Tag Archives: information

Why speculative fiction matters

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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!

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The Upcycle — A Review

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The Upcycle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart is the followup to Cradle to Cradle. Written in 2013, it brings a decade’s worth of new information and experience to the concept of Cradle to Cradle design thinking.

If you’re interested in the circular economy and can only read one book – this is it. There is a short section at the front that recaps the underlying principles of Cradle to Cradle systems in case you haven’t read the first book. While Cradle to Cradle was groundbreaking for the concept that we should design human industry to be a positive good for the environment, The Upcycle contains many more specific examples of projects where the authors were able to achieve these ends.

For example, in the book there is a story of Dan Juhl who pairs farmers with investors for building renewables on their land. The investors get a guaranteed return on their investment for ten years, and the energy generation equipment reverts to the farmers after this period. More renewables end up on the grid, and families get an additional source of income by owning the means of energy production.

The physical book itself is a nice counterpoint to the design of Cradle to Cradle. While Cradle to Cradle was designed to be reusable in technical nutrient cycles, The Upcycle is designed with biodegradable inks and paper so that it can become a biological nutrient again. One of the main ideas of Cradle to Cradle design is that things should be delineated into two separate nutrient streams: biological and technical. Wood, paper, and things of this nature can be reused as they would be in nature by returning to the land while technical materials like plastics and metals should be reclaimed for infinite technical cycles. Preventing the creation of “monstrous hybrids” is an important goal of the Cradle to Cradle design process. These materials are amalgamations of material that are difficult, if not impossible to separate and reuse. This is particularly harmful if the materials in these hybrids are toxic in nature. The book quotes McDonough, “Let’s put the filters in our heads and not at the end of pipes.”

The Upcycle is a breath of fresh air. McDonough and Braungart show how we can rethink the way we design everyday objects to fit into the constant cycles of Mother Nature and end the insanity of cradle-to-grave mentality. Cradle-to-Cradle design is definitely the way we should be thinking  when we design technologies and objects for our solarpunk future.

Do you use any Cradle to Cradle products in your life? What has your experience been? Let us know below!

Energy: A Human History – Review

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Energy: A Human History by Richard Rhodes chronicles the development of industrial power sources with a focus on the innovators and scientists who developed the technologies. Starting in Elizabethan England with none other than William Shakespeare, Rhodes weaves a compelling tale of the western world’s energy sources starting with the transition from wood to coal in 1600s Britain.

The book paints the picture of the industrialists we now love to hate as human beings with hopes, dreams, and failings. It can be hard to remember after so long that James Watt and Henry Ford were once actual, living beings, and that they had hoped to make the world a better place with their inventions.

Drawing from many primary sources, Rhodes has lifted many gems of what the people of the time found concerning about these new technologies. With references to coal as “the devil’s excrement,” and many other such epithets, one might wonder why such dirty fuels ever became predominant. As Rhodes points out in the book though, industrialization with coal and other fossil fuels led to a near doubling of human life span and a higher standard of living. Rhodes does devote a fair bit of the book to the work that various towns and nations did to combat the air quality problems associated with the use of fossil fuels to varying degrees of success.

Concerns were not just constrained to air quality. Safety of steam engines, locomotives, and automobiles were a great concern of the time. As to cars, we have definitely come out on the wrong end of that technology with many US cities being designed for cars instead of people, but some of the concerns for trains seem amusing now as this quote Rhodes found shows.

“What can be more palpably absurd and ridiculous,” asked a reviewer for London’s Quarterly Review who favored a plan for a railway to Woolwich, “than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches! We should as soon expect the people of Woolwich to suffer themselves to be fired off upon one of Congreve’s… rockets, as trust themselves to the mercy of such a machine going at such a rate… We trust that Parliament will, in all railways it may sanction, limit the speed to eight or nine miles an hour, which… is as great as can be ventured on with safety.”

If you are firmly anti-nuclear, the end of the book will not be to your liking. As a cautiously optimistic person regarding nuclear energy, I feel the author may be a bit nuke-happy. Many of his points in favor of nuclear base loads are legitimate, however. Current nuclear generation technologies have been shown by IPCC and NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) analysts to have a carbon footprint similar to wind and solar. With many cities and states looking at 100% renewable commitments, including nuclear as a base load to counter the intermittency of renewable sources seems reasonable in geologically stable areas. Unfortunately, when states set “renewable” goals for their energy goals, they sometimes include waste incineration, which is both gross and bad for local air quality.

