WALD by Michael Lange

Left alone, together ⊗ The new frontier of belonging ⊗ Can speculative fiction teach us anything in a world this crazy? — No.172

This week → Left alone, together ⊗ The new frontier of belonging ⊗ Can speculative fiction teach us anything in a world this crazy? ⊗ The tragedy of the commons is a false and dangerous myth

A year ago → The most clicked article in issue No.125 was Why I am not a maker by Deb Chachra.

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

left alone, together

Sometimes you find an article or blog post you like so much, you have to wonder “how the did I not already know about her/him?” This post by jenny (phire) zhang was such a moment. Really, really great piece on privacy needing to go from something we think of as the purview of the individual, to seeing it as a common good, something that we need to think of together, because the scale of the systems within which we operate now makes it impossible for individuals to completely understand, never mind enforce, their own agency and preferences. Superbly explained starting from the transformation of privacy with the arrival of networked computing, how social pressure affects decisions, those decisions through time, and recycling and pandemic masks as useful parallels.

The impossibility of this burden to individually safeguard our data often reminds me of recycling. Because yes, there’s absolutely digital safety practices to lower our risk of exposure, but they don’t address the core issue that there’s too much data, too many data brokers, too many transactions hidden from the user’s view. […]

[I]f you only have the right to privacy when you’re hypervigilant about defending it, you never really had that right to begin with. Instead, at a very minimum the question should be: why does Google deserve to see your email? […]

We also know that while public goods often have a free rider problem, people are actually pretty willing to act for the collective good if they know that others will, too. There’s many examples around the world of communities banding together to collectively govern a shared resource, like forestry, grazing grounds, and wells. The same principle can also be used in data governance, using systems like data trusts or a data commons. […]

Nothing about how technology shows up in our lives is predetermined; these are all policy choices.

The new frontier of belonging

Let me prologue this one with a mention that if, like me, you have strong doubts about blockchains, the last part needs to be approached with an open mind, but the framing is intriguing, independent of current energy worries.

Tina He at Fakepixels considers cities, how we relate to them as citizens or tourists, and how these physical places have been replaced or added upon by digital spaces. How some parts of cities, or communities within, can form a dislocated whole across multiple geographies, for example when you recognize the places and people as “the same” even though you’ve just gone from Montréal to Berlin. Not a uniform sameness, various shared circles across distances.

However, the virtual places that enhance or sometimes replace the physical ones, are almost always situated on platforms, not owned by its citizens who are also extracted from and surveilled. So then, “without these platforms, can we still find our path to one another?” This is where the author switches to the DAO (Distributed Autonomous Organizations) and the possibilities of co-owned, blockchain-based, self-determined orgs which could replace today’s platform-owned “places.”

If not for energy, pollution, and common dodgyness of crypto, I’d be enthused at this vision. As it is, I’m intrigued and encourage you to have a read. He points at something that’s needed, but will it be built on top of a chain?

Nation states impose borders, stories erode them. Institutions design boundaries, human bondage destroy them. The vivacity of West Village, New York mirrors that of Marais, Paris. The unapologetically colored hairs of youth in Shibuya, Tokyo is reminiscent of those found in underground bars in Sanlitun, Beijing. It’s through the diversity of social fabric and creative activities that a city becomes a symbol, a myth, an idea that can take on a life of its own and permeates the collective psyche through the process of mimesis. […]

If digital nativism becomes the new residential state of the Information Age, how do we build places that foster creativity, reciprocity, and freedom and not be concerned by the invisible hand of an omnipresent ruler? How do we build places that are understanding of our increasingly fluid identities and intolerant of malice? […]

For the past years, the outsized narrative of DAO as an alternative to venture capital dims the light of its much more profound, and much more interesting potential — a fluid, programmable, modular social network that is by design global, transparent, and collaborative.

Can speculative fiction teach us anything in a world this crazy?

On a completely different beat, Danny Crichton interviewing Eliot Peper on the pertinence of speculative fiction as we live through a very strange reality. Great answers from Eliot, I especially liked the jazz analogy (highlighted below), and the general tone that made me wonder “what is reality anyway,” as we interpret the past and present, and imagine futures.

