Scalability over Sustainability

I’m probably pretty close to the stereotype of the ignorant consumer, who thinks little about the sources of what he consumes, but occasionally feels a bit bad about it, and so is gradually contributing (when multiplied by huge numbers) to destroying the planet.

There are many important topics in the world to get serious about, but the average person does not directly engage themselves in any of them very much. This is human nature, and any scheme predicated on the opposite will fail.

That doesn’t mean that the vaguely apathetic mass doesn’t care at all, it just means that they need it to be made easy to do the right thing, and they will then do it, even at some personal cost. We of the apathetic mass don’t want to have to think. For things that I care about, but am not personally engaged in, I want to be given the answers. Just look at climate change – it’s not until practically all the experts are agreeing on the things people should do to help that everyone begins to act.

To save the planet, it isn’t enough for the moral to live sustainable lives, we need the masses to live sustainable lives. To make that happen we need a plan that can apply to almost anyone, that doesn’t just help the problem but fixes it. It’s ok for this plan to involve some sacrifice, but not an “unrealistic” sacrifice. If the sacrifices needed are unrealistic, we either have to adjust the plan, find technology to reduce the sacrifice, or reduce expectations or population.

The key thing here is not to find a “sustainable” lifestyle, or a minimal footprint, or a carbon neutral life, but to lead a scalable life.

I was reading about no impact man, and what he’s doing is brilliant. He’s going to be many things, but something he’s not going to be is scalable. We can’t all be journalists and writers, and make money from our unusual ecological experiment. If we all were, he would have nothing to sell. We need to estimate what size population we think the Earth should support, and work out a way of life that allows that many people to live on it, without depleting the Earths resources.

So, where are the studies explaining to the normal person how to live their lives in a scalable way? What can I buy, from whom should I buy it? How much energy should I use per day? Is there some way I can make up for the environmental damage I do by taking the train into work every day? How much travelling is it OK for me to do (can I go help people in Africa)? What energy sources should I be using? There is pretty much no energy source that doesn’t damage the earth in some way, geothermal and solar cool it (and would cause massive climate change and habitat loss if deployed enough to meet our energy needs), nuclear is almost the definition of non-renewable, what can we do about depletion of metals and raw materials? How often can I have a take away? Is it immoral to have children, given the worlds overpopulated state? Cinema: yes/no? Tv: yes/no? Radio: yes/no?

So, if those who do get involved with these things, could just come up with a simple plan that resolves all of these questions and gives me a plan for how to live my life, without giving up my job or friends and post it here in the comments, I’ll try to follow it. Thanks.


I am, if you will, the opposite of a mystic. I feel myself radically broken off from the Universe, and I know the ragged and intricate edges of that break in the same bodily way in which the mystic knows his oneness with the cosmos. Nevertheless (call it political, if you like) that knowledge is denied me and (call it sour grapes if you will) seems, in most of the manifestations that I’ve encountered it, somewhat cheap and tawdry.

– Samuel R. Delany The Situation of American Writing Today, An American Literary History Interview, in About Writing

Virtual Worlds (Part 1)

I’ve been interested in virtual worlds since I first heard of them. Actually that’s a lie. I’ve always been suspicious of virtual worlds. I love mixed reality – virtual representations of real world things, or real world representations of virtual things – it has almost unbounded potential for usefulness, and virtual reality technology is great for games and storytelling, but how is pure virtual reality actually useful?

Dave Taylor has an interesting blog entry on his take on Second Life, and virtual worlds in general. I think he makes some good points, first about the user experience, which at least in Second Life needs a lot of work, and then later about the need or lack of it for realism in virtual worlds.

“My take: Second Life is an evolutionary step”

I agree that Second Life is an evolutionary step, but it’s a step backwards. Part of the beauty of the internet (I’m including web and various other services, such as IM etc.) is that when I’m online, I am disembodied, a pure spirit, floating in a sea of concepts. My ‘I’ is diffuse, and in a sense, I am simultaneously everywhere (or at most, a single step away from everywhere). My location in concept space is really only defined by my attention, which itself can be diffuse – on a server in Australia, learning about the behaviours of Finnish animals in one tab, while simultaneously listening to radio from the US, and keeping an eye on pictures posted by my friends on holiday in Russia. All this time, I am as easily accessible to those who know me as if I were standing right next to them, no matter where I or they are in “real” space. In concept space, I am right next to them.

This is a good thing. It is the kind of evolutionary step people are talking about when they write science fiction with “ascended” races. When we’re on the internet, we mimic as best we can many of the attributes that throughout the ages humanity has given to its gods. Omnipresence, omniscience, ability to be communicated with from anywhere. Pure spirit, existing in concept space. That is the next evolutionary step, and to anyone who has seriously used the internet, virtual worlds with their characteristic localising, their embodying, their tendency to demand your whole attention are an evolutionary step backwards, a seriously limiting experience. That is their nature and it is not something that can be fixed through technology.

This reason alone is enough to convince me that they are not the next leap forward.

However, I am a believer in the power of limitations. Great art is made by people who discover ways of making limits seem irrelevant, but it can’t be done without a deep knowledge of those limits. If we truly had no limits, then art would be boring. Limits and structure suggest and encourage different ways of interacting, and the kinds of limits imposed by virtual worlds can (when used in parallel with concept space rather than instead of it) help fix some of the problems that we humans have had in the ascent to concept space.


When you’re everywhere and nowhere at the same time, as you are in concept space, it’s awfully hard to bump into someone by chance. Without limitations, you see what you want to see, and talk to who you want to talk to, but actually that’s a pretty impoverished condition compared to the many interesting chance interactions that can occur to you when you’re limited to a particular body and location. Though we grasp at omniscience, until we actually have it, chance encounters are an important part of life and learning.


Sometimes, even in concept space, the concept or place that we’re reading about or talking about is a three dimensional, real world object, with solidity and function. No matter how abstracted we have become, it’s much quicker and more intuitive to give someone a parallel to the object in a world with similar constraints to the “real” world the object exists in. You can explore and learn by playing. If a picture of an object is worth a thousand words, how many more words is a functional, virtual prototype of the object worth?


Art is always looking for new mediums to express itself in, and with a virtual world, it has an old one (reality) with a new twist. What could be better for giving people a new way of looking at the (real) things around them?


As humans, our communication relies much more on non verbal channels than any of the disembodied spirits floating in concept space like to admit. As we spend more time in concept space, we will come up with more and more ways of expressing our different modalities of communication in that space, but perhaps it’s easier just to pull across wholesale many of the ways we communicate in the “real” world. Particularly as our interaction with computers is so serial at the moment – keys, mouse clicks, mouse movements. Simulating what is essentially parallel communication is a big challenge until we get more and better peripherals, so borrowing from the real world is a good idea.

These are things that by their nature Virtual Worlds are good at – in some ways an improvement on the internet of concepts. In Part 2, I’ll talk about a mixed reality of concept space and virtual space. The ways websites are starting to locate (in a philosophical, not big brother sense) their users, and some ideas for how virtual worlds can support diffuse attention and concept-type interaction.