This week → Why Christopher Alexander still matters ⊗ The future of sustainability: ‘the same, only faster’ or deep transformation that challenges the fundamentals of our systems? ⊗ The largest, cheapest, safest, cleanest way to address the crisis ⊗ Belonging, care and repair ⊗ The miserable lives of cyborg truck drivers ⊗ Peek into the future
Quick reminder that I launched a members’ Discord. We’re still getting our sea legs, we’ll soon start a rotation of various people posting stuff to broaden things beyond my own readings, and you can still become a member for just $20 to open it up more.
One talent I don’t seem to have is for writing book reviews, so I wont even try but I have to mention that I just finished Reap3r by Sentiers friend and reader Eliot Peper and loved it. I’m not sure if it’s a case of finding patterns where they aren’t any, but it definitely feels like there’s a lot of overlap between the topics in Eliot’s books and this newsletter (and he manages to conjure up another place I want to hangout at). Quantum computing, AR, VCs, black ops, podcasting, journalism, all mix in a great ride. And I hope I don’t spoil anything too much by saying so, but if you’ve ever read or watched something and thought “well they should just,” the conclusion is a refreshing “ah! of course, well done!” (Ok, I guess that was kind of a review.)
Mea culpa: I’m aware of A pattern language, and seem to have bumped into Christopher Alexander’s work a number of times without noticing, but that’s about it. He passed away recently, and here Michael W. Mehaffy, “a former student and long-time colleague of Christopher Alexander, and a scholar on his work,” provides a good look at his work and implications. Beyond architecture, Alexander influenced Ward Cunningham, inventor of wiki, Will Wright, creator of Sim City and The Sims, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel and even Steve Jobs.
The piece already compresses a lot of work so I’ll summarise it in a phrase but have a read. Basically, ‘we’ moved away from holistic thinking, from understanding nature, and “we’ve been getting some things very wrong—most centrally in our approach to the relationship between technology and life. In fact, we’ve embraced a deathly form of technology, one that is killing the planet, and certainly killing human habitats.” I might be way off base here but to me, while not being the same thing, it rings a bit like a larger scale version of Ursula M. Franklin’s prescriptive v holistic technologies. Right?
[D]esign really is, and what planning is. It is not “creating from nothing”—or from our own mental abstractions—but rather, transforming existing wholes into new ones, and using our mental processes and our abstractions to guide this natural life-supporting process. […]
We are lost in a kind of “hall of mirrors” of our own abstractions and their constructions, divorced from life—from wholeness, from health, and ultimately from sustainability. This need not be, but to correct the problem, we will need “a right adjustment of the process of abstraction.”” […]
We as planners and architects can either learn to support this kind of process, and support life, or we can choke it off, and create dead places. According to Alexander, we have been doing the latter too much. […]
[T]his advancement has come at a potentially catastrophic cost, leaving us today in a post-modern period where all our advancements count for little if we can’t learn now to sustain the life around us.
The Future of Sustainability: ‘the Same, only Faster’ or Deep Transformation that Challenges the Fundamentals of Our Systems? ⊕ See Note
Caroline Ashley, the Forum for the Future’s Global Programmes Director, recaps some of the lessons and insights from their recent Future of Sustainability: Looking Back to Go Forward campaign. She details three critique surfaced in the process, concerning a more sustainable future: Current solutions are too piecemeal, shallow and short-term; Social justice is missing, separated, and/or tokenistic; Siloed approaches have driven unintended consequences, and will continue to if not addressed. And then the Forum’s “six things [that need to be done] if we’re to deeply transform at the scale and pace needed.”
It’s a good illustration that, after the long and misguided debate about “climate change, real or not,” we are now in the midst of another debate. The points Ashley and the Forum make parallel the “growth or degrowth” discussion, which can be summed up as “Did we take a wrong turn or do we ‘just’ have two wheels off the asphalt and need to slowly roll back on?” We definitely made a wrong turn and need to change a lot of things, but many many ‘sensible’ voices seem to think we can just tweak and keep going. The piece does a good job of showing why the latter won’t work. (And of course, this view connects completely with Alexander’s in the article above.)
There is a sense that there is something deeply broken in the current system, and therefore it’s only a matter of time before it decomposes in front of our eyes…. I think we’re right on the edge, the cusp, of things potentially changing but the question is, do they go in our direction or somewhere else?” […]
Take, for example: focusing on clean but not responsible energy; designing climate interventions that fail to consider biodiversity or recognise climate and nature as one single existential crisis; tackling hunger issues without addressing the fundamentals of food production. […]
How do we lean into decline in a way that creates the flourishing of new better systems? … This means engaging with the facilitative capacity for change, and the governance models that might support how we re-organise, as well as the emotional work required to deal with such change. Empathy is an essential practice of systems change”.
