Newsletter No.259 — Apr 09, 2023

What Is to Be Done? ⊗ The Future of Strategic Decision-Making ⊗ Just How Big Could the Brittleness Bubble Get?

Want to understand the world & imagine better futures?

Also this week → The power of indulging your weird, offbeat obsessions ⊗ On creative work as a space for new possibilities ⊗ On the link between great thinking and obsessive walking

After closing down the members Discord a couple of months back, I’d like to once again start providing something extra to members. Here’s a poll with a list of options I’m considering, 10 seconds to fill in. If you are already a member, please answer too, one extra click.

What is to be done?

This week I was trying to steer away from AI so I sorted randomly the large pile of “later” articles in Reader. Serendipity was good and this piece from last year by L. M. Sacasas popped near the top. He writes about the critique of technology, how it’s perceived and used or forgotten completely. Useful for these days of AI storms but even more so for tech in general and, as Sacasas shows, for individual and collective action in a complex world. What is to be done? By whom? Does it matter? Which technology does one use, which is ignored, which should be slowed down, and how does one make the ‘right’ personal decisions even when the larger system doesn’t?

Philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch’s theory of will, attention, and action, drawn from Simone Weil’s thinking, was especially intriguing to me and worth pondering. “Freedom is not strictly the exercise of the will, but rather the experience of accurate vision which, when this becomes appropriate, occasions action … By the time the moment of choice has arrived the quality of attention has probably determined the nature of the act.”

[W]e run into problems precisely when we start treating technology as an end rather than a means to an end. This is not to say that we can’t be legitimately impressed with technical achievements on their own terms, of course, or admire the skill that makes them possible. But we do well to also judge technologies according to the greater ends they help us realize and critique them to the degree that they undermine the achievement of such ends. […]

I find it helpful to think about my choices with regards to technology as falling into three general possibilities: embrace, negotiation, refusal. More often than not we ought to be negotiating. There are occasions to either embrace or refuse technologies, depending, of course, on our situation and our aspirations, but in neither case should we do so thoughtlessly. […]

The metrics we currently deploy to judge what is useful, efficient, effective, and realistic have trapped us; they make it impossible to see in precisely the way Murdoch describes here [Ed.: attention to reality leading to appropriate action]. It is part and parcel of the fantasy that has enchanted us.

The future of strategic decision-making

Another one fished out of old laters, this one by Roger Spitz at the Journal of Futures Studies looked like it was another non-AI take … except it wasn’t. Spitz looks at the future of futures and strategy, which functions will be impacted by AI, where humans can get better and stay ahead, and how it relates to complexity. Spitz looks at Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework, antifragility, and presents a possible future using Hodgson’s three horizon framework.

Quite a few of his questions and statements have been presented here before, but I want to draw your attention his use of the AAA framework, “Anticipatory, Antifragile and Agility,” which I hadn’t seen before. In the last part of the article he goes into each in more detail, starting with anticipatory, which is “intimately related to foresight.” Spitz proposes that it’s how humans can remain relevant. I’ve been compiling a list of similar takes on where we might position ourselves, which I hope to turn into an article of my own (perhaps when I rekindle member Dispatches, see the intro), in the mean time it’s a good one to read if you are interested in that question in general and/or in futures.

[W]e use “agility” in the context of the Cynefin framework (Snowden & Boone, 2007), looking at properties such as our ability to be curious, innovative and experimental, to know how to amplify or dampen our evolving behaviors depending on feedback, thus allowing instructive patterns to emerge, especially in complex adaptive systems. […]

As AI continues to develop, machines could become increasingly legitimate in autonomously making strategic decisions, where today humans have the edge. If humans fail to become sufficiently AAA, rapidly learning machines could surpass our ability. They do not have to reach general artificial intelligence nor become exceptional at handling complex systems, just better than us. […]

Many of our economic systems and companies are fragile from having followed the formulaic “strategic playbook” of optimization and hyper-efficiency in a world they presumed linear and predictable. When shocks or chaos strikes, they buckle. If we are to remain relevant (i.e. not seeing our strategic decision-making be substituted by machines), we must create innovative social and economic networked ecosystems that strengthen under stress. […]

Harnessing curiosity, creativity, and diverse perspectives to go against the grain, because today’s standard knowledge will never solve tomorrow’s surprises. Cross-fertilization with T-shaped profiles that couple deep expertise with broad experience, can move naturally between disciplines, creating new combinations in a world where patterns are hard to interpret, and generalists flourish.

Just how big could the brittleness bubble get?

I’m writing this from a lucky corner of Montréal where I have electricity and internet and only lost the latter for a couple of hours. An ice storm swung by the region on Wednesday and thousands of homes are still in the dark. Thankfully the temperature swung back up on Thursday so the ice is already gone, even as crews are scrambling to get poles and wires back up. For once, the public and political discussions include climate change as a given and take for granted that this will be a new normal or at least more frequent. Our electric grid is too brittle, what’s to be done?

