Newsletter No.272 — Jul 09, 2023

To Save the Planet, Should We Really Be Moving Slower? ⊗ The True Threat of Artificial Intelligence ⊗ What “Rewilding” Means—and What’s Missing From This New Movement

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Also this week → Brian Eno: creativity and the future ⊗ The case for reforesting our cities ⊗ Octopuses sleep—and possibly dream—just like humans ⊗ Afrofuturism animated series incoming!

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To save the planet, should we really be moving slower?

Excellent piece by Bill McKibben at The New Yorker (hopefully you haven’t busted your paywall limit) kind of on degrowth. I’m not sure I share his overall position, but at the same time it also shows how complex climate change and resources issues are. We can get rid of fossil fuels faster if we electrify everything, but then that means a lot of new mining and destruction. But then perhaps mining can be better contained than CO2 in the air, but then what about the communities being exploited? But then perhaps the revenu is essential to them and fairer solutions can emerge?

Then how do you get people to roll back a lifestyle that has been driven into them for decades? And how do you balance getting those with too much to slow down while ‘letting’ those with too little get to a kind of sweet spot between their predicament and our excess? That’s between nations, but the same applies to solutions that work in cities but not in suburbs or rural areas. Or taxes meant for excess that impact poorer citizens.

Nothing directly new in there for readers of this newsletter, but one of the better demonstrations of how all those factors are entangled and, although he doesn’t say it directly, how no one ‘pure’ solution can fix everything. Like last week’s piece on geothermal, none of all electric or all degrowth or all nature or no mining or all refurbished or all whatever will work, we need flexibility of intellect and of will.

After four thousand years of economic stasis, we were suddenly in a world where the average standard of living doubled in a matter of decades, and then doubled again and again and again and again. And we liked it so much that it became the raison d’être of our political life. […]

This kind of damage is, by definition, localized. It affects real people, animals, and places, but is confined mostly to those people, animals, and places. Whereas the damage that comes from fossil fuels is global and existential: you can’t see carbon dioxide the same way you can see acid mine drainage, but climate change is already eating away at the most basic processes of the Earth: the jet stream, the Gulf Stream, the hydrological cycle. […]

[Søren Hermansen is a] big advocate of renewable energy, but, he said, it’s fairer—and so easier to make happen—when there’s shared coöperative ownership of a utility and the profits can be used for community centers, infrastructure, and schools. “When they own it, if you see what I mean.”

The true threat of Artificial Intelligence

Evgeny Morozov wrote an opinion piece at The New York Times on the problems with the plans and dreams of today’s AI proponents. It’s a bit weird that he focuses on AGI (Artificial General Intelligence), since everything he’s talking about is already happening with plain old AI.

AGI does not exist and likely won’t for a good long while, so framing his very valid critiques around the AGI dreams of the AAs of AI (Altman, Andreessen) doesn’t seem like a good choice. Yes, he’s focusing on their vision to show the problems that are wrapped up in them, yes he’s correct, but it seems a bit more ‘tilting at windmills’ than it could have been.

Regardless, his depiction of the interplay between tech solutionism, investment money, markets, neoliberal biases, and these entrepreneurs’ ideals of placing markets above public institutions is on point and important. It is, in short, a call to look beyond (or before) the fears of AGI to recognise and fight the very real present threats to public systems before these tech titans crumble some more of our shared institutions for the sake of making a quick billion or two.

Sidenote: Morozov reminds us that the current stage of AI (OpenAI to name one) is still in the early Uber phase of selling services below cost, the one where things are cheap because the companies are plowing through the billions handed out to them. When it’s time to repay and monetise, all those super cheap generative AI tricks might turn out to not be ‘too cheap to meter’ after all.

Yet neoliberalism is far from dead. Worse, it has found an ally in A.G.I.-ism, which stands to reinforce and replicate its main biases: that private actors outperform public ones (the market bias), that adapting to reality beats transforming it (the adaptation bias*)* and that efficiency trumps social concerns (the efficiency bias). […]

The solutionist feast is only getting started: Whether it’s fighting the next pandemic, the loneliness epidemic or inflation, A.I. is already pitched as an all-purpose hammer for many real and imaginary nails. However, the decade lost to the solutionist folly reveals the limits of such technological fixes. […]

But wouldn’t our quest for augmenting intelligence be far more effective if the government funded a Manhattan Project for culture and education and the institutions that nurture them instead?

