I have a new article up on Fast Company about programatic matter, synthetic biology, robotic swarming, and the future possibilities of architecture.
As complex ecosystems, cities are confronting tremendous pressures to seek optimum efficiency with minimal impact in a resource-constrained world. While architecture, urban planning, and sustainability attempt to address the massive resource requirements and outflow of cities, there are signs that a deeper current of biology is working its way into the urban framework.
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!
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.]
I followed COP15 pretty closely and, though I was hopeful, I didn’t really expect any major consensus among the G20. The differentials between the cooling western arc of history and that of the developing world in the East, coupled to the uneven distribution of natural energy resources across the geo’s, ensure that many conflicting interests will dominate the world chess board for some time. Carbon markets will likely build some dampening feedback into the global system by tying energy use & emission directly to the balance sheet but their successful adoption really depends on convincing Goldman Sachs et al that there’s tons of money to be had, not on getting the G20 to agree on a universal treaty.
The simple fact is that the scenarios show climate change accelerating more quickly than global markets. Given the inability of nations to set terms, as well as the fundamental folly of trying to manage such a huge globalized system as a top-down exercise in governance, it has become incumbent upon business and communities to drive the real behavioral change necessary to shift the economy of production and consumption to a more sustainable posture. The necessary bottom-up compliment to a systemic marketplace and/or governance scheme is the intentional re-engineering of human behavior. The tension between the global dialog of governance and the overlooked role of designers in social change is creating a new breed of sustainable systems engineers. The growing class of systems & social designers are building the next operational structures of civilization that will work to mitigate environmental & social destruction by engineering more efficient, sustainable, and holistic solutions to the diverse needs of our world.
As a note of criticism, while we arguably need rapid change, I feel that the environmental movement has erred in orienting it’s brand message around anthropogenic warming. The science may be sound but the position is not defensible against the psychological tactics of the opposition. The models simply aren’t good enough yet to prove beyond a doubt that humans are directly responsible for warming the planet. I believe intuitively that we are but no model or network of models is yet capable of effectively running that simulation. There are too many open holes that the masses will never understand. It’s just too big of a message; too scary. What we do know is that plastics are bad, energy should be conserved, pollution hurts living things, fossil fuels are dirty, and waste and over-consumption are a tax on the future. The environmental movement should focus on these known’s to continue the really applaudable work they’ve done to grow conservation efforts and bring awareness to the deep impact of our industrial economy, extending these efforts to encourage life-cycle analysis, triple-bottom-line accounting, and cradle-to-cradle planning while working directly with designers to intentionally engineer human behavior and ideology towards a more holistic and biomimetic relationship to the planetary ecology in which we live.
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…
Here are my rough notes from the ETech 09 talk by Lane Becker and Thor Muller of Get Satisfaction.
The End of Obsolescence: Engineering the Post-Consumer Economy
System of Consumerism: Economists think recessionary patterns (eg cobblers, repair) are transient and spending/consumption will return. Disposable culture. Planned obsolescence, lock-in, bigger is better –> The Ownership Society. No such thing as an infinite loop (eg pop dynamics). Rise & fall of growth and recessions is taken as a given of a natural cycle. Landscape amnesia. People forget what it used to be like. Our situation looks much more like a sharp asymptotic curve leading to a much sharper crash. Consumerism, growth curve is crashing quickly. Speed kills but it can force us to change in real time.
The Great Compression. A squeezing out perceived value to leave only real value in our economy. We have under-estimated the costs and over-estimated the value. Value destruction at work (slide shows sectors of economy with huge chunks that make things of no value or move value around, esp wholesale trade, manufacturing, financial investment – these are being selected against). NYT: Job losses hint at vast remaking of US Economy. Collapse – social, environmental, financial. Environment being wrapped up as the gooey center of the larger collapse. All of our systems are under pressure to remove false value and select for intrinsic value.
