This week → The myth of the machine ⊗ Polytopias: The missing speculative genre ⊗ Why we need a public internet and how to get one ⊗ Deep narratives, epistemic agents, and cardigan scifi
Excellent piece (another one!) by L. M. Sacasas who considers modernity, technology, and what he calls the myth of the machine. His proposal (which is really what it is, he invites counter opinions) is basically that society—western and especially US, but applies elsewhere to varying degrees—has, in three phases, aligned much of its thinking and governance along the development of technology and “three related and interlocking presumptions which characterized modernity: objectivity, impartiality, and neutrality.” ‘We’ did so starting in the 17th century, with “the quest for objectively secured knowledge” which Arendt characterized as “the search for an Archimedean point from which to understand the world, an abstract universal position rather than a situated human position.”
Followed liberalism in the 18th and the creation of “a ‘machine’ for the adjudication of political differences and conflicts, independently of any faith, creed, or otherwise substantive account of the human good.” Then in the 19th, where the republican formula was transformed into a “different technocratic commitment to improving ‘technology’ as the basis and the measure of—as all but constituting—the progress of society.” (Leo Marx)
Over the 20th and early 21st centuries, this vision has crumbled in roughly the same order as it was established, with lessening trust in science, crumbling trust in governance, and now a growing scepticism of technology and the way it’s been used as a proxy for ‘progress.’
Sacasas wraps a lot of things together in this proposal, which I’ve greatly compressed here. So, even more than usual, click through and read his whole argument. I’ll mention to pay attention to how he maps this to the left and right axis, and to keep this myth lens in mind when you hear people talking about ‘the system’ and ‘they.’ This construct along technology and a ‘machining’ of society lines up pretty well.
If the myth of the machine in these three manifestations, was, in fact, a critical element of the culture of modernity, underpinning its aspirations, then when each in turn becomes increasingly implausible the modern world order comes apart. […]
Indeed, the left/right distinction may be less helpful than the distinction between those who uphold some combination of the values of objectivity, impartiality, and neutrality and those who no longer find them compelling or desirable. […]
“The general progression has been to increasingly turn to technologies in order to better achieve the conditions under which we came to believe public knowledge could exist [i.e., objectivity, disinterestedness, impartiality, etc]. Our crisis stems from the growing realization that our technologies themselves are not neutral or objective arbiters of public knowledge and, what’s more, that they may now actually be used to undermine the possibility of public knowledge.” […]
[W]hat if abundance was an unsustainable solution, either because it taxed the earth at too high a rate or because it was purchased at the cost of other values such as rootedness, meaningful work and involvement in civic life, abiding friendships, personal autonomy, and participation in rich communities of mutual care and support?
Adi Robertson interviews Ben Tarnoff about his upcoming book Internet for the people. I won’t go into detail but some of the specifics of what Tarnoff proposes didn’t click for me. However, it did resonate on a few fronts, first with his mention of Darius Kazemi’s idea that libraries could run local social networks, which I love on its own. It does also connect to Claire L. Evans’ idea of “mother nodes”, as well as the ideals of Fab Cities to act locally and connect globally, and fits perfectly with Mastodon instances, some of which are local geographically while some are chosen global communities.
When talking about decentralized projects, the issue of who does the work of maintaining and evolving such platforms, who makes the effort of supporting large instances, regularly comes up. Seems to me like putting the emphasis on an even greater multiplication of such nodes, to keep them small, would require more people but each making a much smaller effort, not something I see mentioned all that often. Keeping an instance up for 50 people seems quite a bit easier than one for 500 or 5000. Of course the actual development is a whole other thing, which brings us to…
The libraries idea once again. What if each branch in a given public network (someplace that actually invests in them, like Finland, could perhaps try this) had the budget to pay two people to work on ‘digital commons’? Programmers, designers, writers, community managers, etc. The network, city, or country sets some parameters, perhaps a (long) list of eligible projects, but each individual can work on whatever projects they like (it could be a lot more structured, I just like the hiring boost of freedom). It’s a way of financing the commons, and I locate them in branches to spread the work geographically and as a ‘budget anchor’ to also assign money to support local servers. One programmer might decide to spend 50/50 of her time on Mastodon and a chat app, one historian might decide to work on locally-relevant Wikipedia content and Creative Commons outreach, a designer could work on usability for 2-3 other projects, etc.
Libraries, museums, and even the postal service, are great achievements of social infrastructure from back when politicians cared about those things, we might as well leverage them for new needs… with proper budgets!
[I]t’s not local to the exclusion of the regional or the national — it’s local as a promising site of governance because of the richness of the interpersonal interaction that it promotes. […]
[T]he appeal of having local structures is that I want to be able to put two or three dozen people in a room and have them debate, discuss, and argue about what to do about a certain thing. That type of democratic decision-making works best in a smaller, in-person context. […]
What I would like to see, above all, is an internet that is populated by spaces that are truly designed, developed, implemented, and governed by their users. That’s my North Star.
