To See More Clearly

A few days ago, Evan Selinger wrote an article on Augmented-Reality Racism which has been (unfortunately) gaining some traction around the web. I say ‘unfortunately’, because Evan is a sharp and insightful thinker who can translate dense philosophical ideas into nuanced and popular forms (see his July article on The Philosophy of the Technology of the Gun for a great example), and Augmented-Reality Racism is not that. Since I think there’s some merit to the premise, I’d like to take my own whack at it.

Augmented reality (AR) takes modern computing technology and puts it on the bridge of your nose, interlaying projected images and sounds with your view of the world. Evan hypothesizes that such a technology could be used in a racist manner, either to ‘erase’ people of a certain race from view or to become super-aware of their presence (pulse-Doppler blackdar?). He notes that technologies have frequently embedded racist agendas, like the example of Robert Moses’ low bridges on the Long Island Parkway, designed to block buses--full of black people from the city--from the beaches. Evan concludes by wondering if augmented realities designed to individualize and humanizing the masses in the crowd might be a good way to build social bonds and empathy.

There’s an irritating floppiness to the scenario (does racist AR obscure people or highlight them?), but more fundamentally, the article fails to think deeply about augmented reality or the relationship between technology and race. First AR: Augmented reality is much more than the visible front-end of a head-mounted display. AR (properly, Nathan Jurgenson’s definition of Mild Augmented Reality) is the belief that “The digital and physical are part of one reality, have different properties, and interact.” It’s about “Spiming” as much of the world as possible, so that the qualities and histories of objects can be viewed and understood in those nifty heads-mounted displays.

In many ways, the world is already augmented. Any surface covered with words and other signs and signifiers, which in certain places can be pretty much all of them, is already augmented. Awnings block the rain and advertise stores. Packages conceal the materiality of their contents, while displaying an image. What makes the new augmented reality unique is that digital information is fluid, protean, infinitely customizable and transformative. Much like alchemists, modern entrepreneurs invoke a quicksilver digital as they attempt to transmute the dull substance of commerce into glittering profits.

Race is a complicated topic, far too big to be contained in a short essay, but one of the most interesting sections in Sorting Things Out by Bowker and Star concerns the system of racial classification used in Apartheid South Africa.  From 1948 to 1994, every South African was classified as Black, White, Indian, or Coloured, with segregated housing, employment, and legal rights. Apartheid was an institutional system, a technology backed by a racial pseudo-science, for legitimating and perpetuating the exploitation and oppression of a large portion of the South Africa population.  But it was also a system for generating order, and Bowker and Star explain in detail the Kafka-esque nightmare of lives upended by the arbitrary classificatory decisions of petty bureaucrats. To make this absurd system work, the physical bodies of non-white South Africans had to be ‘augmented’ with administrative tests and pass books detailing precisely what race a person belonged to.

Now, contemporary America is not nearly as racist as apartheid South Africa, but race still matters here, whether it’s on the census form, or in the lived experience of people who experience prejudice, police brutality, and shorter life expectancy. What I find interesting is that as America has moved away from the worst excesses of Jim Crow, racism only becomes visible through technology. We know that the NYPD is racist from their own data on Stop and Frisk, which records statistically higher numbers of searches for African Americans and Hispanics and fewer cases of illegal drug or weapon possession.  If you buy the results from the Implicit Association Tests, pretty much everybody has some degree of racist sentiment. Racism as a matter of systemic bias, rather than overt discrimination, is only revealed through the augmented reality of statistics and demographics, which attach data to people.

There are also interesting patterns in how people of difference races and classes use technology, for example the now classic description of MySpace as a ‘digital ghetto’ afflicted by ‘white flight’, or how twice as many African-Americans use cell phones as their primary form of internet access compared to whites.  Race in America is more than skin color; it’s also cultural, in patterns of speech and metaphor. Even bad ideas sound plausible when presented articulately, with clean graphic design and proofreading. I wonder what would happen to political discourse if we removed this embedded bias towards certain authoritative voices by making everybody present their ideas in ERMAHGERD or after nurbling. Making the form of arguments identical (and ridiculous) might help us focus on their contents.

To return to the premise of the Augmented Reality racism, I’d take the opposite tack from Evan. If race is a matter of surface appearances, than an augmentation that erases these surface differences is likely to make us less racist on an individual level. To flip a popular saying, on the internet we’re all dogs.  And while I’m sure there are some Racial Holy War (link warning: extreme racism) types who would enjoy knowing precisely how many ‘mud people’ there are in a three-mile radius so they could feel threatened and hateful all the time, for most people being more aware of the statistical and systemic patterns of racism (link warning: awesome maps) is useful tool to engage forms of social justice we are currently ignorant of. As for humanizing people, maybe it’s holiday misanthropy, but most people are kinda terrible (link warning: internet Nice Guys), and we probably don’t want to know how much they enjoy Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, or their views on gun control, or the contents of their fridge. Apathy is the lubricant of urban living.

Evan opened with a story about his very Jewish grandmother, and so I’d like conclude with a story about my equally Jewish great-Grandmother, who had very poor eyesight and only got her first pair of glasses late in life. Right after getting her new glasses, she went for her usual walk around the neighborhood with her daughter, and began to sob.
“Ma, why are you crying?” My grandmother (then a young woman) asked her mother.
“Everybody looks so sad,” The old lady said, “Before I could see, I thought they were smiling all the time.”


PLoS: 10 Rules for Scientific Open Source Software

This weeks's PLoS Computational Biology includes a nice article outlining best practices for openness in scientific code. In short, the article argues that open sourcing research code increases impact and is needed for reproducibility, and that simply releasing source code is insufficient: failure to maintain the project rapidly leads to obsolescence. Building a community can preserve usability with low costs. Ten best practices for open source scientific code are presented:

  1. Don't Reinvent the Wheel
  2. Code Well
  3. Be Your Own User
  4. Be Transparent
  5. Be Simple
  6. Don't Be a Perfectionist
  7. Nurture and Grow Your Community
  8. Promote Your Project
  9. Find Sponsors
  10. Science First: yield control to the community to keep room for research

I've noticed a two additional factors that discourage open sourcing of research code. Research code is often low quality 'Spaghetti code', and researchers do not physically have time to bring the source code up to standards for public release. Additionally, ( and this may be paranoid speculation ) some researchers would rather keep private fast implementations of novel methods to maintain a competitive advantage, leaving other scientists to rebuild the algorithms from scratch.

The article is almost as short as this summary, so head over and check it out.


Thinkering Tomorrows -Playing the Future

Previously on this blog, I critiqued Science Fiction Prototyping, and talked about how role-playing games work. Today, I’d like to bring those two themes together to talk the design of my scenario planning role-playing game, Thinkering Tomorrow.  The goal here, in the words of Brian David Johnson, is to help people change the future by changing the stories they tell about the future.

To summarize the older posts, Science Fiction Prototyping is problematic because writing is surprisingly hard, and gets even harder if you want to achieve both scientific accuracy and literary quality. Additionally, the “gentle art of reperceiving” in an institutional context, which is at the heart of scenario planning/foresight methodologies, is diametrically opposed to the individual task of finishing a story. Role-playing games (RPGs) serve as a method for a group to successfully negotiate a common outcome, both by determining who speaks at a given time, and providing some way to foreclose debate over contentious issues. I thought that the strengths of role-playing games could compensate for the weaknesses in Science Fiction Prototyping.

