   Look at the ridiculous Tea-Bag events in the US, recently.  A strange collation of conservative Christians, atheist Libertarians, hippie Ron Paul supporters and UN-fearing-militia-types all united in a mostly grassroots effort that encouraged major media support from, not just FOX but many major outlets.    What do all of those groups have in common?  They all see themselves as an oppressed minority in the face of a relentless “socialist” overculture.   In their eyes, they are the alt culture, and they are more than happy to have an oppressive “them” to rail against.

Do I think that the Tea-Baggers claims and demands were ridiculous?  Yeah, but they were effective.  The questions in my mind are: “Can they keep up that sort of organizational effort, or will they fall back apart into their normally divided factions?” and “Can the astroturf, pseudo-grassroots organization which they seem to have inherited with their success be as organized as the actual bottom-up version?”

Their success, however brief, though illuminates the difficulty of grassroots organizing.   How do you get people invested in something NOT framed as “us” vs. “them”?  I think social media helps with awareness (look at all the support for people in Iran from quarters that saw them as ‘the enemy’ a few years ago) but awareness rarely translates into action.

To bring this back to the Tanrac 9, they have a lot of really valuable things to say, but how do you pitch radical self-reliance and removing yourself from a capitalist society, without pitching it as “us” vs. “them”.   Especially in a case like this where the Government was all-too-willing to take on the role of “them”.  (Screaming in the back of my head is the voice that used to work in marketing that says “getting arrested was the best thing for their cause” — and looking at the T9 inspired collectives springing up in their wake, I can’t disagree.)

I fervently don’t believe in “them versus us”, it’s useless outdated thinking.  Everyone’s “them” is someone else’s “us”.  But what I’ve never quite figured out is how to organize without the “other”.  I can’t rage against the machine, because I am the machine.  My personal philosophy has always been one of trying to make any changes you want to affect work out in your own life. I’m not closeted about being a pagan or queer, I write under my own name when talking about controversial issues like cognitive liberties and drugs and I don’t hide my identity on the internet.  All of that was done after very careful consideration, simply because I figure the best way to show people that something works is to show it to them.    And to a certain extent that’s the same tack the T9 were taking… and it didn’t work out too well for them in the short term.

Technology is not going to put that away, just like it didn’t 100 years ago when revolutionaries were prophesying that industrialization would finally level the playing field. Today, tech and its attendant networks still relies on some measure of industrial structure to produce it, experts to fix it and financial structures to provide the cash. Any social group of sufficient size is going to develop a modicum of hierarchy. The question is: what does a better one look like?

Ironically, the current managerial class is its own worst enemy, but for political and class reasons. By eliminating much of the meritocracy and turning management into a dumping ground for scions of the rich, many corporations have become grossly incompetent.

The danger now is this: by ignoring the pitfalls to which all social creations are vulnerable, by assuming they’ll disappear because of technological change, those old demons will only be worse when they emerge, and they will face movements ill-prepared to deal with them.

It would be the worst kind of horror to see the just-born future shackled to the lash.

All technologies have just as much or more inherent utility as a tool of oppression, as they do  as tools of liberty.   The wonderful social media that lets people share information and thoughts and generally increase intrapersonal transparency are also the backbone of a marketing and data collection effort of staggering complexity, depth and penetration.  The tools of liberty and knowledge help make their participants into better consumers.   I can’t deny that, I don’t think anybody can.

Hell, one of the great liberating qualities of the technologies that are blossoming today is its ever-expanding capabilities to generate cognitive surplus.   But on the other hand, that cognitive surplus can just as easily be consumed by the same technologies that generate it.   Television made information distribution much more efficient in many ways compared to print media, but it also (according to Clay Shirky) consumes over two hundred billion hours of thought per year in the U.S. alone.   That’s dropping, but iPods, video games and are taking up the slack.

And speaking of cognitive surplus, let’s not forget that the first technology that created a massive amount of free-brain hours and allowed massive societal and technological innovation was slavery.

All futures are born facing the lash.

In my mind, the only way to cope with that is to take new technologies (or in my particular pet-project, old technologies that were discarded in Western Society) and open them up.  Make art with them, break them, inject them, repurpose them, break them again and fuck them.  Because I know of no other way to take these things – every one of them a loaded gun – and to show people that there is another way.  Because every new future already has one hand in shackles.

