Virtual Citizenship, Part VII: Vernor Vinge

Vernor Vinge, "People Power in the Future"

No one knows the future, so scenarios are much preferred to predictions (and for some the most important issues, scenarios are more useful than elaborate probability analysis).

Straight line linear projections, predictions from the futurists of the 1970’s in regard to oil prices proved accurate with regard to amount ($100 per barrel oil) but spectacularly wrong with regard to timing (2007 as opposed to 1979).

With scenarios you do not determine what the future is going to be. 
For each scenario you build a list of symptoms of what to look for and counterindicating symptoms.
You may also be able to write a historical review from the future (in retrospect it was obvious that…)

People are unpredictable; add technology and situations are even more volatile.
As events unfold you track the symptoms and anti-symptoms and you are in a better position to react. 

In planning, you do not just plan for the likely scenario but you plan in a way that minimizes the chance of the worst case scenarios. 

In this I will look at the scenario loosely related to that of my novel Rainbows End
(For alternative kinds of scenarios, see Martin Rees’s Our Final Hour)

The greatest natural resource: people.
Population estimates at present
    China, 1322,000,000
    India, 1,169,000,000
    EU and Russia: 638,000,000
    USA: 303,000,000
In populations this large, there is almost no topic that is too small not to have four or five people who have spent their whole lives thinking about it.  Hook that together with databases and communications and you have what is safe to call a creativity engine and a major feature of the first part of this century.  It is plausible that the creative engine may make our physical and even intellectual productivity look medieval.  Greatest importance of present day internet is as a laboratory for experimenting with collaboration.  We can experiment with collaboration going forward.  What kinds of things are we talking about:

  • eBay
  • Games
  • Social networks
  • Automation of social networks (e.g. yenta)
  • MIT Software Agents group
  • Open education (for exampke, MIT’s online lectures and supporting softare)
  • Prediction markets and prizeboards
  • Movie production as a model for industry

We are potentially doing a great job of finding out what people want, and finding out what people find they want.  The example of usury offers an interesting example: something that started out as a social sin and evil turned out to be something that was extremely important.  Insurance may be another example–early forms of insurance were condemned as a for of gambling.   Talks earlier today talk about the odd things we can do and the ways we can make the world better without money changing hands (the productive tension that exists between those who are out to make billions by monetizing the previously unmonetized–and those who are rendering all-but-free those things which had previously been fabulously expensive.

When cyberspace leaks into to the real world
One generation’s ubiquitous computing is the next generation’s "huh."
Embedding computers allowed software solutions to what previously had been mechanical problems.  We put computers in things to make the processes cheaper. 
In the 90’s we moved into the era of networked embedded systems, in which devices began to talk to one another.  As we move further, the objects know where they located in real space; they can talk to each other.  The place to store data that has to be updated constantly is where "that piece of reality" is.   Physical reality becomes its own database.  Devices take on a whole new competence. 

The conventional wisdom of this new era
Conventional wisdom:
Software is everything.  if you can’t build software into it, then there’s something wrong with them.
In 20 years the average person might not expect anything to work without active software support

  • Alternate reality games become normal life.
  • Mutual support organizations that leak out into the real work.  Anything known anywhere is known by those who need to know: "synthetic serendipity" really works.  Living in a world where luck is always on your side.  The empowerment of successful trust.  Right now with the internet you can get answers to almost any question very quickly.  When this becomes part of your portable environment, serendipitous events can be generated when you need them.

Keeping up is hard to do
Some demoralizing questions

  • How long does it take to become an expert in a domain of knowledge? (not as long as it takes us these days, but a fairly long time)
  • How long does a domain of knowledge stay relevant? (imagine 1905 and you thought that movies were the wave of the future: how long would you have to make money on silent black and white analog films? 25 years.  Long enough to learn about the constraints, learn to work around them, exploit them.  These days, things happen much faster.  There might be 30 years of depth there, but it does not matter because in 2-3 years it is obsolete.  We are in a situation now where every 2-3 years we dump things that are far from being artistically exploited.  And people who are all up on certain technologies now will be (unless they keep up) fundamentally behind the curve.  This also undercuts the ability to realize fundamental truths, and may also undercut the fundamental truths themselves.  It becomes increasingly hard to discover the metaprinciples (but increasingly important).
  • How temporary can temporary employment become?  Extreme fine grained distribution might determine employment in minutes rather than weeks or months. 
  • How to cope with deprofessionalization?  What happens when professions are undercut (journalists are upset by the emergence of blogs).  Degrees, going to university is still important, but it is the results that actually matter.  Some may have the credentials but cannot compete; others may have no credentials but may just be damn good.
  • How to cope with best-in-the world competition?  It is no longer just enough to be the best person in Eastern San Diego county.   We will see a lot of genius expended to support the best in the world and extend their reach.

What advice (circa 2025)?

  • It is good to know something about something.
  • Choose those things carefully–
    • do you seek to know core domains
    • Determine your style (woodborers v. butterflies)
  • Learn to ask the right questions
  • Innovation is just asking the right question
  • Clever procrastination is the heart of successful planning

The Shape of Populism to Come
Pogo: "We have met the enemy and he is us."
Could this change?
"We have met the savior and he is us"
Large populations of relatively satisfied people, pursuing their myriad independent goals, but planning and coordinating with one another via computer networks.

Past populism is people in large numbers but pursuing collectively selfish goals.
Future populisms may allow people to see that their selfish interests depend on global wellness.  That global view hooked up with empowerment gives room for hope.  Produces fine-grained attention to detail about what is going on and helps us avoid things that are dangerous.

Bruce Sterling’s Maneki Neko
Marc Steigler’s Earth Web
Gregory Stock’s Metaman

Leave a Reply