Free Energy?

When I first moved into my neighborhood I kept seeing this ghostly red pinacle over the treetops. Thanks to the surrounding buildings you can only clearly see what's going on from a few vantage points, but I eventually found one and discovered that it's a watertower basking in neon glow.

The source being the Pilsbury sign, facing off with the Gold Medal sign across the river, pictured last week. While not quite as efficient as something like a LED, the neon discharge tube is far and away the most energy-efficient technology able to produce light in this sort of industrial quantity.

Free as in Free Software, that is. Or to be a bit more slogantastic, not free as in beer (to quote the article I'm about to crtique, "free as in fusion"). How about free as in free to open a post in the least useful way possible, then?

Moving on. At my house we've been doing some winterizing, so energy is on my mind. One of the Debian bloggers pointed me to an article that proposes a free energy movement analogous to the Free Software or Free Culture phenomena. Obviously the parallel envisioned is in tactics, since software and joules behave fundamentally differently as commodities. See, e.g., conservation laws. And while I'm not sure the comparison drawn is sufficiently precise as to be useful, the underlying idea merits some thought.

At root, the question is how new technology and media -- specifically the many-to-many interactions that networked life delivers -- can be exploited to organically create more beneficial modes of relating to energy. Free Software created an alternative and self-amplifying marketplace for code that subverts copyright law to counteract the negative impacts of proprietary software. It worked as far back as the 1980s because, while networks only reached the technical elite, that audience was exactly the one with the skills and motivation to create software. Free Culture is a derivative effort to create an alternative marketplace for expression, designed to grow outside the bounds of media conglomeration, which is working because, again, the social classes with access to fast networks and multimedia hardware are also those priviledged with the leisure time and education to pursue creative endeavors without remuneration.

Come at from this direction, we see the outlines of why something analogous might work for energy. Most of the world's energy is consumed by technologically advanced Westerners (although the more useful term, I've stated before, is the Global North, not West), who are by now almost universally connected to global packet networks. We do run into a problem of motivation, since these affluent classes will also be best insulated from climate change -- but their lifestyles are the most sensitive to depleting nonrenewable energy reserves. Thus networks might be a plausible vector for change, but what is the mechanism?

The article gives product energy labeling as an example. In this scheme of things, networks can be used to collaboratively generate a shared symbolic vocabulary allowing consumers to directly compare, say, the carbon footprints of two products. The idea has merit. One notion that informs Free Software and Free Culture thinking is that everyday artifacts can be made disruptive in context. This can be done -- routinely is done -- by arranging for a mundane object to represent a question whose answer would otherwise have been taken for granted by the user. In the case of the above mentioned movements, the central question is, can I share this thing? For Free Energy the corresponding technique is to present the consumer with an unexpected choice, of how much energy to consume in using a thing.

There are a few problems here. Products are already awash in brands disguised as choices, for one thing, including those designed to mark some as more environmentally friendly than others. The trouble is that, with all those brands on the shelf, the choice is already framed as a three-way tug-of-war between altruism, quality, and price. So I don't think presenting an additional choice here is really all that revolutionary. There's a larger difficulty here, though.

Ultimately a scheme like product energy labelling is just tinkering at the margins, because we already know where our energy goes -- moving our heavy, ubiquitous vehicles and moderating the temperature swings of our temperate zone habitats. Energy efficiency in our engines and construction goes a long way, as does revamping our economy to move fewer people and things over shorter distances. Both of these goals require fairly substantial changes in the real world, but both are also driven by the economic choices of individuals. In short, most everyone already knows what to do to conserve energy: drive less, insulate buildings, buy goods that don't have to be shipped enormous distances. This should be common sense, except that right now energy costs less than skilled labor, efficient materials, or our own time. As long as energy remains artificially cheap these options will look like luxury lifestyle choices.

So insofar as our networks provide an infrastructure within which to collaboratively debug, upgrade, and disseminate improved lifestyles, we might be onto something. But we don't just need better symbolic vocabularies -- we need re-engineered marketplaces that correctly reflect the price of energy.

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This page contains a single entry by Milligan published on November 21, 2006 9:29 PM.

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