This week → Back to the Victorian future ⊗ Builder brain ⊗ Artefacts from hopeful futures ⊗ Holding to account: On duties of care and resistance to Big Tech ⊗ The Oslo Futures Catalogue as a garden of ideas
A year ago → A favourite in issue No.159 was Worldbuilding Forever: Bold Ideas for Our Collective Futures by Ryan Madson.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Here Iwan Rhys Morus looks at the Victorian era’s “idea that inventors and entrepreneurs hold the keys to the utopian future,” and that there’s a firm link between “virtue and technological agency.” According to the author, it’s during that period that utopia went from a place in the world to a place in the future, and where some of the myths of the great inventor were crystallized in our minds.
From that viewpoint, we are basically still Victorian, and that period’s ‘virtue’ has been replaced with productivity and hustle culture. Uncanny. One
weird saddening note: all the examples of success are men, and the one distinct failure mentioned comes at the very end, with a woman, Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos. Her flameout was spectacular, but I’ve also noticed how quickly she has become the example held up as a failure. Can’t help but think that there’s some sexist ‘ah! ah!’ in there.
Finally, Morus also mentions Tesla as a variation on virtue, with “the inventor as an outsider who had no interest in the mundane world around him, a dreamer ‘who thinks too much’ and wanted ‘more than anything else to be left alone.’” And made me think of all the quirky and / or mad inventors I’ve loved in fiction, Professeur Tournesol, Pacôme de Champignac (and Zorglub), even Doctor Doom and a number of characters on this list of fictional scientists and engineers. I’ve always assumed I was recognizing fellow nerds, but now I’m wondering how it relates with these other archetypes.
Woven into the fabric of the story were assumptions about the relationship between personal virtue, technology and the road to a better future that were deeply ingrained in Victorian culture. For the Victorians, the future was — or could be — utopia, and individual personal virtue was instrumental in producing a collective virtuous future. […]
But Smiles was adamant that biographies of great men offered “illustrious examples of the power of self-help, of patient purpose, resolute working and steadfast integrity, issuing in the formation of truly noble and manly character.” […]
They demonstrated “that it is not the man of the greatest natural vigor and capacity who achieves the highest results, but he who employs his powers with the greatest industry and the most carefully disciplined skill — the skill that comes by labor, application and experience.” […]
“When we subscribe to this paradigm about how — and by whom — the future is made, we’re also relinquishing control over that future.”
Speaking of stereotypical inventors. In this piece, Charlie Warzel riffs off the little hubbub about synthetic uteruses on startupTwitter and expands to the builder mentality. “What matters, to a degree, is the boldness of the idea and the process of the thought experiment. The Builder mindset often eschews policy completely and focuses on the macro issues, rather than the micro complexities.” Good read and nicely weaved-in with Web3 and NFTs.
Two thoughts. Not only his Warzel correct in regarding systemic complexity not addressed in those ‘ideas’ but it’s also interesting to note that real solutions aren’t even hypothetical, lots of countries have things like good inexpensive of free childcare and parental leave. Second, he had me thinking ‘maintainers > builders,’ which connects very well with the fourth piece in this issue, Holding to account.
As one vision of the future rapidly replaces the next, the technologies and systems now in place suffer decay and disrepair. Our imaginations and resources are once again diverted from fixing or rehabilitating what exists. Meanwhile, familiar problems, inevitably, resurface. Imaginative obsolescence also upends efforts at effective technological governance—and perhaps that is exactly the point. […]
If we just keep building without repairing what exists or applying lessons learned along the way, we will continue to spin our wheels as the same problems accumulate and amplify. In this way, our technology may evolve, but our relationship to it (and to each other) can only degrade. […]
But the Builders do not repair. They build. That’s because building is virtuous. Unlike, in their mind, criticism, which is passive and vampiric in nature, building is active and generative. It is a de facto good to build, regardless, perhaps, of the outcome. […]
It’s a standard bit of deflection. But what I think this deflection ignores is that there are plenty of people advocating for solutions—they’re just of a more boring, bureaucratic type than the Builders would like. Maintenance, not demolition and remodeling.
I already linked to the Decentralising Digital project in the past but just in the Asides, the link above is to an essay at Branch highlighting some of the hopeful artefacts from the future developed during the project. Very solarpunk, very Superflux, and full of jugaad.
India seems to be quite prevalent in fiction and futures over the last year or two (that I’ve noticed, anyway), it seems to be seen as usefully half-way (physically, conceptually, and ‘developmentally’ (big air quotes there)) between China as ‘dystopian autocracy’ and Africa as a ‘place where people invent stuff that hopefully doesn’t just fold into the crap the Americans are selling.’ Thoughts?
