Tagglobal weirding

Futurist Chris Arkenberg interviewed by Technoccult

chris arkenberg

Chris Arkenberg is a visiting researcher at the Institute for the Future, an organizer of the event AR DevCamp, a musician operating under the name n8ur, and a big picture thinker. I talked to him via instant message about forecasting, how to navigate the future, and more. You can find him on Twitter here and his web site is here.

Klint Finley: You’re a visiting researcher at the Institute for the Future, and you’re working on their Ten Year Forecast. Can you explain what the Ten Year Forecast is, and what your own day to day role in it is?

Chris Arkenberg: The Ten Year Forecast is an annual research arc that looks at global issues impacting the next decade. We develop major forecasts then break each of those out into different scenarios to give organizations models for anticipating the future and adjusting their strategy accordingly. My role is providing research and forecasts for the Global Power and Carbon Economy arcs.

In Carbon, I’ve been profiling global energy dispositions. Eg, “What natural resources does China have under its lands and what is the spread of it’s energy use?” In Global Power, I’ve been analyzing insurgency movements, notably the narcoinsurgency in Mexico, the MEND movement in Nigeria, and the nexus of terrorism, insurgency, and international drug trafficking in Northern Africa.

I noticed you mentioned The Pirate Bay as a global power the other day as well.

Well, Pirate Bay is interesting as an enclave of free information. And they kicked their game up with the recent release of their anonymizing service, effectively acting as an encrypted traffic node. As such, they certainly represent a challenge to traditional systems of control.

Let’s go back a moment. How exactly does forecasting work? What’s the process like?

To begin with, I’d like to just underline that forecasting and prediction are very different. As futurists, we’re not making predictions but, rather, making approximations based on existing trends. I like to think of it as collapsing probability space into the most likely futures.

So having said that, there are many forecasting methodologies but most of them begin with scanning. This is a process of tracking information flows to get signals around your domain. Signals are essentially any event within the domain that you’re researching. So you pay attention to as many data streams as possible to get a feel for the emerging trends, where the money is flowing, social politics, etc… And from this you can start to derive estimates of where things are heading.

Typically this activity is followed by many different methods of analysis. You might talk to experts in the field, you might use different types of axial analysis, eg ubiquitous vs. niche, social vs. individual. Then you consider how the trends you’re looking at would manifest through different aspects of the world. STEEP & DEGEST are common methodologies – these are just acronyms, eg STEEP: Social, technological, economic, environmental, political. Then typically we’ll all work together to share our forecasts and brainstorm around the core narratives. Now, again, forecasting is about exploring probability space and collapsing down what is possible into what is likely. So a Forecast may be “Climate change will impact water and food”. The scenarios for this forecast then look at different tracks. So a positive scenario would look at trends in technology for growing stronger food, recapturing water, and desalination, suggesting how we might overcome the problem with enough concerted effort. Conversely, a collapse scenario would consider the outcome of rapid and severe climate change, more fighting than cooperation, major migration, and the challenges of adaptation once mitigation is no longer possible. We might do 4 or 5 of these different scenarios to model different outcomes based on the prevailing trends.

In this manner, you provide both a narrative of what the future may hold, good & ill, as well as possible paths towards engineering the positive future and avoiding the negative.

chris arkenberg

So you spend your time reading as much news and analysis as you possibly can on carbon and emerging powers, interview experts, and so on – then work with a group to synthesize that data into forecasts?

Essentially. Though I will typically offer my own forecasts up front then work with the group to see what the most interesting narrative threads are and how they integrate with the overall theme. I take a lot of notes, draw a lot of diagrams, and try to compile what I think is the primary set of trends.

You were also recently working on IFTF’s “When Everything is Programmable” project. What was that, and what did you learn from it?

That’s part of the Technology Horizon’s arc which focuses more on, as you’d expect, technologies and how they may impact human systems in the near future. For me it was a great opportunity. I did my BA at UCSC in Neuroscience but hadn’t really done much with it since being in tech for so long. My focus in TH was on Neuroprogramming so it was a great chance to really dive back into that subject. It was also really valuable to have a focus. I’m a systems generalist by default so I tend to hop around a lot. But I really enjoy doing a deep dive in a a particular sector and TH gave me that opportunity. It was also my first pass at working with the IFTF methodologies so I really learned a lot about their process and how the teams work together.
EEG Twitter Inteface

(Above: An EEG Twitter interface)

What is the most promising neuroprogramming development you’ve encountered and what is the most frightening development? (I realize those could be the same thing…)

Hmm… I think brain machine interface and brain computer interface have tremendous growth ahead. When I started researching the topic I thought it would be pretty sci-fi but it’s actually moving very quickly and there is a ton of R&D happening. But in general, the trend towards integrating human physiology and machine capabilities is an extraordinary field of emerging possibilities, both scary and awesome.

