Also this week → A pan-African utopia in the stars ⊗ Speculating on our climate future ⊗ Octopus farming: critics say plans are unethical ⊗ The Climate Game — Can you reach net zero? ⊗ The Tech Bubble That Never Burst
Quick feedback asks: in the last couple of issues (not this one though, but here), I included just three featured articles and a couple of shorter takes. Last week and again today, I added a few ‘futures’ links because I’m noting and reading quite a few of them recently, but don’t want to feature them all. All of this to say, I’d appreciate any thoughts from you on these two formats. 👍🏼 👎🏼 ?
I'm always going on about imagining better futures (I need to rename that tag (right?)), well here Deb Chachra does just that, sketching out a future of resilience, abundance, and decentralisation (not the crypto kind). One not based on trends, fictions, or even a proven forecasting exercise, but based on science, history, and deep knowledge of infrastructures and materials. Earth is bathed in, for all intents and purposes, limitless solar energy; the transition to renewables is not a step back, it’s an opportunity to remake our world.
Transitioning all of our infrastructural systems to be powered by renewable sources is about growing out the number of people who have access to more energy, who benefit from using it to meet human needs, whether as basic as cooking food or as modern as global telecommunications. […]
Technology is our active human interface with the material world, and all of the ways in which we respond to climate change will require access to energy, whether it's robust disaster response, microgrids that provide reliable electricity even during extreme weather events, or building out cities and communities that are resilient to a wider range of environmental conditions. […]
We are living at the cusp of remaking ourselves from a primitive species that gets most of our energy from literally setting stuff on fire, and that just junks stuff when we’re done with it, into an species that fits harmoniously into a planetwide ecosystem, that uses energy from the sun, harnesses it for use and to fabricate what we need to thrive, and then returns those materials to the common pool to be used and shared again.
One reason I read this one instead of waiting after my Sentiers reading/writing session was that it looked like an intriguing finance article, keeping this issue a bit broader than futures… but it begins and ends with a speculative exercise! 🤣
Regardless, it’s a good mini fiction and the rest of this piece by Michael A. McCarthy for Noema is an excellent outline of why democratizing finance through the use of deliberative minipublics would be a great type of structure and process to establish. He does so with clear arguments, but also by showing point by point what’s wrong with the existing financing system, and why DeFi and Web3 are not the solutions. (Only caveat: the extraneous use of the title of “futurist” for anyone working looking ahead.)
But when it comes to the proliferation of copycat NFT launches, at a certain point you are no longer buying Duchamp’s readymade sculpture “Fountain,” you are just buying an overpriced urinal. […]
Therefore, a key principle for subjecting circuits of finance to democratic processes is in creating centralized institutions of finance that are the subject of democratic deliberation, participation and decision-making. […]
Therefore, deliberative minipublics can be a better source of improved knowledge for the population than typical party signaling or interest group messaging. Not only do they create a space for thoughtful deliberation about investing for the public good, they both inform broader public opinion and operate with some legitimacy because they are composed not of interest groups, but of peers.
In this relatively long read, Emily M. Bender is precisely deconstructing and critiquing Steven Johnson’s piece on AI for NYT Magazine. TL;DR: He drank too much of the OpenAI Koolaid and left his journalist’s notebook at the door. It’s a good read where Bender takes every uncritical bit and explains why it’s wrong and/or participates in the legend being built around “AI.” Useful as a lens for further reading on the topic, and if you want to pay attention to how narratives (and futures) are built and slowly become ‘the truth.’
It also made me realise anew why critiques of the technology and gung-ho proponents are so misaligned; to quite a degree, they are not talking about the same thing. The former are (I’m greatly caricaturing here) saying “we know of various social and tech issues, can this maths-based technology be helpful in reversing them?” While the latter are thinking “let's see what this super cool thing that feels like scifi can do, we’ll figure the rest out later (maybe).”
[T]he skeptics framing seems to shift the burden of proof away from those who claim to be doing something outlandish (building “AGI”) and towards those who call out the unfounded claims. […]
[T]he relevant question is not “how do we build ‘AI’?” but rather things like “How do we shift power so that we see fewer (ideally no) cases of algorithmic oppression?”, “How do we imagine and deploy design processes that locate technology as tools, shaped for and in the service of people working towards pro-social ends?”, and “How do we ensure the possibility of refusal, making it possible to shut down harmful applications and ensure recourse for those being harmed?” […]
Talking about “teaching machines values” is a fundamental misframing of the situation and a piece of AI hype. Software systems are artifacts, not sentient entities, and as such “teaching” is a misplaced and misleading metaphor (as is “machine learning” or “artificial intelligence”). Rather, as with any other artifact or system, the builders of these systems are designing values into them. […]
Just because that text seems coherent doesn’t mean the model behind it has understood anything or is trustworthy. Just because that answer was correct doesn’t mean the next one will be When a computer seems to “speak our language”, we’re actually the ones doing all of the work.
