December 21, 2012

The End of the World Didn't Happen Today

Just one of many ways to bring it all to an end.
On this day, according to the Mayan Calendar and the hordes of New Age experts who make their living looking for such portents, the world will have ended. Again.

We like the end of the world. Hundreds of millions of dollars a year go into exploring various and sundry ways the world will end - in TV shows, movies, video games, novels, even serious conferences. Asteroid strikes, tsunamis, earthquakes, black holes, rogue planets, expanding suns, supernovae, killer biohazards, the plague, nuclear war, zombie infestations, rogue weather, Chthulu-esque demi-gods, vampires vs. werewolves, strangelets, divine retribution, global flooding, alien invasions, Nemesis, Aphosis, false vacuum phase shifts, brane collisions, it's rather remarkable just how many ways there are to turn out the lights, once and for all.

There's something eminently satisfying about going out with a bang, like the dinosaurs did when an asteroid slammed into the Gulf of Mexico 65 millions years ago. Except they didn't, really. Oh, no doubt there were quite a few dinosaurs for which that fateful collision truly was the end of their world. However, the day after the asteroid, there were still quite a few T-Rexes wandering around - a bit dazed and confused perhaps, but they still managed to successfully take down a stegosaurus or three for breakfast. They were there a week later, and a month ... indeed, by all indications they were still going two or three million years after Game Over.

What ultimately did the dinosaurs in was bad weather. In India the collision of a breakaway piece of Antarctica and the Asian subcontinent had caused the crust to become particular thin over a hot spot region deep within the Earth's core, and it opened up a whole series of volcanoes, initially cooling the atmosphere with all of the sulfur being released, but ultimately warming it again as nickel, normally held deeply within the core of the Earth, made its way in great concentrations to the surface. As it cooled, the nickel provided a critical substrate necessary for the flourishing of a form of methanogen, a methane consuming microbe that generated copious amounts of carbon dioxide. In the end, the planet became too hot for the plants which fed the huge appetites of the stegosaurs which in turn fed the t-rexes, and the giant dinosaurs that needed vast amounts of food to support themselves ultimately ended up starving (or more likely dehydrating) to death. Meanwhile, the much smaller mammals and tiny dinosaurs that could get by on a miniscule fraction of the food survived, the mammals by burrowing and hibernating, the dinosaurs by taking to the air. This happened over the course of two to to three million years, still relatively fast by evolutionary standards, but far from the "death raining from the sky" eye-blink that makes for such good cinematic fodder.

 We like "game over" endings. A good ending makes for a satisfying read, and a poor one, one where too few threads get tied up, makes us feel dissatisfied with the work. You want the villain to be dead at the end - want so that he can't get back up and menace the heroes one more time. You want the prince and princess to get married to resolve that awful teenage-angsty hormone-driven sexual tension, so they can go on happily with the rest of their lives. You want the war to be over. A good story builds tension, and at the end of the narrative that tension needs to be released and resolved. Life as orgasm. Even when the ending is horrific, one where everyone dies a particularly grisly death, the desire for closure is stronger.

Ironically, a part of this has to do with the implicit assumption on the part of the reader that, by hearing the narrative, they will in the end be a survivor. They will be alive to tell the tale, not rotting in an anonymous grave somewhere. The fact is that, every day, it is the end of the world for somebody, but in all but one case, those somebodies are not you.

However, great closures are also critical for societies overall. The US Empire is in decline. It has been for several years. Historians, who are masters of the narrative, are already looking for the smoking gun, the one event that definitively says that the Third Age is over (to borrow from the recent Tolkienesque interest) and the Fourth Age is begun. They're looking for the day that Gollum bit off Frodo's ring to recover his Precious before tumbling, fatally, to his doom in Mt. Doom. (For a man who invented two complete languages, Tolkien was remarkably inept at naming mountains). 

