fredag 10 juni 2016

Consider Half - greatest project idea ever?

I am right now attending the Second Workshop on Computing within Limits (LIMITS 2016). I have written about it on the blog extensively during the spring due to the fact that I am one of the organiseras as well as a co-author of three separate papers that are being presented at the conference:
- An invitation to come to Limits
- Limits to the Sharing Economy (with Elina Eriksson and Adrian Friday)
- Refactoring Society: Systems Complexity in an Age of Limits (with Barath Raghavan)
- Whose future is it anyway?: Limits within Policy Modeling" (with Somya Joshi, Teresa Cerratto Pargman and Adreas Gazis)
- An invitation to our upcoming ICT4S Limits workshop (with Elina Eriksson, Lorenz Hilty, Adrian Friday, Chris Preist, Teresa Cerratto Pargman)

I should be bashed for and ashamed of going all the way to California to attend, but, it really is irresistible for me to be here in Irvine again, meeting old colleagues and acquaintances (both faculty and graduate students) from my sabbatical here back in 2014, making new acquaintances, listening to exciting and interesting talks, and just the pedestrian experience of walking in the UCI campus and re-living the weather and the smells of SoCal.

As it so happens, I did take the opportunity to come one day early to participate/lead a brainstormy project- and paper-generating workshop with a few select persons (Josh Tanenbaum, Marcel Pufal, Bonnie Nardi and Barath Raghavan). This blog post is about that day. Since we had previously talked about the Limits workshop in terms of Day 1 and Day 2 as well as Day 3 (business meeting), it made sense to call this Limits Day Zero. While we talked about many different topics (keep your eyes open for future blog posts about design fiction, survivalism and more), I will here just outline the one major undertaking we discussed; "Consider Half".

Consider Half is an idea I got on my sabbatical two years ago (the name isn't great but it's the working title for now). After an initial flurry of activities, I met some challenges in proceeding with the idea - not the least because it can easily become wildly and unwieldily ambitious - so it has been "resting in a drawer" for upwards to two years. It has however been revived and re-energized by me teaming up with Josh Tanenbaum. For me it's a "hobby project" of sorts (but that could change), but it's right up his alley when it comes to his core research interests (popular culture, design fiction etc.). While this blog post is about the Consider Half project, I don't really want to go out on a limb and spill all the beans so I will just cover the basics here. Here's the basic elevator pitch:

1) “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” (Niels Bohr)
In my Swedish-language peak oil public outreach activities (English) five years ago, I found that the most difficult and intriguing parts were not in thinking about and describing the past, the present or the near future, but in predicting the social and economical effects of peak oil. Physics is easy but social science is hard since people are unpredictable both as individuals and (ever more so) when we group together (communities, societies). Zeitgeist is a difficult topic for a physicist to perform calculations on...

2) Peak oil is now (or soon, or recently etc.)
See my blog post on "Points of departure" from 2010. I have hardly changed my opinion at all since then.

3) The consequences will be grave
...and it will affect all areas of life (and death). See this or this or this blog post of mine for examples of the consequences. Peak oil (and the subsequent peak energy) is the end of the biggest bubble of them all - the industrial society bubble.

4) But the consequences are exceedingly hard to predict since they involve billions of people and lots of moving parts:
If I kick a stone, the movement of the stone is energized by the act, but if I kick a dog, the behavior of the dog may indeed be partly conservative – he may travel along a Newtonian trajectory if kicked hard enough, but this is mere physics. What is important is that he may exhibit responses which are energized not by the kick but by his metabolism; he may turn and bite. This, I think, is what people mean by magic. The realm of phenomena in which we are interested is always characterized by the fact that “ideas” may influence events. To the physicist, this is a grossly magical hypothesis. It is one which cannot be tested by asking questions about the conservation of energy” 
Gregory Bateson (1972), "Steps to an ecology of mind", p.229

5) Despite such difficulties, it is still be prudent to try to understand the consequences of peak oil and take action now (or soon or recently or quite some time ago or a long time ago - for example in 1977 when Jimmy Carter gave this vital speech: "The President's Proposed Energy Policy").

6) This however presents us with a pedagogical problem
Again, prediction is hard, especially about the future. How do you convince people of what will (could, might, should) happen in the future? Everything about the future amounts to a whole lot of speculations - since it evidently hasn't happened yet. But still we try and we base our smallest decisions (the bus will arrive in 4 minutes) and our largest (can we afford to buy this house?) on predictions about the future.

Everything above is just "facts" and you might agree or disagree, but here comes the leap of faith into fiction and alternate reality:

7) With Consider Half we have chosen to solve the pedagogical problem of attempting to explain the effects of peak oil by placing peak oil not in the present (or the near past/future), but in the far past.
The basic premise of Consider Half is: what if there ever only was half the oil in the ground when we started to use it 150 years ago? E.g. what if there ever only was 1.5 instead of 3 trillion barrels of oil in the ground back in the 19th century? 

If peak oil happens when you have extracted half of it all, then peak oil would have happened decades ago in this fictive parallell world. So how would this have played out? What would (could) an alternate 2016 look like if peak oil had happened decades ago? For example, what would have been the implications for all the five Really Important factors that are discussed in Limits to Growth (1972)? The five Really Important factors (variables) that were modeled in that prescient study were: 
- World population
- Industrialisation
- Pollution
- Food production
- Resources depletion.

In the Consider Half project we can choose to look at these five factors or look at other factors as we see fit (transportation, computing, politics, city planning, life quality or whatnot). A lot more thinking has been done both back in 2014 and now, but this is enough of a teaser (promotion?) of the Consider Half project for now.

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