The state of the culture, 2024 ⊗ Stephenson’s most stunning prediction ⊗ Bringing in the rain

No.299 — On spatial computing, metaverse, the terms left Behind and ideas renewed ⊗ Where will Virtual Reality take us? ⊗ The Curiosity Matrix: 9 habits of curious minds

The state of the culture, 2024 ⊗ Stephenson’s most stunning prediction ⊗ Bringing in the rain
Spooky town by Drew Tilk on Unsplash.

Welcome to the new version of Sentiers, now with more hauntings. Sorry for the bad pun, I just mean that the website and this newsletter are now hosted and sent using Ghost Pro. There are a number of reasons for this move, don’t hesitate to ask, but the main reason is that I was tired of having memberships separated from my file-generated website, now everything is integrated and will be much more pleasant for paid members. Ghost is also open source software and the organisation is a non profit so a nice values match and the possibility of going back to self hosting if I so desire.

Members → The switch is not complete yet. Your support (thanks again!) is still handled with Memberful, there’s no direct import possible so I’m still figuring out the quickest and most painless way of doing this by hand. The transactions themselves will still go through Stripe though so I should be able to get everything going with nothing to do on your side. A few people have a valid membership that I couldn’t link to a subscriber email address, I’ll be contacting you this week.

Potential members → I’ve made some changes to the membership tiers. There’s now a ‘friends’ level which is ‘only’ to support the weekly, no exclusive emails. Cheaper than the member level at $35/year.

The full membership that used to be $50 is now $70/year or $8 monthly, people already supporting my work have the old price ‘grand-parented’ in. Now that I’ve moved platforms, I’ll be adding members-only content and sending exclusive emails 2-3 times a month.

Finally, there’s now a ‘pro’ level which you can use to give more support (bless you) because you get good value useful for your work, and/or because you can expense it, and to get two 45 minute calls one-on-one with me to talk about a topic of your choice, your business, or to ‘stress test’ some ideas. That’s $280 a year.

No.300 → Next week is the 300th issue, I still haven’t planned anything so it will likely simply be a normal issue with a nice round number, but signing up thirty new members over the next month would certainly make for a very very nice anniversary gift. (Three hundred new subscribers would also be great, so share, share away.) End of the annoying hustle section.

The state of the culture, 2024

The first time I saw this piece by Ted Gioia was when a friend posted one of its graphics in a group chat. The visual from the article describes the transitions of multiple cultural types from “slow traditional culture,” to “fast modern culture,” to “dopamine culture.” My first reply was simply “dark.” And it is, but it’s also not wrong. Gioia argues that art was consumed/subsumed by entertainment, which was then overtaken by distraction, and currently by addiction through algorithms and dopamine hits.

I wish he didn’t make it sound so inevitable, that addiction business model might be hard to turn around but making it look unstoppable is not helping. He also talks about Culture as opposed to “the new culture” of compulsive activity. Trends, fashions, and yes, culture is being created there (Tiktok to name one), even if if he (or I) don’t quite get it. Trying to separate Culture is again a disservice. I’d also say that these phases from his visual might be layers, where the proportions change, attention is displaced from one to the other but the ‘old ways’ don’t disappear. I wonder if his graphic might have made different (more?) sense as pace layers?

The fastest growing sector of the culture economy is distraction. Or call it scrolling or swiping or wasting time or whatever you want. But it’s not art or entertainment, just ceaseless activity. […]

Instead of movies, users get served up an endless sequence of 15-second videos. Instead of symphonies, listeners hear bite-sized melodies, usually accompanied by one of these tiny videos—just enough for a dopamine hit, and no more. […]

Here’s where the science gets really ugly. The more addicts rely on these stimuli, the less pleasure they receive. At a certain point, this cycle creates anhedonia—the complete absence of enjoyment in an experience supposedly pursued for pleasure. […]

And it’s a bigger issue than just struggling artists or floundering media companies. The dopamine cartel is now aggravating our worst social problems—in education, in workplaces, and in private life.

