A great talk on the shifting world by a distinguished and engaging speaker, Paddy Ashdown.
“I believe we are condemned, if you like, to live at just one of those moments in history when the gimbals upon which the established orders of power is beginning to change and the new look of the world, the new powers that exist in the world, are beginning to take form. These are nearly always highly turbulent times.”
[This paper was originally published for a government report on discontinuity & change management.]
We live in a time of large-scale, non-linear change driven by the twin engines of globalization and hyper-connectivity. Change is, of course, constant but we now have such extreme visibility into the farthest corners of the world that the amplitude of change appears much greater than ever before. Many of us are, for the first time, globally connected and wired to real-time data streams that carry information and emotion across the world instantaneously. When we look through this lens of hypermedia we are confronted by fast-moving, asymmetric complexity that seems to be slipping out of control. The landscape is moving more quickly than we are able to respond. This is deeply challenging to our sense of security.
As Americans, we face a highly multipolar world. We feel the decline of U.S. exceptionalism and the attendant existential crisis of this realization; the ongoing global financial malaise and the emerging debt crisis threatening to break apart the European Union; the rise of China as a dominant world power and the implicit criticism of democracy that comes from its economic success; and the evolution of Islam as an explicit criticism of western prosperity. We are realizing the massive power of finance & energy cartels while struggling with ultraviolent drug cartels. We feel the impacts of domestic unemployment amidst weekly reports of record corporate profits. Capital is moving away from mature western markets for the young labor pools of the developing world. Fund managers are betting more on decline than investing in growth. There is a growing sense that western governance is failing in its charter to effectively manage the prosperity & security of its citizenry, and that selfishness, partisanship, and corruption have undermined the political process.
In the United States there is arguably a crisis of confidence in governance. We face extreme partisanship among policy makers and their apparent inability to effectively govern on domestic issues. Congress has a 20% approval rating. 73% of Americans believe the country is moving in the wrong direction. On domestic issues, the popular narrative of U.S. governance is one of bickering, incompetence, and failure.
So if there is a crisis of confidence, is there an actual crisis in governance? Recently the debt Supercommittee failed to agree on a solution for the deficit. This past July, the largely-manufactured budgetary impasse shook confidence in U.S. governance contributing directly to the S&P downgrade of our hallowed AAA credit rating. To quote the S&P report, the downgrade “reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges”. Even closer to home, the American Society of Civil Engineers recently reviewed U.S. infrastructure with a grade of “D” stating that it would take $2.2 trillion over the next 5 years to bring our roads, bridges, railways, water and energy systems, and waste treatment capacity up to 1st world standards. These are the fundamental needs required to keep a country functional & efficient.
Looking at recent statistics, the U.S. Commerce Department charts wages & salaries at only 44% of GDP – the lowest since 1929. Corporate profits, on the other hand, now contribute 10% of GDP – the highest on record since that auspicious year, 1929. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates unemployment at 9% though real measures of unemployment that include the under-employed and those who have given up looking for work are estimated closer to 16%. Among young adults age 16-24, 50% are without work – the highest number on record since 1948. The majority of unemployed no longer receive state benefits. Tens of thousands of service members are returning to joblessness & homelessness. The 2010 U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 46 million people are living in poverty – 15% of the nation. This number has been increasing annually for the past 3 years. These trends are undermining the legitimacy of the US government both at home and abroad, and contributing to the social unrest sensationally illustrated by the rise of both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements.
Typically, when we observe these statistical trends in other countries we see a growing segment of the populace more exposed to gang indoctrination, co-option by religious fundamentalism, and coercion by home-brewed militias. This unfortunate reality is not lost on policy makers, as telegraphed most recently by Congressional attempts to reconfigure the legislative landscape of the Homeland as a domestic battleground.
While national statistics are indeed worrisome, the situation at the local & regional level is more varied and offers some hope. There is a shift towards state’s rights as illustrated by the more libertarian aspects of the Tea Party and the GOP narrative against so-called big government, but also in many state legislatures on both sides of the aisle. While often ideologically driven, this shift towards state governance is a response to the limitations of central management across such a large and complex territory as the United States. Perhaps more interestingly, we see a shift to municipal power as urban populations swell and major cities take ownership of their roles as economic engines. Mayors are gathering more influence over state and federal policy, and are making more lucrative partnerships with global allies.