The main concept behind Thinkering Tomorrows is a basic set of rules and pieces to help a group use their narrative imaginations and intrinsic understanding of ‘good reasons’ on the future.  To do this, the group first generates a set of random elements chosen from a list using a deck of playing cards, figures out in some loose way how all the elements work together, and then plays through a story about the future in 16 or so brief scenes. It’s inspired by the award-winning Fiasco, but different enough that I feel safe in saying that it is its own thing.

The Set-Up, laying out the disparate elements and figuring out how they fit together, is a game in and of itself. It is synthetic, in that is about challenging and exercising the players’ collective ability to generate meaning out of chaos. The items on the list are meant to be provocative and inspirational. A game that simply repeats culturally embedded stories about technology, like Frankenstein, Icarus, Telsa, etc. is not particularly successful. At minimum, the elements mean that everybody is working with the same pieces, and that the group can get over the terror of the blank page.

In most RPGs, characters are defined by a series of numbers that represent a kind of ‘imaginary physics’; bodily statistics, skills, equipment. Thinkering Tomorrows instead defines characters by their social roles, their relationships with the characters to their left and right. These relationships might be something like Family: Parent and Child, and Social: Shared Subculture. This system elegantly produces internal tensions for each character; they will have two roles to play, and multiple goals that may not align. Characters in the game will almost certainly be inspired by the experiences of the players, but hopefully will be different enough to inspire empathy and speculation. The space between “what would I do?” and “what would this other person do given who they are?” is a very productive one.

The Gizmo and the System Failure are the most important elements for the shape of the game. The Gizmo is a technology, composed of a Mechanism, Interface, Infrastructure, and Output. An earlier version of the game focused on lists of technologies that you might find in futurological forecasts, but playtests revealed that not all technologies were created equally, and that the technology was ignored for most of the story. Some of the Gizmos are ordinary, and some are quite fantastic, but all are detailed enough to help provoke design fiction style speculation about the daily use and purpose of technology.

The System Failure is what sets the plot of the game in motion. It is only realistic to say that technology rarely works right, and almost never does exactly what it was specified to do and only that. A technology might be misused, or it might have negative externalities, or it simply might break down unexpectedly. Dealing with the consequences of this failure; trying either to put it right or take advantage of the chaos, kicks the drama into high gear.

Objects and Locations help define the setting of the game, providing a few concrete places for the players to hang around in and McGuffins to fight over. They’re not supposed to be the only locations used, but rather serve as Chekov’s Guns which force the story towards some kind of conclusion. The Values serve to say in the broadest sense what the game is about: Democracy vs Authoritarianism, Transformation vs Tradition, or Independence vs Integration. Values are designed so that a reasonable person could support either side of an issue, but conflict is inevitable.

As I mentioned earlier, the game plays out in brief scenes of 3-5 minutes, rotating through the group so that everybody has equal ability to participate and shape the story. While some players will have better ideas and be more forceful in arguing them, there’s no single authority in Thinkering Tomorrows.  At most, someone might serve to facilitate play. In the first half of the game, players declare which elements on the table they want to use, and gain tokens if they successfully incorporate those elements into their scene. If they fail, the tokens go to a communal Crisis pool, to represent the situation getting worse.

The second half of the game takes on elements of a collective action problem, as players can choose to allocate their hard earned tokens to Fixes, Values which shape the big picture, or their own personal well-being. Depending on how the game plays out, there could be agreement on what is to be done and an efficient and easy implementation, or a bloody struggle that leaves the problem triumphant, and all the characters exhausted in pursuit of their ideologies.

Now, Thinkering Tomorrows needs more playtesting, and I won’t claim that it is the be-all-end-all of foresight exercises. The plot of problem-crisis-solutions-outcomes is a little stereotypical. The game’s ability to provoke interesting discussions is highly contingent on the group, how much they know about the future, and how well they work together. And finally, there’s no formal mechanism for players to introduce analytic components, to make the game “about” some technology or issue of specific interest, although that could be modified easily enough. But I do think that it’s an unique way to rapidly prototype science fiction stories in the span of an evening, rather than weeks or months.

If you’d like a copy of Thinkering Tomorrows, please contact me.


Hipster Churchillism and Operation Pillar of Defense

When I flipped open my news websites on Thursday and saw that Israel had taken out a Hamas commander and posted the video on YouTube, my reaction could be best summed up as “Oh god, not again.” Shocking as it might be to people who know me; I actually don’t like war. I study it because things that kill people matter; because I’m a citizen of a country that enthusiastically turns to the military to enforce its view of the world; and (okay, I’ll admit it) because military technology is awesome.

The story as I understand it is that after an escalating barrage of rockets through October and early November, Israel launched a very public campaign of “precision” strikes against Hamas leaders and rocket launching sites. Hamas responded with a massive barrage of missiles, including long-range Iranian Fajr-5 missiles targeted at Tel Aviv and Hamas. Israel has called up the reserves (75,000, compared to 10,000 in Operation Cast Lead), and well, you can fill in the depressing rest.

I can’t speak to the justice or morality of the conflict; that’s simply too big.  But one thing that I firmly believe from the lessons of Robert McNamara, is that when you go to war you must have a good idea of why.

The base level explanation from official Israeli sources is that “Israel has the right to self-defense, and they shot first.” A higher level explanation is that this is all about reminding the Arab world to take Israeli deterrence seriously. Above that is the theory that this is about reminding Hamas of its obligations to control Gaza. And in the realm of the conspiracy theory is that Netanyahu is doing this to solidify his re-election chances or prepare for a strike on Iran.

Hamas’s objectives, in a similar order, are to destroy Israel via rocket bombardment, do something with its military arsenal before it is destroyed by Israel, and demonstrate leadership to the Palestinian people and the Arab world.

Notice any asymmetries in these objectives? Not the military “wipe Israel off the map/destroy Hamas’ rocket capability” ones, because those aren’t happening, but the political objectives. The best that Israel has a realistic chance of achieving is the status quo, plus a few years respite from rockets.  Hamas could actually win by credibly providing emergency services, by working with influential figures in Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey, and by demonstrating itself as the foremost Palestinian political party. Now, I might be wrong, and Hamas could have miscalculated, but I don’t see much hope for long term Israeli interests, let alone a two-state peace.

This battle is playing out in the media as much as it is in the air, with real-time flames between @IDFSpokesperson and @AlqassamBrigade. A friend of mine is working in an Israeli media ops command center, presumably grinding his way towards IDFBlog badges, and reminding people that Hamas can use geotagging on twitter posts to aim its rockets. Now, my usual military and foreign policy blogs are talking about this, as is the New York Times and other major newspapers, but in social media terms this feels like a dud. The only thing that I’ve seen personally gain any traction in my (very liberal, fairly Jewish) social circle is a 2006 quote from Benjamin Netanyahu, “The truth is that if Israel were to put down its arms there would be no more Israel. If the Arabs were to put down their arms there would be no more war.” Otherwise, most people still care more about l’affair de Petraeus and cat pictures than this conflict.

Ironically, the very efficiency of Israeli’s Iron Dome anti-missile system may have deprived it of the media trump card; pictures of dead babies. While the Israeli military is more media savvy than it was in 2008, their Hipster Churchillism is, well, profoundly weird and far less sympathetic than the images coming out of Gaza, Pallywood staging or not.

So what’s the end? Well, I expect that some number of people will die, more of them Palestinian than Israeli, that billions of dollars will be spent in an effort to blow up various parts of the Middle East, that Israeli’s reputation will be further tarnished, and that we’ll do it all again in another four years, but worse.

After all, this land is mine.

