Thursday, June 29, 2006

Product to service: a cultural shift?

A few months back, when the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies did a small project for the South Korean government on construction and transportation, I was put in mind of a service I'd heard about in London, involving pay-as-you-go access to cars scattered around the city (sort of halfway between a taxi service and car rental, but automated). I didn't know the business name then, and couldn't locate a reference, but today I stumbled across a neat link on it. Arguably, this exemplifies a trend from ownership to access (or products-->services). Why own something outright if a more limited arrangement will suffice?

Another, deeper way this trend manifests, I'd say, is in the Bill McDonough-Michael Braungart (Cradle to Cradle, c.f. sustainability) concept of "products of service", whereby non-consumable, hard-wearing products like TVs, cars and carpets are seen as "rented" rather than bought from the manufacturer, which takes responsibility for the fate of those molecules when the product reaches the end of its life cycle. (Consider the European Union directives which apply this notion of producer reponsibility to products including vehicles and electronic goods.)

If this represents a taking of greater responsibility for, or internalisation of, what economists used to be pleased to call "externalities", could it, in turn, be seen to speak of a gradual deepening in our understanding of time? (The "longer now"; a tendency toward what we could call "temporal holism" -- and applaud.)

Let's see: there may be interesting higher-order implications here... On realising that physical products, and the consequences of manufacturing them, outlast their human "owners" by many, many generations, the traditional conception of ownership comes to seem a rather absurd conceit. Life's short! A quote from the film Crocodile Dundee (01986, dir. Peter Faiman): "See those rocks sitting up there? Been standing there for six hundred years. Still be there when you and I are gone. So arguing over who owns 'em is like a couple of fleas arguing over who owns the dog they're living on." (See also this post about The Rocks video which makes more or less the same point.)

Optimistically, then, perhaps our callow Western civilisation is edging towards recognition of the wisdom of what I understand to be the Australian Aboriginal relationship to land -- that people belong to it, not the other way around. Granted, this kind of radical inversion of current "common sense" may seem a far cry from D.I.Y. car rental -- but in light of the above, we could venture to say that they may be not so far apart after all.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Towards a Sceptical Futuryst blogosophy, part II

sceptical (skěp'tĭ-kəl) adj.
Reluctant to take things at face value.
futurist (fyōō'chə-rĭst) n.
An advocate or practitioner of futures.
futures (fyōō'chəz) n.
The study, invention and design of alternative possibilities.

Y: the shape of possibility: bifurcation, divergence, choice, alternativity.
Y: the hybrid; unique in the alphabet for its dual role as vowel and consonant.
Y: the vertical axis against which variation over time is plotted.
Y: the question driving the sceptical agenda.

Some look at things that are, and ask Y. I dream of things that never were and ask Y not?
~George Bernard Shaw (attrib.)

Some people have to go to work and don't have time for all that shit.
~George Carlin

Let's make time.
~The Sceptical Futuryst

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Prediction will eat itself

Since early May, I have been working with the Long Now Foundation, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to encouraging long-term thinking and responsibility, as research fellow on the Long Bets project. Long Bets is based on an ingenious, simple idea. If people want to make predictions about matters of long-term social or scientific importance, let them put their money where their mouth is. Stakes placed on bets, involving two contrary views of the future running head to head, are held in a long term investment fund, and when the matter is settled, perhaps years, decades or more down the track, the money goes to the winner's chosen charity. Money is also put up in support of predictions (one person's statement about the future, no opposing view necessary), which goes towards maintaining the service. The point is that all this behooves participants to think carefully about how posterity will judge their prognostications, and their audience benefits from the availability of relatively well thought-out, succinct supporting arguments.

Four years after the project was launched, the key to what I've been trying to do at Long Now recently is to take what is clearly a long-standing human interest in prophecy -- call it a predilection for prediction -- and leverage it into a more complex and nuanced appreciation of multiple possibilities. (Hence my preferred title for the field I'm in: futures. The "s" is for plurality, multiplicity, unpredictability. This condition is what makes choice possible.) Why would I want to do a thing like that? Because I believe prediction, without more, to be an inherently limited, and often erroneous, if not dangerous, stance towards the future.

