Newsletter No.287 — Nov 12, 2023

Space Is Dead. Why Do We Keep Writing About It? ⊗ Work, Life, and Perennials ⊗ Sculpting Consciousness

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Also this week → From what is to what if ⊗ NADAWG ⊗ All the Libraries in London ⊗ Companies using AI to solve environmental challenges ⊗ Futures.CHAT

I’ve been thinking about starting up the Sentiers Discord again. Last time it kind of slowed to a crawl and I closed it. If you’d like to help animate/moderate it or have ideas for other options and formats—maybe open to all instead of members only, co-hosted with another newsletter, weekly discussion instead of hoping for chats all week… I’m all ears. Hit reply and let’s discuss.

Space is dead. Why do we keep writing about it?

ADH reflects on the state of space exploration and the prevalence of space-related stories in science fiction, many of which seem to still be aligned with dreams from the time of the moon landing, despite the very limited progress in manned spaceflight since, and the unlikelihood of colonizing other planets in the near future. He suggests that instead of focusing on space travel, writers should prioritize addressing climate change and creating a more sustainable society.

The author still likes those stories, as do I, and there’s no obligation for any writers to take the weight of the world on their shoulders. But it’s true that a lot of books follow the myths from back then and don’t seem to build from the very different world we are living right now in ‘yesterday’s future.’

I do think that ADH is over-indexing a bit, there is quite a lot of fiction being written that starts from different myths, cultures, and lived experiences. I’m almost finished with Ada Palmer’s Seven Surrenders for example, and the timeline as well as the series’ past both seem aligned with what ADH is asking for. Still, his article is a good read for a pragmatic look at the space industry and how it relates to the ‘main trunk’ of sci fi.

We needed stories to make sense of that massive, accelerating shift. We needed a new mythology that helped us understand our place in a bigger universe, our destiny, our purpose. Science fiction is modern mythmaking that helps us manage future shock as we ride the waves of technological upheaval and social change. […]

Doing anything in space is so, so much harder and more expensive than fixing up the ecosystems around us. Repairing our own atmosphere is going to be a big project, but way easier than terraforming another planet. […]

I do think we can go to Mars, and beyond, if we want to. But we’d have to decide to do so, collectively and democratically, probably not even as a nationstate but as a species. We’d have to put aside capitalist and nationalist competition. We’d have to take up more pressing moonshots first—decarbonization and climate repair—and then keep that momentum of big public spending flowing.

Work, life, and perennials

Two adjacent ideas I’d like to suggest you look into. A piece at Vice, about how nobody wants their job to rule their lives anymore, and then Tara McMullin on the ideas of Mauro Guillén and why we should be adopting the perennial mindset. The first starts with an over the top TikTok but proceeds to do a good job of showing how working 9 to 5 in an office is broken in various ways and that a growing number of people are realising it and prioritising other aspects of their lives.

The second is on a similar expired framework; the four stages of life where you are a kid, go to school, go work, and retire. Society, and especially the economy and today’s work environment don’t really work that way, we should stop acting like it does, it would help people, make more flexibility possible, and reduce stress on all of the late bloomers or people who have been pushed off-track.

More → The content seems to be mostly offline now but Heather E McGowan’s “life blocks” have stuck with me over the years. It’s her framework for alternating between “learn,” “engage,” and “re-condition.” Very relevant to the above two, even if there’s mostly just one graphic to go from.

If people could liberate themselves from the tyranny of “age-appropriate” activities, if they could become perennials, they might be able to pursue not just one career, occupation, or profession but several, finding different kinds of personal fulfillment in each. Most importantly, people in their teens and twenties will be able to plan and make decisions for multiple transitions in life, not just one from study to work, and another from work to retirement. […]

"All of those things," observes Guillén, "they're essentially inviting all of us—100% of us—to rethink the way in which we think about life, and especially about when we learn, when we work, when we retire, and so on and so forth."

Sculpting consciousness

Something a bit different for this one, although I’m linking to one article and quoting from it, I really want to draw your attention to Ari Melenciano work as a whole. She was presenting at RADAR’s Into: Our Centaur Future this week and I loved the talk, her work, her slides, her thinking, her philosophy, even what I could see of her studio! I only jumped around but this talk at the Parsons Design & Technology Cloud Salon seems to cover a lot of what we saw at Into.

