I saw them to the East lit in semaphore flashes by the falling Winter Sun, set against fluffy pink clouds flowing languidly inland. Moving together as a fluid, mercurial and quicksilver, this way and that, a coordinated dance of shiny metallic starlings. They seemed to circle chaotically over some unseen attractor below.
[This paper was originally published for a government report on discontinuity & change management.]
We live in a time of large-scale, non-linear change driven by the twin engines of globalization and hyper-connectivity. Change is, of course, constant but we now have such extreme visibility into the farthest corners of the world that the amplitude of change appears much greater than ever before. Many of us are, for the first time, globally connected and wired to real-time data streams that carry information and emotion across the world instantaneously. When we look through this lens of hypermedia we are confronted by fast-moving, asymmetric complexity that seems to be slipping out of control. The landscape is moving more quickly than we are able to respond. This is deeply challenging to our sense of security.
As Americans, we face a highly multipolar world. We feel the decline of U.S. exceptionalism and the attendant existential crisis of this realization; the ongoing global financial malaise and the emerging debt crisis threatening to break apart the European Union; the rise of China as a dominant world power and the implicit criticism of democracy that comes from its economic success; and the evolution of Islam as an explicit criticism of western prosperity. We are realizing the massive power of finance & energy cartels while struggling with ultraviolent drug cartels. We feel the impacts of domestic unemployment amidst weekly reports of record corporate profits. Capital is moving away from mature western markets for the young labor pools of the developing world. Fund managers are betting more on decline than investing in growth. There is a growing sense that western governance is failing in its charter to effectively manage the prosperity & security of its citizenry, and that selfishness, partisanship, and corruption have undermined the political process.
In the United States there is arguably a crisis of confidence in governance. We face extreme partisanship among policy makers and their apparent inability to effectively govern on domestic issues. Congress has a 20% approval rating. 73% of Americans believe the country is moving in the wrong direction. On domestic issues, the popular narrative of U.S. governance is one of bickering, incompetence, and failure.
So if there is a crisis of confidence, is there an actual crisis in governance? Recently the debt Supercommittee failed to agree on a solution for the deficit. This past July, the largely-manufactured budgetary impasse shook confidence in U.S. governance contributing directly to the S&P downgrade of our hallowed AAA credit rating. To quote the S&P report, the downgrade “reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges”. Even closer to home, the American Society of Civil Engineers recently reviewed U.S. infrastructure with a grade of “D” stating that it would take $2.2 trillion over the next 5 years to bring our roads, bridges, railways, water and energy systems, and waste treatment capacity up to 1st world standards. These are the fundamental needs required to keep a country functional & efficient.
Looking at recent statistics, the U.S. Commerce Department charts wages & salaries at only 44% of GDP – the lowest since 1929. Corporate profits, on the other hand, now contribute 10% of GDP – the highest on record since that auspicious year, 1929. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates unemployment at 9% though real measures of unemployment that include the under-employed and those who have given up looking for work are estimated closer to 16%. Among young adults age 16-24, 50% are without work – the highest number on record since 1948. The majority of unemployed no longer receive state benefits. Tens of thousands of service members are returning to joblessness & homelessness. The 2010 U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 46 million people are living in poverty – 15% of the nation. This number has been increasing annually for the past 3 years. These trends are undermining the legitimacy of the US government both at home and abroad, and contributing to the social unrest sensationally illustrated by the rise of both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements.
Typically, when we observe these statistical trends in other countries we see a growing segment of the populace more exposed to gang indoctrination, co-option by religious fundamentalism, and coercion by home-brewed militias. This unfortunate reality is not lost on policy makers, as telegraphed most recently by Congressional attempts to reconfigure the legislative landscape of the Homeland as a domestic battleground.
While national statistics are indeed worrisome, the situation at the local & regional level is more varied and offers some hope. There is a shift towards state’s rights as illustrated by the more libertarian aspects of the Tea Party and the GOP narrative against so-called big government, but also in many state legislatures on both sides of the aisle. While often ideologically driven, this shift towards state governance is a response to the limitations of central management across such a large and complex territory as the United States. Perhaps more interestingly, we see a shift to municipal power as urban populations swell and major cities take ownership of their roles as economic engines. Mayors are gathering more influence over state and federal policy, and are making more lucrative partnerships with global allies.
Yet, there are huge budgetary challenges for both states and municipalities, with states often pushing their own budgetary problems down to the county & city level. There is even talk of an emerging municipal debt bubble as cities issue more bond debt to cover their existing debt costs. The U.S. just witnessed the largest municipal bankruptcy in history when Jefferson County, Alabama, failed to cover its sewage bonds. This is the downward cycle of U.S. infrastructure & budgetary mis-management laid bare.
