The modern world has finally become too complex for any of us to understand ⊗ The world is a factory farm ⊗ Hyperland and Intermedia — No.153

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

This week → The modern world has finally become too complex for any of us to understand ⊗ The world is a factory farm ⊗ Hyperland, Intermedia, and the web that never was ⊗ Going indie is going amateur

A year ago → The most clicked link in issue No.108 was How William Gibson Keeps His Science Fiction Real at The New Yorker.

The Modern World Has Finally Become Too Complex for Any of Us to Understand

First in a new series by Tim Maughan on “how to understand a world governed by systems and technologies that are spiralling out of control.” The series is sure to be fascinating, enlightening, and a bit frightening. This one lays down the goals, provides some vertiginous numbers to give readers an idea of the scope and scale of some of those systems, and finishes by nicely framing the gap between our understanding of these systems and the importance they have in our lives, as well as how that affects our evaluation of politicians, and how some of them fill that vacuum with chaos and conspiracies.

Note: Maughan writes that “the reality with these networks is much closer to the concept of distributed intelligence or distributed knowledge,” which nicely connects to the Hyperland article lower down.

What’s worrying is that while none of these were catastrophic failures, and the networks eventually recovered, in some cases it took years of expert analysis and debate to work out what actually went wrong, exactly because of how complex these systems are to understand. […]

Ceding control to vast unaccountable networks not only risks those networks going off the rails, it also threatens democracy itself. If we are struggling to understand or influence anything more than very small parts of them, this is also increasingly true for politicians and world leaders. […]

To paraphrase the filmmaker Adam Curtis, instead of electing visionary leaders, we are in fact just voting for middle managers in a complex, global system that nobody fully controls. […]

These are political players who have seen how complicated things have become and can sense the gap in public comprehension but want to fill it with chaos and conspiracies rather than explanations.

The World Is a Factory Farm

To follow the systems upon systems of the previous, the reliably excellent Xiaowei Wang with China’s factory farms, biosecurity, zoonotic diseases, global free trade, and a non too chilling transition from biosecure farm tech to human surveillance. Do stay to the end for the conclusion which includes a promising experiment in a Chinese village, “remixing and combining old techniques with new ways,” which gives us a glimpse of a world “without boundaries, without ambitions to scale—that reminds us that life outside [of these hulking systems of capital] is possible.”

As COVID-19 continues to unfold, it is rendered as a bounded problem, understood at the level of the city or the nation-state. Yet the need to think beyond boundaries and across scales—beyond the dichotomies of human versus nature, urban versus rural, individual versus collective—is more urgent than ever. […]

In a biosecure context, security is maintained through standardization, surveillance, and efficiency, all with the goal of allowing capital to continue to flow. It is a kind of security that disregards actual life. […]

But if biosecurity is an ideology, a practice, and an economy that makes the nation-state secondary to the forces of tech capital and technology, its recent appearance is testament to its own fragility. […]

Life outside requires a focus on mutual care; a vocabulary of tending to the future that we increasingly hear calls for; a kind of thoughtfulness that asks us to attend to the present moment and the communities we are accountable to.

Hyperland, Intermedia, and the Web That Never Was

Oh, the world that could have been! A trip down memory lane, looking at a variety of hypertext projects of the 80s and 90s, a Douglas Adams doc, Douglas Englebart, Ted Nelson, and into more details with Nicole Yankelovich on IRIS and the vision for Intermedia.

The cyberspace Adams imagines is not even online. Rather, it’s something that never properly came to exist: an open framework for moving through a body of knowledge, bending to the curiosities of a trailblazing traveler. […]

Intermedia proposed that all those activities could be connected. As its name suggests, Intermedia was plural: it included InterText, a word processor, InterDraw, a drawing tool, Interpix, for looking at scanned images, InterSpect, a three-dimensional object viewer, and InterVal, a timeline editor. Together, these five applications formed an information environment, a flexible housing for whatever corpus of documents a scholar might want to consult. […]

Five years before the arrival of the World Wide Web, Intermedia empowered its users to create hyperlinks between their own documents. Viewed as a whole, these links formed an Intermedia “Web.” Distinct from the Web as we know it today, an Intermedia Web was a map of paths. […]

“There were all of these naysayers, but I don’t think that any of us ever doubted that what we were doing was the future. And it turned out that it was.”

Going Indie is Going Amateur

I’m not 100% onboard with this essay by Venkatesh Rao, if only because he’s trying to reclaim “amateur,” which seems like an unnecessary uphill climb. Some excellent points in there though, and using Sherlock Holmes’ unshackled amateurism in opposition to Lestrade and Watson’ professional blinders is an excellent framing for how amateur indies can bring useful perspectives.

Note: Through generalism, I’d attach this to John V Willshire’s video introduction to Zenko Mapping, which is a fantastic way to re-interpret the Zoom lecture (i.e., not one at all) but also closing on adaptability, definitely a characteristic of the amateur indie.

And this is something all the characters are aware of. So it is not as though Lestrade or Watson are clueless about their professional blinders. They are aware of them, and aware that Holmes represents a way around their own limitations. […]

It might be a self-congratulatory conceit, but Sherlock Holmes, I would argue, is the model every independent consultant ought to aspire to. Not in the sense of affecting the posture of a genius, but in the sense of ignoring the contours of knowledge held to be self-evidently meaningful and important by professionals, and navigating by your own amateur — but grounded — maps of the territory.


Header image: Port Klang, Selangor, Malaysia, by Nazarizal Mohammad.