BANI ⊗ The Screen New Deal ⊗ It gets weirder — No.126

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This week → Facing the Age of Chaos ⊗ The Screen New Deal ⊗ It’s Only going to get weirder ⊗ The Secret Lives of Fungi ⊗ Stanislaw Lem ⊗ Doomer lit

A year ago → ‘Hula Hoops not Bicycles’: Genevieve Bell talks Anthropology, Technology & Building the Future.


Facing the Age of Chaos

Jamais Cascio, writer, speaker, and futurist, with a brilliant piece where he says that “something massive and potentially overwhelming is happening.” So much so that instead of rare instances, we are now surrounded by a world of VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous), making that framework less useful than it used to be. Cascio believes that we need a new language to describe these times of chaos, a language which “would serve as a platform to explore new forms of adaptive strategies.” He proposes a new framework: BANI (Brittle, Anxious, Nonlinear, and Incomprehensible), and goes on to describe what each term means and how it reflects our condition. The BANI framework “offers a lens through which to see and structure what’s happening in the world.” I found the brittle and incomprehensible parts especially relevant and take note of the word “hysteretic” which represents “a long lag between cause and full effect.” Climate impact and even waves of the virus are hysteretic.

From weighty institutions like “law” and “religion” to habituated norms and values, even to ephemeral business models and political strategies, much of what we think of as composing “civilization” is ultimately a set of cultural implements that allow us to domesticate change. […]

In a Nonlinear world, cause and effect are seemingly disconnected or disproportionate. Perhaps other systems interfere or obscure, or maybe there’s hidden hysteresis, enormous delays between visible cause and visible effect. […]

The concept of “flattening the curve” is inherently a war against nonlinearity. […]

Incomprehensibility seems to be intrinsic to the kind of machine learning/artificial intelligence systems we’re starting to build. […]

At least at a surface level, the components of the acronym might even hint at opportunities for response: brittleness could be met by resilience and slack; anxiety can be eased by empathy and mindfulness; nonlinearity would need context and flexibility; incomprehensibility asks for transparency and intuition.

The Screen New Deal

Over the last few weeks, when including articles about the post-current-situation, I’ve mostly focused on visions I find positive and promising. Now on the opposite side, through the fiery writing of Naomi Klein, we get a closer look at the “Screen New Deal” where New York state, under the guise of virus protection, is buying into Eric Schmidt’s vision of cranking the Silicon Valley tech to eleven; AI-ing all the things, delivering all the things, making everything digital (entertainment, health, education, work) or shipped in a box delivered by underpaid, under protected, hyper exploited workers. Schmidt has been using his chairing of two boards on AI to push his goal of addressing “the national and economic security needs of the United States, including economic risk” by promoting a fear of Chinese AI policies and industry to push an increasing “Bigtechification” in NY and elsewhere. In the past couple of months, he has switched the focus of his fear mongering from China to Corona.

It’s a future that employs far fewer teachers, doctors, and drivers. It accepts no cash or credit cards (under guise of virus control) and has skeletal mass transit and far less live art. It’s a future that claims to be run on “artificial intelligence” but is actually held together by tens of millions of anonymous workers tucked away in warehouses, data centers, content moderation mills, electronic sweatshops, lithium mines, industrial farms, meat-processing plants, and prisons, where they are left unprotected from disease and hyperexploition. […]

At the heart of this vision is seamless integration of government with a handful of Silicon Valley giants — with public schools, hospitals, doctor’s offices, police, and military all outsourcing (at a high cost) many of their core functions to private tech companies. […]

[Schmidt’s NSCAI] presentation touts China’s “Explicit government support and involvement e.g. facial recognition deployment.” It argues that “surveillance is one of the ‘first-and-best customers’ for Al” and further, that “mass surveillance is a killer application for deep learning.” […]

To be clear, technology is most certainly a key part of how we must protect public health in the coming months and years. The question is: Will that technology be subject to the disciplines of democracy and public oversight, or will it be rolled out in state-of-exception frenzy, without asking critical questions that will shape our lives for decades to come?

It’s Only Going to Get Weirder

From the intriguing newsletter Inhabit: Territories, an interview with Ingrid Burrington. On labor organizing at Amazon, the dominance of the company, how they lower standards for everybody else, the link between surveillance capitalism and supply chain capitalism, as well as the surprising malleability and flexibility of the deeper layers of the supply chain, and finally on the pandemic and wanting to do something when really all most of us can do is stay home.

Burrington references mushroom pickers from The Mushroom at the End of the World in relation to supply chains (both also mentioned in the next piece on fungi), and you might think of the whole piece in the context of brittleness, as in Cascio’s framework above.

