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Heavy Weather Revisited

The US national news at present is dominated by the imminent arrival of “superstorm” Sandy to the Northeastern coast. Like most of us in the US now, my thoughts are with my family members, friends and work colleagues in that region.

Please prepare and be safe, everyone. (Especially my sister, who, according to a Facebook update, was “kicked out” of Atlantic City today. This time, it’s for your safety, too, sis.)

That said, you’d have to be living in a cave to be unaware of how extreme our weather has become. In the US this year, summer temperatures hit new highs in many places. Globally, we have had massive hurricanes, snowstorms, tsunamis (remember Japan last year), earthquakes, tornadoes, you name it. And with the extreme weather have come human casualties. It’s a convergence of two global trends: climate change and overpopulation. We have over 7 billion people spread across the planet now, so any storm is likely to encounter a populated area.

It seems no longer useful to deny the effects of climate change. As partially explained here a few days back, the fearsome potential of Sandy comes from the convergence of multiple climate effects, including a tropical storm, a nor’easter, the jet stream, “blocking” effects, and the full moon. A perfect storm, if you will, that owes some of its historic force to climate change. The rapid decline of polar sea ice, for one thing, has warmed the seas, and warm seas add energy to tropical storms. So we’re likely to see these storms hit harder further north in the future. It’s just one result of global warming.

Reading about the coming storm also reminds me of Bruce Sterling’s 1995 cyberpunk novel Heavy Weather, which I re-read earlier this year. The novel tells the story of a band of tornado chasers called “The Troupe,” in a near-future version of West Texas-Oklahoma. Climate change in the story has advanced to the point that tornado alley becomes virtually unlivable for all but the most renegade or weather-obsessed.

The story follows The Troupe as they chase after an F6 tornado, a huge, never-seen-before superstorm. The fictional F6 tornado, like the real hurricane Sandy, is something of a climate change-driven convergence of forces that don’t normally converge, full of fearsome power that threatens to destroy the book’s protagonists.

Lots of good action and adventure, of course, but it’s not the plot that makes Sterling’s 17-year-old novel so fascinating to me today. It’s his very prescient description of a possible future socio-economic-ecological environment. The near-future world of Heavy Weather has economic collapse, social collapse, and environmental collapse all rolled into a world that’s beginning to look a lot like ours. It’s even got out-of-control Mexican gangs, food shortages, and driverless cars to boot.

A brilliant work of futurism, really.

So it’s safe to say some folks saw superstorms like Sandy coming. Like global warming, the data trends have been there for years. If we take climate change seriously, it may be possible to mitigate our impacts on the environment, and thus potentially on weather patterns. Sure, a lot of people would have to do a lot of things differently, but our only alternative might be to learn to love heavy weather.

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Visualizing Environmental Impacts: The Hestia Project

I wrote in my last post here that we needed some ways to make explicit and visual the impacts our actions and behaviors have on the ecological health of our planet. If we are to truly embrace sustainability on a mass scale, in other words, we need to begin to see the damage we’re doing.

The Hestia Project is an interesting step in that direction.

According to the project site:

“The Hestia system combines diverse data about the flow and metabolism of the energy-emissions-climate nexus. Hestia can provide stakeholders an unprecedented opportunity to design and implement carbon management strategies, verify emissions reduction, strengthen and support basic research in climate prediction and carbon cycle science, and allow the public, decisionmakers, scientists and industry access to detailed space-time information on fossil/industrial energy consumption and CO2 emissions. All this will be done via an intuitive, interactive, photorealistic, three-dimensional visualization of the Earth.”

Here’s also a Fast Company article on the project.

And check out their video:

Great stuff. All of which says, to me anyway, that there are great opportunities to better understand and mitigate our ecological impacts, again, when we can see them, graphically, in real-time. Of course, I think they’re approaching this a little institutionally, and they may never be able to influence the behavior of the average consumer on the street, given their current scope. But it’s a model, and hey, it’s a start.

I hope the general concept matures, as this kind of invisible insight needs to be a public, everyday thing.

Just imagine — if you took an augmented reality concept like Google’s Project Glass and overlaid emissions data optics on the visual field of the wearer, so that wherever they went they could see the impact intensity, in real-time, right there, right then, that would be pretty interesting, wouldn’t it? If adopted widely, how would such a tool change our behavior and/or our environmental expectations?

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Zizek in the Trash Heap

Here’s my favorite part of The Examined Life, a very watchable documentary from 2008 — philosopher Slavoj Zizek discusses ideology and ecology in the trash heap:

Many interesting (and contentious) points for both present and future here: the relationship between ideology and ecology, nature as a series of catastrophes, ecology as a new opium of the masses, the myth that humans are alienated from the natural world, and more.

