Exploratory philanthopy and public-service content

Gates' telescope

While this might be a typically hilarious technocratic and somewhat bloodless statement by Bill Gates, you have to admire the project itself:

‘”LSST is truly an internet telescope which will put terabytes of data each night into the hands of anyone that wants to explore it. [It is] a shared resource for all humanity – the ultimate network peripheral device to explore the universe,” he said.’

Gates gives $10m, Charles Simonyi gives 20$m. Various other software billionaires are exploring the human genome, or building space programmes.

In the past I’ve somewhat facetiously wondered what would happen if the BBC used it’s annual billions to move into space exploration, creating entertainments as spin-off.

A question I asked Max and Jack in the pub before Christmas was – what if these ‘exploratory billionaires’ made a land-grab for the public-service broadcaster’s territory instead?

Gates after all already owns Corbis etc., Google is mapping and measuring the Earth constantly for representation. While these are definitely for-profit enterprises, what if Larry and Sergey et al decided not to settle for just Google Earth but go after “Planet Earth” also?

If Google decided to beat the BBC’s Natural History Unit at it’s own game, what would be the result?

What if they decided to devote technology, money, phd’s and determination to mapping, recording, simulating, visualising and telling stories of the natural world with data rather than film. A kind of Quokka-for-nature, might be one possible outcome I guess.

What if they offered all of the data and assets they gather to scientists, students, schoolkids, storytellers with an open license? What if they gave it to games developers, educators, exhibitions to be used in playful, interactive, engaging ways?

Currently in the domain of natural history, there are efforts to build a ‘commons of content’ such as ARKive that are, pretty good, (although the Terms of Service are not exactly inviting) but you can’t help thinking if someone of the GOOG mindset and resource-base got their hands on it, it would be truly, literally awe-inspiring.

I guess the thrust of my question is what happens when software people with serious resources behind them get very, very serious about what’s traditionally seen as the preserve of ‘content’ or ‘editorial’.

Often at ‘content companies’, especially notable public-service broadcasters (ahem) – the great teams taking technical, systemic approaches to knowledge are indulged and somewhat encouraged at early stages, but if there is a spark of promise then ‘of course someone editorial will be brought in’ above them.

This does not often end well.

The troubling thought, that even in core areas of expertise with glorious heritage such as natural history, we’ll see that public-service broadcasters can, and will get dis-intermediated in a world where data is played with as much as stories are told.

Based on the rise of ‘exploratory philanthopy’ that aims to create “a shared resource for all humanity” as evidenced in quotes like Gate’s above, this might not be a bad thing…

Worldchanging, unfortunately.

Al Gore at the Hay Festival:

“We now have the capacity to literally change the relationship between the Earth and the sun.”

Now if only that nice turn-of-phrase were being used in the audacious-superfuture-planetary-scale-engineering-Dyson-Sphere sense…

And, via LMG, here’s the trailer to Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth”


Via 3QD: John Allen Paulos on telling just-so stories about the complexity in an article called “The Mousetrap” in Edge:

“Let me begin by asking how it is that modern free market economies are as complex as they are, boasting amazingly elaborate production, distribution and communication systems? Go into almost any drug store and you can find your favourite candy bar. And what’s true at the personal level is true at the industrial level. Somehow there are enough ball bearings and computer chips in just the right places in factories all over the country. The physical infrastructure and communication networks are also marvels of integrated complexity. Fuel supplies are, by and large, where they’re needed. Email reaches you in Miami as well as in Milwaukee, not to mention Barcelona and Bangkok.

The natural question, discussed first by Adam Smith and later by Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper among others, is who designed this marvel of complexity? Which commissar decreed the number of packets of dental floss for each retail outlet? The answer, of course, is that no economic god designed this system. It emerged and grew by itself. No one argues that all the components of the candy bar distribution system must have been put into place at once, or else there would be no Snickers at the corner store.”

Arthouse biotech

is a phrase that’s been blowing around in my head since I was in Austin, talking with Otwell and Boyd (which sounds like a great law firm, or a promising wacky misfit information science / buddy-cop pilot)

At /play, where nonsense lives, I wrote this:

Raiding the 21st century

The next step in cut-up culture
Arthouse biotech
Wetwork warhols
Nanobiological burroughs
Performance creationism
Xoological situationism
Some assembly required
Crick, Watson, Double-dee, Steinski.
Intelligent design as artistic statement
Playing god, 5 times a week with 2 matinees
Mashup mammals

Ellis writes tales of the Spidergoat.

Reality is entering the Silver-Age.

If you think it’s been getting wierd around here lately, and I should really be writing reams and reams about bloody tags or something; then tough.

When the going gets wierd – the wierd apply for patents.

Life imitates Grant Morrison

Via Foe’s del.icio.us, Wired News report on findings by Imperial College:

” Most of the cells in your body are not your own, nor are they even human. They are bacterial. From the invisible strands of fungi waiting to sprout between our toes, to the kilogram of bacterial matter in our guts, we are best viewed as walking “superorganisms,” highly complex conglomerations of human, fungal, bacterial and viral cells.”

I find this kind of awe-inspiring and lovely. We’re all just the filth.

Surfing on a soliton

There’s an excellent little programme running each day this week at 3:45pm GMT on BBC Radio 4 called “How to find the sweetspot”. It’s an investigation of the circumstances of ‘sweetspots’ in nature.

I listened yesterday, to an episode about ‘rogue-waves’, with Australian physicist Len Fisher strewth-ing his way down the ‘soliton’ of the Severn Bore on a surfboard while another physicist colleague of his commented on the “singularity” that Len was being propelled along on. Excellent stuff.

Unfortunately, it’s one of an ‘underclass’ of programmes on the BBC that don’t have a permanent URL (yet) for either the programme or the stream – so I’ve (ahem) rescued yesterday’s programme and you can get it for one week only (or until Dan Hill beats me up) here.