There are four basic trends which are going to own the future over the next 20 years.
1> Power is about to become as cheap as information.
Nanosolar, Konarka, and the dozens of other solar power outfits who are pushing the price of solar down, down, down below the price of coal power, and towards the a few cents a watt for the panel, meaning your daylight power comes down below 1 cent per kilowatt hour, or maybe 20% of the cheapest current grid power.
The whole world is going to get electricity. In many areas, this will immediately lead to vast improvements in lifestyle and economic productivity as electric tractors, pumps, daytime-factories and many other applications are found for the newfound power.
2> Computers and cellphones are going to finish their global spread.
E-paper, cheap processors, gigantic solid state drives etc. rapidly push the informational revolution the rest of the way. And in the daytime you plug them into the panels.
3> Poor people are going to start getting angry.
With liberal access to information, they are going to become very, very politicized, en-masse, shortly after the arrival of the network. Totalitarian regimes that wish to impede the free flow of information will be faced with a stark choice: cripple the network, and retard their economic and social progress, or leave it open, and be exposed to the full brunt of network politics.
4> The entire system we currently call “government” is going to be challenged at every level.
Let me tell you why. Government is slow. Change is fast, government is slow, and the gap between the two fills with lost opportunity. Soon this gap is going to be larger than the positive functions of government, as things like spectrum regulation and inane copyright and patent law strangle progress in increasingly vital areas. Vested interests co-opt the collective power of the people and use it to line their own pockets at the expense of all, and as the network documents what is wrong, but the polling booths offer no remedy, cracks will begin to show.
In America you can see it around medical marijuana. In Sweden, it’s around copyright. In China, it’s about free speech and free access to information. In all cases, the problem is that governments are failing to adapt to the current conditions. People flow like water, but the governments stand like stones.
How long can this go on?
It is my sincere belief that it’s time for us to re-architect the political systems of the world around the idea of flexible response in the face of unconstrained scientific and technological progress. Nanotechnology, genetics, robotics and many other fields are about to make leaps which will leave entire generations staggered. Are we going to rely on the current obsolete bureaucracies to Do The Right Thing and guide us through this exquisitely dangerous age of runaway technological growth?
Two words: stem cells.
There are so many cats being released from the universities and laboratories of the world that nobody stands any realistic chance predicting the best way to manage them. This means we need a diversity of approaches internationally, so that regions can learn from each-other’s mistakes, rather than a single global authority which will make mistakes which affect all of humanity. At the same time, we need correct decisions to propagate rapidly across the network, and to be implemented wisely.
Above all, we need to stop having all of us be dumber than any of us. We need to start effectively funneling problems to the people best able to solve them and listening to what they say, not to scrape past the next electoral cycle, but to actually protect the future of humanity through the ongoing technological crisis we find ourselves in.
The history of politics since the invention of the nuclear bomb – or perhaps the long range bomber – is the history of technology. At a fundamental level, the State is a wholly-owned subsidiary of science and technology, because all the big, life-or-death decisions are driven by the forces of research and discovery, which the State cannot ever hope to control within its own borders, much less globally. A discovery made anywhere has ripples everywhere, and so governments cannot hope to control the terrain any more. Borders are meaningless when a college professor 8000 miles away can make a discovery which will be at your doorstep in 48 hours, and make an entire area of policy obsolete.
People used to talk about the Illuminati, these enlightened schemers who oversaw the long-term evolution of humanity for their own nefarious purposes. People like to re-invent these mythological figures as conspiracy theories about the Trilateral Commission or the Bilderbergers. As has been observed many times, the conspiracy theorist draws comfort from the idea that somebody, however nefarious, is in charge.
But, in truth, there is no-one. The ultra-rich have more than their fair share of control, pushing their chosen candidates up the greasy pole for their four years of fame and power, but they die of cancer or aids, have their lives overtaken by technological change, fear death just like the rest of us. Critical innovations may occasionally be blocked for a decade or more due to patents being purchased and shelved, but knowledge never dies. No amount of wealth can hold back the tides of history, and those who stand, Canute-like, soon watch their rusting factories scrapped and their obsolete institutions ignored.