Beside its overly-western focus, the other main shortcoming of the book is its relatively light treatment of renewable technologies. There was very little regarding solar, hydro, and wind, and I’m not sure if geothermal was mentioned at all. I suspect that this was due to a desire of the author to focus on the technologies that were the primary drivers of industrialization. Regardless, I think this is a good treatment of the subject of modern industrial energy sources and the people who brought them to fruition.

Do you have any recommendations for other books about energy generation or transmission? Let us know below!

Solarpunk Phones Part 4: Magic

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[This is Part 4 of a series of posts. Here are links to Part 1: Repair, Part 2: Decentralize, and Part 3: Design.]

Despite marketing jargon, I don’t think that we’ve yet reached the point where our technology is “magical.” A cave person might feel differently, but smartphones, computers, and televisions are clearly tools in my eye. There are a few exceptions, but I want devices that more elegantly flow with our lives instead of us molding our behavior around the device.

In stories, magic feels more like an extension of the being wielding the power. Even when the power source isn’t from within the individual, magic is still channeled through the magic user, so they must be in tune with it, but not consumed by it.

Technology that “just works” is a step in the right direction, since few things are as un-magical as having to reinstall drivers. I think we can go farther though. For me, at least, it’s easy to get lost in the technology itself and lose sight of the end goal of the tech. To be truly magical, I think the device and interface need to melt away so we can focus on the real reason we’re using it. At their core, smartphones are devices for communication. How do we make meaningful communication with those we care about easier?

color conceptual creativity education

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Take the pencil. As long as it’s sharp, most people don’t spend a lot of time worrying about how much it weighs or how thin it is. It gets the job done and you don’t have to think much about the object itself. There are certainly applications like art where the hardness of the graphite is an important consideration, but for the majority of situations, the pencil is incidental to the outcome of wanting words or doodles on the page. The pencil is an extraordinary piece of technology because it works so well that we pay it barely any heed.

A few devices approach this simplicity: e-readers, Pebble smartwatches, smartpens, the Beeline bike navigator, the Typified weather poster, voice assistants, and most calculators. Maybe I just don’t have the headspace for multi-function gadgets, but for me, the more functionality you cram into a device, the more unwieldy it becomes. Perhaps some brilliant UI/UX designer will come up with a way to make the multi-function nature of the smartphone more seamless, but as of now, I find smartphones to be amazing but kludgy.

The people working on the Skychaser solarpunk comic are doing a great job of thinking of magical technologies. You should definitely check them out if this is something that appeals to you.

I don’t have the answers for finding the right balance of functionality and magic but wanted to explore some of the questions with you. Maybe you have some ideas of how to make technology a little more magical. If you do and want to share, please post something below!

Solarpunk Phones Part 3: Rethinking Design

[This is Part 3 of a series about solarpunk phones. Here are links to Part 1: Repair and Part 2: Decentralize.]

There are essentially two extremes to technological design: the all-in-one device or the single-tasker. Take, for example, the knife. There are lots of single purpose knives – paring, cleaver, steak, etc. There are also several different types of multi-function knives, the best known being the Swiss Army knife. Depending on what task you have at hand, you would select the best knife for the job. Out and about, sometimes the best way to go is to carry the Swiss Army knife, but since it’s a multi-function device, it isn’t usually the best tool for the job, even though a lot of the time it is pretty decent at several different things. Unfortunately, the more functions you cram into a Swiss Army knife, the less useful it becomes at any single task. There’s a certain break-even point where it just gets ridiculous.

Image shows 8 Swiss Army knives from left to right with an increasinly large number of functions.

Victorinox pocket knives by quattroman76 under a CC BY-ND 2.0

While smartphones can do a great many things, since they aren’t really designed to do one specific task, they end up sacrificing the ability to do any one thing really well. I wonder if we’ve lost something by trying to unify all of our devices. Our mobile technology has become a monoculture compared to the wide variety of form factors of phones before a single slate of glass became the norm.

Before the consolidation of iPhone-esque design hit the scene, some people thought the future would be a cloud of wearable devices, the Personal Area Network (PAN). While carrying a number of single-focus gadgets on a common network may not be the best solution for everyone, it could be game changing for some. Also, broader acceptance of PANs might lead to more innovation in the smartphone space with regards to form factor. While there are rumblings of foldable phones, I can’t help but think those are merely an evolution of the current iPhone-centric design school.