John Vidal at The Guardian interviewing “Energy efficiency guru” Amory Lovins. Conceptually, he’s 100% right on everything he says. He’s been doing this for a while so one would hope he’s also correct on the specific stats he’s putting forward but my general impression is that Lovins’ numbers seem … very very optimistic, with “cut by 90%” here, “cut by 99%” there, and “cut by 97%” in this other place. As I said, he’s right in theory so I’m sharing the piece, but will have those numbers in mind to validate at some point. I also realised writing this that it’s the third article about a more holistic approach, this one with integrative design instead of, well, just building stuff without much thinking.
Lovins is arguing for the mass insulation of buildings alongside a vast acceleration of renewables. “We should crank [them] up with wartime urgency. There should be far more emphasis on efficiency,” he says. […]
“Solar and wind are now the cheapest bulk power sources in 91% of the world, and the UN’s International Energy Agency (IEA) expects renewables to generate 90% of all new power in the coming years. The energy revolution has happened. Sorry if you missed it,” he says. […]
“So if you do this across the whole economy, really designing whole systems in factories, equipment, buildings, vehicles, you’ll end up with severalfold larger energy savings than practically anyone now thinks is available. And the cost goes down.”
Belonging, Care and Repair → Big fan of Rachel Coldicutt’s Careful Industries research consultancy but, sadly, so far I’ve only skimmed this report. Lots of good stuff in there, no doubt. “The futures in this report offer glimpses of three alternative worlds in 2036: worlds where the most important things are belonging, care, and repair. They are neither utopian nor dystopian but somewhere in between; a little like real life, but fifteen years ahead.”
The miserable lives of cyborg truck drivers → Clive Thompson on the implementation of AI, once again, proving to be just another stage in making things more efficient and productive, to the detriment of workers and the enrichment of owners. “Technology, AI, and automation are thus both symptoms of, and causes of, increasingly lousy work conditions for truckers. So here again is the trend: Automation and AI don’t reduce the number of jobs in an industry. In fact, there are more jobs than ever. But they’re crappier jobs, with humans run ragged to keep pace with ruthlessly optimized high-tech systems.”
Peek onto the future → Intriguing post by Om Malik, where he looks at the specs of Apple’s new Studio Display, which includes an A13 Bionic, the chip that powered the iPhone 11 Pro just three years ago, and speculates on where it might lead. “It has GPU power to video on the screen appear more fluid. It has a neural engine to make Siri less dumb, music sound more spatial, and microphones can discern between voice and noise. It has enough machine learning capabilities to morph the screen into a more personal screen.”
No.213 Asides ⊕ See Note
- 🤔 ☀️ 🎥 Solar 3.0: This New Technology Could Change Everything “Imagine an inexpensive solution of perovskite crystals that can make a photovoltaic cell so thin, that just half a cup of liquid would be enough to power a house. A solar panel so lightweight, that it can be balanced atop a soap bubble.”
- 🤬 ♳ I’m sure this is fine. Microplastics found in human blood for first time. “The discovery shows the particles can travel around the body and may lodge in organs. The impact on health is as yet unknown. But researchers are concerned as microplastics cause damage to human cells in the laboratory and air pollution particles are already known to enter the body and cause millions of early deaths a year.”
- 🤓 🤔 Would you wear these to work at a café table? The Nimo Smart Glasses Want to Replace Your Laptop. Or put the next version of these in your eyes? Mojo Vision Brings Its Eye-Tracking, Display-Enabled Contact Lenses One Step Closer to Reality
- 😍 🎨 I’m usually more of a minimalist in terms but these are fantastic! Watercolor and Ink Illustrations Imagine Cluttered Rooms and Well-Stocked Shops. “These details range from technical details, such as electrical mechanisms or a lamp design, to more personal quirks, such as how someone might arrange their garden or a particular plastic stool they might use”
- 🤔 📸 Click around the site to, a larger scene than I thought. Instagram Has Verified 35 Virtual Influencers. “Virtual influencers are a fast-rising phenomenon. What has previously felt like a fringe medium of expression has suddenly become central to our digital experiences. And as we head towards the metaverse—it is only set to grow”
- 🤩 🐆 🎥 In terms of big cats, I’m more of a Snow Leopard person now, but the kid in me can still appreciate this great video of A Cheetah Running in Slow Motion. “[T]he world’s fastest land animal moving in slow motion, muscles rippling, legs moving in concert, etc. It’s beautiful and mesmerizing”
- 😱 🇦🇶 Satellite data shows entire Conger ice shelf has collapsed in Antarctica. “Nasa scientist says complete collapse of ice shelf as big as Rome during unusually high temperatures is ‘sign of what might be coming’”
- ♠️ 🤖 I guess AI is old now? (Sorry!) Artificial intelligence beats eight world champions at bridge. “The AI – called NooK – played the same role as the human champion, with the same cards and the same opponents. The score was the difference between those of the human and the AI, averaged over each set. NooK won 67, or 83%, of the 80 sets.”
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