Anthropology, cybernetics, and 3AI ⊗ Centaurs or butlers? ⊗ Rural futurism — No.113

This week → Anthropology, cybernetics, and establishing a new branch of engineering at ANU ⊗ Centaurs or butlers? Designing for human relationships with non-human intelligences ⊗ The manifesto of rural futurism ⊗ A world without privacy will revive the masquerade ⊗ All your favorite brands, from BSTOEM to ZGGCD

A year ago → AR will spark the Mirrorworld.

Anthropology, cybernetics, and establishing a new branch of engineering

Very good podcast interview with Genevieve Bell (there’s also a transcript at the link above) on the 3AI Institute she founded—with the “starting premise of establishing a new branch of engineering to take AI safely to scale.” Covers the thinking behind the institute, and the questions structuring their work. I’ve mentioned the project before and it’s not super new but I’m including it this week for the part on cybernetics, it’s history, founding, the series of conferences structuring the discussion, and the framing of the original questions in such a way that “they had to, by necessity make sense of the technical systems, human systems and ecological systems.”

He wanted to convene these interdisciplinary far-reaching conferences. Although, they were kind of unconferences or ur-conferences before that was a fashionable term. The question was, who would you bring together to talk about cybernetics, because that’s how they framed it. […]

Those topics run everything from mind control, ideas about memory, ideas about octopus’ consciousness, ideas about childhood learning and development, ideas about the subconscious, ideas about technical systems and computation and abstract linguistics. […]

I think the forms of systems engineering that came into being in the early 20th century are hugely important to us now as we think about the fact that we are looking at systems that are not just systems of technology, they are systems that include culture and people and the environment and in our insistence on thinking of them as technical systems only, we have created some really interesting challenges. […]

For me, the attraction of cybernetics is both to go to a form of systems thinking that is informed by an idea of a system that has to by necessity encompass people, the environment, and the technology, not just the technology. That, for me, as we think about what it would take to take AI safely to scale feels hugely important.

Centaurs or Butlers? Designing for Human Relationships with Non-Human Intelligences

A short (15min) talk by Matt Jones on my preferred way of looking at AI, or at least one of the aspects I find most promising; as augmentation and companion species. I.e. not superiors created to control chunks of society but something more akin to service dogs. (Via Exponential View.)

The reason I mentioned puppies and dogs is [in] thinking about this as non-human companion species. There’s been a lot written about companion species, relationships, and thinking about the notion of the working animals that we’ve co-evolved with, to sort of extend ourselves and work with, rather than replacing us. It’s something that I’m very inspired by and interested in. […]

What do we get from creating a relationship to learned systems to AI, to machine intelligences, that are still me but an extension of me. Me but not me, rather than an othered assistant that I have a dialogue with. What if there [were] other sorts of relationship that we can have with with these entities.

The Manifesto of Rural Futurism

I’m not sure if it’s just perception because of what I pay attention to personally or if it’s a larger trend (I think the latter) but there seems to be, by usually urbanity-focused thinkers, a “rediscovery” of the countryside, nature more broadly, and its intersection with infrastructures, systems, and climate change.

We like to think that we care about the countryside. We have an idyllic vision of rural areas as blissful and honest places, as the last (albeit often imaginary) refuges of venerable values. Yet, if we don’t engage in more meaningful ways with rural communities, they might become little more than national parks, totally disconnected from the economy, the politics and the culture of the rest of a country. […]

“The Manifesto of Rural Futurism,” they write, “is a transnational project interrogating current discourses on rurality as authentic, utopic, anachronistic, provincial, traditional and stable, and the binaries that support such discourses: belonging vs. alienation, development vs. backwardness.” […]

[T]he Manifesto of Rural Futurism, rather than referring to Italian Futurism, with which it, however, shares an irreverent and also ironic approach, is directly connected – in a conceptual and practical sense – to the ‘minor’ futurisms of the postcolonial sphere, such as Afro-futurism, in which technologies become tools of awareness and resistance to affirm a series of counter-narratives in relation to positions of inequality and difference.

