Among the Sierra Nevada, California Smithsonian American Art Museum and its Renwick Gallery

Digital socialism ⊗ Trees as infrastructure ⊗ Distortion — No.115

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

This week → Digital socialism ⊗ Trees as infrastructure ⊗ On distortion ⊗ A text renaissance

A year ago → Rebecca Solnit on a childhood of reading and wandering.

I’m always working on growing readership and the sustaining paid memberships for Sentiers, in doing so I decided to launch a small promo. I’m offering the yearly membership at $40 to find forty new members over the next forty days. Becoming a member helps sustain the free weekly, and gets you some extra Dispatches to feed your curiosity. Simply use this link to signup.

Speaking of those extras, I’ve now unlocked the latest members’ issue, everyone can read it here: Dispatch 05 — Convening.

Digital socialism

Morozov quickly revisiting the social innovations of socialism and social democracy, to then show that “we” are in an era where socialism and social democracy is in a defensive mode, simply trying to keep some of what it has accomplished from being destroyed by neoliberalism. There is no capital available for new projects of large scale social innovation, for the creation of digital “legal, political and technological infrastructure [which] would allow us together to create projects equivalent to the welfare state or the many institutions in its proximity.” Proponents of social democracy and socialism must not only regulate but, more importantly, at the very least realize that “the challenge at present is to preserve at least the possibility of reconquering that [digital] infrastructure.”

At present, that [digital] infrastructure, by and large, is in private hands. This applies to data, and it applies to artificial intelligence and to robotics. Without a massive structural intervention of some kind, which we might not like because it smells of corporatism or something else, we will no longer have any control over the situation. […]

For me, this is what neoliberalism is all about. It’s about preventing forms of social coordination based on values that have nothing to do with the market and competition from occupying the kind of spaces that institutions like libraries currently do in society. […]

Unfortunately, our mental framework is so dominated by the everyday sins of these firms – their tax evasion, their interference in the legislative process, their surveillance of activists and critics – that we have a very hard time thinking at the more abstract level and relating our interventions to the basic goals and functions of social democracy. […]

This encounter with digital technology provides a life-saving opportunity, because ultimately it allows us to completely reimagine what the social democratic attitude should be beyond merely defending the achievements of the twentieth century. […]

The second task, in addition to these two or three years of digital but non-neoliberal experimentation, is to embark on an ambitious intellectual journey in which we try to rethink what social democracy in the twenty-first century might mean.

Trees As Infrastructure

Excellent piece by the Dark Matter Laboratories team, presenting lots of information and well linked throughout, making the case for a different view and more serious emphasis on trees in cities. Covers some of the history of how trees were viewed in cities, the problems it creates, what we can do differently, a more holistic approach to tree cover, and the many benefits mature and thriving trees can bring to citizens, resilience, and a more solid answer to climate change disruptions. Plus, lots of lovely illustrations helping to understand the issues.

They can regenerate soil quality, reduce heat island effects, offer food and shading, support urban biodiversity or mitigate energy usage. Our municipal urban forestry practices should work towards aligning the human species with these processes to live by and through trees. […]

[T]he ecological benefits of trees substantially start after 50 years of existence; we are currently building a deficient urban forest. Shifting our view to perceive public trees as assets rather than liabilities is an important aspect of maintaining and enhancing the benefits that trees provide in an urban setting. […]

As Kate Raworth points out we need to recognise that “for the first time we can describe and measure nature’s generosity and life systems in nature’s own metrics […] we can measure the depletion of ecosystems, we can measure the quality of the soil, […] the health of humans, our nutrition, our educational level, our self-reported levels of happiness. We can actually measure the well-being of people and planet in natural and social metrics, on the terms of life itself.” […]

What if we start focusing on natural infrastructures as part of civic capital that can service as sewage, flood management, healthcare and waste management simultaneously?

On Distortion

Nick Foster and Simone Rebaudengo making a useful parallel between distortion in guitar amps and distortion in machine learning results. In guitars it was an initial defect that was appropriated by musicians to become part of performances and styles, perhaps the same is happening with the imperfections of machine learning results as artists and coders appropriate them for their own purposes. I also endorse their choice to use machine learning and machine intelligence instead of artificial intelligence.

In all of these examples, there is a common theme: a focus is on perfection, of a pixel or note perfect reproduction of the real world, or at least a world so believable that it feels ‘real’. As these processes are being developed however, they stumble and fumble en route to this ‘perfect’ state, arriving with glitches, artifacts, blips and smears. […]

There’s clearly a precedent here, but what we’re observing is a willful tweaking of Machine Intelligence systems to find and then break their edges, just as Jackie Brenston did with his guitar amplifier. Systems intended for perfect reproduction or synthesis are being explored, messed with and teased into generating new, undefined, and hitherto undesirable outcomes. […]

The fluid, childish watercolor aesthetic of semantic images synthesis, (created by the insecurities of the neural network in interpreting human input) is rapidly becoming its own aesthetic, and as viewers, we are also developing a sensitivity, and perhaps an attraction to it, an evolution of the New Aesthetic as described by writer and artist James Bridle. […]

We prefer the term ‘Machine Intelligence’ as it allows these technologies space to breathe, to be unencumbered from comparison, and allows the technology to show its own grain, its own vagaries and find its own direction.

More → One of the types of imperfections mentioned is “puppy slugs,” have a look at my friend Boris’ piece on the topic.

A Text Renaissance

As Rao writes himself, this one is “a sprawling, messy hot take on the State of Textual Media.” He’s definitely gesturing at something I believe (a text renaissance is largely my “business model,” as it were) and throws together a few different useful ideas so have a read if his Roam / Substack / Static websites / Twitter thread is something you might be into.

Personally I’d characterize this more like Knowledge base (commonplace book) / Newsletter / Static / Twitter since I don’t believe the first two (especially Roam) will be the emblematic “things” defining this renaissance. Ok, maybe Substack but can we perhaps not throw all our eggs in one basket again? We’ve been there before.

Email today is now less a communications medium than a communications compile target. It’s a clearinghouse technology. It’s where conversations-of-record go, where identity verification happens, where service alerts accumulate, and perhaps most importantly for publishers, where push-delivered longform content goes by default. It is distributed and federated, near universal, and is not monopolized by a single provider. Now that a constellation of other product categories have hived off around it in the last two decades, it’s finally finding its own true nature. […]

I see several promising young writers already moving away from the blog as the main vehicle for online written expression, and building bespoke sites with weirder, more experimental structures, using Gatsby and its kin as the foundation. […]

While the unwashed masses flock to non-textual media like TikTok, we Very Online cognoscenti know that Twitter is where all the history-making, universe-denting social media action really is. It is as close to a pure ideas-commons/digital public as we’ll ever get. […]


Header image: Among the Sierra Nevada, California Smithsonian American Art Museum and its Renwick Gallery.