Superheroes & tech ⊗ Where be dragons? ⊗ Defining information — No.118

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This week → Why superheroes are the shape of tech things to come ⊗ Where be dragons? ⊗ Defining information ⊗ Leading by example

A year ago → “Doing Nothing” Is the Best Self-Care for the Internet Era.

A duplicitous priesthood’s superior knowledge of the technology of light and shadow

The link above is to Paul Graham Raven’s take on a longer article, Iwan Rhys Morus’ Why superheroes are the shape of tech things to come at Aeon. The latter looks at magic, religion, and superheroes as they relate to technology or how technology is leveraged as false magic, tools for religion, and as the source of many a superhero’s power. Goes from Daedalus and Icarus to David Brewster, Wells, Tesla, Heinlein, and then today’s superhero blockbusters. Raven’s piece has all the best quotes, as well as a layer of transhumanism, McLuhan, and an important note on literature as primarily reflective or also as a reinforcing feedback loop for those same beliefs. And of course you can also connect both with the various pieces on scifi informing and influencing tech, which I’ve previously shared, which also goes to scifi authors used in forecasting, and the various territories around that and speculative design as well as design fiction.

The article featured Tesla musing how his inventions would transform the future of humanity: starting with an image of a newborn child as an animated machine, and concluding with humans harnessing the Sun’s energy and building machines that were self-acting. […]

Heinlein’s later novels increasingly celebrated the independent agency of the individual. The collective was a hinderance, rather than a help. This is the ethos of contemporary superhero culture as well. In some respects – and this is a key difference between the original generation of superheroes and their contemporary successors – collectives are part of the problem to which superheroes are the answer. […]

Looking at it this way, the popularity of superhero culture among aficionados of new technological entrepreneurship seems obvious. It’s a culture that celebrates individual agency at the expense of the collective. Things get done by charismatic individuals rather than by the state. […]

I’m interested in the extent to which the prevalence of such literary-cultural (and more generally media-cultural) narratives act as a reinforcing feedback loop for those same beliefs. Do underwear perverts and transhumanist captains of industry normalise the techno-hero’s journey and the myth of the Competent Man, rather than simply illustrating their popularity?

Where Be Dragons?

This is very much my kind of thing. Dr Anton Howes, who’s an historian of innovation, starts by looking at “inventions [that] could have been invented centuries, if not millennia, before they actually were.” That is in itself an interesting topic, but he then goes into more detail about a specific one; tabletop role-playing games, and Dungeons & Dragons in particular. Howes considers multiple hypotheses, including the need for a bureaucratic mindset or for higher levels of literacy or numeracy.

The economist Alex Tabarrok calls these cases “ideas behind their time”. I tend to just call them low-hanging fruit. Hanging so low, and for so long, that the fruit are fermenting on the ground. I now see them everywhere, not just in history, but today — probably at least one per week. […]

But all of that is actually just optional. At root, it’s simply collective storytelling, with pre-agreed constraints on what you can and can’t do. […]

An interesting variant of the argument, suggested by Matt Clancy, is that in fact tabletop role-playing games have been invented and re-invented many times, all over the world, but because of the lack of printing and low population densities, they have become lost and forgotten. Perhaps. Though I find it hard to believe that an activity so fun would never have been mentioned. […]

I think it’s simply because innovation in general is so extremely rare. It’s a matter of absence, rather than of barriers. The reason we have had so many low-hanging fruit throughout history is just because very few people ever bother to think of how to do things differently.

(Via the excellent Samuel Arbesman’s Cabinet of Wonders.)

Defining Information

I’m not sure how to qualify this piece by Ben Thompson, a reckon? A thought experiment? An observation? He explains some of his thinking about the variation in the value of information on Twitter, and how it fluctuates as a particular topic gains interest (includes lots of illustrative charts). Take it for what it is in terms of valid data, but it’s interesting to ponder. I’m also including it here for how the COVID-19 information tsunami relates to reading about anything else. It’s harder to find valuable reads on other topics, especially without getting “contaminated” with virus info, if you are trying to keep it at a sane level.

In other words, the utility of social media as a news source is inversely correlated to how many people are interested in a given topic. […]

As for narratives, at their best they appeal to the innate human desire for stories and our desire to make sense of the world; at their worst they appeal to people’s confirmation bias and tribal instincts. Either way, they tend to be polarizing, which is bad news in a world of fixed up-front costs, but exactly what you want when production is cheap and attention is scarce. […]

Again, neither emergent information nor narratives are inherently bad. Both, though, can lead to bad outcomes: emergent information can be easily overwhelmed by misinformation, particularly when the incentives are wrong, and narratives can themselves corrupt facts.

Leading by example

Not everyone can do this but I wanted to highlight these two exemplary approaches to dealing with the pandemic as a company.

People First: Wikimedia’s Response to COVID-19

We are guaranteeing all contract and hourly workers full compensation for planned hours worked.

We are waiving all sick days, so staff do not have to count or use PTO.

We have moved to a halftime work expectation. […]

We’re only asking people to commit to working 50 percent of their normal hours. This isn’t a holiday. If people are able to work more normal hours, our mission needs them. But we are not tracking their time.

Important updates for working parents (Basecamp)

So forever how this lasts, for those with kids or other obligations at home (elderly parents, grandparents, at-risk relatives you need to care for, etc), all we ask is that you find a balance that works for you. Whatever works for you works for us. […]

If that means you can only find a few hours a day for work, that’s fine. If some days you simply can’t work, that’s fine too. Just make your best effort and communicate your situation with your team. You’re in charge of your time. […]

Everyone will still be paid their full-time salary, even if they can only put in half-time work. You don’t need to worry about that. Everything’s good there. You’re covered. You don’t need to use up personal days or vacation days. Pressure off.


Header image: The Flying Carpet, a depiction of the hero of Russian folklore, Ivan Tsarevich.