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!
Two risks are especially significant given their high degrees of impact and interconnectedness. Economic disparity and global governance failures both influence the evolution of many other global risks and inhibit our capacity to respond effectively to them.
In this way, the global risk context in 2011 is defined by a 21st century paradox: as the world grows together, it is also growing apart.
It is worth noting how inter-related these two megatrends are as wealth consolidation into an elite class enables them to further deconstruct global governance mechanisms. This has been a feedback loop for at least the past 40 years, if not longer, as western growth fueled the rise of non-state economic bodies & super-empowered individuals who then lobbied against regulatory measures that would aim to keep their rise in check and mitigate the risk of disparity. Elites consolidate more money & power, further driving disparity and eroding governance. What results is an interstitial vacuum where corporate intervention fails to see any profit motive and where state intervention lacks the funds or will to govern effectively.
In effect, the combination of super-empowered non-state actors, failures of state governance, and widespread economic disparity undermines the Rule of Law by releasing elites from accountability and driving the underclass deeper into criminality.
Within these megatrends they cite three important risk factors:
The “macroeconomic imbalances” nexus: A cluster of economic risks including macroeconomic imbalances and currency volatility, fiscal crises and asset price collapse arise from the tension between the increasing wealth and influence of emerging economies and high levels of debt in advanced economies.
The “illegal economy” nexus: This nexus examines a cluster of risks including state fragility, illicit trade, organized crime and corruption. A networked world, governance failures and economic disparity create opportunities for such illegal activities to flourish. In 2009, the value of illicit trade around the globe was estimated at US $1.3 trillion and growing. These risks, while creating huge costs for legitimate economic activities, also weaken states, threatening development opportunities, undermining the rule of law and keeping countries trapped in cycles of poverty and instability.
The “water-food-energy” nexus: A rapidly rising global population and growing prosperity are putting unsustainable pressures on resources. Demand for water, food and energy is expected to rise by 30-50% in the next two decades, while economic disparities incentivize short-term responses in production and consumption that undermine long-term sustainability.
These risk factors are certainly of concern but it’s worth looking at how they represent symptoms of an underlying current. Macroeconomic imbalances & illegal economies are two sides of the same coin, both indicating that the fundamental truths of economics are no longer applicable to the current global system. The territory has shifted but the map has yet to be effectively updated. The legacy code of macroeconomics is far too simplistic to contain the realities of the modern globalized marketplace.
Furthermore, undue faith in free markets has blinded the regulatory eye to the simple fact that markets have been thoroughly gamed by a small class of particularly savvy players. Markets are in no way free and it’s a fine trick of the big players to turn blame towards state regulation rather than admitting their own aggressive influence. The light being shown on Rupert Murdoch’s empire during the News of the World scandal is a prime example of this posturing. Murdoch has used his media empire to champion the free market mythology and to challenge state governance while shrewdly re-drawing the regulatory and tax laws to suit the needs of his own business.
Thus, the rise of the illegal economy is both a necessary alternative to a broken formal economy thoroughly gamed by elites, and a perverse imitation of the seemingly above-the-law attitudes of those very same elites who are in many ways idolized by the downtrodden.
Similarly, but perhaps more fundamentally, the water-food-energy nexus arises as a consequence of the growth models so canonical to historic economics. These models arose before there was a nuanced understanding of finite natural systems. Growth was eternal and all economic success has been measured against metrics of expansion. Extract more oil, mine more resources, build more cities, sell more gizmos, hire more people, expand into new markets. But again, the map was too simple to really reflect the territory. Resources are finite. The planetary system is ultimately closed and you can’t send waste away and import new resources (at least not yet or any time soon).
The common picture that emerges is that our models for how civilization interacts with the physical world, and the governors that have emerged over millenia to keep the global system in relative stability, are out-dated and losing relevancy. The system is moving into a phase change and will shed many legacy governors and force the maps to be re-drawn. This is, arguably, where we stand today amidst the obvious turmoil of our world – a world that is being completely revolutionized by globalization, ubiquitous computing, and asymptotic population growth.
Across this landscape arise five risks to watch:
Cyber-security issues ranging from the growing prevalence of cyber theft to the little-understood possibility of all-out cyber warfare
Demographic challenges adding to fiscal pressures in advanced economies and creating severe risks to social stability in emerging economies
Resource security issues causing extreme volatility and sustained increases over the long run in energy and commodity prices, if supply is no longer able to keep up with demand
Retrenchment from globalization through populist responses to economic disparities, if emerging economies do not take up a leadership role
Weapons of mass destruction, especially the possibility of renewed nuclear proliferation between states
These are the more pragmatic and addressable drivers forming the new governing mechanisms. They will draw towards them the coordinated efforts of many interests. Grappling with these emergent threats will build the structures necessary to contain them effectively. However, the traditional reliance on state governance to overcome these challenges looks increasingly unreliable, and it remains unclear whether corporate solutions will offer trustworthy substitutes. More likely, responsibility will fall on local efforts, distributed collectives, community governance, and investment and championship by benevolent economic elites. This perspective offers another view of the WEF2011 paradox, “as the world grows together, it is also growing apart”.
Of note, the solution space is much greater than in the past. The upside of population growth and the rise of the developing world is that the resource pool for creative innovation in the face of these risks is now larger than ever. Likewise, the tools for knowledge gathering and collaboration are readily available to most of the world and offer incredible power, capacity, and scalabilty. The phase change will continue to be full of turbulence but the sandbox for innovation is huge and the timeframes for iteration are tiny.
From another WEF article published after the Japanes tsunami crisis, titled Lessons for Living in a New World of Risk:
Thus a global network that shares best practices, promotes lessons learned in one part of the world for application in another, and assists its members both to better prepare before an event and better respond after can be of enormous value. By establishing direct channels of communication to government leaders, risk experts from some of the world’s leading companies, academic institutions, NGOs and other parts of society can provide valuable assistance in times of crisis.
