Newsletter No.43 — Aug 05, 2018

Sentiers No.43

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?)

Welcome new readers, thanks for joining! Quick reminder that if you’re in Montréal I also host a very informal coffee chat every couple of months, you can signup to be notified here, it’s called Les ponts (jusqu’à maintenant, plutôt en français mais “on parle bilingue”).

Capitalism Killed Our Climate Momentum, Not “Human Nature”
This at the NYT made the rounds; Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change. But Robinson Meyer wouldn’t have it; The Problem With The New York Times’ Big Climate Story. And neither did Naomi Klein, who not only refuted Rich’s central thesis but properly put in place the neoliberal influence on our inaction on climate change and points the way to what might be a way to survival.

[J]ust as governments were getting together to get serious about reining in the fossil fuel sector, the global neoliberal revolution went supernova, and that project of economic and social reengineering clashed with the imperatives of both climate science and corporate regulation at every turn. […]
We can confront that economic order and try to replace it with something that is rooted in both human and planetary security, one that does not place the quest for growth and profit at all costs at its center. […]
From this we can conclude that socialism isn’t necessarily ecological, but that a new form of democratic eco-socialism, with the humility to learn from Indigenous teachings about the duties to future generations and the interconnection of all of life, appears to be humanity’s best shot at collective survival.

The Role of Technology in Political Economy: Part 1 « Law and Political Economy
Three part series by Yochai Benkler where he deconstructs and explains the “dominant ’skills-biased technical change’ and ‘winner-take-all economics’ explanations of inequality share an idealized view of both markets and technology as natural and necessary.” Part one (above) establishes those dominant stories, part two presents the most influential criticisms, and part three presents a “political economy of technology that gives technology a meaningful role and integrates it with institutions and ideology.” All the way through the intent is to reduce inequality, and how this might be approached by the left.
Useful analysis for those interested in the policy, future of work, automation, universal basic income, and supposed efficiencies of job markets, as well as a good deal of historical context and references.

So, the fundamental problem of the leading mainstream view is that it takes both markets and technology as having a more-or-less natural and necessary shape, and ::fails to see how institutions shape both markets and technology in ways that can reinforce or moderate patterns of inequality.:: […]
Those economists who do pay a lot of attention to technology, tend to treat it as natural and necessary, not itself the product of politics and institutions, and largely as a constraint on the ambition of pursuing an egalitarian economic program. […]
Lessig’s “code is law” provided the cri de coeur for one of the most vibrant grassroots activism efforts of its time. ::The free software movement, net neutrality, open standards, spectrum commons, privacy by design, the copyright wars over DRM and ISP liability; all these have been repeated battles in a quarter century that reflect a belief that technology is anything but exogenous; that it is the outcome of politics, law, and the ethical guidelines followed by technology developers.:: […]
The idea is that technology is responsive to institutions and ideology, and co-evolves with markets, politics, and culture over the middle-to-long term, but offers real constraints and affordances in the short-to-middle term.

Human Ego
Is it something in there air? Two articles this week on our species’ massive ego, thinking humans are soooo special.

Why Westerners Fear Robots and the Japanese Do Not
Good piece by Joi Ito on the varying perceptions of the unicity of humans, nature spirits, slavery, our lack of respect for the environment, tech moguls, and how we decide to deal with robots and AIs.

[F]ocusing strictly on the rights of humans and not the rights of the environment, the animals, and even of things like robots, is one of the things that has gotten us in this awful mess with the environment in the first place. In the long run, maybe it’s not so much about humanizing or dehumanizing, but rather a problem of creating a privileged class—humans—that we use to arbitrarily justify ignoring, oppressing, and exploiting.

Our Attitude Toward Aliens Proves We Still Think We’re Special
It seems (I was not aware) that the Fermi paradox is ignored in some scientific circles. The author argues that it’s because we still think we humans are the shit intergalactically (sorry).

If Earth is a typical planet revolving around a typical star (and, as we learned much later, in a typical galaxy), then there is no scientific reason to assign special importance to ourselves. Copernicanism broadly understood is this assertion that humans are nothing special across space, time, and other more abstract parameter spaces.

Short interview with some hard truths by Galloway: Facebook is focused on one thing, and one thing only: money, says NYU’s Scott Galloway.
Facebook Identifies an Active Political Influence Campaign Using Fake Accounts

++ Why I’m Deleting All My Old Tweets
I’m ambivalent on this, I understand the logic and the arguments, I understand that this is not “the good old web” but I’m still attached to the ideas of permalinks, findability, owning your content, etc. And deleting stuff like this feels… wrong?

