Sustainable Futures and Virtual Consumption
At the World Future Society meeting in Toronto in 2006, Peter Hesseldahl, the excellent technology writer, made an offhand remark to me that I am reminded of almost daily. He quipped that, for most people, ‘the amount of resources you consume is an indicator of your social status’. Exempli gratia..a private jet trip to Paris for dinner equals a high status (and buckets of emissions).At the same time, individuals and corporations are increasingly focused on more sustainable futures for the planet. Clever programs like the University of Hawaii’s Futures Project seek to engage students to compete for which dormitory can be most energy efficient, hybrid-auto owners are fine-tuning their driving style to squeeze extra fuel efficiency and mileage, and collaboration technology is constantly providing us with new options that can help reduce our individual or corporate carbon-footprint by approximating the ‘magic of physical proximity’.Networked Virtual Environments provide an excellent example of a collaboration technology that has the potential to drastically reduce the need for travel and the resultant emissions.(begin shameless plug)As an example, starting tomorrow at 1200 Pacific time, Cisco is extending our Networkers at Cisco Live TechTalk series into Second Life. At the first Networkers TechTalk in Second Life, I’ll be (somewhat self-referentially) discussing virtual worlds and their effect on the network. (Here is the location) The participants will likely be the standard Networkers attendees, which is to say Chief Network Officers, network managers, network architects, collaboration experts, and security specialists.(end shameless plug)The best part of the experience is that we’ll have a virtual amphitheater full of like-minded colleagues discussing network architecture and security, and none of the attendees will need to travel to a physical amphitheater to participate. We’ll all be attending as avatars from our respective locations, and the only emissions generated will be created by our energy-efficient laptops.This leads me to the second part of this post, which is how we can begin to substitute ‘virtual consumption’ for physical consumption. As we begin to spend more time in virtual environments for collaboration, we also begin to accumulate clothing and bling for our avatars (and possibly even lodgings for our virtual selves). Perhaps we can begin to guide those who would normally be conspicuous consumers (and emitters) and make it trendy to be virtual consumers instead. We already intermediate our avatars with our physical selves. Byron Reeves, who participated in our ‘Collective Intelligence in Synthetic Environments‘ mixed-reality workshop last February with the Santa Fe Institute, Stanford, and MIT, spoke about this at the recent Virtual Goods Summit. He said that ‘the same neurons fire when an avatar smiles at you as when a real person does’. So if we are biologically hard-wired to believe that avatars are people really smiling at you, can we also trick ourselves into believing that we are profligately consuming resources (and thus satisfy the consumption = status urge) when actually we are just expending just a few electrons? Or, have I completely slid off my rocker? Comments or suggested medication welcome.