A strong place and wonderful was Isengard, and long it had been beautiful. But Saruman had slowly shaped it to his shifting purposes, and made it better, as he thought, being deceived-for all those arts and subtle devices, for which he forsook his former wisdom, and which fondly he imagined were his own, came but from Mordor; so that what he made was naught, only a little copy, a child's model or a slave's flattery, of that vast fortress, armoury, prison, furnace of great power, Barad-dûr, the Dark Tower, which suffered no rival, and laughed at flattery, biding its time, secure in its pride and its immeasurable strength.
- The Lord of the Rings, Chapter 'The Road to Isengard'.
Organic gardening versus genetically engineered monocultures
Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are going to be part of our future, like it or not. Genetic engineering of food cropssounds great - bleeding edge technology that could feed 15 billion people and make our lives better. Or so some say. Perhaps there are some nuance to it? One could imagine many harmless applications but in stead what I see is aggressive attempts to create cash with it.
One profitable idea has been to package a particular herbicide with a crop that has a gene inserted into it which makes it invulnerable to the herbicide. Another to introduce sterility in the crop and force farmers to buy seeds every year. All of it protected by - somewhat controversially - patenting the genes and organisms.
Big Ag (a cousin dinosaur to Big Oil) has given us the Percy Schmeiser case: Because genes spread with the wind like they have been doing for hundreds of millions of years, the patented GMO is bound to end up in non-GMO crops and if the Big Ag lawyers find it, they sue (see for example Vanity Fair / Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear). We have also been given the brilliant idea of chemical drug crop eradication: because Big Ag will never insert the invulnerability genes in a drug crop, the governments can safely spend billions on military equipment and pesticide and just wipe out the opium, marijuana and cocaine fields. Safely - only if you disregard the health of locals, of course (Studies Find DNA Damage from Anti-Coca Herbicide). And working under the assumption drug lords and farmers cannot create a Roundup resistant strains (amazing article at Wired: The Mystery of the Coca Plant That Wouldn't Die). Finally remember that given enough time all of nature will be Roundup-Ready (New York Times / Farmers Cope With Roundup-Resistant Weeds).
Add to the above concern a radicalization of the debate. By radical environmentalists on one side, yes. But also by the technology naive on the other. From GM crops: Battlefield in Nature:
No one gets into research on genetically modified (GM) crops looking for a quiet life. Those who develop such crops face the wrath of anti-biotech activists who vandalize field trials and send hate mail. But those who [...] suggest that biotech crops might have harmful environmental effects are learning to expect attacks of a different kind. These strikes are launched from within the scientific community and can sometimes be emotional and personal; heated rhetoric that dismisses papers and can even [...] accuse scientists of misconduct.
"People who look into safety issues and pollination and contamination issues get seriously harassed." - David Schubert, cell biologist.
And that’s just from within the scientific community. As a skeptic myself I have experienced the accusation that I’m practically starving the Africans if I don’t vote in favour of all sorts of genetic experimentation right away. In a world where people are malnourished because of poverty and the rich have to destroy surplus food from the granaries built to control world market prices. Hope I made myself clear: It is not so much the technological possibility of drought resistant, super healthy future crops I’m cautious of. It’s that I don’t get how come the world have to have the business model of Saruman stuffed down its throat along with them.
Can’t wait to get smarter from your comments. But first a little chapter on a dichotomy I see: Anti-GMO activists will happily design their protest flyers and blogs on patented software of secretive functionality. I think that if you eat organic and avoid junk food, you should avoid junk software as well.
Open source versus proprietary software
Computer programs are sets of instructions that enables the user to have the computer do things for him or her. However, since computers speak in binary code (0's and 1's) and humans in various languages, programs are constructed using an interpreter (called a "compiler"). Several layers of translation occurs in the process, but any but the top intuitively accessible layer is visible to the end user. Analogically, every single function of any plant is written in it's genes, yet none of them immediately visible to the farmer.
Daniel Geer was fired with haste by security company "@stake" when he in a report stated that Microsoft's sheer dominance constitutes a threat in itself. His argument is that with only one operating system, one email client, one browser etc. any little vulnerability found and exploited by hackers and virus-programmers can be fatal to the entire "field" of machines. Just like a monoculture at a farm will be more "at stake" and susceptible to epidemics than polycultures are. His colleagues still in employment backs Daniel up though; one explains the case: "He was fired because @stake wants to please their masters." The former associate director at @stake even uses expressions such as "the hardware population has too little genetic variation to be resilient." He's said: "No matter where I look in the security debate, I see the word 'monoculture' or others that means the same thing. Even Microsoft knows it."
