Newsletter No.288 — Nov 19, 2023

Rapid Urbanisation Is Stoking Paranormal Anxieties in China ⊗ The Dragonfly Journey ⊗ We’re Sorry We Created the Torment Nexus

Join Sentiers, the futures thinking observatory

Also this week → Turning from peril to possibility ⊗ The modern wisdom of Daoist history ⊗ A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer with ChatGPT

For various reasons, I don’t always manage to identify where I found each article, but it’s worth a quick shout out to the Discords of RADAR and Near Future Laboratory, where I always find great things to read, including some featured today and over the last few weeks. A big thank you to both of these communities.

Rapid urbanisation is stoking paranormal anxieties in China

Absolutely fascinating piece at Aeon by Andrew Kipnisis, a professor in the department of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He’s been living in China since the 80s, including in a rural area and various cities, and literally wrote a book on life, death, and ghosts in urbanizing China. In the essay he compares the huge differences in funeral practices between rural and urban areas, explaining and theorising why there are such differences. Surprisingly, the fear of ghosts is much more present in cities, and the larger the city the less people want to hear or see anything that has to do with death.

Kipnisis explains the fear of ghosts and documents some of the lengths to which people will go to prevent their presence. He also details the five factors he believes cause this phenomena; “the separation of life from death in cities, the rise of a ‘stranger’ society and economy, the simultaneous idealisation and shrinking of families, and an increasing number of abandoned or derelict buildings. What is important to note here is that all four factors are products of urbanisation itself. Urbanisation makes ghosts. There is also a fifth point, which is distinct from these other factors but still compounds the haunting of modern China: a politics of repression.”

The most fascinating part is that in cities people are surrounded by strangers instead of family and there’s the belief that after death “kin become ancestors; strangers become ghosts.”

It seems that the larger the city, the more likely it is that neighbours will not want to know about a death in their apartment block, and the more likely it is that practices announcing death will become illegal. […]

Rapid urbanisation seems to intensify a fear of death. And this fear eventually leads to the removal of death-related infrastructure from urban areas. Throughout China, cemeteries and funeral homes are constantly relocated away from city centres. […]

Family becomes an idealised site of moral interaction; the world of strangers is where one might face exploitation, robbery and treachery. But if a family shrinks too much, a person might become completely isolated, and end up a ghost – like the old woman in the story.

The dragonfly journey

The rest of the title of this piece by Frank Spencer is “Unlocking our individual and cooperative evolutionary trait of foresight & futures thinking to imagine, experience, and transform the future,” which is both a mouthful and a good summary.

Spencer discusses the potential of foresight and futures thinking to offer a more generative and transformational perspective beyond the modern techno-industrial landscape. He also explains the concept of Holoptic Foresight Dynamics (HFD), “rethinking and redefining foresight as a cooperative evolutionary trait for the perception of emerging novelty and the co-creation of transformational realities,” and provides an overview of their first event exploring this idea. “Holoptic” refers to the compound eye that can be found on dragonflies, allowing them to “see forward, backward, up, down, and side-to-side,” which they can do “all at the same time and within the same field of view. “

Some weeks ago I listened to an interview with Amy Webb, I believe it was this one on Looking Outside. Webb argues for a data-driven foresight methodology and I was a bit shocked at how much she was focusing on data in her answers. Not shocked that it’s in there, but at the importance she was giving it. I’ve been closer to the Houston methodology and paying quite a bit of attention to the work of the Near Future Laboratory, especially Julian Bleecker’s, which is coming at futures from a whole other angle that has a lot more to do with inventing and experiencing than analysing.

This piece by Spencer is the second time I’ve written about his thinking, which seems like yet another angle, or at least a different goal. As I was reading the piece and thinking back to Webb and Bleecker I started placing them in a loose taxonomy. The extent of my thinking is pretty much just the few minutes while reading, so feel free to argue, contradict, or wait for a better version, but I was thinking of their emphasis or angle or direction as Calculation, Exploration, and Transformation. No big insight or message in there, just hinting at the contours of a map on which to position their practices. There might also be trajectories to draw in there, like Superflux who do a lot of research but produce very imaginative projects.

Does the discipline simply offer us a “better mousetrap” in terms of employing data-driven metrics, strategic modeling, and technological roadmapping, or is Foresight an natural element in our individual and cooperative evolution, and our organic transformation beyond the modern techno-industrial landscape? […]

How do we instill a more generative philosophy of foresight and futures thinking — one that pivots us away from our modern industrial framing that defines the world through silos and single-purpose outcomes, to a more transformational perspective with a scaffold for promoting creative complexity, anticipatory imagination and emergent novelty? […]

HFD explores the recognition of foresight as a cooperative evolutionary trait in humans (and universally through expanding consciousness at various levels) that consequently fosters a deep perception of emerging novelties (i.e. “that which desires to emerge”) and results in the collaborative co-creation of transformational realities. […]

How can we transition from the prevailing metaphor of an Anthropocene to a cosmological image of a Symbiocene? How can we cultivate global cooperation in an era of mistrust and polarization?