A London Financial Times article (subscription required) was sent around at Long Now by Board of Directors member Peter Schwartz last week, on a recent book called Expert Political Judgment. Author Philip Tetlock is a psychologist "who has spent 20 years asking pundits to predict who will win elections, what countries will acquire nuclear weapons or enter the European Union and how the first Gulf war would end. He has tested 30,000 predictions from 300 experts against outcomes. Mr Tetlock finds that his respondents are not very good. They do better than a chimp who answers at random, but not much, and worse than simple forecasting rules based on extrapolation" (John Kay, "The world needs more foxes and fewer hedgehogs", Financial Times, 20 June 02006; see also this excellent review of Tetlock's book by Louis Menand, "Everybody's an Expert", The New Yorker, 5 December 02005).

For those who expect the future to be predictable, assuming that in principle it can be known but that they simply don't quite have the expertise, tools or funding to get at it, this conclusion may come as a surprise. GBN's Jay Ogilvy has made the point well: "modern planners have often assumed that, with enough Enlightenment science in the budget, the future can be predicted and/or controlled. Scenario planning is based on a contrary assumption, that the future cannot be predicted..." (Creating Better Futures, 02002, p. 12). And it's not just "modern planners" who hold this mistaken view; in my experience it's far more widespread than that. Yet, for many of the things that are most important to us -- social, human-level things like our families, communities, workplaces, and countries -- the future is in principle and by definition unpredictable; partly because the predictions themselves feed into the change process.

Tetlock's findings, which indicate that even experts aren't much good at prediction -- that those who ostensibly know the future best, in fact know no more than the rest of us -- are, however, very much in accord with one of the main lessons taught by a long-time academic futurist, Professor Jim Dator at the Hawaii futures program, where I study. Dator's First Law of the Future is, "The future" cannot be "predicted" because "the future" does not exist.

Now, if you're convinced that the future is predictable, you're not going to change your mind here (...I, er, expect). Fine. But stay with me for a moment. Assuming for the sake of argument the basic contention here is sound, what would this mean for Long Bets, and predictive discourse generally? Based on many, many conversations I've had on this point, at this stage quite a few people start to wonder what the hell is going on with a self-proclaimed futurist who believes there's no future to study. As well they may. What we look at, since the future itself is perpetually unavailable for comment, is images of the future. These are the beliefs, hopes, fears, desires, intentions, fantasies, expectations and, yes, actual images of one sort or another, that people carry around in their heads, and express in their art, stories, and above all their decisions; thereby bringing "the future" into being from among the countless possible futures that might have been. Returning to the question above, what this means for predictive discourse is that predictions can make a useful, interesting point of access into futures-oriented discussion (constituting, as they do, a major example of images of the future, albeit a conspicuously overconfident variety). It also means that predictions should not be mistaken for statements of fact about things that have not happened yet. Simply put, what people predict is a useful guide to what they believe and how they plan to act, but one of the dangers of prediction is that, while you're arguing over what the future will be, you're missing the more important discussion about what it could be, and other people may be making the crucial decisions without you.

What this means for Long Bets, as I see it, is that there's an important challenge in diverting some proportion of the prodigious amount of energy that people seem to devote to figuring out what the future "will be", and redirecting it into the exploration, invention and pursuit of what they would like it to be. Dator again: "The point is not to try to predict a better future, but to strive to create one." Similarly, sci-fi writer Bruce Sterling once said in an interview, "Future is not a noun, it's a verb." Long Bets version 2.0 should, then, be a useful broad-based resource featuring all sorts of different images (predictive expectations) of the future, which at first exploits the apparently timeless allure of "the future will be thus and so", but which deepens the discussion unexpectedly and problematises the predictive stance. People may come expecting a noun, but will end up getting verbed.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Mind fuel: ideas banks

I am a great admirer and supporter of initiatives, including but not limited to websites, that endeavour to explore and refine ideas. Voyaging through uncharted possibility space, especially in a collaborative setting, is one of the really great ways to while away the hours on this planet.

Check out:

A UK-based repository of social innovations, voted on by users for originality, feasibility and humour. (A nice example.)

A sandbox that is home to a lively, whimsical castle-building sensibility. (A nice example, which suggested to me that they could feature a long-term thinking section to help generate interest and ideas around projects that aim to encourage foresight, Long Now-style.)

