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Future Surf

Head First into the Future
Jamais Cascio

This first section doesn't have any direct links. In this case, the electronic link can be between the words and the reader.

I got a taste of two different futures over the last couple of weeks.

From February 16 through 19, I was in Hong Kong (and, for a day, in the Special Economic Zone in southeast China). From February 25 through March 2, I was in Milan. Both Hong Kong and Milan are luminous information age cities, celebrations of the world where bits mean more than atoms.

In Hong Kong, the Market is all. The Heritage Foundation called it one of the freest economies in the world (at least until July, 1997), and the incredible growth of Hong Kong and its associated regions in China certainly underscore the vast strength of unbridled capitalism to unleash change upon a society. That the southeast China region is rapidly becoming an environmental disaster, and that prostitution is seen as a better way up than the factory, is cause for concern for some in Hong Kong and in the Zone, but secondary to the larger goal of making as much money as possible.

Milan, too, has its share of problems. A central government with too much control over the economic life of the country is distracted by rising tides of anti-immigrant Nationalism and corruption in the countryside. Rather than focus on financial transactions (as Hong Kong does), Milan focuses on design and communication. Every large building has a prominent plaque declaring the name of the architect; the schools, museums, and stores of Milan are temples of thoughtful design and purpose. As for seems quite clear that Milan has overtaken Hong Kong in its cellular phone per capita rating.

Hong Kong reverts to Chinese control in July of this year. China has promised not to touch the economic system of the island, seeing that Hong Kong has become the engine of growth for the region. Civil liberties aren't as fortunate; the new governing council has already announced that most of the laws opening up freedoms of press and association will be rescinded on July 1.

Milan has seen this sort of situation in its own past -- a government that would shoot dissidents but keep the economy humming (and keep the trains running on time). I had the distinct pleasure of visiting the former headquarters of the Fascists in Milan. It is now an art museum.


We have an odd assortment of links this month. I don't have a unifying theme to these, but they are all worth a look. Some of these will likely be revisited in the months ahead, in a more detailed examination.

The Future of Chaos

Many of you have probably read James Gleick's book Chaos. You may not be aware that there is a group of mathematicians, economists, and scientists who have taken this concept to the next step, and have looked at how organization emerges from apparent chaos.

The people who study this "Complexity Theory" congregate at the Santa Fe Institute in, you guessed it, Santa Fe, New Mexico. The notion of Complexity is extremely elegant, and potentially quite powerful. Much of the work on artificial life and evolutionary programming is connected to the ideas generated at SFI.

The list of the currently active research projects is a laundry list of cutting edge work on the realms where information theory, economics, and biological systems collide:

The Future of Warfare

I know, I know, this is a topic that has been done before (most notably in the first issue of Wired magazine), but it is worth revisiting as new links emerge. Bruce Sterling's Wired piece concerned virtual combat; newer developments are set to move from the simulation to the battlefield.

As it happens, the latest issue of The Economist has a cover story entitled "Select Enemy. Delete." This piece is an overview of the growing integration of combat information systems across weapons platforms. The Economist suggests that the increasing use of information technology in the military will lead to a tactical revolution akin to the development of Blitzkrieg tactics in Germany in the 1920's. Typically skeptical, the piece nonetheless gives a useful summary of advancements in combat technology.

The US Army Soldier Systems Command (warning, flaky server) is the headquarters of the so-called "Land Warrior" program for the Army. This is the program being used to put together the equipment and support systems for a twenty-first century soldier. Some of it reads like a lurid science fiction novel, but it's all near deployment.

The US Army Soldier System Strategy site at the US Army Research, Development, and Engineering Center in Natick, Massachusetts, gives an overview of the Soldier System portion of the Land Warrior program.

One scenario presented by the Army's Soldier magazine shows how a typical tank soldier of the mid-1990's would react to the battlefield environment of the early next century, then goes on to discuss the force development programs in progress on various Army bases around the US.

