FutureSource

FutureSource

Our civilization has a new reality. Computers meshed together by digital networks have transcended the system that built them becoming a new reality, a place where duplicating and moving information has near zero marginal cost. This alone has changed the nature of the world; we have a virtual playground where the reality of scarcity we have known and endured is largely gone.

Now Jeremy Rifkin endeavors to take us one step further. In Zero Marginal Cost Society, he argues for the next step in the human journey, applying the principles and benefits of zero marginal cost virtual space to physical reality. Decentralized renewable energy production at near zero post-investment cost enveloped in ubiquitous wireless computing and sensing networks, the Internet of Things (IoT). The pervasive truth of existence in a capitalist system, Rifkin maintains, is giving way to a hybrid economy; incorporating both traditional capitalism and the growing segment of technologically empowered peer-to-peer individuals Rifkin so eloquently calls the "Collaborative Commons."

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When the precursor to today’s Internet, the ARPANET, had its first nodes connected in 1969, only a handful of computer scientists knew about it. Now most of the world is dependent on the Internet’s vast web of links, tweets, posts, and likes for commerce, communication, and socialization.

But could the Internet of future generations be even more revolutionary? Keeping in mind that the Internet evolved largely without any central guidance – recently, the US government announced it will “transition out of managing domain names and addresses for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)” – what new forms or functions will this global system take as technologies such as robotics, autonomous vehicles, ubiquitous sensors, and others move toward an online presence? To understand these changes, we trace the Internet through four major stages of Web 1.0 to 4.0.

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This week, Medellin, Colombia is hosting the World Urban Forum, the 7th iteration of the United Nation's biannual conference series dedicated to the world's cities. Some 25,000 people from everywhere on Earth are gathering at "WUF7" to discuss the governance challenges, and the unlimited opportunities, that are found in the world's cities. The scale and color of this event demonstrates the power of the city to draw the interest of a vast range of people and organizations. National and local governments, intergovernmental organizations such as the UN and World Bank, NGOs, technology companies, and civil society organizations are all here to discuss, debate, show off accomplishments, and network.

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How much of human productive activity can be moved to "near zero marginal cost"? Jeremy Rifkin's provocative new book poses the question to our future. The case for "near zero marginal cost" in the digital world is pretty clear, as Rifkin so ably explains. Think of a piece of software (from Microsoft Office to a Beyonce track). Once produced (which could have enormous cost), production and distribution of additional copies over the Internet is virtually free. Any additional "cost" is amortized cost of building, maintaining and operating the transmission infrastructure (which can also be huge), not the product itself. Thus, the marginal cost of the product is almost zero. We are thus in an age of data abundance, virtually unlimited by physical reality. Put differently, there is no scarcity to drive up the price. You and I can both have copies of the same digital data or MOOC course without additional cost or competition for a scarce product as an unlimited number of copies can be made without using up physical resources. The marginal cost of Rifkin's "Communications Internet" is thus near zero -- after accounting for the costly infrastructure and its operation and maintenance.

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The Perils

In my previous blog, I outlined what living in an Answer Engine-powered Internet might look like. There is much to be excited for as we move toward the future where the Internet is woven into every facet of life. Think how far we’ve come already and how quickly it happened. Think about your relationship with your mobile device. This merging of Internet and life is inevitable; in fact it is already almost a fait accompli. There is also an array of dangers to be concerned about. The most worrisome negatives must be understood and addressed if we are to have any hope of mitigating them.

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The Promise

The Internet is moving beyond a portal to another world and becoming part of the very world itself, meshing with and augmenting physical reality. The idea of the “Alive Web” sees the Internet becoming an increasingly real-time affair.  We are in the beginning. Apps like Snapchat and Twitter already represent the new pace and face of the new web: it’s nearing real-time, and it involves us directly. No longer about stale ‘feeds’ and static data, but experiences and emotions in the present. Less about user names and pseudonyms and more about identity strewn across the world, ready to interact with anything. Not snippets of text and culled media, but a nuanced and raucous interactive conversation happening across the globe. Forget myriad disparate websites and links; imagine an ever-growing pool of everything being fed by a never-ending deluge of data. This is the Internet of tomorrow.

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What is the most pressing security challenge facing the world's megacities? It's their slums, write Peter Engelke and Magnus Nordenman. Today, they highlight some of the conditions that make them fertile breeding grounds for conflict and instability.

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The US intelligence community largely has failed to adapt to the world's growing complexity and interconnectedness, writes Josh Kerbel, the chief analytic methodologist at the US Defense Intelligence Agency. The intelligence community must leave behind its habit of analyzing complex issues with a narrow focus and instead ‘think big’, taking greater advantage of open-source, unclassified information and interdisciplinary perspectives.

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Technology evolves so quickly that government regulations are outdated from the day they are written. Policymakers should consider the thirty-year-old insights of an obscure British economist for a map to the new approach we need to regulating technologies.

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On December 17, 2013 the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, in partnership with the US Agency for International Development and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, will host the launch of the highly anticipated book The Future Can't Wait (PDF). Read on for an a preview of the launch by the Wilson Center's Kathleen Mogelgaard in their Environmental Change and Security Program blog, New Security Beat

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