After dread ⊗ Digital civil society ⊗ Revolution — No.122

Read the Sentiers newsletter on technology in society, signals of change, and prospective futures.

This week → After dread ⊗ Civil society in a digital world ⊗ These are conditions in which revolution becomes thinkable ⊗ The tech ‘solutions’ for coronavirus take the surveillance state to the next level

A year ago → Your thinking about smart cities is completely wrong.

Two quick admin notes: we seem to have somewhat of a confinement rhythm at home right now, so expect some Dispatches to members over the next couple of weeks. I’d also like to spend more time growing the readership for this free weekly, if you have time to share this issue or the website, please do. And if you know people or publications who could feature Sentiers somewhere, do point them to me or vice versa (or even to inexpensive ad programs, like the very effective classifieds at Dense Discovery). Thanks!

After dread

A short talk / article written by Cennydd Bowles for the Global Foresight Summit 2020. Excellent follow up to last week’s issue, since he cites a couple of the same authors (Sandford, Hill) and builds on what they wrote. Going from our current sentiments of dread, the after, power, and the practice of foresight. Most importantly, on the obligation to not only imagine better futures, but to then “act in the interests of this better world you espouse, and withdraw your support for the forces that brought us to the brink.” Good advice for people in any discipline.

If 2019 was the year of the algorithm, 2020 is surely the year of the logarithm.

This pandemic has reshuffled the deck of probables, plausibles, and possibles. Foresight professionals know this crisis is urging us to reimagine healthcare, supply chains, and urban space. […]

Some of us would contend the ideology of eternal growth deserves some overdue competition from steady-state or degrowth perspectives. But it would be a huge mistake to think these preferable futures, however appealing, justifiable, or essential, will automatically come to pass. The moral course is never a given, and should doesn’t always translate to will. […]

The tech giants, once seen as useful innovators, have become vast repositories of power and wealth. Economies have become riddled with complex tumours of creative accounting and financial obfuscation. Inequality grows, power centralises, information overloads, and people feel control over their destinies slipping away. […]

To me, the primary goal of the foresight community now should be to re-empower the people of the world; to use our skills to help people feel some agency in shaping their own futures.

Civil society in a digital world

I’ll have to be weary of featuring everything Rachel Coldicutt writes but she does so so beautifully and clearly, what can I do? The article introduces Glimmers, a collaborative research project led by her new outfit, Careful Industries, and Plot. They will be looking at the glimmers of what comes next, and the new roles technology is creating for civil society. Great area of research and very well laid out intent in this piece.

Digital technologies allow us to be both more individualised and more connected, all at the same time, but much of that change has drifted unevenly into being and our social infrastructure is in a liminal state — caught between centuries. So the social glue that holds us together is sticking us differently now, for better and worse. […]

[T]is project pokes at something more diffuse — what support do we need in the ways we live now? How can civil society support more people in a world where technology both individualises and connects individuals, families, workers, learners and whole communities? […]

Negative outcomes tend to hide in the shadows, and the sensing function of civil society is vital to shine a light on these. Technological change produces winners and losers, and critiques of that change should not always be characterised as old-fashioned or luddite; forward movement needs a counterbalance, a weight in the present and the past. […]

Meanwhile, the information collected and understood by civil society is often not translated into the kinds of “data” that are used to power big technology projects. The intelligence of frontline workers — for instance — is not captured in ways that easily fill data stores or inform algorithms.

These Are Conditions in Which Revolution Becomes Thinkable

By Ben Tarnoff, founding editor of the excellent Logic magazine. He ends on revolution and potential new forms of socialism but mostly gives a good overview of how the virus and confinement affects the service economy in the US (and elsewhere in varying degrees), and how that reverberates in the economy, unemployment, social reproduction (wasn’t aware of that term, worth a look just for that bit at least), and capitalism.

In retrospect, 2020 may end up being a 1968 or a 1917: a year of leaps and ruptures, and a dividing line between one era and the next. […]

Social reproduction refers to the various systems—formal and informal, waged and unwaged—that make capitalism possible by raising, socializing, educating, healing, housing, and otherwise sustaining the workers whose labor power it runs on. […]

Imagine a near future of 30 percent unemployment, widespread food and housing insecurity, and millions dead from the pandemic and from the increased mortality of an overwhelmed healthcare system. These are essentially wartime conditions. They are the conditions under which revolution becomes, if not likely, at least thinkable. […]

[T]imes of crisis are also opportunities to generate new socialist ideas: new modes of organizing, new horizons for social transformation. The socialist tradition is a valuable source of inspiration and insight. It also does not hold the answers to every question posed by every conjuncture, for the simple reason that every conjuncture poses different questions. […]

For this project to be credible to the people on whom it depends, it must be equal to the radicalism of our reality. It must offer a socialism that is not a branch of progressivism or a wing of the Democratic Party but a truly anti-systemic alternative, one that promises, however improbably, an end to the death cult of capital and the elevation of human health, dignity, and self-determination as the supreme organizing principles of our common life.

The tech ‘solutions’ for coronavirus take the surveillance state to the next level

This piece by Evgeny Morozov was going to go in the section below but I had to included it here because there are just too many good quotes and his framing of neoliberalism, solutionists, public imaginations, and social democracy is just too good to pass up.

