Social Technologies Summit 2009 – Day 1

May 13th, 2009

I’m attending the Social Technologies Summit conference which is part of the FutureSonic Festival happening in Manchester starting today till the 16th of May. This is the first time that I’m attending, so I have no preconceived notion on what to expect. The timetable and the range of speakers should make it a very interesting and hopefully stimulating experience for me.

The opening gala event was tonight and we were treated to 2 very different presentations. Firstly, though I would like to comment on the venue. The festival events are being held all over Manchester, but the summit is located at the Contact Theater. Its such a weird looking building and I have no clue as to the history behind the design of it. Anyway, I digress. The first presentation was by Mike Pilkington and Tim O’Brien. Its an audio and visual collaboration between Mike who is a digital artist and Tim who is an astro physicist. They reinterpret the sounds of the cosmos to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landings. From what I understood of their explanation of their work, Mike wrote algorithms to translate signals received from a telescope into audio feedback which he manipulated for his piece. It was musically interesting (similar to many electro minimal pieces I have heard), though I thought they could have done a bit more with the visual, rather than just let Tim move some data windows around the screen.

The second presentation was by environmental futurist, Jamais Cascio who co-founded and now blogs on The title of his presentation was ’Hacking the Earth’ and the premise was to present an argument that environmental catastrophe is unavoidable and if we don’t find some way to overturn the current political and social inertia, we will all die very soon. A very upbeat way to start a presentation! In order to give us a bit more time to enjoy the finer things in life…he proposes that one of the possible way to counteract this is to employ geo-engineering. Geo-engineering is deliberately manipulating the earth’s climate to counteract effects of global warming — basically playing god. One of the examples that he used to illustrate how this might work is using stratospheric sulfur aerosols to manage solar radiation of the earth or enhancing cloud reflectivity. He acknowledges the moral and ethical issue relating to this approach but concludes that if we accept that we as a civilization has had a negative impact on the environment, we must do all we can to rectify this. This approach is not without risk and he urges the need for the creation of modelling software to test out these ideas, in order to anticipate positive or negative consequences. The challenge in the creation of these software are related to granularity (scale) and complexity (how many different factors to include in the computation).

For me personally, his presentation was too focused on presenting the doomsday scenario. I felt that he was preaching to the converted (though there was at least one very drunk person in the audience who beg to differ), and should have instead focused more on discussing issues and challenges arising from the use of geo-engineering approaches. Interestingly one of the audience member brought up Ray Kurzeil and his believe in that technology will ultimate be the answer to the reduction of carbon emission. Cascio acknowledges that this will happen but might still be too far ahead to make enough of a difference. He wants us as the human race to take action now.

Its going to be a pack couple of days as the summit gets into full swing tomorrow. I’ll probably have to do a ’top’ picks as I probably won’t have time to reflect on each of them in detail.