Fortnite as Metaverse. Design from homescreen to city. Supposedly ‘fair’ algorithms. German ruling. Plummeting insects. — No.67

Back in the days of The Alpine Review, working on a photo spread layout with our designer, she mentioned aligning the eyes of a horse in one picture with the eyes of a sailor on the previous page. Élise said that even though most readers wouldn’t see the connection, she believed that they could sense it and better appreciate the flow. A concept which was constantly top of mind when figuring out the order of the articles. (By the way, the spread featured pictures by Nick DeWolf, who would become the prototypical polymathic AR “character.”)

In a different but adjacent concept, in my editorials of both AR1 and Sentiers at Work No.1, I wrote about the idea of the conspiracy / crazy person / detective’s “red string wall” of connections across multiple ideas, which I keep coming back to.

I mention both here because a few days ago I decided to keep the uncategorized format for this week. Today, the readings brought me back to those ideas of invisible connections and red strings. The Fortnite piece connects loosely to Dan Hill’s mild obsession with squares and piazzas in the second article which in turn connects to individuals vs systems in Ito’s article.

All of this to say that I will likely stick to this uncategorized format, and you should keep an eye out for things making sense together. Aaannnd if you find this kind of thinking interesting, may I bring up again the fact that you can support these meanderings with a patron membership?

A year ago: There Is No Such Thing as a Smart City by Bruce Sterling.

Fortnite Is the Future, Maybe Not for the Reasons You Think

Fascinating dive into the world of Fortnite, first debunking four hypes about the game, then taking stock of Epic and Fortnite’s situation and prospectives going forward. Already worth a read for that but it really gets interesting when Ball starts looking at the use of the game as a public square, the time spent there, and how it could be / is used as a platform. He then goes into what Epic founder Tim Sweeney is planning for the cloud, a marketplace, and his longtime obsession with the “Metaverse.“ Think something like Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One and a platform vision which might face off with Zuckerberg’s similar(ish) ideas for Oculus. (Also, the Unreal engine is very aptly named, these demos are a bit mindblowing.)

To this end, Fortnite likely represents the largest persistent media event in human history. As of today, the game has likely had more than six consecutive months with at least one million concurrent active users – all of whom are participating in a largely shared and consistent experience that spanned multiple “seasons”, storylines, and events. […]

Fortnite wasn’t designed to be a Second Life-style experience, or even a digital “third place“; it became one organically. What’s more, it is drastically out-monetizing dedicated social squares such as Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram – even combined. […]

[T]he engine is increasingly used in online or AR-enhanced virtual tours, in architectural modeling, and so on. The company newest frontier is feature-film grade rendering – in its game engine. […]

Epic has also built up another great and particularly hard to establish advantage: some 200MM+ registered user accounts. Each of these accounts is equipped with individual and directly reachable email addresses, in many cases a clear social graph, as well as dual factor authentication via cell phone numbers, and, often, credit cards. […]

In its fullest form, the Metaverse experience would span most, if not all virtual words, be foundational to real-world AR experiences and interactions, and would serve as an equivalent “digital” reality where all “physical” humans would simultaneously co-exist. […]

“If you look at why people are paid to do things, it’s because they’re creating a good or delivering a service that’s valuable to somebody, there’s just as much potential for that in these virtual environments as there is in the real world. If, by playing a game or doing something in a virtual world, you’re making someone else’s life better, then you can be paid for that.”

The city is my homescreen

Excellent essay by Dan Hill on mobiles, cities, strategic design, and the ways multiple disciplines of design (from interaction to urban planning, and including speculative) can work together. His main thesis here is that our focus on users results in products which might be great for the individual but bad for cities. I.e. Uber is useful and well designed for one user but the presence of hundreds more cars in city centres is bad for trafic and urban life. How can design be envisioned and practiced to bring the same kind of quality of experience while embedding the products or services more humanely and effectively in the fabric and systems of the city? The Oslo Bysykkel example is especially interesting to read through, and I love his definition of speculative design (highlighted below).

