Premonition ⊗ Not the apocalypse ⊗ Supply chains — No.120

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

This week → Premonition ⊗ This is not the apocalypse you were looking for ⊗ Perhaps China’s centralised supply chain won’t last forever ⊗ After supply chain capitalism ⊗ Mapping impacts and implications

A year ago → How will AI change your life?

This is issue is not what I expected. Or at least, not what I’ve had in mind the last few weeks. I wanted to stay away from virus coverage but really, what else is there? So yes, these featured articles are about the current situation but not about masks or curves, rather some of my favourite brainy people thinking about what it all means and where we might be going (plus a forecasting tool).


Considering how unprecedented the current situation is and how hard it is to have a clear picture of where things are going, this interesting compilation of thoughts for the future by Toby Shorin and friends is perfectly titled. They cover culture, what might thrive online and remain after, how things might change IRL, brands, media, retail spaces, a possible resurgence of suburbs, entertainment, politics, etc.

For my part, I think the most important / interesting aspects to follow will be what kinds of visions will be put forth by governments: rebuild as is or with Green New Deals? Rethink how society operates or restart as quick as possible? How much will be collective and how much will be throwing money at banks and large corporations? What kind of new financing and infrastructures might be put in place to deal with the next “event?”

[W]hich of my beliefs remain unchanged? What assumptions will remain in place? What trends will be accelerated, which delayed, and which stopped entirely? What do I care about that has become newly relevant, and what no longer matters? […]

Memes, discourses, aesthetics, language, specialized knowledge and activities, all taking place online, will be the vehicles of lifestyle performance and participation. We’re already seeing plenty of new reading groups, curation modes, and remote hangout formats. Knowledge tooling will be extremely important to this new set of online cultural formation. […]

There will need to be new types of interface and digital social environment to support the continued proliferation of lifestyles. We’ll probably see a flourishing of new, social micro-networks. They will not be for everyone. They will be private in nature, and will support between 20 and 1000 people. […]

People who left the city due to safety concerns or simply for affordability reasons may not return. Combined with the increasing viability of remote work and zero-hour contracting, we may see further evacuation of the city and a new wave of suburbanization. […]

The fate of the urban environment itself, along with the restaurants and retail that it comprises, will depend upon government interventions at every scale. Without sufficient aid to individuals and small businesses (and even with that aid, to a lesser degree), widespread closures will create a void in commercial real estate demand. […]

This Is Not the Apocalypse You Were Looking For

Laurie Penny on all of the apocalyptic visions of recent decades, how completely different the virus catastrophe is, and how “capitalism,” the right, fans of the end of the world, and various others, like most of us, were entirely unprepared for it. Unprepared for a catastrophe where we need carers, not fighters.

I was expecting Half-Life. I was expecting World War Z. I’ve been dressing like I’m in The Matrix since 2003. I was not expecting to be facing this sort of thing in snuggly socks and a dressing gown, thousands of miles from home, trying not to panic and craving a proper cup of tea. This apocalypse is less Danny Boyle and more Douglas Adams. […]

What happens is that women and carers of all genders quietly exhaust themselves filling in the gaps, trying to save as many people as possible from physical and mental collapse. The people on the front line are not fighters. They are healers and carers. The very people whose work is rarely paid in proportion to its importance are the ones we really need when the dung hits the Dyson. Nurses, doctors, cleaners, drivers. Emotional and domestic labor have never been part of the grand story men have told themselves about the destiny of the species—not even when they imagine its grave. […]

My job will be the same as yours and everyone else’s: to be kind, to stay calm, and to take care of whoever happens to need taking care of in my immediate vicinity.

Perhaps China’s centralised supply chain won’t last forever

In an exercise similar to the Premonitions piece above, Matt Webb considers the global centralized supply chain and how it might change in the near future. He believes that the line between the value of manufacturing far + shipping, and manufacturing locally is thinner than we think.

