This week → The limits of optimization ⊗ How ancient societies reimagined what cities could be ⊗ Parliaments of the Earth ⊗ Humanity’s tragic fight for the future ⊗ Unknown knowns ⊗ A framework for The Metaverse
A year ago → The most clicked article in issue No.133 was Why 2020 to 2050 Will Be ‘the Most Transformative Decades in Human History’ by Eric Holthaus.
“Big news” this week, I relaunched the website, built as a file-based system so it’s much quicker and lighter, more old-school, and will be progressively interlinked à la digital garden. Each past issue has been deconstructed into multiple notes, one for each featured article and one for each group of asides. Alongside the interlinking, I’ll also be adding more notes, kind of halfway between personal notes and a blog, but also (I hope) integrating more commentary with the highlights from articles I read. Articles on the ideas and the technical details are upcoming.
That project was made possible by Grant for the Web and supporting members. As fun as it was to work on this, I did end-up having to limit the time I could spend on Dispatches over the last month. If you’re a member, my apologies, I’ll be catching up over July. For non members, if you considered it but noticed little movement, it’s normally a much more regular publishing schedule!
The Limits of Optimization ⊕ Source
Great piece by L. M. Sacasas on how optimization, taken to its logical conclusion, and used indiscriminately, can rob us of something, a quality not reflected in the numbers, a je ne sais quoi that made the “imperfect” version better. I’ve covered similar arguments before, I’m recommending this one because he uses baseball (which I don’t care for) as an example and refers quite a bit to French polymath Jacques Ellul, who’s view of la technique I wasn’t familiar with. In other words, he slides right next to computing and productivity but makes the point from other angles.
As a side note, it’s not lost on me that there’s a certain irony to a French native speaker reading and writing in English, concerning a piece where Sacasas, in English, refers to three French thinkers.
Ellul’s issue was not with technological machines but with a society necessarily caught up in efficient methodological techniques. Technology, then, is but an expression and by-product of the underlying reliance on technique, on the proceduralization whereby everything is organized and managed to function most efficiently, and directed toward the most expedient end of the highest productivity. […]
Technique became the defining force, the ultimate value, of a new social order in which efficiency was no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity. Technique became universally totalitarian in modern society as rationalistic proceduralism imposed an artificial value system of measuring and organizing everything quantitatively rather than qualitatively. […]
Data-driven optimization is, in this sense, a way of perceiving the world. And what may matter most about this is not necessarily what it allows us to see, but it keeps us from perceiving: in short, all that cannot be quantified or measured. […]
The key, then, is to recognize where and when it is appropriate to allow technique (or quantification or optimization) a place and where and when it would be good to circumscribe its scope. In order to do so we must have before us a clear sense of the good we seek.
How Ancient Societies Reimagined What Cities Could Be ⊕ Source
Greatly enjoyed this one, adapted from Jungle: How Tropical Forests Shaped the World – and Us, by Patrick Roberts and it’s not only a fascinating look at the history of some great cities / civilizations and some recent findings of how they organized and lived, but also dovetails very nicely in recurring concepts I regularly circle back to, the known and unknown quadrants, and the idea that “we don’t know anything,” or [[the half-life of knowledge]].
The recent findings he goes over show that those cities were larger, had more mixed usage, combined varied food productions, rotating crops, forest gardens, intricate water systems, etc. Although they did suffer from over-exploitation, droughts, and floods, they didn’t crumble as a whole. Rather, rulers lost the trust of the population, leading to more dispersed and less “grand” occupation, not outright collapse. (Annalee Newitz has written about this, see my first two notes here on the new website.)
Finally, oh how I wish I could walk through a recreation of this portrayal of the Classic Maya and the Khmer empire of Cambodia! Can someone make an Assassin’s Creed discovery tour of this?
Not only did societies such as the Classic Maya and the Khmer empire of Cambodia flourish, but pre-colonial tropical cities were actually some of the most extensive urban landscapes anywhere in the pre-industrial world – far outstripping ancient Rome, Constantinople/Istanbul and the ancient cities of China. […]
Extensive, interspersed with nature and combining food production with social and political function, these ancient cities are now catching the eyes of 21st-century urban planners trying to come to grips with tropical forests as sites of some of the fastest-growing human populations around the world today. […]
In almost all instances, instead of isolated urban buds, scientists have found vast landscapes of small and large centres connected by dispersed agrarian landscapes, residential areas, causeways and a complex, interlinking system of dams, reservoirs, sinkholes, channels and swamps that supported growing populations through even the driest of seasons. […]
The strength of agrarian-based, low-density urbanism remains an attractive model for present-day urban planners across the tropics looking for green cities that balance urgent conservation and environmental needs, political and cultural infrastructure, and growing urban populations.
Parliaments of the Earth ⊕ Source
At the indispensable Logic Magazine, R. K. Upadhya walks us through the differences between power utilities in the US, with investor-owned utilities (IOUs) on one side and rural electric cooperatives (RECs) on the other. It’s necessarily America centric but the case for co-ops with active communities and how they could provide great strides in the Green New Deal’s premise that we can “decarbonize as we democratize” applies worldwide.
