This week → The pirate codes ⊗ The myth of Artificial Intelligence ⊗ Statistical imaginaries ⊗ Super-apps are the future ⊗ Mycorrhizal fungal networks and the dataome
Two hundred issues! 1560 days since No.1 was sent out! In that time Sentiers has proven a great tool for thinking, for connecting with various people and discussions, and for opportunities. Like guest editing kottke.org and heading Offscreen, neither of which would have been likely without the ongoing ‘proof of thinking and curating’ that has been this newsletter.
Thanks to all the readers, all the members and supporters, all the repliers and sharers, it’s a pleasure to be able to spend my Fridays and make some of my living sharing with you week after week.
I had notes to write a few more things but in the end I don’t want to spend too much time on this, other than the round number it’s an issue like all the others. I will however close this eventful 2021 by heading out one week early, the newsletter will be on holiday break and back on Sunday January the 9th, 2022. Have a great festivus, wear your masks when you’re supposed to and see you in three weeks!
Steven Johnson picks some bits of his recent book Enemy Of All Mankind to show how pirate ships were organized with very democratic and egalitarian codes, providing some useful examples for today, especially with all the talk about DAOs and organizations working (in part) through programmatic rules. Dreams of complex contracts splitting revenus from client work between multiple freelancers, putting aside money, managing access and voting right trough tokens, etc. seem quite hypothetical for the average person and current state of tech. But a simple project split along very simple rules (à la pirates) between a few people, non-chain or on a non-speculative, low-carbon chain…
The articles on board eighteenth-century pirate Edward Low’s ship spelled out the economic terms as follows: “The Captain is to have two full shares; the Master is to have one Share and one half; The Doctor, Mate, Gunner and Boatswain, one Share and one Quarter.” The rest of the crew were granted one share a piece. Henry Every and his men adopted a simpler structure: two shares for Every, one share for everyone else. […]
The pirates were vanguards as much as they were outlaws, building codes that ensured the collective strength of the ship and guarded against excessive concentration of both power and wealth. At the very moment the modern multinational corporation was being invented, the pirates were experimenting with a different kind of economic structure, closer to a worker’s collective. […]
Maybe the next radical idea in governance is being hatched right now in some gameworld somewhere, given the openness to experimentation and new possibilities that games have always afforded us.
Meredith Whittaker and Lucy Suchman taking a flamethrower to the new
book propaganda by Henry A. Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, and Daniel Huttenlocher, The Age of AI: And Our Human Future. To be honest, looks like it’s pretty much shooting fish in a barrel for someone on the (rightly) critical side of AI but still a good read if you need a reminder of everything that’s wrong with Big Tech’s AI, or to contemplate the quasi-mystical zeal of the Schmidt crowd.
so-called “advances” in AI celebrated over the last decade are primarily the product of significantly concentrated data and computing resources that reside in the hands of a few large tech corporations like Amazon, Facebook, and Google. At the same time, AI technologies are increasingly shown to be brittle, systemically biased, and applied in ways that exacerbate racialized inequality. […]
It presents AI as an entity, as superhuman, and as inevitable—while erasing a history of scholarship and critique of AI technologies that demonstrates their limits and inherent risks, the irreducible labor required to sustain them, and the financial incentives of tech companies that produce and profit from them. […]
The reader is offered a false portrait of AI, described as a fundamental break in human history, one auguring a new epoch involving “the alteration of human identity and the human experience of reality at a level not experienced since the dawn of the modern age.” We are told that AI’s “functioning portends progress toward the essence of things—progress that philosophers, theologians, and scientists have sought for millennia.”
Essay version of danah boyd’s talk at the 2021 Microsoft Research Summit. Long read on the societal importance of data (especially the census in this case), how uncertainty and margins of error are often excluded from discussions because politicians want something perfect, why keeping them in is important, and political manoeuvring and “agnotology.”
boyd introduces her concept of statistical imaginaries, which form “when people collectively construct a vision of what data are and what they could be.” She argues that the “key to responsible data science is to keep statistical imaginaries in check.” In other words, to realize where imaginaries come from, why they skew a certain way, what is obfuscated, and to consider related data accordingly. More importantly, that data have to stop being seen as perfect sets, the uncertainty that accompanies them needs to be visible, all the while trying to prevent political capture.
The moment that data matter, those data can never be neutral. The greater the stakes, the less objective those data can be. The very choices of what data to collect, how to categorize data, and how to present data reveal ideological, social, and political commitments. […]
The scientific community has developed a range of techniques to improve data quality in spite of data collection limitations, but embracing these requires that stakeholders understand data’s limitations and vulnerabilities. […]
Census data are the product of scientific work. They are also infrastructural in our society, core to countless policies and practices. Lives depend on that data. Economies depend on that data. Public health depends on that data. […]
Engaging with uncertainty is risky business. People are afraid to engage with uncertainty. They don’t know how to engage with uncertainty. And they worry about the politicization of uncertainty. But we’re hitting a tipping point. By not engaging with uncertainty, statistical imaginaries are increasingly disconnected from statistical practice, which is increasingly undermining statistical practice.
The colourful Scott Galloway with an uncommon take on Dorsey and Block, Meta-Zuckerberg, and super-apps. Super-apps are mobile apps, usually starting with payment or chat functionality, who then add feature after feature or serve as receptacles for third party ‘sub apps.’ The best example being WeChat. Galloway believes that Dorsey is moving Block in that direction, and that Meta and Amazon are trying to circumvent Apple (which does it’s best to hinder super-apps) “by building alternative interaction paradigms, a pretentious way to say ‘voice’ (Amazon) and ‘VR’ (Meta).”
