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!"

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Can't we do better than this? - An editorial

"As Microsoft's Virtual Earth and Google Earth and Second Life battle it out to become the most widely used 3D portals for on-line exploration of virtual worlds linked to real world opportunities, we at Solar Cities can't help but feel a bit embarrassed by the approach that so many people are taking.

A recent Business Week magazine article entitled " Just Ahead: The Web As A Virtual World
Imagine being able to have a digital replica of yourself stroll from one site to another"
epitomizes the problem. The article natters on about how marvelous this technology will be for attending virtual ball games with your chums, getting together with the gals to go shopping in the virtual mall where your avatar (whose dimensions are precisely known) can try on jeans to the approval of your admirers, and other prosaic applications of this powerful technology.

These articles show the mentality of the bored and vain "1st world" consumers who dominate the development and application of life changing technologies. Remember television? It was supposed to revolutionize education. Remember Ford's inexpensive automobiles and his 5 dollar workday? They were supposed to be social levelers, giving everybody access to the American dream.

I'm not going to quibble and say that we haven't seen some of these promises partially realized. Hans Rosling's compelling data visualization presentation at the TED conference does a lot to dispel some of the more dire underdevelopment myths.

But I am ashamed to be part of a priviliged human collective that doesn't express mightier visions when it discusses the potential for good that new technologies can bring. The media needs to inspire us to think further and deeper so that we don't always start out using new technology merely for personal gratification on the most base, prosaic level. I have studied enough micro and macroeconomics to believe that Adam Smith was right when he suggested "the invisible hand" emerging from individual action based on self-interest (I am not one of those people who believes in a Hobbsian outcome, and I don't think self-interest is a "bad"). But I am with those who think that modern economists and their short sighted students ignore Adam Smith's "Theory of Moral Sentiments" to our collective peril. The invisible hand itself needs to be guided by "enlightened self-interest" that comes from a sense of moral responsibility. And this moral resonsibility needs to be modeled.

My point is this: Since we ALL KNOW that people will use new technologies, like on-line virtual reality linked to the real world, to do the prosaic and puerile things like going shopping and seeking sexual gratification and social climbing opportunities and getting cheap thrills, we should be emphasizing the more challenging aspects of the new technologies -- using them to create social and environmental justice and to end the divisiveness and poverty and class separations that drive intolerance and genocide and terrorism.

If the press and our other media outlets created hype around the noblest uses of new technologies, we could expect the public to figure out for themselves all the more banal uses. I was insulted when the best highly paid media writers could do to talk about polymer ion batteries was talk about creating singing and dancing fast food containers, I was insulted when Newsweek reported that despite the fact that climate change will threaten the lives of millions and cause mass extinctions, Global Warming had some upsides, such as our ability to grow wine grapes in northern countries (the party must never stop!), and I am insulted now, when Business Week writers can only point out to us how much fun we can have shopping in a 3D internet.

Look, I am a gamer. And I am an avid shopper. I spend far too much of my discretional income satisfying my anthropoid hunter/gatherer urges and pumping up my troglodyte libido with virtual chest thumping. I know it is fun. And I have seen the possibilities for having even more fun when Google Earth and Virtual Earth and Second Life merge into one ISO standards based free for all of dimension hopping avatars. But come on people, IS THIS THE BEST WE CAN DO?

In my culture it is IMPOLITE to bring up the basic urges and animal-nature things we all take for granted. It is why we don't show people going to the bathroom in the movies and why we don't discuss our sex lives in public. We talk books and ideas and pushing the envelope. We encourage vision and social responsibility. Of course, when we get behind closed doors with our intimates, we do whatever turns us on. The point is, IT GOES WITHOUT SAYING. And I wish that the media and the press would realize that there are things that go without saying when it comes to hyping new technology.

We are facing political, economic and environmental crises of staggering proportions. These are crises that new technologies, particularly data visualizaton and digital earth and improved communications technologies can help solve. I would like to read articles that talk about the higher uses of each innovation humanity comes up with, and leave the cheap talk for the rags on the shelves of the supermarket like the Inquirer. There are people developing exciting Alternate Reality Games with new internet technologies that enable people to "Play their way to solving real problems". I would like to read about how, with a properly designed user interface, it would be entertaining and sexy and smart and fun and exciting to actually do some good for the world.

We can do better!"

-- T.H. Culhane
Co-founder, Solar Cities

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