An Alternate History of Human Potential ⊗ The Tyranny of the Algorithm ⊗ The Coming Storm

No.294 — Writing at the speed of thought ⊗ Afrofuturism: From a lens to a portal ⊗ Europe’s new wave of ‘meeting places for the mind’ ⊗ What happens when everyone is a designer? ⊗ The 150 best sci-fi movies

An Alternate History of Human Potential ⊗ The Tyranny of the Algorithm ⊗ The Coming Storm
Rizky Subagja on Unsplash.

An alternate history of human potential

Some weeks it’s easy to determine which articles should be featured and which order. Some weeks it’s harder because there is no clear winner or it’s hard to say if a majority share of readers will be interested. This is one such week, since the reason it’s a favourite and the hesitancy are the same; ADH writes about his early work on his next novel, a “utopian alternate history” … and the piece is centered on a syllabus!

One of the best ways I’ve found to organize one’s thoughts about a huge swath of intellectual and creative space, is to write a syllabus. So I created a syllabus for a hypothetical “Alternate History 101” class, which uses alternate and counterfactual history to explore theories of how social change unfolds.

I don’t know why exactly, but I’m a sucker for syllabi and in this case it’s a great way to get some reading ideas (like we need more of those!) and a good grasp of the landscape he is considering and investigating for his next book. Hudson finishes with a look at a book by Terry Bisson (RIP) and “the idea that our real world technological advancement has been hindered by the squandering of human potential.”

We are often told that war drives technological advancement, but war is just one excuse to mobilize resources into projects that aren’t limited by the market. […]

I want to build on his thesis, bringing it into the context of our present day environmental polycrisis, and also expanding the franchise, asking who else has been excluded from our marshalling of knowledge, productive forces, and societal potential.

The tyranny of the algorithm: why every coffee shop looks the same

An article by Kyle Chayka adapted from his new book Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture. Briefly; aesthetic homogenization across cafes and other public spaces has become a global phenomenon due to the influence of social media and algorithmic feeds. Platforms such as Yelp, Foursquare, and Google Maps have driven customers towards conforming with the popular coffee aesthetics on Instagram. Not a new topic, and I found the piece a bit long, especially at the end where Chayka focuses on the impact of Insta’s algo on businesses.

I half seriously noted this as I was reading: maybe this is the real meta-verse, where everything in physical space is inspired by and for the internet. Everything is meta, about something else, something that is online and global. You’re not in a cafe, you’re under a pin in an app. The physical world as just the substrate to ‘what matters,’ the digital layer where it is tagged, shared, algorithmed around the world.

I’m exaggerating a bit, but that’s the angle I’d recommend you take reading the piece, not only as the problems with algorithms and how people follow them like sheep, but as an observation of the merging of the online and physical, and as a hint of what might manifest first; a high resolution game-like world, or an augmented/annotated physical one?

Though it was particularly identifiable in cafes, the same sensibility could be found in co-working spaces, startup offices, hotels and restaurants – all spaces where time was temporarily spent and cultural taste was flaunted, where physical space was turned into a product. […]

Instagram walls or experiences attracted visitors to a locale and kept them engaged by giving them an activity to perform with their phones, like a restaurant providing colouring books for kids. It was a concession to our new addictions – you can’t just go somewhere; you must document your experience of it.

The coming storm

Charlie Stross gives a quite worrisome overview of all the elections in 2024 and various places where it could all go sideways. Don’t read while depressed, or skip to “on the other hand” where he uses the pandemic as a parallel to the adoption of solar (yes, really) to help us understand exponential change. Keep that close at hand when reading about geopolitics and renewables over the next few years.

We are seeing exponential growth in the rate of photovoltaic capacity worldwide: each year this decade so far we’ve collectively installed 50% more PV panels than existed in the previous year. 50% annual compound growth in a new energy resource will rewrite the equations that underly economics in a very short period of time. The renewable energy sector now employs more people than fossil fuels, and the growth is still accelerating. […]

The metaphor is inexact: but by 2026-27, if we get through 2024 without a nuclear war, it’s going to be glaringly obvious that we’ve turned away from fossil fuel business as usual, and that the political upheavals of 2008-2024 were driven by dark money flows and disinformation campaigns funded by oligarchs who valued retention of their own privileged status above our survival as a species.

