"Choice manifests itself in society in small
increments and moment-to-moment decisions as well as in loud dramatic
struggles; and he who does not see choice in the development of the machine
merely betrays his incapacity to observe cumulative effects until they seem
completely external and impersonal."
-- Lewis Mumford --
Flashback. When the Zoning Council first started working on
the rules for the vCity simulation, we recognized that we would have to make
some fundamental technological choices about what systems the vCity would
provide. Conceptually, therefore, we were in a box canyon from the get-go,
because the flaw in all simulations is that they can only reproduce what the
program allows them to reproduce. In other words, to use a tired old
cliché, "garbage in, garbage out."
I had a devil of a time convincing my superiors -- and I
use that term loosely -- to create an open-ended simulation that allowed the
users themselves to change the infrastructure over time. It was the only way I
could see out of the trap.
I told them the old story of the wealthy man who refused to
give to charity. The rabbi beckoned him over to a glass window and said, "look
out -- what do you see?"
"I see the world," said the rich man.
"Now look at this mirror. What do you see?"
"I see myself."
The rabbi shook his head. "Amazing, isn't it? Cover clear
glass with a little silver, and you see only yourself."
I argued that the corporation could not afford to create a
virtual reality setting that only our corporation wanted to see. That would be
worse, I explained, than believing our own press releases. At that point I saw
some of the light bulbs began to click on.
Still, the point of the vCity was to investigate future
markets before they developed, and so to some extent the virtual reality had to
mimic real reality. But which reality? That is to say, given a choice of
competing technological, political, social, and economic systems, which ones to
choose for the initial settings? It didn't matter, I argued, as long as we
allowed the users to change it later. Start with North American information age
capitalist democracy if you must. Just make sure that anything our users come
up with later does not defy the laws of physics as we understand them. Force
them to explain themselves, and learn from them.
The first technical system that we "imposed" was the one
that we knew best, namely, the
telecomm/comp/edu/info/finance/advert/entertainment industry. Affectionately
known among aficionados as The Blob. More generally referred to as the
"convergence" of hardware, software, and internetworking. Oh, and the creation
and ownership of digital content and digital money.
The telecomm system of the vCity was created to demonstrate
some basic principles in which our corporation believed. At times I thought it
was dangerously close to self-serving narcissism, but in the end I agreed that
it was not a bad place to start. The first rule was true and fair competition
in every telecomm marketplace. You name it: hardware, software, and customer
support and service for every aspect of production, refining, distribution,
storage, consumption, or reproduction of electronic or photonic data,
information, knowledge and amusement.
Our first rule of thumb -- somewhat ironic, in light of
subsequent events -- was that anything should be allowed to go anywhere at
anytime. All data content would be unrestricted, uncensored, and unexamined.
However, our second rule of thumb was that the citizens
should retain legal title to every scrap of frequency spectrum, every micron of
wire and/or fiber on public domain, and every archebyte (data stored or
generated in the vCity Data Freewarehouse).
This was obviously a peculiar mixture of techno-economic
theories out of which we struggled to make some sense. In the world of the
vCity, and therefore of the real future, there would be no restriction on any
form of private networking. Ziggurat-towers in Plasteel Canyon, for example,
could install their own fiber-optic rings for the ultimate in
ftp/telnet/audio/video/holographic pleasure. They could have their own form of
electronic currency, their own proprietary laws about software and copyright,
and their own security devices. But the nanosecond anyone would want to use the
public domain -- the airwaves or the millions of kilometers of datalines laid
out alongside public tracks, roads, cables, and pipes -- then they would be
bound by the Rule Of The People.
Our executives read all of this and asked the Zoning
Council, "So, what does all that mumbo-jumbo mean?"
So I wrote a short essay trying to clarify the point:
We estimated, when we first set up the vCity
infrastructure, that the average single-family home by the year 2010 A.D. would
have 5-10 telecomm connections of one form or another including frequency
(wireless) receiver/transmitter, satellite receiver, and metal wire and optical
(cable) receiver/transmitters. We knew that they would perform different
functions at different rates, but what they would all have in common would be
the manipulation of digital data. We guessed that telecomm connections would
carry information to and from the city on the conditions of the house, the
financial status of the owner, the medical status of the inhabitants, as well
as text, voice, audio/video/holo, and real-time interactive telepresence.
