This week → The metaverse is a new word for an old idea ⊗ The world isn’t ready for climate-change-driven inflation ⊗ The internet is just investment banking now ⊗ Class 1 / Class 2 problems
A year ago → A favourite in issue No.160 was The internet rewired our brains. He predicted it would. By Charlie Warzel.
The Metaverse Is a New Word for an Old Idea ⊕ Source
I love these articles where a trending topic is looked at with an eye to history, it’s not only fun for someone who likes history, it’s also an important and valuable exercise to contextualize the trend in question. Here Genevieve Bell starts form the metaverse, largely skips Snow Crash, then quickly to Second Life, and then more importantly much farther back, to The Great Exhibition in Victorian London, and to the World Fairs that followed. These past exercises in world building, in creating worlds within the world, can provide useful examples of making up futures, influencing the dreams and fictions that followed, and the power structures obfuscated in the process. The past is still here, it’s just unevenly crusted over (sorry).
[H]istories are more than just backstories. They are backbones and blueprints and maps to territories that have already been traversed. Knowing the history of a technology, or the ideas it embodies, can provide better questions, reveal potential pitfalls and lessons already learned, and open a window onto the lives of those who learned them. […]
The Great Exhibition was different because it had scale, and the power of empire behind it. It wasn’t just a spectacle; it was a whole world dedicated to the future: a world in which almost anyone could be immersed, educated, challenged, inspired, titillated, or provoked. It was not little bits and pieces, but one large, imposing, unavoidable statement. […]
Yet this history should also let us be alive to the possibilities of wondrous, unexpected invention and innovation, and it should remind us that there will not be a singular experience of the metaverse. It will mean different things to different people, and may give rise to new ideas and ideologies. […]
It will mean thinking deeply about our potential and our limitations as makers of new worlds.
The World Isn’t Ready for Climate-Change-Driven Inflation ⊕ Source
The indispensable Robinson Meyer for The Atlantic, on a topic we are bound to hear much more about in coming decades: the effects of climate change on the economy. Meyer goes over some of the impacts an increasingly extreme series of weather events has had on the availability of various food products, supply chains, and the making of indispensable components. All of this being exacerbated by the fact that “as the world has begun to transition—slowly, incompletely—away from fossil fuels, it has created imbalances in the energy system.”
These interconnected problems of climate damage and uneven transitions are causing inflation, to which the answer is usually: managing the flow of money to adjust demand. But in this new ‘climate worsened normal,’ is that enough? “Does the Federal Reserve have the right tools to manage?”
Note: the title above is the one Instapaper saved but if you go to the original article, the title displayed is “The Rise of Greenflation” which is annoyingly misleading. Yes, it reflects a part of the article, but it’s the type of exaggerated headline that doesn’t help discourse.
“The lumber-price story is a climate story,” he said. If a series of climate-change-aggravated disasters—including a multiyear outbreak of bark-eating beetles, back-to-back record-breaking fire seasons, and a massive November flood that washed out rail lines—had not struck British Columbia. […]
Over the past year, U.S. consumer prices have risen 7 percent, their fastest rate in nearly four decades, frustrating households and tanking President Joe Biden’s approval rating. And no wonder. High inflation corrodes the basic machinery of the economy, unsettling consumers, troubling companies, and preventing everyone from making sturdy plans for the future. […]
In 2021, the world put only $755 billion into the energy transition. By any historical measure, that was a bonanza amount—but it must more than quadruple, to $4 trillion, in the next decade for the world to avoid more than 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming while meeting its energy needs, the IEA says.
The Internet Is Just Investment Banking Now ⊕ Source
The Atlantic has some good writers and contributors. So after Meyer above, we’re going there again, this time with Ian Bogost. The subtitle gives a good summary; “the internet has always financialized our lives. Web3 just makes that explicit.” However, I’m sharing the piece not necessarily as a critique, which is often how it was framed when making the rounds for a couple of days, but rather for the use of financial products as a lens to understand the eras of the internet and how Web3 is evolving. In other words, don’t just read it as ‘on your side’ or not, but as a useful perspective when considering the Web3 moment.
