The Viridian Design Movement

From: Bruce Sterling []
Sent: Monday, July 22, 2002 10:54 AM
Subject: Viridian Note 00324:

Key concepts: ubiquitous computation, emergency relief, Khaki Green,, Terrorspace,, Battlespace, Prosthetic Ubicomp, SO/HO Ubicomp, Safetyspace,,, Industrial Ubicomp, Ubitopia

Attention Conservation Notice: It's the Pope-Emperor blue-skying it at some computer industry event in Brussels.


I was there.

And then I went to Brussels and delivered this speech.

And next I'm going here!

And right after that I'm going to another, weirder event that I can't even tell you about!

Entries in the Global Civil Society Design Contest.

From: Steven W. Schuldt <swschuldt*>

From: Ben Davis <bend*>

From: Joerg F. Wittenberger <Joerg.Wittenberger*>

From: Scott Vandehey <scot* >

From: Bob Morris <bob*>

From: Anonymous

From: Jim Thompson <jim*>

From: Mike Rosing <eresrch*>

From: till* (Till Westermayer) Date: Sun Jul 14, 2002 05:38:00 PM US/Central

"What do we need for a global civil society notebook? Six design criteria are highlighted, combined with some rough sketches."

Best regards, Till Westermayer - till we *)

This contest expires August 15, 2002.

Speech at TTI Vanguard: "Designing for Resiliency" Conference


by Bruce Sterling

Late last month I had the joy and privilege of hanging out with a big crowd of American computer scientists who were, basically, trying to find some reasons to live.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, they've definitely got some reasons.

When you go to a conference which is very high-energy, with a lot of paradigmatic reassessment going on, where ideas are being flung around bodily well outside the box, well, that's an impressive thing. But it's my principle as a sometime working journalist not to get all carried away whenever I witness something like that. They might well be drinking their own bathwater. This sort of thing generally requires a reality check from some other conference.

So, I'm now fresh back from Colorado, from the yearly meeting of the High Ground Design Conversation. These are my best pals in the industrial design world, some dear, long-time friends of mine, whose judgment I always trust. And why would a science fiction writer trust the judgment of industrial designers? Well, because they're very trendy. They're very shrewd, and very stylish, and very hands-on people. They're peculiarly self-effacing and modest, yet quite imaginative. Better yet, they're even practical. So they're kind of like science fiction writers, only with much better shoes.

Usually when I go to this High Ground event, I just deliver some wacko chat about popular aspects of cyberculture and then I take some worshipful notes. But! I have to report that when I took them my notes from the "CRA Grand Challenges in Computation" conference, I was bringing the noise.

This is the first time I have ever seen their jaws drop. They're still kinda wringing their hands over the dotcom boom and the Ka-boom. They miss those glory days of the World Wide Web – because for them, that was the Graphic Designers Full Employment Act. So they're pretty broke, and they're a little shell-shocked, so I guess they should join the club. But when I brought them this stuff – a rather extensively worked-out vision in worldbuilding from the point of view of ubiquitous computation in the 21st century... Well, of course this is merely a scenario, but to me, "" smells like the future.

And frankly, it doesn't smell good. But that's all right. Because these aren't good times. These are rather harsh, dark times, and in its own peculiar way, is a similarly harsh, dark concept.

"Ubiquitous computation" is by no means a new idea. The guy who invented the term is dead, and even his R&D lab doesn't look all that great these days. Ubicomp has been around for quite some time – in the table-napkin, handwaving stage. But it's lacked the means, motive and opportunity to get any real-world traction.

I believe that may be changing. If so, it's mostly due to the events of September 11. After that experience, ubicomp has got motive and opportunity as it never had before. And the means, although they are still speculative, are starting to make some sense.

What am I talking about when I use the term "ubicomp"? Well, the term is a grab-bag, a congelation of different technologies. Some are here, commercially available off the shelf; some are in the lab; and some may be physically impossible.

Let's get down to some brass virtual tacks. What are the key technical drivers for widely distributed, self- organizing networks of sensors, processors and actuators, embedded in the physical world? And what do you do with these things?

Okay, number one: fuel cells. Not chemical batteries. Small, portable, dependable, long-lasting, power sources with some punch. They may not be fuel cells as they are now known. They might be MEMS fuel cells, or aluminum-air cells, or something enzymatic, I don't care; just something much, much better than today's batteries. Portable power is the crux. Ubicomp's future, if it has one, entirely hinges on this. If we don't get some seriously advanced, portable sources of power then everything I am about to tell you is a sci-fi phantasm. (Not that there's anything wrong with that!)

Number two, RFID. Radio-Frequency ID – gotta have some taggers. Gotta be on the Net. It'd be nice if they had some powered processors in them. Something internal, pervasive, a little computational action that is going on inside physical objects.