There is no cure for time, and the metric of time is “the pace of events.” A global society means that events anywhere can effect everywhere, and this is particularly true of discovery. Time appears to accelerate because of communication, as we each get more and more exposed to change by the accelerated network communications.
I fear that our current systems of government have no future because they cannot adapt to the tempo of modernity. The Cold War temporarily simplified the situation by pitting two bureaucracies against each other: change was artificially retarded by the slowness of the funding cycles, the inherent resistance to change of the monolithic powers. But the 5 year plan and the 4 year electoral cycle are slow. The OODA loop, the basic cognitive cycle, in government is measured in years. Abstractly speaking, the USSR course-corrected four times in 20 years, while the USA course-corrected five times. Where would either institution be in a world where hundreds of millions of people act on the network with a Observe-Orient-Decide-Act cycle measured in minutes. Yes, they cannot authorize a hundred billion dollars of programs… but they can often out-perform anything that that a government could fund or buy because you cannot make what is slow fast, or what was designed to be stable into a meta-stable, self-correcting intelligent system. There is no fly-by-wire government.
I don’t care about the citizens of the developed world. You guys are fine. The water will stay pure, the electricity will keep coming, you’ll be the last to starve in any global crisis. Worry not, ye pampered children of fortune. I, of course, am one of you. Our problems are being worked on by well-funded teams, commercial and state-run, and while over-governance is an inconvenience, few if any die of it.
But in the rest of the world, the crapness of government is murder. The famines and epidemics of the poor. The billions of wasted aid. The incredible potential of places like Africa as the technological changes I have outlined arrive, and are stifled in the crib as fast as possible by things like state monopolies on telecommunications…
You have to ask yourself, “how long will this go on?”
I think that Wikipedia and those MIT courses that are online in their entirety might actually deliver more services to the poor of the world than their governments do. You ask me who they will believe when trying to face major issues: the combined wisdom of the academics and private researchers of the internet, or the PR of the same people who left them with hyper-inflation and a failed farm reform that a child could have predicted would cause famines?
In their position, would we not orient to the network as our path out of poverty, and towards abundance? Would it not be the lifeline we hauled on to pull ourselves out of poverty?
Oh Wikipedia, what do I do to put food in my belly? Tell me please?
And, of course, it’s not there yet. But some college student in a Texas Ag program writes up permaculture for Malawi, and a retired doctor in Hawaii translates it, and two teenagers in suburban Durban make a video and dub it, and a Japanese phone services start up compresses the video so it fits over thin pipes, and a guy in Brazil wires it to the GPS formats used by the local phone companies, and pretty soon there’s your organic green revolution and people stop dying.
No government is smart enough to do this, people. We can see it’s there, it’s waiting to be done. The hardware roll out is well advanced, over half of the human race has cell phones, but where’s the coordinated welcome wagon to help them use their cell phones to stop dying of the lack of knowledge.
Solar water disinfection (SODIS): put water which is contaminated with disease organisms into a plastic soda pop bottle and leave it in the sun all day. You can use a tinfoil reflector, or put it on a black sheet metal heat collector if you want to be fancy. The UV light and the heat kill most of what would make you sick.
This is a technique you can teach by well-phrased SMS messages. 5 million people a year die of dirty water, many of them children. SODIS won’t get all of them, and it’s not a perfect technique, but it’s easier to get people started on and odds-are many people who only have bad water to drink live in places with abundant sun and available discarded plastic soda bottles…
And there’s more. I hear that green manures, a technique from organic farming, can boost agricultural output almost as much as applying chemical fertilizers. If you can’t afford fertilizers, or don’t want to use them for other reasons, you need to know how that works. Maybe it can be taught by SMS too, or a web page suitable for squirting over a phone, or an audio track that gets translated and delivered as a voicemail to the people on the “tell us things which will help us live better” telephone mailing list.
