So dig: in about 20 years we went from knowing rather little about the world beyond what we directly experienced and what we gleaned through books and pictures and the occasional documentary or foreign movie, to having immediate on-demand insight into any facet of the globe you could imagine.
[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.
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.
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).
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.
Increasingly, we live in a world defined by flat networks. Folks like Clay Shirky, Ben Hammersley, and others have observed in great detail how the design patterns of the internet are challenging and changing the landscape of human civilization. So many of our institutions have been built as hierarchical pyramids designed to exert the maximum degree of control over their domains. These top-down management structures have come to define business, government, the military, medicine, education, the family, and knowledge itself. Leaders rise to the top as centralized governors dictating down the chain how things should be, while workers march in step towards execution of their appointed tasks. Such structures were modeled after the clockworks & steam engines of classical mechanics, designed to be precise, rigid, and durable, capable of lasting hundreds of years. These structures informed the defining metaphors of our entire industrialized society.
Computer architecture recapitulated the mechanical metaphor by designating a central processor that assigned & managed tasks bussed out to sub-processors and specialized functional components. In this way the computer became more of a powerful extension of the industrial age rather than a stake in the ground of a new paradigm. While the mechanical metaphor gradually evolved into the computational metaphor which has defined the last two decades, it wasn’t until computers began to follow the model of telecom and began connecting with each other across flat networks that the seed of a biological metaphor began to take hold.
Nature, it seems, does not create very many rigid, top-down control systems. Those are too stiff and inflexible for the dynamics of life. Rather, nature evolves vast horizontal networks that assemble into specialized functions within their environment. For example, the messiest, most distributed organizational structure known – the human brain – does not have a top-tier manager or CPU. There is no executive function within the brain or its mind, though we typically like to think there is. Instead, the brain is a vast & mostly flat hierarchy that is bundled into loosely vertical functional bodies. These functional bodies are themselves existing across a mostly flat horizontal network of interactions. The thalamus receives all inputs and routes them up to higher cortical processing and lower hindbrain autonomic structures, into the amygdala for emotional content and across the hippocampus for memory, then down throughout the body. The processing chain is massively parallel, interconnected, and marked by complex feedback pathways. Mind arises off of these processes in a very ad hoc manner, always shifting, always flexible, and always derived from a mass summation across the network.
Mycelial networks offer another example. When we see mushrooms scattered across a forest floor we’re not seeing individuals. Each mushroom growing from the soil is a fruiting body rising from the underground web-work of mycelia – the skeletal framework of the colony. Some mycelial colonies have been found to have areas extending over 2000 acres making them some of the largest superorganisms on the planet. The pattern suggests mushrooms as terminal nodes and mycelia as the network backbone.
In ecosystems, large predators constitute a form of top-down management but they themselves are part of the predator-prey relationship – a dynamic that must always seek relative equilibrium with the broader network in which it is embedded. Predators do not have a choice to over-consume prey or stockpile & re-sell it to others. Large ocean gyres also suggest a high degree of top-down control by seasonally establishing the engines of hemispheric weather. The North Pacific gyre becomes more active in the Winter of the northern hemisphere, driving the scale & frequency of storms hitting the pacific northwest of the United States. But the North Pacific gyre is an emergent structure that is itself built upon the properties of a nearly-infinite set of factors. It is not a regulatory structure or a governor by intent or design and there is no top-level group of components that determine its next move. It is a super-system derived from innumerable sub-systems.
Most importantly, all biological systems are guided not by top-down governors or control mechanisms but by feedback from the networks in which they are embedded. This is how nature regulates, preserves, and evolves itself towards greater adaptability. There is no fallible ruler driven to resource over-reach and myopic certainty. There is only the ongoing trial & error of embedded growth tempered by continuous communication between & within organisms.
As computers began to connect across the ARPANET, and with the dawning of the visual internet, the CPU evolved away from being specifically a central control system to become a node within a distributed network. This initial shift quickly challenged the established domains of publishing, content creation, intellectual property, and knowledge management while inviting the crowd into a shared virtual space of increasingly global identity & transaction. The advent of social networks established an organizational structure for connecting the human capital of virtuality, making it easier for like-minded people to connect & share & collaborate non-locally, subtly undermining the very notions of borders, statehood, family, and allegiance. Soon after, the mobile revolution has tipped everything on its side and bundled it into a portable device bringing instantaneous global communication & information access to most people on the planet.
The framework was laid for new forms of emergent, non-hierarchical, distributed collaboration & innovation, to both productive & destructive ends. Groups could now form and coordinate around affiliations, interest, and goals in ways that directly challenged the institutional structures monetizing our production & consumption and regulating our behaviors. It has become vastly easier for small organizations to take on multinational interests, whether in business & innovation or in power & politics. The conflicts we see across the world today are, in large part, a symptom of the younger generations leveraging flat network technologies to rise up against the older generations who long ago settled into their legacy hierarchical power structures. To paraphrase Ben Hammersley, the people who are running the world, who are entrusted with our future, are not able to understand the present. They lack the cognitive tools that are a basic part of the Generation C toolkit – the digital natives who grew up with a mobile in their hands and the internet at their fingertips, embedded in specialized networks that span borders and extend identity into the virtual.
The global disruptions that seem to characterize modernity constitute a civilizational correction driven by natural law. The DotCom bubble went through a correction, shedding excess value and pruning the garden of exuberant innovation to favor only the most fit. It was a good thing, if not painful. We witnessed the correction in the housing bubble and will likely see similar corrections in credit & commodities, as well as a painfully positive correction in energy, subsidized and under-valued for so long. The impacts of climate change are a correction imposed upon the legacy model of industrialization & growth by nature itself – the super-system in which all human endeavor is embedded and to which we are ultimately accountable.
