Tag Archives: information

Imagination

A black and orange floral background with the text, "From What if to What Next - A new podcast series with Rob Hopkins" it also includes a link to the series Patreon: www.patreon.com/fromwhatiftowhatnext

I’ve talked about how fiction can point the way to better futures, and one thing that really underlies fiction is imagination. As Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” If we want to overcome the climate crisis we need to imagine a better future than our current cyberpunk dystopia. This is why I was so excited to find the From What If to What Next podcast by Rob Hopkins.

Hopkins and his guests take the listener on a journey to an imagined 2030 that has seen radical change for the better. Each episode focuses on a specific topic, like Universal Basic Income, and the show starts with the guests describing what a day-in-the-life in 2030 might be like.

It’s been said that people find it easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism, and that’s because imagination outside of how to make more money has been relegated to the realm of children. Having an active imagination is seen as a weakness for adults who shouldn’t have their “head in the clouds.”

An animated GIF of Spongebob Squarepants (an anthropomorphic yellow sponge) moving his hands in an arc to create a rainbow out of thin air (water?). His pupils expand as he says the word, "Imagination."
Spongebob exercising his imagination

We need to reinvigorate our collective imagination to move forward as a society. The challenges facing us are serious, but that’s all the more reason to stop taking ourselves so seriously. Imagination and play are pivotal to our survival as a species, and that’s something we often forget, particularly those of us with backgrounds in STEM. Artists are way ahead of us in this respect.

When I was in grad school, I remember a friend from Thailand telling us how the protests there were like big parties with music and dancing. I just didn’t get it. My understanding of a protest was a bunch of angry people waving signs and calling out demands on a megaphone.

Now though, I think protests parties seem more effective. Prefiguring a better world at a small scale, like Occupy Wall Street did, is like a kind of sympathetic magic to create a future worth running toward. From What If to What Next is a great way to start thinking about the possibilities in our solarpunk futures. As we’re still evaluating how things will be when we establish a “new normal” after the pandemic, I’m cautiously optimistic about how we might see a brighter tomorrow.

Do you have any favorite ways to let your imagination run wild? I’d love to hear what you do in the comments! I love going on walks to jump start my own imagination.

Wild ideas: Ban advertising

At its most altruistic, advertising helps people find products or services that can improve their lives. In reality, advertising generates dissatisfaction in people so they will try to fill an imagined void with the thing the advertiser is selling.

Researchers have found that the amount of money spent in a country on advertising is inversely proportional to the happiness citizens report in that same country. While dividing by zero is inappropriate, it seems that eliminating advertising is a simple way to increase the happiness of many people. I think the characters in Walkaway by Cory Doctorow said it best:

“Is there really abundance? If the whole world went walkaway tomorrow would there be enough?”
“By definition,” she said. “Because enough is whatever you make it. Maybe you want to have 30 kids. ‘Enough’ for you is more than ‘enough’ for me… Depending on how you look at it, there’ll never be enough, or there’ll always be plenty.”

Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

The first step to banning ads seems to be the billboard ban. A few states in the US have such bans, and São Paolo, Brazil drew a lot of press when they instituted their “Clean City Law in 2006. Despite predictions of economic collapse brought on by the lack of outdoor advertising, citizens overwhelmingly supported the move and the change brought many previously hidden civic issues to light. Given the rollout of “smart billboards” that bring the pervasive tracking you know and love from the internet to the real world, getting rid of billboards everywhere else can’t happen soon enough.

Current advertising practices promote carbon-intensive lifestyle goods like SUVs that increase global carbon emissions. We should significantly limit, if not totally eliminate, all advertising if we want to hit the Paris Accord targets. We’ve built an economy based on growth for growth’s sake, and capitalism treats natural resources as infinite when it’s clear they aren’t. Banning advertisement is the first step in reducing consumption. Remember, it’s Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. The recycle is last for a reason.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Pexels.com

One group that’s been working to curb advertising is Fairplay, a nonprofit that runs the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. While their efforts are focused on a specific demographic, it seems that they have been working in the space the longest. As a new parent, I’m especially interested in their work. Growing our next generation of citizens outside of the consumer mindset would be an excellent place to start banning ads.

