Newsletter No.263 — May 07, 2023

Playing the Future ⊗ Deskilling on the Job ⊗ How We Ended up in the Era of ‘Quantitative Aesthetics’

Want to understand the world & imagine better futures?

Also this week → What Oslo’s Future Library means for writers and the written word ⊗ The Internet isn’t meant to be so small ⊗ Adventures in science fiction prototyping ⊗ The Galactic Menagerie, Wes Anderson’s Star Wars

Playing the Future

If you’ve been reading this newsletter for a little while, you’ve surely notice that I love when articles expose connections between things. This piece by Scott Smith does that as he looks at Future: A Game of Strategy, Influence and Chance, a board game from the 60s produced by Kaiser Aluminium & Chemical Corporation of Oakland, California to celebrate their 20th anniversary as a gift to clients.

The game was “designed to give leaders, industrial magnates and, possibly, average folks who came across it in schools or other contexts an appreciation of probability, and an understanding of the interconnection between the forces we think of as shaping possible futures.” Smith managed to find a copy so I encourage you to click through for a good look at the actual components of the game, while he provides a historical look at how it came to be, how it’s a product of its time but also highlights what as changed and remained the same since, as well as some defining moments in foresight.

As I alluded to in the first phrase above, it’s also an intriguing read because the game was developed at “the fabled RAND Corporation” and connects to the birth of the Delphi method, Helmer and Gordon’s Report on a Long-range Forecasting Study, long-range central planning, the cross-impact matrix, Alvin Toffler, and Robert McNamara—who, in a truly random alignement, happens to also be mentioned in the quantitive piece below.

Futurists don’t control the future, only illuminate the landscape ahead, and try to chart pathways through it to the benefit of their clients, society, or both. […]

The more complex answer lies somewhere at the intersection of society’s distorted distance vision, and deep systemic bias toward technological innovation, and away from social progress. The former can be measured theoretically in terms of value — dollars, euros or yuan — and the latter we fail to value enough to change. […]

While technological advancement might be roughly forecastable, accompanying social change or economic or political innovation isn’t as easily anticipated. We rarely foresee the exact outcome of their collisions. […]

These games are not about being right, but instead, they are mainly about being aware of issues and the possibilities these issues’ interlinkages might spark. […]

Having sharper data, making accurate predictions, or winning the theoretical game isn’t what’s important. Getting people to talk about the future, to probe it, to feel it themselves and become more aware of what drives it is the critical element is largely the objective.

More → Searching for the image in the header, I realised that Richard Sandford had also written about the game in Policy futures and a politics of care, an article I’d even featured in No.168 but somehow the game didn’t grab my attention then.

Futures, foresights, forecasts & fabulations → Adventures in science fiction prototyping. Loooong read. Andrew Merrie and Pat Keys in conversation with Jo Lindsay Walton about science fiction prototyping and the Radical Ocean Futures project. ⊗ Noah Raford can help you prepare for a not-so-nice future. Episode of the Have a Nice Future podcast with Gideon Lichfield and Lauren Goode. ⊗ When Hans Ulrich Obrist met Gaia theorist James Lovelock.

Deskilling on the job

Fascinating and important angle on AI here, courtesy of danah boyd. As so many people focus on dramatic AGI scenarios and others on purported millions of jobs lost, boyd wonders what happens when AIs as augmentations deskill professions. Airline pilots have already gone through that process as they babysit auto-pilot software while their hard earned skills are dulled through disuse.

An oft cited example of job replacement is the boring “junk labor” young lawyers go through early in their careers, which is already being replaced by AIs. But over those years they also used to learn the trade and were “socialized into the profession.” How does that happen when they have to jump straight from school to the more complex un-automated work?

If humans are expected to watch over (be the failsafe for) AIs and jump in to stop failures, like pilots are, what happens when their skills are blunted by this babysitting “work”?

This being the US… most in Camp Automation tend to panic and refuse to engage with how their views might intersect with late-stage capitalism, structural inequality, xenophobia, and political polarization. […]

Loss of knowledge has serious consequences locally and systemically. (See: loss of manufacturing knowledge in the US right now…) […]

Asking questions about structural inequity is undoubtedly top priority, but I also want us to ask questions about what it means to skill — and deskill — on the job going forward.

How we ended up in the era of ‘Quantitative Aesthetics,’ where data points dictate taste

I recently listened to an episode of Team Human with Douglas Rushkoff where, in conversation with Marina Gorbis and Jerry Davis, they discussed the “register” we are in, where financialisation has taken over a lot of how we see the world and start viewing everything through that lens. In this piece it’s roughly the same thing around stats and numbers as a way to evaluate and value taste and art. The author calls this quantitative aesthetics and parallels that with the falling number of students in humanities and the diminishing worth given to the whole field. Software might be eating the world, but so is the language and world view of business, finance, and the quantifying of everything.

The other obvious culprit is the greater ruthlessness of the economy post-Great Recession, the flight away from the “softness” of the humanities in a time when studying anything not directly seen as useful is viewed more and more as an unsustainable luxury. […]

As the balance between the humanities and the sciences has shifted, the “language of statistics” has more clearly cemented itself as the default code for being a serious person. […]

All this also throws into relief the other types of value that have lost ground. Traditionally, “taste” is about standing out from the average, and thus favors values that were not optimized for the greatest number of anything.

What Oslo’s Future Library means for writers and the written word “Unlike biological evolution, which is built into human life, culture can never be taken for granted. It depends on the people who take it upon themselves to preserve and revive culture in every generation, including archeologists, museum curators, librarians, artists, and teachers, and specifically it depends on their ability to inspire future generations.”

The Internet isn’t meant to be so small “It is worth remembering that the internet wasn’t supposed to be like this. It wasn’t supposed to be six boring men with too much money creating spaces that no one likes but everyone is forced to use because those men have driven every other form of online existence into the ground. The internet was supposed to have pockets, to have enchanting forests you could stumble into and dark ravines you knew better than to enter.