Yet, there are huge budgetary challenges for both states and municipalities, with states often pushing their own budgetary problems down to the county & city level. There is even talk of an emerging municipal debt bubble as cities issue more bond debt to cover their existing debt costs. The U.S. just witnessed the largest municipal bankruptcy in history when Jefferson County, Alabama, failed to cover its sewage bonds. This is the downward cycle of U.S. infrastructure & budgetary mis-management laid bare.
The picture of local and regional governance is a patchwork of attempts (successes and failures) to address the many challenges confronting us locally and handed down from state and federal institutions. As higher-order governors lose legitimacy, states & regions will work to sidestep their authority and to innovate around budgetary shortfalls and non-local obstacles. Progressive states agitate for marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage, conservative states assail big government and immigration, southwestern border states are dealing with the spill-over from Mexico’s narcowar, and many regions across the country are absorbing diverse and extreme climate impacts potentially driving food production, water supplies, and population movements. So while large, productive cities are generally seeing more cohesion there is a significant risk of increased balkanization across regions and states.
U.S. governance is clearly challenged on many domestic fronts. In operational terms, we’re falling short. Governing institutions are too big and too slow to respond to such accelerated change. If we’re failing to manage the present, how can we prepare for the future? There is too much complexity to effectively predict change and yet there’s too much institutional friction to adequately invest in broad resilience. This combination poses tremendous risks to domestic security. The snapshot of social unrest in America arises from two primary drivers: the fear of U.S. decline and the sense that Democracy is no longer working (represented by the Tea Party and OWS movements, respectively). Both are rooted in a lack of jobs, diminishing access to prosperity, and growing insecurity in the face of poorly managed discontinuities. When government fails to meet it’s charter, it loses legitimacy. When conventional channels for change are closed, the gap widens between governors and the governed.
For better and for worse, a lot of innovation happens in the gaps. There is innovation in governance itself, as in the Gov 2.0 & OpenGov initiatives to standardize operational data across organizations, to publicize the data, and to invite the public to work with the data and develop 3rp party applications. Deputizing the crowd to help with governance can offer tremendous opportunities for innovation, as exemplified by tools such as Oakland Crimespotting and the Everyblock platform. The citizenry is becoming more digital and addressable with direct polling, crowdsourcing, and experiments in electronic voting. Transparency initiatives, such as the Sunlight Foundation, build web platforms to track and reveal the influence of money in politics. The growth in mobile/social/location platforms empowers tremendous opportunities in civic innovation, as does the emergence of embedded instrumentation in the built environment. Tech collectives and hacker spaces, experiments in local and digital currencies, slow food and Buy Local movements, increased community volunteerism and more public-private partnerships – all of these examples build local resilience and enable communities to take care of themselves.
Many of these efforts follow open source models that enable fast innovation and iteration across diverse non-local nodes, avoiding hierarchies and direct leadership in favor of feedback loops and emergent self-governance. These models gained popularity with the open source software movement but have since expanded to include innovation in open hardware and fabrication, science and robotics, economics (there is an estimated $10 trillion informal economy growing in the gaps globally), and political movements. Open source templates have enabled new models of power such as Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous, many aspects of the Iraqi insurgency, and the dangerous ecosystem of adaptation and innovation found in the IED marketplaces of Iraq and Afghanistan. The ability to maintain such open source models of organization has been radically empowered by mobile telephony, SMS, and social media. The ability to globally broadcast, communicate and collaborate has enabled a new breed of citizen reporting pushed out through platforms like You Tube and Twitter. Rapid SMS communication across mobile devices enables fast stigmergic coordination that can mobilize people en masses with a moment’s notice. The Green Revolution in Tehran, the Arab Spring, and the periodic support calls sent out by OWS groups are all examples of how borderless, frictionless hyper-connectivity empowers a patchwork of active tribes, locally and virtually.