And sometime it works.  Look at the internet.  Sure it’s the greatest marketing tool of all time, but it was a comparative Wild West for a while.   The 60′s acid culture became techies, the techies made the net, the net was newborn and despite being made of defense industry money was in the hands of the freaks for a long time before it got domesticated.  If it wasn’t for the early experimenters who created the infrastructure and the ethos that the net should “route around censorship like it was damage” who knows what it would look like today? Probably something akin to the endless expanse of walled gardens that Gibson foresaw and that corporate interests are still trying to generate.

And even then, the future’s a strange beast.  I don’t think anyone predicted the current generation of kids that were raised with the net and are comfortable with an unparalleled degree of transparency in their lives. They continue to see the internet as a more integrated and libratory tool than previous generations while that same transparency makes them a more streamlined and illuminated form of consumer.

This isn’t even taking into account the permutations that take place as new technologies pass through various cultural, social or class membranes. SMS is seen as a money-making addon and a tool of “kids” here in the US to a large extent, while it’s a major draw and an effective tool for social organization and information dispersal in parts of Asia, South America and Africa.

In other words, I don’t know if the other Grinders agree with me, but I think that every new piece of tech has destabilizing and calcifying potential.  Me?  I want to see these things actually used to help create new social structures that allow humans to get on with the business of being better humans.  I don’t know of any other way to do that other than to push it, play with it and do awesome things with it, before it becomes too set in stone what the “proper” and “cost effective” ways of using it are.

But I’m more than open to ideas, because despite my utopianist leanings, the future might really suck if “we” don’t get “our” collective acts together.

Bruce Sterling’s Reboot 11 closing talk

Posted by on July 11th, 2009

No Future, no Progress, just a Transition to Nowhere; that is Bruce Sterling’s summary of the next decade:

Jamais Cascio says Getting Smarter is the only way out of this mess

Posted by on June 29th, 2009

In his article for The Atlantic, Get Smarter, Jamais Cascio points out that only by embracing all forms of intelligence augementation might we have a chance of surviving, and ultimately taming, an increasingly hostile future.

By 2030, then, we’ll likely have grown accustomed to (and perhaps even complacent about) a world where sophisticated foresight, detailed analysis and insight, and augmented awareness are commonplace. We’ll have developed a better capacity to manage both partial attention and laser-like focus, and be able to slip between the two with ease—perhaps by popping the right pill, or eating the right snack. Sometimes, our augmentation assistants will handle basic interactions on our behalf; that’s okay, though, because we’ll increasingly see those assistants as extensions of ourselves.

The amount of data we’ll have at our fingertips will be staggering, but we’ll finally have gotten over the notion that accumulated information alone is a hallmark of intelligence. The power of all of this knowledge will come from its ability to inform difficult decisions, and to support complex analysis. Most professions will likely use simulation and modeling in their day-to-day work, from political decisions to hairstyle options. In a world of augmented intelligence, we will have a far greater appreciation of the consequences of our actions.

Coping with the various world-histori­cal dangers we face will require the greatest possible insight, creativity, and innovation. Our ability to build the future that we want—not just a future we can survive—depends on our capacity to understand the complex relationships of the world’s systems, to take advantage of the diversity of knowledge and experience our civilization embodies, and to fully appreciate the implications of our choices. Such an ability is increasingly within our grasp. The Nöocene awaits.

thanks to halia for the tip-off!

What Does Obama’s Identity Management Vision Mean?

Posted by on May 29th, 2009

On the Internet, no one knows if your’re a dog, or so I’m told.  But does President Obama’s newly announced “Cyberspace strategy” herald a possible end to the days of anonymity (or for that matter Anonymous) on the internet?

The answer is, “Possibly”.

Along with his press conference, today listing Cyber-Security as a national security priority, the White House also released the 75 page “Cyberspace Policy Review”.  It all seems pretty straightforward, answering basic national security, infrastructure and financian concerns about various “cyber threats”.  (The validity of a lot of these threats is, of course, up for debate, but isn’t what I’m looking to address here.)   However, buried in the text is a somewhat scary bit of policy jargon:

10.  Build a cybersecurity-based identity management vision and strategy that addresses privacy and civil liberties interests, leveraging privacy-enhancing technologies for the Nation.

Now, to be frank, there’s a few scary bits throughout the document.  There’s a lot of wording that could support the growing of walled gardens in the private and public sector and the promise of more government regulation of the internet in the United States, but that bit sticks out to me.