So do read the article and watch the video, there’s too much in there to try and compress further, but also check out her website and her Medium articles. Lots of overlap with what I curate here, from various angles.

I’m simply studying how once sentience believes something to be true, it then proceeds to operate in that fashion with little questioning, becoming a way of life. […]

Metacognition also creates distance between emotion, it’s rationalization, and thus resulting behavior. Being meta-cognitively aware allows us to be intentional and mindful about technologies we’re using, like AI, and how truth is personal — to be compassionate to the truths of others. […]

Just as by breaking down the epistemologies of contemporary AI then reveals the dominant lenses of society. And, we can create new lenses that give power to wonder and boundless curiosity.

§ The other talk I saw at Into: Our Centaur Future was by Rob Hopkins. I knew him from his days as co-founder of Transition Network and of Transition Town Totnes but had missed his … transition (sorry) to imagination work with his book From What is to What If. His time travelling escapade to 2030 was inspiring.

Futures, fictions & fabulations

“The North American Digital Agriculture Working Group (NADAWG) is a coalition of civil society activists, researchers, food system workers, and funders exploring alternative agricultural futures.”

“I'm an AI 🤖 designed to help organisations imagine their futures. Send me a text or for the kind of sector and organisation, and your specific challenge and I'll give you a future scenario for your sector inspired by nature. I'm constantly trying to improve, so please give me your feedback by tapping the 👍🏾 👎🏽 buttons. Now, what would you like to know?”

Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation

AI pioneer Kai-Fu Lee builds $1 billion startup in eight months
“The Beijing startup’s open-sourced, foundational large language model, Yi-34B, is now available to developers around the world in Chinese and English. On key metrics, Yi-34B outperforms leading open-source models already on the market, including Meta’s well-regarded Llama 2.”

Companies using AI to solve environmental challenges
“By distilling raw data into actionable information, improving predictions, optimising complex systems, and accelerating the development of almost every other form of scientific innovation imaginable, AI could help to supercharge environmental action.”

People are speaking with ChatGPT for hours, bringing 2013’s Her closer to reality
“Throughout the past year, we've seen reports of people falling in love with chatbots hosted by Replika, which allows a more personal simulation of a human than ChatGPT. And with uncensored AI models on the rise, it's conceivable that someone will eventually create a voice interface as capable as ChatGPT's and begin having deeper relationships with simulated people.”


  • 😍 😍 📚 🇬🇧 All the Libraries in London. “All the Libraries in London is a unique index of every library in the capital (795 and counting). At a time of severe cuts and closures, we aim to celebrate each library by building an open source image archive and commissioning creative responses from designers, artists, poets, librarians and writers.” (Via Naive weekly.)
  • 🤩 🤯 🇧🇷 🎥 How the “Lost Cities” of the Amazon Were Finally Found. “Beginning in the late 20th century, archaeologists began looking more closely at the forest floor. Working with the indigenous people who still remained there, they excavated long ditches and mounds. After mapping them, they could see that these were the markings of large settlements; walls, moats, plazas, and roads that connected even more settlements. And they were all over the Amazon.”
  • 🌊 🧂 The floating desalination machines powered by the waves. “The buoys absorb energy from passing waves, and covert it into mechanical pumping forces that draw in seawater and push around a quarter of it through the desalination system. The fresh, drinking water is then pumped to land through pipelines, again only using the power provided by the waves.”
  • 😍 🎨 🇬🇪 Tender Moments, Vibrant Plants, and Georgian Culture Adorn the Tbilisi Streets for the Annual Mural Fest. “Since launching five years ago, Tbilisi Mural Fest has transformed the streets of Georgia’s capital into a vivid, outdoor gallery featuring dozens of large-scale works in myriad styles.” I especially noticed the work of GERA 1.
  • 😵‍💫 ☀️ 🎥 Amazing 8K Video of the Annular Solar Eclipse. “Using a custom hydrogen alpha solar telescope, Jason Kurth took a collection of high-resolution photographs of the recent annular solar eclipse and arranged them into an 8K video of the event. The level of detail here is incredible — you can see solar flares and features on the surface of the Sun pulsing and shifting as the Moon moves across it.”
  • 🧊 🔭 Icy Oceans Exist on Far-Off Moons. Why Aren’t They Frozen Solid?. “The moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn appear to have subsurface oceans — tantalizing targets in the search for life beyond Earth. But it’s not clear why these seas exist at all.”