Increasingly, we live in a world defined by flat networks. Folks like Clay Shirky, Ben Hammersley, and others have observed in great detail how the design patterns of the internet are challenging and changing the landscape of human civilization. So many of our institutions have been built as hierarchical pyramids designed to exert the maximum degree of control over their domains. These top-down management structures have come to define business, government, the military, medicine, education, the family, and knowledge itself. Leaders rise to the top as centralized governors dictating down the chain how things should be, while workers march in step towards execution of their appointed tasks. Such structures were modeled after the clockworks & steam engines of classical mechanics, designed to be precise, rigid, and durable, capable of lasting hundreds of years. These structures informed the defining metaphors of our entire industrialized society.
Computer architecture recapitulated the mechanical metaphor by designating a central processor that assigned & managed tasks bussed out to sub-processors and specialized functional components. In this way the computer became more of a powerful extension of the industrial age rather than a stake in the ground of a new paradigm. While the mechanical metaphor gradually evolved into the computational metaphor which has defined the last two decades, it wasn’t until computers began to follow the model of telecom and began connecting with each other across flat networks that the seed of a biological metaphor began to take hold.
Nature, it seems, does not create very many rigid, top-down control systems. Those are too stiff and inflexible for the dynamics of life. Rather, nature evolves vast horizontal networks that assemble into specialized functions within their environment. For example, the messiest, most distributed organizational structure known – the human brain – does not have a top-tier manager or CPU. There is no executive function within the brain or its mind, though we typically like to think there is. Instead, the brain is a vast & mostly flat hierarchy that is bundled into loosely vertical functional bodies. These functional bodies are themselves existing across a mostly flat horizontal network of interactions. The thalamus receives all inputs and routes them up to higher cortical processing and lower hindbrain autonomic structures, into the amygdala for emotional content and across the hippocampus for memory, then down throughout the body. The processing chain is massively parallel, interconnected, and marked by complex feedback pathways. Mind arises off of these processes in a very ad hoc manner, always shifting, always flexible, and always derived from a mass summation across the network.
Mycelial networks offer another example. When we see mushrooms scattered across a forest floor we’re not seeing individuals. Each mushroom growing from the soil is a fruiting body rising from the underground web-work of mycelia – the skeletal framework of the colony. Some mycelial colonies have been found to have areas extending over 2000 acres making them some of the largest superorganisms on the planet. The pattern suggests mushrooms as terminal nodes and mycelia as the network backbone.
In ecosystems, large predators constitute a form of top-down management but they themselves are part of the predator-prey relationship – a dynamic that must always seek relative equilibrium with the broader network in which it is embedded. Predators do not have a choice to over-consume prey or stockpile & re-sell it to others. Large ocean gyres also suggest a high degree of top-down control by seasonally establishing the engines of hemispheric weather. The North Pacific gyre becomes more active in the Winter of the northern hemisphere, driving the scale & frequency of storms hitting the pacific northwest of the United States. But the North Pacific gyre is an emergent structure that is itself built upon the properties of a nearly-infinite set of factors. It is not a regulatory structure or a governor by intent or design and there is no top-level group of components that determine its next move. It is a super-system derived from innumerable sub-systems.
Most importantly, all biological systems are guided not by top-down governors or control mechanisms but by feedback from the networks in which they are embedded. This is how nature regulates, preserves, and evolves itself towards greater adaptability. There is no fallible ruler driven to resource over-reach and myopic certainty. There is only the ongoing trial & error of embedded growth tempered by continuous communication between & within organisms.
As computers began to connect across the ARPANET, and with the dawning of the visual internet, the CPU evolved away from being specifically a central control system to become a node within a distributed network. This initial shift quickly challenged the established domains of publishing, content creation, intellectual property, and knowledge management while inviting the crowd into a shared virtual space of increasingly global identity & transaction. The advent of social networks established an organizational structure for connecting the human capital of virtuality, making it easier for like-minded people to connect & share & collaborate non-locally, subtly undermining the very notions of borders, statehood, family, and allegiance. Soon after, the mobile revolution has tipped everything on its side and bundled it into a portable device bringing instantaneous global communication & information access to most people on the planet.
The framework was laid for new forms of emergent, non-hierarchical, distributed collaboration & innovation, to both productive & destructive ends. Groups could now form and coordinate around affiliations, interest, and goals in ways that directly challenged the institutional structures monetizing our production & consumption and regulating our behaviors. It has become vastly easier for small organizations to take on multinational interests, whether in business & innovation or in power & politics. The conflicts we see across the world today are, in large part, a symptom of the younger generations leveraging flat network technologies to rise up against the older generations who long ago settled into their legacy hierarchical power structures. To paraphrase Ben Hammersley, the people who are running the world, who are entrusted with our future, are not able to understand the present. They lack the cognitive tools that are a basic part of the Generation C toolkit – the digital natives who grew up with a mobile in their hands and the internet at their fingertips, embedded in specialized networks that span borders and extend identity into the virtual.
The global disruptions that seem to characterize modernity constitute a civilizational correction driven by natural law. The DotCom bubble went through a correction, shedding excess value and pruning the garden of exuberant innovation to favor only the most fit. It was a good thing, if not painful. We witnessed the correction in the housing bubble and will likely see similar corrections in credit & commodities, as well as a painfully positive correction in energy, subsidized and under-valued for so long. The impacts of climate change are a correction imposed upon the legacy model of industrialization & growth by nature itself – the super-system in which all human endeavor is embedded and to which we are ultimately accountable.
The civilization correction is an emergent regulatory mechanism embedded within natural systems forcing our legacy human systems to progressively modify the unsustainable design patterns of our past. The mechanical metaphor & the computational metaphor are necessarily opening to include the biological metaphor. We can see this in every aspect of technology and it is equally emergent across human behavior & social systems. Nanosystems emulate biosystems. Computation & robotics are integrating with neurology & physiology. Individuals are finding agency & empowerment in leaderless multi-cellular collaborations. The built environment is becoming sensory-aware, communicating with itself through discrete feedback mechanisms. It can be argued that the emergence of the internet and of ubiquitous mobile communication & computation is an expression of our natural instincts to move into closer alignment with our environment; to follow the adaptive design patterns of nature in order to find a more sustainable & equitable posture for our species; a thermodynamic need to seek maximum efficiency in energy expenses. And to express a direct intervention programmed by nature itself to nudge the Anthropocene back towards equilibrium.