My favorite part is when he talks about “disavowal,” the idea that although we may know a fact, we sometimes act as if we don’t know. You might know certain foods lead to unhealthy outcomes, for instance, but you still eat them anyway. Zizek’s point here is that we consciously or unconsciously disavow, and disguise, the ecological impact of human activity on the earth by engineering our environment to separate human activity and behaviors from their ecological impacts. The trash heap in the clip here is an example: we produce all this waste, but it disappears from our lives. When we walk out of our homes and go to work, all we see is clean streets and groomed parks.

In other terms, Zizek is pointing to a material example of the psychogeographical engineering* that we (or the powers that be) do as a society and culture in order to support discourses of consumption and materialism. We have engineered our world to support mass consumption of disposable goods, and the inconvenient externalities have to be hidden so as not to disrupt that discourse.

If you were interested in a sustainable future, creating more awareness of ecological impacts would be useful, and to do that, you likely need to break the cycle of disavowal. We might have to make visual all the hidden waste and destruction happening as a result of our daily lives.

Technology could help us out here. Could some system be developed, integrating video, GPS, and RFID to make humans visually and quantitatively aware of their environmental impacts? If we saw everywhere the scale of our waste and destruction, would that change our behavior? It seems possible such a solution might work, and I think it would be more impactful than those online carbon footprint calculators.

Something to think about.

* Incidentally, I am thinking more and more about this psychogeography concept, which I mentioned in a previous post. I think it’s a good potential framework for cultural analysis of material-architectural-environmental discourse. If principles of psychogeography are part of the methodology through which the built environment reinforces the present, then it’s a critical space for contesting that present and for creating the future. More in a future post.

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Processing Success and Failure

If you’re like me, you succeed at times, and you screw up here and there too. Some projects turn out wonderful. Others, not so much. It feels great when we succeed, and not so great when we fail. Moreover, it’s generally pretty clear whether we’ve succeeded or failed, isn’t it, because in most of the contexts in which we act, expectations are defined and outcomes subsequently rewarded or punished.

Since we’ve also been conditioned since birth to seek pleasure and avoid pain, the success vs. failure dichotomy goes deep and is hard to confront. Culturally, we reinforce that dichotomy over and over as well:

“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” football coach Red Sanders told us.

Yoda was just as humorless in the Star Wars saga: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

In order to be a good futurist, innovator, or I would even say human being, these days, we need to remember that the success-failure dichotomy is socially and contextually constructed. That is, it’s defined by the rules of the particular game that’s in play. Put yet another way, it’s defined mostly by others.

More than that, the ways in which success and failure are often defined support a specific status quo, and therefore look backward, by virtue of their intrinsic participation in a legacy context or construct. A familiar example might be the success the oil industry has had in developing technologies to profitably extract oil from previously marginal locations. It’s a success in today’s game in that it maintains our global fossil fuel economy and keeps gas prices affordable for consumers, but the oil industry’s present success seems a collective failure of the future in that it may delay serious efforts to move us beyond fossil fuels.

Well, someone always wins and someone always loses, we might say, but intelligent consideration of such an example needs to go beyond winners and losers to consider the construct or game in which these actions play out. To shift from the present into a sustainable future is to shift the construct, and where future thinkers add value has to be in analyzing, modeling and prototyping possibilites for the where and how of such shifts.

I think this perspective also applies to our individual personal and professional lives. Maybe if we stop thinking in terms of success and failure, and start thinking in open possibilities, defining and shifting our own context, it might change the way we see our work and ourselves. The next time you do or try something, maybe try to resist letting the status quo construct define the outcome. Instead, try to define the outcome within your own context and see if you feel differently about it.

Finally, I’d like to suggest a modification of Yoda’s famous “there is no try” phrase, for futurists and, well, all of us: There is do, do not, and also try. Our great challenge is to figure out which one, in which context, works the best.


Google and the Psychogeography of Data

Quick, random thoughts tonight on Google (and a between-the-lines love letter to Guy Debord):

Reflecting a bit on “Don’t Be Evil,” Google’s famous old “informal corporate motto”— one is tempted at first to laud it as a pithy, hip-phrased commitment to integrity, transparency and corporate citizenship.

Yet, anyone that has given the thing an ounce of thought is also tempted to wonder why the lady doth protest so much. In other words, why go on about evil unless you’re doing it? Well, there are plenty who think Google knows too much about us, and they probably do. But I don’t think they were ever necessarily evil or interested in becoming evil.