An “identity management vision” is a means of regulating and more importantly authenticating your identity online.   This would mean the creation of some sort of regulatory agent that can assist in the establishment of authenticity standards in the hopes of allowing federal agencies the ability to tell if, Captain Swing on myspace, and chimplover35 who comments on Digg are all in fact the same individual.  It’s, theoreticaly, the end of anonnimity on the internet.  (At least the US bits.)  Obviously it’s not the first time the US Federal government has shown an interest in policing identity on the internet, and it probably won’t be last, but it doesn’t bode well.

Io9′s Annalee Newitz has an interesting (and likely) take on the likelyhood of indentity policing ending up in the hands of a private sector company:

And here’s where my not-so-wild speculation about Facebook identities comes in. Many companies have turned to Facebook as an “identity management” system (including Gawker Media), allowing people to log into their services using their Facebook identity. The reason is simple: Most people only have one Facebook identity, and they stick with it. There’s a general notion that your Facebook identity is your authentic identity, or at least an identity that you keep over time, and that its characteristics can be traced back to who you are in real life. Therefore, having you log into every web service, from io9 comments to Digg to (possibly in the future) Paypal, is a way of managing your identities. Instead of having a separate identity for each of those services, you have one. Easy to manage, easy to trace.

Why shouldn’t Obama’s cyberczar just cut a deal with Facebook (and maybe a few other social networks like LinkedIn) and turn those profiles into your authentic identities? So you can send mail and buy things using your Facebook ID, and that’s how you’ll be tracked. Hey, you’re already on Facebook right? And you can set your profile to “private.” So it’s easy and “privacy enhancing.” (Never mind how easy it is to get around those privacy settings – pay no attention to that black hat behind the curtain.)

The scenario I’m describing is, in essence, how the Social Security Card became the twentieth century’s identity management system starting in the 1930s. These cards were not originally intended as ID cards, or as a way to authenticate your true identity. They were just a way to manage government assistance to those who needed it. But they became an ID card simply because everyone in the US had been issued one. When the government and businesses needed a way to track people’s identities, it became the easy choice. Showing your social security card meant that you couldn’t just come up with random new names for yourself every time you signed a form or took a job.

Though people in the US now think of the Social Security Card as the “obvious” form of ID, it took years for it to evolve from a simple social assistance card to an “identity management vision.”

Just as the (currently, temporarily scrapped) National ID card system would have been carried on the backbone of private interests, it’s entirely likely that any form of identity policing on the internet would end up being, by and large, maintained by a pre-existing entity in the private sector.   At first glance, a Facebook/US Government partnership seems unlikely, but does it really?   Newitz is right in claiming that this is exactly what happened with the Social Security Card.  This little white and blue piece of paper that most Americans posess quickly became a universal form of ID even though it was never intended to act as such.  (And in fact the card insists that a SSN is not an ID.)     And there are many, many companies that are currently using Facebook as identity sourcing or are looking at doing so.

Why not link your email addresses and your paypal accounts and your amazon information and your bank information to your Facebook account.  It’s safe and private, right?   While you’re at it, why not link your biometric information to your email account to your facebook account?  (Here’s the fun part — a lot of people already do that, and expect to see more push for email-based biometric security in the next year.)

Facebook is just one likely candidate for an increasingly likely scenario, and that scenario is one in which the powerful anonymizing factor of the internet is slowly reduced via public-private partnerships.  Partnerships which will be based on “convienence” and public safety.

On the bright side, Obama claims that he still supports net neutrality:

“Our pursuit of cybersecurity will not include — I repeat, will not include — monitoring private sector networks or internet traffic,” he said. “We will preserve and protect the personal privacy and civil liberties that we cherish as Americans. Indeed, I remain firmly committed to net neutrality so we can keep the internet as it should be, open and free.”

But those aren’t very comforting words when they’re released next to a document that encourages us to look back to the cold war, and discussed the importance of selling the idea of a national security cyber-threat to the American People.  It’s easy to say “I remain firmly committed to net neutrality…” but harder to accomplish when your policy documents outline how to convince the Internet-using populace  to allow internet regulations and promotes solidifying “who is in charge” of the internet.  (Those are just a few of the gems I noticed on a quick skim.)

