Crossroads towards dystopia ⊗ Beyond smart rocks ⊗ Afrofuturism can help the world — No.136

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

This week → We’ve reached a crossroads on our path towards dystopia ⊗ Beyond smart rocks ⊗ How Afrofuturism can help the world mend ⊗ Taiwan’s internet and democracy evolved together ⊗ The truth is paywalled but the lies are free

A year ago → Neal Stephenson on Depictions of Reality.

Since this is the first issue after a couple of weeks off, and hundreds(!!) of new people have signed up following good coverage in a few places, let me do some quick introductions.

Sentiers is a free weekly newsletter assembled and written by me, Patrick Tanguay, a generalist, synthesist, and curator of eclectic ideas. There’s also a membership plan to support the weekly and get extra emails, usually focused on one topic at a time. I work with various clients as a Thought Partner, and if you are curious about any of the above and want to grab an informal virtual coffee, book some time for a chat.

Finally, this is a longer than normal issue, lots of great stuff, but it does get shorter from here on out!

We’ve reached a crossroads on our path towards dystopia

Bioneers — Version of a speech by Kim Stanley Robinson. A reader mentioned that sometimes I re-ash the same ideas a few too many times (hit reply if you have thoughts agreeing or disagreeing), this might be one of those times but if you are worried about the climate, extinctions, inequality, and capitalism, this is very much worth a read because of the very clear way in which Robinson puts forth the link between all of those issues, how “we” have all the tools to organize the world differently so everyone can live properly, and on the long, multi-generational political battle to get there.

The sustainable and just civilization that we all hope to create cannot be built using a capitalist economy. […]

[S]olving inequality is not just the right thing to do; it’s the optimally survivable thing to do. […]

So we can describe a utopian vision that addresses poverty and biodiversity and injustice which is realistic given our technology, our social skills, and the physical resources of the whole biological community of Earth. […]

Because technologies don’t just involve machinery. Technology is the full spectrum of ways we organize our relationship to the physical world. […]

You build the scaffold you can in this current situation, and then hope the next generations can keep building on that scaffold and raising the level of discourse and activity to achieve a higher level of interaction with the planet. […]

So a first step is just a return to a Keynesian understanding that government needs to regulate business, rather than the opposite, and as governments create money, to create and spend money appropriately to meet human needs.

Beyond Smart Rocks

Grow — Second time I link to the Grow publication over the last couple of issues, super interesting magazine so far. This one looks at the idea of a “functional biomorphic computing device.” Unconventional Computing is the “unorthodox hybrid of computer science, physics, mathematics, chemistry, electronic engineering, biology, material science and nanotechnology.” They study the intelligence and computing shown by slime molds as well as mycelium and fungi to discover mechanisms of information processing in physical and chemical living systems which could be leveraged for our own purposes.

Sidenote: I was reminded of Peter F. Hamilton’s sci-fi novels where there’s almost always an alien race or a subset of humanity that chose the path of “biological technology” instead of silicon-based.

That is its fundamental witchcraft, or ours: for all its processing power, the device that runs your life is just a complex arrangement of minerals animated by electricity and language. Smart rocks. […]

Speculatively proposed by the physicist Leon Chua in 1971, first proven to exist in 2008, a memristor is a resistor with memory, which makes it capable of retaining data without power. A computer built around memristors could turn off and on like a light switch. It wouldn’t require the conductive layer of silicon necessary for traditional resistors. […]

Physarum polycephalum is an expert at such tasks. Its sensing, searching protoplasmic tubes can solve mazes, design efficient networks, and easily find the shortest path between points on a map. In a range of experiments, it has modeled the roadways of ancient Rome, traced a perfect copy of Japan’s interconnected rail networks, and smashed the Traveling Salesman Problem, an exponentially complex math problem. […]

In the process [of training Artificial Intelligence models], we reproduce and codify historical biases, obliterating any chance we might have of learning from our mistakes. These kinds of errors, Bridle argues, are a consequence of trying to smooth reality’s edges to fit into the inflexible world-model of the computer, reducing all our nuances and contradictions to mere data.”

How Afrofuturism Can Help the World Mend

WIRED — Lovely piece by C. Brandon Ogbunu. Where a lot of articles look at Afrofuturism simply to present the genre, and give some history and list writers. He does cite one of the better definitions (imho) but goes further than most in why it’s different, as well as presenting why that difference, that alternate perspective, can provide an essential lens to understand and envision solutions to the current pandemic, the systemics issues presented through Black Lives Matter, and surveillance and politics.

