A World Built to Burn ⊗ Bundling & Unbundling ⊗ Neural nets, people all the way down ⊗ Moderation creates communities ⊗ Catalonian activism — No.100

This week → A World We Built to Burn ⊗ Bundling and Unbundling ⊗ Neural nets are just people all the way down ⊗ Twitch CEO Emmett Shear on how moderation creates communities ⊗ Catalonia has created a new kind of online activism. Everyone should pay attention

A year ago → The Oldest True Stories in the World.

One hundred issues. Not bad. Not bad at all. At various points I’ve wanted to do something special, create a printed thing with some favourites (using this), or go back through all issues and send you one with the best of the best. In the end, what matters most bubbles to the surface and the arbitrary (but fun!) milestone didn’t rise above other things to do, like finishing up the new website or sending the first members’ Dispatches. So nothing but a nice round number to notice 😉. Onwards to No.200!

I will however be re-launching Les ponts. Email coming soon, returning November 8th.


A World We Built to Burn

Quinn Norton on the infrastructural “technical dept” we’ve accrued over the last few hundreds years, how the climate crisis and ecosystem collapse are making things worse, and on the importance of having a plan “at every level from transnational to individual.” It’s a very good down to earth perspective on the current situation of most countries and probably a good posture to take towards infrastructure, the planet, and the work to be done.

Everything from fires to CO2 to biodiversity loss and plastic pollution have come from how we have managed our built environment and currently maintain our infrastructure, and our infrastructure touches every part of life and culture, from forests cleared to create agricultural land for beef and palm oil, to travel-related carbon emissions and heat waves, to the houses built in what was once the California wilds. The issue at the heart of all of these things is how we manage the planet, now that we know that’s what we’re doing. […]

We need to modernize existing infrastructure all over the world to cope with the effects of climate change. We also need to replace and build new infrastructure to mitigate climate change and decarbonization for the future. We need to protect biodiversity, and limit extraction. […]

One of the first lessons of climate, and infrastructure, is that people have to live closer together and in easier places, or they will die. Nature doesn’t care who deserves what. Nature is not interested in how things are supposed to be. […]

We have to retreat from the shore, stay out of the wild places, and be careful with our water. We have to use less energy, less land, and take better care of each other at the global level. The faster we figure that out, the better our chances are.

Bundling and Unbundling

Drew Austin for Real Life with an excellent revisit of the “mythical” bundling and unbundling à la Silicon Valley. He gives a good overview of what the concept entails and, more importantly, of where it goes wrong, on the sum-greater-than-it’s-part value that some old bundles carried, which is simply disintegrated by so many disruptive tech plays. Austin also makes an important parallel with the “machinations of the private equity industry.” In some ways, the piece is similar to Norton’s above; nothing radically new but a valuable, well thought out and presented perspective.

The rationale of convenience helps disguise the fact that many unbundling efforts offer no particular benefit to end users and proceed according to a purely exploitative logic. When the tech industry sets its sights on existing bundles that people like and that are still financially sustainable, this suggests that the desire for profit has usurped the pretense of consumer welfare. Without that alibi, unbundling appears as naked greed, delivering increased returns to a select few without necessarily improving anything for anyone else, and quite possibly making things worse. […]

But the texture of everyday life is still mostly made up of such contiguity — the incidental context that surrounds specific goals and tasks in the form of human relationships and aesthetic pleasure. […]

The apps and services that replaced the newspaper are now bundled on iPhone home screens or within social media platforms, where they are combined with new things that no consumer asked for: advertising, data mining, and manipulative interfaces. […]

Instead of accepting a false teleology in which technology makes life ever more convenient and efficient, we can get better at recognizing and appreciating the obscure but valuable aspects of existing bundles, which are most likely at risk of vanishing when the next wave of unbundlers come, and not certain to be re-created once rebundled again.

Neural nets are just people all the way down

Very good read and important to know. On how layer after layer of data is part of the process of training a neural net (all the way back to the 1960s). Unsurprisingly, each of those layers was initially classified by humans and most of said humans weren’t credited. (The essay is an issue of Vicki Boykis’ excellent Normcore Tech newsletter.)

The movements required to fabricate are complex. While sewing you are often pulling or easing the fabric. Pieces of fabric have to be lined up perfectly or panels won’t match, buttons and holes won’t align and even something as simple as a zipper won’t work. […]

But the dataset was, really, created by hundreds of thousands of people manually identifying what the pictures were. To date, more than 14 million images have been labeled by ImageNet, aka by people from around the world looking at images and clicking on buttons for cents. […]

Simply put, every single piece of decision-making in a high-tech neural network initially rests on a human being manually putting something together and making a choice. […]

Our contention is that every layer of a given training set’s architecture is infused with politics.

