Magic & the machine ⊗ Lanier in conversation with Maughan ⊗ The deep Anthropocene — No.145

This week → Magic and the machine ⊗ Jaron Lanier in conversation with Tim Maughan ⊗ The deep Anthropocene ⊗ Community-led futures is a radical act ⊗ The fox and the hedgehog, polymathy’s past and future

A year ago → The most clicked link in issue No.100 was A World We Built to Burn by Quinn Norton.

Magic and the Machine

Sometimes I consider starting some kind of reading club, for books but also for worthy essays, this one would be a good pick. There are things that seem stretched or even wrong (would be useful to be a McLuhan scholar right about now), but it’s also a beautiful consideration and, I think, an important insight into this current dichotomy many of use feel; a wonder at the possibilities of technology and solutions some might bring, yet a dread and horror at what we and all of our technology are doing to the nature that surrounds us. Abram considers these two sentiments and explores the animistic view shared by so many cultures, how our alphabetized civilization as led us away from this animating of everything that surrounds us, how more and more of our technologies are embedded with pseudo voices and personalities, replacing the magical ones we used to perceive and imagine in nature.

As we increasingly surround ourselves with human-made techs, places, and landscape we are only ever in a manmade context and no longer truly inhabit the planet, even though we originally are off, from, and deeply entwined in nature. We stare at our technology for the otherness which already, and only, really exists outside of our creations.

Relates directly to the Russel Means speech and the piece on coupling the digital with nature from last week.

The coverage of news regarding the more-than-human natural world by modern media remains crazily minuscule relative to the coverage of exclusively human goings-on (of human violence and personal scandals), yet not even the most blinkered news organizations can avoid mentioning cyclones and runaway forest fires when these threaten large swaths of the human population. […]

The members of such cultures seemed to respond to their surroundings as though all things were alive and (at least potentially) aware. Further, from this animistic perspective, it seemed that all things were felt to be expressive; all things had the power of meaningful speech (although, of course, very few of them spoke in words). […]

Hence, far from enacting a clear break with animism, alphabetic literacy can be recognized as a particularly potent form of animism, one which shifts the locus of magic—or meaning—away from our interactions with the more-than-human surroundings to the relation between ourselves and our own signs. […]

Far from igniting a sense of wonder, these artifacts offer only a sham facsimile of wonder, and speaking with them draws one into an airless space where feeling falls away, a virtual and vapid zone where real wonder goes to die. […]

And so we remain transfixed by these tools, searching in and through our digital engagements for an encounter they seem to promise yet never really provide: the consummate encounter with otherness, with radical alterity, with styles of sensibility and intelligence that thoroughly exceed the limits of our own sentience.

Jaron Lanier in Conversation with Tim Maughan

At Believer Magazine, Nehal El-Hadi brings us an interesting conversation with two smart writers who think about technology and its impacts. Insightful comments on the pandemic as rehearsal for the future, how “the more that people are self-directed, the better the internet becomes,” an excellent phrasing by Maughan on science fiction and speculative-fiction, Lanier’s circle of empathy, and perhaps the most interesting section on ownership of data; how who owns it impacts society—I’m more in the camp of data commons, collectively owned and directed data, which wasn’t discussed—as well as privacy and social networks.

I’m very much in the camp that science fiction is about the present; it’s not about the future. It mirrors our concerns and worries about the present and amplifies or exaggerates them in ways that we can analyze and talk about. […]

Because if you’re saying that the computer deserves to be inside the circle [(of empathy)], what you’re saying is essentially that it’s the people who own the computer that deserve to be more inside the circle than the people who don’t own the computer. I think it’s a stealthy form of supremacy politics. […]

[U]ltimately, it’s those who really participate in the ownership of the society that benefit from the society. And if you have a data-driven society, people who don’t have rights to their own data are disenfranchised. […]

It feels like instead of the internet disappearing and causing the collapse, the collapse has come and we’re trapped in the room with the internet.

The deep Anthropocene

One of my favourite things to notice is when science and history are re-assed, re-aligned, following new methods and discoveries. This is a fascinating read on how researchers are advancing our understanding of hunter-gatherer and farmer societies, pastoralists, various subsistence strategies, when they developed, and how this affects our view of what constitutes “pristine nature,” and what has been changed.

TL;DR: things are not as clearcut as once thought, agricultural and domestication discoveries were more globally distributed and over a much longer span of time. (Have a look for example at the part on Mycenaeans in 13th century BCE ?.)

As “we” try to understand the full impact of humans on the planet, how things will change in coming decades, what can be done, and our hubristic naming of an epoch after ourselves, this is the kind of research which helps our understanding on the topic… and of how much is yet to be revealed.

