Secularization comes for the religion of technology ⊗ Disengage ⊗ Nvidia eating the world

No.300 — We just haven’t been capitalisming hard enough ⊗ Kohei Saito on degrowth communism ⊗ Holding back the Sahara desert

Secularization comes for the religion of technology ⊗ Disengage ⊗ Nvidia eating the world
An image often used through the history of Sentiers, Jonas Verstuyft’s photo of Fabiano De Martin’s spacesuit sculpture.

September 4th 2017. That’s the day I sent Sentiers No.1 to a few friends as a kind of beta. The subject line included “AI, climate change, solarpunk, a Babylonian tablet,” which is kind of where I’m still at. But also not. The thinking is much more advanced and informed, I believe and hope.

We are now 299 issues later, the format has changed a few times, the emails were sent through Tinyletter, then Mailchimp, then EmailOctopus, and since last week using Ghost. The website was on Tinyletter, then on WordPress, then an Eleventy-based digital garden, then just a website again, and now Ghost.

I launched a pro version called Sentiers at Work way too early, then paid memberships maybe still a bit early, tweaked prices a few times. Tried different member perks. Sometimes unlocked commons, sometimes not. Grew quite a bit but sometimes quite slowly, got rave reviews from readers. It led to some client work directly inspired by the newsletter, to guest editing the legendary (who redesigned Friday morning after eight years !), to almost taking over a great magazine, to co-launching a foresight studio but stepping “sideways” from it a year later (we’re still collaborating quite a bit though).

It’s been my thinking tool, made me a better writer, was a kind of social network, allowed me to meet people I’m a fan of and great ones I didn’t know about, was a marketing platform, a labour of love, and surprisingly almost never a grind.

Ok, this is starting to sound like a goodbye letter. It’s not! I’ve got no plan to stop but it’s also starting to be a bit … questionable (?) to spend so much time on something that hasn’t made me a living as much as I’d hoped. The best way to keep it going, I believe, is to make the “practice” (to put it a bit grandly) full time work. Option a) has been through growth and memberships but I’m still a long way from there seven years on. Option b) is to use that practice with clients, that’s been evolving. A better defined how is coming soon. Ideas, tips, shares, members, and projects are all welcome.

I’d love to see you in another 300. To be continued!

Secularization comes for the religion of technology

“Or, how to make sense of techno-optimist manifestos, the Open Ai/Altman affair, EA/e-acc movements, and the general sense of cultural stagnation.” Reallllly love this one by L. M. Sacasas. He assembles writings from Charles Taylor, David Noble, and David Nye into a different take on the history of technology and religion.

Noble “argued that, from roughly the turn of the first millennium onward, there was a concrete, objective historical relationship between religion, specifically Christianity, and the Western techno-scientific enterprise.” Avowedly religious aspirations infused the work of scientists and technologists, the awe of sublime nature was replaced with awe for technology, for what ‘we’ could accomplish, Providence becomes Progress.

Side trip: Back in issue No.264, I had Ted Chiang’s piece Will A.I. Become the New McKinsey? where he says:

“Today, we find ourselves in a situation in which technology has become conflated with capitalism, which has in turn become conflated with the very notion of progress. If you try to criticize capitalism, you are accused of opposing both technology and progress.”

The relationship between (Christian) religion and techno-science then flipped, the latter becoming dominant, the religion of technology peaking in 1939 with the New York World’s Fair.

I’m really summarising a deep argument way too much, but since then techno religion has slowly been secularised, ‘lost its sheen,’ and Sacasas proposes that the Andreessen screed, to name one example, is a “revivalist sermon” trying to re-center the religion of technology. Extremists and sects rise to counter this secularisation, and we must wonder what might take its place.