This is endless. But the network is out there, and we, the rich, can start pulling on our end of it to drag all those poor people in the slums and impoverished villages of the world out.
You pick up a phone, and on the other end of the line, there is a person who is starving? What do you say?
We are all in this position. The network, as it spreads, puts us directly in the same world as the poor. I don’t know why we haven’t started to see spam-style messages from real people in real disasters, asking for us to paypal them $5 to survive for the next three weeks, but it’s coming. It’s time to start turning the statistics into simple facts: we can help these people by coordinated action to prepare accurate scientific and technical information on how to acquire the basic necessities of life in an impoverished environment. We need to work out what to do, and we need to get it translated.
It worked for Wikipedia. Why shouldn’t it work here?
I designed a house that can be manufactured in an emergency in vast numbers by taking cardboard or plastic sheet from any factory, cutting some of them in half, and fastening them together with cable ties or parcel tape. It’s called a Hexayurt. Right now, China, which has a vast manufacturing base of exactly those materials has 5 million people homeless after an earthquake and they are short a vast number of tents.
Click. Put two and two together. Click. I’ve documented as well as I was able, but it’s not great. Click.
We can do this. Accurate videos which describe SODIS, and beyond that, solar cooking. A guide to manufacturing hexayurts using resources scavenged from factories outside of the disaster area. A first aid guide, perhaps based on “Where There Is No Doctor,” which can be distributed on micro-SD cards after a disaster so people can refer to it on their phones, or broadcast as a network service on emergency cell towers.
The network is a rope. There are people on the other end of the network who are drowning, and they are just catching hold of the other end of that rope.
Now it is time for all of us, together, to start pulling the poor, the oppressed, the desperate and the needy out of the lake of ignorance in which they are drowning, and on to the safe shores of knowledge.
We cannot get everything on day one. This discourages some people, and prevents action.
Here is my proposal: we measure our success by the ability to apply the solutions which exist, and discover new ones. Nobody contests that SODIS, or it’s big brother, solar water pasteurization, have the capability to solve the contaminated drinking water problem over much of the world. In some places these systems are all that you need, because there is always sun. So we start there. In other areas, there is a rainy season where you cannot purify water using the sun. Perhaps rainwater collection works, or perhaps people must use bleach to treat their water for a few months. Some people would see this and stop work on solving the problems which are within reach because we do not have a global solution.
We do not need a global solution to start pulling people out. We can start with the solutions we have, apply them, and improve both quality and reach as we go.
Let there be no organization. Let there be no organized raising of funds for the entire agenda. This is too important to be governed either by a nation state, or by a bureaucracy, or by a non-profit. Wikipedia exists because of the GFDL – it can be forked if the current governance structure fails. Similarly, the profusion of open source operating system distributions ensures that if any single group becomes ineffective for whatever reason, the work continues.
The first step is to realize that we can do this. It is possible for coordinated volunteer action by people in the developed world to help people in the developing world over the network.
The second step is to realize that this is already happening. Children and adults who have network in the developing world are learning. Cell phones are making positive changes everywhere they arrive. Knowledge resources like Wikipedia are being pushed further and further out towards the corners.
The third step is to realize that, at this time, there’s no comprehensive anticipatory design science institution to coordinate pulling on the Great Rope which is the Network, to haul people out of the poverty of ignorance, and into the relative wealth of practical, living know-how.
Nor am I proposing that such an institution be created.
Rather, there are a profusion of teams working on angles of this problem. It’s too big for any group to have a comprehensive overview of the entire space. But if you want to help, the way is clear: join a project, and start pitching in with whatever resources you have and can afford to use in this way. We, collectively, need everything you can imagine: translators, librarians, videographers, sound engineers, metallurgists, carpenters, painters, doctors, lawyers, basket-weavers and midwives alike have something to offer. Every practical art and profession can contribute to helping to build the knowledge-base which will help transform the life of the poor around the planet as the network arrives.
