Just enough ⊗ Less normal ⊗ People are pretty decent ⊗ The history of the future ⊗ Sidewalk Labs — No.125

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

This week → Living with just enough ⊗ Life less normal ⊗ Brace yourself for the most dangerous idea yet: most people are pretty decent ⊗ The history of the future ⊗ Sidewalk Labs

A year ago → A new way to build tiny neural networks could create powerful AI on your phone.

Living with Just Enough

Not sure how historically accurate this is, but it seems to be a plausible interpretation. At the very least, most of the observations were true in other countries at various periods so even taken as an idealized period, there are still lessons for us.

TL;DR the resource-scarce, environmentally aware society and especially crafting of Japan’s Edo period gives us interesting lessons for finding our way amongst the crises.

The description of craftspeople as specialized in what they produced but diversified “vertically” in their understanding of all the steps and context of that product reminded me of Ursula Franklin’s description of holistic technologies in her lecture series compiled in the book The Real World of Technology. Or, for a quicker read, in Deb Chachra’s fantastic Why I Am Not a Maker (also here with Klint Finley and Sara M. Watson).

Found in Hillary Predko‘s excellent turn at The Prepared.

[T]he Edo period of Japan has a lot to teach us. We could in fact use it as a model of how to flip impending environmental collapse into sustainability, primarily by allowing a rich and insightful mindset rooted in centuries of experience and wisdom to guide our decisions. […]

But the culture as a whole was pervaded by a sense of time in which outcomes were measured in centuries, and in which it was nearly impossible to plan even simple tasks without a broader awareness of chains of consequences that would emerge from one’s actions, or of the origins, destinations, and connections among the people and things which supported human life like a vast web of interconnected spirit. […]

Though a very active national trade network existed, each of the dozens of fiefdoms into which the country was divided was encouraged to be as self-sufficient as possible. Each village in a fief was encouraged to do the same, as was each family in a village. […]

The importance of the cross-fertilization and innovation that emerges when most people in society are designers and practitioners of crafts is often overlooked. […]

I would like to suggest that we are on the threshold of a new aesthetic shift fed by an altered awareness of our dependence on the environment and the importance of healing and preserving it that will permanently alter our sense of beauty.

Life less normal

Looking at the “normal” in this period of crises, this time from the practice of Human–computer interaction (HCI) which “studies the design and use of computer technology.” How technoscientific systems and infrastructures, focused on measurement, automation, and optimization affect how these systems impact society, how practitioners in the field need to consider the broader impact of their work. More importantly and interestingly, how the “normal” situation / life / world is often not a good place to be for marginalized folx, and again, as has been a recurring theme in the last few issues, how these impacts and inequalities need to be put front and center when considering which “normal” will be built or restarted.

Speaking of normals, quick blurb here where Jacinda Ardern speaks of achieving a “safer normal”, “not a return to business as usual.”

For people often assigned to the margins—people of color, the homeless, the colonized, the disabled, the low-waged, the unemployed, the displaced, and so on—normalcy relies on long histories of prejudice and continued exploitation. For many millions, globally, “the normal” is a life in precarity that demands continued endurance. […]

Technoscientific systems and infrastructures that seek to monitor and optimize human behavior and productivity, or that manage the functioning and health of bodies, enforce an idea of normal that obscures the brutal realities and erases those at the margins, sometimes violently. […]

Everything from access to testing and ventilation equipment, to the machinery for “rebooting the economy,” to distributing state-backed welfare, need to be examined to understand how the sociotechnical, the sociopolitical, and healthcare are being entangled. And how these entanglements are amplifying already deeply set injustices and discrimination. […]

It should then be clear that the technologies we are preoccupied with in HCI—technologies that count, monitor, calculate, identify, etc., all across geographically dispersed networks of fiber and wireless communication channels—are implicated in a version of normal that is exploitative and injust. […]

We need to be imagining worlds that resist singular or monolithic ways of valuing life, that question the logics of extraction and transaction, and that make possible a multiplicity of ways of living together.

Brace yourself for the most dangerous idea yet: most people are pretty decent

Rutger Bregman (historian, author, utopian, caller-out of Davosians) has a new book coming out in a few weeks. To introduce his main thesis—that most people are pretty decent—he looks at the history and ideas of Peter Kropotkin as well as Huxley, Darwin, and social darwinism to reflect on why so many of us think people are egotistical jerks when really, people usually help each other out and are basically decent.

Kropotkin was far ahead of his time. He rejected both authoritarian communism and the iron cage of capitalism. He believed in the power of the individual, but equally that we can’t survive without each other. […]

Even today, reams of legislation are written from an assumption that most people are rotten. This assumption is constantly treated as biological fact, when nothing could be further from the truth. ‘Too many economists and politicians model society on the perpetual struggle they believe exists in nature, but which is a mere projection,’ observes biologist Frans de Waal. ‘What we need is a complete overhaul of assumptions about human nature.’ […]

Kropotkin knew that nature has its share of selfishness, struggle, and violence. But he also understood that the Social Darwinists were blind to something even bigger: mutual aid. Since his book, a tremendous body of scientific literature has emerged on altruism and kindness in humans and animals alike. […]

What would happen if we turned this around? What if schools, businesses, and governments assumed that most people are doing their best? What if we rallied round our tendency to trust and cooperate – a tendency with every bit as much of an evolutionary basis, over hundreds of millions of years?

The History of the Future

Audrey Watters always creates brilliant talks, long articles, and analysis even if, while justly calling out the blindly optimistic, she does (imho) tend to be overly pessimistic, assigning dastardly intent when the protagonists simply don’t know any better (also an issue of course, but less egregious). Here Watters looks at some of the reasons why she studies the history of the future, how scenarios made-up by futurists, even if they don’t come true, affect politicians and enterprises, orient decision-making, and influence the direction of the future we do get saddled with. Additionally, this kind of data-based, pseudo-scientific, corporate futurism forecloses “other ways of imagining the future — those based on emotion, care, refusal, resistance, love.” (Also covers RAND, game theory, and behavioral psychology.)

The future — as Macbeth figures out, I suppose — is a political problem. The history of the future is a study of political imagination and political will. […]

It doesn’t account for precursors that make acceptance of a new technology happen more smoothly — new technologies rarely appear out of nowhere. Nor does it address the political or social occurrences that might prompt or preclude technology adoption. […]

We have to think about, we have to talk about, we have to make strides toward an open future before the futurist-consultants come in with their predictive models and techno-solutionism and tell the bosses they have to sell off the world to save it. These futurists promise certainty. They promise inevitability. And with their models, no one bears responsibility. “It was the algorithm,” they shrug. […]

And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.

Bye Bye Smartypants

Under cover (excuse) of Covid-induced economic uncertainty, Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs have given up on their smart city project in Toronto and are packing their bags. Hooray! Thanks to all the activists and @blocksidewalk for raising hell and making this happen.


Header image: A multiple exposure picture of Tesla sitting next to his “magnifying transmitter” generating millions of volts.