The civilization correction is an emergent regulatory mechanism embedded within natural systems forcing our legacy human systems to progressively modify the unsustainable design patterns of our past. The mechanical metaphor & the computational metaphor are necessarily opening to include the biological metaphor. We can see this in every aspect of technology and it is equally emergent across human behavior & social systems. Nanosystems emulate biosystems. Computation & robotics are integrating with neurology & physiology. Individuals are finding agency & empowerment in leaderless multi-cellular collaborations. The built environment is becoming sensory-aware, communicating with itself through discrete feedback mechanisms. It can be argued that the emergence of the internet and of ubiquitous mobile communication & computation is an expression of our natural instincts to move into closer alignment with our environment; to follow the adaptive design patterns of nature in order to find a more sustainable & equitable posture for our species; a thermodynamic need to seek maximum efficiency in energy expenses. And to express a direct intervention programmed by nature itself to nudge the Anthropocene back towards equilibrium.
Such lofty ponderings aside, our world is undoubtedly approaching an inflection point. Everything appears to be upending and it’s all spread out in glorious detail for everyone to see. The feedback loop between humanity and it’s creations – the biological & cybernetic communication among individuals & groups & cultures & organisms & ecosystems – is tightening and getting more & more dense every day, feeding on itself and forcing exceptional degrees of novelty into becoming. It’s frightening & awesome and the Old Guard can barely see it happening right in front of their eyes. The shift may be apocalyptic, a sudden phase change, or an accelerated-but-managed transition… Probably it will be all of these things in differing degrees & locales. However it happens, the emerging paradigm is much more about networks, messaging, feedback, and biology rather than hierarchy, control, power, and mechanization. Nature is the super-system, the ultimate controller enforcing the laws of physics and prescribing the design templates for fitness & adaptation. If we are, as Kevin Kelley suggests, the sex organs of technology, then our technology is born from the natural imperatives coded deeply into our DNA.
[Justin Pickard notes: Biology PhD friend had issues w/ @chris23's latest (http://bit.ly/e0tJSS), citing hierarchies in social insect colonies, meercats & wolves... Furthermore, some biologists now consider social insect colonies to be superorganisms in their own right; akin to @cascio's ecology of mind?
Me: Yes! I considered diving into ants - lot's of research there. Interesting social structures emerge in higher critters/hives... I'd love to read a rebuttal/extension.]
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.
On this the first day of the new year the state of my thoughts feels like a reflection of the world at large. Tumultuous, hopeful-yet-fearful, seeing innumerable strands & details yet struggling to hang on to them, much less to weave them into some coherent story about the future. Change has become so constant and accelerated that the event horizon seems nearer and nearer: the crystal ball has clouded and tomorrow could be radically different from today.
This is what the Singularity folks are tugging at, and what the Mayans supposedly alluded to almost 1500 years ago. That the feedback loops between culture, technology, and our very selves would become so tight and quickened that we’d begin to lose our ability to keep up with it all. The system would accelerate to such an incomprehensible pace that it would all seem to be slipping from our grasp. Then, like a boiling point, everything would undergo a state change, a phase shift into something born of the past but wholly new.
A singularity in physics is a point of absolute density most notably observed within a black hole. It’s so dense that it’s gravitational pull becomes massive, inescapable. Around the singularity is a spherical area physicists refer to as the event horizon. Within this area even light cannot escape, so nothing can be seen within the event horizon from the outside. Cross the line and you are doomed to collapse into singularity.
In contemporary usage, the Singularity alludes to, among other things, the notion that there is some point in our near-future where our lives have shifted so dramatically that the world, our technologies, and perhaps even the nature of our selves are unrecognizable and unforseeable from our current timeframe. Like the event horizon around a black hole, it’s impossible to see what’s on the other side; impossible to predict the next phase state. There are examples throughout natural systems that illustrate such phase shifts, from the formation of ice crystals in water to the emergence of a hurricane or tornado from an otherwise incoherent weather system. But it’s a much more challenging task to imagine such a sudden shift at the scale of global human systems. We have models for complexity & emergence but we have no real ability to model what the next global economic system might be or how human consciousness might shift when billions of minds are wired together in instantaneous communication.
Singularity or not, the world has become arguably post-historical. For millenia history was a book written by a few to record what was seen and known within their domain. Often bounded by geography, language, and political persuasion, the writing of the historical record has been a fairly narrow niche, curated by a relative few. As such, history has retained a reasonable amount of coherency. The post-modern world is post-historical because now virtually everyone is contributing to the historical record. There is no central curation or organizing principle. Every blog, Flickr account, Tweet, Facebook status, HuffPo & RedState post – all of these are writing the historical record. In a world where everyone can publish, who’s account is the most accurate? Is there even such a thing as historical accuracy anymore when so many witnesses chime in with their take? Even Wikipedia is a dynamic, ever-shifting crowdsourced story, constantly amended and updated around the ongoing dialectic of our unfolding. Without a single history we become post-historical, atemporal, and, arguably, much further from the shores of truth.
Indeed, our modern age seems to have little use for truth, tending much more towards the subtleties of persuasion and the blunt cudgel of opinion. In a choppy sea of philosophical relativity it’s more about how you can make your story the most influential among competitors. Pundits and politicians, marketers & evangelists all know this well. We’re all learning this in the internet age, each of us curating our personal brand in the social web. But this din of persuasion and memetic mudslinging has gotten so amplified that it’s drowning out sensibility and rational discussion, much less actual strategic coordination around the very real and threatening issues of our time. Having grokked the power of global broadcast everyone is yelling through their own personal megaphone. And the din is deafening (and oh so entertaining!). Not only do we struggle in a sea of data overload but we’re constantly tossed about by the onrushing waves of opinion. So much data, so much opinion, and so little ability to rationally parse and comprehend it all.
