Disassembly required ⊗ Climate issue at Parametric Press ⊗ Is this real life? — No.147

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

This week → Disassembly required ⊗ Parametric Press’ climate issue ⊗ Is this real life? ⊗ AOC’s Among Us Twitch stream is the future of politics ⊗ Cohesion is not conspiration

A year ago → The most clicked link in issue No.102 was A Giant Bumptious Litter: Donna Haraway on Truth, Technology, and Resisting Extinction.

Disassembly Required

This is the article where I realize that I’ve linked to Real Life very often, in almost 10% of issues!! But what can I say, stellar stuff coming out of there. This time with Kelly Pendergrast looking at robots (and AI), how they are presented, anthropomorphized, and often made friendly, and explaining that under this surface presentation and these mechanics and algorithm, it’s plain old for profit companies following the imperatives of capitalism and using these robots to eek out more profit, monitor humans, and eventually remove them.

Three things to note: 1) This article is not the most fragrant example but it is adjacent to something I’ve pointed to a few times; writing about a large phenomenon / field of tech / capitalism like it has intent (in this case the anthropomorphic representation of robots), where I just see a sequence of independent decisions. See after the Asides for a bit more on this.

2) I loved the framing for the “actually-existing AI-capitalism,” (from Nick Dyer-Witheford and his co-authors Atle Mikkola Kjøsen and James Steinhoff) to represent the fact that true AI isn’t here but is being used as if it were, and already “holds a lot of power as an imaginative framework for reorganizing and reconceptualizing labor.”

3) Finally, the idea of the robot teammate, “putting a friendly surface between the customer or worker or user and the underlying function of the technology.” Is roughly the same thing as the idea of jobs below the API which was used quite a bit a few years ago when gig work started appearing. Abstracting humans from the interface, giving consumers access to that hidden labour in a “clean” package. Important concept.

Certainly we needn’t be compelled by the cuteness of the HitchBot or the malevolent gait of the Boston Dynamics biped. Instead, we should learn to see the robot for what it is — someone else’s property, someone else’s tool. And sometimes, it needs to be destroyed. […]

While these systems still require plentiful human labor, “AI” is the magic phrase that lets us accept or ignore the hidden labor of thousands of poorly paid and precarious global workers — it is the mystifying curtain behind which all manner of non-automated horrors can be hidden. […]

By putting anthropomorphic robots — too cute to harm, or too scary to mess with — between us and themselves, bosses and corporations are doing what they’ve always done: protecting their property, creating fealty and compliance through the use of proxies that attract loyalty and deflect critique. […]

Instead of emancipating the “living” robot, perhaps the robot could be repurposed in order to emancipate us, the living.

The Climate Issue

Second issue of the fantastic Parametric Press. I just love this publication, how they operate, the values, and the two issues so far. Super visuals and great ideas of how to expose the stories from each issue, plus the code is available, and the platform is open source. After this first quote about them, quick notes and quotes from the first three prices in this most recent issue.

The Parametric Press is an experiment, a born-digital magazine dedicated to showcasing the expository power that’s possible when the audio, visual, and interactive capabilities of dynamic media are effectively combined.

Your Personal Carbon History

Focused on your own personal history but not to put the emphasis on individual action, to put each of us in a historical context to understand the changes in climate over much longer timescales, very well done and each visual is worth exploring.

Today, we’re perched precariously at the peak of a historically unprecedented spike in carbon dioxide. When future generations look back at their geological history, they’ll see this spike as the moment that ended the stable, moderate climate in which human civilization arose, giving rise to the unstable, extreme climate we’re barreling towards today.

The Corporations Behind Climate Change

On to corporations. I’m always a bit weary when people say that corporations are the biggest polluters since the firms do so in making products for us but this piece actually contextualizes this very well and explains that their processes themselves could be better and that their political influence contributes to the status quo.

Although we frequently discuss how individual consumers and national governments can combat climate change, we rarely shift the burden of responsibility to fossil fuel companies. But the data suggest that a small number of companies are associated with a staggering share of emissions: just 20 corporations are behind 30% of all human CO₂ emissions. […]

People can and should take steps to curb their personal emissions, especially the wealthiest 10% who disproportionately account for half of all individual emissions. There is a tempting immediacy in personal action, with no gatekeeper to convince but ourselves. […]

One person can choose not to own a car, but they can’t reshape urban life around bicycle transit by themselves. The idea that individual consumers can reverse climate change is an overly simplistic idea that ignores the power of governments and companies operating under capitalism.

Tiny Algae and the Political Theater of Planting One Trillion Trees

Planting trees and rewilding are great opportunities to sequester lots of carbon and slide us away from industrializing so much of the planet but trees are not the most effective or, more importantly, fastest way of naturally grabbing that CO₂, algae could do a much better job. The piece explores a number of options in that direction but perhaps most jarring are the visuals for tree cover loss based on The Global Forest Watch’s research.

Trees, and plants in general, are very good at the removing CO₂ part of our fight against irreversible climate change. Many people categorize this as a viable carbon sequestration method. But there’s a problem with planting a trillion trees: we first need the amount of land to do it. We also need to keep them alive long enough to help us. […]

it won’t help us much in the ~10 years estimated by the IPCC that we have left to prevent irreversible changes to the climate. In fact, a team of scientists at NASA estimate that reforesting 1.7 billion hectares of new trees could take between one and two thousand years. […]

Commercial companies such as Pond Technologies are creating new products based on algae such as animal feed, ingredients for cosmetics, and even seaweed snacks. There is even a building in Germany that uses an algae-laced skin around it to power the electricity for the facility.