Not surprisingly, some of this came to pass by the year
2002. We saw it happen in the vCity itself. After the Deregulation fever
epidemic of 1995-98, which began in the United States and spread quickly to all
parts of the globe, the number of telecomm corporations jumped to -- at last
count -- 317. Many of these established simmcorps in the vCity, to advertise
their wares and services. Of these, more than 75% are engaged in networking and
long-distance carrying. The remainder are a mixture of software and hardware
producing, distribution, and retail firms.
Today, there are 23 full-service transnational telecomm
conglomerates that compete for every bit (pun intended) of business everywhere,
all the time. Naturally, we like to think of ourselves as the best. This public
service announcement brought to you by the boys and girls at Corporate Public
I can remember when, after The Great Deregulation, people
back then thought that television advertising was irritating. That was a
morgue compared to the multicolored bazaar of today.
Fortunately, the vCitizens came to the rescue. One of the
vCitizens of Grunge (the other Belowtown sector) invented "blather-reduction"
software and distributed it freely through the vCity Data Freewarehouse. So now
it is possible to screen out and ignore unbidden advertisements. As a matter of
fact, we sell a similar software package called Sheket (Copyright) for only
$4.95 plus applicable sales tax. Funny how it never seems to work on our
Another example of technological choice was the power
system. We knew right away that this one was going to cause no end of
controversy. Modern civilization runs on electricity. That simple declarative
sentence was a novel truth for most of North America and Europe by 1930, and
the rest of the world by 1960, but by 1997 it hardly even merited a yawn. Which
made the fragility of existing centralized power production and distribution
networks all the more puzzling. We figured it must have had something to do
with either economics, politics, or ignorance.
Our solution was to decentralize the power grid. We
wouldn't have bothered to tweak the tiger by the tail, but in the U.S. the
tiger -- that is to say, electric utility companies -- started to horn in on
our territory, so we figured we'd hit them below the belt with some
Electric power consumption is something everyone can
understand at the local level. Turn the switch, the appliances work, and at the
end of the month one gets a bill from the power company for the number of
kilowatts consumed. Strangely, it never seems to work in the opposite
direction. Suppose that one decided to place a generator in one's backyard. One
links it up to one's house, and one can run all one's appliances, no fuss, no
muss. Let's say, in fact, that this generator generates more electricity than
one can use personally. Why not sell the surplus kilowatts to the power
Why not? Because they don't want to buy it, that's
why not. And why is that? Well, partially because dealing with hundreds of
thousands of electricity sellers is a bit of pain in the posterior, admittedly.
But the fundamental reason is that power corporations don't want to encourage
competition. If everyone starts generating electricity, then the overall price
per kilowatt goes down, and how then are they going to pay off the loans they
borrowed to build power plants and networks?
In the real world, if one starts trying to sell electricity
to one's neighbors, a nice friendly local law enforcement officer will likely
drop by for a visit, followed in rapid succession by various legal
representatives. Actually, sometimes it works. As long as people agree to
incorporate, be regulated and supervised by the government, and pay corporate
taxes, there's nothing illegal about becoming a power company. It depends on
the laws of the state. Some towns in the U.S. and elsewhere do it. And the big
power companies do, in fact, buy kilowatts from them.
Anyway, we decided that in the vCity, and thus in the world
of the future, every citizen and every corporation would have the "legal" right
to produce electricity at the local level of domicile, building, or
facility. There would be no single power company per se, but rather hundreds of
thousands of them, some very small, and some very large. Electricity would be
purchased from, or sold to, the "open market". The price of a kilowatt would
fluctuate and depend upon instant market conditions of supply and demand at the
instant of purchase or sale. All of this would be monitored presumably by some
pretty sophisticated telecomm and financial network software operated by the
vCity Electrical Power Information Center.
One of the interesting side effects of decentralizing power
generation, we figured, is that it would give individuals an additional
monetary incentive to conserve when demand is high. With the correct freeware
they would know exactly when to produce electricity for sale and/or cut back
what they are buying to make the highest profit.
We figured that the major political/economic difference
between the vCity power distribution network and those currently in the real
world is that in the future, private corporations would operate pieces of the
network for profit, but wouldn't own any of it. The people would retain
title to every meter of cable/line right up to private property. Local
government would rent a local area power network for a high monthly fixed fee,
but would deduct the cost of replacements and improvements from either rent or
annual taxes. We guessed that this would encourage private power distribution
companies to operate efficiently and spend lots on refurbishment in order to
really boost their real and paper profits. The local citizens would retain the
right to kick out a bad "power distribution" tenant. So good customer service
would be a must. What a concept.