This too may be symptomatic of our transit towards some higher order. Sometimes the best way to remodel a house is to tear it down and rebuild from the ground up. Surely the din makes it considerably more difficult to forecast the future. Is North Korea really going to start a nuclear war in Asia, or is it just rhetorical sabre rattling? Nothing new for seasoned diplomats but now it’s not just a matter for war-room scenarios and diplomatic cables. Now it’s fodder for the 24hr newsfeed, the blogosphere, and the tweetstream. We all share the uncertainty, the fear, the speculation… the net shares as much emotion as it does data. And we’re all open to being manipulated by those who would use such information to persuade us towards some unseen ends. As everything seems to become increasingly disordered so too does our own mental ability to organize the internal maps we keep of the world. As the world comes undone, so too do our minds. Herein lies both the opportunity for emergence of new orders, as well as the very real potential to be subsumed by the chaos and pass into void.
In a post-historical age of persuasion, forecasting the future becomes less predictive and more strategic. It’s less about how we expect the world to unfold and more about how we construct the world to become. Forecasting becomes an activist pursuit. Within increasing chaos there is increasing opportunity to apply new forms of order. The plenum is infinite potential. The slate of civilization appears to be wiping itself of many of the legacy systems we’ve been running on – industrial, economic, religious – now crashing into the finite resource limits of planet and population and fed crazy pills by the sudden massive outlier of the internet.
Transition is always marked by change & uncertainty, passing out of one phase into another as of yet unknown. Expectations reveal the psyche of dreamers more than the machinations of reality. Yet the two may converge if we will it to be. And of course, these thoughts reflect my own biases – western, American, Anglo, middle class, male. My world appears to be fading, threatened while Asia and the African continent perhaps see the shifting sands with greater hope. Asia, the return of the Dragon. Africa, the sandbox for the next global operating system. Not to belittle the very real and endemic suffering that wracks both continents but their indicators are heading upwards while ours appear to be on the decline. Of course the west is seized by apoplectic spasms. Its hegemony and exceptionalism is fading like the tarnished capital rotundas of the Byzantium. State competency is in decline. Deficits run rampant. Internal bickering, moneyed elections, and a bought, scandal-hungry media destroy any hope of democratic collaboration. The corporation is on the rise eager to displace democracy. The gap between Wall Street and Main Street is widening into a nihilistic chasm big enough to swallow the entire American Dream. Super-empowered individuals have more sway over our futures than do rulers. Insurgencies, criminal syndicates, and terror networks all have risen with the empowering tide of technology. The international order is increasingly looking like a great, heaving disorder.
Yet each of these admittedly-fearsome trends is also an enabler for new solutions unencumbered by the Old Ways. In the decline of the state grows the rise of the city-state, localism, and community building. In the economic gap is born innovation and self-empowerment, local resiliency & durable investments. Many super-empowered elites are not actually evil and are spreading their billions across the world for good causes. And every insurgency is in some ways just an angry local makers collective. The design patterns are often agnostic across good & bad. It is intention & compassion, hope & courage, that make the difference.
Here in the impossible post-historical year of 2011 we’re not quite as far along as we thought we’d be but, damn, look at all we’ve accomplished! Look at the crazy majesty of it all unfolding from that beautiful lotus singularity! Look at the dreams and imaginations given life! Look at the subtleties of humanity revealed and shared across the globe! Look at the deep currents of evolution, physics, and biology, seemingly lost and abandoned in the moment but so obviously masterful and commanding in the long-term. We are, each and every one of us, in a dance with nature, spinning away at times but always compelled to return and dance in step.
As the Great Wheel turns the future remains as it always has: a dream waiting to awaken.
There are some really fascinating innovations & opportunities arising at the convergence of embedded sensors, the built environment, 3D modeling, and augmented reality. Buildings, manufacturing chains, cities, and environments are increasingly communicating their run-time processes through embedded sensors & systems. The data streams pouring off these devices are driving rich visualizations in monitoring dash-boards that give operators & managers high-resolution insight into the state of these systems. Soon, these datastreams will be wired into 3D models – perhaps the very same CAD models that were originally developed to construct a building will live on as a real-time model of it’s living operations. Such models of buildings, civic infrastructure, and the environments in which they’re embedded will provide up-to-the-minute assessments of their operations, from at-a-glance macro overviews to incredibly detailed micro reports. Then model branches – mirrors – could be created to run simulations of future states, eg what happens to traffic if we allow 20% more development on the north end of town?
With augmented reality, the potential exists to bus selective overlays from the model & its datastreams out to augmented interfaces. In this way building/civic managers, code enforcers, first responders, environmental analysts, and many others will be able to see the run-time state of their city/building/ecosystem drawn across the real-world. For example, a broken water main downtown would immediately be reflected in the civic model, pinging the Water Dept. dashboards that then route to a field agent’s mobile who uses their AR head’s-up-display to visibly locate the exact location of the leak for repair, possibly pulling up street schematics and a guided 3D repair manual on-site.
This convergence of the instrumented world and it’s virtual representation, mediated by an augmented reality interface between the two, may yield unprecedented opportunities to model & optimize the very structures of civilization.
[Wow! Looks like Screampoint has a big head-start on this...]
