Just an update on my recent work… My writings here have been sparse at best lately but it’s mainly because I’m doing so much research and consulting elsewhere. Some of it is now available online so here’s the overview:
My 6-month fellowship at the Deloitte Center for the Edge has been fantastic. It’s been a great opportunity to hone my research, dive into some meaty topics, and work to refine my communication skills so that I can make some pretty complex stuff meaningful to a broader audience. It’s also been a tremendous opportunity to work directly with John Hagel and John Seely Brown – two verifiable wizards, each in their own right.
The fellowship is wrapping up at the end of December so I’m starting to whip up my next gig. Give me a shout if you’ve got any interesting collaborations…
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.
And many you couldn’t imagine.
I have a new article up on FastCo.Exist provocatively titled “Future thinking isn’t about the future, it’s about the present”. Of course, it’s about both but editors do like to grab attention with extreme-sounding headlines.
For millennia, we’ve grappled with “things” pretty well but systems are really different. Systems are complex interactions of interdependent parts that give rise to emergent and often-unexpected (“non-deterministic”) behaviors. If you’ve ever kept an aquarium, you have a sense for the delicate equilibrium necessary to a healthy aquatic system. Add a new fish or trim too much of the macroalgae and you can suddenly veer into an ecosystem crash. Small changes can have large results, so you have to be very deliberate in how you manage the tank.
I have a new article up on Fast Company about programatic matter, synthetic biology, robotic swarming, and the future possibilities of architecture.
As complex ecosystems, cities are confronting tremendous pressures to seek optimum efficiency with minimal impact in a resource-constrained world. While architecture, urban planning, and sustainability attempt to address the massive resource requirements and outflow of cities, there are signs that a deeper current of biology is working its way into the urban framework.
It may be symptomatic of our times but the delta between weak signal & fast-moving trend seems to be getting shorter & shorter. Compelling innovations are bootstrapped rapidly into full-fledged solutions, enabling a highly-efficient lab-to-home ecosystem. While it’s been percolating for years, the emergence of consumer 3D printing really only landed on the hype cycle in the past 12 months or so but in this time there have been considerable advances.
Peter Thiel’s foundation gives $350,000 to back Modern Meadow’s efforts to create bioprinted meats.
An engineer prints a working lower receiver for an AR-15 using a 15-year old Stratasys printer.
A Glasgow professor modifies a 3D printer to make pharmaceuticals.
More people manipulating matter with cheaper hardware. The rising tide of technology lifts all boats…
I have a new article over at Big Think looking at trends in wireless implant technology and the vulnerability profile presented by our emerging integration with connected biodevices. This article builds on my previous post here, Ubicomp Getting Under Your Skin? So Are Hackers.
From the intro:
In what amounts to a fairly shocking reminder of how quickly our technologies are advancing and how deeply our lives are being woven with networked computation, security researchers have recently reported successes in remotely compromising and controlling two different medical implant devices. Such implanted devices are becoming more and more common, implemented with wireless communications both across components and outward to monitors that allow doctors to non-invasively make changes to their settings. Until only recently, this technology was mostly confined to advanced labs but it is now moving steadily into our bodies. As these procedures become more common, researchers are now considering the security implications of wiring human anatomy directly into the web of ubiquitous computation and networked communications.
A 15min presentation on the emerging ubicomp interface of the urban landscape
Also, here’s the full slide deck.
I recently gave a talk at ARE2012 about emerging interactions in the networked city. It’s a broad overview of ubicomp and how it is modulating our experience of ourselves, each other, and our environment. I’ll be writing a follow-up article with more info.
“What??” he yelled, in near shock. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Did you talk to the contractor?”
A short pause.
“Ok. Ok. Stop. What do you mean he’s not engaged? He’s a civ! He has to be!” This was going sideways fast.
“I’m calling my attorney.”
He de-coupled from the stemlink and rubbed his temples, struggling to push through the numbness now wrapping itself around his head. He closed his eyes, groping for the sense of it all. Then with a fast spin he flicked his stem and coupled to his attorney, Ersatz Bolzman.