Gaps in governance empower innovators and competitors alike. Actors exploit the gaps and seek to influence or undermine governance in order to open more gaps. Super-empowered individuals like Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt work to influence conventional channels of policy-making while restructuring the regulatory landscape to better enable their businesses. Activist billionaires like Warren Buffet, George Soros, and Sir Richard Branson use their weight and influence to change world affairs, as do libertarians like Peter Thiel and anarcho-capitalists like the Koch brothers. Some super-empowered actors are feral and may not appear to be powerful yet manage to inflict exceptional discontinuities on their targets. Arms dealer, Victor Bout, has been a significant driver of unrest in Africa. The head of the Sinaloan cartel, Joaquin Guzman, has helped deconstruct Mexican governance into a lawless war zone. Henry Okah, the leader of MEND in Nigeria, used a small group of lo-tech saboteurs to target critical pipeline infrastructure reducing crude output by 50% and costing western oil interests billions in production revenue. Cartels and criminal networks operate on international scales moving billions of dollars to influence authorities and outwit enforcers. Tech-enabled sociopolitical collectives like Anonymous and Wikileaks deputize themselves as moral enforcers, exposing secret agendas and arbitrating punishment. These actors walk the same stage as multinational corporations and NGO’s that have no built-in allegiance to the United States or, in some cases, to democracy itself. All of these actors exert their will on the world by building influence and exploiting the gaps. All of them are empowered by hyper-connectivity and cheap computation to coordinate, collaborate, and influence at all scales.
This is an age of hypermedia and hyper-politics. There are almost 3 billion internet users, globally. There are over 5 billion mobile subscribers – this is 77% percent of humanity. Last year, in 2010, over 6.9 trillion text messages were sent & received. Humanity has global, instantaneous communication; immediate amplification of emotion, ideology, witnessing, discovery, innovation, and iteration. We are sharing what works and what doesn’t in all domains and endeavors. Everyone is being lifted by this rising technological tide. Small-scale power is amplifying exponentially through ubiquitous computation and mobile communication. Power is re-distributing across the globalized, hyper-connected landscape in such a way that a small, minimally-funded group can generate exponential disruptions. In a mediated world, we see a new war of narratives competing for mindshare across hypermedia, cultivating borderless affinities and ideologies, and offering a global voice to disenfranchised and exploited groups. Top-down governance, unable to extend control so far over such large-scale discontinuities, is yielding space to flattened hierarchies and self-governance. All institutions are being forced to evolve and adapt to this new landscape, as all efforts to suppress it will inevitably fail and only drive more turbulence.
Complexity is an expression of information, and hypermedia is a complexity feedback loop of revealing, sharing, and iterating. Hypermedia, in all it’s varied forms, is injecting unprecedented amounts of information into our awareness. This widening perception of complexity drives behavioral uncertainty as people and institutions feel increasingly overwhelmed and lost in the noise. The world wide web has driven massive discontinuities into almost every business model, organization, and political objective. Mobile telephony coupled to social networks has given voice to the real-time status of the majority of people on the planet. In this maelstrom of asymmetrical disruption, chaos appears to be the new norm though this will likely reveal itself to be the turmoil attending a broad shift towards a new order of stability.
Complex systems across many scales have moved into a late conservation phase and are beginning to release their organizational capacity. Legacy institutions have grown far too optimized and narrow to absorb the turbulence unleashed by globalization, ubicomp, and mobile telephony. Systems have destabilized in order to make the phase change into whatever next basin of stability awaits. Governance is necessarily challenged and states will inevitably give some degree of power & influence as capital flows out of the West; as more empowered actors take the global stage; as non-local relationships shift affiliation and allegiance; as borders are antiquated by the internet and the cell phone; and as over-extended unions fracture and balkanize. Centralized control structures are not adequate to manage such large scales of nested and inter-dependent complex adaptive systems. But fortunately, the same drivers that have introduced so much discontinuity and have challenged governance as we know it are helping construct the new forms of distributed, participatory governance. Hyper-connectivity, hyper-visibility, and hyper-empowerment are driving a global peer review of legacy institutions in a patchwork attempt to define Civilization 2.0. The process is turbulent and the future is cloudy but we’ll likely land on solid ground eventually.
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.
Egyptian recording on mobile. From NYT.
