Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Andy Posner's "Two Way Street" and how video games could help us rethink "poverty, pollution and prosperity"...

Andy Posner was discussing with his thesis advisor, Professor Kurt Teichert at Brown University, how to create what Andy calls (in anticipation of his forthcoming book of the same title) "The Two Way Street: Rethinking Poverty, Pollution and Prosperity" and was kind enough to publish some of the results of that discussion as a comment on our last post on the "Zeitgeist Conspiracy". Andy suggested that our conception of creating a Solar CITIES Alternate Reality game could indeed really help get "average people" (meaning, I think, the average of the small fraction of the elite who make up the so called "first world") to invest time and energy and ideas in helping close the gap between US (the privileged few, which I guarantee includes YOU since you are able to read this) and THEM ("the other 90%" who have no access to such delightful things as computers and internet service and, oh yes, let us not forget, clean water, electricity and heating and cooling).

Andy closed with a vision of making sure that the "serious games" we intend to create remain "open source" in such a way that we end up delivering what he calls "open-source development" and "open-source poverty alleviation". A beautiful notion, especially coupled with his ideas on rethinking poverty, pollution and prosperity by making the "open-source" applications (and here I may be putting words in his mouth) "open-ended". That would be his "two-way street" to my way of thinking. Open-source, open-ended apps. Open-source because they are freely available and endlessly "moddable" (I know, you want me to say "modifiable", but all game "modders" know that a new lexicon is evolving for these exciting times), open-ENDED because there is no final product, just a continuous evolution of local solutions that adapt to the changing circumstances of the "end-user". The end-user becomes the "open-ended" user, and this is vital in a time of rampant climate change, which, we are coming to understand, is unlikely to end in our lifetimes or those of our immediate descendants (recreating the slowly changing biosphere with its long cycles that permit the stable persistence of delicate organisms is likely to take a long long time -- we are now living in the punctuation mark of what Harvard Professor Stephen Jay Gould used to tell us was a long history of "punctuated equilibrium"! )

So now the question becomes, how do we get on Posner's "Two Way Street"? What is the on-ramp?

In one sense, the open-source tools are already there. We talked in our last post about the folks over at Digital Urban using the game engines of Half-Life 2 (Valve's Steam Source SDK) and Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and Second Life and Google Earth and Sketchup and Studio 3DMax to begin creating interactive urban planning environments. One could also make a bid for using the masterful physics engine that undergirds Unreal Tournament 3. But there are other game engines (and the games that ride on them) that are entering the mainstream that could be steered onto this "two way street" and help us rethink poverty, pollution and prosperity.

One is the German award-winning game "Crazy Machines II". It is an outgrowth of such popular children's education titles as "The Incredible Machine" and it's offspring series, including competing games such as "Genius" and "Physikus" (subtitle "Save the World!) and "Incredible Challenge"; today is indeed time of incredible challenges that require incredible machines, co-developed by every stakeholder. Now that they have released "Crazy Machines - The Inventor's Workshop" the question is "can real inventions -- important life-saving inventions -- come out of these virtual workshops?"

These games all contain physics engines that enable kids to build "crazy machines" and other Rube Goldberg style devices (conceiving a better mousetrap) and then allow the player to model the behavior of that system in real time, to see if what was in the imagination can be transformed into reality. Well... virtual reality, that is!

Still, since the mathematical, physical laws built into the software are the same laws the universe uses in reality, the resulting models are pretty effective predictors of what would happen in the real world. And there is no reason to believe that a well designed game using a robust physics engine should have any less predictive power than, say, the $12,000 thermodynamics program our friend and colleague, Dr. Kurt Lund out in San Diego, has used to help us figure out some of our solar configurations using recycled plastic coke bottles for application in the ghettos of Cairo.

The barrier is in getting these tools redesigned so that we can drive them on to Andy Posner's "two way street" and use them to rethink poverty, pollution and prosperity. And this is the challenge to all those of us who have the luxury of owning and using and understanding computers and their massive computational power: if you aren't willing to get off your duff and come out to the land of the "other 90%" and help out, at least get involved modding the software that exists so that we can drive it on the new information superhighway that can connect and inform us all.

The transaction costs of modding such "open-source/open-ended" software solutions is astonishingly low and the benefits are blissfully high.

Let's get to work: This is a call to all computer users to start modding, and thereby helping us all rethink the three P's!

1 comment:

Andy said...

I think another important on-ramp to the two way street is green job creation. THis is something that Van Jones of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland has pointed out numerous times. America certainly has its poor, and they can't care about polar ice caps, deforestation and slums in Cairo until they have meet their lower-order needs of job/fiscal security, safety and so on. Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenback, in their provocative book "From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility," point out that the traditional environmentalist view is that things will have to get a lot worse before they get better--in other words, once environmental problems become so visible as to be impossible to ignore, the rational response will be for people to take action. They argue, however, that things with have to get a lot better before they get better. Why? Because only then can people contemplate the larger picture of how their actions correspond to global issues such as poverty and climate change. However, I disagree with them as well. I would say: things have to get better as they are getting better! In other words, we need to completely rethinking development, poverty alleviation, and so on, by envisioning them as opportunities to bypass the kind of silly development we underwent in the U.S. It is often pointed out by Kurt Teichert that cities in the U.S. in the 60's looked a lot like cities in many developing countries today. The reason U.S. cities today are relatively clean, according to Norhaus and Shellenback, is that the U.S. experienced a boom in prosperity between the 40's and 70's, and THAT is what led to the clean air and water acts. This reminds a lot of the great book Freakonomics. One of the more intruguing arguments in that book is that crime rates were not reduced in New York City in the 90's thanks to better police enforcement (though that helped), rather, crime rates were reduced due to the Roe V Wade decision! Why? Because Roe V Wade prevented a lot of unwanted pregnancies; those children would have come of age around the time that the crime rates started to drop in NY and around the country. There is a strong parallel between the argument that environmental laws were passed in the 70s because americans had gotten wealthier, and the argument that crime rates dropped in the early 90s because Roe V Wade prevented millions of unwanted pregnancies.

I bring all this up because I think it is possible to view development much like Thomas Kuhn views scientific advancement in "THe Structure of Scientific Revolutions;" He points out that rather than being linear, science is actual non-linear in how it advances knowledge. Can we view developmen tin the same way? Years of spinning our wheels, coming up with a few success stories here and there, and then boom, an Einstein appears and we find a way to rapidly scale up open source development by engaging the entire world community to deal with climate change and poverty in one fell swoop. Sound ambitious? The way we thought about the world before Einstein seems quaint compared to how we view it now. I'm not proposing a revolutionary scientific theory; i'm simply talking about a different perspective on development, a perspective that echos Martin Luther King in his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." In it, he blasts those that were asking blacks to be patient when they were dying and suffering; and so I say, how dare we be patient abotu poverty, injustice, dirty water, dirty air and deforestation? (we can view this as an example of "modding" MLK's great letter!)

WOw, i'm onto somethign here now. . .Up until now, it's been really hard to create a movement around climate change because how does one protest an odorles, colorless and harmless gas that is naturally occuring? But when we mod martin luther king, when we completely reframe the issue into one of human prosperity, wealth and happiness, then there is something very clear, not to protest, but to celebrate. We should celebrate humanity and open source development can do that. We should be extremely impatient, but we have to be visionaries, not prophets of doom.

And that is my 10 cents worth!