As a writer of speculative fiction, I’m an enthusiastic reader of history. And in reading about the past to slake my curiosity and imagine possible futures, I’ve learned that the present is exceedingly contingent, fascinating, and fleeting. For me, speculative fiction is less about prediction than it is about riffing on how the world is changing like a jazz musician might improvise over a standard. […]

Imagined worlds are an integral part of the real world as we experience it, layering meaning and possibility onto actual events. […]

We are all interpreting reality for each other all the time, transforming it in the process. The increasing density and intensity of that process is the result of a growing population that is knitting itself together ever more tightly along ever more dimensions.

The tragedy of the commons is a false and dangerous myth

Great essay by Michelle Nijhuis at Aeon on the false concept of the tragedy of the commons, and on the oft overlooked yet strongly researched work of Elinor Ostrom which states the opposite. Commons have existed and been perfectly well managed by communities around the world for centuries, they have a number of shared rules, and are still today a solution and source of empowerment. Nijhuis then goes into quite a bit of detail on various projects in Namibia, and closes on something gaining traction around the world: indigenous populations can maintain ecosystems better than most while still living and making a living as they occupy those territories.

Over the next several decades, as a professor at Indiana University Bloomington, she studied collaborative management systems developed by cattle herders in Switzerland, forest dwellers in Japan, and irrigators in the Philippines. These communities had found ways of both preserving a shared resource – pasture, trees, water – and providing their members with a living. […]

The features of successful systems, Ostrom and her colleagues found, include clear boundaries (the ‘community’ doing the managing must be well-defined); reliable monitoring of the shared resource; a reasonable balance of costs and benefits for participants; a predictable process for the fast and fair resolution of conflicts; an escalating series of punishments for cheaters; and good relationships between the community and other layers of authority, from household heads to international institutions. […]

Ostrom insisted that complexity was as important to social science as it was to ecology, and that institutional diversity needed to be protected along with biological diversity. […]

Community-based conservation can’t solve everything, and it doesn’t always succeed in protecting the commons. In many cases, national governments don’t recognise the longstanding land claims of Indigenous and other rural communities, creating uncertainty that interferes with community efforts to manage for the long term.


  • “The total complexity of a system is a constant. If you make a user’s interaction with a system simpler, the complexity behind the scenes increases.” Of course someone has already coined a law about this.
  • 🚙 💥 Superb work by Bartosz Ciechanowski, with lots of animations, showing multiple aspects of the internal combustion engine. “The invention of the internal combustion engine in the 19th century has revolutionized transportation over land, water, and air. Despite their omnipresence in modern day, the operation of an engine may be cryptic. Over the course of this article I’d like to explain the functionality of all the basic engine parts shown in the demonstration below. You can drag it around to see it from other angles”
  • 🇮🇹 🤯 How Filippo Brunelleschi, untrained in architecture or engineering, built the world’s largest dome at the dawn of the renaissance. “[S]till the largest masonry dome in the world, has yet to quite yield all of its secrets: “There is still some mystery as to how all of the components of the dome connect with each other,” as Wildman puts it, thanks to Brunelleschi’s vigilance about concealing the nature of his techniques throughout the project.”
  • 🌱 ⏳ How One of the World’s Oldest Science Experiments Comes Up From the Dirt. “[A] multicentury attempt to figure out how long seeds can lie dormant in the soil without losing their ability to germinate. Every 20 years, the experiment’s caretakers creep out to a secret location under cover of night, dig up a bottle, scatter its seeds over a tray of sterile soil and see which ones grow. It’s one of the world’s longest-running experiments, having already gone on for 142 years. And the botanists in East Lansing hope that it will last for at least another 80.”
  • 🇩🇪 🌳 ‘Historic’ German ruling says climate goals not tough enough. “In a groundbreaking ruling, the judges of the Karlsruhe court, Germany’s highest, said the government now had until the end of next year to improve its Climate Protection Act, passed in 2019, and to ensure it met 2030 greenhouse gas reduction goals more immediately.”
  • 🕵🏼 💩 Great expriment by Signal. The Instagram ads Facebook won’t show you. “We created a multi-variant targeted ad designed to show you the personal data that Facebook collects about you and sells access to. The ad would simply display some of the information collected about the viewer which the advertising platform uses. Facebook was not into that idea.”
  • 📚 Short story by Tim Maughan at MIT Technology Review. Unpaired
  • 👽 🎥 Tesla updating software of a fleet in parking lot looks like the aliens are coming.

Header image: WALD by Michael Lange.