Wednesday, March 12, 2003

South by Southwest 2003 XIX

Bruce Sterling and Derek Woodgate: Tomorrow Now

Do I really need to introduce Sterling? Woodgate is the principal partner of the Futures Lab. Here is a rough transcript of the discussion:

Sterling: I'm an author. My most recent book is actually a futurist book. After I did this book, I got this really sweet gig writing for Wired, writing this monthly futurist column. That explains what the heck I'm doing here.

Derek and I are going to start ripping on six major league change drivers. Were just going to ping pong some things back and forth.

Woodgate: I'm principal of the futures lab here in Austin. We work with major corporations looking for what we call future potential for them. We really look to provide them with what a strategic plan or R&D company can't. I'm a political economist by profession.

Open Spectrum
Sterling: Topic No. 1: Open spectrum. This baby's come completely out of left field. People are suggesting that you could divvy up the spectrum and rain it down on people's homes. I've got it right here in my machine. I'm running off Cory Doctorow's groovy little 802.11 thing. This is just the baby verson. I'm interested in the struggle because it a microcosm of a bigger one. It's a struggle between the pigopolis and the pirates. Or law and order and the multitudes. In the world of open spectrum, it's very open. No one knows what its good for. The people who are in charge of the spectrum allocation are very worried about it. After the '90s it's very clear that you can bring a lot of capital to stuff, make it widely available, and still lose your ass. You can go down in flames by bringing people access to information.

Here we've got my favorite version, Motorola Canopy. What your talking about is a really big antenna, kind of a moonlight tower. Everyone pitches in a couple of bucks. It's no big deal. The thing is, this is just a small range of spectrum that’s good for microwaving chickens. If we can get just one tiny chunk of Clearchannel's empire, one wasted classic rock station, we could cover the country in 18 months. There would be no last mile problem.

Woodgate: We've been following the spectrum thing, too. We're looking for a tipping point, and I'm not really sure we're there. The car seems to be the tipping point. People much more believe in the local area network than in mesh. The thought is that putting these standards in cars by 2007 means that Ford and Daimler are all in this together. If it really gets commercialized in that way it’s a very consumer-oriented way. We've seen the death of satellites. Other than moving heavy data, where open spectrum's better, we're probably going to see more of the local area networks in the short term.

From a business pojnt of view it’s a little different.

Bubble Money
Sterling: Let's talk about the business side. That’s Topic No. 2: Where's the bubble money? Where's the economic activity? Where's the business model? So much glass was put in the ground and so much human energy was expended for something that doesn’t have a business model. The death of portals is a problem. The death of ISP's is a problem. If something like Canopy takes off, there go the ISP's. Its interesting to me that the biggest thing going right now is Google. Google isn't a portal. It's all about getting right into the database. Get me right into the database.

Who is this poor guy from Red Herring? I saw him on CNN this morning. He says, "I was googling it. I was bloggering it." I was blog dancing him. He says, "Yeah, the enthusiasts usually start it and then someone like me comes in to finance it." I was, like, "Where's your magazine dude?" How many times do these guys need to be punished? How much money do they need to lose? When will they learn that the Internet is a product of the sciences and the military. Those aren't profit-motive ventures.

CNN doesn't have any money to send anyone to Baghdad this time around. Fox lost heaps of money, enough money to build entire cities from the ground up. There's no money. There's no money in Blogger. There's no money in the corporate media. Money has to come from somewhere. Unless information wants to be worthless. Unless we just want to be worse informed from machines that work worse and worse. That’s the trend I'm looking at, and it's bugging me.

Woodgate: I agree with you, but I think there are some places where there is some bubble money. Don't throw it all out. If you look at the drivers, you can see some trends. Things like escapism and maximum pleasure are really quite important. In things like entertainment or really serious stuff, there may not be any money. But in things like experience collecting, cultural diffusion, there may be money.

We are seeing some real creepage in a whole host of environmental issues. Where there is going to be real money is in security and in self-preservation. As a futurist, I usually never try to guess where I should put my money, but security is one of those areas. In addition, I think we need to look at biotech. Another thing ubiquitous computing.

Ubiquitous Computing
Sterling: Let's move right into that. Topic No. 3: Ubicomp. You're beginning to see some of this popping up. When you start having these little gizmos, you know you're moving in the right direction from where it goes from hand waving to where it really hurts people. Ubiciomp bites man.

I think that the first area is traffic monitoring and traffic rings. The mayor of London OK'd the installation of traffic monitoring cameras that take snapshots of your license plate. You get a ticket. That's OK. We don’t want to run people down. But what worries me is ubicomp mission creep. Now you’ve got a database of everybody and her sister's license plate and what they're doing downtown. I don’t know if any of you Austinites have noticed the bloom of video cameras. What is our city doing with this video? How do you leave town without them knowing? How do you really know when you're driving across town to have a little rendezvous with your boyfriend that your husband wont call up and ask where did my wife's license plate go? It's a ubicomp problem. Its an Orwellian ubicomp problem.