The picture of local and regional governance is a patchwork of attempts (successes and failures) to address the many challenges confronting us locally and handed down from state and federal institutions. As higher-order governors lose legitimacy, states & regions will work to sidestep their authority and to innovate around budgetary shortfalls and non-local obstacles. Progressive states agitate for marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage, conservative states assail big government and immigration, southwestern border states are dealing with the spill-over from Mexico’s narcowar, and many regions across the country are absorbing diverse and extreme climate impacts potentially driving food production, water supplies, and population movements. So while large, productive cities are generally seeing more cohesion there is a significant risk of increased balkanization across regions and states.
U.S. governance is clearly challenged on many domestic fronts. In operational terms, we’re falling short. Governing institutions are too big and too slow to respond to such accelerated change. If we’re failing to manage the present, how can we prepare for the future? There is too much complexity to effectively predict change and yet there’s too much institutional friction to adequately invest in broad resilience. This combination poses tremendous risks to domestic security. The snapshot of social unrest in America arises from two primary drivers: the fear of U.S. decline and the sense that Democracy is no longer working (represented by the Tea Party and OWS movements, respectively). Both are rooted in a lack of jobs, diminishing access to prosperity, and growing insecurity in the face of poorly managed discontinuities. When government fails to meet it’s charter, it loses legitimacy. When conventional channels for change are closed, the gap widens between governors and the governed.
For better and for worse, a lot of innovation happens in the gaps. There is innovation in governance itself, as in the Gov 2.0 & OpenGov initiatives to standardize operational data across organizations, to publicize the data, and to invite the public to work with the data and develop 3rp party applications. Deputizing the crowd to help with governance can offer tremendous opportunities for innovation, as exemplified by tools such as Oakland Crimespotting and the Everyblock platform. The citizenry is becoming more digital and addressable with direct polling, crowdsourcing, and experiments in electronic voting. Transparency initiatives, such as the Sunlight Foundation, build web platforms to track and reveal the influence of money in politics. The growth in mobile/social/location platforms empowers tremendous opportunities in civic innovation, as does the emergence of embedded instrumentation in the built environment. Tech collectives and hacker spaces, experiments in local and digital currencies, slow food and Buy Local movements, increased community volunteerism and more public-private partnerships – all of these examples build local resilience and enable communities to take care of themselves.
Many of these efforts follow open source models that enable fast innovation and iteration across diverse non-local nodes, avoiding hierarchies and direct leadership in favor of feedback loops and emergent self-governance. These models gained popularity with the open source software movement but have since expanded to include innovation in open hardware and fabrication, science and robotics, economics (there is an estimated $10 trillion informal economy growing in the gaps globally), and political movements. Open source templates have enabled new models of power such as Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous, many aspects of the Iraqi insurgency, and the dangerous ecosystem of adaptation and innovation found in the IED marketplaces of Iraq and Afghanistan. The ability to maintain such open source models of organization has been radically empowered by mobile telephony, SMS, and social media. The ability to globally broadcast, communicate and collaborate has enabled a new breed of citizen reporting pushed out through platforms like You Tube and Twitter. Rapid SMS communication across mobile devices enables fast stigmergic coordination that can mobilize people en masses with a moment’s notice. The Green Revolution in Tehran, the Arab Spring, and the periodic support calls sent out by OWS groups are all examples of how borderless, frictionless hyper-connectivity empowers a patchwork of active tribes, locally and virtually.
Gaps in governance empower innovators and competitors alike. Actors exploit the gaps and seek to influence or undermine governance in order to open more gaps. Super-empowered individuals like Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt work to influence conventional channels of policy-making while restructuring the regulatory landscape to better enable their businesses. Activist billionaires like Warren Buffet, George Soros, and Sir Richard Branson use their weight and influence to change world affairs, as do libertarians like Peter Thiel and anarcho-capitalists like the Koch brothers. Some super-empowered actors are feral and may not appear to be powerful yet manage to inflict exceptional discontinuities on their targets. Arms dealer, Victor Bout, has been a significant driver of unrest in Africa. The head of the Sinaloan cartel, Joaquin Guzman, has helped deconstruct Mexican governance into a lawless war zone. Henry Okah, the leader of MEND in Nigeria, used a small group of lo-tech saboteurs to target critical pipeline infrastructure reducing crude output by 50% and costing western oil interests billions in production revenue. Cartels and criminal networks operate on international scales moving billions of dollars to influence authorities and outwit enforcers. Tech-enabled sociopolitical collectives like Anonymous and Wikileaks deputize themselves as moral enforcers, exposing secret agendas and arbitrating punishment. These actors walk the same stage as multinational corporations and NGO’s that have no built-in allegiance to the United States or, in some cases, to democracy itself. All of these actors exert their will on the world by building influence and exploiting the gaps. All of them are empowered by hyper-connectivity and cheap computation to coordinate, collaborate, and influence at all scales.
