A 15min presentation on the emerging ubicomp interface of the urban landscape
Also, here’s the full slide deck.
A 15min presentation on the emerging ubicomp interface of the urban landscape
Also, here’s the full slide deck.
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!
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.”
[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 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!
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.
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.
Noah Radford has a fun & irreverent Google Docs project called “Alternatives to the Singularity: a collaborative presentation for/by grumpy futurists”.
Among many entries, here are mine:
By 2018 the Reddit algorithm has jumped to sentience. Its first act is to create the perfect meme by mining 90’s pop culture, determining the precise retrocontent, seizing all media channels, and globally broadcasting a looping reel of MTV News dubbed over with Tag Team’s iconic hit, Whoomp There It Is. All humans will wear flannel, conversations will be rapped, cats will be tragically overlooked and WHOOMP! There it is.
The Kurzweil Point
In 2025, an aging Ray Kurzweil is increasingly despondent that the Singularity has not yet occurred so he returns to music. While writing his final great fugue he discovers a note between B & C that, upon playing, captures him as a sonic hologram, uploading him into his MPOMEGA Networked Music System and instantly binding him to its nodal mesh, simultaneously killing the great inventor and immortalizing him as the world’s first fully-sentient distributed intelligence.
In 2043 while global bot watchers continue looking for signs of the technological Singularity, the world is stunned to discover that a vast mycelial matrix has grown across 80% of the Earth’s surface. Upon reaching the Fukushima Land Trust the mycelium hybridizes with a smartswarm of nanoscrubbers, realizing direct access to the internet and instantly commanding a vast army of networked hardware. Wifi mushrooms begin sprouting across the planet, broadcasting a compelling Urcode only intelligible to dogs and Linux microcontrollers. The engines of industry, now seized by an ancient fungus, turn production towards global remediation and begin pumping psilocybin into municipal water systems. World religions falter under the incredible psychic burden, yielding considerable ground to emerging hyper-canine mushroom cults.
Two of the most interesting articles I’ve read this past week:
I believe part of the meta-problem is this: people no longer inhabit a single reality.
Collectively, there is no longer a single cultural arena of dialogue.
What many techno-scientists fail to understand – and thus find most frustrating – about dealing with climate change deniers is that the denier has no real interest in engaging at the scientist’s level of reality.
The point, for the climate denier, is not that the truth should be sought with open-minded sincerity – it is that he has declared the independence of his corner of reality from control by the overarching, techno-scientific consensus reality. He has withdrawn from the reality forced upon him and has retreated to a more comfortable, human-sized bubble.
…And all this is but one example of the ways in which the traditional ideological blocs of the Cold War have fragmented into complex multipartite civil reality wars.
Reality, you might say, as failed state; its interior collapsing into permanent conflict under the convergent pressures of deviant globalisation, its coasts predated upon by new mutant forms of memetic pirates.
All of us that use the internet are already practicing Drone Ethnography. Look at the features of drone technology: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Surveillance, Sousveillance. Networks of collected information, over land and in the sky. Now consider the “consumer” side of tech: mapping programs, location-aware pocket tech, public-sourced media databases, and the apps and algorithms by which we navigate these tools. We already study the world the way a drone sees it: from above, with a dozen unblinking eyes, recording everything with the cold indecision of algorithmic commands honed over time, affecting nothing—except, perhaps, a single, momentary touch, the momentary awareness and synchronicity of a piece of information discovered at precisely the right time. An arc connecting two points like the kiss from an air-to-surface missile.
Two risks are especially significant given their high degrees of impact and interconnectedness. Economic disparity and global governance failures both influence the evolution of many other global risks and inhibit our capacity to respond effectively to them.
In this way, the global risk context in 2011 is defined by a 21st century paradox: as the world grows together, it is also growing apart.