(from Nina Paley)


Book Reviews: The Submerged State and the Righteous Mind

by Suzanne Mettler


by Jonathan Haidt

It doesn't take a pundit to know that American politics are screwed up beyond measure. Congress is stuck in gridlock, the economy is stalled, elections are decided by culture war attack ads, and politics itself is derided as a pursuit for liars and hustlers. Suzanne Mettler explains why we’ve become disenchanted with political solutions to our problems, while Jonathan Haidt looks at the deeper moral differences between liberals and conservatives.

The key issue is not the government we see, but the government we don't, the vast tangle of tax breaks, public-private partnerships, and incentives that Mettler deems 'the submerged state'. The size of the submerged state is astounding, 8% of the GDP, and fully half the size of the visible state: Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, defense, servicing the debt, and the relatively minuscule discretionary funding that covers everything else the government does, from welfare to transportation to education to NASA and foreign aid.

Mettler deploys economic and social statistics to show that for all its expense, the submerged state is a failure on every level. Whatever your politics, there is something to despise about the submerged state. It represents a transfer of wealth from the poor to the wealthy, when most Americans abstractly support reducing inequality. It is a distortionary government influence on the workings of the free market, without the relativity clarity of direct provision of services or regulations. It fails to accomplish its stated policy goals of improving access to education, healthcare, and housing. It leads to civic disengagement, as those who benefit fail to see how the government has helped them, or how they can meaningfully impact politics through voting. And above all, it institutionalizes corruption, as broad public participation is replaced by the lobbying of narrowly constituted interests groups.

This book is not perfect. Mettler is a political scientist, and she has the biases of her profession: that conservatives are responsible for much of what's gone wrong with America over the past 30 years (disclosure: I agree), and that citizens would vote 'better' if they were just better informed. This book doesn't fatally harpoon the submerged state, but Mettler has marked the target for future scholars and politicians. The submerged state is a powerful lens for seeing many divergent policies as part of a broad trend towards political disengagement, and government that is not smaller, but rather inflexible and unresponsive.

In a just and sensible world, the 2012 Presidential race would be decided by the candidate’s aggressiveness in tackling the submerged state. Unfortunately, last I checked, we’re still on Earth. Democracy isn't just about the boring but necessary business of deciding who keeps the sewers running and collects the taxes, but is also about the type of society that we wish to live in. Voters don’t vote on “rational” economic grounds, but rather on the basis of shared values and aspirations.

Jonathan Haidt draws broadly from research in psychology, anthropology, and biology to develop a six-factor basis for morality (Care/Harm, Liberty/Oppression, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity/Degradation), and show that moral judgment is an innate intuitive ability accompanied by post-hoc justifications. He argues that morality serves to bind non-related groups together, and moral skills have been favored by biological and social evolutionary mechanisms over human history.

In practical political terms, the Enlightenment morality embodied by Liberalism draws from only the first three moral factors while Conservatism draws from all six. This explains both the differences between liberal and conservative values, and why conservatives beat the stuffing out of liberals at the polls. Drawing on more complex moral framework, they are able to make more convincing arguments in favor of their preferred policies.

However, Haidt is unwilling to follow his theory to its ultimate question: Can a democratic political system that privileges the rights of minorities sustain decision-making based on all six moral factors? Care/Harm, Liberty/Oppression, and Fairness/Cheating are universal factors; everybody uses them, and aside philosophical paradoxes like the famous Trolley Problem, we agree on when they are upheld or violated. Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation are provincial factors; they're different for every culture and every individual.

A moral order for a pluralistic society which takes the latter three factors seriously must either force people to uphold a morality they do not believe in, or segregate people based on their different interpretations of morality. Perhaps I'm sensitive to such concerns because of my secular Jewish culture, but forcing people to profess beliefs not their own, or requiring them to live in communities of only like-minded individuals is profoundly unjust, and practically impossible.

Conservatism struggles with the reality that we no longer live in separated communities. We have one global economy, one atmosphere, one water cycle, one planetary oil supply, one nuclear Armageddon, etc. Haidt faults liberalism for damaging American moral capital in the 60s and 70s, but he doesn't explain how conservative politics can govern effectively without infringing on liberty, or coalescing to gridlock.

Imagine trying to get conservatives in America, China, and the Middle East to reach an agreement about freedom of speech, the role of religion in the public sphere, or the proper authority of the state. Value conflicts would impede the necessary daily work of trade and treaties, peace and prosperity, and a shared and sustainable future. It might be a more moral world, but it would not be a better a one.

As Benjamin Franklin said, “We must hang together; else, we shall most assuredly hang separately." Liberals across the world may disagree on the details, but can broadly agree on the framework for approaching continental-scale and international policy problems. We all have the right to vote according to our values, but we should take responsibility in recognizing the limited power of law to enforce those values in others.


Something something election blog something

The last Presidential debate just finished, and it turns out that I haven’t written anything about the election all year. It’s been hard to find enough substance to meet my standards. I loved the three ring circus that was the GOP primary (Herman Cain, any questions?), but we all knew Romney was the inevitable nominee despite himself. The state of the race to 270 Electoral College votes, and the hard work of turning out the vanishingly small number of undecided voters in the handful of swing states is beyond my expertise; I’ll leave that to Nate Silver.  I just don’t have the time to evaluate in detail the candidates’ platforms and policies; not that much detail is being released. And besides, not that it’s any surprise to any of my readers, but I’m a staunch cultural Democrat, in that I’m pro-women, pro-equality, anti-war, living proof that America is not a Christian nation.

This isn’t likely to change: My earliest political memories were 1) the Clinton-Lewinsky impeachment hearings 2) the 2000 election and the Florida Supreme Court debacle, and 3) the entire motherfucking Bush administration, who’s epochal combination of incompetence, arrogance, and short-sightedness left me unable to find a single decent thing that was accomplished by the American government from 2000-2008. As far as I’m concerned, anybody who campaigns with an “R” after his or her name without renouncing George W. Bush and all his works is entirely unworthy of respect.

Of course, just because I'm decided means that I can't have an opinion. And ((spoilers ahead)), that opinion is one of cynicism and disengagement. 

I won’t be voting for Mitt Romney, as the Obama endorsement from The Salt Lake Tribune explains why in more or less the same language I’d use. The constantly shifting positions, the refusal to share policy specifics, and the very real probability that he holds a Randian ‘takers-vs-makers’ view of society, as exhibited in his infamous 47% comments, all serve to disqualify him from higher office.

On the other hand, I’m not really inclined towards Obama, even after a strong showing in this last debate. What I wrote this January is still true.

I supported Obama [in 2008] because I believed that he could articulate a vision for American democracy in the 21st century. I thought that the author of Dreams from my Father, the 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote, and the speech on Reverend Wright, would be somebody who could inspire America in the same way that Kennedy and Reagan did. We needed, and still need, inspiration more than any specific policy solution. I believed that roused to action, the American people would find their own solutions to major problems, like healthcare, energy, education, and the war.
 Instead, Barack Obama has presided over an ugly and secretive government. It is a government that uses drones to kill terrorists on the other side of the world, while making the absurd claim that “There hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop,” (according to senior counter-terrorism official John O. Brennandespite ample evidence to the contrary. It is a government that has failed to address basic concerns about hidden risks and ‘shadow banks’ in the financial system. And while the rancor and insanity of the 112th Congress is not Obama’s fault, the White House is little better. On the Keystone XL pipeline, and Plan B birth control pill, the Obama administration has given the impression that it does not make decisions based on evidence, or what he believes would be right for the country, but what is most politically expedient. 
I’d like a frank debate about jobs and the nature of work in the 21st century, because humans are losing to machines. We need to talk about communities and belonging, because our society is more fluid, more free, and more alienating than ever before.  We need to talk about war and peace, because we have an absurdly expensive white elephant of a military with no clear mission. And we need to seriously talk about energy and sustainability, because we get precisely one shot at technological civilization and the infrastructure that sustains us is far from secure.