Instead, I think they’re extremely smart and generally know what they’re doing. For one, they know they’re always on the edge of any number of minor Faustian bargains. More than that, I believe Brin and Page saw the psycho-cultural-epistemological magnitude of their search engine project pretty early on. I think the “Don’t Be Evil” thing was a rather genuine ethical response. For dramatic purposes, I imagine a moment when they saw the raw corrupting power of their creation, looked up at each other, had an oh-shit moment, then nervously scrawled the motto on a conference room whiteboard, where none dared erase it.

I know it probably didn’t happen that way, but hey, why not imagine it?

Anyway, reverse-engineering that “Don’t Be Evil” scrawl, here’s what I think Brin and Page saw:

1) The web is nothing more than the first iteration of a future world that is pure datasphere. We will all live in that world. It will shape us. It will teach us. It will define what is possible and what is not. It’s already happening, but it’s just begun.

2) Page Rank and algorithms like it will be primary forces of nature that will do nothing less than shape and define the world we live in. And who we are, what we can be. It’s already happening, but it’s just begun.

3) Specifically, the search engine scuplts the psychogeography of the datasphere in which we all live. By favoring some data, and starving off others, Google and things like Google passively and actively delimit what data exists in the world, according to their own logic and judgment, and thereby (I repeat) define the world we live in, shape what we can think and who we can be.

4) And thus, Google is nothing less than a kind of demiurge cartographer of a living world of data: they are mapping (and through mapping, creating) our digital world for us. They are creating/mapping our intellectual, social and cultural possibilities, no less, and it’s no surprise that they long ago set about to map (or re-map) the physical world too. It’s all the same project of psychogeographic engineering.

So that’s the beautiful terror in the algorithm: world-creator power of many magnitudes.

Any distrust we might have of Google, then, comes from our intuitive sense of that power. The Chinese government exercises a similar power over its citizens, perhaps. That’s the closest analogy I can think of. But I think in Google’s case, to this point, it amounts more to a tremendous ability to be evil than actually being evil. Either way, that’s how big the thing is that Google holds in its hands. If you don’t believe me, consider alone the sway Google has over internet marketers. There is something akin to deep moral import in every tweak of Page Rank, and the faithful tremble. Just read the SEO blogs each time PR changes—those folks rattle about like ancient oracles attempting to extract an omen from an animal carcass.

So there it is. Maybe it’s all obvious to you. Or maybe I’m wrong.

Regardless, I always liked the ideas of the Situationist Movement, particularly the idea of the derivé, that aimless wandering through the city in a way that subverts its intended psychogeographical discourse, that allows you to think and be in ways that aren’t programmed by the structures around you.

And I wonder what a datasphere equivalent of the derivé would look like.

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Intelligent Transport: Can We Handle It?

There has been a lot of press on “intelligent transport” lately: technology-enhanced automobiles, cargo vehicles and personal transports. The poster child for the movement has to be Google’s driverless car. If you haven’t been following the latest Google adventure in innovation, check out this Ted Talk with Sebastian Thrun:

But beyond this high-profile Google project, now legal in California, there are countless devices and vehicle prototypes designed to post-modernize the 100-year-old technology of hitting the road. But it’s not just vehicles, it’s also roads, signs, and overall geographic systems that are being innovated.

Here’s a Discovery video overview from the World Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems:

The ostensible benefits of intelligent transport are safety, efficiency and sustainability, all of which are desirable. But this tech is also a sign of the increased networking and automation of our lives, and thus a potential loss of adventure and personal autonomy. On a certain level, in other words, it feels too damn safe. And tech-tethered.

While I’m no fan of gas-guzzling old technology, I do have to admit there is something satisfying about ripping along an open freeway in a convertible, with no set itinerary. So I wonder how quickly broad adoption of intelligent transport will happen, if intelligent transport means safe and tethered. The very real future forecasting issue here is the interplay between technology and culture: are we really ready to embrace so much automation in an area of our lives that provides us such a sense of psychological control as driving our cars? Maybe many of us are, but is everyone? Will there be a blended period of time where intelligent and dumb cars share the road? And will we eventually lose the ability to choose, as the new paradigm sweeps the old technology aside like leaded gasoline?

However it turns out, it’s clear that as these technologies advance, the road trip is unlikely to be the same.

Which begs the classic futurist question: when do I get my frickin’ jet pack?