As a small business owner, I’d love to see an end to ads. While I have run ads to drive traffic to my Etsy shops, I feel that it isn’t something I like spending time on or feel adds a lot of value to the end product. Maybe selling on Etsy isn’t the best idea since I abhor sales, but I really like making things and don’t have enough room to keep all of my projects around. While I need people to find the things I make, I don’t like hunting customers around the internet like a predatory car salesperson.

Finally, if you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to install an ad-blocker and/or tracker blocker software. I use uBlock Origin, Privacy Badger, Canvas Blocker, and Decentraleyes on my own Firefox installation, but everyone has their own favorites. This software lets you regain a little bit of privacy as well as block a fair amount of the ad traffic directed toward your eyeballs. It’s not foolproof, but it can help you regain a small modicum of sanity in this ad-saturated world.

Do you love ads and think this is a terrible plan? Have you seen any clever ideas to circumvent ads? Let us know below.

A Better Way to Tell Time – Solarpunk Chronometry

Our modern methods of timekeeping have changed our relationship with the world around us, giving us more precise measurements for science, but also abstracting us further from the natural world. I think it’s time we looked at how a solarpunk future can incorporate a saner method of chronometry.

A photo of several vintage clocks lined up in rows.
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels.com

Our neolithic ancestors lived and moved according to the cycle of seasons and the rising and setting of the sun. Before the widespread adoption of the clock, we slept in segments, instead of all the way through the night. With the rise of the train, time zones kept people on track to their destinations. Now, some people have suggested returning to local time based on solar noon and setting any meeting times based on Universal Coordinated Time (UTC). After a year of online meetings that were held in various time zones around the world, I really see the appeal of UTC so I wouldn’t have had to run calculations to figure out when the meetings were in my own time zone. Don’t even get me started on my feelings toward Daylight Savings Time.

An image of Stonehenge. Clouds hang over the monumental stones and the grass is green.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

On the calendar front, there have been several attempts at calendar reform to oust the Gregorian Calendar, including the French Revolutionary Calendar, the World Season Calendar, and the International Fixed Calendar (IFC). The IFC has 13 months of 28 days resulting in a weekly layout that is the same each month. This leaves one or two extra days depending on if it’s a leap year that go into Year Day and Leap Day. I really like the IFC, and one of the oft-cited drawbacks, constant Friday the 13ths, is easily remedied by changing the first day of the month to Monday according to ISO standards. Kodak even used the IFC for more than 60 years since George Eastman thought it was so elegant.


My version of the International Fixed Calendar (all months are the same)

What do you think? Would changing the calendar and time zones be more trouble than it’s worth? Let us know below!

Rest

A trail in Pen Park (Charlottesville, VA)

So, it’s been a bit since I’ve posted. With everything going on in the world, I really needed to give my brain some space to stretch. So, if you were looking for a sign to take a break yourself, this is it.

Even if it’s only for ten minutes, let your mind unwind and take a breather. Whatever work or troubles you have will still be there when you get back, but giving yourself a break can help put things in a new light. Maybe you’ll see a solution you didn’t before.

The world wants us to be going full throttle all the time, but humans didn’t evolve that way. Give yourself some space and time; have some compassion for yourself. It’s easy to get caught up in self-deprecation and thinking you’re not good enough, particularly if you suffer from depression like me.

I want you to know that it’s OK to take a little break to catch your breath. When you’re done, you’ll be able to tackle whatever your troubles are with renewed energy. There’s no denying that there’s a lot going wrong in the world right now, but we’ll get through it together.

I was fortunate enough to go on a walk on some nature trails here in town recently. What are some of the best ways for you to take a mental break? Do you like to hike or meditate? Let us know in the comments!

Good news for tidalpunks

humpback whale in ocean

Photo by Andre Estevez on Pexels.com

The Guardian recently reported that according to scientists in Nature, if we take the right steps moving forward, we could have healthy, vibrant oceans again as early as the 2050s. Some bright points in ocean restoration that exhibit the resiliency of Mother Nature include humpback whale and sea otter populations that were once quite dire.

Some challenges that we still must overcome to find our tidalpunk future are overfishing, agricultural runoff, and ocean acidification due to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide. This year will be particularly challenging for life in the Gulf of Mexico given the increased rainfall expected once again in the Midwest United States which drives erosion and agricultural runoff. An increase in regenerative agriculture on the land, and sustainable fishing practices in the water would help greatly toward the goal of revitalizing our oceans.

