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Letter from Visby: Linnaeus, the Encyclopedia of Life and the Metaverse
Alex Steffen, 26 Jun 07
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I write this from the medieval town of Visby, in the shadow of the ruined church of Saint Clement, on Sweden's Gotland island. I've stayed here for a few days on my way to the Tällberg Forum, hoping for a chance to catch my breath.

It's a beautiful place, Visby, a UNESCO World Heritage site of old buildings, tiles roofs, cobblestones, ancient churches and a huge stone wall circling the city, and I've spent the last few days wandering the narrow winding streets, sitting in cafes overlooking the ocean, reading and relaxing and trying to catch up with the flow of ideas and information that rolls through my life in what sometimes seems an unstoppable flood.

There's something wonderful about contemplating the future while bathing in history. To read about emerging technologies, new scientific research, innovative social programs -- the whole cacophony of change -- while standing on ground where Vikings raided, where Hanseatic merchants sold goods, where the piratical Victual Brothers made their base in the 14th Century; it gives one a sense of the long view. Tones things down.

Carl Linnaeus spent time here as well. Locals proudly claim that the field research he did on Gotland in the 1740s gelled his ideas on taxonomy. Outsiders attribute a bit less importance to his trips here, but with his 300th birthday having just been celebrated here, and pictures of Linnaeus scattered around the town, it seems pointless to dampen anyone's enthusiasm.

But if we're uncertain about the impact of his Gotland field work on his theories, we are not at all uncertain about the impact of his theories themselves. Quite simply, Linnaeus contributed the tools we still use for classifying and understanding the diversity of nature.

Linnaean taxonomy uses hierarchical ranks to show the nature of -- and relationship between, various living things.

We use them so frequently today that we tend to forget what a revolutionary tool taxonomies were, at the dawn of the Enlightenment, allowing people to order and structure the relationships between vastly disparate things: in the process, those things themselves were illuminated in new and telling ways. As an example, Wikipedia offers the Linnaean classification for human beings:

As an example, consider the Linnaean classification for modern humans:
• Kingdom: Animalia (with eukaryotic cells having cell membrane but lacking cell wall, multicellular, heterotrophic)
• Phylum: Chordata (animals with a notochord, dorsal nerve cord, and pharyngeal gill slits, which may be vestigial)
• Subphylum: Vertebrata (possessing a backbone, which may be cartilaginous, to protect the dorsal nerve cord)
• Class: Mammalia (warm-blooded vertebrates with hair and mammary glands which, in females, secrete milk to nourish young)
• Subclass: Placentalia (giving birth to live young after a full internal gestation period)
• Order: Primates (collar bone, eyes face forward, grasping hands with fingers, and two types of teeth: incisors and molars)
• Family: Hominidae (upright posture, large brain, stereoscopic vision, flat face, hands and feet have different specializations)
• Genus: Homo (s-curved spine, "man")
• Species: Homo sapiens (high forehead, well-developed chin, skull bones thin)

Through this taxonomical placement of humanity, we learn all sorts of things about ourselves that we might not take notice of if we were merely to say "human" -- all sorts of relationships and characteristics. Indeed, some have described Linnaean taxonomy as a tool for making mental order out of living profusion.

Of course, as scientific knowledge has advanced, certain problems have begun to crop up in the system Linnaeus first devised while hunting on horseback for unusual flowers to press into his notebooks.

First of all, biologists have found that the sheer variety and complexity of species (and evolutionary relationships) requires that a bewildering array of sub-classifications be added to Linnaeus' originally simple system.

Second, as sampling and sequencing DNA has gotten easier and cheaper, the resulting wealth of insight into the evolutionary relationships between various creatures has upset enough applecarts that some scientists are proposing that a whole new way of describing the relatedness of species, an International Code of Phylogenetic Nomenclature, be added to the use of the Linnaean system (indeed, some very smart biologists are challenging the idea that classifying species, as we understand them, is the best way of understanding life, even reconsidering our current understanding of how evolution itself works).

But the third, and perhaps biggest, problem with using the Linnaean system to describe the world's millions of unique plants and animals is that no one has ever seen most of those creatures. The number of species which have been described and classified by scientists represent some tiny fraction of the millions of species thought to exist. When it comes to biodiversity, we don't know much.

One effort to address our ignorance may be the Encyclopedia of Life. The EoL is an emerging online reference and research tool, which aims to compile existing databases and efforts, mix their data with other content gathered from a variety of sources, and then have experts edit the resulting "mash up (their phrase) to produce and maintain the most comprehensive guide to all the species known to humanity.

