Atlas of the senseable city ⊗ Context, Consent, and Control ⊗ Beware the curators

No.318 — Our Shared Storm ⊗ Thinking outside the cone ⊗ AI as a creative partner

Atlas of the senseable city ⊗ Context, Consent, and Control ⊗ Beware the curators
Guest artist: Mériol Lehmann — étangs et phragmites, chemin saint-jacques, saint-pierre-de-joliette

Quick note: it’s time for a summer break! The next issue will come to you August 11th or 18th. There miiight be a Dispatch to supporting members next week, I’ve got three articles around a loose topic that I’d like to get to you in a weekly-like format. Otherwise, see you mid-August!

Atlas of the senseable city

Conversation with Antoine Picon and Carlo Ratti for the Los Angeles Review of Books. The interview is based on their book, The Atlas of the senseable city, and they discuss the evolution of digital urban maps and their integral role in shaping the future of cities. The authors show how maps serve as tools for understanding and navigating the complexities of urban environments, emphasizing their power in conveying information and shaping societal imagination.

Two parts I especially liked, the definition of the senseable city, where “‘senseable’ suggests a city that is able to sense but is also sensible—not just smart in a technological sense but also responsive to the needs, behaviors, and emotions of its inhabitants.” And their view of maps as infrastructure:

Now, we take for granted that, wherever we go, we can localize something and know where we are. And many systems take for granted that you can follow in real time where things are going. This is what I mean by the map as infrastructure. It has become a support that enables a lot of things that we do.

Maps affect how we perceive and imagine the world around us, so even though they mean infrastructure in a more ‘classical’ sense, the interview reminded me of imagination infrastructure, which is meant to create “socio-technical resources that intentionally enable[s] adoption and appropriation beyond the initial scope of the design.” That last bit on design then reminded me of the incomplete city game/workshop format, which Bryan wrote about last week, the result of which “is a physically impressive isometric drawing of an imagined place, but the real outcome is hours of practice negotiating the diverse and occasionally conflicting needs of the imagined residents of the city.”

No extra conclusion this time around, I just like how these three fit together. (Ok, one more set of connections: their book seems to be one more of those grey fabric-covered designy objects out there.)

“Whereas traditional urban maps were perceived as abstractions from the city’s everyday physical existence, the cartographic documents discussed here appear to be inseparable from it, as if digital cities were now inseparable from their physical twins.” […]

In other words, we cannot escape the fact that a map is always partial. It always filters. Which is why, by the end of the book, we’re really saying beware, because maps are produced, and they have bias. Bruno Latour in Paris: Invisible City (2006) writes that the more you see, the more partial is the picture, a visual equivalent of the uncertainty principle. […]

You don’t understand digital technology if you try to compare it to the steam engine or electricity. It’s more comparable to the printing press. It changes our social relations. It changes the very nature of who we are, both individually and in groups. […]

Eryk Salvaggio proposes three key aspects of data participation in the age of AI: Context, Consent, and Control. He discusses the challenges of translating emotions about AI into a legal framework, the need for policies that prioritize individual control over data usage, and explains his concerns about loss of control over personal data in AI systems. Salvaggio advocates for establishing norms that protect data rights and encourage transparency in AI practices.

I’m unsure about his use of “emotions” though. He talks about how data use for AI often “feels” off, and makes a good case for paying attention to those feels and what they represent. I wonder if he’s not making peoples’ opinions harder to take seriously by policy maker, while his aim is exactly the opposite. People feel it’s wrong because LLMs (and the companies making them) use our creations at a scale that doesn’t match our intent when originally sharing them. Taking the respect emotions angle seems like an unnecessary detour. Otherwise, great argument.

It is easy enough for a lawyer to say that Common Crawl is a compilation of facts, and that any text or image that results from an analysis of those facts is fair use. But when we refer to all collective culture as data, we raise questions that defy logic. If I share a photo online, I don’t lose copyright protection over it. But I do lose control over how it is integrated into datasets. […]

Copyright law has by tradition been decided on a case by case basis. Is the legal system prepared for a world where hundreds of thousands of infringements are generated on a daily basis, distributed across millions of users, with no permanent access to what was generated? […]

If we want to think carefully about the meaningful management of AI in policymaking — and in establishing norms that protect and encourage sharing various forms of creativity in the public sphere — we need to pay attention to what is signaled through these feelings of discomfort.

Beware the curators

Disclaimer; I consider myself a curator ;-). If I read him correctly, Matt Klein is arguing that curators are not better than algorithms. Even though multiple voices are pushing for curation instead of algos, both have problems and both provide a skewed vision. Thus he says, people should focus on their own taste, their own opinions. Fair enough.

My very self-interested opinion is that people should pay more attention to curators than algos. The former might have been influenced by biases, business needs or simply wanting more attention, but you are still listening/reading a distinct voice which you’ve picked, one hopes, for its perspective. The latter usually provide an averaging out, a lowest common denominator. Doesn’t mean it’s bad, but it’s definitely something you need to be aware of.

Klein also says that “it’s belittling to presume consumers are required to be told what to like.” In my experience that’s not at all how readers view my curation, they weren’t convinced by anyone that they needed to be told anything, they found someone who could help them save time and step out of what they found elsewhere. In the end, it’s not algorithms vs human curators and it’s not being told vs developing your own taste, it’s two types of tools. The algorithmic one covers a huge range and proposes some version of the average, the human provides a point of view. I use both and form my own opinions and tastes.