On this day, the bad guys are vanquished, and the good guys can start building something new again. Yet today it's hard to tell what that "something new" is - or rather, it's easy to tell, but hard to chose from the plethora of something new's that are currently in vogue. For the Libertarian, that something new is a society where the intrepid hero defeats the evil government to become a master of his own fortunes. For the Liberal, that "new" is a world where oil is no longer pumped from the earth, where we live in harmony under a benign government of the people, at one with nature in our tree-enshrouded sanctuaries, away from the gun-toting yokels and religious nuts. For the Fundamentalist, the "new" is a world where a benign god looks once more upon His people, bringing them peace and prosperity while the evil unbelievers burn forever in the pits of Hell, in the ultimate of punishments.

Curiously enough, the villains in one person's narrative are the heroes in another. This again brings up the problems of narrative tension. An arbitrary apocalypse in the vast narrative always favors the listener's own tribe in the same way that it favors themselves. Your tribe will remain, if scattered and sorely beleaguered, while the evil tribes will get theirs. Those few that remain will see the wisdom in banding with your tribe and your way of thinking, at least in the main.

However, life is seldom that neat, and endings, when they do come, are seldom swift and absolute. Instead, the visible signs of a transition, a change from one social regime to another, are usually symptomatic of broader but generally less immediately tangible changes. We're hitting resource peaks in the first half of the twenty first century that will have major ramifications for the next three or four hundred years. Climate change will cause various regions to lose or gain economic and hence political power. Our economic system is in flux right now because the foundations of those economies are shifting, both due to the aforementioned resource peaks and to the innovations that we have unleashed in the last century. 

We have an unprecedented degree of understanding both about we do and what we don't know about the universe, and the transition from physical discovery to materials engineering to commercialization is occurring in a breathtakingly short amount of time. Our ability to innovate with our economic systems is also unprecedented, and this in turn means that we can make economic experiments (meaning mistakes - offshoring, anyone) and recover from them within a surprisingly short interval.

Yet the need for narrative is still there, and that is perhaps the challenge of political, social and economic innovators moving forward. For too long the narrative has been that the story is coming to a close, that the survivors will be ones with the greatest amount of money, land socked away up in the mountains, arsenals of heavy machine guns waiting for the coming zombie hordes. What's so disturbing about this particular narrative is that the zombies in question are thinly disguised latte-sipping urban liberals, drinks in one hand full of rotting milk and coffee; the fear being that the world really is coming to an end, the cities with all of these people with their big government regulations and reprehensibly open social policies (women's rights! gay marriage! unions!!!) are going to overwhelm the god-fearing farmers and ranchers of the Real America.

Ironically it is a narrative that's also promulgated by the suburban financiers and senior managers - the ones that may work in downtown New York but have a home in the Hamptons, or that control their empires from Dallas but are driven in by chauffeur from the Park Cities or Lakewood. They too fear the zombies, but in this case the zombies are the undesirables that will drive down home prices, will cause cracks in the illusion of absolute mastery that they maintain around themselves. These are the people most invested in the status quo, the ones that see the visions of sustainability and lower economic inequity as a direct threat against their own wealth and station. They are concerned about the New Money, because New Money often comes from undermining the paradigm that helped establish the Old Money in the first place (which was itself once New Money), and today that New Money is increasingly coming from the young, technically competent engineers, scientists, creatives and advocates who recognize the dangers and limitations of the status quo. At one time, this force was helping to prop up the Old Money, but as times and technologies change, the gulf between these two forces widen.

In a way, the younger generation is shaping its own narrative, one that's increasingly at odds with the status quo. They see the future and are worried by it, which means they are adapting far more quickly to it. A winnowing process is going on, one in which the most salient technologies are enhanced, while the less salient are diminished. Biotechnologies, information science, nano-engineering and alternate energy development are all critical. As a generation they have less use for corporate religion or giant conglomerates - they view businesses simply as vehicles to apply capital to solving problems, and view religion as being increasingly private and self-directed. They drive less, and are far more comfortable working and playing with people that may be thousands of miles away than their predecessors. Their mantra increasingly is that too much power in the hands of anyone - government or business - is bad, and are becoming increasingly proficient with the ability to make decisions collectively with astonishing speed. These people do not respect existing institutions, but instead see them as being relics of another age that are no longer germane to them.

