This week: Sociological and psychological strorytelling. Genevieve Bell talks anthropology. Bullet time. Why I (Still) Love Tech. Artificial intelligence with an Indigenous worldview.

A year ago: Barcelona is leading the fightback against smart city surveillance.


The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones

Although it’s technically about GoT, this piece by Zeynep Tufekci is actually about sociological and psychological strorytelling, how Hollywood is almost exclusively able to produce the latter, and how the way we tell our stories “has great consequences for how we deal with our world and the problems we encounter.” From a badly ended cult series, to an important lens through which some of our societies’ thorny issues can be interpreted.

At its best, GOT was a beast as rare as a friendly dragon in King’s Landing: it was sociological and institutional storytelling in a medium dominated by the psychological and the individual. This structural storytelling era of the show lasted through the seasons when it was based on the novels by George R. R. Martin, who seemed to specialize in having characters evolve in response to the broader institutional settings, incentives and norms that surround them. […]

Hollywood mostly knows how to tell psychological, individualized stories. They do not have the right tools for sociological stories, nor do they even seem to understand the job. […]

The appeal of a show that routinely kills major characters signals a different kind of storytelling, where a single charismatic and/or powerful individual, along with his or her internal dynamics, doesn’t carry the whole narrative and explanatory burden. Given the dearth of such narratives in fiction and in TV, this approach clearly resonated with a large fan base that latched on to the show. […]

It’s reasonable, for example, for a corporation to ponder who would be the best CEO or COO, but it’s not reasonable for us to expect that we could take any one of those actors and replace them with another person and get dramatically different results without changing the structures, incentives and forces that shape how they and their companies act in this world. […]

In a historic moment that requires a lot of institution building and incentive changing (technological challenges, climate change, inequality and accountability) we need all the sociological imagination we can get.

‘Hula Hoops not Bicycles’: Genevieve Bell talks Anthropology, Technology & Building the Future 🎙

The always interesting and insightful Bell in a fun discussion (podcast) about her work at Intel and the new social science she is hoping to create, including some of the process, through teaching new courses as prototypes of what this science might explore, how it might answers the foundational questions of the field. For forecasters and futurist (“real” or wannabe), pay attention to what she has to say about fads vs facts—as in hula hoops, not bicycles. There’s also a bit about cybernetics, Wiener, and some of the anthropologists around the initial conferences.

Bullet Time

Fascinating dive into the bullet comments culture in China, “an invasive species from Japan,” which layers comments over video, each attached to a specific moment. Led by the Bilibili platform, they are now present in a plethora of other places and media. Also interesting for the quick history of Japanese “ACG”—animation, comics, and games—crossing over to China.

In the end, I had to watch the video twice, as I often do on the social video site Bilibili: once with the bullet comments turned off so that I could follow the source material, and once more for the real experience, the chitchat obscuring the content. […]

They represent the essence of Chinese internet culture: fast-paced and impish, playfully collaborative, thick with rapidly evolving inside jokes and memes. They are a social feature beloved by a generation known for being antisocial. And most importantly, they allow for a type of spontaneous, cumulative, and public conversation between strangers that is increasingly rare on the Chinese internet. […]

The invasive social feature can also be found in more unlikely places: apps for reading comics or streaming music, e-commerce platforms, even narrative cutscenes in the middle of popular mobile games. Bullet comments have become a ubiquitous social layer woven into any digital experience.

More: In Sentiers at Work No.3, I featured this fantastic piece by Connie Chan where you can learn more about those unique Chinese platforms and business models; Outgrowing Advertising: Multimodal Business Models as a Product Strategy.

Why I (Still) Love Tech: In Defense of a Difficult Industry

Paul Ford looking back at how tech has evolved and never stopped growing, at some of our hopes, some of our failures, and our mistaking of technological advancements for progress. It’s a very well written long read (20min) of his personal history with tech which, like mine (the first quote below is spot on) or Halt and Catch Fire, goes from early PCs to today’s “world domination,” for better and for worse.

The things we loved—the Commodore Amigas and AOL chat rooms, the Pac-Man machines and Tamagotchis, the Lisp machines and RFCs, the Ace paperback copies of Neuromancer in the pockets of our dusty jeans—these very specific things have come together into a postindustrial Voltron that keeps eating the world. We accelerated progress itself, at least the capitalist and dystopian parts. Sometimes I’m proud, although just as often I’m ashamed. I am proudshamed. […]

When I was a boy, if you’d come up behind me (in a nonthreatening way) and whispered that I could have a few thousand Cray supercomputers in my pocket, that everyone would have them, that we would carry the sum of human ingenuity next to our skin, jangling in concert with our coins, wallets, and keys? And that this Lilliputian mainframe would have eyes to see, a sense of touch, a voice to speak, a keen sense of direction, and an urgent desire to count my actual footsteps and everything I read and said as I traipsed through the noosphere? Well, I would have just burst, burst. […]

We thought we were amplifying individuals in all their wonder and forgot about the cruelty, or at least assumed that good product design could wash that away. We were so hopeful, and we shaved the sides of our heads, and we never expected to take over the world. […]

The secret club is no longer a gathering of misfits. We are the world.

Progress is the opening of doors and the leveling of opportunity, the augmentation of the whole human species and the protection of other species besides. Progress is cheerfully facing the truth, whether flooding coastlines or falling teen pregnancy rates, and thinking of ways to preserve the processes that work and mitigate the risks. Progress is seeing calmly, accepting, and thinking of others.

Jason Edward Lewis wants ethical artificial intelligence with an Indigenous worldview

It’s on a university website (Concordia’s in Montréal) so there are a lot of mentions of people, departments, and grants but I love this vision of looking at AI from a perspective where humans are not at the center of everything.

The essay argues that Indigenous knowledge systems are much better at accommodating the non-human than Western philosophies, because the Indigenous worldview does not place man at the centre of creation. The writers seek a relationship to non-human intelligences — beyond that of merely tools or slaves — as potential partners who exist in a living system of mutual respect. […]

“This is the essence of Indigenous futurism to me. It’s not just about dreaming about the future, it’s about building the infrastructure to get us to the future we want.” […]

“This is where Indigenous epistemology comes in really well. You’re not treating something respectfully because it has a soul, you are treating it respectfully because it’s one nodal point in a number of different relations that you are enmeshed in.”

Miscellany