Newsletter No.271 — Jul 02, 2023

AI Is Killing the Old Web, and the New Web Struggles to Be Born ⊗ To Save the Planet, Start Digging ⊗ The New Research Playbook

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Also this week → Tangible utopias ⊗ AI is the scariest beast ever created ⊗ Multiplayer collaging the future ⊗ Fusing futures and complexity

AI is killing the old web, and the new web struggles to be born

There’s a lot of talk about what AI can do, which jobs (tasks, first) will be affected, existential danger, killer robots, and more. What is not quite as discussed but happening as we speak, is the transition to a different internet, a different web. We’re worried about AI excelling and taking jobs or worse, but ‘we’ already have algos that are good enough to produce stuff that looks like it might be true, yet is full of errors. Good enough to break business models and reasons to create online, bad enough to make everything online shittier or harder to find. Worse, the next models might catch their own form of mad cow disease, eating each other’s own output.

  • Web 1: real content by real people for real people.
  • Web 2: real content by ‘fake’ people people pandering to recommendation algorithms for real people.
  • Web 3 (the AI one, not the crypto one): fake content by fake ‘people’ for real people.

I’m being silly with this caricature, but it’s kind of what James Vincent wrote in that The Verge piece; people were writing online, people started writing on platforms, now the whole thing is being regurgitated to us by machines of ‘mathy math.’

These models are trained on strata of data laid down during the last web-age, which they recreate imperfectly. […]

“The primary problem is that while the answers which ChatGPT produces have a high rate of being incorrect, they typically look like they might be good and the answers are very easy to produce.” It takes too much time to sort the results, and so mods decided to ban it outright. […]

There’s a famous essay in the field of machine learning known as “The Bitter Lesson,” which notes that decades of research prove that the best way to improve AI systems is not by trying to engineer intelligence but by simply throwing more computer power and data at the problem. The lesson is bitter because it shows that machine scale beats human curation. And the same might be true of the web. […]

Essentially, this is a battle over information — over who makes it, how you access it, and who gets paid.

To save the planet, start digging

On this episode of WIRED’s Have a Nice Future podcast (you also have the transcript at the link), Gideon Lichfield talks to Jamie Beard, founder of Project InnerSpace, “about why geothermal energy could help solve the climate crisis—but only if environmentalists and the oil and gas industry cooperate.” Like Lichfield and cohost Lauren Goode, I don’t know enough about geothermal to really have an opinion on what Beard is saying, it is however intriguing enough to have a listen.

It’s also worth listening to because, beyond the specific tech, she’s 100% correct that we are being entirely too dogmatic about which words are used or taboo, which technology is ‘the one.’ There is no perfectly green solution to any of our current predicaments. Instead of either/or partisanship, we need to consider the ‘yes but,’ ‘and with,’ ‘no but,’ and ‘the this and the that.’ In other words, be flexible and open to a variety of solutions. Working with the oil industry, who are already great at digging deep holes in the ground, is one such example of flexibility and pragmatism.

The core of the Earth is essentially a nuclear reactor that is constantly churning and producing massive amounts [such] that just the amount that radiates to the surface could serve all of humankind’s energy needs for the entire arc of our civilization many 1000s of times over. And how widely is it used, in my view? Not widely enough. But it’s not really on the radar of the world. So less than 1 percent of energy produced is geothermal. It doesn’t even show up on the radar of the current energy mix or future energy mixes. But effectively nothing, right now. We’re starting from scratch with geothermal.

The new research playbook

I was drawn to this piece because of what Johannes quoted from it and because “research” is a word used in our futures work. The article is actually about user research / researching in the context of product development, especially for startups. However, I think one can glean some insights for any type of research, especially if you find yourselves with the need to validate qualitative vs quantitative results. Plus, the complex to complicated ‘flip’ is especially intriguing to consider.

The qualitative nature of user research doesn’t naturally integrate with the mental models of stakeholders who pride themselves on being hypothesis-led and (big) data driven. As a result they instinctively reject insights that don’t reflect their own experiences and observations. […]

This means commissioning interdisciplinary studies and processes that produce more compelling, well-rounded data. User research, in this context, becomes the human thread that ties other data-points together in a meaningful way to compel action. User researchers will become pivotal in the process. […]

It is by focusing on “complex” questions where there are few existing hypotheses, and translating them into “complicated” questions that are legible, that user researchers will really add value.

Tangible utopias

Ioana Mischie created project where she interviewed children from various countries (the first in Romania) on how they would design the next century, then collaborated with experts to create prototypes based on their input.