For these people, the end of the world is nowhere in sight, other than as an excuse to throw a good party and an opportunity to remake the world according to their own narrative. To them, this is exhilarating, to others, this is terrifying. In the end, though, they will be the ones writing the next chapters. For now, it is perhaps best to know that this grand story is ... to be continued ... 

December 12, 2012

Decentralizing Society

Scotland, Germany, Iceland, Denmark, Finland - one by one a very subtle shift is happening in the world, something that I think will become a much bigger factor in the decades ahead. Each of these countries is attempting to achieve energy independence by moving as much of their energy production as possible into renewable power sources. In the examples cited above, the reason for such migration is as much geopolitical as it is concern for the environment - these countries (I'll get to Scotland in a second) are in a situation where they do not have many of their own carbon energy resources, and consequently, are especially dependent upon other countries, ones that historically they have had occasionally disastrous relationships with in the past.

Iceland's an interesting example in several different ways. During the collapse of 2008-2010, Iceland did something unprecedented. Saddled with supposedly safe debt that "exploded" on them, they rejected austerity, arrested and prosecuted the bankers, nationalized the banks, and repudiated their foreign debt as being unpayable. In doing so, they were forced into a situation where they could no longer get letters of credit for huge oil purchases, so they began a crash course in becoming internally sustainable. One of the first things that they did was to re-evaluate their internal energy profiles and recognized that they had a wealth of energy from geothermal and hydroelectric sources - the energy inherent in hot springs, geysers and melts from glaciers. Taking advantage of this, Iceland's renewable energy resources make up 81% of the total energy production from the island country, with the balance coming from North Sea oil.

The economic news and the energy news are not unrelated. The petro-industrial complex is intimately tied into the financial services sector globally, and indeed, many of the aspects of globalization, from outsourcing of jobs to 5,000 mile salads to the explosion of the 0.1% globally in terms of overall wealth owned, are intimately tied to the retrieval, transportation, distribution and consumption of petroleum products. Iceland chose to drop out of that web for a bit, and in the process are beginning to worry financiers in New York, London, Berlin and elsewhere.

Scotland's driver is a growing desire to separate themselves from the political control of London. They have similarly made 100% energy independence a major part of this process, because by no longer being dependent upon the North Sea oil well (which is showing signs of playing out), they end up with much greater autonomy in other matters.

Germany, ironically, is a financial powerhouse, but much of that is built primarily upon engineering services and manufacturing of precision goods. Their overriding concern is maintaining independence from Russia and its oil and natural gas production, and to achieve this they are betting heavily upon solar and hydrothermal technologies.

Moreover, they are treating such energy production in a paradigm shattering way. Their goal is not to replicate oil production, but to look at their infrastructure a piece at a time and figure out how to make each piece effectively fuel itself. Projects there include using genetically modified algaes that not only are especially good at filtering waste water, but that generate energy as a by-product of doing this. The energy produced isn't huge, but it is sufficient to generate the power to run the plant and push some back into the grid.

Similarly, solar panels are becoming so much a part of the German landscape that in many towns there are few roofs that don't have them - and this in a country that has a disproportionately high number of cloudy days. The irony is that Germany is now producing so much power that other countries that are Germany's power grids are becoming overwhelmed because Germany is producing more power than it can use and is dumping that energy downmarket on unprepared grids and bringing these down.

The thing that these countries share is that they are relatively compact, are already affluent, and have strong external (typically security) reasons for achieving such independence. For the US overall, this is generally not the case, and this is frequently an argument given on the part of the petroleum industry and their supporters about why alternative power is such a pie in the sky dream in the US. However, these arguments (when not trying to argue that global warming is only an illusion) usually assume that complete conversion of petroleum to technology X is infeasible because petroleum is far more effective and the infrastructure to upgrade the entire country would be absurdly expensive to replace.