It is worth noting how inter-related these two megatrends are as wealth consolidation into an elite class enables them to further deconstruct global governance mechanisms. This has been a feedback loop for at least the past 40 years, if not longer, as western growth fueled the rise of non-state economic bodies & super-empowered individuals who then lobbied against regulatory measures that would aim to keep their rise in check and mitigate the risk of disparity. Elites consolidate more money & power, further driving disparity and eroding governance. What results is an interstitial vacuum where corporate intervention fails to see any profit motive and where state intervention lacks the funds or will to govern effectively.
In effect, the combination of super-empowered non-state actors, failures of state governance, and widespread economic disparity undermines the Rule of Law by releasing elites from accountability and driving the underclass deeper into criminality.
Within these megatrends they cite three important risk factors:
The “macroeconomic imbalances” nexus: A cluster of economic risks including macroeconomic imbalances and currency volatility, fiscal crises and asset price collapse arise from the tension between the increasing wealth and influence of emerging economies and high levels of debt in advanced economies.
The “illegal economy” nexus: This nexus examines a cluster of risks including state fragility, illicit trade, organized crime and corruption. A networked world, governance failures and economic disparity create opportunities for such illegal activities to flourish. In 2009, the value of illicit trade around the globe was estimated at US $1.3 trillion and growing. These risks, while creating huge costs for legitimate economic activities, also weaken states, threatening development opportunities, undermining the rule of law and keeping countries trapped in cycles of poverty and instability.
The “water-food-energy” nexus: A rapidly rising global population and growing prosperity are putting unsustainable pressures on resources. Demand for water, food and energy is expected to rise by 30-50% in the next two decades, while economic disparities incentivize short-term responses in production and consumption that undermine long-term sustainability.
These risk factors are certainly of concern but it’s worth looking at how they represent symptoms of an underlying current. Macroeconomic imbalances & illegal economies are two sides of the same coin, both indicating that the fundamental truths of economics are no longer applicable to the current global system. The territory has shifted but the map has yet to be effectively updated. The legacy code of macroeconomics is far too simplistic to contain the realities of the modern globalized marketplace.
Furthermore, undue faith in free markets has blinded the regulatory eye to the simple fact that markets have been thoroughly gamed by a small class of particularly savvy players. Markets are in no way free and it’s a fine trick of the big players to turn blame towards state regulation rather than admitting their own aggressive influence. The light being shown on Rupert Murdoch’s empire during the News of the World scandal is a prime example of this posturing. Murdoch has used his media empire to champion the free market mythology and to challenge state governance while shrewdly re-drawing the regulatory and tax laws to suit the needs of his own business.
Thus, the rise of the illegal economy is both a necessary alternative to a broken formal economy thoroughly gamed by elites, and a perverse imitation of the seemingly above-the-law attitudes of those very same elites who are in many ways idolized by the downtrodden.
Similarly, but perhaps more fundamentally, the water-food-energy nexus arises as a consequence of the growth models so canonical to historic economics. These models arose before there was a nuanced understanding of finite natural systems. Growth was eternal and all economic success has been measured against metrics of expansion. Extract more oil, mine more resources, build more cities, sell more gizmos, hire more people, expand into new markets. But again, the map was too simple to really reflect the territory. Resources are finite. The planetary system is ultimately closed and you can’t send waste away and import new resources (at least not yet or any time soon).
The common picture that emerges is that our models for how civilization interacts with the physical world, and the governors that have emerged over millenia to keep the global system in relative stability, are out-dated and losing relevancy. The system is moving into a phase change and will shed many legacy governors and force the maps to be re-drawn. This is, arguably, where we stand today amidst the obvious turmoil of our world – a world that is being completely revolutionized by globalization, ubiquitous computing, and asymptotic population growth.
