This week → The modern world can’t exist without these four ingredients ⊗ Graph minds ⊗ To voice or to exit: crypto cities ⊗ Planetary political entity ⊗ Five things about horizon scanning
Issue 220! This is the last week to join as a member with the special Discord intro price of $20 a year. Features a very limited number of channels, slow-burn discussions, and super smart participants—and of course, you’re helping the sustainability of the weekly.
A relatively short excerpt from Vaclav Smil’s new book, How The World Really Works. Both a must-read because it’s a framing I hadn’t seen before (those four ingredients together), and something to ponder further because it seems incomplete, and not just because of the length. What he’s arguing here is that our global civilisation is based on four main ingredients; cement, steel, plastics, and ammonia, that all require the use of fossil fuels, and that it’s extremely complicated to envision replacing them. If you’ve ever had to cut allergens from your diet, or have just been paying attention to what’s in your food, this is similar. Try eating in a restaurant without wheat (never mind gluten in general), sugar, soy, and dairy. Same thing here, but scaled to everything we build. He paints a dire picture, and I agree with the basic diagnosis.
Now my issues, which largely have to do with some things he takes for granted. Let’s first remember another book by Smil, where he mentions ‘slack’ and says that “we could halve our energy and material consumption … without losing anything important. Life wasn’t horrible in 1960s or 70s Europe.” He doesn’t talk about it here, or sideways if you want to see the first paragraph that way. Seems important when you are considering how hard it might be to switch these four ingredients.
Second, he mentions reducing meat and that organic agriculture can’t work as well as the current ammonia-heavy system, but doesn’t emphasize enough or even mention: leaving mono-culture behind, which helps the soil, and greatly reducing food waste. Just these two would reduce the need for ammonia. Third, he mentions buildings and concrete but not replacements like wood structures. Granted, that wouldn’t provide a massive cut, but it’s another hint that he takes many levels of production/consumption as granted, ‘simply’ explaining the magnitude of the task for a 1-to-1 replacement.
Finally, the same issue with plastics, there’s a huge slice of our plastics use that is almost completely un-needed, like water bottles. On the other side, he does emphasise the rarely mentioned use of plastics in healthcare.
In the end, I’m including the piece for two reasons: to help us grasp the scope of use of these four ingredients, even with my caveats, and as another example of one of the great difficulties of these transitions: properly understanding the degree to which we have completely integrated some of our current ways, and that trying to replace them without first considering why/how they came to be, or why we need them at all, is very problematic.
China now produces more than half of the world’s cement and in recent years it makes in just two years as much of it as did the United States during the entire 20th century. Yet another astounding statistic is that the world now consumes in one year more cement than it did during the entire first half of the 20th century.
No structures are more obvious symbols of “green” electricity generation than large wind turbines—but their foundations are reinforced concrete, their towers, nacelles, and rotors are steel, and their massive blades are energy-intensive—and difficult to recycle—plastic resins, and all of these giant parts must be brought to the installation sites by outsized trucks (or ships) and erected by large steel cranes, and turbine gearboxes must be repeatedly lubricated with oil. […]
As a result, global production of these four indispensable materials claims about 17 percent of the world’s annual total energy supply, and it generates about 25 percent of all CO2 emissions originating in the combustion of fossil fuels.
First post in an intriguing new series by Venkatesh Rao. He’s wondering why there are numerous accounts of the “human sociality focus on aspects like shared care of offspring, collectivized security from predators, game-theoretic cooperation around shared resources, ‘social contracts’ to foster peaceable coexistence, and so on.” And yet, there is very little of the same for the benefits of collective intelligence. According to Rao’s research so far, he’s seen very little to show that it “is adaptive for humans to band together into collectives because it allows more powerful collective intelligences to emerge.”
He might be somewhat facetious with his extreme Borg example, they aren’t a collective of equals, they are subsumed by the collective (and the queen). Seems to me like there is an important difference between shared intelligence, even with hypothetical direct connections, and merged intelligence. But maybe I’m already showing my own limits in the framing he wants to explore; why are ‘we’ so reluctant, even afraid, to explore ideas of collective intelligence? He’s already got a great list of themes, a “starter set of index cards” he plans to explore. A very promising series, at the very least for how he’s envisioning this process of inquiry.
It almost feels like there is a sort of conspiracy to construct intelligence as a primarily individual trait, and hide the extent and depth of its social character from ourselves. […]
Idealized conditions of maximally collectivized security, material abundance, aesthetic experience, sentimental experience, and emotional experience are imagined as utopias. But idealized conditions of maximally collectivized intelligence, true hive-minds, are generally imagined as dystopias, as in the Borg in Star Trek, or the Cyber-Men in Doctor Who. […]
Doing “deep learning” in vast, pooled, individuality-dissolving intelligence collectives is apparently for machines and insects, not us. Even though we’re just coming off a couple of centuries doing exactly that in vast and hyper-specialized industrial economies. What might it mean to lean into that, instead of resisting and retreating?