A study from 2016 showed that protecting 30-40% of the world’s oceans from exploitation would provide a benefit not only for the creatures in the ocean, but also for the people who rely on fishing and tourism to make their living. By setting aside parts of the ocean for the wildlife that lives there, we ensure long-term viability of the ocean’s biodiversity. In 2018, the United Kingdom’s Environmental Minister became one of the first major political leaders to back the plan.

On a personal note, as a midwesterner, I’d never been to the ocean until I was twenty. Growing up in a place where the largest bodies of water were ponds and small streams, it was boggling to see the water stretch out beyond the horizon. All the different types of fish and birds that live along the shorelines here in Virginia are fascinating to watch, and the ocean waves themselves are mesmerizing. I feel a great respect for the ocean, and hope that we can help it recover from the damage caused by years of careless neglect.

Do you live near the ocean? Are there any programs in your area to help wildlife, aquatic or terrestrial? Let us know below!

Credit Where It’s Due

Last year, I wrote a series of posts about mobile devices focused on repairability, decentralization, design, and user experience. One of my main complaints was how mobile devices had gone from a Cambrian explosion of form factors in the early 2000s to a monoculture of iPhone clones in the 2010s.

While I have plenty of issues with the business practices of tech giants, I would like to take a moment to give some credit to some companies actually experimenting again with form factor. A lot of this is likely due to the coming decline of smartphone and computer sales, but it’s nice to see some variety again.

surface-neo-reveal

The Microsoft Surface Neo

Dual screen Windows machines can trace a lineage back to the Toshiba Libretto W100 of 2010 and the Microsoft Courier concept before it. Various other half-baked attempts at dual screen laptops have peppered computing history, but it seems like a concerted effort from Microsoft’s Windows 10X will attempt to alleviate all the previous kludgy issues of dual screen computing. As someone who was devastated when the Courier was cancelled, I’m intrigued to see how well they pull it off. The Surface Neo and Lenovo Fold are two of the upcoming folio-esque devices that will use Windows 10X for true “notebook” computing.

Android efforts in the dual screen space date back to the Kyocera Echo from 2011, but the device didn’t really live up to most expectations, much like the aforementioned Libretto. Folding screens are coming to market in devices like the Samsung Fold and new dual screen devices like the Microsoft Surface Duo are experimenting with the phone/tablet hybrid form factor again. As with the Windows 10X system, I’m interested to see what comes of these new devices, but it is hard not to see them as a modest evolution over previous efforts. I suspect a lot will come down to what software engineers are able to do with the new capabilities of the hardware. If we just get wider versions of existing apps, it won’t be much to write home about.

A more exciting development, in my opinion, was Amazon unveiling two devices last fall that hearken back to the visions of wearable computing first pioneered by the MIT Media Lab and Steve Mann among many others. I talked briefly about personal area networks (PANs) last year, but basically, they decentralize the parts of your computing experience into several different devices, instead of a single glass slate. The capabilities of mobile hardware have progressed so much in the last 20 years that newer PANs should be nothing if not exciting.

Echo Frames

The Amazon Echo Frames are a more subtle way to interact with technology

Echo Frames may look like a Google Glass copycat at first, but they eschew the creepy camera and bulky screen in favor of glasses with a built-in Alexa voice assistant. Voice computing is an exciting area of research right now, and is particularly beneficial for the blind. The Echo Loop is a ring that performs voice assistant functions while living on your finger. I’m glad to see some experimentation with computing devices that don’t rely on screens for data input and output. It seems like a less distracting way to interact with our computers, but only time will tell.

MojoVision2

The MojoVision XR contact lens prototype

If you were disappointed by the lack of a screen in the Echo Lens, then maybe the Mojo Lens will be more to your liking. It looks like this will be the first “smart” contact lens, giving you an augmented view of the world without requiring some bulky hardware affixed to your head. While it isn’t as close to production as the previous examples, it does offer an interesting interpretation of bringing the magic back to computing.

Are you excited about one of these form factors? Is there a type of device you haven’t seen represented in the real world that would make your life better? Let us know below!

