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Earth Power Technology

Kevin Kelly Answers Your Questions 65

Posted by timothy
from the time-is-all-we-have-really dept.
Kevin Kelly ("Senior Maverick for Wired Magazine," among many other things) is back with answers to a selection of the questions posed to him by Slashdot readers. Read on below for his take on travel, the Long Now Foundation (including the 10,000-year clock — clocks! — that is among the foundation's projects), the future of fusion, and what to do about inevitable widespread suckage.
Why "exotropy"?
by ynotds

I still cite Out of Control as the most readable introduction to the oft confused subject of complexity, and am right now wading through What Technology Wants but finding it far more forced (sleep inducing). While I clearly don't disagree with the idea of seeing technology as a partner with humanity [meme.com.au], your newer book reads like you have invested too long in a world constructed from your imaginings and cut back your level of interest in looking at what is actually going on, an interest which seemed to pervade your earlier projects.

Yes, I am well past your rationalization for abandoning "exotropy", so what I really want to know is whether we are all going to be condemned to defend our business models to the death?

Kevin Kelly: I don't really understand the question, but let me suggest that money is generally becoming less important, even as more of life becomes monetized. Money (and business) will become ubiquitous, but as money and business becomes super abundant, they will also become less valuable, less prized, less meaningful. Even super wealth is less important. The richest billionaires in the world control hundreds of millions times as much money as an average worker in the US, but the clothes billionaires wear, the cars they drive, the food they eat is not a hundred million times better. In fact often the rich don't even dress as well as the poor.

In a very real way, beyond a certain level of wealth, the extra billions is meaningless; more a matter of status than anything else. A hundred years from now the richest person may be a zillionaire, but their life will not differ much from a billionaire. Most of the people in the world are not far above the poverty line, and very far from millionaires. But as business and money and cash flows becomes the norm as billions of people rise up out of poverty, it also diminishes as the vehicle for power and status.

Value of travel?
by EricBoyd

I know that you did a lot of travel when you were younger (e.g. backpacking in Asia for years). How important was that for your status as a "Renaissance man"? Would you still recommended extensive travel to young people, or has globalization changed the opportunities?

KK: Globalization amplifies the value (and ease) of travel, while travel amplifies globalization. I've found there is no better education dollar for dollar than traveling. No matter what kind of learning you want to do, whether schoolbook, or business research, or artistic, or goalless exploration, then travel is your best bet. I think a lot of the woes of America could be cured by establishing a two-year national service requirement for all youth, without exceptions, which could be fulfilled by service abroad -- Peace Corp like -- in hundreds of different programs in alien places.

The benefit of travel like this is confronting "Otherness." The Other forces you to examine your assumptions, to question your beliefs, to stretch your perspective, to widen your horizons, and to entertain alternatives -- all skills worth a million dollars in today's world. You won't get very much of this at college. But go to India, or the Congo, or Albania, and its Otherness will teach you.

Tool philosophy for software tools?
by TheLoneGundam

What is your philosophy on software tools? Do you prefer to use a lot of small pieces, loosely assembled, using scripts to join things together and get things done, or do you like to find a software suite (such as Office) and work within that?

KK: Despite co-founding the Hacker's Conference, I am not a hacker. I am not at ease with code, so I tend to use off-the-shelf software programs. My shopping philosophy is to aim for the highest-common denominator. In other words to find the highest quality tool that has been adopted by the largest number of people. I avoid the highest possible quality if only a few folks are using it because support will be minimal and expensive. I also avoid a very popular tool if higher quality is being used widely by others. This is why I am a fan of Costco, which also aims at highest-common denominator goods. They sell not the best, but stuff at above-average quality and very populist prices. Occasionally I will be an early adopter, but most times I let others pay the price for beta versions. I prefer my tools to be well-proven. My site Cool Tools was set up to offer recommendations of well-proven tools. Only a very few of the ones we feature are brand new tools.

The 10,00 year clock
by strangeattraction

Will there be an actual clock completed (other than prototypes) before the 10,000 years are up?

KK: Indeed. Within your lifetime there will be at least one 10,000-year clock built in west Texas. At this very moment a mechanical-digital clock is being constructed inside a mountain on the property owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. When done it will be about 200 feet tall. And you can sign up now if you would like to visit it when its finished.

