Photo by Henry Desro on Unsplash

Green Utopias ⊗ The worlds to come ⊗ The NFT funhouse mirror — No.175

This week → Green Utopias: Environmental hope before and after nature ⊗ The worlds to come ⊗ The NFT funhouse mirror ⊗ The intelligent forest

A year ago → The most clicked article in issue No.128 was Thinking in maps: Lascaux caves to knowledge graphs by Anne-Laure Le Cunff.

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


Green Utopias: Environmental hope before and after nature

Technically, in this article Paul Graham Raven is reviewing Lisa Garforth’s book Green Utopias, which he does, but it’s also very useful on its own, read as a short analysis of the “dialectic of green hope in policy, in philosophy, in climate science, and in science fiction.” Years ago, sustainable development split into two conceptual camps, “strong” and “weak,” which might be framed as the “needed” and the “doable within the status quo,” very much like the Protopic progressives I outlined last week.

These days, the debate around carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies as well as Bill Gates’ adjacent claim that new tech is essential to reaching decarbonization goals follow in that fight of strong v weak. CCS would be great, so would new techs, but they push back the time to act, while system change and scaling of existing tech can do the job now.

But the review covers more and can be read as presenting the spectrum of thinking and action between the two conceptual camps, all the way to the creation of related utopias, and how both concepts have affected which utopias have been created, and which potential ones were never contemplated.

[C]orporations today are feverishly at work implementing their novel Net Zero strategies, no doubt innovating exciting new forms of heel-dragging, buck-passing, subterfuge, and slipshod dei ex machina as they go. […]

[T]his is still very much the technological utopian mode in action, whereby innovative new technological “solutions” and market forces will somehow save us from the accumulated consequences of earlier technological “solutions” and market forces. […]

[A]n avowed and self-identifying utopia is a rhetorical and a political statement above and beyond its story and its worldbuilding: it doesn’t just make a claim about the value or virtue of the particular future or way of living it portrays, but also makes a claim that fictional futures can (and maybe should) do this sort of work: the work of imagining that we might find better ways to live (if never perfect ones). […]

This is the hope of hopes, then: that the existence of competing hopes is an advance upon the myopic we’ll-innovate-our-way-out optimism of market fundamentalism.

The worlds to come

At New World Same Humans (great name!), David Mattin considers Snap’s new Spectacles and associated AR apps, and extrapolates what they might evolve into, user-generated shared worlds, frames the creation of worlds as the next phase of media, and compares this stage of AR to the radical early days of the web.

The early web parallel is probably apt. Which means that, just as Fortnite – Roblox – Minecraft can be seen as the early prototypes of some aspects of the Metaverse, perhaps these Spectacles and AR can be another.
(Although I’m aware that the overlapping of worlds and physical reality is not part of everyone’s definition of the Metaverse.)

According to some reports, Apple is getting closer to releasing something in the same space. That was almost blinking in my mind like a neon sign as I was watching the Snap demo: this is the shitty MP3 player from 2-3 years before the first iPod came out. Even though it’s pretty cool, there’s no way Apple releases something like this. When / if they do, it will be head and shoulders above, or they won’t launch. (Sorry for doing their marketing for them, but you know it’s true!)

We are meaning-making animals. We construct complex representations – both of the world around us and our ideas about that world – and share them with one another. It’s what sets us apart from other creatures. It accounts for our dominion over this planet. You can build a strong case for the idea that it’s this, above all, that makes us human. […]

The answer is worlds. The next step in our journey towards ever more sophisticated representations is to build immersive worlds that we can inhabit just as we do the world around us. […]

That is to say: our representations of the world become worlds of their own. Or to put it yet another way, the boundaries that separate our representations from reality itself start to fade away.

The NFT funhouse mirror

First of two pieces I’m sharing from NOEMA magazine, this one by Samantha Culp. Blockchains, NFTs, DAOs (Decentralized Autonomous Organizations), to me those are all ideas that have some intriguing and promising concepts behind their inception. But also all ideas that are currently … underwhelmingly executed, either because of the execution itself, or because of the capitalist-cage-match vibe. Culp gives a clear-headed view of NFTs vs the existing art market vs the needs of artists vs energy needs and fossil fuels. Solid and accessible article to have in your toolkit to understand this field in coming years, and stick around for the spot-on and Mazzucatoesque conclusion on what we value.

Some believe they’re a holy grail for artists to support themselves, particularly the makers of hard-to-monetize digital work, and that they’ll democratize the elitist traditional art world. Others contend that they’re an aesthetically shallow and morally suspect bubble driven by the cynical agendas of cryptocurrency boosters, and that they emit disastrous levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. […]

In the end, it’s concerning to think that NFTs may not revolutionize the art world — a strange place that, for better or worse, has remained a bastion of mutant feudalism and quasi-religious economics in the midst of late capitalism — but could instead extend the reach of cold market logic into our everyday lives. […]

“How do we build sustainable, humane economic systems that allow all people to thrive and create?” If we are reinventing monetary systems and value itself, it should align better with what we actually “value.”

