Newsletter No.249 — Jan 22, 2021

‘If You Win the Popular Imagination, You Change the Game’: Why We Need New Stories on Climate ⊗ Imagination Infrastructures ⊗ AI and the Big Five

Also this week → Meet Michael Running Wolf, the man using AI to reclaim Native languages ⊗ Hyperconnected culture and its discontents ⊗ Social quitting

‘If you win the popular imagination, you change the game’: why we need new stories on climate

I didn’t have ‘Rebecca Solnit using Terminator 2 as a reference’ on my bingo card, but here we are. Coming up with better futures and new stories to talk about them is a recurring theme here, this piece kind of feels like that but instead goes much shorter term. Solnit is talking about the stories we currently believe and how we can (need really) change them asap if we are to mobilise as needed. She talks about how way people are now aware and concerned about the climate crisis, and yet we often seem to think so few do; how personal action (a story pushed by big polluters) is all well and good but collective action is what’s needed; how there is no single solutions and the need for many. On the way, she gives a lot of examples of inspiring change already happening and of depressed storyteller that now see a path forward.

Perhaps the most important part is where Solnit writes that “the change is revolutionary, but the revolution was too slow to be visible to most.” Yet dystopia is easy to believe, and so many of us keep missing the wins and delving on the failures.

The 🤖 Summary for this one was a bit shit, hitting some points but not the backbone of or reason for the article. I’m not going to give it a deep reason, it was just not good on this one, but maybe it does mirror something ‘we’ are grasping at right now; defining new futures, better understanding the complexity of what’s going on, looking for hope and optimism, trying to connect our next actions with the longer term all the while revisiting the past and thinking of future generation. Solnit does a great job highlighting some needs in storytelling, but in between all of the things I just mentioned, if feels like there’s a piece still missing.

More → Last week I shared Rose Eveleth’s series, starting with The case against hopewashing where they spoke of our relationship with hope. Still worth a read, but I’d also like to point you to Paul Graham Raven’s simply imagining better things isn’t enough which highlights some shortcomings of the first piece, as well as solarpunk’s, and clarifies the differences between hope and optimism.

Every crisis is in part a storytelling crisis. This is as true of climate chaos as anything else. We are hemmed in by stories that prevent us from seeing, or believing in, or acting on the possibilities for change. Some are habits of mind, some are industry propaganda. Sometimes, the situation has changed but the stories haven’t, and people follow the old versions, like outdated maps, into dead ends. […]

Our greatest power lies in our roles as citizens, not consumers, when we can band together to collectively change how our world works. […]

The skills of real-world superheroes are solidarity, strategy, patience, persistence, vision and the ability to inspire hope in others. The rescuers we need are mostly not individuals, they are collectives – movements, coalitions, campaigns, civil society. […]

Recognising the reality of climate breakdown means recognising the interconnectedness of all things. That connection brings obligation: to respect nature, to build domestic regulation and international treaties that protect what’s needed, to limit the freedom of the individual in the name of the wellbeing of the collective. […]

That emphasis on collective memory suggests that a strong sense of the past allows for a strong sense of the future, that remembering difficulty and transformation equips us to face them again.

Imagination infrastructures

Cassie Robinson is doing a lot of useful and interesting work, including an emerging practice around the concept of imagination infrastructures. The short piece I link to gives a quick overview of the ideas and some of the work so far, and links to a presentation deck that explains it even further.

For some reason, I feel like I’m missing a critical detail in completely understanding this concept, but it’s basically to build (mostly social) infrastructures to enable more people to imagine what they need and want out of society and for the future. In other words, closely lines-up with Solnit’s piece above and perhaps filling some of that blurry space I was waving at. Not ‘just’ replacing wrong or incomplete stories with better ones, not exactly inventing fictions further out in time, not exactly strategic foresight, futures, forecasts, or any of the related term either. A new space between all of them, with a lot more people purposefully included.

Infrastructure for sense-making because what gets imagined needs collectively interpreting and translating. […]

Infrastructure for sites of practice. We have town halls and community centres and forests and public parks — how can our social infrastructures and our natural world infrastructures be used for collective imagination activities. […]

All of the above needs to happen over time — that is the point of infrastructuring. It’s a long-term investment — it creates capacity, connects activity and people up as the work grows — and strengthens it over time. It’s a commitment for the long-haul.

AI and the Big Five

Sorry for the cliché, but time flies. I was sure I’d linked to Ben Thompson not that long ago. I kind of did in No.246, but it was actually the one all the way back in No.234 that I was thinking of. I’m linking this one for the same reason I did in September, “I’m kind of done with the deep dives into big-tech business models, but in this one he’s looking at a current interest of mine, AI models.” This one actually merges the two, taking a long look at how the business models and reactions to AI disruption are lining up, or not, or adapting. Stable Diffusion v open source v Apple, and Microsoft in general are the parts most worthy of a look.

