Touching the future ⊗ Surveyors, neighbors, and stoichiometrists ⊗ The next act for messenger RNA — No.161

This week → Touching the future ⊗ Surveyors, neighbors, and stoichiometrists ⊗ The next act for messenger RNA could be bigger than covid vaccines ⊗ Can a park prevent gentrification? ⊗ How does Bill Gates plan to solve the climate crisis? ⊗ Tim Portlock on software cities and the new American sublime

A year ago → The most clicked article in issue No.114 was Calling for a More-Than-Human Politics by Anab Jain.

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

Touching the future

Genevieve Bell writing for the Griffith Review with a trip through the history of computing, AI, systems, cybernetics, and ideas for the way forward. She starts with “THE FUTURE IS not a destination. We build it every day in the present,” in an intro very close in spirit to the “Ashby-Benjamin manoeuvre,” then goes on to cover the Macy conferences (cybernetics), the meeting at Dartmouth (AI), their influence on the Whole Earth catalogue, Jasia Reichardt’s Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition (which I didn’t know about, fascinating), and finishes with the Brewarrina Aboriginal Fish Traps in Australia, as inspiration for “ideas about sustainability; ideas about systems that are decades or centuries in the making; ideas about systems that endure and systems that are built explicitly to endure.” The difference between Macys and Dartmouth in the inclusion of a planetary context and the environment is worth noting and Bell keeps that thread going throughout the piece.

Stories that unfold a world or worlds in which we might want to live – neither dystopian nor utopian, but ours. I know we can still shape those worlds and make them into somewhere that reflects our humanity, our different cultures and our cares. […]

It might be less important to have a compelling and coherent vision of the future than an active and considered approach to building possible futures. It is as much about critical doing as critical thinking. […]

AI is always, and already, a lot more than just a constellation of technologies. It exists as a set of conversations in which we are all implicated: we discuss AI, worry out loud about its ethical frameworks, watch movies in which it figures centrally, and read news stories about its impact. […]

We will tame the computer’s appealing transcendental charm and restrain it from serving established power. This stance is the way to solve complicated problems in the machine society. […]

[S]tories of the future – about AI, or any kind – are never just about technology; they are about people and they are about the places those people find themselves, the places they might call home and the systems that bind them all together.

Surveyors, neighbors, and stoichiometrists

From Charlie Loyd’s most recent newsletter issue, he’s categorizing kinds of environmentalism. He gives a few disclaimers but those categories helped him “as one way of analyzing some discussions I follow,” and I believe they will be useful for me too, and probably a number of readers as well. My reading is to consider the “surveyors” as a historical viewpoint on the environment, “neighbours” as a personal stance, and “stoichiometry” as a statement of the situation, still in search of a sequence of actions to accomplish. Philosophically I would have set myself between the later two, and realize I need to be both.

The neighbors neither see a philosophical border, nor want a physical border, between human and other-than-human life on Earth. What they see is a kaleidoscopically interlocked network of processes in motion. […]

The only way out is to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere as quickly as possible. Issues of conservation or coexistence may be world-shapingly important, yet they are categorically less important than, because they depend entirely on, putting carbon back underground. […]

[T]he surveyor worldview is founded on an individual encounter with Nature, the neighbors are thinking about communities of many kinds, and the stoichiometrists are looking at a global problem. […]

The ideal, as I see it today, is a grounded neighborism in private that connects to advocacy for stoichiometry-informed public policy. We owe each other neighborism but we owe stoichiometry to the world.

The next act for messenger RNA could be bigger than covid vaccines

There’s a good chance you’ve already read something like this piece at the MIT Technology Review, about how they make the covid vaccines; I’m including this one because I found the explanation quite well done and especially liked the second part. The author and Dr. Weissman delve into the next stages of what might be done with this technology, like “a treatment that packages CRISPR into RNA and then into a nanoparticle” with the hope of also curing various genetic diseases.

The potency of the shots, and the ease with which they can be reprogrammed, mean researchers are already preparing to go after HIV, herpes, infant respiratory virus, and malaria—all diseases for which there’s no successful vaccine. […]

Also on the drawing board: “universal” flu vaccines and what Weissman calls a “pan-coronavirus” shot that could offer basic protection against thousands of pathogens in that category, which have led not only to covid-19 but, before that, to the infection SARS and probably other pandemics throughout history. […]

[A] treatment that packages CRISPR into RNA and then into a nanoparticle, with which it hopes to cure a painful inherited liver disease. The aim is to make the gene scissors appear in a person’s cells, cut out the problem gene, and then fade away. The company tested the drug on a patient for the first time in 2020.

Can a park prevent gentrification?

When hearing about backlash against gentrification, I’m often wondering what else can be done specifically, surely the two options aren’t “leave it be” or “hipsterize all the things”? This look at the “Building Bridges across the River” nonprofit in Anacostia, Washington, D.C. gives an excellent example of how a likely gentrifying project can connect with a community and act as a conduit for resources and financing, to help the locals instead of pushing them out.

The strategies used by Building Bridges and its partners – engaging the community, building trust, backstopping existing residents and businesses – offer a model for the Biden administration and others working to rebuild from the wreckage of the last year. […]

Building Bridges Across the River helped build seven community gardens and launched a community-supported agriculture network that provides fresh produce to hundreds of low-income residents each year.

How does Bill Gates plan to solve the climate crisis?

Quite a well balanced piece by Bill McKibben for The New York Times, where he addresses Bill Gates’ latest book by highlighting the good general direction and ideas, while also drawing attention to the areas where Gates seems to have much too shallow an understanding of the state of play. Namely, the speed at which renewables are dropping in price, how integral they must be to the first major chunk of decarbonization, and where Gates could potentially have the biggest impact if he put his mind to it; understanding political power and wielding it. (I’m not sure I would agree on the last part, unless he lines-up with McKibben or Sunrise, otherwise he might end-up as simply a rich lobbyist.)

Gates — who must have easy access to the greatest experts the world can provide — is surprisingly behind the curve on the geeky parts, and he’s worse at interpreting the deeper and more critical aspects of the global warming dilemma. […]

One wishes Gates had talked, for instance, with Stanford’s Mark Jacobson, whose team has calculated how almost every country on earth could go to 80 percent renewable energy by 2030. […]

“I think more like an engineer than a political scientist,” he says proudly — but that means he can write an entire book about the “climate disaster” without discussing the role that the fossil fuel industry played, and continues to play, in preventing action.

Tim Portlock on software cities and the new American sublime

Very short piece at Artforum, which I’m sharing because it’s an artist’s practice that touches on topics we’ve looked at before; gaming engines used for other applications, hints of the Metaverse, speaking the futures we want, and another “sublime.” (See: The sublime, new models of the sublime, systemic sublime, logistical sublime.)

I wanted to address that through the landscape genre, and show how landscape painting is a kind of mapmaking—demarcating the qualities of familiar and unfamiliar places, inventing ways of characterizing the unknown. […]

I definitely took this idea from computer culture, but I’m also trying to draw a parallel between the way data is understood and how artists who made landscape images in the nineteenth century were selective—and omissive—in order to propagandize notions of progress and “greatness. […]

I think that seeing prismatic skies in the reflections of those buildings says something about how we’re now experiencing the sublime.


Header image: A three-dimensional section of Thomas Wright’s nested infinities.