The Ukrainian Crisis and Climate Change

The recent crisis in Ukraine is going to make these shale gas resources very tempting. If we’re not careful, that will mean more fracking and a lot more carbon emissions. Image from Kyivpost.

This is meant to be a technology blog, but, as I’ve argued previously, technology does not exist in a vacuum. It both influences and is influenced by society, politics, economics, culture, and the environment. And so, in order to properly introduce this post, I’m going to have to do a little bit of amateur speculation about geopolitics. Bear with me.

If you’ve paid any attention to the news in the last few weeks, you will have noticed that things are a little bit tense in Ukraine. Honestly it looks pretty dire. Crimea is, for all intents and purposes, now part of Russia, and it seems like Vladimir Putin has his eye on the Donetsk region as well. The “Pro-Russian Militias” operating in Eastern Ukraine almost certainly include at least a few Russian soldiers sent to stir up exactly the kind of unrest we’re seeing now. And Moscow’s recent warnings issued to Kiev seem to be little more than flimsy pretext to invade another part of Ukraine, ostensibly in order to protect the welfare of Russians living there.

I think, however, that this will turn out a little bit differently than things turned out in Crimea. President Obama’s apparent impotence in the face of Putin’s aggression has been a pretty big embarrassment for him, and when Putin makes another move there will considerable pressure on Obama to act. Similar public pressure could assert itself in other Western countries. My own prime minister Stephen Harper seems particularly keen to get involved in the crisis.

I don’t mean to say that we are on the verge of World War 3. Western powers are probably not willing to risk starting a nuclear war over Ukraine. (Sorry, Ukraine). But I do think that we could see some very severe economic sanctions being imposed on Russia. And Russia will retaliate with the most potent economic weapon they have available: Their energy resources. Ukraine and much of Europe are highly dependent on Russian gas to heat their homes, which gives Putin a pretty important strategic advantage.

This would not be the first time that energy resources have been used as a diplomatic weapon, of course. It was OPEC’s decision to use “the oil weapon” that led to the energy crisis of 1973, which was a major transitional moment in how the world thinks about both transportation and energy use. But it might not turn out that way this time. Joe Biden recently toured Ukraine, and engaged in a little bit of “Shale gas missionary work“, and the crisis is also giving a boost to the US domestic fracking industry: two Congressional bills have been introduced in an effort to speed up the approval of new fracking projects on the grounds that this will enhance US national security by reducing Europe’s dependence on Russian energy. A Republican sponsor of the bill argued that “opposing this legislation is like hanging up on a 911 call from our friends and allies”.

Outside the United States, British Prime Minister David Cameron has been promoting British fracking, pointing out that “Some countries are almost 100 percent reliant on Russian gas, so I think it is something of a wake-up call”. And in Canada, the Conservative Government has been promoting Tar Sands oil to counter Russia. Rather than causing us to rethink our energy consumption habits, as the 1973 crisis did, the crisis in Ukraine could cause the Western World to double down on unconventional fossil fuels.

This is very dangerous. Even if you ignore the fairly well-substantiated claims that fracking pollutes groundwater, the methane emissions from fracking sites alone are extremely dangerous for the climate. And some brief calculation reveals that if all 482 trillion cubic feet of shale gas under the United States alone are fracked and burned, somewhere around 25.5 million tons of carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere. That gas needs to stay in the ground. There are, however, few things that can motivate for major technological change like geopolitical crises, and so it seems distressingly likely that the events in Ukraine could wind up locking in a whole lot more carbon emissions at precisely the time when we need to be promoting renewables.

Is there an alternative to this? I don’t know. Environmentalists don’t much chance of being heard in the discussions over Ukraine, which will undoubtedly be framed as serious discussions for serious people. (Serious people generally don’t care about the climate). But perhaps there is an opportunity to use this crisis for good. I don’t know what Ukrainian or European renewable resources look like, or whether they could be developed quickly enough to reduce dependence on Russian gas. Nor do I know if there’s much possibility-either technological or political-for the expansion of nuclear power or hydroelectricity to meet the demand. But environmentalists with a better eye for energy geopolitics than I have should be thinking very seriously about these things.

Geopolitics has always had a relationship to technological development, because it provides one of the most potent ways of disrupting existing socio-technical regimes. It was the First World War, for example, that really made the motor vehicle a force to contend with, while the Second World War made intercontinental air travel possible. Since the basic task of the environmentalist is to disrupt existing socio-technical regimes in ways that are favourable for the planet, we should learn to use these crises to our advantage. We should try and counter the narratives coming out of Ukraine that call on us to abandon our drive to sustainability so that we can thwart the new Red Menace, and instead argue that this is precisely the opportunity we need to make a real commitment to carbon neutral energy. Maybe if we manage to do this for once, a global political crisis can be used for some good.



SpaceX did something cool last week.

