Race to the Future? ⊗ Data as property? ⊗ The self-driving car Is a red herring — No.148

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

This week → Race to the Future? Reimagining the default settings of technology & society ⊗ Data as property? ⊗ The self-driving car Is a red herring ⊗ Un-fracking futures ⊗ What necromancers in space can teach us about the science of death

A year ago → The most clicked link in issue No.103 was Against Economics by David Graeber.

Race to the Future? Reimagining the Default Settings of Technology & Society

Wonderful, wonderful Mossman Lecture at McGill University by Professor Ruha Benjamin on racism in technology and society and some of the impacts and dangers of default settings (pls excuse my extremely imprecise TL;DR). I always find videos harder to summarize and expand on but this lecture includes how blackness has been used as a foil to emphasize perceived superiority, racism as a substrate of society, techno determinism, power, etc. Some of the important points to pay attention to and keep in mind for later: how revealing racism, inequality, and power is also a great way to highlight how just a tiny slice of humanity monopolises resources; how it’s important to consider inputs, impacts, and the social milieu when analyzing these technological systems; we can find racism not only in the services / apps themselves, but even in how the creators felt the need for these apps to exist. Benjamin usefully provides the three main takeaways in one slide: racism is productive, it constructs; race and technology are coproduced; imagination is a field of action (not super clear just quoted like this but watch the lecture!).

Most people are forced to live inside other people’s imagination. […]

We can’t ignore the need of some for social domination. […]

“To see things as they really are, you must imagine them for what they might be.” —Professor Derrick Bell […]

If inequity is woven into the very fabric of society, then each twist, coils, and code is a chance for us to weave new patterns, practices, and politics. It’s vastness will be its undoing once we accept that we are pattern makers.

Data as Property?

Ownership of data and data as the new plutonium are topics I’ve included here a number of times before, this piece by Salomé Viljoen is an excellent review of the various viewpoints. She distinguishes between propertarian (people should own their data) and dignitarian (control of your data is a basic human right) concepts of data governance, lists and critiques the reasons for and problems with each, with clear explanations of why in each case. Viljoen closes with her (and my) preferred way of tackling the problem; the democratic alternative, looking at data as a commons managed for the community. The idea of scale here is especially important, the scale of the current players, the scale in number of users, and the scale in the amount of data. Common infostructures make sense for some of the same reasons as public infrastructures. Data as commons has come up more often at city level but this remark grasps my attention: “US Census and its statistical agencies, which adhere to strong purpose limitations and confidentiality rules, may be expanded into more general bodies for the governance of data.” I don’t know if it’s necessarily the answer but reframing an existing nation-level agency is a good way to think about the issue.

Finally, data exchanges generate considerable privacy externalities: information about one person may well be used to make inferences applied to another. […]

Like private technology companies now, systems for social welfare provision—be it healthcare, housing, or a basic income—would almost certainly require rendering individuals legible, in some instances against their will. But they would do so in service of vital democratic welfare state endeavors rather than private gain. […]

One path forward reconceives data about people as a democratic resource. Such proposals view data not as an expression of an inner self subject to private ordering and the individual will, but as a collective resource subject to democratic ordering. […]

Conceiving of data as a democratic resource may thus better achieve relational and distributive justice and point the way towards the positive and essential role data infrastructures will play in any effective state welfare provision.

The Self-Driving Car Is a Red Herring

Consider this one the ? piece of the issue. Included in part because it’s by Dr. Anthony Townsend, who’s work I respect. I don’t tend to agree with the final vision he details (sSmall AVs replacing bikes and walking, nice to think of flexible density but where do people actually go when flexibly moving away? Imagining we’ll be anywhere near as well organized, etc.). But I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt and there are definitely some important parts in there like self-driving cars not being the right format for the technology (instead, much smaller and numerous, usually not carrying humans), the immense challenges of maintaining post-pandemic and climate-collapse-affected cities, the inequality of who can move away, how permanent, temporary, or flexible those moves are, how to recover and adapt to these changes in density, etc.

A thought I had while reading was a parallel between electric bikes and small autonomous vehicles. Electric bikes end up not being tools for laziness (same trips, no effort) as some thought but rather often as extenders of range (same effort, longer trips). As Townsend argues, perhaps micro-AVs have a similar result, extending the range of services and easy transport to lower density neighbourhoods further out than currently.

