To own the future, read Shakespeare ⊗ It’s time to dismantle the technopoly ⊗ Accelerationist possibilities

No.293 — Copyright, AI, and provenance ⊗ Rabbit r1 and new visions ⊗ The Internet is about to get weird again ⊗ Sentiers in 2024

To own the future, read Shakespeare ⊗ It’s time to dismantle the technopoly ⊗ Accelerationist possibilities
I read a bunch of Holmes novels over the holidays, so here’s my “Solarpunk Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson.” (Not all that solarpunk but I like it anyway, made with Midjourney.)

To own the future, read Shakespeare

The excellent Paul Ford explores the everlasting debate between the value of the humanities and STEM fields, arguing that interdisciplinary thinking is crucial for the future. In his view, proponents of every discipline are “patrolling the borders, deciding what belongs inside, what does not. And this same battle of the disciplines, everlasting, ongoing, eternal, and exhausting, defines the internet.”

Ford believes, as I do, that there is great value and richness in the connecting of disciplines, but also that “the interdisciplinarian is essentially an exile. Someone who respects no borders enjoys no citizenship.” He closes the piece affirming that “the winners will be the ones who can get the computer to move things along the most quickly, generate the new fashions and fads, turn that into money, and go to the next thing. If the computers are capable of understanding us, and will do our bidding, and enable us to be more creative, then the people in our fields—yes, maybe even the poets—will have an edge. Don’t blame us. You made the bots.”

Because humans are primates and disciplines are our territories. A programmer sneers at the white space in Python, a sociologist rolls their eyes at a geographer, a physicist stares at the ceiling while an undergraduate, high off internet forums, explains that Buddhism anticipated quantum theory. They, we, are patrolling the borders, deciding what belongs inside, what does not.

Perhaps this is why [programmers, engineers] lash out, so strangely—a fear of the grip slipping, the sense that all the abstruse and arcane knowledge gathered about large language models, neural nets, blockchains, and markets might be erased.Will be erased.

It’s time to dismantle the technopoly

Cal Newport explains Neil Postman’s idea of the technopoly, then argues that it’s time for it to come to an end and that there are some hints of an opening to bringing it about. He gives a few examples around our growing sense of dread, pulling back from social networks, leaving some gadgets aside, current fears, and calls for slowing down on AI, etc. I’m not convinced it’s a big shift, perhaps a series of skirmishes that only affect the shape of tech in our lives? See the Napster example in Karpf’s ChatGPT Takeover piece in the copyright section down below for an example of this shapeshifting.

In the end, what he’s suggesting without naming it, is an attitude to technology much like that of the Amish; let’s consider what we accept and what we reject. Newport calls it techno-selectionism.

The big surprise in Postman’s book is that, according to him, we no longer live in a technocratic era. We now inhabit what he calls technopoly. In this third technological age, Postman argues, the fight between invention and traditional values has been resolved, with the former emerging as the clear winner. The result is the “submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology.” […]

“Generative A.I. is a vast new field for Silicon Valley’s longstanding exploitation of content providers,” the novelist Jonathan Franzen, a class representative in the suit, explained. But just because this potential for exploitation exists doesn’t mean it has to be acted on. What if we simply decided to leave professional creative writing to humans? […]

This emerging resistance to the technopoly mind-set doesn’t fall neatly onto a spectrum with techno-optimism at one end and techno-skepticism at the other. Instead, it occupies an orthogonal dimension we might call techno-selectionism.

More on the Amish → Christopher Butler had a great piece three years ago, Dreaming Big, which includes some of the Amish’s thinking. “The Amish don’t reject technology simply because modernity clashes with retrograde preferences, or because they fear that if a person wears a jacket with a zipper she might love God less or question her husband. They continually choose the details of their way of life, motivated by strengthening the bond of their community and defining it around a preserved set of values.

Accelerationist possibilities in an ecosocialist degrowth scenario

Jason Hickel explains the potential benefits of a degrowth scenario for achieving rapid decarbonization. In this scenario, less-necessary forms of production are scaled down (private jets, huge cars), which reduces emissions and total energy demand, and liberates productive capacities to be redirected towards necessary objectives, such as building renewable energy capacity.

That’s where the “ecosocialist” in the title comes in, a democratic move to reorganise industry needs to take place and public finance can play a greater role in this scenario, allowing for investment in green production and innovation. A colossal task since, as we know, capitalist governments tend to prioritize private capital over democratic public control over productive capacity.

It’s not just degrowth anymore, it’s degrowth in various phases. One, reduce emissions as much as possible everywhere. Two, degrow the clear excesses to liberate production capacity, which allows for an acceleration of renewables and more reductions. Unsaid but likely three; keep degrowing emissions and our impact on nature. In other words, first degrow the low hanging fruit and the clear excesses, grow some things essential for the transition, then proceed with the rest.

