Two random thoughts.

A couple of things to file under, “what the future might look like.”

First, what is the most significant thing the Internet has done to political communication, or communication in general? You know the answer, though it wasn’t the answer you just thought of.  Consider the MediaGlyph, and how it is both the natural product of the sound bite, and a compelling explanation for the state of the current political landscape.

Second, what is the most significant consequence of introducing self-driving cars?  If you didn’t answer “an increase in capacity utilization resulting in a crash of demand for new vehicles,” you may want to read this Zero Hedge article and think about unintended consequences.

No one has said this about Wikileaks

At least no one I’ve seen.  But the U.S. Government should be damn thankful this happened the way that it did.  We dodged a major bullet that could have been way, way, more damaging than this debacle has been.  How could this have possibly been worse, you ask?

Simple.  What if Private Bradley Manning had not been interested in embarrassing us, and was more interested in harming us?  Would he have gone to a public website with his trove of secrets our Government had failed properly to secure?  Or would he have gone to our actual adversaries, say Iran, or China, or Venezuela, or Russia?  What would have been the result?  Well, it would not have been made public, the recipients would be all too eager to continue exploiting this hole.  This information could have leaked out of the State Department sieve for years, radically altering the results of our diplomacy with no one the wiser.

This way, at least, the U.S. is aware of everything that’s been compromised which minimizes the damage.  (Think, what good would cracking the Enigma have been in WWII if the BBC started broadcasting intercepted Nazi communications?  Not very.)

What worries me is the fact the hole was so damn large that I find it hard to believe that Private Manning was the first to think of exploiting it.

A coming Chinese apocalypse?

So I’ve been reading a lot of stories like this one that has me a little worried.  We have 25% of the world’s population under an authoritarian regime that’s just on the edge of holding things together.  When you’re spending just as much on internal security as you are on defense, in a world economy that’s on the brink of depression, that’s kind of worrisome.  When you hold paper on everyone’s debts, and it looks as if that paper might have the long term prospects of a Fanny Mae sub-prime mortgage, that’s more worrisome.  Add to that a political culture that’s more concerned about appearances than reality, then we have a problem.  If things start going pear-shaped in the Forbidden Kingdom, I doubt that it will be the controlled implosion we saw in the Soviet Union.  And if things get nasty, even if the gunfire doesn’t leak across the borders (and that’s a big if) it is going to affect the whole planet.

Just picture a WalMart and remove every item from the shelves that has a label “made in China,” and now picture having to re-tool manufacturing to produce all that crap somewhere else.  See, we don’t need a VAT to add 50% to the price of consumer goods.

Things to screw with your futurism

Two unrelated things that I came across recently that should have some serious implications to anyone writing near-future SF.  The first post is actually kind of obvious, in fact it touches on one of the central themes of the singularity.  However, it hits a point that I don’t think is explored often enough:

Quantum computing represents a moment of comparative advantage for the nation(s) that pioneers it akin to Great Britain being first with the Industrial Revolution. The first use for the world’s first lab functional quantum computer is to apply it’s power in other fields where innovation is stymied by previously intractable math problems, thus permitting a burst of patentable breakthroughs or discoveries that lead to applied scientific and commercial uses. The second use of the quantum computer’s power will be put towards solving problems related to optimizing quantum computing itself, both in terms of refining the systems and assembling arrays.

Advantages of this nature tend to be self-reinforcing and synergistic. The state that accrues these downstream spillover benefits of quantum computing in rapid succession could potentially leapfrog over everyone else to a degree not seen in centuries.

Or, to put it bluntly, a post-singularity culture is going to be heavily influenced by who gets there first. Akin to the way the geopolitics of the entire world is still influenced by the fact a few European nations sailed out and grabbed a hell of lot of land a few centuries ago.

The second article attacks one of the central bits of conventional wisdom about what the geopolitical landscape is going to look like over the next century or so.

A country is susceptible to a Communist revolution ONLY during a generational crisis period, and only when there’s a fault line between two birth-defined demographic groups, one of which is a market-dominant minority. The resolution of the bloody civil war is to confiscate the property of the market-dominant minority. There’s more than one way to accomplish this goal, some more or less dictatorial than others, but Communism provides one of the most convenient dictatorial templates.
[…]
The implications for China are also potentially enormous. The elders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have been experiencing enormous panic and paranoia since 1991, when the Soviet Communist economy collapsed. They’ve been fearing for their lives, and rightly so.

