Reading Saito in Kagoshima ⊗ Navigating the polycrisis ⊗ Reconsidering the role of AI

No.309 — A futures library ⊗ The Future of Work is Entering its Synth Era ⊗ AI brings Immanuel Kant back to life

Reading Saito in Kagoshima ⊗ Navigating the polycrisis ⊗ Reconsidering the role of AI
Yakushima Island, Kagoshima prefecture, Japan. By Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash.

Reading Saito in Kagoshima

I love me a good Dan Hill essay and he’s been relatively silent for the last little while, which doubles the pleasure of reading his thinking here. Kohei Saito studied Marx’s lesser known environmental writing and built on that to write about and advocate for a deliberate slowdown and a new economics based on reclaiming the commons for a thriving future.

Hill mixes some ideas from Saito’s writings with his own critique, some examples of degrowth in Japan, the commons, and what design can accomplish. He believes that the problem with the philosopher’s vision “does not lie with the analysis (why things are how they are) but rather, with the synthesis (what they could be instead).” Hill uses his own practice and examples seen in Kagoshima prefecture to kind of flesh out what bioregional-level degrowth (or slow growth) might look like within a larger Saitoish global context.

The three most salient points for me are; that forced degrowth, because of a shrinking and aging population results, in some places, in a change of how property is valued, making possible these community projects and a re-commoning of resources. Slow growth instead of degrowth, but ‘growth’ as in nature, not as in capitalism (full quote highlighted below). Hill’s two great word combinations, “culture and cultures [(fermentation)]” and “composting of value and a compositing of ideas.”

In these small towns, the patterns of enterprise seemed more redolent of the biological processes of fermentation, as with the local koji, than the normative extractive language of start-up and scale-up. […]

What strikes me about the people we meet in Kagoshima are these patterns of slowness, patience, resourcefulness, ‘staying with’ complex local systems, building health and pleasure – an even reciprocity between nature and culture. […]

This is not degrowth. Instead, amid the koji and kindergartens, we see another dynamic. Perhaps growth as in a forest, rather than a Tesla or an Exxon. A forest grows without destroying everything around it. But it still grows. This is an organic growth, a slow growth, and as Suzanne Simard has shown, the forest is a far more complex and ambitious idea than anything modernity has yet realised. The growth is more akin to the fermentation, of culture and cultures, that sits underneath those Kagoshima stories. […]

Design’s job is to work similarly with ambiguity, but also to draw freely from science, engineering, arts and humanities in order to articulate possible futures; to capture the essence of ideas like Saito’s slowdown and bring them closer to form, to things, into experiences, situations, structures and settings in which to encounter these ideas. […]

It is somehow more mundane, more everyday. Yet there’s a quietly complex, determined beauty to these unfolding relationships, a composting of value and a compositing of ideas, immersed in a specific sense of place drawn from both deep past and near future.

More → By the way, the piece is found in the Future Observatory Journal’s first issue, themed Bioregioning. Looks fantastic. The essays Donella Meadows Revisited, Lo-Fab (which features the work of MASS Design), and Justin McGuirk’s interview with Arturo Escobar have drawn my attention.

This piece is an edited excerpt from Michael J. Albert’s book Navigating the Polycrisis. In short, amidst the many interconnected crises, futures work can help us orient towards different and more survivable futures. “‘Business-as-usual’ will come to an end—whether by choice or by disaster. Thus we need more future-oriented scholarship that can illuminate the possible roads ahead, their branching pathways, the dangers that lurk, and the opportunities that may emerge for progressive transformation.”

As I was reading, this trio of concepts popped into my head; ‘Futurity, transdisciplinarity, planetarity.’ Kiiind of what the newsletter is about, no?

Albert talks about concrete utopias, where “speculation must negotiate the tension between radical imagination and rigorous social, political, and ecological analysis of the possible. In other words, it emerges from the always fraught encounter between utopianism and realism.” Love it!

Note for the generalists, neo-generalists and other self-taught (and self-thought?) autodidact lifelong learners, towards the end he writes about who will be able to create this important work. “Rather than ultra-specialized experts, it is the agile and curious—those who venture far outside their disciplinary comfort zones, seeking out new insights from other fields and opposing perspectives that challenge their thinking—who are best placed to connect the dots and develop more realistic maps of the future.”

In a word, it must be “transdisciplinary,” in the sense of pragmatist scholarship that emerges directly from problems in the world demanding response (rather than from stale disciplinary debates) and that synthesizes knowledge across numerous disciplinary, theoretical, and methodological traditions. […]

To do this well, in a way that moderates (but does not entirely avoid) the risk of wishful thinking, we need a rigorous, transdisciplinary approach that can illuminate the constraints, obstacles, opportunities, and mechanisms of change that structure the future possibility space.

More → Found in Johannes Kleske’s latest, where he writes about a theoretical foundation for Critical Futures Studies.