Design Patterns for Post-Consumerism: weak signals, indicators that suggest possible directions. What could replace consumerism? Two types of patterns: 1) Go back to basics. Not likely. Service economy represents giant heatsinks of human activity. Free time, cognitive potential. Other heatsinks are terrorism and civil unrest. How can we effectively use people’s free time. 2) Progressive future. Eg The Diamond Age; Universal copy machine. Physics & culture at the heart of the problem. Bits don’t move – they are copied. What can’t be copied? What is important? Culture becomes all-encompassing. World breaks out of nation-states into tribes. Culture is defined by what people make. OpenSource as example of removing economics of production. We still make & participate & contribute & collaborate.
Design Pattern 1: FREE. What economic & cultural value can be created outside of capital? What if everything was free? We assume economic trade must be the primary framing of value in our lives. Capitalism is shrinking. It must compressed because a lot of economics is perceived value, not actual value. This encourages alternatives that build real value. Design
Pattern 2: Repair Culture. Old school. When something is built to last, you want to see it last. We need objects that tell us to take care of them. Inverse of culture of obsolescence. The curse of innovation. Always improving products… how to avoid obsolescence? Eg DIY & Maker culture. Now there are customer communities & repair cultures for everything. Emergent business ecosystem that rises from repair communities. Eg Twitter community of teachers, services.
Design Pattern 3: Reputation Scaled. Reputation is the fertile ground from which civilization arises. Keeps us honest. Internet has transformed the village into the global village. This has transformed reputation (nobody can hide). Eg microlending. Collective reputation. Rewired the system to fund people without credit. Lent to groups of people who know each other – individual reputations are tied to group reputation. Innovation from the bottom-up. Eg Tidy Towns. Engage people in rural Irish towns to get passionate about clean cities. Town, community, individual. Tying individual reputation to larger group reputation.
Design Pattern 4: The Loanership Society. Lending stuff we can spare or don’t use. Eg why does everybody have a power drill? Why not share across groups? Eg Eco-neighbuzz. “I need a drill. Can anyone lend me one?” Make it a utility. Eg utility of the Zipcar. Notion of ownership over solid media versus subscription models. Subscription models for everything. Eg Comcast bundles subscriptions. People want a la carte. Hence more people are going to the web for content on their own terms. Pride of ownership vs. pride of stewardship. Eg John Muir. Not “I own this thing”, but “we collectively have a guardianship”. What are the environments where stewardship is more appropriate than ownership?
Design Pattern 5: Virtual Production. Eg device containers that stuff gets made and sold for. Not solid product but digital goods. Breaking cycles of production & consumption. Eg iPhone & apps. Eg. Air Level, iCandle. Se amount of economic activity that involves creating new stuff is being retargeted to virtual goods. Such goods get better over time rather than decaying. Eg Last.fm. Creating micro-economic climates. New metrics.
How can we move the culture towards these trends. Amplify the patterns. We have the opportunity, the tech, and the will. Benefit ourselves and our culture, our futures and our children.
These are my rough notes from last week’s E-Tech talk by Gavin Starks of AMEE:
We are hitting peaks and resource limitations. 5 potential futures: 1) Technology innovation; Salvation through technology but increasing reliance on it. 2) Services, not products; moving from car to public transport; carbon costs encourage services over hard products. 3) Reframing value; what is progress? what is value? Meaningful jobs, stronger communities cultivated. 4) Rationing; Things have gone too far, we need controls. Cap & trade. Sectors take control of citizens lives. Resource/H20 shortages leads to migrations and war. 5) War. Conflict over limited resources; divided communities; tribalism & territoriality. Quotes James Lovelock “90% population cull in this century”.
Hansen: “Caps won’t work – we need carbon tax.” Are we moving to post-capitalist society? Triple-bottom-line accounting: fiscal, social, environmental. McKinsey: “Capitalism is a multi-generational Ponzi scheme.” Need carbon tax. Carbon will be part of the US budget by 2011. federal cap & trade. Business-science-policy-technology: system of interconnects. Lots of data coming. EU policy stack being implemented. Anyone using over 6GWh or more than L500k/yr must disclose energy use. Coming to US. Carbon reduction commitment, energy efficiency, renewable obligations. “Moving to an economic age where we need to start obeying the 1st law of thermodynamics” [energy can neither be created nor destroyed]. Unpacking huge amounts of data. 20 largest cities use 75% of global energy. Future: many smaller cities. Pop density: cities are your country. Many local points of production & supply, networked together. No time left for closed systems. I/O models of everything. Democratization of energy. Smart grids. Microgeneration.
