Newsletter No.257 — Mar 26, 2023

Hard to Believe ⊗ The Metaverse Is Not a Place ⊗ The Case for Slowing Down AI

Want to understand the world & imagine better futures?

Also this week → On generative AI, phantom citations, and social calluses ⊗ How tech companies reshape the economy ⊗ Brainstorm questions not ideas ⊗ Building a better future through imagination

Hard to believe

Spencer Glendon of Probable Futures with a long and fascinating piece. He uses his experience in China over 20 years ago and humanity’s relationship to nature (via art in the Renaissance and China in the late sixteen hundreds, nutmeg, and beavers (!!)) to show that we have trouble stepping out of our mental and cultural models.

He gives the example of chief Asia economists from several global investment banks whom he spoke to. He asked when China’s economy would be larger than Japan’s, and asked for their twenty year GDP forecasts. Each person’s answers contradicted each other because, in his view, when stepping away from the numbers they couldn’t also break out of their mental model. They could see something in columns of numbers that they couldn’t wrap their head around otherwise. “China will grow at this rate” was acceptable but not “its economy will be bigger than Japan’s in 10 years.” Knowledge and belief collided.

If we are to address the climate crisis, an important part of the task is to develop and adopt new models, Glendon provides some examples and options which I won’t detail here. They fit with much of what I usually share here and I think reading the whole piece to then read them in that context is more valuable than summarising here.

[E]ach time I went, I came back more convinced that China wasn’t a buying or selling opportunity but rather a fundamental change to the workings of the global economy, global finance, and even the biology and chemistry of the planet. […]

Nature is now in serious peril because, as Ghosh describes, almost every nation, no matter how abused it was by colonialism, has now adopted the models—both the quantitative economic ones and the philosophically, human-centric moral ones—that left such scars on both cultures and landscapes around the globe. […]

I have come to the conclusion, however, that given the urgency of climate change and the dominance of a single global framework, we should concentrate on improving existing models and bringing different models together. […]

[C]limate change “is an issue that we continue to understand primarily through a scientific framework, and yet it’s an issue that cannot primarily be addressed through a scientific framework. It’s a political issue, it’s a social issue, it’s an issue of justice, it’s a philosophical issue, so there is a deep, deep need to bring together the sciences, the humanities, the arts, and the social sciences, bring them into dialogue, collaborate, and work across the disciplinary boundaries that keep apart these different kinds of knowledge.

Futures, foresights, forecasts & fabulations → Building a better future through imagination (UNHCR Innovation Service)Time is of the essence. “Everyone has their biases. Even the futurists.”Mare Nostrum, a short story by Bruce Sterling. ⊗ From the IFTF, How to decide which foresight tools to use on a project.

The metaverse is not a place

This one by Tim O’Reilly was in the pile to read for months and, thanks to client research, I finally got around to it. It’s an excellent one. He proposes that the metaverse is not a place but rather a medium of communication. In addition to the main argument, notice the idea of “stored time” as a way of thinking about recorded video or audio, and there are a couple of nice tidbits about spotting signals and trends.

O’Reilly also thinks that Zuck’s vision based on avatars is probably wrong, at least for now. He believes that video presence in a 3D environment is more technically feasible and more effective. I wonder if a mix of video and TikTok-style filters is not the next phase/option/version of the 3D avatar. He also talks about The Out-of-office World, a presentation by the mmhmm CEO, which is really worth watching.

In the end, it’s probably more of a metaverse 0.5 than an either-or. Perhaps the metaverse as a place, as in the dreams of Stephenson, Zuckerberg, and others, is further away, but an interim version can be interesting today(ish) as a mode of communication where 3D is more of a backdrop for an exchange, rather than a place to visit.

It’s useful to look at technology trends (lines of technology progression toward the future, and inheritance from the past) as vectors—quantities that can only be fully described by both a magnitude and a direction and that can be summed or multiplied to get a sense of how they might cancel, amplify, or redirect possible pathways to the future. […]

On the other hand, creating a vast library of immersive 3D still images of amazing places into which either avatars or green-screened video images can be inserted seems much closer to realization. It’s still hard, but the problem is orders of magnitude smaller. The virtual spaces offered by Supernatural and other VR developers give an amazing taste of what’s possible here. […]

Bots and deepfakes are already transforming our social experiences on the internet; expect this to happen on steroids in the metaverse. Some bots will be helpful, but others will be malevolent and disruptive. We will need to tell the difference. […]

You can continue this exercise by thinking about the metaverse as the combination of multiple technology trend vectors progressing at different speeds and coming from different directions, and pushing the overall vector forward (or backward) accordingly. No new technology is the product of a single vector.

