Facebook is a doomsday machine ⊗ Pillar or pawn ⊗ GPT-3 feels like a technological revolution — No.155

This week → Facebook is a doomsday machine ⊗ Pillar or pawn ⊗ Experimenting with GPT-3 felt like witnessing a technological revolution ⊗ What’s breakfast cereal got to do with the future?

A year ago → The most clicked link in issue No.110 was The Metaverse: What It Is, Where to Find it, Who Will Build It, and Fortnite by Matthew Ball.

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

Some quick notes: You can gift a membership to Sentiers. I’ve settled into somewhat of a rhythm of one Dispatch a month, the latest two being exclusive to members, so all issues up to Dispatch 12 — Spaces of Work & Life are now unlocked for everyone.

Like many other newsletters, Sentiers will be off for the next three weeks, back on Sunday January 17th.

It’s definitely not the best situation, I know, but I wish you and yours happy holidays. See you when this insane year is over!

Facebook Is a Doomsday Machine

I’m pretty tired of Facebook (and account-less for a few months now), and thus rarely include it here, at least in featured articles. However, this one by Adrienne LaFrance is really good in the way it frames the issue and in mixing a damning case against the company, with a look back at the idea of the doomsday machine, Herman Kahn, RAND, futurism, and scenarios. LaFrance readily admits the comparison is imperfect, but the idea of not only scale but megascale and the impact of that unique size on society is a useful one.

I’d add that when people refute this type of accusation, or say the message is “alarmist,” they often roll out the research showing that Cambridge Analytica didn’t have that much impact. To my mind, those are two different kinds of influence. There is no proof that anyone can affect a large number of people towards a precise behaviour, but I think it’s pretty clear by now that FB and others do have influence in changing people’s belief at scale, it’s “simply” not precise or even purposefully directed, other than for engagement. A blunt instrument but a megascale one.

[I]t took the concept of “community” and sapped it of all moral meaning. The rise of QAnon, for example, is one of the social web’s logical conclusions. That’s because Facebook—along with Google and YouTube—is perfect for amplifying and spreading disinformation at lightning speed to global audiences. Facebook is an agent of government propaganda, targeted harassment, terrorist recruitment, emotional manipulation, and genocide—a world-historic weapon that lives not underground, but in a Disneyland-inspired campus in Menlo Park, California. […]

Megascale is nearly the existential threat that megadeath is. No single machine should be able to control the fate of the world’s population—and that’s what both the Doomsday Machine and Facebook are built to do. […]

[T]here aren’t enough moderators speaking enough languages, working enough hours, to stop the biblical flood of shit that Facebook unleashes on the world, because 10 times out of 10, the algorithm is faster and more powerful than a person. […]

In other words, if the Dunbar number for running a company or maintaining a cohesive social life is 150 people; the magic number for a functional social platform is maybe 20,000 people. Facebook now has 2.7 billion monthly users. […]

If the age of reason was, in part, a reaction to the existence of the printing press, and 1960s futurism was a reaction to the atomic bomb, we need a new philosophical and moral framework for living with the social web—a new Enlightenment for the information age, and one that will carry us back to shared reality and empiricism.

Pillar or pawn

Other than constantly reading that title as “Pillar or prawn,” I quite enjoyed this perspective on how Southeast Asia is squeezed between the politics of China and the US, yet gains investment, development, and its own kind of autonomy in the process. One should always be weary of considering a country as a homogenous block, never mind a group of countries, but they are under some of the same pressures and benefitting from some of the same opportunities, so I found the piece a valuable high level look.

Knit tightly into global supply chains, Southeast Asia’s manufacturing sector effectively wins twice from the U.S.-China trade war: American companies are shifting investment from China to reduce costs and avoid tariffs, and China will import more from Southeast Asia to substitute for the U.S. within the RCEP framework. […]

In the arena of digital services, such as cloud computing and business transformation consulting, American players Amazon, Microsoft, and Google are also the region’s leaders — all ahead of Alibaba. […]

Southeast Asian nations are fully aware of all of this jostling at the diplomatic and commercial levels. This mere fact has encouraged them to incrementally push forward with their own regional agenda. Indeed, there is strong evidence that Southeast Asia is, rather than splitting up along Cold War lines, coming together and asserting its collective leverage. […]

The region is clearly not a bloc. Rather, it is a sponge, absorbing foreign technology and practices to increase its own weight. The winner of the U.S.-China confrontation may well be Southeast Asia.

