I recently gave a talk at ARE2012 about emerging interactions in the networked city. It’s a broad overview of ubicomp and how it is modulating our experience of ourselves, each other, and our environment. I’ll be writing a follow-up article with more info.
“What??” he yelled, in near shock. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Did you talk to the contractor?”
A short pause.
“Ok. Ok. Stop. What do you mean he’s not engaged? He’s a civ! He has to be!” This was going sideways fast.
“I’m calling my attorney.”
He de-coupled from the stemlink and rubbed his temples, struggling to push through the numbness now wrapping itself around his head. He closed his eyes, groping for the sense of it all. Then with a fast spin he flicked his stem and coupled to his attorney, Ersatz Bolzman.
“Satz. This is Bentley Statmaker. I’ve got a problem.”
Bentley proceeded to share with Bolzman the unsettling news that his frenetic & frazzled assistant had just conveyed: how the Biomoss got corrupted and was presently deviating wildly from the 19th century Craftsman remodel he had ordered and god-damned paid for and was now 2 wings and several buttresses into printing out a 13th century gothic cathedral. His home, a modest 3 bedroom on the South Side in dire need of a significant retrofit and well out of style to boot, was expanding at a nonlinear rate – so much so that the houses of his immediate neighbors were now food for its architectural extrusions. Possibly worse, the adjacent street was being overtaken by an aggressively-compiling abbey.
“What…the fuck, Satz?? What the hell am I supposed to do? The neighbors are on me, the city has sent a swarm of inspection flies – they’re mapping the whole deal, blaring code violations non-stop. I can only imagine the stacks at the planning department spinning wildly with dollar signs in their beady little machine eyes…” He trailed off, unsure of his course, whether he should strain to feed the hungry anger or just give in and veer downward into an impotent malaise. He knew there was nothing he could do but prepare for the imminent onslaught of legal battles, the deep apologies to the neighbors, the pay-offs to his HOA… God, that bastard Malamut would have him run out of the co-op for sure this time.
“Calm down, Bent. I’ll file for a writ of suspension, tie up the city works a bit. Pretty sure I can get those inspectors recalled to central too. And it’s not just happening to you, ya know. A whole condo development on 4th & Jobs just went Gaudi. Was supposed to be a nice post-decline piece, all glass and bioplastics, but the mossers crapped out and now it’s just a crazy riot of spires and ceramic tiles and weird biomorphic flourishes. Pretty much totally wiped out the high school across the street. Apparently, some agitprop collective of biomods hacked into the genome. Oh, and that new wing of the Hu Jintao Child Workers Memorial Colliseum..? Went from Classical Ming to Retro Koolhaas in the blink of an eye. The Imperial ruler is pissed,” he emphasized sourly. “You think you got legal troubles? Lemme tell ya…”
Talking with Ersatz calmed him down a bit. At least enough to cover the gap until the neurografts did their thing and started metabolizing the flood of endorphins & cortisol washing through his system. Then, with an almost audible sigh, the grafts began to release a steady drip of Relaxipam into his brain. His affect dulled, the tension of his musculature eased, and he was left with a vague longing for simpler times that probably never really existed but for the halcyon filter of nostalgia.
Midway into the 21st century the industrial labs toiling away for decades on nanotech started to merge into the university labs working on procedural construction, and that whole mess got mashed up with the Asian street gangs and neurocartels delving deeply into the forbidden wizardry of biosynthesis. The end result was a pretty wild chimera of hybridized designer nanomanufacturing: Biomoss. The stuff was the same thing as fire, metal, steam, electricity, hydrocarbons, and atomic physics. Or rather, it was the result of the same quest that drove humanity to harness each of those divine elements of nature and bend them to its will. Biomoss was both the penultimate subjugation and celebration of life itself. It was a means to not only design life but to program it to construct anything we could think of.
We made fuel first, of course. Algae mats that grew to cover most of Asia, expressing sweet crude like shiny black dew. Then we had to engineer vast carbon sinks and tar cleaners – and universal rice that could grow anywhere now that all the Eastern paddies were gone. That was a bit of a detour. Everyone started making all kinds of foods, natural and bizarre. The Southern Federalist Nation of God practically exploded with diabetes until a biomod made an insulin virus. Then they all started collapsing from hypoglycemia. Humans, of course, are pretty great at ideation, not so great at implementation.
The next big step moved beyond simple protein expression. This phase was about building and mass-producing living constructors that could take instruction sets and extrude things. All kinds of things. You could flash a constructor gel, give it a slab of substrate, and watch it build a cup, a toaster, a mobile, even a stemlink. Then they started making vehicles, buildings, bridges, factories. With increasing scale, food for the constructors became a limiting factor.
Initially, substrate was basically a slab of hydrocarbons bound to a crystalline lattice and studded with various functional groups. Esters, aromatics, polymers, and biomolecules. The ingredients of your standard organic stew. This posed problems. There was concern that the constructor gels might start eating up the local flora & fauna. More importantly to the benefactors of the massive public & private grants funding this work, constructing organics only gets you so far. They wanted to build product and devices, machines and monoliths. They needed inorganics. The constructors would be modified to chew through minerals, metals, lanthanides, and solid state compounds, then recompile and extrude them in forms. This also posed problems.