We’re sorry we created the Torment Nexus

This writeup of a talk by Charlie Stross ends a bit abruptly but his overview of science fiction’s influence on crazy ‘TESCREALian’ billionaires and some of the underlying influence on the writers themselves, like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Nikolai Fedorovich Fedorov, is worth it if you are interested in the entanglement of fiction, technology, and futures.

More → Twenty some issues ago, I shared The Catalogers by David Lang, which threaded some of the same historical paths.

And rather than giving the usual cheerleader talk making predictions about technology and society, I'd like to explain why I—and other SF authors—are terrible guides to the future. Which wouldn't matter, except a whole bunch of billionaires are in the headlines right now because they pay too much attention to people like me. Because we invented the Torment Nexus as a cautionary tale and they took it at face value and decided to implement it for real. […]

It's not a coincidence that the boom in planetary romances occured shortly after the American frontier was finally closed: the high frontier had a natural appeal and gradually replaced the western frontier in the popular imagination. […]

Meanwhile our public infrastructure is rotting, national assets are being sold off and looted by private equity companies, their social networks are spreading hatred and lies in order to farm advertising clicks, and other billionaires are using those networks to either buy political clout or suck up ever more money from the savings of the poor.

§ Turning from peril to possibility: Ecological superhero Christiana Figueres on the spirituality of regeneration. “We divorced nature from ourselves. [Now] we’re coming full circle as we evolve. So it’s not a circle — it’s a spiral, because we’re coming around to be, again, part of nature as we always were, but from a much higher understanding — which was not lost, by the way, by most of the indigenous cultures of the world.”

§ The modern wisdom of Daoist history. I might push back on some parts of this, but worth a read for the main thesis. The Daoist understanding of history posits that historical transformations unfold in cycles and he principle of reverse movement asserts that as any organization, political system, idea, culture or institution gains ascendancy, the opposing, undermining forces concurrently intensify.

Futures, fictions & fabulations

Dystopic Futures with Nikolas Badminton, global futurist
I already linked to the Looking Outside interview with Amy Webb earlier in the issue, this is another excellent interview, I especially liked his view of speed vs layered complexity and the contrarian view he feels free to take as a small studio instead of a big consultancy.

Thinking with Matt Klein, foresight and strategy at Reddit
Ok, last one! Can you tell I’ve been catching up on podcasts? Joanna Lepore and Klein “discuss the challenge of translating complex trends and ideas into something easily understood and actionable to others, without over-simplification.”

Transformative imagination: linking resonant action, deeply creative practice, and imagination infrastructures
“Resonant imagining and resonant action both point away from endless boring meetings and disconnected foresight, and to being fully alive and part of transforming realities. What are the infrastructures that enable or block resonant action and imagining?”

Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation

A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer
“Today the concept of the Primer inspires technologists and entrepreneurs to consider how such technology can foster social mobility, personalize learning, and advance human development. In this post, I run a short simulation of the Primer using ChatGPT.”

Is Argentina the first A.I. election?
“The two men jostling to be the country’s next president are using artificial intelligence to create images and videos to promote themselves and attack each other.”

Impact report: Insights from our grantees working on AI and Society
“European AI & Society Fund grantees work to shape Artificial Intelligence to better serve people and society. This report provides insights into the strategic capacities, impact, challenges and learnings that our grantee partners have shared in their reporting in April 2023.”


  • 😍 🌏 ⏳ Fantastic! A 4.5 Billion Year Video Timeline of Earth in 60 Minutes. “Hop on a musical train ride and experience how long a billion years really is. It’s the perfect background for your next party, a great way to take a break from studying, or a fascinating companion while you’re on the go.”
  • 🤩 Yes please! Netflix Killed The OA. Now Its Creators Are Back With a Show About Tech’s Ubiquity. The OA had the kind of fans who held flash mobs to protest its cancelation. Now its creators are back with A Murder at the End of the World, and a warning about tech’s influence on people’s lives.”
  • 👏🏼 🇨🇳 China’s emissions set to fall in 2024 after record growth in clean energy. “China’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are set to fall in 2024 and could be facing structural decline, due to record growth in the installation of new low-carbon energy sources.”
  • 😍 🗺️ A Stranger Quest: David Rumsey’s Marvelous Map Collection. “Rumsey began building a collection of North and South American historical maps and related cartographic materials in 1980. Eventually the collection expanded to include historical maps of the entire world, from the 16th to the 21st centuries. His collection, with more than 200,000 maps, is one of the largest private map collections in the United States.”
  • 🤯 🏢 🥒 🇬🇧 Getting ready for The Peripheral’s klep I see! London financial district to have 11 more towers by 2030. “Number of planning applications received and decided increases by 25% as City workforce grows”
  • 🤔 🛁 🇮🇹 Thermae Romae: the lost world of Roman bathhouses. “Bathhouses were a cornerstone of Roman civilization, equalizing its stratified society. These “Thermae Romae” were more than swimming pools: They also contained saunas, exercise courts, and even libraries. In our alienated modern world, a culture of collective bathing might be one way to help address loneliness.”