Jamais Cascio at Inkwell

Jamais Cascio
Jamais Cascio

Futurist Jamais Cascio is holding forth about scenarios, foresight, and climate change at Inkwell on the WELL. If you have comments or questions for the conversation, send to inkwell at well.com.

So here’s one of the nasty, generally unstated truths about climate disruption: by and large, the rich countries (the primary historical source of greenhouse gas emissions) will very likely weather climate disruptions much more readily than poor countries (historically *not* greenhouse powerhouses). This is in part due to geography — the equatorial region’s going to get hammered by global warming, and the closer-to-the-poles regions less so — but mostly due to money. The US, Europe, and Japan will be more able to afford to adapt than will China, India, or other up & coming developing nations. Australia is an exception on the geography side, and a test case in how well a rich nation can adapt.

At least in the near-medium term; left unchecked, climate disruption hoses everyone by the end of the century.

Your sense that the Pacific Northwest is one of the better places to go in the US is probably accurate. Not sure that Seattle itself is a good spot, simply due to how close it is to sea level. Portland’s a decent option, though.

Texas residents should pay close attention to what’s happening in Australia right now — that’s your likely (uncomfortably near) future.

As a general rule, you want to be further north and well above sea level. Storm systems in the western Atlantic seem to be getting charged by climate disruption more so than storms in the eastern Pacific, so you’ll probably want to be well away from the coastline in the US Northeast. Also, bear in mind that global warming means increased (a) energy in the atmosphere (driving storms) and (b) ability for the atmosphere to hold moisture, so winter storms will probably be bigger deals.

Europe’s problem is that most of the northern cities and regions aren’t accustomed to very hot summers, and don’t have the necessary infrastructure to withstand the heat (remember the heat wave that killed thousands in Europe a few years ago — they were by and large killed by the lack of air conditioning). That’s not impossible to fix. Power lines/stations that aren’t built for the heat may be a bigger issue.

To be clear, nobody gets a pass on the impacts of global warming. Water access, loss of farmland, internal population displacement*, novel pests & diseases will be big problems in the rich countries as well as the poor — it’s just that the US, etc., will have more resources to draw from to deal with these problems.

David Weinberger: Too Big to Know

David Weinberger

I’m leading a discussion on the WELL with David Weinberger, inspired by his latest book, Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room. David’s been writing about the transformation of knowledge in the Internet era, in the book and sometimes on his blog.

Link to the discussion.

the central hypotheses of the book is that knowledge is moving (= has moved) from living in skulls, books, and libraries to living on networks and the Net.

So, if you want to know about some topic beyond the occasional fact, you’re likely to spend time on some network on the Net. It might be a mailing list, or a Google hangout, or Reddit, or a set of web sites… In fact, The Well provides a convenient example, and also lets me do some basic pandering. (Love ya, The Well!) A network of people connected in discussion and argument know more than the sum of what the individual people know. In that sense, knowledge lives in the network.

For me, the most interesting aspect of this is another of the book’s hypotheses: Knowledge is taking on the properties of its new medium, just as it had taken on properties of the old. Among those properties: networked knowledge is unsettled, and includes differences and disagreements that traditional knowledge insisted on removing (or at least marginalizing).

Time and the brain

Burkhard Bilger in The New Yorker profiles David Eagleman, a brilliant researcher who’s studying the brain, consciousness, and the perception of time. At a personal level I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years studying and trying to comprehend my own degrees and levels of consciousness and perception. We think of our “conscious experience” as a constant, and our unconscious as inaccessible… but through attention we learn that there are gradations in the range of conscious to “un-” or “sub-” conscious experience; that perceptions can vary with context; that memory is selective and undependable; that our perception of the world is generally incomplete though we do a good job of filling the gaps. When David Eagleman was a child he fell from a roof and realized that his perception of time had changed as he was falling. Now he’s doing evidence-based research to determine how people experience the world, what are the variations, how does the brain work and how does the mind work?  Read about it here. If you know about similar studies and writings, please post in comments.

Bruce Sterling’s talk via live tweet

Bruce Sterling at SXSW 2011
Bruce Sterling at SXSW 2011

I live-tweeted Bruce Sterling’s talk at SXSW Interactive. Here are the tweets… in reverse chronological order, so read ’em backwards.