Experimenting With GPT-3 Felt Like Witnessing a Technological Revolution

This article is imperfect, coming from too rosy an outlook, yet even though I’ve paid only peripheral attention to GPT-3 and have yet to read much of what I’ve put aside, this one is definitely the first piece to make me fill out the form to get access and try some things out. Smith also goes over some of the limits, potential, risks of misuse, and OpenAI’s policies.

I’ve seen a lot of technologies, and I’ve done a lot with A.I. after working in the field for over a decade. I can say with no irony or hyperbole that GPT-3 is the most important technical object I’ve seen since the internet itself and certainly the most significant artificial intelligence technology created in this millennium. […] 🤔

Writing a GPT-3 prompt is a bit like writing a recursive function as a programmer. You start by imagining the output that the function will return and then work backward and keep coding until it actually does return that output. […]

Because GPT-3 has no knowledge of current events, it couldn’t report accurately on a breaking news event. But it could provide commentary on the importance of a news event based on its existing knowledge of previous, similar events.

What’s Breakfast Cereal Got To Do With The Future?

Julian Bleecker launched a newsletter around the main theme of design fiction, this is the second issue where he starts from a simple box of cereal way back in 2002’s Minority Report and gives one of the clearer explanations I’ve seen for the practice of design fiction. Bleecker explains how it’s different from predictions, how its primary use is to start a conversation, and gives some clear one paragraph examples of diegetic prototypes and the types of questions they might raise.

It is a way of implying characteristics about a world without having to build the entire world. It suggests rather than predicts. It allows us to witness the future in a modest way, on the ground, from the perspective of normal, ordinary, everyday experience rather than assuming we can see and know everything, which is what predictions about the future attempt to do. […]

But, I have to emphasize – these are not predictions. Really they’re meant to be conversation starters. They can be discussed and debated but to deny them as wrong, or accept them as inevitable and definite is to miss the point of Design Fiction entirely. […]

Simply stated, the objects of Design Fiction is to discover relevant futures rather than make big predictions. Design Fiction allows you to be a modest witness to a possible future and interpret the multiple simultaneous possibilities, their consequences, and the kinds of events that might lead to these futures. […]

Second is the conversations that fill the world out – the mythopoesis. This is really key. Engaging all relevant stakeholders and other interested parties to discuss, describe and explain what the archetype seems to be ‘saying’. The mythopoesis isn’t a conclusion, it’s an act or a process.


  • 🎼 🔥 🇨🇦 This issue of the newsletter, as well as a few others through the years and a number of good walks are powered by this classic: Said the Gramophone: BEST SONGS OF 2020.
  • 🗞 Haven’t dug through this one yet but every year there’s some smart stuff, lots of smart people in there, and a quite diverse list. Predictions for Journalism 2021. (Will they publish an ebook of this?)
  • 👀 📊 🇺🇸 Visualization of US Energy Consumption. “The interactive visualization shows 200 years of evolving energy use in America as an animated Sankey diagram.” (Via The Weekly Planet.)
  • 😲 Strong The Expanse vibe here. The arches of chaos in the Solar System. “Here, we reveal a notable and hitherto undetected ornamental structure of manifolds, connected in a series of arches that spread from the asteroid belt to Uranus and beyond. The strongest manifolds are found to be linked to Jupiter and have a profound control on small bodies over a wide and previously unconsidered range of three-body energies.”
  • 📚 The Best Book Cover Designs of 2020. Kottke’s favourites and links to three lists of excellent cover design.
  • 🇷🇺 💥 The mystery of Siberia’s exploding craters. “As the blast occurs, blocks of soil and ice are thrown hundreds of metres from the epicenter. We are faced here with a colossal force, created by very high pressure. Why it is so high still remains a mystery.”
  • 🇨🇳 🚚 🕵🏼‍♂️ Trucks in China Are Watching If Drivers Doze, Speed or Slack Off. “Using Internet of Things technology, they can employ anti-fatigue cameras to call out bad driving, built-in advanced driver-assistance systems to send warnings about insufficient space between vehicles on highways, and real-time cargo weighing to prevent stealing.”
  • 🇺🇸 ✈ 🤬 Very, very, very not good. Air Force Flies AI Copilot on U-2 Spy Plane. “The U.S. Air Force tells us how it successfully flew an AI copilot on a U-2 spy plane—and kicked off the age of algorithmic warfare.”

Header image: I miss going to cafés. Nathan Van Egmond on Unsplash.