Once tweets have been sent, they exist out of context. There’s no way to easily tell, when looking back at someone’s timeline from years ago, what jokes were trending, what the national mood was like, what everyone was faux-outraged by. Twitter is a reaction to stimulus. Once that stimulus is gone, though, the tweets linger, like a too-loud laugh at a joke no one else heard. What was funny? Who knows. We’re all going to die anyway.

++ Michael Veale on Twitter: “of course it’s possible to responsibly use computational tools in decision-making. the real point is that complex social problem-solving to mitigates structural inequalities is v, v hard. Blindly slapping quantification on it is not the answer—and can even make things worse.” (Answering someone claiming that algorithms are much less biased than humans.)

++ Google Plans to Launch Censored Search Engine in China, Leaked Documents Reveal
I was at Dynamic/MTL this week and saw a barn burner of a talk by Mike Monteiro on Twitter, Facebook, big tech in general, and on designers’ ethics. The above link is exactly the kind of shit he was talking about. It’s not online yet but he closed the talk with his Design The Right Thing guidebook.

Anthropocene, a new film about how humans are changing the Earth forever
Project page and trailer for an upcoming movie showing how we are fucking up everything. (Via Kottke.)

Humans now affect the Earth and its processes more than all other natural forces combined. The Anthropocene Project is a multidisciplinary body of work combining fine art photography, film, virtual reality, augmented reality, and scientific research to investigate human influence on the state, dynamic, and future of the Earth.

++ Waterfront Toronto gets tough with Sidewalk Labs
I’ve mentioned the Sidewalk deal here a couple of times. This Spacing piece reviews the new deal with Waterfront Toronto which shows some progress.

The new agreement says there will be no land transfers, and that WT will have opportunities to share in the revenues and profits generated by the technology developed through this project. Because Sidewalk Labs has been so explicit about its intention to roll out the technologies developed in Toronto to other cities and regions, the latter provision marks a significant shift in the commercial relationship, and provides a return on the investment to WT’s three government shareholders.

Google Is Still Planning a ‘Smart City’ in Toronto Despite Major Privacy Concerns
On the same deal as above, this one focused on privacy still finds a number of faults with the deal and approach. For me the highlight below is the most important takeaway so far.

The principles read like a grab bag of words that have been raised as challenges related to the project: surveillance, aggregate data, openness, sovereignty, consent. But there is no clarity on which principles would be prioritized over others—critical, because any discussion around data use is about trade-offs and priorities. Because of those words, people feel better about this updated agreement. ::In truth, the only way to feel good is to get our privacy laws updated to reject surveillance capitalism as a social norm.::

Finally; Waterfront Toronto deal with Google sister company is ‘shortchanging’ city, says board member who quit.

++ Here’s How America Uses Its Land
Scroll through this excellent visualization and pay attention to crops and pastures. Especially the latter. Insanity.

Yet the actual land area used to grow the food Americans eat is much smaller—only about the size of Indiana, Illinois and half of Iowa combined. ::More than a third of the entire corn crop is devoted to ethanol production. Most cropland is used for livestock feed, exports or is left idle to let the land recover::. […]
There’s a single, major occupant on all this land: cows. Between pastures and cropland used to produce feed, ::41 percent of U.S. land in the contiguous states revolves around livestock::.

A couple of favorite quotes I re-happened on this week
Multipotentialites — NOOSPHE.RE

A multipotentialite is someone with many interests and creative pursuits.

Multipotentialites have no “one true calling” the way specialists do. Being a multipotentialite is our destiny. We have many paths and we pursue all of them, either sequentially or simultaneously (or both).

Multipotentialites thrive on learning, exploring, and mastering new skills. We are excellent at bringing disparate ideas together in creative ways. This makes us incredible innovators and problem solvers.

When it comes to new interests that emerge, our insatiable curiosity leads us to absorb everything we can get our hands on. As a result, we pick up new skills fast and tend to be a wealth of information."
— Emilie Wapnick, Puttylike

The iPhone Is Dead. Long Live the Rectangle

The rectangle. Abstract, as a shape. Flat, as a surface. But suggestive of so much. A table for community. A door for entry, or for exit. A window for looking out of, or a picture for looking into. A movie screen for distraction, or a cradle for comfort, or a bed for seduction. A hole of infinite depth, yet also a veil whose blackness covers up that chasm.

Science fiction sucks at predicting the future, but it sure is good at predicting the present (c.f. @greatdismal): that is, the stuff that seems plausible in science fiction at any given moment is a good source of insight into what’s on our collective minds. (Followed by a thread about disaster tropes.)

📚 ‘Spectacular’ ancient public library discovered in Germany

Remains of grand building that may have housed up to 20,000 scrolls uncovered in central Cologne, dating back to second century AD.