Long shadow of the future ⊗ Food supply ⊗ Pandemic futures — No.130

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

This week → The long shadow of the future ⊗ The sickness in our food supply ⊗ Pandemic futures ⊗ Our cities only serve the wealthy. Coronavirus could change that ⊗ This is a global catastrophe that has come from within

A year ago → AI Can Thrive in Open Societies.

Five weeks ago I linked to The History of the Future by Audrey Watters and mentioned elsewhere that the type of futurists she writes about are not the same kind of practitioners I think about when I say futurists. The same comment would apply to Devon Powers’ piece in this issue. When I talk about futurists, I think of Changeist or a Genevieve Bell or a Ben Hammersley’. Not an R/GA, a sparks & honey, or SingularityU.

Basically I tend to follow, and value the ideas of, the individuals or smaller firms who think about the future because that’s what they do first, and then make a living from that practice. As opposed to larger agency(ish) firms who tack on a practice they call futurism which tends to be more prescriptive and generally point in a direction that happens to let them sell other agency capabilities.

I’m writing this in the intro because it frames a few pieces in the past and probably a few more to come who use the same word for something different, this way you’ll know how I use it. And, regardless of this “disclaimer,” Power’s piece is excellent and I didn’t want to flood the short text alongside it.

The Long Shadow Of The Future

I almost skimmed over this one, glad I didn’t because it’s excellent. An analysis of how Taiwan controlled the coronavirus, based on the three factors the authors identify. First is operational excellence. Not the technocrats, but actual technical experts who know how to get things done at scale, to turn a supply chain around quickly or ramp up an organization over a matter of days to start testing and tracking. The authors speculate that there might be a realignment of the types of jobs most valued, which parallels the realization by many of the importance of “unskilled work” and how essential it is. Second is the importance of socialized risk vs individualized risk, showing the benefits of data sharing in opposition to libertarian ideals and privacy advocacy fears. The third, taking a longer view of planning and risk management, is wrapped up in the conclusion which I’ll let you read but the second to last quote below is a good summary of that factor.

(The piece is at the newly re-branded, and launched in print NOEMA magazine which looks quite promising.)

The result is that Taiwan has recorded less than 450 cases and only seven deaths, despite the continued arrival of infected citizens returning home from overseas. Arguably no country has performed better, and this against long odds. […]

Taiwan’s success in combating COVID-19 resulted from a combination of strong, effective governmental action by a high-capacity state manned by operational experts, a willingness to prioritize collective risk and burden-sharing over hyper-individualism and a commitment to taking a long view of planning for potentially catastrophic risks. […]

Are there categories and situations where collective risk is unavoidably baked into reality and where trying to disaggregate that risk into individual micro-foundations is impossible? […]

The real challenge is not foresight itself but how to turn foresight into action — specifically, into operational readiness supported by competent operators. […]

[A]s Taiwan shows, achieving and maintaining operational competence, particularly in the face of problems of collective risk, is inseparable from the commitment to long-term planning. […]

What will matter going forward, as ever, is the capacity of political leadership to frame a long-term narrative and stick to it over time.

The Sickness in Our Food Supply

Michael Pollan on the brittleness (there’s that word again) of the American food supply chains—probably quite a few similarities elsewhere. One chain provides for consumers and the other for restaurants, both are way too centralized around a few firms and were pushed completely out of whack by the pandemic. It started when the Reagan administration (of course!) changed antitrust law and made it so that “if a proposed merger promised to lead to greater marketplace ‘efficiency’—the watchword—and wouldn’t harm the consumer, i.e., didn’t raise prices, it would be approved.” Since this is Pollan he, rightly, then goes into how those highly industrialized supply chains produce no actual food but the building blocks of processed food which leads to a horrible diet that’s bad for your health and also happens to feed right into some of the conditions making some people especially at risk of serious consequences from Covid-19.

The president and America’s meat eaters, not to mention its meat-plant workers, would never have found themselves in this predicament if not for the concentration of the meat industry, which has given us a supply chain so brittle that the closure of a single plant can cause havoc at every step, from farm to supermarket. […]

Small, diversified farmers who supply restaurants have had an easier time finding new markets; the popularity of community-supported agriculture (CSA) is taking off, as people who are cooking at home sign up for weekly boxes of produce from regional growers. […]

The advantages of local food systems have never been more obvious, and their rapid growth during the past two decades has at least partly insulated many communities from the shocks to the broader food economy. […]

In addition to protecting the men and women we depend on to feed us, it would also seek to reorganize our agricultural policies to promote health rather than mere production, by paying attention to the quality as well as the quantity of the calories it produces.

Pandemic Futures

Devon Power considers the kinds of futures sold by futurists (see my intro) before and after the pandemic and explains that “when significant conversations about the future do happen, it’s usually out of public view and seldom brings those impacted by innovations—consumers, citizens—to the table.” It’s something that’s been covered in a few articles I shared over the last couple of months but she goes into quite a bit more detail and gives examples of how promoted futures often forget various populations, and that the new futures adjusted for pandemics make the same mistakes. It’s time to stop repeating them.