It's sexy. The upcoming war between palm tops and cell phone gadgets will be interesting. It's weird. I'ts one of the most exciting places of concurrent technological development: Handhelds trying to become phones and phones trying to become palm tops.

Woodgate: Every project that we've been working on for the last 2-3 years, ubicomp has been a really critical aspect. There are two sides: the everywhere and the nowhere. The likely thing is that the suit is most likely going to be an office. Given heads-up displays, you can really customize them. Having personal wireless area networks is going to be pretty exciting. MIT is working on that. So are a lot of companies, particularly companies making wear ware.

Sterling: You’ve got to love a term like "wear ware." Then GPS can be where wear ware.

Woodgate: What we're seeing is a tremendous number of new polymers with circuitry embedded in them.

Sterling: I love Materials Connection. Their job is to go to Italy and buy all the weirdest shit. They put it in a cubby hole and people pay just to come and handle the stuff. I could make a fork out of this! It takes a while for new materials to become adopted. They’ve been at it for a long time. I ran into this one guy. And he gave me a chunk of foamed aluminum. It's froth. That stuff just smells like the future.

Woodgate: It's good from the sense that you can really understand how you can build anything. That’s important from a sensory perspective. It's really important that it felt good. The technology really has to be invisible. We're looking for, even with ubiquitous computing, things that really do something formless. One interesting point you made is about the handheld vs. the cell phone. I don’t see the future of the screen being between the handheld vs. the cell phone but a piece of plastic.

Sterling: One aspect of this that’s being underplayed is ubijunk. The first wave of ubicomp isnt going to work very well. Then you end up with stuff that's just waiting to be turned off or picked up or thrown out. What happens if you walk into a room that’s experienced the blue screen of death? What if there are buggy rooms? Who do you call? The difficulty of cars has always been the planned obsolescence of cars. What happens when you try to drive an obsolete smart vehicle? It still thinks it's smarter than you, and it's been in a couple of wrecks. Its GPS map is 18 months out of date and you drive right over the edge at 80 miles an hour. Bad maps cause you to blow up the Chinese embassy. What if it's in your clothes? I have an ID tag in my underwear, and I wash it one too many times. There's a whole Philip K. Dick world of hilarity here.

Sterling: Let's move onto Topic No. 4: Influence on industry. The thing that impressed me with the foamed aluminum wasn’t the thing itself but the amount of sensing. You almost need aluminum moussing. Just the right temperature. What happens when that crashes? What happens when it's no longer under the control of experts? What if I can go down to Kinko's and foam me some aluminum?

It’s the Linux model for physical objects. It's a really intriguing organizational problem that our society has that no else seems to have. What happens to General Motors if people can build cars? What if you could just download the stats to build a Model T? That can't be that hard. Henry Ford wasn't that big a guy. What if you built one out of foamed aluminum and chopped bamboo? How much would it really cost? Maybe a couple of million dollars? A Model T cost $400 bucks new. And there was no one in particular making them.

It's a Red Hat automobile. There's no digital rights management. When it wore out you'd just make another. How would we fit that into the litigation structure? Who do you sue? What are we going to do when kids are making stuff -- stuff -- not drivers, but actual stuff? We have a major military problem over it. The terrorist spread of mass destruction is basically a Linux model for nuclear weapons. That’s why were going to take out Iraq. It used to be that only governments could afford weapons of mass destruction. Now small groups of networked activists can get their hands on the stuff.

They're only weapons. And weapons have a manufacturing aspect. You just have to make the stuff. Aluminum stuff is suddenly contraband. Walk around downtown Austin and see how many aluminum tubes you find. It concerns me. We don’t really have methods to deal with this stuff. People's attitudes are becoming polarized. At the top end its becoming more and more ferocious, and at the bottom it's becoming more and more corrupt. We need a middle here.

Woodgate: We're seeing some of the modeling techniques that are allowing people to make things like little toys. But it's beyond us to work out the distribution problems,. Fabbing's going to be an important part of some community aspects. But the whole issue of community structures is part of society. If you look at the changing nature of work, we are seeing a real breakdown of traditional structures, particularly in knowledge work. There's no real need for these big organizations. You can come in and do what you need to do at any time.

We're starting to see what we call community companies. They're not just profit-making companies but communities of profitable individuals. In Europe, we're seeing already that people are negotiating their own contracts on a very different basis. They're looking for a retirement lifestyle all the way through their entire career. I'm also looking at that from the fabbing point of view.

Sterling: I wonder how you make those structures accountable. And how you can plan that lifestyle when you have no idea how long you're going to live.

Sterling: Maybe we should move onto topic No. 5: Biotech. I'm concerned about the structure of the American healthcare system. There's a not so slow crisis brewing there. One of the worst aspects of this I've seen is a revolt on the part of healthcare workers on insurance rates. They're refusing to heal sick people because they can't afford the healthcare premiums. This is a sign of a breakdown in the social order. You can't maintain that drain on the insurance companies.