The following also look interesting but I'm less familiar with them:

ThinkCycle: Open Collaborative Design

WhyNot? Idea exchange

Premises, Premises: A peer-enforced marketplace for new ideas

Friday, June 23, 2006

Gaming alternative futures (anything but text)

Last night I caught up with Jerry Paffendorf at an Irish pub in San Francisco. We first met in August 02005 at the World Futures Studies Federation conference in Budapest.

Jerry, who's as articulate, fastidious, and tall (my guess, 6' 5") as anyone I've met in the futures business, has been associated with the LA-based Acceleration Studies Foundation, and sweet-talked Jake Dunagan and me into starting a Futures Salon in Honolulu last year. However, these days he spends most of his time with The Electric Sheep Company (content creators for Second Life) as their futurist-in-residence. The virtual worlds scene is his bailiwick. He was in town for Supernova, a conference concerned with "how decentralization and pervasive connectivity are changing our world". Yes.

So, we discussed the future of scenario planning and agreed that basically, anything is preferable to the composition and transmission of alternative futures in a text-only format. What a shockingly low bandwidth way to try to have people experience genuinely different realities. With so many other communicative options out there, text seems to lack dimensionality.

With this in mind, the stark contrast of the immersive properties and potentials of virtual worlds really appear to come into their own. A user co-designed environment (like the forthcoming game Spore -- check out designer Will Wright's exceptionally informative talk on this) seems to be begging to be integrated with rigorous, realistic models of complex systems used by visualisation-based planning tool providers like MetroQuest. What would such a hybrid look, feel, and behave like?

I don't know. But you can bet it'd be a sight more interactive, compelling and just plain cool than a flat little verbal description. In immersive virtual environments, divergent scenarios can be gamed out by users, who would effectively run vivid social experiments tapping real human intentionality, but in a virtual lab, and evolving (up to) much faster than real time. The social-experiment recursion loop becomes a lot tighter; and a properly analytically informed, yet broad-based in participation, foresightful political process becomes viable for the first time ever.

What better way to breathe life into scenarios than to place life inside them? And what better way to explore and stretch our personal and collective capacity for coping with change than through games?

The rapid development and increasing sophistication of virtual worlds can be discerned in many indicators, if one cares to look; but one of my favourites is Jerry's report that the Salvador Dalí museum recently contacted Electric Sheep, expressing concern about digital versions of the late painter's images being offered in exchange for virtual currency at, a Second Life marketplace. Surely Dalí, a lifetime rebel against the confines of consensus reality, would have loved it -- the irony, I mean, of the legality of electronic versions of his mind-bending surrealist art being patrolled within an entirely virtual meeting place, that is also probably the freest collective visioning space ever known. Surreal, no?

The freedom to engage in social experimentation and expression is surely the single most precious, fragile, and yet unrealised element of our democratic political mythos. Gaming the future, insofar as it implies the possibility of actually doing what we have for centuries only told ourselves we do, could be revolutionary.

(NB The irony of me writing about the sensory impoverishment of text does not escape me; but nor can I escape it, for the time being. Hell, as a conoisseur of irony, sometimes it's nice to be able to give a little back.)

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Cultural fragments on systems thinking

"A risk to own anything: a car, a pair of shoes, a packet of cigarettes. Too many people, too few things. What there is must go into circulation, so that everyone can have a chance to be happy for a day. That is the theory: hold to the theory and to the comforts of theory. Not human evil, just a vast circulatory system, to whose workings pity and terror are irrelevant. That is how one must see life in this country: in its schematic aspect. Otherwise one could go mad."

~J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace, p. 98 (Booker Prize Winner, 01999)

I was struck by this passage when I read Coetzee's novel at the recommendation of my legal theory professor at the University of Glasgow in 02002.

It seems to me that to be able to alternate between the "schematic", systemic, relational view of aggregates and interchanges on the one hand, and the personal, historical, flesh-and-blood view of individuals' particular perspectives on the other -- that's a key challenge. Because, as the quote suggests, the schematic view alone is bereft of certain crucial, human details. But without it, there are many problems we couldn't begin to grasp.

