Neal Stephenson on Depictions of Reality / A walk in Hong Kong / Tech companies file weird patents / Misinformation and a new world disorder — No.91

This past week was Mutek’s Forum IMG in Montréal, where I had the pleasure of seeing excellent talks and chatting with friends old and new. Hopefully the organizers will have some videos up in the next few weeks and I can share some here. There’s a slight overlap of interests and adjacent networks behind each programs so I’m considering heading to Toronto end of September for the Our Networks event, which looks excellent. “RE: Infrastructures explores the collective care and maintenance of alternative networking practices—new protocols, peer-to-peer connections, offline-first computing, and community-based governance.”

This week: Neal Stephenson on Depictions of Reality / A walk in Hong Kong / Why do tech companies file so many weird patents? / Misinformation has created a new world disorder

A year ago: Data’s day of reckoning.

Neal Stephenson on Depictions of Reality ?

This interview covers a lot of very varied topics, and there are plenty of good insights by Stephenson. I listened to this walking back and forth to the aforementioned IMG over a couple of days, I then breezed through the transcript to share a couple of quotes below but do have a listen.

[Concerning a Mars colony.] I think it would be a lot like living on a nuclear submarine because you can’t — being in space is almost like being in an intensive care unit in a hospital, in the sense that you’re completely dependent on a whole bunch of machines working in order to keep you alive. A lot of what we associate with freedom, with personal freedom, becomes too dangerous to contemplate in that kind of environment. […]

Our civil institutions were founded upon an assumption that people would be able to agree on what reality is, agree on facts, and that they would then make rational, good-faith decisions based on that. They might disagree as to how to interpret those facts or what their political philosophy was, but it was all founded on a shared understanding of reality… And that’s now been dissolved out from under us, and we don’t have a mechanism to address that problem. […]

So that is definitely going on, but it seems to me, sometimes, that hobbyists — people who do things, who build things because they’re passionate about it — can get a lot done in a hurry. But as soon as you start to involve capital and profit-and-loss statements and so on, that, again, the rate of progress can slow down quite a bit just because people are so concerned about patents and protecting IP and how do we turn a profit from this, how do we create shareholder value? […]

Snow Crash talks specifically about the Tower of Babel myth, and danah was saying that a lot of people who started tech companies were inspired and wanted to build something like the Metaverse in Snow Crash, but it turns out that, instead, they built the Tower of Babel. They created a situation in which we’re unable to talk to each other.

A Walk In Hong Kong

For various reasons I decided to skip this one last week but since then I’ve mentioned it two or three times elsewhere, so lets correct the miss. Excellent post by Maciej on his participation / investigation of the Hong Kong protests, including how they function. And I’m definitely keeping a note of his use (coining?) of “zeroth world cities” and plan on using it.

If you have never visited one of the Zeroth World cities of Asia, like Taipei or Singapore, it can be hard to convey their mix of high density, mazelike design, utterly reliable public services, and high social cohesion, any more than it was possible for me or my parents to imagine a real American city, no matter how many movies we saw. And then to have to write about protests on top of it! […]

There is nothing you can pay for in a protest – volunteers hand out gas masks, water, tea, and endless flyers, designed and printed with astonishing alacrity in response to each day’s events. Anything you may need, people have donated. […]

The protests are intentionally decentralized, using a jury-rigged combination of a popular message board, the group chat app Telegram, and in-person huddles at the protests. […]

This sounds like it shouldn’t possibly work, but the protesters are too young to know that it can’t work, so it works. […]

Rather than standing their ground, they have found it more effective to melt away and reassemble somewhere else. The tactic is a classic one, but I am impressed with the ability of a decentralized group to adopt it so effectively. […]

Further reading: Nice thread by Maxime Reynié on Twitter concerning the graphic design of Hong Long protest posters, comics, and more (in French but lots of visuals). And Maciej again, this time with a thread comparing what he saw from the ground with the Chinese propaganda Twitter enables. And:

Why do tech companies file so many weird patents?

Rose Eveleth for Slate on how the US patent system works. Or, more precisely, how big tech companies use it. They “file for patents to blanket the field—like dogs peeing on every bush just in case.” Like so many things these days, it’s not about documenting an invention and gaining reasonable protection. It’s not about respecting the intent of the laws, it’s about flooding the system with as much stuff as you can pay for and then blocking everyone else from doing anything useful that comes remotely close to the stuff you made up but don’t even plan on using. Oh and, entirely unexpectedly (!!), the media misunderstands and misrepresents what various patents actually claim.

Patents can be weapons and signals. They can spur innovation, as well as crush it. […]

The team that had invented this thing had been disbanded, and the company had moved to a different solution. But they had gone far enough with the patent application that they might as well keep going, if only to use the patent in the future to keep their competitors from gaining an advantage. […]

Even the actual language of the patents themselves can be misleading. It turns you actually can write fan fiction about your own invention in a patent. Patent applications can include what are called “prophetic examples,” which are descriptions of how the patent might work and how you might test it.

Misinformation Has Created a New World Disorder

At Scientific American, Claire Wardle explains how misinformation is rampant and why we should focus on the deeper systemic causes instead of mostly focusing on what big tech has done or not done. Goes through seven “information disorders,” what they are, how they differ, and how they are being used. Oh and, entirely unexpectedly (again!), in many cases the media makes things worse by sticking to their traditional way of reporting on misleading content.

[W]hat social scientists and propagandists have long known: that humans are wired to respond to emotional triggers and share misinformation if it reinforces existing beliefs and prejudices. Instead designers of the social platforms fervently believed that connection would drive tolerance and counteract hate. They failed to see how technology would not change who we are fundamentally—it could only map onto existing human characteristics. […]

But this fixation [on tech] is too simplistic. A complex web of societal shifts is making people more susceptible to misinformation and conspiracy. […]

Research has found that traditionally reporting on misleading content can potentially cause more harm. Our brains are wired to rely on heuristics, or mental shortcuts, to help us judge credibility. As a result, repetition and familiarity are two of the most effective mechanisms for ingraining misleading narratives, even when viewers have received contextual information explaining why they should know a narrative is not true. […]

When the Facebook archive of Russian-generated memes was released, some of the commentary at the time centered on the lack of sophistication of the memes and their impact. But research has shown that when people are fearful, oversimplified narratives, conspiratorial explanation, and messages that demonize others become far more effective. These memes did just enough to drive people to click the share button.

Further reading: Media Manipulation, Strategic Amplification, and Responsible Journalism and Agnotology and Epistemological Fragmentation, both by danah boyd.

Working Remotely

I only scanned the three articles. I’ve been mainly working from home for 16 years and didn’t see anything I hadn’t read before but since they all came out recently, I thought it was an interesting micro-trend, and maybe some of you have more recently come to the indy or remote working beat: Tips from 16 years of working from home, A Year of Working Remotely, and Working From Home: A Beginner’s Guide.


Found via

Some of the articles for this week were found via Christina, Johannes, and Justin. Thanks!

Header image: Neon noir series, nightcrawling through Japan’s cities by Christian Kneise.