Fear & loathing of A.I. ⊗ Rising tide rents & robber baron rents ⊗ To-day & to-morrow

No.308 — The Radiant Future! (Of 1995) ⊗ The Dark Forest and the post-individual ⊗ What if a city becomes carbon neutral?

Fear & loathing of A.I. ⊗ Rising tide rents & robber baron rents ⊗ To-day & to-morrow
Fear and loathing of AI / To-day and to-morrow image / glitched. Created with Midjourney.

Fear & loathing of A.I.

Jon Evans with a fun and well-informed article on “why/how to stop worrying and neither fear nor loathe AI.” He looks at the various flash points of discussion or fighting around AI, including nomenclature, illegality, immortality, techbros, irrelevance, hallucinations, unemployment, energy, and Skynet.

I agree with the vast majority of his arguments except two. I think he gives quite a bit of a break to techbros. His points are good, but gloss over the impacts of big tech, the skewed incentives of the VC ecosystem, and the sheer madness of a non-trivial slice of the people swimming in this petri dish of crackpot ideas and self-reenforcing reality distortion fields. I mean, come on (I’d hoped this wasn’t real but it looks like it is).

The other one is “against climate doom,” which is largely about energy use. I agree that there are misunderstanding in there and there are few good analyses, but he dismisses most of that line of inquiry saying “clean energy is abundant.”
It is, if compared to when it was nearly nonexistent, but it’s nowhere near abundant compared to all the energy we need now, and even less so compared to what’s going to be needed to switch virtually everything to electric. As we saw last week, part of the issue is the need to reframe how we think about energy when it’s abundant, but it’s nowhere near the case now. And AI is booming now. Jon only mentions training, but using them also uses up a lot of energy, and cooling servers also uses a lot of water.

Well worth a read, just some caveats on those two points.

It’s true that there are some good arguments that generative AI is not transformative ‘fair use.’ But it’s also true that there are very strong arguments that it is, and it’s annoyingly disingenuous for either side to pretend otherwise. […]

AI-generated content is choking our Internet … or, more precisely, our search engines and social media … but when you step back and think about what we might be transitioning away from, was that advertising-driven SEO-orchestrated social-media-distributed internet really such a wondrous utopia? I seem to recall rather a lot of criticism of it even before generative AI. I think a move back to a more curated, less SEO-driven internet will be a good thing. […]

When you use modern AI models as anything-from-anything machines, and you feed them good data, and don’t try to force their answers into a format they can’t manage from that data, they don’t hallucinate. I won’t say they’re always right, mind you. Again, they’re about on par with (an arbitrary number of) college interns. But they consistently generate good outputs.

Rising tide rents & robber baron rents

Tim O’Reilly with an enshittification-adjacent piece on innovation, economic rent, Amazon, and Google. Basically, most of big tech and more specifically those two, are seeing the end of profit generated from growing new markets (rising tides) and have been switching to extracting all the dollars they can (robber baron rents). In their cases, by destroying search results with paid placements that take a seemingly ever increasing share of what’s shown to users. Even if you’ve read Doctorow’s shit-based argument, this one is a good read from a different angle and in a completely different tone.

From what I can tell, another piece threading some of the same paths is Ed Zitron’s The Man Who Killed Google Search. Everyone was already sharing so I didn’t prioritise reading it for this issue but looks good.

“If the reward accruing to an actor is larger than their contribution to value creation, then the difference may be defined as rent. This can be due to the ownership of a scarce asset, the creation of monopolistic conditions that enable rising returns in a specific sector, or policy decisions that favour directly or indirectly a specific group of interest.” […]

[Herbert Simon in 1971 (!!):] “In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.” […]

Disruptive technologies start out by solving new problems, serving new markets, and creating new opportunities. But their disruptive quality also comes because novel technology companies draw outside the lines that have been drawn to protect the business model of the existing players. […]

Regulators would be wise to get ahead of this development. The current generation of algorithmic overlords shape the attention of their users, helping to decide what we read and watch and buy, whom we befriend and whom we believe. The next generation will shape human cognition, creativity, and interaction even more profoundly.

To-day & to-morrow

In my shortlist for this issue all I had left were very long reads I didn’t feel like getting into, and way too many other articles on AI so I thought I’d swing back to something kind of blew my mind a few weeks ago as I was digging into some research for a client. Exactly a century ago, the To-day and To-morrow book series was edited by C. K. Ogden for the British publisher Kegan Paul and envisioned technological advancements like computers, cyborg existence, communication technologies, interconnected minds, and the potential for human intelligence to be transferred to machines.

Books were written by J. D. Bernal (he of the Bernal sphere), Bertrand and Dora Russel, the geneticist JBS Haldane, and a host of others, a hundred writers in all for 110 volumes. The breath and prescience of ideas in that series is incredible and Ogden seems to have been impressively sharp in identifying original thinkers.

More → The piece above is quite long, you can also check out Max Sounders’ shorter piece for the BBC.

There are striking parallels between their time and ours. The contributors were responding to rapid developments in new communications and information technologies – especially the telephone, cinema, radio, and television. Several of the volumes are pioneers in what would later turn into cultural studies and media studies. They were also poised on the brink of the next disruption: the realization of the digital computer, which would change everything. […]

He imagines humans colonizing space by constructing what we would now call biospheres, or even Bernal spheres, capable of supporting large populations, and traveling through the universe to explore other worlds, while remaining in communication with each other. […]

The World, the Flesh, and the Devil is also one of the earliest elaborations of what has become known as the “brain in a vat” hypothesis – teasing out how much of our personal identity and experience inheres in our brain. […]

Bernal wonders about the possibility that his longer-living but still mortal brains, encased in their life-support machines, would be able to communicate their ideas so fully to each other that they would combine to form a single super-brain or “compound mind” – what science fiction writers (since at least Olaf Stapledon) have called a “group mind” or “hive-mind.” Bernal's electronic, wireless version of this concept is probably the first formulation of what media theorists now call the “networked self.”

