Newsletter No.277 — Sep 03, 2023

Why Public Intellectuals Promote an Overly Simplistic Future ⊗ How to Prepare for a GenAI Future You Can’t Predict ⊗ Empire of Dust: What the Tiniest Specks Reveal About the World

Want to understand the world & imagine better futures?

Also this week → How one building changed filmmaking ⊗ Femmetopia ⊗ Cybernetic Forests ⊗ Solarpunk is going mainstream

Why public intellectuals promote an overly simplistic future

Great article from Alex Fergnani for Farsight, where he argues that public intellectuals like Yuval Noah Harari, Sam Harris, Slavoj Zizek, that Canadian ‘academic’ I won’t name, and a bunch of others he gives examples for, often fail to communicate the multiplicity and complexities of the future(s) to the public. They tend to promote a specific image of the future, discounting others, which can be overly singular, simplistic, and emotionally loaded. They often lean towards a specific image of the future and relentlessly promote this one image while discounting others.

Fergnani believes that to responsibly inform the public about the future of any topic, it is necessary to impartially present more than one image of the future, starting with at least a primarily positive one and a primarily negative one. He paints the issue as largely a question of lack of knowledge/training in foresight for these public figures, I wish he’d also leaned a bit more in the fact that these visions are often self-serving, a form of marketing, and what media are looking for.

In last week’s headline piece, Frank Spencer was pushing for more transformational futuring and asking us to lean into “foresight’s challenging nature” instead of simply being used as “a supplement that reinforces existing planning, data management, or org dev practices” (from his comment on my LinkedIn post). Here Fergnani is asking for public intellectuals to not stick to one position, diversify the futures they share, and be more impartial. Their articles are not opposed as such, but taken together they paint a complex picture of how today’s challenges require the toolset of foresight, to go beyond ‘default’ futures, but they also point to a hard to find balance between method, multiple visions, the need for societal change, and individual opinions. I’m looking forward to thinking more on this and seeing how this balance evolves and resolves for various people.

By instead stressing the existence of numerous scenarios, each of which can be affected by our agency to change it, public intellectuals would also convey a more subtle but equally important message, i.e., that reality is more complex than what both utopian and dystopian images would lead us to believe. Indeed, any future that is desirable for some stakeholders may inevitably be undesirable for others. […]

An additional reason why public intellectuals focus so vehemently on a specific and often polarised image of the future, on the top of their emotional appraisal, is that they sometimes overestimate the impact of current trends and events on the future. […]

In sum, public intellectuals should impartially discuss multiple images of the future to teach the public that the future is not predetermined. They should also meticulously examine the visions of the future they present, taking into account the emotional load they carry, in order to steer clear of fearmongering or excessive idealisation. Additionally, it is crucial for them to ensure that these visions are not influenced by fleeting trends and immediate events.

How to prepare for a GenAI future you can’t predict

Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Amy Webb provides what I find to be a very informative and actionable (not a fan of the word but…) view on AI in business and how to approach it over the coming years. Webb finds that “leaders are focused too narrowly on immediate gains, rather than how their value network will transform in the future.”

According to her recent experience, executives across industries are concerned about how to create more value with fewer human resources, but they should temper their expectations about what generative AI can do for their business. Leaders shouldn’t focus simply on reducing operational costs, but rather on top-line growth, while workers will need to understand how to delegate tasks to AI and learn how to leverage multimodal AI to do more and better work.

Webb finishes the piece by proposing the four step IDEA framework; identify, determine, extrapolate, and anticipate. “Used regularly, this framework enables leaders to see the landscape more clearly, evaluate gaps within their organizations, and link emerging technology to existing strategy, positioning them to make decisions with confidence.” Although presented here in the context of AI, it’s actually a good approach to connect foresight of any topic to strategy.