These transitions were not linear or absolute. It’s now clear that there was usually a long continuum of exploitation, translocation and management of plants, animals, landforms and ecosystems well before (and often after) domestication occurred. […]

Humans have continually altered biodiversity on many scales. We have changed the local mix of species, their ranges, habitats and niches for thousands of years. Long before agriculture, selective human predation of many non-domesticated species shaped their evolutionary course. […]

A clear-eyed appreciation for the deep entanglement of the human and natural worlds is vital if we are to grapple with the unprecedented ecological challenges of our times. Naively romanticising a pristine Earth, on the other hand, will hold us back. Grasping that nature is inextricably linked with human societies is fundamental to the worldview of many Indigenous cultures – but it remains a novel and often controversial perspective within the natural sciences.

Community-led futures is a radical act

Can the use of foresight, of creating futures, be helpful for everyone and in this case for empowering communities? James Goodman shows us that not only can a practice of thinking about futures be empowering, but it can also be an impactful tool, even a radical act, because “even though the future is just a conceptual space, if we allow it to be dominated by those in positions of power now, those power imbalances will persist. We can’t create a more equitable system through an inequitable process.”

This is a kind of power. Using different futures tools and methods to inquire into the world and how it is changing, you end up taking a little more control over the future. […]

Communities will come under even greater pressure. Many will be marginalised and forgotten, with terrible repercussions for livelihoods, health and wellbeing. But creating thriving, resilient, powerful communities could be the starting point for a reconfiguration of the way things work.

More → A couple of weeks ago I “attended” Greg Lindsay’s interview with Madeline Ashby about her work and the book she co-authered, How To Future. I asked a question very much in the vein of the above article. Have a watch for more on cities, sci-fi, the book, futures and their use for communities.

The fox and the hedgehog, polymathy’s past and future

Looks like a book I’d like to read but the review is also good on its own if you like polymaths, generalists, and transdisciplinarity. Peter Burke’s classification according to “active vs passive (depending on whether they produce knowledge or only absorb it), limited vs general (do they tend to work in related fields or roam freely?), simultaneous vs serial (do they pursue different kinds of knowledge at the same time or in succession?)” is intriguing.

The sheer amount of knowledge one possesses about the world, however wide it may be, is no guarantee that one has grasped what the world is, or how it works. […]

In an important sense, polymathy is boundlessness in action; it is part of the polymath’s job description to disregard disciplinary boundaries and conventions, labels and classifications. There is something rebellious and anti-establishment at the core of any polymathic project.


  • ? Making a New Reality Toolkit Provides Resources for Boosting Equity in Emerging Media. “…around three key targets for action: things that each of us can do to increase equity in emerging media, ways that institutions can pitch in, and systemic interventions — which require collaboration across institutions, sectors, and governments. For each of these sections, we did original research to add resources designed to help readers get a better grasp on each recommendation, and find ways to move forward.”
  • ?? ?? Amsterdam and Helsinki launch algorithm registries to bring transparency to public deployments of AI. “Each algorithm cited in the registry lists datasets used to train a model, a description of how an algorithm is used, how humans utilize the prediction, and how algorithms were assessed for potential bias or risks. The registry also provides citizens a way to give feedback on algorithms their local government uses and the name, city department, and contact information for the person responsible for the responsible deployment of a particular algorithm. A complete algorithmic registry can empower citizens and give them a way to evaluate, examine, or question governments’ applications of AI.”
  • ?? ? I had no idea! Seeking Nature and Solitude in Crowded Hong Kong. “Despite being one of the densest cities on Earth, Hong Kong boasts a remarkable amount of green space. Roughly three-quarters of the city’s 1,100-square-kilometer territory (or 425 square miles) is natural landscape — from rocky coastlines and beaches to forested hillsides and mountains. About 40% of it is protected in vast “country parks” that are easily accessible from around the city, and woven together with more than 530 kilometers of paths, trails and hiking routes.”
  • ? Very interesting series with typical homes from various countries. Iconic Home Floor Plans Reveal Urban History. “To understand a city, start with the foundation. Floor plans from homes around the world explain how the way we live has shaped the design and architecture of urban neighborhoods — and vice versa.” (Via Dan Hill.)
  • ?? Egypt archaeologists discover 59 sealed coffins buried 2,500 years ago. “The coffins, sealed more than 2,500 years ago, date back to the Late Period of ancient Egypt, from about the sixth or seventh century BC, the minister added. Excavations in Saqqara have in recent years unearthed troves of artefacts as well as mummified snakes, birds, scarab beetles and other animals.”
  • ?? China’s biggest-ever solar power plant goes live. “The solar power station, a collaboration between Chinese renewable technology company Sungrow and state-owned utility Huanghe Hydropower Development, is part of the Communist Party’s plan to create a “supergrid” that will transfer wind, solar and hydro energy from the country’s west to its far denser east.”
  • ?? ? ☀️ Clean energy group NextEra surpasses ExxonMobil in market cap. “NextEra’s ascent and ExxonMobil’s decline reflect a collapse in oil consumption in the pandemic, the rise of renewable resources on the electric grid and investors’ desire for steady returns at a time of low interest rates.”

Header image: pine watt on Unsplash