Newsletter No.283 — Oct 15, 2023

Fear of Oozification ⊗ Is the Web Eating Itself? LLMs versus Verifiability ⊗ Why Culture Has Come to a Standstill

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Also this week → Growing forests ⊗ The octopus abattoir must be stopped ⊗ Science fiction in foresight, strategy and futures studies ⊗ Microsoft is reportedly losing money on GitHub Copilot

Fear of oozification

Venkatesh Rao proposes the concept of “oozification” in technology, the process of replacing complex systems with simpler, more elemental building blocks, increasing the number of evolutionary possibilities and lowering the number of certainties. In his view, oozification can be seen in all technologies and can induce fear as it threatens all certainties, including those on which human identities are based. Rao uses AI as an example of oozification and explores how it applies to other areas such as ecommerce, transportation, and even houses.

Reading this I started wondering if we might see technology as our pre-pre-pre-pre-alpha form of something like nature? In other words, very low tech (in comparison) versions of what nature already does. Then to more biomimicry and synthetic bio, then to programming biology. As we edge towards ever more advanced technology, we are ‘just’ approaching the replication of natural processes for our own purpose.

Back to oozification, I think he could have used fractals (ever more complex and smaller) or blurring (we lose sight of internal processes, as in AI black boxes) or atomisation. Oozification works, I’m wondering if it was the most easily graspable way of explaining his idea. Various other thoughts as I was reading; everything becomes plural and self-assemblageable. The fear he talks about among tech lords is a loss of control, like holding sand in your hands, it relates to complexity which has been a key word of our time for a while now. Finally that there’s an important difference between a degrowth of tech (reverting to the past) and a degrowth of the impact of tech with more appropriate, more restrained options with fewer externalities.

Oozification is not limited to AI. All technology seems to oozify, though only in the later stages does it become obvious. The ceaseless process of unbundling and rebundling that is technological creative destruction seems to generally trend towards fewer, smaller building blocks, more possibilities, and fewer constants. […]

Another marker of oozification is increasing programmability. When something oozifies, constants become variables, certainties become open possibilities, form factors turn protean, and solid-seeming objects become ephemeral. It’s not just that “hard” things turn “soft” as software eats them. Even hard things themselves become more programmable — composable, modular, extensible, recombinable. Whatever hard bits are left tend to be more atomic. […]

Oozification is something of a Buddhist understanding of technological change as ceaseless transformation, where the only constant is transience. If you are attached to a particular fixed sense of self, oozification will eventually turn into a threat, even if you celebrated it before as progress. […]

Second, we might get a new evolutionary big bang. Once oozification proceeds far enough, some disturbance might launch the ooze along a new, very different set of evolutionary pathways than the one it’s been on. One with perhaps a techno-biological character that explores and fills out an entire new phylogenetic design space.

Is the web eating itself? LLMs versus verifiability

Ethan Zuckerman’s write-up of Heather Ford’s talk at UMass Amherst titled “Is the Web Eating Itself?” She discussed the rise of generative AI and its potential impact on projects like Wikimedia and Wikipedia, raising concerns about the eroding verifiability of information and the potential for misinformation to spread through AI systems. Ford also explored the implications of AI tools like ChatGPT on knowledge creation and dissemination, calling for a campaign for verifiability and meaningful attribution to maintain the production of accurate and trustworthy information in the age of AI.

We still have to really integrate the fact that generative AI like ChatGPT doesn’t truly understand anything, not in the way we usually think of as understanding, anyway. It predicts the next character, the next word. Even when it looks like it’s citing Wikipedia, it’s actually writing in the style of Wikipedia but not referring any actual facts. It uses Wikipedia as part of a model of how knowledge is represented and then produces a sequence of words. If these kinds of chats replace search, we go from varied answers to made up but believable unambiguous ‘answers.’ The first truly auto-fact-checked AI chatbot, if it comes, should make a killing.

Verifiability, Heather explains, isn’t just an attribute of the content – it contains the idea of provenance, the notion that an piece of information can be traced back to its source. Heather suggests we think of verifiability as a set of rights and responsibilities – a right for users to have information that is meaningfully sourced and the responsibility for editors to attribute their sources. […]

LLMs aren’t like grammar checks or other systems that have been used to improve human writing. Instead, they represent knowledge in an entirely different way than the knowledge graph.
The trajectory of LLMs threatens verifiability in a way that threatens projects that depend on verifiability – accountability, accuracy and critical digital literacy.

Why culture has come to a standstill

This piece in The New York Times is quite outside of my usual interests, and thus I have no strongly informed opinion on it (do tell me if you do though). For a while I was reading it thinking he was wrong (he argues that “ours is the least innovative century for the arts in 500 years”), but with no particular counter-point, other than it feels very ‘get off my lawn.’ The only point I’d make, which might be what he misses, is that to me “atemporality” has always felt modern, representative of global entanglement and information overload. Perhaps we aren’t moving forward with as much distinctly new culture, I really don’t know, but ‘everyone’ having access to ‘everything,’ floating across all of it while following their whims, that seems like very now, something that we are the first to do. Perhaps ‘we’ are not standing still but getting acclimated to this state of access to everything (at least in spirit if not physically).