Data: citizens & things, private sector. public sector, cities, countries, earth. Data: purchases, materials, building, travel & transport, fuel & water & waste. Eg. SAP: 70% footprint is travel. Data is dangerous to business. Smart meters, eg fridge monitor yields whole layer of info. Every device will have accessible, identifiable profiles from data reporting. Energy Identity: Digital embodiment of your physical consumption. How to protect your digital identity? Now: everyone else assumes they own your data (utilities, suppliers, banks, retailers, etc). You own your data & can share or license it to interested parties. Collaboration networks are to business as social networks are to consumers. Emerging ecosystems, eg Planetary Skin, Oracle, IBM, Google & GE. Info about energy use; new grid; data on use belongs to you in standard, non-proprietary format. Lee: “Unlock all your raw data.” SW/SaaS/Systems integration. [tie into ERP] Eg Sun – Open Eco. Trading: Misys, EarthCP, Sandbag. Meters: Carbonmetrics, ISE. Consultancies: EQ2, NaturalLogic, CarbonVision, Greenmonk. Need transformational shift towards re-engineering behavior & production. Recession has so far had little input on carbon use.
To Do: 1) Give everything an energy ID; 2) Build SmartGrid behavior into everything; 3) Measure & map all of it; 4) Lobby for & create open standards; 5) Sort out data ownership now.
Here’s a selection of my tweets from the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference this past week. These are the ones I think grab the juicy nuggets from the speaker’s presentations. [In temporal order with the earliest (ie Monday eve) listed first.]
Tim O’Reilly: “We have greatness but have wasted it on so much. ”
We have an unprecedented opportunity to build a digital commonwealth. #etech
Work on something that matters to you more than money. This is a robust strategy. #etech
Niall Kennedy: Energy Star rating for web apps? Thinking of clouds & programming like tuning a car for better gas mileage. #etech
Cloud computing: no reasonable expectation of privacy when data is not in your hands. Not protected by 4th amendment. #etech
Alex Steffen: Problems with water supply are based in part on our lack of beavers. #etech
Social media for human rights. http://hub.witness.org #etech
Gavin Starks – Your Energy Identity & Why You Should Care. see http://amee.com #etech
Maureen Mclugh – Consider that technology may be evolving in ways that are not particularly interested in us. #etech
Becker, Muller: We have under-estimated the costs and over-estimated the value of our economy. #etech
Becker, Muller: We assume economic trade must be the primary framing of value in our lives. Why? #etech
Design Patterns for PostConsumerism: Free; Repair Culture; Reputation Scaled; Loanership Society; Virtual Production. #etech
NYT: emerging platforms, text reflow, multitouch, flexy displays, smart content, sms story updates, sensors, GPS localized content. #etech
Jeremy Faludi: Buildings & transport have the largest impact on climate change. Biggest bang for the buck in re-design. #etech
Jeremy Faludi – Biggest contributor to species extinction & habitat loss is encroachment & byproducts from agriculture. #etech
Jeremy Faludi – Best strategies to vastly reduce overpopulation: access to birth control & family planning, empowerment of women. #etech
Tom Raftery: Grid 1.0 can’t manage excess power from renewables. Solution: electric cars as distributed storage. #etech
Considering the impact of pluging AMEE (@agentGav) data in ERP systems for feedback to biz about supply chain impacts. BI meets NRG ID.
Mike Mathieu: Data becoming more important than code. Civic data is plentiful and largely untapped. Make civic apps! #etech
Mike Mathieu: Take 10 minutes today and pick your crisis. Figure out how to create software to help. #etech
What is #SantaCruz doing to make civic data available to service builders? We want to help SC be healthier & more productive.
