This week → Appropriate measures ⊗ Stop talking about AI ethics. It’s time to talk about power. ⊗ Meet the company designing tech for superheroes and spacecraft ⊗ What is going on here? ⊗ She wants your attention, she’s the voice of the city
At Real Life, Jackie Brown and Philippe Mesly explain that “changing the tech we use is not enough to mitigate the environmental and social harm of mass technology.” Starting from the historical perspective of “appropriate technology” in the 60s, and the works of E.F. Shumacher, Victor Papanek, and Ivan Illich, they show that even as such a movement made a lot of sense in its goals, it was also still centered on technology and maintained an implicit bias of Western superiority. The authors then make a parallel with today’s degrowth movement which, for some, depends on tech while for others on limiting technological development. Both end-up still centered on it in some way. Brown and Mesly conclude that degrowth would do well to learn from Shumacher’s original intent and subsequent lessons: to concentrate instead on the “complex interplay of lifestyle changes, political will, and socioeconomic factors.”
In his best-known, 1973 book, Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, he denounces the technology of mass production as “inherently violent, ecologically damaging, self-defeating in terms of non-renewable resources, and stultifying for the human person.” […]
Schumacher promoted “the technology of production by the masses” — a localist approach that tailored technologies to the needs of the communities they served, with an emphasis on long-term and harder-to-quantify goods like creative expression, skill development, and sustainability. […]
Schumacher makes no mention of why communities in the Global South found themselves in need of such solutions in the first place — namely as a result of the extractive and oppressive forces of colonialism. […]
[W]hen social change is framed primarily in terms of choice of technology, the debate necessarily centers the activity level of a productivist society, not a paradigm shift from growth to wellbeing. […]
Any technology we adopt should be both appropriate to the world as it exists and to the future we desire. In the Global North, the first part of the equation may appear more daunting than the second, given that we have become ever more reliant on technologies that are environmentally, socially, and economically unsustainable. And if previous efforts have been undermined by forces intent on maintaining the status quo, what are our prospects in light of ever greater concentrations of power?
Karen Hao with an article and interview with Kate Crawford about her new book, Atlas of AI. Quite interesting because the story of the book and the work that preceded it is basically a sequence of deeper and deeper investigations. Starting from Artificial Intelligence and ethics, Crawford proceeds to data, to the labour that produced it, to the construction of the devices and infrastructure, the resources (and again, labour), and ultimately the power and its concentration into extraordinarily few hands.
I wanted to really open up this understanding of AI as neither artificial nor intelligent. It’s the opposite of artificial. It comes from the most material parts of the Earth’s crust and from human bodies laboring, and from all of the artifacts that we produce and say and photograph every day. Neither is it intelligent. I think there’s this great original sin in the field, where people assumed that computers are somehow like human brains and if we just train them like children, they will slowly grow into these supernatural beings. […]
We’ve spent far too much time focusing on narrow tech fixes for AI systems and always centering technical responses and technical answers. Now we have to contend with the environmental footprint of the systems. We have to contend with the very real forms of labor exploitation that have been happening in the construction of these systems. […]
In that sense, this book is trying to de-center tech and starting to ask bigger questions around: What sort of world do we want to live in?
Fun interview at Maddie Stone’s reliably excellent The Science of Fiction, with Perception’s Jeremy Lasky. Fun for all the great visuals the firm has been making for Marvel movies and the videos showing their work and proofs of concept. Less fun for how blatantly obvious it makes the science - science fiction - fx - tech companies loop and the influence fiction has on which technologies are developed. If we knew that the founders and directors of these companies listened to the social messages and warnings of authors, it would be one thing; since we know they mostly ignore them and just go for the cool gadgets, it’s another. Still, enjoyable look at Perceptions’ work!
