Automating Society ⊗ Participatory Urban rewilding ⊗ Screw the Mars hype, we should move to Venus — No.150

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

This week → Automating Society Report 2020 ⊗ Notes on Participatory Urban (Re)Wilding ⊗ Screw the Mars hype. Here’s why we should move to Venus. ⊗ The intriguing maps that reveal alternate histories ⊗ Ursula K. Le Guin: A Rant About “Technology”

A year ago → The most clicked link in issue No.105 was Taiwan is making democracy work again. It’s time we paid attention.

Issue 150! Over three years of writing these “little” newsletters every week. It’s been quite rewarding, introduced me to a number of interesting people, serves as a good way of focusing thinking and making decisions on what to read, and it’s also a pleasant way of drawing attention which sometimes becomes work.

What will the next 150 be like? The recent changes to the homepage and last issue’s intro are meant to focus me a little bit better, hopefully make Sentiers easier to understand quickly for potential subscribers, and give you a good idea of where my head is had direction wise.

The ongoing effort, as ever, is to get better at writing each issue, but also to grow the audience and grow the paid membership, with the goal of course of turning this into a more varied publishing offer, and into my actual job instead of a slice of my yearly revenue interspersed with consultancy work.

So my “anniversary gift” is to keep getting better, with no plan to stop for a good long while. My anniversary wish list, is for readers to share, share, share the newsletter, for more members to join, and for your thoughts on where the newsletter is at right now, as well as what you think of the emerging focus in direction. Thanks for reading!

Automating Society Report 2020

Intro to a great report (free download) on automated decision-making (ADM) systems in society. Lots of important research presented “through journalistic stories, then, through research-based sections cataloging different examples, and, finally, with graphic novels.”

The quotes below are all from the intro which in itself is already a useful read using a number of examples, the impacts, how the ADMs were rolled back or improved, how policy can be implemented, how some laws are well intentioned but never properly applied, etc.

Important points are made about facial recognition, black boxes, and the lack of adequate auditing, enforcement, skills, and explanations, as well as how many fall in the techno-solutionist trap.

It’s also important to note how good intentions in policy making often clash with governments’ dreams of “leading in AI.” I’d love to see a country do a good job of integrating the two, consider due process, transparency, auditability, and the respect of human rights and democracy as integral to leading in AI.

The machine may be scary, but the ghost within it is always human. And humans are complicated, even more so than algorithms. […]

In principle, ADM systems have the potential to benefit people’s lives – by processing huge amounts of data, supporting people in decision-making processes, and providing tailored applications. In practice, however, we found very few cases that convincingly demonstrated such a positive impact. […]

This trend [of implementing facial recognition systems], if not challenged, risks normalizing the idea of being constantly – and opaquely – watched, thus crystallizing a new status quo of pervasive mass surveillance. This is why many from the civil liberties community would have welcomed a much more aggressive policy response by EU institutions to this5. […]

The results from our research are clear: while ADM systems already affect all sorts of activities and judgments, they are still mainly deployed without any meaningful democratic debate. Also, it is the norm, rather than the exception, that enforcement and oversight mechanisms – if they even exist – lag behind deployment. […]

This view ultimately amounts to the assumption that we humans should adapt to ADM systems, much more than ADM systems should be adapted to democratic societies.

Notes on Participatory Urban (Re)Wilding

Long time readers will know how I love hybrids and intersections, Usman Haque with his preliminary notes on a new project situated at an extremely interesting intersection of cities, citizen participation, and rewilding. Citing a few notable books on the later and adding his own thinking and experiences with the first two, Haque starts sketching what re-connecting increasingly urban populations to the natural world, and making cities much more wild and infused with nature might look like, emphasizing the importance of participatory platforms in “co-imagining, co-producing and co-creating such a future.”

But, broadly, rewilding refers to a range of processes through which humans ensure that non-human species and natural processes are re-introduced into a landscape in a way that they can become self-sustaining once more. […]

“Does your city know where its lunch is coming from? And is that place healthy — or not?” […]

You might think that everyone loves green cities, but in actual fact there is no cross-cultural consensus on how, why and when to use green urban spaces, or how to care for them — one person’s lovely ‘wild’ meadow, is another person’s unkempt park suffering for lack of maintenance. […]

Connecting increasingly urban populations to the natural world is essential for humankind’s successful response to the environmental, social and economic challenges of the 21st century. […]

If urban wilding is to become a feature of city-making, developing participatory platforms for supporting its design, delivery and maintenance will be absolutely crucial: participatory urban wilding.

Screw the Mars hype. Here’s why we should move to Venus.

In this issue of the excellent new newsletter, The Hypothesis, Annalee Newitz makes the case for colonizing Venus (perhaps with cities inside balloons of breathable atmosphere) instead of Mars. Both invasions are still very much hypothetical (pun intended) but since they are so different and the bro-vision of Mars so capitalistic, “perhaps having to rethink what a habitat is in the first place will spur us to rethink social contracts, too.”

For the record, I’m always signing up for a Newitzian planet way, way before a Muskian one.

