Beyond SoLoMo

I can take a photo of a check and deposit it in my bank account, then turn around and find a new book through a Twitter link and buy it, all while being surveilled by a drone in Afghanistan and keeping track of how many steps I’ve walked.

The question is, as it has always been: now what?

via The Jig Is Up: Time to Get Past Facebook and Invent a New Future – Alexis Madrigal – Technology – The Atlantic.

Alexis Madrigal looks at what lies beyond social-local-mobile.

Arctic Futures

[Cover_Arctic] Image: Ray Bartkus

Imagine the Arctic in 2050 as a frigid version of Nevada—an empty landscape dotted with gleaming boom towns. Gas pipelines fan across the tundra, fueling fast-growing cities to the south like Calgary and Moscow, the coveted destinations for millions of global immigrants. It’s a busy web for global commerce, as the world’s ships advance each summer as the seasonal sea ice retreats, or even briefly disappears.

Much of the planet’s northern quarter of latitude, including the Arctic, is poised to undergo tremendous transformation over the next century. As a booming population increases the demand for the Earth’s natural resources, and as lands closer to the equator face the prospect of rising water demand, droughts and other likely changes, the prominence of northern countries will rise along with their projected milder winters.

The WSJ describes the race North to capture newly accessible resources, in an excerpt from Laurence C. Smith’s book The World in 2050.

History Heuristics

Recap of a fantastic-sounding Long Now talk, reprinted in full from my inbox and the Long Now blog.

The concepts Frank Gavin introduces in his talk “Five Ways to Use History Well” are not just useful in analyzing the past, but are critical for interpreting the present.

Why do policy makers and historians shun each other? Gavin observed
that policy people want actionable information, certainty, and simple
explanations. Meanwhile historians revel in nuance, distrust simple
explanations and also distrust power and those who seek it. Thus
historians keep themselves irrelevant, and policy makers keep their
process ignorant.

Gavin proposed five key concepts from history that can inform
understanding and improve policy dramatically…

–Vertical History. What are the deep causative patterns behind a
current situation? For example, America’s deep involvement in the
Mideast appears to be caused by concern about oil and terrorism and
by support of Israel. But none of those elements applied in the
mid-60s when we dove into the Mideast. Britain was Israel’s keeper
in those days and in financial trouble, the US was overextended in
Vietnam and in financial trouble, and Soviet influence was the main
threat in the Mideast. After the profound shock of the Six-Day War
in 1967, Britain withdrew and America took over on the cheap with its
“Pillar Strategy”—we would support Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
That arrangement drives everything today, and policy people have
almost zero memory of its origins.

–Horizontal History. The interconnecting events of a particular
moment—all the things simultaneously on the plate of a decision
maker—profoundly affect decisions. For example, Presidents Kennedy
and Johnson in the 60s were obsessed with America’s balance of
payments deficit and had to draw down our troop commitment in
Germany, but Europe was obsessed with keeping Germany from building
nuclear weapons, and so the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was
invented as a workaround. That situational artifact leads US policy
40 years later.

–Chronological Proportionality. “The New York Times always gets it
wrong, and they’re the best of the media,” Gavin noted. Dramatic
events take our attention away from what’s really going on. For
example, the Vietnam War dominated American attention in the 1960s
and still looms large in every policy discussion. But the war was of
no real geopolitical consequence, particularly when compared with the
huge consequences from other little-noted 60s events—the Six-Day
War, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, growing stability in
Central Europe, and the thaw in relations between China and America.
That raises the question: what is Afghanistan distracting us from
these days?

–Unintended Consequences. Suppose America had won in Vietnam? We
would have had to commit huge resources to Southeast Asia
indefinitely, and China and the USSR would have had to ally in the
face of our military presence there. With our humiliating defeat,
China and the Soviets split permanently, China and the US became
friendly, and America profoundly reassessed and improved its own
policies and institutions. So it goes in real life: things turn out
differently than we expect.