It is inevitable that the network will spread everywhere across the planet, or very nearly so. Already the cell phone has reached 50% of the humans on the planet. As technological innovation transforms the ordinary cell phone into a little computer, and ordinary cell services into connections to the Internet, the population of the internet is going to change from being predominantly educated westerners to being mainly people in poorer countries, and shortly after that, to being predominantly people living on a few dollars a day.
Why will the internet wind up filled with people who live in such poverty?
Because the Internet will be global, and that’s how the world really is. Most people are very poor, and as the price of a connection to the Internet falls to a level they can afford, as they can afford cell phones now, we’re going to get a chance to really help these people get a better life by finding them the information resources they need to grow and prosper.
Imagine that you are a poor single mother in South America who lives in a village without a clean water source. Your child gets sick now and again from the dirty water, and you feel there is nothing you can do, and worry about their survival. Then one of your more prosperous neighbors gets a new telephone, and there’s a video which describes how to purify water. It’s simple, in your language, and describes all the basic steps without showing anything which requires schooling to understand. After a while, you master the basic practical skills – the year or two of high school you caught before having the child and having to work helps. But then you teach your sisters, and none of the kids get sick as often as they used to… life has improved because of the network.
Then comes solar cookers, and improved stoves, and preventative medicine, and better agriculture, and diagnosis of conditions which require a doctor’s attention, with a GPS map and calendar of when the visiting doctors will be in town again. You can even flag urgent conditions and request them to come sooner.
We live in a poor world. While a few of us enjoy unlimited abundance, nearly all of the rest are poor. The world’s richest few hundred people own more than the world’s poorest three billion, and this is not a natural condition, but one that emerged from the ways our cultures handle property, including intellectual property, and how we handle capital, including conventions like limited liability, which protects investor’s profits from any negative consequences of how those profits were made. As we are increasingly brought together by the network, and as the poor arrive in our living rooms and schools through their blogs and their SMS and their emails and their social networks, we are increasingly going to have to ask why they are poor.
Some of it is accidents of history. Some of it is maladaptive cultural practices which don’t make the best of local resources, like slash and burn agriculture. And some of it is our fault, as rich countries swing their weight around at the negotiating table, occasionally topple governments which refuse resource extraction deals, and otherwise take advantage of those who are weak.
We cannot change history. But we can improve on the future by neglecting to ignore these issues as the poor teach us about their worlds.
As surely as we pull them out of poverty, they pull us out of ignorance.
It’s time for us to get educated on this planet. When people from every walk of life talk freely about their worlds, across national, racial, cultural, linguistic, and every other kind of boundaries, then we will begin to understand how, on a planet with such plenty, so many go without and suffer for it.
But it is up to you and me as individuals to coordinate to do this. The institutions that surround us are not creatures of the network age. There is no charity or government which can develop knowledge resources as effectively as Wikipedia, or develop software as effectively as the Free Software movement has. We have to stop expecting the institutions which have their roots in the pre-network age to effectively transition to lead us in the networked, globalized, one-planet era.
This is daunting. But people have risen to the challenge. The seed ideas of Wikipedia, of GNU/Linux, of every aspect of the new resources we are creating online started in a few minds, and were accomplished by a sea of minds and hands working together. I see no reason that the next chapter of human history, the chapter in which everybody in the world gets a place to live and a bowl of food each and every single day, should not be written in a similar fashion.
It is up to you to figure out what you can do to help. Right now, we are very early. The phone network is only half way across the human race, and the Internet-enabled devices are still relatively expensive. But in ten years, neither of those things will be true any more. I fear that the network is moving much faster than our ability to help people through the network can keep up with.
So let’s start, today, and maintain the effort over these next few years: to develop the resources that people will need to lift themselves out of poverty over the network and to make sure that these resources are ready, correct, tested, translated and free, for any purpose, as those who need them arrive in our lives.
Do not meet the poor on the network empty-handed. Bring something they need to help them.
It’s time for us to work together to do what the governments of the world have failed to do: take effective action to end poverty.