Saturday, 25 August 2012
Saturday, 7 July 2012
Tuesday, 12 June 2012
Sunday, 13 May 2012
FutureTimeline.net is exactly that, a timeline of the future, kicking off in the year 2000, taking a year by year trip through the 21st Century and then onwards into the far distant future. Rather than being a completely imagined journey, the site bases each prediction on at least one source and, with a little creative interpretation, extrapolates from there (although unfortunately in at least one instance, the source is the Daily Mail – but you have to take the rough with the smooth!).
FutureTimeline’s view of the future is in equal parts incredible, hopeful and terrifying. Being based on loose science fact, rather than entirely science fiction, theirs is not a future in which humanity is exonerated from its own responsibility, but for all the doom and gloom about the environmental impacts of our current way of life, there are equally as many optimistic predictions about our ability to manage these changes and, at least for some of us, to overcome them.
I won’t go into too much detail about the world that they predict (or the predictions that go way beyond our world) but the overall synopsis goes a little something like this: The early part of the 21st Century combines the technological advances made possible by the digital revolution, driving progress in all the major sciences, with the fading of what we could refer to as industrial times. Climate change and resource scarcity provoke conflicts across the globe, particularly in the Middle East and the ever warming Arctic. Throughout the 2030’s and 2040’s we start to break the back of renewable energy with fusion power finally becoming a reality and advances in computer sciences such as quantum computing bring about the dawn of artificial intelligences. This doesn’t help the ever worsening environmental situations in Africa and Asia, which cause food shortages, climate refugees and ever deepening political instability.
Somewhere in the 2050’s we not only land a man on Mars but start to plan our first settlements there, which many of the developed world’s citizens experience through neuroscience-enhanced virtual reality, which is rapidly changing people’s day to day lives. The 2060’s and 2070’s are ravaged by the effects of climate change but with a stable worldwide population and environmentally focused industry and energy generation, extinction rates start to peak. Advanced robotics, artificial intelligence and medical techniques lead to an increasingly blurred distinction between humans and machines and as the century draws to a close the average human will bear little resemblance to those of the end of the previous century (many of whom would still be alive).
The 22nd Century begins much like the last one ends, with environmental disaster and technological advancement completely transforming the planet. Whilst virtually all industry and energy is sustainable, the positive feedback loops triggered in the previous century feed ever greater ecological change. By this time, scientific advancement happens so rapidly that it would exceed the comprehension of 20th century minds and what we would call AI takes over as the predominant decision making force on the planet. Towards the end of the century, humanity has established itself across the local solar system and the environmental catastrophes on Earth finally start to abate. After this somewhat staggering journey, FutureTimeline understandably opts to let the predictions drift off into our science fiction future and provides only a loose narrative for what happens next.
The thing I loved about FutureTimeline, and the reason I’m recommending it, is that it seems to provide something that is missing from our early 21st Century consciousness. For most of us, our current view of the future tends to be relatively short term thinking, without too much concern given to that happening outside of the next few years. Even with the ever darkening cloud of environmental issues, which I think it would be fair to say that the majority of us feel extremely concerned about (and if you aren’t, then you’re in for a bit of a surprise), our thinking tends to be focused on the immediate or forthcoming effect, rather than that on the world of future generations. FutureTimeline, whilst being fun to read (although in a somewhat alarming way), is also a welcome and accessible change to that way of thinking, creating a story of things yet to come that leads us back to thinking about how today’s world might turn out.
When I say that that FutureTimeline provides something that’s missing, what most makes me think this is a rather fond memory of a book I owned as a child. The Usborne Book of The Future was perhaps my favourite book growing up and, much like FutureTimeline, provided a compelling narrative as to how the world might yet develop. As is almost always the case with any sort of predictions, while some of the UBoTF’s estimates weren’t too bad, I think it’s unlikely that the 2020 Olympics will be held on the Moon, space mirrors aren’t providing us night-time lighting and the prevalence of fully electric cars is about 30 years behind schedule - I’m sure many of FutureTimeline’s predictions will end up the same way. Also, amusingly with hindsight, UBoTF missed many of the things we would now take for granted (an obvious contender being no mention of the Internet) and many of its other ideas come across with almost twee Buck Rogers nostalgia, like the apparent desire for everyone to wear unitards!