§ The Radiant Future! (Of 1995). Great short post by Charlie Stross, in lieu of “a snarky, satirical, 21st century Jetsons style short story” he’d like to write, where the dot com crash never happened. “The world of MP3 music players is dominated by Archos. Video is ... well, video as such isn't allowed on the public internet because the MPAA hooked up with the cable TV corporations to force legislation mandating blockers inside all ISPs. Napster does not exist. Bittorrent does not exist. YouTube does not exist. But what passes for video on the internet today is 100% Macromedia Flash, so things could be worse.”

§ The Dark Forest and the post-individual. What if the mesaverse instead of the metaverse? “The internet isn’t meant to give a graphical representation of our bodies. The internet is what allows what’s inside — our minds, our souls, our many selves — to interact with the insides of others. The internet is where our alts come alive, our internal monologues become dialogues, and a stray thought becomes a globally resonant meme. This is its miracle.”

Futures, Fictions & Fabulations

What if a city becomes carbon neutral?
“Besides producing renderings of what that Rome of the future might look like, Gianluca collaborated with me to prototype what neighborhoods might feel like when the city reaches its objective and becomes carbon neutral. We gathered observations and weak signals for multiple questions: What would the traffic of people and goods look like? What would be the new points of interest for tourists and locals, which ones would remain relevant, etc?”

Human Futures, March 2024
Some of the articles included: reflections on the Futures of Work; a possible cognitive divide when we introduce AI based cognitive servants; the personal evolution of futures consciousness; the need for global consciousness as a state of planetary futures; the intersection of AI futures for creativity and artistic expression.

Utopian Realism, a speech by Bruce Sterling
Talk transcripts can be hit and miss, especially when the person delivering the talk has a unique way of doing it. I’ve only scanned it so far, but Bruce Sterling’s talk from the Technology Biennial in Turin this month seems up our collective alley.

Algorithms, Automations & Augmentations

Generative AI in Premiere Pro powered by Adobe Firefly
Short demo showing seemingly seamless editing of video, adding or removing objects, extending scenes, replacing backgrounds, inserting AI generated transitions, etc. Bonkers technically, piling on with the rest for that ‘nothing is real anymore what can I trust?’ feeling.

VASA-1 by Microsoft Research
“Single portrait photo + speech audio = hyper-realistic talking face video with precise lip-audio sync, lifelike facial behavior, and naturalistic head movements, generated in real time.” Same feeling as above.

TikTok may add AI avatars that can make ads
“The Information reports TikTok is developing virtual influencers to promote and sell items on the platform. The AI avatars can read scripts from prompts generated by advertisers or sellers on its TikTok Shop. The feature is not live yet and could still be changed.” Same again.


  • 😍 📺 🐙 New documentary from National Geographic and Disney+. Secrets of the Octopus takes us inside the world of these “aliens on Earth”. “Each of the three episodes focuses on a specific unique feature of these fascinating creatures: ‘Shapeshifters,’ ‘Masterminds,’ and ‘Social Networks.’ The animals were filmed in their natural habitats over 200 days, and all that stunning footage is accompanied by thoughtful commentary by featured scientists.”
  • 😯 🗿 🖼️ 🇬🇧 Spooky! Antony Gormley Time Horizon. “Some works are buried, allowing only a part of the head to be visible, while others are buried to the chest or knees according to the topography. Only occasionally do they stand on the existing surface. Around a quarter of the works are placed on concrete columns that vary from a few centimetres high to rising four meters off the ground.”
  • 😨 🏙️ 🌊 🇨🇳Almost Half of All Major Chinese Cities Are Sinking, Study Says. “45% of China's urban land was sinking faster than 3 mm a year, while 16% was sinking at a rate of more than 10 mm a year. The study authors looked at 82 Chinese cities with populations of more than 2 million and used radar pulses from satellites to identify any changes in the distance between the satellite and the ground.”
  • 😍 🖼️ 🦜 🌱 🇩🇪 I’m a sucker for these kinds of illustrations. Flip Through More than 5,000 Pages of This Sprawling 19th-Century Atlas of Natural History. “In the early 19th century, German naturalist Lorenz Oken quickly established himself as a leader in the Naturphilosophie movement, a current of Idealism, which attempted to comprehend a total view of nature by investigating its theoretical structure—a precursor to the natural sciences as we know them today.”
  • 👏🏼 🐟 🇨🇦 🇺🇸 Canada, Alaska suspend fishing of Yukon River chinook salmon for 7 years. “In a bid to help the recovery of the Yukon River chinook salmon run, the federal government and the State of Alaska have agreed to implement a seven-year moratorium on fishing the species. The suspension, in effect for one full life cycle of a salmon, includes commercial fishing and recreational angling in the Yukon River and its Canadian tributaries.”
  • 👏🏼 🌳 🇧🇷 Fires surge in the Amazon, but deforestation continues to fall. “Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has continued on a downward trajectory despite a sharp increase in fires associated with the severe drought in the region.” (This one and the previous via Fix The News.)

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