Even rather complex notions can sometimes be stated so simply it's hard to believe. A pop culture take on the same idea:

Only when we get to see
The aerial view
Will the pattern show
We'll know what to do

~Nada Surf, "Inside of Love" (Let Go, 02002)

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Wish you were now allows you to send yourself a letter to the future; an email to be delivered at some specific date up to 30 years ahead -- a bit of friendly advice from the past, a reminder, an announcement, an impassioned soliloquy, or whatever. It's a pretty nifty -- and incredibly simple -- communicative time capsule. You get exactly what you wrote (fidelity) and don't have to remember to do anything about it it (autonomy). A nice added feature on the site -- again, ludicrously simple -- is that you can opt either to make your message wholly private, or public but anonymous. So any of the public entries are available to browse, which is really interesting. Some examples I encountered at random:

Dear FutureMe,
This is a crude example of time travel

(written Sat Dec 31, 02005, sent Sun Feb 19, 02006)
Dear Princess Diana (FutureMe),
On this day, August 23, 2009, it's your 27th birthday. I'm sure you are happy and satisfied with what the good Lord has given you. . . . Your youngest brother is in college. You, look at yourself, you are so beautiful and long-haired lady now. Strive hard to take care for your family and be a good wife and mother someday. I love you and God bless... keep smiling!
Your past self
(December 19, 02005)
Dear FutureMe,

Hey. What's up? This is the furthest I could send this right now. I wonder what things are like in the future while you are reading this. It really crazy that i at 18 can send this to you, who is really me at 48. 30 years in the future. Can you even beleive that you made it this far. Fuckin nuts isnt it.
(written Fri Mar 24, 02006, to be delivered Wed Dec 31, 02036)
Hola! It's You here, from "the past". . . . Anyway, you need to play the lottery from time to time. I have 2 sets of numbers scheduled for a fututre delivery to you. When you get these numbers in this future message, play them on the very next / upcoming drawing. Write them down & put them in your wallet, & make another copy or 2, & put them in other safe places. Then, on occasion, schedule other future messages reminding you to play the numbers. Can you do this? This is an experiment. Unfortunately you can't message ME from the future, & send ME numbers back here in the past. THAT would rock! So we'll try it this way. When you get the numbers, play them.
(written Thu Jun 2, 02005, to be delivered Wed Sep 9, 02015)

I'm intrigued by the idea of communicating over long timespans. Especially with oneself, which adds a layer of existential depth that's playful and serious in equal measures.

This would be a useful pedagogical tool for futures classes; not just the exercise of figuring out what you might like to tell yourself at various times in the future, but also the chance it affords to see how others have thought about it. It's a kind of barometer for attitudes to the future at a personal level.

Of course, with the passage of time, spanners might be thrown into the works at either the receiving end (say, when your email address changes) or the sending end (in the form of a disruption to the service itself). See this December 02005 article from, which is conducting its own experiment in "e-mail time capsules", for further reflection on these kinds of issues. At, if you sign up, you can update your destination email address, which lets you deal with the former problem and puts the ball back in their court to deal with the latter.

In any case, it's ingenious, and I like it a lot.

At this moment, on the site, a line at the bottom reports "282,607 letters written to the future and counting..." Drop yourself a line sometime.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Long-term thinking rocks

This short Oscar-nominated animation, The Rocks (Das Rad, Germany, 02003, dir. Chris Stenner, Arvid Uibel & Heidi Wittlinger: official website; IMDB listing) recommended by my Long Now colleague Alexander Rose a few days ago, whimsically but ingeniously evokes thinking about the difference between time on a human scale, and a geological perspective.

Another perception-shifting exploration of scale, but with a spatial rather than temporal focus, is the classic film Powers of Ten (official website; interactive Java tutorial; Simpsons couch gag). I think I first saw it at an exhibition at the John Hancock Building in Chicago, in 01998. The bird's eye view of the city afforded by that impressive structure's observation deck -- or indeed any aerial view of almost anything -- has a more or less similar appeal to the systems-oriented mind. What Powers of Ten is uniquely able to do, even if it shows severe signs of age stylistically, is to take you from the microscopic to the macroscopic in a vertiginous, brilliantly simple eight minutes of film. It's also a great insight into the power of logarithmic scale.

There is tremendous beauty and endless intrigue in this, as I rediscovered after downloading Google Earth a few months ago -- couldn't stop exploring, skipping between places I've lived in and visited over the last ten years.

Explore and enjoy.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Towards a Sceptical Futuryst blogosophy

"And I should have much stronger Expectations than I dare yet entertain, to see Philosophy solidly establish't, if men would more carefully distinguish those things that they know, from those that they ignore or do but think..."
~Robert Boyle, The Sceptical Chymist, 01661

"We don't know what's coming. We do know we're in it together."
~Stewart Brand, The Clock of the Long Now, 01999

At the time of writing I haven't yet articulated (or posted, anyway) a statement about the purpose and sensibility of this blog, The Sceptical Futuryst. Pending a fuller statement, the two quotations above provide a starting point...