To complain about the accuracy of the predictions would be to miss the whole point though. Obviously no-one really knows what the future will be like and any serious attempt at guessing can only be made with a hefty pinch of salt. The point of predicting the future is not to be correct but to inspire people to think about what could be done. Growing up, I dreamed of a future with robots and spaceships, solar energy and moonbases. Some of these things are now becoming a reality because others like myself imagined these kinds of futures and tried to think of ways to make them happen. To me, FutureTimeline drew me back into this almost nostalgic view of the future, of a world to come of both terrible and incredible events, and gave me just that little bit of inspiration to do something about it. FutureTimeline is a fun ride, a scary ride, and at the same time, a rather worthy one.
After a little digging, it seems you can download your own PDF copy of the Usborne Book of The Future here, which I heartily encourage you to do. It’s virtually impossible to find in print these days (well, for less than about £20) so should you ever chance upon a “real” copy, then snap it up (or at least let me know and I will).
Monday, 30 January 2012
Goldacre's main point is that, rather than Spotify asking you what you'd like to share, it assumes a default position of sharing everything, all the time. Whilst you can turn these features off, he argues, to do so is unnecessarily complicated and once done, resets itself back to sharing again next time you log in. As he points out in his examples, there are certainly circumstances in which you may not want be sharing music, as your choices would tend to reflect your general mood (e.g. publicising the fact you just listened to Michael Bolton's "When I'm Back On My Feet Again" fourteen times because you just got unceremoniously dumped). His examples are useful, but it seems to me there are wider implications to be considered.
Without reading through Spotify's End User Licensing Agrement in detail, I'm making an assumption, but I would have thought that the terms and conditions of the agreement allow you to consume music for personal use, which would therefore entitle you to broadcast Spotify's music (i.e. not through headphones) throughout your home. This would mean that people who were not you, such as your family or housemates, were essentially getting to listen to the music for free, much like they would if you were playing a CD (as you've done the purchasing). One would also assume that your family or housemates would be entitled to control the Spotify application (it would certainly be extremely hard to enforce the opposite) and so they are in effect accessing the music of their choice for free, again much the same as if they changed your CD to a different one.
Now, considering the above, Spotify, unless told specifically otherwise, would now be posting someone else's musical preferences via your Facebook profile, arguably without either yours or their (direct) consent. There are possibly terms within Spotify's EULA covering this but from a practical position, this seems to be the case.
This is clearly a problem, as, depending on who those users are - your children, for example - you probably wouldn't want this information being made publicly available to your Facebook friends (it's probably worth pointing out at this stage that your Facebook "friends" should be more accurately classified as "people you sort of know, including your friends and maybe colleagues"). Fundamentally, this is also breaking the underlying principles of the Spotify/Facebook integration, as you now have a "many to one" (users to profiles) relationship between the two systems.
From Spotify's point of view, this isn't such a bad thing as, while it no doubt does sell on it's user analytics to third parties, having a greater and more diverse range of music posted to (advertised on) Facebook will only increase the chances it will draw in new paying users. For Facebook however, who are only interested in the statistical data to sell onwards, this is a big negative, as this impacts the accuracy of the data it holds on you and hence its commercial value. A useful way of thinking about Facebook's position was summarised rather eloquently (and now somewhat famously) by the MetaFilter user blue_beetle: "if you're not paying for something, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold".
To me, this kind of "enforced sharing" is inherently a bad thing for social networks, and for privacy in general, and yet is becoming continuously more prevalent as social networks become more dominant in our online lives (not to say this exclusively a problem of social networks, Google has already been doing this for years, but with your IP address rather than profile; social networks just further exposes the issue).