[Autodesk is also working on developing tools for sensor-driven Building Information Modeling (BIM).]
A non-deterministic system is one that is so complex that it’s future state cannot be predicted to any great degree of certainty. Weather systems, ecosystems, and economies are examples of interdependent dynamic systems that are composed of so many elements and exhibit so many emergent behaviors that it’s impossible to effectively forecast their futures. Conversely, deterministic systems are more reliable, like clockworks, where every component is known and each behaves & interacts exactly as expected. The difference between the two is in their degree of complexity and our ability to reveal the mechanisms beneath their behaviors.
This reasoning begs the question: are so-called non-deterministic systems ultimately knowable and actually deterministic? If we posit a supercomputer (or superbeing) capable of knowing every piece of a complex system and understanding the physical properties of how that system would interact, would it be possible to make exact predictions for that system? In other words, is a non-deterministic system really just a very complex deterministic system that we don’t yet know enough about? The supposition here is that emergent properties are coded by the parts.
This leads to the next question: is emergence a reversible process? Take proteins, for example. Proteins are polypeptides – linear sequences of amino acids. This initial configuration as a sequence of parts is called the primary structure, and we know the exact primary structures of many proteins. We also know a lot about the biochemistry of amino acids. Yet, a large puzzle of our times is understanding how the primary structure of proteins gives rise to their secondary & tertiary structure – the unique 3-dimensional shapes that turn polypeptide chains into functional components such as enzymes. Indeed, there are massive distributed efforts to understand how the completed 3-dimensional structure of proteins emerges from the serial coding of polypeptide chains [ See Folding At Home].
Most assume that protein folding is a behavior that is knowable, ie deterministic. The hope being that it should be possible to design novel proteins and understand why defects occur in protein folding. But does this imply that many or all seemingly-non-deterministic systems, whose utter complexity is reinforced by layers & layers of emergence upon emergence, are indeed knowable? If the emergence of 3D protein structures from serial components is not some magical event, then might the same be said for larger complex dynamic systems like weather and economies? And what does this mean for epistemology? It would seem that such talk veers back towards Newton’s Clockwork Universe, suggesting that if all the parts are known to sufficient degree, and all their behaviors & affinities known as well, then it should be possible to forecast it’s state at any time in the future. Indeed, Newton’s own very deterministic Laws of Motion scaled up to accurately model the motions of our solar system.
Of course, this begins to challenge the very notion of free will, not to mention thermodynamics and quantum mechanics which both appear to inject chaos and unpredictability into the physical world to a very deep degree. And perhaps it is these aspects of the universe that modulate complex systems into ultimately non-deterministic behaviors, like a well-spring of randomness bubbling up from the quantum plenum injected into Newton’s clockworks. The world does indeed seem highly unpredictable, especially in this day & age. As do the many unfathomable actions of us humans and our damned free will. In fact, it may just be that some things are definably unknowable in totality, as the great mystery traditions would suggest, each pole always containing the seed of it’s opposite, oscillating in some eternal dance unknowable beyond the Seven Veils.
What fate would befall the edifice of Science & Rationalism if it were truly proven that God does indeed play dice and the future is ever but a game of chance? We may reveal the secrets of protein folding and perhaps even be able to predict weather accurately beyond 3 or 4 days. But beyond that what is the boundary of knowability?
[This article has become the most popular item I've ever posted on this blog. Thanks so much to everyone who has read it and passed it along!]
When it’s busy like this the viz sometimes shifts like the color bleed you used to see on those old Sunday comics, way back in the day. Ubiquitous fiber pipes & wide-band wireless still can’t give enough bandwidth to the teeming multitudes downtown. The viz starts to lag, gets offset and even orphaned from the hard world it’s trying to be a part of. Hyperclear Ray Ban augments, lenses ground down by hand-sequenced rock algaes to such an impossibly smooth uniformity, run through with transparent circuity & bloodied rare-earth elements, scanning the world in multiple dimensions, pinging the cloud at 10GHz and pushing articulated data forms through massive OLED clusters just to show me where I can find an open null shield and the best possible cup of coffee this side of Ethiopia. Then the pipes clog and those ridiculously expensive glasses turn into cheap 3D specs from 2010 pretending to make 2D look like real life but instead here they’re doing the print offset thing, flattening my world into color shifts and mismatched registers.
Marks are flickering in & out, overlapping & losing their z-order. A public note on a park bench glows green – something about the local chemwash schedule – then loses integrity to one of my own annotations left there, like, a year ago. A poem I cranked out on a late night bender but it’s unreadable with all the other layers clashing. Even the filters get confused when the pipes clog. If you look around fast enough, marks start to trail & stutter in a wash of data echoes like when screens used to have refresh errors. Only now our eyes are the screens and the whole world gets caught in recursive copy loops.
The Ray Bans correct it pretty quickly, attenuating the rendered view and pushing up the hard view as the dominant layer. But for a moment it feels like you’re tripping. It used to be physically nauseating, a sudden vertigo brought on by that weird disconnect of self & place. Like so much of life these days, you spend a lot of time adapting to disconnects between layers. Between real and rendered. Between self & other, human & machine. Between expectations & outcomes.
The arc of glorious progress that opened the 21st century seemed to have found it’s apogee around 2006 or so and then came hurtling back towards Earth. And it wasn’t like earlier “corrections”. This one was big. It was a fundamental stock-taking of the entirety of the industrial age to date and things were suddenly, shockingly, terribly mis-matched from the realities of the world. Planetary-scale disconnects. The carrying capacity of economies, nations, ecosystems, and humanity itself came into clear & violent resolution by the 2020’s when everything started to radically shift under the twin engines of hyper-connectivity and ecological chaos. These two previously unexpected titans directly challenged and usurped the entire paradigm of the developed and developing worlds, setting us all into choppy and uncertain seas.