Sometimes I like interviews kept in Q&A forms, seems to work better when various topics are discussed, this one would have benefitted from some editing but still manages interesting openings at the intersection of transmedia, VR, futures, and utopias.

Every country differs heavily. For example, when I asked the kids in Cameroon how they would see the ideal futuristic city, all of them, all the 20 kids, were saying that for them, the ideal futuristic city has potable water. We generally go for cities that are highly edgy and ultra modernized and ultra innovative. But then these communities care about things that other countries don't even consider anymore. […]

The danger of AI is the repetitiveness and the lack of innovation, because it's only based on data from the past. It's very hard to train an AI to innovate. It will always refer to data that existed previously. […]

It’s so fascinating to see what people are creating with AI and to see what they’re interested in. I don’t plan to use AI with shadowy intentions or to make myself, let’s say, more lazy by using AI. But I do plan to use it when I feel there is no other better way to dive into a form of visual collective consciousness.

AI is the scariest beast ever created, says sci-fi writer Bruce Sterling Bruce Sterling on the Mardi Gras craziness of AI and the Lent that’s sure to follow. “The street will find its own uses for these monsters. The military will want killer AIs. Intelligence organizations will want spy and subversion AIs. Kleptocratic governments will steal and oppress with them. Trade-warriors will trade-war with them and try to choke off the supply of circuits and the programming talent. It's not chic to fret ‘what about the NSA's AI?’ but the National Security Agency has been around since the 1940s and the very dawn of computation. They're not going anywhere, so if you love them, you'll love their AI.”

WORLDBUILDING: Multiplayer collaging the future “We do that type of pattern a couple times a week and on Fridays we imagine a world 10 years from now where our theme of the week has manifested in some way. We do this by making Worldboards together. Worldboards are a collection of images, ideas and imagined ‘headlines from the future’ that give texture to speculative futures.”

Futures, foresights, forecasts & fabulations

“Futures Change” workshop: Fusing futures and complexity. Nice mix of methodologies, focused on creative exchange rather than productive output or artistic intervention.

A journey into the futures. “We wrote 28 short scifi stories to explore the societal implications of the internet in the futures.”

The 2023 Core77 Design Awards for speculative design “honor projects, whether physically or digitally produced, designed for the purpose of cultural commentary, intervention, or exploration, or created as speculative design for a client or educational institution.”

Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation

AItopia “will explore AI’s impact on design, architecture and humanity both today and in the future.”

How people are really using AI (and what they’re afraid of). “We polled 2,000 people about how they’re using AI, what they want it to do, and what scares them about it the most.”

Wimbledon to introduce AI-powered commentary to coverage this year. “All England Club teams up with IBM to offer AI-generated audio commentary and captions in online highlights clips”


  • 🚞 🤩 🇪🇺 Green travel: the best new rail trips to try this summer in Europe. “Two years in the making, the Brussels to Berlin sleeper service is not your average night train. A passion project led by two rail anoraks – Elmer van Buuren, a former train guard, and Chris Engelsman – it brings the punk, do-it-yourself ethos to a rail network dominated by big corporations and state-run operators.”
  • 📚 💻 The 40 Greatest Tech Books of All Time. The list is from The Verge but I’m linking to Kottke’s post about it, where he has his own recommendations and some from the comments.
  • 😍 🎥 How Wes Anderson uses miniatures. “Miniatures in movies are way more common than you may realize, and one of the most stylish filmmakers keeping them alive is Wes Anderson. In this video we spoke to Simon Weisse, prop maker and model marker for some of Wes Anderson’s recent projects, like The Grand Budapest Hotel, The French Dispatch, and Asteroid City.”
  • 😍 🖼 🇰🇷 Exquisite Paintings by Lee Me Kyeoung Are an Ode to the Quaint Corner Stores of South Korea. “For the past several years, artist Lee Me Kyeoung has been adding to her ongoing series of paintings that celebrate the idiosyncrasies and appeal of tiny South Korean corner stores, which are increasingly facing closure.”
  • 🪵 🏢 🇸🇪 “World’s largest wooden” city set to be built in Stockholm. “Stockholm Wood City, which will have 7,000 office spaces and 2,000 homes and cover 250,000 square metres, is being designed by Danish studio Henning Larsen and Swedish firm White Arkitekter.”
  • 🤔 🥸 Google reportedly gives up on making AR glasses—for the third time. “The cancellation of the gadget, reportedly codenamed Project Iris, marks the third time the company's supposedly thrown in the towel on AR glasses. The most recent specs were expected to become Google's second foray into consumer tech and feature a more mainstream-friendly appearance than Google Glass.”