As an example, when recently browsing Facebook, I saw that a friend had read an vaguely interesting article in the Independent, however when I tried to click through to the piece, Facebook demanded I allow the "Independent App" access to my profile first, presumably so it could repost the article under my name. This presented me with a problem - it's not that I thought the article contained anything I wouldn't want others to know I'd read - but why should I post an article to my profile that I only had a passing interest in, in such a manner as to direct others to its attention? Also, why would I want to give the Independent access to the entirety of my profile on the basis of a single article? To me this doesn't feel like sharing, this feels like monitoring.
Consider the difference if, rather than sharing your browsing or purchasing habits of media lke music or news, if yuo were sharing your recent purchases at Amazon, Tesco or Boots. No doubt all of these companies would love for you to be able to advertise for them by posting your transactions automatically online but it's eeasy to see for each why you may not want to: Amazon, perhaps, as you'd be pulicising gifts for others before you got the chance to give them; Tesco because you live off a shameful diet of ready meals and gin; and with Boots I'm sure we can all imagine a number of purchases best left unmentioned. As enforced sharing encroaches further into social networks, perhaps we would all need to be careful as to what we purchase where and how, to prevent unnecessary publication of our activities?
This, however, all comes down to a fundamental problem ingrained in the major social networks; that they all take a single view of you as a user, that all your social interactions are equally weighted and are intended for the same audience, i.e. everyone. This, of course, is not true and 4chan founder (here's a SFW wikipedia link for the un-initiated) Chris Poole sums it up as follows:
"Google and Facebook would have you believe that you're a mirror, but in fact, we're more like diamonds. The portrait of identity online is often painted in black and white, (that) who you are online is who you are offline. But human identity doesn't work like that online or offline. We present ourselves differently in different contexts, and that's key to our creativity and self-expression. It's not 'who you share with,' it's 'who you share as,'. Identity is prismatic."
This multi-faceted approach to online identity can only presently be expressed via the use of different social networks for different purposes. I personally have a Facebook account, a Twitter account and this blog and I tend to use them all for different purposes. This blog is a tool to express longer ideas that tend to be fairly serious and non-personal in nature; my Facebook account is the opposite, a personal feed of random thoughts (banal or otherwise), interactions with friends, invites to parties and so forth, largely not a place I'd feel the need to post up every interesting news article I read and the like; my Twitter account, which I link to this blog, tends to fit somewhere in the middle, intended to semi-serious but with a real-person approach, full of links to content I'd like others to see and fit for worldwide consumption. Of course, there tends to be a little bit of crossover now and then (I'll be posting this blog post everywhere for example) and I've no doubt that it's different for other people, this is just how it seemed to fit in best with me. I'm not picking my audience, I'm choosing how to express myself.
Think about your other online interactions and how they vary - would you want pictures of yourself drunk with friends posted to your professional LinkedIn profile? Probably not. Some fiends of mine are long-time members of a local car forum - would they want everything they post there posted on their Facebook profile as well? Again, unlikely (and would you want to read it if it was?). Of course, the internet is also popular for another, FAR more private purpose - you almost certainly wouldn't want to auto-share your more late-night browsing history or your participation in more adult-themed forums. Our online selves, just like our real selves, have many faces and, increasingly, Facebook, Google+ and the other major social networks don't see it like this.
Without the ability to share what you wish to share in the manner you'd prefer to share it, we are being increasingly forced into the network's view of a person - as a single piece of statisical data around which to sell analytics. In a way, this surprises me as one might think that understanding the way people actually want to share, rather than the way they are forced to would be far more valueable. This, however, likely comes at a cost they're not yet willing to invest in (and why would they? Business is booming!).
For at least the forseeable future, this flattened view of enforced sharing seems to be with us and I for one, where still possible, will be opting out.
Tuesday, 25 October 2011
Today, I found out that a rare Vietnamese sub-species of Javan rhino had been announced as extinct. According to reports, the International Rhino Foundation had been aware of just one individual rhinoceros living in the Cat Tien National Park, followed for over two years by genetic analysis of its dung, and that it had been found shot and killed, presumably by poachers, who had cut off its horn. The Vietnamese Javan rhino was no more.