Perhaps the most promising advances are in medicine. There’s a lot of progress in using implants, genetic engineering, and focused transcranial magnetism to help patients suffering depression, Parkinson’s, ALS, and Alzheimer’s, as well as some of the work being done inducing spiritual experiences, creativity, and focus. Similarly, the work integrating prosthetic devices is making tremendous strides, illustrated by the recent Nat Geo cover story on bionics. It won’t be long before prosthetic limbs and artificial sense organs are as good as the original, and often can be modified to have even more functionality. So there’s a lot of hope in patching people back together after trauma & injury. And there’s a really interesting future where these mods are more common and often tuned to enhanced performance.

As far as the most sinister development, that’s hard to say at this point. DARPA is up to their usual shenanigan’s funding a lot of work around creating more effective military patrol. I’m not convinced this is totally evil so much as the inevitable march of progress in a world where warfare is still commonplace. But they’re funding a lot of research to enable patrols to have integrated communication, identification, gesture controls, voice recognition, etc. A lot of this stuff isn’t strictly implant-based BCI but it represents this ongoing trend to integrate computation and digital comm closer & closer to the human in a highly natural & intuitive way. So if you’re a patrol leader you want your silent gestures to be “visible” through the meshnet when they’re not visible by line of sight. And you might want those gestures to kick off a set of executables that push formations out to all team members. Likewise, all members benefit from HUD AR showing targets, routes, wayfinding, etc. Evils aside, it’s interesting to see these developments in an environment that has tremendous selective pressures, eg a bullet to the head if your comm fails.

So again, maybe not exactly sinister but nevertheless very indicative of the way the tech is moving. Eventually this stuff will be civilian tech. There’s all sorts of paranoia that can be summoned up around some of these developments. Having wireless implants that let you interface with a connected computer invites also sorts of control fears, freaky hacking scenarios, and general privacy issues. It’s a rich collage that will likely play out to some degree in all these areas as we move forward.

So really: how far are we from psionic brain implants?

Ha! Psionic brain implants are a sort of sci-fi possibility when you follow this trend. At some point in the future there is a high likelihood that some members of the populace will have embedded wireless devices that will translate thought into action on a device, in the cloud, or even in another augmented head. Currently this is as simple as driving a cursor with your mind but it seems inevitable that this simple interface will include some form of back-channel chat and possibly additional sensory modalities like “seeing” video in your mind’s eye or hearing remote audio. The concept of having a full web-like interface behind your eyes is probably quite a ways off given the interface requirements for such fidelity, let alone the actual user experience of navigating the web with your mind.

What sort of skills and technologies do you think it’s most important for people today to learn to live in the future?

Accept that we live in a world of great change. You have to be agile and prepared to adapt. The fundamental global systems of civilization are shifting with the impact of instantaneous communication, globalization, and ubiquitous computing. Add to this the threats of climate change and a declining fossil fuel infrastructure and you have a tremendous amount of challenges ahead. I feel it’s critical to embrace the change and try to both anticipate and design the future. The future is not yet writ so you can always influence it, perhaps now more than ever.

Along these lines, I think it’s going to be more and more critical to build local and global networks of like-minds with the capacity to design, fabricate, manufacture, and evolve socioeconomic systems. I suspect that things will get more and more local as they get increasingly globalized. I personally feel the need to learn more CAD design so I can get in on local fab and desktop manufacturing.

I also think it’s important for people to find a balance between information value & overload. Scanning is critical but it has to be boiled down to a manageable scope in order to be actually useful. There’s a real challenge to avoid the paralysis of knowing too much.

Yeah, I deal with that every day. Some days I find I can’t blog anything because I’m too overwhelmed with material to blog.

Nature. Get outside, move around, always remember the body. Take some time to let it all sink in on a subconscious level. Then you can integrate.

augmented reality facial recognition

One of your many interests is augmented reality, and you helped organize Augmented Reality Developers Camp [sic]. In the past few days I’ve linked to a couple articles on the “dark side of augmented reality” – things like using augmented reality to obscure unpleasant things from your vision, or using facial recognition software to pull up information from strangers you encounter on the streets. Is there a way that citizens of today who aren’t necessarily developers or technologists to get involved in how this technology that could effect all of us evolves?