In my interpretation, the religion of technology only comes into its own as a functional religion in the 19th century. At this point, it is not just that religious ideals are fueling the technological project, but that the technological project itself takes on the function of a religious ideal driving culture on its own terms. […]

The religion of technology no longer commands the kind of assent it once did, it no longer animates cultural creativity, nor does it bind a diverse society together under a collective vision for the future. It neither compels nor inspires. It rose to dominance, brought the whole scope of human affairs under its purview, sealed us off from competing sources of meaning, purpose, and value, and then simply exhausted itself leaving a cultural vacuum in its absence. […]

I would argue that the religion of technology was always fundamentally unstable. Technology is a means to an end. The moment it became an end in itself, that is to say, the moment technology became the dominant partner in the religion of technology and took up the role of civil religion, at that moment our present moment became inevitable. […]

The question is simply whether we can make productive use of the space afforded by this process of secularization to imagine new techno-social configurations that do not elevate technology to a religious category so that it might serve more proper human ends. Time will tell.


“Modern life subjects us to all-consuming demands. That’s why we should reflect on what it means to step away from it all.” David J Siegel starts with pandemic work-from-home and different rhythms, then back-to-work obligations, to finally jump to the much more valuable questions of idleness, leisure, taking time off, breaks, rest, learning for its own sake, and how today’s expectations and demands conspire to prevent disengagement. He doesn’t mention it but it brings to mind, again, how so many of us thought that there was no going back after confinements, after seeing the economy being stopped on a dime. Some people managed to eek out a more flexible work arrangement but overall, not much change in personal lives and a global rush of getting back to ‘normal,’ back to the same levels of crazy.

It is also about engaging in a social policy of degrowth as a corrective to practices that are taxing the planet, overheating our politics, and putting a strain on our individual and collective health. […]

I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached. […]

It is often only in the interludes that we come to realise just how much our busy lives are an active conspiracy against the very things that supposedly give our existence a deeper sense of meaning and purpose. Little interruptions of the usual can be an invitation to pause and reflect, a rare opportunity for the deep noticing and heightened awareness that ritual and routine often obscure. […]

Getting there might take work, but there are alternatives to the way we live now, and interludes provide the distance we need to recognise them. A good interlude can alert us to much of what we’ve been missing. In Hampl’s phrasing: ‘What a surprise – to discover it’s all about leisure, apparently, this fugitive Real Life, abandoned all those years to “the limitless capacity for toil”.’

Nvidia hardware is eating the world

When new tech leaders emerge, I always like to pay at least some attention to profiles, not to lionise them but to know some of their thinking. Huang has been, in my line of sight anyway, less present than some other founders and CEOs. This is quite a good interview by Lauren Goode for WIRED. They are only short passages but I especially noted his “AI factory” concept and flat networks in organisations. Both are quoted below.

Cloud service providers will build them, and we’ll build them. Every biotech company will have it. Every retail company, every logistics company. Every car company in the future will have a factory that builds the cars—the actual goods, the atoms—and a factory that builds the AI for the cars, the electrons. […]

Information doesn’t have to flow from the top to the bottom of an organization, as it did back in the Neanderthal days when we didn’t have email and texts and all those things. Information can flow a lot more quickly today. So a hierarchical tree, with information being interpreted from the top down to the bottom, is unnecessary. A flat network allows us to adapt a lot more quickly, which we need because our technology is moving so quickly.

§ We just haven’t been capitalisming hard enough. “This is rational for [AI company execs], because they’ll make piles of money. But it is an irrational thing for us to let them do. Why would we want to put artists and illustrators out of a job? Why would we accept a world where it’s impossible to talk to a human when you have a problem, and you’re instead thrown to a churning swarm of chatbots? Why would we let Altman hoover up the world’s knowledge and resell it back to us?”

§ Kohei Saito on degrowth communism. At synthetic zerØ, small collection of videos on the Japanese philosopher’s ideas. “Kohei Saito offers a unique and groundbreaking interpretation of Marx’s Capital as ‘a book about metabolism between humans and nature.’ As Saito explains, Capital’s logic of infinite accumulation creates an irreparable rift with nature’s metabolism, ultimately culminating in catastrophic climate change.”

Futures, Fictions & Fabulations

Shaping equitable futures: integrating indigenous perspectives
“Intergenerational seven generations approaches are at the very heart of an indigenous way of being. Past, present and future are all interwoven, as articulated in the Māori whakatauki (proverb): I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on my past.”

A Brief History of the Future, official trailer
Hoping this turns out well but some of the examples/people have me a bit dubious. “A Brief History of the Future is a unique six-part PBS documentary series about our futures and how we can reimagine them. Hosted by renowned futurist Ari Wallach, the show invites viewers on a journey around the world that is filled with discovery, hope, and possibility about where we find ourselves today and what could come next.”