Having never previously heard of the Vietnamese Javan rhino, I found it quite an odd sensation to learn of its demise and unnecessary plight. An animal that I never knew existed was now extinct and the first time I'd ever heard of it was to learn about it being crossed off God's big list. The tale is lonely, grim and resonating with loss; the last surviving rhino, unaware of both its importance and plight, living its life in the everyday Darwinian battle of the wild, shot dead by men for the price of its horn, for the sake of homeopathic medicine or lavish decoration.
I was surprised that, despite being completely ignorant of this rhino until that moment, I felt somehow complicit in its death, that in some way through either my actions or lack of them, I had played a minor part in this shameful story, that although I may not have pulled the trigger, I might have paid for the gun. For sure, I should feel a sense of loss in the passing of this beast, but should I feel as though I was an actor rather than the audience?
Now, clearly, if I am involved, my part is a small one. I am not, since I last checked, trafficking ivory, financing poachers or purchasing expensive homeopathy. As you would expect, my stance on all of the above rest on the right side of reason, respect and compassion, but is that enough? On the opposite side of the argument, I've never really spoken out or acted for the rights of animals. Apart from the occasional conversation in the pub or at a convenient zoo, my involvement with this sort of thing registers almost nil. I guess I sit somewhere in the middle on the animal rights scale, pro-medical but anti-cosmetic testing, pretty much anti the rest. Perhaps that's a bit more on the left, I don't know, I've never really thought about it.
So taking into account the above, is it my lack of participation in the story of the Javan rhino that grates me? I suppose the answer is a yes, but a frustrated one.
I think I find it frustrating not just because of the seeming impotence of anything that I could realistically have done to save the rhino, but mainly because I never had the chance. Ignorance isn't an excuse, don't get me wrong, but having only learned about the rhino's existence when learning about its extinction, I might have well been reading about the dodo, except it happened today, not in the late 1600's. This is something that every generation after ours will look back on with the same disbelief as we look back on those dodo hunters, drunk with greed, decimating the flightless bird, either unaware or uncaring as to the consequences.
I know I can't compare the lives of the Vietnamese poachers with my own and I think it would be wrong to expect to impose my set of values on them. They're obviously the rhino's executioners in this tale, but the far more powerful judge and jury are the system and societies in which we all live. At the risk of oversimplifying, if there was no demand, there'd be no poaching.
While it might be hard to see exactly where I fit in with the system that killed this particular rhino, it's not so hard to see it elsewhere. There are countless similar stories of endangered animals, exterminated in our drive to mine deeper, or cheaper, to trawl harder, or build further. I would guess that parts of the laptop I'm writing this on, or the phone I'll upload it with, come from such places, were assembled in others and flown here over at the cost of a whole lot more. If asked, would I trade one to bring the rhino back? Probably, who wouldn't? Sadly, that's not an option.
It would be nice to think that from now on that I'll try to be more aware of the criticality of some of the endangered animals around the world, after all they are endangered entirely by us, but it's naive to think that I'll become some kind of eco-warrior. Yesterday's sadness will become today's melancholy, will become tomorrow's memory. Hundreds more species will die at our hands and the vast majority of us will do nothing. We'll buy iPods with conflict rare Earth minerals in them, we'll mine for gold in National Parks, we'll still buy tuna sandwiches and we'll continue to pay for coal-powered electricity.
So what do we do? We live in a system where the real basic choices are taken away from us. Where the decisions that get made are too distant, bureaucratic, disempowering or alien for us to change them or know about them in the first place. We're babies in a pram, spoon fed and almost totally reliant. The Vietnamese Javan rhino is just another unfortunate victim on the way, part of this arching tale of our time, both insignificant and immensely important, and now gone.
