Saturday, January 29, 2005

Consumer vs. Producer

Identity is an interesting and evolving topic and theme, both in the real world and the online worlds. This post explores two conflicting societal influences on identity: consumer not producer mentality on the one hand while at the same time a bias for activity not passivity.

The consumer vs. producer mentality distinction drawn by JBS Haldane in his 1963 essay, "Biological Possibilities for the Human Species in the Next Ten Thousand Years" is especially true today. In America, our whole country and identity are built around the mighty consumer. As a barometer of national health, we look to how much the consumer is spending and two thirds of the US GDP is personal consumption. Some examples of this are the "Buy American" campaigns and the US flag with shopping bag handles as the iconic response to 9/11. The first problem is the economy being the most important (and only?) element of national well-being and second that spending is the most important aspect of the economy.

The deeper issue is that consuming is about being passive and responsive while producing is about being active and creating which is much higher up on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. We are happier and more fulfilled when we are active, creating and self-actualizing. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work on Flow Experiences further documents that we feel most happy when we are engaged in a flow experience - an experience where we lose track of time and what's around us, being completely engaged in the activity at hand. A flow activity is one that you perceive to be a worthwhile endeavor and that is challenging but not overwhelmingly stretching for you.

But how can we understand the passivity of consuming together with the bias towards action, the social hypnosis that we have to be DOING something to feel good about ourselves, instead of feeling good about ourselves because of who we are being. When asked who they are, people will usually relate labels corresponding to the different activities of their life, "I work in product management at Company X, I am a parent, I am a skier," as opposed to the broader qualities of who they are as a person, "I am a compassionate inquisitive person."

The problem is that we are driven to action even when the action is purposeless, just acting for the sake of action itself because we believe action is better than non-action. Action is not examined in the broader picture of goals or how it relates to being. Consuming is an action but producing is a higher order action. Being is a higher order behavior than uninformed acting. Action is more fulfilling when it is examined and contemplated in the broader sense of its contribution to our being and when we are fully present to and engaged in it. Contemplation also leads to the appropriate individual balances between producing and consuming and between being and acting.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Which sciences are important now and why?

This is a quick and dirty look at which sciences are most important right now. These sciences are: physics, astronomy, nanotechnology, biotechnology, semiconductors, computation and information theory.

The important areas of physics are particle physics at accelerator and detector labs, and anything related to quantum theory/unified field theory/many worlds theory. These areas will help us to understand more about and control the properties of the smallest pieces of matter which are not atoms, not quarks but strings or other.

Astronomy is important because we need to find out more about the rest of the universe, how it works, more about black holes, dark energy and dark matter and how to harness them. Understanding the physics of that which we do not currently understand. This is important for many reasons including our eventual need to move off the Earth (4.5 billion years to the Earth's engulfment by the sun) and out of the galaxy (10 billion years until Andromeda collides with the Milky Way).

Nanotechnology is important because it will allow us to build and create objects from the ground up, truly mastering our world by creating matter. In addition there are interesting novel properties of atomic level matter which may offer better knowledge of quantum behavior.

Biotechnology is important in being able to improve and redesign ourselves as humans, in the near term to get to baseline by eradicating disease and then to expand from baseline into new enhanced capabilities and forms. As we look to immigrating to other worlds and space colonies, biological transformation will be key.

Semiconductors and computation are important as we need to reach successive tiers of computing capability to further master knowledge about how our universe works, especially regarding large phenomenon like galaxies and small phenomenon like brains. Software is a harder problem than hardware and with greater processing, a lot of results can be achieved by brute force computation and don't need to wait for and rely on more complicated human team work dependent software.

Information theory is increasingly critical as a new conceptual model by which the universe is being explained. Seth Lloyd is one of the foremost authors on this. The idea is that there are many forms of information storage and computation in the universe, including life (plants, animals, etc.) who store DNA and compute from it, even rocks reacting to their environment are said to process information. Black holes also take in information, process it and return output, but this phenomenon is tested or understood yet.

These sciences share the theme of helping us answer the biggest remaining outstanding questions the fastest. Who are we? Where did we come from? What is the nature of this universe? Are there other universes? What are the physical laws that govern all matter and phenomenon of this universe?

Friday, January 21, 2005

Universal voices, Message separated from Medium, Ubiquitous choice

Doug Rushkoff at the 2004 PopTech conference makes several great points related to some of the ongoing themes discussed in this blog, listen to the talk here.