It's not quite open source science, as it brings in little in the way of either distributed collaboration or citizen science, but it still could represent a gargantuan leap forward in the way we keep track of what we know about life on earth.

It won't, however, directly expand our knowledge. We're still a long way from sequencing the planet: even the mere description of all the species on earth seems beyond our reach -- the All Species Foundation, which aimed for "the complete inventory of all species of life on Earth within the next 25 years," fizzled out with big ideas and small budgets. Nothing wrong with that, except that as far as I know no other similar efforts have gotten anywhere either.

But let's assume that somehow we bring enough minds to bear on the study of biodiversity (and, for that matter, all the other research fields involved in sustainability science) to generate the raw data, basic research and fundamental insights to more or less describe the natural world: what, really, would we have accomplished?

Well, for one thing, if we worked quickly enough, we would have gathered information about the world before the catastrophe we've unleashed had fully hit. The world today is already a biologically impoverished world, compared to that of even 1,000 years ago, but by the end of the century it's likely that we'll have lost up to half the diversity of life. A decent snapshot of how the world was put together before that disaster might well be one of the greatest gifts we could leave our descendants.

It may be possible to use such snapshots, in combination with new work creating sensor arrays, to give us an unparalleled ability to understand, visualize and communicate relationships in the natural world.

Consider the James Reserve, which has deployed hundreds of sensing devices in an effort to create the most comprehensive understanding of the functioning of a particular ecosystem yet forged:

The James Reserve, some 90 miles southeast of Los Angeles on a mountain flank that is home to 1,500 species of plants and animals, including the yellow-legged frog and willow flycatcher, now bristles with enough monitoring gear to make it one of the world's most advanced tests of ecologic networking. Wireless motes, cameras and other sensors track the nesting habits of birds, the life cycles of moss and the carbon dioxide uptake of various soils. Robots move along wires strung from tree to tree, lowering sensors to take temperature, humidity and light-level readings at different levels.

Even such a detailed understanding is still primitive, and too expensive and labor-intensive for widespread replication (if you use Google Earth you can check out some of their data mapped here. But there's every reason to believe that the hardware will continue to get cheaper and more sophisticated, the expertise more widespread and the modeling of ecosystem functions more advanced. There is, indeed, every reason to believe that the workings of the natural world around us will be made plainer and plainer to see.

Which raises some interesting possibilities. For one thing, it brings up the idea of being able to perceive the ecosystems in which we live on multiple scales of time and space. Theoretically, we might soon be people who know the natural systems around us more intimately than even our most attuned hunter-gatherer ancestors... if we find it interesting enough to pay attention to.

One way of making things interesting is turning them into a game. That the management of a natural area might make for a good game is the premise of my old piece on the EcoSystem Game. A host of new tools and games -- from open source astronomy programs that let you explore 3D models of the universe to the game Spore -- is rolling out, promising to make knowing the planet, the universe and the sorts of processes which run it more fun.

But increased knowledge and better techniques for visualizing and exploring data attached to real world places and flows needn't be limited to purely scientific relationships. Very quickly, I expect, we'll be seeing digital tools overlap physical space to reveal the backstories of our lives in ways that are difficult to now imagine. Think of the sorts of tools that we've described variously as Way New Urbanism, Walkshed Technologies and Future-Making Techniques, applied not only to making our lives easier but to making the impacts of our actions more transparent.

These tools are only getting more powerful. If you're interested in a bit of futurism about where they might be going, take a look at the new Metaverse Roadmap (PDF) [disclosure: our own Jamais Cascio was one of the study's authors].

The Roadmap, though not an easy read, is an intriguing exploration of the ways in which information technology, physical space and social interaction are overlapping and influencing each other. It explores four futures:

Virtual Worlds, in which online 3D worlds (think Second Life or World of Warcraft) increasingly become the focus of community and economic life, essentially supplanting the web as we know it, with its orientation on text and video.

Mirror Worlds, in which geospatial information is use to create models of the physical world, which then in turn inform our understanding of the world: think Google Earth on steroids.

Augmented Reality, in which intelligent objects (think RFIDs) and participatory panopticon tools like heads-up displays create a world alive with information, and in which information about our physical surroundings is accessible in a myriad of ways.

Lifelogging (an unfortunate coinage), in which the objects around us conspire to make records of our activities -- from personal video recorders which are on for much of our lives to distributed monitoring of public spaces to car keys which wail plaintively when we get too far away from them.

Leaving aside the question of the validity of these scenarios, they do offer further insight into trends we've long looked at here, and, more importantly, suggest some of the ways in which tools like these may apply to sustainability.