Like all technologies, augmented reality is only as good or bad as the people who engineer it’s applications. To guide this, people can be more active in the emerging AR consortiums and communities. That’s basically what AR DevCamp is about: getting all the players together to coordinate and design with a lot of intention so that the future platform is open and interoperable. Blogging and speaking about these things is always helpful. Influence in the social web should not be under-rated. And interviewing the people who are designing the tools can offer you a chance to hold up a mirror to their perhaps unquestioned assumptions about how great and harmless AR will be.

Ultimately, the world is changing and AR will be a part of that. But like all tools, sociology, economics, and natural feedbacks will reinforce the stuff that works and weed out the stuff that fragments or puts us at risk.

Well, actually, that raises another question – could non-developers get anything out of AR DevCamp

Absolutely. Though I should say that since AR DevCamp is an open unconference each one will be different. I’m not a developer but I was keenly interested in the emerging technology, design considerations, possibilities for integrating social markups, strategies, trend analysis, etc… I found all of these things and more at our AR DevCamp. And anyone can go and propose a topic. Certainly ethical issues would be a great one and would be very well received, in my opinion.

Then why is “developer” in the title? That seems a little off-putting.

Not developer. Development. Dev is just an admittedly confusing shorthand.

My bad. But still, that implies, to me at least, that it’s an event for developers.

And that’s the general intent – to sort out the technical standardization. But again, it’s an open unconference so anything that gets proposed gets voted on as a possible topic. You’ll find that people don’t just want to talk about standards and core tech.

So maybe we’ve stumbled on to one strategy: let non-developers know they can go to AR DevCamp, and encourage other camps to change their name.

Absolutely. I encourage everyone with abiding interests or passions around AR to go to the DevCamps.

western rains

(Above: Chris’s new free EP Western Rains)

You’re also a spiritual person, and an creative person – do you ever find that your creative or spiritual side conflicts with your work as a researcher or analyst?

There’s definitely some time & schedule challenges between the creative work and research. Music production – my primary creative hobby – takes a lot of time. But for me, moving into research and forecasting is the necessary outcome both of my spiritual orientation to the world and my desire to move away from a strictly managerial/tech/engineering career.

Having said that, my general perspective of the world is changing as I start really digging into the more rational considerations of human affairs, eg energy, money, survival. It was easy to be idealistic when I was deep in the esoterica. Ultimately, the spiritual side gave me the strength to really look at the world in all it’s hideous glory. I think it’s that anchor that allows me to balance a fairly detached view of systems analysis with a deep abiding desire to see good and hope and truth prosper.

I’m also almost 39 so the dynamic of my perspectives is shifting with the attendant requirements and responsibilities that come with age. :)

You can’t just magic the world up into what you want. You can have to change yourself and align your will with actually producing the change you envision in the world.

What advice would you give to any would-be futurists/forecasters?

Learn about systems. You have to be able to look at all the different factors within the larger domain of research. This is, imo, one of the most fundamental and deep trends happening within the human operating system. Cradle-to-Cradle, Life Cycle Analysis, sustainably, global economics – all of these represent the need to think in terms of systems. You have to really think about all the factors, all the inputs & outputs of a given system but do so in a way the defends a manageable scope. That’s the real challenge of good research and forecasting: knowing where to set bounds on the domain so you don’t end up researching everything.

My suspicion is that forecasters will become more and more important as average business & policy folk simply won’t have the time to research the rapidly increasing amount of info available, let alone commit time to factoring out plausible futures. So it’s up to those who have a general systems orientation towards the world, people who understand holism and non-linearity and have a real passion about pattern recognition, to make sense of the world as we pass through this great transition. Forecasting and futurists should find kinship with the best science fiction writers and understand that both are really dealing with the creation of compelling narratives and that these narratives are templates for change. In this respect, futurists should be empowered with the notion that they are really helping to design the future.


GSpot interview with Chris Arkenberg

Times article on The Institute for the Future

Your Future in 5 Easy Steps: Wired Guide to Personal Scenario Planning

Fact checking “Climategate”

*The messages, which span 13 years, show a few scientists in a bad light, being rude or dismissive. An investigation is underway, but there’s still plenty of evidence that the earth is getting warmer and that humans are largely responsible.

*Some critics say the e-mails negate the conclusions of a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but the IPCC report relied on data from a large number of sources, of which CRU was only one.