This is an age of hypermedia and hyper-politics. There are almost 3 billion internet users, globally. There are over 5 billion mobile subscribers – this is 77% percent of humanity. Last year, in 2010, over 6.9 trillion text messages were sent & received. Humanity has global, instantaneous communication; immediate amplification of emotion, ideology, witnessing, discovery, innovation, and iteration. We are sharing what works and what doesn’t in all domains and endeavors. Everyone is being lifted by this rising technological tide. Small-scale power is amplifying exponentially through ubiquitous computation and mobile communication. Power is re-distributing across the globalized, hyper-connected landscape in such a way that a small, minimally-funded group can generate exponential disruptions. In a mediated world, we see a new war of narratives competing for mindshare across hypermedia, cultivating borderless affinities and ideologies, and offering a global voice to disenfranchised and exploited groups. Top-down governance, unable to extend control so far over such large-scale discontinuities, is yielding space to flattened hierarchies and self-governance. All institutions are being forced to evolve and adapt to this new landscape, as all efforts to suppress it will inevitably fail and only drive more turbulence.
Complexity is an expression of information, and hypermedia is a complexity feedback loop of revealing, sharing, and iterating. Hypermedia, in all it’s varied forms, is injecting unprecedented amounts of information into our awareness. This widening perception of complexity drives behavioral uncertainty as people and institutions feel increasingly overwhelmed and lost in the noise. The world wide web has driven massive discontinuities into almost every business model, organization, and political objective. Mobile telephony coupled to social networks has given voice to the real-time status of the majority of people on the planet. In this maelstrom of asymmetrical disruption, chaos appears to be the new norm though this will likely reveal itself to be the turmoil attending a broad shift towards a new order of stability.
Complex systems across many scales have moved into a late conservation phase and are beginning to release their organizational capacity. Legacy institutions have grown far too optimized and narrow to absorb the turbulence unleashed by globalization, ubicomp, and mobile telephony. Systems have destabilized in order to make the phase change into whatever next basin of stability awaits. Governance is necessarily challenged and states will inevitably give some degree of power & influence as capital flows out of the West; as more empowered actors take the global stage; as non-local relationships shift affiliation and allegiance; as borders are antiquated by the internet and the cell phone; and as over-extended unions fracture and balkanize. Centralized control structures are not adequate to manage such large scales of nested and inter-dependent complex adaptive systems. But fortunately, the same drivers that have introduced so much discontinuity and have challenged governance as we know it are helping construct the new forms of distributed, participatory governance. Hyper-connectivity, hyper-visibility, and hyper-empowerment are driving a global peer review of legacy institutions in a patchwork attempt to define Civilization 2.0. The process is turbulent and the future is cloudy but we’ll likely land on solid ground eventually.
As many of you know, I’ve been producing a music project exploring the sound of architecture and the divergence of futures embodied in a 50-story abandoned skyscraper in Bangkok. I saw this structure in 2009 and was struck by the many contradictions imposed by its monolithic bone-white presence along the downtown skyline. It is both a monument to the whims of capital and a container for the shining future that never came to pass, like a hollow ballroom filled with dancing ghosts.
The first single, Approach, is now available for streaming & free download. This track conveys a pre-dawn approach towards the Sathorn ghost tower along the Chao Phraya river, attempting to capture some of the emotional currents inspired by the encounter. It is first contact.
I’ve shared my process and thoughts as I unpack the whole project over at my Sathorn Unique Tumblr.
A couple breakouts from my Signals, Challenges, & Horizon’s for Hand’s Free AR slidedeck…
Technical – power, weight, capture, integration
Interface – eye-tracking, gestural, selection, execution, filtering input & display
Interaction – context awareness, algorithms, provisioning
Perception – occlusion, distraction, depth cues, eyestrain
Legal & Ethical
Dynamic user interface
Fully native augmented reality?
I attended the Friday session of Metaverse University 2009 at Stanford last week. Here are some of my observations:
Themes: interoperability, open source, simulations, visualizations, breaking down the walls, and being stuck with Second Life. Little emphasis on chat and social networking, per se. Much more emphasis on architectures & component solutions.
Trends from Virtual Worlds Roadmap: simulation & training, health care, augmented tourism, mixed-reality museums, live sporting events in VW’s, virtual meetings.
