Home body ⊗ Squad wealth ⊗ How we hypothetically tamed COVID — No.138

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

This week → Home body ⊗ Squad wealth ⊗ How we hypothetically tamed COVID-19 and zoonotic diseases ⊗ The uncanniness of algorithmic style

A year ago → Faced with a data deluge, astronomers turn to automation.

Home Body

Real Life — The wonderful articles keep coming out of Real Life magazine, file this one by Kelly Pendergrast where you can find it again to show the interconnections of systems, the care for infrastructure, and how our homes, social lives, and communities live atop those systems.

Perdergrast weaves the confinement with mythical haunted houses, cyborg collectives, Ballard, looting as reclaiming, as statements of inequality during Black Lives Matters, and the inspiring acts of mutual aid during the pandemic. It’s the saving cosiness of our homes, mixed with logistical sublime, care, maintenance, and community.

Theoretically, the pipes, wires, dams, turbines, and spillways that feed our cyborg homes are a socialized good, a collective investment in the collective wellbeing. As Chachra writes, technological systems are “one of the main ways that we take care of each other at scale.” […]

Unlike the privatized horrors of storybook hauntings, the spirits that animate my house exist on the same timeline, as part of the same networked system as I do (hello sanitation engineer, hello bird flying splat into the wind turbine, hello coal miner), at the other end of the tubes, feeding my housebody or failing it. […]

Wallowing in the logistical sublime can lead to what Matthew Gandy describes as “epistemological myopia that privileges issues of quantification and scale over the everyday practices that actually enable these networks to function.” […]

All the mapping and “making visible” in the world can’t right what’s wrong, and even the most good-faith attempts at rigorous transparency can’t avoid glossing over or eliding the horrors buried in global supply chains and local power structures. Instead, we can repurpose the city that was built against us, and redistribute its spoils. […]

This is part one of the work; to develop an extended proprioception that includes an awareness of the animate energies of the housebody, but also extends out through wires, pipes, and cables and towards all the other things and people the system touches, cares for, harms, and fails. Because the infrastructures of the home mean that we’re inexorably intermingled, codependent, and beholden, even as we might feel more disconnected than ever.

Squad Wealth

Other Internet — This piece by Sam Hart, Toby Shorin, Laura Lotti already compresses a lot of ideas together—aiming to name and draw a diffuse circle around some of the groups forming in the “deep social web”—so I won’t try to compress further, have a read. As Ezra Klein often says on his podcast, “lets put a pin in this” to get back to it, since there are definitely some inklings of new rituals and practices emerging, and I feel that not being a gamer I’m missing a great deal of where these are forming. Even though the authors might be waxing a bit too poetic and memetic, there’s something there.

If we were to map this out on my favourite metaphor, the crazy person / detective / conspiracy theorist wall of red string, we’d pin it close to what’s in this filtered for small groups by Matt Webb, including the scenius, coworking spaces (the good ones), co-ops (especially like Doug’s remaining unmanaged ones), Enspiral, and in some ways it’s even adjacent to convening small groups as I discussed in Dispatch 5.

Group collaboration is now the strong default, putting squads at the center of social, cultural, and economic life. To paraphrase Bill Bishop: today people are born as individuals, and have to find their squad. […]

For the squad to understand itself as a whole, it maintains boundaries circumscribing strong group norms. Fuck a Dunbar number—the ideal squad count is no more than 12. How can you really be present with more than a dozen people? Small groups are crucial for tight coordination. A greater network may surround the squad, making it appear big and fuzzy from the outside. But for the core crew, an invisible circle binds and protects a space of group identity. […]

The Twitter subcultures shown above are only a sliver of an expansive social deep web. Beneath this fuzzy graph is SQUAD SPACE, the network of inner-zones where digital microcultures are born: group DMs, Discords, Slacks, Keybases. Memes forged in SQUAD SPACE bubble out into the “clearnet” above, pwning NPCs on the internet of beefs. […]

Squads are woke to the empty neoliberal promises of gig-economy “employment” and para-social personal brands. Squads value self-determination, not through individualism, but through collective maintenance and care for one another. Squads value creative expression, but celebrate the group rather than individual authorship. For the squad, the autonomous is always collective.

The Small Group

Jim Mulholland — On a similar topic, quoted in the Matt Webb piece linked above, this one too overlaps with convening.

Around a dozen members is the sweet spot of social motivation: small enough to know everyone, yet large enough that the group won’t collapse if one or two members’ enthusiasm wanes; small enough that you are not daunted by competing with the whole world, yet large enough that you still need to be on your toes to keep up.”

How we hypothetically tamed COVID-19 and zoonotic diseases

Anthropocene Magazine — Very short near-future fiction with some ideas of how COVID and future zoonotic diseases might change our systems of public-health, international trade, and meat eating. Is there a word for plausible (as in, doable and appropriate) yet improbable (because politics)?

