Progress & its discontents / The arrogance of the Anthropocene / Inside DeepMind’s mission / The sinister brutality of container architecture — No.90

Over the last few weeks a couple of people sent me links with notes like “sorry if you’ve seen this already.” Never apologize! Always send the links! It’s very much appreciated, whether I’ve read the article or not.

This week: Progress and its discontents / The arrogance of the Anthropocene / Inside DeepMind’s mission to solve science’s trickiest problem / William Gibson: One tough zeitgeist / The sinister brutality of shipping container architecture

A year ago: Recollections of Decolonizing Mars.

Progress and its discontents

Jason Hickel with the short history of the New Optimism “ideological movement.” Its main figures and funders, Gates and Pinker being front and center. He goes over the differing interpretations of what poverty means, starting with the $1.90 a day line, on the impact of China (which isn’t an optimist endorsed neoliberal state, yet is included) on the numbers, and the catastrophic impact of neoliberalism on the Global South. Hickel then goes over the pitifully incomplete “stats” used for the colonial period and how they gloss over the enclosure and dispossession of commons and subsistence farming.

And in 2018 Steven Pinker published the bestselling Enlightenment Now, a book-length Buzzfeed article with graphs stacked up in support of a grand meta-narrative of progress. […]

Our World in Data is funded by the Gates Foundation; Gapminder lists Gates as one of its biggest donors; as for Vox and Buzzfeed, Gates is a major investor in both. Indeed, Vox has been pulled up by FAIR, a US media watchdog, for functioning as a sort of propaganda arm for Gates and Microsoft. […]

Egregious disparities in social indicators between classes and nations are papered over in favour of aggregate trends. And the decidedly regressive sides of capitalism – colonization, genocide, plantation slavery, oil wars, regular attacks on workers’ rights and welfare systems, and, perhaps most damningly, climate change and ecological breakdown – are either downplayed or ignored altogether. […

When we measure global poverty using evidence-based poverty lines, the story changes completely. At the $7.40 threshold – which is still at the low end of the metrics scholars have proposed – we find that the number of people in poverty hasn’t declined at all. Rather, it has grown dramatically since 1981, going from 3.2 billion to 4.2 billion, according to World Bank data. Six times higher than the 730 million Gates and Pinker would have us believe. […]

People were bulldozed off their land and into the capitalist labour system to work on European-owned mines, factories and plantations. In most cases we know that the income people earned from the new wage economy – pennies a day – didn’t come anywhere close to compensating for their loss of land and other resources, which were gobbled up by colonizers. […]

Gates’ favourite infographic takes the violence of colonization and – through creative use of irrelevant statistics – repackages it as a happy story of progress. […]

The Yale philosopher Thomas Pogge argues that when it comes to global poverty, the morally relevant metric of progress is neither absolute numbers nor proportions nor even the trajectory of poor people’s incomes, but rather the extent of poverty compared to our capacity to end it.

The Arrogance of the Anthropocene

This one is both dizzying to contemplate and quite the cutting to size for humanity. A deep (very deep) time perspective comparing the scale of actual geological epochs to our paltry thousands of years of civilization. I’d love to see a follow up to this with the same depth of time used to think about the Drake equation. Considered over that span, civilizations could be winking on and off, appearing and disappearing all the time with no overlap in their existence.

[R]ock dates—single-frame snapshots from deep time—can come with 50,000-year error bars, a span almost 10 times as long as all of recorded human history. If having an epoch shorter than an error bar seems strange, well, so is the Anthropocene. […]

Unless we fast learn how to endure on this planet, and on a scale far beyond anything we’ve yet proved ourselves capable of, the detritus of civilization will be quickly devoured by the maw of deep time. […]

If, in the final 7,000 years of their reign, dinosaurs became hyperintelligent, built a civilization, started asteroid mining, and did so for centuries before forgetting to carry the one on an orbital calculation, thereby sending that famous valedictory six-mile space rock hurtling senselessly toward the Earth themselves—it would be virtually impossible to tell. […]

In fact, there exists a better word in geology than epoch to describe our moment in the sun thus far: event. Indeed, there have been many similarly disruptive, rapid, and unusual episodes scattered throughout Earth history—wild climate fluctuations, dramatic sea-level rises and falls, global ocean-chemistry disasters, and biodiversity catastrophes. […]

The idea that we’re in a new epoch is a profoundly optimistic one, for it implies that we are at the dawning of the astrobiologist David Grinspoon’s “Sapiezoic Eon”—that expansive, creative, open-ended future in which human technology represents a new and enduring feature of the planet on par with the biological innovations of the Cambrian Explosion—rather than heading for the impending, terminal consummation of a major mass extinction, ending with all the conclusive destruction of apocalypses past.

Inside DeepMind’s epic mission to solve science’s trickiest problem

Quite an interesting interview with DeepMind’s Hassabis. Their emphasis on transdisciplinarity and hiring and thinking from multiple domains is worth a read and not as common as it should be. In my opinion their focus on big science problems instead of self-driving or face recognition is certainly a more valid direction. In the last part there are some weird paragraphs on innovation, which make me think that the author should read some Mazzucato, and I was disappointed to see Hassabis talk of having “two work days” and working to 4h30am but otherwise a good look in his head and company.

There are six or seven disciplines represented in the company’s AI research alone, and it has been hiring specialists in mathematics, physics, neuroscience, psychology, biology and philosophy as it broadens its remit. […]

“What I’ve tried to do in building DeepMind is to find ‘glue people’, those who are world class in multiple domains, who possess the creativity to find analogies and points of contact between different subjects. Generally speaking, when that happens, the magic happens.” […]

Every six months, senior managers examine priorities, reorganise some projects, and encourage teams – especially engineers – to move between endeavours. Mixing of disciplines is routine and intentional. […]

He makes frequent, lengthy digressions into various tributaries – philosophy (Kant and Spinoza are favourites), history, gaming, psychology, literature, chess, engineering and multiple other scientific and computational domains – but doesn’t lose sight of his original thought, often returning to clarify a remark or reflect on an earlier comment. […]

More: DeepMind’s Latest A.I. Health Breakthrough Has Some Problems.

William Gibson: One Tough Zeitgeist

I’m sure there will be a time when I don’t link William Gibson interviews. Today is not that day. At Locus magazine, on the upcoming Agency and the mechanics of stubs and time travelling.

It’s like any knowledge is unevenly distributed now. You can have these complete otakus in some arcane field of collecting who live in a tiny town in Nebraska, and maybe have never left it, but they still wind up being the world amateur authority on some particular thing. […]

It’s sort of a prequel at the same time that it’s a sequel. The people from 2017 have two futures to contend with, so they can see the steps between the two.

The Sinister Brutality of Shipping Container Architecture

On the container aesthetic, how it’s not really appropriate for anything but shipping and on the difference between its hipster usage and its less glamorous ones. As ever, someone’s utopia is someone else’s dystopia.

It’s a dystopia, though it can be a sublime one, and half a dozen beers into your evening it is great fun. But then you’re forced to imagine it as home: There’s a student housing complex here made of stacked containers, so unremittingly bleak in its aspect that it makes you wonder whether the architects had humans in mind. […]

But the harsh landscape of the shipping container is a terrible shorthand for modernity. It’s not just the now-inescapable connotations of the migrant crisis. It’s that the people who’ve most celebrated the container form are precisely not the ones who’ve ever had to live in one: they can always go home, to a proper building somewhere else.


Found via

Some of the articles for this week were found via Jason, Matthieu, and Darran. Thanks!

Header image: Henri Prestes.