Thursday, March 24, 2011

Review: Worldchanging 2nd Edition

A bee has landed.

Seven years ago, a couple of guys started posting about possible choices for the future. It wasn't just an exercise in wishful thinking, though, but a composite of the things we already had to and that could make those worlds a reality.

Two years later, and they had reported on so much 'stuff' that a book was published. Now, here we are, another five years further on, with a new and revised edition of Worldchanging just arrived in the mail.

What's changed? There is, naturally, an additional five years of reports and essays. Lots more 'stuff' and other things. Apart from that, the book has a much more focussed feel to it, with greater emphasis on systems. Climate change, as Steffen puts it in the introduction, has moved from remote and scary to immediate and terrifying. Sure, we've got a lot of tools we can use to combat and mitigate unpleasant changes in our environment, but we are going to have to develop the will to start using them.

The book structure remains the same, with articles organised into seven overlapping themes. The story begins by tackling consumer culture in 'Stuff' (no, consumerism isn't evil, but you benefit from becoming familiar with back-stories to production, and investigating how wasteful practices can be reduced by taking responsibility for the waste in a cradle-to-cradle process. Who said that infrastructure was boring?

The emphasis then shifts to how to improve the biggest consumer item of all: the home ('Shelter') and, since we live in them more so now than any time in history, the myriad issues of 'Cities' are laid out. Cities, perhaps surprisingly, turn out to be one of the most potent tools we have in dealing with environmental ruin. Indeed, as Flannery has noted elsewhere, cities were the first response to the drying climate in the fertile crescent as the last ice age receded, and the climate became more arid.

Cities cannot be fully assessed without considering the people who live in them ('Community'), how they trade with each other ('Business') and how they determine how to live together ('Politics') 'Planet'.

The book covers a lot of ground, and five years covers a lot of time. Unsurprisingly, things have changed. While most articles have been bought up to speed, there are a few oversights. A case in point is the mention of Melbourne's program of achieving a compact 'bright green' living space by 2030. In fact, this initiative has been rendered moribund in the last couple of years by a lack of political will.

Thus far, the book description could be applied to the first edition of the book. Why might you want to buy more of the same?

The book also sounds a sad note, since Worldchanging ceased operations late last year. In Agile terms, a conversation becomes 'dead' as soon as it is documented. In Carribean parlance, Worldchanging was a bright green 'lime' that lasted seven years,

Review: Reality Is Broken

So games can save the world, eh?

The notion sounds hokey and ridiculous and, while I have been involved with some of Jane McGonigal's online initiatives, I was a bit sceptical about how this book would read.

However, a number of people whose opinions I respect, have been enthusiastically promoting this book, and so I placed an order and here we are.

I needn't have worried. In fact Jane proves herself to be a more than able communicator of this extraordinary thesis.

Yes, reality is broken. You may not realise it, but you know it from the moment you face another grey Monday morning to the indeterminate period when you are drawn by the prospect of Friday evening. Yes, games can fix that reality. Games are already what makes that reality bearable as it is. Going to work by public transport? Look around you. Note the number of people looking at their mobile devices.


It's nothing new. Herodotus gives an account of how the ancient Lydians set aside alternate days for dice games in order to take their minds off a devastating famine.

Moving to the present day, McGonigal cites the astounding number of man hours that people invest in playing 'Worlds of Warcraft' alone, and wonders how all this creative activity could be harnessed to actually solve the real-life problems that lead to this escapist behaviour.

What follows next is an investigation of what makes for a good game (and not just computer games). McGonigal draws on her own experiences of designing and playing games to illustrate features that make a game that is engaging.

The book moves from traditional shoot 'em ups, through to puzzles. From solitaire to MMORPG. We are introduced to the buzz of an epic win (and the engaging thrills of 'epic fails' as well!) . All the while, the objective is maintained, until we are introduced to games that actively try to solve a real world problem.

The style is engaging and, while the pace may lag a little when describing the mechanisms of individual games the reader may not be familiar with, the examples demonstrate a point that is woven into the overall theme.

And what of the Lydians? What happened to them? I recommend you read the book and find out!


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Review: Here On Earth

I can remember being utterly entranced by the breadth of vision offered by Arthur C Clarke in a collection of essays titled 'Profiles of The Future'. In retrospect, some of those technological imaginings (such as mass transport by hovercraft) seem ridiculously quaint. Well, being wrong is an occupational hazard, as Clarke would have readily admitted. Nevertheless, those essays still invoke a sense of wonder in my mind whenever I think of them.

In Tim Flannery's latest book 'Here on Earth', I find that sense of wonder renewed.

The two works have little in common: Clarke was concerned with technological innovation whereas Flannery is describing a history of Life on Earth as told from two quite different, but mutually supporting views of evolutionary theory.

The most well known of these is, of course, the reductionist approach laid out by Darwin and championed in recent years by Richard Dawkins. Evolution proceeds as genes are handed down to successive generations by individuals who live long enough to breed.

And yet, it was only through the intervention of Huxley, and the good nature of its author, Alfred Wallace, that an alternative theory did not gain ascendency. Wallace proposed a more holistic theory of evolution; expressed in terms of system feedback rather than individual merit.

Today, Wallace is largely forgotten or, when he is remembered, dismissed as eccentric. However, as Flannery points out, his work sets the scene for Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, and serves as a foundation for meteorology, and even exobiology.

Taking these two approaches together, Flannery proceeds to chart the history of the Earth and, from the start, it proves to be a most fascinating journey. Life, it seems, made tectonics feasible by facilitating the circulation of lubricating water between plates. It caused metallic salts dissolved in the nascent oceans to be concentrated into ore bodies in the crust.