Category: futures

That Echo you hear is the sound of Amazon’s servers calling your name

Amazon’s Echo device is the future. When computation and connectivity is so cheap and small and abundant it can be poured into anything. When convenience is aggressively enabled by networks and algorithms. When we routinely socialize with machines and artificial intelligences… It’s an odd menagerie to let into the human party. An always-on omnipresence with frames of privacy and intimacy violated by this commercial surveillance. Or worse: by state agents peering through hidden backdoors.

Is this a generational thing? Are digital natives and millennials more comfortable allowing machine intelligence into their private lives? Does a person who grew up with a distributed virtuality of friends and followers naturally expect those networks to be present throughout their lives? Are kids these days more comfortable with the bargain that trades privacy for convenience, data for insight?

When the typical signifiers of digital interaction – software, opt-in interfaces, the need to turn the thing “on” – recede and become invisible, the relationship with computation and connectivity becomes part of the fabric of reality – which is to say, it becomes forgotten.

Are we who cry foul at the intrusion of such tools destined to be outmoded by those more at ease with a distributed sense of selfhood, a comfort and reliance upon an outboarded cognitive toolset, an acceptance of transparency and visibility?

If there is to be a global mind, it’s inherently at odds with individuality, inasmuch as it anchors us more directly into the collective by unbundling our functions as network operations. How much of “you” do you owe to Google? How much of your experience is validated by your Facebook Friends or Instagram Likes? This isn’t entirely new – we’ve been calculating with external tools and sharing stories for ages. But there’s a creeping sense that comes with scale when our behaviors start to mimic the algorithms rather than the algorithms serving us.

We train Google’s AI with our searching. We shorten communications for Twitter. We capture the world and feed it to Facebook’s analytics. We yield to the algorithmic narrowing of recommended ideology because if you like X, you will also probably like x+1. We can also help you avoid y.

Amazon’s Echo takes a place in our home, like the bands on our wrists, a trojan horse for servers to learn more, for our convenience and amazement and a desire to curate the future by inviting it in, good hosts to the unfolding calculus of computation.

The Echo you hear is the reflection of our lives in data, across networks, with Friends and Followers, into the hands of marketers and product managers, the chartings of researchers and anthropologists, the power struggles of states and militias. But maybe it’s just the growing din of the future collapsing into the present, the world we inhabit and the challenges to some of us of becoming more connected than we perhaps want, more cognitively unbundled and dependent, somehow more empowered and less individual, tuned and entrained by things less human and more capable as the very concrete of our lives wakes and begins to gaze at us from across the wires.

Unicorns, Startups, and Giants: The new billion dollar dynamics of the digital landscape

unicornsIn my day job I help companies navigate the roiling seas of change kicked up by digital transformation. My team at Orange Silicon Valley has just released a large report looking at billion-dollar valuations in tech, the strategic opportunities in pursuing adjacencies as an adaptive posture, and a forecast of tech sectors and macro trends unfolding in the next 6 years or so. I was the lead researcher and writer on this one – I’m especially fond of the sector overviews and macro forecast.

Here’s the press release from my parent company, Orange.

A new report from Orange Silicon Valley called Unicorns, Startups, and Giants: The New Billion Dollar Dynamics of the Digital Landscape shows that tech ‘Unicorns’ are becoming more than just billion-dollar start-up superstars or fodder for talk of bubbles. They are the new engines of disruption reshaping the competitive landscape.

And here’s the report – a map for business to navigate rapid change and align with the fundamentals: Unicorns, Startups, and Giants: The new billion dollar dynamics of the digital landscape

What I’ve Been Up To

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…
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Ourselves in the Othernets

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.The sheer amount of visibility into humanity is simply astonishing. And it’s this informational shift, this too-much-bloody-perspective that is really amplifying the change and disruption and anxiety through which we grapple with the unfolding narrative of our species.

You see, humans are still basically tribal animals. We like what we know and we fear what we do not. Geography, bloodlines, race, and class are among the sociocultural elements that bind us when we share them and separate us from those who fall onto a different end of the spectrum. We cast the differences and the things we do not understand into the Other. The Other becomes the boogeyman, the shadow, the unknown that is presumed to be a threat (because it’s safest to first assume that things are threats and then let information persuade us otherwise).