At The Science of Fiction, an interview with Maurice Broaddus about his book Sweep of Stars and the world he created for a planned trilogy “that blends the writer’s loves of science, art, and religion in an intrigue-filled tale about a pan-African society called the Muungano that’s forging a new future for itself across the Solar System.” Lots of good bits on world building, and a couple of nerdy spots where I laughed out loud.
Sweep of Stars is a love letter to the world that could be if Black people in Africa and the African diaspora were finally free from the effects of centuries of slavery, colonialism, and ongoing systemic racism. […]
[T]he whole idea was ‘Let’s get to a place where we can carve out some time to just sit and think and just dream, essentially, about who we could be, what we want to be, how we want to do things differently.’ And I think that dreaming process is the process of trying to shake off the weight of history. Can we shake off enough of the weight of history so that we can try and create something new? […]
There is the split that says ‘It is dangerous. It is an Other. Let us destroy, control, capture, study it.’ Then there’s a faction that’s like, ‘Hey, How about we adapt to life alongside it? What does that look like?’ What does it look like to embrace its presence and then see about living life alongside it?
Another interview with an author, Andrew Dana Hudson this time, about his new book. I don’t have much to add, especially since he was already in No.210 for the same book, but I had to include it here because I just loved his answers about scifi “as centering a particular theory of social change,” and fiction as a set of “seeing instruments.”
Often, we think of science fiction as any fiction set in the future, but I argue that it's more interesting and useful to think about science fiction as centering a particular theory of social change. Sci-fi is about science — about new discoveries and new technologies that result from the scientific process — and it imagines how the future will be made different by the impact of that knowledge and tech. In cli-ficlimate fiction, the core driver of social change isn’t science — it’s climate change. […]
I like to think of fiction as a set of “seeing instruments.” They can let us examine things more closely, examine things from far away, or at strange angles — all to grow our sense of the possible and the plausible, both good and bad. […]
We need more stories not just about the danger of climate change, but about the process we are using to address that danger — who the players are and how we set the terms of debate.
Futures, Foresights, Forecasts & Fabulations → What is ‘futures studies’ and how can it improve our world? (via Johannes) ⊗ The Craft of Forecasting Our Possible Futures: A Conversation with Jane McGonigal ⊗ Science Fiction in a Time of Crisis ⊗ Four ways we can use our collective imagination to improve how society works ⊗ Future100 collection at Metropolis ◼
No.216 Asides ⊕ See Note
- 🤬 🦑 🇪🇸 Awareness of animal cruelty is rising, more people are vegetarian and vegan so, of course, let’s… start farming a smart species. 🤦🏼♂️ Octopus farming: critics say plans are unethical for ‘exceptionally intelligent animal’. “Critics counter that cultivating these complex creatures would cause great suffering and replicate the harms prevalent in land-based factory farming. The UK recognised octopuses as sentient beings last year. … Generally solitary animals, octopuses can become aggressive when kept in close proximity to others. Captive octopuses have been known to eat their own arms”
- 🤓 🌍 🌳 Intriguing game at the Financial Times (!!) where you make policy decisions to try and reach net zero. The Climate Game — Can you reach net zero? “The emissions modelling was developed in 2022 by the International Energy Agency (IEA). The scenarios used in the IEA’s “Net Zero by 2050” report were recalculated to track the temperature outcomes for specific pathways used in the game.”
- 🤩 📈 🇺🇸 Another great longscroll visualisation by the team at the New York Times. The Tech Bubble That Never Burst. “Yet every time, more money has flooded into start-ups. Instead of a collapse, things got bubblier.” (Via a different Johannes.)
- 🤯 🇺🇿 🇮🇶 🔢 I had no idea! 😳 Why Algorithms Are Called Algorithms. “This video from BBC Ideas explains that the term has its roots in the work of 9th century Persian mathematician Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, who also gave the world the word “algebra”.”
- 🇺🇸 💻 💪🏼 Good! Another crappy big tech over-reaching, this time they were turned down. Web scraping is legal, US appeals court reaffirms. “The Ninth Circuit’s decision is a major win for archivists, academics, researchers and journalists who use tools to mass collect, or scrape, information that is publicly accessible on the internet. Without a ruling in place, long-running projects to archive websites no longer online and using publicly accessible data for academic and research studies have been left in legal limbo.”
- 🤔 😬 🥢 🧂 🇯🇵 Saline solution: Japan invents ‘electric’ chopsticks that make food seem more salty. “The device transmits sodium ions from food, through the chopsticks, to the mouth where they create a sense of saltiness, according to Homei Miyashita, a professor at Meiji University in Tokyo, whose laboratory collaborated with the food and drink manufacturer Kirin to develop the device.”
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