The case for slowing down AI

I can’t help but think this could have been more but Sigal Samuel at Vox still does a good job of making the beginning of a case for slowing down the development of AI and going over three of the main objections to doing so. I wasn’t necessarily expecting Samuel to make that case in that media but part of the resistance (and probably resistance to write about it) comes down to ‘this is the US’ and a variation on Fisher’s “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

Companies are running wild at high speed on AI because they have the means to do it via shit antitrust legislation and application, because they’ve stripped researchers away from universities while sucking the life out of ‘collaborations’ with research labs, and because they are purposefully hoping to get too far ahead of regulation while waving around a supposed will to be regulated.

It would also be conceivable to slow down implementation and not slow down research or slow it down less. The problem is not finding new things, it’s throwing them in products with little or no reflection, planning, or care for society.

In fact, though, there are lots of technologies that we’ve decided not to build, or that we’ve built but placed very tight restrictions on — the kind of innovations where we need to balance substantial potential benefits and economic value with very real risk. […]

So we shouldn’t be so quick to write off consensus-building — whether through technical experts exchanging their views, confidence-building measures at the diplomatic level, or formal treaties. After all, technologists often approach technical problems in AI with incredible ambition; why not be similarly ambitious about solving human problems by talking to other humans? […]

She analogized it to the early advice we got about the Covid-19 pandemic: Flatten the curve. Just as quarantining helped slow the spread of the virus and prevent a sharp spike in cases that could have overwhelmed hospitals’ capacity, investing more in safety would slow the development of AI and prevent a sharp spike in progress that could overwhelm society’s capacity to adapt.

Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation → OpenAI is massively expanding ChatGPT’s capabilities to let it browse the web and more. There’s a short, quite 🤯 demo where it books a table, finds a recipe, calculates calories, and prepares the Instacart order for it. ⊗ Also very 🤯 is the upcoming Wonder Studio. “An AI tool that automatically animates, lights and composes CG characters into a live-action scene.”

On generative AI, phantom citations, and social calluses “It has always seemed to me that Negroponte’s abundant digital optimism was rooted in a naive misunderstanding of what it means to be living in the early times. There is a habit among tech futurists to imagine that the future of a technology will be like the present, only much larger-scale, and with all the bugs worked out. But instead, it turns out that the technology’s future is barely like the present, because reaching a larger scale creates an entirely separate set of problems.

How tech companies reshape the economy Paris Marx gives an overview of a recent report by Moira Weigel on Amazon’s third-party sellers and how they are shaped by the giant. He makes a parallel with the creator economy and the platforms many creators use for their work.

Brainstorm questions not ideas “A quick and effective fix is to stop brainstorming ideas with your team, and start brainstorming questions instead. Getting together and listing every question you can think of about a problem, a process, or a situation is uncomfortable at first, and then in very short order enhances collaboration, decreases risk and puts you on the path to being a learning organization.”


  • 🤬 🌳 🌊 ⚡️ Props to them for still pushing… Scientists deliver ‘final warning’ on climate crisis: act now or it’s too late. “Scientists have delivered a ‘final warning’ on the climate crisis, as rising greenhouse gas emissions push the world to the brink of irrevocable damage that only swift and drastic action can avert.”
  • 🎥 😍 🇨🇦 I loved watching this! The attention to detail, the craft! (I’ve been following him since 1991 with La Course Europe-Asie so I might be biased.) Dune Director Denis Villeneuve Breaks Down the Gom Jabbar Scene.
  • 🎥 😍 🇬🇧 Roger Deakins Breaks Down His Most Iconic Films. “Do you want to sit in on a 30-minute cinematography masterclass with Roger Deakins as he talks about the process behind some of his most iconic films? We’re talking Sicario, The Shawshank Redemption, 1917, Fargo, Blade Runner 2049, and No Country for Old Men here. Of course you do.”
  • 🎥 🕵🏼‍♀️ 😃 🇫🇷 Amélie Was Actually a KGB Spy. “Jean-Pierre Jeunet, director of the 2001 romantic comedy The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain, has recut his beloved movie into a cheeky short film that reveals that Amélie was actually a KGB spy.”
  • 📸 🤖 😍 People like to joke at the idea of “prompt engineering” as a skill but meanwhile some artists are doing masterful stuff, like Planet Fantastique.
  • 👽 📚 🤩 The ones I’ve read in the Most Influential Sci-Fi Books Of The Past 10 Years are great so I’m going to assume the rest of the list is also excellent.
  • 🚲 ⚡️ 😃 We are living in a golden age of electric cargo bikes. “Our cup runneth over with affordable and high-powered options thanks to recent launches from Rad Power Bikes, Aventon, and Lectric, as well as legacy manufacturers like Trek and Specialized.”