Brian Eno, Stewart Brand, Alexander Rose2 February 2010 03:30 Long Finance: The Enduring Value Conference
Tagged with “long now” (34)
Who governs digital trust?
Doctorow framed the question this way: "Computers are everywhere. They are now something we put our whole bodies into—-airplanes, cars—-and something we put into our bodies—-pacemakers, cochlear implants. They HAVE to be trustworthy."
Sometimes humans are not so trustworthy, and programs may override you: "I can’t let you do that, Dave." (Reference to the self-protective insane computer Hal in Kubrick’s film "2001." That time the human was more trustworthy than the computer.) Who decides who can override whom?
The core issues for Doctorow come down to Human Rights versus Property Rights, Lockdown versus Certainty, and Owners versus mere Users.
Apple computers such as the iPhone are locked down—-it lets you run only what Apple trusts. Android phones let you run only what you trust. Doctorow has changed his mind in favor of a foundational computer device called the "Trusted Platform Module" (TPM) which provides secure crypto, remote attestation, and sealed storage. He sees it as a crucial "nub of secure certainty" in your machine.
If it’s your machine, you rule it. It‘s a Human Right: your computer should not be overridable. And a Property Right: "you own what you buy, even if it what you do with it pisses off the vendor." That’s clear when the Owner and the User are the same person. What about when they’re not?
There are systems where we really want the authorities to rule—-airplanes, nuclear reactors, probably self-driving cars ("as a species we are terrible drivers.") The firmware in those machines should be inviolable by users and outside attackers. But the power of Owners over Users can be deeply troubling, such as in matters of surveillance. There are powers that want full data on what Users are up to—-governments, companies, schools, parents. Behind your company computer is the IT department and the people they report to. They want to know all about your email and your web activities, and there is reason for that. But we need to contemplate the "total and terrifying power of Owners over Users."
Recognizing that we are necessarily transitory Users of many systems, such as everything involving Cloud computing or storage, Doctorow favors keeping your own box with its own processors and storage. He strongly favors the democratization and wide distribution of expertise. As a Fellow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (who co-sponsored the talk) he supports public defense of freedom in every sort of digital rights issue.
"The potential for abuse in the computer world is large," Doctorow concluded. "It will keep getting larger."
One reason lots of people don’t want to think long term these days is because technology keeps accelerating so rapidly, we assume the world will become unrecognizable in a few years and then move on to unimaginable. Long-term thinking must be either impossible or irrelevant.
The commonest shorthand term for the runaway acceleration of technology is “the Singularity”—a concept introduced by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge in 1984. The term has been enthusiastically embraced by technology historians, futurists, extropians, and various trans-humanists and post-humanists, who have generated variants such as “the techno-rapture,” “the Spike,” etc.
It takes a science fiction writer to critique a science fiction idea.
Along with being one of America’s leading science fiction writers and technology journalists, Bruce Sterling is a celebrated speaker armed with lethal wit. His books include The Zenith Angle (just out), Hacker Crackdown, Holy Fire, Distraction, Mirrorshades (cyberpunk compendium), Schismatrix, The Difference Engine (with William Gibson), Tomorrow Now, and Islands in the Net.
The Seminar About Long-term Thinking on June 10-11 was Bruce Sterling examining “The Singularity: Your Future as a Black Hole.” He treated the subject of hyper-acceleration of technology as a genuine threat worth alleviating and as a fond fantasy worth cruel dismemberment.
Edward O. Wilson has revolutionized science and inspired the public more often than any other living biologist. Now he is blending his pioneer work on ants with a new perspective on human development to propose a radical reframing of how evolution works.
First the social insects ruled, from 60 million years ago. Then a species of social mammals took over, from 10 thousand years ago. Both sets of “eusocial” animals mastered the supremely delicate art of encouraging altruism, so that individuals in the groups would act as if they value the goal of the group over their own goals. They would specialize for the group and die for the group. In recent decades the idea of “kin selection” seemed to explain how such an astonishing phenomenon could evolve. Wilson replaces kin selection with “multi-level selection,” which incorporates both individual selection (long well understood) and group selection (long considered taboo). Every human and every human society has to learn how to manage adroitly the perpetual ambiguity and conflict between individual needs and group needs. What I need is never the same as what we need.