PPEPSIII framework on the Open Foresight Hub
“The PPEPSIII framework facilitates a deeper understanding of drivers shaping the 2030-2060 time horizon. In general, frameworks such as STEEP and PESTLE are a helpful way for foresight practitioners to ensure a comprehensive and balanced set of drivers and themes are considered in a research project. The PPEPSIII framework can help surface key tensions that exist among drivers and stakeholder agendas.”

Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation

Here lies the internet, murdered by generative AI
“Corruption everywhere, even in YouTube's kids content.“ Quick reminder that AI is imagined by, made by, launched by, and used by humans. AI doesn’t steal jobs or ruin the internet. Managers replace people with AI and sp@mmers automate the posting online of a tsunamis of crap. This is not a sudden force of nature sent from above, it’s a series of decisions that could have gone differently. Just saying ‘AI’ as one might say ‘mother nature’ does not help anyone but its makers.

Google paying publishers five-figure sums to test an unreleased Gen AI platform
“As part of the agreement, the publishers are expected to use the suite of tools to produce a fixed volume of content for 12 months. In return, the news outlets receive a monthly stipend amounting to a five-figure sum annually, as well as the means to produce content relevant to their readership at no cost.”

Tumblr and WordPress to sell users’ data to train AI tools
Matt Mullenwegg (CEO of Automattic) used to be my go to example of enlightened tech leaders. ‘Used’ being the operative word here. “The exact types of data from each platform going to each company are not spelled out in documentation we’ve reviewed, but internal communications reviewed by 404 Media make clear that deals between Automattic, the platforms’ parent company, and OpenAI and Midjourney are imminent.”


  • 👏🏼 🌳 🌍 🇸🇳 🎥 This is absolutely fantastic!! How the UN is Holding Back the Sahara Desert. “Permaculture instructor Andrew Millison journeys with the UN World Food Programme to the Northern border of Senegal to see an innovative land recovery project within the Great Green Wall of Africa that is harvesting rainwater, increasing food security, and rehabilitating the ecosystem.”
  • 🤩 📚 I’m available! Fort Collins bookstore pays people to sit down and read quietly. “Perelandra Bookshop’s reader-in-residence commits to reading at the store for two hours per week in exchange for a small coffee and book stipend.” They are also purveyors of neo-luddite merch!
  • 🍎 🚗 😵 🚲 Apple’s electric car project is dead. You’ve probably heard about this but just in case. I’m actually relieved, that was very un-Apple for me. Should have been an electric bike all along.
  • 😎 🍎 📺 YES!! But also, please be good, please be good! Apple Orders ‘Neuromancer’ Series Based on William Gibson Novel. “Per the official logline, the series ‘will follow a damaged, top-rung super-hacker named Case who is thrust into a web of digital espionage and high stakes crime with his partner Molly, a razor-girl assassin with mirrored eyes, aiming to pull a heist on a corporate dynasty with untold secrets.’”
  • 👌🏼 🧑🏼‍🍳 🇬🇧 Thinking outside the bin at the world’s first zero-waste restaurant. “Waste is a failure of the imagination, goes the adage at Silo: the world’s first zero-waste restaurant. Its founder talks about a ‘bin-first’ approach to menu design, how passion has been mistaken for preaching – and how his latest venture aims to bring zero waste into the kitchens of home cooks”
  • 🚄 💪🏼 🇪🇸 Spain’s plan to ban domestic flights where you can take a train in under two and half hours. “Initially, Sumar leader Yolanda Díaz’s draft proposal included getting rid of short-haul flights with rail alternatives of less than four hours but this has now been reduced to two and a half hours. The initial draft proposal would have saved up to 300,000 tonnes of CO2 and 50,000 flights per year, according to a study released last year by Ecologistas en Acción.”
  • 😬 ☀️ 🇲🇽 🇺🇸 Go ahead and alter the atmosphere, no one’s going to stop you. “Without tougher international rules to stop rogue experiments, governments could be left playing whack-a-mole with startups that can move their operations from place to place.”

Your Futures Thinking Observatory