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The Actual is the New Virtual: Alex and Bruce Keynote SXSW
Emily Gertz, 16 Mar 05

At yesterday afternoon's keynote conversation on the final day at SXSW, WorldChanging Ally Bruce Sterling and WorldChanging editor Alex Steffen asked: If the world is getting better, is it getting better fast enough? Who's going to create a sustainable society, and how is it going to be done? Can we redefine, or redesign prosperity? Can we be sustainably prosperous?

Good questions for the crowd at the SXSW conference, which in the last 12 years has been a ringside seat for observing the creation, mass adoption, crash and reorganization of the virtual world.

Alex and Bruce gave a rundown of global problems and - appropriately for this audience - riffed on a range of largely technological solutions for achieving sustainability. They quickly outlined some of the biggest problems, including soil loss, bioaccumulative toxins, climate change, per capita consumption, and the dilemma that humans are using up the earth's entire photosynthetic capacity.

Challenging as these are, the solutions discussed were typically extra-governmental: Bruce pointed out that none of the major chronic problems facing humanity will be solved in two years by the U.S. House of Representatives. But, he expects to see many of them on the wane by 2060.

A mass moral transformation to a deeper green way of living--mindfulness as Bruce termed it--can't happen quickly enough to spare humanity years of intensified misery--if it can happen at all. We have infrastructure, design and engineering problems that outstrip the power of existing ethical and legislative structures to solve them. The keys to meeting these challenges are innovation and, most importantly, a positive vision for the future. We need to think our way out of this mess, and fast.

Bruce tossed half a dinosaur into the crowd. Four inches long, pale beige, made from starch and produced in a 3D printer from a digital CAD file, it came from a collection of small "fabjects" produced by Bruce's design students at Art Center in California.

Created on demand from files that can be altered on the fly to suit the needs of the situation, they're artifacts from the future of sustainable design.

Almost everything that we manufacture now gets fed into, and transformed by, a computer. Using these technologies, one can feasibly design a water pump, email it, and fabricate it on demand on the other side of the world. The actual is the new virtual. (WC has posted extensively on fabbing, and Bruce elaborates on its future in his Muenchen lecture.)

Some of the key concepts Alex and Bruce touched on during their hour-long, free-form conversation:

  • Protocrats: Who will be creating a sustainable future, and what will we call them? "There's an electronic conjulation of smaller groups that are living in one another's laps, trading info across institutional boundaries, move things fast and punting developments into mass consumption," Bruce said. He calls these people "protocrats" - green designer/instantiators ahead of the curve on developing new technologies, pushing them beyond labs and into mass development.

  • Alex introduced a range of concepts that will be familiar to WC readers, but were new to much of the SXSW audience, including ecological footprinting; urban design and green megacities; and the sharing of objects and resources, known as product-service systems.

  • Bruce looked at three approaches to making objects sustainable:

    1. Neobiology and biomimetics: when you lose it, it rots.

    2. Build monuments for the ages. Abandon fashion. It'll be artsy and craftsy, roughhewn and honest - but you don't get to change your mind about it.

    3. Label everything in the environment and digitally track it. Give everything a unique identity, and make the bar code searchable. Track it throughout its lifetime, from manufacture to disassembly and material recovery. When it breaks, push a button and somebody picks it up. This is the Internet of Things. It would require plenty of bandwidth, tracking, extensive databases, and (of course) a remake of the entire social, legal, and economic system, "which happens all the time".

  • Leapfrogging: Under certain conditions, people who are technologically underdeveloped might skip a stage and jump to the next, newer technology (see Jamais' "Leapfrogging 101").

  • Treefrogging: The emergence of bright green solutions for personal use, as outlined by WC allies Metaefficient and Treehugger. Distinct from LOHAS-type alternatives (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability, as typified by Whole Foods, or Natural Home Magazine), this is the creation and distribution of new design concepts. As with the Solar Backpack concept that Bruce test-drove for Treehugger, good ideas can now be picked up and produced on demand. "Throw it over the side to the piranhas of bloggerland!"