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

FOUND: Ideal site for prime-time human experiment. Only emotionally stable individuals need apply.

I don't watch much television -- apart from those miracles of info-tainment (or should that be edu-comedy?) The Daily Show and now The Colbert Report; America's finest TV news sources, to my mind, and proof positive that stateside, there is indeed a sense of irony to be found. (Like the gallows humour that flourished in Stalinist Russia, United Statesians seem to be cultivating a certain bite in their humour, presumably a kind of coping mechanism as they endure the tragicomic denouement of the great American political experiment.) Anyway, that aside, there's nothing I make a point of trying to catch regularly on TV on the United States. This is partly a comment on my perception of the average quality of the viewing fare on offer, but it's also a reflection of the fact that I generally prefer to spend my time otherwise. Consequently, even phenomenally popular programs can pass me by entirely. And when I do have the misfortune to catch inadvertently a few moments of American Idol (no link here -- for your own good) or whatever the mind numbing flavour of the month may be, after the initial shock wears off I remember how lucky I am not to be exposed to too much of it. However, now that DVDs give TV programs a previously undreamed of afterlife, it's possible not simply to catch up on missed viewing, but to develop and indulge televisual yearnings to an extent unimaginable in the VHS age. In other words, addictions to and binge viewing of particular programs can blossom as never before. And now I have to confess: I'm hooked on Lost.

Chances are you've seen it, or at least heard about it. It's a drama series about the survivors of a plane that crashes en route from Sydney to Los Angeles, on a remote and apparently uninhabited tropical island. The unlikely cast of characters, which between them have an inordinate number of causes for personal angst, secrecy and dishonesty bubbling away in their respective ugly pasts, are thrown together in the most trying of circumstances, and have to learn to live with and trust each other in facing the manifold perils of their new surroundings.

Part of the appeal of this show for me lies in the fact that I live on O'ahu, the Hawaiian island where all the episodes are shot, so many of the vistas seem familiar. Since most flashback scenes unfold in Sydney, as both a sometime filmmaker and an Australian, it's also entertaining for me to see how they've managed to make Honolulu locations look like Sydney ones, with varying degrees of success, and to spot, with a note of triumph, when they actually use an Australian actor with an authentic accent, rather than some American character actor producing what sounds like a monstrous hybrid of Irish and South African, or worse yet, a New Zealander emitting some monstrous, er, New Zealand accent. (Incidentally, Helena Bonham-Carter in Till Human Voices Wake Us is the only plausible Australian accent I think I've ever heard from a non-Australian actor.)

But I digress. I've seen up to the end of the first series of Lost, so can't comment on what's happened since. The point is, I haven't been hooked like this on a TV drama since season one of The Sopranos . Lost is just a damn good show. But why? Yes, it boasts stunning locations and rich cinematography, a good mix of drama and action (and occasionally comedy) buttressed by a melodramatic score -- production values adding up to a genuinely atmospheric, highly cinematic portrayal of "ordinary people in an extraordinary situation". Its structure recalls what has long been one of my favourite films, Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Both make use of closed settings which provide the containment necessary to generate and highlight continual interpersonal conflicts (on Lost it's the island; in RD the warehouse). Both periodically use flashback sequences that relieve stories that would otherwise become monotonous; filling in character and motivation, provides background, and returning to the present moment each time with a richer sense of dramatic tensions between the players. And as a storytelling device it generates a potentially endless stream of MacGuffins on which to hang new plotlines.

But neither technical execution nor structural formula is the key to the show's intrigue. Its premise is intrinsically interesting. In the two-part pilot episode, one of the characters remarks to the effect that when the plane crashed, they all "died". From that angle, here is a free pass, a second chance at life; an opportunity to begin again. Psychologically, a similar idea drives the superb film Fearless (01996, dir. Peter Weir, starring Jeff Bridges). In that film, the central character survives a plane crash and returns to his urban life, but can't function as before. Having flouted death, he's been given a new lease of life, but with complexities in the fine print that find him unable to reconnect with his past relationships. He's now an outsider to his own life, and reinvents himself for want of continuity with the old patterns, the way things were before the disaster. In Lost, by contrast, the stranded characters are preoccupied with their struggle to return to civilization, and for the most part, rather than feeling they've been transformed or given an opportunity, they are haunted by desires, missed chances, regrets and other connections in memory. In other words, some of them are more successfully "dead" than others. Inextricably caught to a greater or lesser extent in the traps of their own histories, each struggles to disconnect with the failures and demons of the past, and to reinvent themselves to meet their new reality on its own terms; to imagine and create a future which isn't solely predicated on passively awaiting a rescue crew which may never materialise.