His expression of a “post-solutionist path” is also good to parallel with last week’s pieces questioning “ready-to-hand futures.” Though they don’t emerge from the same people and ideas, they are two examples of thinking through what’s needed, not jumping on existing habits and ideas. You could even add Tarnoff’s recommendation above, regarding the socialist tradition.

Neoliberalism shrinks public budgets; solutionism shrinks public imagination. The solutionist mandate is to convince the public that the only legitimate use of digital technologies is to disrupt and revolutionise everything but the central institution of modern life – the market. […]

But the solutionist responses to this disaster will only hasten the diminishment of our public imagination – and make it more difficult to imagine a world without the tech giants dominating our social and political infrastructure. […]

Our question should not be which ideology – social democracy or neoliberalism – can harness and tame the forces of competition better, but rather: what institutions do we need to harness the new forms of social coordination and innovation afforded by digital technologies? […]

While they can be used for non-market purposes, today’s digital platforms make a poor foundation for a political order open to actors other than consumers, start-ups and entrepreneurs. Without reclaiming digital platforms for a more vibrant democratic life, we will be condemned for decades to come to the unhappy choice between “progressive” and “punitive” solutionisms.


Some people I regularly feature had some good pieces out, I decided to not feature them this time around but they have good and useful (or frightening in Stross’ case) things to say.

[A]n overly ‘financialised’ business sector has been siphoning value out of the economy by rewarding shareholders through stock-buyback schemes, rather than shoring up long-run growth by investing in research and development, wages and worker training. As a result, households have been depleted of financial cushions, making it harder to afford basic goods like housing and education.
Capitalism’s triple crisis, Mariana Mazzucato

So we’re going to see repeated 4-6 week lockdown periods alternating with 2-4 week “business as usual” patches. Somewhere during the second or third lockdown most of the pubs/bars/hotels/restaurants that hibernated during the first lockdown and came back from the dead will give up the ghost: by September-November the damage to about 10-30% of the economy, disproportionately the service sector, will be permanent (FSVO “permanent” that means not coming back until after the pandemic, growing afresh from zero rather than reviving from hibernation).
“It’ll all be over by Christmas”, Charlie Stross

Crucial medical drugs are also running out. According to a University of Minnesota analysis, about 40 percent of the 156 drugs that are essential parts of critical care are becoming limited. Many of these depend on supply chains that involve China (where the pandemic began), Italy (the hardest-hit region in Europe), or India (which halted several exports). These chains have been discharging their contents like a sputtering garden hose that has now begun to run dry.
Our Pandemic Summer, Ed Yong

Further reading

These were recommended by trustworthy sources but for lack of time or energy in the face of their content, I haven’t gotten to them yet: The Digital Response to the Outbreak of COVID-19, The Normal Economy Is Never Coming Back, and ‘The impossible has already happened’: what coronavirus can teach us about hope (Rebecca Solnit).

Profiles of dearly departed: A Life in Games: The Playful Genius of John Conway, and Remembering the Unstoppable Freeman Dyson.


  • ? Oh my. Behold Dune: An Exclusive Look at Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, and More. “Villeneuve intends to create a Dune that has so far only existed in the imagination of readers. The key, he says, was to break the sprawling narrative in half. When Dune hits theaters on December 18, it will only be half the novel, with Warner Bros. agreeing to tell the story in two films, … ‘I would not agree to make this adaptation of the book with one single movie, [t]he world is too complex. It’s a world that takes its power in details.’”
  • Dystopia with hot chocolate: Tales from the Loop’s author on his low-key sci-fi (interview with Simon Stålenhag). “Tales from the Loop is set in an alternative history, one where the second world war encouraged more research into nuclear technology; which then birthed new branches of experimental physics; which in turn lead to the construction a giant particle accelerator in rural Sweden that is dubbed “Slingan” by the locals, or “The Loop”. By the time it is shut down in 1994, it has shaped a generation of children, to whom robots, particle guns and airships are as quotidian as homework and teatime.”
  • ? Virtually Wander & Weave through an Enchanting Odditorium of Curiosities. “[T]his 136 year-old Victorian museum hiding within another museum in Oxford, England, is free to roam at the click of your mouse – every glass cabinet, every last aisle, all to yourself. And what a beautiful sight it is to discover, even if only from behind your screen for now.”
  • ? ? Juan Giménez (1943 – 2020) – Sci-Fi-O-Rama. “As a young man in the 1970s he consistently published in the top sci-fi and fantasy magazines of Spain, Italy, and France, including the vaunted Metal Hurlant. By the start of the 1980s he had become a regular contributor to the genre-defining American magazine Heavy Metal and worked as a designer on the 1981 animated film of the same name.”
  • ?? Tape As Pandemic Architectural Element. “In Singapore, tape is being used as a sort of architectural element to denote closure of public spaces and promote & enforce proper social distancing practices.”
  • ?? ? Awakening volcanic region in Iceland ‘could cause disruption for centuries’. “Since 21 January, the Reykjanes peninsula south-west of Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, has experienced more than 8,000 earthquakes and about 10cm of land uplift due to magma intrusions underground.”
  • Nearly half of global coal plants will be unprofitable this year. “China and other countries could be planning to build more coal plants to stimulate their economies in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic but nearly half of global coal plants will run at a loss this year, research showed on Wednesday.”

Header image: A Turing machine in Conway’s Game of Life.