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I recently came to the chilling conclusion that we are watching the battle for the human species play out today, and not on the eve of the Grim Meathook Future or the Singularity as I’d hoped. Something with stakes that big, you’d think would involve at least a few lasers or robot gladiators battling it out for the survival of the future. Instead, what I found myself watching was the P2P downloads scene.
And, if my initial realization held any water – it wasn’t looking good for Team Humans.
I don’t think it’d surprise or offend anyone if I suggested that we’re enmeshed in many systems that trade off long term survivability for short term prosperity. It’s pretty clear that if non-renewable resources are continually stripped and burnt through and the rate of consumption of renewable resources surpasses the renewal rate that we’re kind of screwed in a long-term scenario. Capitalism (as it is currently expressed) and religious faith in market forces have brought us to a point where if there are not drastic changes in resource management, alternative fuels and materials and distribution of wealth soon (the sooner the better) then the long-term future is looking pretty grim.
(I say “as it is currently expressed” because honestly I don’t have any better, workable ideas than Capitalism. As far as I’m concerned, Capitalism is that trashy bar right across the county line in a dry county in the US. It may not be where I’d like to be; the drinks are watered down, and sometimes there are fights, but they’re the only game in town. Until it stops being a dry county, at least.)
And, as I often point out, its not a good sign that we haven’t figured out how to distribute water, food and shelter in anything resembling an efficient or civilized fashion.
Like a lot of wannabe utopianists or futurists, the hope that I’ve always held out for in the hopes that factors would change and make civilization not just profitable and expansive but sustainable and workable in the human long-game is the creation of a post-scarcity economy.
It could be a by-product of the Singularity or perhaps the Singularity itself, a by-product of a shift up in humanity’s Kardashev level, or just a result of people deciding that this long term survival thing is actually pretty important; but the post-scarcity economy has been my holy grail for a long time now. My thinking has always been that while post-scarcity won’t be a panacea by any means, it would certainly give people ample chances to solve the problems of this world, get out to new worlds, and fall prey to a lot less of the petty squabbling that leads to continued cycles of human on human violence in the here and now. I’m by far not the first or last person to think that way; even Marxisim’s endgame was arguably the creation of a post-scarcity environment.
Except, I look at the extant examples of post-scarcity in action and… well… that’s not going too well, is it? I’m talking about P2P technology of course. (I’ll make this quick, without turning this into a rant about piracy.)
Way back when, a Thing was a Thing; an object occupying physical space, requiring resources to produce and distribute. It was limited. To take one Thing and make another of it required equal amounts of resources. But digital Things (or Things that could be digitally reconstructed) require only a minute fraction of resources of the original to reproduce and distribute. The question becomes, not “What is the worth of an item factoring in factoring in the limitations of resources?” but “What is the worth of an item that can be copied near-infinitely with minimal expense?”
The answer to that question isn’t clear cut – nor should it be. It’s probably somewhere between “absolutely nothing!” and the $382 trillion in losses the Pirate Bay is supposedly responsible for, alone. Instead of lawsuits, you’d think the logical thing to do would be to really sit down and look at the questions P2P and digital media raises about the nature of Things. And there are some people doing that, but they tend to not be the ones with the giant legal teams. In fact, let’s look at the resistance the emergence of a post-scarcity economy in the middle of a Capitalist scarcity economy generates:
And that’s all from just a very quick glance at my RSS feed. There is a lot more demonizing of “non-infringing” p2p for the sake of stopping piracy or pedophiles, companies turning to draconian DRM (DRM itself being a form of artificial scarcity) and it is only going to get worse. But this isn’t just about piracy.
This is about what happens next.
A friend of mine who collects action figures shows me a custom mod of an Optimus Prime Transformer figure. I asked him how much it bugged him to dismantle a classic figure and he smiles and tells me he just scanned the parts he needed of his old one with a 3D scanner and built most of the new one with a 3D Printer. And that’s just one example of how 3D printing is slipping into my everyday life. We’re rapidly approaching the point where duplicating Things for a fraction of the original resources is easy - and by “rapidly approaching” I mean people you know are rapid prototyping and cloning items as we speak. It’s not too much of a jump to think we’re not that far from something resembling nano-assembling – rendering ideas like “original” meaningless. We’re exceedingly close the age where “remix culture” can remix Things with nearly the ease it can remix digital media.
But how will we react? Will we put DRM on food so it can’t be mass produced? Will we attempt to limit access to production engines? Will we allow “market forces” to keep the poor needy while the top 1% don’t even have a concept of need? Will we rush out to buy iMakers that scan the net to ensure anything you’re producing isn’t a component of a copyrighted product or recipe – or that only produce “family safe” products?