Sure, we still get to play with the crazy cool tech. Or at least some of us do. What the early cyberpunks showed us, and what the real systems geeks always knew, is that the world is not uniform or binary. It’s not utopia vs. dystopia, win vs. lose, us vs. them, iGlasses or collapse. It’s a complex, dynamic blend of an unfathomable number of inputs, governors, and feedback loops constantly, endlessly iterating across inconceivable scales to weave this crazy web of life. So we have climate refugees from Kansas getting tips from re-settled Ukrainians about resilience farming. We have insurgencies in North America and social collectives across South America. The biggest brands in the world are coming out of Seoul & Johannesburg while virtually-anonymous distributed collaboratives provide skills & services across the globe. And we have Macroviz design teams from Jakarta & Kerala directing fab teams in Bangkok to make Ray Bans to sell to anybody with enough will & credit to purchase. Globalization & it’s discontents has proven to offer a surprising amount of resilience. Heading into the Great Shift it looked like the developed world was headed for 3rd world-style poverty & collapse. But it hasn’t been quite that bad. More of a radical leveling of the entire global macro-economic playing field with the majority settling somewhere on the upper end of lower class. Some rose, many fell. It was… disturbing, to say the least. It simply didn’t fit the models. Everyone expected collapse or transcendence.
We humans want things to be as simple as possible. It’s just natural. Makes it easier to service the needs of biosurvival. But we’ve not created a simple world. Indeed, the world of our making looks about as orderly as the mess of 100 billion brain cells knotted up in our heads or the fragmented holographic complexes of memories & emotions, aspiration & fears, that clog it all up. We built living systems as complex as anything the planet could dish out. Not in the billions of years nature uses to refine and optimize but in a matter of a few millennia. We raced out of the gate, got on top of the resource game, took a look around, and realized the whole thing needed to be torn down and completely redesigned for the realities of the world. The outcomes no longer fit the expectations. In some strange fractal paradox, the maps got so accurate that the territory suddenly looked very different from what we thought.
The null shield was created as a black spot. A cone of silence for the information age. They’re like little international zones offering e-sylum in select coffee shops, parlors, dining establishments, and the finer brick-and-mortar lifestyle shops. And in conflict zones, narco-corridors, favelas, gang tenements, and the many other long-tail alleyways of the ad hoc shadow state. The null shield is a fully encrypted, anonymized, opt-in hotspot that deflects everything and anything the global service/intel/pr industry tries to throw at you or copy from you. What’s better is you don’t even show up as a black spot like the early implementations that would hide you but basically tell the world where you were hidden. You’re invisible and only connected to the exact channels you want.
These were originally created for civ lib types and the militarized criminal underclass as a counter-measure to the encroaching security state. But as traditional states universally weakened under the weight of bureaucracies and insurmountable budgets (and the growing power of cities and their Corp/NGO alignments), the state’s ability to surveil the citizenry declined. All the money they needed to keep paying IT staff, policy researchers, infrastructure operators, emergency responders, and the security apparatus – all that money was siphoned up by the cunning multinationals who used their financial wit & weight to undermine the states ability to regulate them. Now states – even relatively large ones like the U.S. government – are borrowing money from the multinationals just to stay afloat. The iron fist of surveillance & security has been mostly replaced by the annoying finger of marketing & advertising, always poking you in the eye wherever you go.
Keeping on top of the viz means keeping your filters up to date and fully functional. Bugs & viruses are still a problem, sure, but we’ve had near-50 years to develop a healthy immunity to most data infections. We still get the occasional viz jammer swapping all your english mark txt with kanji, and riders that sit in your stream just grabbing it all and bussing it to some server in Bucharest. But it’s the marketing vads and shell scanners that drive the new arms race of personal security. Used to be the FBI were the ones who would scan your browsing history to figure out if you’re an Islamic terrorist or right wing nut, then black-out the Burger Trough and grab you with a shock team right in the middle of your Friendly Meal. Even if they had the money to do it now, the Feds understand that the real threats are in the dark nets not the shopping malls. So the marketers have stepped in. They want your reading list so they can scan-and-spam you wherever you go, whenever, then sell the data to an ad agency. They want access to your viz to track your attention in real-time. They want to fold your every move into a demographic profile to help them pin-point their markets, anticipate trends, and catch you around every corner with ads for the Next Little Thing. And they use their access to rent cog cycles for whatever mechanical turk market research projects they have running in the background.
Google gave us the most complete map of the world. They gave us a repository of the greatest written works of our species. And a legacy of ubiquitous smart advertising that now approaches near-sentience in it’s human-like capacity to find you and push your buttons. In some ways the viz is just a cheap universal billboard. Who knew that all those billions of embedded chips covering the planet would be running subroutines pushing advertising and special interest blurbs to every corner of the globe? There are tales of foot travelers ranging deep into the ancient back-country forests of New Guinea, off-grid and viz-free, only to be confronted by flocks of parrots squawking out the latest tagline from some Bangalore soap opera. Seems the trees were instrumented with Google smart motes a few decades ago for a study in heavy metal bio-accumulation. Something about impedance shielding and sub-frequency fields affecting the parrots…
So while the people colonized the cloud so they could share themselves and embrace the world, the spammers, advert jocks, and marketing hacks pushed in just as quickly because wherever people are, wherever they gather and talk and measure themselves against each other & the world… in those places they can be watched and studied and readily persuaded to part with their hard-earned currency.