A huge reason for the success of the open source community was its function as a response to the accumulating examples of proprietary software gone awry: Bugs, back doors, deliberate bulkiness etc. simply alienated the "geeks" to this kind of software in much the same way Big Ag can seem repulsive to an environmentalist. Just like modern organic agriculture is a response to the impacts of expansion and industrialisation of agriculture. Big Ag manipulates genes for commercial reasons, hence prohibits farmers to breed with the species they have tampered with. Similarly proprietary computer code is written for profits and kept a closely guarded secret. To an organic (traditional) farmer the concept of proprietary genes seem alien. Plants are shared and interbred openly, hereby achieving acclimatisation and hardiness through well understood and very reliable methods of reproduction – the natural. By openly distributing the source code along with the compiled and functioning programs between them, the programmers and the users of the programs help each other in perfecting the code – a code that needs to be very clearly constructed semantically or not enough programmers will understand it or trust it, preventing it from progression. Back doors – that is, deliberate security holes enabling others to access your data – are unlikely, as they would be evident from the source code.
Remember the Norwegian teenager DVD-Jon? Perhaps you have heard of this world famous heroic hacker. His case is particularly grotesque. DVDs are encrypted in a format called CSS and originally software for viewing them was solely developed for M$ Windows. But Jon wanted to watch his legally purchased copy of The Matrix without paying Bill Gates the license fee so he hacked the encryption and put his little tool – called De-CSS – on his home page. And for that he was sued by Microsoft and others. Even to this day the legions of Saruman are trying to stop us from watching The Matrix - and failing at it.
Just like a species will go extinct if it is never propagated, the open source programs need you to install, use and advocate them or they will go extinct too.
New media versus old media
How often do you turn on your computer then browse to the front page of your preferred media corporation? OK, I know a lot still do. I do so very rarely. For the sake of this article, as I write I visit CNN.com. Granted, I find interesting stuff and I notice they have dedicated their top right corner to a box listing those articles most popular on Facebook. But is there a chance it will replace my daily routine of zapping through an aggregate of sorted RSS-feeds. No. Period.
Just like Linux is now a perfectly competitive alternative to Microsoft Windows in pretty much any computing niche you can think of (before you comment see something about performance and something about desktop usability) the blogosphere combined with atomized micro media is rivaling yesterday’s sky scraper fortified daily papers. Just like the organic farmers must stay clear of business entrapment so too must the new media.
Welcome to 2010. We want to search today’s news with relatively complex terms. We want to add the feeds of our favourite sources to the result. We want some artificial intelligence suggest additional sources based on the results and our own choices. We want to read the result of that search in our favourite RSS-reader every morning, lunch break, train commute and evening we feel like. And we want to share our research at sites like Diigo or with Google Reader notes. Plus we want to embed links to your articles in our own.
We do not want to haul tonnes of used newspaper to the recycling station every weekend. And if you come up with a “paywall” you are not in the game.
Hey, unemployed journalists and media moguls with dwindling billions on your bank accounts: I’m looking for a business model too. So don’t get me wrong, this is not about a communist takeover.
The movement of movements versus the church
Do I provoke anyone when postulating traditional charity is a) a variation over the church and b) largely useless? Granted, Action Aid may promote the individual activist, you can support your own African child and donate on your mobile. OK so it’s one step ahead of the Pope. But in explaining the difference between modern charity and medieval indulgence the burden of proof is on the side of the money collector.
I think what is happening and what should happen even more is old charity is breaking down, new movements forming to address acute issues. Ever dissolving, ever taking a new form. Indiscriminate of the 1st vs. 3rd world “border”. One example is told of in BBC / Net puts Kenya at centre of Chile rescue efforts.
Soon the established NGOs will launch their MDG campaigns. They are largely made up of communication people and people who want to travel the world and meet exciting cultures. They have agreed that the story to sell this time is that of 3rd world progress. The poor have been good, they just need a little more help, just another donation. From a communication point of view it might be a good strategy. But it’s not an entirely honest picture if I am to trust the impression I have been given from TH!NK3. And it’s not exactly what the th!nkers I have asked directly have told me either. Plus much of the blogging that were meant to point fingers at the 3rd world have in stead been looking inwards, groping 1st world navels; a great example being Eight Millennium Un-Development Goals by Johan Knols.
Finally: If you can th!nk up a better headline than mine (heard they are supposed to be catchy!?) I'll change it.