–Policy Insignificance. What policy people do is often not the main
event at all. For example, in the mid-70s policy makers in
Washington were trying to fix an America they saw in a steep decline
and locked in an endless Cold War. They paid no attention to three
events going on in California. Apple’s computer in 1976 signaled a
coming American dominance in computer and information technology.
Also in 1976 a California wine (Stag’s Leap) defeated the best French
wines in a blind-taste contest, signalling our competitiveness in
high culture internationally. And in 1977 “Star Wars” became the
highest-grossing film ever, signalling American dominance of world
pop culture. America’s greatest economic and cultural boom took off,
totally without Washington’s involvement or even awareness.

During the Q&A Galvin noted that Kennedy got the Cuban Missile Crisis
right by locking all the dangerous heavy-hitters in a small room for
thirteen days while he applied his own “historic sensibility” to
finding a back-channel way to defuse the crisis rather than
exacerbate it. These days, Gavin observed, policy people are
worrying excessively about terrorism and nuclear weapons
proliferation when in fact nuclear weapons are on the wane everywhere
and have been for decades.

Historians, he said, can bring a well supported, authoritative,
helpful message to the public discourse and to policy makers at such
times: “Don’t freak out.”

–Stewart Brand

Future Fatigue

William Gibson:

Say it’s midway through the final year of the first decade of the 21st Century. Say that, last week, two things happened: scientists in China announced successful quantum teleportation over a distance of ten miles, while other scientists, in Maryland, announced the creation of an artificial, self-replicating genome. In this particular version of the 21st Century, which happens to be the one you’re living in, neither of these stories attracted a very great deal of attention.

In quantum teleportation, no matter is transferred, but information may be conveyed across a distance, without resorting to a signal in any traditional sense. Still, it’s the word “teleportation”, used seriously, in a headline. My “no kidding” module was activated: “No kidding,” I said to myself, “teleportation.” A slight amazement.

No wireless. Less space than a Nomad. Lame.

As a former management consultant at a firm that specialized in scenario planning, I love reading the sweeping statements and predictions people have made that have turned out to be wildly wrong.

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
— Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
— Ken Olson, head of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977

When you look closely, though, you find it is rare that the speaker was explicitly attempting to predict the future. The statements are instructive precisely because the speakers were not attempting to predict the future, just to describe the world as they saw it at that time.

This is why the statements are so fascinating to me — they show us our old mental maps of how we thought the world worked, and reveal to us how wrong we were. This can be jarring, because we don’t often realize the subtle calibrations we constantly make to our mental maps in response to an ever-changing present.

When the gap between where someone thought the world was going and where it actually went is big enough, we see start to see that as a failed prediction – albeit an inadvertent one. Here are a couple infamous “statements about the present” from the tech field:

Slashdot on the release of the iPod:

“No wireless. Less space than a Nomad. Lame.”

Screen shot 2010-01-27 at 11.22.55 AM.png

Techcrunch on the launch of Twitter:

“I imagine most users are not going to want to have all of their Twttr messages published on a public website.”
“How do [Odeo] shareholders feel about side projects like Twttr when their primary product line is, besides the excellent design, a total snoozer?”

Screen shot 2010-01-27 at 12.03.24 PM.png

You can’t blame these guys for “getting it wrong.” Like Jim Cramer, their job is making near-instant judgement calls on highly speculative things. In fact, that’s basically what we’re all doing here in the present.

But once you have that future-historical view in mind, it starts coloring how you read things, like…

Crunchgear commenters on today’s launch of the Apple iPad:

“Epic fail. No multitask. No flash. Wifi only (WTF!).”
“A large iPhone without a camera. I’m not all that impressed.”

Screen shot 2010-01-27 at 11.20.32 AM.png
Screen shot 2010-01-27 at 12.16.26 PM.png

Now I’m not saying they’re not right. I’m just saying take a moment to think of Thomas Watson, Ken Olson, Commander Taco, and Mike Arrington before you start typing.

Whole Earth Discipline


Stewart Brand is an intellectual magpie, drawing on an incredibly wide variety of sources for his new book Whole Earth Discipline. Fans of Brand will not be surprised at much of the content, as he has written earlier on similar subjects: the scope and scale of climate change, the dynamism of megacities, the controversy and promise of genetic engineering and nuclear power. What’s new is the synthesis of all of these subjects into a narrative and argument that compels you with its strength while bewitching you with its range.