Long-term thinking
by hereisnowhy

One purpose of the Long Now Clock is to encourage long-term thinking. Aside from the Clock, though, what do you think people can do in their everyday lives to adopt or promote long-term thinking?

KK: The 10,000-year Clock we are building in the hills of west Texas is meant to remind us to think long-term, but learning how to do that as in individual is difficult. Part of the difficulty is that as individuals we constrained to short lives, and are inherently not long-term. So part of the skill in thinking long-term is to place our values and energies in ways that transcend the individual -- either in generational projects, or in social enterprises.

As a start I recommend engaging in a project that will not be complete in your lifetime. Another way is to require that your current projects exhibit some payoff that is not immediate; perhaps some small portion of it pays off in the future. A third way is to create things that get better, or run up in time, rather than one that decays and runs down in time. For instance a seedling grows into a tree, which has seedlings of its own. A program like Heifer Project which gives breeding pairs of animals to poor farmers, who in turn must give one breeding pair away themselves, is an exotropic scheme, growing up over time.

10,000 year clock
by Anonymous

Australia is a geologically stable (and ancient) place... does the foundation have any plans on building a similar clock downunder, and if so, when? How can one help out in the construction (if at all)?

KK: The hope of the Long Now Foundation is that many clocks ticking for ten-thousand years will be built all around the world -- Australia, too. They don't all have to be monumental, like the one in Texas. They could be household sized. And it very well may be the the monumental clocks are the ones that are pillaged and disabled over the centuries, while smaller less prominent ones keep ticking. Perhaps after 10,000 years the only clock still ticking is one at the end of a dusty road in the outback that almost everyone had forgotten about.

Serious Question
by bughunter

Why don't we have fusion power yet? What are the specific technical, political, economic and social obstacles to replacing dirty fossil fuel and potentially catastrophic nuclear fission power plants with nuclear fusion plants? I know this is kind of a "where's my flying car" question, but I feel that if our society really wanted affordable, practical fusion power to replace fossil fuel driven plants, we could achieve it, but we have barely even started down that road. Why not? What would it take to make it a priority?

KK: Building a synthetic sun has been much more difficult that it first seemed. Research on fusion has been going on steadily for almost 50 years, and each year the researcher have felt they were "only 1 year away" from getting it. That constant gap makes it hard to believe in now. But in fact, science has generated net positive fusion -- the energy out surpassing the energy needed to create the fusion -- but it is no where near an economic positive, nor anywhere near industrial rates. In other words only toy amounts have been generated. Scaling down the sun by a zillion times is proving hard. And there are some scientists who believe that it cannot be brought to an economic feasible method -- at least at current energy prices -- which is part of the reason why we have not made it priority #1. I think when there are a few more demos of it working for sustainable periods in the prototypes, it will become more believable (or obvious). Or if energy prices really hit the roof.

Philosophical implications of cheap fusion energy?
by Anonymous

Putting aside any political or social unwillingness from the powers that be, in a far future, in a world with large scale fusion energy production, man kind will at long last have an almost free lunch. For, what, if I may ask, will the cost of anything be when everything can be made from recycled chemical elements and lots of almost free energy from large scale fusion of abundant hydrogen? Gadgets can be made, food can be made (who needs cows when you can engineer your own steak from scratch? Nature makes protein by chemical processes anyhow...) Are you worried about environmental pollution? Well, we pollute *now* because it costs us money to not pollute. We don't make stuff environmentally friendly *now* because it costs more than the dirty stuff. But with free energy we have the means to do stuff right. After all, under the assumption of free energy, the cost of doing it right is not higher than the cost of doing it dirty. Overpopulation will of course restrict the amount of space available for habitation, so wars will be fought over land, but in the far end who needs a pile of expensive dirt on the earth when there is so much free space in space?

What are the social implications of such a thought experiment? What happens in a society when goods cost nothing? Is there any need for money anymore? And even if you needed money for some reason how would you acquire it? Remember that your salary is your compensation for your labor, and labor has long since been replaced by machines running on cheep energy.