Am I being reactionary?  Maybe a little.  But while the Obama adminstration has talked a good game regarding electronic civil liberties, he certainly hasn’t actually backed up the talk with actions, yet.  In fact, he’s done just the opposite with his support of enhanced wireless wiretapping powers and his appointment of MPAA/RIAA and staunch anti-P2P advocate Joe Biden as his VP.    While I’m not quite ready to go down to my local teabaggers meeting just yet, It’s obvious that electronic privacy is going to be an interesting minefield to watch Obama walk through.

On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.  Except Facebook.  And Linkdin.  And the FTC and LexisNexis and the CIA and the NSA and SEC.  Oh, and 4Chan.

Wilson and McKenna on Preparing for the Singularity

Posted by on March 31st, 2009

This is a clip from the 1999 documentary TechnoCalyps featuring the late Robert Anton Wilson and Terence McKenna.  It’s a little dated, but touches on other interpertations of the Singularity outside of the Vinge/Kurzweil AI-induced Singularity.

And personally, I can’t ever get enough McKenna.

(Link Via Phase II)

World Builder

Posted by on March 12th, 2009

Created by Bruce Branit, who shot in it a few days.World Builder involved two years of post-production work to bring it to this moment.

Sent to me via twitter by heresybob.

Charlie Stross’ FAQ for the 21C

Posted by on March 3rd, 2009

Charlie Stross has written a FAQ for the 21st Century.  As anyone familiar with his work would expect, it’s fascinating reading.  Here’s just some of it:

The 21st century: FAQ

Q: What can we expect?

A: Pretty much what you read about in New Scientist every week. Climate change, dust bowls caused by over-cultivation necessitated by over-population, resource depletion in obscure and irritatingly mission-critical sectors (never mind oil; we’ve only got 60 years of easily exploitable phosphates left — if we run out of phosphates, our agricultural fertilizer base goes away), the great population overshoot (as developing countries transition to the low population growth model of developed countries) leading to happy fun economic side-effects (deflation, house prices crash, stagnation in cutting-edge research sectors due to not enough workers, aging populations), and general bad-tempered overcrowded primate bickering.

Oh, and the unknown unknowns.

Q: Unknown unknowns? Are you talking about Donald Rumsfeld?

A: No, but I’m stealing his term for unprecedented and unpredictable events (sometimes also known as black swans). From the point of view of an observer in 1909, the modern consumer electronics industry (not to mention computing and internetworking) is a black swan, a radical departure from the then-predictable revolutionary enabling technologies (automobiles and aeroplanes). Planes, trains and automobiles were already present, and progressed remarkably well — and a smart mind in 1909 would have predicted this. But antibiotics, communication satellites, and nuclear weapons were another matter. Some of these items were mentioned, in very approximate form, by 1909-era futurists, but for the most part they took the world by surprise.

We’re certainly going to see unknown unknowns in the 21st century. Possible sources of existential surprise include (but are not limited to) biotechnology, nanotechnology, AI, climate change, supply chain/logistics breakthroughs to rival the shipping container, fork lift pallet, bar code, and RFID chip — and politics. But there’ll be other stuff so weird and strange I can’t even guess at it.

Q: Eh? But what’s the big picture?

A: The big picture is that since around 2005, the human species has — for the first time ever — become a predominantly urban species. Prior to that time, the majority of humans lived in rural/agricultural lifestyles. Since then, just over 50% of us now live in cities; the move to urbanization is accelerating. If it continues at the current pace, then some time after 2100 the human population will tend towards the condition of the UK — in which roughly 99% of the population live in cities or suburbia.

This is going to affect everything.

It’s going to affect epidemiology. It’s going to affect wealth production. It’s going to affect agriculture (possibly for the better, if it means a global shift towards concentrated high-intensity food production, possibly in vertical farms, and a re-wilding/return to nature of depopulated and underutilized former rural areas). It’s going to affect the design and layout of our power, transport, and information grids. It’s going to affect our demographics (urban populations tend to grow by immigration, and tend to feature lower birth rates than agricultural communities).

There’s a gigantic difference between the sustainability of a year 2109 with 6.5 billion humans living a first world standard of living in creative cities, and a year 2109 with 3.3 billion humans living in cities and 3.2 billion humans still practicing slash’n'burn subsistence farming all over the map.

Q: Politics? Which of (Socialism | Capitalism | Libertarianism | Fascism | Democracy) is going to save us?

A: Probably none of the above.