Reconsidering the role of AI: valuing process over output

Nice short post by Jorge Arango on the value of using AI to support humans rather than replacing them. AI should be seen as a tool to aid in processes like analyzing data or designing, not as a replacement for human thinking. He gives the example of personal knowledge management (PKM), where “notes are evidence that thinking happened — but they are not the thinking itself. If you only get the outcome (i.e., a set of notes and connections between them), you haven’t learned.” What good then are automated notes? You have more of them but you haven’t done any thinking.

It reminds me of a piece from last year, where danah boyd explains deskilling on the job. Here’s some of what I said about it in No.263 (sorry, the re-archiving doesn’t go that far yet so no link): “An oft cited example of job replacement is the dull ‘junk labor’ young lawyers go through early in their careers, this is already being replaced by AIs but over those years they also learn the trade and are ‘socialized into the profession.’ How does that happen when they have to jump straight from school to the more complex un-automated work?”

AI can save time, but what about when the time spent on that task is as valuable or maybe even more valuable than the result? Knowledge transfer and onboarding are already very ineffective, if they exist at all, in most companies. The gap could be even wider if AI (actually, managers implementing AI in place of hiring juniors) scrapes off whole layers of roles. Same thing for individuals, people already mistake data for knowledge, if you don’t even need to do much of anything, your thinking is thinner still.

“AI” is a misnomer for the current technologies. The phrase both oversells LLMs’ capabilities and doesn’t do them justice. The word “intelligence” raises expectations LLMs can’t meet: they have no theory of mind and seem incapable of deep conceptual reasoning. […]

The key is applying them to tasks they’re well-suited to, such as analyzing, synthesizing, and manipulating data, and not for making important decisions on behalf of people.

Futures, Fictions & Fabulations

Futures library
I love this so much! Media Evolution, who have a practice of collaborative foresight, have launched an actual library, open to the public, where you can consult a great list of books in a beautiful space in Mälmo, Sweden. The section names of the library are making me a bit jealous, I might have to steal some of it.

The Future of Work is Entering its Synth Era
“The future of AI is full of paradoxes: productivity versus job displacement, innovation versus inequality, empowerment versus dependency, and enhancement versus dehumanisation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of work, where we are entering a synth era.”

How Balanced Design Leadership Can Drive Desirable Futures
“This study recognized and described the following four building blocks for designing futures: enabling the team and project, establishing future scenarios, evaluating desirable futures, and exciting people’s motivation to achieve that future.”

Algorithms, Automations & Augmentations

Agency brings Immanuel Kant back to life via AI as a 23-year-old influencer
“The entire Manu account was created using the GenAI platform STABLES. His appearance, his voice, his texts – every component of the new Kant has been translated and brought to life as authentically as possible over 300 years.”

AI image feedback loop
“Data artist Robert Hodgin recently created a feedback loop between Midjourney and ChatGPT-4 — he prompted MJ to create an image of an old man in a messy room wearing a VR headset, asked ChatGPT to describe the image, then fed that description back into MJ to generate another image, and did that 10 times.”

Racist AI deepfake of Baltimore principal leads to arrest
“A high school athletic director in the Baltimore area was arrested on Thursday after he used artificial intelligence software, the police said, to manufacture a racist and antisemitic audio clip that impersonated the school’s principal.”


  • 🤓 📊 Keywords of the Datafied State. “A collection of essays on concepts that are central to understanding the relationship between government and technology, and how it differs across geographies.”
  • 💡 🎬 🎥 Inside ILM | To be a Generalist. “At Industrial Light & Magic, Generalists possess a high degree of proficiency across multiple disciplines including modeling, lighting, texturing, shading/look development, FX, matte painting, animation, shot composition, and rendering. Take a deep dive into what makes the team unique.” (Via NFL’s Discord.)
  • 👏🏼 💉 🔬 Science! How many lives have vaccines saved? New WHO study comes out with breathtaking estimate.. “Vaccines alone, the researchers find, accounted for 40 percent of the decline in infant mortality. The paper — authored by a team of researchers led by WHO epidemiologist and vaccine expert Naor Bar-Zeev — estimates that in the 50 years since 1974, vaccines prevented 154 million deaths.” (Via Fix The News.)
  • 🤩 🎭 🖼️ Ronald Jackson’s Masked Portraits of Imaginary Characters Stoke Curiosity About Their Stories. “In his bold oil paintings, Jackson illuminates imagination itself. He began to incorporate masks as a way to enrich his own exploration of portraiture while simultaneously kindling a sense of curiosity about the individuals and their histories. Rather than portraying someone specific, each piece asks, ‘Who do you think this is?’”
  • 🐊 🌎 👏🏼 First ever planet-wide analysis shows conservation work is making a measurable difference. “All the money and effort spent on biodiversity conservation is not just a little bit better than doing nothing at all, they found, but many times greater.”
  • 👏🏼 🦅 🐦‍⬛ 🇨🇦 In Coastal British Columbia, the Haida Get Their Land Back. “The BC government formally recognizes Haida ownership of all the lands of Haida Gwaii. This is the first time in Canadian history that the colonial government has recognized Indigenous title across an entire terrestrial territory, and it’s the first time this kind of recognition has occurred outside of the courts.”

Your Futures Thinking Observatory