The course of recent events across the Middle East & North Africa have highlighted both the power in organizing & reporting protest movements using network technologies and the weakness inherent in their corporate & state-controlled architectures. While social media & mobile phones have not explicitly created the revolutions we’re witnessing in Egypt, Libya, & Bahrain and the protests mounting in many other regions, they are making it much easier for collective actions to coordinate, inspire, and outwit the authorities. Conversely, ruling classes are now far more savvy to the threat these tools bring and will quickly act to shut down internet & SMS services that might undermine their authority. The tension in this dynamic emerged in 2009 when Chinese Uighurs in Xinjiang had mobile access removed by the government in an attempt to quell their uprising. And these tactics have played out repeatedly since as design patterns for resistance & rebellion formalize into institutional playbooks.
In this context, mobiles offer immediate & direct communication with allies while social networks offer distributed coordination and instantaneous global reporting. Indeed, the ability to capture and share information across the world is ultimately the most threatening aspect of such hyperconnected protest movements. Social networks like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube empower protesters to be field reporters,capturing atrocities and inviting the rest of the world in to see. It is this universal witnessing that makes a local protest into a global movement. It brings normative pressure from the free world into old and rigid totalitarian regimes. Once such regimes could easily crush uprisings with limited exposure. Now they find themselves cast on the world stage in a glaring spotlight. Dispersed & sympathetic legions of like-minded freedom hawks mobilize around these events lending moral & technical support to ensure their success. Aging dictators wrinkle in the sun as their every word & action is shared & deconstructed by the world at large. And so these rulers move quickly to try and shut down the networks, to hide from the light and roll their rule back into the pre-dawn of geographic isolation.
And yet the revolution spreads. Mobiles & social networks transmit ideology & emotion, outrage & courage. Everyone wants in on the spectacle and the hope of real change that it invokes. It might not be too hyperbolic to suggest that True Democracy, co-opted and tarnished by Western realpolitik, so often used as an excuse to prop up the very dictators who’ve held these people in fear for decades, might break out through the networked world, demanding its due and even resuscitating the anemic corpus of the American protest movement.
But this assumes many things. Douglas Rushkoff and others have begun to point out the relative weakness of the internet and of mobile networks. Corporate choke points quickly buckle under government pressure and the threat of national security. So people naturally look for ways to build resilient networks that can resist the hunger & fear of power. Ways to route around the censorship.
Of course, revolutions are not the only things that need resilient ad hoc networks. Increasingly, large-scale construction projects require on-site network support, with or without internet backbones. Emergency relief, as we saw in the Haiti earthquake in 2010, also require fast response to restore communication networks. Any sufficiently large regional disaster could knock out communications & database access leaving first responders in the dark and victims & families struggling to find help & relief support. It’s important to understand that these services require local networks but don’t necessarily require internet access. In emergencies its critical that quickly-scalable ad hoc regional networks can be deployed to restore basic communications and access to necessary information, be it status updates or institutional knowledge bases.
Venessa Miemis has a great round-up of the many players in this field, highlighting 16+ Projects & Initiatives Building Ad-Hoc Wireless Mesh Networks. From her list its impressive how many groups are working on solving these problems.
Mobile phones are a valuable infrastructure that often gets overlooked in discussions of resiliency. Everyone has a phone so everyone is a potential node. Research in wireless meshnets that use mobile phones instead of carrier backbones offer localized solutions for resilient networks. If a city loses it’s carrier support, if AT&T & Verizon are offline, mobiles can default to a lilly-pad model where voice & data move from phone to phone, hopping across the community through wireless overlaps. The phone becomes the hot-spot and a personal IP address. This allows information to pass from across the mobile meshnet until it reaches an internet uplink, such as a Meraki node. In this manner individuals can still coordinate resources & activities if, say, an earthquake or a dictator has taken mobile carriers & ISP’s offline, and can hop to a strong wireless uplink outside the range of blackout.
To look forward, local mobile meshnets could be used as distributed processing clusters, like a SETI At Home for mobiles. Consider the processing power latent across a city of 20 million mobile subscribers, such as Tokyo. As smart phones integrate more diverse sensors, mobile meshnets could be addressed as distributed sense platforms, analyzing air quality, for example, or deputized as camera arrays. [Klint Finley expands on this idea over at ReadWriteCloud.] Consider what could be done with an API for addressing clusters of mobile sensors. [Update: Imagine the types of shared augmented reality experiences that might be possible across localized mobile meshnets... eg bands could push experience layers out to their audiences during concerts - any venue could run a layer that would automatically sync with a user's phone/headset when they entered it's radius of activity.] When mobiles have the ability to firewall from selected authorities or create opt-in experience zones users might develop incredibly sophisticated tools for distributed in-field utilities. Of course, so might criminals and insurgents… and regimes.
