Newsletter No.266 — May 28, 2023

How Design Is Governance ⊗ Where Ideas Come From ⊗ “This Studio Is a Response to Hopelessness About the Future”

Want to understand the world & imagine better futures?

Also this week → Foresight: The mental talent that shaped the world ⊗ “In a world with superintelligence” ⊗ Trends have lost all meaning ⊗ Brain and spine implants allow paralyzed man to walk naturally again

How design is governance

Amber Case uses her visit to a newly opened cafe to explore design through the angle of “governance decisions made on behalf of the customers during the design process,” and from design of a physical space, to that of online spaces, to calm technology.

Good piece, but I was a bit frustrated by the framing of what the cafe owner did and I’ll use it to go out of my lane a bit (spoiler: I have no lane!) and talk about another design requirement. Case writes that “it’s clearly designed with the intention of being an inviting place for people to meet up or hang out on their laptops doing work,” but then proceeds to explain how it’s not practical to plug in a laptop. First off, for a cafe owner those two things are completely different. Meeting up with other humans and jumping in the matrix alone at your table are completely different use cases for them.

I’ve been working in cafes with a laptop for 20 years and if there’s one thing owners pay attention to, beyond the quality of the coffee and the look of the place, it’s how they manage laptopers and students. If it’s hard to reach an outlet, it’s not a mistake, it’s the owner telling you “welcome, but don’t stick around too long.” Case in point, San Francisco coffee shops want you to get the hell out. “In short, buy something more than you’d think and maybe more than you’d like. Don’t assume Wi-Fi or table space will be provided or available. Standart writes that a 60-minute rule is almost globally accepted.”

She mentions online platforms designing for engagement, and how their going too far has negative impacts on users. 100% correct. But there are business imperatives elsewhere too. In some cases the “bad design” is just that something is not designed for you (Windows PCs are not designed for me). Trying to focus every experience everywhere solely on individual users doesn’t always work. Sometimes it’s, yes, governance but for many users. Like thinking of the patrons who can never get a seat because the same six people hog all the tables every morning.

In this case, even though I haven’t seen the shop, perhaps the design error wasn’t misplaced tables, it was the lack of signs indicating the expectations of the owner. I visited a new place yesterday and there was a clear sign, “no wifi over lunch and the weekend.” Some places wall-off outlets, some reserve one long table for work, some have itsybitsy tables on the side of chairs, etc. Yes, some users will be dissatisfied, like Amber here, but their specific needs just faced the limits of other people’s needs and the requirements for the place to stay open.

Design is not only what is fixed but also what is left free to be modified. A big part of governance involves distinguishing between the rules and the rules for modifying the rules. […]

But social good won’t be this body’s only goal; the business argument to Calm Tech is just as important. Instead of thinking about temporary value and short-term market share, we can start designing products and services that create value for their customers for a lifetime — who in turn reward them with word of mouth and a lifetime of loyalty.

Where ideas come from

This piece at SPACE10 starts like it’s going to be just about scenius (a very worthy subject but one we’ve covered here before) but then slides nicely into how they foster a scene of connectivity and sharing of ideas in their space and their events. It’s a useful mix we don’t seen laid out like this often enough; the network of connections that feeds into the work of various people and how they can in turn be transparent and open, feeding back into the scenius they gained energy and insights form. My favourite quote from the piece, highlighted below, is by Gemma Copeland in her post Unravel from toxic individualism.

If ideas are what happen when one mind full of sleeping hunches connects with other minds, then: ‘the knowledge we use resides in the community,’ says cognitive scientist Steven Sloman, who studies how people think. ‘Thinking isn’t done by individuals; it is done by communities.’ […]

‘When we think of ideas as a result of individual genius, we create artificial scarcity and enclose something that should be a commons.’ […]

At SPACE10, we intentionally share our research and projects openly to ensure others can build on what we begin. So even if we can’t be in a physical room together, people around the world can engage with our research and bring it to their own communities to adapt to their context.

“This studio is a response to hopelessness about the future”

An interview with Jocelyn Ibarra where she explains some of the thinking and process behind the work of The Time Travel Agency. It’s not only a great name, it’s also a frame for how they present and go about their work. (I also notice the use of “showrunner”, not for the first time outside of tv.)

[As showrunner] I help each of our cases find its story and keep track of that story throughout the project’s development, which is how we keep track of the innovation work. […]

Everything we do has to do with stories and with narrative and with immersing oneself in fiction, and then with immersing other people in those stories as well. […]

One way to work with art, design, and narrative is getting hired to do world building, which we do a lot. Essentially, this is about coming up with stories about worlds, about what happens in these worlds, and about what it feels like to live in these worlds. Agency suddenly appears as an important component to affect this world.

