Can we ‘hack’ our way to Environment 2.0 or are we too Human 1.0 to cope?
Adam Greenfield’s talk at Futuresonic last week was insightful; how cities will look and how we will use them once networked sensors are embedded in pretty much everything, pretty much everywhere. I liveblogged it using scribblelive here. You can see the way he developed the argument and the way some of the tweeters to #futr09 reacted.
But what really galvanised the audience and set the tweets flying was an apparently casual remark right at the end of his session in response to questions. What most of us thought he said was along the lines that sustainability wasn’t possible and we should all just do our best to make whatever time we have left valuable.
This rather punctured the somewhat gung-ho ‘tech can solve it’ bubble blown by Jamais Cascio in his heckled-by-a-drunk-person and subsequently much-blogged opening keynote. You can see a liveblog by Martin Bryant here which gives you a ‘feel’ for the gala event. The idea that we can ‘Hack the Earth’ in some massive geo-engineering intervention is a big, scary idea and was presented in a deliberately provocative way. It seems to me that we’ve already hacked the poor old Earth about rather a lot. Tech-driven re-hacking of what is a deeply non-linear system where we’re not too certain we can model next week’s weather carries perhaps a few additional risks. But rather than get dragged into that, what I really want to focus on was both the reaction to Cascio’s thinking and the much more stunned interpretation of Greenfield’s remarks as being ‘we’re all doomed and there’s no point trying’.
The false poles of optimism and pessimism
We got back to Greenfield’s remarks at the end of Roland Harwood’s session on Deciphering Trust in Networked Innovation where there was some discussion and I raised the issue of ‘the guy from Nokia’ when Adam’s name went right out of my head at the crucial moment (sorry Adam!). The following extract from the indefatigable Martin Bryant’s liveblog illustrates the point:
And from then on, we ended up labelling those who believe that we can ‘fix it’ with the support of wizzy technology, like Cascio, ‘the optimists’ and anyone holding a negative view, like Greenfield, ‘the pessimists’. It wasn’t really possible to develop the arguments from then on – the labels stuck and the polarity increased. Which was inevitable, I suppose, but a shame.
Deal with it ‘in the now’
Greenfield was trying, I think, to make a much more subtle and nuanced point – that feeling we ‘might not make it’ shouldn’t stop us doing the right thing. That the future vision of the City with its open sensor-based networks and connected people could flip into dystopia. That ‘optimisim’ could actually be myopia and unwillingness to confront the reality of our situation. There is much more to this than ‘hacking’ our way into the Earth’s geocode; Cascio points out the risk of hubris in that. The idea that we have enough control of ourselves, let alone sufficient understanding of the potential system impacts of what we do, to be effective may be an illusion. So perhaps, the best we can do, is deal with what we can deal with and make sure we keep our values in mind.