We encouraged the vCitizens to come up with ideas for
generating electricity using appropriate technologies. That meant, especially
in densely populated areas, non-polluting machinery. The people responded
enthusiastically, and they are thinking up new ways all the time. I already
mentioned the guy who wanted to generate electricity from eels.
The most socially efficient form of generating electricity,
as many people showcased on their VR sites, is to use human power. By sitting
on a contraption that looks very much like an exercise bicycle stand, a human
can generate small amounts of current on the order of 10-20 watts simply by
spinning magnets. This is, technically, an inefficient way to generate large
amounts of electricity. One would have to line 40 people up in a row just to
get the microwave oven going. Socially, however, it is extremely
efficient because it provides so many social benefits. First of all, it places
the ability to generate electricity direct into the, er, legs of the
individual. It is the ultimate in decentralization of power. Secondly, it can
be done anytime, virtually anywhere, and with very low capital investment, to
reduce individual demands upon the overall power system. And best of all, it
allows humans to convert unwanted fat calories into kilowatts. The health care
benefits of regular exercise are enormous, especially in a future where people
will mostly sit around on their buttinskis pushing electrons all day.
Many people also set up VR sites to demonstrate the
potential of other sustainable, renewable sources of power generation such as
wind, water, and thermal differentials. Their ideas were a little bit more
capital intensive, but perfectly legitimate from a technical point of view.
None of them were banned.
Wind is an ancient ally used by mankind for millennia for
all forms of pre-electric power, including sailing ships, driving mills, and
drying laundry. Wind is a fickle ally, unfortunately, which makes it difficult
to harness for generating electricity. In theory, the trick is simple. Set up a
fan with N rotary blades, attach to shaft, spin magnets, generate current.
Disadvantages? The wind stops. Obviously then, one has to set up wind turbines
in an area where the wind blows consistently, for example, Capitol Hill. Such
places exist but they're rare, and at them no one ever has a good hair
day. In the vCity, we recognized only a few constant-wind locales: The
Canyon, and, because of the peculiarities of architecture, some parts of
Plasteel Canyon too.
Many vCitizens pointed out that moving water is an
excellent consistent and renewable source for generating electricity. This was
not an original thought; the water-driven turbine generator is a hoary
technology more than a century old. Geographically, the vCity is blessed with a
number of mountain-born, snow-fed, fast-moving virtual rivers and streams that
could drive modern, high-efficiency turbines.
For example, one of our clients (Registry Protected) set up
a simmcorp called The Hydroelectric Power Corporation using Advanced
Technology. HEPCAT built and operated a vCity-leased Dam up at Big Dam
Naturally, the site wasn't up for more than two weeks
before we heard from the environmentalists, who wanted the site banned
on the grounds that dams create havoc on surrounding soil and existing drainage
and the ecosystem. After much e-mail lamentation back and forth, we let it
stand on the grounds that vBeavers started it, and HEPCAT was merely adopting
People can get pretty upset over virtual reality. Who would
have thought we'd be having a NIMvBY problem?
Another source of moving water that is only beginning to be
seriously studied for its potential for generating electricity is the tidewater
and ocean. I am absolutely agog with the different theories and proposals for
tapping the power of waves and tides. The simplest, small-scale ones do seem to
be the best: undershoot water wheels generating small amounts of alternating
direct current. Kinda cute. Disadvantages? Time and tide is the ultimate
universal dissolvent. There's not a construction technology invented yet
that is impervious to the combined forces of erosion, salt corrosion,
sandblasting, and wind damage that the average ocean applies in a given decade
Deep water also offers electricity generating potential.
The OffShore Alternate Energy Corporation (a simmcorp for a Registry Protected
company) set up a very interesting techsimm. In their VR site, they converted
an old oil-drilling platform into a testbed for generating current from
temperature differentials. They drive turbines by recycling ammonia through a
vaporization/condensation loop. Kinda neat.
We had an argument about that one, too. Oceanologists
complained about the unknown environmental effects of heating the bottom of the
ocean very slightly. It's okay for a testbed, they argued, but what if
everyone starts doing it? Other people said the platform looked
My major concern, which I put forth to the OAEC, was: you
can generate electricity out in the middle of the deep blue, what do you
propose to do with it? The OAEC guy e-wrote me back suggesting that OAEC hoped
to electrolyze seawater into liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen for the fuel
cell industry. I told him that between the environmental impact statements and
the safety problems of shipping & handling, he would be in danger of
drowning in an ocean of paperwork.