Such lofty ponderings aside, our world is undoubtedly approaching an inflection point. Everything appears to be upending and it’s all spread out in glorious detail for everyone to see. The feedback loop between humanity and it’s creations – the biological & cybernetic communication among individuals & groups & cultures & organisms & ecosystems – is tightening and getting more & more dense every day, feeding on itself and forcing exceptional degrees of novelty into becoming. It’s frightening & awesome and the Old Guard can barely see it happening right in front of their eyes. The shift may be apocalyptic, a sudden phase change, or an accelerated-but-managed transition… Probably it will be all of these things in differing degrees & locales. However it happens, the emerging paradigm is much more about networks, messaging, feedback, and biology rather than hierarchy, control, power, and mechanization. Nature is the super-system, the ultimate controller enforcing the laws of physics and prescribing the design templates for fitness & adaptation. If we are, as Kevin Kelley suggests, the sex organs of technology, then our technology is born from the natural imperatives coded deeply into our DNA.
[Justin Pickard notes: Biology PhD friend had issues w/ @chris23's latest (http://bit.ly/e0tJSS), citing hierarchies in social insect colonies, meercats & wolves... Furthermore, some biologists now consider social insect colonies to be superorganisms in their own right; akin to @cascio's ecology of mind?
Me: Yes! I considered diving into ants - lot's of research there. Interesting social structures emerge in higher critters/hives... I'd love to read a rebuttal/extension.]
In the lead up to it’s big annual event in Davos, the World Economic Forum’s Risk Response Network has published its Global Risks 2011 report. Here are some of the top-level highlights, taken verbatim from the report. I encourage people to read the entire report as each section is broken out into considerable detail including multiple scenarios. There’s also an overview at Business 21C.
“The world is in no position to face major new shocks.”
2 Cross-Cutting Risks:
1. Economic disparity: Wealth and income disparities, both within countries and between countries, threaten social and political stability as well as economic development.
2. Global governance failures: Weak or inadequate global institutions, agreements or networks, combined with competing national and political interests, impede attempts to cooperate on addressing global risks.
3 Important Risks in Focus:
1. The macroeconomic imbalances nexus: This cluster of three economic risks – global imbalances and currency volatility, fiscal crises and asset price collapse – is characterized by both internal imbalances (within countries) and external imbalances (between countries).
2. The illegal economy nexus: Illicit trade, organized crime and corruption are chronic risks that are perceived as highly likely to occur and of medium impact. As a highly interconnected nexus representing the illegal economy, however, experts see these risks as of central importance to the global risk landscape.
3. The water-food-energy nexus: Water security, food security and energy security are chronic impediments to economic growth and social stability. Food production requires water and energy; water extraction and distribution requires energy; and energy production requires water. Food prices are also highly sensitive to the cost of energy inputs through fertilizers, irrigation, transport and processing.
5 risks to watch:
1. Cyber-security: cyber theft, cyber espionage, cyber war, and cyber terrorism.
2. Demographic challenges: population “cluster bombs”, global graying and demographic dividends.
3. Resource security: extreme commodity price volatility and extreme energy price volatility.
4. Retrenchment from globalization: In many advanced economies strengthening political forces either directly or indirectly advocate retrenchment from globalization.
5. Weapons of mass destruction: the key WMD risk is felt by most experts to be that of nuclear proliferation, both among states and non-state actors, closely followed by the potential use of biological weapons.
3 ways for leaders to improve their response to complex and interdependent risks:
1. Proactively address the causes, rather than the symptoms, of global risk, identifying effective points of intervention in underlying structures and systems.
2. Devise coordinated response strategies to address the existence of difficult trade-offs and the threat of unintended consequences caused in part by increased interconnectedness.
3. Take a longer-term approach to assessment and response, particularly when seeking to manage global risks that emerge over decades rather than months or years.
I have an article up at Shareable.net. Here’s an excerpt from the intro:
Sharing isn’t unique to humans but we seem to do it a lot more than any other mammals. Some combination of intrinsic altruism, on-the-spot cost-benefit calculus, and perhaps the routine abstractions we subconsciously employ to reconfigure our internal reward systems has positioned us to be exceptional at sharing all manner of things.
So much so, it seems, that we’ve constructed a global web of technologies whose function seems to be primarily adapted to the simple, rapid, and non-local giving and receiving of ideas, emotions, experiences, templates, tools, and just about every other aspect of the human experience.
Indeed, the Information Age and all its wondrous gadgetry, heaved up by materials science and sustained by ridiculous amounts of energy, is the dawning realization of industrialism turned from hard goods to the exchange of dematerialized content.
[This is a rough outline I'm working with to frame a forthcoming article series...]
The Industrial Revolution emerged from a mechanistic world view and a scientific method that focused on isolated, ideal systems. This clockwork methodology enabled the rapid construction of the modern world yet masked the systemic impacts of industrial growth. The consequences of this mechanized, replacement-part philosophy have been wrought across living systems, eroding the natural environment and threatening human welfare, often to the reward of the most aggressive and self-serving. Yet the unavoidable effects of industrialization have forced humanity to evolve it’s awareness, turning our philosophies of nature and industry towards a more holistic & intentional understanding of living systems. We’re quickly learning the need to look beyond the immediately observable bounds of our creations and place them within larger contexts of community, society, environment, and legacy. This logical shift from Cartesian mechanism to relativism and holism is changing the way we design our world. Whether we’re aware of it or not, our evolving nature is deeply informing our human systems and crafting emergent solutions that look much more biological than mechanistic. Yet, this transition is extraordinarily chaotic as the foundations of civilization are re-examined and upgraded to the new paradigm, concurrent with a massive explosion in human population, a rapidly shifting global energy landscape, new classes of super-empowered actors and collectives, a global information network, instantaneous non-local communication, and a increasingly unpredictable natural environment. It may seem that we’re racing against our own technologies to save ourselves and the planet… Or perhaps Gaia & Technos are co-evolving and seeking homeostasis through their interplay with humanity.
[The following is an unedited, stream-of-thought for a Sunday afternoon, summing up in fairly broad strokes many of the trends in socioeconomics and geopolitics that I'm currently tracking. This is a rough forecast for the next 3-5 years.]
