Umami theory of value ⊗ Cultural invention ⊗ Spaces in cities — No.127

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

This week → The umami theory of value ⊗ Cultural invention ⊗ The spaces that make cities fairer and more resilient ⊗ End of the ‘human climate niche’ ⊗ The end of meat is here ⊗ Veil.

A year ago → Nnedi Okorafor is building the future of sci-fi.

The Umami Theory of Value

The consulting duo Nemesis with an intriguing take on the experience economy, Instagrammable trendy spots, the 2008 crash, David Chang, and Umami. They come up with the idea of metaphorical umami. Is there an umami-like quality to places and experiences enhancing them like the actual umami does to food? Does taste have more in common with taste than we thought? There was no real tangible growth since the crash, only twelve years of mostly financial gains so the new trends, experiences, and many subcultures were remixed from meaning and not much else. Disparate things mixed through emergent properties into greater umami-ized wholes. These meaning remixes were so fragile that the great pause has brought them tumbling down with no “next thing” in sight. (I haven’t decided if this is a good theory or just a long-winded way of saying that some places just have a certain je ne sais quoi but it’s a fun read.)

“Advanced consumers” became obsessed with umami and then ran around trying to collect ever-more-intensifying experiences of it. Things were getting more and more delicious, more and more expensive, and all the while, more and more immaterial. […]

Meaning is always readily available to be repeated, remixed, and/or cannibalized in service of creating the sensation of the new. […]

One to five years later, metaphorical umami makes the combination of the food and the authenticity of the space somehow culminate in a desire to pay prohibitively expensive rent in a postindustrial wasteland. […]

[I]t intensifies a moment in a flow, temporarily thickening your experience without keeping you anywhere for long.

Cultural invention

Tellart have been posting the videos of their Design Nonfiction series and the list of people they’ve spoken to is just … <chef’s kiss />. The latest, and the one I’ve linked above, is their interview with Jack Schulze, formerly of BERG, now of Playdeo.

So far I’ve watched the Cultural invention and Patterns of curiosity “chapters.” In the first he’s basically disassembling design’s claims of being user centered and about problem solving. He enjoys the various kinds of design he’s exposed to in the west but finds some claims nonsensical, they discuss IDEO, cultural invention, how industrial designers always dream of saving Africa, how much of design can be great, enjoyable, and worthwhile but definitely not solving anything or making the world better, as is often claimed. “Design that works outside of utilities is valid and a huge part of culture, just like art and music are, in a way. Design doesn’t need to justify itself by saying users are at the center of that process to be a welcome part of our society. Design is about culture invention.”

The Spaces That Make Cities Fairer and More Resilient

Opinion piece at the New York Times where Nicholas de Monchaux, professor and incoming head of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reminds us of the value of public spaces in cities, of places for serendipity, and discovery. He argues that well thought out and truly public places have the ability to “bring many cities together, unexpectedly and instrumentally. And to begin to craft, out of many cities, one.” He also makes a parallel between the corporation-owned social spaces we have been stuck with during confinement, and the sterility of profit optimized pseudo-public spaces and developments we’ve been seeing in cities. We can do better, and a number of cities are seizing the opportunity.

From the needle-thin condo-towers of contemporary Manhattan to the needle-strewn gutters of San Francisco’s tech-gentrifying Tenderloin, it is hard to escape the prospect of profound inequity. […]

The fact that the same forces that bring us together to share and create also create the possibility of contagion is a design problem as old as cities themselves. And some of our best and most effective public spaces are the result. […]

[T]oo much urban investment of the last decade has focused on creating or revamping densely profitable urban centers, and not improving and expanding all the spaces between them. But it is on these in-between spaces — on our journeys, not our destinations — that our shared economy most depends. […]

[F]or every online happy hour that somehow avoids being simultaneously boring and stressful, the public spaces of the internet are laughably impoverished when compared with a simple sidewalk. Just like Hudson Yards, our online platforms mostly give us shiny, narrow simulations of public life — but only enough to sustain private profit. […]

With the death of unexpected discovery comes the death of creative, and economic, opportunity in any kind of space.

End of the ‘Human Climate Niche’

David Wallace-Wells with some of the numbers and research showing that humans inhabit a narrow climate niche, one that is rapidly changing. This could mean that, by 2070, 1.5 or even 2.5 billion people could conceivably find themselves “out of the climate niche,” living and leaving areas newly unfit for human life.

We tend to think of climate impacts as discreet threats: a wildfire, a hurricane, a drought. By the year 2100, it’s possible that parts of the planet will be hit by six climate-driven natural disasters at once. Wildfires tearing through communities cowering terrified by a rolling pandemic only counts as two.

The End of Meat is Here

Second “the end of” article in a row, sorry about that. Jonathan Safran Foer with lots of numbers we know about, indicating that humanity and especially western societies, needs to cut meat eating as much as possible, ideally completely. For humane reasons, for the working poor, for racial justice, and for climate change. A useful revisit of those numbers since we are living through a pandemic, which is the other reason to stop eating meat: reduce the risks of the next one.

According to The Economist, a quarter of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 say they are vegetarians or vegans, which is perhaps one reason sales of plant-based “meats” have skyrocketed. […]

We cannot claim to care about the humane treatment of animals while continuing to eat meat regularly. The farming system we rely on is woven through with misery. Modern chickens have been so genetically modified that their very bodies have become prisons of pain even if we open their cages. Turkeys are bred to be so obese that they are incapable of reproducing without artificial insemination. Mother cows have their calves ripped from them before weaning, resulting in acute distress we can hear in their wails and empirically measure through the cortisol in their bodies. […]

We cannot protect against pandemics while continuing to eat meat regularly. Much attention has been paid to wet markets, but factory farms, specifically poultry farms, are a more important breeding ground for pandemics. Further, the C.D.C. reports that three out of four new or emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic — the result of our broken relationship with animals.


The rare times I write about specific books and movies here is because one has stuck with me for some Sentiers topic resonance or other. The fiction books that have been popping into my brain time and again over the last year or two have been Tim Maughan’s Infinite Detail and Eliot Peper’s Analog series (Gibson’s Agency probably coming a ways after). Reading articles for the newsletter or watching the news, bits of the worlds they build echo what we live through. Which is what I’d say about Peper’s latest, Veil. I greatly enjoyed the read and I’m in part afraid and in part hopeful, that I’ll be seeing echo’s of his world into this one.


Header image: Architectural sketch by Hugh Ferriss.