The super-app market is the digital Iron Throne. Super-apps live on mobile, and mobile is the internet in emerging markets. India, for example, has three times as many cellular subscribers as the U.S., and Indians spend 17% more time per day on their phones. […]
The metaverse is best described as a consensual hallucination between Mark Zuckerberg and the media — a fantasy that we’ll trade pleasurable activities in the physical world, like cooking and dating, for nausea-inducing hours in a virtual realm full of legless avatars. […]
A shift in the arbitrage of attention, from ads to the more potent payments business, promises to fuel a historic merger-and-acquisition binge that will reshape the array of industries that tech derisively labels “content.”
Mycorrhizal Fungal Networks and the Dataome ⊕ See Note
I read A powerful and underappreciated ally in the climate crisis? Fungi by Toby Kiers and Merlin Sheldrake, and Caleb Scharf’s 3 Greatest Revelations one after the other. It’s in this context that I found them intriguing, a natural super-network of fungi under our feet, connecting the organic world, and a human-constructed layer exchanging information, permeating society, the dataome (which is already a concept under various names by various other people, but a good one whatever the name).
Globally, the total length of fungal mycelium in the top 10cm of soil is more than 450 quadrillion km: about half the width of our galaxy. These symbiotic networks comprise an ancient life-support system that easily qualifies as one of the wonders of the living world. […]
Fungi lie at the base of the food webs that support much of life on Earth. About 500m years ago, fungi facilitated the movement of aquatic plants on to land, fungal mycelium serving as plant root systems for tens of millions of years until plants could evolve their own. This association transformed the planet and its atmosphere – the evolution of plant-fungal partnerships coincided with a 90% reduction in the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
If we accept the dataome is another alternate living system, and it’s clearly in an intimate symbiotic relationship with us, we realize we can’t exist fully without it. Pretty much everything we do as a species, good and bad, comes down to the propagation of information, the exchange of information. We are not isolated creatures, we’re highly social creatures. We are constantly exchanging information that enables us to build a library for survival on this planet. It’s proven an incredibly successful approach to survival. If I can remember what happened 1,000 years ago, that may inform me for success today. […]
It’s a nice fantasy to think about future singularity. But that’s just part of a continuum. It really began when biology started to implement information external to itself in the way humans did it. Transcendence moved life to a different kind of instantiation 200,000 years ago. Humans distinguished themselves by enabling knowledge, by enabling information, to be carried through time in a far more explicit way than any other species had done.
No.200 Asides ⊕ See Note
Thoughts on Web3. My latest Dispatch sent to members this week, available for everyone on the site. “A couple of months ago this Dispatch might have been called ‘WTF Web3?’ Today, it should be quite a bit more informed. Still, I’m in no way any kind of specialist on the topic, just spending a bit more time exploring, which is what I’d like to share here. Just a list of thoughts and things to read.”
- 🤯 🤯 🤯 🌎 🏢 🛢 Visualizing the Accumulation of Human-Made Mass on Earth. “In 2020, the amount of human-made mass, or anthropogenic mass, exceeded for the first time the dry weight (except for water and fluids) of all life on Earth, including humans, animals, plants, fungi, and even microorganisms.”
- ☀️ 😲 ☀️ 😲 A Massive Composite of 150,000 Images Reveals the Swirling, Feather-Like Details of the Sun. “From dark spots and wispy flares to coronal loops that burst upward in brilliant arches, a giant new composite by Andrew McCarthy (previously) exposes the intricate, swirling patterns that cloak the sun’s surface. ‘Fire and Fusion’ is a 300-megapixel image captured at 2 p.m. on November 29 and the Arizona-based photographer’s most detailed shot of the celestial matter yet.”
- 📰 🔮 Always some good stuff in there. Predictions for Journalism 2022. “Each year, we ask some of the smartest people in journalism and media what they think is coming in the next 12 months. At the end of a trying 2021, here’s what they had to say.” Already, Print makes a comeback, but not in the way you think is intriguing and gave me an idea. “In 2022, we’ll see more community zines being produced as an effective way to make news more accessible, amplify diverse voices, and help us collaborate with communities to make news — together.”
- 🤓 📚 👾 29 of the Best Science Fiction Books Everyone Should Read. “Looking for your next sci-fi must-read? Cyberpunk, space operas, dystopias – we’ve pulled together some of the WIRED team’s favourite science fiction novels. Some are eerily plausible, others are wild trips of the imagination, but all present compelling visions of our possible future. Listed here in chronological order for completists.”
- 🤖 📚 (Also shared for the publisher’s model and their other books.) Fake AI, Frederike Kaltheuner, Meatspace Press (2021). “From predicting criminality to sexual orientation, fake and deeply flawed Artificial Intelligence (AI) is rampant. Amidst this feverishly hyped atmosphere, this book interrogates the rise and fall of AI hype, pseudoscience and snake oil. Bringing together different perspectives and voices from across disciplines and countries, it draws connections between injustices inflicted by inappropriate AI.”
- 🤖 Artificial Aesthetics: A Critical Guide to AI, Media and Design. “You may be wondering how AI will affect your professional area in general and your work and career. This book does not aim to predict the future or tell you exactly what will happen. Instead, we want to offer you a set of intellectual tools to help you better navigate any changes that may come along.”
- 🤔 🚜 🪨 🌽 Farmland could be a sponge for greenhouse gas with mineral weathering. “What is enhanced weathering? The idea is simple — accelerate farmland’s naturally occurring chemical reactions by adding minerals in the form of crushed rocks. The chemical processes that break down the stones simultaneously trap atmospheric carbon.”
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.