Twitch CEO Emmett Shear on how moderation creates communities

I’m not much of a Twitch user, so I can’t really speak to how accurate this portrayal is, but it definitely seems like a much more intelligent take on running big platforms, free speech, communities, and responsibilities. If only for the first highlighted quote below which is so “duh” yet seemingly so often ignored.

“Some people’s communities are irreverent and a little troll-y and all about memes,” Shear said. “And some people’s communities are really earnest and connected, and people want to have a real conversation.” Twitch wants to make space for both of those kinds of communities to exist on its platform. […]

“I hope people can express themselves. I hope they can share their ideas, share their thoughts. But we’re not a platform for free speech. We are not upholding the First Amendment. That’s the government’s job. We’re a community. And communities have standards for how you have to behave inside that community. And so we think that it’s not anything goes.” […]

Now, the challenge for social platforms is to make sure that speech is used in ways that are productive and not actively bad for society. Shear said he saw at Reddit the difference between communities with strong moderation versus ones that didn’t have much moderation at all. […]

“The one with good, strong moderation, in many ways, is actually the place with freer speech, because it was actually the place where people could express themselves and not just get destroyed by trolls and abuse and harassment.”

Catalonia has created a new kind of online activism

With protests across the world multiplying, we are seeing various forms of technical and cultural innovations happening. I wish I could spend more time paying attention to what’s going on, why, and how. This one is quite interesting in Catalonia with an intriguing platform gaining hundreds of thousands of users, and the theories suggesting that some actual political parties might be behind it.

To ensure the app remains in the hands of genuine protestors, rather than police or other infiltrators, users can only access it through a QR code from someone who is already a member of the network. Each person who joins receives ten QR codes to invite others. […]

This means people can be organised in geographical “cells”, and protestors can only see actions taking place within a certain radius – preventing information from sloshing out across the network, and limiting what an infiltrator would be able to find out. […]

“This means that, even if the contents are encrypted, ISPs could potentially build a relationship map of nodes participating in this kind of [friend-to-friend] network.” It’s for this reason that other protest movements, such as the one in Hong Kong, rely on Bluetooth, thus avoiding and ISP’s network. […]

As well as entering your location, you are also asked to enter the times when you’re available to protest. “It’s like a clandestine army that you can invoke whenever and for whatever reason you want – you can decide to block one, two, three or 100 roads,” says Luján.

Miscellany

  • 🇨🇳 Gorgeous and uncanny. Be sure to click through and read the whole description (under the + sign). Scott’s TKL concept store. “The concept was formalised through 3D scans of existing textures, patinas, interiors and exteriors of a variety of fish and chip restaurants around the UK, including the original Scotts. Meticulous details and idiosyncrasies such as ornate facades, joinery details, salt shakers, fishy trinkets and even down to wallpaper textures have been digitally captured and replicated. The digital point cloud data collected through lidar scanning and photogrammetry were processed to form a library of architectural elements that form the facades for Scott’s TKL.”
  • 🌉 Da Vinci Bridge. ”In the early 1500s, Leonardo da Vinci designed a hypothetical bridge for the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. It was rejected. Over 500 years later, an MIT team has recreated the design with a model and have showed that it would have worked. Da Vinci’s design incorporates architectural techniques that would have not been seen for another 300 years.
  • 🗺 ‘The perfect combination of art and science’: mourning the end of paper maps. “One of the problems, with the development of GIS [geographic information systems] and everyone making their own maps is that people just dump their data without thinking about the aesthetics or what the map is trying to tell a reader.”
  • 🗺 Also in mapping, another incredible update by Justin O’Beirne on Apple’s New Map, Expansion #5: Northeast U.S. Buffalo and downtown Pittsburgh are two good examples to scroll to.
  • 😱🤬 We Have No Reason to Believe 5G Is Safe. “Numerous recent scientific publications have shown that EMF affects living organisms at levels well below most international and national guidelines. Effects include increased cancer risk, cellular stress, increase in harmful free radicals, genetic damages, structural and functional changes of the reproductive system, learning and memory deficits, neurological disorders, and negative impacts on general well-being in humans. Damage goes well beyond the human race, as there is growing evidence of harmful effects to both plant and animal life.”
  • 🤖🐕 Amazing Open Source Quadruped Capable Of Dynamic Motion | Hackaday. “The mjbots quad A0 is a small dynamic quadruped, like the MIT mini-Cheetah, but fully open source licensed under the Apache 2.0 license. It is capable of dynamic motions like jumping and is relatively low cost.”
  • 🌊 Fantastic visual by the NYT, really focus on the white (rivers) on blue (flooding). The Great Flood of 2019: A Complete Picture of a Slow-Motion Disaster. “This year’s flooding across the Midwest and the South affected nearly 14 million people, yet the full scale of the slowly unfolding disaster has been difficult to fathom. To visualize just how extensive it was, The New York Times created this composite map showing all the areas that were inundated at some point from January through June.”

Header image: Scott’s TKL concept store by Unknown Works.