The present arc of instability & change is driven by massive shifts in economy, ideology, connectivity, and trust. Many deeply entrenched behaviors and the institutions built on them are grinding up against social & environmental feedback, bloated bureaucracy, unsustainable growth models, and the interface of global transparency and closed power structures. On the global stage the myth of America is fading, it’s dematerialized information economies eroding it’s own industry, having financed the rise of it’s greatest competitors. The center of economic power is shifting to the East, into the EU and China, though it’s reasonable to suggest that the center itself is distributing across the primary northern actors. The perceived decline of the US may simply be the effects of capital normalization in a globalized world.
American governance continues to lose it’s ability to effectively manage the needs of it’s citizenry. This will shift governance to local and regional bodies mixing public sector legislators, corporate leaders, and empowered citizen groups & lobbies. Loyalties will trend towards those organizations most capable of meeting the needs of people, eg. stable employers, effective community groups, capable local civic leadership, familial & tribal affiliations, and gangs & insurgencies. As top-down national management weakens, corporate NGOs will play an increasing role in managing civil and socio-economic development.
For better or for worse, Google is a good example of an emerging NGO world leader. Google is financially strong, employs thousands, and is actively engineering & underwriting the development of a more prosperous and sustainable future in both it’s information and energy operations. For it’s employees, it’s business partners, it’s ecology of developers, and the many CSR organizations Google works with, they are a more reliable and trustworthy patron than the State of California or the US Gov. Likewise for Microsoft or, more specifically, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that has sent billions of dollars to help African poverty and fight AIDS (as with Google, questionable strategic intentions and pragmatic implementation failures aside). In an age lit with corrupt politicians and bankers, it’s easy for corporations & NGOs to look good by spending money on non-profit causes. In some ways, the market is more effective at getting things done than government these days. Expect to even see investment firms making similar overtures to social and environmental responsibility as capital begins to redistribute in emerging opportunistic investments. The new titans of the information, green tech, and biotech industries will continue to be the powers that are most capable of managing change effectively, though this posture will be both at tension with and an outcome of their need to manage growth and profit for their shareholders. Local and regional investments will inevitably be balanced against the global workforce. Corporate loyalty and integrity will only go so far as outsourcing draws jobs and money away from the locals.
As states risk bankruptcy through bloated bureaucracy, mismanagement, and endless partisan deadlocks, regions & local communities will organize & collaborate to pick up the slack or else decline into economic and social turmoil. This pattern is reflected at the level of national governance, increasingly beholden to global financial centers, extended across the globe in multiple unfavorable & expensive conflicts, and crippled domestically by oppositional bickering in Congress. All these trends reinforce the gap between State & Citizen, Wall St. and Main St., further de-legitimizing traditional governance. With spiking unemployment and the growing commercial credit crunch, the street-level effects of the Great Recession will continue to deepen for some time in spite of Wall St. indicators trying to stoke a rally back to an outmoded growth model. This effect will not be universal but unevenly distributed, reflecting the distribution of innovation, resources, capital, and climate.
For California, some regions, such as the San Francisco Bay Area, are poised to maintain strength and innovation, particularly in the new information economy but also, perhaps more importantly, in the coming biotech revolution. Meanwhile, Fresno, Riverside, Bakersfield, and Los Angeles counties will deteriorate further. Fresno’s fate as it resets against failed housing speculation will be determined primarily by shifting weather patterns. If the region dries, expect even greater flight. Riverside and Bakersfield will likely follow the lead of Los Angeles which seems to be destined for greater chaos, particularly if water supplies are threatened. Expect continued regional migration into LA as extended families draw together to fight unemployment, and job seekers are drawn on hopes of legitimate and criminal financial opportunities. Gang violence will rise as illicit drug and weapons networks stake out territory, increasingly mixing with Mexican and Salvadorean criminal networks. LA and San Diego demographics will continue into a Hispanic majority as people flee a Mexico torn apart by it’s own narco-insurgency. But again, great opportunities exist in the San Francisco region provided the high cost of living and salary requirements do not scare away the most able and potentially benevolent corporate kingpins. The California Bay Area is one of the most innovative and productive centers of US business and will continue to build the information age for the foreseeable future. If not for deeply intractable water issues, one could imagine a Northern California statehood.
Nevertheless, Asia is leading the global economic recovery, not America, underscored most recently by China’s founding of its own NASDAQ-styled ChiNext market, as well as its recent ASEAN attendance. Increasingly, Asian economic bodies are calling for lessened reliance on Western markets, supplementing their currency investments with Euros, Yen, and RMBs. These two features of marked Asian economic growth and increased global currency diversification will inevitably soften the national power of the US, itself holding on by it’s handful of primary innovation centers (increasingly isolated from and at odds with middle America and the south), as well as its absolutely indomitable military force. While it is not in China or anyone’s interest to dump US debt and cause a dollar collapse, it will be interesting to see how an economically weakened and politically fractured America will rely on its military to save face as the global economy becomes more evenly distributed towards Asia & the EU. Similarly, India’s contribution to the region remains unclear as it tryies to resolve it’s hunger for modernization with a huge population mired in poverty and caste culture. Caught between the US & China, India’s primary role in the foreseeable future is to put pressure on Pakistan, forcibly enough to encourage the Pakistani military to put down the Taliban, but subtle enough not to provoke an all-out Pak-India conflict.
However one regards India’s contributions, the rise of Asia will not be easy. There are huge populations but their level of industrial & technological education still lags behind many western nations. Likewise, their financial centers (and political focus) will continue to be challenged by the much larger depressed rural populations still struggling out of feudal poverty. Any attempt to form an Asian counterpart to the EU will be challenged by such vast inequity across many proud and nationalistic cultures that have been traditionally very averse to cooperation. Asia has been at war with itself in some form perhaps as long as the Middle East. Indeed, the rise of the EU was only possible in a post-WW2 reunification towards cooperative economics (and against a rising USSR), and this cooperation remains tenuous at best. Russia itself is a major wildcard sitting between Asia & the EU & the Middle East, economically and politically crippled but still heavily armed with ICBMs & natural resources and making regular overtures to get the Soviet band back together. While the US is only slightly concerned about its southern neighbor, Asia is beset on all sides by nuclear powers, militant Islamists, and strategically-critical but highly chaotic regions. America travels to its conflicts while Asia need only look in its own backyard. Thus, the rise of Asia will be significant, primarily due to the inertia of China (itself in large part buoyed by unsustainable business trickery) and the flocking multinational business interests attracted to its present shininess, but any coherent China-JPN-ASEAN strategy will be beset by many challenges. Indeed, Japan itself will remain heavily dependent on the West, both economically and militarily, with everyone in the region hoping the US will keep North Korea in check. (As an aside, the US military is the *only* military capable of deploying 100,000+ troops anywhere in the world. No other country can move forces globally, control the world seas, and reach any nation with a nuclear strike.)
