Newsletter No.260 — Apr 16, 2023

Resisting Deterministic Thinking ⊗ The Green Techno-Dream Is so Vastly Destructive ⊗ How to Rest Well

Want to understand the world & imagine better futures?

Also this week → Smoke screen ⊗ For Sarah Bakewell, nothing human is Alien ⊗ Chart the threat of killer fungi ⊗ A book from the Steve Jobs archive

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Resisting deterministic thinking

danah boyd is back from a three month sabbatical and feels like having returned “to an alien planet full of serious utopian and dystopian thinking swirling simultaneously.” She runs us through what is deterministic thinking, it’s “ugly step-sibling” solutionism, and recommends embracing probabilistic futures.

You can read this piece two ways. First as what it is officially, a warning about deterministic thinking around AI, whether it’s positive or negative, and how it prevents debates and obfuscates some potential futures. Second as a piece about foresight (even though boyd drops the word “futurist” at an odd point that seems dismissive), about the S in futures, about exploring a variety of potential ways forward, and on gaining some agency trough it.

Having had a number of conversations internally and with clients on how to connect strategy and foresight, it came to mind that, under a very reductive vision of strategy, one could look at it as deterministic (preparing for just one future), and foresight as probabilistic. Obviously, good strategy is looking at various outcomes, but many now seem to see it has barely more than planning.

Perhaps my favourite bit to think about further; “If pundits are predicting such disruptions, shouldn’t we be building the mechanisms to see if those futures are unfolding the way that determinists think they will?”

The key to understanding how technologies shape futures is to grapple holistically with how a disruption rearranges the landscape. One tool is probabilistic thinking. Given the initial context, the human fabric, and the arrangement of people and institutions, a disruption shifts the probabilities of different possible futures in different ways. […]

Rather than doubling down on deterministic thinking by creating projectories as guiding lights (or demons), I find it far more personally satisfying to see projected futures as something to interrogate. […]

This is the fascinating thing about a disruption like what we’re seeing with AI technologies. It rearranges power, networks, and institutions. And we’re watching a scramble by individuals and organizations to obtain power in this insanity. […]

How do we do this same activity at scale? How do [we] create significant structures to understand and evaluate the transformations that unfold as they unfold and feed those back into the development cycle? How do we build assessment protocols for evaluating new AI models? […]

How can we push past our current love affair with determinism so that we can have a more nuanced, thoughtful, reflexive account of technology and society?

The green techno-dream is so vastly destructive

The official title of this article at The Tyee is “The rising chorus of renewable energy skeptics.” I used part of the subhead instead because the title can feel like the author is identifying some kind of deniers. Instead, it’s about a proper clear-eyed consideration of the material needs of the current dreams of electrification. ‘We’ have fallen, or been pushed into, a vision where it’s possible to, both in our cars and metaphorically, simply swap the engine. The current credo of many seems to be ‘except for dirty fossil fuels, everything was hunky-dory, we’ll just use electricity everywhere and we’ll be fine.’

Obviously not so, and Nikiforuk does a good job of diving into the work of “grounded realists” like French journalist Guillaume Pitron, Australian geologist Simon Michaux, and mining conflict expert Olivia Lazard who run the numbers and raise the alarm that not only are the volumes of minerals needed for such a transition mind boggling, not only are they seemingly impossible to reach, but we will also simply swap one disaster for another, destroying the planet and biodiversity at unprecedented rates.

We can’t just replace our economic engine, we must greatly reduce our impact and change our way of life. Flipping one catastrophe for another is not the way forward.

British geologist David Howe politely notes that current mining operations have now become their own geological force, scraping , sorting and collecting more dirt, rock and sediment than the world’s rivers, wind, rain and glaciers every year. […]

“It’s doubling down on the wrong thing: propping up and accelerating the machine that’s eating the planet alive. Barrelling forward on renewable energy is the last thing Earth’s critters would vote for, and would be considered one of the more disruptive decisions we could make.” […]

Since 400 BCE, various civilizations dug up 700 million tonnes of metals (everything from bronze to uranium) prior to 2020. But a so-called green transition will require mining another 700 million metric tonnes by 2040 alone, calculates Michaux. […]

[R]are earth elements needed for “clean energy technologies” as well as most military systems generate 2,000 tons of toxic waste for every ton produced, including one ton of radioactive waste. […]

Even reticent Chinese scientists now warn that “intensive geological prospecting for REE ore deposits… causes extreme damage to the environment.” They also now “worry that there would be widespread tailing facilities concomitant with serious pollutions” due to rising demand from “green high-tech industries.”

