Aug
24
2014

We are all terraformers now

Part of Apocalypse pending

terraforming

You may be familiar with the concept of the Anthropocene. This is a colloquial term (more formally, we are in the Holocene Epoch) to describe an age of the Earth during which humans are making global changes to the planet’s ecosystems. Succinctly: like it or not, we have begun to terraform Spaceship Earth.

There’s more: read the whole article

In science fiction, terraforming comprises any processes whereby a planet’s geophysical systems are modified to suit humans. (Crashing water comets on Mars comes to mind; see for example Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy.)

The Anthropocene is a bit different, because so far, changes seem to be unfolding without intentionality (call it bizarro-world terraforming). We humans do not all agree about where we ought to be going, but it does begin to seem that by our own choices, where we’re going may not be a very nice place:

Some say, humans are on the verge of human extinction (the Easter Island story, writ large). For my part, I doubt this; we are a most inventive and adaptable species. However, I think (as do many others) that our global economy may be on the verge of catastrophe. If it goes (that is, the system that is keeping 7 billion of us alive), perhaps a lot of humans will die: enough that the Anthropocene will end. Remains to be seen.

Some say, we’d better get with the (unavoidable) responsibility of terraforming and become intentional (cut the burning of fossil fuels, for example). Others say, God will sort it out.

It occurs to me: ours may be only the first age of terraforming. Perhaps, like ice ages, the Anthropocene will wax and wane over a long cycle, as the planet’s human population rises and falls. Science fiction, of course, has such a trope already: A Canticle For Leibowitz, Planet Of The Apes.

Aug
20
2014

The global mobility of labour

Part of An interconnected world + Business as usual

I’ve just noticed a story that has been on the edge of my awareness: about temporary foreign workers coming to Canada. Here’s something from last week at the CBC (2014 August 14):

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/temporary-foreign-worker-program-misuse-sanctioned-by-harper-government-union-says-1.2737422

Here’s The Tyee’s in-depth exploration:

http://thetyee.ca/Series/2013/01/08/Canadian-Temporary-Foreign-Workers/

There’s more: read the whole article

The gist of the story, as I read it:

  • Increasingly, Canada is creating opportunities for foreign guest workers to access the country’s labour market. The population of guest workers in Canada is growing.
  • By Canadian standards, some guest workers are treated badly, and paid poorly.
  • Business interests tend to favour letting in (less expensive) foreign labour, because of course in some situations, this can reduce their labour costs.
  • Labour interests say that guest worker programs are exploitive in various ways to domestic and foreign workers: lower wages, and poor working conditions, respectively.
  • The Tyee writes a story about guest worker programs as “an unseen pillar of Canada’s economic policy.”

As a juxtaposition, there’s Thomas Friedman’s 2005 book, The World Is Flat, in which he wrote about an increasingly-globalized 21st century market for labour, and the rise of a global competition for work in which many North American workers would be outbid.

Another juxtaposition: the remarkable shift in recent years from permanent full-time work to part-time, contract and temp work, or as Maclean’s Magazine put it in 2012, The End Of The Job.

All this flattening, pacifying, destabilizing and mobilizing of labour: it serves the (short-sighted) interests of capital. Corporations might say that to compete in a global marketplace, they need access to the cheapest workers, wherever they may be—and perhaps they’d be correct. But these global economic transitions, these shifts in the flow of capital and labour: do they have a steady state, some sort of global balance? I’m thinking, they might, but I can’t foresee it.

Some people are talking about corporate (neo)feudalism (a way to think about what’s now emerging). That makes some sense. I myself am keen on bioregions (I live in Cascadia, after all). I am reminded, and encouraged: the future is unevenly distributed.

Aug
15
2014

1,000,000,000 automobiles and rising

Part of Business as usual

Check out Worldometers, a site that offers “realtime world statistics.” Here’s one part of it that I find a little staggering:

How many cars in the world?
http://www.worldometers.info/cars/

This is the beast on whose back we ride: a global and growing economic machine, one aspect of which adds 60 million new cars every year to a global fleet of about 1 billion vehicles (and take note: that doesn’t include commercial vehicles, trucks, buses and such).

If we hope to imagine some serene, green, walkable/sustainable alternative future economy, we must also be ready to explain: what is to become of a billion (mostly oil-powered) automobiles, and the economic machinery that designs, manufactures, sells, fuels, maintains, repairs and eventually disposes of them? What becomes of the people who are engaged in that enterprise?

Aug
13
2014

A significant threat to agribusiness?

Part of Matters unravelling

Three stories have caught my eye, about Monsanto and its Roundup Ready System of products.

In case you’re not familiar: Monsanto’s Roundup is a herbicide—a weed-killer—that kills just about any kind of plant you don’t want. Roundup is what you spray on the sidewalk or driveway to kill grass and dandelions coming up in the cracks. You wouldn’t spray it on the garden, though, because it’ll kill almost everything. Roundup has been on the market since about 1976, and has been promoted as a safe, non-toxic and biodegradable product.

Meanwhile… in 1996, Monsanto began selling “Roundup Ready” soybeans. These are soybeans genetically altered so that Roundup doesn’t kill them. The combination of Roundup, and Roundup Ready crops, constitutes a system of agricultural weed control. A farmer plants a crop of Roundup Ready soybeans, and can then spray Roundup indiscriminately, to kill all the weeds in the soybean field, and only the weeds.

There’s more: read the whole article

After soybeans came Roundup-Ready alfalfa, corn, cotton, canola and sugarbeets; I believe they’re working on wheat. The Roundup Ready System produced substantial gains in agricultural productivity, and has been an immense commercial success (and revenue stream) for Monsanto.

The following stories have lately emerged, to cast a shadow over this happy state of affairs:

What’s interesting about this: there’s a stupendous amount of money at stake. If global agribusiness were to lose faith in the Roundup Ready System, Monsanto must surely face a big challenge to its business model, and global agricultural productivity may decline.

Aug
12
2014

Cyberspace pending

Part of Clever machines all around us + Our bright shiny future

Another virtual reality simulation/prediction, in which metadata and apps are projected into our visual field, to inform and empower us in relation to the physical world around us.

This video is 3.5 minutes:

There’s more: read the whole article

That simulation already looks dated, to my eyes. Many of the visual interface conventions are lifted straight out of windowed GUIs, without a lot of imagination.

In some parts of the simulation, you see people holding up their phones or tablets as an overlay or viewport, to interpret and augment what we see with our own eyes. Such technology is already here, as in mobile translation apps like Word Lens (available for iOS and Android).  Install the free Word Lens app on your phone, point your phone’s camera at a street sign written in a language you don’t read, and your phone will read, translate and render an image of the sign in situ, exactly as though it had been written in a language you do read.

Such magic! However, holding up a phone or tablet to reveal the unseen will get old, right quick. We’ll want something like Google Glass to make this work well. We will speak and make gestures to control the machines that accompany us. I figure it won’t be long before the smarts are integrated into contact lenses and maybe eye implants; I daresay work on that is already well under way.

Ten years from now, the world (and perhaps I mean the rich world) will be a far more interactive place, in which we are surrounded by quasi-conscious digital servants, interpreting and enhancing what we see and do IRL. Take note: not all of these will be our servants, any more than they are today; they will assert the agendas of their unseen corporate masters.

Here’s a search to keep an eye on: augmented reality.


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