Newsletter No.252 — Feb 12, 2023

Creatures that Don’t Conform ⊗ We’ve Always Been Distracted, or at Least Worried that We Are ⊗ Dark Futures

Also this week → People, Processes and Tools. Assemblage ⊗ ChatGPT will destabilize white-collar work ⊗ A more flexible approach to machine learning

Creatures that don’t conform

Sometimes when I share an article I have something to add and sometimes I don’t, it’s just me waving my arms and pointing; this is awesome! Look! Wonderful things we don’t understand! Who the hell are we to ignore these things and plow them under? We know so little yet think so much of ourselves! Look! Why are we so square, so binary, so limited in what we value? (Yes, using ‘we’ is especially wrong here.)

Lucy Jones (who’s great reading of the piece you can listen to at Emergence Magazine) not only presents a superb overview of slime molds, she also covers all the questions and feelings before I could write them here. Awe, mixed in with ‘we don’t know everything, far from it,’ mixed in with what else can we learn from nature and is it even more useful in humbling us than in what we can actually learn from it? See much of what’s tagged with fungi or trees or even sublime for similar feelings of awe.

Myxomycetes are currently placed in the kingdom Protista: Enigmatic creatures that can’t be placed easily in boxes. Creatures that don’t conform. Creatures that defy our understandings of the world. Creatures that spill ooze through constructed human boundaries. Creatures that are at once individual and then collective. […]

Slime molds have things to teach us. That a being can change but at the same time remain itselves—to use Octavia Butler’s phrase. That there is life and beauty in rot, in decay, in decomposition, in the ashes. That a hallmark of life is evanescence and ephemerality. That our limited, Romantic understanding of the world—“ew, slime”—is outdated. That nonhierarchical, nonbinary being is part of the reality of the world […]

They make us face the facts: that nothing lasts forever. That ultimate human control is illusory. That we might be at the top by force, but we are not at the center. But I think this is why we need to know them. Our rational, materialistic worldview obscures transcendence and awe. Our culture of forgetting, rejecting, ignoring the wider world requires some work, some assistance, to undo. […]

Perhaps they can help dismantle our delusions of human exceptionalism—with their absurd hidden ethereal beauty. They can dissolve the boundaries we pretend exist—with their remarkable metamorphoses. They can challenge our stagnant cultural notions—with their existence as both collective and individual. They can humble us—with their complexity which is beyond our understanding. […]

They make us face the facts: that nothing lasts forever. That ultimate human control is illusory. That we might be at the top by force, but we are not at the center. But I think this is why we need to know them. Our rational, materialistic worldview obscures transcendence and awe. Our culture of forgetting, rejecting, ignoring the wider world requires some work, some assistance, to undo.

We’ve always been distracted, or at least worried that we are

At Aeon, Joe Stadolnik looks back on some of the periods in history where various thinkers were worried about some new thing that would destroy the brain, the concentration, the attention, of its users. Seneca the Younger, Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi, Renaissance scholar Erasmus, and French theologian Jean Calvin, to name a few.

It’s a topic, and even an approach to an article, that has been used before, but I’m sharing this one because of the side trip to “lines of thought,” an 13th-century diagram, which the intellectual historian Ayelet Even-Ezra takes us on, and because of something I started wondering about while reading.

If all those stages and technologies did change our brains, rob us of something or took away some way of thinking, what was it like to think back then? Was it really that different? If we could somehow experience Seneca’s or Zhu Xi’s brain, would we feel the difference? I’m tempted to say it would be the same, but I also know my book reading has devolved in recent years, so who knows?

[F]or Even-Ezra, these horizontal trees written by medieval scribes did not simply record information – they recorded pathways for thinking that were enabled by the branching form of the tree itself. Branching diagrams reveal the medieval extended mind at work in its interactions with pen, ink and the blank space of the page. […]

Even if the new multitudes of books, and the indexes mapping them, caused some alarm among those who witnessed their proliferation and the demise of careful and attentive reading, we raise no alarms in retrospect. New regimes of memory and attention replace the old ones. Eventually they become the old regimes and are replaced, then longed for. […]

It is remarkable how two different eras could both say something like: ‘We live in a distracted world, almost certainly the most distracted world in human history,’ and then come to exactly opposite conclusions about what that means, and what one should do.

