Intentional Energy

Seed of Life ActivatorThis past weekend I took part in an exciting panel on internet labor at the Left Forum, but the highlight of the weekend was serendipitous. I attended a salon hosted by Reality Sandwich:

Electrical energy is political energy is personal energy is metaphysical energy: A discussion on technological tools and political policy for opportunities of human freedom and evolution.

While I am usually open to edgy ideas, and am quite comfortable entertaining (and sometimes visiting) alternate realities, I certainly wasn’t expecting the treat I encountered. Ryan Wartana orchestrated an amazing experience, successfully interweaving the metaphors of energy and power through the lenses of the physical, personal, political, and metaphysical.

Ryan has PhD in chemical engineering and has been researching and working with nanotechnology and batteries for over a decade.  Professionally, he is the CTO for the alternative energy startup iCel Systems and is quite committed to alternative renewable energy solutions. He was on the East Coast participating in conference in DC on Advanced Battery Manufacturing, and swung through NYC to connect with other segments of his network.

To give you a sense of the atmosphere, Ryan spoke against the backdrop of a revolving slideshow of sacred geometry (which I have studied also), whose forms and principles have inspired many of his artistic/scientific inquiries and designs. He has worked with researchers growing self-repeating and self-replicating nanostructures, and it soon became clear how inhabiting this domain influenced his thinking. Some large problems can be effectively broken into tiny parts, but it can be difficult to imagine how to practice this w/out radically adjusting our perspective.

I left the lecture with a much clearer vision of what an intelligent energy grid, or an “internet of energy” is all about.  Basically, the current energy grid is unidirectional, and on-demand.  It is a centralized distribution system, much like last century’s mass broadcast media. If we distribute a dollop of storage and intelligence to the network, many amazing possibilities emerge. The analogy with integrated circuits was quite provocative – our current grid is like a circuit board w/out any capacitors on it. iCel and companies like them are trying to become the Cisco of the Energy platform, and create integrated energy systems. So, individuals could draw power when its inexpensive (at night) and produce power and return it to the grid, or even to their peers – bittorrent style.

The power of distributed networks to improve redundancy and resilience, and reclaim lost bandwidth and capacity is well known in information technology and network theory. Google has even been distributing their physical power storage in their servers. But the possibilities Ryan illuminated intuitively clicked for me – and I trusted his vision, even though he is in the battery business 😉

These distributed energy systems are vital, and starting to happen. I wondered about connections with the electric car venture – Beter Place. Their system is immensely promising, but riddled with uncertainty. Will their hardware interoperate with other power providers, or will people be locked in? Will their customers be better off relying on a centralized transportation provider, instead of remaining independent and relatively autonomous?  What there be provisions to mitigate the surveillance threats their network poses?  When you mash good batteries up with Better Place (with a bit of peer-to-peer pressure), many of these problems melt away.

We also talked alot about the importance of energy awareness, giving way to energy responsibility, leading to energy intentionality.  These ideas actually had alot to do with my presentation at the Left Forum, which are hinted at in my take on Free Energy.

The talk left me invigorated and hopeful. NYU’s ITP has had some great projects on energy awareness, and there is even a prof at Columbia who wants to rig up a dorm with energy monitoring.  And, some of our work at CCNMTL with the Earth Institute and the Millenium Villages might benefit from these insights and connections as well.

I attended the Reality Sandwich event hoping that a dose of creative consciousness expansion would offset the heaviness of struggle at the Left Forum. What a refreshing contrast to feeling trapped inside an inescapable system. We can imagine our way free.

Banish the word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” — Hopi Elder

Mobile Student Labor

students-on-edge-of-lowAt the beginning of the semester I shopped a class offered in the Columbia CS Dept on mobile computing.  Sadly, I didn’t have time to take the class this semester, but I suppose I can follow along Standford’s version free of charge.

Prof. Nieh was personable, animated, and bright, but the first day of class made me realize the impact CCNMTL has had on me. I doubt I would have made these observations/connections as an undergrad.

First, I was a bit sad that the curriculum did not include even a spoonful of social/cultural context.  The only books on the reading list were SDKs. A little Rhiengold, Shirky, or Zittrain, judiciously applied, could go a long way.

Second, Nieh announced that the entire semester would be organized around projects. That’s a great way to learn, but he also imagined a competition, with the possibility of a venture capitalist evaluating the projects at the end of the semester.

Now, although I am presenting at the Left Forum this weekend, I have nothing against turning a profit (after all, I’m an Alchemist).  But, would it really be too heavy handed to require that students at the university organize their production around the Public Good (and maybe become mobily active)?  What about the needs of the university?  Or even, an Open Source project? 60-80 Columbia CS students (w/ some Masters students) – that’s alot of creative labor power.  And, there is a dire need for applications like this, around the world, and across campus (SIPA, The Earth Institute, Teachers College, the J-School, the libraries are all groups on campus that are investigating mobile apps).

Even if students are required to create something for the public good, at least giving them that option might expose them to a possibility they hadn’t considered. To Prof. Nieh’s credit, he invited me to submit an application idea to the class forum, though I am not sure if any of the students actually followed up on these suggestions.

As I wrote in my email, while VC’s won’t likely chase the students down to invest in these kinds of apps, they might be surprised by the overlapping technical requirements across sectors. And foundations are definitely very interested in innovations in this area right now too.

I am under no delusion that most undergrads could actually complete a useful application in a semester, but a few might. And the opportunity to make a hyper-local useful application (find a book in the library stacks, anyone?) seems promising.  And its getting so easy.

Semantic Connections

paperboyhazards1It’s been almost 2 months since I participated in the intense and spectacular conference/discussion/seminar on the Changing Dynamics of Public Controversies (CDPC). Since then, numerous municipal dailies have declared bankruptcy, and the question of the future of journalism has gone mainstream – with urgency. (four print-media-collapse stories on the front page of yesterday’s business section of the nytimes!).

Here are a few of the better analyses that have been buzzing around inside the halls of the Columbia J-School:

So, Why teach journalism if newspapers are dying? One of our Deans has a plan to revamp the curriculum and Keep J-School Relevant, but it hasn’t gained much traction yet. :-(

And, while we’re on the topic of the Academy, are their institutions next? Maybe not, but the printed scholarly monograph is certainly on the chopping block.

I keep coming back to the generatives described in Kevin Kelly’s Better than Free (skip the giddy utopic intro):

These eight qualities require a new skill set. Success in the free-copy world is not derived from the skills of distribution since the Great Copy Machine in the Sky takes care of that. Nor are legal skills surrounding Intellectual Property and Copyright very useful anymore. Nor are the skills of hoarding and scarcity. Rather, these new eight generatives demand an understanding of how abundance breeds a sharing mindset, how generosity is a business model, how vital it has become to cultivate and nurture qualities that can’t be replicated with a click of the mouse.

Could this be the perspective needed to recalibrate the profit compass and find the Sasquatch of sustainability?

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