Handling the threat of zoonotic diseases became a government function as basic as wildfire prevention or flood control, and—apart from averting the next world-shaking pandemic—these programs helped treat the slow burn of comparatively low-profile zoonoses. […]

Scientists didn’t hesitate to shut down wildlife markets, but when it came to factory farming, they settled for risk mitigation: developing new vaccines, trying to stop dust and air from escaping buildings, monitoring workers for disease, and maybe promising them health insurance. […]

Regular citizens looked at supermarket meat aisles and fast-food value meals as pandemic lottery tickets. Eating those foods carried a social stigma, not unlike how Westerners a decade earlier had regarded bat-eating.

The Uncanniness of Algorithmic Style

Kyle Chayka — A newsletter issue by Chayka, on the new Microsoft Flight Simulator, Farhad Manjoo’s column, and some of the uncanny aesthetics of algorithms.

An automated, unchecked process is warping the (virtual) world around us, leading to these weird errors and aberrations. Bergen isn’t some post-apocalyptic semi-underground Hong Kong, but that’s how the data was interpreted. The glitches are the kind of algorithmic sensibility that Manjoo is describing. […]

These tools aren’t bad, exactly, but they are uncanny, because what they do is extend a set of rules or a pattern that began as aesthetically pleasing or interesting over too large an area, too wide a swath of culture. The visuals are the equivalent of AI-generated writing: It might look okay at first but it’s ultimately nonsensical and could be destructive in the wrong context.


  • ? Futurist Reviews Futuristic Movies, from ‘The Matrix’ to ‘WALL-E’. “Futurist Amy Webb fact checks futuristic scenes from movies including ‘Blade Runner 2049,’ ‘Gattaca,’ ‘The Matrix,’ ‘Ex Machina,’ ‘WALL-E,’ ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ ‘Total Recall’ and analyzes their probability, craft, and execution.”
  • ? 600 pages so as yet unread but looks like a fascinating exercise. Boxes: A Field Guide. “A book full of boxes. A box in itself. An unboxing. This book explores boxes in their broadest sense and size. It invites us to step into the field, unravel how and why things are contained and how it might be otherwise. By turning the focus of Science and Technology Studies (STS) to boxing practices, this collation of essays examines boxes as world-making devices.
  • ? Responsible Design for Digital Communities. “This tool kit and website brings together on emergent best practices, workflows, and tools that communities, educators, mutual aid groups, designers, artists and activists are using right now to host gatherings, and how design needs to change to best suit people, right now.”
  • ?? ? How the World’s Largest Garbage Dump in Staten Island Became a Green Oasis. “Today, Fresh Kills has been rebranded as Freshkills, and the park that is now at the site of the old dump is poised to accept visitors: the North Park will open in spring 2021, the rest by 2036. Freshkills is possibly the least likely poster child for urban ecological restoration in the world, and it is radical not just for the way it works — by encouraging flora and fauna do as they please — but for its sheer size. It is almost unbelievable that New York City would set aside a parcel of land as big as Lower Manhattan south of 23rd Street — and just let it go to seed.”
  • ?? ? Just last week, I was wondering what the international opinion of the US would be without holywood. We’ll see what China manages in a similar vein. China Issues Guidelines on How to Develop Local Sci-Fi Films . “To make strong movies, the document claims, the number one priority is to ‘thoroughly study and implement Xi Jinping Thought.’ Based on the Chinese president’s past pronouncements on film work, filmmakers should follow the ‘correct direction’ for the development of sci-fi movies. This includes creating films that ‘highlight Chinese values, inherit Chinese culture and aesthetics, cultivate contemporary Chinese innovation’ as well as ‘disseminate scientific thought’ and ‘raise the spirit of scientists.’ Chinese sci-fi films should thus portray China in a positive light as a technologically advanced nation.”
  • ? I’m sure this is fine. Microplastic particles now discoverable in human organs. “To test their technique, they added particles to 47 samples of lung, liver, spleen and kidney tissue obtained from a tissue bank established to study neurodegenerative diseases. Their results showed that the microplastics could be detected in every sample.”
  • ? by Dr Charlotte Lydia Riley Of course there are no worthless degrees and no Mickey Mouse degree subjects but I do want to remind everyone quickly that all subjects are actually just forms of history, the ur-subject.
  • ? ? Researchers Can Duplicate Keys from the Sounds They Make in Locks. “Researchers have demonstrated that they can make a working 3D-printed copy of a key just by listening to how the key sounds when inserted into a lock. And you don’t need a fancy mic — a smartphone or smart doorbell will do nicely if you can get it close enough to the lock.”

Header image: An aerial view of a quarry in the north of France, by Jules Bss.

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