Let’s call things what they are: NFTs represent a first step in the securitization of digital assets. They turn digital data into speculative financial instruments. That shift has enormous implications because computers are in everything, and that makes anything a digital asset—your bank records, your Fitbit data, rings of your smart doorbell, a sentiment analysis of your work email, you name it. […]
Now the digital exhaust of all that life online is poised to become an asset class for speculative investment, like stocks and commodities and mortgages. […]
Regulation notwithstanding, anything that can be construed as an asset can become the basis for a security. And if anything can become the basis for a security, then why not JPEGs? Before software ate the world, finance already had. […]
Class 1 / Class 2 Problems ⊕ Source
Another very useful lens (mental model?), this one by Kevin Kelly who splits problems caused by technology between two classes. “Class 1 problems are caused by technology that is not perfect, and are solved by the marketplace. Class 2 problems are caused by technology that is perfect, and must be solved by extra-market forces such as cultural norms, regulation, and social imagination.”
However, I’d caveat this recommendation by tweaking Class 2. Kelly seems to assume that ‘builders’ have free rein in developing technology, and that “extra-market forces” only react when Class 2 problems surface. I think it needs to happen a lot more pro-actively. Governments, and even professional corps when they exist, need to structure what can happen, provide boundaries and, when at all possible, legislate before those problems materialize. The two processes happen at the same time, governance is not there just to fix the messes the ‘builders’ create by going fast and breaking things.
Much of the resistance to widely implementing facial recognition stems from its imperfections. But what if it worked perfectly? What if the system was infallible in recognizing a person from just their face? A new set of problems emerge: Class 2 problems. If face recognition worked perfectly, there would be no escaping it, no way to duck out in public. You could be perfectly tracked in public, not only by the public, but by advertisers and governments. […]
When technologies reach the state that they work extremely well and become ubiquitous, their problem domain shifts from the realm of quick cycles powered by money, to the slower cycles of cultural imagination.
- Really great 🧵(s) by Anil Dash and Mekka Okereke on who’s really being optimistic and who’s not. File and re-use. “This framing makes a common error — being critical of extractive and exploitative technology is optimism. Saying that new tech shouldn’t happen at the expense of the vulnerable is an optimistic belief. Those who perpetuate the myth that criticism is anti-tech are the cynics.”
- 😍 😍 😍 🌎 Toby Ord’s collection of fantabulous digitally restored NASA pictures of Earth. “Only 24 people have journeyed far enough to see the whole Earth against the black of space. The images they brought back changed our world.”
- 😍 😍 😍 (There really should be an emoji for each planet, come on!!) Behold! NASA captures groundbreaking images of Venus' surface “The stunning observations reveal a planet marked with continents, flat expanses, and ranging highlands. These features have never been seen before in the visible spectrum of light, a feat achieved only through a series of stealthy flybys of the planet’s nightside.”
- ☀️ 📚 Solarpunk Canon. This “collection of books, essays, and films for people exploring Solarpunk today” by Paul Fletcher-Hill is still relatively short but have a look and bookmark.
- 🤖 🐦 👀 These Birds Do Not Exist I trained an AI on public domain bird illustrations from old books. Ornithologists and birders, I'd LOVE it if you were able to still ID some of these weirdos. I'll share some of the "normal" results first, the ones that kinda sorta look like real birds.. (Made with pictures from the Biodiversity Heritage Library on Flickr.)
- ♳ 🤔 🇺🇸 New lightweight material is stronger than steel. “The new material is a two-dimensional polymer that self-assembles into sheets, unlike all other polymers, which form one-dimensional, spaghetti-like chains. Until now, scientists had believed it was impossible to induce polymers to form 2D sheets.”
- 😱 🤬 Satellites have detected massive gas leaks. “They found that some releases resulted from accidents. More often, though, they were deliberate. Gas companies simply vented gas from pipelines or other equipment before carrying out repairs or maintenance operations.”
- 🔗 👩🏫 Surge - Crypto Education for Women. “It is estimated that twice as many men as women invest in cryptocurrency, highlighting a massive gender imbalance in crypto. Now is the time to empower, hire, and educate women in Web3.”
Join thousands of generalists and broad thinkers.
Each issue of the weekly features a selection of articles with thoughtful commentary on technology, society, culture, and potential futures.