Land ⊗ Sudden change ⊗ Defund the police, not with surveillance tech — No.132

This week → A new land contract ⊗ The slow road to sudden change ⊗ Defund the police, but don’t replace it with surveillance tech ⊗ The pandemic is making the suburbs even more appealing ⊗ Capitalism is destroying ‘safe operating space’ for humanity

A year ago → The Hidden Costs of Automated Thinking.

A New Land Contract

Alastair Parvin with a very very intriguing write-up of a talk he gave at Civic Square’s ‘Department of Dreams’ event. He makes an eloquent case against how land is bought and sold, how landlords and rents are a vestige of William the Conqueror’s rule and play an immense role in the systemic crises and structural weaknesses we are currently living through. “Social resilience, health, climate, economy, democracy, are complex, and intertwined. But here’s the thing. Every single one of them has its roots in that land system.” Parvin gives us the ideal way the land system could work, followed by some smaller and much more plausible measures.

Last week I mentioned in passing this piece by Jason Hickel; Basic income isn’t just a nice idea. It’s a birthright. The two point roughly the same way; if we returned much of the planet and resources to the commons, it would completely change where money goes, what is valued how, what can get funded, etc. Put lands back in the commons and change ownership and rent; huge game changer for inequality and access to property. Put air, water, precious metals, etc. and charge proper fees for their exploitation; huge game changer again for inequality, climate change, mass extinction, etc.

Granted, a complete return to either one is very much hypothetical and would be, literally, a revolution. But at the very least realizing that ownership, inheritance, exploitation, and rent seeking are “just” systemic choices made in the past and not “natural laws” provides a useful re-framing when thinking about pretty much all issues. We can have the resources to live differently and we can do so within planetary limits. (You might also think of this while reading the capitalism piece further down.)

[A]ctually, it’s not really a Land crisis, it’s a Land system. It’s the rules of the game, hard-coded into the firmware of our society and economy. […]

And over time that piece of paper became a tradable asset, as well as an inheritable one: so you can literally buy the right to extract taxes from people. And it’s amazing to me that we don’t find that more weird than we do — it’s right there hidden in plain sight in the language we use: landlord. […]

[Land taxation rights] globally is around £280tn. To put that in perspective, all the gold in the world is only worth about £7tn, and all the data held by all the silicon valley companies is only worth around £3tn. […]

Land monopoly is eating our economy, our society, our environment, our climate and our democracy, and yet to many it is still invisible. […]

If we really want to prevent climate collapse, renew our society and build a successful, prosperous market economy, we will need to fix this obsolete right of extraction that is coded into the foundations of our society, this dysfunction that is coded into the foundations of our economy, this injustice that is coded into the foundations of our democracy.

The Slow Road to Sudden Change

Similarly to various artists or startups who often say that “it takes ten years to be an overnight success,” Rebecca Solnit explains how social change is also something that accrues over time, organization prepare, people change, moods and habits evolve, so that when the moment comes, like our current Black Lives Matter shift, things can move faster (lets hope) than they could have a few years prior.

A great public change is the ratification of innumerable small private changes; the bonfire is a pile of these small changes lit by some unforeseen event. […]

Time accelerates, things change faster than anyone expected, water clear as glass becomes churning whitewater, what was thought to be impossible or the work of years is accomplished in a flash. […]

The best ideas that change the world emerge from the shadows and the margins; they are at first ignored, then regarded with alarm or disdain by many outside those zones, and they work their way inward. When they are a consensus idea, that’s the end of the insurrection, or the waterfall, and politicians are smoothing things over and people have accepted the idea that they at first resisted, whether it’s the abolition of slavery or the right to marriage equality. […]

The consequences of this uprising are too many to count. The case that the police bring danger, escalation, and expense to many situations rather than peace and resolution is now far more widely accepted. Now it must be defended and implemented, and protected from both backlash and that dreary dragging resistance to change that makes the river sluggish.

Defund the Police, but Don’t Replace It With Surveillance Tech

Tim Maughan is pretty much perfectly positioned at the intersection of tech, dislike of authority, awareness of inequalities, and infrastucture to be writing this piece. Here he scratches below the surface of Camden New Jersey’s oft-cited de-funding and reorganization of their police force, to show that they also ended up adding quite a bit of surveillance tech and outsourcing part of the watching to “civilians.” He also expands to IBM, Microsoft, and Amazon’s statements about not selling face recognition to police; will they sell to third-party civilian contractors?

They don’t mention surveillance systems: 121 cameras that monitor the entire city; 35 ShotSpotter microphones to detect gunshots; automated scanners that read license plates; and SkyPatrol, a mobile observation post that can scan six square blocks with thermal-imaging equipment. […]

Think of [predictive policing technologies] as rookie cops, waiting to be taught how to spot crime, and to decide where to patrol. By providing them with historical police data, you’ve just handed the job of teaching them over to the same old racist cops you’re meant to be replacing. Training these kinds of A.I. systems based on the movements and arrests of existing police officers is, quite literally, training them to follow their same bad habits and discriminatory tactics. […]

How do we define policing in 2020? Is it merely officers in uniform on our streets? Or do we include the surrounding infrastructures and suppliers — the civilian analysts, the predictive algorithms, the networked cameras we stick on our front doors?

