Beginning with the End ⊗ Lawful neutral ⊗ The right and wrong of cities’ current moment — No.141

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

This week → Beginning with the End ⊗ Lawful neutral ⊗ The right and wrong of cities’ current moment ⊗ Exit to community

A year ago → The most clicked link was If you do not build a second brain or go offline, you will BECOME the second brain in issue No.96.

Quick note to say that last Friday I sent a Dispatch to members. Exceptionally, since it’s a topic being discussed recently, I’ve already unlocked the piece. You can read and share it on the website, it’s on the topic of Bundles, one of the futures of newsletters.

Beginning with the End

Using books/quotes from Frank Kermode, Murray Bookchin, and others, Roy Scranton explains how we tend to consider ourselves (humanity) too much in the “middest” of things, apart from nature, central in time, and look at the end of the world as if it’s one future thing we might determine ahead of time. Worlds are constantly ending, civilizations pass, eras pass, the end of this world is coming but it doesn’t mean the end of humanity or of nature. Actually, we don’t know much of anything for sure. That’s the other important part of the piece; that we create fictions, futures, scientific projections, but all of them, even those based in science, are incomplete and we must remember them as such.

Nothing is certain, determined, even the “human species and the Anthropocene are all passing phenomena in the seething flux of energy and matter that is the universe.” We can stare into the abyss, believing wholeheartedly in one of the fictions we make up, but “there is another way: Accepting unknowing. Embracing the void. Recognizing the limits of human knowledge. Relinquishing our consoling fictions about the future. Acknowledging the transience of the present and seeing in the death of what is the birth of what will become.”

Scranton calls it “apophatic futurism: a commitment to a future existence which by definition cannot be described.”

“The Long Perspectives,” and his main concern, broadly framed, was the fictional structures we impose on time and experience in order to make them bearable. Kermode was interested in how we relate an individual human life, with its beginning, middle, and end, to grander narratives (historical or cosmological in character) about the fate of the world, and he was skeptical though not unsympathetic toward the all-too-human desire to see some kind of concordance between the two—the desire, that is, to believe that time has a shape like life, and that we happen to occupy a privileged place within it: the beginning, perhaps, or the end. […]

Are we living in the Anthropocene or the Cthulhucene, the Plantationocene or the Capitalocene? Should we call it climate change or global warming? Does our framing need to be more hopeful? Are we telling the right story? […]

Bookchin advocated a kind of ecological anarchism, or what he called “social ecology,” a theory connecting the biological fact of human dependence on environmental health and ecological diversity with a communitarian vision of small-scale direct democracy and egalitarian, non-hierarchical social organization. […]

What axis is left to us, “in the middest,” to orient our lives along, when the future is at once wholly catastrophic and wholly unknowable? […]

The world of the future will likely be unrecognizable to those of us alive today, just as the world we live in today would be unrecognizable to Homer or Laozi or even Frank Kermode: human worlds survive for generations, but not forever. Like everything else, this too shall pass.

Lawful Neutral

One way of writing, of explaining a theory, which I’ve noted a few times and that keeps bugging me, is when the author presents neoliberal thinking and its overtaking of much of the world almost as a plan, as a grand scheme. It’s not the goal of Sam Popowich here but, to me, he frames it too much as a concerted way to atomize human lives into manageable pieces. I consider the resulting social conditions as the partially inadvertent outcome of some basic principles, applied decade after decade, not a grand plan across time and countries.

That being said, his essay makes a fascinating parallel between the way Artificial Intelligence and machine learning separates code from data and systematizes processes, decisions; with the way neoliberalism separates the rule of law and lived experience. In this view, the algorithm and the law are conceived for a neutral—in theory but definitely not in practice—system of decision, abstracted from data and from individuals’ diversity and uniqueness. With AI, surveillance and the digitization of everything, neoliberalism finds the perfect tool to grind down and erase the “important differences that make human life rich and meaningful.”

For Turing, a machine’s operation is always completely described in a set of rules, whereas no such rule set could be devised to govern human beings. “It is not possible,” he writes, “to produce a set of rules purporting to describe what a man should do in every conceivable set of circumstances.” […]

The development of computerization, the expansion and refinement of worker time-and-motion studies, the roboticization of factories, and the expansion of individualized consumer demand have led to the algorithmic financialization, globalization, and automation of neoliberal capitalism. […]

Every attempt to strike the “right” balance between competing theories of justice or equality, or between the individual and the collective, or between universalism and particularity, or between tech optimism and tech pessimism, is doomed to fail precisely because they are conceived under the aspect of the capitalist state. If we reject this aspect, many of those political problems fall away.

The right and wrong of cities’ current moment

“Unrolled” thread (so basically an article) by Karl Sharro on the current moment for cities. Not so long ago, cities were the future and touted as the place where everyone was going to live. Cue the pandemic and now people are supposedly leaving cities in droves and they aren’t good for anything. Were they all that then and are they done now? Like most things, it’s a lot more complicated than that. The pre-COVID vision was just one aspect of some cities, not the breadth of experiences and how they were actually lived while the post-panic exaggerates the risks, impact, and how (not) quickly cities can truly change. Sharro asks the important question “what are cities for?”

Cities were upheld as better environmentally, they use less land and limit sprawl, better culturally and socially, they allow for interaction and the arts, even better politically as the fear of the insular suburban mentality became a theme, whereas cities are more diverse. […]

And this not just about how we plan these changes. There will be organic development and trends that can fill any vacuum left by the aftermath of the virus. This is equally true of office space as it is of city districts. Adaptability is key and I feel it’s being neglected now. […]

So there’s an emerging picture of how you can allow for flexible working and redesign your office to be more focused. […]

Exit To Community

The author presents some of the possibilities for social networks to be platform coops or hybrids with shared ownership and more user involvement, as well as making it a new form of exit for the original investors. For most of the piece, it reads more like a thought experiment where all options don’t sound that much plausible. The last part though, considers these options as possible answers to the calls for anti-monopoly measures, which isn’t a bad idea at all, as well as some policy changes that could modify the funding landscape and make some future alternatives possible.

At a time when politicians in the U.S. and Europe are starting to get serious about antitrust enforcement, companies could use federations, user ownership or tokenization to preemptively spread out their market power while continuing to grow their networks. […]

As long as we rely on financing models that depend on maximum power and privilege, the participants will keep on looking like those with the most power and privilege. The Zebras say that they need different kinds of models because they are trying to build companies that are actually focused on their communities. […]

For instance, a public loan-guarantee fund could make it easier to finance community exits, since there won’t often be one rich person who can pony up collateral. There could be tax incentives too, based on the recognition that widely distributing capital ownership is a public good.


Header image: Illustration by Dadu Shin.