 

 

Maintaining the Means of Production

As I reflect on 2019, I’m thinking of how everyone likes to talk about seizing the means of production being the path to freedom, but nobody ever really talks about maintaining it.

Various tools laid out on a piece of wood

Photo by energepic.com on Pexels.com

For me, a solarpunk future is one where we can locally produce most of the things we need. Ideally, this would be from predominantly local materials, but some things would undoubtedly need to trade from one region to another. I envision a future with a much lighter international trade footprint than we have now, restricted to mostly raw materials exchange for digital manufacturing and handicrafts.

One of the things you quickly realize as you move away from the dominant throwaway culture is that maintaining the items you have takes work. I don’t know if it’s always been this way, but people who work in maintenance are typically not well thought of in Western society. The plumbers, cleaning staff, and garbage haulers are somehow lesser in our culture’s eyes than a lawyer or engineer, resulting in depressed wages for many in these professions. This is pretty messed up since maintenance staff are the ones filling the most critical functions of our society. There’s an emphasis on the new and shiny, that is also exemplified by the poor state of infrastructure in the US while we continue to build new roads and highways.

Douglas Adams included an aside in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy about how one civilization was destroyed when it decided it no longer needed it’s telephone sanitation workers. While it’s a bit of an absurd example, just think about who you’d rather have still working during some sort of crisis – the trash collector or a lawyer?

panoramic shot of sky

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There are so many jobs in the current economy that only exist because of capitalism’s insistence that everyone needs to work for a living even when there are plenty of resources for everyone to have the basics. We’ve designed a hedonic treadmill where we make up unnecessary jobs so people can buy things they don’t need and corporations can extract profits from our communities. I know I’ve personally had a lot of jobs that weren’t adding value to the world, and I would’ve dropped them in a second if I hadn’t needed to make rent. That said, I also definitely have a bunch of things that I’ve bought that seemed like a good idea at the time but are now just clutter in the apartment. It’s easy to say that better spending habits would make it easier to make ends meet, but making that a reality when you’re inundated with advertising every day makes it easier said than done.

I hope a solarpunk future will have a lot less waste and a lot more genuine activity. Maybe a popular activity for lunarpunks would be to clean solar arrays in the night so they’ll be operating at maximum efficiency in the morning, or tidalpunks working on corrosion mitigation in coastal communities would be highly regarded members of the town. In the past year, I’ve repaired a couple cellphones, numerous bikes, performed various software and hardware upgrades on computers, and have been nursing my 3D printer back to health after it caught fire in March. I also helped out with two Repair Cafés here in town, repairing all sorts of different things. I haven’t been disparaged for being a fixer, and most people seem surprised or impressed when a gadget or garment can be brought back from the brink with a simple repair. Repairing objects can bring communities together, and I’d really love if we could extend that wonder and respect to all the people that keep society humming. If you are one of these unsung heroes, you have my thanks and respect.

Do you have any ideas on how to generate more respect and appreciation for those who maintain our society? Please let us know below!


Disclaimer: Affiliate links to books may result in a small kickback to me to help maintain the website. I only post links to books I think are relevant and worth your time. Feel free to check them out at your local library instead!

Digital Minimalism – A Review

digital-minimalism-3d

I picked up Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport from my local library expecting to read more of the same information I’d seen before: social media companies use slot machine psychology to hook users; in-person communication is higher quality; spending so much time on our phones is hurting our relationships. This was all in there, but beyond the facts of the matter, Newport opened my mind to new ways of thinking about my relationship with technology and how it’s designed.

Minimalism at its core isn’t based on asceticism, where one denies earthly pleasures for the sake of austerity. I often find myself strongly trying to resist any emotional impulse to make purchases. I think this self-imposed austerity may have been causing undue stress by saying “you can’t have that,” instead of the healthier question of “is this something that could bring value to my life?”

In respect to technology, and apps in particular, Newport revisits calls by friends to join social media because it might be useful. He counters by saying that any tool should have a clear benefit to warrant your time. It’s not that any of these tools are bad per se, but since you only have so much time and attention, do you really want to spend it on something that might be useful, when there are so many other things that definitely would be?

three person holding smartphones

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

I’ve mentioned before how I struggle to balance my thirst for new information and time to be creative and thoughtful. It’s something I feel I still haven’t worked out, but Digital Minimalism helped me find some new tools to use in this quest.