This innate fear of the Other makes it easier to wage economics and wars on those folks over the mountain or beyond the sea. You can much more easily demonize or dehumanize people who have no discernible face, casting them into the Other without further regard. They’re different from us. They don’t like the things we do or worship the same gods. It’s our right as better, more civilized beings to have their oil/water/food/women/etc. In general, this made it easier to get down to business without the impediment of worrying about our impact on the savages. [Insert any relevant aside about colonialism or how the prosperity of the West has been built on the backs of cheap resources and labor in the Third World.]

And then the steady march of trade made it incrementally easier and easier to see bits of the Other. Radio emerged, then the telephone and television. But even those were mostly local or regional. Globalization reinforced shipping lanes and supply chains and people started engaging the overseas Other to figure out how Toyota managed to bust the asses of US automakers or how the Chinese could subsidize western luxury with cheaper manufacturing. And meanwhile, creeping along the copper lines, the internet was starting to form. Continue reading

Future Thinking – Co.Exist

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.

An excerpt:

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.

Cities of the Future, Built By Drones, Bacteria, & 3D Printers

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.



MySciFi: The Emissary of Nommo

Maintaining a watchmaker’s delicate precision Moseek fiddles with the joint under Nassam’s wing, humming to himself as he loosens it just enough to expose the port. He slips the tube in with a slight hermetic squeak and then initiates the feeder pump.

Nassam shivers and lets out a sort of gurgling squawk. The falcon is used to this but doesn’t particularly enjoy the process as the cold metallic carbonation of sange works its way through his vasculature. Exhaling a volume of musty smoke, Moseek puts down the old stained pipe, wipes his dark, wrinkled hands on a cloth, and rubs a bump behind his left ear to initiate the pairing sequence.

It’s easier with his eyes closed. The periphery narrows and sharpens into impossible detail, the colors shifted and slightly muted across a much wider visual spectrum showing him parts of the world occulted by typical human sight. Nassam shares odd bird thoughts with his friend, memories of flight and the desire to hunt, the pairing allowing them to join in this internal space, each self still individuated and yet overlapping in a cold, slightly-prosthetic intimacy.

After their brief inner greeting Moseek initiates the tuning kit. His view of Nassam’s optic feed blurs behind an array of alpha transparencies representing the sange interface. He moves through a set of viz showing various physical stats, runtime exceptions, and waypoint logs now streaming from the bird. Opening a new module, he uploads the package to its container. His humming returns, rising with intensity through the tonal melodies, something old and sad and vast. He binds the package, extracts its contents, and executes the program.

Nassam begins to shake erratically, loosening small feathers into the dimly lit air of the hut. With the sudden shifting of Moseek’s feet, puffs of dust stir in the narrow sunbeams cutting through cracks in the mud walls. The sweat beading his brow is running muddy and tan. Now panting uncontrollably, Nassam lets out a guttural squawk followed by a very unsettled droning. The bird of prey is scared and losing control. Moseek fights back his own autonomous response as his breath quickens and his hands begin to shake. His heart is pounding so loud it seems to boom in the space between them. Through the shared cascade of hormones and adrenaline he struggles to maintain the interface, rapidly adjusting parameters to combat Nassam’s stress while modifying the properties of the new program binding directly to the falcon’s nervous system. In the hut his hands wave in furious gestures grabbing at invisible objects. The humming breaks free of Moseek’s lips and rises into full-throated vocalization of the ancient songs passed to him by the ancestors, their movements and intonations now paired with macro functions driving the constructs. Like a conductor, he works the virtual interface running on Nassam’s wetware with deliberate passion and a divine providence born of faith and faith alone.

The great bird is still shaking but he’s finding a rhythm as the upgrade settles in and seeks homeostasis. The rush of user interface begins to subside showing only a few fundamental metrics. Their small mud hut resolves finely in Nassam’s optic channel as Moseek hums the bird’s name calmly and tenderly, placing his hand softly on the back of his wet, feathered neck.

For a moment of eternity they merge souls and fall into emptiness together through the shared un-space of self.
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Recent Notes on Reality Capture & 3D Printing

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.

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weak signals in 3d print disruption

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…


inviting machines into our bodies – big think

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.


Extended Senses & Invisible Fences – ARE2012

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.

The Church of Perpetual Reconfiguration

“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.”

Top Post Round-Up: OWS, Ubicomp, Hyperconnectivity, & Transhumanity

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 Published & Boing Boinged!

Very nice of David Pescovitz over at Boing Boing to announce the publication of my new music project, Sathorn Unique.

From BB:

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.