Newsletter No.284 — Oct 22, 2023

An Ode to Living on the Grid ⊗ Why Can’t Our Tech Billionaires Learn Anything New? ⊗ A Case for the Polycrisis, Explained

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Also this week → Dan Hill on Strategic Design ⊗ What if everything turns out OK? ⊗ Regenerative Futures ⊗ Deepfakes of Chinese influencers are livestreaming 24/7

An ode to living on the grid

Hillary Predko interviewing Deb Chachra on Scope of work is what I’d call a perfect trifecta of excellence. Deb’s How Infrastructure Works was released in North America just a few days ago and here we get a glimpse into it, as well as the thought processes and interests behind it.

They discuss the interplay between technical and social factors in infrastructural systems, where Chachra emphasizes the importance of understanding infrastructure as the way we take care of each other on a planetary scale, as well as considering the uneven distribution of benefits and harms in infrastructure systems. They also talk about seeing collective infrastructures through the lens of network effects, and about the hidden privilege of working infrastructure and how it underpins what is possible in a society. Finally, Chachra advocates for collective investment in infrastructure and emphasizes the need for resilience and reversibility in building better infrastructure to cope with the climate crisis and the required energy transition.

Looking at the ultrastructure exposes how benefits exponentially accrue to the people who already have power. One group might benefit and continue to benefit, but other groups may actually be bearing the harms of the system. All infrastructure systems have both benefits and harms but they are unevenly distributed. […]

That's the house of technology: We all live in this world, whether you get the full-stack infrastructure of the global north, or whether you've never had access to any of these systems, you are still part of the same systems. We are all connected through things like carbon dioxide and supply chains, no matter where you are – we're all part of a single system. […]

I described these problems as a Gordian knot – the resilience piece, the equity piece, the colonialism piece, the climate change piece, and the pollution piece – these are all one giant Gordian knot.

More → Deb Chachra interviewed by Brian Sholis on the Frontier Magazine podcast.

Why can’t our tech billionaires learn anything new?

I had no plan to read Marc Andreessen’s newest manifesto, bleh. Then a friend posted some piss-takes about it and I considered reading. Then thankfully some smart people read it in my place and shared their critiques. One of these is by Dave Karpf who happens to have re-read all of WIRED magazine recently and is able to frame Andreessen’s screed within that history and the California Ideology.

Basically, Marc and his ilk, who are amongst the richest, most powerful people on the planet, who lead or influence the most valuable companies around, who now have a say in most aspects of our lives, that Marc, believes his dreams of a shiny limitless future are being curtailed by critiques (he calls them “ennemies”) such as advocates for “sustainable development goals,” “social responsibility,” “stakeholder capitalism,” “Precautionary Principle,” “trust and safety,” “tech ethics,” and “risk management.” You can’t make that stuff up. Poor little Marc is afraid of people asking questions.

Karpf dives into a lot more details in this ‘thinking,’ how it’s based in flawed views of history and the markets, as well as a propensity for quoting fascists. He then fleshes out his counter proposal for techno-pragmatism, arguing that “It is a good thing that, after 30 years, we have grown a few critical calluses and no longer reflexively cheer every announcement from the tech barons. It is a good thing that people are questioning the childlike assumptions of the financial services industry.” We need more allies in asking the big questions and pushing back against unbridled market views.

What makes Andreessen’s 90’s retread so odd is the way he frames it as a challenge to the status quo. Technological optimism has been the dominant paradigm throughout my adult life. We have spent decades clapping for Andreessen and his buddies. We have put them on magazine covers. We stopped regulating tech monopolies. We cut taxes for the wealthy. We trusted that they had some keen insight into what the oncoming future would look like. We assumed that the tech barons ultimately had our best interests at heart. […]

The most powerful people in the world (people like Andreessen!) are optimists. And therein lies the problem: Look around. Their optimism has not helped matters much. The sort of technological optimism that Andreessen is asking for is a shield. He is insisting that we judge the tech barons based on their lofty ambitions, instead of their track records. […]

It follows that one way we could turn the proverbial technology dial up to eleven is by massively increasing our public subsidies for scientific research. Change our tax policies so they stop favoring the billionaire class. Reduce income inequality and invest those tax receipts in massive challenge-grants and/or prizes. Quintuple the size of the NSF!