Or credits or karma points or whatever. Just like the rest of the big paradigms, value has shifted beyond anybody’s understanding. Gold and currency at least attempted to normalize value into some tangible form. But the markets got too big & complex and too deeply connected to the subtleties of human behavior and the cunning of human predators. While money, the thing, was a tangible piece of value, the marketplace of credit & derivatives undermined it’s solidity and abstracted value out into the cold frontiers of economics philosophers and automated high-frequency trading bots. So much of the money got sucked up into so few hands that the world was left to figure out just how the hell all those unemployed people were going to work again. Instead of signing up for indentured servitude on the big banking farms, folks got all DIY while value fled the cash & credit markets and transfigured into service exchanges, reputation currencies, local scrip, barter markets, shadow economies, and a seemingly endless cornucopia of adaptive strategies for trading your work & talent for goods & services.
Sure, there’s still stock markets, central banks, and big box corps but they operate in a world kind of like celebrities did in the 20th century, though more infamous than famous. They exist as the loa in a web of voodoo economics: you petition them for the trickle-down. Or just ignore them. They’re a special class that mostly sticks among their kind, sustaining a B2B layer that drives the e-teams & design shops, fab plants & supply chains to keep churning out those Ray Ban iGlasses. Lucky for them, materials science has seen a big acceleration since the 2010’s with considerable gains in miniaturization and efficiency so it’s a lot easier to be a multinational when much of your work is dematerialized and the stuff that is hard goods is mostly vat-grown or micro-assembled by bacterial hybrids. Once the massive inflationary spike of the Big Correction passed, it actually got a lot cheaper to do business.
Good news for the rest of us, too, as we were all very sorely in need of a serious local manufacturing capacity with a sustainable footprint and DIY extensibility. Really, this was the thing that moved so many people off the legacy economy. Powerful desktop CAD coupled to lo-intensity, high-fidelity 3d printers opened up hard goods innovation to millions. The mad rush of inventors and their collaborations brought solar conversion efficiency up to 85% within 3 years, allowing the majority of the world to secure their energy needs with minimal overhead. Even now, garage biotech shops in Sao Paulo are developing hybrid chloroplasts that can be vat-grown and painted on just about anything. This will pretty much eliminate the materials costs of hard solar and make just about anything into a photosynthetic energy generator, slurping up atmospheric carbon and exhaling oxygen in the process. Sometimes things align and register just right…
So here we are in 2043 and, like all of our history, so many things have changed and so many things have stayed the same. But this time it’s the really big things that have changed, and while all change is difficult we’re arguably much stronger and much more independent for it all. Sure, not everybody can afford these sweet Ray Bans. And the federated state bodies that kept us mostly safe and mostly employed are no longer the reliable parents they once were. We live in a complex world of great wealth and great disparity, as always, but security & social welfare is slowly rising with the tide of human technological adaptation. Things are generally much cheaper, lighter, and designed to reside & decay within ecosystems. Product becomes waste becomes food becomes new life. Our machines are more like natural creatures, seeking equilibrium and optimization, hybridized by the ceaseless blurring of organic & inorganic, by the innate animal disposition towards biomimicry, and by the insistence of the natural world to dictate the rules of human evolution, as always. After all, we are animals, deep down inside, compelled to work it out and adapt.
Time’s up on the null shield. Coffee is down. And the viz is doing it’s thing now that the evening rush has thinned. Out into the moody streets of the city core, the same streets trod for a thousand years here, viz or no. The same motivations, the same dreams. It always comes back to how our feet fall on the ground, how the food reaches our mouth, and how we share our lives with those we care for.
It’s a wide-ranging discussion around technologies and their impacts on culture, consciousness, the species, and what may become of our futures. In spite of the picture above, there is no discussion of advanced techniques for elevated goat farming. We had to save that for a later episode.
G-Spot interviews Chris Arkenberg.
With all the hype flying around Augmented Reality lately, it’s easy to assume the nascent tech is just another flash-in-the-pan destined to burn out in a fury of marketing gimmickry & sensational posturing. Yet, it’s informative to consider the drivers pushing this trend and to tease out the truly adaptive value percolating beneath the hype. As we survey the last 40 years of computation we see vast rooms of tube & tape mainframes consolidating into single stacks & dense supercomputers. These, in turn, rode manufacturing advances into smaller components and faster processors bringing computing to the desktop. In the last 10 years we’ve seen computation un-encumber from the location-bound desktop to powerful, free-roaming mobile platforms. These devices have allowed us to carry the advantages of instant communication, collaboration, and computation with us wherever we go. The trends in computation continue towards power, portability, and access.
Specific implementations aside, augmented reality in it’s purest, most dilute form, is about drawing the experience of computation across the real world. It’s about point-and-click access to the data shadows of everything in our environment. It’s about realizing social networks, content markups, and digital remix culture as truly tangible layers of human behavior. Augmented reality represents another fundamentally adaptive technology to empower individuals & collectives with instant access to knowledge about the world in which we’re embedded. It breaks open both the digital & mental box and dumps the contents out on the floor.
There is a fascinating convergence at play here that, at a glance, seems almost paradoxical. While the contents of our minds are moving beyond the digital containers we’ve used to such creative & collaborative advantage, out into the phenomenal world of things & critters, the physical hardware through which this expression is constructed & mediated is miniaturizing and moving closer & closer towards our physical bodies. DARPA is funding research to push AR beyond current device limitations, envisioning transparent HUDs, eye-trackers, speech recognition, and gestural interfaces that release soldiers from the physical dependencies of our current devices. Today’s mobiles (and the limited AR tech built on them) compete directly with the other most adaptive human feature: our hands. Truly functional mobile comm/collab/comp must be hands-free… and this is the promise taking form in the emerging field of neurotechnology.