Foresight: The mental talent that shaped the world

Parts of this essay at BBC Future are based on the authors’ book The Invention of Tomorrow: A Natural History of Foresight. I found the piece unevenly interesting, as they seem to talk about foresight as a practice but then use the word as if it’s forethought, to then extend it as a thread for the whole of human history. To me, simply thinking ahead of your next meal as a caveman and packing a bow and arrow is not foresight. Perhaps I’m nit-picking. Still, even though I feel they stretch the word too much, I think it’s useful to note they use it the same way some others have used creativity or innovation; as a lens to assess our history.

It turns out that memory and foresight have many commonalities, and impairment in one tends to go hand in hand with impairment in the other. Children gradually acquire the ability to steer their mental time machines into past and future at around the same age, and in late adulthood memory and foresight also tend to decline in parallel. […]

Ultimately, when we plot the future of our relationship with nature, much hinges on what we value and want to achieve, confronting us with tough moral decisions. Science might be able to help us look ahead, but it is up to us to choose which future to pursue.

This week Yoshua Bengio wrote about how rogue AIs may arise, but I’d like to draw your attention instead to Philippe Beaudoin’s rebuttal which centers on this view I hadn’t seen before: “In a world with superintelligence, humans are no longer the only game in town. There will likely be other independent super intelligent AIs with different goals. Imagining such an environment makes the doomsday scenarios you envision harder to believe. Indeed, in such an environment we must imagine superintelligent agents that compete or collaborate with each others.”

Trends have lost all meaning. “Culture is made up of forces: the crosswinds, efforts, and influences of ideas and behaviours. … In realising how we’ve failed physics, we need to commit to the real equation for force: weight—or meaningfulness—times its speed—or its staying power or momentum.”


  • 🤯 🤯 🚶🏼 🇨🇭 Brain and Spine Implants Allow Paralyzed Man to Walk Naturally Again. “In a study published on Wednesday in the journal Nature, researchers in Switzerland described implants that provided a “digital bridge” between Mr. Oskam’s brain and his spinal cord, bypassing injured sections. The discovery allowed Mr. Oskam, 40, to stand, walk and ascend a steep ramp with only the assistance of a walker. More than a year after the implant was inserted, he has retained these abilities and has actually showed signs of neurological recovery, walking with crutches even when the implant was switched off.”
  • 🤩 🎈 🇬🇧 🇫🇷 🇺🇸 I for one welcome a trains and blimps future. Airships are back, promising to clean up aviation. Will they take off? “A cross between a blimp and a plane, Airlander uses a non-rigid inflatable hull filled with – non-flammable – helium to generate lift, and four ‘ultra-efficient’ combustion engines to manoeuvre. With a top speed of 80mph (130kph), it’s significantly slower than a conventional jet, but potentially a lot comfier too, with the designs including floor to ceiling windows and space for passengers to freely move around. This luxury of space also carries an additional bonus.”
  • 📚 👍🏼 🇺🇸 It’s been progressing for a few years but I have to link every time. Independent bookselling expanded again in 2022, with new and diverse stores opening nationwide . Once overwhelmingly white, the booksellers association added 46 stores last year that reported diverse ownership, among them Rooted MKE in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Black Garnet Books, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Hillary Smith, owner of Black Walnut Books, is a member of the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians who is focused on queer and Indigenous titles and works by authors of color.”
  • 🤬 Carl and others have been telling us for s while now. Carl Sagan on Climate Change: “We’re Doing Something Immensely Stupid”. “Life is something rare and precious. There is something extraordinary about the planet that we are privileged to live on. The human species is destroying forests and we're doing it at a rate of one acre of forest every second. We're doing something immensely stupid.”
  • 😍 🌌 🔭 🇺🇸 Composite Images From NASA’s Most Powerful Telescopes Reveal Mind-Boggling Details of the Cosmos. “Combining data from some of NASA’s most powerful instruments, four new composites highlight the enormity of the cosmos in unprecedented detail. Imagery from the Chandra Observatory and the James Webb and Hubble telescopes—plus infrared information from the Spitzer telescope’s final missions—mesh together to generate mesmerizing views of iconic nebulae and galaxies.”
  • 🎥 🤓 I love Marques Brownlee’s videos, great tone, details, fantastic production quality. That has led him to millions of followers and an exclusive first look and footage of Google Project Starline, a 3Dish video conferencing that looks incredible. (Well, if one can use ‘incredible’ when talking about video conferencing.)
  • 🤩 🪵 🇨🇳 Nearly 1,000 Years Old, This Text Shows the Ingenuity of Chinese Woodblock Printing. “This monumental effort, which took place over 32 years, resulted in The Great Canon of the Eternal Longevity of the Chongning Reign Period, a 5,850-volume work containing sutras and legal philosophy meant to help readers lead a moral life.”