(Bonus points for mixing together Brand’s shearing layers, The Wire’s Bunk Moreland, and James Bridle.)

Unfortunately, although design practice has developed and stretched powerfully in order to help drive these technologies forwards, our core digital design disciplines, such as interaction design or service design, do not train us for these broader challenges. […]

Forcing that agenda will encourage designers using these contemporary and emerging technologies to break out beyond the bezels, to look up from pecking and pawing at those candy-coloured 180×180 icons and to engage with the reality of the context around them, and to see this as a rich, vibrant and endlessly inventive cultural and environmental terrain. […]

Making systems ‘seamful’, rather than seamless, in this way immediately asks more complex questions, provoking a more holistic approach to system design. Loading the homescreen into the city, metaphorically if not literally, requires us to engage with the impact of systems in terms of social fabric, of local cultural context, for example. How might such systems build trust rather than erode it? How might such systems knit together social fabric rather than shred it? These are design briefs to resolve. […]

Speculative design – sometimes design futures or design fiction – uses the processes and artefacts of design practice to address, uncover and articulate unknowns, often from a critical perspective. […]

Seeing design as forms of decision-making across these various aspects is where the real invention is required, the true design agenda. […]

“[T]he survival of the ordinary and the everyday; the survival of citizens over cities; of infrastructures of everyday dignity over big, signature, spectacular projects; of incremental change over instantaneous transformation; of the bazaar over the mall, the shared auto over the expressway” [Quoting Gautam Bahn]

Related: How design for individuals has impacts on the shared is also the frame for Jon Evans’ Privacy is a commons.

Supposedly ‘Fair’ Algorithms Can Perpetuate Discrimination

Joi Ito reviews some of the history of redlining in the US and makes a parallel between the statistics of “actuarial fairness” and our contemporary use of data by AIs, arguing that the same claims “that their job was purely technical and that it didn’t involve moral judgments” mirror what the Googles and Facebooks are doing today.

They argued that they were just doing their jobs. Second-order effects on society were really not their problem or their business. […]

Thus began the contentious career of the notion of “actuarial fairness,” an idea that would spread in time far beyond the insurance industry into policing and paroling, education, and eventually AI, igniting fierce debates along the way over the push by our increasingly market-oriented society to define fairness in statistical and individualistic terms rather than relying on the morals and community standards used historically. […]

So while redlining for insurance is not legal, when Amazon decides to provide Amazon Prime free same-day shipping to its “best” customers, it’s effectively redlining—reinforcing the unfairness of the past in new and increasingly algorithmic ways. […]

We must create a system that requires long-term public accountability and understandability of the effects on society of policies developed using machines. The system should help us understand, rather than obscure, the impact of algorithms on society. We must provide a mechanism for civil society to be informed and engaged in the way in which algorithms are used, optimizations set, and data collected and interpreted.

German Regulators Just Outlawed Facebook’s Whole Ad Business

Remains to be seen how much of this survives appeals but fantastic comprehension and clear sightedness of the issues in this ruling.

“The only choice the user has is either to accept the comprehensive combination of data or to refrain from using the social network. In such a difficult situation the user’s choice cannot be referred to as voluntary consent.” […]

“They are no longer able to control how their personal data are used. They cannot perceive which data from which sources are combined for which purposes with data from Facebook accounts and used e.g. for creating user profiles,” the FAQ on the ruling reads. That combining of data gives it a “significance the user cannot foresee.”

Plummeting insect numbers ‘threaten collapse of nature’

?? Some serious abyss gazing going on when you think through the implications and consider what the odds are that our governments will take the required actions. (Nevermind the fact that, like many climate changes measures, they might actually be understating reality.)

More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, the analysis found. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. The total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year, according to the best data available, suggesting they could vanish within a century. […]

“When you consider 80% of biomass of insects has disappeared in 25-30 years, it is a big concern.”