Notes on criticism and technology hype ⊗ When engineers were humanists ⊗ The Billion Seconds Institute — No.163

This week → You’re doing it wrong: notes on criticism and technology hype ⊗ When engineers were humanists ⊗ The Billion Seconds Institute ⊗ Blueprints of intelligence ⊗ The little magazine that incubated team Biden

A year ago → The most clicked article in issue No.116 was Progress, Postmodernism and the Tech Backlash by Alex Danco.

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

You’re doing it wrong: notes on criticism and technology hype

Excellent piece by Lee Vinsel, about critiquing tech. I’ll readily admit that I’ve done this in the past. Or rather that I’ve amplified criti-hype, often adding a note concerning some exaggerations or inaccuracies, believing that the companies in question deserve the criticism, and thus by removing the problems the rest is worth sharing. Vinsel is correct though, some of the criti-hypers are using the marketing of these companies, taking it as correct, and critiquing from there. He cites Zuboff and Harris, who talk about Facebook almost like it does mind-control, building on the company’s marketing claims.

To put it in the words of some recent articles featured here; big tech is talking loudly about the futures (and present really) they want and some critics are actually amplifying that message even while critiquing. There are plenty of actual misdeeds committed by Google, Facebook, Uber, and others, no need to spend so much time debunking their bunk.

This has a bit of the Gladwellian backlash to it. Critics doing good work fall into an easy pattern, figure out how to monetize, and drift away from the more solid work they once did or might have done.

[A]t the worst, what these researchers do is take the sensational claims of boosters and entrepreneurs, flip them, and start talking about “risks.” They become the professional concern trolls of technoculture. […]

[O]ne response to criti-hype should be doing a better job of steering graduate students away from “emerging technologies” which are little more than promissory notes towards actual technological agonies. […]

It is outrageous that I can point to gobs of people in my field working on synthetic biology, “AI,” self-driving cars, and blockchain but not a single person researching septic tanks, mobile homes, trailer parks, or even housing more generally, even though these latter topics are full of technological issues and true human suffering that IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW. […]

In my experience, young people enter graduate programs enthusiastic about some pretty unrealistic and dramatic visions of near-term technological change, even including things as ridiculous as the singularity and transhumanism. Nuanced understanding of the history, sociology, and economics of technology is good medicine for this condition.

When engineers were humanists

Jessica Riskin reviewing Paolo Galluzzi’s The Italian Renaissance of Machines, which looks at various humanists of the period. Here the word refers to those who “sought a cultural rebirth by going back to the philosophical, literary, and historical writings of ancient Greece and Rome.” Galluzzi considers their work through the perspective of “machine design” (contraptions and devices).

The topic and perspective are worth thinking on because they reflect a transdisciplinary / generalist / polymathic kind of searching and inventing, which I always find interesting in and of itself but also in comparison to too many of today’s titans focusing on engineering as the one thing to know and yield, blinded to the value of other fields and of history.

In case, like me, these names draw you in instantly, the piece includes mentions of Florence, Siena, Venice, Constantinople, de’ Medici, da Vinci, Taccola (starting now), and Galileo.

They assumed that their various endeavors came together in a single, whole, human enterprise, just as the Renaissance cosmos was all interlinked, microcosm and macrocosm, by a web of common symbolism and meaning. Accordingly, Taccola and his fellow humanists of machines treated the design of machines as integral to an all-embracing philosophical and artistic undertaking. […]

Vitruvius explains that architecture requires vast learning, encompassing every subject: drawing, geometry, optics, history, philosophy, music, medicine, law, and astronomy. This might seem daunting, but Vitruvius assures Augustus that it’s feasible because “all studies have a common bond of union and intercourse with one another.” […]

In the Arsenale setting of Galileo’s last work, we glimpse a post-humanist sort of engineering: directed, specialized, imperial rather than cosmological in ambition, deliberately detached from humanistic concerns. […]

the Industrial Revolution, that tsunami of post-humanist engineering, left in its wake a changed world in which engineers addressed discrete problems rather than cosmic questions, and did so without reference to ancient and abiding historical, literary, or philosophical themes.

The Billion Seconds Institute

This one is not an article but a new project by the fine folks at IAM: “a lifelong learning initiative to organise a network of specialists, advisors and communities of practice to reimagine the ways we understand and shape the mental, social and environmental impacts of the digital economy.” I like it, I’m sure I’ll join, you should have a look. If you want to read more about their thinking, you should also read The Everything manifesto.