Neal Stephenson’s most stunning prediction

Good short interview but it’s almost more valuable to read it for the ‘prescience mapping’ than the actual answers. By that I mean how the interviewer maps today’s tech to items from the novel. Calling the Primer from The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer a prediction of learning from chatbots is not completely inaccurate but also kind of like saying the inventor of the horse cart predicted cars. Looking back you can see glimpses of one in the other but the useful way to look at this is in the influence of fiction on what gets built, not in trying to make authors into seers.

I worked with a start-up that makes AI characters in video games. I found it rewarding and fascinating because of the hallucinations: I could see how new patterns emerged from the soup of inputs being fed to it. The same thing that I consider to be a feature is a bug in most applications. […]

It turns out that if you give everyone access to the Library of Congress, what they do is watch videos on TikTok. The Diamond Age reflects the same naivete that I shared with a lot of other people back in the day about how all of that knowledge was going to affect society. […]

I’m sure that some things are going to emerge that I wouldn’t dare try to predict, because the results of the creative frenzy of millions of people are always more interesting than what a single person can think of.

Bringing in the rain

The United Arab Emirates are seeding clouds to get more water, since they have “an arid climate with less than 100 mm per year of rainfall, a high evaporation rate of surface water and a low groundwater recharge rate that is far less than the total annual water used in the country.” The piece spends quite a bit of time on the various techniques and wondering if they went too far, perhaps causing floods. The answer is pretty much no, and that part is worth reading, especially for the potential impacts on health when throwing salt crystals coated in titanium dioxide nanoparticles up in the air. But I wish they’d spent more time on the political aspects, neighbours, and the lack of international agreements. There are bound to be conflicts for drinkable water and redirecting or potentially poisoning rains is adding even more complexity to the issue.

The potential threat to humans comes when the nanoparticles are present in the air and inhaled—particularly in workplaces—while algae and animals can be harmed when they enter ecosystems, including through wastewater. And, according to research by Marie Simonin and others, the nanoparticles can also be toxic for some soil organisms. […]

Simonin added: “Without more intensive research on titanium dioxide nanoparticles’ ecotoxicity, I would be concerned about a large-scale application like cloud seeding that would affect large surfaces, especially if they are agricultural zones.” She stressed that more research was particularly needed in the UAE’s geographical region. […]

Strangely, given the importance that weather and climate now holds for news agendas and in political discourse, there is at present no international body that regulates weather modification activity.

On spatial computing, metaverse, the terms left behind and ideas renewed

Matthew Ball, who literally wrote the book on the metaverse, is coming out with a new version now subtitled “building the spatial internet.” Nice pivot to keep his gig going but I’m sharing for the long first part that goes through the history of the various terms in the field (hyperreality, cyberspace, Matrix, VR, AR, MR, XR, spatial computing, etc.) and for the business angle comparing Meta and Apple’s strengths and approaches. (Shame on him for inverting his mentions of Star Trek and Star Trek The Next Generation though!)

The Metaverse thus spans and connects all universes — real and non-real — and the many technologies that comprise our area used to experience them. This is the perspective shared by Sweeney, Huang, and Nadella, as well as Zuckerberg, who, in the months leading up to the name change, said plainly the Metaverse “isn’t just virtual reality. It’s going to be accessible across all of our different computing platforms; VR and AR, but also PC, and also mobile devices and game consoles.” […]

The “minimum viable headset” from Apple’s perspective is one with an 8K-combined display, 12 tracking cameras, low latency full color passthrough, automatic lens adjustments, and so on. Meta does not share this perspective, which is why they were able to come to market so much earlier, cheaper, and lighter. […]

Meta spends billions expanding it. By the end of 2024, the company is expected to have partial, complete, or de facto (i.e., capacity-based) ownership of 13% of global submarine cable infrastructure — more than 170,000 kilometers of cables in total, connecting nearly 33 countries across 47 connections, while reaching 36% of the global population (mostly in Africa and Southeast Asia).