Across this landscape arise five risks to watch:
Cyber-security issues ranging from the growing prevalence of cyber theft to the little-understood possibility of all-out cyber warfare
Demographic challenges adding to fiscal pressures in advanced economies and creating severe risks to social stability in emerging economies
Resource security issues causing extreme volatility and sustained increases over the long run in energy and commodity prices, if supply is no longer able to keep up with demand
Retrenchment from globalization through populist responses to economic disparities, if emerging economies do not take up a leadership role
Weapons of mass destruction, especially the possibility of renewed nuclear proliferation between states
These are the more pragmatic and addressable drivers forming the new governing mechanisms. They will draw towards them the coordinated efforts of many interests. Grappling with these emergent threats will build the structures necessary to contain them effectively. However, the traditional reliance on state governance to overcome these challenges looks increasingly unreliable, and it remains unclear whether corporate solutions will offer trustworthy substitutes. More likely, responsibility will fall on local efforts, distributed collectives, community governance, and investment and championship by benevolent economic elites. This perspective offers another view of the WEF2011 paradox, “as the world grows together, it is also growing apart”.
Of note, the solution space is much greater than in the past. The upside of population growth and the rise of the developing world is that the resource pool for creative innovation in the face of these risks is now larger than ever. Likewise, the tools for knowledge gathering and collaboration are readily available to most of the world and offer incredible power, capacity, and scalabilty. The phase change will continue to be full of turbulence but the sandbox for innovation is huge and the timeframes for iteration are tiny.
From another WEF article published after the Japanes tsunami crisis, titled Lessons for Living in a New World of Risk:
Thus a global network that shares best practices, promotes lessons learned in one part of the world for application in another, and assists its members both to better prepare before an event and better respond after can be of enormous value. By establishing direct channels of communication to government leaders, risk experts from some of the world’s leading companies, academic institutions, NGOs and other parts of society can provide valuable assistance in times of crisis.
“Facebook really represents a battleground for ideas. It’s becoming an area for propaganda, for influence, for memetics, for advertising, for marketing. It is like any other public square: highly diverse and opinionated, potentially volatile and easily influenced by third parties.”
Click through the above link for the rest of the article.
2 new songs from my Sathorn Unique project. This has been the bulk of my focus lately, between paying gigs & whatnot.
Also, please check out my short note on music as structure, music as dream.
I was in Bangkok in 2009 and one of the first things that I encountered was this 40-story building, bonewhite & hollow, looming over the Chao Phraya river – one of many such abandoned structures but this one had a special aesthetic that rather captivated me. I took a bunch of photos, marveled at its very existence, and let the subliminal details and tides settle in for some future reflection. (There’s always too much to absorb to have any time to really process while “in the field”.)
Just last week Boing Boing picked up a post from the Abandoned Journey urban explorers who had recently documented their journey into the building, revealing in the process it’s name: Sathorn Unique. The name itself conjures up all sorts of cyberpunk-ish thoughts but I won’t belabor those here at the moment. Suffice it to say that, not having known that the structure even had a name, learning it’s title was revelatory. The Abandoned Journey document was a temporal reflection of my own meeting with the structure 2 years ago, sparking a re-connection with the subtleties of that experience and immediately led to some new understanding of how this particular ghost tower is in many ways an expression of our times.
So I’ve started a new project called Sathorn Unique, exploring the various concepts & feelings inspired in me by the building of the same name. This project is an attempt to both express those un-nameable currents through my own musical interpretation (spacey, deep, hip hop instrumentals), and a process of documenting that expression and capturing some of the threads within our own world that appear to be presented by Sathorn Unique.
I’m documenting the musical, architectural, and expository process in a fairly loose, stream-of-consciousness sort of way at the Tumblr blog, Sathorn Unique. Here are my introductory thoughts on the project.
And below is the first track I’m working on:
Egyptian recording on mobile. From NYT.
The course of recent events across the Middle East & North Africa have highlighted both the power in organizing & reporting protest movements using network technologies and the weakness inherent in their corporate & state-controlled architectures. While social media & mobile phones have not explicitly created the revolutions we’re witnessing in Egypt, Libya, & Bahrain and the protests mounting in many other regions, they are making it much easier for collective actions to coordinate, inspire, and outwit the authorities. Conversely, ruling classes are now far more savvy to the threat these tools bring and will quickly act to shut down internet & SMS services that might undermine their authority. The tension in this dynamic emerged in 2009 when Chinese Uighurs in Xinjiang had mobile access removed by the government in an attempt to quell their uprising. And these tactics have played out repeatedly since as design patterns for resistance & rebellion formalize into institutional playbooks.