I should tell you to be more concerned about where your products come from, to make sure they're responsibly sourced, not to buy animal tested cosmetics; you could also work and campaign to demand more transparency in business and in Government, write letters, get on Twitter, whatever you're good at or at least you could just vote with these things in mind come election time; maybe you're one of those people that can really make a difference. These are your decisions to make and hopefully you'll make them however best suits you. I would like to think that the passing of the Vietnamese Javan rhino at least made me stop and think. It made me write this. It made me want to tell you about it. One lonely rhino dies and the world moves on; let's hope too many more don't have to before it stops. Vietnamese Javan Rhino, I will miss you.
Monday, 29 August 2011
A perpetual motion machine is a something that, once started, will continue to move forever without any further input; think about a swing that once you've pulled the seat back a few feet and let it go, rather than it swinging forward back and forth in ever decreasing arcs, before slowly coming to a rest back in the centre, the swing continues to swing back and forward, always swinging to the same height on each side, never loosing an inch, never coming to a stop, never needing another push to get it back up to speed.
In energy production terms, perpetual motion machines are the Holy Grail. Imagine a power plant that once you chucked in your first shovelful of coal, the big pistons started moving and never needed a second shovelful - it would basically be free energy forever after, no more coal burning, no more pollution; it would change the world.
Unfortunately for us, despite our best efforts, perpetual motion machines don't exist. Coal power stations still need more coal, oil plants still need more oil and my laptop still needs recharging.
This concept of "always more" is synonymous with how we think about our economies. Economically speaking, in order for a country's economy to be doing well, it needs to be growing; if it stops growing, well, the power plant breaks down and we have a recession. This growth is measured mainly using a single metric, Gross Domestic Product or GDP, which is the sum total of everything of monetary value that gets made or sold in a country in a given time period. At its most basic level, GDP is simply the amount of money spent in total by everyone and everything in that country over time (you, me, businesses, government, net exports etc). There are other things that can be used to measure an economy, such as employment and investment levels, but GDP is really the primary factor.
When GDP is growing well, life in that country is generally a bit nicer - employment is up, wages are up, investment is up and so on. When GDP growth is slow you see the inverse happening - high unemployment, lower wages, investment spending cuts. Any of this sounding familiar? Guess which is happening at the moment. Our power plant requires more coal, or economically speaking, we're going to run out of steam.
Perhaps this wouldn't be so bad, globally speaking, if it were only happening to us, but as we know from the relentless torrent of financial doom and gloom in the news, this is happening pretty much everywhere. The US recently shook the financial world with the unprecedented downgrade of its financial rating from triple A as it teetered on the edge of defaulting on its $14 trillion debts, brought on in part by the insane wrangling of the Tea Party and the Eurozone continues to shudder as Greece and other struggling Euro nations have their empty accounts refilled by the more affluent likes of France and Germany, who aren't keen on a third round of ever more expensive I.O.U.s.
This global, or certainly Western, slowdown of GDP growth has been a long time in the making. Since the concept of measuring GDP was invented back in the mid-Thirties, after the massive post-World War Two boom in Western economies started to even out, economy growth rates started to slowly tail off. Over the next decades, on average, growth continued to slow, leaving growth rates between 2000 and 2007 at just 2.7%. When the 2008 financial collapse came about, economies had very little room to play with and since then we,ve seen all manner of innovative ways of trying to prop up the rapidly deflating GDP balloon.
So where does this leave us? Well, not anywhere particularly enjoyable. There seems to be two main schools of thought about how to resolve an economic slump and kickstart an economy, either scale back public spending and cut regulation and tax in the private sector to encourage business growth, as favoured by those on the right, or to raise taxes and increase spending on the public sector side, reinvesting in the economy, which is more favoured by those on the left. Both aim at a net increase in GDP over a given period.
To me though, although I certainly favour one of the above options over the other, the whole concept seems to be based on the premise that successful economies always have to be growing, that no matter what the "real" circumstances of that country are, it must always be doing more; equilibrium is death.