Further reading →Julian Bleecker seems to be roughly in the same camp as me with regards to “great concepts, waiting for the execution I’d be up for.” In A strange thing happened he lists 34 things about DAOs, full of 🤔 and “oooohhh, this could be good if only.” As well as this great paragraph on design fiction:

Design Fiction is meant to stretch the elastic membrane of our own ability to believe. Conversely, it is meant to help suspend our disbelief about change. With Design Fiction we push against the edge of the present, creating representations of a shape-shifted new present or, as I like to refer to it, near future. We show things that represent symptoms of that near future for reflection or because we want that near future in which such things exist, or we hope can be avoided.

The intelligent forest

Second piece at NOEMA, this one by the fabulous tree whisperer, Suzanne Simard who shares an excerpt from her just-out book Finding the Mother Tree. I’ve linked to interviews with her before, and you’ve likely heard about her work, but I don’t tire of reading about her fascinating fascination with the intelligence of trees, their collaboration, mycorrhizal fungi, symbiosis, and what they can teach us. Also, wolves, caribou, and a hike that shows her relationship with the forest.

Mycorrhizal fungi are generalists — they colonize plant root tissue, sometimes even intracellularly. They might invest in many tree species to hedge their bets for survival, and the off chance that some carbon would move to a stranger was simply part of the cost of moving it to relatives. […]

Maybe the fast-cycling fungi could provide a way for the trees to adjust swiftly to cope with change and uncertainty. Instead of waiting for the next generation of trees to reproduce with more adaptive ways of coping with the soils warming and drying as the climate changes, the mycorrhizal fungi with which the trees are in symbiosis could evolve much faster to acquire increasingly tightly bound resources. […]

Recognizing that forest ecosystems, like societies, have these elements of intelligence helps us leave behind old notions that they are inert, simple, linear and predictable

Asides

  • ⭐️ 🕵🏼 🎥 Very very good, chilling video on privacy. Also worth noting that it was produced by the Financial Times. We know what you did during lockdown. And that’s why the data knows best. And that’s why we must hand ourselves over to it. As emotional beings we are simply unable to measure that equivalence ourselves. So your audit trail will enter the system, and an automated verdict delivered to you in due course.”
  • 🇧🇷 🤩 🎥 MIT Senseable City Lab maps Brazilian favela with handheld 3D-scanners. “Called Favelas 4D, the project uses point cloud data from handheld LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) scans in order to study the form of Rocinha, a favela in Rio de Janeiro. The low-income urban settlements have complex structures that are built by their inhabitants over time.” (Via Target_is_New.)
  • 🤯 🌳 Some tree crazyness in this 🧵. This is called inosculation: when branches or roots of different trees are in prolonged intimate contact, they often abrade each other, exposing their inner tissues, which may eventually fuse. It’s not so much one tree feeding another as the formation of a new hybrid organism.
  • 🇫🇷 🗺 😍 Blog in French but the goals and the maps are very much in the Sentiers wheelhouse and there’s lots to see, even if you don’t speak it. Kartokobri – cartographies imaginaires. “I draw maps and use them as supports to formalize readings of the world, starting from the idea that a map can tell an infinity of things seen, lived, told, understood and especially perhaps, misunderstood. Through them, I try to question facts, to develop stories, to fix memories, by diverting lines, contours, toponymies.”
  • 🤯 🔭 The Final Border Humanity Will Never Cross. “This expansion means that there is a cosmological horizon around us. Everything beyond it, is traveling faster, relative to us, than the speed of light. So everything that passes the horizon, is irretrievably out of reach forever and we will never be able to interact with it again. ”
  • 🔋 💩 Millions of electric cars are coming. What happens to all the dead batteries? “[W]hen the battery comes to the end of its life, its green benefits fade. If it ends up in a landfill, its cells can release problematic toxins, including heavy metals. And recycling the battery can be a hazardous business, warns materials scientist Dana Thompson of the University of Leicester. Cut too deep into a Tesla cell, or in the wrong place, and it can short-circuit, combust, and release toxic fumes.”
  • 🌌 New dark matter map reveals cosmic mystery. “An international team of researchers has created the largest and most detailed map of the distribution of so-called dark matter in the Universe. The results are a surprise because they show that it is slightly smoother and more spread out than the current best theories predict. The observation appears to stray from Einstein’s theory of general relativity – posing a conundrum for researchers.”


Header image: Photo by Henry Desro, and see Suzanne Simards’ piece above.