This week: Reading and Wandering. Economics After Neoliberalism. Economism, technocracy, and citizens. Magicverse. Aquaponics. A minister for the unborn.

A year ago: Small b blogging.

Rebecca Solnit on a Childhood of Reading and Wandering

Great essay on libraries and forests, reading and wandering, and the connections between all. I felt like highlighting all the quotes below, they resonate deeply. For someone who hasn’t spent nearly enough time in nature but a lot in libraries and bookstores, it doesn’t go unnoticed that I named this newsletter Sentiers (“Path”), often use images of threes in the header, and love this kind of writing about forests, books, and walking aimlessly. Pondering.

The same kind of shade and shelter that can be found in an aisle of books and an avenue of trees, and in the longevity of both, and the mere fact that both, if not butchered or burned, may outlive us. […]

The United States’s public libraries sometimes seem to me the last refuges of a democratic vision of equality, places in which everyone is welcome, which serve the goal of an informed public, offering services far beyond the already heady gift of free books you can take home, everything from voter registration to computer access. […]

Browsing, woolgathering, meandering, wandering, drifting, that state when exploring, when looking to find what it might be possible to find rather than seeking one particular goal, is the means of locomotion. […]

I kept coming back to this route for respite from my work and for my work too, because thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking. Walking itself is the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing. It is a bodily labor that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals. […]

Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. […]

They are in a sense allegories first for the act of reading, of entering an imaginary world, and then of the way that the world we actually inhabit is made up of stories, images, collective beliefs, all the immaterial appurtenances we call ideology and culture, the pictures we wander in and out of all the time. […]

[From Narnia.] It is the place where nothing happens, the place of perfect peace; it is itself not another world but an unending expanse of trees and small ponds, each pond like a looking glass you can go through to another world. It is a portrait of a library, just as all the magic portals are allegories for works of art, across whose threshhold we all step into other worlds.

Via Robert Macfarlane.

Economics After Neoliberalism

Very interesting article presenting some of the research by a group of economists, the Economics for Inclusive Prosperity (EfIP) network. There are a number of policy briefs to dig through on their website but the article itself is worth a read for a revisiting of the basics of economics, what the field is supposed to represent and research, and advocating for a more inclusive, less “markets-fix-everything” mindset. The gist: lets walk back from extreme market views, and rethink economics to be studied and used in a more systemic, holistic view, including the human aspects. The article closes by presenting the policy briefs quickly and outlining some of the ideas they propose.

The participants—historians, political scientists, sociologists, legal scholars, and economists—agreed that the prevailing neoliberal policy framework had failed society, resulting in monumental and growing inequality. […]

The discipline’s focus on markets and incentives, methodological individualism, and mathematical formalism all seem to stand in the way of meaningful, larger-scale economic and social reform. In short, neoliberalism appears to be just another name for economics. […]

Neoliberalism—or market fetishism—is not the consistent application of modern economics, but its primitive, simplistic perversion. […]

To be useful in discussions of real policies, economists have to evaluate those policies in the totality of the context in which they will be implemented and consider the robustness of policies to many possible institutional configurations and political contingencies. […]

The abstraction with which economists perceive complex bundles of institutions also gives practitioners tools to help design large scale alternatives—from precision tweaks to the tax code to full-blown visions of post-capitalist societies. […]

We need to design policies and institutions that make inclusive prosperity possible and globalization sustainable—politically and economically. With a powerful theoretical machinery that allows them to think in abstract terms about such matters, economists’ imagination is crucial to the task. […]

These proposals all show a willingness to subordinate textbook economic efficiency to other values such as democratic rule and egalitarian relationships among citizens.

The left needs to get radical on big tech – moderate solutions won’t cut it

This is possibly my last Morozov piece for a while, since he tends to frame things in an interesting way and point to something promising but steers clear of actual suggestions of how to get there. I’m including it anyway because I find his “economism” and “technocracy” groupings useful and, although sparse on details as I mentioned, the citizen angle which “questions the adequacy of treating data and artificial intelligence as commodities rather than as collectively produced and socially useful resources” seems like a correct path and something that lines up well with smart citizen visions, as in Barcelona and elsewhere.

[Economism,] However disruptive it might seem, this is an extremely conservative approach, leaving everything as it is, but now, also, shuffling some money to consumers while giving the tech companies carte blanche to take over the rest of society. […]

[Technocracy] seek solace in a centralized, rigid and heavily bureaucratic model invented and originally deployed a hundred years ago. It’s probably true that 10 smaller Facebooks would be less damaging than the Facebook of today. This, however, is no political program. […]

They do not start by assuming that market competition is always the right answer. Instead, they revise the question itself, moving away from redressing the ills of big tech and towards asking what sort of arrangements and institutions might underwrite a more progressive digital future.”

They might even invent new services, of both commercial and non-commercial variety, that are currently hard to imagine because access to the key resources of the digital economy – data, identity, artificial intelligence – is tightly controlled. [But how??]