We've tried. The US has struggled with this for many years, to find a balance between socialized medicine and the high-tech treatment we’ve been aiming for. It doesn’t matter if you can get four heart transplants if the guy next to you at the bus station coughs antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis on you. I belong to the generation where it's sort of a given that healthcare will continue to improve and lifespans will continue to expand. But you see life expectancies crashing in large parts of the world. The World Health Organization used to think that the population was on it's way to 11 billion. Where is it now? 8.3 billion. Where'd all those people go? AIDS, mostly, actually. AIDS and a crashing birth rate. When people don't have sex carefully, we get AIDS. And when people have sex carefully, we get crashing birth rates. We don’t treat our public health as though we all share the same species. The low end and a certain number of people are going to die from this. It's not going to be pretty

Some things are pretty. We have a much better sense of cellular development at this point. I'd be pretty concerned about the degree of antibiotic resistance. We're going to be domesticating microbes, figuring out what they do and how they work. Whereas we used to have home pregnancy tests, we're going to have home everything tests. You're going to have microbe sniffers on towers. Bad cloud today. You're going to have microbe sniffers on every water faucet. There's a potential there for non-commercial health monitoring activity where we can actually see what's eating us. It's a no brainer for domestic offense because it's a bio-war defense. You can see this in elk wasting and West Nile virus. Out of this crisis better things will come.

Woodgate: Other than the UK, compared to other healthcare systems, yours is probably the worse. With new bio materials, tissues, and genetics, we're going to see massive growth in that area which will counterbalance what we see happening. Particularly with an aging population, the costs are up. All those things cost money, and it's going to be even more difficult to keep the system running.

We're going to see more prevention techniques. The air that’s inside your house is 2-3 times worse than the air outside your house. We're going to see a lot of things pumped into the air at home for therapy. Equally, were going to see new soaps and other materials.

Sterling: Instead of home fire things, why don’t we have home cold germs things? People are used to paying a lot of money for medicine, but prevention is more of a hobby. Why can't I see the inside of my head every morning? Why can't I scan my body head to toe and have that as my start page so I can see how much calcium I've lost in my spine? Why do I have to go to an expert and pay them to tell me?

The mechanisms of decay in the human body, there are probably eight or nine of them. We might beat one or two of them in pretty short order. You could have fresh dewy young skin but still be going blind or deaf. Life extension isn't going to be like this fountain of youth crap. You'll have life extension in your nose. You'll spend all your time patching things up while you're Chernobyling somewhere else. I think the first people to do it are going to really suffer. Don’t ever be the alpha test for a biotech upgrade. Let the junkies do it. Let RU Sirius do it. Let the extropians do it.

Sterling: We're done to our last topic here: Globalizatioon, Americanization, anti-Americanization. The war. Movement in the street. NATO, the UN, the scene, baby!

Woodgate: Is globalization Americanization? It's really China-ization. The factory of the world is in China. The way globalization spreads is more about timing than anything else. It's perceived as Americanization because there's a complete gap between the ideology of America and the ideology of the rest of the world. In most of Europe and in Japan, you don't have ultra-capitalism like you have in the US. Look at what's important to people's lives. That makes it really different and difficult.

You have the same problem internally between states and federalization. States are going their own way. There's a massive change that’s going to go on. If it doesn’t, the US is going to go through a really difficult period. That might not be the end of the world. Go back 100 years and you have two world wars and tens of wars elsewhere. And we're still here. 10 years from now the US will be very different in its attitudes. It has to be if it's going to sustain any kind of growth.

Sterling: I think a lot of people mistook globalization for Americanization because for a long time Americans held the megaphone. During the '90s there was kind of a period of quiescence. People in the rest of the world expect Americans to behave the way the Washington Consensus would have us act. But now we've got more of a Serbian or South African-style regime in power that’s trying to shift foreign policy away from here. It's a large continental, militarized superpower with a population under surveillance and punishment.

That’s not the way America was when it was globalizing. Other countries are globalizing better now. ??? Al jazira ??? has the vitality of CNN during the first Gulf War. I would expect this second Gulf War to make them. They're a global newsmaking organization. They're breaking a lot of stories, people. The non-resident Indians have had a huge impact on their home country. Al Qaeda are globalized Arabs. They're guys with western educations and engineering degrees. They're globalized Arabs and they're angry about it.

I think it's about time the globe woke up that 4% of the people in the world can't do all the damn heavy lifting. If you're Brazil, you need your own damn government. The idea that the UN becomes irrelevant because the Bush administration says so is ridicuolous. It's not like the Chinese prime minister is going to stop talking to the Indian prime minister because they shut down a building in New York. The future is people in Belgrade talking to people in Latvia.

This too shall pass. The clock will not stop ticking. Armageddon never lives up to its hype. Things change and they change for the better, the worse, and the indifferent. Let's all go to my house and have a beer this evening.

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