This week → Your attention is not a resource ⊗ Routine maintenance ⊗ How bad are plastics, really? ⊗ Tech questions for 2022 ⊗ the design of time
Welcome back, I hope you had as great a holiday as your local Omicron situation allowed. You might have seen that as quickly as the Offscreen opportunity arrived, it left even quicker (thanks covid!). Ok, technically it hasn’t left completely but for 2022 I’m considering it gone.
All along, the plan was to keep doing Sentiers anyway but now with a clean slate and available time, it’s also an opportunity to see if it can become more. If you want me to spend more time on the weekly newsletter and dispatches, now’s a good time to jump in and become a member. I’ll keep going regardless, but the more members there are, the less it’s a hobby, the more valuable it can become for you.
I’m also very open to support from organizations, if you think we can do something together or it there’s a format like “in residence” or “made possible by” that you think might work for both of us, let’s talk! (I’ve got a couple of formats I’ll soon share publicly but that can be discussed in private right now.)
And of course I’m available for work in knowledge curation, writing, thinking, editorial direction, strategizing, research, even leading something in digital if your organization is doing something for climate and/or social good. Contract, retainer, part-time. Again, let’s talk!
Finally, have a look at indies.link, a small index of friendly indie micro-publishers that I’ll slowly be adding to. Recommendations welcome.
One of my go to people for smart thinking, L. M. Sacasas, does something too few people do; he’s reviewing his views on a topic and reassessing. In this case, the idea of seeing attention as a finite resource, something to be managed.
Sacasas, using Illich and Cayley’s thinking, is starting to look in the opposite direction and invites us to consider a proposition: you and I have exactly as much attention as we need, it’s not scarce. His / their position, if I can put it in one phrase, is that considering attention as a scarce resource makes it part of economic thinking, which it shouldn’t be.
As every article I share here, I invite you to read the whole thing after this short take but I’d also like to connect it to some other ideas, which you can keep in mind while reading. First, much of the same argument applies to nature. It might feel like a great way to raise the importance of nature by assigning monetary value to it, but it’s also a disservice, better to find a ‘higher reason’ for it than just dollars and cents. Second, we need to sleep to process what we live while awake, we have biological limits, our attention is all we can handle, it hasn’t been stolen. Priorities on how we orient it dont have to be in the language of capitalism. Third, it feels very adjacent to me to the idea of ‘just enough.’ And finally, Illich “studiously avoided the language of ‘values’ in favour of talk about the ‘good’,” which I’d like to link of course to common good, something that is often underlying many of the ‘society-level’ ideas I share here.
Illich began referring to the “certainties” upon which modern institutions rested. These certainties were assumptions of which we are barely aware, assumptions which lend current institutional structures a patina of inevitability. […]
As Illich put it, he wanted to defend “alternatives to economics” not simply “economic alternatives.” […]
[R]esisting the assumption of scarcity probably presumes the acceptance in principle of benevolent limits, limits that, far from amounting to constraints to be overcome, are, in fact, the necessary parameters of our well-being. […]
He believed that the good could be established by observing the requirements of proportionality or complementarity in a given moment or situation. The good was characterized by its fittingness. Illich sometimes characterized it as a matter of answering a call as opposed to applying a rule.
Great piece at Harper’s by Meghan O’Gieblyn [soft paywall] on the value of routine and on whether it’s a useful human tool or if it makes us into machines. She explores monastic routines, the work of Lewis Mumford, quotes Weber, Simone Weil (bottom quotes here, and when you get to that part think or look-up Franklin’s holistic and prescriptive technologies), Roose, Monbiot, Arendt, Marx, and Obama. She shows the evolution of routines and the various ways in which they are portrayed as essential tools for life, as the chores we want to get away from, as the tasks automation will relieve us off, and as the productivity pr0n they are often seen as today.
Basically, routines have been an essential part of many lives and work practices for centuries, and as long as they are choices we make ourselves, they provide a valuable tool. Because, “when there is no time clock marking the start and end of the workday, no clear frontier between home and office, each hour becomes subject to negotiation, each task a battleground of the will.” And “the effort required to resist the twin temptations of procrastination and overwork quickly depletes one’s reservoir of motivation.”
In other words, routines can order our brain so we don’t lose ourselves amongst too many possibilities, preventing us from accomplishing what we want to.