Digital Minimalism also deals with some of the more sweeping issues resulting from the unique types of distraction available in the 21st Century. There have always been more things to do than time in the day, so distraction is nothing new. We have reached a point, however, with the introduction of the smartphone, where corporations vying for your attention via the “attention economy” have unfettered access to your eyeballs. Even our work is becoming more fractured and distracting with the advent of the gig economy.

Even after the advent of the internet, people were relatively alone in their own heads when they were mobile. Sure, you could listen to a personal soundtrack on your Walkman. With a computer in your pocket, you’re only a quick tap away from whatever information you seek. The end of the bar bet was also the end of pondering.

The book doesn’t preach throwing away your smartphone, although it does suggest methods of using digital tools so they help you achieve your aims instead of those of the advertising companies. For some people, that might mean going back to a phone that only supports calling and texting. For many others, removing social media apps from your phone will suffice. The key is knowing yourself and what you want to accomplish with theses tools.

Digital Minimalism wasn’t what I expected. While it did have some of the same information I had read before regarding the distracting nature of digital technologies, it was neither alarmist nor placating. It presented a well-reasoned and tested set of tools for using digital technologies in a reasonable way that can help you feel a little less discombobulated in this distracting world.

Do you have any thoughts on practices to keep technology from distracting you from what’s important? Do you find it ironic I wrote this post predominantly on my phone? Sound off below!


Disclaimer:  This review is my honest opinion of the book, but I may get financial reimbursement through the affiliate link in this article.

MapJam – Sharing in the city

adult book business cactus

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Shareable is a great resource for following advances in the “sharing economy,” with an emphasis on platform cooperatives and other community ownership models that you probably won’t see from the other outlets that focus on the space. One of the more interesting projects they’re working on is their Community Maps. Generated by local residents in a given region, these maps detail where you can find sharing services in the community.

The data for the maps is generated by MapJams, collaborative mapping parties where people can get together and map out as many sharing services as possible in their city. Charlottesville has a Shareable Community Map, but it is sparse and based on proprietary mapping software. I contacted Shareable about the mapping tools, and they said that new MapJams use the Open Street Map-based uMap system. uMap is an easy to use framework that allows anyone to make a custom Open Street Map and then embed it into any website.

I’m hoping to coordinate a new MapJam for Cville in the near future, so if you’re in the area, please reach out and let me know if you can help. Suggestions for places that should be on the map or help with coordinating the MapJam itself would be greatly appreciated!

Does your city have a Shareable Community Map? Are there any sharing services in your city that deserve a shout out? Let us know below!

Why speculative fiction matters

woman reading a book

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

When facing existential crises, it can be hard to see the point of things that aren’t directly related to the problem at hand. One thing that often comes under fire in times like these is fiction, both in books and other media. Even within fiction, scifi and fantasy have long been disparaged by “serious” academics since these realms of speculative fiction deal with fantastical elements that don’t exist. What these critics overlook, however, is the difference between truth and reality.

While elements of the political landscape are dedicated to obfuscating the truth, this isn’t what I’m talking about here. I’m referring to the ability of stories to separate all of our social and cultural baggage from important issues. Star Trek, for example, is known for holding up a mirror to the human condition and such important issues as racism, death, and war.

The other benefit of speculative fiction is stretching the imagination. As Einstein said, “No problem can be solved by the same kind of thinking that created it.” Fiction lets us see problems in a different light, whether they be social or technological in nature. Love it or hate it, the cellphone has its roots in science fiction, along with innumerable other technologies that now make up the fabric of daily life.

Most engineers and scientists I’ve met trace their interest in the sciences to scifi or fantasy. One of the main reasons I became an engineer was growing up with Star Trek: The Next Generation, Dinotopia, and other works of fiction. Asking ourselves “What if…” is the underlying principle of the scientific method, and it feeds our innate human curiosity about the world around us. Something doesn’t have to be “real” to help us explore what is true. So, even though the world is burning, take this as an invitation to think differently about the problem. The solutions to climate change just might be a fictional account away.

Is there a book or other story that influenced how you think about the world? Let us know below!