The P2P scene and the legal and legislative battles around it worldwide is not just about Piracy. Piracy is part of it of course, but this is also where the post-scarcity future is being test-bedded. What should be a conversation about the nature of Things and how we assign value to them becomes a war to ensure the new technologies become all but illegal, even for “non-infringing uses.”
There is a story about Nikola Tesla and J.P. Morgan. The story claims that Tesla – who was being backed by Morgan at the time – went to Morgan and demonstrated that he had figured out how to generate free electricity on a large scale. Tesla, the story says, had discovered how to eliminate scarcity from power distribution. Morgan pulled his backing immediately, because, as we can easily imagine, his fortune and his vision of a future with himself and his ilk at the top of the food chain required only one thing in abundance: scarcity. True or not, the tale is a good mirror of how things stand now. Those systems and people and companies and governments that rely on scarcity to maintain wealth and power want the promise of P2P technologies to die on the vine – and that doesn’t bode well for what’s next. (And let’s stop for a moment and consider how many institutions rely on people not having enough of what they need to maintain their existence. Would it be going too far to suggest that any institution that relies on scarcity for its income and power is in fact an Enemy of the Future?)
Now I hope this is just what change looks like when you’re immersed in it, and that on the other side of this is a real post-scarcity economy so humanity can get to work on being better instead of keeping everyone in the mud. But when, like me, you’re preaching the gospel of better living through technology and you watch the technology that could help make that life better continually get burnt down by people anxious to protect their wealth, it makes you worry just a bit. And the whole mess is just another reminder that the Future isn’t a place further up the timeline, it is the thing we are building right now.
From the BBC:
A giant “digital cloud” that would “float” above London’s skyline has been outlined by an international team of architects, artists and engineers.
The construction would include 120m- (400ft-) tall mesh towers and a series of interconnected plastic bubbles that can be used to display images and data.
The Cloud, as it is known, would also be used an observation deck and park.
Its designers plan to raise the funds to build it by asking for micro-donations from millions of people.
“It’s really about people coming together to raise the Cloud,” Carlo Ratti, one of the architects behind the design from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) told BBC News.
“We can build our Cloud with £5m or £50m. The flexibility of the structural system will allow us to tune the size of the Cloud to the level of funding that is reached.”
The different spheres would act as structural elements, habitable spaces, decoration and LCD screens on which data could be projected.
“We could provide a custom feed of… searches made by Londoners during the Olympics to give a real time ‘barometer’ of the city’s interests and mood,” said Google, one of the supporters of the project, which has also offered to provide the information feeds.
The structure would also be used to harvest all the energy it produces according to Professor Ratti.
“It would be a zero power cloud,” he said.
As well as solar cells on the ground and inside some of the spheres, the lifts would use regenerative braking, similar to that in some hybrid cars.
That way, the designers say, potential energy from visitors to the top of the tower can be harnessed into useful electricity.
I was going to call this 50mins of pure mind candy, but that doesn’t quite capture it. Mind superfood might be a better description. Matt Webb’s opening keynote for Wedirections South is an mp3 superfood capsule for your brain. You just can’t unhear his ideas, it is true synapse rewiring material; this description barely does it justice:
The 21st century is a participatory culture, not a consumerist one. What does it mean when small teams can be responsible for world-size effects, on the same playing field as major corporations and government? We can look at the Web – breaking down publishing and consuming from day zero – for where we might be heading in a world bigger than we can really see, and we can look at design – playful and rational all at once – to help us figure out what to do when we get there.
So grab the mp3 and load it onto your prefered player, or just hit play on this embed:
You should watch this too.
I want this on my desk right now:
Click through to see the full glory of Frank Buchwald’s Machine Light series, and decide which one goes on your covet-list.
From A Distinctive World:
The Autonomobile (ATNMBL) is a concept car is designed around passenger, rather than driver, experience with architectural styling, a lounge-like interior and fully glazed sides
New Scientist brings us the work of UK-based designers James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau. They believe that “if robots are ever to be welcomed into people’s homes, they’ll need to fit in with the rest of the furniture, and earn their keep”.
This lampshade is just one of their designs.
Insects are lured into the shade by ultraviolet lights – which are lit only at night – and become trapped.
Trapped insects eventually fall into the fuel cell below.
This generates electricity to power the ultraviolet LEDs, which can then switch on to trap more flies when the house lights are off.
Keep reading for more such interesting designs.
This is some serious industrial design/car pr0n. From Pink Tentacle:
In Mazda’s vision of the late 2050s, advances in molecular engineering have rendered metal-based manufacturing obsolete. The rise of ubiquitous computing and artificial intelligence drastically accelerates the automotive production cycle…A “haptic skin” suit consisting of millions of microscopic actuators enables the driver to experience the road psycho-somatically while receiving electrical muscle stimulation from the onboard AI guidance system…The vehicle’s entire structure is comprised of a 100% reprototypable, carbon nanotube/shape memory alloy weave with a photovoltaic coating, which allows the vehicle to mimic the driver’s body movements while powering the in-wheel electrostatic motors.