This is a future where people are not beholden to technology but choose to use it for their own good. A future where technology supports and complements existing sustainable patterns and behaviours, rather than imposing new ones. […]
The emergence of open Voice AI means that people are free to create their own voice assistants, naming and interacting with them however they like. In time, these AI devices become less like assistants and more like pets; cared for, taught, and nurtured over many years. Their forms are crafted by local artisans and individualised to their users. […]
The increasing integration of technology into tribal life creates the need for new approaches and practices, particularly around the governance of the data it records and generates. One such approach is the development of Data Stewards, people elected by the tribe to oversee the data, its collection, its use, and how it is shared.
Safiya Umoja Noble and Meredith Whittaker interviewed by J. Khadijah Abdurahman on “how to do critical tech research, and how to insist on transformative justice practices as we try to dismantle technologies of oppression.” I pondered including this one quite a bit. From one point of view, it’s maybe a bit too ‘down in the weeds’ of AI ethics vs academia vs Big Tech. On the other hand, that’s exactly part of the problems they are discussing; the hard work of care and maintenance is too often ignored or hidden by the flashier announcements and social-media mob scenes. So yes, go read!
Also, great example of why not only are maintainers > builders but also that maintaining is harder than building. Although I always want feedback, before some hit reply: yes, builders still matter and do important work, but we need lots more emphasis on maintenance and care, and in a world with dwindling resources it’s ever more important to take care of what’s already built. And, dependencies.
The tech industry is a monopolizing force, and one of the many things it monopolizes is the means for producing knowledge about it. In the platform era, the machinery of the internet is locked behind closed doors, creating problems for researchers. […]
The ascent of AI was predicated on concentrated tech company power and resources which had, as their driving force, the surveillance business model. […]
We have to be in community. We have to be in conversation. And we also have to recognize what our piece of the puzzle is ours to work on. While it is true, yes, we’re just individual people, together we’re a lot of people and we can shift the zeitgeist and make the immorality of what the tech sector is doing—through all its supply chains around the world—more legible. It’s our responsibility to do that as best we can. […]
My voice doesn’t need to be the center of every conversation. But, okay, if I have a little power and a little standing maybe I can move capital, maybe I can ask people what they need and see what I can do to get it to them, to support and nurture their expertise and organizing and approaches, which may be completely unfamiliar to me, and may not need any advice or insight from me.
Full disclosure: I haven’t read the above, nor the associated Making the Oslo Futures Catalogue, both by Dan Hill. They are both >30 min read I sadly haven’t gotten to yet. But I’ve read enough Hillian long reads to know they will be very insightful. And you can also do as I have so far, and just scroll down the pages to admire the examples, the slides, the work of the students, and download the Futures Catalogue. Tightly related to last week’s What Does It Mean to Design Urban Technology?
No.205 Asides ⊕ See Note
- 🎥 🤖 Looking forward to this! Official Trailer for After Yang “In a near future, a family reckons with questions of love, connection, and loss after their A.I. helper unexpectedly breaks down.”
- 😱 🌡 🌊 Extreme Heat in the Oceans Is Out of Control. “More than half of the sea now logs temperatures once considered extreme, threatening countless species, livelihoods, and the air we breathe.”
- 🎉 🌲 Redwood Forest in California Is Returned to Native Tribes. “The group, the Save the Redwoods League, which was able to purchase the forest with corporate donations in 2020, said it was transferring ownership of the 523-acre property to the Intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, a group of 10 Native tribes whose ancestors were “forcibly removed” from the land by European American settlers, according to a statement from the league.”
- 🇨🇳 🚀 🌖 China unveils five-year plan for space exploration that continues push into lunar space. “[D]etailing ambitious goals that include strengthening its space infrastructure and developing a next-generation spacecraft for carrying people to space. The country is also researching how it could possibly land people on the Moon in the coming years.”
- 👍🏼 🇦🇺 🧱 Move over Medusa. Chemists turn carbon emissions into a solid—instantly. “Researchers in Australia have found a way to convert carbon dioxide into solid carbon that could be processed into other products or stored safely. The advance offers a way to address emissions from cement- and steel-making and other heavy industries.”
- ⚡️ 🚢 Maersk launches the world’s first offshore electric vessel-charging station venture. “Stillstrom will deliver offshore electric charging solutions to vessels at ports, hubs, and offshore energy operations. Offshore charging for idle vessels is critical to facilitating the decarbonization of the maritime industry, since it allows vessel owners to replace fossil fuels with electricity while moored to a charging buoy.”
- 🇸🇰 🇨🇿 Single board computers from the 80s in Czechoslovakia, Home Computers Behind The Iron Curtain. (Via The Prepared.)
- 🤖 🇺🇸 🤦🏼♂️ (They are not “joining the workforce! It’s equipment being installed!!”) Robots marched on in 2021, with record orders by North American firms. “More robots joined the U.S. workforce last year than ever before, taking on jobs from plucking bottles and cans off conveyor belts at trash recycling plants to putting small consumer goods into cardboard boxes at e-commerce warehouses.”
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