The idea that economic growth is a mandatory factor to success, or even normality, seems somewhat unsustainable. As mentioned above, historically speaking we've seen a general downward trend over the last 50 years or so anyway, so the fact that we now have to force our economies to squeeze out the last tenth of a percentage of growth in order to stay afloat seems not just counter intuitive but completely unrealistic.
Economic expansion, as we know, comes not without its costs; whether industrial expansion and its effect on the environment or financial expansion and its effects upon our debts, these ideas seem to smack of a 20th century ethos, of an unreal so-called "golden era" of naivety that humanity could do whatever it wanted and consequences be damned. The generations before ours have exploited everything they could, have pushed the resources of our planet to the limit, almost to collapse. They have constructed a system so engrained with the military-industrial complex, with every aspect and every level built around a need to always do more, to always build more, to mine deeper, to consume greater, to create a bigger profit. To continue down this path without any kind of miracle cure leads only to a bleak future for those generations after ours; a planet ruined by climate change and environmental destruction, draconian states serving the interests of corporations over citizens, a disparity of wealth distribution so great that it will make the have-nots of today look like landed gentry by comparison. This is all great stuff for a dystopian sci-fi novel, but it's no way to plan our future.
Perhaps as we move into the 21st century, it is time we re-assessed the yardstick by which we measure ourselves, after all, GDP's drive for more is only a construct of our devising. To me it seems, like a lot of the mindset of the 20th century, that the thinking is we have is that because they system is set up in a certain way now, that to change it in any way seems impossible. Since its inception in the mid-30's, GDP may have been the driving force behind the way the world has run but, as we all know, the world is a changing place; old technologies make way for newer ones, governments come and go, nations rise and fall.
Rather than base our world on the coal power plant that always requires more fuel, perhaps we should look to the perpetual motion machine as our inspiration, to the idea that once something has settled into something of an equilibrium, that it requires no further pushing to maintain speed, that perhaps the focus should be on the quality of the parts, rather than how many we can make. Maybe we should allow the more settled Western economies to reach that point of equilibrium, the seemingly inevitable point when growth simply stops and a country reaches what we could call its "potential".
One such example of this is the tiny nation of Bhutan, which is the first nation to base its success on not GDP, but what it calls "Gross National Happiness". GNH attempts to define the success of a nation by determining the quality of life and social progress for its citizens, rather than the sum total of the country's financial worth. While you might initially think this may seem unquantifiable, GNH is actually based around many economic factors such as sustainable development and good governance; as we know from GDP, happy people tend to come from economically successful places, they have jobs, they have education, they have rights. GHN takes into account that the nation of Bhutan, with its 750,000 inhabitants, has a finite amount of resources and therefore once it has reached a moderate economic level, its focus became not that of relentless expansion but more internally focused on of well-being; that's not to say that GNH prevents growth, as increased happiness, as we said, has massive related economic impact, but that growth no longer becomes the only measure of success.
That's not to suggest that GNH is the final answer to the GDP problem, there are several other main contenders out there for measuring economics, for instance the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) measures economic factors of sustainability and welfare of the nation in a similar way to GNH but retains several of the growth-based metrics of GDP at the same time. One of the main drawbacks of both GNH and GPI is their susceptibility to political influence (to measure happiness, you must first define what happiness is) but one would perhaps naively hope that at a global level that a general definition could be found.
It's my view that over the first half of this century, the world will change a great deal. Perhaps by refocusing the way we measure our success at a global level, we can ensure that some of that change will be for the better. Perhaps the first perpetual motion machine should be not one that produces energy and powers our homes, but one that powers our thinking, that drives our achievements, one that provides a sustainable future for the generations after ours.
Hello, well done if you made it this far, much appreciated! As I've put this post together using my phone, there are no links included in the above text; I assure you there are some, I've not just made it all up! I'll put them in when I'm next near an actual computer. I hear there's this great website called Google which is full of links to useful information, so you should try that in the mean time. Until then, yours, always looking forward (uncertainly), Luke.
ps. If you wanted to retweet / share this post while you're at it, that'd be most appreciated too...