Over the last decade, tech platforms have come to effectively dictate taste at scale, flattening culture by algorithmic means. Call it “The Age of Average,” “Filterworld,” “Algo Supremacy,” “Cultural Homogenization,” “Blanding,” “Refinement Culture” or “Cultural Moneyballism.” It’s all the same. […]

There’s an irony here: Algorithms were once believed to untether us from the masses and offer paths for personalization. But “For You” is not about pushing the limits of our artistic palates, but a device to serve us what the platform wants us to be satisfied with, herding us into perfectly predictable siloes that can be targeted with more “precise” recommendations. Anything other than this is a liability to the business model. […]

What we ultimately require – more than curators replacing algorithms – is the energy to explore, discover and share new works, and the self-confidence to develop independent taste... even if that means enjoying what no one else does, or enjoying exactly what everyone else does.

§ Finally got to Andrew Dana Hudson’s Our Shared Storm over the last week. Loved it! From the seemingly relatively boring, if important, IPCC’s Shared Socioeconomic Pathways scenarios, Hudson writes five interlocking novelettes. In them, he explores the possibilities of our climate future, weaving one location and a few central characters into down on the ground, detailed portrayals of how the IPCC scenario might turn out.

Guest artist
Mériol Lehmann uses photography to question our relationship between nature and culture in this era of ecological upheaval.

Futures, Fictions & Fabulations

Waves of the Blue Sea
“Core contributors across a range of disciplines scan for (and make sense of) trends and signals shaping the current social, technological, environmental, economic and political landscape. Using a combination of foresight methodologies and tools, they co-create detailed scenarios to surface changes that can be made today to help create a more flourishing tomorrow.”

Thinking outside the cone
I’d argue with the statement that “technology evolves exponentially,” but otherwise a thought provoking tweak to Voros’ futures cone. “This means that if we truly want to explore the space of futures expansively, we must pass through futures that, from today’s perspective, are impossible. This construction encapsulates the theorization of Dator’s Second Law, which states that ideas about the future, if not ridiculous, fail to capture anything meaningful of the future.”

Mapping archetype scenarios across the three horizons
Via Andy Hines’ blog, a link providing 50 days’ free access to his paper in Futures. “The purpose of this paper is to suggest that mapping of archetype scenarios onto the three horizons could provide a useful starting point for understanding change in a domain.”

Algorithms, Automations & Augmentations

Why Anthropic’s Artifacts may be this year’s most important AI feature
“To understand why Artifacts matters, we need to look beyond the raw capabilities of large language models and consider the broader picture of AI integration in the workplace. The true challenge isn’t just creating smarter AI; it’s making that intelligence accessible, intuitive, and seamlessly woven into existing workflows.”

AI as a creative partner (and forecaster)
First part of a three article series by Pierre Thirion, the second came out as I was writing this. “Across these three projects, a theme has emerged: an exploration of what human-AI collaboration could look like. Each of these projects has been, in its own way, a good teacher on this subject. I wanted to take the time to reflect on this and share what I learned while designing and producing them.”

AI used to predict potential new antibiotics in groundbreaking study
“The report, published Wednesday in the journal Cell, details the findings of scientists who used an algorithm to mine the ‘entirety of the microbial diversity that we have on earth – or a huge representation of that – and find almost 1m new molecules encoded or hidden within all that microbial dark matter.’”


  • 🗺️ 🇨🇱 👀 Why Is Chile So Long? Tomas Pueyo answers his own title with a detailed look at the topographical, historical, and social reasons why. Shared mainly for the size comparisons, the country is as long as the northern tip of Nunavut to San Antonio, Texas, or the top of Norway to below the southern tip of Greece!
  • 🤩 🏢 ⛪️ 🇬🇧 Lovely! Corstorphine & Wright carves scoop into London office facade. “The four-storey office building has been extended sideways and upwards and wrapped in glazed bricks, arranged to draw attention to the circular window of the neighbouring Grade II-listed church.”
  • 🤔 🅿️ 🏡 🇺🇸 From parking to people. “As we look to a possible future with fewer cars and more sustainable modes of transportation, which will help reduce carbon emissions and traffic congestion, the need for parking spaces will likely diminish. … That’s why Google’s new Alta Garage in Mountain View was purposely designed to not be a parking garage someday – and stands ready to be converted into commercial, residential or community use whenever the moment is right.”
  • 👏🏼 ⚡️ 🔋 IEA expects global clean energy investment to hit $2 trillion in 2024. “Combined investment in renewable power and grids overtook the amount spent on fossil fuels for the first time in 2023. ‘For every dollar going to fossil fuels today, almost two dollars are invested in clean energy,’ said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol.”
  • 🔋 💯 An Engineering Leap Just Made Solid-State Batteries 100x Better. “TDK Corporation in Japan, says it’s increased its solid-state battery energy output at 1,000 watt-hours per liter, which is 100 times better than its previous battery. While this battery breakthrough will first arrive to wearables and other small devices, similar solid-state breakthroughs could also revolutionize electric vehicles, laptops, and smartphones.”
  • 🤯 📸 🦋 🐝 🐞 🐜 🪲 Otherworldly: Incredible images from the insect photography awards. “… also showcases young budding bug photographers – with this year’s under-18s winner, Jamie Smart, aged just eight. She’s already been recognized for her work by the World Wildlife Trust and at the British Wildlife Photography Awards.”

Your Futures Thinking Observatory