Newsletter No.280 — Sep 24, 2023

Liberty Machines and Dark Tech ⊗ Tomorrow’s Democracy Is Open Source ⊗ The Living Things that Feast on Plastic

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Also this week → How to Build a Future-Ready Organization Through Leadership ⊗ The world isn’t ready for the next decade of AI

Over at Co-authored, they asked their readers “what are you most curious about right now?” I’d love to read your thoughts on exactly the same question, hit reply and share your current curiosities!

Liberty machines and dark tech

Cybersyn and cybernetics are a bit like Luddites, I really should just read a couple of books instead of reading and sharing so many articles about it ;). Evgeny Morozov did more than read a few books, he plowed through the whole history and context of Cybersyn and the Allende government and produced a whole podcast series on the topic, The Santiago Boys. The link above is to an interview with Morozov at Dissent magazine.

Morozov places this history against the bigger backdrop of the Allende government: its aspirations, its internal tensions, its travails, and its enemies. This context gives us a richer account of what has sometimes become a simple story about a utopian, futuristic, and computerized system of economic planning and management. It sheds new light on what Cybersyn teaches us about aspirations to build socialism in the twenty-first century.

It’s a fascinating interview and period with a lot of details and context I wasn’t aware of, the podcast must be a gold mine. The whole project in Chile reads almost like fiction and the interview ends with something rather like an alternate history by Morozov where he asks a number of what ifs that are probably too rose-tinted but sure would have been great to see happen.

One of the points Morozov brings is the question, even back then, of why Allende didn’t use the concepts and methods of cybernetics to understand and organise people at a political level, instead of ‘just’ for developing industries. If you squint a certain way, you might consider the next piece as akin to doing that, cybernetics at the level of governance.

Soon, it became clear that feedback-powered systems were present everywhere: in society, in the economy, in technology, in our bodies. The insight that these seemingly disparate systems work in similar ways, once analyzed through concepts like feedback and homeostasis, was at the heart of cybernetics. […]

But Beer saw that the world was becoming increasingly complex; the simplicity and rationality that is usually prized by socialists was neither possible nor desirable. For Beer, complexity was not something to be eliminated; it was something to be embraced and managed. Thus, instead of using computers to streamline the distribution of goods and services, you can use them to learn how to live with more complexity without letting it overwhelm your administrative system. […]

Cybersyn emerged in that context, with economists and engineers pushing for reclaiming chunks of the economy and decision-making from the market and trying to manage them for the purpose of building national industries and national infrastructures, as a way to promote national development. […]

They had an agenda, which was rolling against the logic of the market; rolling against the idea that you should just specialize in wine or shrimp because you are a country that doesn’t have industry and you have good weather and you have an ocean. You should actually build things to move up the industrialization ladder.

Tomorrow’s democracy is open source

A hard piece to frame. There are the ideas themselves, but also the needle it’s trying to thread which is of presenting a positive vision of technology in government, while mentioning the caveats of tech but without diving into them. Somehow the balance is not quite right and I had to rely on my positive opinion of Cerveny and Gilman to see the vision as plausible instead of naive. Your mileage may vary.

I’m mentioning this because it’s probably a balance I don’t pay attention to often enough. Vision without critique, critique without vision, or some hybrid in between. The merit of this piece is that it’s a bold vision that acknowledges the risks and perils, even if they aren’t explained here.

To the topic itself, Cerveny (co-Founder of the Foundation for Public Code) and NOEMA’s Gilman explain how technology could enhance democracy and civic participation through a system where every constituent could express their political opinions on every public policy topic, continuously, based on good information. They suggest that software code can enable new forms of participation in the creation of legal code. One project Cerveny is working on is the Open Insight platform, which aggregates and makes sense of the history and future of decisions that a legislative body in a municipality has made or will make, creating a new type of continuous engagement experience for constituents.

Reading the whole thing you might go back and forth between ‘this is great’ and ‘sooo many issues could arise,’ but the main thesis, as I see it, is important; “It is next to inevitable that something like this will eventually be built, but the choice, societally, is whether it be built and owned by a private vendor whose incentives will likely be more profit-driven and proprietary in nature, or whether it is ultimately owned by all of us.” Which is why Cerveny is working on Public Code and the Standard for Public Code.

Highlights → I skipped over a lot of aspects of these projects, instead of picking just a few of my highlights, you can have a look at all of them here.

