This week → Disambiguation ⊗ Long distance thinking ⊗ Visualising and communicating complexity ⊗ Molly Wright Steenson on cybernetics, AI, feedback loops, and data ⊗ A Copernicus moment
A year ago → A favourite in issue No.163 was You’re Doing It Wrong: Notes on Criticism and Technology Hype by Lee Vinsel.
Lower in the issue there are mentions of shifting perspectives, this is a great one by Mandy Brown (congrats also on the first slick Buttondown newsletter design I’ve seen). She weaves Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed with Le Guin’s rendition of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, and some of adrienne maree brown’s principles of emergent strategy to show that “leading through ambiguity” and “managing ambiguity” often end up as privileged personal stances, and should instead be opportunities for listening closely to others. What if ambiguity was seen as “something generative, a door that could be opened, a wall that could be crossed? What would it look like to react to ambiguity not with fear or frustration but enthusiasm or eagerness?”
But much of the conventional advice about managing ambiguity focuses on what one person can do alone—not on how people can come together to explore or investigate their different perspectives. […]
Le Guin had a lifelong relationship with the Tao Te Ching, in which ambiguity at times emerges as yin and yang—as a dynamic, and inescapable, kind of counterpoint. In this way, ambiguity isn’t so much a problem to be solved as it is a state of being, a fact of the universe. […]
But sometimes, I think, that quick decision—that easy dismissal—cuts us off from learning things about each other, and the work, that would benefit both. […]
I’m coming around to thinking that ambiguity, like change, is a constant companion. And maybe instead of manipulating or avoiding it, we need to listen to what it has to say.
I’m discovering the thinking of Simon Sarris with this piece. Going against a common bit of wisdom which states that “If you can't explain it to a 6-year-old, you don't understand it yourself,” he argues that by simplifying our thinking, we might also be “abridging our ideas too much,” and that “what is easy to explain is not necessarily what is best. What is easy to understand is not necessarily what is true.” It’s probably a bit weird of me to include and summarize a piece that, in part, propose that we summarize too much, but here we are, and Sarris also believes that we should take more time to contemplate and to think a little longer.
Many concepts can be explained concisely, in simple language, and we should all strive for clarity. But the aphorism is a mistake, for a number of thoughts approximate the carpenter’s craft, and to meaningfully reveal them requires time and attention. Sometimes these cannot simply be told to another at all, they must be grown. […]
The more technology you can harness to commit an idea, and the faster your idea can spread, the greater the magnitude of something going wrong with a single decision. Scale is a capricious beast, one that becomes easier to summon and harder to predict. […]
Not all sources of light are worth staring at: Some summaries illuminate. Most obscure. Better to think a little longer, if you want to take the thread seriously.
I’m an avid watcher of Dark Matter Labs, “a strategic discovery, design and development lab working to transition society in response to technological revolution and climate breakdown.” Their visuals and maps, among other things, always draw my attention. The group holds regular internal learning sessions and share some of those learnings with their “DM Notes.” In this one the authors dive into how they use “the stack,” complexity mapping, and communicate complexity through visual identity. Great stuff, and worth clicking through at the very least for a good look at the many visuals throughout the piece.
We realised that if real change was going to be possible, it wasn’t with the ‘things’ we were designing or making, but at the level of institutional infrastructures; the powerful — but invisible — dark matter that makes 93% of the universe and structures the visible world . If we were going to achieve even a modicum of success, we’d have to really explore, uncover, embrace and articulate invisible complexity. […]
“Maps are not the destination, they are tools for exploration” […]
The map is never considered a complete product, rather, it serves as a foundation upon which hundreds more connections can be built, as well as multiple narratives and interpretations. […]
[B]ridge futurism and tradition, the technological and organic, and Tech and TEK (traditional ecological knowledge).
A couple of weeks ago I published this interview with Bryan Boyer, now he’s the one doing the interviewing. Bryan spoke with Molly Wright Steenson of Carnegie Mellon University. I had nothing to do with this second one but they do fit together nicely, through feedback loops and data, and should be of interest for many Sentiers readers for Wright Steenson’s insights on the history of cybernetics and AI. The segment on how Paul Edwards defines the “closed world,” and the influence of the military on inflections in the direction of research is quite enlightening.