Yes, another ‘topia,’ another way of framing potential futures, this one by Leah Zaidi. It’s a good one though, because instead of just planting a stake in the sand with a new name attached, she proposes polytopias as a way of emphasising the importance of multiple futures, populating the spectrum of ideas between dystopias and utopias, and suggests putting the emphasis on the process of change on the way to something, instead of just as endpoints. Tiny signal; second mention in as many days of the series Years and Years, which does look interesting.
We’re a minute to midnight and stories are a powerful weapon in combating real-world struggles. When moral lessons are embedded in stories, they can bypass the brain’s fight and flight response. Rather than reject the lesson, we lean into it. […]
They are stories that depict many people, many places, at many times. They demonstrate the incremental steps required to shift a system and how those systems interact with people along the way. Polytopias aim to capture the complexity and nuances of change itself. […]
While there are a number of examples of deteriorating worlds, there are far fewer examples of what it takes to build desirable worlds.
We need new stories of what it means to be human → “People, on the other hand, need stories that are created and expressed through culture in order for us to find our way forward. It’s our ability to imagine, and communicate about things like memories, plans, things that don’t exist yet, and the future, that many have attributed to our ‘humanness.’”
Alternative epistemic agents for restaurant menus etc → Matt Webb doing Matt Webb things, going from steak frites to epistemic agents to named algorithms. “Stafford’s provocation makes me imagine epistemic agents which are anti-social or anti-recommenders or anti making you happy as a reward function, or all of the above…”
Cardigan scifi → Adjacent to Nick Foster’s The Future Mundane, Robin Rendle has cardigan scifi! “It’s the lack of polish in the world, it’s the absence of technological fetishism in the science fiction itself. The science or the tools or the spaceships do not sit at the heart of Cardigan sci-fi — it’s all about the people that wear the cardigans instead.”
Futures, foresights, forecasts & fabulations → Four ways to combine future scenarios with causal-loop diagrams ⊗ Looking 100 Years Into the Future: Lessons from John Maynard Keynes ⊗ A Century of Science Fiction That Changed How We Think About the Environment ⊗ Future Consumer 2024 ⊗ How can content help unlock imaginations?
- 🤯 💦 🌵 Low-Cost Gel Film Can Pluck Drinking Water From Desert Air. “…a low-cost gel film made of abundant materials that can pull water from the air in even the driest climates. The materials that facilitate this reaction cost a mere $2 per kilogram, and a single kilogram can produce more than 6 liters of water per day in areas with less than 15% relative humidity and 13 liters in areas with up to 30% relative humidity.”
- 🤩 🇬🇷 🇸🇾 🇨🇳 🇮🇹 🇮🇶 Ancient technology that was centuries ahead of its time. “Archaeologists repeatedly stumble upon artifacts that seem way too advanced for the times from which they originate. The ancient Greeks, for instance, developed a clock capable of calculating and tracking planetary motions and solar eclipses among other things. These forward-thinking inventions are often called ‘ahead of their time.’ In reality, they are reflections of the ingenuity of their respective civilizations.”
- 🤬 🇺🇸 🚕 Uber prices will rise to meet the company’s newly urgent quest for profits.. “That is because Uber has lost an astounding sum since its founding in 2009, including more than $30 billion in the five-odd years since the company’s finances became public. Together with earlier losses and a similar strategy at rival Lyft, this has amounted to an enormous, investor-fueled subsidy of America’s ride-hailing habit.”
- 😍 🦑 (2011!) Cindermedusae is a generative encyclopedia of imaginary sea creatures.. “Cindermedusaeʼs drawing style, resembling the one of an old encyclopedic illustration, has been carefully chosen for this purpose as being adequate to illustrate salient features of the sea creature, its morphology, and fictive species prompting for the observerʼs imagination.” (Via @vanderwal.)
- 🇬🇧 👍🏼 🦪 Bureau de Change and Lulu Harrison create Thames Glass tiles. “…a range of patterned tiles using Thames Glass, a biomaterial created by artist Lulu Harrison from mussel shells.”
- ⏳ 📓 Welcome to 2072: Send Your Artwork to the Future with The Time Capsule Project. “Along with our friends at the Brooklyn Art Library, we’re launching The Time Capsule Project, a collection of 1,000 mini sketchbooks that will be buried in St. Petersburg, Florida, until 2072. The idea is to fill pages with artworks and stories that offer a glimpse of the moment we’re all living in and preserve today’s creativity for years to come.”
- 🌌 😍 📸 See the Milky Way's center as we've never seen it before. “Although we've viewed our own galactic center in many wavelengths of light before, the newest high-resolution radio survey has revealed some surprises. MeerKAT, the first step in ultimately constructing the Square Kilometer Array, has just revealed their first comprehensive map of the Milky Way's central region. ”
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