They tell me that fusion is only 50 years away...
So in a post fusion world, where is man-kind headed in your opinion? Will my grandchildren see a reconstruction of society?

KK: If energy followed the same curve as computation and was half as cheap each year, what kind of world would we make? It could be a pretty scary world. George Dyson, science historian, son of Freeman Dyson, who worked on nuclear weapons, believes that "free" fusion power would be the worst thing that could happen to our civilization. Sort of like giving an unrestricted million dollars to a 12-year old. What could go wrong? Unlike George I don't worry, although I do believe it would be completely disruptive.

First, I don't believe fusion would ever be "free." It would certainly be cheap, but the cheaper it got the more difficult and costly getting rid of the heat in society would be. And I'm not just thinking of the global warming effects (which would be significant) but more on where you put all the energy you are unleashing each minute. It has to exit the biosphere somewhere. If we had to make giant planetary radiators, there would be a cost to those, which would be added to the cost of generating the power. What that means is that while the calories (BTUs, ergs) would become ever cheaper, the other aspects of energy -- storage, removal, management, etc. would become more complex and costly.

Energy is more than just ergs, just as computation is more than just transistors. Transistors are essentially free per transistor, but your laptop still costs $700. An erg may become essentially free per erg, but your energy use may still cost $700.

Nonetheless, having extremely cheap energy would radically alter our landscape. I think we'd build a lot of moving bots and make a lot more gadgets. Maybe our shelters would be more kinetic, flexible. We'd certaintly travel even more. I have no fear of overpopulation; rather ever more depopulation as robots did more of the hard "manual" work. It would be a different world.

15 years after the invention of the PC
by Anonymous

... it started sucking, with Microsoft and Intel dominating everything. Anyone who came out with a cool idea was given an offer they couldn't refuse. And if they did refuse it, they were toast.

Are we on a similar suckage curve with the Internet? Although it was arguably invented in the '70s or even before, it only came to the attention of most people in the mid '90s.

KK: Sucking is inevitable. Suck would take over the entire universe if we did not keep inventing new things that did not suck. For a while. Even better is that the frontier of the new keeps expanding so we have more new ways to create anti-sucky coolness -- even while the things we invented yesterday are starting to suck. As long was we can keep the game going, the forces of cool will outweigh the forces of suck.
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Kevin Kelly Answers Your Questions

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  • The benefit of travel like this is confronting "Otherness." The Other forces you to examine your assumptions, to question your beliefs, to stretch your perspective, to widen your horizons, and to entertain alternatives -- all skills worth a million dollars in today's world. You won't get very much of this at college. But go to India, or the Congo, or Albania, and its Otherness will teach you.

    If only that were true in every case. You have to be willing to learn from "Otherness" in order to benefit from it. I think there are generally three different reactions to otherness, whole-hearted embracing, tentative acceptance, and outright rejection. Both the first and the last option can be worse than no exposure. For instance, the embracers may not not fully consider the consequences of embracing what they discover. The rejectors on the other hand may come to hate the very people they were suppos

  • by Kenja (541830) on Tuesday September 06, 2011 @12:27PM (#37316984)
    With every hardware vendor using their own incompatible operating system and hardware it was hell on software developers and there was no chance of general acceptance of the PC as anything more then a nitch item. A standard was needed for the average consumer to be interested. Perhaps Microsoft/IBM was not the ideal standard, but it was better then nothing. Perhaps some people yearn for the days when computers where the exclusive domain of the tapped glasses set, but I for one like that they are ubiquitous.
    • by Osgeld (1900440)

      yea I dont miss the days when a decent pc would run 4 grand, was incompatible with anything else on the market and was replaced with a new incompatible model next year

    • Ummm I don't think it was nearly as bad as all that.

      Most Intel based machines that would be classed as a "PC" ran CPM. When x86 machines stated to show up it splintered a bit but SCP-DOS largely replaced CPM during the very short period until MIcrosoft co-opted it and renamed it MS-DOS.

      The Apple machines of the period of course ran their own OS, just as they do today.