What “rewilding” means—and what’s missing from this new movement

Can’t say I was expecting to find an article reviewing three books about rewilding at the MIT Technology Review but here we are. It proved to be a really good and useful overview of the various words, approaches, and opinions on how humans could/should give more space to nature. Rewilding like English lords? Rewilding at a larger scale? Giving land back to indigenous peoples and their ancestral practices? Justice historically in restorative and conservation projects? Check on all of these and, as is usually the case, the realisation that nothing is simple, especially our human relationships and our connection to nature, or lack thereof.

At the outset, Hernandez argues that in order for us to “start healing Indigenous landscapes,” each person must acknowledge our place in the social system that is overseeing climate collapse. For the majority of people in the Americas who aren’t Indigenous, this means understanding that we can be either “settlers,” “unwanted guests,” or “welcomed guests”—roles determined by the Indigenous communities native to these lands. […]

Restoring the planet is always a process of design, says Martin—one that is shaped by the values, idiosyncrasies, and blind spots of those in charge, even when they claim to be ceding control to wild and primeval forces. […]

“I suggest that we conceive of restoration as an optimistic collaboration with nonhuman species, a practice of co-designing the wild with them. But we still have the responsibility to collaborate with one another, too.”

More → Adjacent to the above, a nice short piece by Clive Thompson on the benefits of more nature in cities, with the case for reforesting our cities.

Brian Eno: creativity and the future “Maths, science and technology are all are wonderful, but they aren’t the only tools in our toolbox. We have the ability to use art as a set of antennae that enable us to feel our way into uncertain futures, futures about which there isn’t much evidence or data to work with. And in this sense, the analytical science way of viewing those won’t work’. This need to produce art is deep-rooted within us as a species, with Eno keen to stress that ‘children learn by play, but adults play through art.”

Futures, foresights, forecasts & fabulations

Afrofuturism animated series incoming! Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire.

Who’s cooking our futures? Reframing development policy and programming through imagination. “This report presents learnings from the United Nations Development Programme’s Inclusive Imaginaries pilot, which aims to challenge traditional development orthodoxy in policymaking and programme design.”

A Necessary Imagination. Allow yourself to dream widely. Make up a fictional universe just for fun. Or think about a fictional universe that already exists that you would have organized differently. Use your imagination as a way to practice exploring possibilities…and discover the many ways this is connected to real-world hope.”

Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation

The Vatican releases its own AI ethics handbook. “The guidelines are the result of a partnership between Francis and Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Together, they’ve formed a new organization called the Institute for Technology, Ethics, and Culture.”

13 principles for using AI responsibly. Article at the Harvard Business Review, only scanned it but looks pretty good.

How one design studio crafted a brand campaign entirely from AI. “Design Army wanted to know if AI was a fad or the future—so it employed AI to design an entire campaign for a longtime client.”


  • 🤺 🪵 🤩 🎥 🇯🇵 An Incredible Stop-Motion Animation of a Samurai Fight. “Not going to bury the lede here: this is a straight-up masterpiece and maybe the best thing I've seen all week. Hidari is a stop-motion animation of an inventive fight sequence between a lone warrior/craftsman and a boss & his minions.”
  • 🐙 💭 🤯 🇯🇵 Octopuses sleep—and possibly dream—just like humans. “A team of researchers at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology observed both periods of quiet sleep, or NREM sleep (also known as slow wave sleep), and bursts of neural activity, during which the animals’ eyes and tentacles twitched while their skin changed color. Neural activities like these, which are similar to the waking state, only happen during REM sleep. Because they can transition between NREM and REM sleep, octopuses are the only known invertebrates that have two phases of sleep.”
  • 🛝 🤩 🇬🇧 Young V&A designed as “national resource” for creative learning. “‘The museum is the first of its kind and by continuing to work in partnership with teachers and schools, locally and across the country, it will become a national resource for supporting the teaching of art and design,’ said V&A director Tristram Hunt.”
  • 🔷 😍 🇳🇱 Great looking 3D printing project. New Delft Blue archways wrapped in 3,000 3D-printed ceramic tiles. "After studying different nature-inspired patterns on Delft Blue plates, we developed an algorithm that generated a leaf pattern that grows from one side to the other side that guides people over the staircase between two different public spaces."
  • 💫 🇬🇧 Astra Carta Seal. Nice looking old-school design by Jony Ive’s firm with an animated solar system. Sharing for the design but also for the irony of the ‘let’s take out all the ports so it’s slicker’ guy now designing very intricate seals. ¯_(ツ)_/¯
  • 😍 📸 The Winners of the 2023 Drone Photo Awards.