But none of this happened, because the conventional wisdom is that voters care about pocketbook issues and the old staples of the culture wars. The big issues and questions don’t fit neatly into the ideological frameworks of either party. If campaigning is mostly about repeating the right set of meaningless shibboleths until 51%  of the voters decide to check the mark next to your name, then bringing up non-standard narratives is always a mistake. Who am I to criticize the electoral performance of Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, James Carville, David Axelrod and all the other operatives who have honed the tools of campaigning into a lethal arsenal.  But if we can’t talk about these political problems during a presidential campaign, then when?

Go ahead and vote if you want to. I don’t really care (unless you live in Ohio). Obama has been an adequate caretaker president at a time when this nation needed so much more. Romney has failed to demonstrate why he should have the job, and personally, I just don't like him. He fails the "who-would-I-like-to-have-a-beer-with" test. Hell, he even fails the coffee test. But the 2012 election isn't about politics or likability, at best, it's about administration. Sometimes, it seems like the most powerful man in the free world has all the independence of thought and action of a middle-school student treasurer.

Maybe this time I'll write in Cthulhu.


Terror, Strategy, and Living Under Drones

Drones and the future of warfare are perennial interest of mine. My previous writing on drones was from the perspective of American politics and military strategy.  In brief, I argued that the armed drone has proceeded in concert with bureaucratic institutions of the ‘kill list’, from the context of democratic governance is dangerous because the institutions involved are free of external oversight, and above all, that this policy of ‘war by assassination’ developed without any form of public deliberation or participation.

What I did not write about was the consequences of drones on the ground, because I did not have that data, and would not presume to speak for the perspectives of people who I don’t understand. A recent report, Living Under Drones, by the Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic of Stanford Law School (Stanford Clinic) and the Global Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law (NYU Clinic), has provided that data, in the form of 130 interviews with Pakistani residents of the areas targeted by drones. I do not agree with all of the premises and conclusions of the report, but they have rendered an invaluable service by giving voice to an otherwise silenced population. I’d like to take a moment to discuss what this report reveals about the strategy of the drone war, and how that strategy can be improved.

The official word on the drone program, from counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan up to President Obama himself, is that drones are legal, ethical, and above all, precise. Strikes are conducted only on the best intelligence, on verified targets, in a manner that avoids civilian casualties. The metaphor of the Global War on Terror is cancer; terrorist cells must be cut out of the nation before they metastasize, and this can be done without harming the integrity of the body politic.

The three strikes described in Living Under Drones paints a very different picture. The stories differ in the details, but a common thread emerges as an attack on what the administration claims to be terrorist activity is described by locals as just daily life, including political council meetings and travel. The survivors, either just outside the blast radius of the relatives of the decease, describe the shock of the explosion, picking through ruined buildings for body parts, and trying to rebuild what remains. What through the lens of a drone looks like a terrorist, is to people in Waziristan a father, brother, son, economic breadwinner, friend, or local elder. Every death reverberates through the social fabric, individuals who are only weakly tied to legitimate targets in Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or the Haqqani network.

Those who live under drones describe the experience as one of fear amplified by uncertainty and helplessness into terror. “In the words of one interviewee: ‘God knows whether they’ll strike us again or not. But they’re always surveying us, they’re always over us, and you never know when they’re going to strike and attack” (Living Under Drones pg. 81).  In practice, drones are terror weapons, with unanticipated psychological effects beyond their lethal impact. It is one thing for a democracy to avoid a debate on whether or not certain ‘bad people’ can and should be killed; it is another thing entirely to avoid that debate about whether a civilian population should be terrorized in pursuit of that policy.

These opposing perspectives on drones matter, because perspectives inform policy, which informs outcomes.  If drones are truly surgical weapons, than the matter at hand becomes identifying the relevant jihadist targets, and eliminating enough of them to shatter their organizations, or doing it rapidly enough to outpace their ability to regenerate, or simply staying at it at long enough that they go away. Unfortunately, regardless of its (arguable) successes in Waziristan, the proliferation of jihadist groups in Yemen, Libya, and Syria shows that years of this kind of ‘political surgery’ are not leading to victory. Attrition is the last refuge of the defeated strategist.

Drawing from Unrestricted Warfare, which presents the novel and profitable proposal “that the new principles of war are no longer 'using armed force to compel the enemy to submit to one's will,' but rather are 'using all means, including armed force or non-armed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one's interests'", the problems of drones as a terror weapon become clear.  The object of the drone campaign is not to surgically excise the Jihad, but to make the population turn against them on the belief that fighting Al Qaeda is a better option than allowing them to exist among them, thereby inviting the drones.

This strategy is riddled with weaknesses and little better than attrition. One strategic perspective views the Global War on Terror as one front in the struggle between the New World Order and the New World Disorder. Vis a vis futurist, sci-fi author, and guru Bruce Sterling and Professor Thomas Barnett of the Naval War College, there are places where the networks are open, the official economy encompasses pretty much everything, and rule of law applies, (if you’re reading this, you almost certainly live in one), and there are other places where the infrastructure is poor, power is held by small networks of personal charisma and authority, and the major economic activity is extortion, smuggling, and drugs. Terrorists, by and large, come from places like this, because they encourage the development of tightly-linked groups willing to kill. These groups don’t have the organizational ability to project power much beyond their neighborhood, but in rare circumstances they can hijack the infrastructure of the New World Order (airliners and subways, for example) to carry out mass attacks.

The point is that breaking up any particularly group is irrelevant, because the pervasive lack of economic opportunity and broader social meaning mean that places like these spawn terrorists, revolutionaries, and criminals in the same way that a garbage pile spawns flies. The isolation and provincialism of these places is hard to overstate, as interviews with three would-be Pakistani suicide bombers reveals:

“The common thread between the lives of these youths was their complete isolation from rest of the Pakistan and from the world at large. The lack of access to TV, Internet, and formal education meant they were almost completely oblivious to such massive events as 9/11, and as such they were unaware of where and what exactly the United States was. One of the boys mentioned that there was only one TV in their entire neighborhood, and even that one didn't work half of the time. Their only access to information was the radio, which has for years been dominated by the jihadists who were using the name of Islam to mobilize the people.”

If ultimate victory in this war is to be achieved by spreading the New World Order into the dark corners of the world, it is unlikely that terrorizing the population into mass anxiety, killing local leaders, and blowing up what infrastructure there is, is a fruitful step towards that goal.

I’m going to be cynical here, and say that regardless of its legality, ethics, or mass public opposition, the drone war is going to continue. In a tactical sense, armed drones are simply too good at killing terrorists for them to be abandoned as a technology. How then, might the strategy be recovered?

Foucault, in his classic Discipline and Punish, wrote about the Panopticon as both a physical structure and as a theory linking surveillance, punishment, and discipline. For Foucault, the power of the panopiticon’s architecture was that the possibility of being observed and punished at any time required the inmates to act in accordance to the wishes of the overseer at all times. When the inmates fully internalized the values of the overseer, and could be trusted to behave as he wished without active involvement, they had become ‘disciplined’. In this framework, the strategic aim of the Global War on Terror is extending American discipline in regards to terrorists to local populations around the world.