Mark Fraunfelder: “I haven’t heard of anybody having great success with automatic chicken doors.” #etech [re-emerging technology]
Realities of energy efficiency: 1gallon of gasoline = ~1000hrs of human labor. #etech
Kevin Lynch: Adobe is saving over $1M annually just by managing energy. #etech
Designing backwards: Think about the destiny of the item before thinking about he initial use. (via Brian Dougherty) #etech
RealTimeCity: physical & digital space merges, people incorporate intelligent systems, cities react in accord w/needs of pub welfare. #etech
Oh my we’re being LIDAR’d while Zoe Keating plays live cello n loops. ZOMG!!!
zoe keating & live lidar is blowing my mind at #etech 1.3M points per sec!
Julian Bleeker cites David A. Kirby: “Diegetic prototypes have a major rhetorical advantage over true prototypes” #etech
Julian Bleeker: Stories matter when designing the future, eg. Minority Report. #etech
Julian Bleeker: “Think of Philip K. Dick as a System Administrator. #etech
Rebecca MacKinnon: Which side are we helping, River Crabs or Grass Mud Horses? #etech
Kati London: How can we use games to game The System and how can they be used to solve civic problems? #etech
Nathan Wolfe: Trying to fight pandemics only at the viral human level ignores deep socioeconomic causes of animal-human transmission. #etech
Nathan Wolfe, re: viral jump from animal to human populations: “What happens in central Africa doesn’t stay in central Africa.”
Nathan Wolfe: need to work with % of population w/ hi freq of direct contact with animals for early detection of viral transmission.
Nathan Wolfe: Vast majority of biosphere is microscopic, mostly bacterial & viral. Humans: very small piece of life on Earth. #etech
Most product opportunities are ephemeral, rising off the whims and fads of the social world. Likewise, most products and services cater to temporary needs, momentary desires, and passing fads. There are certainly a bounty of successful business models that capitalize on such trends (remember Beanie Babies?) and there will be plenty more, but in the long run all are doomed to pass after a few years at best, downcycling more resources and adding yet more volume to the world’s landfills. Ultimately, product solutions that don’t speak to the more fundamental motivations of the human animal will rise and fall on the endocrine tides of psychology.
The technologies that are really transformative and sticky are those that help people adapt better to their world (duct tape being a contemporary classic, environmental concerns aside for the moment). They make it easier to be an effective human. The technologies and solutions that make the biggest mark on the landscape are those that reinforce biological imperatives. The ability to harness fire established several millenia of product iterations designed to deliver heat to the needs of humanity. Agriculture, metal alloys, the printing press, immunizations, the car, the telephone, the computer, and Google all created enduring markets by providing adaptive advantages to the user.
Now in the hyper-connected, hyper-accelerated world of the Digital Age it seems as if we’re caught up in constant revolutions in technology, each Big Thing laying the foundation for The Next Big Thing. The marketplace is driven to spot the upstart that will unseat the previous generation in innovative cycles that are increasingly impacted and shortening. And when they find one, the antibodies flare up to test its mettle. Is it really that innovative? Is it useful? Will it make any money?
Twitter is a prime example of this condition. In 2 short years it’s gone from nothing, to something cute & fun, to presenting a viable challenge to the world’s largest information house, Google. Hitting the hype crescendo lately, everyone is trying to figure out why Twitter is useful and why anybody would use it in the enterprise and how & when they’ll start drawing revenues. The answer to these questions seem plainly obvious when we acknowledge that the fundamental needs of the human animal will always trump all other market factors.