Alex Steffen happened to publish this piece on brittleness Thursday and it’s exactly in line with my local questionings, although he’s focused on the US starts from numbers on flood zones, it gives a us good idea of the variety of threats and the massive scale of economic impact, whether it’s repairs, rising insurance fees, or loss of local communities’ property tax revenu. Very simplified; the climate crisis impacts the value of properties and businesses, has an impact on jobs, and in turn all of that has great repercussions on municipalities who are, as we know, the first line in dealing with disasters and their costs. Steffen explains that ‘we’ need to “ruggedize and retool.”

Many parts of the country are becoming uninsurable against a range of unnatural disasters. The threats we face today are myriad — flood, fire, tropical storms, heat waves, drought and aridification, threats to agriculture (from crop pests to greater erosion of topsoil), ecosystem disruptions, the spread of contagious diseases, etc. They are also compound, interwoven and cascading. Almost none of that risk is yet priced into market values. […]

“If a city has a climate plan, but that plan is not the city’s core strategy document, it doesn't really have a climate plan.” […]

[The White House’s brand new Economic Report of the President] proposes four “potential pillars” of federal climate response strategy: increasing the availability of knowledge about climate risk; a investing in long-term strategic planning and planning capacities; working to ensure accurate pricing of climate risk; protecting the vulnerable.

The power of indulging your weird, offbeat obsessions Clive Thompson on curiosity and trans-discipline connections. “It’s enormously valuable to simply follow your curiosity—and follow it for a really long time, even if it doesn’t seem to be leading anywhere in particular. Surprisingly big breakthrough ideas come when you bridge two seemingly unconnected areas.”

On creative work as a space for new possibilities “Art, in that way, can make climate change a larger part of the cultural consciousness. But art plays other roles as well. It can be a space to imagine alternative possibilities for our world, and articulate different paths and futures.”

On the link between great thinking and obsessive walking Another one of those walking articles I love, this one has the the distinction of finally being the one that addresses the privilege (historically) of white men to walk freely and gives a couple of examples of women. “French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once said, ‘There is something about walking which stimulates and enlivens my thoughts. When I stay in one place I can hardly think at all; my body has to be on the move to set my mind going.’”

Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation → Freaked out? We really can prepare for A.I.. One of the best things I’ve heard or read on AI so far, not featured because I’ve written about AI and linked to Klein recently but this interview with Kelsey Piper is absolutely worth a listen. ⊗ I am not afraid of robots. I am afraid of people. Same, Gary (Marcus), same.


  • The Sample has proven useful for me to find excellent newsletters, if you sign-up here to try it out, it also helps to get Sentiers in front of more people.
  • 😍 😍 🏠 🇨🇦 ⚜️ Architectural styles of Québec city. “Project aimed at documenting all the architectural styles present in Québec city from its founding in 1608 to today. Illustrations created from references to reflect the reality of the city. This project was carried out in collaboration with the city of Québec.” (Via CFD.)
  • 😍 🏢 🇺🇸 The Beautiful Skyscrapers of Early 20th Century America. “Using drones, a team led by photographer Chris Hytha has been traveling around the country capturing images of the tops of some of America’s most beautiful and notable early 20th century skyscrapers.”
  • 👏🏼 🌊 🐐 🥤 🇧🇩 Bangladesh is ground zero for climate disaster — and a hot spot for solutions : Goats and Soda. “I tell my American friends, ‘You should send your skeptics to Bangladesh! The awareness of climate change here is the highest in the world,’ [b]ut we have gone through the doom and gloom phase. That’s yesterday’s news in Bangladesh. Now it’s all about solutions.” (Via Future Crunch.)
  • 🤩 🌊 🇮🇹 Some nice scrolly visuals for this long read at The New York Times. Venice Is Saved! Woe Is Venice. “After centuries of flooding, Venice has at long last raised seawalls to save itself from high water.”
  • 😍 🌈 ⭕️ Rainbows are actually full circles. A physicist explains. “Typically, most of us experience rainbows as colorful arcs in the sky, occasionally joined by a second, fainter outer bow and/or any reflections in additional bodies of water. But the true, full shape of a rainbow is actually a full circle. Normally obscured by Earth's surface, a full rainbow can be seen under the right conditions.”
  • 🤔 🦑 🧫 🇺🇸 Human cells hacked to act like squid skin cells could unlock key to camouflage. “Scientists would like to learn more about the precise mechanisms underlying this unique ability, but it's not possible to culture squid skin cells in the lab. Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, have discovered a viable solution: replicating the properties of squid skin cells in mammalian (human) cells in the lab.”
  • 🤖 🩻 Centaurs ftw! Doctors using AI catch breast cancer more often than either does alone. “Radiologists assisted by an AI screen for breast cancer more successfully than they do when they work alone, according to new research. That same AI also produces more accurate results in the hands of a radiologist than it does when operating solo.”