There’s a tremendous amount of work advancing these technologies. The events in the Middle East & North Africa, coupled with the creeping authoritarianism and neglect in western countries, are lighting a fire under innovators to figure it out. Likewise, major mobile manufacturers are exploring this space to anticipate consumer demand and create differentiating features to compete in the impacted & accelerated smartphone marketplace. The internet & mobile communication have rapidly proven themselves to be indispensable to the lives of billions of people. Any efforts to exert power and authority over them on a mass scale while run into fierce challenges born from the simple nature of human ingenuity & adaptation. And yet, there are many reasons we should not take such access to mobile communications and the internet for granted.
John Gilmore’s famous quote (and Mark Pesce’s analysis) applies here: The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it. Whether that censorship comes from corporations, dictators, or acts of god is immaterial.
[Update: Check out the World Community Grid for crowd-sourced cluster computing. Would be great to see them include mobile when the tech catches up...]
[Definitely read this Tech Crunch post, Humans Are The Routers, by the founder of the Openmesh Project, Shervin Pishevar.]
In the lead up to it’s big annual event in Davos, the World Economic Forum’s Risk Response Network has published its Global Risks 2011 report. Here are some of the top-level highlights, taken verbatim from the report. I encourage people to read the entire report as each section is broken out into considerable detail including multiple scenarios. There’s also an overview at Business 21C.
“The world is in no position to face major new shocks.”
2 Cross-Cutting Risks:
1. Economic disparity: Wealth and income disparities, both within countries and between countries, threaten social and political stability as well as economic development.
2. Global governance failures: Weak or inadequate global institutions, agreements or networks, combined with competing national and political interests, impede attempts to cooperate on addressing global risks.
3 Important Risks in Focus:
1. The macroeconomic imbalances nexus: This cluster of three economic risks – global imbalances and currency volatility, fiscal crises and asset price collapse – is characterized by both internal imbalances (within countries) and external imbalances (between countries).
2. The illegal economy nexus: Illicit trade, organized crime and corruption are chronic risks that are perceived as highly likely to occur and of medium impact. As a highly interconnected nexus representing the illegal economy, however, experts see these risks as of central importance to the global risk landscape.
3. The water-food-energy nexus: Water security, food security and energy security are chronic impediments to economic growth and social stability. Food production requires water and energy; water extraction and distribution requires energy; and energy production requires water. Food prices are also highly sensitive to the cost of energy inputs through fertilizers, irrigation, transport and processing.
5 risks to watch:
1. Cyber-security: cyber theft, cyber espionage, cyber war, and cyber terrorism.
2. Demographic challenges: population “cluster bombs”, global graying and demographic dividends.
3. Resource security: extreme commodity price volatility and extreme energy price volatility.
4. Retrenchment from globalization: In many advanced economies strengthening political forces either directly or indirectly advocate retrenchment from globalization.
5. Weapons of mass destruction: the key WMD risk is felt by most experts to be that of nuclear proliferation, both among states and non-state actors, closely followed by the potential use of biological weapons.
3 ways for leaders to improve their response to complex and interdependent risks:
1. Proactively address the causes, rather than the symptoms, of global risk, identifying effective points of intervention in underlying structures and systems.
2. Devise coordinated response strategies to address the existence of difficult trade-offs and the threat of unintended consequences caused in part by increased interconnectedness.
3. Take a longer-term approach to assessment and response, particularly when seeking to manage global risks that emerge over decades rather than months or years.
The Institute for the Future has published it’s 2010 Map of the Decade from the Ten Year Forecast program. I contributed research, analysis, and forecasts for carbon markets, global energy resource disposition, and new models of adaptive power.