The warehouses are a really legible focal point for the public, but also AWS [Amazon Web Services] is the biggest cloud services provider on the planet. The majority of the means by which “business as usual” is allowed to continue remotely happens because of their infrastructure. […]

One of the things that’s interesting in watching certain supply chains break down in this moment is looking at where there is actually flexibility and where there isn’t, where things are adaptable and where they aren’t. […]

Part of the work of trying to restructure these really complex systems you’re talking about, that currently feel quite intractable and recalcitrant, is finding the wherewithal to think on that longer time horizon. Which feels very out of reach for a lot of people right now. […]

One of the things that Jenny Odell gets across very well is that doing nothing is not about actually just stopping, or being useless or being lazy. It’s about being really clear about what you actually want and doing that thing instead of the thing you think you’re supposed to do, or the thing that meets someone else’s expectations.

The Secret Lives of Fungi

If you’ve read all the links I’ve posted about fungi over the last couple of years, perhaps this one will be a bit redundant. However, if you haven’t or, like me, are fascinated by the topic, then it’s a good overview of some of the more important voices about mycelia and mushrooms now and historically. Covers Wasson, Leary, psilocybin, Merlin Sheldrake’s just released Entangled Life, Paul Stamets, mycoremediation, Radical Mycology, Toby Kiers, and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World.

It’s estimated that there are a million and a half species of fungus, though nearly ninety per cent of them remain undocumented. Before any plants were taller than three feet, and before any animal with a backbone had made it out of the water, the earth was dotted with two-story-tall, silo-like fungi called prototaxites. […]

[T]hey are humble yet astonishingly versatile organisms, “eating rock, making soil, digesting pollutants, nourishing and killing plants, surviving in space, inducing visions, producing food, making medicines, manipulating animal behavior, and influencing the composition of the earth’s atmosphere.” […]

Each year, fungi produce more than fifty megatons of spores. Some mushrooms are capable of onetime exertions in which spores are catapulted through the air at speeds of fifty-five miles an hour.

Bookish

Two good articles on the past and present of sci-fi. First The Case for Stanislaw Lem, One of Science Fiction’s Unsung Giants on his life and a new edition of six of his most important works. Second The Hottest New Literary Genre Is ‘Doomer Lit’ which I hesitated to include but is interesting for this bit at the end.

[Some worried that internalizing a message of doom] could discourage efforts to halt or reverse environmental damage, that his gloom could be catching. What they seemed to miss was that most people are already plenty apathetic, and that representing apathy so plainly might force audiences to reckon with the fact of their giving up.

Miscellany

  • 😍 Voyage d’Hermès: A Moebius Masterwork. “Many of Moebius’ lifelong visual preoccupations are here: austere deserts with limitless horizons, the melding of architecture and landform, flying machines and flying beasts, crystals and spheres. These nine images construct a world as beautiful and coherent as any Moebius ever created.”
  • 🎥 🤯 Unreal Engine 5 Revealed!. “[I]n-depth look at ‘Lumen in the Land of Nanite’ – a real-time demonstration running live on PlayStation 5 showcasing two new core technologies that will debut in UE5”
  • 🇬🇧 👏🏼 Britons want quality of life indicators to take priority over economy. “A YouGov poll has found eight out of 10 people would prefer the government to prioritise health and wellbeing over economic growth during the coronavirus crisis, and six in 10 would still want the government to pursue health and wellbeing ahead of growth after the pandemic has subsided, though nearly a third would prioritise the economy instead at that point.”
  • 🇳🇱 The Rijksmuseum Has Released a 44.8 Gigapixel Image of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. “You can see the brushstrokes better than if you were standing in front of the actual painting in the museum.”
  • 🌳 A “Slow TV” Guide for Indoor Days. “Extremely long nature videos won’t satisfy our need for the outdoors, but they just might fill the gap until your next excursion outside.”
  • 🚲 🚶🏼‍♀️🚶🏼‍♂️ Open Up Streets to Let People Socially Distance “The decision to crack down on parks rather than make more space available is of tremendous consequence—and not just to New Yorkers. It is a microcosm of America’s default to punitive rather than restorative justice. We assume the worst in people. When we see photos of people crowded into a park, we assume they are simply dangerous, reckless people. We call to punish them.”
  • First-ever compendium of indigenous technologies provides a powerful toolkit for climate-resilient design “For designers of the built environment, it is a first-ever compendium of overlooked design technologies from indigenous groups around the world. For the intrepid traveler or curious citizen, it is an invitation to know millennia-old societies thriving in symbiosis with nature thanks to local ingenuity, creativity, spirituality, and resourcefulness.”


Header image: Selective focus photography of brown mushrooms at night, Emre Öztürk.