Planetary intensive care: where computing and the physical world merge

An old university friend and acquaintance of mine, Paul Warde, has set up something interesting. He’s becoming a reader at University of East Anglia, having been a history lecturer and director of studies at Cambridge (UK) and, amongst other things, initiated the ‘Documenting Environmental Change‘ programme at the Centre for History and Economics. Apart from being rather jealous at his clearly having found himself a niche, I followed a few links (to H-Environment – an online resource for those involved in environmental history, where Paul is the Book Review editor) and came across an intriguing-sounding book and an even more intriguing review.

The book is Environmentalism and the Technologies of Tomorrow: Shaping the Next Industrial Revolution, a collection of essays edited by Robert Olson and David Rejeski, and published by Island Press; and the review was by someone called Victoria Garcia at the University of Houston, Texas, USA. Here’s her take on Chapter 5, which ‘took her by surprise’.

While previous chapters were challenging and demanded careful attention, this is the chapter that stopped me in my tracks and made me realize that what these authors are trying to describe is an environmental agenda light-years away from the events leading to Earth Day in 1970. “Ecological Computing,” by Feng Zhao and John Seely Brown, describes the development of a vast, autonomous, co-evolving, self-configuring global sensing system grid, “an enormous digital retina” many generations beyond the Internet. Tied to intelligent browsers, it will allow humans to “go where we cannot” to monitor life systems at all levels of complexity in order to pose questions unimagined in previous generations (p. 54). This grid, already in development, will create vast harvests of information, making it simpler and less invasive to listen to earth’s heartbeat. Tiny wireless sensors, deeply embedded in the physical world, could be used to track pollutants, to allow for transportation vehicles to communicate to one another about road conditions, to track variance in agricultural conditions, and to efficiently coordinate the manufacturing and transfer of commodities. The authors explain: “Ecological sensing systems are blended into the physical environment through sensors, actuators, and logical elements; they are invisible, untethered, adaptive, and self-organizing. This is where the computational world meets the physical world” (p. 58).

The first thought that came to my mind when reading this article was that of life support: we seem to be talking about implementing an immense intensive care program of an unprecedented scale to save the life of our planet.

I don’t know about you but this sounds radical to me and, because it may be a little beyond comprehension right now, awesome in the ‘bit scary’ kind of way? Other chapters in the book are concerned with renewable energies, nanotechnologies, genetic engineering and the governance of emerging industries – with one by one of my old favourites, Stewart Brand. For the rest of the book review, click here.


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