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Random sketches I made of different hubs/accessories for a PAN-based device

Modular, open source electronics architectures would be a step in the right direction, allowing designers to select off-the-shelf components for inclusion in many different types of devices. The closest things I’ve seen on the market would be the Fairphone, which we’ve mentioned before, and the RePhone Kit, which is an Arduino-compatible phone kit from Seeed Studio. It’s a neat little phone hacking platform that lets people build their own phones. Unfortunately, Rephone is only 2G data capable, meaning no data connection in the US. Motorola gets an honorable mention for the Moto-mods system that lets you add different features to your phone through a special port on the back of their Z-series phones.

Of course it isn’t solarpunk if we aren’t designing with the impact of the device in mind from the beginning. Dominic Muren’s  Skin, Skeleton, and Guts model for product design is one approach to this design problem. When coupled with the Cradle to Cradle idea of separate biological and technical nutrient cycles, I can imagine future devices where the skin of the device is a compostable fabric that can be changed to suit the style of the user, while the metal skeleton and modular, electronic “guts” could be reused in further technical cycles.

TL;DR

In short, when approaching the design of a solarpunk phone, I would want modular components to be at the core to allow for more diversity of form factors like there once was in the mobile space. Also, devices should be designed for the circular economy using safe and reusable/recyclable materials.

Do you have any ideas for what should go into a solarpunk smarphone? Would a PAN be too cumbersome, or do you find that the “Jack of all trades, master of none” nature of the smartphone isn’t worth the trade-offs? Let us know below!

Solarpunk Phones Part 2: Decentralize

antique broken cell phone communication

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[This is Part 2 of a series about solarpunk phones. Here’s a link to Part 1: Repair and Part 3: Design.]

Humans have an amazing capacity for cognitive dissonance. Even though we may know something is bad for us or has significant negative consequences, we’ll still trudge ahead, even if the benefit to an action is small. As Steven Szpajda from This Week in Law is fond of saying, people will give up large amounts of privacy and security for a very small perceived benefit.

Solarpunk Druid had a recent post to this effect, “It’s the events stupid: Why FB is the hardest media to quit” discussing the titular quandary. As we have with fossil fuels, we’ve become reliant on systems whose existence is at cross-purposes with our own.

For this second part of my exploration of what a solarpunk communication device might look like, I want you to consider your relationship with your carrier and web service providers — Verizon, Facebook, etc.

antenna clouds equipment frequency

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Most of us have become comfortable, complacent even, with the idea that the companies that control our communications know everything about our habits. What might be surprising though, is that the information they collect isn’t just available to other multi-national megacorporations, but that private citizens can easily get access to the location of customers of at least AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile in the US.

Solarpunk, as a subgenre of speculative fiction is all about “what-if,” so what if we weren’t beholding to megacorps for our communications? What if we decentralized our cellphone and internet access? With the increasing presence of AI subservient to known bad actors, it’s time we start examining how to wean ourselves off of the corporations that feed our information addictions. While taking a break from technology can be beneficial for our mental well-being, I don’t think it’s practical to completely give it up either.

Solarpunk is also about making the “what-if” into a concrete reality, so what technologies exist to help us break free and decentralize our digital lives?

Mesh Networks

Mesh networking, which we’ve mentioned before, allows various parts of a network to communicate without a single central node, like a cellphone tower, controlling all of the traffic. If everyone in a given geographic area had a smartphone that worked on a mesh network, they wouldn’t need a carrier to contact their friends in that area. This has been touted as a potentially life-saving measure for natural disasters, and is also a powerful tool for people protesting authoritarian regimes. Mesh networks are still in the early stages of development, but they point toward a possibile future of decentralized communication where the users themselves are the network, not some centralized authority that could leave users in the dark either intentionally or because of a cyber attack. Some current implementations include the mesh network going up in Detroit, the Serval Project, GoTenna, and the Althea Mesh.

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Leaving for greener social pastures

Between the shuttering of GeoCities a decade ago and recent major changes to Tumblr and Flikr, denizens of the internet have witnessed great swaths of the web be deleted at the whim of a single entity. At the same time, data breaches like Equifax and direct manipulation of users by Facebook and their partners has made it more clear than ever that you’re the product for these companies.