The theory of the panopticon is relatively simply, but its application is anything but.  Terrorist networks use intelligence tradecraft to avoid detection, making them elusive targets for surveillance. And from the perspective of civilians on the ground, the drone strikes appear random, leading to learned helplessness rather than an anti-terrorist discipline. I believe that to be effective, each drone strike must be linked to a clear American policy and ideology; and to an opportunity to for potential change behaviors and allegiances before being attacked. The drone war would become slower, more deliberative, and above all, more transparent.

Is this proposal ideal? Absolutely not. I’m not even sure if it’s a good idea. But what I am sure of is that the current strategies of the drone war as I understand them are not strategies that are capable of winning, and that endurance in pursuit of defeat is no virtue.


Science Fiction, Seriously.

Recently, ASU launched the new Center for Science and the Imagination to use science fiction in serious ways. Things like CSI are literally unbelievable; they could only happen at ASU, and it’s why I’m a grad student here. I’m look forward to working with the new center, and I have some ideas.

In the words of the center’s director, Ed Finn:
Our mission is to foster creative and ambitious thinking about the future. We want to bring writers, artists, scholars, scientists and many others together in collaboration on bold visions for a better future. But more than this, we want to share a sense of agency about the future, to get everyone on the plane thinking about how our choices inflect the spectrum of possibilities before us.

Right now, the center is bringing people together around big visions for the future, the most prominent of which is Neal Stephenson’s Giant Space Tower. Unlike a space elevator, which would require tens of thousands of kilometers of catbon nanotube fiber at an unprecedented production scale, Neal’s tower is only 10-20km tall, and built out of conventional materials like steal. However, by getting a launch platform above the thickest parts of Earth’s atmosphere, rockets could reach orbit much more efficiently, opening up new frontiers in space travel. The idea is that as a potential rallying point for interdisciplinary studies in engineering, sustainability, the politics of siting the tower, economics of operation, design of human living quarters high in what climbers call the ‘death zone’. It’s a big vision, but are we really thinking about choices and possibilities?

The tower is a fascinating project in many aspects, but as a spaceflight critic, I have my doubts. The tower is an interesting idea, but it’s closest analog isn’t the Apollo program, it’s large scale infrastructure like the Panama Canal, which was at its time an incredibly ambitious and fraught undertaking, cost $375 million, was politically tied to the imperial domination of Central America and moneyed shipping interests, and killed tens of thousands of workers. While it was a bridge between worlds in its time, and a worthy and impressive project, these days, its most enduring legacy is not heroic engineering, but cheap consumer goods and the Panamax ship standard.

Science fiction asks us to dream big, but history tells us we should be cautious. The legacies of innovation are rarely what we think they will be. The most important technologies are rarely the most impressive ones, human genome projects and particle accelerators and rocket ships. The science and technology that impacts us the most are quiet, omnipresent, invisible, things like air conditioning and standardized forms, forms of transportation that are cheap, efficient, and safe, buildings that stay up in storms and earthquakes, and the millions of other things that modern living requires, and which we notice only when they break.

We live in an era characterized by technologies, and as Langdon Winner noted in his classic The Whale and The Reactor, these artifacts have politics, but their values, costs and benefits, and forms of responsibility disappear into a fog of engineering details accessible only to experts. The architectures of technological systems structure and direct our lives in subtle ways, and yet we lack good tools to evaluate these technologies. I can think of three primary ways we approach technology: elegance, expense, and inertia. Technophiles love the newest most technically sweet solution or gadget for its own sake. Accountants are concerned with how much it will cost, and who will pay. And most people approach technology from a position of minimizing disruptions in how they live their lives, and interoperability with the current standard.

When people to come together to discuss technologies, the result is all too frequently confusion because they are coming from mutually incomprehensible perspectives. Rationality is not a fair and even-handed way of adjudicating between perspectives; demanding rationality is a way of enforcing the use of only one perspective. Cost-benefit analysis and similar “rational” techniques of technology assessment and governance take in only a very small slice of the human experience. For democrats, people who believe that everybody should have a fair say in the development of the community, this ungovernability of technology is a perennial problem.

Instead of bemoaning the perennial irrationality of the public, or elite decision-makers, or the morons who programmed the menu system on my internet enabled BluRay player, I think we should look for a different way of communicating. People may be irrational, in that they do things other than how we would have done then, but their actions make sense internally. They are never unreasonable.

Walter Fisher, in his work on the narrative paradigm delimited his theory that:
(1) Humans are essentially story tellers; (2) the paradigmatic mode of human decision-making and communication is “good reasons” which vary in form among communication situations, genres, and media; (3) the production and practice of goods reasons is ruled by matters of history, biography, culture, and character… (4) rationality is determined by the nature of persons as narrative beings-their inherent awareness of narrative probability, what constitutes a coherent story, and their constant habit of testing narrative fidelity, whether the stories they experience ring true with the stories they know to be true in their lives… (5) the world is a set of stories which must be chosen among to live the good life in a process of continual recreation.

In short, good reasons are the stuff of stories, the means by which humans realize their nature as reasoning valuing animals. The philosophical ground of the narrative paradigm is ontology. The materials of the narrative paradigm are symbols, signs of consubstantiation, and good reasons, the communicative expressions of social reality.

We need to bring reasons to the forefront, and stories are some of the densest, most fruitful areas for discovering reasons. We need to start taking stories seriously, and specifically stories about technology. We need more people telling stories about technology, better stories about technology, and better channels for getting good stories out there. And for better or worse, science fiction is the genre of stories that deal with technology and the future. As Clark Miller and Ira Bennet, two professors at CSPO wrote, “Science-fiction is technology assessment for the rest of us.”

Jay Oglivy, a futurist with the Global Business Network, argues that, “Part of the role of futurists… should therefore be to articulate in an understandable and appealing way images of a better future. We need an antidote to Blade Runner, a foil for A Clockwork Orange, a better sequel to 1984, a truly humanized Animal Farm.” I hope that the new Center for Science and Inquiry can take up this challenge, creating a community of interdisciplinary scholars and methods to use science fiction to articulate, discuss, and create this better world. Anything less would be a betrayal of our ambitions. 


Theories of Everything

(( This figure comes from a document on arXiv, which is not peer reviewed. Documents on arXiv should be viewed as "entertainment only, any any resemblance to real science or mathematics, living or dead, is purely coincidental" until the documents have been vetted by the community. That said, this flowchart of formal systems amuses me. I also find the notion that the existence of a mathematical description of a physical system somehow, philosophically, implies the existence of such a system, entertaining, in an almost religious sense. ))


Feeling Organic

The New York Times has had a series of articles recently that touch on one of my sore points, the idea that organic food is somehow better for you and the planet than conventional agriculture. This is problematic, because A) it simply isn't supported by the evidence and B) it replaces critical thinking about food policy.

First, from September 3rd, 2012.

"[Stanford University Scientists] concluded that fruits and vegetables labeled organic were, on average, no more nutritious than their conventional counterparts, which tend to be far less expensive. Nor were they any less likely to be contaminated by dangerous bacteria like E. coli.

The researchers also found no obvious health advantages to organic meats.

Conventional fruits and vegetables did have more pesticide residue, but the levels were almost always under the allowed safety limits, the scientists said. The Environmental Protection Agency sets the limits at levels that it says do not harm humans.

“When we began this project, we thought that there would likely be some findings that would support the superiority of organics over conventional food,” said Dr. Dena Bravata, a senior affiliate with Stanford’s Center for Health Policy and the senior author of the paper, which appears in Tuesday’s issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine. “I think we were definitely surprised."