The Future of Music

Well, maybe. But Kyoko Date may be the dream of record industry executives around the world. Completely computer generated, she has already built up an amazing fan base, even people claiming to have fallen in love with her. Kyoko Date's impact seems to be global; the link above is to a server in France...

The Future of Net.Addresses

A recent Future Surf discussed the official attempt to expand the Internet name space. Missed in the set of links, however, was AlterNIC, a traditional Internet bottom-up proposal to do away with NIC entirely. Some of the ideas are fairly interesting; one hopes that the Internet Ad Hoc Committee pays attention...

The Future of Philosophy

The Principia Cybernetica project is an attempt to bring together network theory, information theory, and cybernetics to look at traditional questions of philosophy. The philosophical theory emerging from the work is called Metasystem Transition Theory.

The Future of Earthquakes

When my wife and I were considering moving to a new place in the San Francisco Bay Area, among the first places we checked were the Association of Bay Area Governments earthquake intensity maps. These maps give in colorful detail the variations of intensity across the different parts of the San Francisco area. Select a city, select a earthquake scenario (North Hayward, San Andreas, etc), and watch the fun. Turns out the place we were looking at was on landfill, and would actually increase the apparent shaking of any earthquake in the region.

The Future of .sig Files

Enough said. The Figlet Service ( Take a look.

The Future of Urban Living

Consider this a preview of next time.

I am increasingly interested in the future of cities. Dense urban spaces are a fundamental part of human culture; they provide the fertile medium for commerce and the interchange of ideas. Suburbanization in the West, the United States in particular, led to the steep decline of cities in the post-World War II era. But in the last decade, urban designers and social observers have begun to redefine the role of the city, restoring it to its place as a cultural center, and exploring the ways in which real space and virtual communities mix.

Among the city planners and designers seeking to renew cities are the so-called New Urbanists. By promoting mixed-use neighborhoods and reducing the role of the automobile, the New Urbanists look to the great cities of Europe, classic American cities such as Manhattan, and emerging centers such as Seattle and San Francisco as models to be emulated. James Howard Kunstler, in his article in the September 1996 Atlantic Monthly, Home from Nowhere, gives a glowing description of the New Urbanist philosophy.

Not everyone is so enamoured of the New Urbanists. Randall O'Toole, with the Thoreau Institute, gives a biting critique of the Neotraditionalist school of urban design, including the New Urbanism.

Other approaches to understanding livable cities exist. The concept of "Edge Cities" encompasses the evolution of urban spaces and the development of new core areas (such as San Jose or Berkeley near San Francisco, or northern New Jersey). The Edge City News keeps up on developments in urban politics and the evolution of cities.

Perhaps there was a theme to this edition of Future Surf. Most of what I've linked to is an exploration of increasingly complex systems (admittedly, the Figlet service does not fall into this model). The Santa Fe Institute studies of complexity, the modern battlefield, the expansion of the Net, new philosophies, and certainly the fall and rise of cities are each a cut at understanding and experiencing the cumulated effect of billions of human interactions every day. As a capsule summary of the future, we could easily do worse than "increasing complexity."


rafeco said:

If you're looking for something that could change the face of civilization as we know it, the spread of tropical diseases to the rest of the world (or the mutation of existing diseases to new strains that can't be treated) have a much better chance for success than a disastrous run-in with an asteroid.

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China has promised not to touch the economic system of the island, seeing that Hong Kong has become the engine of growth for the region. Civil liberties aren't as fortunate; the new governing council has already announced that most of the laws opening up freedoms of press and association will be rescinded on July 1.

The Economist suggests that the increasing use of information technology in the military will lead to a tactical revolution akin to the development of Blitzkrieg tactics in Germany in the 1920's.

Also in Future Surf:

Head First into the Future
The future of chaos, warfare, urban living and more.

It's the Only Way to Live.
In Cars.

The future of the automobile and the road we drive it on.

Intense Pulses of Light
The latest edition of Jamais Cascio's Future Surf looks at security, warfare, turf battles, and social discord on the Net. Plus, neat magazines and a question about lasers!

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