Minimal maintenance / How time-travel stories explain our era. / To pay attention, the brain uses filters, not a spotlight — No.97

This week: Minimal maintenance / The future of another timeline: how time-travel stories explain our era. / To pay attention, the brain uses filters, not a spotlight

A year ago: The Automation Charade.

Shorter issue this week. I ended up ignoring a bunch of articles I thought promising before actually reading them, and at the same time there are some topics I don’t necessarily want to keep including here, even if they are still relevant and things I pay attention to. Anyway, three featured articles instead of the usual five and a few extra links pulled from my open tabs.

Minimal Maintenance

The essay version of a talk by Shannon Mattern, Professor of Anthropology at The New School for Social Research. Really excellent read which ties together maintenance, degrowth, libraries, museums, environmental justice, and architecture. I encourage you to read the whole thing, one of the points which resonated with me is the very first quote below, which frames degrowth not as blanket anti-growth but as a critique of growth as an end in itself. To my mind, this parallels Vaclav Smil in this interview from last week where he talks about not viewing degrowth as something done identically globally but as varying according to each country’s needs. Then, like Smil who says there is “slack” in the system, Mattern cites “many feminist economists” who believe that “degrowth need not entail universal downsizing. Instead, a reduction of those things that are ‘destructive to humans and the ecological foundations of human life’.”

The contemporary “degrowth” movement … isn’t against growth, per se; it calls, instead, for a critique of growth as an end in itself, for the “decolonization of public debate from the idiom of economism and for the abolishment of economic growth as a social objective.” […]

The Maintainers have emerged in response to these technological and political-economic concerns, many of which overlap with those of the Degrowthers: the waste of planned obsolescence, the environmental effects of unsustainable supply chains, the devaluation of care work, the underfunding of maintenance, and so forth. […]

[A]rtist Teresa Dillon cited environmental humanist Eileen Crist’s call for “pulling back and scaling down,” “welcoming limitations of our numbers, economies and habitats for the sake of a higher, more inclusive freedom and quality of life.” […]

[T]he potential activation of a new post-growth urban “commons”—resources and practices that resist commodification and privatisation, and that prioritise collective creation and public use. […]

Yet the threats imposed by tech’s unlimited growth are both individual and collective: they compromise our personal privacy and mental health, as well as our networked utilities, our geopolitical dynamics, and our global ecologies. […]

The Future of Another Timeline: how time-travel stories explain our era.

Annalee Newitz’s new book is about time-travel. Here’s a look at some examples of time-travel in various fictions, and a parallel with contemporary social change. Revisiting history by putting marginalized or oppressed peoples at the center, in a way, changes that history and rebuilds the timeline to a more inclusive version.

There’s nothing like witnessing radical, unexpected social changes to make you realize that the timeline is constantly being rewritten—and its authors are not always so-called Great Men. Sometimes they’re groups of ordinary people, whose connections to each other form a field of resistance to tyranny. […]

When we put the histories of those who have been marginalized or oppressed at the center of our stories, it changes the way we understand the present. Time travel literalizes this process, showing us clearly how revisiting history changes the current moment. […]

The war for the present is a war over our histories—both political and personal—and sometimes it feels like time-travelers are messing with us. […]

Like time travelers, we can go back and retrieve what’s been lost: the suppressed voices of slaves, the life stories of women, the contributions of immigrants to our economic prosperity. We can rebuild the history that’s been stolen from us, and in the process we can create a timeline that’s open enough for all of us.

To Pay Attention, the Brain Uses Filters, Not a Spotlight

At Quanta, a fascinating look at some of recent research into how our brains prioritizes information from our senses, how we focus attention, how it’s more similar to filters than a spotlight, and which part of the brain is responsible for the filtering. Basically; it involves much more ancient parts of the brain, including the thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN), and sometimes the stimuli, from the eyes for example, doesn’t even reach the visual cortex, it’s filtered out even before getting there. Also, the relationship between body movement and attention is much tighter than commonly thought.

But now, some researchers are trying a different approach, studying how the brain suppresses information rather than how it augments it. Perhaps more importantly, they’ve found that this process involves more ancient regions much deeper in the brain — regions not often considered when it comes to attention. […]

The attentional searchlight metaphor was backward: The brain wasn’t brightening the light on stimuli of interest; it was lowering the lights on everything else. […]

So, for instance, as visual information passes from the eye to the visual thalamus, it can get intercepted almost immediately if it’s not relevant to the given task. The basal ganglia can step in and activate the visual TRN to screen out the extraneous stimuli, in keeping with the prefrontal cortex’s directive. […]

“[F]iltering is starting at that very first step, before the information even reaches the visual cortex.” […]

The brain doesn’t passively sample information from the environment and then respond to the observed external stimuli. The reverse also happens, with body movements as small as the flicker of an eye also guiding perception.

Open Tabs

Astra Taylor with Bad ancestors: does the climate crisis violate the rights of those yet to be born?. The Economist with The past, present and future of climate change. Matt Stoller wonders Would an Elizabeth Warren Win Crash the Stock Market? And the people at Other Internet are writing about Headless Brands.


  • ? ? ? Where Theory Meets Chalk, Dust Flies. “For the last year, Jessica Wynne, a photographer and professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, has been photographing mathematicians’ blackboards, finding art in the swirling gangs of symbols sketched in the heat of imagination, argument and speculation.”
  • Don’t be evil ?. Google Blocks Privacy Push at the Group That Sets Web Standards. The Alphabet Inc. unit was the only member of the World Wide Web Consortium to vote against the measure to expand the power of the organization’s internet privacy group, according to a tally of the results viewed by Bloomberg News. Twenty four organizations voted for the idea in a recent poll.”
  • ? No one agrees what it means for a planet to be “habitable”. “VPLanet’s models take into account a host of different dynamics, including internal and geological processes, magnetic field evolution, climate, atmospheric escape, rotational effects, tidal forces, orbits, star formation and evolution, unusual conditions like binary star systems, and gravitational perturbations from passing bodies.”
  • ⚫️ Is “Planet 9” actually a primordial black hole? “[T]oday astronomers say there may be another reason nobody has seen Planet 9: because it may not be a planet at all. Instead, they say, our solar system may be orbited by a primordial black hole—a superdense lump of matter about the size of a tennis ball.”
  • ? Beautiful and intriguing work, although quite ? for me. Why 300K people are reading books on the NYPL’s Instagram. “Since launching in August 2018, more than 300,000 people have read the NYPL’s Insta Novels, and the NYPL’s Instagram account has gained 130,000 followers. While gaining more followers was definitely part of the project’s aim, the NYPL is more excited—and surprised—that people actually read the books that it published on Instagram.”
  • ? Are ultra-short episodes the future of streaming? Hollywood thinks so. “There seems to be a trend towards people watching short-form content – as long as they can get it for free.”
  • ????? Fantastic photography. Seeking Flying Giants in Norway’s Fjords + Singapore + Borneo ++. “Photographic dispatches from the extremities the earth.”
  • ?? Flag Stories. Great visualizations of country flags, by colours, shapes, number of changes, similarity, age, etc.

Header image: A five-Earth mass primordial black hole (actual size 5cm).