These are all political ideologies that emerged out of the Westphalian settlement and the subsequent European Enlightenment. This settlement was typified by the ascendancy of the nation state as an atomic administrative entity with relatively non-porous boundaries and legal and trade systems. We seem (at present) to be moving towards a much more globalized, diffused model of sovereignty and legal systems. Currently 70% of primary legislation in the UK originates in the EU (via the European Parliament, European Commission, or Council of Ministers); even in the USA, a country noteworthy for its sense of exclusive legislative independence, a surprisingly high proportion of US federal law originates as a result of WTO treaty processes. Autarky is already difficult to achieve and maintain without extreme privation, as witness the state of North Korea (deliberately isolationist and self-sufficient) or Zimbabwe (wilting under international trade sanctions.

We’re still waiting for the definitive ideological polarity of the internet era to emerge, although Bruce Schneier has opined that the key political hot potato of the 21st century will be the question, “how do we maintain the concept of privacy in an age of ubiquitous communications and surveillance”, and some believe that privacy is already dead. Given the way Moore’s Law is taking us towards an essentially unlimited ability to record everything, I’m not able to argue with the inevitability of surveillance: what I’d dispute is the morality of it.)

He goes on to dismiss the Singularity or Space Colonization as likely to save us.

Bruce Sterling on the Transition Web

Posted by on March 1st, 2009

Bruce Sterling just blogged his entire Webstock 09 speech, since apparently my neighbours, the Kiwi’s, couldn’t parse his accent.

It’s a brilliant overview of the history of the web, but it’s when he starts looking forwards that he really gets rolling.  Here’s just some of it (all emphasis is mine):

We’ve got a web built on top of a collapsed economy. THAT’s the black hole at the center of the solar system now. There’s gonna be a Transition Web. Your economic system collapses: Eastern Europe, Russia, the Transition Economy, that bracing experience is for everybody now. Except it’s not Communism transitioning toward capitalism. It’s the whole world into transition toward something we don’t even have proper words for.

The Web has always had an awkward relationship with business. Web 2.0 was a business model. The Transition Web is a culture model. If it’s gonna work, it’s got to replace things that we used to pay for with things that we just plain use.

In the Transition Web, if you’re monetizable, it means that you get attacked. You gotta squeeze a penny out of every pixel because the owners are broke. But if you do that to your users, they will vaporize, because they’re broke too, just like you; of course they’re gonna migrate to stuff that’s free.

After a while you have to wonder if it’s worth it — the money model, I mean. Is finance worth the cost of being involved with the finance? The web smashed stocks. Global banking blew up all over the planet all at once… Not a single country anywhere with a viable economic policy under globalization. Is there a message here?

Are there some non-financial structures that are less predatory and unstable than this radically out-of-kilter invisible hand? The invisible hand is gonna strangle us! Everybody’s got a hand out — how about offering people some visible hands?

Once upon a time there were lots of social enterprises that lived outside the market; social movements, political parties, mutual aid societies, philanthropies. Churches, criminal organizations — you’re bound to see plenty of both of those in a transition… Labor unions… not little ones, but big ones like Solidarity in Poland; dissident organizations, not hobby activists, big dissent, like Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia.

Armies, national guards. Rescue operations. Global non-governmental organizations. Davos Forums, Bilderberg guys.

Retired people. The old people can’t hold down jobs in the market. Man, there’s a lot of ‘em. Billions. What are our old people supposed to do with themselves? Websurf, I’m thinking. They’re wise, they’re knowledgeable, they’re generous by nature; the 21st century is destined to be an old people’s century. Even the Chinese, Mexicans, Brazilians will be old. Can’t the web make some use of them, all that wisdom and talent, outside the market?

Market failures have blown holes in civil society. The Greenhouse Effect is a market failure. The American health system is a market failure — and most other people’s health systems don’t make much commercial sense. Education is a loss leader and the university thing is a mess.

Income disparities are insane. The banker aristocracy is in hysterical depression. Housing is in wreckage; the market has given us white-collar homeless and a million empty buildings.

The energy market is completely freakish. If you have no fossil fuels, you shiver in the dark. If you do have them, your economy is completely unstable, your government is corrupted and people kill you for oil.

The human trafficking situation is crazy. In globalization people just evaporate over borders. They emigrate illegally and grab whatever cash they can find. If you don’t export you go broke from trade imbalances. If you do export, you go broke because your trading partners can’t pay you…

Kinda hard to face up to all this, especially when it’s laid out in this very bald fashion.

