Newsletter No.36 — Jun 03, 2018

Sentiers No.36

Heads up: For a couple of reasons related to early writing methods, the first forty-five issues archived here are “pre last review” and haven’t been fully re-reviewed yet. Please forgive typos and miscellaneous mistakes if you see them! They are also less structured than more recent issues and thus haven’t been split into multiple notes. (Yet?)

This week ended up with something of a futures theme with critics of technology, design fiction, and a very dark future by Charlie Stross. There’s also my extreme 😡 of the week with Trudeau ignoring the future and purchasing a pipeline, with Bill McKibben’s reaction.

“Why don’t you go live in a cave?” – when technophiles cry troglodyte
Excellent analysis of the “cave” argument often levelled on technology critics, how it’s used, what it aims to do, what it tries to obscure, and more importantly, what’s the nature of the critiques it tries to block. Included in this “futuring” section for item five “The past, the present, and the future are about alternatives.”

Pointing to the threat and openly outlining the potential risk (the collapse of civilization as we know it), is not advocating for a return to the stone age. Quite the contrary, it is suggesting that the adoration for all things high-tech (common amongst those who deploy the cave argument), risks sending us back to the stone age. This is not an argument for a return to the past, but an argument based on building a better future. And it is from this perspective that many of the most radical environmental critiques should be read: de-growth, turning things off, leveling, moving away from a consumer lifestyle – can be read as being not so much “good” in and of themselves, but as ways to avoid societal collapse. […]
For what the “return to caves” argument, at base, accomplishes is to limit future possibilities to two equally unacceptable alternatives: either we accept every new high-tech gadget and giant corporation no matter how dystopian and no matter how evocative of Black Mirror…or we return to living in caves. […]
And that is precisely what “the return to caves” argument in all of its fallacious silliness achieves: it is a ::“tranquilizer of the conscience” that allows technological evangelists to refuse to think through the implications of technology by casting those who insist on thinking through such implications as troglodytes. It treats as inevitable those things which history reveals to be anything but inevitable::. […]
Pair with this other one at Librarian Shipwreck: Why the Luddites Matter.

++ The Creepy Rise of Real Companies Spawning Fictional Design
Felix Salmon looked at Google’s Selfish Ledger video (which is, admittedly, a bit creepy) and did two things. A quick investigation comparing speculative design and design fiction, which is why it’s worth a read and I’m including the piece here. Second, he decided to assign nefarious intent to Alphabet because the video was for internal purposes only, viewing the whole thing as proof that tech companies need to be more transparent and engage communities. They should, but it has very little to do with speculating and keeping videos internal. (Weird title too.)

“design fiction tends to focus more on technology-based video scenarios and stays closer to reality….Whereas the kind of speculative design we do tends to focus more on objects for exhibitions that rarely attempt to convince the viewer they are real. They are props for thinking with. Speculative fiction is more critical of the kind of technological narratives put forward by the tech industry.”
Exaggerated disclaimer: I’m friends with Nicolas Nova of the Near Future Laboratory which is mentioned in the piece.

The Design of Future Visions for Large Organizations
A much better look at Design Fiction in companies, this one by Fabien Girardin (from the same Laboratory) explaining its use in corporations and how it’s applied at BBVA, where he works.

The future is mostly not predictable—it can’t be nailed down, so prioritizing investments which help frame future-facing insights allows an organization to understand what it will need to move towards its vision. To prepare for “not knowing,” the best an organization can do is aim to experiment and learn.
Design fiction is the use of “props” to help scaffold narratives about a slightly changed world.
This type of prompt or provocation tackles future-oriented problems or opportunities with an eye towards addressing concerns, not just about a concept’s viability, but the wider consequences of that viability .

A few words on Doug Engelbart
From back in 2013, Bret Victor on Engelbart’s vision, which was much more intentional and humanly collaborative than he’s usually given credit for. Especially interesting looking at Victor’s own fantastic Dynamicland.

Engelbart’s vision, from the beginning, was collaborative. His vision was people working together in a shared intellectual space. His entire system was designed around that intent.

++ Three “L”s @ Loup
The team at Loup Design started sharing some of their process through week notes, starting with this excellent bit by Christine Prefontaine.