Nanomaterials, optogenetics, SPASERs, advanced robotics, neurocomputation, and artificial intelligence are merely a handful of the modalities shaping up to enable tighter integration between humans, machines, and the digital sphere. Advances in understanding the communication protocols and deep brain structures that mediate the human interface between our sensorium and the perceived world are presenting opportunities to capture & program our minds, to more accurately modulate the complexities of human emotion, creativity, trust, & cognition, and to build more expressive interfaces between mind and machine. Augmented reality is co-evolving with augmented physiology.
In it’s current and most-visualized form, augmented reality is clunky and awkward, merely suggesting a future of seamless integration between computation & cognition. Yet the visions being painted by the pioneers are deeply compelling and illustrate a near-future of a more malleable world richly overlaid with information & interface. As AR begins to render more ubiquitously across the landscape, as more & more phones & objects become smart and connected, the requirements for advancing human-computer interface will create exceptional challenges & astonishing results. Indeed, imagine the interface elements of a fully-augmented and interactive merging between analog & digital, between mind & machine… How do you use your mind to “click” on an object? How will the object communicate & interact with you? How do you filter data & interactions out from simple social transactions? How do you obfuscate the layers of data rising off your activities & thoughts? And what are the challenges of having many different opt-in or opt-out realities running in parallel?
Humans have just crossed the threshold into the Information Age. The sheer speed of the uptake is mind-bending as our world is morphing everyday into the science fictional future we spent the last century dreaming of. We may not really need the latest advances in creative advertising (similarly driven to get closer and closer to us) but it’s inarguable that both humans & the planetary ecology would benefit from a glance at a stream that instantly reveals a profile of the pollutants contained within, tagged by call-outs showing the top ten contributing upstream sources and the profiles of their CEOs – with email, Facebook, Twitter, and newsburst links at the ready. Examples and opportunities abound, perhaps best left to the authors and innovators of the future to sort out in a flurry of sensemods, augs, and biosims.
There are, of course, many challenges and unforeseen contingencies. The rapid re-wiring of the fundamental interface that such “capably murderous” creatures as us have with the natural world, and the attendant blurring of the lines between real & fabricated, should give pause to the most fevered anticipatory optimists. In a very near future, perhaps 10 or 15 years ahead, amidst an age of inconceivable change, we’ll have broken open the box, painted the walls with our minds, and wired the species and the planet to instantaneous collaboration and expression, with massively constructive and destructive tools at our fingertips. What dreams and nightmares may be realized when the apes attain such godhood? When technology evolves at a lightning pace, yet the human psyche remains at best adolescent, will we pull it off without going nuclear? Will the adaptive expressions of our age save us in time? I think they will, if we design them right and fairly acknowledge the deeply biological drivers working through the technologies we extrude.
[Acknowledgements: Tish Shute & Ugo Trade; Zack Lynch and his book The Neuro Revolution; conversations with fellow researchers at IFTF; and many others listed in the Signtific Lab tag for ProgrammableEverything.]
Machine intelligence, human agency.
Coupling machine, cloud, & human cognition.
Systems understanding & modification.
Macro & microscale engineering.
Instant collaboration, communication & coordination.
Democratized expression & creation.
The flurry of news surrounding the theft and publication of internal Twitter documents will inevitably engender even more goodwill for the world’s favorite social messaging platform. No betrayal of Twitter strategy short of implicating them in slapping babies with puppies can dent their supernova ascent into global stardom. Their current soap opera seems to bring them more sympathy than concern over their strategic objectives. In all likelihood, the player with the most to lose is Michael Arrington who’s managed to come off as a bit of a bully barely restrained by his own self-interest to secure future access to Twitter insiders.
The most interesting bits are related to features. The revelations concerning Hosebird, Tweet Rank, Google Syndication, and a “secret project with the X-Box” do more to allay concerns over Twitter’s monetization strategy than reveal any lack of ideas or sinister motivations. Their goal of 1 billion users is handily sugar-coated by the suggestion that they are building a global nervous system, drafting on the oft-quoted predictions of the emergent Global Brain. If anything, these leaks, like the way Apple deftly foreshadows it’s own “super secret” Skunkworks product releases, will add even more drool to the salivations of the user base, the dev ecology, and 3rd party interests eager to have more access to the Starchild. In fact, it seems that, if anything, Arrington is doing Twitter a huge favor.
Disclosures of ongoing talks with Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Amazon, et al, while not especially new or surprising, underwrite the seriousness of Twitter’s enterprise and reinforce the fact that aside from the wall of hype & buzz permeating the media Twitter is one of the Big Boys now. If not yet in valuation, then certainly in it’s seriousness and capacity. Remember when Google was just this new, simple searchbar competing with WebCrawler & HotBot & Lycos? Twitter’s ability to keep the likes of Diddy and Marissa Mayer at arm’s length underscore the strength of their organization and the confidence they have with their status and strategy.
Another tell lies in the notes about Twitter’s future with respect to possible acquisitions. A line within the context of the failed Facebook acquisition and attempts by other would-be suiters states “it can give us understanding of what we are worth”. This is like when you go on job interviews so your current boss will promote you. By courting acquisitions Twitter gets hard numbers to reinforce what their real value is in the competitive marketplace. The inevitable press surrounding these offers gives them huge leverage for partnerships, funding, free press, and growth. Conversely, they admit that they may not be able to meet the scaling requirements of their exponential growth. These two statements together defend Twitter’s authority and secure it’s need to stay firmly in the driver’s seat if they enter into any merger or acquisition with larger suitors.