But you know, I’m not scared by any of this. I regret the suffering, I know it’s big trouble — but it promises massive change and a massive change was inevitable. The way we ran the world was wrong.

I’ve never seen so much panic around me, but panic is the last thing on my mind. My mood is eager impatience. I want to see our best, most creative, best-intentioned people in world society directly attacking our worst problems. I’m bored with the deceit. I’m tired of obscurantism and cover-ups. I’m disgusted with cynical spin and the culture war for profit. I’m up to here with phony baloney market fundamentalism. I despise a prostituted society where we put a dollar sign in front of our eyes so we could run straight into the ditch.

The cure for panic is action. Coherent action is great; for a scatterbrained web society, that may be a bit much to ask. Well, any action is better than whining. We can do better.

I’m not gonna tell you what to do. I’m an artist, I’m not running for office and I don’t want any of your money. Just talk among yourselves. Grow up to the size of your challenges. Bang out some code, build some platforms you don’t have to duct-tape any more, make more opportunities than you can grab for your little selves, and let’s get after living real lives.

The future is unwritten. Thank you very much.

h+ spring issue is out

Posted by on February 28th, 2009

h+ spring issue is out.

I just had a quick flick through and it’s full of goodness.  Check it out!

Brain scan replaces job interview in 5 years?

Posted by on February 24th, 2009

Forget about filling out forms or your resume, your brain scan may one day determine your job.

Prof. Verbeke heads the department of neuro-economics, (NSIM), at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. He predicts in an interview with Good Morning Netherlands radio station that employers demanding compulsory brain scans from their job applicants will soon become the most normal thing in the world – in fact within five years’ time’, he believes.

Especially after the economic fiascos which are plunging the world into recession, a great deal of interest is being shown by the economic sector in their neuro-testing job application scheme, which is now being developed and tested, he said. Neuro-economics is a new research field, combining economics, psychology, genetics and neuro-science.

One of the most important developments in this field are the use of EEGs and MRI-scans to determine the suitability of candidates for specific jobs, he said. It’s been known for the past thirty years that one can determine human psychological disabilities such as autism and psychopathic tendencies in brain-scans, he said. However exact guidelines are only now being developed for practical applications in industry and the economic field by his department.

While brain-scanning their volunteers, the Erasmus University researchers can identify exactly to which extent people react ’spontaneously’, i.e. subconsciously, to specific social interactions – such as financial trading on the stock market or shop personnel interacting with customers.

Thus they could also test job applicants for important posts such as bank directors and financial institutions to determine whether they are even suitable — or whether they have psychopathic tendencies which would exclude them from such jobs.


“This time, let’s get it right” a response to my recent rant by David Forbes

Posted by on February 17th, 2009

David Forbes, journalist and Coilhouse contributor, whom we’ve linked to a few times, has written a very thoughtful response to my recent rant “It’s going to get worse, before it get’s better”.

I’m going to quote and respond to a few key points now.

People, yes, do have a right to separate from mainstream society and live the way they please, it’s not something to marvel at when an event like the Tarnac crackdown happens. The pattern goes like this. An alternative culture gets some radical insight, decides it wants to break out of society and does so in a way that’s immediately, easily identifiable. Again, they have every right to do this. But it shouldn’t surprise anyone when the equivalent of shouting to the people and ideas running the show “hey bastards, we’re here!” gets a backlash. Well, what do they expect?

I disagree.  The best argument the French authorities seemed to have here was that by throwing away their mobile phones, this group was trying to drop off-the-grid and be untrackable; ie by ‘hiding’, they’re Terrorists.  When actually all they were doing was trying to live out their ideal utopia in a peaceful manner.

I think they didn’t shout “We’re Here!” loudly enough.  What they should have done is be far more public.  Showcase their revolution-in-living with blogs; get testaments from the much happier locals.  In short, make it cool and appealing to the greater public.

Status quo literally means “where things stand.” Said dominant cliques and cultural institutions “stand” and clawed to the top in the first place because they’re very, very good at handling straight-up, blatant opposition. If alt cultures put more energy into building political connections or spreading in a manner less separatist and more viral or developing tactics to deal with this kind of response, the future would be closer already.

Again, I think demonstrating loudly and publicly that an alternate way can exist is a far better response to ‘working within the System’.  Be the Leader and the rest will follow.  Make it cool, and they will beg to join.  Imagine some bastard hybrid of this scenario and Big Brother.  Not only should the Revolution Be Televised, it should be the highest rating show on the planet!!!