How well we put these machines to use to ferry goods and people around in clever new ways, and tend to dull, dirty, and dangerous work of municipal upkeep, will mean the difference between keeping our cities humming along or abandoning them altogether. […]

Flexible density must be designed comprehensively into cities over the years and decades to come. We’ll need buildings that are better suited to adapt when demands for space, security, energy, and ventilation change suddenly. Infrastructure must be pliable enough to extend to dispersed locations on short notice. And a wide array of essential services must be able to find and deliver to constituents and customers wherever they may be. […]

Neighborhoods are bigger than ever, as rovers open up a range some five times what people can reach on foot. Snobs call it “microsprawl,” but the people who live there don’t seem to mind the abundance of affordable housing and open space that was always out of their reach in the old subway-centered districts.

Un-Fracking Futures

Being able to look your kid in the eye a few years from now, being a good ancestor, not strip-mining the future, un-fracking the future. Peter Bihr with a reflection more and more people are having and hopefully way more will have … just about right the f**k now. But also, he explains his thinking using the futures cone with an interesting tweak I’ll keep around; environmental tipping points as lenses focusing and defocusing the “probables” zone.

The futures cone is not perfect, maybe take the opportunity to look at John V Willshire’s Introduction to Assemblage Space which expands the tool. (Already linked to in issue No.137.)

If our decisions and actions reduce the options space available to those in the future, they’re objectively bad. We’re strip mining the potential of the future. […]

We have to put planetary health as the leading principle over everything else. I expect that in the longer term that would have a ton of positive externalities to boot: More resilience, less poverty. Better quality of life, better health.

What necromancers in space can teach us about the science of death

Starting from Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb Trilogy (I’ve only read, and loved, Gideon the Ninth so far), Maddie Stone with a fun (!) look at the adjacency, especially in Medieval times, of necromancy and science. (Also good as a teaser for the series.)

Do science and necromancy actually have anything in common? After consulting with several medieval historians of death and the occult, I’ve concluded the answer is yes. Necromancy is not science, but the two have had some uncanny run-ins throughout history. […]

In the Middle Ages, the boundaries between natural philosophy, the medieval forerunner to modern science, and the supernatural were more porous than they are today; both were considered legitimate realms of knowledge that an educated person (typically a member of the clergy) might pursue.”


  • ? ? As I mentioned on Twitter, I’d seen this before but it still blows my mind. David Bowie speaking to Jeremy Paxman in 1999 about the “unimaginable” effects on society it was going to have.
  • ? ? ? ? Insane. “The most elaborate mixed reality stage in the world.” How Riot used tech from The Mandalorian to build Worlds’ astonishing mixed reality stage. “The setup is a powerhouse, and Riot says that the LED screens — there are more than 900 LED tiles in total — display visuals at 32K resolution and at 60 frames per second. Those visuals were made using a modified version of the Unreal Engine, and in total, the team is made up of 40 artists and technicians. Nick Troop, executive producer for Worlds 2020 at Riot, describes it as ‘a creative tool that gives us effectively infinite power to manifest whatever our collective imaginations bring to the fore.’”
  • ? Lil Miquela, LoL’s Seraphine: Virtual Influencers Make More Real Money Than Ever. “At a time when interacting safely with other humans can no longer be taken for granted, the appetite for digital spokespeople is accelerating. Brands are expected to spend as much as $15 billion annually on influencer marketing by 2022, up from $8 billion last year, according to Business Insider Intelligence. A growing slice of that money belongs to virtual influencers, and traditional marketing is experiencing serious disruption.”
  • ? Building an antilibrary: the power of unread books. “By expanding our awareness of unknown unknowns, an antilibrary may even be an antidote to the Dunning–Kruger effect, where we tend to overestimate the extent of our knowledge. Whether in a private or a public library, being surrounded by books we haven’t read yet—in the case of Umberto Eco, too many books to read in a lifetime—is a humbling experience.”
  • You could spend a good long while browsing through this New York Times project: Election Distractor. (Via Johannes Klingebiel.)
  • ? ? ? Beautiful work and creatures. Wildlife Photographer of the Year (Via Kottke.)
  • Martin Gardner: The Most Interesting Man in the World. “He ranks among the greatest autodidacts and polymaths of the 20th century. Or, as I prefer to say, he was the most interesting man in the world, the fellow I would invite to that mythical dinner party where all parties, living or dead, are compelled to accept your invitation.” (Via Austin Kleon.)
  • ? ? The Incredible F1 Suspension So Good It Was Banned. “Around 30 years ago, some F1 teams developed an automatic, self-adjusting suspension system to control the car’s ride height. The system was so good, it was banned from the sport soon after.”

Header image: The Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project near Tonopah, Nevada.