In this context, mobiles offer immediate & direct communication with allies while social networks offer distributed coordination and instantaneous global reporting. Indeed, the ability to capture and share information across the world is ultimately the most threatening aspect of such hyperconnected protest movements. Social networks like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube empower protesters to be field reporters,capturing atrocities and inviting the rest of the world in to see. It is this universal witnessing that makes a local protest into a global movement. It brings normative pressure from the free world into old and rigid totalitarian regimes. Once such regimes could easily crush uprisings with limited exposure. Now they find themselves cast on the world stage in a glaring spotlight. Dispersed & sympathetic legions of like-minded freedom hawks mobilize around these events lending moral & technical support to ensure their success. Aging dictators wrinkle in the sun as their every word & action is shared & deconstructed by the world at large. And so these rulers move quickly to try and shut down the networks, to hide from the light and roll their rule back into the pre-dawn of geographic isolation.
And yet the revolution spreads. Mobiles & social networks transmit ideology & emotion, outrage & courage. Everyone wants in on the spectacle and the hope of real change that it invokes. It might not be too hyperbolic to suggest that True Democracy, co-opted and tarnished by Western realpolitik, so often used as an excuse to prop up the very dictators who’ve held these people in fear for decades, might break out through the networked world, demanding its due and even resuscitating the anemic corpus of the American protest movement.
But this assumes many things. Douglas Rushkoff and others have begun to point out the relative weakness of the internet and of mobile networks. Corporate choke points quickly buckle under government pressure and the threat of national security. So people naturally look for ways to build resilient networks that can resist the hunger & fear of power. Ways to route around the censorship.
Of course, revolutions are not the only things that need resilient ad hoc networks. Increasingly, large-scale construction projects require on-site network support, with or without internet backbones. Emergency relief, as we saw in the Haiti earthquake in 2010, also require fast response to restore communication networks. Any sufficiently large regional disaster could knock out communications & database access leaving first responders in the dark and victims & families struggling to find help & relief support. It’s important to understand that these services require local networks but don’t necessarily require internet access. In emergencies its critical that quickly-scalable ad hoc regional networks can be deployed to restore basic communications and access to necessary information, be it status updates or institutional knowledge bases.
Venessa Miemis has a great round-up of the many players in this field, highlighting 16+ Projects & Initiatives Building Ad-Hoc Wireless Mesh Networks. From her list its impressive how many groups are working on solving these problems.
Mobile phones are a valuable infrastructure that often gets overlooked in discussions of resiliency. Everyone has a phone so everyone is a potential node. Research in wireless meshnets that use mobile phones instead of carrier backbones offer localized solutions for resilient networks. If a city loses it’s carrier support, if AT&T & Verizon are offline, mobiles can default to a lilly-pad model where voice & data move from phone to phone, hopping across the community through wireless overlaps. The phone becomes the hot-spot and a personal IP address. This allows information to pass from across the mobile meshnet until it reaches an internet uplink, such as a Meraki node. In this manner individuals can still coordinate resources & activities if, say, an earthquake or a dictator has taken mobile carriers & ISP’s offline, and can hop to a strong wireless uplink outside the range of blackout.