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Finite and Infinite Games

One of my favorite quasi-philosophical books is James P. Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility. If you haven’t read it, you must. It’s an easy read, but it’s powerful. In this little aphoristic volume, Carse elucidates and explores the distinction between games/activities that are finite/closed systems and ones that are infinite/open systems.

To quote the basic premise of the book:

“There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”

The (admittedly imperfect) examples I picture in my mind: 1) a football game, with its agreed-upon time limits, scorekeeping and delineated field, is a classic finite game; and 2) a rock music performance, with its potentially loose structure, vaguely defined duration, and no clear objective evaluation criteria, is something of an infinite game. In the first, there is a final score; in the second, there is not. In the first, there is an agreed-upon winner and finite outcome; in the second, such terms make little sense.

So, taking this out to a macro scale, in our globalized capitalist market society, of course, there is a whole heck of a lot of finite game bias and even more winning and losing rhetoric. Even the smallest child can see it, as we’re conditioned from birth to play finite games and inevitably “gamify” life. A result of this finite game bias is that we also tend to sort people and groups of people into ever-shifting contextualized segments of winners and losers. Winning businesses are ones that dominate markets. Winning people are ones who have more money, have more fans on Facebook, whatever. Winning countries are ones that have the highest GDP.

It may seem innocent and natural enough, but the bias toward finite games is more than cheery sportsmanship or harmless temporary profiling (“sometimes you win and sometimes you lose”). Beneath the pervasive discourse of winning and losing is the slow but steady transformation of all spheres of human activity into finite games. Activities that are overly structured, overly quantitative, and often poorly scored. Our bias toward quantitative metrics is partially to blame, so also is our poor state of mass education, as we lose the skills to qualitatively evaluate things that are difficult to measure quantitatively.

Even more than that, perhaps, I think we as a society are developing a reluctance to play in or enjoy infinite-game type activities such as the arts or certain kinds of R&D, perhaps because they have no easy success metrics, and thus no easy rewards, or because we are addicted to winner/loser judgments and can’t deal with scenarios where the play is just play.

I would suggest that better future outcomes for our world depend upon reversing this trend toward viewing everything as a finite game. Or put another way, we have to begin to define success differently, as some have attempted to do with “eco-capitalism.” The sustainability of our natural resources depends upon breaking the finite game bias. Our ability to develop new solutions for our existing problems depends upon it as well. We simply have to begin to play to keep on playing, or we will not be able to innovate quickly enough to support our growing global resource needs, and our collective game will indeed become finite.

Please note that I’m not trying to be unscientific here. We do have to understand data and the quantitative dimensions of life, the universe, and everything, but then we have to get beyond them to creativity and true innovation.

To quote Carse again:

“Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.”

That’s the rub: in order to build a good future, we will have to become infinite players.

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Moore’s Law and SyNAPSE

If you’re aware of the history of computers and machine intelligence at all, you know that raw computational power has come a long way since the early transistors. Gordon Moore’s famous law has more or less held up: the number of transistors that will fit on a microchip has doubled every 18 months or so, thus producing a steady increase in processing power, speed and storage capacity for so many of our digital devices.

Here’s Moore’s Law graphed out, courtesy of wikipedia:
As the fruits of Moore’s Law ripened, it became easy to imagine that machines would quickly become so smart that they would rival human intelligence. Yet alas, they haven’t yet. Despite this tremendous increase in machine computational power — and it is impressive, probably the single most driving force of human advancement in recent history — the dream of Artificial Intelligence, or of the Singularity, remains unfulfilled.

And Moore’s Law is slowing down and coming up against the laws of physics. There are many opinions on when the law might collapse, but here’s the always entertaining Michio Kaku discussing the issue:

As Kaku indicates, there are alternatives to the silicon and code path we’ve been beating for the past 50 years.

Here’s one: SyNAPSE, a project from DARPA.

To quote their site:

“Current programmable machines are limited not only by their computational capacity, but also by an architecture requiring human-derived algorithms to describe and process information from their environment. In contrast, biological neural systems, such as a brain, autonomously process information in complex environments by automatically learning relevant and probabilistically stable features and associations. Since real-world problems generally have many variables and nearly infinite combinatorial complexity, neuromorphic electronic machines would be preferable in a host of applications. Useful and practical implementations, however, do not yet exist.

“The vision for the Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE) program is to develop electronic neuromorphic machine technology that scales to biological levels. SyNAPSE supports an unprecedented multidisciplinary approach coordinating aggressive technology development activities in the following areas: hardware, architecture, simulation, and environment.”

