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Trading in Atoms for Bits

October 8, 2007

We face an environmental crisis. Average per capita energy consumption is too high and growing. Neither current levels nor projected trends are sustainable. Mother Earth is having none of it. Some have concluded that sooner or later we will either all have to learn to eat our evening meals in the dark – steering our forks towards our mouth by drawing on what is left of our echolocation skills – or we will have to vastly expand the US space program so as to export those who are surplus to requirement towards some currently under-developed exo-planet suffering from labor shortages, and hence in need of immigrants.

But, although it won’t much appeal to either Dick Cheney or Vladimir Putin, there is a ready alternative. In Nicholas Negroponte’s immortal words, we must learn to trade in atoms for bits, that is, replace energy-based material inputs with information-based knowledge inputs. Instead of heating or cooling the untenanted vastness of your house, on the speculative assumption that you will be occupying some part of it, for example, why not delegate the job to intelligent clothes that can sense exactly which parts of your anatomy need warming up and which parts could do with a spot of cooling? And instead of flying off to Hong Kong for that indispensable business meeting, leaving behind you a Godzilla-like carbon footprint in the sky, why not just surround your desk with ego-enhancing screens linked in to FaceBook ? Could this wrap-around video-conferencing fantasy also substitute for vacations in Malaysia? Wait a couple of Internet generations – ie, until next week – and it might, just. The screens would have to be bigger, of course, and the pixels would have to be smaller if you simultaneously wanted to capture with a single sweep of the camera the sunset over Penang and the tarantula that has just crept into your bed. And if you wanted your vacation to be more than just a fish-lens brochure, your other senses could also be brought into play without necessarily invoking advanced technology. You could achieve the sensation of sand on your feet, for example, by just keeping your floor unswept for a couple of weeks. And a passable simulation of a tropical downpour would only require you to neglect your roof repairs for a few years. Would Malaysia lose out from this substitution of software for sand? Not if they were writing the software, they wouldn’t. In fact, as their beaches were gradually emptied of their latent couch potatoes, the place would go back to its early pristine state, thus offering through simulations a degree of authenticity that current offerings could never hope to match.

This omni-directional substitution of information for energy is already well under way. It will penetrate every nook and cranny of the new economy. As we gradually learn to replace direct experiences with simulated ones, we will revolutionize Hollywood’s business models: instead of charging us to go to the movies, they will charge us to get out of them. At that point, reality itself will have become a scarce resource. Do I hear you asking me to ‘get real’? I’m sorry, I can’t afford to.

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