“Satz. This is Bentley Statmaker. I’ve got a problem.”
Bentley proceeded to share with Bolzman the unsettling news that his frenetic & frazzled assistant had just conveyed: how the Biomoss got corrupted and was presently deviating wildly from the 19th century Craftsman remodel he had ordered and god-damned paid for and was now 2 wings and several buttresses into printing out a 13th century gothic cathedral. His home, a modest 3 bedroom on the South Side in dire need of a significant retrofit and well out of style to boot, was expanding at a nonlinear rate – so much so that the houses of his immediate neighbors were now food for its architectural extrusions. Possibly worse, the adjacent street was being overtaken by an aggressively-compiling abbey.
“What…the fuck, Satz?? What the hell am I supposed to do? The neighbors are on me, the city has sent a swarm of inspection flies – they’re mapping the whole deal, blaring code violations non-stop. I can only imagine the stacks at the planning department spinning wildly with dollar signs in their beady little machine eyes…” He trailed off, unsure of his course, whether he should strain to feed the hungry anger or just give in and veer downward into an impotent malaise. He knew there was nothing he could do but prepare for the imminent onslaught of legal battles, the deep apologies to the neighbors, the pay-offs to his HOA… God, that bastard Malamut would have him run out of the co-op for sure this time.
“Calm down, Bent. I’ll file for a writ of suspension, tie up the city works a bit. Pretty sure I can get those inspectors recalled to central too. And it’s not just happening to you, ya know. A whole condo development on 4th & Jobs just went Gaudi. Was supposed to be a nice post-decline piece, all glass and bioplastics, but the mossers crapped out and now it’s just a crazy riot of spires and ceramic tiles and weird biomorphic flourishes. Pretty much totally wiped out the high school across the street. Apparently, some agitprop collective of biomods hacked into the genome. Oh, and that new wing of the Hu Jintao Child Workers Memorial Colliseum..? Went from Classical Ming to Retro Koolhaas in the blink of an eye. The Imperial ruler is pissed,” he emphasized sourly. “You think you got legal troubles? Lemme tell ya…”
Talking with Ersatz calmed him down a bit. At least enough to cover the gap until the neurografts did their thing and started metabolizing the flood of endorphins & cortisol washing through his system. Then, with an almost audible sigh, the grafts began to release a steady drip of Relaxipam into his brain. His affect dulled, the tension of his musculature eased, and he was left with a vague longing for simpler times that probably never really existed but for the halcyon filter of nostalgia.
Midway into the 21st century the industrial labs toiling away for decades on nanotech started to merge into the university labs working on procedural construction, and that whole mess got mashed up with the Asian street gangs and neurocartels delving deeply into the forbidden wizardry of biosynthesis. The end result was a pretty wild chimera of hybridized designer nanomanufacturing: Biomoss. The stuff was the same thing as fire, metal, steam, electricity, hydrocarbons, and atomic physics. Or rather, it was the result of the same quest that drove humanity to harness each of those divine elements of nature and bend them to its will. Biomoss was both the penultimate subjugation and celebration of life itself. It was a means to not only design life but to program it to construct anything we could think of.
We made fuel first, of course. Algae mats that grew to cover most of Asia, expressing sweet crude like shiny black dew. Then we had to engineer vast carbon sinks and tar cleaners – and universal rice that could grow anywhere now that all the Eastern paddies were gone. That was a bit of a detour. Everyone started making all kinds of foods, natural and bizarre. The Southern Federalist Nation of God practically exploded with diabetes until a biomod made an insulin virus. Then they all started collapsing from hypoglycemia. Humans, of course, are pretty great at ideation, not so great at implementation.
The next big step moved beyond simple protein expression. This phase was about building and mass-producing living constructors that could take instruction sets and extrude things. All kinds of things. You could flash a constructor gel, give it a slab of substrate, and watch it build a cup, a toaster, a mobile, even a stemlink. Then they started making vehicles, buildings, bridges, factories. With increasing scale, food for the constructors became a limiting factor.