      And the Motorola based machines (e.g. Atari, Amiga) also ran their own OS's... no modern day equivalent comes to mind as there don't se
  • If you have free energy and goods, the only thing that is valuable is other people's labor, because it's the only thing that's scarce. So if you needed money for something, the only way would be working for someone else - either directly, or by selling something where being made by human hands was a selling point (maybe original works of art if the robots weren't good at them, or etsy-style craft goods). And the only thing you'd ever want to spend it on would be other people.
    • by vlpronj (1345627)
      To me, that begins the breakdown between "labor" and "skilled time". The amount of physical labor involved in writing code, editing photographs, or designing a building is minimal, in relation to the thought involved. Mental labor will still be necessary, and will not be made unnecessary by free energy.
      • by Osgeld (1900440)

        I heard that in the 80's when everyone started outsourcing their manufacturing to Asia, A society based on Mental Labor as you put it, or Innovation and creativity as they put it back in the 1980's really has worked out well for us hasn't it ?

        • I heard that in the 80's when everyone started outsourcing their manufacturing to Asia, A society based on Mental Labor as you put it, or Innovation and creativity as they put it back in the 1980's really has worked out well for us hasn't it ?

          What always struck me as odd in that is that there is no reason why Asia could not learn the innovation and creativity skill. Really, what will happen (and is happening) is that the Asian and Western standard of living will slowly harmonize, and thus equalize the labour cost. Somewhere along the road, more poor countries will stabilize enough to start on the same road. In other words, in time, China will also be struggling with poor economic growth and burgeoning public spendings.

          Unless some major disaster

          • by Osgeld (1900440)

            Thats part of the joke, we sent all of our designs over there and they gave us back the entire clone market

  • I do wonder why Slashdotters consider KK to be some kind of authority on the state of fusion research. It is obvious from his replies that he has a cursory knowledge of the field at best. As someone who has published research in the area, I can state a couple of misconceptions being offered by KK. 1) No one doing active research in the fusion community thinks that fusion power is "1 year away." At best, the National Ignition Facility is a few years away from demonstrating breakeven (energy into the laser =
    • by mako1138 (837520)

      I'll add that "science has generated net positive fusion" is not true. He's probably thinking of JT-60, which achieved conditions where, if deuterium/tritium (DT) had been used as the fuel, it would have meant breakeven. However JT-60 doesn't have tritium handling facilities, so they can only use deuterium and extrapolate to DT's higher cross section. Still, it's a remarkable achievement.

      In my mind, the biggest obstacle to fusion power is finding/designing materials that will last several years in a commerc

      • by tragedy (27079)

        Does a fusion-based nuclear warhead represent net positive fusion I wonder? Obviously it has to be triggered by a fission reaction and it takes a lot of energy to refine the fissile material. How about the energy to get the required hydrogen isotopes? I have to assume that it's a lot less than the energy you can get out of them otherwise we'd have already abandoned any hope of sustained fusion. So, I guess my question is if fusion has to be sustained to be considered net positive?

        I've seen the suggestion th

    • A realistic plant scenario is 30 years (or more) from that point.

      What do you see as the constraints that yield a 30-year timeframe? I ask because that's exactly the estimate I heard when I toured the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab in 1989. I'm interested to know the odds that I'll hear the same prediction in 2033.

      I've heard that it's because every fusion research estimate ever made assumed level funding and it's been in decline for 60 years.

    • I think a lot of the woes of America could be cured by establishing a two-year national service requirement for all youth

      No, you don't save America by enslaving every young adult because you think you know what's better for them than everybody else does. That's not 'America'. Perhaps an interesting social engineering hypothesis, but that's not what freedom and liberty are about.

  • by vlm (69642) on Tuesday September 06, 2011 @12:35PM (#37317084)

    ... money is generally becoming less important .... Money (and business) will become ubiquitous, but as money and business becomes super abundant, they will also become less valuable, less prized, less meaningful...

    It's becoming less important because its becoming less ubiquitous and less abundant. More concentrated.

    When every home has a Faberge Egg on a shelf, Faberge Eggs are very important to everyone. When only one guy owns them all, they're kinda irrelevant to almost everyone.

    Money is the same way, more or less. When only one guy has all the funny papers with ink on them, they cease to be useful as a medium of exchange and something else springs up for exchange. "attractiveness / personal services", or commodity barter, or "will work for food", or facebook twitter friend count, or trading low UID /. accounts, or bitcoins, or just plain ole economic collapse, like now.