In practice, however, this is where the paradigm of self-supporting infrastructure makes so much sense, and why, in many ways this conversion is already taking place. Forget about total conversion, finding a one-size-fits-all magic bullet (seriously mixed metaphors there) that will replace the petroleum economy overnight is simply not going to happen in the US. What can happen, however, is the notion of making infrastructure self-supporting.

Much of that technology already exists today. You can get an intelligent security monitoring plus power management system for your house for $50/month from cable companies that will let you control the outlets, air system and appliances in your house from an Android or iOS app located anywhere. Throw in the next generation LCD lighting systems, add in a solar collector for your roof, and your house becomes a net neutral environment. Put all the street lights on local solar cells, start tapping into geothermal as well as hydropower, solar PV and wind-powered systems for municipal structures such as government buildings and schools, and these too start disappearing from the grid. Malls, which have traditionally been huge energy sinks, are either being shut down or taking advantage of large expanses of parking spaces to erect solar panels to become self-supporting. Trains, especially light rail and subway, can take advantage of flywheels located in the stations themselves to extract power via induction to slow the trains down, then can then give the same trains an induction based boost to get out of the station, reducing it's overall energy footprint by 60-70%.

The same principle applies increasingly to work. One intriguing trend is the re-tollification of paid-for highways. Municipalities are assessing tools on previously free roads, which is having the unexpected side effect of encouraging telecommuting as employers are forced to question whether having employees do hour-long commutes in order to be in the same office is worth the wage increases that will be needed to cover these commute costs (in effect, most commuting to and from work as well as parking costs have been pushed onto the employees, when this is in fact a requirement imposed by the employers, and employees are pushing back on this).

Similarly, the very technologies that allowed outsourcing - including cloud computing and applications as service - are also increasingly making insourcing more attractive as the pendulum swings in the other direction, because such insourcing is still distributed, but over a more manageable geographic region. Monitoring and troubleshooting as often as not now occurs on distributed systems on the cloud, so having a lot of engineers located in the IT "server" room is now "so 90s" - the room is no longer there, the network admins all have their iPhones and iPads configured to notify them the moment an error condition gets fired, and most of those apps are increasingly running on Amazon or Google or other cloud providers. Managers work from home, marketing people produce ad copy and visuals by collaboration, and most meetings are now down through GoToMeeting or something equivalent.

Why does this matter? Every virtual meeting is five to ten less trips downtown, or perhaps five to ten airline tickets. This puts fewer cars on the road, which decreases the energy footprint. Automated toll systems can also be tied in to financial banking networks and hence audited, making it possible to determine who pays for driving. Insourcing also reduces the number of cargo ships on the seas, each burning hundreds of gallons of oil an hour, and reduces the amount of air traffic.

Yet the argument would be made at this point by those invested in the status quo that fewer shipping or aircraft trips represents that many fewer jobs - fewer airline workers, fewer stevedores, fewer truckers. They're right, of course, it does. And here is where things go all political. Ultimately, something has to give. The future has arrived - all of those labor saving devices, all of those robots, all of the efficiency generating software and infrastructure ultimately implies that the number of hours of meaningful work is in permanent decline. There will be occasional spikes and probably a floor at some point, primarily in the services sector, but even with jobs moving back home you need 1 person for what required 100 a century ago in the manufacturing sector, and increasingly even the financial sector is beginning to look anemic as trading algorithms replace the Masters of the Universe, just as large scale search databases have significantly dented the legal and medical professions.

Ultimately then, the question is how you resolve this fundamental contradiction - providing a means for the distribution of value in a capitalist society to the largest percentage of people when the most traditional mechanism - wage labor - no longer provides that capability. I'll address this issue next week.