Exciting news from a few days ago: While launching another Dragon supply capsule to the International Space Station, SpaceX accomplished a rather novel feat: After detaching from the payload, the booster stage of the rocket was able to descend under its own power and make a (relatively) gentle landing in the Atlantic Ocean.

The booster stage of the rocket is an expensive piece of hardware which is normally jettisoned and rendered pretty unusable either by the heat as it falls back through the atmosphere, or by the sudden stop when that fall is finished. This is a pretty big part of why space flight is so expensive with our current technology: Rockets are expensive, and at this point in time most of them have been single-use only. If you had to buy a new car (or even new tires) every time you drove anywhere, you would probably not do very much driving.

SpaceX plans to change that. They’ve equipped some booster rockets with landing legs, and their ultimate goal is to have them set themselves right back down on the launch pad. This pretty amazing video demonstrates what they have in mind:

If boosters could land this way, it could be very cheap and easy to simply refuel them and give them a new payload and send them up again in a short period of time. A rocket launch pad could start to look more like an airport gate or a shipping terminal and less like a perpetual construction site. And that could give a pretty big boost (heh) to other space businesses, such as Planetary Resources. Elon Musk, SpaceX’s CEO, has a stated goal of enabling the colonisation of Mars, and while that’s still pretty far off, you can’t fault him for lack of effort.

It’s Time to Leave the Ivory Tower

Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences; a very striking feature of the city where the conference was held. The architecture is stunning, but public engagement with science requires more than expensive buildings.

Last week, I attended an early career researcher conference in Valencia, Spain. As an historian, I was a bit of an odd duck in a conference fairly dominated by more quantitative methods, but that’s a discussion for another time. Today, I want to address a much more pertinent issue that came up in a roundtable discussion. The roundtable featured four speakers from academia, industry, policy, and politics, who discussed the relationship between our academic discipline and the real world of innovation and innovation policy that exists in business, policy, and politics.

The discussion started out pretty tame. The representatives from the academic, business, and policy spheres each had interesting things to say. To me, the most obvious theme to all their talks was that academics in innovation studies are still in a bit of an ivory tower. There are, apparently very few ways for academic ideas to find their way into business or policy practices. People working in business or policy rarely read academic journals, and while some of these people may have postgraduate training, the theoretical knowledge gained from this is not always relevant to their day-to-day work.

These ideas however, they were somewhat overshadowed by the speech delivered by David Hammerstein, a Green Party activist who was invited to represent the political sphere. Hammerstein wasn’t kidding when he warned that his talk would be a little bit confrontational. His speech aggressively criticized what he perceives as the blindness of scientists and other researchers to their social context, and used some very choice words to describe some of his least favourite research policies. Among his targets were the European Union’s experimental fusion reactor, and the common practice of private companies to turn the findings of publicly funded research into proprietary corporate secrets. The general thrust of his talk was that scientific and technological research needs to be better attuned to matters of genuine public interest, and that we PhD students need to promote public debate about scientific and technological issues.

I think that Hammerstein had a point. The social, political, economic, cultural, and environmental influence of scientific and technological research today is massive. And yet far too often, scientists and engineers are assumed to function in a sterile, apolitical world where they are servants only to objective natural truths and (maybe) economic incentives. It will not do for either the public or the scientists themselves to go on believing this. Science and technology are as political as anything else, not least because scientists and engineers are human beings with political opinions. As long as new technologies have the potential to bring about radical social changes, the public will have a stake in what kind of research is done, and how it is applied.

There are a few promising developments which might help the public realize that stake. Crowdfunding of both technology and science are fairly promising, as is the precendent set by Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Penny4NASA campaign”. But for the public to constructively engage with science and technology, they need to be able to critically evaluate science and technology. The good news here is that this critical engagement has been going on since at least the 1960s in at least three academic fields. History of Science and Technology has a tradition of considering scientific and technological achievements in light of their social context, Science and Technology Studies critically considers the links between science, technology and society and Innovation Studies attempts to describe the circumstances under which new technologies and practices are created. The bad news is that the public remains mostly ignorant about all three of these disciplines. It isn’t enough for a handful of academics to be discussing these things at conferences. The material complexity of the modern world demands that the public engage with these ideas as well.

And so I believe that it’s time for scholars in all three fields to start popularizing their work. In the fifty-odd years since their creation, all three of these disciplines have matured considerably and have made some impressive findings. The time is now ripe to diffuse that work more publicly. We need televised documentaries about the history of science and technology that explicitly link scientific and technological developments to their social contexts, rather than depicting great men of science. We need scholars active in science and technology studies to start writing science fiction which incorporates their ideas. We need innovation theorists to get involved in the discussion every time a politician tries to use words like “innovation” or “excellence” in soundbytes. And we need to bring all this research to bear on crucial societal problems such as climate change and medical research.

