More-than-human ⊗ Sense vs. maps ⊗ Narrative strategy — No.114

This week → Calling for a more-than-human politics ⊗ Sense-makers vs. map-makers ⊗ Narrative strategy ⊗ The personified city

A year ago → Metamodern Values for a Listening Society.

This past Thursday I was at a book launch for William Gibson’s Agency, he uses the term “Jackpot” for the slow(ish) apocalypse surrounding us. In the articles below, Jain cites Haraway citing Stanley Robinson who’s using “The Dithering” to replace Anthropocene, Venkatesh Rao talks about the “Great Weirding”, and for a while I was using “The Churn” (quoted from The Expanse) in this newsletter. Nothing to add, just noting the varied ways in which people are trying to name our times, since I bumped into all of them over three days.

Calling for a More-Than-Human Politics

Anab Jain with the edited transcript of her talk On Critical Activism and Fungal Revolts, presented at the Tentacular Festival in November 2019. Covers a lot of ground from revolution, to complex systems, mycelial arrangements and infinite micro-revolutions, ‘hyperobjects’, a slow form of critical activism, the Divide and Rule strategy, and more-than human-centred design. Ends with Jain’s “first attempt at assembling a Field Guide for the practice of a ‘more-than-human politics’, the start of an A/B styled manifesto that shifts our perspectives from human-centred to more-than-human worlds” which is pretty fantastic. Also be sure to click through to have a look at the video excerpts and the numerous pictures of some of Superflux’s projects mentioned along the piece.

For those of us here in this room who are living in apparently stable ‘democracies’, we realise there isn’t one clear enemy, action, goal, victory. It’s not just data privacy, or algorithmic accountability, or labour rights or ecological crisis. Yes, ‘the enemy’ is so much more tortuous, indiscernible and faceless. […]

Modernism’s methodologies of mapping, designing, planning, for controlling and changing deeply complex systems may not be the answer to the challenges we face. Maybe we need to go underground — working in networked, symbiotic companionships, like mycelial arrangements, to generate infinite micro-revolutions. […]

What I have understood with the idea of staying with the trouble is the opening of possibility space. If you can move beyond quick fixes, we become open to the strange and the unknown, the ambiguous and the uncertain, the weird and the provisional. […]

It is time to acknowledge the limits of anthropocentric capitalism and embrace the burden of a world that is precarious and challenging. To use our deep resourcefulness and imagination to stay with the trouble, and keep the revolt alive.

Sense-makers vs. Map-makers

In this latest piece in his weirding series, Venkatesh Rao hits on something quite useful in the way he views map-making and sense-making. I’m not convinced they are as opposed as he says, but he’s presenting a way of understanding the two, and of using them to frame how people understand and respond to complexity, which I find relevant and worth keeping around.

I’ll also mention that even though he’s talking about systems, events, or trends (climate change, global ethnonationalist populist wave/anti-globalism, coronavirus, rise of China, etc.), I gather that multiple maps can also be seen as multiple fields and disciplines, and his text read as being about sense-making transdisciplinarity, and finding understanding across domains.

Map-makers try to make one map that accounts for everything they see happening to things they care about. Then they try to craft narratives on that one map. Maps can be wrong or incomplete, but they aren’t usually incoherent or entropic, because they represent a single, totalizing, absolutely interested point of view, and a set of associated epistemic, ontological, and aesthetic preferences. […]

Sense-makers on the other hand, try to come at the territory using multiple maps, as well as direct experience. Theirs is not a disinterested point of view, but a relative, multi-interested point of view. We want various points of view to agree in a certain limited sense, lending confidence to our hope that we’ve made sense of reality through triangulation. […]

No individual map is sufficient or necessary, and together, they can be more than just wrong or incomplete. Unlike a map, sense-making — which is a ongoing process, a flow of situation awareness, rather than an object — can also be incoherent and entropic. Like a fluid flow, sense-making can experience shocks, sonic booms, transitions from laminar to turbulent, and so forth. […]

That’s what a weirding is. A sense-making failure in response to a shock. It is similar in many ways to the “collapse of the OODA loop” caused by a hostile adversary, but in the case of large systemic shocks, the adversary isn’t another player. It is the overwhelming complexity of the system itself.

Narrative Strategy

Longtime reader Tom Critchlow with an interesting reflection, poking at the ideas of a few independents (including yours truly) who, in one way or another, use writing and narrative in their strategy work. That’s one aspect, or one layer, in something like a stack of skills and practices. I’d like to add a few words regarding another layer; to be any good, the strategy work and writing is usually grounded in experience and perhaps some methods or processes. But, what I try to do and what I believe the work of these guys* also does, is to base it in ongoing observation and insight. By which I mean having a practice of observing many different fields, recognizing noteworthy aspects, trends, patterns, and infusing all of these in our work—be it design, writing, strategy, conversation, etc.

It seems to me that many strategists are focused on a relatively stagnant practice, where I believe instead that a constant flow of new learnings and sense-making is essential for one to be relevant. Which is where the second aspect of what I do comes in; writing briefings for clients, relating to specific topics and questions, to inform their thinking.

