New beginning ⊗ Earth’s layer of life ⊗ Futurists and uncertainty — No.117

Read the Sentiers newsletter on technology in society, signals of change, and prospective futures.

This week → A blank page for a new beginning ⊗ We’re destroying the Earth’s layer of life ⊗ How futurists cope with uncertainty ⊗ Cory Doctorow explains Attack Surface, his next sci-fi novel ⊗ How to read like Rossellini

A year ago → Natural’s Not in It.

A blank page for a new beginning

Reading this I had the recurring feeling that the interview is too positive, that we need to be concerned for the vast ongoing human suffering a lot more before fully jumping into such a vision. Still, I really hope that the “new beginning” Li Edelkoort envisions in her answers is something that will come to be. One where the human race takes a great step back from neoliberalism, overconsumption, too much travelling, and destruction of the planet. I also wonder when and how people who understand the situation and the stakes can push others into a reflection, get more people to consider what they lose during the pandemic, and whether they really need to get back those loses.

The impact of the coronavirus will be layered and complex, going from disbelief and social reassurance to the progressive perception of the impact on our lives to an eerie apprehension of what the scenarios might be, to the realisation of eventual solutions by self-separation in society and self-contained offices, ateliers and retreats. […]

[T]he outbreak will force us into slowing down the pace, refusing to take planes, working from our homes, entertaining only amongst close friends or family, learning to become self-sufficient and mindful. […]

We will be in a position of having a blank page for a new beginning because lots of companies and money will be wiped out in the process of slowing down. Redirecting and restarting will require a lot of insight and audacity to build a new economy with other values and ways of handling production, transport, distribution and retail. […]

Unfortunately in this disaster, there is no immediate cure. We will have to pick up the residue and reinvent everything from scratch once the virus is under control. And this is where I am hopeful for: another and better system, to be put in place with more respect for human labour and conditions. In the end, we will be forced to do what we should have done already in the first place. […]

More →: One tweet with a “modest proposal” in nine points, very much in line with the reflection I mention above. Why does it take us a global pandemic to slow down? Now we’ve been granted the opportunity to reflect on our actions. Make the most of this quarantine: reimagine the way you live your life.

Climate change is only half the problem. We’re destroying the Earth’s layer of life

Although the article is framed around climate change and the Earth’s layer of life, it’s more of a “biodiversity crash course in species and biomass.” A clear and enjoyable read on what species are, why they are hard to define, how many there are, of which, type, on land or water, etc. Also includes a number of lovely simple graphics. In the setting of Sentiers topics from the past, it’s also one more example highlighting how much we don’t know yet and how much knowledge itself changes and evolves.

[W]hen plants invented the phenomenon “flower” – an unprecedented sexual organ – around 140 million years ago, diversification on land went wild . The variation in flying, pollinating insects exploded. With that, the land overtook the sea for good. […]

Looking at the species distribution on Earth, animals, particularly insects, would seem the dominant life form. We would live on Planet Insect. But viewed in terms of biomass, it’s plants that have undisputed dominion. In fact, the presence of plants pretty much dwarfs all other forms of life. […]

Why is the carbon molecule so essential to life? Milo explains: “In general, you could say that two-thirds of the mass of plants or animals is water.” Half of the remaining one-third “dry” weight is carbon. Suppose you weigh 60 kilos: your dry mass is 20 kilos, and your carbon mass 10 kilos. […]

Before humans began rearing livestock, took up agriculture, and started the industrial revolution, there was probably twice (!) as much biomass: an estimated 1,000 gigatonnes of carbon trapped in living matter. Milo says: “In the last thousand years there has been a strong decrease in biomass, caused by humans. Without a doubt. “

How Futurists Cope With Uncertainty

Useful presentation of a foresight tool by Amy Webb, well known quantitative futurist who works on “tech trends, foresight and scenarios at the Future Today Institute.” It’s called Axes of Uncertainty and Webb explains how to set up such an exercise, which can have value for companies and your personal life/career. Summarized: come up with a bunch of internal and external uncertainties expressed as the two ends of an axis; categorize them under “economic,” “social,” “technological, and regulatory, politics, activism”; set them up on quadrants.