In 2047 a federal appeals court ruled against Pratt Lapman Assuary, Inc. in a class action lawsuit filed by the People’s Republic of Colorado. The plaintiff’s argued that due to gross neglect and moral corruption Pratt Lapman Assuary Inc. did knowingly and willingly administer a swarm of replicating bio-constructors outside the town of Gunniston, Colorado for the sole and express purpose of recompiling the region’s vast titanium deposits into a 3000 foot tall statue of the company’s founder, Chapman Assuary. As the constructors extracted and processed the resource, replicating in multitudes to match the scale of the work, it was only by a programmatic glitch in the genetics that the scalar vector botched and the replicators came to a halt. To this day there remains a 2000 foot headless titanium statue of Assuary, guarded by judicial writ, it’s shiny figure being slowly decomposed by the local, court-appointed bioscrubbers, and sold off bit by bit for the benefit of the Gunniston School District. Despite the loud & irate sputterings & protestations erupting from Pratt Lapman Assuary Inc. the World Court refused to review the case.
By 2050 international conventions were in place forbidding unrestrained nano-bio replication. This pretty much stopped conventional use of constructor gels for several years until epigenetic containment switches and network ID’s were engineered into the germ lines in 2057. The first successful line to emerge from the new regulatory environment became the prototype for Biomoss.
Biomoss is notable in that it is not really a moss, per se. In fact, by microscopy it appears more solid and structured like a mass of very tiny lady bugs covered in salt crystals. It gets its name from both the viridian hue of the individual’s carapace and the way it masses and accretes across surfaces. Furthermore, unlike constructor gels, it does not require a specific pre-configured substrate or uniform material base. Instead, Biomoss will digest anything that it’s targeted for and then recompose the digested mass into a product of similar composition. This adds additional containment to its capabilities by limiting its output to roughly the same as its input. Roughly. But the morphology of the thing is inconsequential. Or rather, the output is customizable as long as it stays within the bounds of the source.
Once Biomoss was productized, innumerable design shops spun up offering precision bespoke manufacturing, customized & stylized by in-house computects. A whole industry grew around the artistry of designed bio-extrusion, resurrecting the styles of historic starchitects, collaging & remixing the canon of industrial design, and making international figures of the leading composers tubing about the globe to paint their visions in transcendent and impossibly expressive mega-structures.
These facts were little comfort to Bentley Statmaker.
After a quick hop across the tube line and a relay along the ped tiles, Bentley Statmaker arrived at his home. Which is to say, Bentley Statmaker arrived at his shiny new gothic cathedral. It was enormous, dark & brooding, hung from the heavens themselves and, frankly, beautiful. But not in this neighborhood. And high holiness or not, historical re-creation be damned, Malamut and the board would not approve. No. They’d more likely have him drawn & quartered, strung up limp and emptied from the highest spire.
Pushing through the noisy crowd of angry neighbors, drooling gawkers, flashing newsbots, countless projectagrams, and a gathering collective of syncretic worshippers, Bentley heaved open the tall, wooden cathedral doors, stared blankly for a moment at the vast, arching, vaulted nave that used to be his tired living room, and then proceeded defiantly inward. He slammed the great doors behind him with a deep boom and thoughtlessly, aimlessly, walked down the aisle taking his seat along a bland and stern pew. Eschewing formality, he let himself slack, took out a cigarette, lit it after a few tries, and inhaled deeply. He immediately sputtered and coughed before defiantly drawing a second drag of the blue smoke, as if to authoritatively subdue the instinctual protestations of his corpus. In the sudden silence he could just apprehend the delicate crunching and printing of the Biomoss, like the sound of soft snow settling on an empty field.
Suddenly and without due respect to his sanctuary there was a great pounding on the door. Amidst the muted yelling of Malamut he made out the decree of Bentley’s imminent eviction. He imagined Malamut as a tired & troubled Martin Luther nailing up his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church. Here he sat, Pope Bentley the First, grinning slyly while billions of micro-miniaturized bio-machines, seized by some unknowable possession of Spirit, labored towards the monumental construction of this, his great abbey. He keyed his stemlink and coupled to Bolzman.
“Satz. Bentley. Listen… I think I’m gonna keep the church. Yeah, seriously. Hey, can you look up precedent for religious protection? And maybe seizure & eminent domain. I think there was something with the New People’s Temple of Jerseytown maybe ten years ago…”
He took another long drag, holding in the hot smoke as the evening light began to shine through the stained windows of the celestory. Bold indigos and feverish carnelians, glowing laurels and immaculate ambers, all caught fire with the Stations of the Cross surrounding the transept. If he let himself go for a moment, he swore he could hear a great and distant chorus rising up, washing away the pages of time with the enduring hope of the sangreal, and filling the nave with a resounding affirmation of his Grand Papacy.
“Oh, and Satz..? I think I’m gonna need a priest.”
I’ve started a new job in an engineering group at a Fortune 500 company that’s delving into personal cloud deployment with multi-point device access. It’s pretty interesting tech moving into the same space as the Apple home media ecosystem but with a different angle on ownership. The idea is that you control your content & file management rather than trusting a 3rd party to hold it on some remote server. The implementation is pretty nice and the experience is good for such a young product line. While I don’t really have the job description I want, the organization is pretty loose and I’m following the “great employee guideline” of not being defined by my role. Of note, the commute adds 2 hours on top of an 8-hour day so it’s been a bit tricky to get used to the new schedule and the attendant physical overhead.
I’m also collaborating with the Hybrid Reality Institute run by Parag & Ayesha Khanna to contribute research and help grow client opportunities. This is a part-time volunteer gig at the moment but may dovetail with my consulting work at some point in the future. I’ve admired Parag’s efforts since reading his book, The Second World, and have been excitedly following his & Ayesha’s work growing HRI. I recently had the chance to chat with Parag for the first time and was very impressed with his friendliness and the incredibly dynamic life he & Ayesha lead. For my part, I’ll be looking at the broad & somewhat over-trod area of smart cities and urban development. It’s a cool challenge for me to map & articulate such complex systems; to integrate my interests in mobility, social structures, embedded systems, augmented reality, and CAD/BIM architecture; and to tease out hopefully novel approaches to understanding urban dynamics and bending development towards greater efficiency, equity, and sustainability.