With so much of the world straining to achieve economic prosperity and independence, which translates to (a largely unnoticed) technological and systemic interdependence at the same time as interpersonal, emotional alienation, this is a challenging TV series because it asks you to wonder how you'd step up to the threats and opportunities of an environment that is at once so hostile and so idyllic. It's a way that the developed world's jetsetting elite, the audience these characters represent, can explore some of its great vulnerabilities, through the vehicle of the island that is at once both a best- and worst-case scenario: ultimate constraint and ultimate freedom. Unlike Lord of the Flies, the book and film which Lost clearly resembles and borrows from in some ways, this is not a dystopian tale of descent into unbridled savagery: it's a delicate and always unstable balance between civilisation and chaos, and their dynamic interplay is the source of most of the drama.

If Lost isn't particularly realistic, who cares? Most of the time, if you pay too much attention, it's utterly absurd (and I'm not just talking about those Australian accents). This is a 21st century fantasy story; it's unapologetically escapist. Realism isn't the point. Think Cube. Think Sphere. Actually, think of any enclosed space containing a small number of people that don't like each other, and limited resources, and you'll find similar dramatic potential. What put them there doesn't matter so much as what you can learn from the human drama that plays out as a result.

There's another aspect here. What an appropriate fable of our times; this unlikely melange of folk from different walks of life forced to cooperate when their assumptions of continuity literally collapse around them. Facing issues ranging from the practical and logistical to the philosophical and even theological, the island's unwilling new residents meet yet more life-threatening challenges and perplexing mysteries on a daily basis. And each individual must fall back on her own resources and ingenuity, or more accurately, be prepared to reach out and expose her own weaknesses, bonding with others in order to survive. The plot may be contrived, but the unconventional mix of characters, dealing with the confines of their predicament, make it compelling viewing.

Now, I've been thinking about my recent experience in Tucson, Arizona. The main reason for visiting that very interesting town was to make a pilgrimage to Biosphere 2. Remember the media hoopla in the early 90s about a group of eight people voluntarily sealing themselves inside a self-contained ecosystem for two years? That was Biosphere 2 -- a grand, expensive, quixotic, noble, misguided, ingenious $150 million-dollar experiment. It's a three-acre glass terrarium, containing five ecosystems, including a .75 million-gallon ocean, located 20 miles north of Tucson in the Sonoran desert. Why "Biosphere 2"? Well, the planet Earth is the original Biosphere. Yeah, this project was that ambitious.

Today, some 20 years after its construction, even though it's open to visitors, Biosphere 2 is not as accessible as it could be. There's no public transport or shuttle service to take you there. It costs US $20 for adult admission, which is totally worthwhile from my point of view, but was apparently too pricey to entice any of my fellow hostellers to join in. After arrangements to share a rental car with two of them fell through, I decided to take a bus to the Tucson city limits, and try to hitch-hike the rest of the way, desert sun be damned. I was motivated in this endeavour by a breakfast meeting I'd had that morning, with one of the Biospherians -- one of the first eight residents of the facility. Jane Poynter, an ecologist who was 29 years old when she was sealed in, with the eyes of the world looking on, is now married to one of her fellow inmates. Over fruit and granola at the delightfully retro-and-loving-it Hotel Congress, we had a fascinating conversation about the past, present and future of Biosphere 2.

One thing Jane mentioned that made an impression on me was that the expectations for this experiment, which hoped to establish the viability of self-contained settlements on other planets, in retrospect seem incredibly utopian because -- it's so obvious in hindsight -- everyone "brought all their shit in there with them". What began as an amicable group of eight ended up dividing into two camps of four, as relations broke down. Now, interesting as the technical challenges of the Biosphere project may have been, to my mind the psychological and micropolitical human aspects of the story are far more interesting. What happens when you put eight people into a confined space to take responsibility for their own survival for a period of two years? In her forthcoming book, The Human Experiment, she tells this part of the story. (To date, the most prominent source I know of that discusses the two-year Biosphere 2 experiment is a Chapter 9 in Kevin Kelly's Out of Control.) I'm looking forward to reading her account.

