Newsletter No.274 — Aug 13, 2023

Utopia, Not Futurism: Why Doing the Impossible Is the Most Rational Thing We Can Do ⊗ We Can’t Afford to Be Climate Doomers ⊗ The Planet’s Economist

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Also this week → Kevin Kelly wants us to embrace the future ⊗ An apologia for worldbuilding ⊗ The illusion of AI’s existential risk ⊗ How the quest for utopia could lead to catastrophe ⊗ Ted Chiang on How to Best Think About About AI

Utopia, not futurism: Why doing the impossible is the most rational thing we can do

I’m not sure if it’s astonishing or discouraging how perfectly ‘of now’ this 1978 speech by Murray Bookchin is. Switch a few expressions around and it could have been written last year. He talks about utopias, visions, futures, technocracy, nature, and all the problems he highlights are still here. Forty five years later. He also talks about Space X and Manhattan’s sky high thin towers, greenwashing, ecofascism, Zoom, disconnection. Without naming all of them with these words of course, but they’re all there, he warns of all of them. Prescient and so sadly not broadly taken to heart, just like the Limits to Growth.

This talk is a year removed from Margaret Thatcher coming into office. Imagine Bookchin’s vision and warnings taking hold instead of the neoliberal dogma she and Reagan implemented. Among other multiplying catastrophes, we wouldn’t have been looking at Maui burning, at China flooding, at migrants drowning, or at people dying of heat.

His vision, the solutions, the approaches, the understanding he spoke about are still here. It’s very late, it’s too late for many, but it’s not too late for great change. We have the plans, some are decades old, Bookchin’s and others’, we need the action.

What I’m concerned about is development, growth. I don’t mean growth in the business sense, I mean growth of human potentiality, I mean growth of human spirit. I mean growth of human contact. That is ecological. To develop is what is really ecological. To change can mean anything. The question is, what is the end toward which you want to develop? What is the goal you’re trying to realize, and then, afterward, whether or not you have developed to that goal. […]

What we have to do is not only ‘think small’, we have to think human. Small is not enough. What is human is what counts, not just what is small. What is beautiful are people, what is beautiful is the ecosystems and their integrity in which we live. What is beautiful is the soil which we share with the rest of the world of life. And particularly that special bit of soil in which we feel we have some degree of stewardship. It is not only what is small that is beautiful, it is what is ecological that is beautiful, what is human that is beautiful. […]

Any society that seeks to create utopia will not only be a society that is free, it also has to be a society that is beautiful. There can no longer be any separation—any more than between mind and body—between art and the development of a free society. We must become artists now, not only ecologists, utopians. Not futurists, not environmentalists. […]

[On whether he’s against technology.] I see a very great use for technology. What I’m talking about is a technocracy. What I’m talking about is rule by technicians. What I’m talking about is the use of various types of technological devices that are inhuman to people and inhuman in their scale, and cannot be controlled by people.

We can’t afford to be climate doomers

Rebecca Solnit writing for The Guardian argues that “it often seems that people are searching harder for evidence we’re defeated than that we can win.” It’s a hard balance to hit, informing yourself amidst diverging agendas and staying aligned to the positive and the possible while facing the tragedies already here. Like Solnit, I try to follow Gramsci’s “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” I know I often fail at it, here and in my life, but “hope is not happiness or confidence or inner peace; it’s a commitment to search for possibilities.”

They’re surrendering in advance and inspiring others to do the same. If you announce that the outcome has already been decided and we’ve already lost, you strip away the motivation to participate – and of course if we do nothing we settle for the worst outcome. […]

The solutions have continued to get better; the public is far more engaged; the climate movement has grown, though of course it needs to grow far more; and there have been some significant victories as well as the incremental change of a shifting energy landscape. […]

You can feel absolutely devastated about the situation and not assume this predicts outcome; you can have your feelings and can still chase down facts from reliable sources, and the facts tell us that the general public is not the problem; the fossil fuel industry and other vested interests are; that we have the solutions, that we know what to do, and that the obstacles are political; that when we fight we sometimes win; and that we are deciding the future now.

More → Along similar lines of thinking, I’ve got these two saved for later: What to Do with Climate Emotions by Jia Tolentino and ‘Despair is a luxury we can’t afford’: David Suzuki on fighting for action on the climate crisis.

The planet’s economist

Speaking of searching for possibilities, Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics is a great balancing act between limiting our destruction while leaving no one behind. Her framework has been around for a few years now and I’ve written about it here before, this is a good interview and overview, as well as showing how it’s been received by proponents, opponents, and a number of actual projects built on her work.

By exposing the flaws in these old theories, such as the idea that economic growth will massively reduce inequality, or that humans are merely self-interested individuals, Raworth wants to show how our thinking has been constrained by economic concepts that are fundamentally unsuited to the great challenges of this century. […]

It is all too easy to imagine a future in which the wealthy continue to buy recycled sneakers, offset their carbon emissions and live in air-purified homes, while the poor suffer the worst effects of food scarcity and wildfires. The prospect of such a future – less carbon-intensive, according to some narrow metrics, but by no means fair – is precisely why Raworth argues we must view social and environmental problems side by side. […]

The purpose of the presentation, indeed the purpose of every event I attended with Raworth, seemed less about directing participants towards a particular set of actions than expanding their field of vision. […]

“I really like that way of putting it – a belief system,” he said. “It’s not just about the economy. It’s also about how economical thinking has started to dominate the ways you think about yourself, and what you think is even possible.”