In 1948 the term “cybernetics” is coined, but right around the same year communication theory was coined, and with it, notions of systems, information, and feedback. The idea was that if you could describe what a system does in terms of its flows of information, then you could compare systems. So whether you are [talking about biology]; or if you’re talking about anthropology and you’re Margaret Mead or Gregory Bateson; or whether you're talking about psychology; or you're talking about politics like Stafford Beer; or maybe it’s business and operations research (which is still dominant and absolutely central to the curricula of some business schools today), then you’re talking about systems that can be compared with one another. […]
She has been looking at the idea of futures and foresight in history and pointing out that where you start from changes where you go. … if you start a history at Clemson University in the 1980s and a couple of programs there that brought Black African American students to computer science departments, then you have a history of computation that has Black African Americans at the core, and that changes the futures that are possible. […]
What happens if data is given? What happens if data is an architectural problem and a design problem? What happens if the question of data is human-centered? What happens when designers of all kinds understand that how you collect the data impacts what you even see the data as? What happens when designers always confront the fact that data has biases, because we all have biases?
For the previous article, I mentioned inflections in the orientation of research, we can attach this one through inflections in scientific research during paradigm shifts. Neil Redding explains that Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions focused on “axioms—the assertions that are taken as given—that make up the context within which normal science is done; in other words, the paradigm.” The argument being that beyond the scientific method, shifts in the current paradigm are what bring about great leaps. Redding proposes that we are currently undergoing such a shift, from the distinct to the connected. “The world is fundamentally made of ecosystems, not discrete things. These ecosystems are nested inside each other; it’s ecosystems all the way down. Every identifiable thing is an ecosystem—a person, an apple, a business; a society; everything.”
It’s also critically important because the paradigm(s) we operate inside of determine what we can perceive, how we interpret what we perceive, and — as systems theorist Donella Meadows brilliantly clarifies — the goals, rules, power structure, and culture of the systems we create and strive to change. […]
In other words, Copernicus was able to see that the paradigm astronomy was operating within — the belief that everything in the heavens orbits the earth — was not a scientific observation but actually driven by culture and religion, and in fact made the practice of his science more difficult. […]
If we as Humanity continue to operate as if each of us is distinct from each other; and each political leaning, and each nation, and each business and what it puts into the world, each extremist human action and each extreme weather event, all discrete — this will not lead to a peaceful, thriving future for us.
No.209 Asides ⊕ See Note
- 🤯 😱 🤬 🌍 🌡The image at the top of this 🧵 by Jason Hickel is one of those “an image is worth a thousand words” instances. It encapsulates a lot of the entangled issues the human race is facing going forward, like the climate crisis, extinctions, inequality, and migrations. The top map shows which nations are most responsible for excess emissions. The bottom map shows which nations are most impacted by it. If we are not attentive to the colonial dimensions of climate breakdown, we are missing the point.
- 😍 🇨🇦 Lovely work last year by Vincent Morisset and team. “Composition becomes what you imagine. It can remind someone of a musical instrument, a beatmaking software, a musical score through its sound. Through its scenography, one can imagine a maquette or a miniature theatre. It is also an animated film and a choreographic and sculptural work — the hands manipulating the cubes dancing a kind of ballet with the work that comes to life.”
- 🤩 🏢 🌳 Not sure about the tower, but the 4-5 story versions work for me. The Farmhouse by Precht combines modular homes with vertical farms. “The conceptual modular system would allow people to grow food in residential tower blocks to eat or share with their local community. ‘I think we miss this physical and mental connection with nature and this project could be a catalyst to reconnect ourselves with the life-cycle of our environment,’ said Chris Precht.”
- 🤔 🤖 🇬🇧 AI generated faces are MORE trustworthy than real faces say researchers who warn of “deep fakes”. “The results revealed that synthetically generated faces are not only highly photo realistic, but nearly indistinguishable from real faces and are even judged to be more trustworthy.”
- 🇵🇪 🥔 Peruvian Potatoes – There is More to Them Than You Think. “Potatoes in Peru have been the “queens” of the table since before Incan times. Archaeological research puts the domestication of wild potatoes at around 8000-5000 BC in Peru and other Andean countries like Bolivia and Chile. The very first verified archeological potato may even have been found near the shores of Lake Titicaca, the high Andean lake that separates Bolivia from Peru.” (Via Eleanor's Iceberg.)
- 🌟 💎 Diamond-like starfish skeleton unlike any discovered in nature. “Intriguingly, these ossicles are arranged in a very similar way to the space frame truss structures used in modern building construction. What’s more, they are made of calcite: a crystalline form of calcium carbonate, also known as chalk. Yet whereas chalk is extremely brittle and breaks easily, the knobby starfish’s ossicles are highly resilient against damage.”
- 🤖 🪳Centipedes, the ‘envy of engineers,’ inspire a new generation of robots. “Goldman’s latest robots are flexible, and they combine the fleet-footedness of a cockroach with the reach of a snake. The next step, he says, is to train them to do practical tasks, such as weed identification and eradication. ” (Via Target_is_New.)
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