More → Marc Andreessen is a Techno-Extremist, by René Walter.

A case for the polycrisis, explained

The concept of a "polycrisis" has gained attention as the world faces a multitude of challenges such as the pandemic, climate change, and rising authoritarianism. Critics argue that this term is just a buzzword and that history is simply repeating itself. But no, it wasn’t like this before, unless by ‘before’ you mean 20 years ago, things have changed (i.e. scaled up) massively in the last one to two hundred years. Four key measures highlight this unprecedented transformation in humanity’s circumstances: total human energy consumption, Earth’s energy balance (warming atmosphere), the human population’s total biomass, and the connectivity of the human population. These changes are generating today’s polycrisis, and their interactions are causing cascading failures.

Two somewhat unusual angles in this piece; talking about global warming as an energy imbalance, where way more energy (heat) is kept within the atmosphere than at any time in the past, in completely different balance with the solar energy that comes in. Second, the standardisation of so many human systems, making the whole a lot more brittle. “Largely genetically identical biomass,” same agriculture, same transportation, same supply chains, same software, all interconnected across the globe at high speed.

We’ve moved so far and so fast outside our species’ previous experience that many elites don’t have the cognitive frame to grasp our situation, even were they inclined to do so. […]

It turns out that the field-of-corn analogy also applies to our world’s financial systems, much of our shared technological and manufacturing infrastructure, and many of our food systems, because these systems are not only highly connected but also increasingly homogeneous. […]

The thing we must do most urgently is gain a better understanding of the polycrisis’s underlying mechanisms. Why are so many of the world’s critical systems tipping into negative territory simultaneously?

§ Dan Hill on Strategic Design. An excellent talk at the Melbourne School of Design, where he does a great job of providing an overview of strategic design. He also talks about designers in public vs private practice, something that needs to be rebalanced and is a valid and important point for various other disciplines.

§ What if everything turns out OK? The power of imagining a better future. “You should see it too, he says. Smell it. Hear it. There are children playing in the street again. Deafening dawn choruses. Cycle lanes chocka with rush-hour traffic. Indie shops galore. Restaurants spilling onto streets. No homelessness. Oodles of civic pride. Crystal-clean rivers rewilded by beavers. Community orchards. Pollen on the breeze. No fumes, no smog, just fresh air.”

Futures, foresights,
forecasts & fabulations

Into our centaur future
I’m active in RADAR’s Discord community, where an excellent team is currently working on Centaur Futures and are holding en event around the topic. “Discover the future of human and machine ft. guest speakers like Rob Hopkins and Ari Melenciano. Join the RADAR community for two interactive online sessions in November.” Find out more & book tickets here. Use code SENTIERS10 for 10% off.

Regenerative Futures: Eight principles for thinking and practice
“Distils this research into eight guiding principles that provide a framework for transformation whilst also recognising that regenerative futures are context specific and unique to place.”

Education in 2050
“We've compiled a speculative look at the next 30 years of education, grounded in the results of our 2023 Future of Education Report.”

Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation

Deepfakes of Chinese influencers are livestreaming 24/7
“These streamers are not real: they are AI-generated clones of the real streamers. As technologies that create realistic avatars, voices, and movements get more sophisticated and affordable, the popularity of these deepfakes has exploded across China’s e-commerce streaming platforms.”

Adobe created a symbol to encourage tagging AI-generated content
“Adobe and other companies have established a symbol that can be attached to content alongside metadata, establishing its provenance, including whether it was made with AI tools.” I am unconvinced.

How people create and destroy value with generative AI
A study conducted by BCG found that using generative AI for creative product innovation improved performance by 40% compared to a control group, while using it for business problem-solving resulted in a 23% decrease in performance.