Master student Hans Alexander Huseklepp at AHO, have made the concept “Immaculate” that explores new possibilities for prosthetic devices. Instead of imitating a normal arm he wants apply the same philosophy used in eyewear. And make the products go from being purely functional to become objects of fashion and identity!
As a design concept, QaRpet becomes a physical link to virtual spaces, media content or perhaps even other physical spaces.
The integration of QR code generation into carpet tile design encourages the user to investigate further.
It adds an element of interaction to a space that otherwise has not existed previously. QaRpet pushes the functionality of traditional carpeting.
It transforms carpeted floor space into a multi media and interactive experience.
Pretty neat in my book. If you dig it, why not swing by and give him some votes.
W3sh.com is a French-language site, so we have to rely on the helpful Google translator-bot to get more info on this. Apparently:
The Italian company offers a Lumina lamp designer Ettore Cimini of beauty. It has a metal structure and polymer and the design draws heavily on snakes that illustrated the stories of ancient Egypt.
The light is transmitted via fiber optics and lamp has a switch to control intensity.
via digital pill
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!
Do I have to rant again about how much sense it makes to grow your food in the city you’re supplying? K, cool.
Check out this beautiful concept art, cherry picked from TIME’s slideshow on Urban Farming:
This one is my favourite though:
And yes, they’d all look much better on Mars. But we have to practice here first.
London-based research and design company SolarLab is developing a solar-powered rickshaw.
The solar generator will create 75% of the total power need to drive the vehicle, while the remaining 25% will be provided by the drivers’ pedal-power. The physical exertion needed will be dramatically less than that of even a standard bicycle, much less a traditional rickshaw, allowing any driver, not just athletes, to drive the vehicles.
Which makes Treehugger’s excellent round-up of temporary/portable housing solutions excellent reading.
The Pump & Jump is my favourite of those listed.
Not only would they be perfect for festivals, but they would make for far more civilized temporary autonomous zones in general.
If we are increasingly going to be forced into tent cities, we must try and make the best of it.
Back in 1998 Bruce Sterling launched his Viridian art/design movement. This week he ended it, with his final Viridian Note.
It’s reflective piece in part, drawing on how his own life has changed over the past decade.
It’s also chock full of good advice, like this part; his ode to the multitool:
…a multitool IS a set of keys. It’s a set of possible creative interventions in your immediate material environment. That is why you want a multitool. They are empowering.
A multitool changes your perceptions of the world. Since you lack your previous untooled learned-helplessness, you will slowly find yourself becoming more capable and more observant. If you have pocket-scissors, you will notice loose threads; if you have a small knife you will notice bad packaging; if you have a file you will notice flashing, metallic burrs, and bad joinery. If you have tweezers you can help injured children, while if you have a pen, you will take notes. Tools in your space, saving your time. A multitool is a design education.
I miss the days when it was less problematic to travel with such an item. Fortunate was I to travel the world pre-9/11. But I digress.
Bruce also lays out a great way to construct a workable 21C house, which once applied also dovetails perfectly with Zoetica’s Be Your Own Supervillain guide from Coilhouse magazine #1 (which you’ve all bought / requested for xmas, yeah?!)
The following quote sums up the philosophy for living in, nay surviving the future that he advises (emphasis mine):
You should be planning, expecting, desiring to live among material surroundings created, manufactured, distributed, through radically different methods from today’s. It is your moral duty to aid this transformative process. This means you should encourage the best industrial design.
Get excellent tools and appliances. Not a hundred bad, cheap, easy ones. Get the genuinely good ones. Work at it. Pay some attention here, do not neglect the issue by imagining yourself to be serenely “non-materialistic.” There is nothing more “materialistic” than doing the same household job five times because your tools suck. Do not allow yourself to be trapped in time-sucking black holes of mechanical dysfunction. That is not civilized.
This is our obligation. Our less tech-savvy friends turn to us for advice constantly, we must continue to guide them wisely, and adjust their selection criteria.
We must do whatever we can to create a Post-Industrial society designed to cope with the extremes, since it’s clear to anyone paying attention that our Industrial society, with it’s emphasis on the normal, just isn’t cutting it anymore.
On display at the International Biennial of Seville. That is until I swoop down from my stealth zeppelin and take this back to my Pirate Utopia. I wish. S.w.o.o.n!
It’s called the walking chair, but we know better. This four-legged wheelchair replacement, on exhibit at Robo Japan 2008, is not about traversing uneven terrain or allowing mechanical creations to move more like organic beings. It’s about man fusing with both insects and robots to create a new race founded on pure 80s cartoon awesomeness