We presented the program to many Fortune 500, NGO, and government subscribers this past April in an amazing 2-day conference at the magical Cavallo Point at the northern foot of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Thanks again to IFTF for the chance to work with such great folks digging into the major currents & challenges of our times!
From their site:
The future is a high-resolution game. Never before has humanity been
able to explore the emerging landscape in such detail, to measure the
forces of change at such vast scales, and to fill in the details with
such fine grain. But this high-resolution grid is not complete. It
challenges us to envision and build the future we want. As both gamers
and creators of the game, we will fill in the grid over the coming
[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.
Benefiting from the artificially inflated margins of the illegal drug trade, Mexican cartels move billions of dollars worth of cocaine, methamphetamine, & marijuana to the high-demand markets of the United States, using sophisticated weaponry and horrific violence to defend their markets against competitors and directly challenge attempts by state militia to control their activities. In return, they purchase guns from border states like Texas, Arizona, and California to arm their narco-insurgency. The Mexican state apparatus has become a hollow shell, heavily militarized but incapable of managing it’s territories.
PEMEX, the major oil developer along the Mexican Gulf, has reported that cartels siphon about $1B in oil annually, reselling it on the open market to fund their insurgency. This tactic has escalated to include the kidnapping of PEMEX workers, possibly to further infiltrate the company. It was recently reported that cartels may be using IED’s to attack the Mexican military, suggesting that the techniques of full-scale insurgency developed in Iraq are now finding their way to Mexico.
Of particular interest are cartel incursions into the United States. The DEA is tracking cartel networks across the major cities of the southern United States. Americans have been indicted smuggling weapons south across the border. Arrests of compromised Customs and Border agents has increased 40% in the past year. Agents say that substantial cartel violence in the US is only a matter of time. The US DHS has submitted plans to deal with cartel incursions into the United States.
Recently, Pinal county sheriff, Paul Babeu, states that Mexican drug cartels control parts of Arizona. ‘We are outgunned, we are out manned and we don’t have the resources here locally to fight this,’ said Babeu, referring to heavily-armed cartel movements three counties deep in Arizona. Even Phoenix has seen ongoing cartel violence.
It’s important to understand that the Mexican narco-insurgency is possibly the most direct threat to the stability of American communities, far more so than any of our foreign wars. Immigration laws will not work, just as drug laws have failed to stem the flow of drugs across US borders. Legalization of drugs is perhaps the most obvious solution, though it’s not without it’s own costs. In all likelihood, near-term management will take the form of increased troop deployment to southern states, coupled to advanced enforcement technologies. For example, Wired recently reported that the FAA is considering how to integrate drones into US airspace. Certainly the landscape of the America’s southern states is shifting to include a more violent and militarized gang presence.
I’ve put together a research brief summarizing my recent work looking at 3 examples of emerging non-state power. These models indicate that many of the technologies enabling rapid, ad hoc global communication & collaboration are being adapted by criminal & ideological groups to grow international supply chains and build sophisticated financial networks. While there are certainly many non-state challenges in the current geopolitical landscape, in this brief I focus on the Mexican narcoinsurgency, the MEND resistance in Nigeria, and the nexus of illicit drugs & terrorism in northern Africa.
From the intro:
Cartels, militias, insurgencies, and terrorist groups leverage mobile communications & rapid collaboration to grow & manage globally-distributed ad hoc networks that overlap in complex international shadow economies.
Traditional state governance is being challenged by the ubiquity of personal technology and the rise of multinational corporate powers, ideological factions, insurgencies, militaries, militias, and criminal groups. Laboring under inefficient bureaucratic structures, over-reaching foreign policy, legislative deadlocks, corruption and co-opted representation, traditional states are less capable of governing in ways that support social welfare. As a result, communities, collectives, and distributed ad hoc organizations are being forced to innovate strategies for resilience & prosperity in ways that increasingly lie outside the conventional models.
These networks have become sophisticated enough to rival many corporations in capital & influence. Yet, unlike most corporations, they are wholly opaque & unaccountable, relying on illicit goods, drugs, and violence to grow their markets and remove obstacles to business.
This report highlights some of the more disruptive methods that not only seek to re-establish socio-economic influence and control in the face of great disparity, but also directly challenge state authority at levels formerly impossible for non-state actors.
Full PDF here (8 pgs).