  • “Women of Italy, cast away all the cowards from your embraces.” SXSW looks like a new world because it’s got women in it.
  • Closing with a Garibaldi quote. “I offer only hunger, thirst, forced marches, battle, and death.” And people went for that.
  • This is an era of organized deception! Days of rage, baby. Be realistic, demand the impossible.
  • “Move to Austin, take over the town!”
  • You need to take power, millenials. I’ll vote for ya! You need a global youth movement.
  • Boomers, shut up! What you should study now is collaborative consumption, technomadism.
  • Young people are the victims of a decaying status qo.
  • They pretend to govern, we pretend to obey.
  • Who would save us from the BP? We’re incapable of rapid deciseve action, and the world demands that sometimes.
  • What worries me is the response to things that take courage and virtuosity and passion to work out, like disaster response.
  • Obese people in the US: “Imagine if the Statue of Liberty looked like that.” It brings out one’s inner Bill Hicks.
  • Catholic Church borgia-like devil’s bargain with Berlusconi to get the legislation they want.
  • Republicans: “a joke to anyone outside the range of Fox News.”
  • People don’t want to throw Berlusconi out, because they fear some kind of economic upheaval.
  • Talking about Berlusconi – he’s a head of state behaving like Hugh Hefner. This is a big deal in Italy.
  • ExxonMobil are not the only political malefactors, they’re just the best connected.
  • ExxonMobil is the personification of corporate evil. (applause)
  • You cn do whatever you want to a microbe and no hippie will show up with a protest sign. Microbes are not in the Bible.
  • Beautiful social network for synthetic biology: http://bit.ly/ei4Wja (expand)
  • Craig Ventner was at SXSW because he’s trying to reframe 20c genetic engineeering as 21stc synthetic biology.
  • In our society, we don’t have any passionate virtuosity.Our political situation is the opposite,disgusted incompetence.
  • We’ve got a series of problems that are poorly recognized.
  • Passionate virtuosity…. the ideas in Worldchanging 2.0 are passionate but lack virtuosity.
  • Bruce Sterling shows Worldchanging 2.0 (the book) at sxsw.
  • As a design critic, I criticize stuff that doesn’t exist yet.
  • Polarizing brand management. Culture wars. Politics from POV of a design critic.
  • All the political language has been rendered toxic.
  • “There are people here who are younger than the event.”
  • At Southby, science fiction authors talk like they know what’s going on.

Gary Chapman

Hearing via Twitter that my friend Gary Chapman of the LBJ School has died. News of his death was posted by Isadora Vail of the Austin American Statesman. No details yet. I had just emailed Gary today asking for his support in putting together an Austin Wikileaks Summit. [Update: Statesman article by Vail reporting that Gary died of an apparent heart attack.]

Gary was a visionary thinker, always exploring the edge of emerging technologies… and he was a fine guy and a good friend. I interviewed him for the Austin Chronicle in 1999. [Link]

I think that a lot of people in the technology policy community feel there’s a kind of vacuum with respect to crafting a vision for why the United States should invest in science and technology in the future. That’s seen as a liability in forming consensus about what we should be investing in, but also an opportunity for helping craft a new vision.

The last organizing principle of technology policy was the Cold War, and that lasted for 50 years. But that’s pretty much over, and now we need a new organizing principle. It’s not clear what that’s going to be. There’s been a de facto consensus around global economic competitiveness, but that doesn’t really seem to have the same kind of glue that the Cold War rationale had. So I think there’s still work to be done on crafting the vision, and I think there’s certain pieces that have to go into it:

(1) Sustainability, that is, its relationship to the natural environment and our ability to build an economic system that doesn’t deplete the earth’s resources.

(2) Global commerce that is not solely competitive, but cooperative in nature as well.

(3) Social justice and equity issues, so that we don’t end up with technology policy that just favors the wealthy. That would have to take into account vast disparities in education and literacy and access to economic resources.

(4) A technology policy that’s democratic, and that offers the opportunity for people who are not scientific and technological experts to help craft it.

Iraq 2006: a bag of words

How to make sense of Wikileaks data? One way is visual analysis, as we see here, via Jonathan Stray of Associated Press:

Click the image for the high res version.

Stray and Julian Burgess created a visualization using data from December 2006 Iraq Significant Action (SIGACT) reports from Wikileaks. That was the bloodiest month of the war, and the central (blue) point on the visualization represents homicides, i.e. clusters of reports that are “criminal events” and include the word “corpse.” These merge into green “enemy action” reports, and at the inteface we have “civ, killed, shot,” civilians killed in battle. Stray tells how this was done, with some interesting notes, e.g.

…by turning each document into a list of numbers, the order of the words is lost. Once we crunch the text in this way, “the insurgents fired on the civilians” and “the civilians fired on the insurgents” are indistinguishable. Both will appear in the same cluster. This is why a vector of TF-IDF numbers is called a “bag of words” model; it’s as if we cut out all the individual words and put them in a bag, losing their relationships before further processing.

As a result, he warns that “any visualization based on a bag-of-words model cannot show distinctions that depend on word order.” (Much more explanation and detail in Stray’s original post; if you’re interested in data visualization and its relevance to the future of journalism, be sure to read it.)

Thanks to Charles Knickerbocker for pointing out the Stray post.

Steven Berlin Johnson: good ideas

On October 20, I caught Steven Johnson’s talk at Book People in Austin. I’ve known Steven since the 90s – we met when he was operating Feed Magazine, one of the early web content sites. After Feed, Steven created a second content site, actually more of a web forum, called Plastic.com.

Starting with Interface Culture, Steven has mostly written books, and is generally thought of as a science writer, though I think of him as a writer about culture as well. His book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software was a major influence for those of us who were into social software and the percolation of “Web 2.0.” I related it to my earlier “nodal politics” thinking, and it influenced the collaborative paper created by Joi Ito et al., called “Emergent Democracy.” Steven wrote an analysis of the Howard Dean Presidential Campaign for the book I edited with Mitch Ratcliffe, Extreme Democracy.

