Newsletter No.273 — Jul 16, 2023

Personal Machines and Portable Worlds ⊗ The 1970s Librarians Who Revolutionised the Challenge of Search ⊗ Post-Anthropocene Humanism

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Also this week → It looks like we’re in a Golden Age for medicine ⊗ Read this one when you’re growing ⊗ AI translates 5,000-year-old cuneiform tablets

Vacation time! I’m off for some much needed time away from the screens, the newsletter will back August 13th, have fun in the meantime.

Personal machines and portable worlds

Really love this one by Christopher Butler, it’s one of those pieces where it seems like I’m highlighting every other paragraph. “It's about personal machines, and how they balances access to another world with the kinds of limits and boundaries that make a thing private.”

In one angle of the piece, and especially with bits like C.S. Lewis’ “its inside is bigger than its outside,” I think Butler is not only looking to understand the global impact of personal technology and how it has evolved, how it’s articulated, but also our fascination with it. It rests not only in the technical possibilities “wow this thing can do this” but in how it can become a gateway “wow, look at everything that’s on the other side!”

In his newsletter, Butler presented the article saying that it’s been on his mind for a while, there have been multiple drafts, but “it was just time.” It shows, because I’m struggling myself with synthesising it here, it’s packed with a lot of ideas he has managed to line up in a great whole. So have a read! I’d just mention that he talks about making choices and that’s definitely something everyone needs to think on.

For some reason, as he’s giving examples of choices, of a minidisc or a desktop instead of a laptop, and of objects as worlds, my mind immediately went to cars and walking. Once you walk or bike more and start noticing the space cars take up, your shoes or bike are not a new world, but the world around you looks different and weird. Cars are personal machines, which explains part of the fascination and how we managed to shape some cities so badly.

There’s something about the personal device that I have always found fascinating and now find to be almost mysterious. But to be personal it has to be a certain kind of device — the kind that balances access to another world with the kinds of limits and boundaries that make a thing private. […]

The tension between knowing that the world a personal device creates has boundaries defined by its code and materials and not knowing exactly what they are is one that, when kept in balance, activates the imagination. It allows for exploration, both of the object and through the object. […]

The most magical of personal devices are those which offer access to the experience of infinitude without measuring it for you. The unknown is the stuff of imagination. […]

Perhaps that one thing — a simple desire for a personal machine — set us on the course we have followed since. Not Moore’s Law, not Capitalism, but personhood. […]

My interpretation of Al’s handlink may tip the balance too far toward the metaphysical. But tipping is part of the calibration process, and if anything, we’ve tipped too far the other way for too long. […]

I also notice that when I look at these older machines and the old media they use, I often find myself feeling like I’m looking at a door to a world. I look at a book — there’s a world. Every playable disc in our house — each a world.

The 1970s librarians who revolutionised the challenge of search

A couple of things that always draw my attention; how science changes (see half-life of knowledge) and how history changes. The former through uncovering people and events that were forgotten or hidden. Those two are generally fascinating to me on their own, to see how these things evolve, but those moments are also insights into how these ‘systems’ work.

This piece at Aeon does that, resurfacing pioneering work largely forgotten. In the 1970s, campus librarians developed search tools that revolutionized the way researchers searched for information. At Syracuse University, one librarian named Pauline Atherton led the development of SUPARS, which paved the way for contemporary search engines, using free text, saved searches, query expansion, and autocomplete to improve relevance and efficiency. Atherton and her team anticipated a future in which researchers would increasingly work outside of the library, and looked to the collective intelligence of all searchers to supplement help from librarians.

While the popular history of the internet valorises Silicon Valley coders – or, sometimes, the former US vice president Al Gore – many of the original concepts for search emerged from library scientists focused on the accessibility of documents in time and space. […]

It is tempting to depict Atherton’s team as utopian futurists, but the SUPARS experiment was not designed with a guiding vision like the open web in mind. It was specifically created for a future in which fewer librarians would be available to help researchers in person. Extending the collective intelligence of others was a practical solution, not an idealistic one. […]

In this way, SUPARS is meaningful as both a design far ahead of its time and as a counterexample to established techno-utopian histories of the internet and the world wide web. The people credited as visionaries in this history almost always imagined a world where technology would improve human communication, intelligence and effectiveness absolutely.

Post-Anthropocene Humanism

Nathan Gardels at NOEMA attaches together the ideas of a number of philosophers around technology, humanism, and biopolitics. You might be in the same boat as I, namely one that can appreciate the piece and hopes to pull on some strings in the future, while at the same time feeling over my head in terms of validating Gardels’ interpretation of Agamben, Ellul, Illich, Alsberg, Bolk, Lovelock, and Heidegger.