While highly visible examples like Black Panther certainly qualify, Afrofuturism has more traditionally lived in subgenres of literature, philosophy, music, fashion, and other aesthetics. Dubbing something Afrofuturistic, says renowned sociologist Alondra Nelson, is “very much in the eye of the beholder and this is a good thing. Afrofuturism should be a big tent of expanding borders of the possibilities for Black life.” […]

Afrofuturism describes “visions of the future—including science, technology and its cultures in the laboratory, in social theory, and in aesthetics—through the experience and perspective of African diasporic communities.” […]

[T]he Black experience is defined by a historical struggle for existence, the right to live, to be considered a person, to be afforded basic rights, in pursuit of (political, social, economic) equality. Because of this, the Afrofuturist can see the parts of the present and future that reside in the status quo’s blind spots. […]

Black culture in much of the world is a remix culture, and liberation emerges from the recombination between our artistic and political ambitions, and whatever tools are at our disposal.

Taiwan’s internet and democracy evolved together

WIRED — A profile of the fascinating Taiwanese digital minister, Audrey Tang. On some of her life story, views, daoism, calm, open source history, g0v, vTaiwan, her vision and actions around civic tech, and the essential role of trust. The piece also goes into some detail about the parallel evolution of democracy and the internet in Taiwan. Good read if you’re interested in any of these themes, and a person and place to keep an eye on.

For Tang, the significance of the mask map portal was its function as a space for others to participate in. She hearkened back to first principles: The portal was an example of her “Daoist approach” to political and social action. […]

Promoting openness and transparency nurtures mutual trust—and when the people and the government trust each other, new possibilities for collective action blossom. So the question becomes: How can digital tools be deployed to engender trust? […]

That kind of rough consensus is the key in Taiwanese norm shaping, because it enables people to not squander their time on getting the fine consensus out but rather to agree on something that we can all live with. […]

Tang wrote that the reason “there are so many civic hackers in Taiwan volunteering to work on democracy” is that in Taiwan the “internet and democracy evolved together, spread together, and integrated with each other.” […]

The Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free

Current Affairs — As the title says, how the truth (“the truth”) is largely paywalled and the lies are free, but also how even getting to that truth (especially academic articles) can be a pain and a time-waster. He proposes an hypothetical universally freely available repository of everything where authors are paid per view instead of sold copies. Since there’s no math here other than “taxes,” I’m not sure what I think of the author’s idea of making a decent living on a Universal Basic Income or how the free repository would work. I might be too surrounded by the capitalist model to properly envision his alternative. Nonetheless, certainly an interesting thought experiment and the issue described is worrying.

But let us also notice something: the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the New Republic, New York, Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, the Financial Times, and the London Times all have paywalls. Breitbart, Fox News, the Daily Wire, the Federalist, the Washington Examiner, InfoWars: free! […]

The content of the Wayback Machine, all of the newspaper archives, Google Books, Getty Images, Project Gutenberg, Spotify, the Library of Congress, everything in WestLaw and Lexis, all of it, every piece of it accessible instantly in full, and with a search function designed to be as simple as possible and allow you to quickly narrow down what you are looking for.

I Am a Model and I Know That Artificial Intelligence Will Eventually Take My Job

Vogue — The growing use of CGI and AI models in the fashion business, what it means for human models, and the potential problems with the authenticity of the ideas and politics hidden behind the made-up faces.

Impressive stuff, but there’s one thing that’s keeping real-life me at ease: Miquela, like Shudu, is a computer-generated image (CGI), not artificial intelligence (A.I.). That means that Miquela and Shudu can’t actually do anything on their own. They can’t think or learn or offer posing variations independently. But that won’t be the case for much longer. […]

A point of tension that is emerging with CGI models is that their creators aren’t just designing them as avatars, but also giving them entire backstories, personalities, and causes to champion. Take Blawko, a digital male model and self-proclaimed “sex symbol” with tattoos and a sarcastic sense of humor.

Street Art, Place-Making, and Anti-Capitalist Spatial Activism

Spectre Journal — I breezed through this for now, since it’s a 38 minute read, but it’s thanks to that piece that I discovered Spectre Journal so I wanted to draw your attention to both the anti-capitalist spacial activism in Berlin and the publication’s about page cited below.

Spectre is a new Marxist journal that takes these questions as its point of departure. We aim to promote analysis, discussion, and debate on the revolutionary left, both in the United States and around the world, recovering the insights of Black radical thought, anti-colonial movements, socialist feminism, and queer theory for our politics. Only when the most oppressed sections of the working class are finally free can we consider human emancipation meaningful in any real sense.


Header image: Québec’s Northernmost Gardens.