Newsletter No.275 — Aug 20, 2023

Building Proofs of Possibilities for a Civic Economy and Society ⊗ Naturalizing Foresight ⊗ The ChatGPT Revolution Is Another Tech Fantasy

Join Sentiers, the futures thinking observatory

Also this week → The plight of the vibe tourist ⊗ Imagineering a better future ⊗ There’s no such thing as a neutral algorithm ⊗ Artificial Intelligence, a list of films

Building proofs of possibilities for a civic economy and society

One central theme of the last couple of years of Sentiers has been how people can/should/are imagining better futures, how that works, and what that might look like. Consider this piece describing the vision and projects of Radicle Civics (a portfolio of explorations and proof of possibilities developed by Dark Matter Labs) as the step after. The authors expose three worldview shifts in some detail, explaining the vision in the process; from objects to agents, externalities to entanglements, and public-private to commoning.

Take the rational of inventing better futures, take the theories for a different society, relationship to nature, an understanding of entanglement, finding agency, excesses of capitalism, infrastructures, maintenance, care, and a lot more besides, all of which you’ve been reading about here for years, mix all of it together, and start working on actual projects. That’s pretty much what Radicle Civics are spinning up, a way to “redesign our infrastructures so that they centre this complex entanglement and enable all beings—be they humans, future humans, and more-than-humans—to individually and collectively thrive.”

Although still early, it’s not just imagination but actual action with partners and financing. Imagining better futures and putting them into motion through projects presented as “proofs of possibilities” (love that term!), as ways forwards and prototypes to reset some of the many ways humanity has gone sideways. Bravo!

What we need is to reconceptualise ourselves as inalienably interconnected and relational beings, as a knot of flows. We need a relational worldview that sees our lives, our cities, our societies, as complex organisms comprising socio-ecological systems and webs of relationships (Engle 2022). We need to redesign our infrastructures so that they centre this complex entanglement and enable all beings — be they humans, future humans, and more-than-humans — to individually and collectively thrive. […]

Instead of seeing humans as subjects and the Earth as objects and commodities, can we recognise ‘selfhood’ and agency of everything, from flora and fauna, to rivers, the land, and the homes we build there? Instead of ownership, can we reimagine ties with the land and the Earth as part of a network of relationships built on care, mutuality, and reciprocity in a community of humans and more-than-humans? […]

In realising we live in a resource-scarce world, we should also recognise that value should not be enclosable and alienated from the world around it, but that value is relational and entangled with the world. […]

The growing abundance of mass sensing and data has the potential to provide public benefits, but also bring with them the risks of power and information asymmetries, vulnerabilities, and abuse of privacy from the centralisation of such data. We have reached the edge of our theory of control: we need to reconsider the ways in which we make decisions over shared resources, beyond carving out domains of exclusive control. […]

“Our systems, more accurately, are an expression of our cultural, philosophical, and even religious views about who we are as a species and how to best organise society.”

Naturalizing foresight: An opportunity to bridge the gap between futures and cognitive science

Fascinating piece by Dr. Jorge Camacho, a research affiliate at Institute for the Future. He synthesises a book briefly mentioned in No.266, The Invention of Tomorrow: A Natural History of Foresight by Thomas Suddendorf, Jonathan Redshaw, and Adam Bulley. The book explores the cognitive development and mechanisms enabling foresight, as well as the evolutionary reasons for the development of foresight and its purpose. In their case, they write about the individual ability to “time travel” and anticipate, a very different skill to that of foresight as used in Futures Studies and Applied Foresight (FSAF) which “has developed a great amount of methodological work to leverage foresight for the large-scale, long-term, and high degrees of change our civilization is dealing with.”

Finding inspiration in Dave Snowden’s idea of naturalising sense-making, Camacho proposes the concept of naturalising foresight by using insights from the cognitive sciences to understand how our particular cognitive makeup both enables us and prevents us from practicing foresight in the way we collectively aspire to. Great read for his overview of the book and for a glimpse at the potential benefits of a ‘unified theory’ of foresight.

Regarding the cognitive mechanisms that make foresight possible, they show how our brains use similar processes and pathways to anticipate the future and to remember the past. […]

The theory and practice of sense-making deal with the question, “How do I make sense of the world so that I can act in it?” From this perspective, one could argue that foresight is entirely included within sense-making or, at least, the two capacities intersect in important ways. […]

Snowden positions naturalizing sense-making in relation to other sense-making schools by using natural science — mainly the cognitive sciences but also complexity theory, ecology, and even physics — as an enabling constraint on the practice of sense-making. […]

The feedback loop between foresight and cultural evolution has resulted in the development of mental time travel tools such as calendars, money, and writing and how it may continue with next-generation digital technologies.

