New Wilderness / Asimov on creativity & having new ideas / Living in Space / What’s a ‘Smart City’ Supposed to Look Like? / Desert of The Real — No.86

The New Wilderness

Sharp take here by the multitalented Maciej Cegłowski, introducing the idea of “ambient privacy,” the society level intersection of everyone’s individual privacy which surveillance capitalism is eating away. He ponders how this loss affects our democracies and then makes (as others have done) the parallel with the environment; something that was so ambient and plentiful that we didn’t think of it… until the balance shifted and we needed to introduce protections. Cegłowski has a knack for finding the turn of phrase that drives a point home, so please excuse / enjoy the multiple quotes.

No two companies have done more to drag private life into the algorithmic eye than Google and Facebook. Together, they operate the world’s most sophisticated dragnet surveillance operation, a duopoly that rakes in nearly two thirds of the money spent on online ads. You’ll find their tracking scripts on nearly every web page you visit. They can no more function without surveillance than Exxon Mobil could function without pumping oil from the ground. […]

The question we need to ask is not whether our data is safe, but why there is suddenly so much of it that needs protecting.

I’ll call it ‘ambient privacy’—the understanding that there is value in having our everyday interactions with one another remain outside the reach of monitoring, and that the small details of our daily lives should pass by unremembered. What we do at home, work, church, school, or in our leisure time does not belong in a permanent record. Not every conversation needs to be a deposition. […]

Today computers have given us that power. Authoritarian states like China and Saudi Arabia are using this newfound capacity as a tool of social control. Here in the United States, we’re using it to show ads. But the infrastructure of total surveillance is everywhere the same, and everywhere being deployed at scale. […]

Because our laws frame privacy as an individual right, we don’t have a mechanism for deciding whether we want to live in a surveillance society. […]

Telling people that they own their data, and should decide what to do with it, is just another way of disempowering them. […]

To what extent is living in a surveillance-saturated world compatible with pluralism and democracy? What are the consequences of raising a generation of children whose every action feeds into a corporate database? What does it mean to be manipulated from an early age by machine learning algorithms that adaptively learn to shape our behavior?

Elsewhere: His point about surveillance society vs individual privacy rights reminded me of Dan Hill’s The city is my homescreen which contrasted the default user experience focus with the needs for things to work not just for individuals but at city and society level.

To be light on dystopia I didn’t feature this one more but Soon, satellites will be able to watch you everywhere all the time and that will certainly not be helping ambient privacy.

Isaac Asimov Asks, “How Do People Get New Ideas?”

Asimov on ideas and creativity is very close to an automatic inclusion here. An unpublished 1959 essay on creativity, ideas, solitude, co-creation, brainstorms, and facilitation. Although he doesn’t use most of those terms. I, for one, will from now on aim to use “cerebration session” instead of brainstorm (not really but I like it).

That is the crucial point that is the rare characteristic that must be found. Once the cross-connection is made, it becomes obvious. […]

But why didn’t he think of it? The history of human thought would make it seem that there is difficulty in thinking of an idea even when all the facts are on the table. Making the cross-connection requires a certain daring. It must, for any cross-connection that does not require daring is performed at once by many and develops not as a “new idea,” but as a mere “corollary of an old idea.” […]

I would suggest that members at a cerebration session be given sinecure tasks to do—short reports to write, or summaries of their conclusions, or brief answers to suggested problems—and be paid for that, the payment being the fee that would ordinarily be paid for the cerebration session. The cerebration session would then be officially unpaid-for and that, too, would allow considerable relaxation.”

Elsewhere: Somehow I still had this paragraph by Bryan Boyer from six years ago pop into my head, which fits nicely with Asimov’s cerebrations.

Through empirical study conducted over the course of 13 months I’ve concluded that the perfect table for a social gathering of 8-16 people is 2 meters in diameter. At this size a group will be able to maintain a single conversation without any one individual being so distant from their complement on the opposite side that it is not possible for them to discuss. Likewise, the round shape allows all to share a single conversation if they choose, without preventing people from breaking into smaller subgroups. Also important: the broccoli is never further away than the arm-span of two people.

And it reminds me of this one by Matt Webb, specifically; “Space beats structure, Informality wins, Convening not chairing, Bonfires not fireworks.” Which of course makes me want to re-start my own Les ponts which I haven’t held in (checks notes) almost a year!!

Living in Space ?

I rarely feature Twitter threads as articles but this one by Hugh Howey is really excellent and is pretty much his draft for an upcoming post. Lots to ponder in here on the reasons for our dreams of living in space, who dreams them, and what we could actually do. Ends on a very hopeful note for Earth. Good to be hopeful once in a while.

(B) Science would be better served (humanity as well) by solving energy and fresh water problems here on Earth. We could invest in clean energy and desalination and turn the Sahara back into grasslands and flood parched India for what we’ll spend on toys for boys. […]

Generation ships are the purest form of colonizing. They will not be built anywhere NEAR Mars. They will be built in Earth orbit, or in orbit around the Moon, closer to our sources of industry and in the absence of gravity.

Meanwhile, on Earth, within 100 years, we will have declining world populations. People will continue streaming into cities, leaving nature to re-wild. Synthetic meat and growing veganism will accelerate the already declining use of pasture.

What’s a ‘Smart City’ Supposed to Look Like?

Quick overview of smart city tropes through a scathing(ish) look at three styles of imageries from various proponents. Also consider this alongside the Revell piece right after.

But for the most part, at this point smart cities are just pictures accompanied by hot air and marketing verbiage. Despite some stylistic difference, these images all speak the same basic language—sleek and a bit soulless, but striking enough to perk up any boardroom. […]

Sidewalk tries to project maturity: They convey a “welcoming tone” that has learned to “speak urbanism.” But what we’re seeing here is humanist window dressing. Those aren’t representations of living people enjoying the city—to Sidewalk, they’re just data inputs. […]

Sidewalk’s trick is making it look like they’re doing something they’re not, like making a neighborhood instead of building a huge behavioral data farm. […]

The smart city isn’t a technological utopia, or an environmental lifeboat. It’s a few PowerPoint slides in a conference room demonstrating that there’s money to be made.

Rendering the Desert of The Real

Tobias Revell on Stalin, Ikea, CGI, and our ability to tell the difference between the real and the fake.

We’re aware of the fantastic application of CGI when it comes to video games or film, and the monumental industrial practices of large-scale CGI are popular talking points, but they distract us from the seep of CGI images in to every day culture. […]

While sketches and models leave room for critical interrogation and questioning, CGI images are too real, too compelling to leave any room for critique.

Vacation Reads

Here are a few > 25 min reads I’ve got lined up for my vacation time. When I get back there will be a couple hundred newsletter issues to sift through for the next Sentiers so let me share them now, before they get buried.


Found via

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

Header image: Orbital city | 3284 by Paul chadeisson

1 Comment

[…] An essay by Caroline Sinders and Hyphen Labs, based on their Higher Resolution exhibition for the Tate museum’s Tate Exchange program. On the concept of gradients of intimacy, how privacy online is often an on/off switch, while the way it actually works offline is much more varied and contextual; on the need for places and ways to move within such a gradient. Building on ideas by Michelle Cortese and Edward T. Hall, they worked on four privacy and intimacy metaphors: the town hall, the park bench, the living room, and the loo. Very adjacent and useful to think upon alongside Maciej Cegłowski’s The New Wilderness where he introduced the idea of “ambient privacy,” the society level intersection of everyone’s individual privacies (see my comment and select quotes in Sentiers No.86). […]