While the hype over virtual worlds has faded, many serious researchers continue to do fascinating work in the territory. Monetization of a good VW strategy is still needed but this goal seems to have receded into the future for many of the speakers, as well as many of the enterprise-scale companies investigating these spaces who seem less interested in making money (either through direct development and monetization or by riding the public hypetrain) and more interested in gaining efficiencies and trimming overhead (teleconferencing, remote collaboration).
Google (O3D), Intel (Cable Beach), Sun Microsystems (Project Wonderland), Samsung (Virtual Worlds Roadmap), and Nokia (supporting REalXtend) were all present, as well as many Stanford researchers, including the folks building Sirikata. Many are working to extend the OpenSim fork of the Second Life platform. None of them seem to be working towards direct productization (though Google wants O3D to be the in-browser standard for 3D content) but each were working to advance the platform and explore future possibilities.
With monetization off the table and money drying up, researchers are moving to embrace open source solutions (OpenSim, ScienceSim, Ogre3D) and pushing for open standards (OpenId, OAuth, XMPP) and flexible API’s. Almost everyone mentioned a desire to move away from the proprietary walled-garden approach towards an integrative one that looks to the success of social network strategies. While celebrating open source development of Second Life forks, almost everyone bemoaned being stuck on the platform, often underscoring the feeling with a groan that “there’s nothing else”.
Authoring was rarely addressed with content instead being re-purposed from upstream solutions, eg using 3DSMax & Maya content to build world content. Collada was uniformly mentioned as the exchange format. Most developers still want to shoehorn other modalities (eg PowerPoint, web browsing, document collab, etc) into the VW space. Some examples inadvertantly showed the clunkiness of current solutions. I asked why a technology like PowerPoint is any better in 3D than in 2D, eliciting a long pause from the presenter. There’s still a lot of ambition on the part of developers but not always a ton of common sense.
However, IBM’s manager of service design and service systems research, Susan Stucky, gave me the most reasonable answer I’ve heard yet about why it’s important to move 2D modalities into 3D. She said that for collaborative telepresence it was very helpful to have access to everything you would normally have access to in a meeting. Speaking with her at the break, she told me how IBM has found that the greatest use of their Second Life investment has come from the ability to bring employees and clients from around the world together into a collaborative space. They’ve held conferences, run meetings, and explored simulations of project management strategies. For her, the ROI was gained by telepresence & simulations.
And for me, I had a breakthrough speaking with Susan. One of the most compelling yet least-obvious values of collaboration in virtual worlds is the sense of embodiment conveyed by the presence of the avatar. Identity, social cohesion, team building, and friendship arise more naturally when those engaged are perceived as physically present. Self-awareness and the projection of self onto others is still quite bound to our physical bodies. Perhaps combining the embodiment of avatars with in-world access to knowledge & productivity tools represents a more effective modality for non-local collaboration. I’m not sure how this compares to video teleconferencing but I feel there’s a lot of depth to be explored in how virtual embodiment reinforces social cohesion & collaboration (attn: PhD candidates).
Other notables: Henry Lowood (Stanford Curator of History of Science, Media, & Genetics) speaking on The Ultimate Archive: building virtual museums of virtual world platforms inside virtual worlds (eg a virtual museum with a room that lets you play the first Doom level as it was originally). He noted both “perfect capture” (all the data can be archived) and “perfect loss” (experiences, emotions, and deleted content cannot be captured) in VW archiving. Sheldon Brown (Center for Research in Computing in the Arts, UCSD) showed his mind-bending work Scalable City and called for procedurally deriving world assets and behaviorally deriving world experiences.
Virtual Worlds have lost funding and are presently in the Valley of Hype. Effective monetization strategies have yet to reveal themselves. However, there is value to the enterprise in leveraging virtual worlds for telepresence and collaboration, simulation & training. The VW community is moving the R&D towards openness: open source components, open standards, interoperability, and engaging with the platforms and principles of social networks to enhance connectivity and move away from the Walled Garden. The most interesting work with virtual worlds continues to be in the deeper realms of behavior, psychology, telepresence, and simulations. Graphically, everyone is apparently stuck in Second Life. A smart, well-funded private investor would build a platform with the competitive graphics capabilities (surface mesh, brep, kinematics, HLSL, etc), a powerful and scalable object model that can push to XML/RDF/RSS, a powerful simulation engine with an expressive visualization/analytics front-end, a REST/JSON API capable of talking to agents, tools, and other VW’s (as well as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, SMS, Playstation Network, XBox Network, etc), integrate ActiveX embedding of 2D tools (Office apps, browsers, etc), enable a content marketplace built around highly expressive and personalizable avatars and fetish objects, and cultivate a 3rd part service ecosystem supporting all of the above.