This study prompted some self-doubt from the usual suspects I know on Facebook, but they rapidly recovered and decided that organic food wasn't about nutrition, or chemical exposure, but about sustainability and the environment.

Of course, organic agriculture is still agriculture, and used land, water, and other resources. From December 30th, 2011.

"Growers here on the Baja Peninsula, the epicenter of Mexico’s thriving new organic export sector, describe their toil amid the cactuses as “planting the beach.”...

The explosive growth in the commercial cultivation of organic tomatoes here, for example, is putting stress on the water table. In some areas, wells have run dry this year, meaning that small subsistence farmers cannot grow crops. And the organic tomatoes end up in an energy-intensive global distribution chain that takes them as far as New York and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, producing significant emissions that contribute to global warming."

And then today, Nicolas Kristof got to the heart of the matter.

"Let me introduce Bob Bansen, a high school buddy of mine who is a third-generation dairyman raising Jersey cows on lovely green pastures here in Oregon beside the Yamhill River. Bob, 53, a lanky, self-deprecating man with an easy laugh, is an example of a farmer who has figured out how to make a good living running a farm that is efficient but also has soul.

As long as I’ve known him, Bob has had names for every one of his “girls,” as he calls his cows. Walk through the pasture with him, and he’ll introduce you to them."

This is what organic is really about, not any kind of health or environmental virtue, but the belief that you can have a personal relationship with your food, and thence the land by buying organic. Milk doesn't come from a store, it comes from Farmer Bob and his happy cows. The organic label on your granola bars and cage-free eggs are link to the Jeffersonian yoeman farmer of yore.

This is utter bunk. What percentage of organic consumer actually go back to the farm? How much of what is on organic labels is faux-folksy marketing verbiage from big business? Perhaps my favorite reductio ad absurdum of the local-organic food movement was an article I saw in a magazine (that I sadly can no longer find) about a service in San Francisco that dispatches hipster farmers on fixies to take care of your urban garden if you're too busy to weed, water, and harvest it yourself for the low price of ~$30/hour.

Why does this annoy me? Food is serious business, everybody on earth depends on agriculture to survive, and the fights over organic-vs-conventional are an elitist distraction that prevents progress on real issues relating to global food justice, sustainability in the face of climate change. There's a reasonable argument to be made that the 2009 Russian drought triggered the Arab Spring, as authoritarian regimes could no longer buy off their restive populations with subsidized bread. This year's American corn crop is pretty much also a write off, with unpredictable but not good effects.

I'm not a food policy expert by any means, (for that see www.shapingsciencepolicy.com), but tangling up naturalistic values with the basic infrastructure of survival is not a winning strategy. If you really care about minute levels of pesticide exposure, get the FDA to draft new rules based on solid studies. If you think that the food pyramid is bunk, and most food is toxic junk, develop a deep base of credible experts to run a more independent USDA. Politics is slow and frustrating, full of compromises and delays, but if your not involved, it'll be left to the hucksters and the sharks and the industry representatives.

I get that people feel lost and disconnected from traditional values and from the land, but guess what. You're not a farmer, and unless you spend a significant amount of time working in the dirt, you won't be. You're just another anonymous 21st century consumption unit like the rest of us, and putting different food in your maw won't give you the values you seek. Changing the world by buying the right stuff just makes new categories for the ad men to use to divvy us up.


Unrestricted Warfare: A Review

Strategy is not an American strength. Strategic plans are written to serve the interests of political parties and the election cycle, factions within the Pentagon and military industrial complex seeking billions of dollars for next-gen weapons system, or at best a small group of dissident colonels seeking promotion or post-retirement sinecures. Everybody has an agenda, and almost nobody is conducting honest analysis in search of the truth. The authors of Unrestricted Warfare are coming from outside the Beltway; way outside the Beltway, as they're officers in the People Liberation Army. With no DC career to worry about, there's at least the potential of some candid truth about the future of warfare, and besides as a Chinese strategic plan, reading this has the same kind of vicarious thrill as reading Guderian's Achtung-Panzer! in 1938.

The book begins promisingly enough, with chapters like "The War God's Face Has Become Indistinct" and "What Do Americans Gain By Touching the Elephant?". The introduction offers as a sensible reframing of modern warfare as I've ever seen. "We acknowledge that the new principles of war are no longer 'using armed force to compel the enemy to submit to one's will,' but rather are 'using all means, including armed force or non-armed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one's interests'"

The authors take as their key examples Operation Desert Storm, the 1997 Southeast Asia Financial Crisis, and the unlimited potential of cyberattacks carried out by hackers. Their analysis of Desert Storm is perhaps the most conventional section, examining in detail the successful organization of the operation under Norman Schwarzkopf, and the use of precision air power as the preeminent aim. Unfortunately, the financial crisis and the role of George Soros fails to illuminate what I can only describe as the 'Soros Conspiracy Twilight Zone.' While several Asian economies suffered massive reverses, and George Soros made a lot of money in the process, the accusation that he was responsible is not sustained (or unsustained for that matter. The issue remains open, as far as I can tell). Given the centrality of financial, economic, and media warfare to the concept of unresistricted warfare, this section deserves better. Finally, cyber attacks are treated mostly anecdotally, without a rigorous idea of the linkages between cyberspace and physical systems, or virtual attacks and real damage.

That said, there are some very clever insights into the strengths and limitations of America's high-tech Battlespace model of combat, where every soldier is networked into a regional grid that can cause any location to precisely explode at short notice (the deadliest environment on Earth, short of a nuclear firestorm) in terms of it's cost and inability to counter low-tech insurgent forces. For a pre-9/11 work, this book is horrifically prescient in linking Al Qaeda and airplanes. Conversely, key topics in strengthening local governance and legitimacy and fostering robust innovative economies not vulnerable to unrestricted warfare are mostly left out.

The original lacks the hyperbolic and inaccurate subtitle 'China's Master Plan to Destroy America' (my copy is from the nice folks at www.c4i.org). The examples are American, because America is the world's premier power, and are fairly critiqued on their strengths and weaknesses. While some parts of China's military are clearly aimed American capabilities, the ideas advanced here are seem to be more about countering and emulating American power, rather than crippling it.

As a guide to the future, Unrestricted Warfare will probably not have the impact of Clausewitz, Liddell Hart, or John Boyd. While it offers a important alternative perspective to the conventional wisdom, it's too foreign, too abstract, too hard to apply. By the standards of this book, the last 10 years of American foreign policy have been an unmitigated disaster, but I don't think the American government could ever act in such an integrated manner without a clear existential threat. I think the most trenchant critique of this book is that more than 10 years later, it's difficult to detect a coherent unrestricted warfare strategy behind China's domestic policies, provocations in the South China Sea, and African development projects. For now, unrestricted warfare is more theory than practice.


From Now On, We All Walk Through Walls

Summertime and the research is easy. Which means I’ve been spending a lot of time in virtual places, namely the shattered New York of Crysis 2, the sandstorm blasted Dubai of Spec Ops: The Line, the sundrenched resort from hell of Bulletstorm... well, you get the point. Summertime. They’re similar games: AAA titles released in the past few years, shooters with ambitions, and of course the use of a major city as a playground for destruction. But even if I’m deep in distraction, I can’t turn my brain off, and if you’ll forgive me going a little Cyborgology/BLDGBLOG here, I’d like to talk about the ethics and aesthetics of ruined urbanity in contemporary video games.