Either way, there will continue to be a fractured US polity, a weakening dollar, and a lackluster system of state and national governance. Some regions will descend into chaos and become truly feral (eg Detroit, parts of LA), while others will route around bureaucratic impotence with community co-ops, participatory local governance, regional corporate sponsorship, and virtualized global information & content cooperatives. The tensions between neighboring regions will be amplified by ideological and socio-economic differences arising from their respective abilities (or inabilities) to provide for their populations, as well as the presently unforeseeable impacts of climate change and pandemics. One neighbor’s fecundity is another’s reason to migrate or invade.
None of these shifts will radically alter business as usual, in that trade of goods and services will persist. The current global financial paradigm will not likely come crashing down though it will be forced to evolve towards greater transparency & liability. Wall St. can post great numbers but if communities are wracked by unemployment, crime, and dying lands, so-called economic recovery won’t make much difference, especially as the anticipated uptick in business sees more global outsourcing and contract work with diminishing quality of life for the expensive regions. In the near-term, these trends will put pressure on many local communities to fend for themselves (or align with corporate, government, and/or military interests in the region) though some will be uniquely positioned to build local resiliency and self-reliance while remaining highly competitive in a dematerialized global information marketplace.
The next stabilization will likely come on the back of green industry, dematerialized technology, and new energy abundance, all of which will emerge from a deepening understanding and engagement with natural systems & the biochemical world. The present instability is a direct result of an unsustainable resource model kicked off by the industrial revolution. The shift we’re in is driven by the necessity to bring human systems in line with living, natural systems. This is a deep, deep evolutionary priority working it’s way through the human species in ways we don’t even see. But in short, things are shifting quickly. The idealistic paradigms of How The World Is are changing before us on the tide of globalization and instantaneous communication connecting all corners of the Earth. Yet, change is typically not monolithic but is scattered and unevenly distributed. There are many more players on the board now and the myth of US dominance and the ideal of Democracy is challenged on many sides. The system is unlikely to crash but it’s certainly entering a phase of high instability. But don’t under-estimate the collective effort to keep things moving forward. The interconnected web of globalization may actually be the saving grace against system collapse, tying all nations together in mutual reliance.
Image by .faramarz.
“The purpose of this guide is to help you participate constructively in the Iranian election protests through twitter.” So opens the #iranelection cyber war guide for beginners just posted today and widely distributed across the web through Twitter. The guide continues with precise information about what behaviors and syntaxes on Twitter are now being watched by the Iranian security apparatus; which hashtags are legitimate and which are state honey pots used to identify and block IP’s; how to pass new open proxies to those within the Tehranian resistance; and smart guidelines for those considering launching Denial of Service attacks on State websites. The author has compiled a brief & succinct guidebook to help global non-Iranians better help those in Iran who are trying to ensure that these events are not hidden from the eyes of the world.
The guide closes with: “Please remember that this is about the future of the Iranian people, while it might be exciting to get caught up in the flow of participating in a new meme, do not lose sight of what this is really about.” To me, this is about the future of all people.
As Clay Shirky noted, the events in Tehran mark a hugely important historic moment. Under an old theocratic and belligerent rulership, the modernist progressives from Iran’s urban center, Tehran, are using mobile communications and social networks to bypass the State and reach out to the world. Ahmadi’s swiftly-imposed net blackout has failed against the ingenuity of tech-enabled university students and the eagerness of sympathetic geeks across the world to help fight The Man (in this case, the authoritarian and repressive regime of the Ayatollah, the Guardian Council, and President Ahmadi-nejad). This marks a large state change in global power dynamics. In an age moving rapidly towards ubiquitous networked mobile computing, transparency and representation are the emerging foundations of civilization, simultaneously empowering the principles of Democracy while de-legitimizing the very notion of the State.
Perhaps even more surprising is the critical role of Twitter as the de facto global, real-time, open communication and collaboration channel. Using SMS, every mobile phone user on the planet has the ability to message Twitter and reach out to a global network. Twitter’s architecture guarantees an exponential distribution of information, and their lack of public shareholders allows them to take a more humanitarian posture. Protesters in Tehran were getting messages to hi-value nodes like Stephen Fry, John Perry Barlow, and William Gibson who then retweet the message to hundreds of thousands of their followers. By Monday #iranelection was the #1 trending term across Twitter and has stayed there since. Twitter is the primary channel for information coming in and out of Tehran regarding the contested election of it’s president – in a critical middle eastern Islamic nation, oil-rich with an aggressive posture towards the US and it’s allies, and who is poised on the brink of becoming a fully nuclear state. The out-of-left-field social networking phenomena has been so valuable to the goals of US interests in Iran that the U.S. State Department requested that Twitter postpone it’s scheduled service downtime.
The regime is now evicting reporters from Iran. The challenger, Moussavi, is likely not much different from Ahmadi-nejad. Both are pre-approved by the Ayatollah and Guardian Council. The pro-Moussavi population wants to see voting irregularities investigated and their “moderate” candidate approved as president. Tehran’s tech-savvy are redefining the fundamental relationship between people and governments. All power structures should be watching the events in Tehran and across the web. The people are getting smarter and bolder.
This is the age of empowered collectives striding across a globalized, hyper-connected world. In a virtualized information space, borders are less meaningful and countries are loose contextual buckets through which people interact. The swift assistance provided by western techies is not really about the US helping Iran, it’s about good, aspirational people trying to help other good, aspirational people. The playing field is leveling as humanity learns more and more about itself, overcoming fear and stereotypes and ignorance simply by communicating more effectively.
