Seeing like a data structure ⊗ Research as leisure activity ⊗ Empty innovation

No.314 — Why is Hungary so small? ⊗ Les Materialistes ⊗ Futurization and de-futurization ⊗ AI’s early pitfalls

Seeing like a data structure ⊗ Research as leisure activity ⊗ Empty innovation
Guest artist: Mériol Lehmann — marais, route 117 nord, lac-pythonga.

Sentiers is hard to imagine without a header image, at least for me. It’s also quite a bit of trouble finding a nice image that matches the content and is free to use. I’ve used Midjourney quite a bit but it sometimes takes a while to get right, and I’m still ambivalent about the technology. For a while now I’ve been considering finding guests for these header images, but contacting people for every issue is also a good bit of work.

Then, with the summer break coming, I finally realised that a short “residency” over a few issues might strike the right balance. And so, I'm very happy to welcome the first guest artist, Mériol Lehmann, who’s mix of landscape, infrastructure, and mundane scenes has been drawing my attention for years. This week and the next four will feature his work, I think it’s a perfect visual match for this newsletter. Merci Mériol!

Seeing like a data structure

Diagnosing what’s going on in society right now, how our multiple systems function and the issues that emerge from that, is not an easy task. It’s probably unfair then to also expect solutions from one article, but that’s what I was hoping for by the end of this one.

“In his book Seeing Like a State, anthropologist James C. Scott found that to understand societies and ecosystems, government functionaries and their private sector equivalents reduced messy reality to idealized, abstracted, and quantified simplifications that made the mess more ‘legible’ to them.” In this article, Barath Raghavan and Bruce Schneier bring this idea basic idea to today, where more and more of the world is being mapped to data structures, which are used in software and by AI.

As we know, “a map is not the territory” and as we abstract more and more of our world and lives into data structures, we lose some of the details and fuzziness of reality. At the same time, the systems and tools we use, or are exposed to, are harder to understand. This abstraction leads to a disconnect from the real-world complexities they aim to represent, and this oversimplification can result in decisions and systems that fail to address the true intricacies and needs of the real world, leading to broader societal and ethical implications.

The authors call for a shift towards building tools that enable users to navigate the intricate world of data while acknowledging the limitations of technology in fully grasping the complexities of human society. That’s the unsatisfying bit at the end, their examples seem insufficient, facing this massive issue of understanding. Still, if the prescription is incomplete so far, the diagnosis is well worth the read and a very valuable lens through which we can contemplate systems, AI, large corporations, and politics.

But our desire to abstract never went away, and technology, as always, serves to amplify intent and capacity. Now, we manifest this abstraction with software. Computing supercharges the creative and practical use of abstraction. This is what life is like when we see the world the way a data structure sees the world. These are the same tricks Scott documented. What has changed is their speed and their ubiquity. […]

These hacks are fundamentally about the breakdown of “the system.” (We’re not suggesting that there’s a single system that governs society but rather a mess of systems that interact and overlap in our lives and are more or less relevant in particular contexts.) Systems work according to rules, either ones made consciously by people or, increasingly, automatically determined by data structures and algorithms. But systems of rules are, by their nature, trying to create a map for a messy territory, and rules will always have loopholes that can be taken advantage of. […]

The tension we face is that on an everyday basis, we want things to be simple and certain. But that means ignoring the messiness of reality. And when we delegate that simplicity and certainty to systems—either to institutions or increasingly to software—they feel impersonal and oppressive.

Research as leisure activity

File this one under both ‘things I wish I’d written’ and ‘things I’ll be referencing left and right.’ I highlighted a lot of Celine Nguyen’s writing here. Actually, from my perspective, the whole article is a highlight.

Nguyen explores the concept of “research as leisure activity” as a form of intellectual inquiry driven by passion and curiosity. She emphasises the enjoyment of reading, learning, and collaborating on ideas outside traditional academic settings. The overarching idea is that research can be pursued by anyone committed to intellectual exploration and discovery.

If you read a lot and read Sentiers because it’s eclectic, read this. If you’re a generalist, multi, t-shaped or whatever and have felt as an impostor not doing ‘real research,’ read this. Now I just need to find (or write?) the article where “research as leisure activity” becomes ‘research as leisure activity and paid practice!’ The spirit of this piece, but angled to client work as a second stage. (Via Editorial.)

The idea of research as leisure activity has stayed with me because it seems to describe a kind of intellectual inquiry that comes from idiosyncratic passion and interest. It’s not about the formal credentials. It’s fundamentally about play. It seems to describe a life where it’s just fun to be reading, learning, writing, and collaborating on ideas. […]

Peering into an adjacent field that you don’t have the “right” background for, using techniques you aren’t “qualified” to be doing, introducing references and sources that are nontraditional and even looked down upon in your primary field. Research as a leisure activity isn’t constrained by these disciplinary fiefdoms and schisms. Any discipline can offer interesting ideas, tools, techniques. […]

I’d also say that pretty much every writer, essayist, “cultural critic,” etc—especially someone who’s writing more as a vocation than a profession—has research as their leisure activity. What they do for pleasure (reading books, seeing films, listening to music) shades naturally and inevitably into what they want to write about, and the things they consume for leisure end up incorporated into some written work.

Empty innovation

Blistering talk by tante at Re:Publica 2024 on the current state of innovation. He argues that it is not leading to meaningful progress and is instead empty, only used as a fake impression of moving forward but actually just turned to profit. In his view, true Innovation should bring about change and not just novelty, and we should reintroduce politics in the innovation discourse. He also reminds us of the importance of demanding genuine societal progress rather than settling for superficial technological advancements. His language and intensity of opinion might be a bit much for some, but, as with the first piece, I believe the diagnosis is on point and this time so is the prescription.