I’m not using ethics according to its commonsense definitions, and I apologize in advance. By ethics, I mean a rather literal definition of ‘right action’; what can be done and what should be done in any given situation. Ethics in video games are rather constrained compared to the full set of moral possibilities in the physical world, but designers and players still have certain codes of conduct, or at least stereotypical patterns of action.

I’ve been playing shooters since shareware copies of Wolfenstein 3D and Doom up through pretty much every major title since then, and it’s completely uncontroversial that while the games have gotten better looking, the level design has gotten a lot simpler. It used to be that you could (and frequently would) get lost in levels, circling endlessly while looking for the keys to the exit. In modern shooters, there is only one path, and it comes with one-way doors to make sure you don’t get turned around.

(Image from Kotaku)

The graphical technology of these early games wasn’t particularly advanced. Enemies were crude sprites and level geometry limited to simple polygons and textures, but the level design was baroque. The environments of Doom and its generation was the dungeon: a maze of twisting corridors, locked doors, hazardous floors, bottomless pits, and wandering monsters. Some of the dungeons were industrial themed, other medieval or fantasy, but pretty much all FPS games were linked dungeons. Aesthetics was secondary to ethics. The Doom comic is practically Dadaist in its approach to the subject matter, but it makes a worthwhile point about the absurd omnipresence of radioactive waste in the demon-infested Mars base. The presence of toxic waste is irrelevant to the game. What matters is that there are floors that cannot be walked on.

The ethics of the dungeon are simple: Survive. The ethical course carries you through the level as fast as possible with a minimal expenditure of limited resources like health and ammo for the room clearing weaponry. Looming over the game was a fate worse than death (which after all merely required reloading); winding up in a situation where due to unwise play, further advancement was impossible.

From a design standpoint, the goal is therefore to create dungeons that reward smart play, noticing patterns, having a good instinct for layout, and creating games that can be learned. But there’s a fine line between making dungeons that are predictable and boring, or insanely punishing and frustrating. Nobody appreciates a good dungeon these days.

AAA shooter gameplay has converged to a single gameplay model; linear advancement along a corridor full of cover, with movement limited by the presence of enemies. Performing a moderately tricky hand-eye coordination task of matching wavering crosshairs with a small greyish-brown target on a brownish-grey background allows the player to advance to the next piece of cover. Taking too long to perform this task is punished with delay, either a few seconds crouching with a blurry red screen, or a few minutes restarting from the last checkpoint after ‘dying’. Beating the game mostly takes persistence.

As you can tell, there’s not much to this gameplay, but it sells and it’s a decent way to kill a few hours. The only thing that distinguishes AAA shooters these days is the spectacle. And this spectacle, more often than not, is of the destruction of cities? What ethics does this aesthetic imply?

I believe the destruction of cities is used to inculcate a sense of amorality, allowing players to experience the vicarious thrill of breaking ethical rules in a familiar location. The breakdown of the city is a visual representation of the breakdown in society that makes it acceptable, nay required, to machinegun endless hordes of enemies.

Spec Ops does this the best of the games in the introduction. It has been critically praised for the ethical complexities of its plot, and the slow descent into madness of its protagonist. The march through Dubai, buried by endless sandstorms and inhabited by half-mad mutineers and refugees, is a perfect match for the progress of the player towards the end. Geometry and gameplay become one and the same, in a shattered wonderland that makes us question our lust for violence

Crysis 2 does this far less adeptly. New York is infected with an alien biological weapon, leaving bodybags and blistered corpses strewn in offices and Subway tunnels. Creepy Private Military Contractors hunt you down for crimes that you didn’t commit. And the ground itself is broken by alien lithoships that lurk in Manhattan’s bedrock, lifting chunks of the city into the sky in anti-gravity fields. But where Spec Ops was laser focused on the psychology of the characters, Crysis 2 is all over the place. The ruined city does nothing more than make us feel discomforted and vaguely patriotic as it bombards us with post 9-11 schmaltz. Like summer blockbuster The Avengers, the game plays on our sentiments rather than make a statement.

Bulletstorm is the purest of the games, boisterous and relentless testosterone fueled parody of the genre. But Bulletstorm is at least honest, and has a few gameplay innovations. Your most powerful weapon is the environment itself. Guns are an inefficient way to lay waste to the various mutant gangs. Rather, enemies can be kicked into spikes, giant cactuses, electrified wires, exploding barrels, etc for bonus points with The Mighty Boot. The skillshot system inspires a more daring, and a deeper appreciation of the game’s environment compared to most shooters.

What’s the point? I’m a fan of good games, and I don’t want to inhabit dungeons or view senseless spectacles. The Call of Duty series’ Bruckheimer-esque world tour of destruction (New York, London, Berlin, Prague, Paris…) does its job of supporting a narrative of empty jingoism, but games with literary ambitions need to have an equally strong theory of space and destruction.

This is not just empty blabber. Real soldiers think about space and destruction all the time. I want to quote Israeli Paratrooper Brigade commander General Aviv Kokhavi, from one of my favorite papers, Weizman’s Lethal Theory.

“‘This space that you look at, this room that you look at, is nothing but your interpretation of it. Now, you can stretch the boundaries of your interpretation, but not in an unlimited fashion, after all it must be bound by physics, as it contains buildings and alleys. The question is: How do you interpret the alley? Do you interpret it as a place, like every architect and every town planner, to walk through, or do you interpret it as a place that is forbidden to walk through? This depends only on interpretation. We interpreted the alley as a place forbidden to walk through, and the door as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because a weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional classical manner, and I do not want to obey this interpretation and fall into his traps. Not only do I not want to fall into his traps, I want to surprise him! This is the essence of war. I need to win. I need to emerge from an unexpected place. And this is what we tried to do.
This is why we opted for the methodology of moving through walls . . . Like a worm that eats its way forward, emerging at points and then disappearing. . . . I said to my troops, “Friends! This is not a matter of your choice! There is no other way of moving! If until now you were used to moving along roads and sidewalks, forget it! From now on we all walk through walls!”’

Some of the best contemporary games let us play with space. Portal makes puzzles fun again with addition of a single wormhole. Mirror’s Edge invites us to see rooftops as spaces for momentum and the flow of parkour. Bulletstorm is about aligning enemies and fatal terrain. Minecraft takes mastery of the dungeon to its logical conclusion, allowing adept players to construct their own labyrinths and monuments. Is it too much to ask our game designers to do something interesting with their virtual worlds, to let us walk through walls as well?


"I miss that guy, he gives great hugs": A Breakthrough Dialog Report

Last week I had the pleasure of going back to the Bay  for the second Breakthrough Dialog. It was wonderful to get some cool air, to see all my friends (with the notable exception of Jesse Jenkins, who is too busy going to MITtestifying before Congress, getting married, and going on a honeymoon in Italy to put in an appearance. The dialog was 17% less credible due to his absence), and meet the  2012 BTGeneration Fellows, who are incredibly intelligent and well-qualified. I can't wait to see what they'll do.  Of course, the fact that my friends are wonderful, and that the Bay Area is a great place to be a hedonist are not very bloggable.  What follows is my (scattered, disorganized) thoughts on the Dialog. This is by no means complete, but it should be a partial picture of what I thought was interesting or provocative.