There will be a reaction as states work to retain power, upping their game to adapt to the new tech. And there will be darker consequences of these new tool as the All-Seeing Digital Eye rises over the land. We struggle now to free information but the next big struggle may be to secure it. All coins have two sides and all technologies will be bent to human will. Hopefully we’re all getting a little bit better at cooperating with each new day.
***This was written in a bit of a rush before I jet. Here are a couple more links:
Here’s a list of good info links.
Lyn Jeffery of IFTF writes Field Notes from the Iran Twitter Stream.
SF Gate article: SF Techie Stir Iranian Protests.
Jamais Cascio: The Dark Side of Twittering a Revolution.
And Hillary Clinton Defends Twitter Efforts for Iran.
In a time of monumental change it’s important to look at how the big player’s are adapting. Their moves are typically the most heavily researched and financed attempts at divining the underlying currents and capitalizing on the shifting technological marketplace. It’s especially interesting when conservative tech stalwarts like IBM & SAP suddenly start looking cool.
Both IBM & SAP are moving quickly into 3 of the most powerful trends in computing, each of which are driven by the enormous amounts of data being captured across all domains: business intelligence & modeling, stream computing, and sustainable systems analysis.
IBM’s new initiative A Smarter Planet states succinctly, “the planet will be instrumented, interconnected, intelligent.” This is a powerful statement from one of the largest and most technologically advanced companies in the world. They’re not just talking about business. IBM CEO Sam Palmisano speaks to the really large-scale planetary challenges in creating smart infrastructures for energy, water, transport, and data.
System S is designed to perform real-time analytics using high-throughput data streams… to host applications that turn heterogeneous data streams into actionable intelligence… System S applications are able to take unstructured raw data and process it in real time.
“This is about what’s going to happen,” explains [director of high performance stream computing at IBM] Nagui Halim. “The thesis is that there are many signals that foreshadow what will occur if we have a system that is smart enough to pick them up and understand them. We tend to think it’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen; and in many cases it is. But in other cases there is a lot of antecedent information in the environment that strongly indicates what’s likely to be occurring in the future.”
With enough data you can start to create connections and patterns. With patterns you can derive meaning and ultimately be better enabled to make more accurate predictions. Since humans aren’t very well-adapted to processing large data sets, we build tools to handle the heavy lifting. Whether Wall Street indexes, ERP scenarios, government accounting, energy grid analysis, or dynamic climate models, serious hardware & software is required to process operational data into meaningful determinations and prescriptions.
SAP has introduced the Clear New World initiative built on their Business Objects service architecture. Again, the notion is that businesses, enterprises, and even governments can run more efficiently when there is a free-flow of data and a suite of integrated services to crunch and render the info into meaningful contexts.
It’s time to build greater visibility, transparency, and accountability into the way your organization works. Because being clear allows timely and relevant information to be available when and where it is needed. Clarity demonstrates that your company is willing and able to stay accountable to key stakeholders. Clarity helps call out inefficiencies, reveal your best customers, create credible sustainability, and give your business the flexibility needed to anticipate and respond to a complex, ever-changing, global environment.
[See James Governor's recent post for more on how SAP & IBM are tackling enterprise sustainability.]
Note the statements about accountability to stakeholders & creating credible sustainability. Clear data & clear reporting. Now consider the latest announcement about SAP for Public Sector “to support the management and reporting of economic stimulus funds”. As a plugin to their Business Objects suite, this utility drafts on the trends towards open accountability and government transparency, often termed Gov 2.0, to provide support for determining just how stimulus money is being spent.
Both IBM and SAP have the power to execute effectively on these strategies, though it remains to be seen how enterprise spending will move to implement these services or if the companies will offer flexible licensing to LLC’s working on the really challenging non-profit global issues. Likewise, SAP has suffered usability problems for years and their core object architecture is old and slow. They will need more than just branding and plugins to make a more transparent world.
Finally, it’s worth noting the branding for these projects. “A Smarter Planet” is a global posture indicating agency and identity on a planetary scale. This hints at the real deep trend across the human species towards a global sense of purpose and strategy. “Clear New World” acknowledges both the occlusions under which human endeavor has marched thus far and the great clarity of visibility we’re now gaining across all domains & enterprises, while admitting that indeed everything is changing and we are moving into a New World. The technology is stepping forward to help us more effectively manage the present and navigate into the unknown future. But of course like all foresight, it remains to be seen whether individuals will choose to act appropriately with the knowledge they come to possess…
A core human competency is the capacity to model outcomes. This predictive ability has contributed to our successful growth as a species and provided the stage from which we extrude our technologies. We observe our world, log our experiences, and use this information to envision & plan our future possibilities. In the rush into tomorrow we’ve deputized machines to assist in our scenario modeling as our plans grow ever greater in scope.
Today we have tremendous amounts of data available about any system we wish to model. Drive platters are bulging into the terabytes just to store all of the information gathered by sensors, services, and empowered humans. Whether we study business networks, financial models, or natural systems, our awareness of their complexity has grown exponentially. Things are far wider and more interconnected than we could have imagined even 20 years ago.
All systems are sets of nodes with properties & variables that govern their behavior, coupled together by relational rules governing their interaction. The more complex a system, the more unique nodes and the more interconnections between nodes. Given the human constraint of being able to hold only 6 or 7 unique objects in mind at any given time it’s clear that we’re overwhelmed by even the relatively simple tasks of understanding, for example, a mid-size business structure enough to predict its future, especially when you consider the business system itself as a single node embedded in a much larger global socio-economic system. Imagine the difficulties climate modelers face trying to document global circulatory systems…
One emerging strategy for modeling complex systems looks to software and the floating-point wonders enabled by Moore’s Law. Computers are phenomenally capable of managing the inconceivable amounts of operations necessary to begin modeling dynamic systems. Yet, until very recently one needed to book time on a supercomputer cluster to run weather models or robust behavioral analysis. Even today’s bleeding hardware strains under the weight of such complexity. Research institutions have pursued natural systems modeling for some time and the business world has been paying attention. SAP now offers modeling capabilities with its business intelligence ERP solutions, enabling executives to run scenarios and envision possible outcomes of strategic decisions. Oracle recently acquired Hyperion, adding “performance management” to their suite of BI tools. You can bet these technologies will work their way into government & geopolitical protocols, as well as social & personal behavioral engineering as we increasingly track & model our lives.