Number three, wireless broadband. Getting real close here.

Number four, dongles. I think this part is seriously underappreciated. This is the weird part of ubicomp, the part that may turn out to be its Achilles heel: some way to turn the damn thing off. And to know it's off. The problem of the authorized user. The authorized administrator, the authorized access. This is likely to play out as ubicomp's functional equivalent of the Internet's intellectual-property problem. In other words, it's a very serious issue which is going to be neglected from the get-go, as people are eagerly building the basic infrastructure. Then, as they lamely try to build it in later, they are going to find out that they have inadvertently poisoned the water-stream for everybody.

You don't want to wander into a Kazaa and Napster version of George Orwell. Ubiquitous computation, unlike information, does not "want to be free." This is not a technology of freedom. Ubiquitous computation wants to make you its slave. Try to remember that, for all our sakes, all right? This is not a water-cooler for gossip, like the Internet is. This is a hard-case, hard-times, hands-on, rather ruthless command-and-control system.

Number five, GPS, global positioning systems. Been there, done that.

Number six, convoy traffic. I think this is also underestimated, for when I started looking at serious applications for ubicomp, time and again, rapidly shipping large amounts of physical material in and out of the ubicomp zone is a killer application. Getting stuff in, numbering it, assembling it, moving it out. Lots of it. Train loads, truck loads, bus loads. And airlifts.

Bringing up the van, a whole bunch of other ubi-stuff, of varying degrees of use and practicality. High speed fiber optic networks, check. Massive storage and routers, check. Big databases, check, but they need to be fast and flexible. Some "MobiHoc" action: mobile ad-hoc self- assembling networks: networks that are always reconfiguring in real-time, always on the move.

Facial recognition has a considerable number of ubicomp applications, by no means all of them good. Human presence-sensing systems? Oh yes. Ruggedized hardware suitable for outdoor deployment in all conditions and weathers. Real-time simulation of ongoing major situations. Toxin detectors of various kinds, environmental monitoring of almost every sort, biometric ID... I have a long list of these. I'm cross-checking them. I'm using them to build scenarios.

One thing about makes it very distinct from earlier visions of ubicomp. This is not Microsoft Windows for Housekeeping. This is a hard, tough web that you throw down fast over dire emergencies. The key concept here is that we are finally moving computation out of the ivory tower, for good and all. No more glass boxes of the 1950s, no more clean abstractions of cyberspace. We are deploying computation at unheard-of speed, into the darkest, dirtiest, most dangerous places in the world.

It is a resilient security apparatus for emergencies. That is

Now, you might well argue that ubicomp is very invasive of privacy. That's just what my industrial design pals said about it, immediately, and they were right. It's been hard to find reasonable deployments for ubicomp in peacetime commerce and in private homes, because it is so Orwellian. However. Under certain circumstances, other social circumstances do trump this issue.

For instance, when you are breathing your last under a pile of earthquake rubble, you don't really care much about privacy under your circumstances. What you really want is a smart bulldozer, a tourniquet, and some direct pressure against your open wounds. And that is what is about – or will be about, should it find its way out of the computer-science talking-shop and into daylight.

It is an emergency response system for the planet's open wounds. And those wounds exist in plenty. There are more of them all the time.

I rather doubt that the Orwellian version of ubicomp has much of a future. That's a scenario that I have dubbed "Terrorspace", which is ubicomp in the context of airports and nuclear power sites. If you've been in airports recently, I believe you are seeing a pretty apt, early version of Terrorspace. At any random moment, you can have your possessions rifled through by strangers. Your shoes are scanned, and various small but vital objects in your pockets can be confiscated by semi- educated security geeks. They're either pathetically under-trained for the job (in which case you certainly feel no safer), or else they are intelligent and capable people (in which case you pity them and wish they had some other job, for the sake of general human happiness and the GNP). Rather than making us any safer, Terrorspace airports serve as political indoctrination centers that humiliate our voting population on a broad scale. They are meant to inure us to ever-escalating levels of governmental clumsiness and general harm.

The difficulty with this Terrorspace approach is that airports and airlines are going broke. Airports are hemorrhaging money trying to maintain this terrorspace apparatus. It is likely to spread to the brittle power of nuclear power plants, nuclear waste dumps, bio-sites, chemical sites, liquid petroleum gas centers and so forth. That will hugely increase the overhead of all these dangerous industries.

That's a very considerable tax burden. So, though Terrorspace may serve as a full employment program for the loyal and slightly stupid, that's not going to pay off socially or economically in the long run.

However, is a different matter. An air- deployable that allowed first responders to rapidly deal with fires, floods and other major disasters would save money, especially for the insurers, who are already on the ropes.