I’m still including the piece because I think this nexus of technology broadly, AI specifically, and more-than-human intelligence, as well as the de-centering of humans is one of the great keys (pivot?) for humanity going forward. Thus, I’m piling this one alongside others, as I slowly try to find my way around their thinking. Btw, L.M. Sacasas’ Convivial Society and his interpretations of Illich and Ellul has proven of great value.

One thing I have to note about Gardels’ piece is that he seems to take for granted that “our species [will be] knocked off its pedestal by machines more intelligent than we are.” I think that’s far from a given, and that assumption goes a long way in explaining Agamben’s remark on “our collective incapability to govern technology.” The presumption of inevitability is not a good starting point for governance.

But what will become of human centrality as our species is knocked off its pedestal by machines more intelligent than we are and de-centered by the humbling realization that survival depends on reducing our outsized footprint on this fragile planet? […]

At that threshold there is always a caesura, or breakpoint, that is undetermined. “Only at this threshold” concludes Agamben, “can ethics and politics find their right place, ethics and politics that will not simply seek to command and dominate nature through technology, but rather to master the relationship between nature and culture, body and technics. It is in this third space between human and non-human, body and technology, that we must locate our investigations.” […]

An alternative to this scenario would be a post-Anthropocene humanism which Sloterdijk, following Martin Heidegger, calls “homo humanus” — a perpetually vigilant state of “caring” that mediates the relationship among humans, technique and nature to guard against the human becoming “inhuman, outside his essence.”

Suddenly, it looks like we’re in a Golden Age for medicine David Wallace-Wells shows, with a number of examples like mRNA vaccines and Crispr, to show that “we may be on the cusp of an era of astonishing innovation — the limits of which aren’t even clear yet.”

Read this one when you’re growing “To ‘circumnutate’ means to bend or move around in an irregular circle or ellipse. It is a motion caused by variations in the speed of growth of different parts of the plant, and is the mechanism behind most plant movement… It’s nutation that causes leaves to bend or flatten out, and petals to furrow and curl. Circumnutation — a gentle and upward and outward spiraling — is the characteristic movement of growing plants, performed by everything from pea shoots to oak seedlings, as well as mushrooms and the hyphae of fungi.”


  • 🤖 😬 Humans may be more likely to believe disinformation generated by AI. “That credibility gap, while small, is concerning given that the problem of AI-generated disinformation seems poised to grow significantly, says Giovanni Spitale, the researcher at the University of Zurich who led the study, which appeared in Science Advances today. ‘The fact that AI-generated disinformation is not only cheaper and faster, but also more effective, gives me nightmares,’ he says.”
  • 🤖 🪨 AI translates 5,000-year-old cuneiform tablets instantly. “The team trained the AI model on a sample of cuneiform texts from the Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus and taught it to translate in two distinct ways. First, the AI model learned to translate Akkadian from transliterations of the original texts. It also learned how to translate cuneiform symbols directly.”
  • 💪🏼 📱 Fairphone 3 gets seven years of updates, besting every other Android OEM. “No one in the Android ecosystem can hold a candle to Apple's software support timeline for the iPhone, but there is one company that comes the closest: Fairphone. Following in the footsteps of the Fairphone 2, the Fairphone 3 is also getting an Android-industry-best seven years of OS support.”
  • 🤖 🚗 🍦 Protesters develop novel way to build cone-sensus against driverless cars. “A video of the group’s actions with step-by-step instructions on how to disable a robo-taxi with a cone has gone viral on Twitter and sparked intense debates about the pros and cons of autonomous vehicles and the value of protesting in this way.” James Bridle’s Autonomous Trap 001, but make it direct activism.
  • 📚🧊 🇩🇰 The Coolest Library on Earth. “In this freezer facility in Denmark, Steffensen’s team at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen stores some 40,000 segments of ice cores, long cylinders of ice from polar regions that preserve the history of past climate.”
  • 🍕 🤤 🇮🇹 Pompeii archaeologists discover ‘pizza’ painting. “Archaeologists at the Unesco World Heritage park say the newly-uncovered fresco depicting the flatbread, painted next to a wine goblet, may have been eaten with fruits such as pomegranates or dates, or dressed with spices and a type of pesto sauce.”
  • 🎥 🍫 Official Trailer for WONKA. Timothée Chalamet as a young Wonka might be an even better idea than Johnny Depp as an older one. Also, Hugh Grant as Oompa-Loompa!