Newsletter No.268 — Jun 11, 2023

The Calculus of Grit ⊗ On Understanding Power and Technology ⊗ Ted Chiang: ‘The Machines We Have Now Are Not Conscious’

Want to understand the world & imagine better futures?

Also this week → The new media Goliaths ⊗ The creative process is fabulously unpredictable ⊗ This agency is remaking the (US) pollution fight

The calculus of grit

Over the last couple of weeks, thanks to fears of being retired by AI, the term generalist made the rounds (you can read my own Dispatch on the topic or The Restless Multidisciplinarian where I interviewed the authors Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin). Earlier this week a randomized Reader list luckily brought me to some Critchlow goodness via A map for indie living and Sparring & Tenure for Indie Consultants. Both are excellent read, you should check them out, but in the context of this generalist buzz, I’m pointing instead to Venkatesh Rao’s 2011 piece about the “calculus of grit.” (Can’t re-find how, but I got there through Tom’s articles.) Rao says he is not a generalist but “actually an extremely narrow, hidebound specialist. I just look like a generalist because my path happens to cross many boundaries that are meaningful to others, but not to me.”

I’m kind of astonished I hadn’t read this before, as he attaches so many topics I’ve pondered upon or shared here. He proposes that disciplines form an extrinsic map that one navigates through their career, a generalist would be threading that map in a new way perhaps, but still following the map. I’ve often mentioned Ito’s compass over maps, here Rao argues that one can operate using an intrinsic gyroscope, making up your own path, basically. Replacing the compass with the grit gyroscope of reworking, referencing, and releasing. Reworking (thinking through writing and rewriting), copious referencing of your own writing to construct and advance your own ideas, and releasing it public, which helps to connect with others and to take a place in the discussions you are interested in.

Central to this is that what he calls “grit” is not about working hard out of a “foolhardy superhuman sense of valour.” Rather, grit is the work that looks superhuman from outside but is actually a “fluid inside phenomenon.” In other words, what you are mastering out of your own work and interest that looks like grit to others. What looks like stupid-hard work from the outside might just be applied and consistent work from inside your strengths. Like writing a 2000 word newsletter every week, to take a purely random example.

They think I must possess superhuman willpower because they make a very simple projection error: they think it is hard for me because it would be hard for them. Well of course things are going to take superhuman willpower if you go after them with the wrong strengths. […]

If the environment is so murky and chaotic that you cannot strategically figure out clever moves and timing, the next best thing you can do is just periodically release bits of your developing work in the form of gambles in the external world. I think there’s a justifiable leap of faith here: if you are work admits significant reworking and internally-referencing, you’re probably on to something that is of value to others. […]

These three variables together can measure your progress along any path to mastery. What’s more, they can be measured intrinsically, without reference to any external map of disciplinary boundaries. All you have to do is to look for an area in your life where a lot of rework is naturally happening, maintain an adequate density of internal referencing to your own past work in that area, and release often enough that you can forget about timing the market for your ouput. […]

If you run into an obstacle, it is far more likely that it represents a weakness rather than a meaningful real-world challenge to be overcome, as a learning experience.
Don’t try to go over or through. It makes far more sense to go around. Hack and work around. Don’t persevere out of a foolhardy superhuman sense of valor. […]

So rework, reference, release. Flow through the landscape of your own strengths and weaknesses. Count to 10,000 rework hours as you walk. If you aren’t seeing accelerating external results by hour 3300, stop and introspect. That is the calculus of grit. It’s the exponential human psychology you need for exponential times. Ignore everything else.

On understanding power and technology

Short read from Rachel Coldicutt where she argues that the “existential threat” of AI is used to divert attention from existing harms and confers immense power to those creating the technology. She reminds us that to truly understand technologies, one must also understand power and have media and technical literacy. The real existential risk is elite corporate capture, which is less exciting but more consequential than the hype around AI.

The current “existential threat” framing is effective because it fits on a rolling news ticker, diverts attention from the harms being created right now by data-driven and automated technologies and it confers huge and unknowable potential power on those involved in creating those technologies. […]

Altman’s current line is roughly, “please regulate me now because I’m not responsible for how powerful I’m going to turn out to be – and, oh, let’s just skip over all the current copyright abuses and potentially lethal misinformation because that’s obvs small fry compared to when I accidentally abolish humanity.” […]

He spoke with ease and expertise about neural nets, but admitted he knows little about politics or regulation or people beyond computer labs. These last points garnered several laughs from the audience, but they weren’t really funny; they spoke to a yawning gap in the way that technology is understood and spoken about and covered in the media.

Ted Chiang: ‘The machines we have now are not conscious’

An interview with Ted Chiang, part of the “Lunch with the FT” series. Their paywall is a bit weird so you might get in or not, I read it with no sub. Chiang is one of the sharpest thinkers right now on the topic of “applied statistics” (AI), the interview brings a bit of bio, a bit on his writing, and a healthy serving of AI hype debunking.