Since, as Upadhya states, “the transmission and distribution grid is arguably the very foundation of modern society,” it’s also heartening to see that some RECs are using their position to diversify into fiberoptic networks and land management. When those co-ops work well, they can have an essential and broad impact.
While the Pacific Northwest suffers under a deadly heat dome and ExxonMobil (merci Frederic) reveal themselves to be the pieces of cow excrement we knew them to be, it’s especially encouraging (and needed) to read about better ways to do things, that bring more people along and help collective resilience.
The destruction of Paradise was the result of interlocking trends within capitalism, technology, and ecology—as are other recent catastrophes of power infrastructure. […]
The contrast between RECs and IOUs also hinges on another less obvious, but equally important dynamic: profit. The ability to extract and accumulate surplus revenue has an enormous impact on power relations.
Humanity’s Tragic Fight for the Future ⊕ Source
Very good read at WIRED, taking the Miami building collapse as a starting point to look at how people are usually very bad at intergenerational responsibility and at properly grasping hazards, probabilities, and resulting disasters.
Hazards are the risks that bad things will happen—an earthquake, a wildfire, a hurricane, a heat event; disasters are what happens when the risk comes to fruition and overwhelms whatever preparations people made in advance. […]
And 70 percent believe corporations should do more to fix it; 60 percent think Congress should. So … something should change, right? Except no. Regulatory systems remain firmly captured by carbon emitters and all the companies that depend on burning fossil fuels.
Unknown Knowns ⊕ Source
Two main ideas in this piece. First, the most useful part: “uncomfortable knowledge,” the knowledge we overlook because it is is in tension or outright contradiction with the simplified, self-consistent versions of that world we develop in our minds (associated here with unknown knowns).
The other is that science isn’t automatically for the public good, often funding seems to be available on that basis, that it will flow back to society, but the truth is that just how that will happen is disregarded. I’d tend to argue that the problem is more with capital taking over and maximizing profit independently of what society needs, not how science is funded, but a useful line of thought nonetheless.
William James observed that people cannot easily absorb every idea that challenges the coherence of their existing view, or else they would exist in a continual state of mental chaos
A Framework for The Metaverse ⊕ Source
First part in a series by Matthew Ball, whom I see as the Ben Thompson of the Metaverse, where he sets the stage for the collection by revisiting industrialization, cars, and the mobile internet, to properly place the scale and breadth of what he means when he writes about the Metaverse. The actual framework part is towards the end, where he lists “eight core categories, which can be thought of as a stack.” Much of the ‘The Metaverse Primer’ is already online and starts with one essay for each category.
[W]e need to think of the Metaverse as a sort of successor state to the mobile internet. […]
The internet was once envisioned as the ‘Information Superhighway’ and ‘World Wide Web’. Neither of these descriptions were particularly helpful in planning for 2010 or 2020, least of all in understanding how the world and almost every industry would be transformed by the internet.
- 📃 Sentiers friend Johannes Klingebiel created a great looking zine, A weird summer that’s available now, including a short take on what’s coming in newslettering, by yours truly.
- ⌛️ 🤯 When I watched Predestination, I wasn’t aware it was based on a short story by Robert A. Heinlein, All You Zombies, have a look at the diagrammatic timeline.
- 🇨🇳 💀 Massive human head in Chinese well forces scientists to rethink evolution. “Analysis of the remains has revealed a new branch of the human family tree that points to a previously unknown sister group more closely related to modern humans than the Neanderthals.”
- 🤩 ⛪️ 🇬🇧 Superb 🧵 by Jay Hulme with lots of pictures of his trip under, in, and over an old church. With yesterday’s announcement that I’m the new Poet In Residence at St Giles in the Fields, I’m sure you’ve all been thinking: “but Jay, have you climbed it?” And the answer is “of course I have” so let me take you on an adventure!
- 🇫🇷 🚴🏼♂️ 🤯 The Alt Tour, a Self-Supported Tour de France. “Professional road racing cyclist Lachlan Morton is attempting to complete the Tour de France this year. Except: He’s doing it entirely on his own, without teammates, support vehicles, and transportation from the previous day’s finish to the next day’s start (which might be dozens or even hundreds of miles apart). That means he’ll be riding an extra 1500 miles, climbing an additional 50,000 feet in elevation, shopping for his own meals, and still trying to beat the peloton to Paris. ”
- 📸 📰 🔥 Guest post: How heatwave images in the media can better represent climate risks. “Rather, researchers and academics need to work with media organisations, image libraries and communication practitioners to craft a more diverse and engaging set of visuals from which to illustrate and imagine climate change.”
- 🇨🇦 😨 🔥 ⚡️ Western Canada burns and deaths mount after world’s most extreme heat wave in modern history. “The lighting from the dry thunderstorms (pyrocumulonimbus) that developed was so intense that over 700,000 intracloud and cloud-to-ground lightning flashes were recorded in 15 hours, including more than 100,000 cloud-to-ground strikes.” (Via Bopuc.)
Join thousands of generalists and broad thinkers.
Each issue of the weekly features a selection of articles with thoughtful commentary on technology, society, culture, and potential futures.