Tolentino on the discipline of hope ⊗ Liminal space ⊗ Artificial intelligence shifts power ⊗ Jemisin on the City We Became — No.134

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

This week → Jia Tolentino on practicing the discipline of hope ⊗ Liminal space ⊗ Don’t ask if artificial intelligence is good or fair, ask how it shifts power ⊗ N.K. Jemisin on the City We Became ⊗ Facebook is out of control. If it were a country it would be North Korea

A year ago → China has started a grand experiment in AI education.

I’ve been slowly pondering the content of this newsletter; should I be a bit less eclectic? Focused on fewer topics? Which ones? Which aren’t drawing your attention? Which are must reads? Fewer quotes for each article? More? Longer “blurbs?” Shorter? Etc. Is there something that readers consider “my thing?” If you have opinions / feelings about any of this, I’d love to hear them in any level of detail.

Jia Tolentino on Practicing the Discipline of Hope

In a weird twist of (non?) serendipity, I’ve seen Tolentino’s name and articles pop up and be raved about in recent years but somehow never got around to reading any. Shocking, I know. In this interview she shares some really smart, on point, and clearly presented opinions on what the pandemic has revealed, where the world is headed, on having kids, racism and inequality, and freedom. As usual, there are a few quotes below but I felt like highlighting the whole thing.

That capitalist individualism has turned into a death cult; that the internet is a weak substitute for physical presence; that this country criminally undervalues its most important people and its most important forms of labor; that we’re incentivized through online mechanisms to value the representation of something (like justice) over the thing itself; that most of us hold more unknown potential, more negative capability, than we’re accustomed to accessing; that the material conditions of life in America are constructed and maintained by those best set up to exploit them; and that the way we live is not inevitable at all. […]

Melted permafrost, dead coral reefs, no more birds, whales engorged with plastic, much of the world’s population living as refugees from one thing or another, permanently disturbed weather, semi-constant natural disaster, cause and effect disrupted for all but the wealthiest—scarcity increasing the rationale for selfishness rather than for cooperation, and also Twitter still exists. […]

I don’t think the future is going to be good. I don’t think there’s an ethical justification for having kids in a world that’s accelerating in these directions. But I am committed to the idea that the world can be better, and I have some amount of faith that being human, being able to love, is still an untouchably and unpredictably generative thing—worthwhile, across unknown contexts, in and of itself. […]

But on an individual level, I’ve been thinking about what it means to normalize the everyday surrendering of advantage—to put an ideology of equality in practice at a time when it’s obvious that voting once a year or whatever is not going to be enough. […]

I’m also suspicious of the way that Not Being Racist is a project that people seem to be approaching like boot camp. To deepen your understanding of race, of this country, should make you feel like the world is opening up, like you’re dissolving into the immensity of history and the present rather than being more uncomfortably visible to yourself.

Liminal Space

This piece by Devon Powers—adjacent to Tolentino’s above—is on the liminal space of the quarantine, in which the only certainty offered is contradiction. Also on “the triumph of humanity above a human” and on this understanding of being dependent on each other in a complex world / situation, and the need to stay with that understanding after the quarantine.

It is a privilege to say that quarantine changed everything. In the prison and the sanctuary church, on the street corners where people beg or score, quarantine was the same tune in a different, flatter key. Quarantine deepened the wound and underscored the neglect. […]

Quarantine reminded us that as much as we might care to, we cannot get along without each other. Everyone is connected. It took the solitude of quarantine to remember that we are the connection, we are the guts of the network, who will live and die as one. […]

In a way, quarantine marks the triumph of humanity above a human — that survival of the former might mean inconvenience, suffering, or even demise of the latter. […]

The most radical gesture, then, may not be to emerge from quarantine but to figure out how to persist within it, always. To appreciate complexity, to acknowledge hardship, to wonder why things are what they are and whether they must always be so. (They mustn’t.)

Don’t ask if artificial intelligence is good or fair, ask how it shifts power

Great short piece on reframing the conversation about ethics around AI, why using “fair” and “transparent” is unreliably interpreted, how these discussions have (so far) lead the field of AI to believe it is neutral, yet it “both fails to notice biased data and builds systems that sanctify the status quo and advance the interests of the powerful.” More generally, Kalluri wants the discussions to be framed around how/when/if AI shifts power and to integrate in its development every community who would lose power or suffer more focused attention through these tools.

Researchers should listen to, amplify, cite and collaborate with communities that have borne the brunt of surveillance: often women, people who are Black, Indigenous, LGBT+, poor or disabled. […]

The group is inspired by Black feminist scholar Angela Davis’s observation that “radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root’”, and that the root problem is that power is distributed unevenly. […]

Researchers in AI overwhelmingly focus on providing highly accurate information to decision makers. Remarkably little research focuses on serving data subjects. What’s needed are ways for these people to investigate AI, to contest it, to influence it or to even dismantle it. […]

Through the lens of power, it’s possible to see why accurate, generalizable and efficient AI systems are not good for everyone. In the hands of exploitative companies or oppressive law enforcement, a more accurate facial recognition system is harmful.

N.K. Jemisin on the City We Became

Interview with the talented and multi Hugo Awards winning N.K. Jemisin on her most recent book which happens to feature an alien force which spreads in New York like a virus, and the embodiment of each boroughs created to fight this force. Jemisin explains how she created those characters to reflect the uniqueness and multiple facets of each neighbourhood, and talks about the twin forces of gentrification and white supremacy.

Enough human beings occupy one space, tell enough stories about it, develop a unique enough culture, and all these layers of reality start to compact and metamorphose. […]

The potential destruction of New York as a body of mythical beings is abetted by the twin forces of gentrification and white supremacy, each conspiring to make the city less like itself for those tasked with its preservation. […]

These dynamics have always existed in our society, but these forces were allowed to run rampant on the black community and other poor communities. There have always been checks enough to keep the destructive systems of society from basically cannibalizing the country, and that’s what’s changed: It’s affecting everyone now. There were chunks of the country that were always like, “We were perfectly fine with it as long as it’s only hurting those people there.” But now it’s everybody.

Facebook is out of control. If it were a country it would be North Korea

Where would we be in our understanding of Facebook without the work of Carole Cadwalladr? Here she writes a pretty blistering piece on all the things that the seemingly untouchable Zuckerberg-led Facebook has enabled, the total disregard for its ravages, and who/how this “rogue state” might be stopped.

If the boycott of Facebook by some of the world’s biggest brands – Unilever, Coca-Cola, Starbucks – succeeds, it will be because it has targeted the only thing that Facebook understands: its bottom line. And if it fails, that will be another sort of landmark. […]

Facebook is not a mirror. It’s a gun. Unlicensed – it is not subject to laws or control – it is in the hands and homes of 2.6 billion people, infiltrated by covert agents acting for nation states, a laboratory for groups who praise the cleansing effects of the Holocaust and believe 5G will fry our brainwaves in our sleep. […]

[T]his isn’t a company so much as an autocracy, a dictatorship, a global empire controlled by a single man. Who – even as the evidence of harm has become undeniable, indisputable, overwhelming – has simply chosen to ignore its critics across the world. […]


Header image: Microcomputer stores from the 1970s/1980s. This one “supposedly West Germany, 1984.”