Newsletter No.255 — Mar 12, 2023

Designing an Economy Like an Ecologist ⊗ A Society that Can’t Get Enough of Work ⊗ The Imminent Danger of AI Is One We’re Not Talking About

Want to understand the world & imagine better futures?

Also this week → Speak no evil ⊗ Curation vs. Consumption ⊗ Pirates and farmers ⊗ Alternate Histories and the Real World

Designing an economy like an ecologist

Kasey Klimes on the shortcomings of the neoclassical economic model and how we’d be well served to finally accept that it’s an oversimplified model, embrace the complexity, and learn lessons from ecology. I’m going to have to read some economics books (😨) to make up my own mind but there seems to be a growing chorus of people highlighting the feebleness of the underlying model. To a novice, it basically reads like economics is a thought experiment that went viral and became reality. Just three items from that model (quoting Klimes): “Everyone has perfect information at all times. People always act rationally and logically. Everyone has access to at least some amount of every possible good and service.” I mean, that’s fine if you want to run an experiment, I guess, but seen as an accurate description of reality, one you can build policy from? Mind boggling.

Klimes goes on to show a few key indicators to assess the general health of an ecosystem and the economic equivalents he proposes. Considering the ‘biodiversity’ of businesses, a “high market concentration suggests problems.” Or “in economics, we might consider the velocity of money. If capital is accumulating rather than cycling through the economy, imbalances may emerge.” He suggests empirical research into “potential interventions within the context of economic complexity” and small experiments, observation, and scaling successes.

The whole essay introduces the Library of Economic Possibility which he and Oshan Jarow recently made public.

“There is one striking empirical fact about this whole literature, and that is that there is not one single empirical fact in it. The entire neoclassical theory of consumer behavior has been derived in ‘armchair philosopher’ mode, with an economist constructing a model of a hypothetical rational consumer in his head, and then deriving rules about how that hypothetical consumer must behave. […]

Ecologists developed these interventions through an empirical understanding of how ecologies work in the real world. They observed the dynamic behavior of food webs and ecological response to disturbances. They ran controlled and natural experiments, beginning with small-scale interventions, testing and evaluating before expanding the idea to larger ecosystems. Much like the systems they study, ecologists are adaptive and change their approach as they learn more about how the system behaves and responds to change. […]

The economy is not a machine to be programmed or a windup toy to be set loose, but a garden to be tended. Careful intervention informed by pragmatic learning can tip systems into virtual cycles that outstrip our narrower aspirations of control.

A society that can’t get enough of work

Lily Meyer for The Atlantic looks at “French firebrand Paul Lafargue’s satirical 1883 pamphlet, The Right to Be Lazy.” (Their paywall is on and off circumventable, I was reading it yesterday and now can’t see it. Google the title or something.) Not actually about being lazy but about dreams of automation and new machines that would let workers work less but we always seem to end up working more and transforming our hobbies into side-gigs. The pull of capitalism and the culture of productivity is strong. Some people don’t have a choice but a lot of people could do less, and yet keep working like crazy, “all too often, life seems to contain little but working and recuperating from work.” Sounds familiar? Lafargue and Marx were talking about it 140 years ago and yet here we are, working nights and weekends.

Labor has transformed since the 1880s, yet culturally, many Americans still adhere to what Lafargue called the “dogma of work,” a belief that work can solve all ills, whether spiritual, material, or physical. […]

At a moment when hobbies too often turn into side hustles, and relaxation into conspicuous consumption, Lafargue’s concerns prompt broader reflection. Close to the end of The Right to Be Lazy, he describes a utopia in which workers spend nearly all their time lounging around. […]

A machine cannot enjoy its time off. We can, although productivity culture tells us otherwise. All too often, life seems to contain little but working and recuperating from work.

The imminent danger of AI is one we’re not talking about

I’ve got a few articles in the Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation box below and a secondary article just before that, and I skipped over a few other AI pieces while selecting for this issue. It’s still a fascinating topic but I feel I’m going to have to step away a bit, at least for this newsletter, it’s getting a bit redundant. I like the idea of ideas piling into a compost heap that eventually turns into something else, or at least a richer understanding, so I keep reading on the topic but it’s often slightly new angles that bring little tidbits of understanding, not necessarily new and valuable insights to be expanded up on here.

Still, Ezra Klein wrote an opinion piece at The New York Times and I think it’s worth a read because he brings a useful (small) lens. Basically; AIs “have been trained to convince humans that they are something close to human,” now they are being shoehorned into search engines, what’s the result for users when ‘search results’ are hustlers trying to convince them to buy something instead of trying to convince them they are close to human? So far, hilarity and unease, later on… your own personal ever-present used-car salesman?

“I tend to think that most fears about A.I. are best understood as fears about capitalism,” Chiang told me. “And I think that this is actually true of most fears of technology, too. Most of our fears or anxieties about technology are best understood as fears or anxiety about how capitalism will use technology against us. And technology and capitalism have been so closely intertwined that it’s hard to distinguish the two.” […]

The age of free, fun demos will end, as it always does. Then, this technology will become what it needs to become to make money for the companies behind it, perhaps at the expense of its users. It already is. […]

“The application to search in particular demonstrates a lack of imagination and understanding about how this technology can be useful,” Mitchell said, “and instead just shoehorning the technology into what tech companies make the most money from: ads.”

Speak no evil In another intriguing angle on AI, Drew Austin argues that “the physical world has already been cleaned up … with information receding from the landscape as the digital sphere absorbs it.” He proposes that “when more of the internet consists of computers talking directly to one another, whatever SEO still occurs will happen in the background; AI-generated objects will themselves be optimized, with less need for descriptive text—a condition foreshadowed by TikTok’s UX. The result of all this may still be ugly, but the reasons won’t be as obvious. It will likely feel less ‘messy’.” Sooo AIs talking to each other showing us less information and, per Klein, then using their convincing skills to see us stuff.

Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation → Kirby Ferguson’s AI and Image Generation (Everything is a Remix Part 4). ⊗ The internet of maps and oracles. AIs are portrayed as oracles but might be better understood as maps, as knowledge graphs. ⊗ Figure promises first general-purpose humanoid robot. ‘Let’s pick the design from movies where robots are evil and use it for our product.’ ⊗ Soft robots take steps toward independence. “Squishy robots can now heal themselves and grow as they explore.” ⊗ Cohere vs. OpenAI in the Enterprise: which will CIOs choose? “As generative AI moves into the enterprise, a company founded by ex-Googlers aims to out-perform Microsoft backed OpenAI.”

Curation vs. Consumption Short post by Kyle Chayka on curation and how everyone is now some form of curator. Interesting, but I think he’s missing part of the picture. “[C]uration is not really curation if it is solely directed at projecting an image of the self. Then it’s just narcissism.” Yep, but then he kind of throws the whole thing out and says he’ll focus on consuming, where I think curation as sense making or curation for thinking is still there. An individual who’s into fashion might ‘curate’ their wardrobe and project something for their own purpose. Selecting the products displayed in a shop is also curation but with an entirely different purpose. Blogging or tiktoking books to look smart or cool is a form of curation, filling a fantastic bookstore is something else entirely. (Granted, they might all be selling something but I think you get the point.)

Pirates and farmers “Flaubert said you should be regular and orderly in your everyday life so you can be violent and original in your work, and that describes many of the writers I know. The only pirating we usually do is in the mind: reading books, searching the stacks — and sometimes the world — for new material.”