Intellectual humility. Automation Bites Back. Gradually, Then Suddenly. Defending Earth’s biodiversity. Light electric vehicles. Oumuamua. — No.63

Quick note that I completely redid the template for this newsletter, partially based on the Tinyletter styling. I’m trusting their code but do get back to me if you encounter display issues.

Intellectual humility: the importance of knowing you might be wrong

Excellent piece at Vox on reasons for and signs of intellectual humility in social psychology, and why it’s something we need more of everywhere. Looking at the “ignorance” quote below, I’d also parallel that to something I’ve often noticed, which I might call the reverse Dunning-Kruger (covered in the article). I.e. talented / competent people question everything they do and doubt the quality of their work.

I’ve come to appreciate what a crucial tool it is for learning, especially in an increasingly interconnected and complicated world. As technology makes it easier to lie and spread false information incredibly quickly, we need intellectually humble, curious people. […]

Instead, it’s a method of thinking. It’s about entertaining the possibility that you may be wrong and being open to learning from the experience of others. Intellectual humility is about being actively curious about your blind spots. […]

When I open myself up to the vastness of my own ignorance, I can’t help but feel a sudden suffocating feeling. I have just one small mind, a tiny, leaky boat upon which to go exploring knowledge in a vast and knotty sea of which I carry no clear map. […]

To be intellectually humble doesn’t mean giving up on the ideas we love and believe in. It just means we need to be thoughtful in choosing our convictions, be open to adjusting them, seek out their flaws, and never stop being curious about why we believe what we believe. Again, that’s not easy.

When Automation Bites Back

Lots of yes in this piece by Fabien Girardin at the Near Future Laboratory. “The business of dishonest automation and how the engineers, data scientists and designers behind it can fix it.” Missing context, forgetting (ignoring) edge cases, being dishonest, misleading users, stealing attention, lost trust. Notice item 4, The design for humane automation, with learning from the past, critiquing the present, and debating the future—including design fiction, which the lab has done very well for years.

Learning techniques becomes widespread, digital automation is becoming a commodity with systems that perform at Internet scale one task with no deep understanding of human context. […]

In the light of these examples of clumsy and dishonest automation, what concerns me is that many engineers, data scientists, designers and decision-makers bring these frictions into people’s everyday life because they do not employ approaches to foresee the limits and implications of their work. Apart from the engineering of efficient solutions, automation requires professionals to think about the foundations and consequences of their practice that transcend any Key Performance Indicator of their organization. […]

Many professionals in the tech industry (including me) embraced his description of Calm technology that “informs but doesn’t demand our focus or attention.” However, what Weiser and many others (including me) did not anticipate is an industry of dishonest automation or solutions that turn against their user’s intentions when things do not go as planned.”


Gradually, Then Suddenly

Let me double double caveat this in that it’s on LinkedIn and by Tim O’Reilly (good take down of some of his habits here Why is anyone listening to Tim O’Reilly?) but still, I like the “gradually and suddenly” framing and some of his items I agree with. (The rest of the world is leapfrogging the US; China and the transformation of Africa; The next agricultural revolution; Climate change; and The crisis of faith in government.)

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that AI will replace humans when it can be used even more powerfully to augment them. […]

Adam Smith’s other great book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which explores the role of social norms as a check on self-interest. We must rediscover and reinvent those norms, or gradually, then suddenly, we’ll continue the descent into economic and political barbarism.

The Age of Tech Is Over

Derek Thompson arguing, like Ben Evans, that this isn’t the end of tech but the end of the beginning, the “easy” phase for tech conquering the world, the next phase promises to be harder.

How do you grow forever in a sector that isn’t growing? That’s easy: You don’t. There may be a Malthusian trap in the attention economy. Eventually, revenue growth bumps up against the natural limitations of population and waking hours. […]

Software ate media, and media went down pretty smoothly. Now it has to gnaw through the harder, crunchier parts of the global economy. Software eating life sciences? Software eating elderly care? Software eating household construction? Software eating money? Good luck. […]

In the past decade of tech, it was scarcely an exaggeration to say that every tech company is a media company. Perhaps in the next decade, the rule will be: Every tech company is a mall.