We've worked with Apple; we've worked with SpaceX. We've been working with Ford for many years,; we've worked with Mercedes, BMW, Maserati. We've gotten to work in a lot of different industries. And it's taking the inspiration from the science fiction of the films and asking ‘how can we use that to inspire real world technology companies’? […]
A thing that we're always considering [in our film work] is this idea of a 'technological climate'—what is the technological climate of our society now. What is feasible with technology? And knowing that, how do we go just a little bit beyond? If we go too far beyond it, you'll lose everybody, people won't buy it. So it's knowing how far it's okay to push before you start losing people. […]
We love to consult with scientists and engineers. We're always looking for any expert in a particular field that we're going into so we can bounce ideas. If it's not grounded in reality, then it's just a bunch of glowing blue stuff on a screen.
Second book review in this issue. This one by Hilary Cottam about John Kay and Mervyn King’s Radical Uncertainty is not as detailed as what I usually look for in such posts but still very much worth a share. First, for the useful overview of uncertainty vs risk, and for highlighting two prominent economists arguing for story making and story telling above over-reliance on data and models. Second, for Cottam’s important caveat: there are no women referenced! She easily overdoes the authors with some great recommendations of multiple women who’s work predates the book.
Risk is likened by the authors to a puzzle. It can be solved by existing information ordered in the right way. Uncertainty is like a mystery – we are missing information and in particular we are beyond the limits of statistical reasoning. […]
We are operating in conditions of mystery where our knowledge is imperfect and variables are constantly changing. Climate, economic and social systems are not linear. […]
A reliance on data driven modelling leads large organisations in particular to make decisions ‘on the basis of what is easiest to justify rather than what is the right thing to do’.
Another piece with an historical perceptive and considerations of power dynamics. Naomi Credé looks at the voices of public address systems, service workers, especially feminised labour, gender roles, and of course voice assistants like Siri, Cortana, and Alexa.
This consistent entanglement of women, technology, voice and service labour both stems from and is entirely embedded within patriarchal and capitalist structures. […]
The overheard automated female-sounding voices do not match the vocals of those in positions of power and authority. Instead, their controlled, mechanised pitch becomes the ultimate capitalist worker, replayed over and over, it can perform its duties endlessly. […]
[R]egardless of the chosen pitch, removing or replacing them is not enough. It is the power structures and systems behind these voices which must be confronted.
No.171 Asides ⊕ See Note
- 😭 🇮🇳 🦠 Though week so for now I skipped this piece by Arundhati Roy on India’s ongoing Covid catastrophe but it was highly recommended in multiple places. ‘We are witnessing a crime against humanity’.
- 🍄 Meet the Renaissance Man Obsessed with Mushrooms. “In an excerpt from ‘In Search of Mycotopia,’ a new book about different communities exploring the multiple uses of fungi and mushrooms, the author goes foraging with William Padilla-Brown, a rising star in the mycological movement”
- 🤯 🎥 🎾 This is a fantastic short video showing the dedication to win and the details that can make a difference. Remembering Andre Agassi’s fascinating method of reading one of the best serves in the world.
- 🛰️ See A Satellite Tonight. Nice work! Geolocalizes you and shows a view of the earth from space, with the passage of satellites over your location. Loads of Starlinks at some times of the night.
- 🛰 🗺 😡 Deepfake satellite imagery poses a not-so-distant threat, warn geographers. “[G]eographers are concerned about the spread of fake, AI-generated satellite imagery. Such pictures could mislead in a variety of ways. They could be used to create hoaxes about wildfires or floods, or to discredit stories based on real satellite imagery.”
- 🏛 🗺 Every Roman Settlement, and nothing else. (Data collected by: DARMC project at Harvard University.)
- Long piece with scrolling animations on the tipping points of sea, ice, and land. The 7 climate tipping points that could change the world forever.
- 🏴 🌊 Floating tidal turbine. Orbital Marine “[W]here tidal speeds can exceed 3m/s, the O2 will be connected to the local electricity grid and will help power the communities of Orkney cleanly and sustainably from the waters that flow past their islands.”
Join thousands of generalists and broad thinkers.
Each issue of the weekly features a selection of articles with thoughtful commentary on technology, society, culture, and potential futures.