Note: This is cross-posted from my weekly newsletter in an attempt to both to make it easier to read this via RSS feed and to have this in my own independent archives. You can subscribe here to get it delivered to your inbox.
This week is all about climate change, with a bit of an anti-monopolist theme thrown in, and plenty of small bits & pieces towards the end.
My easy-to-book Unoffice Hours — Zoom slots to chat with or without an agenda, and easy to book with just a couple of clocks — are still on Tuesdays and I’ve been enjoying them a lot. A real highlight of the week.
You’re receiving this because you signed up for this newsletter on tinyletter.com/pbihr or through my company’s website, thewavingcat.com. The Waving Cat is a boutique research and strategic advisory firm; I also co-founded ThingsCon, a non-profit that explores responsible tech. On Twitter, I’m @peterbihr. If you’d like to work with me or bounce ideas, let’s have a chat.
Brief updates from the engine room
ThingsCon Festival is going to take place Dec 7-11. We designed it to be highly compatible with the current situation in mind: Fully remote, easy to dip in and out, pay-as-you-can ticketing. It’s going to be a truly post-Rift event.
More calls with various organizations that are exploring consumer trust marks for digital or hybrid products. Seems like there’s a new wave of activity in that space. The range of quality and depth of the ideas and concepts is a bit mind-boggling. It’s amazing to see how much we’ve learned about this at ThingsCon, and I personally through my work on the (currently in hiatus) Trustable Technology Mark. (
I’ve re-read Kevin Kelly’s 1000 True Fans and been reading up on the various types of memberships and other types of independent content production styles. It’s very tempting to try out some stuff in that space, but the eventual format is still unclear to me. As Gianfranco put it in a recent conversation of ours (and I’m paraphrasing): sometimes you have to look at the point cloud of your projects and interests from various angles, turn that little universe in your hand, shift it this way and that… So that’s what I’m doing. Holding up all that stuff and turning it, squinting at it against the light. See where there’s a good gap for experiments.
Recently on the blog
I’ve been reading Kim Stanley Robinson a lot lately and it’s starting to really seep into my thinking: Notes on the Ministry for the Future / In praise of inefficiencies
I wrote a longer blog post about the importance of keeping options on the table for future generations (and our future selves). It’s too long to fully include here, so I’ll include a few paragraphs and a modified Futures Cone (the Fracked Futures Cone) as a teaser:
In this post, I’d like to explore the idea that we’ve been fracking the future at great expense to future generations. (…)
Consider decisions of the past and present, and how they impact the future: They increase the options space available in the future, or reduce it.
The last couple of hundred years, we’ve systemically externalized costs and damages to the future: We’ve exploited natural resources and burned up all the fossil fuels we could lay our collective fingers on. We’ve created (relative)short term wealth at the direct expense of future generations, of future wealth and health.
Kim Stanley Robinson speaks of a multi-generational ponzi scheme:
“Capitalism devalues the future, and thus cheats future generations who are not here to represent themselves or fight for their rights. It’s a multi-generational Ponzi scheme that we’re all involved in together.”
I agree with his assessment that our current system devalues the future. And like any ponzi scheme, that’s fraud. But I think this phrase still downplays just how bad this is: We can still catch someone running a ponzi scheme and send them to jail; we might even be able to give the defrauded their money back. But here, that’s not an option. The stakes are too high, and too irreversible.
So, higher stakes, more systemic injustice — we need a more apt term. We’re fracking the future. We’re all implicated, and it’s happening on our watch.
Present decisions that bolster the status quo mean a fracking of the future, by the present/past. (From the future’s point of view, past and our present are of course the same.) (…)
Especially if we think about the context of climate change — increasingly the only lens and context I think of as relevant at all, as a livable planet is a pre-condition for just about any societal thriving at all — we need to consider irreversible damages done. These are the so-called tipping points from which there is no returning. The damages of those are permanent. Maybe the best-known expected tipping point is the global warming of 2°C above pre-industrial levels, but there are many others — including some we might have already passed.
In fact we’ve passed many; every extinct species is one. But our failure rate has been so high that only the biggest, most catastrophic tipping points even make the cut into the debate: Those that will lead to irreversible systemic failures.