If I was in charge of industrial policy, I’d be betting against the hegemony of the centralised supply chain. That is: no more getting everything manufactured in China; instead, move to local manufacture and many more, smaller, networked factories. I’m talking over a couple of decades. […]

Shipping costs are increasing. Shipping is a carbon nightmare, and fuel rules are changing which will hike costs hugely. As we get more serious about climate change, that trajectory will continue. So how does that change the economics? And what other numbers are changing that I haven’t run across? […]

Let’s not even get into (gestures ineffectually) the current situation. It’s clear now that every country needs its own manufacturing base so that – when push comes to shove – it can be redirected to make what needs to be made.

After Supply Chain Capitalism

The breaks in the supply chain are “simply” showing everyone what the less privileged have already seen; a grinding market built for turning a profit, ignoring the humans in the chain, and any social responsibility or considerations whatsoever.

The legibility and order of containerized standardization in supply chains doesn’t resolve or erase on-the-ground complexity or risk, it only obscures it from consumers. […]

Supply chain capitalism principles—reliance on outsourced labor, an emphasis on just-in-time delivery, faith in data-driven decision-making, pursuit of economies of scale—have played, at times, an under-appreciated role in the emergence of digitally-enabled inequities that COVID-19 will also likely exacerbate. […]

The insistence that dignity and life aren’t as essential as efficiency and market performance needs to be undermined with a social safety net that protects all people, including and especially workers most at risk, whether faced with a pandemic or simply faced with run-of-the-mill cruelties of capitalism.

Mapping Impacts and Implications

Quick read on a simple tool for sketching possible futures; the futures wheels. Starts from an important change, then going to first, second and even third level impacts; usually along the social, technological, economic, environmental, political, and values categories (STEEP+V).

When you begin to see the outside edge more clearly and look across the second- and particularly third-order impacts, you might start to see where some impacts conflict with each other, some present unseen synergies, and some open up interesting opportunities for change that weren’t immediately apparent. […]

This kind of sequential structure helps keep you from generating an unstructured list of impacts that might be difficult to reconnect later. An appropriate, small overlay of logic goes a long way toward helping to clarify and qualify your thinking as a group. […]

You aren’t looking to present a rosy, successful sequence of problems then solutions. Stay neutral and try to think objectively at this point. Forget money and interests, and stick to “if/then” considerations.


  • ? Scientists find bug that feasts on toxic plastic. “The bacterium, which was found at a waste site where plastic had been dumped, is the first that is known to attack polyurethane. Millions of tonnes of the plastic is produced every year to use in items such as sports shoes, nappies, kitchen sponges and as foam insulation, but it is mostly sent to landfill because it it too tough to recycle.”
  • I haven’t looked through this thoroughly yet but looks excellent. Futures in long-termism. “To address the multiple crises we face today, we need to extend our temporal frame of reference and develop strategic and critical responses that orient deep structural transformations in Long-termism. In other words, we need to develop the will, motivation and structural instruments to escape the salience of the present, and realise our power and responsibility over the future.”
  • ? There are many such lists, my favourite so far is the BESIDE Quarantine Guide which covers a lot of angles.
  • ??‍♀️ Marvel Unlimited Now Offering Free Access to Iconic Comic Book Stories “[O]ffering all fans FREE access to some of Marvel’s most iconic stories from recent years, including now-classic Marvel Comics events and critically acclaimed runs featuring the Avengers, Spider-Man, Black Widow, Captain America, Captain Marvel, and more.”
  • ? Mathematics as a Team Sport. When 50 mathematicians spend a week in the woods, there’s no telling what will happen. And that’s the point.
  • ? Saving ocean life within a human generation is ‘largely achievable’ say scientists. “[S]ubstantially rebuilding marine life, so that populations rebound by 50-90 per cent, within a human generation is largely achievable, if action including tackling climate change and restoring habitats happens at a large scale.”
  • ? ? (Not the usual starlings visuals.) Murmurations; Ornitographies. “In winter, starlings join in flocks of thousands of individuals to try to confuse the hawks that attack them, doing a mesmerizing dance.”

Header image: Oil drop by Kai Dahms.

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