The Pandemic is Making the Suburbs Even More Appealing

My reckon is that we are likely giving too much weight to the pandemic in regards to the short and medium term changes to housing, and people moving to different cities / suburbs / the country. Regardless, some interesting thoughts here on the history of suburbs, public opinion about them, and potential changes to urban and suburban home architecture.

Sidenote: Bogost only alludes to it but the overlap of multi-generational homes, pandemic lessons, and work from home will be an interesting one to keep an eye on.

Along with federally backed mortgages and mortgage-interest deductions, the suburban lifestyle amounts to an enormous government subsidy. […]

A new gadget or appliance (and space to house it) produced an even greater sense of self-sufficiency—and more reason to seek out more space, and more gadgets. Suburban houses keep growing in part because they internalize more and more public amenities. […]

The spring lockdowns also proved that working from home while facilitating children’s remote schoolwork is extremely challenging. Intergenerational households offer more hands and eyes to watch the kids or manage mealtimes made incompatible by overlapping schedules. […]

Ultimately, affluence facilitates many of the benefits suburbia offers during the pandemic—it’s the difference between being able to benefit from Instacart delivery thanks to a work-at-home office job and working that grocery-delivery job yourself.

Capitalism is destroying ‘safe operating space’ for humanity, warn scientists

Overview of a “landmark study in the journal Nature Communications, ‘Scientists’ warning on affluence’.” Like the richest countries, the richest people have an outsized effect on overconsumption and environmental impact, making it impossible for humanity to remain in its “safe operating space.” (Doughnut economy klaxon!) But the article, and hopefully the paper I have yet to read, also shows that it’s not personal. I.e. it’s not these specific rich people but the broken system of incentives and privilege which enables the insane level of consumption-caused destruction. Not to excuse the current rich, but to make clear that the system is the setting and that the solutions need to be there, not doing an intervention with Jeff Bezos.

The most fundamental driver of environmental destruction is the overconsumption of the super-rich. […]

The paper notes that the richest 10 percent of people are responsible for up to 43 percent of destructive global environmental impacts. […]

Remaining within these boundaries is essential to maintain what scientists describe as a “safe operating space” for human civilization. If those key ecosystems are disrupted, that “safe operating space” will begin to erode. […]

“Not only can a sufficient decoupling of environmental and detrimental social impacts from economic growth not be achieved by technological innovation alone, but also the profit-driven mechanism of prevailing economic systems prevents the necessary reduction of impacts and resource utilisation per se.”


  • ? PRIMER 2020 on Vimeo. “These are a series of interviews conducted with workshop facilitators and keynotes about their talks/workshop and practice. The conference span[ned] six days sharing diverse perspectives, imagining alternative paths, and challenging ourselves to enable more equitable futures through the further democratization of the tools for building them.”
  • ? ?? Vast neolithic circle of deep shafts found near Stonehenge. “The size of the shafts and circuit surrounding Durrington Walls is currently unique. It demonstrates the significance of Durrington Walls Henge, the complexity of the monumental structures within the Stonehenge landscape, and the capacity and desire of Neolithic communities to record their cosmological belief systems in ways, and at a scale, that we had never previously anticipated.”
  • ? ?? Paris Is Plotting a Greener, Slower Beltway. “Parking spaces would be cut in half, and the city’s new temporary cycle lanes and pedestrian streets — introduced to help manage the coronavirus crisis — would be made permanent. …now proposing to slash speed limits on the Périphérique to a mere 50 k/ph”
  • ?? Cross-party group urges chancellor to consider four-day week for UK. “Work patterns have already been dramatically altered as a result of the pandemic and we believe the time is now right to explore putting a four-day, 30-hour working week (or any equivalent variation) front and centre – including protections for those on low incomes – as the country unites behind building back better out of this crisis.”
  • ? ? AI Snake Oil by the students in Design Investigations at the University of Applied Arts Vienna. “As Artificial Intelligence seeps into products and services, from retail to healthcare, we critically ask ourselves, are any of these claims of AI overblown? Is the hype and half-baked software often a new form of Snake Oil? On the other hand, AI Snake Oil offers a bridge between speculation, research, and end-use, allowing designers to freely come up with, and engage others with the possibilities of AI.”
  • ⭐️ ? Heck of a ? by Steven Sinofsky (formerly of Microsoft) on excellence in planning and execution at Apple. Amidst all the details, installing pre-release, and commentary (including my own) I want to take a moment to reflect on WWDC putting it in context of the past two decades. Quite simply, what we’re seeing is some of the most remarkable product engineering over time in history.
  • Coronavirus: Wildlife scientists examine the great ‘human pause’. “The UK-led team’s aim is to study what they have called the ‘anthropause’ – the global-scale, temporary slowdown in human activity, which is likely to have a profound impact on other species.”
  • Where Will We Pee When We’re Out in Our Half-Reopened States? “Sure, you can wash your hands, and little walled bathroom stalls are useful as a blockade for disease-carrying respiratory droplets. But they are small enclosed rooms with high-touch surfaces like flush handles, door locks, and knobs, and sink faucets. Standing at a potentially crowded row of sinks while everyone washes their hands for 20 seconds undoes the safety precautions of social distancing.”

Header image: Billy Huynh on Unsplash.