*E-mails being cited as “smoking guns” have been misrepresented. For instance, one e-mail that refers to “hiding the decline” isn’t talking about a decline in actual temperatures as measured at weather stations. These have continued to rise, and 2009 may turn out to be the fifth warmest year ever recorded. The “decline” actually refers to a problem with recent data from tree rings.

factcheck.org: Climategate

Howard Bloom: Buckle Up For Catastrophe

When geologists like James Hutton and Charles Lyall first began to read the past of our planet in fossils and in the strata of rock 200 years ago, they noticed something ominous. There were fossilized seashells on mountaintops. Mountaintops had once been at the bottom of seas. What’s more, solid land had once been swamp. And coastal real estate had been the most unstable of all, ending up underwater or high and dry. We humans are coast-hugging creatures. As Plato put it, we are like frogs dotted around a pond. Over 60% of us live near coasts. And coasts are fragile places to be.

The bottom line? Weather change will come. Massive weather change. It will come with or without the mitigation of greenhouse gases. And—like the indigenous people of Indonesia’s Aceh who build their houses on stilts–we have to be prepared to triumph over disaster. We cannot waste trillions on just one form of climate change. We have to be prepared for both fire and ice. Or, to put it differently, we have to realize that Mother Nature is not nice.

Howard Bloom: Buckle Up For Catastrophe

(via Justin Boland)

More Americans believe in angels, UFOs, and ghosts than humans’ role in global warming

More Americans believe in guardian angels than humans’ role in global warming, according to recent polls.

A Pew poll released late last month found that just 36 percent of Americans believe humans are responsible for accelerating global climate change, which scientists say mushroomed after the industrial revolution due to humans’ dependence on carbon-based fuels. […]

The 36 percent who believe in human-caused climate change is fewer than the number of Americans who apparently believe they’re protected by guardian angels, some 55 percent, according to a poll published in 2008. […]

That’s not all. A blog at the website of Foreign Policy notes that more Americans believe in UFOs and ghosts than do anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming.

Raw Story: More Americans believe in angels than humans’ role in global warming

What do the hacked Climate Research Unit e-mails mean?

Recently, one or more of the University of East Anglia’s servers were hacked and a large number of private e-mails exchanges between researchers at Climate Research University were made public.

NASA climate scientist Gavin A. Schmidt writes on his non-NASA endorsed blog:

No doubt, instances of cherry-picked and poorly-worded “gotcha” phrases will be pulled out of context. One example is worth mentioning quickly. Phil Jones in discussing the presentation of temperature reconstructions stated that “I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.” The paper in question is the Mann, Bradley and Hughes (1998) Nature paper on the original multiproxy temperature reconstruction, and the ‘trick’ is just to plot the instrumental records along with reconstruction so that the context of the recent warming is clear. Scientists often use the term “trick” to refer to a “a good way to deal with a problem”, rather than something that is “secret”, and so there is nothing problematic in this at all. As for the ‘decline’, it is well known that Keith Briffa’s maximum latewood tree ring density proxy diverges from the temperature records after 1960 (this is more commonly known as the “divergence problem”–see e.g. the recent discussion in this paper) and has been discussed in the literature since Briffa et al in Nature in 1998 (Nature, 391, 678-682). Those authors have always recommend not using the post 1960 part of their reconstruction, and so while ‘hiding’ is probably a poor choice of words (since it is ‘hidden’ in plain sight), not using the data in the plot is completely appropriate, as is further research to understand why this happens.

Jones is quoted in New York Times on the subject and confirms that that particular e-mail is real, but the university says they cannot confirm that all the material circulating on the Internet is authentic.

You can read a few quotes from the e-mails at the Telegraph.

James Delingpole at the Telegraph claims these e-mails prove there was a conspiracy to hoax the world about global warming, but in my opinion a reading of this material only proves the CRU researchers were earnest, passionate believers in their research.

(Thanks to Trevor for the Telegraph link)

Dean Baker: Massive Defense Spending Leads to Job Loss

There is a major national ad campaign, funded by the oil industry and other usual suspects, to convince the public that measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and slow global warming will result in massive job loss. This ad campaign warns of slower growth and the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, possibly even millions of jobs, if some variation of the current proposals being debated by Congress get passed into law. […]

However, the oil industry’s scare stories about job loss never put it in any context. In these models, any government measure that interferes with market outcomes almost by definition reduces efficiency, leading to less economic growth and fewer jobs. Efforts to slow global warming fall in this category, but so does almost everything else, and many items in the everything else category have a much larger impact.