The idea that tech will save us from our sins should itself be a thing of the past.

I don’t think technology itself will save us.  But we’ve reached a radical point here; the creation of a technologically-facilitated, global human network.  Through social media (twitter, blogs, wikis, forums, etc etc) we can collaborate world-wide and prototype in parallel a wide array of solutions to the world’s problems.  All in real-time, with immediate feedback. It’s going to take everyone working together to get us out of this mess.

This time around those who want to build tomorrow need to spend as much time thinking about those old thorny questions of power as new technology. The alternative is that it won’t be “worse before it gets better,” it will just be worse and worse, down into the dust.

I think the politics here comes with the technology.  In short, the need for a Managerial Class is eliminated.  The hierarchies are collapsed and we can revert to our natural state of individuality and equality.

OK, that’s all I’ve got.  I want to thank David for his contributions and insight.  I’ve only quoted a fraction of his response; I encourage everyone to click through and read the whole thing.

I hope this is a discussion that continues to occur both publicly on the internet and in private.

We need to understand the potential we have to re-shape things, in light of the changes and challenges ahead of us.  Let’s all do our best to make this the best of all possible Futures!

Dmitry Orlov on Managing Social Collapse

Posted by on February 14th, 2009

There’s no wonder the latest Seminar About Long Term Thinking was sold-out well in advance; screw the Long Now, this was all about The Now!

During the Bush Era it seemed to me (as an outsider looking in) that the US’s Future was heading for something a lot like Israel. I don’t think it quite qualifies as a Black Swan, but did anyone really expect it to turn into Russia in ’90s?

Dmitry Orlov lived through that and gave the standing-room only audience some tips for the years ahead.

I’m just cut’n'pasting in the summary from Stewart Brand now, from the Long Now mailing list; all emphasis is mine, etc:

With vintage Russian black humor, Orlov described the social collapse he witnessed in Russia in the 1990s and spelled out its practical lessons for the American social collapse he sees as inevitable. The American economy in the 1990s described itself as “Goldilocks”—just the right size—when in fact is was “Tinkerbelle,” and one day the clapping stops. As in Russia, the US made itself vulnerable to the decline of crude oil, a trade deficit, military over-reach, and financial over-reach.

Russians were able to muddle through the collapse by finding ways to manage 1) food, 2) shelter, 3) transportation, and 4) security.

Russian agriculture had long been ruined by collectivization, so people had developed personal kitchen gardens, accessible by public transit. The state felt a time-honored obligation to provide bread, and no one starved. (Orlov noted that women in Russia handled collapse pragmatically, putting on their garden gloves, whereas middle-aged men dissolved into lonely drunks.) Americans are good at gardening and could shift easily to raising their own food, perhaps adopting the Cuban practice of gardens in parking lots and on roofs and balconies.

As for shelter, Russians live in apartments from which they cannot be evicted. The buildings are heat-efficient, and the communities are close enough to protect themselves from the increase in crime. Americans, Orlov said, have yet to realize there is no lower limit to real estate value, nor that suburban homes are expensive to maintain and get to. He predicts flight, not to remote log cabins, but to dense urban living. Office buildings, he suggests, can easily be converted to apartments, and college campuses could make instant communities, with all that grass turned into pasture or gardens. There are already plenty of empty buildings in America; the cheapest way to get one is to offer to caretake it.

The rule with transportation, he said, is not to strand people in nonsurvivable places. Fuel will be expensive and hoarded. He noted that the most efficient of all vehicles is an old pickup fully loaded with people, driving slowly. He suggested that freight trains be required to provide a few empty boxcars for hoboes. Donkeys, he advised, provide reliable transport, and they dine as comfortably on the Wall Street Journal as they did on Pravda.

Security has to take into account that prisons will be emptied (by stages, preferably), overseas troops will be repatriated and released, and cops will go corrupt. You will have a surplus of mentally unstable people skilled with weapons. There will be crime waves and mafias, but you can rent a policeman, hire a soldier. Security becomes a matter of local collaboration. When the formal legal structure breaks down, adaptive improvisation can be pretty efficient.

By way of readiness, Orlov urges all to prepare for life without a job, with near-zero burn rate. It takes practice to learn how to be poor well. Those who are already poor have an advantage.

And just when we thought the Present was already Science Fictional, all the missing elements of Cyberpunk will be arriving soon enough it seems.