Now another Communist economy is collapsing in Cuba, and I can only imagine that Beijing is watching this in horror — and well they should. Ironically, the CCP itself has become a birth-defined market-dominant minority in China, and with tens of thousands of “mass incidents” every year, they know that a full-scale rebellion may be close. China is forced to import huge amounts of food to prevent unrest among the peasants, but as food shortages grow and food prices increase, that can only go so far.

The mostly unspoken assumption about the future balance of power in the world is one of Chinese ascendancy. In fact, as we go through economic shocks, there are a dismaying number of economists and pundits who look on the authoritarian Chinese model with something akin to envy.  But what if that model is as fragile as the one that held in Soviet Russia? What happens to the world economy, now that China is so well integrated into it, if China suffers a political meltdown, insurrection, or a civil war? What happens if all those factories building cheap electronics start burning?

A little reminder. . .

A little bit of a reality check for those of us who write about SF futures, or just think about the future in general. This snazzy 21st Century lifestyle we’ve become accustomed to is based on an extremely long supply-chain. Think of the support required for an iPhone to exist. (h/t Futurismic) You have mines, factories, server farms, copper an optical cabling, cell towers. . . every one of those disparate elements is subject to the whims of the real world; everything from political regulatory interference to natural disasters, and we already see how a software monoculture can breed cyberpunkish entities like the conficker worm. We already live in a world with global chains of dependence and choke points all over the place, and the past few decades we’ve been pushing down the ideas of overcapacity for a model that’s more “just in time.” Those efficiencies make the whole system vulnerable. When one factory in China makes your chip, what happens when the nearby river floods, the workers succumb to a typhus outbreak, or the plant is nationalized in a war effort?

What kind of global infrastructure is required to support and maintain your cybernetic transuman warrior chick, and what happens to her when the structure breaks down?

Will the Nation-State cease to exist?

Remember Rollerball?  The original 1975 version rollerballwith James Caan?  One of the interesting premises of the movie was the collapse of the nation-state in favor of the corporation.  That premise was somewhat prescient,  anticipating one of the main tropes of cyberpunk by almost a decade.  The idea is commonplace now, a shorthand for some deep systemic dysfunction in films from Robocop to Avatar.

The idea of corporate governance seems at odds with our current reality, where the state is advancing its role across the board.  But, strangely enough, in the face of the most aggressive growth of state power in history, the idea is popping up in diverse places.

What if we’re watching the initial death-rattle of the nation-state?

And it would be interesting to see a take on the idea that isn’t dystopic.

Post-statism

We are in interesting times at the moment. We are about to have the first trial for piracy in a century (if you discount RIAA lawsuits) and it brought home to me what may be the greatest challenge the modern nation-state faces in the 21st Century, and that is the breakdown of the state itself. If you take the Libertarian definition of a State (and why wouldn’t I?) as the entity with a monopolistic control over the use of force in a given geographic region, Somolia has no state. Nor do large parts of Mexico and Pakistan. It is likely that these “stateless” areas of the world will grow and multiply in the current global economic crisis, spawning pirates, drug-lords, terrorists and other heavily armed non-state actors that attack state interests for political and economic reasons, perhaps both.

As the war in Afghanistan shows, it is difficult and costly to impose a state into a stateless region. I suspect “fixing” the problem is not going to be pleasant. In fact, we might see the west finding the idea of paternalistic no-Imperialism so distasteful that it will cede the state-building to regimes less squeamish, say China perhaps?

At least this is better than the government doing it

Futurismic has posted about the latest in the ongoing death spiral of old media journalism (by which everyone really means American journalism) which is, the idea of Arianna Huffington starting a foundation to fund proper investigative journalism.  While the motive seams laudable in the abstract, I kind of fail to see the difference between this and Rupert Murdoch starting a newspaper. The only wrinkle I see is that the “investors” are sinking money without expecting a return, and while that might be a more realistic expectation (especially given the historic performance of news ventures aligned with Huffington’s political views, just sayin’) I don’t necessarily see how a cadre of journalists beholden to a clique of wealthy donors will necessarily serve the public any better than a like cadre beholden to the marketplace.  However, I do think that a group of non-profit, donation funded journalists is a hell of a lot better than either now journalists at all, or those run by the state, which are our two other options should no one find a for-profit business model that does the same thing.

My only worry is, if the idea catches on as the salvation of journalism, it will likely see the power of the press concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. (But that was happening anyway, oh well.)