I’ll mention first that I read through the first part because I’m a fan of Drew Austin’s writing/thinking, otherwise there might initially be too many cryptobabble projects listed. Ymmv. Otherwise, a super intriguing parallel between DAOs, various other projects, an essay by Buterin, and city living and governance. Two main points; first, some of these projects should consider the lessons of cities in terms of cohabitation, challenges, and change. Second, economist Albert Hirschman’s book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, where he argues that individuals “can either attempt to use whatever influence they have to improve those organizations from within (voice), or they can simply leave (exit).” Austin considers the increasingly nomadic professional class, crypto, the needs of cities, and who’s left holding the bag when people ‘exit.’ Great mental model, this ‘exit’ and ‘voice,’ and quite useful for cities and ‘citizenry‘ in general.
[The CityCoins vision is undoubtedly] utopian—yet another quality that unites crypto and cities, which have both presented fertile ground for utopian projects seemingly as long as they have existed. With digital space growing more crowded, in similar fashion to the physical space that cities occupy, the desire to escape to an imagined place where everything is better has grown correspondingly. […]
“Probably the biggest problem that the communes faced, though, was the idea of starting from scratch,” she writes. “In many ways, ‘going back to the beginning’ meant rehashing timeworn struggles over governance and the rights of the individual, albeit in capsule form…they needed to negotiate a new balance between the individual and group.” […]
Crypto may indeed finally solve these problems, but history suggests that it is more likely to discard existing cities’ complex, carefully-adapted systems and then fail to replace them with satisfactory alternatives.
How the planet became the prime political entity of our century → More of a historical run-through of how our thinking on planetarity has evolved than on specifically ‘planet as a political entity,’ yet useful context for that line of inquiry. “With the planet emerging as this century’s prime political object, understanding its history can help us recognise how the planetary, despite its seemingly unequivocal nature, carries a politics of its own.”
Five things I’ve learnt about horizon scanning → From the fifth thing, “practice matters:” “Be curious about change. Embrace anomalies and outliers. Hold exploratory views, but loosely. Use tools that make you think differently. Look for patterns rather than timescales.”
- 🏢 👀 🧱 The Deep Image of the City. “DeepScope is a novel platform for interactive, real-time, and setup-less urban design visualization. It attempts to substitute common practices of urban design with a machine-learnt, generative visualization approach. By implementing a deep convolutional generative adversarial network (DCGAN) and CityScope, a tangible user interface, this project allows for real-time prototyping and visualizations of urban design processes.”
- 🇺🇸 🪶 💪🏽 Hate to see the cause, love to see the result. Native nations use federal funds to build broadband. “The trend accelerated during the COVID telecommuting and home education boom. As of 2021 there were an estimated 40 tribally owned networks operating in 65 Native nations, and another 37 Native nations currently working in partnerships with private providers.” (Hopefully, I’m not disrespecting anyone with the feather emoji.)
- 🇺🇸 🎥 🤩 Sad to see cars were already a shitshow back then (ok, technically so were horses). Colorized Footage Travels San Francisco’s Market Street Four Days Before the Devastating 1906 Earthquake and Fire. “A new colorized version of ‘A Trip Down Market Street’ returns to the pre-disaster scene in an incredibly clear and bright view of the city. Restored by NASS, the reimagined footage increases the speed from 15 to 60 frames per second, upgrades the resolution, and adds a soundscape to mimic the noises that residents might have heard around the turn of the century.”
- 🇨🇳 🤖 🌳 Drones fly in a tight swarm through a forest without crashing. “A localisation algorithm creates a 3D image of the scene and regularly sets the drone targets to reach within that scene. It looks out for obstacles – and other drones – and readjusts the flight pattern in real time. It then plans the most computationally efficient route through the area.”
- 🤯 👀 Invisibility cloaks are not just possible, but are becoming reality. “The invisibility to radar, which is microwave-to-radio wavelength electromagnetic radiation, might have been the first step, but recent developments in metamaterials have extended this even further, bending light around an object and rendering it truly undetectable.”
- 🤔 🤖 Looks like excellent news, although I can’t really convince myself that something good can come out of Meta. Meta has built a massive new language AI—and it's giving it away for free. “Meta’s AI lab has created a massive new language model that shares both the remarkable abilities and the harmful flaws of OpenAI’s pioneering neural network GPT-3. And in an unprecedented move for Big Tech, it is giving it away to researchers—together with details about how it was built and trained.”
- 🇮🇹 🧀 Internet of cheese, anyone? This is one of the dreams of the blockchain; tracking provenance. Not convinced yet. New 'Smart' Cheese Rinds Help Fight Parmesan Fraud. “The innovation combines food-safe Casein labels with the p-Chip micro transponder — a blockchain crypto-anchor that creates a digital 'twin' for physical items. This scannable new food tag is smaller than a grain of salt and highly durable, delivering next-generation visibility and traceability.”
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.