E. O. Wilson’s current book is The Social Conquest of Earth. His previous works include The Superorganism; The Future of Life; Consilience; Biophilia; Sociobiology; and The Insect Societies.
“About 74,000 years ago,” Lynas began, “a volcanic event nearly wiped out humanity. We were down to just a thousand or so embattled breeding pairs. We’ve made a bit of a comeback since then. We’re over seven billion strong. In half a million years we’ve gone from prodding anthills with sticks to building a worldwide digital communications network. Well done! But… there’s a small problem. In doing this we’ve had to capture between a quarter and a third of the entire photosynthetic production of the planet. We’ve raised the temperature of the Earth system, reduced the alkalinity of the oceans, altered the chemistry of the atmosphere, changed the reflectivity of the planet, hugely affected the distribution of freshwater, and killed off many of the species that share the planet with us. Welcome to the Anthropocene, our very uniquely human geological era.”
Some of those global alterations made by humans may be approaching tipping points—-thresholds—-that could destabilize the whole Earth system. Drawing on a landmark paper in Nature in 2009 (“A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” by Johan Rockström et al.) Lynas outlined the nine boundaries we should stay within, starting with three we’ve already crossed. 1. Loss of biodiversity reduces every form of ecological resilience. The boundary is 10 species going extinct per million per year. Currently we lose over 100 species per million per year. 2. Global warming is the most overwhelming boundary. Long-term stability requires 350 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; we’re currently at 391 ppm and rising fast. “The entire human economy must become carbon neutral by 2050 and carbon negative thereafter.” 3. Nitrogen pollution. With the invention a century ago of the Haber-Bosch process for creating nitrogen fertilizer, we doubled the terrestrial nitrogen cycle. We need to reduce the amount of atmospheric nitrogen we fix per year to 35 million tons; we’re currently at 121 million tons.
Other quantifiable boundaries have yet to be exceeded, but we’re close. 4. Land use. Every bit of natural landscape lost threatens ecosystem services like clean water and air and atmospheric carbon balance. “Already 85% of the Earth’s ice-free land is fragmented or substantially affected by human activity.” The danger point is 15% of land being used for row crops; we’re currently at 12%. 5. Fresh water scarcity. Increasing droughts from global warming will make the problem ever worse. In the world’s rivers, “the blue arteries of the living planet,” there are 800,000 dams with two new large ones built every day. The numeric limit is thought to be 4,000 cubic kilometers of runoff water consumed per year; the current number is 2,600. 6. Ocean acidification from excess atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasingly lethal to ocean life such as coral reefs. The measure here is “aragonite saturation level.” Before the industrial revolution it was 3.44; the limit is 2.75; we’re already down to 2.90. 7. The ozone layer protects the Earth from ultraviolet radiation. One man (Thomas Midgley) invented the chlorofluorocarbon coolant that rapidly reduced stratospheric ozone, and one remarkable agreement (Montreal Protocol, 1987) cut back on CFCs and began restoring the ozone layer. (In Dobson units the limit is 276; before Midgley it was 290; we’re now back up to 283.)
Two boundaries are so far unquantifiable. 8. Chemical pollution. Rachel Carson was right. Human toxics are showing up everywhere and causing harm. Coal-fired power plants are one of the worst offenders in this category. (Lynas added that nuclear waste belongs in this category but “the supposedly unsolved problem of nuclear waste hasn’t so far harmed a single living thing.” 9. Atmospheric aerosols—-airborne dust and smoke. It kills hundreds of thousands of people annually, the soot causes ice to melt faster, and everyone wants to get rid of it. But one beneficial effect it has is cooling, so Lynas proposes “we could move this pollution from the troposphere where people have to breathe it up to the stratosphere where it can still cool the Earth and no one has to breathe it. That’s called geoengineering.”
Lynas proposed that the goal for the future should be to get the whole world out of poverty by 2050 while staying within the planetary boundaries. Among the solutions he proposed are: clean cookstoves for the poor (they cause 1.6 million deaths a year); better GM crops for nitrogen efficiency and concentrated land use; integral fast reactors which run on nuclear waste (a recent calculation shows the UK could get 500 years of clean energy from its present waste, and the resulting IFR waste is a problem for 300 years, not for thousands of years); international treaties, which are crucial for dealing with global problems; carbon capture (everything from clean coal to biochar); and ongoing “dematerialization,” doing ever more with ever less, including more intense farming on less land. “Peak consumption,” Lynas noted, has already arrived in much of the developed world.