When Steven wrote The Ghost Map, he came to realize that the story breaking the cholera epidemic in London in 1854 was more complicated than he had realized. John Snow is credited with identifying the source of the cholera (in water, not airborne as many thought), but he wasn’t working in a vacuum. Among others, Reverend Henry Whitehead assisted him, and it was Whitehead that located the index patient or “patient zero” for the outbreak, a baby in the Lewis House at 40 Broad Street. Ultimately the discovery that cholera was water-borne, and that the 1854 outbreak was associated with a specific water pump in London, was collaborative, a network affair. Realizing this, Steven wanted to know more about the origin of great ideas and the spaces that make them possible in both human and natural systems.

Before he got to his current book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven looked at the history of ecosystem science and found himself studying and writing about the life of Joseph Priestley, and publishing The Invention of Air. Ostensibly about Priestley, his discovery that plants produce oxygen, and his other contributions to science and nascent American democracy, the book is also about the conditions that contribute to innovation in science and elsewhere, including, per a review in New Yorker, “the availability of coffee and the unfettered circulation of information through social networks.”

These books form a trilogy about worldchanging ideas and the environments that make them possible. From what Steven learned in researching and writing them, he’s ready to dismantle the idea of the single scientist or thinker reversing or disrupting common paradigms with a eureka moment or flash of insight. That flash of light is the culmination of a longer process, 10-20 years of fragments of ideas, hunches that percolate and collide with other hunches. And there’s usually no thought of the impact of an idea. Tim Berners-Lee didn’t set out to create the World Wide Web, he was just scratching his own itch.

Good or great ideas emerge from what Steven calls “liquid networks,” clusters of people hanging out and talking, sharing thoughts in informal settings, often in coffee houses. The people who innovate and produce good ideas tend to be eclectic in their associations – they don’t hang out with people who are just like them, they’re exposed to diverse thinking.

This aligns with my own thinking that we should have idea factories that bring these diverse sets of people together… this is what I’ve seen as the real promise of coworking facilities and various other ways of bringing creative mixes of people to rub their brains together and produce sparks.

Here are three stray thoughts expressed that I really liked, that came up in Q&A:

  1. Error and noise are important parts of the process of discovery. You can’t advance without ’em.
  2. A startup is a search algorithm for a business model.
  3. There’s a thin line between saturation/overload and productive collision.

Photo by Jesús Gorriti

Science, lies, evidence, knowledge

In so many fields, owing to the Internet-driven democratization of knowledge, we learn that that the power associated with hoarded knowledge has been abused, and the position of leadership – the priesthood – associated with the acquisition of knowledge has been leveraged to manipulate and deceive. “Everything you know is wrong!”

David Freedman has a great article in the Atlantic about medical deception, called “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science,” which focuses on Dr. John Ioanniddis’ dedication to exposing bad science in medicine.

He’s what’s known as a meta-researcher, and he’s become one of the world’s foremost experts on the credibility of medical research. He and his team have shown, again and again, and in many different ways, that much of what biomedical researchers conclude in published studies—conclusions that doctors keep in mind when they prescribe antibiotics or blood-pressure medication, or when they advise us to consume more fiber or less meat, or when they recommend surgery for heart disease or back pain—is misleading, exaggerated, and often flat-out wrong. He charges that as much as 90 percent of the published medical information that doctors rely on is flawed. His work has been widely accepted by the medical community; it has been published in the field’s top journals, where it is heavily cited; and he is a big draw at conferences. Given this exposure, and the fact that his work broadly targets everyone else’s work in medicine, as well as everything that physicians do and all the health advice we get, Ioannidis may be one of the most influential scientists alive. Yet for all his influence, he worries that the field of medical research is so pervasively flawed, and so riddled with conflicts of interest, that it might be chronically resistant to change—or even to publicly admitting that there’s a problem.

At e-Patients.net, Peter Frishauf writes a response to the Atlantic article, called “Fixing those Damn Lies.” How do we fix them? The Atlantic piece discusses Ioannidis’ suggestions to change the culture of medical research, and reset expectations. It’s okay to be wrong in science – in fact, it’s almost a requirement. The scientific method is about testing and proving hypotheses – proving can be “proving wrong” as well as “proving right.” Either way, you’re learning, and extending science.

Frishauf also mentions how medicine and science should embrace the Internet “and figure out a way to better incorporate patient self-reported and retrospective data in trials,” which is one goal of participatory medicine. He also suggests “giving up on tenure-tied-to-the-peer-reviewed-literature, and embracing a moderated form of pre and post-publication peer review,” something that came up in discussion when I spoke at the Central Texas World Future Society Tuesday evening. (More about this in an earlier e-Patients.net post by Frishauf.)

Knowledge is not a citadel or ivory tower, but a network that we could all be working, challenging, and improving.