The main subject of the dialog were "Wicked Problems", areas of political and scientific controversy where even basic facts are determined by how the problem is framed and preexisting biases of the involved parties.  Steve Rayner started the day by observing that a good heuristic for wickedness is that whenever government declares war on a noun, there's is probably a wicked problem. Wicked problems are not problems so much as persistent and insolvable social conditions, and the way we attempt to tame them is mostly a matter of our preferred method of arriving at solutions.  Using Mary Douglas's Cultural Theory of Risk, Rayner elucidated the ways in which hierarchical, competitive, and egalitarian institutions attempt to organize themselves while disorganizing other ways of resolving the wicked problem. He suggested that we should try to keep all three methods in play, what he called "The Law of Minimum Requisite Priority".

Mark Sagoff and Nico Stehr followed. To paraphrase, both of them offered the hypothesis that wicked problems arose in the 1960s, as the credibility and power of the state weakened, and the levee en mass of Napoleonic battles was replaced by the technological style of the Cold War. An increasingly pluralistic and open society diminished the ability of anybody to exercise power.

Nobody will ever criticize The Breakthrough Institute for a lack of ambition. Wicked problems are by definition big and almost insoluble. I am personally aligned with Steve Rayner when he argued that the phrase might be a misnomer, orienting people towards trying to find an illusory solution rather than the persistent work of maintaining our industrial society. Much of the political process these days seems to be about gaining a permanent majority, the institutionalization of political programs, and trying to use coercive and apocalyptic rhetoric to force permanent closure of controversies. Deeming something "wicked" is not yet a sufficient weapon to halt groups who claim to have a solution. I'm also doubtful that there's enough similarities between different types of wicked problems that something is gained by treatinTg them as a common class. But recognizing the contingency and stickiness of these issues is probably better than the alternative.

The next panel, "Beyond Parks and Recreation" focused on the future of conservation, using lessons from the quickly developing Amazon Rainforest and Mongolia.  Probably the most shocking part of this panel was delivered by Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist at the Nature Conservatory and one of the leading conservationists alive today, who argued for a deeper engagement between environmentalists and global corporations. Global corporations are like keystone species, they control the flow of energy and material at a high level, and while they all do environmental impact assessments, most of them are superficially focused on energy efficiency. Only deep knowledge of both conditions on the ground and the engineering processes of the corporation can improve ecological outcomes. And finally, big multinationals are frequently easier to work with, because they have a public reputation that they care about, and they'll modify policies to avoid being exposed. Some valuable unconventional wisdom from Kareiva.

The third panel, on "The Future of Nuclear", featured a fight between Tom Blees, a proponent of the Integral Fast Reactor, and Burton Richter and Oliver Morton, two conventional nuclear experts. Blees argued that the IFR is a technically sweet solution to supply the world's energy, while Richter countered that while nuclear energy is safe in public health terms, it is profoundly distrusted, and Morton said that historically, nuclear agencies cannot be trusted to self-regulate, and that plants must be expensive to be safe. Nuclear energy could be competitive, at prices two to three times what we pay today. There were a lot of technical arguments about the cost per kilowatt of given plant designs, and their actual safety. At the end of the day, I think that Richter and Morton are closer to being correct. Real nuclear plants are complex and expensive, and the kinds of investments required to improve nuclear would require handing billions of dollars over to nuclear scientists and investors who face a profound deficit of public trust for good, historical reasons. Barring a seismic cultural shift or a demonstration project that blows all expectations away, nuclear has a steep slope to climb.

The next day started with a panel on "Hamiltonian Liberalism" by Michael Lind and Roger Piekle Jr. Lind summarized the arugments of his book Land of Promise which links a Schumpeterian/Kondratiev reading of economic history based on cycles of growth around major technologies like steam, internal combustion, and computers, with political cycles between Hamiltonians who want an active federal government, and Jeffersonians who fear a dependent citizenry. American history alternates between Hamiltonian resolutions to majors crises and Jeffersonian backlashes. Pielke, while largely agreeing with Lind, argues that the dramatically larger size of the economy today makes historical examples problematic. "In 1800 the size of the entire US economy (GDP in 2005 dollars) was the same size as the GDP of Pascagoula, Mississippi in 2005. (Data from here and here.) By 1850 the US economy had grown to the size of Rhode Island's 2005 GDP, by 1900 it was Virginia, and 1950 it was the size of California's 2005 GDP."  Even now, we're not sure where jobs come from, and certainly, neither Obama nor Romney know.

I found this panel both satisfying and depressing. Satisfying, because apparently I know about as much about innovation as the experts (I guess getting a PhD in this stuff is good for something), and depressing because they don't have any better answers than I do. One thing I do want to note is that big infrastructure projects can't be separate from failure and cronyism. Railroads in the 19th century looked a lot more like the right-wing depictions of Solyndra than the heroic construction of America.

The next panel was on "The Future of the Welfare State", featuring Bill Voegeli and Mark Schmidt.  Bill is a card-carrying conservative, and for the benefit of the overwhelmingly liberal/progressive audience explained the Republican opposition to the welfare state.  Conservatives see many costs to welfare. It attentuates the thick bonds that bind a community together, replacing them with thin financial links between government agents and dependent welfare citizens. It leads to a waste of human potential, as people live the life of a perpetual grad student-minus the scholarship (personal note: ouch). The communitarian values expoused by liberals are fundamentally anti-American. On an economic side, high taxes reduce competitiveness and government spending is filled with waste.  And finally, it reduces politics to a clamoring of interest groups looking for a bigger handout, destroying democratic self-governance and inspiring limitless commitments. Mark Schmidt offered a much less spirited defense, saying that liberals need to reconstruct the social contact and figure out what programs do we need provide people with the resources to make the most of their potential. In particular unemployment insurance lets businessiness adapt to the business cycle.

I'm going to have to get on my soapbox here, because this issue really bugs me. I disagree with Voegeli but he did a much better job of advancing his argument that Schmidt, which mirrors how conservatives have been kicking that crap out of liberals at the ballot box. Empirically, welfare spending is about 50% of the budget (infographic) and only going up as the Baby Boomers get older and sicker. It will eat the entire budget in a few decades. But the liberal reconstruction of welfare has been feckless and irrelevant, abandoning the field to jerkwads like Paul Ryan.

The future of the welfare state is intimately tied up with state power , the body politic, and how we conceive of it and what it does in the world. Sovereign state power is based around the defense of the state in the person of it's ruler.  The sovereign state is literally a man with a shiny hat and sword who kills anybody who threatens him, or by extension his land and citizens. This pre-modern notion of the state is durable, but has in practice been replaced by a different state, one that measure, monitors, and intervenes to encourage or discourage the flourishing of its citizenry.

We need to be asking, "Does this program make us flourish as a people? Does it make us stronger as a nation?" A nation that lets the elderly freeze on the street is one that demands a hard-hearted citizenry, one that is low in trust and therefore weak. Conversely, a nation that gives hip replacements to 80 year-olds while cutting education is one that is not investing wisely, and is also weak. Now, I can't make everybody read The History of Sexuality Vol.1, let alone interpret it the same way I do, but I believe that this biopolitical notion of the state is firmer foundation for welfare than some vague notion of justice, fairness, or the social contract. Conservatives are winning because they have an actual theory about the state and liberty, and liberals need one as well. This, at least, moves the debate inside political boundaries where liberalism can win on the merits, rather than "death panels" and "mah freedoms!"

The final panel, "Left Behind", featured Scott Winship and Susan Meyer, talking about inequality and opportunity. This was some fairly technical inequality, and at this point my attention was thoroughly burned out, so all I can say is we're less equal and less mobile than ever before, and it's not getting any better.

So, that was the Breakthrough Dialog. Not sure what I learned, or what wicked problems were resolved, but we're trying, and at this point in time, trying is a lot more than most people are doing. Now, about that election...

(image credit to Matt Bors)