Keep fishing, guys. Maybe one day you'll be able to sell
kilowatts to passing boats or something.
Another similarly complex generator technology using
temperature differentials that shows some promise is earth-based. Not too far
from Volcano Slopes, the Hot Times Corporation (a simmcorps, Registry
Protected) is studying the regulated flow of super-heated steam to drive
turbine generators. Using water instead of ammonia makes the environmental
concerns less troublesome, and they do appear to have had some limited success
at making the project work.
There is one thing the HTC doesn't advertise in their VR
site, though. I once called up the engineering director at the real world and
asked him if they had learned anything from their techsimm.
"Yeah," he replied, "the damn pipes keep breaking."
Apparently no matter how favorably they tweaked the variables, their simulation
kept showing that it is very hard to invent a pipe that can resist both
tremendous internal dynamic forces and external torsion resulting from
Still other vCitizens proudly designed their office
buildings and domiciles using solar energy: specifically, photovoltaic (PV) and
solar dynamic (SD) systems. A lot of people still don't know what these are,
even in the year 2002, so I'll backfill for a moment here.
Photovoltaic cells by definition convert photons into
direct electric current. Put a bunch of 'em (called an "array") together, and
presto, instant juice. Rotate these arrays to track the sun (if sunflowers can
do it, so can we), and more juice. Voltage problem? Convert it into alternating
Solar dynamic reflectors are also hot items (yes, pun
intended) using a process beloved in politics: smoke and mirrors. To be more
precise, an SD dish is a parabolic mirror that concentrates the sun's rays at a
single focal point. Pump a liquid through this spot, and you get very hot
liquid or gas that wants to go places. It can be used to do all sorts of
interesting things, such as turn a turbine. Spinning magnets is not only a
wacky way to pass the time, but it also produces electrical current. Siphon off
part of that juice to pump the (now cooled) liquid back into the loop, and
you've got yourself a nice perpetual energy generator, gift of the sun (a/k/a
I pointed out to the sun-worshippers that they were
ignoring some problems that would not be apparent in a VR setting, but which
certainly would be a problem in real reality. For one thing, things like clouds
and neighboring buildings can cut down on solar efficiency. Secondly, Gallium
Arsenide cells or their technological brethren aren't peanut butter sandwiches.
There's a toxicity in PV cell production that's dangerous, not to mention the
cost of production and replacement. The newer processes to etch directly on to
thin plastic films might have solved that problem, but I doubt it. As for the
SD systems, I thought they looked like Rube Goldbergian devices that would
require a high level of sophisticated maintenance and repair (an ammonia leak
in one's two-phase thermal loop isn't exactly the equivalent of the pot boiling
over on the stove). Also, an SD system requires consistent sunlight to be
effective and efficient. Excellent for places such as Antarctica from October
through March, but what about the rest of the Earth?
I was tempted to add that there were a number of ways to
use passive solar heating to convert sunlight directly into heat without
bothering with electricity. But I didn't want to seem like a spoilsport, so I
let the matter slide.
Some vCitizens, individuals and representatives from real
world corporations, decided to design VR sites to showcase their ideas for
other kinds of power generators and power plants. Although none of these sites
were banned, we had several hellacious disputes over the few referendums
that did come up.
Several people, including one real world corporation in
California that designs buses and trucks, proposed using fuel cells. Fuel cells
aren't rocket science, although they were used in early spacecraft technology.
Very simple concept to generate electricity from hydrogen and oxygen using the
fact that the former yearns to give up an electron to the latter. A few
electrodes and you're in business. Advocates bally-hooed this technology
because it is non-polluting and has an endless supply of fuel (water).
I, and others, pointed out the flaws in the concept. First
of all, you're going to need a whole lotta oxygen and hydrogen to do this, we
told them. Storing this is a pain in the buttinski. You can solve your volume
problem by using liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen (LOX). Unfortunately, liquid
hydrogen and LOX aren't just found lying around in pools. Someone has to
make the stuff and bottle it and transport it. Secondly, making hydrogen
and oxygen from water, not to mention cooling them down to liquid, will require
lots of electricity. Oops.
Still, in the overall environmental sense this Rube
Goldbergian system of relying on fuel cells was a lot less ridiculous than the
existing petrochemical industry, so the sites stayed.