On the side, I’ve got a new song I’ve just sent out for final mix & mastering. It’s a chunky hip hop beat with a big dubby flavor and some nice melodic elements. The whole track is built around this old recording of a “rasta elder” speaking on a radio station in, like, 1978. I’ve chopped it up and pulled out a couple of the most compelling bits. I love dub & reggae and have a fondness for rastafari culture in general so this song is really a realization of marinating in this stuff for some time. Particularly in the last 2 years I’ve been deep in the Dub Chamber trying to reverse engineer the dub reggae sound from a large archive of music produced by Studio One, Lee Perry, Trojan Records, King Tubby etc…. In the past few months it got mashed into my hip hop efforts with the result being this song, Man Crab. I’ll hopefully be publishing and promoting this track within the next month. More info as it proceeds but I’m working with a great engineer and can’t wait to hear the final result!
Finally, I’m talking with a German film maker who recently returned from Caracas, Venezuela. He approached me last year after finding my Sathorn Unique project and asked if I’d be interested in doing some soundtrack work for his documentary about La Torre de David, a 45-story abandoned skyscraper now home to literally thousands of squatters. He returned with a bunch of media to compile the documentary. I’ll be plundering the audio files for stuff to work into & inform the music. So, I may be carving out a very rarified niche as a producer who writes soundtracks for weird abandoned skyscrapers. :)
Anyway, I’ve got a lot of other stuff kicking around in the ol’ mind tank that will hopefully congeal into some coherent articles in the near future. In the mean time, thanks for reading!
This truly fantastic video went around the interwebs last week, featuring the work of U Penn robotics lab, GRASP. Notably, the video shows groups of small quadrotors flying in formation, following paths, and generally exhibiting both autonomy and collective behavior.
Flush with defense moneys, the GRASP team are doing some pretty amazing work. A survey of their current projects could be the basis for hundreds of scifi novels yet many of them are right on the edge of reality. Research includes:
Haptography – haptic photography
Reasoning in reduced information space
HUNT – heterogenous unmanned networked teams
SUBTLE – situation understanding bot through language & environment
Modular robotics lab
SWARMS – scalable swarms of autonomous robots and mobile sensors
Peep their published lab papers for even deeper FutureNow goodness, eg “Multi-vehicle path planning in dynamically changing environments”.
BERG creative director, Timo Arnall, has published a video collecting “found machine-vision footage”. In his words:
How do robots see the world? How do they gather meaning from our streets, cities, media and from us? This is an experiment in found machine-vision footage, exploring the aesthetics of the robot eye.
I think it gets particularly poignant about 4 minutes in when the face tracking & recognition alphas make human TV hosts into odd, simplified charicatures, at once de-humanizing the hosts while betraying the limited sophistication of machines like children trying to capture the world in colorful crayons. Bonus points for the creeping irony of machines learning about humans through TV.
A great talk on the shifting world by a distinguished and engaging speaker, Paddy Ashdown.
“I believe we are condemned, if you like, to live at just one of those moments in history when the gimbals upon which the established orders of power is beginning to change and the new look of the world, the new powers that exist in the world, are beginning to take form. These are nearly always highly turbulent times.”
I saw them to the East lit in semaphore flashes by the falling Winter Sun, set against fluffy pink clouds flowing languidly inland. Moving together as a fluid, mercurial and quicksilver, this way and that, a coordinated dance of shiny metallic starlings. They seemed to circle chaotically over some unseen attractor below.
[This paper was originally published for a government report on discontinuity & change management.]
We live in a time of large-scale, non-linear change driven by the twin engines of globalization and hyper-connectivity. Change is, of course, constant but we now have such extreme visibility into the farthest corners of the world that the amplitude of change appears much greater than ever before. Many of us are, for the first time, globally connected and wired to real-time data streams that carry information and emotion across the world instantaneously. When we look through this lens of hypermedia we are confronted by fast-moving, asymmetric complexity that seems to be slipping out of control. The landscape is moving more quickly than we are able to respond. This is deeply challenging to our sense of security.
As Americans, we face a highly multipolar world. We feel the decline of U.S. exceptionalism and the attendant existential crisis of this realization; the ongoing global financial malaise and the emerging debt crisis threatening to break apart the European Union; the rise of China as a dominant world power and the implicit criticism of democracy that comes from its economic success; and the evolution of Islam as an explicit criticism of western prosperity. We are realizing the massive power of finance & energy cartels while struggling with ultraviolent drug cartels. We feel the impacts of domestic unemployment amidst weekly reports of record corporate profits. Capital is moving away from mature western markets for the young labor pools of the developing world. Fund managers are betting more on decline than investing in growth. There is a growing sense that western governance is failing in its charter to effectively manage the prosperity & security of its citizenry, and that selfishness, partisanship, and corruption have undermined the political process.
In the United States there is arguably a crisis of confidence in governance. We face extreme partisanship among policy makers and their apparent inability to effectively govern on domestic issues. Congress has a 20% approval rating. 73% of Americans believe the country is moving in the wrong direction. On domestic issues, the popular narrative of U.S. governance is one of bickering, incompetence, and failure.
So if there is a crisis of confidence, is there an actual crisis in governance? Recently the debt Supercommittee failed to agree on a solution for the deficit. This past July, the largely-manufactured budgetary impasse shook confidence in U.S. governance contributing directly to the S&P downgrade of our hallowed AAA credit rating. To quote the S&P report, the downgrade “reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges”. Even closer to home, the American Society of Civil Engineers recently reviewed U.S. infrastructure with a grade of “D” stating that it would take $2.2 trillion over the next 5 years to bring our roads, bridges, railways, water and energy systems, and waste treatment capacity up to 1st world standards. These are the fundamental needs required to keep a country functional & efficient.