As usual, microbes led the way. Bacteria have swarmed in intense networks for 3.5 billion years. Then a hierarchical form emerged with the first nucleated cells that were made up of an enclosed society of formerly independent organisms.
That’s the pattern for the evolution of information, Alex Wright said. Networks coalesce into hierarchies, which then form a new level of networks, which coalesce again, and so on. Thus an unending series of information explosions is finessed.
In humans, classification schemes emerged everywhere, defining how things are connected in larger contexts. Researchers into “folk taxonomies” have found that all cultures universally describe things they care about in hierarchical layers, and those hierarchies are usually five layers deep.
Family tree hierarchies were accorded to the gods, who were human-like personalities but also represented various natural forces.
Starting 30,000 years ago the “ice age information explosion” brought the transition to collaborative big game hunting, cave paintings, and elaborate decorative jewelry that carried status information. It was the beginning of information’s “release from social proximity.”
5,000 years ago in Sumer, accountants began the process toward writing, beginning with numbers, then labels and lists, which enabled bureaucracy. Scribes were just below kings in prestige. Finally came written narratives such as Gilgamesh.
The move from oral culture to literate culture is profound. Oral is additive, aggregative, participatory, and situational, where literate is subordinate, analytic, objective, and abstract. (One phenomenon of current Net culture is re-emergence of oral forms in email, twittering, YouTube, etc.)
Wright honored the sequence of information-ordering visionaries who brought us to our present state. In 1883 Charles Cutter devised a classification scheme that led in part to the Library of Congress system and devised an apparatus of keyboard and wires that would fetch the desired book. H.G. Wells proposed a “world brain” of data and imagined that it would one day wake up. Teilhard de Chardin anticipated an “etherization of human consciousness” into a global noosphere.
The greatest unknown revolutionary was the Belgian Paul Otlet. In 1895 he set about freeing the information in books from their bindings. He built a universal decimal classification and then figured out how that organized data could be explored, via “links” and a “web.” In 1910 Otlet created a “radiated library” called the Mundameum in Brussels that managed search queries in a massive way until the Nazis destroyed the service. Alex Wright showed an astonishing video of how Otlet’s distributed telephone-plus-screen system worked.
Wright concluded with the contributions of Vannevar Bush (”associative trails” in his Memex system), Eugene Garfield’s Science Citation Index, the predecessor of page ranking. Doug Engelbart’s working hypertext system in the “mother of all demos.” And Ted Nelson who helped inspire Engelbart and Berners-Lee and who Wright considers “directly responsible for the generation of the World Wide Web.”
Humanity’s agricultural legacy is on a par with any of our great cultural legacies, Richardson said, but preserving it is not just a matter of honoring the history and richness of our most fundamental civilization-enabling technology. For the health of future crops and livestock we need the deep genetic reservoir of all those millennia of sophisticated breeding. A million people died in the Irish Potato Famine because the whole nation depended on just two varieties of potato. In Peru, where potatoes originally came from, Richardson visited a field at 14,000 feet where 400 varieties of potato (with names like “Ashes of the Soul” and “Puma Paw”) are grown in just two acres. The local 1,300 varieties of potato are managed by a “Guardian of the Potatoes,” whose job it is in the community to know the story and uses of all the potatoes.
The accumulated wisdom in the crops and livestock is profound. We’ve been breeding cattle for 10,000 years, goats for 9,000 years, dogs for 12,000 years, chickens for 8,000 years, llamas for 6,500 years, horses for 6,000 years, camels for 4,000 years. All those millennia we have been in deep partnership with the animals. All of our staple foods are ancient. Wheat has been bred for 11,000 years, corn for 8,000 years, rice for 8,000 years, potatoes for 7,000 years, soybeans for 5,000 years
“For 9,900 years,” Richardson said, “we’ve been building up variety in domesticated crops and livestock—-this whole wealth of specific solutions to specific problems. For the last 100 years we’ve been throwing it away.” 95% is gone. In the US in 1903 there were 497 varieties of lettuce; by 1983 there were only 36 varieties. (Also changed from 1903 to 1983: sweet corn from 307 varieties to 13; peas from 408 to 25; tomatoes from 408 to 79; cabbage from 544 to 28.) Seed banks have been one way to slow the rate of loss. The famous seed vault at Svalbard serves as backup for the some 1,300 seed banks around the world. The great limitation is that seeds don’t remain viable for long. They have to be grown out every 7 to 20 years, and the new seeds returned to storage.
