Quarantine urbanism ⊗ Slowdown papers ⊗ Rush to the future — No.121

Read the Sentiers newsletter on technology in society, signals of change, and prospective futures.

This week → 18 lessons of quarantine urbanism ⊗ Slowdown papers ⊗ Rush to the future ⊗ Design for systems, not users ⊗ Getting compound interest on your thoughts.

A year ago → A vision for a shared digital Europe.

I hope you liked last week’s issue because this one is very similar. I.e. a majority of pieces looking at a post-pandemic world, plus some design. Interestingly, the discussion of the former seems to have shifted to something more thoughtful, considering more seriously whether what we can come up with now can actually be useful for what’s next.

18 Lessons of Quarantine Urbanism

Benjamin Bratton specifically says to “timestamp my remarks,” knowing things will change and he’ll need to come back to his lessons. They are already good ones though, and appropriately consider systemic issues and a global scale. He looks at governance, model simulations, broken sensing layers, strategic essentialism, fully automated luxury quarantine, and more.

Some of the most salient bits for me: the need for a more nuanced surveillance vocabulary; trophic cascades; “everyday geoengineering;” and considering global large-scale mobilization and enforcement.

Testing and sensing are the same thing. More testing is better sensing, which means better models, which means better public health response. Inadequate planning and provision for testing is inadequate modeling, which is inadequate governance. […]

Where effective planetary-scale planning and governance should reside, there is instead a screeching void. […]

Concepts like “geoengineering” should be redefined to imply planetary-scale design effects, not just specific technological interventions. Regulatory regimes such as a global carbon tax, as well as the conservation of natural carbon sinks and biodiversity, are also, in this way, forms of “geoengineering.” […]

Among the most divisive and decisive issues of the 2020s will be not if—but how—national and transnational militaries are deployed for the protection of ecological commons, mitigation monitoring, preventative land management, and the development of climate intervention technologies. […]

At this moment, dry, prepared, trustworthy, available, adaptable, responsive technocratic foresight and effectiveness seem like the most idealistic politics imaginable.

Slowdown Papers

According to Medium, there are 3h40 minutes+ of reading time so far in Dan Hill’s new Slowdown Papers. So I haven’t read everything yet, and the link above and quotes below are form his introductory post. I expect I’ll link again to some of the other articles but, at the very least, this intro and his posture in writing the collection are worth a read and consideration: “Observing, listening and writing, as a way of remembering the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, from within the midst of the slowdown.”

So while my ‘day job’ is full of attempted interventions, as is yours if you have one, I suspect the best thing I can do here is to listen, observe, discuss, try to learn, to understand, to frame questions, and to find the time and space to reflect. Writing is a good way of forcing these acts. […]

But I’m also writing in order to not forget, forcing the deceptively simple act of putting one word in front of another as a way of figuring out what to look for in the blazing environment around us. […]

“One person writing in a quiet room, trying to connect with another person, reading in another quiet — or maybe not so quiet — room … But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?” — Kazuo Ishiguro, Nobel lecture, 7 December 2017

More → En français, par le toujours très pertinent Clément Laberge, un processus similaire pour réfléchir le Québec d’après. (Texte d’intro, les billets subséquent sont en bas de page.)

Rush to the future

Surprisingly, I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve come upon Richard Sandford’s writing. Judging by his recent posts, I’ll have to do some more digging in his archive. This one considers the “ready-to-hand futures” being slung about recently (having done some of the slinging myself) and wonders if “this [is] perpetuating the old way of doing things” and “[I]n any case, are these futures right for the post-pandemic world?”

Both are important questions and it’s definitely something I and others have been doing; being simultaneously worried that governments and the neocapitalist machine will go back to their own normal, while “we” go back to proposing our own usual desired futures. Everyone needs to take a breath and think.

I like all these ready-to-hand futures. I agree with those that point out how the pandemic has shown even the FT the depth of the cracks in the current order, and I hope that these progressive ideas stand a chance of being brought about in the upheaval. […]

In any case, are these futures right for the post-pandemic world? They were made before the current situation, after all, using the ideas and categories and levers that were in place before the virus spread. I think it’s worth asking whether the building-blocks of these ready-to-hand futures are going to be unchanged. […]

There is more space now to imagine ourselves as moral beings first and economic actors second, with public policy focused on asking us to imagine a collective capacity for action and duty of care to society at large, some companies putting public service before short-term profit (retaining employees, manufacturing medical supplies). […]

On a more fundamental level, we are being asked to be suspicious of basic human contact: touch, proximity, the things that have made us who we are since before we walked upright. Instead of connecting naturally and unthinkingly with other human beings in the same space, we have to reflexively inhabit a body that is four metres wide, and dance this body through a space made for different movements.

Design for systems, not users

Alexis Lloyd with a good piece joining a growing number of voices drawing attention to the fact that user-centered design ends up being “a mirror for both radical individualism and capitalism.” This vision doesn’t mean to ignore the user, of course, but to consider systems and society at large in ever product and service.

In the past decades of relative prosperity, it has been easy to ignore or obfuscate this web of interconnectivity, and as a result we have built much of that seeming prosperity on the backs of fragile or exploitative systems. Those fissures, those inequalities, are now coming to light in an urgent way. […]

As a designer, I try to look at both the explicit and implicit choices being made in designing an experience. […]

[T]he user tends to be the person directly engaging with the software. But the digital experiences we create touch far more people than just the end user. They engage with entire, interconnected systems that are composed of many different participants, only some of whom are the “users” we typically design for. […]

Everything we make has secondary effects beyond the choices we explicitly make, so a systems-centered design (or society-centered design) practice tries to make that larger system visible. We can only change that which we can clearly see.

Getting compound interest on your thoughts

I’m still unconvinced about Roam, there are just too many little visual details bugging me. This interview with its founder, Conor White-Sullivan, shows that there’s some solid thinking going on behind the scenes and the type of reading, thinking, connecting, and synthesizing it’s built for is very much my kind of thing, and likely of interest for many of the readers here.

I eventually figured out that a simpler problem to solve was: how does one person take 20 different people they’re reading and start to create some sort of synthesis or math-like map of the idea space, across a bunch of different books that they’re reading, or a bunch of different observations or conversations that they’re having, and gradually be able to index into the individual things? […]

You need to have a habit of tagging something as a to-do to synthesize the idea further, and then periodically go back and review those and write them in a more crisp language, or build up your evergreen notes so that you have this library of thoughts that you are able to get that compound interest on.


Header image: Still from the movie Prospect (2018).

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