Dark futures

It’s likely more a personal quirk than an actual valid distinction, but when ‘futures’ slide too much towards the ‘trend hunting,’ I usually drop off. That often means that when fashion and branding come in, I lose interest. Not that either of those are completely uninteresting or without value, just that when included in futures it often means we’re sliding into a very close future and in the realm of strategy. Your mileage may vary.

All of this to say that this piece looking at dark futures, dark optimism, dark ecology, and dark euphoria is, by and large, really worth a read, especially dark optimism, as it seems like a worthy approach to mixing a pragmatic view of the situation and an optimistic outlook on possibilities. The authors, the 2sight foresight studio, cite a number of research papers and stats from reports to build their descriptions and attach a lot of signals worth looking into.

This is exactly what it is about: hiding brighter futures, futures’ potentials and doom-induced feelings by staying in the dark. What if darkness was instead revealed to foster more realistic, protopian, euphoria-like paths forward? A nyctophilia-inspired approach through Dark Optimism, Dark Ecology and Dark Euphoria, allowing us to “be comfortable in the dark”, yet not blind. […]

This is when “doom washing” happens: identified by MØRNING consultancy, the term describes a situation in which brands capitalise on apocalyptic and dystopian aesthetics, solely to gain empathy from consumers during difficult times when they might struggle with recession, anxiety or living conditions — in short, when consumers experience doom — without taking any tangible situation to help. […]

Dark Optimists, as a growing culture, recognise how far we might be from solving the issues at stake, but still nurture their mindset with an enlightened yet grounded optimism.

Using Actor Network Theory to rethink work in the age of generative AI “[B]oth of these perspectives miss the fact that outputs arise from the interaction of human and machine, and that we change one another in the process. The real actor is hybrid. Probably in part because I read it the same day, but not only, I feel there’s some overlap with this definition of assemblage. “Problems are remade — they are transformed. As the assemblage is modified the components are also changed and the field of potential outcomes is changed.”

Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation → First, I’ll mention that this heading, a play on my regular “Futures, foresights, forecasts & fabulations,” was prompted on ChatGTP. All words I use, so I could have come up with it I’m sure, but it literally took 20 seconds, and that includes login. ⊗ How ChatGPT Will Destabilize White-Collar Work. “It creates content out of what is already out there, with no authority, no understanding, no ability to correct itself, no way to identify genuinely new or interesting ideas. That implies that AI might make original journalism more valuable and investigative journalists more productive, while creating an enormous profusion of simpler content.”Researchers Discover a More Flexible Approach to Machine Learning ⊗ Matt Webb build a new thing, by centauring with ChatGPT. Browse the BBC In Our Time archive by Dewey decimal code. ⊗ Fascinating. How does AI see your country? Let’s take a Midjourney around the world. ⊗ How AI is de-ageing stars on screen.


  • 🤩 🦑 🇨🇦 This is very much my jam. Squid-inspired smart windows could slash building energy use. “Krill and squid mechanically move pigments in their skin to actively change their skin’s appearance. The device emulates that by moving various liquids—dye solutions, glycerol, and carbon powder suspensions—through channels carved into thin plastic sheets.”
  • 🤣 🎥 👾 HBO’s Gritty Prestige TV Adaptation of Mario Kart. “If you’ve ever wondered what HBO and the producers of The Last of Us might do with some slightly different source material, Pedro Pascal and the cast of Saturday Night Live took a crack at a gritty adaptation of Mario Kart. I mean, I would 100% watch this.”
  • 🤩 📧 🖼 JPEG · No Text, Just Images. I wish I’d thought of this. “Curated streams on contemporary culture. Image essays. Subject matter varies. No text. Just images.” (Via Naive Weekly.)
  • 👏🏼🌊 🇨🇦Canada is set to make a massive protected area official — and it’s underwater. “The Tang.ɢwan-ḥačxʷiqak-Tsig̱is marine protected area will be 133,000 square kilometres, covering underwater mountain ranges and alien ecosystems.”
  • 👏🏼 Common Wealth. “From the climate crisis to concentrated corporate power, ownership shapes how our economy operates and in whose interest. Only by reimagining it can we build an economy that's democratic and sustainable by design.”
  • 🤔 🍄 🩺 MDMA and Psilocybin Are Approved as Medicines for the First Time. “Many are celebrating Australia’s decision to pave the way for these psychedelic therapies, but questions around accessibility remain.”