Newsletter No.269 — Jun 18, 2023

Probable Events Poison Reality ⊗ What if Design Isn’t for Humans? ⊗ What Could Happen if We Give up Saving Journalism?

Want to understand the world & imagine better futures?

Also this week → Specialist AND Generalist ⊗ Tools from the UNGP Foresight Project ⊗ The relativity of perspectives

Probable events poison reality

Fantastic piece by Rob Horning on technology, capitalism, disruption, innovation, and the ever-faster spinning wheel of bs it all rides on. Ok, I might be overstating it a bit, but just. The general vision of technology being shilled to us is that it should be understood in terms of the economic opportunities it presents, centered on “disruption” and “innovation,” and revolving around the idea of seeing any technology as the “next wave” of digital disruption.

He argues that the ideological defense of technology (and its promotion, citing McKinsey’s reports) becomes more desperate as recent technological innovations such as crypto, the “metaverse,” and generative AI, are harder (impossible) to defend as universal improvements. Since “tech” doesn’t seem to reduce inequality, fix the climate crisis, or any of our real problems, it becomes harder to believe that progress is happening automatically and for the common good. No, “the main purpose of technology developed under capitalism is to secure profit and sustain an unjust economic system and social hierarchies, not to advance human flourishing.”

I prefer the first part, as a pamphlet of the current state of technological advancement—or the most highly publicised hot zones anyway—but the second one, focused on LLMs and the potential poisoning of the internet, depicts a rising concern. Citing Ross Anderson, “Just as we’ve strewn the oceans with plastic trash and filled the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, so we’re about to fill the Internet with blah.”

Debate boils down to whether you believe innovation truly is like a natural force — a “perennial gale” that blows down more or less from heaven — or more a matter of capitalist interests whipping up a wind to keep themselves afloat. […]

Since the debates about technology are often just masked debates about capitalism’s inescapability, the critiques tend to resolve into the same shape, highlighting the same problematic business models, the same disregard for the populations put at risk, the same speculative frenzies, the same modes of overpromotion and distortion. […]

Most AI harms follow specifically from the biases captured, objectified, and perpetuated through data, but more generally they stem from capitalism’s abstractions of “labor” and “value.” […]

Pareene takes this as an example of how the internet, understood as a commons-space of collaborative connectivity directed by human flourishing rather than profit, has gradually been subsumed by companies that have learned to exploit such collaboration as a resource, one that may or may not be renewable.

What if design isn’t for humans?

Manuel Lima, writing at Scratching the Surface, adapted some of his book The New Designer. Over almost the whole existence of this newsletter I’ve shared articles about broader views of design, roughly going from replacing user-centered design by society-centered design, to a more than human view that takes society yes, but also nature as considerations. Here Lima goes even further, or sideways perhaps, proposing that nature is not only a consideration and inspiration for designers, but in fact the actual ‘client.’ By which he means that we use our products for only a very short time, they are then left in the world in some form or another. Designers must conceive their products for how/where they end up as much as for the short time they will be in use. One might read his vision as planet-centered, even more so than circular design.

“Practically everything we do today needs to change. We are still doing most things as if we own nature and have unlimited resources. We work as if waste is not a problem. We treat nature like a pantry and a toilet,” says Canadian designer Bruce Mau: “We think short term, party like there’s no tomorrow, and pass the check to future generations.” […]

We must understand the problem from the viewpoint of nature—investigate its unique needs and requirements, identify its fragilities, and embrace the immense opportunities it offers for cooperation. We need to see ourselves as part of a symbiotic, greater whole and start planning for a “long now” that looks deep into the future. […]

“Our singular foresight created civilization and sustains society.” As Homo prospectus or “prospective man,” we can see the future and predict numerous consequences to our actions, both short- and long-term. Yet we continue acting on our instincts, biases, and the oldest, most reactive parts of our brain.

What could happen if we give up saving journalism?

Intriguing piece by Jennifer Brandel of We Are Hearken where she considers a future for local journalism, seeing it as civic media which “seeks not simply to ‘inform’ or ‘entertain,’ but to equip people with the information they need to make the places they live better: civic information.”

I’d like to attach the piece to two other ideas. Part of the post is focused on AI and a re-arranging of roles around AI tools. A number of fields will have to do something like that, Brandel uses the ‘opportunity’ to reformulate local media around different roles.

Rethinking journalism around civic information can also be considered under the lens of unbundling, as in Ben Thompson’s aggregation theory. Drew Austin also had a great piece on the topic at Real Life, on bundling and unbundling.

“Efficiency, in the sense of charting a path to a goal with the least amount of friction, can be at odds with the goal of building trust in the institutions that mediate public life. In general, public-serving organizations seek a balance between transactional and relational models of getting things done. However, the promise of new technologies and the rush to implementation is creating a lopsidedness. As new digital tools compel people toward the transactional, and as publics grow increasingly distrustful of the role of civic institutions broadly, there is now more need than ever to achieve balance.” […]

I’m arguing that we have a ~521 million year-old technology called the human brain, which needs equal amounts of investment so it can optimize for care, compassion, deep listening, and fully embodied information gathering, co-creation and dissemination. These are things we’re capable of, but still don’t have the all of the psychological and interpersonal skills, let alone incentives and support, to do consistently.

Specialist AND Generalist “You want to be a specialist in your work, the stuff your clients pay you a lot of money for, you really need to know what you are talking about there and be very very deep. But all of that is the context of being a generalist in your personal life, partly because you need to leave work aside and do other things to retain whatever mental capacity you have left. But also because you need to anchor that deep expertise in a much broader context so that it's not spinning off somewhere and not relevant in the real world.”

Futures, foresights,
forecasts & fabulations