Initially, substrate was basically a slab of hydrocarbons bound to a crystalline lattice and studded with various functional groups. Esters, aromatics, polymers, and biomolecules. The ingredients of your standard organic stew. This posed problems. There was concern that the constructor gels might start eating up the local flora & fauna. More importantly to the benefactors of the massive public & private grants funding this work, constructing organics only gets you so far. They wanted to build product and devices, machines and monoliths. They needed inorganics. The constructors would be modified to chew through minerals, metals, lanthanides, and solid state compounds, then recompile and extrude them in forms. This also posed problems.
In 2047 a federal appeals court ruled against Pratt Lapman Assuary, Inc. in a class action lawsuit filed by the People’s Republic of Colorado. The plaintiff’s argued that due to gross neglect and moral corruption Pratt Lapman Assuary Inc. did knowingly and willingly administer a swarm of replicating bio-constructors outside the town of Gunniston, Colorado for the sole and express purpose of recompiling the region’s vast titanium deposits into a 3000 foot tall statue of the company’s founder, Chapman Assuary. As the constructors extracted and processed the resource, replicating in multitudes to match the scale of the work, it was only by a programmatic glitch in the genetics that the scalar vector botched and the replicators came to a halt. To this day there remains a 2000 foot headless titanium statue of Assuary, guarded by judicial writ, it’s shiny figure being slowly decomposed by the local, court-appointed bioscrubbers, and sold off bit by bit for the benefit of the Gunniston School District. Despite the loud & irate sputterings & protestations erupting from Pratt Lapman Assuary Inc. the World Court refused to review the case.
By 2050 international conventions were in place forbidding unrestrained nano-bio replication. This pretty much stopped conventional use of constructor gels for several years until epigenetic containment switches and network ID’s were engineered into the germ lines in 2057. The first successful line to emerge from the new regulatory environment became the prototype for Biomoss.
Biomoss is notable in that it is not really a moss, per se. In fact, by microscopy it appears more solid and structured like a mass of very tiny lady bugs covered in salt crystals. It gets its name from both the viridian hue of the individual’s carapace and the way it masses and accretes across surfaces. Furthermore, unlike constructor gels, it does not require a specific pre-configured substrate or uniform material base. Instead, Biomoss will digest anything that it’s targeted for and then recompose the digested mass into a product of similar composition. This adds additional containment to its capabilities by limiting its output to roughly the same as its input. Roughly. But the morphology of the thing is inconsequential. Or rather, the output is customizable as long as it stays within the bounds of the source.
Once Biomoss was productized, innumerable design shops spun up offering precision bespoke manufacturing, customized & stylized by in-house computects. A whole industry grew around the artistry of designed bio-extrusion, resurrecting the styles of historic starchitects, collaging & remixing the canon of industrial design, and making international figures of the leading composers tubing about the globe to paint their visions in transcendent and impossibly expressive mega-structures.
These facts were little comfort to Bentley Statmaker.
After a quick hop across the tube line and a relay along the ped tiles, Bentley Statmaker arrived at his home. Which is to say, Bentley Statmaker arrived at his shiny new gothic cathedral. It was enormous, dark & brooding, hung from the heavens themselves and, frankly, beautiful. But not in this neighborhood. And high holiness or not, historical re-creation be damned, Malamut and the board would not approve. No. They’d more likely have him drawn & quartered, strung up limp and emptied from the highest spire.
Pushing through the noisy crowd of angry neighbors, drooling gawkers, flashing newsbots, countless projectagrams, and a gathering collective of syncretic worshippers, Bentley heaved open the tall, wooden cathedral doors, stared blankly for a moment at the vast, arching, vaulted nave that used to be his tired living room, and then proceeded defiantly inward. He slammed the great doors behind him with a deep boom and thoughtlessly, aimlessly, walked down the aisle taking his seat along a bland and stern pew. Eschewing formality, he let himself slack, took out a cigarette, lit it after a few tries, and inhaled deeply. He immediately sputtered and coughed before defiantly drawing a second drag of the blue smoke, as if to authoritatively subdue the instinctual protestations of his corpus. In the sudden silence he could just apprehend the delicate crunching and printing of the Biomoss, like the sound of soft snow settling on an empty field.