    • by Kjella (173770)

      What he's saying only makes sense if we didn't want things that take human time. It matters very little if Bill Gates is a billionaire or zillionaire, it's still a huge difference if I make $100k and you $30k or the other way around because then I can hire you for work. That we're both less than petty change to Bill Gates doesn't matter as long as our relative wealth goes in my favor. The people who've been doing research find that happiness is only correlated with wealth up to a certain point, but that poi

    • by lennier (44736)

      It's becoming less important because its becoming less ubiquitous and less abundant. More concentrated.

      I think you have that exactly backward. Money becomes more important (and more dangerous) as a power differential as it becomes more concentrated. This has always been the Marxist analysis of capitalism.

      Money is the same way, more or less. When only one guy has all the funny papers with ink on them, they cease to be useful as a medium of exchange and something else springs up for exchange.

      Who said money had to have anything to do with being a popular medium of exchange? As it concentrates, it becomes a medium of command and control. This is what capital does, because it's what we've baked into the system.

      When one guy owns the only factory and supermarket in town, as well as the police force a

  • In a place far away I read his book "Out of Control" (which I thoroughly enjoyed).

    In the book was a description of some little glass spheres which had tiny shrimp and algae and (sometimes) snails permanently sealed within; in fact a complete ecosystem! In fact they were called "EcoSpheres".

    After trying unsuccessfully to find them (the Internet didn't have good search engines then, it was THAT long ago), I just got up and called him (I think I tracked him down at Wired). He was gracious enough to tell me w

    • by rthille (8526)

      I had one of those (still have the sphere), but didn't manage to keep it alive for more than about 2 years...

      • by jc79 (1683494)
        From http://www.eco-sphere.com/about.html [eco-sphere.com] :

        "Because the living organisms within the EcoSphere utilize their resources without overpopulating or contaminating their environment, the EcoSphere requires virtually no maintenance. EcoSpheres have an average life expectancy of two years. However, it is not uncommon for shrimp populations to be thriving in systems as old as 7 years."

        • by rthille (8526)

          Heh, I don't remember that when we bought ours :-)

          Given we've got the 9" version (still have the glass to get refilled one of these days), and it's $175 to refill (+$60 shipping), it seems a bit steep for a 2 year toy...

    • P.S. Mine thrived for years until a heavy book obliterated it. Perhaps NASA should be looking out for giant books headed our way.

      Was I the only one thinking that would have worked as a subplot for Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? Or Monty Python. One of the two.

  • by vlm (69642) on Tuesday September 06, 2011 @12:39PM (#37317124)

    I've found there is no better education dollar for dollar than traveling. No matter what kind of learning you want to do, whether schoolbook, or business research, or artistic, or goalless exploration, then travel is your best bet.

    Can't this guy read? Is he over the age of 21 and able to drink? Somehow I'm thinking its going to be hard to find $15K of value in visiting Nepal. I made some Jewish friends (not because they were, but they just happened to be) and probably learned more from drinking with them than I'd ever pick up on a package tour of Israel.

    • by ceoyoyo (59147)

      He said travel, not tourism. Package tours are not travel. Travel is both cheaper and far more enlightening than tourism.

      Yes, if you live in a major city you may be able to talk to people from around the world by going down to the pub but you will a) not be forced to and b) only hear about it. Travel forces you to experience other ways of life.

    • by LMacG (118321)

      While you are reading, you should look up "false dichotomy."

    • by Jmc23 (2353706)
      Apparently you'e never been to Nepal. The things people can learn about community, self-sustainability, and happiness from Nepal are in dire need in the US. Also it's xool to see corn and cannabis about 5 meters tall.
  • çok güzel http://www.yurdanyapi.com/mantolama [yurdanyapi.com]
  • by vlm (69642) on Tuesday September 06, 2011 @12:49PM (#37317274)

    First, I don't believe fusion would ever be "free." It would certainly be cheap, but the cheaper it got the more difficult and costly getting rid of the heat in society would be.

    Corrupt business models will not be fixed by making one subsection of an industry cheaper.