Theme: Increasing democratization of the world
Rushkoff cites the European Renaissance as where media (e.g.; books) became distributable and everyone could access it and have opinions, it was the birth of the individual; the Renaissance human tech culture is currently going through is that everyone can now be an author. Some examples are via personal websites, blogs, building our own software (open source), applications (free APIs), games and new online mini-worlds/experiences. It is interesting to think about how collective consciousness models and other tools may evolve for orchestrating and making accessible not overwhelming all of these voices (15-20 million blogs as of Jan. 2005 and growing exponentially). They'll likely (self?)organize into like streams but should they?

Theme: The medium is the message - the tool is the innovation
Rushkoff cautions that the sexiness of the medium heavily influences the message, for example, because TV was new and personal and invasive in the home, Dan Rather could end newscasts saying "...And that's the way it is" and everyone would believe him. We don't believe the newscasters any more as full arbiters of the situation they are discussing. As critical thinkers, we need to separate the message from the medium and evaluate the merits of the message on its own. The message may be much less powerful and overwhelming than the medium, especially with a lot of new media likely on the way - holographic, 3-D, brain-implanted, etc. How are blogs as a medium influencing the message?

Theme: Shift away from market-centric life structure and value systems
Another interesting point Rushkoff makes is that yes, we are awash with choice, which is good, but it is only in a market context. He uses the example of if you are in love with someone, the only current societally accepted way to act on that is to be married. We don't yet have true choice in lifestyle and many other areas. Take work, for example, it is rare that it's not structured as location and time specific, when being efficiency specific makes much more sense. In the tech world is an example of a successful efficiency-based transition: search is going from statistics-based to relevancy-based. Hopefully new attention on the presence of choice in some arenas and not in others will allow it to be drawn into where it is not.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Are today's technologies life-transforming?

Technologies people have experienced in the last 20 years like the PC, the Internet, cell phones, iPods, and personal video recorders have been life changing but have they been truly transformative? Despite the current rapid pace of technology change and innovation, it can be argued that some inventions in the late 1800s/early 1900s period had a more dramatic impact on people's lives - the advent of electricity, indoor plumbing, cars replacing horses, hospitals and more.

Examining the changes in the 100 years ago era and the present era suggests that the changes are of different types. While they are both the implementation of better tools to ease human labor, the 100 years ago changes were more about basic hardcore real world problems of comfort, health, sanitation and efficiency, building linearly to a more modern baseline. Our recent changes, and the ones coming, are more profound in a different way - they are about opening up non-linear possibilities in human thought space and creativity. There is an assumption that we are at baseline and improving exponentially from there. Today we have the privilege of thinking about what it is like to extend humanness, to travel off the Earth, to change and create new organisms from the DNA up and a myriad of other formerly almost unimaginable phenomenon.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Is Remembering Facts Obsolete?

There seem to be a lot of human skills that are now obsolete because technology performs them for us. These include skills like spelling (helped by spellchecker), handwriting (via typing) and fact remembering (can easily search anything on the Internet; possibly this will be an internally embedded device directly accessible to the brain at some future point) to name a few.

On one hand, it is nice to be rid of an ever-increasing tier of lower level skills not requiring high cognition, but on the other hand, does this change our definition of what it is to be human? Do we need to remember how to spell as a backup in case we aren't online typing something? Does the value of the old skills go up as a backlash response? How do we next define humanness and distinguish human capability?

Skills like remembering facts used to be measuring sticks for people to gauge intelligence and capability just like witty storytelling and oration won friends and status before the mass media era of television and radio. We now have the opportunity to evolve new methods and customs for judging and signaling capability, and with a shift in focus on what it is to be smart and capable, maybe we can also shift our collective value system to be less judgmental and focus on the unique values of everyone.

Tools and technology allow us to spend more time in higher tiers of cognition, the specific activities of which are less tangible to describe. Some of the distinguishing capabilities we can strive for are progressing up the chain from data...turning data into information, synthesizing information to generate comprehensive descriptions of existing material and creating new ideas and complex thoughts.

Monday, January 17, 2005

The Internet is Getting Bigger Faster

In the future, we will have multiple networks with much greater profundity than we do today. Some refer to the 2005 Internet as the baby of what is to come and this may be understating it.

Some key things are starting to coalesce into hastening the bigger better Internet. First is the already-accomplished full text-indexing of the known online world by search engines. They do a good job of finding, organizing and serving up whatever is out there on demand. That is baseline.
Right now the second factor driving the improvement and the next architectural redefining of the communications networks is the exponential explosion of available information. Everyone is getting online and writing blogs, posting photos, sharing music and videos, creating podcasts, putting their collections of books/videos/media/etc. online (รก la Delicious Monster and soon to be others with expanded functionality) and soon we will be putting all of our household and business objects online. Per Adam Bosworth, the information explosion scales all right at the web server and application server layers but forces a rethink of the database underlying everything into a different format with distributed information routers or information servers or other new ideas.