The full text of Dmitry Orlov’s SALT talk is posted at his blog. You can also check out the slides he used for a famous 2006 talk, “Closing the Collapse Gap“.

For the podcast favouring, check the LongNow site for the mp3 later in week, or just grab the feed.

Global Catastrophic Risks Talks Online

Posted by on February 3rd, 2009

On November 14th, 2008, the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology and the Lifeboat Foundation hosted the “GLOBAL CATASTROPHIC RISKS: Building a Resilient Civilization” seminar in Sillicon Valley’s Computer History Museum.     The speakers list was a who’s who of transhumanists and futurists and now the talks are all available on IEET’s website.

I haven’t worked my way through the list, yet, but they’re definately worth checking out – and they’re available in video and mp3 formats.



Bruce and Bruno give us the year ahead

Posted by on January 31st, 2009

Bruce Sterling’s written a great piece in Seed on the Crisis ahead:

Here’s but a taste:

Insurance and building codes. Every year, insurance rates soar from mounting “natural” catastrophes, obscuring the fact that the planet’s coasts are increasingly uninsurable.

Insurance underlies the building and construction trades. If those rates skyrocket, that system must keel over. Once people lose faith in the institution of insurance — because insurance can’t be made to pay in climate-crisis conditions — we’ll find ourselves living in a Planet of Slums.

Most people in this world have no insurance and ignore building codes. They live in “informal architecture,” i.e., slum structures. Barrios. Favelas. Squats. Overcrowded districts of this world that look like a post-Katrina situation all the time. When people are thrown out of their too-expensive, too-coded homes, this is where they will go.

Unless they’re American, in which case they’ll live in their cars.

But how can dispossessed Americans pay for their car insurance when they have no fixed address? Besides, car companies are coming apart with the sudden savage ease of Enron’s collapse. Indeed, the year 2009 is shaping up as a planetary Enron. Enron was always the Banquo’s ghost at the banquet of Bushonomics. The moguls of Enron really were the princes of contemporary business innovation, and the harbingers of the present day.

His alter-ego, the Italian Futurist Bruno Argento brings the Optimism:

The year 2009 will brim over with senseless affronts toward decent people who have done their best and obeyed all the rules. Well-connected, well-educated, capable people who are pillars of the community will be ruined. It follows that 2009 will be a global banner year for European solidarity.

Once we recognize precarity as an existential threat for all, we will find the means to deal with it. A guaranteed annual income would be a good start. Shorter work weeks give us the chance to rejoin civil society, to re-establish trust with neighbors turned strangers, to engage in some convivial joie de vivre over healthy, genuine cuisine, instead of ridiculous cardboard-packaged fast food. You might want to drop by Turin to see how this can work. Here, we have built a global food-heritage industry. It would do you good to see wealthy Indians and Chinese gourmets venturing to sample the cheeses (likely the world’s greatest) available from local producers. Each side is enriched. Italy has been enduring massive tidal waves of tourists for two hundred solid years. Our tourist trade is so old and well established that we should perhaps build monuments to it.

The People of kashklash

Posted by on December 21st, 2008

Bruce Sterling’s got his design-fiction/Futurist hat on again, giving us Big Mama, Greifswald, Rebel kids, Brixels: The People of kashklash.

This explores “possible futures, based on two important variables…The first is the stability in exchange systems…The second variable is telecommunication technology.”

Which he illustrates nicely with this graphic:

So that’s four tales, or scenarios, of living in four different ‘worlds’.

Here’s an excerpt from the fourth scenario:

A brick house was a byword for solidity. “Solid as a brick house.” For a brick house to be malleable, temporary, gaseous, was a weird, crazy, extreme idea — as crazy as a trip to the moon. But a brixel was a brick: a mobile brick. A smart brick that was also a phone. A brick built around a phonechip, phones so high tech, so cheap, that they were cheaper than bricks. So that yesterday’s crown jewels, mobile phones, because building blocks.

Brixels locked together like children’s toys, and they were picked up and dropped, not by honest union bricklayers, but by little blind robots like an iPod lashed to Roomba. It took very little machine intelligence to move “brixels” around or to stack a huge wall out of “brixels.” A wall of brixels grew overnight. It was extravagantly patterned, like a computer screensaver. It was gorgeous. It was magnificent. It was very Italian.

Crazy, huh. Go read them all!