Even with living heirlooms, the rule is Use It Or Lose It. Devotees of exotic cattle say “You have to eat them to save them.” With dramatic photos Richardson compared the livestock shows in Wales with the livestock markets in Ethiopia. You see children adoring the young animals and breeders obsessing on details of excellence and uniqueness. “One guy says, ‘You see that sheep with the heart-shaped spot on his left shoulder? I’ll bet you I can move it to his rump in four generations.’” There’s a sheep called the North Ronaldsay that is bred to live solely on seaweed on the coast. Ethiopia has some specialists, like the Sheko cattle that are resistant to tsetse flies, but unlike in Europe, most of their breeds have to be generalists capable of providing meat, milk, labor (such pulling plows), and warmth in the winter.
Helping preserve agricultural biodiversity is open to anyone. The Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, has 13,000 members. Their catalog is a cornucopia of heirloom garden delights, and members learn how to produce and store their own seeds and then share them. “It’s a wonderful example of citizens participating in the process.” And we can always acquire a new taste for old foods. Teff! Quinoa! Amaranth! Randall Lineback cows! You have to eat them to save them.
Digital innovators Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, and Danny Hillis, co-founder of the Long Now Foundation, talk with Scientific American Executive Editor Fred Guterl about the technological "Entanglement" and the attempts to build the other, hardier Internet. Web sites related to this episode include http://compass-summit.com and The Shadow Web
In a desert in Texas a 200-feet-tall clock is being constructed deep inside a mountain. Once completed, it will keep time for the next 10,000 years, even if there are no humans around to use it. Tune in as Chuck and Josh get to the bottom of the Long Now.
Universal access to all knowledge, Kahle declared, will be one of humanity’s greatest achievements. We are already well on the way. "We’re building the Library of Alexandria, version 2. We can one-up the Greeks!"
Start with what the ancient library had—-books. The Internet Library already has 3 million books digitized. With its Scribe Book Scanner robots—-29 of them around the world—-they’re churning out a thousand books a day digitized into every handy ebook format, including robot-audio for the blind and dyslexic. Even modern heavily copyrighted books are being made available for free as lending-library ebooks you can borrow from physical libraries—-100,000 such books so far. (Kahle announced that every citizen of California is now eligible to borrow online from the Oakland Library’s "ePort.")
As for music, Kahle noted that the 2-3 million records ever made are intensely litigated, so the Internet Archive offered music makers free unlimited storage of their works forever, and the music poured in. The Archive audio collection has 100,000 concerts so far (including all the Grateful Dead) and a million recordings, with three new bands every day uploading.
Moving images. The 150,000 commercial movies ever made are tightly controlled, but 2 million other films are readily available and fascinating—-600,000 of them are accessible in the Archive already. In the year 2000, without asking anyone’s permission, the Internet Archive started recording 20 channels of TV all day, every day. When 9/11 happened, they were able to assemble an online archive of TV news coverage all that week from around the world ("TV comes with a point of view!") and make it available just a month after the event on Oct. 11, 2001.
The Web itself. When the Internet Archive began in 1996, there were just 30 million web pages. Now the Wayback Machine copies every page of every website every two months and makes them time-searchable from its 6-petabyte database of 150 billion pages. It has 500,000 users a day making 6,000 queries a second.
"What is the Library of Alexandria most famous for?" Kahle asked. "For burning! It’s all gone!" To maintain digital archives, they have to be used and loved, with every byte migrated forward into new media evey five years. For backup, the whole Internet Archive is mirrored at the new Bibliotheca Alexadrina in Egypt and in Amsterdam. ("So our earthquake zone archive is backed up in the turbulent Mideast and a flood zone. I won’t sleep well until there are five or six backup sites.")
Speaking of institutional longevity, Kahle noted during the Q & A that nonprofits demonstrably live much longer than businesses. It might be it’s because they have softer edges, he surmised, or that they’re free of the grow-or-die demands of commercial competition. Whatever the cause, they are proliferating.