Suddenly and without due respect to his sanctuary there was a great pounding on the door. Amidst the muted yelling of Malamut he made out the decree of Bentley’s imminent eviction. He imagined Malamut as a tired & troubled Martin Luther nailing up his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church. Here he sat, Pope Bentley the First, grinning slyly while billions of micro-miniaturized bio-machines, seized by some unknowable possession of Spirit, labored towards the monumental construction of this, his great abbey. He keyed his stemlink and coupled to Bolzman.
“Satz. Bentley. Listen… I think I’m gonna keep the church. Yeah, seriously. Hey, can you look up precedent for religious protection? And maybe seizure & eminent domain. I think there was something with the New People’s Temple of Jerseytown maybe ten years ago…”
He took another long drag, holding in the hot smoke as the evening light began to shine through the stained windows of the celestory. Bold indigos and feverish carnelians, glowing laurels and immaculate ambers, all caught fire with the Stations of the Cross surrounding the transept. If he let himself go for a moment, he swore he could hear a great and distant chorus rising up, washing away the pages of time with the enduring hope of the sangreal, and filling the nave with a resounding affirmation of his Grand Papacy.
“Oh, and Satz..? I think I’m gonna need a priest.”
I saw them to the East lit in semaphore flashes by the falling Winter Sun, set against fluffy pink clouds flowing languidly inland. Moving together as a fluid, mercurial and quicksilver, this way and that, a coordinated dance of shiny metallic starlings. They seemed to circle chaotically over some unseen attractor below.
I’ve just returned from a very interesting workshop in Washington, D.C. about fast-moving change, asymmetric threats to security, and finding signals within the wall of noise thrown up by big data. These are tremendous challenges to governance, policy makers, and the intelligence community. I’ll have more to say on these topics in later posts but for now, here’s a round-up of the most popular posts on URBEINGRECORDED in order of popularity:
Occupy Wall Street – New Maps for Shifting Terrain – On OWS, gaps in governance, empowered actors, and opportunities in the shifting sands…
Getting to Know Your Ghost in the Machine – On the convergence of ubiquitous computation (ubicomp), augmented reality, and network identity…
The Transhuman Gap – On the challenges facing the transhuman movement…
The Realities of Coal in the Second Industrial Revolution – On the energy demand and resource availability for the developing world…
Meshnets, Freedom Phones, and the People’s Revolution – On the Arab Spring, hyperconnectivity, and ad hoc wireless networks…
And a few that I really like:
Back-casting from 2043 – On possible futures, design fictions, and discontinuity…
On Human Networks & Living Biosystems – On the natural patterns driving technology & human systems…
Outliers & Complexity – On non-linearity, outliers, and the challenges of using the past to anticipate the future…
Thanks to all my readers for taking the time to think about my various rantings & pre-occupations. As always, your time, your participation, and your sharing is greatly appreciated!
Sathorn Unique is a 50-story skyscraper in Bangkok that was meant to be a luxury living address but now it’s totally abandoned and decaying. Cory posted about this Ballardian behemoth earlier this year. BB contributor Chris Arkenberg saw the building from a boat several years ago and was so inspired that he made a killer instrumental hip hop soundtrack for the building.
And from my summary:
The developers called the building Sathorn Unique, but the locals think of it as the Ghost Tower. 50 stories tall, built to show-off the mighty rise of Asia in the 1990’s, it was abandoned in 1997 when their economy dried up and capital fled to better markets. It remains as a hollow monument, nearly complete in the lower floors but slowly de-rezzing as it gets taller until the bare and open rooftop stands jagged above the Bangkok skyline. It lives as a shell, a reminder, a warning, and a resilient monolith.
I made this music to express the many different feelings & ideas that Sathorn Unique raises about architecture & acoustics, finance & globalization, great hopes & haunted dreams, and the way that futures can take sudden unexpected turns away from great visions.
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).
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.