Three “L”s—(1) listening—using deep listening and qualitative / narrative research techniques to better understand people’s realities while providing a conversational experience that honors and elevates, (2) labs, where we come together to act on what we’ve heard—finding patterns and insights, generating ideas, and planning / designing, and (3) learning, again using deep listening—along with agile facilitation and reflective techniques—to help teams identify key moments and lessons that advance their work and practices.

Happy 21st Century!
This is awful, and I wish I could disagree with more of it.

Forget barbed wire, concentration camps, gas chambers and gallows, and Hugo Boss uniforms. That's the 20th century pattern of centralized, industrialized genocide. In the 21st century deep-learning mediated AI era, we have the tools to inflict agile, decentralized genocide as a cloud service on our victims. […]
Think in terms of a great and terrible simplification of our society that cleans out all the niches the underclass (which by then will include the struggling middle class) survive within. […]
What's new is the speed and specificity with which the cruelty can be applied, and the ability to redirect it in a matter of hours—increasing the sense of insecurity, which in turn drives social conservativism and support for violent self-defense. […]

Dronage & Autonomy
“Observing that humans are enormously capable and adaptable isn’t just rah-rah for humanity. A deeper truth: the biggest gains are always in areas where we seek to enhance humans, not replace them. @Kasparov63 calls this the “centaur” approach to combined humans+AI. 2/“ (I really need a centaur emoji.)

++ Google Plans Not to Renew Its Contract for Project Maven, a Controversial Pentagon Drone AI Imaging Program
Good news, employee activism and a public sh$t storm seem to have worked.

Google would not choose to pursue Maven today because the backlash has been terrible for the company, Greene said, adding that the decision was made at a time when Google was more aggressively pursuing military work. The company plans to unveil new ethical principles about its use of AI next week.
Pro tip: think ethics before signing and launching projects.

++ Why Nasa is testing these Swedish mini-drones
Be sure to watch the video. Eery.

Malmö-based startup Bitcraze has come up with a way to pre-program their tiny 27 gram drones to work autonomously, enabling them to fly in science fiction-like coordinated swarms of up to 49 units at a time.

++ China releases video of 56-boat drone swarm near Hong Kong
Not sure what’s more ominous, that military demo tone or no music and that shrill from the video above.

++ Autonomous Vehicles: Future Scenarios

The full story of autonomous vehicles is yet to be written. We created four stories that explain how cities could shape the driverless future.
(Just scanned so far, I’ll probably come back to this here.)

++ Freight Railroads Get Boost from Tight Trucking Markets
Everyone always uses truck drivers as the first casualties of automation but we’re actually short some drivers.
(via The Prepared)

++ Apple gets into the autonomous-vehicle race … sort of

So Justin Trudeau doesn’t only look like a Ken doll, he’s also being played like one by the oil industry. Bill McKibben deservedly unwinds on him.

Stop swooning over Justin Trudeau. The man is a disaster for the planet

That is to say, Canada, which represents one half of 1% of the planet’s population, is claiming the right to sell the oil that will use up a third of the earth’s remaining carbon budget. Trump is a creep and a danger and unpleasant to look at, but at least he’s not a stunning hypocrite.

Say hello to Justin Trudeau, the world’s newest oil executive

::In case anyone wondered, this is how the world ends: with the cutest, progressivest, boybandiest leader in the world going fully in the tank for the oil industry.::
We know now how history will remember Justin Trudeau: not as a dreamy progressive, but as one more pathetic employee of the richest, most reckless industry in the planet’s history.

++ Scientists weighed all life on Earth. It’s mind-boggling.
Great visualization of the mind-bogglingness, pair with this from last issue: Humans just 0.01% of all life but have destroyed 83% of wild mammals.

++ Greenland to halt commercial salmon fishing for 12 years
Wait what? People actually working together for the greater good! The pause in fishing is “to allow adult wild Atlantic salmon to return to rivers in Canada, the United States, and Europe.”

++ Fossil fuel electricity, without pollution: Texas has a new power plant
I’m not going to go into it here but quite a good explainer on this natural gaz and sequestration tech.

Crazy Walls
I’m always there for a good “red strings and pictures on a wall” and here is a whole Tumblr full of them.

++ Quantum Physics May Be Even Spookier Than You Think

So although the traditional “two places at once” view of superposition might seem odd enough, “it’s possible a superposition is a collection of states that are even crazier,” Elitzur says. “Quantum mechanics just tells you about their average.”