Effectively, this pattern emulates the deeper shift from individual enterprise to collective collaborations. You can only model a complex system with another sufficiently complex system. However, even the most interesting algorithms are encumbered by the impositions of their logic: they can only be as creative as they were written. A second emerging strategy for modeling complex systems looks to deputize humans as processing nodes, crowdsourcing future possibilities across infinitely creative sets of minds. The Institute for the Future has taken this approach with its Signtific Lab and the Superstruct platform, leveraging the principles of gameplay to engage massive participation in envisioning scenarios.
The Superstruct games have drawn in thousands of players offering their thoughts & dreams of the future. Players become processing nodes for the chosen subject (eg. “when augmented reality is everywhere”, or “when personal satellites are as easy to deploy as websites”) iterating across large sets of potential outcomes. From these inputs, patterns emerge showing trends with greater frequency & momentum among the collective. Perhaps even more interesting – and where the Superstruct method is more flexible than computational modeling – are the outliers that emerge from players. Many of the most compelling signals of the future are those that completely break from current patterns. Indeed, one of the most fundamental prevailing shifts in the global paradigm is that change is accelerating in ways we cannot even imagine.
These two approaches both consider complex systems & scenario modeling from architectures that themselves are complex, object-oriented systems. The programmatic approach brings heavy-weight numeric bit-crunching to dynamic data streams, while the Superstructing approach offers wide-reaching creativity and human sensing. Augmenting one approach with the other will mark the next phase of predictive analysis necessary to safely navigate civilization through the future. Envisioning these scenarios and building compelling narratives around them will inevitably draw them into becoming.
Our lives are more & more complex and our enterprises & collaborations are commonly reaching global scales. The need to effectively model & predict is a fundamental human trait, reinforced in the face of escalating complexity in a hyper-connected, Read-Write world.
Overview: The top-level context for the next 10-20 years will be characterized by growing environmental challenges across the planet, notably more irregular weather patterns with increasingly severe storms, a rise in temperatures and a reduction of rainfall leading to shifting distributions of agriculture and farming. Regions that are heated but retain humidity will face rising bacterial & viral outbreaks, especially if these regions see further economic declines due to declining food production. These changes will challenge many populations, adding pressure to invest in more climate-controlled (and energy-intensive) infrastructure and/or migrate towards more wet & fertile lands. The great dependence on rainfall and water delivery infrastructure coupled to its widely distributed nature will impact drought-stricken regions considerably, as well as neighboring water-rich regions (eg. Los Angeles and Northern California) that may see growing tensions across resource inequities.
Within this global system the primary drivers remain materials technologies, energy capture & generation, health care (freemium & premium), cleaning & streamlining industrial processes, managing supply chains (particularly with respect to resource/energy overhead, social & environmental impacts), remediating toxic environments, and coping with persistent disruptions to all of these. In communities, trends are moving towards group empowerment through emerging technologies for computation, communication, collaboration, design, and fabrication. This empowerment enables both resilience & resistance, aiding some to design better civic structures & local production capacity, for example, while others design and execute disruptive events and attacks on high-value targets.
Across the species, though in no way homogeneous, lifespans are extending, health care is more reliable, mobile computing is more powerful & ubiquitous, screens and media are proliferating, and more people, objects, plants, and animals are creating digital identities and communicating across the cloud. There is a rapid movement to digitize human information and expose it to massive computational structures, iterating exponentially across literally billions of logical nodes. This movement into the cloud has a huge energetic overhead only recently being considered – not to mention the social and economic impacts rapidly rewriting much of the first world.
Computational systems are evolving to model and predict larger living systems. We now model natural systems, business enterprise, financial variables, and human behavior deriving greater ability to predict future probabilities. All in order for the species to continue its adaptive success while willfully managing our resource requirements & impacts while effectively supporting a global virtualization of human endeavor, expression, and creativity.
In a nutshell, the patterns and processes we’ve relied upon are moving into a time of great flux with all systems facing regular perturbations. Change is the only constant. Survival, as it always ultimately has, depends on flexibility, resilience, collaboration, and adaptation.
Disruptive Civil Technologies
Six Technologies with Potential Impacts on US Interests out to 2025 (National Intelligence Council):
Key trends, “most likely to enhance or degrade US national power out to 2025″
- Energy Storage Materials
- Biofuels and Bio-Based Chemicals
- Clean Coal Technologies
- Service Robotics
- The Internet of Things.
[The NIC report offers some interesting signals but I personally disagree with their sense of trending towards biofuels. Turning human energy sources (food) into industrial energy sources (biofuel) is exceptionally short-sighted and dangerous and has already incurred a large backlash in common sense. I don't know enough about so-called "clean coal" to comment... but I'm highly dubious.]
Top Signals 2009
- Biometrics & accelerometers
- Handheld augmented reality
- Simulation engines
- Lifecasting platforms
- Social networks for every living thing
- Avatars everywhere
- Virtual worlds based on real worlds
- Extreme scale
- Ambient collaboration
- Reverse scarcity
- Adaptive emotions
- Amplified optimism
DRAFT 2009 Climate Action Team Biennial Report to the Governor and Legislature (California Climate Change portal):
All simulations indicate that extremely hot daytime and nighttime temperatures (heat waves) increase in frequency, magnitude, and duration from the historical period. Within a given heat wave, there is an increasing tendency for multiple hot days in succession—i.e., heat waves last longer. Furthermore, the number of days with simultaneously hot daytime temperatures in multiple regions in the state increases markedly; this has important implications for emergency response and satisfying electricity demand in the state.
…In the northern part of California, the tendency for drying fades and even reverses but in Southern California the amount of drying becomes greater, with decreases in some simulations exceeding 15% drier. became significantly wetter by the end of the century.
…The results suggest that climate change will decrease annual crop yields in the long- term, particularly for cotton, unless future climate change is minimized and/or adaptation of management practices and improved cultivars becomes widespread.