To look forward, local mobile meshnets could be used as distributed processing clusters, like a SETI At Home for mobiles. Consider the processing power latent across a city of 20 million mobile subscribers, such as Tokyo. As smart phones integrate more diverse sensors, mobile meshnets could be addressed as distributed sense platforms, analyzing air quality, for example, or deputized as camera arrays. [Klint Finley expands on this idea over at ReadWriteCloud.] Consider what could be done with an API for addressing clusters of mobile sensors. [Update: Imagine the types of shared augmented reality experiences that might be possible across localized mobile meshnets… eg bands could push experience layers out to their audiences during concerts – any venue could run a layer that would automatically sync with a user’s phone/headset when they entered it’s radius of activity.] When mobiles have the ability to firewall from selected authorities or create opt-in experience zones users might develop incredibly sophisticated tools for distributed in-field utilities. Of course, so might criminals and insurgents… and regimes.
There’s a tremendous amount of work advancing these technologies. The events in the Middle East & North Africa, coupled with the creeping authoritarianism and neglect in western countries, are lighting a fire under innovators to figure it out. Likewise, major mobile manufacturers are exploring this space to anticipate consumer demand and create differentiating features to compete in the impacted & accelerated smartphone marketplace. The internet & mobile communication have rapidly proven themselves to be indispensable to the lives of billions of people. Any efforts to exert power and authority over them on a mass scale while run into fierce challenges born from the simple nature of human ingenuity & adaptation. And yet, there are many reasons we should not take such access to mobile communications and the internet for granted.
John Gilmore’s famous quote (and Mark Pesce’s analysis) applies here: The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it. Whether that censorship comes from corporations, dictators, or acts of god is immaterial.
[Update: Check out the World Community Grid for crowd-sourced cluster computing. Would be great to see them include mobile when the tech catches up…]
[Definitely read this Tech Crunch post, Humans Are The Routers, by the founder of the Openmesh Project, Shervin Pishevar.]
In the lead up to it’s big annual event in Davos, the World Economic Forum’s Risk Response Network has published its Global Risks 2011 report. Here are some of the top-level highlights, taken verbatim from the report. I encourage people to read the entire report as each section is broken out into considerable detail including multiple scenarios. There’s also an overview at Business 21C.
“The world is in no position to face major new shocks.”
2 Cross-Cutting Risks:
1. Economic disparity: Wealth and income disparities, both within countries and between countries, threaten social and political stability as well as economic development.
2. Global governance failures: Weak or inadequate global institutions, agreements or networks, combined with competing national and political interests, impede attempts to cooperate on addressing global risks.
3 Important Risks in Focus:
1. The macroeconomic imbalances nexus: This cluster of three economic risks – global imbalances and currency volatility, fiscal crises and asset price collapse – is characterized by both internal imbalances (within countries) and external imbalances (between countries).
2. The illegal economy nexus: Illicit trade, organized crime and corruption are chronic risks that are perceived as highly likely to occur and of medium impact. As a highly interconnected nexus representing the illegal economy, however, experts see these risks as of central importance to the global risk landscape.
3. The water-food-energy nexus: Water security, food security and energy security are chronic impediments to economic growth and social stability. Food production requires water and energy; water extraction and distribution requires energy; and energy production requires water. Food prices are also highly sensitive to the cost of energy inputs through fertilizers, irrigation, transport and processing.
5 risks to watch:
1. Cyber-security: cyber theft, cyber espionage, cyber war, and cyber terrorism.
2. Demographic challenges: population “cluster bombs”, global graying and demographic dividends.
3. Resource security: extreme commodity price volatility and extreme energy price volatility.
4. Retrenchment from globalization: In many advanced economies strengthening political forces either directly or indirectly advocate retrenchment from globalization.
5. Weapons of mass destruction: the key WMD risk is felt by most experts to be that of nuclear proliferation, both among states and non-state actors, closely followed by the potential use of biological weapons.
3 ways for leaders to improve their response to complex and interdependent risks:
1. Proactively address the causes, rather than the symptoms, of global risk, identifying effective points of intervention in underlying structures and systems.
2. Devise coordinated response strategies to address the existence of difficult trade-offs and the threat of unintended consequences caused in part by increased interconnectedness.
3. Take a longer-term approach to assessment and response, particularly when seeking to manage global risks that emerge over decades rather than months or years.