Progress, postmodernism and the tech backlash ⊗ Jan Morris ⊗ A smart city built on empowerment — No.116

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This week → Progress, postmodernism and the tech backlash ⊗ Jan Morris: ‘You’re talking to someone at the very end of things’ ⊗ How to design a smart city that’s built on empowerment ⊗ The master tapes ⊗ It doesn’t matter if anyone exists or not

A year ago → The AI-Art Gold Rush Is Here.

Progress, Postmodernism and the Tech Backlash

I really should take the time to do some proper book reading about modernism, postmodernism, metamodernism (?) so I might be able to judge how accurate the portrayal is here. Nonetheless, seems like good framings of the first two, how postmodernism molds the current tech landscape, and how it can be used as a lens to understand the Tech Backlash.

Modernism fundamentally cared about progress. Your impression from looking around the world, even just looking outside your window, was of definite, forward progress everywhere. Houses went from dark to light. Travel went from slow to fast. Infection went from deadly to curable. […]

Postmodernism began as a conscious reaction to modernism: disillusion with absolute ideals and unstoppable progress; new emphasis on subjective experience and relative change. Postmodern art and culture emphasized a meta-awareness of the old utopian ideals, often by mocking them. New was out. Irony, remixing, and self-reference were in. […]

As progress becomes a question of assumed risk, rather than asserted power, building the future looks less like a mission and more like arbitrage. […]

The first point is “The tech industry is the worst of late capitalism.” This critic argues that the prime directive of tech companies is to move fast and break things, exploit labor, regulatory and geographic arbitrage, and then extract shreds of profit out of dying institutions in the name of consumer convenience. Amazon destroyed retail, Google and Facebook destroyed newspapers, Uber is destroying labor, Airbnb is destroying neighbourhoods; that kind of thing. […]

To this critic, the window of opportunity for reshuffling existing stuff will almost always be open wider than the window of opportunity to invent something fundamentally new.

Jan Morris: ‘You’re talking to someone at the very end of things’

Sometimes you read about someone’s life and remember that books and movies don’t make anything up, people are actually living these lives, fictions are just remixes of their adventures. Jan Morris is one of these people. 93, living with “Elizabeth, once her wife, now her civil partner,” following reassignment surgery in Casablanca in 1972 (!), and look at that first quote below. Legend!

Morris, at 26, was the only journalist to accompany Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on their 1953 ascent of Everest; at other times she wrote about living on Field Marshal Montgomery’s family houseboat on the Nile, and in a palazzo on the Grand Canal; she met Che Guevara in Cuba; she visited Hiroshima after the bomb, and reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961. In her dreamy books about cities – most memorably Venice and Trieste – the world can seem a permanent Xanadu. […]

Morris looks around her bookshelves, the thousands of books that line this long room floor to ceiling. “People always say: ‘Have you read them all?’” she says. “No. but I have an emotional attachment to them all. I pick an old book out and if it is interesting I read a few pages. I put letters and photographs and cards in them to find later.” […]

As a wandering writer – she is widely acclaimed for inventing a way of writing about cities that blends history and imaginative description and a sort of psychology of place – Morris made much of herself being an outsider.

How to design a smart city that’s built on empowerment

I’m not sure the article needed to be positioned as an alternative to corporate smart cities, other than because they are both visions of different futures. Nonetheless, it’s an enticing, well sourced and thoroughly linked picture of a “people-centric” city built on empowerment, building groups (“baugruppens”), technology used purposefully, coops, and community and data trusts.

Boise State University professor Steven Feldstein has found that 54 countries—representing 60% of the world’s population—have embraced pervasive surveillance, sourced from a coalition of willing vendors ranging from China’s controversial networking giant Huawei to U.K. arms maker BAE to familiar names like Amazon, Microsoft, and, yes, Google. […]

The World Health Organization found that empowerment is enhanced through a few key levers: 1) supportive groups, 2) meaningful community participation, and 3) resource mobilization. […]

Beyond rent, baugruppen could also participate in consumer utility, food, and transit cooperatives to further drive down the costs of basic needs, as proposed in models like Community Cooperative.

The master tapes

Robin Sloan thinking out loud, poking at a few things around Fraidycat, blogs, the web we miss, Halt and Catch Fire (?), Joanne McNeil’s new book Lurking, Ellis, and cooking. I’m including it here for the quote below, which I think is an interesting insight. We still have all the tools for the old web, maybe it’s the new presence, this new “mass” that changes things. I’m currently watching Mandalorian and we watched Star Wars VII and VIII recently, so perhaps I can too easily see Facebook, Google, and masses of trolls as this presence, as a looming “Empire” but still, something to ponder.

We didn’t lose anything. Here I am, reading blog posts, getting fired up, typing into a text file that will shortly become a web page. It could be the year 2000. […]

No. I think it’s something else, and “what do I miss” is the wrong question, because the feeling isn’t an absence, but a presence. (It took me a while to figure this out.) One thing Halt and Catch Fire and Lurking have in common, one powerful vibe that binds them, is the depiction of an internet before Google or Facebook. An internet that is all archipelago, no mainland. An internet where you can still get lost.

It Doesn’t Matter If Anyone Exists or Not

Ian Bogost meditating on the fake pictures of people created with generative adversarial network. Are they really that surprisingly fake? We have already been trained to ignore the strangers on the street, the models in ads, and been witness to the internet’s work of “evaporating physical bodies into digital phantoms and then pressing them into ever-denser slums of infinite scrolling.” For a point of reference, he goes back to Baudelaire’s dandy and flâneur, experimenting the flood of strangers in the mercantile cities of the Early Modern period.

One could force a parallel with Sloan’s piece above, as the early open web “village” became the “mercantile city,” and we feel the sometimes overwhelming presence of a flood of strangers.

Contemporary individuals have trained all their lives to treat people in exactly this instrumental way—not only the strangers on city streets, but also the models in the photos that grace IT-solutions banners inside airport terminals, the youth of all skin shades draped across college quads on application mailers, the baristas who hand over one-Splenda soy lattes with names misspelled on the cups. […]

Baudelaire’s solution embraced the new horror of urban life as delight. The dandy and the flâneur (a “wanderer”) became his paradigms for this process. Instead of being shocked, these “perfect spectators” would choose to “become flesh with the crowd.” They would indulge, and even manufacture, the “immense joy” of “the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.” […]

The crowd isn’t made up of people anymore, but of pictures that might be people, of corporate brands impersonating them, of young people dancing politically in TikToks, of tweets about youths in TikToks, of disputes absent referents, of bots shouting into the void.”


Header image: Crescent Lake in Dunhuang, Gansu Province. By 小福, CC BY-SA 2.0..