Writing at the speed of thought

Steven Johnson worked with Google on their NotebookLM app. It’s US only, I haven’t bothered to VPN in, and anyway I have no intention of putting my notes and research into a Google product. But if you are into note taking, writing, and Integrated Thinking Environments (ITEs), it’s a good read for the possibilities of this LLM tool and likely gives a good idea of where other tools are likely to go in short order. Actually, it’s very likely already possible with others and quite possibly something you can MacGyver together with Obsidian and a few plugins but so far I haven’t gone beyond bookmarking a few things and some quite preliminary tests. Btw, the embedded video, by Cleo Abram is also worth a watch.

You can read a challenging passage in one of your sources, and just select the paragraph that’s confusing you, and NotebookLM will automatically offer to help you understand it, translating the language into simpler terms or walking you through the logic of the passage so you can get your bearings. […]

Write a paragraph, select it, and NotebookLM will automatically surface facts or concepts from your sources that are relevant to what you’ve just written.

Afrofuturism: From a lens to a portal

Essay by Olu Niyi-Awosusi for Reboot’s Kernel Magazine. The author reflects on their experience with afrofuturism as a Black technologist, discussing their initial disappointment with afrofuturism’s focus on aesthetics rather than addressing real-world issues faced by Black people. A perspective that later changed after consuming works by authors like books by N.K. Jemisin and videos by Andrewism, which offered more nuanced and realistic portrayals of Black characters and futures.

Aesthetics aren’t the dead end I imagined at all; they are a door to a new world. Afrofuturism allows us to see a world where Black people may have their needs and desires met or dashed, but it holds us in focus, us in the center, us as important, loved, cherished.

§ Libraries for the future: Europe’s new wave of ‘meeting places for the mind’. I love this so much! Libraries in Europe are undergoing a transformation, as civic constructions such as De Krook in Ghent, Oodi in Helsinki, Dokk1 in Aarhus, and Deichman Bjørvika in Oslo are reimagining libraries as living rooms for the modern city. These libraries offer spaces for learning, connecting, developing, collaborating, and simply being.

§ What happens when everyone is a designer? This one by Tobias Revell was perhaps a bit too ‘design education insider’ to be featured, but if you like to pay attention to those fields, it’s a worthwhile read where he’s asking if, just as digital was a thing and then everywhere, Design might be turning into lowercase design and just as pervasive.

Futures, Fictions & Fabulations

The 150 best sci-fi movies of all time
Retweets are not endorsement and neither is the sharing of lists. Your mileage will definitely vary from the authors’ but you’ll likely find new titles or renewed interest in others.

NATO’S Allied Command Transformation’s Strategic Foresight Analysis
“In a significant milestone, NATO Allied Command Transformation has recently concluded its most comprehensive futures research in years, encapsulated in the Strategic Foresight Analysis 2023. This report will serve as a baseline assessment for subsequent futures research projects.”

Solarpunk Creatures
“The path toward better futures is one we must walk alongside other creatures, negotiating the challenges of multispecies justice. Solarpunk Creatures introduces a whole new cast of more-than-human protagonists: organic and digital, alien and fantastic, tiny and boundlessly large.”

Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation

Collaborating with machines to make art
Chinese-Canadian artist Sougwen Chung reflects on the line between AI and human creativity, and discusses her own journey in cocreation, using a neural network and a robot to draw with her.

AI models that don’t violate copyright are getting a new certification label
Not sure if this one specifically will make a difference, but nice to see some experimentation in that direction. “Fairly Trained — founded by former Stability AI vice president for audio Ed Newton-Rex — adds a label to companies that prove they asked for permission to use copyrighted training data.”

Google lays off “hundreds” more as ad division switches to AI-powered
The kicker/zinger is actually the sub-title, “Googlers are now building AI tools so other Googlers can be laid off.”


Your Futures Thinking Observatory