To get an impression, check out this visualization of what to expect at 1 / 2 / 3 degrees warming. The difference between 1°C and 3°C is roughly the difference between civilization as we know it and living hell.
At 40 years of age, I assume I’m in a bridge generation that both contributed a lot to the problem and is among the first to acutely feel the damages during our lifetime.
So, tipping points. If we add those to the futures cone, like I’ve done in this very improvised infographic below, we get to an immediately obvious issue:
Look, it’s a long-ish piece. You can read the whole thing on the blog.
Finding the Cash to Fight Climate Change
Tackling climate change seemed expensive. Then COVID happened is an extremely interesting read that argues that we’re already spending more than we’d need to transition into a much better position re: climate change just to fight Covid.
Before dropping the quotes, two notes:
- Fighting Covid is supremely urgent and money well spent.
- Fighting Climate Change is supremely important and money well spent.
Number 1 is happening, number 2 is not. So we can either combine the Covid spending with Climate Change spending, but that might need a more focused effort on the spending.
Obvious things would include not funding airline bailouts, and tying all or at least most spending to carbon-based/planetary health-based goals, rather than on propping up the economy short term. Systemic transformation rather than the mother of all band-aids. But I’m getting ahead of myself, here’s the money quote (highlights mine):
“COVID-19 challenged preconceived notions about the limits of government spending. Since August, world governments have pledged more than $12 trillion in stimulus spending to dig their way out of the coronavirus-caused economic downturn — a truly mind-boggling amount of cash that represents three times the public money spent after the Great Recession. How does that compare with the money that would be needed to fight climate change?
That’s the question behind a new paper published last week in the journal Science. According to the analysis, the money countries have put on the table to address COVID-19 far outstrips the low-carbon investments that scientists say are needed in the next five years to avoid climate catastrophe — by about an order of magnitude.”
Let that sink in. Once more, from only a slightly different angle:
“If just 12 percent of currently pledged COVID-19 stimulus funding were spent every year through 2024 on low-carbon energy investments and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, the researchers said, that would be enough to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F), the Paris Agreement’s most ambitious climate target. At present, countries’ voluntary commitments put the world on track to warm 3.2 degrees C (5.8 degrees F) or more by the end of the century.”
The difference between 1.5C and 3.2C warning is, by the way, roughly the difference between civilization as we know it and living hell.
Gatekeepers / Monopolists
Quick updates as a follow up to recent editions: The battle of governments and tech companies just got a lot hotter: The US government is suing Google, calling Google a “monopoly gatekeeper for the internet”. Something like this was unthinkable even a few years ago. But those companies have changed, the governments have changed, the role of tech in society has changed. In other words, the situation of 10 years ago really doesn’t apply in any way anymore, so all established notions of alliances and allegiances can safely be thrown out the window at this point. The Guardian has a solid write up of where this lawsuit comes in, as does Matt Stoller (“We’re All Anti-Monopolists Now”).
Small bits & pieces
Public AI Registers: Realising AI transparency and civic participation in government use of AI (PDF) is a whitepaper by Meeri Haataja, Linda van de Fliert and Pasi Rautio / Practising Ethos – Practical Ethics, a practical toolkit for assessing ethics and governance of AI / Descript is an ace media editing tool that now lets you edit video by text-editing the auto-generated transcript of said video and it’s friggin’ magic / Also, fittingly: The Media Manipulation Casebook, a digital research platform for mapping media manipulation and disinformation campaigns
Currently reading: The Uncertainty Mindset, Vaughn Tan. The 99% Invisible City, Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt. Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson
If you’d like to work with me or have a chat to explore collaborations, let’s chat!
Who writes here? Peter Bihr explores how emerging technologies can have a positive social impact. At the core of his work is the mission to align emerging technologies and citizen empowerment. To do this, he works at the intersection of technology, governance, policy and social impact — with foundations, public and private sector. He is the founder of The Waving Cat, a boutique research and strategic advisory firm. He co-founded ThingsCon, a non-profit that explores fair, responsible, and human-centric technologies for IoT and beyond. Peter was a Mozilla Fellow (2018-19) and an Edgeryders Fellow (2019). He tweets at @peterbihr and blogs at thewavingcat.com. Interested in working together? Let’s have a chat.
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