Scanning Retrospective, No. 4

Foresight Snippets – No. 4

[Originally published] 15 January 2001

  • Does Reading Harry Potter Cause Global Warming?
  • Oops! A New Bio-Weapon
  • Back to the Future: 2001 — Is Tablet Computing About to Go Mainstream?

Does Reading Harry Potter Cause Global Warming?

Quite possibly, according to a paper published in the [November]* 2000 edition of IEEE Spectrum. The paper — entitled “Harry Potter and the Health of the Environment” — alerts us to the fact that so far hundreds of thousands of copies of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire have been delivered to on-line customers by e-commerce superstar ( And that probably most of the 400g or so of packaging used to deliver these books tends to go directly to landfill. Add to this the carbon dioxide produced by aircraft and delivery trucks, and one is forced to consider the actual physical impact of “virtual” e-commerce on the global environment. While it is true that individual shoppers don’t have to drive to the shops to buy a copy of the book, the overall CO2 impact is as yet unknown. Some fear it may be negative. The paper concludes: “While Harry Potter cannot be branded as the primary contributor to global climate change, the net effect of the current e-commerce systems is unclear.”

Source: IEEE Spectrum, [November]* 2000

* Initially given incorrectly as “October” which was the date given on the pre-print, not the actual date of final publication.

​Oops! A New Bio-Weapon

In the 1956 story “Consider Her Ways” by John Wyndham (best known for The Day of the Triffids) all human males are killed off worldwide when a virus, originally meant as a pest control measure for rats and rabbits in Australia, mutates and enters the human population. In the story, a future historian looking back at the twentieth century remarks that this devastating epidemic happened “… simply by accident … — though it was the kind of accident that was entirely the product of its time. A piece of research which showed unexpected, secondary results, that’s all.”

Well, in an eerie echo of this story, New Scientist reported last week:

“A virus that kills every one of its victims … has been accidentally created by an Australian research team. The virus, a modified mousepox, does not affect humans, but it is closely related to smallpox, raising fears that the technology could be used in biowarfare. … The researchers had no intention of producing a killer virus. They were merely trying to make a mouse contraceptive vaccine for pest control.”

The article then goes on to note that the genetic engineering technique used could be easily adapted to create a completely lethal, vaccine-resistant form of human smallpox for use as a biological weapon. One of the researchers comments:

“It would be safe to assume that if some idiot [modified] human smallpox [in this way] they’d increase the lethality quite dramatically. Seeing the consequences of what happened in the mice, I wouldn’t be the one who’d want to do the experiment.”

This has led to calls for strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention — an international agreement opposing the development of biological weapons.

Source: New Scientist

​Back to the Future: 2001 — Is Tablet Computing About to Go Mainstream?

Well, it’s 2001 at last, so — recalling that Arthur C Clarke published a paper outlining the idea of geo-synchronous communications satellites in 1945 — let’s have a look at one of the ideas presented by Kubrick and Clarke in the book/film 2001: A Space Odyssey to see how well it has stacked up in the intervening three decades.

In the book, Clarke wrote the following passage:

“There was plenty to occupy his time, even if he [Dr. Heywood Floyd] did nothing but sit and read. When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes, he would plug his foolscap-sized Newspad into the ship’s information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one he would conjure up the world’s major electronic newspapers.”

In the film, the astronauts watched their TV interview on a Newspad, which was shown as a flat, A4-sized “tablet” screen.

While so-called “tablet computing” has been in research and development for at least twenty years, until recently the devices have been clunky and lacking in enough features to make them commercially popular. However, in the same way the Internet became very popular once a critical threshold of ease-of-use was passed (with the Netscape browser), so it seems that tablet computing may be about to come of age. A number of critical aspects have finally come together: fast processors; mainstream operating systems; large capacity; handwriting and speech recognition; wireless networking, video conferencing, reasonably low-cost high-speed internet connectivity, etc etc. The point is that certain key user features are now available in a single unit, with about the same size, weight, price and functionality as that of a conventional laptop computer. Add to this the connectivity of the Web (via a wireless network), coupled with the fact that many major newspapers have Web editions, and we have pretty much arrived at the idea of Clarke and Kubrick for this form of information device. There is even a consortium in Europe designing a specialist single-purpose electronic news tablet called … yep … “NewsPAD.”

Sources: Detroit News Online
Aqcess Technologies Web Site
NewsPAD Home Page

Foresight Snippets are interesting, intriguing or weird things we find during our strategic scanning which may or may not have direct obvious relevance to Swinburne, but which do provide signals about what the future might be like. Brought to you by the Foresight & Planning Unit.

An archive of the Foresight Snippets and a list of Frequently Asked Questions are available at [deleted].

Copyright © 2001 FPU and Swinburne University of Technology.
Feedback is welcome. Send feedback to [deleted].

NOTE: In all the posts in this series, the original source URLs are left exactly as they were when published 20-odd years ago. This means they will almost certainly be dead links (or good ol’ 404 errors). I do not have the patience or inclination to follow-up or find any archived or re-located versions of those web pages (because, well, life is too short). But, if it really bugs you, I invite you to see if you can find archived or relocated versions of those dead-link pages. And if you do, let me know, and I’ll update these posts with due credit to your detective work.

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