"What's your five year plan?"
Disclaimer: This is not a post about my five year plan. I don't have one. Not my style. It is, however, a post about longer-term thinking — in part brought on by the election, the results of Hurricane sandy, and other things. Longer term for all of us here on Spaceship Earth, and for myself personally. Here goes.
Constructing the infrastructure necessary to manage Earth as a holistic system — meaning long-term habitable for close to ten billion of our fellows — is the largest and most worthwhile public works project imaginable. In addition to being imperative to the survival and prosperity of future generations, it is a heck of a good investment.
The first phase of this process is already underway: we are creating global-scale mechanisms for communication and coordination which will allow us to keep track of the world, and engage in an inclusive dialogue to figure out what to do next. These functions will be vital to realize and manage future phases of the project. That's what I see myself as working on.
There are more nuts and bolts ways to describe it, but broadly speaking I'm working to help humanity move towards a different system of exchanging information, one with significantly lower costs, less "friction", and the ability to include everyone (at least theoretically) as a creator/producer. Basically, making the internet work really well. Historically, shifts that help with the wider creation and sharing of information have been closely correlated with widespread change in other aspects of social organization, generally known as "progress". That's why I'm so into it.
But the question is, if the internet is good for more than posting funny cat photos (though really, thank goodness for that), what's next? I see no other worthy answer than the development of the necessary political and physical infrastructure to manage the planet, followed closely by the heroic-scale physical infrastructure to actually manage the systems.
The current work — the communications and politics layers — have probably another decade or two to reach maturity. What will that look like? And what will follow?
The recent US election has given us a piercing insight into how data can inform or misinform politics. While there's a big gap between techniques used in electioneering to techniques used in policy-making, it's hard to look at how wrong-footed most of the Republican establishment was, and conclude that being data-driven will come into vogue. In the best of all possible worlds, we'd see a tidal shift away from propaganda and mendacity and a movement towards "reality-based" decision-making. In practice, that's a lot to hope for; but it seems within the realm of reason to think that we could be entering an era where being reality-based confers some pragmatic advantages. Once that happens, the pseudo-darwinian nature of the political process should gradually adjust behavior in that direction.
In the future we will inevitably see more formal and potent forms of global governance. My hope is that these structures are generally democratic in nature, and inform their actions via such reality-based processes. The more open data we have about how things operate, the more likely this can happen. Again, in the best of all possible worlds we'd see an internet-enabled public usher in a new era of globalized politics. In an inversion of the way that broadcast mass-media's arrival so darkly colored the politics of the early 20th century — fascism, totalitarianism, etc — I have hopes for innovation on the lighter side in our era.
Even if we don't get all that and a pony, we should end up with something significantly more open, accountable and capable than the current batch of institutions (WTO, IFM, UN, etc) which are struggling to keep the global human project coordinated. Once that happens, and actually even before, the real work can begin. And not a moment too soon.
The 21st century is going to be a century of massive-scale engineering projects. We are going to see a globe without strict "first world/third world" distinctions, and that means a bunch of amazing things will be built. Some projects are straight forward and doable right now, like for instance a storm surge barrier for NewYork City. This is something the Dutch have down pat, by the way. It doesn't even take new expertise or science. While you might wonder if it's worth it as an investment, contemplate the alternative loss in value from abandoning threatened territory. It's not a bad deal in theory, and the future is going to be about building things up further in most cases.
As we start to re-evaluate the virtues of infrastructure and other public-scale projects, we'll naturally start to have to think into the ream of geo-engineering. The specific ideas out there now are primitive, but notion that we start intentionally engaging in ecosystem-altering projects to steer the planet is inevitable. We're doing it anyway, just without any real plan. In the future we'll be harnessing the power of self-replicating systems, starting with biological systems, and eventually synthetics. Heard about self-healing concrete? That's a thing now, thanks to calcium-emitting bacteria.
There are plenty of plays in the bio sphere to enhance energy production (biodiesel, ethanol, algae, etc) as well as things like food. California didn't pass a genetically modified food law, but I would be for it. I'd also be open to eating GM food, as I think in the future we'll all end up doing. It's just better to know. If we play our cards right, we can make deft use of nature to provide the energy we need for our bodies, our cars and trains, and our factories and cities, all while dialing back the carbon parts per million in the atmosphere.
All of this is possible. All of it can happen. But it will only happen if people know it can be done, and they work for it to be. That's why the initial stages of communication and coordination are so vital. And that's my five year plan.