A degrowth scenario is not a “smaller economy” (i.e., a low-capacity economy). It is a high-capacity economy which is reducing less-necessary production, and therefore is suddenly endowed with spare capacity than can be redirected for necessary purposes. […]

Under capitalism, then, there are real limits to how quickly we can scale up green production and innovation. Capital would rather do other things. […]

To say that we need to increase growth (i.e., increase production of existing things) in order to “fund” green production is tantamount to saying we need to increase production of SUVs, fast fashion and private jets in order to increase production of solar panels and public transit.

More on degrowth → To build a better world, stop chasing economic growth. “The year 2024 must be a turning point for shifting policies away from gross domestic product and towards sustainable well-being.”Kohei Saito, philosopher: ‘Spending so much money, effort and time on going to Mars is stupid’ (I’ve previously covered Saito, this one is a short interview/intro to his work).

§ The Apple Vision Pro is almost here, the intriguingly well built rabbit r1 was announced. I don’t believe it’s the next era of computing, but perhaps a fun doodad to play with, à la Raspberry Pi). Good time to pull out Brian Sholis’ New Visions issue from last summer, which looks at a number of different metaphors for computing interfaces.

§ This piece by Anil Dash, about how the Internet is about to get weird again, is the one I saw shared the most often in the last couple of weeks, so clearly that vibe is shared by many. I do also share his need/wish but I’m not sure I share his level of optimism for its realisation. “We’re seeing the biggest return to that human-run, personal-scale web that we’ve witnessed since the turn of the millennium, with enough momentum that it’s likely that 2024 is the first year since then that many people have the experience of making a new connection or seeing something go viral on a platform that’s being run by a regular person instead of a commercial entity. It’s going to make a lot of new things possible.”

Futures, fictions & fabulations

Necessary Tomorrows
Podcast series created for Al Jazeera by the always insightful Peabody-winning documentarian Brett Gaylor. The first episode is fantastic!

Speculative F(r)iction in Generative AI
Launched by the Mozilla Foundation, online event later this week.
“What kinds of constructive f(r)iction could contribute towards improved transparency, evaluation, and human agency in the context of generative AI systems and the data and labor pipelines they depend on? We’re launching an initiative to explore just this.”

Realizing visions of the future through strategic foresight
“Don’t fear the future. Shape it to suit your context by taking a proactive look forward.” From Octavio Egea and Arjun Shukla at frog. Haven’t read the whole thing yet but the graphs are intriguing so I’ll have a further look.

Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation

AI and Everything Else
Great talk on AI by Benedict Evans at Slush 2023. Watched this before the holidays so my recall is a bit blurry, but largely based on his latest deck.

AI, satellites expose 75% of fish industry’s ‘Ghost Fleet’ looting seas
I wish more of these projects got broader coverage, not as weird as talking to a bot but way more important and likely more solid results. “This new analysis, powered by artificial intelligence and satellite data, throws light on a large world beyond public view, revealing that 75% of fishing boats and even 25% of transport ships cruise untracked.”

Infraordinary FM
Lovely project. “A radio station by Daniel John Jones and Seb Emina delivering reliable, real-time information about commonplace and quotidian happenings around the world. … The station is automated and perpetual, and presented by a pair of state-of-the-art synthetic voices, kindly provided by ElevenLabs.” (Via Julian in the Near Future Laboratory Discord.)


  • 🤓 😍 😍 ⚛ 🌌 🎥 Absolutely fantastic! From The Smallest to the Largest Thing in The Universe. “… this one from Kurzgesagt is one of the best, showing how big everything in the universe is compared to humans, who seemingly find themselves smack in the middle. This video does an excellent job illustrating the similarity of structures and interdependency across different scales — how blood vessels are like city streets for instance or how very tiny proteins can affect the entire Earth.”
  • 🤓 🥵 🥶 🇬🇧 Great animation from The Guardian, explaining heat pumps. Pretty incredible. A fridge but in reverse? The fascinating science of heat pumps – visualised. “Only 1% of British homes have a heat pump, but to hit the government’s climate goals, an estimated 80% of homes should be heated by one in the next 25 years.”
  • 🤬 😭 🐖 🐓 🦃 🐄 🐐 🐑 🗑️ Food waste’s enormous impact on animal welfare: wasted meat, milk, and eggs. “Researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands found that in 2019, 18 billion of the 75 billion pigs, chickens, turkeys, cows, goats, and sheep raised for food around the world were never eaten. The study counted animals wasted at any point in the supply chain: those who died prematurely on the farm or on the way to the slaughterhouse; wasted in processing; and by restaurants, grocers, and consumers.”
  • 😍 🎨 Ⅺ 🇮🇹 More than 300,000 Roman Numerals Extend into Eternity in Emmanuelle Moureaux’s Vibrant Installation. “Reflecting the brand’s roots in Rome, Moureaux installed more than 347,000 Roman numerals from 1 to 100—or I to C—onto 100 large, transparent panels, which are cut out in the middle so visitors can walk inside. The numerals are meticulously laid out on a grid to create an endless effect, increasing and changing color the further one ventures into the artwork.”
  • 💪🏼 🚲 ⚡️ When the Big One Hits Portland, Cargo Bikers Will Save You. “The Pacific Northwest is due for a massive quake. I trained to help rescue efforts in the aftermath—by racing around the city on an electric kid hauler.”
  • 🤩 🏥 🇮🇹 Now this, this is a hospital! Mario Cucinella Architects reveals semicircular hospital in Cremona. “Italian studio Mario Cucinella Architects has unveiled its design for a hospital and health park in Cremona, Italy, which appears to rise out of the ground in concentric rings. The hospital will have a radial semicircular layout that rises to seven storeys and staggers to create roof terraces.”
  • 😎 🕸️ Loads and loads of indie web goodness and artistry in this Diagram Website – An internet map. A project by by Kristoffer Tjalve and Elliott Cost. Made in Athens, November 2023. A bit more about it here.