The actual September 11 event, 9/11, was a rare and remarkable thing. And, with fewer than 3,000 people dead, it's just not that big a deal as genuine catastrophes go. Politically, theologically and militarily it was huge, but a workaday wouldn't fret much about terrorism. Instead, it would have to deal mostly with floods, fires, climate change, earthquakes, volcanoes and (let's hope never) asteroids and weapons of mass destruction.

So, basically, with, we are describing a social re-definition of computer geeks as firemen. Native twenty-first century computer geeks as muscular, with-it, first-responder types. I think this would be pretty good for the computer industry. We all need to take the dysfunctional physical world far more seriously. This week, Italy's flooding, Texas is flooding, Colorado's on fire. This morning, the brand-new wilderness forests around the site of the former Chernobyl are on fire, spewing radioactive ash hither and yon. Chunks of Antarctica the size of Rhode Island have fallen into the sea. I could go on.

This is the sort of activity that humanity is required to deal with in this new century. If we build a successful method with which to do this, those useful tactics will spread across the fabric of our civilization. I believe they are already spreading. An innovation like will likely serve as a camel's nose in the tent for a whole series of ubicomp applications across society.

I've been speculating about these new forms of ubicomp, and giving them some flashy neologisms, because that is what science fiction writers bring to the table. We build little scenario worlds and make up names for them. First we've got "," then "Terrorspace," but there are others.

BATTLESPACE. A term already much-used by the Pentagon. Battlespace means military C4ISR. The "Revolution in Military Affairs." I would point out that the military, unlike some sectors, is not reneging on their enthusiastic commitment to the digital revolution. On the contrary. I haven't seen anybody in the military saying that they long to go back to the good-old-fashioned, solid, easy-to- understand methods of the War in Vietnam. The military are very into "network-centric warfare," and they couldn't be happier about their spysats and surveillance drones.

PROSTHETIC UBICOMP. This is eldercare. A huge, steadily growing market. Alzheimer's disease is a flat-out domestic catastrophe that lasts seven years. Any computational help here – in elder-proofing spaces, tracking the sick and so forth – would be of huge benefit to society.

CRADLE.NET. Babies have no privacy. Children have little privacy. Child-proofing a room against a crawling tot... if you've ever done this, you can realize how much use it might be to have this process automated. Any two-year-old always wonders: "Why can't Mr Fork and Miss Wall Socket be friends?" A real-time checklist, at the very least! And then we're faced with the interesting, large-scale prospects of ""

STREET.NET. This would be traffic management and urban systems management. Water networks, power networks, subways, sidewalks and so forth.

PUNISH.NET. Two million people are in the American prison population. They've got no privacy. They've gotta be watched all the time. They're basically crammed in iron cages now.

INDUSTRIAL UBICOMP. Managing supply chains, industrial assembly and so forth. This will eventually be the biggest application.

SO/HO UBICOMP. Ubicomp in the home, the home office and small office. Some very interesting consumer uses here, but in the grand scheme of things, not that big a deal.

SAFETYSPACE. These would be military bases, U.N. safety zones, refugee camps, and disaster evacuation centers. It's fairly easy to imagine ubiquitous computation as a sinister "gated community" that walls off privileged areas under threat. But we can also think of it as importing some human comfort, solidarity, mercy and safety into various benighted areas that are severely disturbed. One can imagine a Gorazde UN safe zone version of this, new and improved of course: a black helicopter ghosts over in the dead of night, deploys a scattering of small drones, smart-mines and sensors, and suddenly the war just stops within these bounds of Safetyspace. Rapine, looting, sacking, smashing and burning are ruled out of existence through computer awareness. The handiness of a technique like that for life in the 21st century... well, it might be a bit underestimated.

And last, coming up with a bullet should the good times return in all their carefree glory: UBITOPIA. This I take to be ubicomp as an Urban Entertainment Destination. You go there for fun just because there is cool, wacky stuff embedded in the physical world, and it's behaving in a way that brings joy and hilarity and good spirits, like the funhouse mirror at a digital carnival.

When and if Ubitopia really hits, it will mean that humanity's basic relationship with our material goods has been radically redefined. That is the apotheosis of ubiquitous computation. Just: material goods, and the way we deal with them, are different. Different in character, different in quality. Not recognizable by 20th century standards.

So. I have no idea if the Homeland Security department, or FEMA or DARPA or the NSF, are going to pony up any money for any of these notions. That's not my lookout. I'm a science fiction writer. And ladies and gentlemen, with this material, I have struck platinum. This stuff is really hot. This is a great, attractive, contemporary idea that is really new, really different, and really ominous. The implications are huge and they spread across the board of society. I am going to be a very busy guy with this material. If you want to help me, send some email.

Thanks a lot for your attention.

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