How to rest well

More rest has been both a running joke and a real goal with a group of friends, so happening on this piece by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang from 2021 was timely. Everything he addresses we’ve covered here before but it’s a nice one-place overview of rest, shorter weeks, ordered days, rest, focus and pauses, etc.

Other than the serendipity I mentioned, I’m also sharing it for a couple other reasons. One, I’ve realised recently that although I’m pretty good at reasonable weeks, I’m not that good at really splitting rest and having proper focus periods. If it’s also your case, good time to read this. Two, there are of course new readers all the time who might not have seen previous similar shares, some who skipped them and for whom it’s now more relevant, and finally I’m intrigued by this idea of spaced repetition through newsletters. I re-read and re-share some topics because of new insights gained in something already partially known, but this angle of repetition also speaks to me.

Busyness is a badge of honour, even a sign of moral superiority. Rest, in contrast, is often treated as if it’s passive and pointless. Indeed, I’ve noticed many people hardly think of rest as its own thing. It’s just a negative space defined by the absence of work. […]

[H]olding meetings only in the afternoon, and leaving the mornings free for people to work on their most important tasks, works brilliantly when everyone is on board. […]

Encourage others to rest with you. The more we can solve the problem of rest collectively, the better we all will be. This means building new restful habits with family, new rituals with friends, and new daily schedules with colleagues.

Smoke screen “We have the power to tell different stories, to counter the narrative of “artificial intelligence” with one that is rooted in democracy and equality, in a vision of a living world in which life is not ranked according to perceived value under capitalism but in which care is extended to all.”

For Sarah Bakewell, nothing human is Alien About her new book on humanism, which looks interesting, but also shared here for the profile part of the article. “When she was around 6, the family spent two years wandering through India in a Volkswagen bus before settling in Sydney, Australia, where her father ran a university bookstore and her mother worked as a librarian. They moved back to Europe, taking off regularly for family backpacking trips through Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands.”


  • 🍄 😱 Before The Last of Us, I was part of an international team to chart the threat of killer fungi. This is what we found. “[I]n (real-life) laboratories, hospitals and public health units around the world, researchers have been warning about the rise of potentially deadly fungal infections for years. With few drugs to treat major fungal infections, and no vaccines on the horizon, the potential harm caused by fungal infections have raised alarms at the highest levels of public health.”
  • 🍎 📕 🤓 Make Something Wonderful, a book from the Steve Jobs archive. “A curated collection of Steve’s speeches, interviews and correspondence. In these pages, Steve shares his perspective on his childhood, on launching and being pushed out of Apple, on his time with Pixar and NeXT, and on his ultimate return to the company that started it all.”
  • 🚞 🍽 🤩 🇪🇺 Dining in Style, at 90 Miles an Hour in Central Europe. “Train travel is thriving in Central Europe, and so are dining cars. We rode the rails from Prague to Zurich and beyond, sampling regional dishes and savoring the views.”
  • 🖼 👏🏼 🇫🇷 A New, Safe Home for the Louvre’s Unseen Treasures. “An ultramodern conservation center in northern France is a haven for flood-threatened items from the museum’s central Paris basement.”
  • 🦇 😎 🇺🇸 Researchers built sonar glasses that track facial movements for silent communication. “The researchers say the system only requires a few minutes of training data (for example, reading a series of numbers) to learn a user’s speech patterns. Then, once it’s ready to work, it sends and receives sound waves across your face, sensing mouth movements while using a deep learning algorithm to analyze echo profiles in real time ‘with about 95 percent accuracy.’”
  • 🎥 🌳 Into the Rewild “is a short films series that explores rewilding and deep ecology.”
  • 🎥 🦤 🦅 The Sizes of Flying Creatures, Compared. “Using 3D models, this video compares the sizes of various flying creatures (insects, bats, birds, dinosaurs) past and present, from the microscopic fairyfly (which is dwarfed by a mosquito) to the albatross (with its 12-foot wingspan) to the immense Quetzalcoatlus, which stood 20 feet tall and had a wingspan in the neighborhood of 33 feet.”