Mike Loukides and Tim O’Reilly have written a very considered and thought provoking piece on the provenance of training data in AI and how it can be tracked. It’s very approachable but also relatively technical so I’d recommend a read instead of just my take. Very summarised; “While RAG [(retrieval-augmented generation)] was originally conceived as a way to give a model proprietary information without going through the labor- and compute-intensive process of training, in doing so it creates a connection between the model’s response and the documents from which the response was created.”

They authors suggest that this technique or similar approaches make it possible “to produce output that respects copyright and, if appropriate, compensates the author, it’s up to regulators to hold companies accountable for failing to do so, just as they are held accountable for hate speech and other forms of inappropriate content. We should not buy into the assertion of the large LLM providers that this is an impossible task. It is one more of the many business models and ethical challenges that they must overcome.

Also on the ongoing copyright battles, Ben Thompson has a very good piece on the New York Times’ AI opportunity. I find the intro a bit long and less useful, and he quotes his old pieces quite a bit, but lays down very well why and where he finds their case falters and where they are actually proving real opportunities.

Dave Karpf then asks if a ChatGPT takeover is really inevitable. The answer is no, and he uses the example of Napster some years back. Napster and a new musical landscape based on torrents seemed inevitable. It wasn’t. “The Ghost of Napster whispers that the trajectory of no technology is inevitable.” Karpf argues that “the trajectory of any emerging technology is not inevitable, especially when its intended trajectory undermines the interests of existing industries. Copyright law doesn’t bend to accommodate your vision of the digital future—the digital future bends to accommodate copyright law.”

I’ll add a couple of things. First, in the two initial pieces, “goods,” “public good,” and “public knowledge” make appearances, including in a court decision for Google. Generally, in all these articles and elsewhere, I’d advise to keep a close eye on those terms. “Public knowledge” and “public good” are great things, but the distinction between an actual public good owned (or stewarded) and controlled by the public is a different and more important thing than a corporation’s service that feels or acts kind of like a public good. A public parc and a public space made available by the owner of a skyscraper might look the same, they are not the same.

Second, Thompson says this:

There are two aspects of not just this case but all of the various copyright-related AI cases: inputs and outputs. To my mind the input question is obvious: I myself consume a lot of copyrighted content — including from the New York Times — and output content that is undoubtedly influenced by the content I have input into my brain. That is clearly not illegal, and while AI models operate at an entirely different scale, the core concept is the same (I am receptive to arguments, not just in this case but with respect to a whole range of issues, that the scale made possible by technology means a difference in kind; that, though, is a debate about the necessity for new laws, not changing the meaning of old ones).

The idea of scale transforming something into a different kind is something we don’t talk about enough. A few cameras in a public space is one thing, CCTVs everywhere in London is a difference in kind. A few people renting apartments for a few days is one thing, thousands renting a significant share of all apartments in a neighbourhood and renting them to a sequence of people yearlong is a difference in kind. Just because one person doing something fits the law, doesn’t mean an endlessly scalable service doing the same things should fit the same law in the same way.

Sentiers in 2024

I’m almost certainly going to move to Ghost hosting to have a unified stack instead of the slightly shaky stack I assembled. Nothing should change newsletter wise but it should make the membership stuff slicker and easier to use. Speaking of which, I’m working on the exact numbers but it’s very very likely that there will be three membership tiers within a few weeks.

  • A new support-only tier similar to Dense Discovery’s friends.
  • The existing tier will rise in price and feature exclusive content (existing members are grand-parented at the existing price and will have the option of switching to the new price).
  • A new “pro” price for those who can expense it, want to offer more support, or would like a couple of calls with me over the year (details tbc).

Still on memberships, I’ve been experimenting a series of habits to catch and write about more signals. Following these experiments, I’ll be sending to members two or three more emails each month. I’ve tried before but always aimed for long articles and that always proved a pain.

I’m known for curation and synthesis, I’ll stick to that—some articles will emerge too, but they won’t be the central metric/goal. Format wise, the extra emails will often be more of what’s in the newsletter and there will probably be a rotation of sections.

I wasn’t planning on sharing all of this right away. Everything in here is still just a draft, you are absolutely encouraged to reply with your thoughts or even book a call or coffee if you have lots of thoughts.

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