There’s also some evidence that Venus was once covered in oceans, and perhaps rich with life a billion years ago. But something catastrophic happened — or, maybe, a series of small changes that added up to a slow but planet-altering transformation — and the planet wound up with a superheated surface and permanent cloud cover. […]

Life on Venus would be wholly unlike Earth. The surface of the planet is unlivable for humans: the intense atmospheric pressure and heat is like being at the bottom of a very deep ocean that’s hot enough to melt lead. So we’d have to live in the clouds, right below the protective ionosphere that sucks up radiation. […]

[W]e’re at the thought experiment stage … we can be explorers who seek to find homes for ourselves in worlds that are already made. We can integrate into already-existing environments that are worth preserving. Maybe we’ll even construct settlements that serve the public rather than capital.

The intriguing maps that reveal alternate histories

Samuel Arbesman wrote about alternate history maps in his excellent Cabinet of Wonders back in September, and expanded on the idea for BBC Future in the link above. Short read with great examples, a few maps, and a number of rabbits holes.

No longer merely a subculture of science fiction, alternate history has become a realm of serious research, with historians involved in the study of counterfactuals. […]

But one of the deepest pleasures of alternate histories are their maps. Sometimes these allow stories to unfurl, or complement the hypothetical world of a tale being told. But in many cases, the map alone tells a story. […]

Chabon hit upon the attraction of imagined cartographies: the lure of making the paraphernalia of verisimilitude. These worlds are different but they could exist, and we can be easily sucked into spending too much time lavishing detail on these constructions.”

Ursula K. Le Guin: A Rant About “Technology”

Super short Le Guin from 2005, always so insightful and clear in her remarks on technology.

Its technology is how a society copes with physical reality: how people get and keep and cook food, how they clothe themselves, what their power sources are (animal? human? water? wind? electricity? other?) what they build with and what they build, their medicine – and so on and on. Perhaps very ethereal people aren’t interested in these mundane, bodily matters, but I’m fascinated by them, and I think most of my readers are too. […]

Technology is the active human interface with the material world.


  • ? ? ?? Fun! Fabien Girardin uses Próximo to track Mod: Travel with Craig Mod on Pachinko Road. “Craig Mod is walking again. This time he is following the historic Tōkaidō highway between Tokyo and Kyoto. As many of us are itching to travel, he is running newsletter called Pachinko Road with daily missives that are short and visual. He is also uploading “views and sounds” of the mundane Japan he gets to experience along the road. What I miss from this material is a map that shows the geography of his adventure. So, each day, I update this page with the places he mentions in his emails and the video glimpses he shares on Youtube.”
  • ?? ? ? Why Is Post-COVID China Embracing A Cyberpunk Aesthetic? “Over the last few months, the term “cyberpunk” has unexpectedly gone mainstream in China’s post-COVID fashion scene. Originally a science-fiction genre from the 1980s that described a futuristic and dystopian setting, Cyberpunk has reemerged as a total lifestyle aesthetic for Gen Zers in China. Dreadlocks, silver eyeshadow, shiny clothes, neon colors, and high-tech-inspired photo filters have infiltrated the country’s magazine covers, luxury campaigns, trendy cafés, and social media.”
  • ? ?? Inside the New York Public Library’s Last, Secret Apartments. “[T]he libraries were closed, the kids who lived there might sit reading alone among the books or roll around on the wooden library carts—if they weren’t dusting the shelves or shovelling coal. Their hopscotch courts were on the roof. A cat might sneak down the stairs to investigate the library patrons.”
  • ? ?? Inside the Secret Math Society Known Simply as Nicolas Bourbaki. “The group is known as ‘Nicolas Bourbaki’ and is usually referred to as just Bourbaki. The name is a collective pseudonym borrowed from a real-life 19th-century French general who never had anything to do with mathematics. It’s unclear why they chose the name, though it may have originated in a prank played by the founding mathematicians as undergraduates at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris.”
  • ? Look at the last chart, incredible clockwork-like progress by Apple. Apple Announces The Apple Silicon M1: Ditching x86 – What to Expect, Based on A14. “Apple’s performance trajectory and unquestioned execution over these years is what has made Apple Silicon a reality today. Anybody looking at the absurdness of that graph will realise that there simply was no other choice but for Apple to ditch Intel and x86 in favour of their own in-house microarchitecture – staying par for the course would have meant stagnation and worse consumer products.”
  • ⌨️ Raspberry Pi 400 Personal Computer Kit. “…a powerful, easy-to-use computer built into a neat and portable keyboard.” You can also have a look at the innards with this teardown and review by Jeff Geerling.
  • ? ?? Van Gogh Worldwide. “Van Gogh Worldwide is a free digital platform providing art-historical and technical data about the work of Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890). The artist produced a total of approximately 2000 artworks, and the aim of Van Gogh Worldwide is to present data for these in an accessible way, via a user-friendly website.”
  • ??‍♀️ ?? Moscow’s facial recognition system can be hijacked for just $200, report shows. “Spanning more than 100,000 cameras across the city, Moscow’s facial recognition system is meant to be restricted to law enforcement. It’s unclear how the seller was able to secure access, whether through bribery or a digital intrusion. Two officers were placed under investigation in the wake of the incident, but Kuznetsova has filed a lawsuit aimed at pausing the program until clearer procedures are set.”

Header image: Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, Kyoto, Japan by Jeremy Goldberg.