Fiction microgenres. Jobless futures. AI Wars. Hope beyond the IPCC. — No.53

And we’re back! I hope you used the skip week to either catch up on past issues or do something relaxing. I wasn’t writing the newsletter but I did keep reading so this is actually a super long issue. For your own good, and for certain annoying Gmail restrictions, I’ve cut No.53 in two parts, the one you are reading and some more content on the Sentiers website.

Exploring the Future Beyond Cyberpunk’s Neon and Noir

A pretty fantastic reading list. Jay Owens asked around on Twitter and assembled nine microgenres of fiction to go beyond cyberpunk, with a few (excellent, based on the ones I know) recommendations for each. Lots of interesting directions to explore in there.

Ning coins the term chaohuan, or “ultra-unreal,” … He describes chaohuan as a Chinese acceleration of Latin American magical realism: chaohuan seeks to capture a Chinese reality that is often stranger than fiction, and in which “there is nothing you can’t accomplish if you hold power.” […]

… its more literary practitioners have reclaimed its place at the vanguard of China’s national introspection. They are using it as a Trojan horse to sneak in truths obliquely, offering not feel-good bromides but twisted visions of what modern China has become. […]

It’s also a way of examining digital humanities, critical theory, and aesthetics. Afrofuturism and its Africanist manifestations “overlap around the speculative and the designed, and interact around the nexus of technology and ethics.” […]

“[T]hemes and ideas of Gulf Futurism emerge: the isolation of individuals via technology, wealth and reactionary Islam, the corrosive elements of consumerism on the soul and industry on the earth, the erasure of history from our memories and our surroundings and finally, our dizzying collective arrival in a future no one was ready for.” […]


Kai-Fu Lee | The Rising Tide: A Jobless Future Is Coming

An interview with Kai-Fu Lee, “the face of the Chinese tech world” and formerly of Microsoft, Apple, and Google. Azeem Azhar also had him on his podcast, both discuss his new book. There are some interesting insights tech wise, and somewhat regarding society vs automation, but neither properly challenges inevitability or Lee’s positive outlook on China. (i.e. they don’t cover dystopia / surveillance aspects).

The Chinese model is about building an incredibly high wall so that no one can replicate or start a price war, it’s about detail orientation, operational excellence, having a huge market, having instantaneous feedback from the market, iterating so many times that it becomes innovative. And I think that is the spirit. I think the copying was the way it started. […]

If we think about this pre-emptively, it comes down to two things; creativity and compassion. Creativity speaks to policy on gifted and talented education, letting people specialise early and follow their passion, so they can maximise their impact in their area of creativity.

But that’s a small percentage of people, it doesn’t solve the job issue. So compassion becomes the only solution. By compassion I mean in a broader sense. I mean being able to want to relate to a person. These would be jobs like nannies, teachers, nurses, social workers, psychiatrists. The jobs that require a large amount of human interaction. […]

I think with anyone one of these jobs, AI can contribute by becoming an analytical engine so that people can do what they do best which is paying attention to people.

The Algorithms of August

It’s not often that I include articles from Foreign Policy. I’m sharing this one because it’s an unusually (for this newsletter) open stance on the military / war and for the main thing which drew my attention: seeing AI as a general purpose tech. Seen from that angle, the author might be right that it will be hard to legislate. It’s not as “simple” as killer robots.

Because AI is a general purpose technology—more like the combustion engine or electricity than a weapon—the competition to develop it will be broad, and the line between its civilian and military uses will be blurry. There will not be one exclusively military AI arms race. There will instead be many AI arms races, as countries (and, sometimes, violent nonstate actors) develop new algorithms or apply private sector algorithms to help them accomplish particular tasks. […]

This new competitive landscape will benefit middle powers such as Australia, France, Japan, and Sweden. These countries will have greater capacity to compete in the development of AI than they did in the creation of the complex military platforms used today, such as precision-guided missiles and nuclear-powered submarines. […]

AI is not itself a weapon. Just as there was not an arms control regime for combustion engines or electricity, it’s hard to imagine an effective regime for containing the coming AI arms race.”


The Big IPCC Report

By now you’ve certainly heard of the IPCC report on climate change. Instead of going ? too much, here’s a good overview by Robinson Meyer and kind of hopeful (in a way) calls to action.

UN Climate Report: How to Understand Its Scary Warning

People keep saying that one reason we haven’t acted is because it’s too far out in the future and hard to envision. Well now we see extremes year long and the cut off for massive action is basically 2030 which, remember, is 12 years away. So it’s not that far anymore and it’s easy to see.

Meeting that target would require humanity to abandon coal and other fossil fuels in the next decade or two—an economic transition so abrupt that, in the IPCC’s words, it “has no documented historic precedents.”

The report, in other words, lays out humanity’s last best hope for managing climate change. But it does so against a backdrop of generational failure. […]

The new prognosis is stirring. A world that warms by 3.6 degrees—and not 2.7 degrees—will find that its problems metastasize out of scale with that seemingly small difference. In the hotter world, the number of people affected by water scarcity will double. Twice as many corn crops will perish in the tropics. The size of global fisheries will drop by 50 percent. And 99 percent of the world’s coral reefs will perish. […]

A lot of the reason it’s been so challenging to turn the corner on climate change is it will mean that some of the folks who are in positions of power and privilege won’t maintain that privilege, we have a huge number of special interests that benefit from making the transition slower rather than faster.

Don’t despair: the climate fight is only over if you think it is

Rebecca Solnit on taking action because it’s the best way to live and because it is right.

Right now living as decent people means every one of us with resources taking serious climate action, or stepping up what we’re already doing. […]

Taking action is the best way to live in conditions of crisis and violation, for your spirit and your conscience as well as for society. It’s entirely compatible with grief and horror; you can work to elect climate heroes while being sad. […]

“Giving up” is often how fossil fuel is talked about, as though it’s pure loss, but renouncing poison doesn’t have to be framed as sacrifice. […]

A revolution is what we need, and we can begin by imagining and demanding it and doing what we can to try to realize it. Rather than waiting to see what happens, we can be what happens.

A Map of Every Building in America

This is pretty awesome and beautiful. MOAR countries please! Reminds me of the aesthetics of some work years ago by Stamen and über map geek Aaron Straup Cope.

These images are drawn from a huge database that Microsoft released to the public this year. The company’s computer engineers trained a neural network to analyze satellite imagery and then to trace the shapes of buildings across the country. Such information has been available before in some places, but this is the first comprehensive database covering the entire United States.

We found fascinating patterns in the arrangements of buildings. Traditional road maps highlight streets and highways; here they show up as a linear absence.

These are also great: These Satellite Images Reveal Cities in Extraordinary Detail.


The Feminist Dystopia Rises: ‘The Power,’ ‘Red Clocks,’ ‘Vox,’ & More

Looks at a few recent dystopic stories by women, how deeply they are rooted in the present and how “small” a tweak can bring about a horrible imagined society. Closely tracks to the old phrase “one man’s utopia is another (wo)man’s dystopia, and vice-versa.”

Over the last couple of years, though, fiction’s dystopias have changed. They’re largely written by, and concerned with, women. They imagine worlds ravaged by climate change, worlds in which humanity’s progress unravels. Most significantly, they consider reproduction, and what happens when societies try to legislate it. […]

The genius of The Power is that it conveys how entirely the world is built on male power and male privilege, to the extent that societal structures topple as soon as women are given the advantage.