    The cost of a toll grade voice ckt from LA to NYC has dropped to approximately zero.

    Long distance is not free, because the cost of itemized billing is not free. The cost of advertising is not free. The cost of customer billing support is not free. The cost of handling bill payment (and non-payment) is not free.

    Long distance is a billing system that happens to provide telephone service as a side effect.

    Fusion generators would be the same. Its not as if you'll ever get rid of individualized detailed billing, like how I pay a fixed fee for yearly garbage pickup as part of my taxes. Imagine if every plastic trash bag had a serial numbered sticker and an army of bean counters to keep track... trash pickup would cost a multiple of what "free unlimited" garbage pickup costs.

    • by tunapez (1161697)
      That lame Vonage song is stuck in my head again...
    • by TubeSteak (669689)

      Long distance is not free, because the cost of itemized billing is not free. The cost of advertising is not free. The cost of customer billing support is not free. The cost of handling bill payment (and non-payment) is not free.

      The cost of producing electricity may, someday, become zero (or close enough)
      What will never be zero is the cost of infrastructure.

      So even if you throw away all the white collar mangement costs,
      you still have to send out guys in trucks to keep the infrastructure functional.

      It doesn't matter if we're talking about power, phones/internet, water, or gas;
      that cost is not trivial and not especially influenced by advances in technology.

    • Long distance is not free because there are per-minute federal taxes on inter-state calls. Long distance is just about free over the internet because packets dodge the per-minute fee that voice gets. In this case, it's the government, not corrupt corporations, turning something of almost-no-cost into something that costs per minute. And thus, the US is moving to VoIP as fundamentally a tax dodge.
  • Huh....have /.ers gone completely 'tard???? Asking this clown, Kevin Kelly of "the New Economy" bilge awhile back....and that crazy piece he did on searching for God in Amerika????? This guy is the ultimate douchebagger, for chrissakes????
  • Mmmmm so the average middle class person who thinks "Hey I should start a ground to space industry." will have just as good a chance as the wealthy person with the same idea? I don't think so. After a certain point wealth is not about buying personal possessions it is about power.
  • I think a lot of the woes of America could be cured by establishing a two-year national service requirement for all youth, without exceptions,

    Like (to be fair) most people, he underestimates the fundamental value of liberty.

    This kind of national service requirement is a staple of progressivism. And it fits the classic progressive mold: In the narrow sense, it's a good, progressive idea. It's an expedient way to arrive at a desired result. Trying to achieve something? No problem! Just have the government f

    • by jc79 (1683494)

      I don't see that introducing a compulsory national service is in any way "progressive". Maybe our definitions of progressivism differ, but in the UK, any party known as "progressive" (the Lib Dems and the Greens, mainly) would run a mile from something that smacks of old school right wing militarism.

      • I don't actually completely disagree with you. Here in the US they are more typically floated by progressives, but on the other hand, it is one of those policy ideas that gets support from some conservatives as well. It's the authoritarian impulse that, unfortunately, unites left and right.

        So in sum, you're right -- I should have chosen my words more carefully.

        - aj

        • by jc79 (1683494)

          You're right - it's authoritarian (another poster mentioned communism). The authoritarian/liberal axis is orthogonal to the left/right economic one.

          My conception of progressive fits with liberal/left, but others may differ.

          http://www.politicalcompass.org/ [politicalcompass.org] is useful

      • by 0123456 (636235)

        Maybe our definitions of progressivism differ, but in the UK, any party known as "progressive" (the Lib Dems and the Greens, mainly) would run a mile from something that smacks of old school right wing militarism.

        Sounds more like old-school communism to me.

    • You're over-estimating the value of liberty if you're multiplying social cohesion by zero. People who hate the government love "the government" and can't stop spewing it out as the fulcrum in every see-saw.

      Maybe the underlying idea is that anything we understand is abused absolutely. So rather than discuss the merits of balance concerning liberty and cohesion (the un-Rawanda) we talk about liberty, and cohesion is left as an exercise for the invisible hand. We don't know how the invisible hand actually

  • Step 1. Drop your Wired subscription.

Karl's version of Parkinson's Law: Work expands to exceed the time alloted it.

Working...