For example, defense spending means that the government is pulling away resources from the uses determined by the market and instead using them to buy weapons and supplies and to pay for soldiers and other military personnel. In standard economic models, defense spending is a direct drain on the economy, reducing efficiency, slowing growth and costing jobs.

Truthout: Massive Defense Spending Leads to Job Loss

Indian engineer ‘builds’ new glaciers to stop global warming

Chewang Norphel, 76, has “built” 12 new glaciers already and is racing to create five more before he dies.

By then he hopes he will have trained enough new “icemen” to continue his work and save the world’s “third icecap” from being transformed into rivers. […]

By diverting meltwater through a network of pipes into artificial lakes in the shaded side of mountain valleys, he says he has created new glaciers. […]

So far, Mr Norphel’s glaciers have been able to each store up to one million cubic feet of ice, which in turn can irrigate 200 hectares of farm land. For farmers, that can make the difference between crop failure and a bumper crop of more than 1,000 tons of wheat.

Telegraph: Indian engineer ‘builds’ new glaciers to stop global warming

(via Ecofriend via Atom Jack)

Jeff Vail: Concluding Thoughts on EROEI and Carbon

All this boils down to some of the most poorly understood aspects of climate science: are we better off raising carbon levels now in order to better reduce them in the future, or is it more important (from the perspective of various feedback loops, etc.) to keep levels from ever going over a certain threshold, even if that means more overall emission down the road? We simply don’t have an answer to this question, but it suggests that the climate/carbon argument for a renewables transition is, at a minimum, built on a shaky and uncertain foundation. The real problem is that–much like broader discussions of the renewables transition–the uncertainty in the carbon-reduction argument for renewable energy flies under the radar because nearly all involved in the discussion use very high EROEI figures for renewables. If these figures, as I have argued, could actually be 10x lower than current estimates, then much of the current debate is off track.

None of this is to suggest that we should use uncertainty to abandon action, to stop efforts to transition to a sustainable society. However, we must accept this uncertainty in deciding HOW to best make that transition. More centralized wind and solar and a better grid might be the answer. It might not. Maybe the answer is decentralization and radical reduction in energy consumption? As I’ll address in the future, structurally self-interested participants tend to argue for the former solution–you don’t hear GE raising the uncertainties and potential socio-political pitfalls of centralized wind or solar. Unfortunately, we’ll only find out if their confidence in our ability to transition was misplaced after such efforts have conclusively failed…

Jeff Vail: The Renewables Hump 8: Concluding Thoughts on EROEI and Carbon

‘Synthetic tree’ claims to catch carbon in the air

Scientists in the United States are developing a “synthetic tree” capable of collecting carbon around 1,000 times faster than the real thing.

As the wind blows though plastic “leaves,” the carbon is trapped in a chamber, compressed and stored as liquid carbon dioxide.

The technology is similar to that used to capture carbon from flue stacks at coal-fired power plants, but the difference is that the “synthetic tree” can catch carbon anytime, anywhere.

“Half of your emissions come from small, distributed sources where collection at the site is either impossible or impractical,” said Professor Klaus Lackner, Ewing-Worzel Professor of Geophysics in the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering at Columbia University.

“We aim for applications like gasoline in cars or jet fuel in airplanes. We are going after CO2 that otherwise is nearly impossible to collect,” he told CNN.

CNN: ‘Synthetic tree’ claims to catch carbon in the air

(Thanks Bill)

Climate ‘Study’ By Economist At EPA Is Right’s New Cause Celebre

Conservatives are jumping up and down over a report by an EPA analyst expressing skepticism about climate change, which, they claim, was suppressed by agency brass because it didn’t conform to Obama administration orthodoxy on global warming. The story has sparked explosive claims, on Fox News and other right-wing outlets, that the EPA censored scientific data for political reasons. And Monday, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) called for an outright criminal investigation into the matter.

But it’s hard to blame EPA for not paying much attention to the study. And it’s more than a little ironic that DC Republicans have chosen its author as their new standard-bearer in the defense of pure science against politics. Because the author, EPA veteran Al Carlin, is an economist, not a climate scientist. EPA says no one at the agency solicited the report. And Carlin appears to have taken up the global warming topic largely as a hobby on his own time. In fact, a NASA climatologist has called the report — whose existence was first publicized last week by the industry-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) — “a ragbag collection of un-peer reviewed web pages, an unhealthy dose of sunstroke, a dash of astrology and more cherries than you can poke a cocktail stick at.”

TPM Muckraker: Climate Skeptic: “I Was Hoping People At EPA Would Pay Attention” To My Work

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