Both the thought partnership and the briefings can still be a hard sell because the idea that “making more sense of what’s going on helps you make more sense of your own work/strategy” doesn’t seem to resonate with everyone as a good investment. Which, frankly, keeps baffling me.

* Speaking of which, any women to recommend who work in a similar overlap?

And this is where narrative strategy comes in. It turns out that serialized writing is the perfect medium for ensuring that strategy “in motion” is articulated, circulated and understood by a greater number of people within the company. […]

This is also true of the 1-on-1 thought partnership work. Here the goal was to translate macro level thinking, or personal experience, into actionable insights for the client’s audience. […]

Themes, narratives, metaphors, abstractions. They are tools for understanding. They can be deployed internally to set a vision for the company; they can drive product vision and roadmap; they can be used in sales decks; they can even be used in product interfaces. […]

Articulation is the first product. You’ll always need to find better ways to communicate to move your business forward.

The Personified City

Matthew Stewart at Real Life proposing that we’ve always tried to direct and form cities according to some higher idea or purpose: God, geometry, economic efficiency, building “machines for living,” and now smart cities and AIs.

Proponents of the top down approach are now trying to bring about a city where everything is controlled, for the “city to act as a ‘big Other,’ onto whom responsibilities and blame can be projected, freeing individuals from conflict or guilt over outcomes.” The same kind of thing happens with governments and police where implementations of AI quickly become “well the algorithm did it,” as if it’s some kind of ur decider above and beyond elected officials. Thus trying to move citizens from being able (hopefully) to enact change through actions and votes, to making them users overseen by a formula they don’t get to chose or change.

Could this blind faith in the city as a god-machine amount to a contemporary myth of transcendence, where Big Tech, aided and abetted by the media, consultancy firms, and politicians, offer us a new deity to worship? […]

Ultimately it is fixated on the now and datafying what currently exists. In such systems, the role of administrators and bureaucrats is purportedly replaced by implementations of artificial intelligence and data-gathering sensors of all kinds. […]

Calling cities “smart” not only means granting them consciousness; it entails depicting them as a kind of life form that citizens are living within, as though it were giant womb they can crawl into. […]

Smart city rhetoric attempts to circumvent such conflicts, positing an all-knowing machine as a fair and unbiased arbiter, capable of bypassing debate to automatically impose the correct response to any emerging disputes.

More → Just this past week, an excellent example of “the algorithm did it”: Algorithm Bars Forensic Architecture’s Eyal Weizman From U.S.


  • ?? Climate change is rotting away Greenland’s cultural heritage “There are around 6,000 registered archaeological sites all over Greenland — and many thousands more that have yet to be discovered. Stone tent rings, meat caches, foundations, field flowers and cultivated grasses growing where once there was a farm, and even burial sites. These artifacts tell stories that are waiting to be discovered, to be documented, to be understood. But many of these stories will now be lost before they are even found. They are literally being washed away, according to the stark findings of the few archaeologists working in the Arctic.”
  • ? ⚽️ Reuters Uses AI To Prototype First Ever Automated Video Reports. “Developed in collaboration with London-based AI startup Synthesia, the new system harnesses AI in order to synthesize pre-recorded footage of a news presenter into entirely new reports. It works in a similar way to deepfake videos, although its current prototype combines with incoming data on English Premier League football matches to report on things that have actually happened.”
  • ?? ? Puerto Rico’s Energy Insurrection. “Nearly a year ago, the governor of Puerto Rico signed a law to much fanfare committing the island to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. The press emphasized that the system would rely on solar arrays powering distributed microgrids, so that if infrastructure went out on one part of the island, it wouldn’t impact other areas. … But critics say the pledge was smoke and mirrors. Buried in the same legislation was a road map for building out natural gas infrastructure likely to lock in consumption of fossil fuels and a centralized grid for decades to come.”
  • ?? Exploring a Sustainable Urban Future in the Mountains of Catalonia. “The monks’ work resonates with one of the goals of the Fab Lab movement: creating a system of globally-connected local production sites. Even hundreds of years ago, the monks in Valldaura produced food, energy, and infrastructure locally while being globally-connected, spreading and developing the necessary knowledge and techniques through the network at the same time.”
  • ? Printing money. Another evocative visual by Neal Agarwal; dollars scroll by at different speed, going from Minimum Wage ($7.25/hr) to Amazon Revenue ($32m/hr) to U.S. Deficit Increase ($125 mil/hr).
  • ? ? ? Gorgeous upcoming book by a couple of The Alpine Review alumni: John Cage: A Mycological Foray. “[D]raws readers across the idiosyncratic, mushroom-suffused, innermost landscape of celebrated American composer John Cage. Upon the remarkable journey with Cage, one encounters assorted photographs, compositions, and contemplations; all in the very same unexpected fashion one encounters various flora and fungi species while mushroom foraging”

Header image: Calling for a More-Than-Human Politics, Mitigation of Shock installation at ArtScience Museum Singapore.