Is this real life?

This is excellent on groups building their own realities, stories, collective ideas, QAnon as ARG, science vs religion, and “contradictory reality bubbles.“ I especially liked the idea of “narrative violations” when these parallel realities overlap (clash?), Sillicon Valley and its narrative power (think Steve Jobs) as a kind of new Hollywood and whether Europe’s absence of religiosity is hindering its capacity to create these uber stories.

Every large human cooperation system is based on a fictional idea that only lives in our collective minds. […]

Social media has made conspiracy theorizing so addictive and immersive that the line between story and reality can become incredibly blurry. […]

[W]e have created a fragmented reality with hyper-realistic CGI influencers, bots, deepfakes, AI pretending to be humans and humans pretending to be AI. We don’t live in a single timeline with a single history, but in a variety of “contradictory reality bubbles“. […]

Maçães thinks the answer is Silicon Valley, which he describes as “a fantasy land where engineering talent and capital come together to power the serious project of creating new worlds out of nothing”

AOC’s Among Us Twitch stream is the future of politics

Short article at Polygon but worth a read, and pin it somewhere in your notes, this framing of AOC’s supporters as fans and this kind of interaction will be more common and increasingly carry weight in coming years. Also, I’m sadly not the first to think of that phrase but; Gaming is eating the world.

What’s different in 2020 is that fandom doesn’t just prop people up. Fandom organizes. […]

Fandom, in other words, has power — and many fans know how to wield it. Combine that with an authentic politician who knows how to speak candidly with her constituents, and you’ve got a potent combination of visibility and enthusiasm. […]

The future of politics isn’t just young, tech-savvy, and meme-literate. It is accessible. Ocasio-Cortez talks to everyday people on Twitter and Instagram Live, and even visits constituents in Animal Crossing.


  • ? I haven’t watched this yet (1h34m) but considering the people involved (Ingrid LaFleur, Tim Maughan, Jorge Camacho, Liam Young, and Anab Jain), I’m confident in sharing it right away. Future as (Creative) Practice. “This panel gathers experts who imagine futures as part of their creative practice. With knowledge spanning social justice, architecture, experimental film, and science fiction, they’ll share insights on how preferable futures can be modeled and why narrative and world-building are effective forms of cultural critique.”
  • ? ? Free Download of Africanfuturism: An Anthology. “Stories by Nnedi Okorafor, TL Huchu, Dilman Dila, Rafeeat Aliyu, Tlotlo Tsamaase, Mame Bougouma Diene, Mazi Nwonwu, and Derek Lubangakene” Africanfuturism is a term coined by Nigerian sci-fi/fantasy author Nnedi Okorafor to describe science fiction that is rooted in the African world. Other African writers have since embraced the term as a way of identifying what makes their work distinct from Afrofuturism.”
  • ? ? This online event should be interesting. Higher Ground “Through a virtual event format, we will explore and analyze climate adaptation, resilience, and politically off-the-table until recently, managed retreat away from coastlines, floodplains, and other high-risk areas. Convening public officials, policymakers, engineers, planners, real estate professionals, patient capital, and climate migrants, we will discuss how cities are leading the way and planning for a future inland.”
  • Room-temperature superconductivity has been achieved for the first time. “The exact details of why this compound works are not fully understood—the researchers aren’t even sure exactly what compound they made. But they are developing new tools to figure out what it is and are optimistic that once they are able to do so, they will be able to tweak the composition so that the compound might remain superconducting even at lower pressures.”
  • ?? Short ? ? These are the salt glaciers of Iran. Million of years ago, the Persian Gulf was a much larger body of water, as the water evaporated / retreated, vast quantities of salt remained. Over the years, thousands of feet of mountain sediment washed down in rain, compacting it.
  • ? (Published in full on Medium.) ‘Bloodchild,’ a Short Story by Octavia E. Butler “This peerless short story by visionary fiction writer Octavia Butler examines the legacy — and future — of colonization and human bondage”

Cohesion is not conspiration

From a thread I sent as I was writing this issue: When someone writes about capitalism, or tech, or gamification, or anything else, and makes it sound like there’s a grand scheme by dozens of companies or governments over decades, where each of their other arguments are good but they make it sound like the arc has intent instead of being a sequence of decisions that yes, build on each other, but have no malicious or coordinated intent.

Is there a name, a “law” to pin that to? I see it in a number of otherwise excellent articles and, to my mind, it just weakens the point they are making.

In other words, lining up solid facts but walking a line uncomfortably close to jumping into conspiracy theories. It’s usually not CAPITALISM DID IT but more “in a capitalist system, capitalists will capitalise.”

Not a conspiracy but another kind of example of what I have in mind: “What Technology Wants,” as if it’s a cohesive force that decides things. It’s decision upon decision by people following the same “religion.” There is cohesion but no collective, agreed upon intent.

Header image: Algae growth on the Vlatava, Mihály Köles on Unsplash.