So, how can you spot deep innovation that addresses the core requirements of the human animal? You have to ask these questions:
1) Does it enable you to more effectively address a fundamental biological need? Eat, drink, sleep, mate, procreate, move, establish dominion…
2) Does it enable you to more effectively address a fundamental social need? Communicate, collaborate, contact, support, share, trade…
3) Is it presented in simple & clear terms? Easy to learn, obvious functional use, immediate advantage…
4) Can it easily be integrated as an entrained extension of the user? Simple to use, second-hand adoption, action without thinking…
5) Does it provide the user with a selective advantage in the competitive landscape? Finding and obtaining resources, getting work and pay, making friends and collaborators, finding potential mates…
A truly profound illustration of these principles is the mobile phone. This seemingly simple technology addresses and enables almost every one of the above needs. Data on cellphone uptake shows the sharpest arc of adoption of any device ever. In every case the technology enables humans to be more successful at being humans, particularly in the ability to easily coordinate group efforts towards socioeconomic and biological ends. Clay Shirkey explores this phenomenon in depth in his seminal work Here Comes Everybody.
To turn this eye towards Twitter, we ask “Why does it work?”. Two things are immediately clear: It’s simple to use and it enables much greater communication & coordination. Specifically, it allows one person to quickly communicate with large groups of people while simultaneously drawing information about the landscape from the larger herd. With mobile integration each user becomes a sensor communicating to the tribe, and when in need the user can appeal to the tribe for immediate assistance. In this context, it’s obvious how Twitter would be of value within a secured enterprise, enabling ostensibly coordinated individuals to see more into the operations & needs of their collaborators & their company, while providing the channel to reach out for information and assistance in accomplishing the goals of the business.
Of critical importance, and why Twitter succeeds in ways that other social networks don’t, is that It forces communication to be succinct and to the point. The 140 character limit forces communications into small, digestible chunks, limiting the overhead of use and managing the potential for overload in signal. Passing a link, a question, or a simple plea, “ARRESTED”, brings the core of the communication up front & center rather than buried within paragraphs of narrative padding. Granted, all datastreams require management as the volume of input rises, but the word limit fundamentally rewrites the game of communication – and even language itself – in ways we don’t yet fully realize.
There will obviously be many more successful business models that don’t cater to the evolutionary, socioeconomic, & political needs of the human species, just as there will be many more billions of dollars spent on using energy and creating waste to capitalize on the current desires of the marketplace. I submit that the truly compelling and enduring innovations – the innovations that build long-lasting behavioral & business opportunities – are those that design for the fundamental needs hardwired into every human user on the planet; that design for the immediacy of an interconnected planetary ecology; and that reflect Tim O’Reilly’s call to work on stuff that matters.
Markets are abstractions that merely arise off the imperatives of survival, adaptation, and success, and are often far too volatile & obtuse to be really reliable, much less enable us to be more effective members of a planetary ecology. Designing for deeper principles is imperative not only for salvaging a faltering economy, but for creating sustainable models of innovation and evolutionary adaption that bring our species into a greater degree of harmony and cooperation with the world in which we are intimately embedded. The arc of our times is quickly becoming the necessary realization of these imperatives.
I really want to encourage people to keep an eye on the writing’s of John Robb, both over at his blog, Global Guerrillas, and in his ground-breaking and extremely relevant book, Brave New War. His writing focuses on the evolving dynamics of the global geo-political system with a keen eye towards 4th generation guerrilla warfare, it’s impact on the de-legitimizing of increasingly hollow states, and the need for communities to take control of their resources to establish independence and resiliency. His work is very much in line with my own sense of where things are heading, and his writings offer a coherent framework for understanding the great shift that is happening across our system of civilization.
My own personal recommendations: assume that the state will be increasingly unable to provide the fundamental services we have come to take for granted. Energy, water, food, health care, protection. The state will continue to spread out in extended foreign military engagements; American cities will move towards increasing chaos and conflict; local communities will seize the reigns of innovation, and assume responsibility for basic services and maintenance.
I don’t expect apocalypse – and in many ways things will likely stay the same – but increasing strain will be put on state and federal budgets ($700B Failout?) and the state will grow more and more pre-occupied with defending its own demise (and continuing is conversion to a loosely fascist merger of industry and governance).
The State is dead. Long live the State!
