The cloud and the countryside ⊗ Pace layering ⊗ The tyranny of chairs — No.139

Read the Sentiers newsletter on technology in society, signals of change, and prospective futures.

This week → The cloud and the countryside ⊗ Pace layering: how complex systems learn and keep learning ⊗ The tyranny of chairs: why we need better design ⊗ How to foster ‘shoshin’ ⊗ The conscience of Silicon Valley

A year ago → Face recognition and AI ethics.

The Cloud and the Countryside

Really interesting Kneeling Bus issue by Drew Austin. He starts with McLuhan’s declaration that cities would become “cultural ghosts for tourists,” that we would still live in them but out of choice more than necessity. Austin then expands, from McLuhan’s observation coinciding with the mid-twentieth century deindustrialization, to today where the infrastructures for remote work are allowing even more mobility, enabling some to exist anywhere. He also cites Antonio García Martínez on the growing separation between “people from anywhere” and “people from somewhere,” essential workers and all place-dependant work. The “Zoom class” and its “‘Zoom city’ currently being layered onto existing settlements.”

Again, technology makes us all tourists, removing the barriers to exit from physical places by making it easier and easier to exist anywhere at all. This was well underway even a century ago. […]

“What COVID is revealing is that the “people from anywhere” (globalist elites for whom a city is merely the backdrop to their striving and consumption) really can lead their lives almost anywhere, leaving the “people from somewhere” to their fate.” […]

To Martínez, the “Zoom class” is currently accelerating headlong into the dubious future of entirely rootless, technology-enabled nomadism and increasingly separating themselves from the people who must remain physically and culturally rooted in a specific somewhere. […]

Rather, it’s a sprinkling of redistributed population over the existing American landscape, filling in empty houses wherever they’re available.

More → Work from anywhere: how Airbnb & guests are approaching remote working, is exactly what Austin was writing about, the company going remote and emphasizing its platform to people from anywhere so they can go work somewhere else.

Pace Layering: How Complex Systems Learn and Keep Learning

Pace layering (and shearing layers) is not a new concept but I always seem to happen on short takes, two-three phase summaries, or that image. So I was happy to find this piece by Stewart Brand where he explains how he sees the layers working at different speeds, the frictions, the interactions, how they apply to some examples, and gives some of the history behind that line of thinking. You should have a read for the forest example (pine needle through to biome), and for the interactions between the commerce, infrastructure, and governance layers.

The order of a healthy civilization. The fast layers innovate; the slow layers stabilize. The whole combines learning with continuity. […]

If commerce, for example, is allowed by governance and culture to push nature at a commercial pace, then all-supporting natural forests, fisheries, and aquifers will be lost. If governance is changed suddenly instead of gradually, you get the catastrophic French and Russian revolutions. […]

If commerce is completely unfettered and unsupported by watchful governance and culture, it easily becomes crime, as in some nations after Communism fell. Likewise, commerce may instruct but must not control the levels below it, because it’s too short-sighted. One of the stresses of our time is the way commerce is being accelerated by global markets and the digital and network revolutions. […]

Governance and culture have to be willing to take on the huge costs and prolonged disruption of constructing sewer systems, roads, and communication systems, all the while bearing in mind the health of even slower “natural” infrastructure—water, climate, etc. […]

When we disturb nature at its own scale, such as with our “extinction engine” and greenhouse gases, we risk triggering apocalyptic forces. Like it or not, we have to comprehend and engage the longest now of nature.

The tyranny of chairs: why we need better design

Article adapted from the new book by the brilliant Sara Hendren, What Can a Body Do? How We Meet the Built World. Starts on chair design, how they are mostly not adapted to our bodies and how they move, and that sitting all day is really not good for us. Then stretches to industrial design at large, Victor Papanek, non-normative bodies, and universal design.

People like to think there’s a “normal” but really, humans are just a bunch of smaller groups with some differences between them. Thinking—as in universal design done well—about “edge” cases, minorities, and differently abled people is a more effective way to get to a design that reaches a majority of people, instead of starting from the perceived normality.

As with all material objects, Cranz reminds us, function tells only part of the story. The other part, always, is culture – the inherited and sometimes arbitrary ways that things have always been done, and therefore continue as common practice. “Biology, physiology and anatomy have less to do with our chairs than pharaohs, kings and executives.” […]

Good designers, the thinking goes, will take a close look at unusual circumstances, places where products (or environments, or services) are full of friction for people with particular needs. There, in the margins of human experience, are clues to suboptimal conditions that may also affect people in the normative middle, though perhaps to a lesser degree. […]

[T]he dominant model of universal design has disability at its centre, the very success of the innovations it generates tends to obscure their origin stories, as in the case of the Oxo peeler. That success makes many people overlook the barriers that still exist to an adaptive, flexible world for disabled people.

How to foster ‘shoshin’

Using words in another language to represent a topic is something I both love (those words!) and have grown tired of. This piece is about cultivating a beginner’s mind, published at Psyche, an offshoot of Eon, it’s actually presented as a guide so if you’re interested in those kinds of details, it’s worth a look for how it’s split in sections (“need to know,” “what to do,” etc.), an aside with the key points, and “learn more” as well as “links & books.”

The author covers explanatory depth, which is much like the Feynman technique, but he also cites research showing that you can simply explain the topic to yourself and get results. Confirmation bias, and how having a growth mindset (not the school version) can help.

Worth pondering for our current times, as it can be read as a series of methods to be more mindful of what you know, don’t know, and how you act accordingly to be better aware and informed.

By practising being flexible rather than dogmatic, more humble and less brazen, you will be sensitive to other people’s perspectives and needs. […]

Conversely, if you see intelligence as something to be developed, then finding holes in your knowledge is not so threatening: instead, it opens up exciting new opportunities for learning. […]

Try to be more aware of this ‘confirmation bias’, and deliberately counteract it by debating with yourself – look for evidence or arguments that challenge your current perspective.

The Conscience of Silicon Valley

I don’t often link to this kind of interview but I’m intrigued by Jaron Lanier and this is a fun mix of biographical and some of his ideas about technology. Nothing earth shattering in there but if, like me, you find him interesting, it’s a good read.

What I really hoped to do, I said, was to talk about the future and how to live in it. This year feels like a crossroads; I do not need to explain what I mean by this. We are on the precipice of ruin or revolution or both. We are sick of looking at social media, but social media is also maybe driving the most significant and necessary social movement of my entire life. I want to destroy my computer, through which I now work and “have drinks” and stare at blurry simulations of my parents sometimes; I want to kneel down and pray to it like a god. […]

“This idea that you can fuck up the world, but then there’ll be some part of it that you haven’t fucked up, is wrong. If you fuck up the world, you fuck up the whole world, you know?” […]

“They don’t even really acknowledge that you are contributing, as if artificial intelligence came from nowhere, instead of from data derived from you and me.”


Header image: RIP Chadwick Boseman, #blackpanther4ever.

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