Of course, search is the big deal here. Twitter must either fiercely defend its data and analytics against Google or cut a tight deal that serves their interests effectively without diluting their brand. As they admit, Google can do search much better but Twitter controls the stream. Clearly, Google is afraid of losing ad share to Twitter, yet is salivating at the chance to sink their searchy incisors into their data as deeply as possible. Indeed, “Twitter the product is a vehicle for Twitter Search” and “Twitter is an economy of information”.
Ironically or not, the release of these internal documents and the ensuing public discussion of their contents will empower the Twitter community even more to be the stewards of their pet. Recall that Twitter’s genesis was far simpler and less ambitious. As the user base swelled and began to co-opt it’s use pulling it far beyond a fun SMS “What Are You Doing” billboard, they had to quickly re-architect their infrastructure to support a global messaging system. Recent challenges brought by Twitter’s utility as a disaster reporting tool, an emergency service coordination network, and a significant threat to oppressive regimes further reinforce the sense that the service only partly belongs to its creators. These disclosures are not only harmless to Twitter’s goals, perhaps even furthering them, they are appropriate to the era of transparency and connectivity that it has helped create.
To invoke the Global Brain myself, Twitter will get it’s 1 billion users and more (unless they piss off Goldman Suchs), and the weight of these sources and the connections they are weaving will continue to re-engineer the collective experience of information and sharing that humanity is engaged in. In the sea change waves of the new Information Economy, amid all the challenges the democratized landscape of free services pose to existing monetization strategies, something new is emerging and it’s increasingly less and less concerned about funding and valuation and far more invested in utility and humanity.
I’m re-posting this from The Whole Earth Catalog archives because I think it’s an excellent summary of the core principles needed to evaluate natural systems. This also speaks to the foundation of much of my own thought about human social, cultural, and technological evolution.
The Nine Laws of God
By Kevin Kelly * Whole Earth Catalog * Spring 1994
Distribute being. The spirit of a beehive, the behavior of an economy, the thinking of a supercomputer, and the life in me are distributed over a multitude of smaller units (which themselves may be distributed). When the sum of the parts can add up to more than the parts, then that extra being (that something from nothing) is distributed among the parts. Whenever we find something from nothing, we find it arising from a field of many interatting smaller pieces. All the mysteries we find most interesting – life, intelligence, evolution – are found in the soil of large distributed systems.
Control from the bottom up. When everything is connected to everything in a distributed network, everything happens at once. When everything happens at once, wide and fast-moving problems simply route around any central authority. Therefore, overall governance must arise from the most humble interdependent acts done locally in parallel, and not from a central command. A mob can steer itself, and in the territory of rapid, massive, and heterogeneous change, only a mob can steer. To get something from nothing, control must rest at the bottom within simplicity.
Sow increasing returns. Each time you use an idea, a language, or a skill, you strengthen it, reinforce it, and make it more likely to be used again.
Grow by chunking. The only way to make a complex system that works is to begin with a simple system that works. Attempts to instantly install highly complex organization – such as intelligence, or a market economy – without growing it, inevitably lead to failure.
Maximize the fringes. In heterogeneity is creation of the world. A uniform entity must adapt to the world by occasional monumental revolutions, one of which is sure to kill it. A diverse heterogeneous entity, on the other hand, can adapt to the world in a thousand daily mini-revolutions, staying in a state of permanent, but never fatal, churning.
Honor your errors. A trick will only work for a while, until everyone else is doing it. To advance from the ordinary requires a new game, or a new territory. But the process of going outside the conventional method, game, or territory is indistinguishable from error. Even the most brilliant act of human genius, in the final analysis, is an act of trial and error.
Pursue no optima, but multiple goals. Simple machines can be efficient, but complex adaptive machinery cannot be. A complicated structure has many masters and none of them can be served exclusively. Rather than striving for optimization of any function, a large system can only survive by “satisficing” (making “good enough”) a multitude of functions.
Seek persistent disequilibrium. Neither constancy nor relentless change will support a creation. A good creation, like good jazz, must balance the stable formula with frequent offbeat, out-of-kilter notes. Equilibrium is death. Yet unless a system stabilizes to an equilibrium point, it is no better than an explosion, and just as soon dead. A Nothing, then, is both equilibrium and disequilibrium.
Change changes itself. Change can be structured. This is what large complex systems do: they coordinate change. When extremely large systems are built up out of complicated systems, then each system begins to influence and ultimately change the organizations of other systems. That is, if the rules of the game are composed from the bottom up, then it is likely that interacting forces at the bottom level will alter the rules of the game as it progresses. Over time, the rules for change get changed themselves.
Evolution – as used in everyday speech – is about how an entity is changed over time. Deeper evolution – as it might be formally defined – is about how the rules for changing entities over time changes over time. To get the most out of nothing, you need to have self-changing rules.
These nine principles underpin the awesome workings of prairies, flamingoes, and cedar forests, eyeballs, natural selection in geological time, and the unfolding of a baby elephant from a tiny seed of elephant sperm and egg.
These same principles of bio-logic are now being implanted in computer chips, electronic communication networks, robot modules, pharmaceutical searches, software design, and corporate management, in order that these artificial systems may overcome their own complexity.
When the tecfinos is enlivened by bios, we get artifacts that can adapt, learn, and evolve. When our technology adapts, learns, and evolves, then we will have a neobiological civilization.