I haven’t been posting much lately while I’m otherwise focused on shifting my career out of quality engineering management. My head has been mostly consumed with trend analysis and research that’s appropriate to my current employer, Adobe Systems, as well as to the broader technology commons. Or perhaps more accurately, I’m trying to find a path within Adobe that resonates with my own deep interest in the prevailing and emergent technologies that are quickly wiring us all together. Or I may have to find that path elsewhere.
There’s so much incredible innovation and change happening at the dawn of the new Digital Age. I’m already surfing it constantly, finding the eddies and feeling out the edges.
Unfortunately, my current job doesn’t really care about any of this and is essentially a glorified maintenance role.
Meh. Feh. Onward to better things…
Jamai Cascio, co-founder of WorldChanging.com, has a great overview of the next 30+ years and the realities of our onrushing energy collapse. A lot of what he says resonates with my own sense of things. Much of my thought lately has been towards the deployment of local stabilizing systems and the the counter-imperative to our headless globalization. Really, we as a species are at a very sobering point in our history when all of the great modern systems we’ve taken for granted are being called into question. Is our world sustainable? Will innovation and collaboration win of ideaology and greed?
Over the next forty years, we’ll see a small but measurable dieback of human population, due to starvation, disease, and war (one local nuclear war in South Asia or Middle East, scaring the hell out of everyone about nukes for another couple of generations). Much of the death will be in the advanced developing nations, such as China and India. There will be pretty significant economic slowdowns globally, and US/EU/Japan will see significant unrest. Border closings between the developed and the developing nations will likely spike, probably along with brushfire skirmishes.
The post-industrial world will see a burst of localization and “made by hand” production, but even at its worst it is more reminiscent of World War II-era restrictions than of a Mad Max-style apocalypse. In much of the developed world, limitations serve as a driver for innovation, both social and technological. It’s not a comfortable period, by any means, but the Chinese experience and the aftermath of the Middle East/South Asian nuclear exchange sobers everybody up.
Imperial overreach, economic crises, and the various global environmental and resource threats put an end to American dominance, but nobody else can step up as global hegemon. Europe is trying to deal with its own social and environmental problems, while China is struggling to avoid full-on collapse. The result isn’t so much isolationism as distractionism — the potential global players are all far too distracted by their own problems to do much overseas.
[See also this post about resilient communities by Alex Steffen for a good link roundup (I'm not really in line with his notion that localism is not enough... i think it's the best place to start).]
Here are a couple of interesting projects/movements I just ran across. These are both great examples of how people can organize and use their collective power to modify industry.
Slow Food is a movement designed to counter fast food and hi-impact susperscaling of food production. SciFi futurist Bruce Sterling has a great write-up of Slow Food in Metropolis. From the article:
Its criteria are strict: (a) Is the product nonglobalized or, better yet, inherently nonglobalizable? (b) Is it artisanally made (so thereâ€™s no possibility of any industrial economies of scale)? (c) Is it high-quality (the consumer â€œwowâ€ factor)? (d) Is it sustainably produced? (Not only is this politically pleasing, but it swiftly eliminates competition from most multinationals.) (e) Is this product likely to disappear from the planet otherwise? (Biodiversity must be served!)
Carrot Mob is another democratizing and locally-empowering group that “organizes consumers to make purchases, rewarding companies who make environmentally friendly choices”. From their website:
On Saturday, March 29th, at 1pm, come to K & D Market… and buy whatever you want. Buy a lot. We’re going to be tracking everyone’s purchases and then calculating how much revenue we brought to the store. K & D has committed to spending 22% of all the revenue we bring in on energy-saving measures identified by an SF Energy Watch audit, in order to make their store more environmentally friendly! This was the result of a bidding war, which they won, prevailing as the store most committed to environmental improvement among its competitors.
This movement of group financial empowerment is going to see a lot of traction as communities (local and networked) leverage mobile and social tools to become more organized around shared interests. FWIW, Andrea and I were discussing how groups might gather funds under political/ecological/social platforms that candidates could then pledge for (IE democratizing PAC’s). See also Larry Lessig’s newest reform project Change Congress.