The Open Source Community has been experimenting with alternative social networks for some time, and with the W3C ActivityPub standard, we’re seeing the emergence of an interconnected, social media Fediverse. What’s really cool about the Fediverse is that people on different platforms can follow each other without having to sign up for a different network. If the current behemoths had started this way, then you could follow your friend on Twitter from your Facebook account without having a Twitter account yourself. Since these platforms are Open Source, anyone can start their own instance, so there are communities built up around common interests (like solarpunk) but you can still hang out online with your friends from a different instance. There are a number of different platforms modeled off existing networks like FB and Twitter, but I’m sure we’ll see new concepts emerge as well. There are even some beta plugins to allow WordPress websites to be federated with ActivityPub, so maybe you’ll see Solarpunk Station in the Fediverse soon!

The Fediverse isn’t the only decentralized social networking solution out there either. Other clients like Scuttlebutt and Steemit have also cropped up in recent years. Scuttlebutt has a large solarpunk contingent already as seen in the partial graph of the network below, while Steemit skews heavily toward the cryptocurrency crowd as it is itself based on the blockchain. Scuttlebutt has some really cool features like being designed around intermittent connections. There’s a lot more information and a fun intro video on their website.

Have you tried any of these new social media sites or built a mesh network? Let us know how it went below!

 

The Green New Deal and Solarpunk

If you’ve been following US Politics, you may have heard rumblings of a Green New Deal. My first encounter with the term was during the 2012 Presidential Election when Jill Stein noted the necessity of mobilizing the nation to combat climate change and improve the economy at the same time. Seven years later, the US has made little progress at the federal level in addressing climate change. The few exceptions to this are being contested by the Trump administration including CAFE standard improvements and the Clean Power Plan. With the IPCC’s October 2018 report saying we have 12 years to get our act together, it’s time to declare war on climate change.

For a very in-depth look at the Green New Deal, check out David Roberts’ piece at Vox. There are three main criteria for the GND as outlined by Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and reiterated by Sunrise Movement on Twitter:

As a solarpunk, it’s hard to argue with the goals of the Green New Deal. As a pragmatist, it’s hard to see much happening in the current political climate in regards to real climate action at the scale of the Green New Deal. It isn’t all gloom and doom though, as there does seem to be a glimmer of hope for the two biggest policy changes that I think will bring us closer to a solarpunk future: a price on carbon, and term limits for Congress.

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Pricing Carbon

As Sara E. Murphy points out in her piece at Green Biz, while the Green New Deal is the attention-getting piece of legislation, we’re likely to see significant push-back from the Republicans in Congress. A carbon tax or cap-and-trade scheme is starting to see some traction on both sides of the aisle, however, such as the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 2018 with it’s mix of Republican and Democratic sponsors. Putting a price on carbon is the most straightforward way to get the private sector reducing emissions of carbon dioxide here in the US. Even many Libertarians see the logic in accounting for externalities, particularly when they impact people’s rights to the commons of the atmosphere.

While the federal government in the US has fallen behind in climate leadership, California has already enacted a cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide emissions, and there are many state and local initiatives working to stay on track with emissions targets set by the 2015 Paris Agreement. One that is particularly exciting is the United States Climate Alliance, which will be adding even more members following the 2018 midterm elections.

Term limits for US Congress

Why am I including a possible Amendment to the US Constitution as something to help us reach a solarpunk future? This video from Term Limits for US Congress is a more detailed answer, but the long and short of it is that Congress no longer represents the people. With some recent polls showing that even the majority of Republicans support environmental protection and climate action, it’s increasingly clear that the old guard on Capitol Hill is out of touch with the majority of Americans. The newest members of Congress are a closer match to the actual demographics of the country, but we still have a long way to go to having true representation in DC.

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There are two mechanisms for passing a Constitutional Amendment in the United States. The first requires both the House and the Senate to approve the Amendment by a supermajority, at which point the Amendment must be ratified by 38 of the 50 states. Senator Ted Cruz has proposed a Constitutional Amendment that would limit Senators to two terms and Representatives to three terms, but getting career politicians on The Hill to fire themselves seems like a tough sell.

The second way to pass an Amendment, as laid out in Article 5 of the US Constitution, is for 34 states to call for a convention regarding a specific topic where they hammer out the proposed Amendment. Once ratified by 38 of the 50 states, it becomes part of the Constitution just like any of the other Amendments that have been enacted.

My wish list for 2019 would be that we get a price on carbon and term limits for Congress. It might be a tall order, but solarpunks are an optimistic lot, so there is still hope in the face of the strong institutional opposition to climate action.

Do you have any thoughts on what legislative pressure points might be best for affecting climate action in your area? Sound off below!