Chiang believes that language without the intention, emotion and purpose that humans bring to it becomes meaningless. “Language is a way of facilitating interactions with other beings. That is entirely different than the sort of next-token prediction, which is what we have with AI tools now.” […]

“I think that that is a more useful way to think about these systems,” he tells me. “It doesn’t diminish what Tom Hanks’ character feels about Wilson, because Wilson provided genuine comfort to him. But the thing is that . . . he is projecting on to a volleyball. There’s no one else in there.”

The new media Goliaths

On the NOEMA website the title of this piece by Renée DiResta is “The new media Goliaths,” saved to read later, it loads as “How the creator economy is incentivizing propaganda.” I’m always intrigued when these alternate titles pop-up. Anyway, taken together it’s a nice summary. DiResta looks at the one-person ‘media empires’ like some on Substack, takes us back to Chomsky and Herman’s “manufacturing consent” and their “five filters” and shows us how some new filters, especially catering to your niche, have resulted in a new form of propaganda.

Rather than entering an age of “global public squares” full of deliberative discourse and constructive conversation, we now have gladiatorial arenas in which participants in niche realities do battle. Our increasingly prominent medias-of-one can’t risk losing the attention game in the weeds of nuance. […]

The internet didn’t eliminate the human predilection for authority figures or informed interpretations of facts and narratives — it just democratized the ability to position oneself in the role. The manufacture of consent is thriving within each niche.

‘The creative process is fabulously unpredictable. A great idea cannot be predicted’

Another interview, this one, sadly, at McKinsey, with Jony Ive. On the creative process, writing, collaboration, learning, and looking to the past.

The difference between an idea and a product is that you’ve solved the problems. When someone says to me, “Well, you can’t do this for these reasons,” all it means is that there are problems to be solved. If they can be solved, the idea transitions into becoming a thing. If they can’t, it remains an idea. […]

Honestly, when trying to think about ways that I can be of service and solve problems that will be problems in the future, I find myself always looking to the past. I pay most attention to the creative process and the path and journeys of ideas. I’m really more broadly interested in history.

Twitter article (?!) by Sterling Crispin On his work that ended up in the Vision Pro. “One of the coolest results involved predicting a user was going to click on something before they actually did. … Your pupil reacts before you click in part because you expect something will happen after you click. So you can create biofeedback with a user’s brain by monitoring their eye behavior, and redesigning the UI in real time to create more of this anticipatory pupil response. It’s a crude brain computer interface via the eyes, but very cool. And I’d take that over invasive brain surgery any day.”

Richard Revesz and his agency are remaking the pollution fight “The change would affect the metric that the federal government uses to calculate the harm caused by one ton of planet-warming carbon dioxide pollution. In the Obama administration, White House economists calculated that number at roughly $50 a ton. In the Trump administration, they lowered it to less than $5 a ton. Applying Mr. Revesz’s formula shoots up the cost to nearly $200 a ton.”

Futures, foresights, forecasts & fabulations → This coming Wednesday: Reimagining “The Future of [X]”: How to build collective visions of the future using sci-fi & foresight tools. Part of ASU’s series on applied Sci-Fi. ⊗ Why fake drake and AI-generated music are here to stay. Good episode of WIRED’s Have a Nice Future podcast, shared because Gideon Litchfield said “human taste is gonna be the vinyl of tomorrow,” which I’m totally stealing. ⊗ Nice project shared on the UK’s Government Office for Science Futures, Foresight and Horizon Scanning blog; Ensuring everyone has a voice in imaging the Future. ⊗ Nice! St. Peters school, Barcelona adds futures thinking studies, they “had the pleasure to work with three such schools, a college, a K-8 and a K-12 school.”


  • 🏆 🕸 Tiny Awards “is a small prize awarded by an equally-small selection committee of online makers to the website which we feel best embodies the idea of a small, playful and heartfelt web.”
  • 😵‍💫 ☀️ 🎥 Blackstar — The Sun In A New Light. Trippy. “Blackstar is a relaxing and meditative 45-minute video of the Sun made by Seán Doran using footage from the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Instead of the familiar yellow, Doran has chosen to outfit our star in vivid blue and black, which lends the video a sort of alien familiarity.”
  • 😍 🧱 👾 Real-Life Infrastructure That Looks Like Sci-Fi. “Kane Hsieh, proprietor of the excellent MachinePix, has collected a bunch of photos of infrastructure that looks like science fiction.”
  • 🤩🌊 🌳 Sunlight Illuminates Undulating Kelp Forests in Underwater Photographs by Douglas Klug. “‘kelp forests themselves are living, thriving environments that can wax and wane with currents, water temperature, or other factors,’ providing clues to the ocean’s health and the trickle-down effect for animals and humans that rely on its food sources.”
  • 🚲 🛴 🛵 🚘 Augustin Friedel on LinkedIn shared an interesting pyramidal visualisation of the mobility mix in cities; how it should be, how citizens act, how cities plan, and how OEMs plan.