The approach here, then, is inspired by the brain, where the architecture is composed of simple units in a flexible structure that effectively responds to complex input. So the SyNAPSE vision is something along the lines of this chart they provided:

Simple systems with complex environmental capacity. Kind of like us, really. I am reminded of the human brain, which is again the SyNAPSE model, but I think also of much of nature. Consider colonies of ants or bees: together they make a flexible system of simple components that respond effectively to a complex environment. But the question is always whether the collective hive can be considered intelligent, or rather be considered an intelligence. And thus, we are back into the questions around artificial intelligence and the Singularity that I find so fascinating: will it be a single-system intellect or some kind of hive mind? Or could there be both? What is really possible?

Either way, I do believe there’s something great about the simple chart from the SyNAPSE project, above. That green star on the horizontal axis, labelled “human level performance” and “dawn of a new age,” that’s the Singularity, isn’t it? And see the yellow star? DARPA intends to get us closer.

SyNAPSE. Interesting project. Worth following.

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Scary Beautiful: The Future and Human Kinetics

Thinking about and prototyping the future often means pushing out boundaries and subverting expectations. It means rejecting and reinventing expected models, forms and interactions. And the momentum of the future finds expression in so many different ways. Often in big, obvious ways, but also in small, subtle, yet unforgettable ones.

For me, one of the most striking, often unintentional, expressions of the future is motion. New things move in new ways, or cause us to move in new ways. Think of the awkward, compelling kinetics of early computer graphics, of Second Life, or of people interacting with new technology. Have you ever walked in a hallway filled with people texting on their phones?

Inevitably, the visceral and the kinetic are secondary, accidental canvases upon which the raw power of new technologies and modes of being find expression. Yet, it’s obvious from the way the human body moves: here is something new.

I came across two videos this week, and together they form a kind of dialectic around human kinetics and the future.

First, this striking video of dancing Japanese robots in which the machines synthesize organic human motion in a mesmerizing fashion:

Second, this equally striking video in which a human model walks across a room in Leanie van der Vyver’s experimental “Scary Beautiful” boots. When you watch this video, don’t focus on the boots themselves; they are exaggerated, inverted high heels. Watch instead the way the model’s body moves as she walks across the floor like a primitive mechanical insect:

Mesmerizing as well, no?

Apparently, the shoes are a reaction by van der Vyver to the obsessive construction of perfection. Here’s a statement from the South African designer:

“Humans are playing God by physically and metaphorically perfecting themselves. Beauty is currently at an all time climax, allowing this project to explore what lies beyond perfection. Scary Beautiful challenges current beauty ideals by inflicting an unexpected new beauty standard.”

And yet, here’s the heart of it: watch the model. Does not that mechanical motion suggest, perhaps even celebrate, a crude robotic kinetics? Yes, the ongoing search for a perfection that is not humanity, but its technological mirror. Not a new beauty standard for humans, but for something else entirely. An awkward, imperfect prototype of the kind of scary mechanical beauty more fully realized in the dancing robot video.

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Making the Virtual Physical: Like-A-Hug

I’ve written before about the convergence of our digital existence with our physical existence. It’s the idea that the metaphorical virtual things that happen in our digital online lives will become substantiated in reality, and vice versa, so that there is little distinction between the two in our consciousness.

One of the critical points of this convergence is of course the human central nervous system. On one side of the equation, we are connecting the impulses of the brain to systems that manipulate the physical world, such as this example. On the other side, the increasing efforts to hack the CNS mean digital events can be made fully sensorial at a fundamental level (through the familiar grammar of pain, pleasure, pressure, touch, sound, imagery, smell, etc.), and thus our digital lives can be experienced in the same way our physical lives have been experienced for tens of thousands of years.

In this vein, here’s a very simple and brilliant illustration. It’s the Like-A-Hug vest from Melissa Kit Chow, Andy Payne and Phil Seaton.

Here’s a video Chow posted on her blog:

The basic concept is that it’s a social media vest that inflates to “hug” you when someone clicks “Like” on one of your social media posts, thus giving you the physical sensation of an embrace (and thus the emotional validation) that is implicit in the virtual social media act of “liking” or similar. You can also send the hug back, apparently, by embracing yourself and deflating the vest.

I love it, and I am delighted by the image in my head: imagine looking out on a city street full of people wearing these vests, all of whom are immersed in their own mobile digital headspace. And in that sea, you’d see these vests puff up and deflate at intervals, as people hug each other at a distance, responding cryptically through the medium of the vest to a vast construct of data just beyond the ancient limitations of our five physical senses.

Eventually, however, we should be able to fire the proper neurons to deliver the sensation and do away with the vest. That’s the path we’re laying out here, right?