Is this so hard? ;)
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.
There is a large and fast-moving shift occurring within the landscape of tools & technology. Increasingly, products are dematerializing and being re-engineered as services. This shift is being driven in part by rising production costs and an increasing awareness of the very real environmental impacts of producing durable goods and managing their end-of-life downstreaming into landfills. It is also a response to the rapid digitization of culture pushing many consumables into less tangible data transactions, often mediated through increasingly fetishized devices. Thus, content is becoming disengaged from fixed carriers like disk media and paper and is, instead, flowing through networks and devices.
Perhaps the most iconic and revolutionary example of this trend is the pairing of Apple’s iPod with its iTunes service. For the past 20 years, millions upon millions of cd’s, dvd’s, cases, and printed inserts have been consuming resources, fixing materials into unrecoverable or downcycled hard media and filling landfills. Apple has fundamentally rewritten this paradigm by dematerializing the content – music & movies – and connected it directly with the player. The materials & energetic overhead has been consolidated into a (hopefully) more durable device, freeing the high-volume transactional content from such a large resource burden. While there are manufacturing and reclamation costs associated with the device, the impact is lessened by decoupling those costs from the content.
There have since been an ever-increasing movement away from product towards services, as easily illustrated with the rise of online services within the Web 2.0 age. Digital cameras are another example that, like the iPod, decoupled the relentless production of content from a toxic & non-renewable material carrier – in this case, film & print paper. Likewise, print production itself has increasingly moved away from expensive, wasteful, and toxic inks & papers and has re-targeted to the ubiquity of screens. More & more “print” content – once the domain of magazines, newspapers, brochures, and advertising shwag – has moved away from hard carriers. Again, the pattern shows content being released from material substrates to move effortlessly across networks and devices.
There are a few interesting effects of this trend. Of course, piracy of content becomes considerably easier and cheaper. Content can be copied and moved across networks effortlessly, and copy protection is just another set of bits to be cracked. As Stewart Brand keenly observed, “information wants to be free” and the rapid digitization of culture has radically reinforced this proposition forcing every pre-web industry to completely re-evaluate their business models. Conversely, the bitifying of content and the democratization of powerful desktop authoring tools has empowered and emboldened the historical allure of remixing and massively reinvigorated our cultural creativity. Ironically, in an age that has enabled so many to create so much, the notion of intellectual property has less merit now than ever. When your content contains bits from 10 other pieces of content, who actually owns it? As has been noted by many authors & analysts, the genie is out of the bottle.
But perhaps more interesting are the behavioral and psychological shifts happening in response to these trends. As stuff dematerializes into intangible bits, the fact that we can no longer touch product subtly undermines the very notion of ownership. We begin to abstract our relationship to stuff as something we interact with more than possess. While this is potentially liberating it also makes it easier for content providers to assert total ownership in perpetuity: you’re merely borrowing content through a service provided by the “real” owner. Without direct ownership, are we protected and do we still have the right to share?
With respect to content, personal ownership has shifted to the device – the increasingly fetishized container through which content is constantly flowing. Our smart phones are awesomely empowering extensions of our selves, conferring unimaginable abilities to their owner. The simplest & most intuitive of these devices become second nature, third-hand extensions of our bodies, effortlessly wiring us to each other, to content, and vast stores of knowledge. Of course we fetishize such objects and of course we’ve grown dependent upon them.
Industrialization has regrettably optimized its business model through planned obsolescence, with much hard product designed to time-out and push an upsell to the next model. No doubt the devices we now rely so heavily upon have their own built-in failings, whether intentional or simply as a byproduct of the profit margin incentivised to invest in no more quality than is absolutely necessary. So have the benefits of dematerializing content from cheap carriers been negated by the resource requirements and inevitable breakdown of our devices? Has the energetic and environmental impact spared by going paperless been doubled by the sheer overhead of manufacturing and running vast global server farms? Any real evaluation of the dematerialization of products to services must consider the very large impact of the infrastructure supporting it.
Nevertheless, this is where we’re headed. Mobiles will get smarter & prettier and will be increasingly targeted for content and transient marketing. Screens will continue to multiply at an exponential pace finding their way into all aspects of our lives. Hardware manufacturers will be increasingly beholden to both international standards committees and shareholders to account for the carbon and environmental impacts of their processes. And the notion of object and ownership will continue to be challenged in ways yet unknowable.
I’m at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in San Jose this week.
Mind: blown. Future: amazing.
I’ll post complete notes from lectures I’m attending later this week or (more likely) early next. Stay tuned…