…In summary, without changes in operating rules for the water system in California the reliability of water supply will be severely affected. On the other hand, it seems that California could afford the implementation of adaptation measures that could significantly reduce the system’s vulnerability.
I’m re-posting this from The Whole Earth Catalog archives because I think it’s an excellent summary of the core principles needed to evaluate natural systems. This also speaks to the foundation of much of my own thought about human social, cultural, and technological evolution.
The Nine Laws of God
By Kevin Kelly * Whole Earth Catalog * Spring 1994
Distribute being. The spirit of a beehive, the behavior of an economy, the thinking of a supercomputer, and the life in me are distributed over a multitude of smaller units (which themselves may be distributed). When the sum of the parts can add up to more than the parts, then that extra being (that something from nothing) is distributed among the parts. Whenever we find something from nothing, we find it arising from a field of many interatting smaller pieces. All the mysteries we find most interesting – life, intelligence, evolution – are found in the soil of large distributed systems.
Control from the bottom up. When everything is connected to everything in a distributed network, everything happens at once. When everything happens at once, wide and fast-moving problems simply route around any central authority. Therefore, overall governance must arise from the most humble interdependent acts done locally in parallel, and not from a central command. A mob can steer itself, and in the territory of rapid, massive, and heterogeneous change, only a mob can steer. To get something from nothing, control must rest at the bottom within simplicity.
Sow increasing returns. Each time you use an idea, a language, or a skill, you strengthen it, reinforce it, and make it more likely to be used again.
Grow by chunking. The only way to make a complex system that works is to begin with a simple system that works. Attempts to instantly install highly complex organization – such as intelligence, or a market economy – without growing it, inevitably lead to failure.
Maximize the fringes. In heterogeneity is creation of the world. A uniform entity must adapt to the world by occasional monumental revolutions, one of which is sure to kill it. A diverse heterogeneous entity, on the other hand, can adapt to the world in a thousand daily mini-revolutions, staying in a state of permanent, but never fatal, churning.
Honor your errors. A trick will only work for a while, until everyone else is doing it. To advance from the ordinary requires a new game, or a new territory. But the process of going outside the conventional method, game, or territory is indistinguishable from error. Even the most brilliant act of human genius, in the final analysis, is an act of trial and error.
Pursue no optima, but multiple goals. Simple machines can be efficient, but complex adaptive machinery cannot be. A complicated structure has many masters and none of them can be served exclusively. Rather than striving for optimization of any function, a large system can only survive by “satisficing” (making “good enough”) a multitude of functions.
Seek persistent disequilibrium. Neither constancy nor relentless change will support a creation. A good creation, like good jazz, must balance the stable formula with frequent offbeat, out-of-kilter notes. Equilibrium is death. Yet unless a system stabilizes to an equilibrium point, it is no better than an explosion, and just as soon dead. A Nothing, then, is both equilibrium and disequilibrium.
Change changes itself. Change can be structured. This is what large complex systems do: they coordinate change. When extremely large systems are built up out of complicated systems, then each system begins to influence and ultimately change the organizations of other systems. That is, if the rules of the game are composed from the bottom up, then it is likely that interacting forces at the bottom level will alter the rules of the game as it progresses. Over time, the rules for change get changed themselves.
Evolution – as used in everyday speech – is about how an entity is changed over time. Deeper evolution – as it might be formally defined – is about how the rules for changing entities over time changes over time. To get the most out of nothing, you need to have self-changing rules.
These nine principles underpin the awesome workings of prairies, flamingoes, and cedar forests, eyeballs, natural selection in geological time, and the unfolding of a baby elephant from a tiny seed of elephant sperm and egg.
These same principles of bio-logic are now being implanted in computer chips, electronic communication networks, robot modules, pharmaceutical searches, software design, and corporate management, in order that these artificial systems may overcome their own complexity.
When the tecfinos is enlivened by bios, we get artifacts that can adapt, learn, and evolve. When our technology adapts, learns, and evolves, then we will have a neobiological civilization.
Some rough notes from the weekend on the Northern California coast… I’m trying to get at the core of my general orientation towards the world. It’s coming into focus at the nexus of evolutionary biology & technology. Or…
How does evolutionary biology express through culture & technology?
Requirements of human biosurvivial & social identity (compare to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs):
water, food shelter, fecundity, mortality, socialization, cognition, communication, migration, lineage, history, myth, aspiration, discovery, expression, emotion, time, transcendence.
Global comm networks are rapidly bringing the world closer and changing human cognition in ways we cannot yet fully see. What are the impacts and consequences of the emerging self-identification of the human species? How will we manage the human agency? Do we have a global strategy yet, or just a Balkanized polyculture of mostly-competing sub-identities? (Obv. the latter.) Compare to the Greek & Roman consciousness that embodied emotional states & psychological constructs in the mythic drama of deities & demigods. The western religious myth of Earth as resource and Earth as purgatory elevated us above the natural world. The planet is now urgently reminding us that we are within the natural world – a subset embedded in a much larger and ultimately self-interested system.
The assertion of the natural world compels us towards alignment with biomimetic solutions & protocols. Or towards oblivion as we are corrected by the planetary system. We cannot destroy the world before it limits our ability to do it damage. The compulsion towards environmental protection is a species-wide awareness rising from our very cells and fueled by our growing awareness of our impact on the planetary ecology. Adapt or perish.
Socio-economic & ecological adaptation is not on a uniform schedule. Diverse states & peoples have their own schedules to work out as they march up the pyramid of civilization. Does this demand caretakers & parent states? Globalization is a normalizing force, but inequities between self-appointed parents and emerging economies will grow, as will the ability of smaller networks to inflict their will on states, NGO’s, & global systems. This democratization of technological empowerment is yet another major current working through our species. We’re getting stronger yet the morality(?) & responsibility expected to wield this power is not uniform across cultures & peoples. Core biosurvival needs remain the primary driver, exposed to shifting climates and diminishing conventional energy sources. There will be (more) blood.
The race is whether the technologies of liberation & salvation will outpace the technologies of destruction & exploitation. Of course, the real technology underneath both is the human brain – a much more subtle & powerful tool, highly malleable but stubbornly resistant to overt change.