  • Monitoring: In cities: for checking emissions, controlling traffic on highways. Don't expect drivers to do all the navigation. In the human body: monitoring bioaccumulation of lead, or jet fuel, in your cells. "What if the shower told you that you've got a suspiciously large amount of jet fuel in your body today? You'd wonder who the hell spilled the jet fuel." Of objects: material composition, location, off-gassing, pollution; the double-edged sword of RFID tagging and tracking of objects.

  • Attention Philanthropy: Not all of us have money to give to causes but all of us have attention to give to good ideas.

Alex and Bruce concluded by asking: do we get the future we want, the cooler future that works better, or do we get the default future?

We're heading for a world that's either unimaginable or one that's unthinkable. On the continuum between these two points, we need to aggressively promote the vision of a future as close to unimaginable and far from unthinkable as possible. We need to define our victory condition: an unimaginably positive outcome. A time in which the world's most creative people can get up every morning, apply their highest talents to the world's most pressing problems, and their prize the next morning will be a better set of problems to work on.

(posted by Dawn, Emily, and Jon)

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Oh, great stuff! And if technology can begin to help people understand their identity as *simultaneously* individual and communal (including global) then I believe we *can* at least hope for a rapid mass transformation to a deeper green way of living (leaving aside the morals...). Why not? : )

Posted by: Luke Razzell on 17 Mar 05

The crowd really went wild for that last statement. Sure, it's important to create a culture that doesn't throw away everything it produces. It's vital that we create a future that gives us sustainability and prosperity. But let's get that out of the way so we can have a better set of problems to work on.

Posted by: Stan on 17 Mar 05

Nice summary, but I'd love to see some video!

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 17 Mar 05

agree. nice summary. thank you.

Posted by: csven on 17 Mar 05

Am I alone in detecting a bit of Candide in all of this. I'm not in favor of living in Grand Hotel Abyss all the time, but let's not erase all negative dialectics as we search out the elusive 'positive vision.' For instance, when Bruce Sterling suggests that we "label everything in the environment and digitally track it," I'm sure he sees an aid to the bright sustainable future. But I see the makings of a police state. Divining the positive future is great, but let's be honest about how corrupted its realization will sadly but inevitably be.

Posted by: robert neuwirth on 17 Mar 05

Robert: We refer to RFID tagging as a double-edged sword for the very reasons you bring up. For a more detailed scenario of RFID tagging of objects, I'd suggest listening to "Shaping Things to Come", the Sterling lecture at Muenchen that we link to above. He assigns a certain inevitability to the introduction of this (and other) technologies, and mentioned at SXSW that they are in the process of being implemented both by the Pentagon and Wal-Mart. As I understand it, the concept is to harness this possibility to enable a more sustainable, closed-loop manufacturing system.

Posted by: Dawn Danby on 17 Mar 05

I tell vegans that I think we'll all be vegan one day:

"Yeah. We're all going to be vegan. We're all going to be brains in 3'x3'x3' cubes.

"Nobody wants to drive their car to work. Nobody wants to clean up their room. Nobody wants to vacuum. Nobody wants to do any of that stuff.

"We're mental creatures, always have been, always will be. We've always lived in our head, regardless of what our physical body was doing.

"So, the natural extension would be that in, say, 50 years, we all live in gigantic "cities" that are actually gigantic bricks filled with transportable 3'x3'x3' cubes that store our brains and distribute proteins and whatever else is needed to them.

"Just think, we'll all be vegan, perhaps literally live on sunlight, have lost a lot of weight, live in worlds nobody's ever seen, we'll never have to drive anywhere or "go" anywhere, we'll be incredibly energy efficient, sex will be safe, they're be animals all over the place outside, living their lives,..."

For some reason, the vegans are not happy with this idea.

"We'll be more ecologically and morally friendly than the Jain!"

Still not convincing.

Posted by: Lion Kimbro on 17 Mar 05



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