§ Where will Virtual Reality take us? To pair with the one above, one of the pioneers of VR, Jaron Lanier, goes back on the history of that technology and his vision for its future. Unsurprisingly, it’s quite different from big tech’s.

§ The Curiosity Matrix: 9 habits of curious minds. Super short piece so I’m not going to summarise other than to say I could have highlighted the whole thing. Even though I recognise myself in most of this, I also want to fill in the matrix with ‘levels of mastery,’ something that might look like the segments of the nine planetary boundaries. Or perhaps there’s another line to integrate, like in doughnut economics?

Futures, Fictions & Fabulations

“Unleash your futures literacy by taking play seriously. These games will facilitate you to think critically and imaginatively about the future of society, and collectively imagine brighter tomorrows.”

The signals we’re watching in 2024
From Nesta. “Every year we identify the signals that could show us the shape of things to come. … Whether specific data points that might be weak signals of emergent change, or multiple signals pointing to a wider trend, our authors discuss why they matter and what they mean for the year ahead.”

Building positive futures for generative AI adoption in healthcare
“A panel discussion on January 19th explored a possible future world where every AI agent must have a social license to operate. During the workshop part of the online event, 79 participants imagined scenarios for using a social license when an AI agent is introduced in patient-clinician interactions in healthcare.”

Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation

Leviathan wakes
Jon Evans reviewing some of the early reports on the mind blowing results obtained with Google’s Gemini 1.5.

Red Teaming AI: The devil is in the details
“The recognition of the importance of red-teaming is a promising development. But to realize the benefits, the operationalization of red-teaming must be sensitive to questions about values and power. Otherwise, red-teaming risks devolving into a mere rubber stamp for industry’s products. To be truly effective, red-teaming practices must be concrete, transparent, and independent. Where possible, they should be subject to democratic oversight.”

Air Canada must honor refund policy invented by airline’s chatbot
Likely the first of many such cases. “After months of resisting, Air Canada was forced to give a partial refund to a grieving passenger who was misled by an airline chatbot inaccurately explaining the airline's bereavement travel policy.”


  • 🤯 🤯 🤯 🌌 ⚫️ 🎥 🇺🇸 To See Black Holes in Detail, She Uses ‘Echoes’ Like a Bat. “By carefully tracking the gas and plasma that swirls near a black hole — forming what’s known as an accretion disk — she can approximate the black hole’s mass, for example. That nearby gas and plasma can also help reveal how feasting black holes create extreme cosmic structures such as relativistic jets — gigantic beams of superheated plasm.” There’s also a short video version you should watch.
  • 🥵 Fervo Energy Is Quickly Making Geothermal Cheaper. “Whereas traditional geothermal means tapping into hot water or steam underground, Fervo drills as deep as 9,000 feet down to access hot rocks, which are far more ubiquitous, and then pumps water into them, potentially unlocking many more areas for this kind of power generation.”
  • 🛰️ 🪵 🇯🇵 Japan to launch world’s first wooden satellite to combat space pollution. “The timber satellite has been built by researchers at Kyoto University and the logging company Sumitomo Forestry in order to test the idea of using biodegradable materials such as wood to see if they can act as environmentally friendly alternatives to the metals from which all satellites are currently constructed.”
  • 🌊 💨 △ 🇺🇸 US startup ditches towers for unique pyramid-mounted wind turbines. “An innovative floating offshore wind turbine prototype was launched in New Bedford, Massachusetts this week. Instead of a single anchor tower, the approach uses a pyramid base that can also passively orient itself in the direction of the blowing wind.”
  • 🤔 🌙 🚀 🇺🇸 Can’t say I’m all that happy about private companies on the moon. A little US company makes history by landing on the Moon. “For the first time in more than half a century, a US-built spacecraft has made a soft landing on the Moon.”

Your Futures Thinking Observatory