1) Personal planets: one of the biggest sustainability challenges from a consumer/citizen point of view is getting an accurate read on the impacts of your choices. With new technologies, this might become dramatically easier: virtual environments might model our physical world lives, allowing us to play with the implications, say, of buying a new washing machine on our energy and water use; mirror world technologies could help us better navigate our lives in a more sustainable fashion, working in the form of walkshed technologies to substitute fine-grained local knowledge for lots of wasted drive-time; augmented reality tools might provide us with consumer-group ratings and other tools for practicing strategic consumption at the check-out stand, much as Japanese consumers are already using their mobile phones to find out more about products; while lifelogging technologies help us monitor indoor air, keep track of our energy usage and even make zero waste recycling systems more practical.

2) Bright green products: at the most crass level, these technologies will help companies design better products and processes, waste less, operate more efficiently and so on. But the real bang for the buck, I suspect, lies not in doing things better. It lies in doing different things: in substituting virtual storefronts for trips to the mall (think Netflix); in creating relationships with consumers where ongoing service contracts are substituted for the sale of goods (think product-service systems like car-sharing or carpet leasing) and where producer responsibility leads to design for disassembly and neobiological, closed loop manufacturing systems.

3) Networked activism: I suspect we will increasingly see activists using these sorts of tools to make visible the invisible flows and relationships which make up so much of the unsavory side of our personal backstories. Expect an explosion of activists using cheap videophones, hacked RFID tags and satellite maps to track supply chains back to unacceptable sources (think blood diamonds), reveal inhumane working conditions (think Witness) or capture environmental crimes as they unfold. Expect others to use these technologies to maintain free speech under repressive conditions. Expect others still to use the kind of data streams (and data visualization abilities) these technologies offer to mine public information and create new and more powerful versions of projects like In short, expect a flood of information about the backstories of all sorts of objects, services, practices and programs, made increasingly more accessible and compelling for us, and forcing us to confront the unpleasant realities behind much of the surface of our lives.

4) Transparent organizations: Because most people want to live lives of guilt-free affluence -- want to be able to live well without worrying that they are drowning polar bears or participating in the enslavement of child laborers, however indirectly -- networked activism is going to blow a big hole in the standard operating procedures of many organizations. Up until now, it's been good enough to simply not do obviously bad things (or, a cynic might say, at least not to get caught doing them); increasingly, however, it's going to be necessary to demonstrate that what your organization is doing is good. Smart companies will increasingly be using these sorts of technologies to demonstrate transparency: even smarter ones will be figuring out how to use these technologies to tell compelling stories about the virtuous nature of the things they make and do. Think remote tours of factories, tagging of products to specific workers who make them, virtual supply chain flyovers (showing sustainability improvements), corporate sustainability reports turned into videogames.

In a million ways, we are going to be able to increasingly connect our growing knowledge of the natural world and sustainable practices to the direct stories (and backstories) of our lives.

It'll be a strange world, but probably, in many ways not all that different from our own, just as in some profound ways, our own natures are not all that different from those of the people who built this church. In some things, there is a deep continuity. Perhaps that's the proper note on which to end this letter then, wondering if, as a counterpoise to the rapidly changing, we might need as well to think more about the long-standing and deeply ingrained, about that part of ourselves that, as James wrote, "is a gift and not an acquisition," and about how to serve that more fully in the world we are building. For ultimately, no matter how clever our tools, we won't get far if they are merely faster ways of going nowhere.

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Something has been gnawing on me about the sustainability movement. We (myself included) are banking on the consciences of relatively wealthy consumers to create systems change/economic revolution despite good evidence (the whole world system, e.g.) against the efficacy of such an approach absent movement from below. Columbia's Thomas Pogge has done some great work on what he calls "moral loopholes" whereby entering a social relation (of any type, e.g. country, family, etc) allows one to escape the full reprecussions of one's actions. This is how most wealthy consumers are already able to live "lives of guilt-free affluence." I trust the conscience about as far as I can throw it (a small non-zero number of feet). Personal planets of a different type already exist and they have high walls and security guards: gated communities, that 0 energy city in Dubai, the United States of America, and The Green Zone.

Your post began with categorization: what we can glean from how we (individuals, "a people", humans) partition our experience of the world. I'm not sure that the rich have the right categories in place for the severity of the changes that need to occur. Shopping at Trader Joe's or buying a new hybrid (even multiplied by all of America) is not a 90% reduction of impact in 30 years. And those wealthy are exactly the people who must have that mindset because, if we are honest, they are the ones destroying the planet anyhow. How do you change an entire moral system that sustains and obscures the operating of the world?