Stable Diffusion is remarkable not simply because it is open source, but also because the model is surprisingly small: when it was released it could already run on some consumer graphics cards; within a matter of weeks it had been optimized to the point where it could run on an iPhone. […]

I don’t think it’s an accident that ChatGPT, the biggest breakout product to-date, was both free to end users and provided by a company in OpenAI that both built its own model and has a sweetheart deal from Microsoft for compute capacity. […]

Right now text is the universal interface, because text has been the foundation of information transfer since the invention of writing; humans, though, are visual creatures, and the availability of AI for both the creation and interpretation of images could fundamentally transform what it means to convey information in ways that are impossible to predict.

Meet Michael Running Wolf, the man using AI to reclaim Native languages

Fascinating project hoping to save some Native languages with the help of AI. Not mentioned in the piece but kind of hinted at by Thompson above with Stable Diffusion, is the size of AI models. Size in terms of the model itself, but I also think the size of the corpus needed to create a model will be intriguing to keep an eye one. In other words, Running Wolf wonders if there is enough audio of Native languages to train models (and he knows way more than I do of course), but I also wonder how much training data might be required in a few years.

Indigenous languages in Montana, Running Wolf said, are generally polysynthetic, meaning words are composed of many word parts with independent meanings. In English, which is considered an isolated language, the words “the red cars” are three different words with different meanings. But in polysynthetic languages, “the red cars” can be summed up in one word. […]

While Running Wolf envisions a virtual reality where people can immerse themselves entirely in Native languages, he also envisions a world where Native communities exercise sovereignty over their language reclamation efforts.

Hyperconnected culture and its discontents On the “democratisation” of creation, gate keepers, curation, algorithms, attention, and culture. Nothing very new but well argued. Basically, everyone can now create something ordinary that no one will see. “It is misleading then to argue that cultural circulation has been democratized. The means of circulation are algorithmic, and they are not subject to democratic accountability or control. Hyperconnectivity has in fact further concentrated power over the means of circulation in the hands of the giant platforms that design and control the architectures of visibility.”

Social quitting Cory Doctorow explaining social media platforms through the lens of surpluses. Those of platforms, users, and business clients. If you want to make it a shorter read, get the gist of surpluses and then skip to “endemic to end-stage capitalism” where he uses that same lens for a lot more industries. ”This is the force underpinning collapse: ‘slow at first, then all at once.’ A steady erosion of the failsafes, flensing all the slack out of the system, extracting all the surpluses until there’s nothing left in the reservoir, no reason to stay.”

Futures, foresights, forecasts & fabulations →Andrew Curry with five things he’s learnt about horizon scanning, and on mapping the future(s) ⊗ Eliot Peper, The Possibility Engine “Speculative fiction takes these ‘what if’ questions further by weaving thought-experiment into narrative.”


  • 🤬 🤬 💩 🇺🇸 🇰🇪 OpenAI Used Kenyan Workers on Less Than $2 Per Hour to Make ChatGPT Less Toxic. “To get those labels, OpenAI sent tens of thousands of snippets of text to an outsourcing firm in Kenya, beginning in November 2021. Much of that text appeared to have been pulled from the darkest recesses of the internet.”
  • 😍 🎨 🌎 🦓 Wild World. “Commenced in 2020, this is a world map of nature. Hand-drawn with coloured pencil and pen, there are over 1,000 animals (and counting), roaming its jungles and deserts, swimming its oceans.”
  • 🤩 🌍 🚗 🇪🇺 Great way to visualise the distances one can travel emitting less than 5kg of CO2. Mob Box. “In this study, we examine a theoretical distance one could travel using various modes of transportation in Europe, emitting a fixed amount of CO2. Our calculations include the Life Cycle Assessment of each mode of transportation, and vary according to each European countries carbon intensity.”
  • ♳ 👍🏼 Plasticfree. “The world’s first innovation platform for materials and system solutions • Rich in case-studies, proof-points and trusted editorial from leaders in design and science • Instant connection to innovative makers • Future trends with scalable answers for today.”
  • 💻 🤩 📕 📸 Open Circuits “Open Circuits is a photographic exploration of the beautiful design inside everyday electronics. Its stunning cross-section photography unlocks a hidden world full of elegance, subtle complexity, and wonder.”(Via Things That Caught My Attention.)
  • 😍 🦐 📸 Tiny Seawater Worlds. “Smithsonian Magazine is featuring some incredible photos from Angel Fitor’s SeaDrops project: microphotography of tiny plankton-populated worlds contained in drops of seawater.”
  • 🤔 😳 🏢 🇨🇦 Vancouver Delivers a Gravity-Defying Tower, With a Twist. “Danish architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group used limitations to its advantage with the gravity-defying Vancouver House apartment tower.”
  • 🤬 💩 (I need a ‘can’t say I’m surprised’ emoji.) More than 90% of rainforest carbon offsets by biggest provider are worthless, analysis shows. “The forest carbon offsets approved by the world’s leading provider and used by Disney, Shell, Gucci and other big corporations are largely worthless and could make global heating worse, according to a new investigation.”