December 3, 2012

Moving to Cascadia

It's been a busy couple of months for me, and as happens, this has left me with relatively little time to write (though perhaps too much time surfing Facebook). The election is past, my side won (yay, me?) and as also happens, the national mood has shifted once again to the mundane.  Journalists, I suspect, don't like incumbents winning - they do what they did before they had to go out and stump to save their seat, and as such there is no "news".  Over the years, I've come to realize that the news industry, were it personified, would be a somewhat vacuous blonde babe with a severe case of ADD "Oh, shiny!" - when there is no news, she gets bored and pouts, just to get something into print or fill airwaves or Internet electrons, or whatever the metaphor du jour is for the media, and she has the attention span of a four year old after eating a dozen pixie sticks.

All that aside, I am writing this from a Starbucks in Issaquah, Washington, under cloudy skies, watching the ravens and seagulls squabble over the various leavings. After two and a half years of Maryland, I am once again back home, where we raised my eldest daughter when she was a toddler and I was a young, wet behind the ears programmer who wrote educational game software. Hey, it was all the rage back then, even though I could replicate everything I did back then in Macromedia Director in most browsers nowadays. It was a racket then, I really don't think much has really changed, save that nowadays we spell educational game software as A-P-P-S. and they're delivered on a tablet with about 100,000 times as much processing power as I had available back then.

So why the move back from Maryland, where there was, arguably, more work for my skills? The laundry list is pretty long, but includes family health issues, the fact that my eldest daughter was going to school here, and a new contract that's at least partly based on the West Coast with a large media company that does a great number of animated movies about princesses. However, there are other reasons, less rational perhaps but arguably of a bigger draw. I grew up as an Air Force brat, and have lived in just about every environment imaginable - the mountainous region of Germany, Alabama's sweltering farmlands, perched aside a mountain in Hawaii, the river bluffs and flat farmland of north-central Illinois, a couple stints in the Appalachians from West Virginia, through Eastern Tennessee and all the way down to Georgia and Florida.

Yet even before I moved there, the Pacific Northwest has already exerted a pull on me, and when I arrived there in 1990, I immediately felt like I was home. I suspect it was because of those early formative years when I was in Germany, where the weather was overcast in the winter, firs and spruce dominated the landscape, and mountains were tall, majestic things that crowned the sky, not just higher hills than average. I've never felt as grounded as I did when I was in the Northwest, almost as if I could feel the solidity of the land around me in my heart. In Maryland I felt curiously adrift, as if there was nothing for my soul to wrap itself around. For someone as rational as I sometimes can be, this may sound perhaps an unusually romantic notion (in the 19th century sense) but I think it's a very real thing.

Yet there are other differences that took me a while to appreciate. Northwesterners are, by and large, quiet, contemplative, introverted, and most especially polite people. Marylanders were friendly, but there is also a tendency there for people in the beltway especially to take on the airs of self-importance and self-promotion that is pretty much a requirement for operating in a highly politically charged environment. Appearances mattered more than skill or talent, conforming to the two flavors of ideology (or the very careful kabuki "neutrality" that was an ideology all of its own). It would have bee all too easy to get sucked into that weird limbo, taking job after job there, but I'm not sure I would have liked what I was becoming.

It's funny. I'm not a religious person, but increasingly I see myself as being a spiritual one. This has nothing to do with the concept of an afterlife. Whether the "spirit" or "soul" survives after death has never been a big concern to me - the "me" will die with my body regardless. Yet what is becoming more pertinent to me is the bigger picture of my role with relationship to the rest of the universe. We do not exist in a self-contained unit - human beings are intrinsically psychically messy, spilling outward from their physical shell with an extended web of relationships, obligations, and temporalities, something that has become only more apparent within the context of social webs and the Internet. There I felt stifled, limited, constrained by expectations and requirements on me that reduced my role to the relevant cog in the machine. It was not the path I wanted to walk, and perhaps it is simply the ticking of that ultimate clock that made me realize that in the end it served only to fulfill some contractor's requirements on a checklist for me to be there, not whether what I was doing was really making any difference (in most cases it was not).

Okay, that's it - no big sweeping surveys of humanity's futures this time around. I'll be posting more regularly (and consistently) from here on out, now that we're no longer in moving limbo. Sometimes it is necessary to concentrate on the local, what's in front of us, and now is that time for me. I'm home.