The poor (in any country) have always been more interested in Big Change than those with a major stake in the political/environmental/economic systems that work for them. Most of the energy in the green movement is directed at exposing injustice for the rich to see, so that they can change their behavior and "right" that injustice. That is a certain type of realism that I can appreciate but that is how real humans' lives/deaths get made into small steps in the stores of Europe, Japan, and the US.

The poor are going to have to take action.
It seems obvious but it is outside the current conversation. That action is going to have to be dramatic and quite probably destructive. Can we say that even if it is outside the vision of the win-win? Can we really reasonably expect that the biggest users of energy won't be the biggest losers if we want to reduce their impact on our environment? Where else are the savings going to come?

The sad fact, as much as we want to imply it for unity's sake, is that the impacts of global climate change will not fall evenly on everyone; it will be more like manna than rain, with the chosen and then everyone else. The rich will get by using all the innovations that already insulate us from the elements. So, assuming that we need to keep pushing all the smart, insightful, and fresh ideas to become real(ish), a question we still need to be asking (and answering) is this: what collective action(s) on the part of our world's poor would prove morally compelling to the rich, aside from getting hit by a tsunami?

Posted by: alpha on 27 Jun 07

"Guilt-free affluence"... what a great turn of phrase. The lack of respect for this simple human desire in the environmental movement today is seriously undermining the efforts of people trying to create a sustainable economy. Perhaps as the founder of a "for-profit" organization I am biased, but any environmental solution that doesn't understand the desire for "guilt-free affluence" is destined to fail.

Until competition heats up, transparency seems to be the way to go. Instinctively I am a very private person, but privacy is expensive. In a small start-up company my only hope is to move fast and unpredictably to avoid getting hit.

In both For-profits and non-profits there are many stakeholders in the organization. Customers, Vendors, Suppliers, Service Providers, Employees, Investors, Management, Competitors, etc. As management we want to tightly regulate the information reaching each group, so we can better control the organization. In the quest to control information flow I wonder if organizations don’t often end up wasting way to much energy and money on secrecy.

How about instead we focus most of that time and energy now spent on security and secrecy and instead invest in innovation… Then the entire company could move quickly and unpredictably, leaving competition in the dust. A dynamic, growing organization keeps all the stakeholders happy, buzzing with excitement.

Note: I’m not talking about opening up your internal networks to hackers, spammers, trolls, and phishers. There are simple, cheap, and effective ways you can protect yourself in that regard. What I’m talking about is the culture of fear that permeates many organizations where any “public” disclosure of information needs to be signed off on by multiple levels of management. This can have the side effect of cutting people in the organizations off from the free flow of ideas on the outside.

Posted by: Robert Creighton on 30 Jun 07

Viewing this discussion in entropy terms, Alex Steffen praises the virtues of the well-ordered, classified universe (Linnean binomial nomenclature, RFID-tagged objects with virtual biographies, etc.). Perhaps with the aid of information tools, we can maintain and enhance complex human and natural ecologies.

At the same time, capitalism and the general flow of human civilization show a disturbing tendency towards blithely burning up natural capital- it may go back to the invention of cultural fire. Agriculture (read Ishmael) and deforestry (read A Forest Journey) are antecedents to mountaintop removal coalmines, Exxon-Mobil and interminable mideast oil wars.

World ecological systems are the result of a few billion years of biological and physical evolution on a well-watered planet rotating 100 million miles from a medium-small star on the outskirts of a spiral galaxy. Photosynthesis fixes high-energy carbon which burns its way in cool respiration foodchains. That's basically it, but the fine workings and ramifications, from mitochondria and rhizobia to redwoods and whales, are mind-boggling. It's like describing the fine interweaving of veins and nerves, breath and blood in your own hand, down to the cell and molecule. Our true wealth indeed.

However, it appears that civilization routinely "rips the paintings off the wall in the Louvre", using the Mona Lisa for firewood, so to speak. Literally every item of normal commerce represents a huge investment of dwindling fossil fuel and topsoil and species.

Attaching an RFID tag to every object (T-shirt, car battery, gallon of milk, music CD...) sold at WalMart, one might more easily track and possibly stanch ecological and social wounds. It appears that powers-that-be are more interested in restocking the shelves with bar-coded bargains. Our planetary fire sale goes on...

Eventually we'll probably have to do like nature and evolve primarily local, intensively recycling material economies (does a tree purchase cellulose from China and topsoil from Sri Lanka?).

This will arise consciously or as unwilling neotribal aftermath of major social and ecological collapse.

Stephen Brown
(Sharon, PA)

Posted by: Stephen Brown on 2 Jul 07



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