Looking at recent statistics, the U.S. Commerce Department charts wages & salaries at only 44% of GDP – the lowest since 1929. Corporate profits, on the other hand, now contribute 10% of GDP – the highest on record since that auspicious year, 1929. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates unemployment at 9% though real measures of unemployment that include the under-employed and those who have given up looking for work are estimated closer to 16%. Among young adults age 16-24, 50% are without work – the highest number on record since 1948. The majority of unemployed no longer receive state benefits. Tens of thousands of service members are returning to joblessness & homelessness. The 2010 U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 46 million people are living in poverty – 15% of the nation. This number has been increasing annually for the past 3 years. These trends are undermining the legitimacy of the US government both at home and abroad, and contributing to the social unrest sensationally illustrated by the rise of both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements.
Typically, when we observe these statistical trends in other countries we see a growing segment of the populace more exposed to gang indoctrination, co-option by religious fundamentalism, and coercion by home-brewed militias. This unfortunate reality is not lost on policy makers, as telegraphed most recently by Congressional attempts to reconfigure the legislative landscape of the Homeland as a domestic battleground.
While national statistics are indeed worrisome, the situation at the local & regional level is more varied and offers some hope. There is a shift towards state’s rights as illustrated by the more libertarian aspects of the Tea Party and the GOP narrative against so-called big government, but also in many state legislatures on both sides of the aisle. While often ideologically driven, this shift towards state governance is a response to the limitations of central management across such a large and complex territory as the United States. Perhaps more interestingly, we see a shift to municipal power as urban populations swell and major cities take ownership of their roles as economic engines. Mayors are gathering more influence over state and federal policy, and are making more lucrative partnerships with global allies.
Yet, there are huge budgetary challenges for both states and municipalities, with states often pushing their own budgetary problems down to the county & city level. There is even talk of an emerging municipal debt bubble as cities issue more bond debt to cover their existing debt costs. The U.S. just witnessed the largest municipal bankruptcy in history when Jefferson County, Alabama, failed to cover its sewage bonds. This is the downward cycle of U.S. infrastructure & budgetary mis-management laid bare.
The picture of local and regional governance is a patchwork of attempts (successes and failures) to address the many challenges confronting us locally and handed down from state and federal institutions. As higher-order governors lose legitimacy, states & regions will work to sidestep their authority and to innovate around budgetary shortfalls and non-local obstacles. Progressive states agitate for marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage, conservative states assail big government and immigration, southwestern border states are dealing with the spill-over from Mexico’s narcowar, and many regions across the country are absorbing diverse and extreme climate impacts potentially driving food production, water supplies, and population movements. So while large, productive cities are generally seeing more cohesion there is a significant risk of increased balkanization across regions and states.
U.S. governance is clearly challenged on many domestic fronts. In operational terms, we’re falling short. Governing institutions are too big and too slow to respond to such accelerated change. If we’re failing to manage the present, how can we prepare for the future? There is too much complexity to effectively predict change and yet there’s too much institutional friction to adequately invest in broad resilience. This combination poses tremendous risks to domestic security. The snapshot of social unrest in America arises from two primary drivers: the fear of U.S. decline and the sense that Democracy is no longer working (represented by the Tea Party and OWS movements, respectively). Both are rooted in a lack of jobs, diminishing access to prosperity, and growing insecurity in the face of poorly managed discontinuities. When government fails to meet it’s charter, it loses legitimacy. When conventional channels for change are closed, the gap widens between governors and the governed.
For better and for worse, a lot of innovation happens in the gaps. There is innovation in governance itself, as in the Gov 2.0 & OpenGov initiatives to standardize operational data across organizations, to publicize the data, and to invite the public to work with the data and develop 3rp party applications. Deputizing the crowd to help with governance can offer tremendous opportunities for innovation, as exemplified by tools such as Oakland Crimespotting and the Everyblock platform. The citizenry is becoming more digital and addressable with direct polling, crowdsourcing, and experiments in electronic voting. Transparency initiatives, such as the Sunlight Foundation, build web platforms to track and reveal the influence of money in politics. The growth in mobile/social/location platforms empowers tremendous opportunities in civic innovation, as does the emergence of embedded instrumentation in the built environment. Tech collectives and hacker spaces, experiments in local and digital currencies, slow food and Buy Local movements, increased community volunteerism and more public-private partnerships – all of these examples build local resilience and enable communities to take care of themselves.
Many of these efforts follow open source models that enable fast innovation and iteration across diverse non-local nodes, avoiding hierarchies and direct leadership in favor of feedback loops and emergent self-governance. These models gained popularity with the open source software movement but have since expanded to include innovation in open hardware and fabrication, science and robotics, economics (there is an estimated $10 trillion informal economy growing in the gaps globally), and political movements. Open source templates have enabled new models of power such as Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous, many aspects of the Iraqi insurgency, and the dangerous ecosystem of adaptation and innovation found in the IED marketplaces of Iraq and Afghanistan. The ability to maintain such open source models of organization has been radically empowered by mobile telephony, SMS, and social media. The ability to globally broadcast, communicate and collaborate has enabled a new breed of citizen reporting pushed out through platforms like You Tube and Twitter. Rapid SMS communication across mobile devices enables fast stigmergic coordination that can mobilize people en masses with a moment’s notice. The Green Revolution in Tehran, the Arab Spring, and the periodic support calls sent out by OWS groups are all examples of how borderless, frictionless hyper-connectivity empowers a patchwork of active tribes, locally and virtually.
