Newsletter No.251 — Feb 05, 2023

Unease, Writing, and Thinking ⊗ The Art of Futuring ⊗ Material Intelligence

Also this week → The machines of mastery ⊗ Wakanda Syllabus ⊗ “Three-Body” series ⊗ ChatGPT for Strategic Foresight

Unease, writing, and thinking

Three things happened in the process of getting this issue together. One, I had a lot of generative AI articles lined-up, too many, especially after already writing about it too much. But it’s everywhere and it is interesting to me, so lots of articles on the topic end up in my Reader inbox. That surplus of one topic screams for a looser format for the newsletter, which I tried out for this first section. The second is that there were a few disparate articles that perhaps weren’t that disparate after all. All alluding to something missing, to the sorting of information, curation, formats, space to think. Third, that looser format turned into a post, which wasn’t coherent enough and made this issue too long. So I moved it to its own post here.

The art of futuring

Great piece based on a talk by Maja Kuzmanovic at FoAM. If you’ve been wondering about futures and how the various practices fit together, this is a highly recommended read. If you already know some of it, still a recommended read as there likely are some sections that will be new to you, such as the “history, emerging developments and presents of Futures,” and the link Kuzmanovic makes with the transition from oracles, shamans, priests and priestesses to the “rise of monotheistic religions and the centrality of writing” and of one future which we are still embedded in.

Critical futures could have been explained in a bit more detail, check out Johannes’ writings on the topic, it’s a great perspective to counteract corporate futures and the fact that “marketing, design and strategic foresight joined forces to sell us a particular vision of the future where everything would continue just as it is, only better,” as Kuzmanovic puts it. And the sentiment is not new, but I really loved the call for “more widespread futures literacy,” and the phrasing of “something to help us approach the future more like a creative process.”

As meditators, futurists, philosophers and improvisers know well, the “now” is all we have to work with. Now is both a moment and an infinity. According to Deleuze, the now is an assemblage of what we’re ceasing to be and what we are about to become. The future already exists in the present, as potential. Futuring can therefore help you act in the present. […]

At the core of futures practice is a positivist assumption that while the future may not be completely knowable, we can discuss it. We can try to understand what might happen and prepare for it to a certain degree. We might be able to influence or even shape some aspects of the future. […]

Future preparedness calls for a familiarity with multiple scenarios and models of change, as well as an ability to navigate between them. In other words, while you might have your own preferred vision of the future, you can also develop the capacity to adapt to whatever the future may bring. […]

Futures studies is inherently transdisciplinary. It relies on in-breadth knowledge of the world, rather than in-depth knowledge of one specific field. Futurists usually combine analytic and synthetic thinking. They are often what you’d call generalists. They work to uncover tendencies and assumptions in the way we might think about the future, to be able to make more appropriate decisions in the present. […]

In the last thirty years, Futures has embraced new knowledge coming from various fields including complexity, chaos theory and cognitive science. Change was accepted as an inherent property of complex adaptive systems. It became a phenomenon to be studied and explored, rather than predicted. The uncertainty and unpredictability of futures became a given.

Material intelligence

It’s perhaps a bit naive in places, but I enjoyed this piece at Aeon on the need for material intelligence, for us to rediscover how things are made, where they come from, to better understand the materials, and develop an intelligence about these matters. It’s a piece from 2018, when the topic hadn’t popped quite as often, adjacent as it is to the trends of ‘authenticity’ and craft, but it’s useful nonetheless with the link to consumerism, and the potential to look for better and fewer things once one understands how they are made.

So what can be done about it? I have a modest proposal: let’s cultivate our material intelligence. Let’s try to recover our literacy in the ways of the physical world, just as someone who reads English can understand this sentence, and someone good with numbers can draw up a balanced budget. If we can anchor ourselves in this way, attending closely to the objects near to us, we might just be able to regain our bearings, and take greater responsibility for our actions. […]

[T]hinking of craft and industry as opposites also leads to misperception. Whatever the scale, production always requires an understanding of materials, tools and processes somewhere along the line. The machines that make mass production possible, which spelled the end of so many traditional crafts, are themselves extraordinary feats of craftsmanship. […]

[M]aterial intelligence is shared across walks of life; it is a type of knowledge both wide and deep. Our tendency to chop it up into parts – craft versus industry, art versus science, producer versus consumer – is a pernicious and artificial habit that obscures the common cause of humanity.

The machines of mastery

Ok so this one is also about AI, sorry, but it’s one of those intriguing uses that might prove quite useful. Ethan Mollick looks at how we learn and at deliberate practice. Starting from a “new paper tracking the test results of 7,000 learners across a wide variety of subjects,” then using a couple of good examples (including Top Gun school), he then wonders how tools like ChatGPT might be used. “If deliberate practice means ‘anyone can learn anything they want’ - then a machine that can create meaningful deliberate practice, on demand, is a machine that can help humans achieve mastery. Far from being skill-destroying, AI can be skill-building at a scale that we had never thought possible.” (Btw, here “‘a reasonable level of mastery’ means a student has 80% scores on a subject,” so we’re not talking Da Vinci or Beethoven.)

[I]t is not the number of hours that you spend, but the fact that you spend them in deliberate practice, that builds expertise. […]

Well-designed practice has to have all of these elements: a step-by-step approach, sustained engagement, a chance to make meaningful mistakes, continually increasing challenges, and ongoing feedback.

Futures, foresights, forecasts & fabulations → Wakanda Syllabus, “a bibliography that explores the artistic and cultural context of Marvel’s Black Panther comics, and the fictional world of Wakanda.” (Ugly site, a bit hard to parse but lots of stuff in there.) ⊗ 4 Reasons To Start Watching The Phenomenal Sci-Fi Mystery “Three-Body”. ⊗ How to Use ChatGPT for Strategic Foresight: Limitations, Possibilities, and Workarounds. “A good rule of thumb is to treat ChatGPT as the starting point, not the final word.”


  • 🤩 🗺 🇺🇸 Bodega Inventory as Gentrification Metric. Ingrid Burrington with some mapping and data nerdery. “Macro-level data such as changes in area median income or property values are typically visible after the fact of gentrification, making them useful for understanding the circumstances of neighborhood displacement but doing little to prevent it.”
  • 😍 😍 🍄 The Astonishing Biodiversity of Fungi Blooms in Max Mudie’s Macro Photographs “‘I’m not the first person to say it, and I’m not going to be the last, but when you find out how integral fungi are to our existence, it makes everything else feel insignificant,’ says Max Mudie, whose foraging expeditions reveal the otherworldly elegance, diversity, and minutiae of the myriad denizens of the ‘wood wide web.’”
  • 🎨 🇯🇵 Our Favorite Student Artwork From Japan’s Graduating Class of 2023. “Here at S&T we have a tradition of highlighting some of our favorite work by the young artists who are heading out into the real world. From paper sculptures and oil paintings to glass cranes, this year’s class is brimming with creativity.”
  • 🤔 🎶 🎻 Gen Z and young millennials' surprising obsession. “A radical new wave of artists are sweeping the previously elite world of classical music – with a little help from Squid Game, Dark Academia and fashion.”
  • 😍 🧱 🧮 Geometric Primes. “Nicholas Rougeux designed a series of posters to visualize all 143 prime numbers with three digits based on simple rules.”
  • 🤔 👀 I feel vindicated. People Who Don't Make Constant Eye Contact Could Be Paying a Lot More Attention Than You Think. “These findings suggest that eye contact may be a key mechanism for enabling the coordination of shared and independent modes of thought, allowing conversation to both cohere and evolve.”