Others wanted to burn trash. Organic waste matter is
actually a good source of fuel. While most of it should be returned to the
soil, a significant by-product of decomposition is methane gas. Methane can be
burned to heat water into steam, turning turbines, etcetera, etcetera. Or, in a
less soil-friendly way, one can just burn biomass directly as a source of fuel
The major issue here was not whether incinerators were
technical feasible or economical, but were they socially desirable and
sustainable? A methane extraction, or plain biomass-burning, power plant is a
big capital investment. It's noisy, it's ugly, and it can be smelly. Great care
has to be taken to separate out things that can be burned from things that
shouldn't be, for environmental and economic reasons. Even if small, affordable
"neighborhood" burners are built and installed and operated, the fact remains
that burning biomass removes it from the ecosystem and converts it into
atmosphere, where it may be some time before it reconverts back into organisms
That vote was a very close one, helped, I think, by the
fact that in the vCity, there aren't any bad odors. MSE equipment hasn't
progressed to the point that people can start releasing odors upon each other.
Personally, I don't mind if that's an innovation that never occurs.
All hell broke loose when the Advanced Plasma Physics
Laboratory in Princeton, N.J. set up a site in the desert ecosystem to showcase
its work on a fusion reactor. Since the federal government had mauled APPL
funding, the only thing left for the Lab to do was virtual reality testing. So
they had developed, in the late 1990s, this tremendous VR program which they
eventually hitched up to a portal in the vCity. By linking to the site in the
vCity, people could see exactly how a fusion reactor might work.
I thought this was a very cool techsimm, but a lot of
people had a lot of problems with it. The desert environmentalists went
apeshit, fearing the results of a catastrophic failure. What most people do not
understand, contrary to many exciting blow-em-up scenes in the movies, is that
the results of catastrophic failure to maintain plasma in a magnetic
containment field is pretty dull. It goes ploop, and everything stops. No, the
problem the environmentalists had with the fusion reactor was that it required
a fission reactor for start-up. To produce more power than it consumes,
a fusion power plant is literally one big sucker.
A lot of engineers from around the world also criticized
the model because, aside from the fact that the experts haven't even figured
out how to sustain a core over the long-term, nobody knows exactly how to link
that core to more traditional forms of steam or molten-salt driven turbine
technology. I thought that was pretty funny -- engineers arguing against a
model of a future technology on the grounds that they hadn't invented parts of
it yet. Huh? What did they think the vCity was for? Advertising?
Actually, the best argument against the establishment of a
fusion power generator was the same one used against the establishment of
fission power generators. Just because something is technically possible and
economically efficient, argued the critics, doesn't mean it is socially
desirable or politically "efficient". Laying aside public safety concerns about
containment and long-term storage of spent fuel rods, nuclear fission plants
are essentially undemocratic because they concentrate political and economic
power instead of decentralizing it. So even if they do bring desirable things
to the table, such as plenty of kilowatts at low air pollution cost, they carry
with them unwanted socio-political baggage.
Where is that letter? Ah, here it is, I still have this one
in the archives. Here is what one of our vCitizens wrote about the issue of
Big power plants of any kind are centralizing -- in
of capital, labor, and political authority -- when the whole
is to decentralize wherever possible. Nevertheless, the
older technologies of steam-turbine generators fueled by
gas, or coal are somewhat democratic in the sense that they
understandable, reproducible on a medium-size scale, and
The advantages of using regular and exotic forms of
and petrochemical fuels is obvious: more kilowatts per
kilogram of fuel.
The disadvantages are legion. It's hard to say which does
damage: despoiling the landscape and seascape, flora, and
by drilling and mining; despoiling various parts of the
spilling stuff all over the place; polluting the air, water,
by refining and distribution; by releasing toxic by-products
the atmosphere; by creating architectural eyesores upon the
or by diverting human resources that could probably be put
to better use elsewhere.
Now, as you might imagine, by the simple act of choosing a
decentralized power system as a model for the future, we thrilled the power
corporations of the world to death. Being monopolists, they reacted --
predictably, I might add -- with about as much enthusiasm as a covey of Jesuits
at a heretic convention.
We received no end of badgering and whining from these
guys, who claimed that allowing everyone to generate electricity would cause a
mass environmental disaster. True, I told them, if everyone were so
foolish as to stick to the same polluting technologies used traditionally by
existing power companies. That reply stimulated more e-mail and phone calls. In
several different languages.
"Look," I finally told one of their investor analyst
relations personnel, who had been complaining about something or other,
"instead of moaning about it, why don't you get into the game? Grass grows
better for being stepped upon. If your ideas have merit, showcase them in a VR
site in the vCity. If you think your monopoly should be preserved, explain it
to the people."
She hung up on me.