Gaps in governance empower innovators and competitors alike. Actors exploit the gaps and seek to influence or undermine governance in order to open more gaps. Super-empowered individuals like Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt work to influence conventional channels of policy-making while restructuring the regulatory landscape to better enable their businesses. Activist billionaires like Warren Buffet, George Soros, and Sir Richard Branson use their weight and influence to change world affairs, as do libertarians like Peter Thiel and anarcho-capitalists like the Koch brothers. Some super-empowered actors are feral and may not appear to be powerful yet manage to inflict exceptional discontinuities on their targets. Arms dealer, Victor Bout, has been a significant driver of unrest in Africa. The head of the Sinaloan cartel, Joaquin Guzman, has helped deconstruct Mexican governance into a lawless war zone. Henry Okah, the leader of MEND in Nigeria, used a small group of lo-tech saboteurs to target critical pipeline infrastructure reducing crude output by 50% and costing western oil interests billions in production revenue. Cartels and criminal networks operate on international scales moving billions of dollars to influence authorities and outwit enforcers. Tech-enabled sociopolitical collectives like Anonymous and Wikileaks deputize themselves as moral enforcers, exposing secret agendas and arbitrating punishment. These actors walk the same stage as multinational corporations and NGO’s that have no built-in allegiance to the United States or, in some cases, to democracy itself. All of these actors exert their will on the world by building influence and exploiting the gaps. All of them are empowered by hyper-connectivity and cheap computation to coordinate, collaborate, and influence at all scales.
This is an age of hypermedia and hyper-politics. There are almost 3 billion internet users, globally. There are over 5 billion mobile subscribers – this is 77% percent of humanity. Last year, in 2010, over 6.9 trillion text messages were sent & received. Humanity has global, instantaneous communication; immediate amplification of emotion, ideology, witnessing, discovery, innovation, and iteration. We are sharing what works and what doesn’t in all domains and endeavors. Everyone is being lifted by this rising technological tide. Small-scale power is amplifying exponentially through ubiquitous computation and mobile communication. Power is re-distributing across the globalized, hyper-connected landscape in such a way that a small, minimally-funded group can generate exponential disruptions. In a mediated world, we see a new war of narratives competing for mindshare across hypermedia, cultivating borderless affinities and ideologies, and offering a global voice to disenfranchised and exploited groups. Top-down governance, unable to extend control so far over such large-scale discontinuities, is yielding space to flattened hierarchies and self-governance. All institutions are being forced to evolve and adapt to this new landscape, as all efforts to suppress it will inevitably fail and only drive more turbulence.
Complexity is an expression of information, and hypermedia is a complexity feedback loop of revealing, sharing, and iterating. Hypermedia, in all it’s varied forms, is injecting unprecedented amounts of information into our awareness. This widening perception of complexity drives behavioral uncertainty as people and institutions feel increasingly overwhelmed and lost in the noise. The world wide web has driven massive discontinuities into almost every business model, organization, and political objective. Mobile telephony coupled to social networks has given voice to the real-time status of the majority of people on the planet. In this maelstrom of asymmetrical disruption, chaos appears to be the new norm though this will likely reveal itself to be the turmoil attending a broad shift towards a new order of stability.
Complex systems across many scales have moved into a late conservation phase and are beginning to release their organizational capacity. Legacy institutions have grown far too optimized and narrow to absorb the turbulence unleashed by globalization, ubicomp, and mobile telephony. Systems have destabilized in order to make the phase change into whatever next basin of stability awaits. Governance is necessarily challenged and states will inevitably give some degree of power & influence as capital flows out of the West; as more empowered actors take the global stage; as non-local relationships shift affiliation and allegiance; as borders are antiquated by the internet and the cell phone; and as over-extended unions fracture and balkanize. Centralized control structures are not adequate to manage such large scales of nested and inter-dependent complex adaptive systems. But fortunately, the same drivers that have introduced so much discontinuity and have challenged governance as we know it are helping construct the new forms of distributed, participatory governance. Hyper-connectivity, hyper-visibility, and hyper-empowerment are driving a global peer review of legacy institutions in a patchwork attempt to define Civilization 2.0. The process is turbulent and the future is cloudy but we’ll likely land on solid ground eventually.
Scott Smith has a nice article about Our Complicated Love-Hate Relationship With Robots, exploring how robotics have been seeping into the public dialog of late. A couple of the links he cites were good reminders of previous work looking at the aesthetics of machine perception, notably Sensor-Vernacular from the fine folks at BERG and The New Aesthetic Tumblr by James Bridle.
If humanity is a reflection on the experience of perceiving and interacting with the world, what role does machine perception play in this experience? And if nature acts through our hands, to what ends are flocking drones and herds of autonomous machines? A taxonomy of machine perception seems necessary to understand the many ways in which the world can be experienced.
I’ve grown fascinated by the technology of machine vision, but even more so with the haunting aesthetics captured through their eyes. There’s something deeply enthralling and existentially disruptive about the emergence of autonomous machines into our shared world, watching us, learning about us, and inevitably interacting with each other. It’s like a new inorganic branch of taxonomy is evolving into being. Anyway, two recent notes on this topic…
The first is this short series of images taken from a UAV drone and featured in the ACLU report, Protecting Privacy From Aerial Surveillance [PDF]. There’s a decent summary of the report at the New York Times.
Makes me think of Ian McDonald’s excellent novel, Brasyl, and the ad hoc indoctrination of Our Lady of Perpetual Surveillance into the extended canon of casual Orishas.