It isn’t enough for an AI system to perform a task; the output has to be proven trustworthy, integrated into existing workstreams, and managed for compliance, risk, and regulatory issues. […]

The key to making productive use of multimodal AIs is understanding how and what to delegate to a machine, so that both the human and the AI can accomplish more through collaboration than by working independently. However delegation is something professionals routinely struggle with: They either assign too much, or not enough, or not the right tasks. Working alongside a multimodal AI will require workers to master the art of delegation. […]

Resist the temptation to reduce your workforce — and instead use strategic foresight to create a future where AI is leveraged by a highly skilled workforce, and where human–AI teams are more productive, creative, and efficient working together than apart.

Empire of dust: what the tiniest specks reveal about the world

One of the joys of blogs and newsletters is that you can find smart people and follow their progress, how their thinking evolve, how they discover, explore, and even unearth topics. I’ve been reading Jay Owens for years and it’s been a pleasure to follow her writings on the topic of dust (yes dust), which has now been turned into a book.

In this edited extract from Dust: The Modern World In a Trillion Particles, Jay explains what she means by ‘dust,’ shows some of the major sources, their impact on our health, and then takes us through some of the history of these tiny particles, from soot on 10 Downing street, to gender roles in the 50s and 60s, and microplastics today.

The pollution is now polychrome: the primary residue adhering to buildings is not the black of carbon soot, but a warmer browny-yellow colour from the organic hydrocarbons in petrol and diesel fuel. As sulphate emissions from traffic fall, buildings may yet turn green as mosses and lichens grow back. […]

When I’m stressed or overwhelmed, or when I feel a lack of control in my life, I feel a compulsive need to clean my flat. It’s a desire to restore order to my environment, in the hope that it might somehow restore such order to my agitated mind. The same belief exists at a societal level. […]

Dust is simultaneously a symbol of time, decay and death – and also the residue of life. Its meaning is never black or white, but grey and somewhat fuzzy. Living with dust – as we must – is a slow lesson in embracing contradiction: to clean, but not identify with cleanliness; to respect the material need for hygiene while distrusting it profoundly as a social metaphor.

How one building changed filmmaking Scenius klaxon! Mega Youtuber Casey Neistat, Greta ‘Barbie movie’ Gerwig, Lena Dunham, and many of NYC’s most successful filmmakers all worked at one point from “The Diane Fink School of Filmmaking” at 368 Broadway in NYC, where they innovated, collaborated, and perfected their craft.

Futures, foresights, forecasts & fabulations
ᖴEᗰᗰETOᑭIᗩ. “Futurologist Lydia Caldana and screenwriter Maria Clara Pessoa, partners and friends, collaborated to envision how the future will look like when femininity becomes a valued driving force of the labor market.”

How to Mitigate Biases When Utilizing the Futures Cone. “In this article, I critically examine the concept of the Futures Cone by referring to its history and origination, its shortcomings, and the involved cognitive biases. I conclude by suggesting some tips to improve the usage of the concept.”

Solarpunk is going mainstream. This couple’s $1M Kickstarter proves it “During a recent Instagram Live Q&A session with U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–New York), a viewer asked about her thoughts on climate doom. AOC replied that she doesn’t ascribe to climate doomerism but instead is a big believer in ’solarpunk.’ (Via the OG, the SOLARPUNKS tumblr.)

Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation
Critical Topics: AI Images Course — Cybernetic Forests. “Critical Topics: AI Images was an undergraduate class delivered for Bradley University in Spring 2023. It was an overview of the emerging contexts of AI art making tools that connected media studies and histories of new media art, with data ethics and critical data studies. … This website collects all of the asynchronous video lectures, alongside works referenced in the lectures. Guest lectures and artist talks are also archived, with permission.” (Via GOOD INTERNET.)

What’s the future of generative AI? An early view in 15 charts. Links to McKinsey are not endorsements ;-). “Generative AI has hit the ground running—so fast that it can feel hard to keep up. Here’s a quick take pulled from our top articles and reports on the subject.”

Teaching with AI. OpenAI are “releasing a guide for teachers using ChatGPT in their classroom—including suggested prompts, an explanation of how ChatGPT works and its limitations, the efficacy of AI detectors, and bias.”