All these worlds are yours ⊗ Kits and revolutions ⊗ The algorithmic auditing trap — No.165

This week → All these worlds are yours ⊗ Kits and revolutions ⊗ The algorithmic auditing trap ⊗ Explore synthetic futuring ⊗ There’s a global plan to conserve nature. Indigenous people could lead the way.

A year ago → The most clicked article in issue No.118 was Age of Invention: Where Be Dragons?

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

Two new things this week. First, I’ll be joining the Getting Tech Right podcast as co-host with Peter Bihr, it’s a series of interviews likely to become a book. Both this research and my participation are part of our series of quarterly projects, as described previously in my article On projects, newsletters, products, and formats.

Second, I created a new homepage for members, where you can find the most recent Dispatches, a direct download for my Learning Collection booklet, and an archive of Sentiers at Work back-issues.

The latter was an early business-focused members-only publication on “Technology & Constant Learning for Organizations & Careers.” The articles included in there were quite evergreen, so I believe the archive is still very relevant, even two years after the last report. Definitely worth the membership price all on its own imho.

All these worlds are yours

Cennydd Bowles’ talk at the Mind The Product conference—both the written version and the pre-recorded video. It’s aimed at the event’s audience of product managers, yet more broadly pertinent. Starts with a good retelling of the early 2010s utopian visions for tech broadly and the internet more specifically, and the following and ongoing slump in reputation and associated backlash. Bowles then looks at the potential “dark futures” if tech keeps being developed the same way, to then place some of the blame squarely at the feet of “product managers [who] are the primary cause of ethical harm in the tech industry.”

Up to that point it’s well presented but relatively common terrain for readers of Sentiers, the rest though is the valuable read where he considers “empirical ideologies” like Lean, the resulting overquantification, business drift, and the externalities caused by user-centricity, as well as all the broader stakeholders it obfuscates and, in too many causes, negatively impacts. Bowles closes with a great section on ethics (his current focus) which I won’t summarize too much here, have a full read, it’s definitely the most novel and important part of the talk with making space for those discussions, learning, and committing to action.

Overall, timely read if you work in some form of design, and excellent context to grasp if you are looking at tech from more of a distance.

The public clearly still finds technology useful and beneficial, but the data suggests people also feel disempowered, resigned to being exploited by their devices. It’s as if the general public loves technology despite our best efforts. […]

Overquantification is a narrow, blinkered view of the world, and again one that makes ethical mistakes more likely. Ethical impacts are hard to measure: they’re all about very human and social qualities like fairness, justice, or happiness. These things don’t yield easily to numerical analysis. That means they tend to fall outside the interests of overquantified, data-driven companies. […]

So even if product managers position themselves at the heart of UX, tech, and business, they may well be missing their moral duties to this broader set of stakeholders, to non-users, to groups and communities, to social structures, nonhuman life, and our planet itself. […]

Ethics isn’t about dusty tomes and dead Greeks! It’s a vital, living topic, full of artists, writers, philosophers, and critics, all exploring the most important questions facing us today: How should we live? What is the right way to act?

Kits and revolutions

Some of the examples in the article might be a bit overstated but I quite like this argument for the importance of kits in developing new lively ecosystems in which innovation and the creation of whole new fields happens. The author goes through examples from steam engines, plains, cars, personal computers, and open hardware with 3D printers and Arduinos. Open source software was not mentioned but, to name one, what is WordPress if not a kit for making websites?

The piece is focused on the emergence of these kits and communities with new technology but there’s also a whole aspect of repairability, spare parts, modifications, and the industrial products becoming platforms for personalization and re-use. Tricked-out cars, early PCs, and even IKEA furniture have seen various appropriations flourish. The current trend of closing-up everything, fighting against right-to-repair, using DRM, and sealing everything in glue (hello Apple!) not only goes counter to previously established rights to really own and tweak the products we buy, but also locks-out creativity and parallel innovation. (From 2012, via Tom Critchlow.)

The proliferation of cheap kits better signals a market sector ripe for revolution than the presence of expensive “cutting-edge” products. […]

Popular open standards and protocols subvert traditional business models, giving rise to global DIY R&D that enjoys far more brainpower than any company department, no many how many hot-shot engineers and designers it has hired. […]

What better instantiates open innovation than a kit, which entwines innovative components, innovative bundling, and, of course, innovative documentation and collaborative support?

The algorithmic auditing trap

Algorithmic tools to “help” hiring decisions are multiplying and based in shoddy (to say the least) science. Mona Sloane for OneZero looks at this issue, at the use of AI more broadly, at how auditing is presented as a solution but often falls into a trap of too much collaboration, and offers a few ideas and solutions for better auditing and better protection. Contestability by design and leveraging government procurement for broader influence are two promising directions.

[W]e are facing an underappreciated concern: To date, there is no clear definition of “algorithmic audit.” Audits, which on their face sound rigorous, can end up as toothless reputation polishers, or even worse: They can legitimize technologies that shouldn’t even exist because they are based on dangerous pseudoscience. […]

We should focus on turning to library science experts, organizational ethnographers, and historians to develop strategies for documenting how digital technologies are used, in what context, and to what end — regardless of whether they classify as an “automated decision-making tool” or “A.I.” in that moment.

Explore synthetic futuring

The team at Third Wave have come up with an interesting and fun tool, the Futures Scenario Generator. It’s an exploration of some of the possibilities of synthetic media, a field they’ve been exploring for a little while now, and something meant for actual use, since “sometimes, you want to quickly broaden your (future) horizon, like in a conversation, a workshop, or a writing project.” Both the article above and Synthetic Media — What it is and why it’s important are good reads to start getting a grasp on this kind of use of AI. One example from the generator:

It’s the year 2030 and the city of Montréal is finally waking up after a long slumber. Structurally, everything has changed. Caught between the global warming crisis and a lack of private investment, the city is making a bold move. It’s installing solar panels on every single building, even the tallest of buildings. Most of that energy is then stored in huge batteries – located inside almost every building – that can be used to power transportation, manufacturing, and even residential blocks. The AI powered city of tomorrow saves water, uses 100% free energy, and creates huge networks of connected vehicles. In cities, excessive property values can become traps. The public realm was dominated by cars, but in this future Montréal, it’s the people who drive again. Streets are transformed: they are calmer and easier to cross, and sprinkled with benches, pocket parks and even beaches. Montréal becomes the world capital of electric bikes and scooters, the city where everyone can easily access an AI system (powered by advanced voice recognition).

There’s a global plan to conserve nature. Indigenous people could lead the way.

I was not aware of this effort led by (surprisingly) Britain, France, and (less so) Costa Rica to protect 30 percent of the planet’s land and water by 2030. The article argues, rightly in my opinion, that indigenous peoples should not only be part of the decision process but also relied upon to lead the preservation, keep living in these areas, and manage these vital places as they have been for hundreds or thousands of years. Honestly, I’m quite surprised at this bold target and will be following it’s progress (bold considering the source, seems we’d actually need 50%).

Indigenous-managed lands in Brazil, Canada and Australia have as much or more biodiversity than lands set aside for conservation by federal and other governments, researchers have found. […]

A coalition of Indigenous groups and local communities has called for the agreement to protect at least half of the planet. Scientific research backs them up, finding that saving a third of the planet is simply not enough to preserve biodiversity and to store enough planet-warming carbon dioxide to slow down global warming. […]

Recent research from around the world shows that marine protected areas increase fish stocks, ultimately allowing fishing communities to catch more fish on the edges of the reserves.


Header image: Au café, 1874, Édouard Manet.