Beyond my interest in the team and the topics of the institute, also file this in the vicinity of your notes for the future of work, lifelong learning, care / maintenance, and dark forest / squads. A loose network of mission-driven people supporting each other, learning from each other, outside of classic curricula and structured learning, is something to keep an eye on, and hopefully a model we see more of.

[W]hen you look at the scale of the ‘Big Tech’ corporations shaping the digital economy by using the “break things and move fast” ethos to break “things” like democracy and move “fast” to avoid taxes and lobby against privacy or antitrust laws. […]

What if we go beyond understanding humans only as consumers or users, and then design for and with citizens who have rights and duties, promoting digital literacy, tolerance and solidarity and enabling everyone to make better and more conscious decisions individually and collectively? […]

If we start thinking of ourselves as citizens instead of users or consumers, as interdependent instead of self-sufficient, we will quickly realise that individual action is not enough.

Blueprints of intelligence

I won’t add much to this short piece other than it’s an intriguing question. Can AI development be better understood / influenced by outsiders (i.e. other fields and activists) through the investigation of the technical diagrams it uses, instead or in addition to the fiction and marketing visuals around them?

If there is a picture of contemporary artificial intelligence, I’d argue it is here: in neural network architecture diagrams. I am less concerned with what a diagram might tell a researcher than with the connections between visual representations of neural networks and AI researchers’ conception of cognition. […]

Instead of projecting onto a metal humanoid, a poetic reading of metaphor and symbolism in AI diagrams prompts us to consider how their creators think about cognition. This may lead to more productive conversations about the risks and opportunities of artificial intelligence research than we could have amid sci-fi tropes.

The little magazine that incubated team Biden

Once again, somewhat randomly, the last featured article falls into the “research labs / think tanks / fellowships” grouping. I’m sure there are a number of issues with who has access, who gets published, etc. But for the model and the framing, I love it. Maybe this is what Sentiers looks like in a couple of years, except not for politicians? 😉 (Via Bruno Boutot.)

It has only 500 subscribers. And yet Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, a 15-year-old quarterly run by a three-person staff out of a small office blocks from the White House, may be one of the most influential publications of the post-Trump era. […]

[T]he magazine, which published its first issue in 2006, was conceived as an “R. & D. skunk-works of ideas.”


  • 🇺🇸 💵 Stockton’s Basic-Income Experiment Pays Off. “In the Stockton study, the share of participants with a full-time job rose 12 percentage points, versus five percentage points in the control group. In an interview, Martin-West and Castro Baker suggested that the money created capacity for goal setting, risk taking, and personal investment. … ‘So many of the illnesses we see in our community are a result of toxic stress and elevated cortisol levels and anxiety, directly attributed to income volatility and not having enough to cover your basic necessities. That’s true in the public-health crisis we’re in now.’”
  • 🇺🇸 ⛺️ ⚡️ 🔋 👏🏼 I love this guy! Ryan Pohl is recycling old electric car batteries to help people live off the grid . “High Desert Off Grid, a one-man operation that repurposes used lithium batteries from electric vehicles for campers and RVs. When charged by solar panels, batteries allow people to replace polluting generators with a completely clean and renewable source of energy.”
  • 🇸🇪 🍩 👏🏼 Ikea offers ‘disassembly instructions’ to encourage customers to extend product life. “Sustainability is at the heart of everything we do at Ikea and we remain committed to introducing new ways to promote circular consumption, in order to help meet our goal of becoming a fully circular and climate positive business by 2030, in addition to making sustainable living accessible and affordable to all,”
  • 🎞 🤩 Happens once in a while, an AI project I like! Tens of thousands of image from movies, indexed and searchable by multiple filters, including word search for objects.
  • 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿 You know I love me a nice untranslatable word! In this case it’s from the Welsh: hiraeth. “It combines elements of homesickness, nostalgia and longing. Interlaced, however, is the subtle acknowledgment of an irretrievable loss – a unique blend of place, time and people that can never be recreated. This unreachable nature adds an element of grief, but somehow it is not entirely unwelcome.”
  • 🦑 🤯 A Cephalopod Has Passed a Cognitive Test Designed For Human Children. “Cuttlefish in the present study were all able to wait for the better reward and tolerated delays for up to 50-130 seconds, which is comparable to what we see in large-brained vertebrates such as chimpanzees, crows and parrots”
  • 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2021. “Data trusts offer one alternative approach that some governments are starting to explore. A data trust is a legal entity that collects and manages people’s personal data on their behalf. Though the structure and function of these trusts are still being defined, and many questions remain, data trusts are notable for offering a potential solution to long-standing problems in privacy and security.”

Header image: Street art in Florence, Italy. Photo by Simone Pellegrini on Unsplash.