The second item of note is this haunting video of a 3D Scanner wandering the streets of Barcelona. It’s not any sort of smart machine – it’s just a dumb handheld scanner hitching a ride on a creative human – but it again evokes the aesthetic of a world seen through eyes very different from our own. The video really grabs me about a minute in:
It seems to show a bizarre ghost world or a glimpse from another dimension into ours. The aesthetic (and the tech) is similar to LIDAR, which I had the luck to play around with a couple years ago – and which Radiohead employed to a very interesting end:
In some ways, I want to see these visions as analogous to the view through a wolf’s eyes in the 80′s flick, Wolfen (at 0:24 in this trailer):
Seeing through the eyes of machines isn’t especially new but it’s the awareness of the many adjacent, convergent technologies of pattern recognition, data analysis, biometrics, autonomous navigation, swarming algorithms, and AI that adds pressure to the long-held notion that machines might someday walk our world of their own accord. It seems much closer than ever before so it’s fascinating to watch the new aesthetics of machine vision move into the popular domain.
I’ve just returned from a very interesting workshop in Washington, D.C. about fast-moving change, asymmetric threats to security, and finding signals within the wall of noise thrown up by big data. These are tremendous challenges to governance, policy makers, and the intelligence community. I’ll have more to say on these topics in later posts but for now, here’s a round-up of the most popular posts on URBEINGRECORDED in order of popularity:
Occupy Wall Street – New Maps for Shifting Terrain – On OWS, gaps in governance, empowered actors, and opportunities in the shifting sands…
Getting to Know Your Ghost in the Machine – On the convergence of ubiquitous computation (ubicomp), augmented reality, and network identity…
The Transhuman Gap – On the challenges facing the transhuman movement…
The Realities of Coal in the Second Industrial Revolution – On the energy demand and resource availability for the developing world…
Meshnets, Freedom Phones, and the People’s Revolution – On the Arab Spring, hyperconnectivity, and ad hoc wireless networks…
And a few that I really like:
Back-casting from 2043 – On possible futures, design fictions, and discontinuity…
On Human Networks & Living Biosystems – On the natural patterns driving technology & human systems…
Outliers & Complexity – On non-linearity, outliers, and the challenges of using the past to anticipate the future…
Thanks to all my readers for taking the time to think about my various rantings & pre-occupations. As always, your time, your participation, and your sharing is greatly appreciated!
Sathorn Unique is a 50-story skyscraper in Bangkok that was meant to be a luxury living address but now it’s totally abandoned and decaying. Cory posted about this Ballardian behemoth earlier this year. BB contributor Chris Arkenberg saw the building from a boat several years ago and was so inspired that he made a killer instrumental hip hop soundtrack for the building.
And from my summary:
The developers called the building Sathorn Unique, but the locals think of it as the Ghost Tower. 50 stories tall, built to show-off the mighty rise of Asia in the 1990’s, it was abandoned in 1997 when their economy dried up and capital fled to better markets. It remains as a hollow monument, nearly complete in the lower floors but slowly de-rezzing as it gets taller until the bare and open rooftop stands jagged above the Bangkok skyline. It lives as a shell, a reminder, a warning, and a resilient monolith.
I made this music to express the many different feelings & ideas that Sathorn Unique raises about architecture & acoustics, finance & globalization, great hopes & haunted dreams, and the way that futures can take sudden unexpected turns away from great visions.
I was driving through the Tenderloin the other night – one of the most socio-economically depressed areas of San Francisco. Across a long wall someone tagged “Occupy Wall Street” in big letters with a clean font and preceded by the Twitter “#” hashtag notation. It was a big, funky chorus bridging the grimy street with a shimmering virtuality beckoning from the other side. A shiny enticement to both residents and passers-by, yet it instilled in me that there are some hard reasons why Occupy is still a bit pale, demographically. The Tenderloin is where people fall to the bottom of the American heap, struggling every day just to try and get by. I can’t speak to their cellphone use but I’m guessing most aren’t on Twitter.
In America, poverty & homelessness are specters stalking the nightmares of the middle class. The stigma is crushing and many studies show how hard it is to fall out of society and fail normative expectations, forced to walk as a ghost the rest of us don’t want to acknowledge. We’re all “temporarily embarrassed millionaires”, to quote Steinbeck, but most are scared to death we’ll wake up from the American Dream wearing dirty rags and begging for pittance.
Amidst the looming failure of governance and the siphoning of capital into the hands of elite gamers the system starts to reveal interesting and exploitable gaps. The gaps opening up between the ruling elite, the body politik, the business world, the towers of old-world power, global supply chains and international demand structures, and the organic messiness of the street lashing together its own ad hoc infrastructure, battening down against the hard approach of a faceless Winter. A lot of innovation happens in the gaps.
When a control system releases it’s organizational capacity, the system tends towards a period of turbulence. Turbulence can be thought of as a widening of constraints on energized systems, ie things start getting wonky & unusual. Institutions are challenged. Stability & confidence are shaken. Calcified bureaucracy cedes power to fast, open-source iterations. Hierarchies flatten, though riddled with super-empowered outliers, revealing design patterns more akin to fuzzy biology than the mechanized Taylorism of the Industrial Age. A mycelial hypermedia of distributed, tech-enabled, self-empowered collectives emerges. The landscape is shifting so quickly that even the rules of the game are being forced to adapt. And not in any particularly easy way, mind.
The United States government is failing to adapt or effectively shepherd its populace into the 21st century. Many western nations share a similar sentiment. They’re falling left & right to the slipperiness of the behavioral economy and to top-tier predators drawing capital out of weakened states and widening the gaps between people & power. Meanwhile, gangs & cartels and urban collectives (oh, and the estimated $10T – trillion! – informal economy) are all pulling the weave apart further and staking their territorial claims. The landscape is ragged and hungry and a bit unhinged. Many of us are growing nervous feeling the hot breath of the meathook future on the back of our necks.