‘The countryside is where the radical changes are’: Rem Koolhaas goes rural

On the one hand, Koolhaas sounds a bit like someone who’s always lived in a city, rents a cabin, and says something like “Duuuuude! Nature, man!” On the other, the article is written by Oliver Wainwrigh who does call some of the architect’s bullshit. Still an interesting read for the part on the massive industrial park in Nevada, and this “new” architecture centered on the machines within. (Honestly, there are so many caveats to this work that I hesitated to include it but I feel the parallel with the other piece above is interesting to note.)

This is the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center (TRIC), the largest industrial park in the world, a 107,000-acre swath of the Nevada desert that has become the backroom for Silicon Valley’s big tech companies, lured here by the favourable tax regime and instant building permits. […]

“A world formerly dictated by the seasons and the organisation of agriculture,” he writes, “is now a toxic mix of genetic experiment, science, industrial nostalgia, seasonal immigration, territorial buying sprees, massive subsidies, incidental inhabitation, tax incentives, investment, political turmoil – in other words more volatile than the most accelerated city.” […]

Another research assistant is frank: “It’s symptomatic of architectural hubris that they take snapshots of a topic like this and present it to the world as ‘new’.”

A World Without Privacy Will Revive the Masquerade

Interesting thought experiment, starting from Sun Microsystems’ former CEO Scott McNealy who said twenty years ago, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” The author, Jonathan Zittrain, then presents two “very different extrapolations [that] might allow us to glimpse some of the consequences of our privacy choices (or lack thereof) that are taking shape even today.” A Pseudoworld which will happen if the legal frameworks for protecting privacy aren’t updated, and a Transcriptworld where “the law[s] were tightened up with more accountability for bad actors in an attempt to make us feel more comfortable sharing.” Looking at the two makes it clear why we need some kind of midpoint, and need to take action.

Pseudoworld has a lot of clear drawbacks. It requires personal vigilance to avoid identification, with lingering problems if one’s mask should slip. It portends daily social interactions that tilt more toward the configuration of a confessional booth—or a 4chan message board—than an exchange of pleasantries with a store clerk bearing a name tag, or an earnest discussion thread on Facebook with each participant’s home town, relatives, educational history, and favorite book voluntarily one click away. […]

Transcriptworld is a lousy place even assuming, as we have so far, that government’s primary role there is to make sure that people don’t doxx and harass one another. And when government doesn’t embrace the rule of law, Transcriptworld provides the soil—fertilized by commercial data processing—in which to grow the authoritarian nightmares we’ve come to call Orwellian. […]

Privacy defenders have perhaps inadvertently encouraged the same sense of inevitability by speaking in generic apocalyptic terms. But this fight is not simply about keeping particular facts about people out of the public eye. Privacy now is as much about freedom, the freedom to maintain a boundary between ourselves and those who want to shape us.

All Your Favorite Brands, From BSTOEM to ZGGCD

An overview of the fake brands on Amazon, where they come from, where the products come from, how they operate, including what amounts to DDOSing the US trademark registration process.

It’s probably a bad parallel but this looks quite a bit like: Amazon is to fake products has Facebook is to fake news. Meaning; enabling weaponized algos, bad behaviour, stuff that destroys trust, messes up lives and jobs, and where both companies do far less than they could to stop the problems.

These “pseudo-brands,” as some Amazon sellers call them, represent a large and growing portion of the company’s business. These thousands of new product lines, launched onto Amazon by third party sellers with minimal conventional marketing, stocking the site with disparate categories of goods, many evaporating as quickly as they appeared, are challenging what it means to be a brand. […]

But it has been much more successful in recruiting Chinese entrepreneurs to sell abroad, opening “cross-border e-commerce parks,” where sellers can get assistance with logistics, branding, and navigating Amazon’s platform. For the last five years, the company has also hosted summits for Chinese cross-border sellers. Last year’s conference, held in Shanghai, was attended by more than 10,000 sellers, many of whom see, in Amazon, an alternative to increasingly saturated domestic platforms like Taobao. […]

The store is what matters, not the products, not the brand. The thing to be named, cultivated and protected by trademark isn’t a product or a line of products, but rather this thin, valuable conduit to American consumers, particularly to the more than 100 million American subscribers to Amazon Prime.


Header image: Botanical and animal illustrations from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

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