I’m writing to tell you a simple truth: you cannot make accurate predictions describing exactly what your industry will look like in 3, 6, or 12 months. I know you’re under pressure to do that right now. Your organizations want new financial projections and accurate timetables. Your senior executives and boards want concrete answers. Your goal right now isn’t predictions. It’s preparation for what comes next. We must shift our mindset from making predictions to being prepared. […]

The more plausible outcomes you can discover, and the more flexible you can be in your thinking and planning, the more assured you will feel about your futures. That’s how you break the vicious cycle of corporate anxiety. And there’s an added benefit: if you identify existential risk early, you have time to take action. […]

A completed Axis results in a 2 x 2 matrix and four headlines describing plausible futures, given what we can observe from the past and present. The headlines will reveal risk and opportunity, help you prioritize your work and show you were to take incremental actions. […]

It can be simple and easy: if you’ve revealed a potential opportunity, do some more research and explore the idea in more depth. If you’ve revealed a possible threat, talk to your colleagues and continue to build out your scenario, allowing yourselves to take it to extremes.

Cory Doctorow explains Attack Surface, his next sci-fi novel

I think the person I’ve linked to most here might be Doctorow, so I should probably stop that for a while, but what can I say, I usually like his thinking. The interview is about his latest book but he also makes a good parallel between the perception of successes or failures of climate change activists, and that of those working on privacy, surveillance, control, and monopolization issues. Although I might dispute some of the date ranges, his framing of “three distinct waves of tech workers” is also interesting. Finally, in the conclusion he’s got a good take on optimism vs hopefulness.

The activism of those supposedly naive days was (and remains) as much motivated by stark terror of networked authoritarianism as it is by hope about the liberating power of technological resistance movements. […]

Those activists had some success, but for the most part, the thing that’s convincing people that climate change is real is climate change itself. The “policy debt” built up by inaction on climate change means that floods, droughts, wildfires, pandemics, hurricanes, and other climate crises are breaking on the reg, and they have a convincing power that surpasses even the most articulate activist’s arguments. […]

[I]t’s now obvious to everyone that something terrible has happened to our electronic nervous system. The issue now is convincing those same people that it’s not too late to do something about it. […]

The broad reach of tech across class, gender, age, racial and geographic lines means that first of all, it’s impossible to talk about tech and rights without talking about the intersections of those factors, and second of all, any project to include a human rights framework within tech touches on all those other issues, too.

How to read like Rossellini

I’m a sucker for stuff like this about reading and writing. Short one by Austin Kleon on Roberto Rossellini’s nighttime reading habit.

The filmmaker claimed he annotated over 9000 books and that his nighttime reading — gathering “an extraordinary amount of information” — gave him the freedom to be improvisational on set during the day. […]

1. Promiscuous reading, or reading more than one book at a time.

2. Marginalia, or reading with a pencil.

3. Revisiting your notes and copying them for later use.


  • ? We’re Not Prepared for the End of Moore’s Law. “[T]he trade-off is that specialized chips are less versatile than traditional CPUs. Thompson is concerned that chips for more general computing are becoming a backwater, slowing ‘the overall pace of computer improvement.’”
  • ? Op-ed: What ‘Death of the Newspaper’ stories leave out. “The basic value proposition still holds: people need to know what’s going on in their communities. They require credible, accurate and objective information that can inform their daily lives, and they’re willing to pay for it.”
  • ? These Researchers Want You to Live In a Fungus Megastructure. “We propose to develop a structural substrate by using live fungal mycelium, fungal buildings will self-grow, build, and repair themselves.”
  • 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2020. One example; Tiny AI. “But a countertrend of tiny AI is changing that. Tech giants and academic researchers are working on new algorithms to shrink existing deep-learning models without losing their capabilities. Meanwhile, an emerging generation of specialized AI chips promises to pack more computational power into tighter physical spaces, and train and run AI on far less energy.”
  • I’d never heard of this wearables project, slick. Jacquard by Google. “Jacquard takes ordinary, familiar objects and enhances them with new digital abilities and experiences, while remaining true to their original purpose — like being your favorite jacket, backpack or a pair of shoes that you love to wear.”
  • ? Newton Papers : Newton’s Waste Book. All the high res scanned pages and includes a nice short documentary. “The ‘Waste Book’ was not retired by Newton after his initial mathematical labours. He continued to use it extensively for calculations and rough working on the topics that concerned him most. Thus, in the 1680s or perhaps even the 1690s, he set down information about the motion of comets in this manuscript.”
  • ?This is exactly one kind of simple thing which should continue after. Quarantine Book Club. “Join your favorite authors on Zoom where you can have spirited discussions from the privacy of our own quarantined space!”
  • Escape Into Cottagecore, Calming Ethos for Our Febrile Moment. “Take modern escapist fantasies like tiny homes, voluntary simplicity, forest bathing and screen-free childhoods, then place them inside a delicate, moss-filled terrarium, and the result will look a lot like cottagecore.”

Header image: Daybreak, 1922 by Maxfield Parrish.

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