Meanwhile, though, there's cause for concern over the fate of the facility itself. After its initial, high profile experimental phase in the early 90s, Columbia University used it as a campus and research facility from 01996-02003. Then, in early 02005 it was announced that the site was up for sale, and earlier this year, that it had been sold to a housing developer. For the time being, Biosphere 2 remains open to visitors, but it has the air of a place winding down: a threadbare gift shop; the deserted student residences along the walkway leading to the facility; signage cracked and peeling; exhibits broken and outdated. (If Tombstone was a ghost town turned theme park, Biosphere 2 felt like a theme park on its way to being a ghost town.) Our congenial but absent minded tour guide professed not to know anything about what was going to happen to Biosphere, although the lady at the front counter told me that they were currently engaged in a (presumably lengthy) due diligence process on the property, and would probably still be open to tourists through the year's end. Jane had also mentioned efforts to resurrect a university research program there, and I have to say it would be a monumental shame for Biosphere 2 not to remain open and indeed, to be upgraded and improved with a view to providing further scientific -- and social -- experimental insight as time goes on.

So what do the compelling histrionics of Lost have to do with Biosphere 2? Well, the show has prompted me to share an idea about how to rescue the facility. Why not run another two-year bionaut experiment, this time with cameras everywhere inside, broadcasting 24/7? I'm no friend of "reality TV" -- of course that show is anything but reality TV in any case -- but I'm convinced that if we want to save Biosphere 2, this could be a way to make a virtue of the human complexities associated with high-pressure life in a confined space. There's no need to select clearly dysfunctional individuals, or self-destructive groups consisting of incompatible personalities, in order to generate interest (unlike the apparent strategy of so many reality TV shows). There's scope here really to try, in all sincerity, to make it work as a self-contained small scale colony and ecosphere, the way they tried the first time around. Open up a worldwide competition to a diverse group of the most qualified individuals, eager to prove that they can make the experiment work. Hey, make the prize money go to the group rather than the "last man standing". In short, give it the best possible chance to succeed. If it does pan out; great, it'll be a valuable sociological model for making it work in space. On the other hand, if and to the extent that human conflict does get in the way of these aims, at least it will be informative and entertaining, and -- let's get down to brass tacks here -- revenue generating. Who wouldn't want to watch as highly trained people deal with the emotional challenges of living inside a bubble? Call it voyeurism if you like, but you could also call it insurance against the failure of the human experiment in that remarkable facility out in the Arizona desert, which in my opinion should certainly not be torn down without one more try to make it work on full scale.

Big Brother: Biosphere edition, anyone? TV producers, let's talk.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Wikipedia and the questionable wisdom of crowds

The aggregation of individual opinions, and the collectivisation of many small efforts, is a massive lever for -- and site of -- social change to which our culture is just now awakening, thanks to the evolving affordances of ICT. Wikipedia is the highest profile example at the moment. Its founder, Jimmy Wales, recently provided a very interesting take on this for the Long Now Foundation's Seminars about Long-term Thinking.

Now, in Chicago on 7 June there is a Summit about Prediction Markets -- another testing ground for the principles of collective wisdom (see this example run by the World Economic Forum). The Summit organisers have been distributing some interesting reading matter to delegates via a Prediction Markets google group.

Virtual reality doyen and film director Jaron Lanier's article Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism, argues that the "hive mind" of the collective works exceedingly well for some things, and very poorly for others, but that the current fad for "wikitopian" thinking overlooks or denies the latter. Among the adverse consequences of what Lanier describes as "inappropriate uses of the collective" are compromises on the quality of information (both the content and how it's expressed), and a culture of avoiding individual responsibility. Whether or not you're inclined to agree, it's a very well written and thought-provoking article.

And either way, it's also helpful to develop a vocabulary for the huge amount of activity going on in this area. A possibly useful new term in this connection is "Crowdsourcing" -- Wired magazine's coined buzzword alluding to the latest examples of the ancient idea that many hands make light work. Could there be a more appropriate way to learn more than through this this Wikipedia article?