The third important phenomenon that is happening now is that more is possible because there is a critical mass of users on the Internet in more and more countries. Traders would say the market has become liquid in describing the feeling of presence one gets online for maybe the first time in late 2004. The sheer presence of others online is felt in such ways as selling items on Amazon almost immediately, finding online game players immediately from a variety of countries, and seeing that 1000 people update their blogs at each 10 minutes at almost any time. In fact the depth and breadth of those out there is even bigger and more powerful than the biggest march on Tiananmen or Red Square. The Internet liquidity allows the development and test of myriad new applications benefiting large and small affinity groups.

Fourth, new Internet R&D projects can be mentioned. There are a lot of smart people trying to figure out what the communications networks of the future need to be like.

In summary, being in the continuum of search/universe management capability explosion, data explosion and participant explosion is driving the advent of a new tier of communications networks from the currently known Internet.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

How Long is a Long Time?

Time is of course subjective, it flows fast when you are having a good time and slow when you are waiting for something or having a not so good time. But what is a really long time? We are starting to put some long time frame events in a definitive timetable.

One long-term way of thinking is in terms of Russian astronomer Kardashev's Type I, II & II societies. Type I societies have fully harnessed all forms of their planetary energy including volcanoes, earthquakes, weather, hydrothermal vents, etc. We are currently a Type 0.7 society. Michio Kaku, talking about his new book, Parallel Worlds, thinks we are about 100 years from becoming a Type I society, as compared with Freeman Dyson suggesting a few years ago that we are 200 years away. No doubt the 2004 tsunami may help hasten the speed to a Type I society.

Other long-dated events on the horizon include:
-5 billion years to the engulfment of Earth by the sun
-10 billion years to the Andromeda galaxy collision w/ the Milky Way
-x billion/trillion+(?) years to the heat death of the universe when the accelerated expansion of the universe has driven all of the heat out

These events imply that human intelligence must take action to survive, first to get off Earth, then to get out of the galaxy and finally to get out of this universe. Or we could learn to control these events or manage around them such as by learning to live without heat/make heat unconventionally w/ dark matter/energy, better understand and manipulate physics, etc.

It seems likely that science will lead us to achieve these survival outcomes as a byproduct of other goals and imperatives occurring first.

One or more singularities may also supersede the timetable.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Tools are Imperative

A continuation on the theme of humans being better innovators...

Creating new tools is often a key step in stimulating innovation. To do the innovation one wants, one may need to develop better tools to help. These tools in turn can beget an entirely new tier of innovation in a virtuous upward progression. A metaphor could be applied in some cases that the tools ARE the innovation much like Marsh McLuhan's medium IS the message.

Freeman Dyson cites the important example of astronomers, who build their own tools, being farther up the development curve than biotechnologists, who rely on others to build the tools they use. There appears to be a fundamental linkage and relationship between the tools and the innovation.

To innovate, we can focus on improving and creating tools. We can think of the areas of our lives and the tools we currently use there and problems we'd like to solve and what tools or solutions, objects, processes, etc. would do this and make life easier and better. We can dare to dream, create and invent!

Sunday, January 09, 2005

How to contribute to tech world

The science world is changing faster than ever now and will continue to speed up. One action for an individual to do is to try to keep up by learning about the technologies, innovation, changes, trends, current solutions and future problems in key areas like semiconductors, biotech, nanotech, physics and cosmology. Given the possible constraints of a non-science educational background, a generalist/macro not micro skillset and purview (e.g.; non-technical background, competence and interest) what are the obvious, useful and meaningful ways for an individual to participate in the massively evolving technology future?

Any role with a macro (e.g.; multi-topic) purview required is an interesting possibility. One category of roles is the popularizers, educators, explainers and evangelists/cheerleaders. Writers, synthesizers, presenters and thought-leaders with agendas are another category of roles, somehow a little more active, adding their views/vision to the explication role. Both of these categories involve other people as the consumer/observer of the content.

What are higher level categories that are more creative and content/info-generating, thereby potentially more worthwhile to certain value systems? Other forms of writing/creation: considering the implications of the technologies (though still may be heavily people/society-related), making a list of detailed predictions, adjusting life in expectation of the arrival of the technologies, drawing or other graphical abstraction of the technology or the implications of the technology. Inventing a new use or a new technology, like text-to-speech files for the iPod, is actively creating and participating. These days its easy to make or get a new technology idea made. Think about what you'd like to fix in your life and what are potential solutions. Keep a list of daily invention ideas.

Higher-level active writing, invention, ....more to come....