Monday, February 12, 2007

Rethinking real

We live in a society where the infotainment media inhabit much of our waking lives. So powerful are they that in many ways they define – or at least try to – what is important and what is real. No longer is it possible to easily see the difference between spin and fact. Celebrities led the way with airbrushing and cosmetic surgery and politicians are now valued because of their ability to deliver a 10 second sound bite rather than ideas of substance. Our airwaves are dominated with the sages and the stupid who are encouraged to pontificate on every subject known to mankind. But now we have technologies that further blur the boundaries.

According to Fortune magazine[1], in November last year IBM settled on a range of significant investments in a global meeting held within an interesting virtual world known as Second Life. In Second Life all the participants can develop personas known as Avatars and can meet in either open or closed spaces with other avatars to act out either fantasies or reality. So in IBM’s case they held their meeting in their virtual Second Life meeting room, owned by IBM, and the participants were avatars of IBM staff from around the globe. As virtual technologies like these evolve they will continue to challenge ‘what’s real’ with virtual relationships, virtual lives and virtual friends. These are communities where people are making real money from supplying virtual goods and services!

So have we in the process lost our sense of reality – a question much beloved by lecturers in philosophy 101? Does it matter? I would argue that it does only if the focus on ‘different realities’ takes our atention away from the significant challenges that face us and reduce our ability to debate as societies and civilisations how we might tackle such challenges. Lets hope that in five years from now Second Life will be credited as the single defining influence on reducing our environmental footprint. Now that’s the kind of ‘real’ I can live with.

[1] January 23 2007.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Its not about Al Gore

Recently I spoke at a UNESCO and WTA sponsored conference about future cities. I talked about how issues like climate change, water and air quality were things that will reshape the economic and social agenda of governments, organisations and I hoped scientific discovery for years to come. Like all good conference persons I wrote a paper that outlined in a more substantive way the things I covered in the key note. This I shared with a few colleagues hoping for ideas and feedback on what I thought was a pretty significant idea. Two responses in particular shocked me.

The first came from an American colleague who cautioned me not to become too political. I was, he said, sounding too much like Al Gore. Yes its true that Al Gore has talked about climate change but Al Gore didn’t invent it and as far as I know wasn’t on the recent intergovernmental panel on climate change which has said that the scientific evidence shows without doubt that negative man-made impacts were without dispute. I also doubt that Al Gore even figured in the calculations of Britain’s Chief economist when he said that if we don’t do something soon we can expect a cost from climate change of around nine trillion pounds within ten years. To further illustrate how weird this all is a recent Wall Street Journal article by Kimberly Strassel took issue with ten companies who she said were climate profiteers and by implication talking up the whole issue of climate change not out of any real concern for the crisis that is emerging but because it feathers there own nest! Given the resource use of the world’s largest and most powerful economy it strikes me that politicising a crisis that should be beyond partisan politics could potentially doom us all.

The second response that concerned me came during the conference itself. I was gently advised that while my paper was interesting it belonged in the ‘environment box’ not the ‘science box.’ This is not the first time I’ve heard this and my worry is that this misses the point. It is precisely because we have put things into different boxes like the economy box, the social box and the environment box that we have got to where we are now. I suggest that some, if not all, of the environmental and social crises that face us are so profound that they transcend boxes and that those that can think beyond the silos are those that really deserve our attention. In a way that brings us back to Al Gore. That kind of comment in my view simply puts the whole issue in a political box and allows us to more easily dismiss what will undoubtedly be a less than comfortable future if we don’t’ rethink and redesign many things soon.