The ChatGPT revolution is another tech fantasy

Paris Marx argues that the generative AI hype has been built on a fragile foundation, and its reputation is more hot air than real promise. He shows how the generative AI cycle contains eerie parallels with the last time AI and automation were supposed to upend society. It’s a good overview of some of the issues and the bait and switch move of companies like Amazon and Uber between the two hype phases.

I’d like to spin off a bit on hype itself though. I’m starting to think that there is a fallacy in tech hype that assumes something that’s not there, much like economists do. We assume hype is marketing and purposeful over-promising. It is, but it’s also a blind spot for our lack of collective elasticity. Economics are based on rational choice theory, which “postulates that an individual will perform a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether an option is right for them.” They assume people are rational. We aren’t.

Tech companies seem to believe that adoption of a new technology will bend completely in the direction the tech permits. People can work from home, thus everyone will work from home. AI can write any text, thus everyone will soon write everything with AIs. There’s an assumption of elasticity and flexibility in society that doesn’t seem to account for inertia and other factors like vested interests. It’s fun to think it’s always just misguided hype that explains fails, but it’s often a question of misunderstanding other forces. Some climate activists do the same thing with the need to change lifestyles, assuming people ‘don’t get it’ if they stick to their habits, when actually a number of industries are putting their weight behind inertia.

Even where those algorithmic tools were deployed, they weren’t simply replacing humans workers with computers; what happened was much more complex. All of those systems relied on a lot of poorly paid labor in places like Africa and Asia, who were either hired as contract workers through third-party companies or sourced through clickwork platforms like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to do small tasks for mere pennies. Companies are effective at hiding that labor from us, making it look like the computers are doing everything on their own, and that continues with generative AI.

The plight of the vibe tourist “With this in mind, the modern tourist cares less about recognisable backdrops, iconic landmarks or famous beachfronts. What’s more important is stitching together a collage of micro moments, like editing a mood film. Serendipitous nights at a local watering hole, a spontaneous ride on a vespa with a local stranger, an accidental discovery of a hidden treasure down a dark alleyway. The sort of stuff you can weave into a 9:16 video and add a vintage Italian pop track to.”

Futures, foresights, forecasts & fabulations
The two bets. Dave Karpf looks at 90s-era WIRED and wonders “what lessons should we take from grandstanding predictions of futures past?”

Imagineering a better future. “What if we broadened the concept of imagineering beyond theme parks and cartoons? What if we harnessed its power to conjure a better future?”

Imagine Harder: Prototyping Impossible Futures. If you are voting for panels for the next SXSW, definitely have a look at this proposal by Julian Bleecker, Avi Bar-Zeev, and Andreea CojoCaru.

Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation
‘There’s no such thing as a neutral algorithm’: the existential AI exhibition confronting Sydney. “Artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Atmospheric Memory allows visitors to interact with generative tech – and become part of the show in unexpected ways.”

Artificial Intelligence, a list of films by Liv Pasquarelli. I’ve seen fewer than I expected, I have to get on that. (For some reason, I immediately noticed Big Hero 6 is missing from the list.)

John Maeda on creativity, AI, and the human pursuit of uphill thinking. “Thoughts on designing with artificial intelligence, and why we should embrace uphill thinking in a world optimized for shortcuts.”


  • 🤯 🖨️ 🎬 🎥 Where Hollywood's Printed Props Are Made! “Adam Savage visits the warehouse of The Earl Hayes Press, where for over a hundred years this prop house has been making Hollywood's printed props. Fake newspapers, magazines, currency, and product labels all came from the printing presses of this shop.”
  • 😰 🌏 🔥 Climate change: Mapping in 3D where the earth will become uninhabitable. “Lethal heat, flooded coastlines, powerful hurricanes, water scarcity: climate models show that by the end of the century, life as normal won’t be possible in many places. Find out where populations are projected to be hit hardest with our 3D interactive visualisation.”
  • 🤯 🤯 🤯 🌌 Our Galaxy Is Home to Trillions of Worlds Gone Rogue. “Astronomers have found that free-floating planets far outnumber those bound to a host star.”
  • 🔴 🎥 🌋 Chaos, Reconsidered: A Spectacular Flyover of Martian Volcanic Terrain. “This short, relaxing, mesmerizing video of an Martian impact crater called Aram Chaos was taken by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.”
  • 📚 🌳 😍 Places to Read. Still only a few spots on there but I love it! “Parks around the world handpicked by the internet that are perfect to sit down in and enjoy a book.”
  • 🧮 🤩 Striking Vintage Calculators. “In the 1970s, calculators weren't just for calculating. They were luxury items. In a world before iPods and iPhones, calculators were the first aspirational personal electronics.”