“You will not hear me, you will not listen to me, so I will stand in your face and you will be forced to see me.”
Occupy Wall Street is an expression of this sweaty fear & creeping nihilism in a world that looks decidedly different than the one we were raised to expect. It’s an empowered disenfranchisement: the realization and acceptance that the American people no longer have a say in the conversation about our country. “You will not hear me, you will not listen to me, so I will stand in your face and you will be forced to see me.” This is what Occupy says. And it says it encamped in front of your hallowed institutions, deploying local food & health services, brewing ad hoc energy supplies, coordinating collective actions, surveilling the local PD and running mobile counter-ops, holding signs to the media cameras and managing international PR campaigns. This is a new model of power emerging across technologically-savvy collectives, economically detached on the ground but coordinated with well-healed and influential sympathizers among the extended technorati. You get amplification, charitable donations, shout-outs, drop-ins from mayoral candidates, and as-needed mobilization of supporters who still have to hold down their day jobs and take the kids to school. Of course, the PD knows all this & knows how to exploit mobile social media as well.
The Short Message Service (SMS) was implemented in 1992 and is now ubiquitous and coupled to an insanely sophisticated global supply chain. A large driver for cellphone adoption, these discrete packets of information passed almost immediately across non-local nodes have proven extremely powerful. With very lightweight protocols and minimal hardware demands, SMS is fast becoming one of our primary signalling pathways. Witness the simple observation that mobile-enabled teens are constantly texting, rarely speak on the phone, and disregard email almost entirely. More info, less work. Now make sure every one of the somewhat feral and vaguely radical protestors occupying the park across from your ridiculously powerful and possibly sociopathic local tax base, eg The Federal Reserve… make sure they all have SMS mobiles. And make sure all the other urban clans have them too so they can share updates & anticipation, coordinate a distributed response, propagate the sticky phrases and hashtags, and rapidly pass counter intelligence to every single global node. Oh, and there’s this thing called Twitter that will take your SMS and push it out to a broadcast subscriber list that’s being crawled by every journalist, intel org, and revolutionary sympathizer across the modern world.
Of course the NYPD is scared and twitchy. Of course the DHS is yelling at all jurisdictions to get this under control. The true sign of fear will be revealed if they send in the National Guard – a tacit admission that the police are more sympathetic to the protesters than the economic cartels. And if you wanna get really meathook, peep the vid of the armed, self-appointed border guards standing against the Arizona Police Department to defend Occupy. “Using our 2nd amendment rights to defend our 1st amendment rights” was the money quote from that one.
Pundits and old-century analysts can’t get past its slipperiness. It doesn’t look like how protests were supposed to look. It won’t fit into a neat soundbite or flashy statement of demands. This gets really annoying for a mainstream press corps empowered by semantic containment.
Occupy Wall Street is an exceptional sociocultural hack. Grabbing eyes & hearts, they’re making it OK to protest again in America. After 911 the normative pressure around dissent & protest shifted, making it very un-American to disagree with and or show criticism of The U S of A. Occupy is quickly becoming view-fodder for the mainstream media. Spin it any way you like but OWS is grabbing the spotlight globally. Expect the election cycle to raise it as a common talking point – a good reason Occupy can safely find heat indoors for the Winter, come back swinging in Spring. This normative shift allows the many many folks who aren’t yet willing or simply can’t come sleep in the streets to be active & connected sympathizers helping spread the word, defend the narrative, and get downtown at 2am on a Thursday to stand against an expected police action. Social media invites participation at all scales.
People talk of so-called “new models of work”. Remote specialists coming together around a shared task, doing the work with a minimum of resources, taking value, and collaborating with adjacent like-minded ad hoc clusters. All enabled by information technologies and responding to shifting economic realities. BTW, capital is leaving the West and moving eastward and into Africa. Brazil is doing OK as well, I hear. But these new models of work are the same 21st century design patterns iterated on by Anonymous, WikiLeaks, and the Mexican cartels (with varying degrees of flamboyant and or enigmatic leadership). Another eye-opening newsblip from the past week is word that Anonymous is going after Los Zetas cartel (or possibly not). Thing about the Zetas… they don’t just hang out in cyberspace. You don’t wanna be trolled by Zetas.
So yeah, DHS is nervous. They see all these small fires and worry that one will flame up into a real conflict, or that their ranks will be taken over by legitimate militants/gangs/cartels/etc… Meanwhile, China is quietly laughing at us, gently suggesting to the world that maybe Democracy isn’t really all that necessary for a decent house, a reliable job, and good prospects for your kids. It’s worth considering what this means for U.S. diplomacy and the project of Democracy.
The sympathy that boomers have with OWS is rooted in this emigration of prosperity away from our shores. They did fine, my generation is fighting to hang on, and the younger generation can’t get a job. Of course, the Boomers think OWS should be using the tried-and-true models of the 1960′s, not this crazy post-modern artwar stuff. But they lived in a very different world and, ironically, it’s the protest movement of the 60′s that hardened the economic jungle and trained it against the Left.
The front of the emerging cultural war is everywhere & nowhere.
Occupy is a new creature bred to adapt to a markedly different environment. It uses similar design patterns from Tahrir Square and Tehran. It’s the new hyperpolitics enabling virtualized ideologies & coordinated actions by distributed collectives. Like everything else being spread across the real & virtual, the front of the emerging cultural war is everywhere & nowhere. The focus now is on prosperity and equality but it’s tugging at the sweater threads of our entire industrialized economy, already well-frayed & tattered from the wear & tear of the new millenium. Occupy is a statement about failure & fear and a realization that the people who have been entrusted to keep it all together for us are no longer acting on our behalf.