Kevin Kelly wants us to embrace the future

Kelly is one of a few Forest Gumps of tech, repeatedly appearing at key moments in the history of technology, largely in California. His thinking overlaps quite a bit with The Californian Ideology so there are definitely flaws (imho) in how he sees the influence of the business of tech. But, while keeping a critical eye out, I usually enjoy the interviews he gives, and it’s useful to note his surprisingly even-keeled opinions on DAOs and crypto in general. (Also, worth a click for the pictures, if you like a good library/studio/workshop, as I do.)

[The Whole Earth Catalog] was all about providing users with choices and possibilities about things that they had no idea about and giving them some entryway into it. It was a user-generated publication in the sense that a lot of it was being written by the users coming in. There was no advertising. You had to subscribe to it. That made it very democratic. It anticipated a lot of the ethos and the atmosphere that the internet later on had. […]

I am more optimistic than ever before. Not because I think our problems are smaller or fewer, but because I think our capacity to solve them is bigger. Our ability to learn things, to figure out things, to create solutions has been accelerated by things like YouTube and the communication technologies that we have today. Smartphones—everybody, everywhere—that is huge. […]

I don’t think things went wrong. I think Web2 was a much better improvement. I think it’s magnificent, wonderful, fantastic. Can Web2 be improved? Absolutely. And that’s what Web3 is trying to do. But I don’t think Web2 was a step backward. I think it was a step forward. It was much more participatory and engaging. Social media has been fantastic in terms of allowing people to express themselves and have an audience. So I think Web2 was a fantastic step forward. And is it the end of it? No. There’s Web3, there’s probably Web4 and 5, and hopefully they’ll make it better. Web3 has yet to prove itself in terms of having actual innovations that are adopted.

an apologia for worldbuilding “The real difference, the difference that really matters, the difference between good worldbuilding and shitty worldbuilding… lies in the degree to which the creator leaves space for the audience to get involved.” … “Good futures work, by contrast—and I’m counting sf books and movies as forms of futures work, here—doesn’t just invite you in, it leaves you space to fill in with your own imagination. These futures are open.”

Futures, foresights, forecasts & fabulations
Dangerous visions: How the quest for utopia could lead to catastrophe. “Futurist Monika Bielskyte on our dangerous addiction to utopia and dystopia — and how to build an inclusive future”

MOVING DAY Episode 1: ‘The Situation’ & ‘Grief’. A game “that ignites deep and systemic conversations about the future of learning, which we angled at the future of a city’s garbage economy.”

The Eccentric World of Herman Kahn. “How one individual’s unconventionality (and controversy) helped shape Cold War strategy and futures studies today.” (Admitedly, “unconventionality” is doing a lot of lifting here.)

Stories to Save the World. “Showing you how to create climate stories that break the mould and define the paths for a new reality.”

The Gas Station. “An (ecotopian) short story and far-future vision of life after the climate catastrophe.”

Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation
The illusion of AI’s existential risk. This one looks great and I was considering it for featuring but I’m trying to restrain myself a bit so I don’t overshare NOEMA ;).

We have built a giant treadmill that we can’t get off. Ted Chiang on How to Best Think About About AI.

When AI is trained on AI-generated data, strange things start to happen Interview with the researchers behind the yet to be peer-reviewed paper on “Self-Consuming Generative Models Go MAD” (Model Autophagy Disorder).

Three months of AI in six charts.


  • 🤯 🌈 🇨🇦 ⚜️ Woah! Bounce and Caper Among the Trees at UPLÅ, Canada's Biggest Trampoline Parks. “Suspended between trees and large posts, the vibrant, multi-level networks of spiraling ramps, tunnels, and rooms invites visitors onto a bouncy aerial plane, replete with climbing apparatuses, ball games, and giant bean bags. At night, the nets are illuminated with colorful lights and opened for nocturnal romps, which can be booked in advance.”
  • 📊 🌍 👀 How a Vast Demographic Shift Will Reshape the World. “For decades, the world’s dominant powers have benefited from large working-age populations that help drive economic growth. Meanwhile, particularly young populations in much of the developing world mean limited resources are diverted to raising children, curbing economic opportunity. But the world’s demographic sweet spots are changing, and fast.”
  • 😍 🌈 🇬🇷 Vibrant Tapestries Bring 400 Year Old Ruins to Life. “The simple, colorful tapestries span the entire rainbow, and breathe life into the ancient structure, which served as a factory back in the 1600s.”
  • 🤩 ⛪️ 🇮🇹 Siena Cathedral Uncovers Breathtaking 14th-Century Mosaic Floors. “The large-scale floor is an artistic feat, covered in incredibly detailed philosophical and Biblical imagery inlaid over 56 marble panels. The mosaic floor is usually covered and can only be seen in some exceptional periods.”
  • 😍 🖼️ Mark Lombardi’s Narrative Structures and Other Mappings of Power. “His major legacy was linked to his large-scale linear diagrams attempting to trace the structures of financial and political power, corruption and affairs among capitalists, politicians, corporations, and governments”
  • 🤓 🇺🇸 🇫🇮 Holmdel, New Jersey's Abandoned Bell Labs. “The Bell Labs Holmdel Complex, designed by Eero Saarinen, was dubbed ‘The Biggest Mirror Ever’.”
  • 🤩 🗃️ Explore the Graphic Design Treasures of the Internet Archive. “A labor of love site run by Valery Marier where she collects graphic design related materials that are available to freely borrow, stream, or download from the Internet Archive.”