This is much easier said than done. If, as the roundtable pointed out, academic ideas have so little traction in policy and business, then the task of popularizing them among lay audiences will be extremely difficult. It will take some very clever people to take the arcane, academic jargon of these three fields and translate it into something that will interest the public. But the task is absolutely essential. If we are going to have more informed debates about scientific issues such as climate change and vaccination, or about technological ones such as pharmaceutical development and fusion power, then we need to make academic research about these things accessible to the public. Hopefully this blog can be a small part of that effort.

Facebook, The Oculus Rift, and the Revolutionary Potential of Crowdfunding

This picture, in addition to enraging gamers everywhere, illustrates a big problem with the crowdfunding model. From

Remember how in the 1990s everybody was excited about virtual reality, but the results wound up being a bit…lackluster? I personally recall excitedly putting on a Virtual Reality headset at an arcade as a child expecting an amazing immersive experience, only to find myself confronted with laggy pixelated monsters. That letdown, I think, sums up the experience of virtual reality in the 1990s: Our enthusiasm for it outpaced our technological ability to actually make it happen.

Today, however, there’s been a resurgence of interest in virtual reality. Thanks to advances in hardware improvements from the mobile phone industry, it is now possible to make virtual reality headsets with incredibly high fidelity. And a startup company has built the first one. Their first product, the Oculus Rift, is said to provide an incredibly immersive experience, in which one’s brain appears genuinely fooled into thinking it is in a different place. This, understandably, has caused gamers to salivate in anticipation, while others, from artists to mental health professionals and, of course, pornographers, began imagining a huge diversity of uses for the technology.

And then Facebook bought it.

Last week, Oculus and Facebook made a joint announcement that Facebook had acquired the rights to the company for $2 billion. Mark Zuckerberg’s statement proposed using the Rift to “…create the most social platform ever, and change the way we work, play and communicate”, while Oculus’ site said they “we want to contribute to a more open, connected world”.

The righteous indignation from the gaming community proved that hell hath no fury like a geek disappointed. Oculus were condemned as sellouts and worse. Game developers, including the highly influential Notch of Minecraft fame, began jumping ship. Angry gamers made dystopian predictions about virtual reality advertisements and Facebook harvesting retinal scan data from gamers. The former concern may have some merit. In an internal Facebook conference call about the acquisition, Mark Zuckerberg hinted about the possibility of using the Rift as an advertising platform; though he admitted that they would “need to figure that out down the line”.

We’ve all seen this before. Gamers react this way virtually every time Electronic Arts acquires another game studio. But one new thread of the outrage over Oculus’ acquisition is very interesting. Oculus was initially crowdfunded, and was indeed hyped as major a crowdfund success story. Now, the early crowdfund backers are expressing their ire. And they have a point: Part of the promise of a crowdfunding campaign is that the developers seeking funding will use it to pursue the vision they advertised to their early supporters. Selling their controlling stake to a larger company severely compromises that.

This debate has some important implications for the development of radical technologies. We are currently in an era in which a lot of big, revolutionary technologies such as self-driving cars, artificial intelligence and even commercial space travel are emerging. The problem is that most of these big moonshot projects are  funded by traditional capital, which tends to be technologically conservative. Crowdfunding offers a way to subvert that because it changes the incentive structure. It allows the developers of radical technologies to appeal to popular excitment about the technology itself rather than capitalist excitement about profits in order to get off the ground.  And this can some much riskier and more disruptive innovations to have a fighting chance.

Oculus, however, has just demonstrated a major flaw with this. Because while major financial backers will be reluctant to put any money towards radical technologies at a very early stage, they will clamour at the chance to invest once these new innovations have demonstrated their viability. Backing a revolution can be extremely profitable. The problem is that when people who are primarily interested in profit back something, it might become less revolutionary. As I demonstrated in a previous post, big companies tend to be more interested in maintaining the status quo, because a major socio-technical transition will force them to change the way they do business and that costs money. So even if Mark Zuckerberg is sincere when he says that he wants to use virtual reality to completely changing the way people connect with each other, the next big capitalist to come along and buy out an exciting new crowdfunded startup might have far more conservative goals. It is even conceivable that if a crowdfunded technology represents enough of a threat to the status quo, it will be bought up purely so that it can be shut down.

The implication is that crowdfunding needs a bit of tweaking if it is going to really subvert traditional ways of developing technology and doing business. Some mechanism will have to be built into crowdfunding drives to protect them from being bought up by big players as soon as they show serious promise. Social shaming such as that endured by the staff at Oculus might work, but legal mechanisms would probably be better. Perhaps it would possible to write a contract into a crowdfunding campaign that would stop the company being funded from selling their controlling stake in the company within a particular period after the end of the campaign. I’m not a lawyer and so I don’t know if this would be possible, but if crowdfunding campaigns started to use such agreements, then the potential represented by websites such as kickstarter will be greatly amplified. Otherwise, crowdfunding could represent little other than capitalism by other means.