Indigenous peoples defend Earth’s biodiversity

I wasn’t aware of these kinds of projects, another kind of nature parc, indigenous tribes taking care of the land in (what certainly seems like) a healthier relationship with countries, to the benefit of nature and the planet.

“The indigenous peoples of the Amazon have proven to be the best guardians of their traditional territories,” Swing adds. “The fact that the Amazon ecosystems are as rich as they are today is proof of how successful these cultures have been, in living in balance with their environment.” […]

It is time to flip this dominant narrative and acknowledge the role of the Sápara and other indigenous peoples in doing the most critical thing that could be done under the imminent threat of biodiversity loss and climate change—and that is looking after their sacred Naku. […]

Recent research demonstrates that while the world’s 370 million indigenous peoples make up less than five percent of the total human population, they manage or hold tenure over 25 percent of the world’s land surface and support about 80 percent of the global biodiversity.

[I]t means adopting rights-based approaches to conservation that bring justice for indigenous peoples and local communities, while enabling biodiversity conservation and climate action. […]

“The future of our planet lies in indigenous ways of living on the Earth, as a global community, we have lost our way; we forgot what it means to have a relationship with the land.”

The coming explosion of light electric vehicles

Very good overview of the light electric vehicles field, including a lay of the land and some of the opportunities. One detail which drew my attention, referring to different roads by speed and width, not by the original / common use. So a bike lane is instead a mid-width 10-30kph lane. Doesn’t roll off the tongue but emphasizes that multiple vehicles types could use it.

Bike lanes cost 10% the cost of a car lane and return a higher throughput of people. In London, they found that protected bike lanes yielded 5x the throughput of a traditional road. […]

E-bikes are now 1 in 3 new bikes sold in Germany, 1 in 2 in Holland, and are growing across the rest of Europe and the US. E-bikes allow for multiple new forms including delivery vehicles and child carriers.

Related: Horace Dediu’s The Micromobility Manifesto.


If true, this could be one of the greatest discoveries in history

Avi Loeb, chairman of Harvard University’s astronomy department, with some pretty bold ideas on whether Oumuamua is an alien artifact. I liked the article for that side but also for his thoughts on science, tenure, challenging the status quo in ideas, and being “ready to find exceptional things.” (If you get the paywall, Google the title.)

Unfortunately, most scientists achieve tenure – and go on tending to their image. As children we ask ourselves about the world, we allow ourselves to err. Ego doesn’t play a part. We learn about the world with innocence and honesty. As a scientist, you’re supposed to enjoy the privilege of being able to continue your childhood. Not to worry about the ego, but about uncovering the truth. Especially after you get tenure. […]

“If you average the velocities of all the stars in the region,” Loeb explains, “you get a system that’s called the ‘local standard of rest.’ Oumuamua was at rest relative to that system. It didn’t come to us. It waited in place, like a buoy on the surface of the ocean, until the ‘ship’ of the solar system ran into it. To make things clear, only one of 500 stars in the system is as much at rest as Oumuamua.” […]

“If you’re not ready to find exceptional things, you won’t discover them. Of course, every argument needs to be based on evidence, but if the evidence points to an anomaly, we need to talk about an anomaly. Who cares if this anomaly appeared or did not appear in science-fiction books? I don’t even like science fiction.” [?] […]

Update: Last week I linked to an architecture thread. Evan Forman kindly replied with this article at Metropolis Magazine: Rise of the Alt-Arch. It also seems that the term “Gnon” is problematic so although the thread is still mostly sound, do consider this additional context. (Thanks Evan!)

What could be called the “alt-arch,” the meme-strewn corner of the Internet devoted to the far right’s fetish for the castellated, the timber-thatched, the Baroque, the architecture of authority.