It’s a scary place to find yourself, falling into the gaps. But there’s tremendous potential there as well. And it’s likely a manifestation of far deeper and longer evolutionary imperatives brought to bear on the aging and deprecated foundations of industrial civilization. We are due for a major upgrade. New features & workflows are direly needed, and please patch some of those nasty bugs we’ve been complaining about for centuries. It would be really nice if we could all get back to work helping the world get a little better, day by day.
[This article was picked up by Business Insider.]
I saw Amon Tobin’s ISAM project a week ago at The Warfield theater in San Francisco. Literally jaw-dropping.
Leviathan worked with frequent collaborator and renowned VJ Vello Virkhaus on groundbreaking performance visuals for electronic musician Amon Tobin, creating ethereal CG narratives and engineering the geometry maps for an entire stage of stacked cube-like structures. Taking the performance further, the Leviathan team also developed a proprietary projection alignment tool to ensure quick and accurate setup for the show, along with custom Kinect control & visualization utilities for Amon to command.
As many of you know, I’ve been producing a music project exploring the sound of architecture and the divergence of futures embodied in a 50-story abandoned skyscraper in Bangkok. I saw this structure in 2009 and was struck by the many contradictions imposed by its monolithic bone-white presence along the downtown skyline. It is both a monument to the whims of capital and a container for the shining future that never came to pass, like a hollow ballroom filled with dancing ghosts.
The first single, Approach, is now available for streaming & free download. This track conveys a pre-dawn approach towards the Sathorn ghost tower along the Chao Phraya river, attempting to capture some of the emotional currents inspired by the encounter. It is first contact.
I’ve shared my process and thoughts as I unpack the whole project over at my Sathorn Unique Tumblr.
Older populations will obviously bring a boom to medicine & pharmaceuticals as more people seek treatments for the maladies commonly associated with aging. This trend will also bring massive investment in treatment methodologies with progress towards cures for many of the worst ailments, such as heart disease, cancers, and degenerative brain & motor disorders, as well as memory enhancement, mental acuity, and rejuvination. The aging populations of the West will be an engine that drives advancements in medicine and biotechnology for some time.
This boom in the marketplace for medical services will also reinforce longevity. Thus, aging Boomer & Generation X populations will likely be more productive than previous generations (and, conversely, will consume more resources for longer). A benefit (or perhaps a downside, depending on perspective) is that working age will be longer, extending well into the 70′s. Thus, the working-age labor pool will also age with the population leading to shifts in productivity, eg from manual labor to knowledge work. The current financial woes resulting from capital flight out of western markets reinforces this sentiment that younger populations will be the future powerhouses of economic development. Tomorrow’s seniors will need to work to remain valuable.
Older populations will stay in power longer, possibly bringing a more measured degree of experience to governance. Conversely, aging rulers may be increasingly out of touch with younger generations and the acceleration of technology. Indeed, aging populations will bring demand for advanced education & vocational schools. With longer working lives comes the need to re-skill and seek training to keep up with technology. It is no longer enough to have 1 college degree & then sit on a job for 30 years.
Ideally, an aging populace will have a deeper understanding of legacy and the impact of one’s life on that of future generations. Again, an empowered and educated senior class might exert a positive influence on ecology, ethics, development, education, and social justice. Another side-effect of aging populations is the likelihood that violence will decline and cities will become safer as the balance of testosterone diminishes.
These trends will likely occur throughout the West where first-world nations are experiencing a decline in birthrate and resultant aging of populations. Interestingly, the developing world is following an inverted demographic trend: younger populations are swelling, along with capital investments looking to incubate growth in young markets. Thus, a challenge for the aging West will be to remain relevant and valuable to emerging economies. Expect mentor programs to arise as successful Westerners incubate and guide growth & sustainability in emerging markets. Also expect conflicts as young upstart nations seek to intrude on & displace aging populations (and another possible boom in security services).
If the Rooftop represented the peak of the Sathorn Unique experience, then the 5th & final song, simply titled Sathorn, is the come-down & resolution. The track opens with sounds of the street under falling stars. The beat is more syncopated and there’s a roots vibe, accented with a guitar & organ skank. There are more obviously-melodic elements in this song suggesting the enduring vitality of the creative act, in spite of decay & downfall.
And really, Blade Runner futures aside, amidst the endless rise & fall of empires people will always find simple ways to sing & make music. The electronic studio I’ve used to produce these songs could dry up with my ability to pay utilities, or be looted by desperate & displaced interlopers. I’d still have an acoustic guitar. No blips & bleeps needed.
This final song is more about the reality of the street below the Ghost Tower, and the necessary persistence of urban life proceeding whether or not Sathorn Unique was ever a success. Indeed, for most people, such overly-ambitious and incomprehensibly expensive skyscrapers have always been barely real. Such towers are not made for commoners. This one in particular emphasizes the tension, standing as it is now, hollowed and broken, once flush with moneys now vanished & moved on to better investment opportunities.
This is where the lavish imagined timeline of Sathorn Unique collapses back into the local reality, like the moldering brochures showing off a future that never was. This is where the ephemeral whims of capital touched down long enough to leave an indelible reminder of their ultimate disloyalty. The final movement of Sathorn, the song, reinforces the hard facts of life and the brutishness of the global money game. The droning wall and the whining worm throw up the fierce edge of survival.
And yet, the tempest sputters out and returns, as it always does, back to the streets where life continues, for good & ill, unabated for millenia thus far. This is the resolution: that, despite the great power elites and their fantasies & seductions, despite the shell games and ponzi schemes and cronyism and backstabbing… Despite all this the people persist. And they make music to express their lives, ease their burdens, and tell their stories. For most, the Ghost Tower is like the global elite: more easily forgotten in its decline than challenged in its prime.
From Sathorn Unique.