We have kind of settled on using Innovation mostly technical Innovation but also organizational Innovation whatever to operationalized progress we want to feel that as a society everything moves forward like we are getting somewhere
something’s happening.

These days I think something changed like we just we just innovate it’s just about the momentum it’s not about going somewhere it has no destination it just means you need to be moving. Innovation has been decoupled from purpose and it’s not only just been decoupled from purpose, it has been decoupled from invention. […]

The best way for you to actually innovate is by telling your peers and your communities about the world you want and the life you want.

§ Why is Hungary so small? I’ve never taken the time to read too deep into Tomas Pueyo’s bona fides or research his writing to confirm that his interpretations are credible, I assume so, but there’s usually a lot in there. Regardless, fun look at the history of Hungary, invasions, mountains, plains, Mongols and many many maps, including some nicely animated ones. Also, Spiš Castle is gorgeous!

Guest artist
Mériol Lehmann uses photography to question our relationship between nature and culture in this era of ecological upheaval.

Futures, Fictions & Fabulations

Les Materialistes
“Les Matérialistes is a participatory futurism pilot project on the circular economy of building materials in Quebec and beyond. To define the initial scenario for Les Matérialistes, we invited over 25 stakeholders from the Québec and international ecosystems to a participatory futurism workshop and made a map of key trends and best practices from around the world.”

Design Foresight: A Design approach that marries the futurization and de-futurization
“Corresponding to the two methodologies of dealing with the future in the field of sociology, future-oriented design can also be divided into two categories: one pursues the exploration of possibility, and the other pursues the confirmation of achievability. Both contribute to shaping the future, but currently the two are cut off from each other. In this paper, a new design approach is proposed, which tries to simultaneously guarantee the possibility exploration and realizability implementation of the future, by considering multiple visions in the futures and selecting the preferable one, and further describing the path.”

UNESCO State of the Ocean Report 2024
“The UNESCO State of the Ocean Report offers insights on ocean-related scientific activities and analyses describing the current and future state of the ocean.”

Algorithms, Automations & Augmentations

Hugging Face’s head of global policy Irene Solamain on AI’s early pitfalls
“A former public policy manager at OpenAI, Solaiman was the first person to test ChatGPT for social-impact bias. Now, her team at Hugging Face is advising regulators from the U.S. to the European Union on how best to approach the nascent AI industry, and how to navigate thorny issues of bias, consent, and existential risk along the way.”

AI tutors are quietly changing how kids in the US study, and the leading apps are from China
“Answer AI is among a handful of popular apps that are leveraging the advent of ChatGPT and other large language models to help students with everything from writing history papers to solving physics problems. Of the top 20 education apps in the U.S. App Store, five are AI agents that help students with their school assignments”

Even the Raspberry Pi is getting in on AI
Most AI applications run on the cloud because they often require massive amounts of energy and computing power to work. However, there has been a move to make smaller AI models and processors that require less power to bring AI to portable devices. That way, laptops and phones can run coding assistants or AI-powered photo editing applications without needing to do an API call.


  • 📚 🌳 😎 🇯🇵 Almost Perfect Days: Hirayama and Moriyama, a Double Vision of Architecture. “The film about the Moriyama House was shot with a camera, during the first site visit for the film, which instead of lasting only one day continued for about a week during which the auteurs were completely absorbed by the owner’s life. The film is a journal of annotations masterfully transformed by editing into a film, an immersion into an experimental microcosm that completely redefines the common understanding of domestic life, describing the owner’s unique personality in a spontaneous and personal way: an urban hermit who lives in a small archipelago of peace and contemplation in the heart of Tokyo.”
  • 🎥 ⚔️ 🐲 When We Were Wizards: An Oral History of Dungeons & Dragons. “Four years ago, screenwriter, Adam Turner and Dungeons & Dragons® historian, Paul Stormberg, embarked on a project about Gary Gygax, D&D®, and TSR Hobbies, the company he founded to publish the game. The result is an unprecedented 14-episode limited series podcast that tells the story with the voices of the people who were there, through never before released interviews, personal letters, and internal company documents.”
  • 🍄 👏🏼 🏢 Spores for sustainability: MycoHAB opens the world’s first structural mycelium building. “Earlier this year, MycoHAB welcomed visitors to a house made entirely of bricks produced locally using only agricultural waste products and the natural process of mycelium growth. More precisely, MycoHouse 1.0 is made of MycoBlocks—a durable substance produced from the root system of oyster mushrooms (mycelium) digesting invasive encroacher bush, resulting in nutritious, delicious, and lucrative mushrooms as a natural byproduct.”
  • 🗺️ 🗽 😍 🇺🇸 A Shaded Relief Map of Manhattan. “Using LiDAR data from the US Geological Survey and a site called ReliefViz, a Reddit user created this lovely blue and greyscale shaded relief map of Manhattan (and the surrounding area).”
  • 🍎 🤓 💾 How much memory do you need today? “The tale of restoring an ’80s timeless classic, harking back to an era when 128KB were deemed more than sufficient.”
  • ⚡️ 🧽 🤔 Engineers create electric sponge that can suck carbon out of the air. “It works by “charging” charcoal, in a similar way that one would a battery. When it is charged, the charcoal “sponge” is able to capture carbon dioxide directly from the air. It relies on the similar activated charcoal to that used in household water filters today.”

Your Futures Thinking Observatory