Photo by Efe Kurnaz on Unsplash

Robots are animals, not humans ⊗ Democracy, sovereignty, technology, and so called Canada ⊗ The infrastructural power beneath the Internet — No.170

This week → Robots are animals, not humans ⊗ Democracy, sovereignty, technology, and so called Canada ⊗ The infrastructural power beneath the Internet as we know it ⊗ VR goes where? ⊗ Cozy futurism

A year ago → The most clicked article in issue No.123 was Tokyo as slowdown city by Dan Hill.

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

Quick reminder that a few weeks ago I added a member’s page where paid members (join us!) can find the most recent Dispatches, the newly available complete archive of Sentiers at Work, and a free download of my Learning Collection booklet.

Robots are animals, not humans

Kate Darling just came out with a book and this article-length teaser is very good. Starting from how animals have been used to augment ourselves, she goes on to explain how our obsession with creating AIs based on our own brains and then wanting / fearing our replacement is misguided, we should think of that kind of intelligence as other, with its own strengths and benefits. AI to help and augment. A recurring theme here, and always for me the most sensible and intriguing direction.

Despite the AI pioneers’ original goal of recreating human intelligence, our current robots are fundamentally different. They’re not less-developed versions of us that will eventually catch up as we increase their computing power; like animals, they have a different type of intelligence entirely. […]

Rather than artificial intelligence being a step on the path to human intelligence, it can and will be something entirely its own, and this means that, just as we’ve done with animals in the past, we’re at our best when we team up. […]

[T]he main thing I want to argue is that, contrary to our tech-deterministic beliefs, we actually have some control over how robots impact the labour market. Rather than pushing for broad task automation, we could invest in redesigning the ways people work in order to fully capture the strengths of both people and robots. […]

[I]t’s striking how much of our conversations mirror speculative fiction rather than what’s currently happening on the ground. […]

[W]hen we broaden our thinking to consider what skills might complement our abilities instead of replacing them, we can better envision what’s possible with this new breed.

Democracy, sovereignty, technology, and so called Canada

This one by Bianca Wylie is about Canada but could be about most democracies. While playing an important role in pushing back on Sidewalk Labs in Toronto, Wylie emphasized the importance of democracy and public good, in doing so she realized that because of who our democracy is built by and for, and considering all its shortcomings, it can actually be hard to defend. She then argues that, to address our history and the problems of our democracy, we must begin by saving it from private interests constantly taking bites “of public infrastructures, processes, and our government accountability as a whole through software, standards, or other means of corporate and commercial power.”

The influence of large technology companies on our society is persistent in ways that a tax has nothing to do with. […]

For many of us, when we hear someone saying “but democracy” we can rightly say “this democracy supports: state violence against those seeking their treaty rights, anti-Black racism, unaccountable police, rampant poverty, environmental degradation, the list goes on”. In other words, arguments for democracy don’t resonate for many. […]

I’m not fighting to defend democracy because the status quo is defensible. It’s not. I’m fighting to not further foreclose the chance — and it’s far from guaranteed to happen — but the opportunity — to use our democracy to address our history. […]

If we want to do better on the lands we live on, we have to hold onto the power that is public rather than private. For only then can we turn around and use it to address and do better by the shaky sovereignty we have and understand and support the sovereignties others have.

The infrastructural power beneath the Internet as we know it

Infrastructure makes a regular appearance in Sentiers, but has also been discussed quite a bit recently, around Biden’s plans to mention just one instance. Here Ingrid Burrington looks more specifically at technology as infrastructure, and shows how because of ongoing concentration, we could actually call “infrastructure” the “means of production” or the “means of computation” (I’ll be re-using that!) to more clearly grasp who controls the technology around us, and the difficulties we face if we want to claim back some of the control of those means. (It’s at The Reboot and a number of adjacent articles are embedded along the way, have a look.)

As use of the term “infrastructure” in tech has grown, it’s easy to lose sight of what actually gives Big Tech its power and what’s at stake when proposing alternatives to such centralization: capital, and who controls it. […]

With internet infrastructure, we’re not talking about a discrete piece of property that can be autonomously taken over: it’s cables and antennae and spectrum and all sorts of very expensive stuff that requires specialized technical maintenance, not to mention coordination with other interdependent systems. […]

Rather than assuming that the internet starts as massive nodes of platform data centers and internet exchanges, perhaps the last mile is actually the first step in working toward a different vision of who should own and govern the means of computation.

VR goes where?

I never paid all that much attention to VR, however I find the longer term vision of a metaverse quite fascinating so I’ve started looking a bit more closely at VR. In this, the first of a trio of posts, Andrew Sempere goes exploring the current state of the field. I’m including it for two main reasons: it’s an unusual consideration of VR by someone whose critique and tone are refreshing. Yet he has worked in the field, it’s from someone who hopes it could be great.

Two, and this line of thought surely exists elsewhere but does not seem to be part of the main narrative around VR, it connects to the first article where the dream of AI is perhaps not the “right” dream. I’m wondering if bringing our human shape and perceptions in VR is not, perhaps, also the wrong goal?

My take here has always been critical, and this critique remains: I find VR interesting, but the degree to which it requires you to relinquish your actual physical body in order to experience sensation is disturbing. […]

[I]f you have ever gone through the significant trouble of enjoying [SCUBA diving and skiing] you know how the sensation of being hampered by your equipment melts once you are in the “correct” environment: the sensation isn’t one of limit but augmentation.

Cozy futurism

It’s only in writing this blurb that I realized the post fits with the AI and VR ones as “wrong dreams.” Future imaginaries are often focused on space and advanced tech. How about focusing instead on a cozier future of “urban reform, renewable energy, solving climate change; focusing on specific problems and having tech as an ends”?

In contrast, cozy futurism, as in the original tweet, starts not with technology but with current problems and human needs and looking at how those could be solved and met; so you could imagine societies where poverty is absent, housing is affordable, cities are architecturally pleasing (There is only so much glass and steel one can take before yearning for good old bricks, stones, and wood), economies are environmentally sustainable, and all disease is cured. […]

I’d say that cozy futurism is a subset of solarpunk, and that one could imagine multiple cozily futuristic ideologies or aesthetics, solarpunk being one. […]

Being a cozy futurist is being aware that even when indubitably science & technology are cool, we can’t forget about the lives of the users of said technology; the goal is a nice future, not just a technically advanced future.


Header image: Ceci n’est pas un NFT.