Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Feedback Mechanisms

In engineering and systems analysis, negative and positive feedback are essential concepts. Various medical conditions, such as diabetes, are a result of certain metabolic systems lacking the ability to regulate themselves as they typically would. Auto-immune diseases, when the immune system attacks the body's own systems, are likewise signs of something amiss.

Certain machines, by their very natures, require feedback mechanisms. The most advanced aspects of various jet aircraft, for instance, are the controls and avionics. The jet engine moves the plane much faster than humans can possibly hope to react, and thus several control and feedback mechanisms are needed to prevent catastrophic failures.

This is also true in political and economic systems. The theory behinds checks and balances in the Anglo-American tradition were meant to ensure the rule of law was harder to subvert. Likewise, various bills limiting financial speculation and types of banks acted as another firewall. High performance systems with no feedback tend to fail in big ways.

Free speech and rule of law are safeguards against political corruption. These have failed in recent years as politicians continually ignore the wishes of their constituents. Despite the fact that disruptive technologies continue getting smaller and cheaper, they make all the wrong moves. What could possibly go wrong when feedback mechanisms are removed?

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Unintended Consequences

Unintended consequences as a result of technological advancement is practically a cliche. However, sometimes, the realm of mad science advances just because a technology turns out to be impractical. An idea for a riot control weapon, allegedly able to produce sound effects, would just fry the brain of whoever it was aimed at. One wonders what could possibly go wrong.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Heterotechnology: Alternative Methods and Means

Heterotechnology is a term referring to the use of alternative technologies to reach the same end point. It is a view of technology different other than a utopian vision of progress or wish-fulfillment of a (Kurzweil styled) Singularity. Heterotechnology would be viewing each device or machine from the point of view of a systems engineer, and imagining each step as a "module" that could be replaced or substituted with something else.

Now, certain forms of technologies became popular or widespread due to economic, safety, and social reasons. For example, steam powered automobiles existed since the 1780s, but it was not until the assembly line and widespread use of cheap petroleum that gasoline-fueled cars became popular around the world. However, if there is a dearth of petroleum and other natural resources, the economy may shift towards other forms of transportation (perhaps including chemical battery powered electric cars popular in the early 1900s).

A mainstream subculture reveling in the idea of heterotechnology is steampunk, the application of Victorian (or pseudo-Victorian) machinery and aesthetics to modern technology. A "steampunk" internet, for instance, might be Babbage's engines connected by telegraph line. Since then, related subcultures have spun off (such as dieselpunk and clockpunk, focusing on 1920s/30s and Renaissance/early modern aesthetics, respectively).

A recent literary term, salvagepunk, is very much relevant to heterotechnology. Salvagepunk consists of using trash and wreckage and adapting it for one's own use. Interestingly, "salvagepunk" already resembles conditions of life in several developing countries, with the refuse of the First World recycled and adapted to local conditions.

Heterotechnology has economic and cultural implications as well as purely technological ones. As a dominant type of technology becomes prohibitively expensive, substitution with less practical ones (to an extent) could occur. For example, car culture can decline as fuel prices continue to climb, as well as the suburban commuter lifestyle.

Likewise, the rise of 3D printing, automated milling machines, and other types of "desktop manufacture" mean that the globalized economic system faces competition of a different sort. A makerspace does not have the capacity to churn out comparable amounts of product, but it does have the capacity to produce much of what it needs rapidly at a fraction of the energy and resource cost. It is an economy of scale, the globalized one, against an economy of scope, the relocalized one. The two systems still depend upon each other, as the worldwide economy is much larger than selling luxury goods and real estate to developed worlders.

Heterotechnology may be less practical in terms of money compared to our current consumer economy, but it can be an asset to a community. Imagine a small community-supported business specializing in a particular niche product (as a good portion of the German economy is). It is also interesting culturally, because it favors those who try something different out of curiosity and whim rather than pure profit motive (although that can well be a part of it).

If the slogan of the 20th century was "lowest cost and highest efficiency," the slogan of heterotechnology is "multiple ways to do the same thing." It is not merely turning simple gadgets into Goldberg style machines (although that can a form of it), but developing alternative ways to live and work, fusing the new and old. After all, obscure technologies can be revived as new developments take place. Venice already had a form of assembly line to produce ships in the Arsenal, yet it did catch on for a few centuries. Heterotech diversifies a technology's implementation, from computers to firearms. It is the confluence of the artist and the engineer, and a welcome one. 

Monday, 2 September 2013

Crowdsourcing Utu

“If you want to make enemies, try to change something.” -Woodrow Wilson


While Syria is dominating the news, John Robb brings up an interesting concept as an alternative to conventional military intervention or strikes. Instead of deploying military assets, like cruise missiles or commando teams (which could cause civilian casualties, collateral damage, easily escalate any conflict, and political blowback), a list of "targets" (those accused of chemical weapon deployment in this case) could be designated and given a time limit to surrender. Beyond that, "anything goes," including drone strikes or assassination attempts.

This is a topic mused about before in some ways, but the truly interesting part comes from combining it with decentralized networks and crypto-currencies. Imagine a non-state agency or group that would offer "rewards" (e.g. a certain amount of crypto-currency or other resource) for hindering a certain individual/corporation/nation/gang/etc. in various ways. It could range from, say, whistleblower sites or journalists offering rewards for disclosing information of note, like documents of secretive dealings.

The "defenses" and abuses of such a system are rather interesting as well. In the case of the journalism leaking reward, for instance, fake data and documents could be submitted. Likewise, the individuals running the system could be watched or compromised (although automating that in some form of software could act as a "dead man's switch"). Governments could also use such a system to find wanted fugitives of the more mundane variety, such as wanted murderers on the loose or simple violations of note to watchdog groups (environmental, legal, etc.).

Such a system could be deployed at a global level, effectively extending a group's reach around the world, irrespective of polity. As such, "international law" could become applicable to realms beyond conventional nations, perhaps even some as of yet unseen forms of law. A positive example of this could be a worldwide "bill of rights" that gives anyone the presumption of innocence, yet is compatible with many existing human rights philosophies. Interestingly, law can exist without a state or polity, or at least the modern sense of "nation state."

The abuses, however, could be great fodder for a science fiction novel or technothriller. Imagine a dystopian, corrupt government falsely smearing a refugee or dissident with various criminal, misleading labels (as already happened). The main character must face bounty hunters, spies, and others trying to send him/her back to his/her home country (or simply trying to assassinate them). Another concept is some kind of criminal network offering bounties for assassinations, beatings, and intimidation towards its foes. The software could be distributed widely around the world, so the bounty remains until someone collects it... Another idea is some kind of activist or civil rights network that gets corrupted into something more insidious due to simple human short-sightedness. Expect a novel incorporating concepts like that soon.

The Maori of New Zealand had a word, "Utu," which can be translated as revenge, reciprocity, or justice. While it inspired a movie of the same name, I believe that such a bounty-hunting system reflects the concept. Somewhere between vigilantism, revenge, and "justice" can lie utu. Whether started by darknets or drone kill lists, the concept is simple and nasty, just like many of history's most enduring weapons. Trial by media could certainly become much more dangerous for the accused, as well.