Magic Leap CEO: We’re dead serious about the ‘Magicverse’

Lots of hand waving and vapour, lots of buzzwords, some ethics statements with a “lipstick on a pig” vibe, and the naming of an “open” Xverse after his own company. Not a fan so far, but worth keeping an eye on, if only for comprehensiveness alongside the Epic/Fornite Metaverse and Kelly’s techno optimist Mirrorworld linked in the last few issues. This all feels a bit like a rebooting, regrouping and rebranding of AR/MR/VR, like when big data turned into AI.

And Abovitz said it is important to lay an ethical foundation for this future now. It will include Presence, Persistence, Scale, Awareness, Interactivity, Respect, and Sentience. […]

Magicverse scales from room level, to building, city, country and world scale. Data, information and experiences within these environments are unlocked from screens and servers to persist at scale in contextually relevant physical environments. It supports individuals and enterprises across an exhaustive set of applications and use cases that naturally deserve to exist spatially in harmony with our physical environments. […]

The Magicverse is Magic Leap’s specific and ethically bounded version of a wider set of digital world ideas, that the company calls Xverses, which can be parallel efforts built by others.

Related: Very good 🧵 by Antti Oulasvirta, with “Nine reasons why I don’t believe in current VR/AR technology.”

Urban Organics Wants to Fix Food

This is certainly not going to “fix food” and I’m not a fan of farming fish like this but it’s an interesting premise and a field worth keeping an eye on.

Today there are some four million sprouting from grow racks stacked five stories high. Fish were in there, too—some 100,000 rainbow trout and 100,000 arctic char doing laps inside eight open tanks, each seven feet deep. One million gallons of water was flowing through this Urban Organics farm—from fish to plants and back again. Because it’s a closed-loop system, virtually no water is wasted except for a tiny amount (about 2 percent) lost to evaporation.

New roles

Two examples of new governmental roles to cope with very contemporary issues. Since 2016, Wales has appointed its first ‘minister for the unborn’, who’s mandate it is to make sure future generations get a fair hearing in present political debates. There is also a Finnish Ambassador fighting fake news, working on international collaboration, and trying “to increase the level of public awareness and media literacy on disinformation campaigns.”

To aid this struggle, her office is advancing a new approach to policymaking. Instead of top-down managerialism, government decisions need to be guided by principles such as public involvement, preventative action and cross-government collaboration.

Art by Moebius (Jean Giraud) who passed on this date 7 years ago

Miscellany

  • 📚 Lots of great details in How American Cities Got Their Libraries. “A visual exploration of how a critical piece of social infrastructure came to be.”
  • ✍🏼 Stone Age Cave Symbols May All Be Part of a Single Prehistoric Proto-Writing System. ”The ability of humans to produce a system of signs is clearly not something that starts 40,000 years ago. This capacity goes back at least 100,000 years.”
  • 🍅🐑 What Is a Vegetable? Do They Even Exist?. Good post but it’s the second part that drew my attention. ”The French word for the served food lived alongside the Germanic word for its source. When Anglo-Saxon chickens were slaughtered, they became poultry for the Normans to eat. Food and animal were class-divided döppelgangers: Anglo-Saxon sheep, cows, swine, and doves were transformed into French mouton (mutton), boeuf (beef), porc (pork), and pigeons (pigeons).”
  • 🇨🇳 China bans 23m from buying travel tickets as part of ‘social credit’ system. ”According to the National Public Credit Information Centre, Chinese courts banned would-be travellers from buying flights 17.5 million times by the end of 2018. Citizens placed on black lists for social credit offences were prevented from buying train tickets 5.5 million times.”
  • 🤖🤚🏼 The first dexterous and sentient hand prosthesis has been successfully implanted. [T]titanium implants were placed in the two forearm bones (radius and ulnar), from which electrodes to nerves and muscle were extended to extract signals to control a robotic hand and to provide tactile sensations. This makes it the first clinically viable, dexterous and sentient prosthetic hand usable in real life.” (Via Rick Liebling’s Adjacent Possible.)
  • 🗑 is this just fantasy. Amazon is hollowing out our high streets and replacing human-facing shop jobs with warehouse drudgery that leaves workers mere servants to a machine. It is hollowing out our material culture into price-arbitraged Alibaba drop-shipped disposable trash. And the media that might object to this turns instead to affiliate links and “service journalism” to stay afloat. An entire section of New York magazine is just an Amazon catalogue now. High street shops shutter and people stay away and the decline accelerates.”
  • 🇩🇪🐻 Berlin Plans for Huge Investments in Public Transit. ”Berlin is committing a remarkable €28.1 billion, or just under $32 billion, to transportation projects.”
  • 🐡 Heatwaves sweeping oceans ‘like wildfires’, scientists reveal. Some frightening visuals in there.