Home Screens ⊗ Conducive to life ⊗ Not fit for this future — No.124

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

This week → Home Screens ⊗ The conditions conducive to life ⊗ Not fit for this future ⊗ Can speculative journalism help us prepare for what’s to come? ⊗ Fortnite and the Metaverse: Why Epic Games may build the next version of the Internet

A year ago → The Peculiar Blindness of Experts.

Home Screens

The state of quarantine—where anything can be delivered, work and schooling done from home (maybe), and entertainment delivered through fibre—seemed like exactly the future tech companies were trying to sell us anyway. So it should work, right? Drew Austin looks at what we are actually missing, and how incomplete that vision was (surprise, surprise!). Without as broad an experience of space, we are also losing our grasp of time. With far less real human connection, we lose the richness and depth that nourishes us.

Much of the last 15-20 years of tech (Silicon Valley) “innovation” has been about fulfilling the wishes of college dropouts, replacing their mom and abstracting human interaction. Great fit for a pandemic, but what kind of life is that?

When the formal quarantine came, it seemed like domestic cozy was fully coming into its own. Much of the necessary infrastructure was already in place. The world that tech companies had built and persistently tried to persuade us we wanted was waiting for us, ready to fully take over. It was consumer-facing disaster capitalism in action. […]

Pure economic exchanges can relocate to screen interactions with a minimal loss of fidelity, but encounters meant to be less instrumental are proving harder to sustain without the texture of physical space. Most of the apps we use for interaction simply unbundle an informational component from the scene of social contact. […]

“With people told to work from home and stay away from others, the pandemic has deepened reliance on services from the technology industry’s biggest companies while accelerating trends that were already benefiting them.” […]

Pandemics, beyond their direct consequences for those who get sick, heighten fear, paranoia, isolation, xenophobia, economic vulnerability, and depression. If some tech companies complement such a world well, we should ask why.

The Conditions Conducive to Life

Writing from Assisi, Italy, Joseph Grima considers the transition which occurred after the fall of Rome, how European society was re-configured and re-invented, to then look at today’s pandemic and propose that while we live different lives we can use the opportunity to realize that “[t]he conditions we have come to regard as necessary are no longer conducive to life, and now is the moment to consider what we are actually going to do about it.”

One reason to revisit the same themes multiple times is for the different ways various writers have of saying somewhat the same things while adding their own insights. This one is directly in line with the recent pieces I’ve shared on the topic of “what follows,” yet it does exactly that: frames things slightly differently and adds new touches that help fine-tune the early stages of something like a shared vision.

As the cities emptied out, and with it the knowledge system of urban libraries, wealthy patrons and elite academies, a new form of distributed knowledge centres and distributed economies emerged that would have been unthinkable for the Romans. […]

This first Renaissance was all based on the economics of scope, the unified body of knowledge that European intellectuals and artisans could build on. The guilds may have had their secrets, but they took them along wherever Cathedrals were built. […]

What is needed, and what these days offer us a window onto, is intervention on the level of the code underlying the city, as Dan Hill himself has argued – systemic, structural change that upends our current economy’s radical dependency on movement, reprioritising instead the self-sufficiency of neighbourhoods, removing the need to travel to survive, normalising other forms of interaction – all in the name of the collective interest. […]

It will not be sufficient, let alone morally justifiable, to externalise the costs of this transformation onto the weak, poor and those we cannot see or hear. But if we are sufficiently ambitious, the reward will be worth it. We’ve done it before.

Not Fit for this Future

Aarathi Krishnan, who’s worked in humanitarian and development aid for almost two decades, looks at the multiple failures of humanity brought to light by this pandemic. Krishnan looks not to specific countries but to the “international organisations that are entrusted with the responsibilities of humanitarian and development work.” A similar diagnostic to what many countries have found with their health system or pandemic preparedness: repeated cuts and lack of longterm vision have rendered these systems brittle and unable to respond quickly and efficiently. They aren’t fit for today, much less for the challenges to come.

Our systems, our societies, our actions and behaviours — were a million wounds in a structural ecosystem that was rupturing at its sides. And the system has now blown wide open — revealing to our collective shame — the multitudes of ways, in which we have all failed. […]

To achieve this legitimacy, to be the institutions we need them to be — requires not just looking at these new normals merely as exogenous changes but to also consider how the institutions themselves need to transform internally in order to meet these new frontiers. […]

Institutions need to evolve into emergent, learning ecosystems that recognise that the status quo is a shaky terrain, and that work to bring the innovations and experimentation already happening on the periphery of their systems into the core. Internal foresight capabilities, innovation, radical inclusion, adaptive strategy and learnings, is pivotal so that efforts at responding to what is emerging can be done in agility, and not in ways that hinder. […]

Interrogating what has to die so that the right thing can live in institutional redesign, and how to get it to gracefully exit as quickly as possible has to become a common question we ask.

Can speculative journalism help us prepare for what’s to come?

As I mentioned in the latest members’ Dispatch a week ago, I’m paying attention to the various disciplines integrating fiction in their practices. In that one it was theory-fiction, this time it’s speculative stories by journalists. The piece by Eryn Carlson considers when speculation can be useful, and how it could be an issue in this period of fake news and misinformation. She gives various examples and quotes from the people who produced the projects, including useful insights from Sentiers favourites Amy Webb and Rose Eveleth.

By illustrating future worlds, speculative journalism can help audiences think about what might be to come in more concrete terms. […]

The term isn’t strictly defined, but it’s often used to describe works of journalism about imagined futures, pieces where science fiction is entwined with facts and even original reporting to elucidate likely, or at least possible, future realities. […]

It takes as a point of departure that a reporter can use the tools of sci-fi, futurism, strategic foresight, and forecasting as any other tool in journalism—just as one might use computer-assisted reporting or database reporting.” […]

“What sci-fi does is take society as we know it today and applies — you might call them filters — new technologies, new situations, and asks what is it about human society that would stay the same and what would change under these new circumstances.”

Fortnite and the Metaverse: Why Epic Games may build the next version of the Internet

Nothing massively new but it’s at The Washington Post, which in itself is interesting if you are following the talk around the idea of the metaverse. There are some good quotes, including some by Matthew Ball who’s leading the way in reporting on the topic and whom I’ve linked to a few times.

“That involved everybody with their own proprietary systems agreeing to connect to everybody else’s systems. … This critically needs to happen in gaming. … We need to give up our attempts to each create our own private walled gardens and private monopoly and agree to work together and recognize we’re all far better off if we connect our systems and grow our social graphs together.”


Header image: 42nd Street on a Saturday Night during COVID-19, Vladislav Grubman (CC BY-SA).