In this post-pandemic landscape, the tangled priorities of “get back to normal” and “accelerate the future” are conspiring to foreclose possibility, erase struggle, and ensure a future that has failed to address the problems of the past. […]

Yet at a moment when a global pandemic is disproportionately killing black and immigrant communities, focusing on the fantastical futures enabled by opulence extends systemic inequality rather than addresses it. Besides, the “healthful” technologies being touted are often not widespread, not scalable, not practical, and not as useful as simpler, cheaper, and more democratic technologies, like masks or vaccinations. […]

Every new day we question each system we have known since birth and are obliged to consider their possible demise. […]

Futurist methods work for a simple reason: we have to be able to imagine how something might be before we can do it. Futures and trends can also use this moment to examine its own practices—the futures that are seen as moneymaking and the ones that aren’t—and diversify both its thinking and its ranks.

Our cities only serve the wealthy. Coronavirus could change that

Cities are unequal, and the impacts of Covid-19 have been unequal in the same ways, they need to learn the lessons of this crisis and rethink urban space to reduce inequality, stop catering to the wealthy, and be better prepared in the future.

These twin emergencies – novel coronavirus and racist state violence – have highlighted the brutality of contemporary urban inequality. […]

Urban space has been optimised for rent extraction, real estate speculation and gentrification. Governments have pursued private sector profitability and deferred to middle-class tastes, and have been lauded by urbanists for doing so – all while allowing the deterioration of social services and public institutions and the intensification of inequality. […]

[T]hey must become more egalitarian, more democratic, and more capable of meeting actual human needs. Urban development should focus on the provision of social welfare, health infrastructure, municipal services, decarbonised public transportation, real racial equality and guaranteed housing for all. […]

Some cities acted swiftly to house the homeless, halt evictions, adjust traffic patterns and provide necessary health care. The reaction to the pandemic shows that the structures sustaining the unequal city are movable – and can be altered faster than had been assumed.

This is a global catastrophe that has come from within

Interview with Bruno Latour reminding us that “the economy” is a narrow way of organizing life, explains some of his thinking around the framing of humanity’s “critical zone,” how it relates to Gaia, and the difference between rational scepticism, “doing your research,” and fake news.

It shows that we must not think of the personal and the collective as two distinct levels. The big climate questions can make individuals feel small and impotent. But the virus gives us a lesson. If you spread from one mouth to another, you can viralise the world very fast. That knowledge can re-empower us. […]

The pandemic has shown us the economy is a very narrow and limited way of organising life and deciding who is important and who is not important. If I could change one thing, it would be to get out of the system of production and instead build a political ecology. […]

It means we cannot just endlessly extract resources and discard our waste. In the critical zone, we must maintain what we have because it is finite, it’s local, it’s at risk and it’s the object of conflict.


  • ? ⭐️ Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey. Short story by Haruki Murakami at The New Yorker. ’Nuf said.
  • Re_Festival. This week, lots of interesting speakers. “Across 6 days, we invite you to explore multiple realities and futures together through a many and varied collection of talks, conversations, workshops and creative interventions of all kinds.”
  • ? How Google Docs became the social media of the resistance. “Shared Google Docs that anyone can view and anyone can edit, anonymously, have become a valuable tool for grassroots organizing during both the coronavirus pandemic and the police brutality protests sweeping the US. It’s not the first time.”
  • ? ?? A Poetic Journey Through Western China. “On my map, an asterisk marked this strange feature of the Kumtag Desert, three miles from Dunhuang. If you throw yourself down the dunes in that place, the air resonates — sometimes like the lowest note on a cello; sometimes like a crack of thunder.”
  • ? I’m sceptical but big news nonetheless. IBM will no longer offer, develop, or research facial recognition technology. “IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any [facial recognition] technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and Principles of Trust and Transparency.”
  • ? ?? Entire Roman city revealed without any digging. “The team, from the University of Cambridge and Ghent University, has discovered [using Ground Penetrating Radar,] a bath complex, market, temple, a public monument unlike anything seen before, and even the city’s sprawling network of water pipes. By looking at different depths, the archeologists can now study how the town evolved over hundreds of years.”
  • Why we’re calling for a data collective. “We propose forming a data collective: a conscious, coordinated effort by a group of organisations with expertise in gathering and using data in the charity sector. We want to make sure that people in charities, on the front line and in leadership positions have access to the information they need, in a timely fashion, in the easiest possible format to understand, with the clearest possible analysis of what it means for them.”
  • ? Scientists Uncovered a Hidden Pattern in a Mysterious Signal from Space. “The results enabled the team to pick out an intriguing signal in the noise: The FRB appears to flash for approximately 90 days, then goes dark and dormant for 67 days, before beginning the 157-day cycle again.”

Header image: The Corona, Anonymous, 1871 — The Public Domain Review.