We are still inculcated, so unconsciously we never even bother to spell it out, in what the modernists believed: that good art is good because it is innovative, and that an ambitious writer, composer, director or choreographer should not make things too much like what others have made before. […]

Winehouse sensed that the real digital revolution in culture would not be in production, in the machines that artists used to make music or movies or books. It would be in reception: on the screens where they (where we) encountered culture, on which past and present are equidistant from each other. […]

“Because the core project is communication,” English said, “anything that resists the art-communications apparatus fails to leave a mark. Form has become increasingly irrelevant during these 20 years.”

§ Growing forests. “We should be a little bit careful about drawing overly strong conclusions here, because even today we lack good data on forest cover change in many countries and deforestation rates vary over time. But in countries like France, Scotland, England, and the US we do have some long-term data on forest cover that shows evidence of a significant forest recovery.”

§ The octopus abattoir must be stopped. Considering what we are constantly learning about various forms of intelligence, considering the environmental impact of factory farming, rising vegan numbers, etc. Not starting down the same path of destruction for yet another species seems like a no-brainer. And yet… (Via nothing here.)

Futures, foresights, forecasts & fabulations

Science fiction in foresight, strategy and futures studies. By Dré Labre, and be sure to click through to his Art/Fact video.

The greatest science fiction books of the 2010s. “Science fiction has experienced something of a literary renaissance over the past decade. The genre has become more expansive, more diverse, and pushed the boundaries of what we expect from stories of the speculative. There’s seldom been a more exciting time to read sci-fi.”

Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation

Microsoft is reportedly losing huge amounts of money on GitHub Copilot. This is something I’ve been talking about left and right; when the use of AI is priced accordingly to it’s actual cost, instead of a mad grab for market share, there will be some surprises and likely a sizeable (but probably temporary) drop in use.

Generative AI like Midjourney creates images full of stereotypes. “Rest of World analyzed 3,000 AI images to see how image generators visualize different countries and cultures.”


  • 😍 ⭕️ 🌏 🎥 One Revolution Per Minute. Fantastic!! “The film shows what it would be like to travel on a large, circular space station, 900 meters (0.56 miles) in diameter that rotates a 1 rpm. Even at that slow speed, which generates 0.5 g at the outermost shell, I was surprised to see how quickly the scenery (aka the Earth, Moon, etc.) was rotating and how disorienting it would be as a passenger.”
  • 🇫🇷 👏🏼 ⛪️ Notre-Dame Cathedral Will Reopen in 2024: How to Visit, What You Can See. “The interior restoration won’t be done in time for the Paris Olympics, but visitors will see the monument returning to its glory along the Seine.”
  • 😍 📸 📚 Newsstands From Around the World. “Over a period of eight years, Trevor Traynor took dozens of photos of newsstands and their operators. The project started in NYC but came to include newsstands in LA, Lima, Tokyo, Jerusalem, Marrakesh, London, Rome, Paris, and several other places around the world.”
  • 🇬🇹 💦 🌱 Maya reservoirs relied on aquatic plants like water lilies to help keep water clean. “The ancient Maya city of Tikal relied on urban reservoirs to supply water during periods of drought. They essentially built ‘constructed wetlands’ that relied upon key minerals and aquatic plants and other biota to keep the water supply potable, a ‘self-cleaning’ approach similar to that employed in constructed wetlands today.”
  • 🇪🇪 🚲 🚌 🚃 Tallinn: Cars were a status symbol after the Soviets. Now bike, bus and tram are overtaking “‘What the city is trying to do now, in the belief in the concept of the 15-minute city, is diversify the purpose of the districts,’ Tallinn City Government deputy mayor Vladimir Svet tells me on a recent visit. Creating a system where jobs, housing, services and entertainment are mixed, ‘also means that we must rethink the whole network of public transport.’”
  • 👏🏼 🇪🇸 🚄 Spain’s high-speed trains aren’t just efficient, they have transformed people’s lives. “The country has managed to build itself the longest high-speed rail network in Europe and the second longest in the world, now spanning approximately 2,500 miles (4,000km) (and still expanding). By way of comparison, France has built 1,740 miles (2,800km), and Britain – still coming to terms with its latest high-speed fiasco – 68 (110km).”
  • 🇦🇺 🦪 Barriers Made of Concrete and Oyster Shells Mitigate Erosion and Offer Alluring New Habitats on Australia’s Coastline. “Titled Erosion Mitigation Units and installed near the city of Greater Geelong, the two-meter-wide structures are made of concrete and recycled oyster shells layered into molds.”