Brand has put much of the text online already to create an annotated version with links, photos, and source material — which is either an unbelievable resource or the end of your productivity for the week, depending on the degree of your willpower. If you never emerge from this list of recommended reading, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The hard copy version of Whole Earth Discipline launches today. Buy it here.

Gleaning PII from the space-time-travel trail

IBM technologist Jeff Jonas thrives on big data sets and personally identifiable information (“PII”). He built his career catching Vegas casino cheats by correlating database records, and now develops “next generation identity analytics” at IBM. I don’t consider myself a privacy fanatic, but I still count a document Jonas compiled on the vast amount of PII and transactional data captured by private companies to be one of the most alarming things I’ve read. (See for yourself: Appendix H, “The Landscape of Available Data” in The Markle Foundation Task Force’s Creating a Trusted Network For Homeland Securityfull doc PDF).

So when Jeff Jonas’ head starts spinning about the privacy ramifications of the mobile device location data that cell phone providers have access to, it behooves one to pay attention. From his blog post on “space-time travel data,” a sampling of items your mobile provider could identify:

(a) The top 10 places you spend the most time (e.g., 1. a home address, 2. a work address, 3. a secondary work facility address, 4. your kids school address, 5. your gym address, and so on);

(b) The top three most predictable places you will be at a specific time when on the move (e.g., Vegas on the 215 freeway passing the Rainbow exit on Thursdays 6:07 – 6:21pm — 57% of the time);

(c) The first name and first letter of the last name of the top 20 people that you regularly meet-up with (turns out to be wife, kids, best friends, and co-workers – and hopefully in that order!)

(d) The best three predictions of where you will be for more than one hour (in one place) over the next month, not counting home or work.

The Future is Big in the Present

Former GBN co-worker and Worldchanging buddy Jamais Cascio is in the spotlight this month with two simultaneous big media articles: a WSJ story on geoengineering and an Atlantic story on enhanced cognition.

Both have been long-time interest areas of many futurists and foresight groups, but rarely have they gotten airtime like this. Cheers to Jamais for introducing these concepts to a much wider audience while pushing the conversation forward.

My favorite part of the Atlantic piece:

As processor power increases, tools like Twitter may be able to draw on the complex simulations and massive data sets that have unleashed a revolution in science. They could become individualized systems that augment our capacity for planning and foresight, letting us play “what-if” with our life choices: where to live, what to study, maybe even where to go for dinner. Initially crude and clumsy, such a system would get better with more data and more experience; just as important, we’d get better at asking questions. These systems, perhaps linked to the cameras and microphones in our mobile devices, would eventually be able to pay attention to what we’re doing, and to our habits and language quirks, and learn to interpret our sometimes ambiguous desires. With enough time and complexity, they would be able to make useful suggestions without explicit prompting.

Does anyone else see a glimmer of this future in Hunch?

Demography (revised) is destiny (re-envisioned)

Informative piece from the Wilson Quarterly on recent demographic projections. With such a long-term view, it is typical for small changes in assumptions (e.g., country birthrate shifts) to register major changes in actual numbers. What is atypical, however, is how quickly many of our demographic assumptions have shifted over the past few years.

Something dramatic has happened to the world’s birthrates. Defying predictions of demographic decline, northern Europeans have started having more babies. Britain and France are now projecting steady population growth through the middle of the century. In North America, the trends are similar. In 2050, according to United Nations projections, it is possible that nearly as many babies will be born in the United States as in China. Indeed, the population of the world’s current demographic colossus will be shrinking. And China is but one particularly sharp example of a widespread fall in birthrates that is occurring across most of the developing world, including much of Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. The one glaring exception to this trend is sub-Saharan Africa, which by the end of this century may be home to ­one-­third of the human ­race.

via Paul Kedrosky

What Would Change Everything?


The 2009 EDGE annual question is out: “What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?” Given that there are over a hundred responses from the Brockman mafia of brainy third culture types so far, I decided to condense the text of every answer into a Wordle in hopes of one-stop grokking. Full size version is here.

Favorite answers after the jump: Continue reading “What Would Change Everything?”