The living things that feast on plastic

Some weeks feel more hopeful than others and sometimes research like this seems to open a window to new solutions, like finding enzymes in nature that can break down some plastics, engineering even more potent versions (sometimes with AI), and eventually scaling these at industrial levels to properly deconstruct plastics and reuse their base components. The article covers the process and presents a few large-scale projects planned for the next couple of years.

Biological recycling could put a dent in the plastics problem. It involves using enzymes — the workhorses of biochemistry that speed up reactions — to break down plastic polymers into their subunits, called monomers. These monomers can then be used to make new plastics. […]

A large-scale analysis of more than 200 million genes found in free-floating DNA in environments including the oceans, Arctic tundra topsoil, savannas and various forests turned up 30,000 different enzymes with plastic-degrading potential, a team reported in 2021.

Foundry I just finished reading a pre-release copy of Eliot Peper’s Foundry, and it’s another fun read by Peper, this one mixing CPU fabbing and spying. As with his other books, a lot of the topics will be familiar to my readers. Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading on and off a book of interviews with Willliam Gibson. I noticed this part and it resonated multiple times as I was reading Foundry; “I’ve always felt that what I do owes a lot to Burroughs’ cut-up technique. But the way I do it is different in that I see the text often as an active assemblage of found bits, but whereas he would sort of glue them down and let the typesetter approximate that, I airbrushed it with word-processor technology, and sort of smoothed all the bits in so you can’t see the seams.” Eliot does the same thing, weaving in travel, impressions of Taiwan, coffee nerds, geopolitics, and Cuban diaspora along his story. Recommended.

Futures, foresights,
forecasts & fabulations

Future Cultures: How to Build a Future-Ready Organization Through Leadership
I really enjoyed Scott Smith’s first book, written with Madeline Ashby, this one with Susan Cox-Smith focuses on organisations and “explores how to engage everyone in creating new futures, from improving skills of sensing and anticipation to changing the way leaders consider risk and uncertainty. It also provides practical advice on how organizations can rewire their cultures to be better prepared for the future.”

The thing about trend forecasting
“Unpacking the art of trend forecasting, the reporting of trends, and the translation of ideas from concept to reality, niche to mass, and present to future in fashion retail.” I might actually come back and feature this one but I haven’t read the whole thing yet.

The future as imagined
“This raises a question: how does the past generate a future? The human answer to this is embedded in ideologies. We arrive at a set of values, and engage in social arrangements that reflect those values.”

Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation

The world isn’t ready for the next decade of AI
This one has been in the pile of ‘potential features’ but I haven’t had the occasion for the podcast or the time for the transcript (linked above), maybe you’ll have a go before I do. “Mustafa Suleyman, cofounder of DeepMind and Inflection AI, talks about how AI and other technologies will take over everything—and possibly threaten the very structure of the nation-state.”

Why Silicon Valley AI prophecies just feel like repackaged religion
“The more you listen to Silicon Valley’s discourse around AI, the more you hear echoes of religion. That’s because a lot of the excitement about building a superintelligent machine comes down to recycled religious ideas. Most secular technologists who are building AI just don’t recognize that.”

Historica Technology
Over the last couple of weeks I shared two articles linking AI and history, a member of the team at Historica reached out to point out their project. Intriguing. “Historica is working to employ AI to process and manage vast amounts of data from various scientific fields. We are sharing our technological diary about our experience with using AI to create a digital map of human history.”


  • 🤩 📊 🌏 How do we compare? “This interactive dashboard encourages users to focus on one area – a country, region, or income level – and see how it compares to its counterparts across a wide range of metrics. It provides multiple ways to interact and explore – the user can search for a country of interest, use the shuffle button to randomly select a focus, or change the selection via tooltips.”
  • 😍 ⛪️ 🚶🏼 🚲 🇪🇸 This Spanish city has been restricting cars for 24 years. Here’s what we can learn from it. “Pontevedra, Spain, offers some of the best evidence available about what happens when a city is reconfigured to accommodate people, rather than cars.”
  • 🤯 📚 The Ultimate Book List 2023 by the DO Lectures community. “The books we re-read are few. And the books we gift are even fewer. Therefore, a list of gifted books is the purest signal of something remarkable. So, with that said, we asked our community a simple question: ‘Which book have you given as a gift in 2023?’ This list was built from all of their replies.”
  • 🤩 ☀️ ⭐️ 📸 Some Stunning Shots From the Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2023 Competition. Results of the competition from The Royal Observatory Greenwich in London with nebulas, close-ups of the sun, galaxies, etc.
  • 📚 Antique Book Patterns. “From the Bergen Public Library Norway, a collection of antique book patterns from front or end papers. The books in question are from 1890-1930.”