The internet is not a place of order but a boundless abyss that erases the contours of individual hours, swallows entire days, and inundates our lives with a vague sense of possibility never quite realized, leaving us, in the end, with that low-grade spiritual exhaustion for which “decision fatigue” seems too weak a term. […]
Rather than understanding habit as mechanistic, these earlier thinkers saw repetition as a means of naturalizing a behavior such that it approaches the fluidity of instinct. Thomas Aquinas wrote that habit “makes the doing of something our own, as if natural to us, so to speak, and therefore pleasurable.” […]
This is the quiet miracle of repetition: its ability to not only make actions easier over time, but also change one’s desires, bringing the cravings of the flesh in line with the aspirations of the spirit. […]
Weil offers a more useful conception of freedom, one that is particularly relevant to contemporary conversations about work and automation. Freedom, she argues, is not merely the absence of necessity; rather, it involves achieving the right balance between thought and action. … she notes that we outsource thought all the time to the rote movements of the body, through the development of habits. Technology is an extension of that process, and can, like private habits, make our lives more efficient. But its usefulness begins to wane as it becomes more complex, transcending human thought and understanding.
You can read this excellent piece at The Atlantic two ways. First, the way Rebecca Altman intended, as an essential read on the history of plastics by way of WWII, fossil fuel, the need to make something out of stockpiled by-products, a ‘need’ for ever-expanding, multiplying, and growing markets, the twin plagues of marketing and lobbying, the deadly habit of ignoring the true costs of making stuff, and how “plastic is climate change, just in its solid state.”
Second, as a masterclass in capitalism, as the template that is destroying the planet and our living conditions. Growth at all cost, corruption, structurally linked systems, extraction, ignoring externalities, and a complete disregard for life beyond profit.
Demand for plastic has been as manufactured as plastics themselves. Society is awash in throwaway plastics not because of the logic of desire but because of the logic of history and of integrated industrial systems. […]
When the industry couldn’t invent new markets with, for example, the Tupperware party, it pushed into established ones by underbidding leather, cotton, glass, and metals. Still, sales were such that, by the mid-1950s, as the plastics scholar Max Liboiron has explained, the industry looked for growth by moving plastics not into homes but through them. The rosy future of plastics was in disposables—or as Modern Packaging Magazine’s editor, Lloyd Stouffer, put it, “in the trash can”—and polystyrene was one of the go-to resins. […]
The plastics industry hasn’t had to account for the true costs of its operations, either, including the price of what it has burned, drummed, dumped, lagooned, landfilled, injected, spilled, incinerated, sent up the stack, or drained out the outfall pipe. […]
Should U.S. plastics production continue to grow as the industry projects, by 2030, it will eclipse the climate contributions of coal-fired power plants
Benedict Evans is usually a couple of notches further than I am on the tech-positivity axis, but he’s great at decompiling ideas in a useful way. Here he details his big questions for 2022, from crypto to China. His conclusion is very good and I love the last phrase. I’d add that the underlying question to all of this, which comes up throughout his piece, sometimes unmentioned, is that we just don’t know. An especially important thing to keep in mind with regards to crypto and AR, VR and the metaverse. The ‘crypto-craze’ is still just a few tens of thousands or people, and VR has been the next thing for… forty years?
Crypto is so big and potentially important, and yet so vague and so early, that we can’t even agree what to call it, and at times the noise of both irrational, religious hype and straw-man attacks can seem overwhelming. There is a set of ideas that could in principle be as central to tech as machine learning or open source, but after that, everything is a question. […]
A billion smartphone users leapfrog the second half of the 20th century and go direct to apps in everything from grocery shopping to consumer finance, generating a torrent of new ideas, business models and applications, most of which none of the rest of us can use, test or really understand first-hand, but all of which sound very interesting. And yet, this sits behind a firewall, in a totally different market structure, run by a deeply autocratic state that, in the last year, has kneecapped some of its biggest champions. How many questions does that pose? How many would you like? […]
Netflix or Shein might be a much more general trend - that tech changes the playing field but then the game is played by that industry.
Quick note on this one by Sara Hendren, I love the way she connects writing for an audience with the Zone of Proximal Development.
To introduce a novel or surprising idea, you have to build the conceptual bridge from what’s provisionally shared to the new and unexpected. […]
But the scaffolding for a wider audience requires a much more rigorous attention to the Zone of PD—if, that is, you want to reach the reader who’s not already with you. […]
It’s the most humanizing, belief-led work there is: starting with foundational premises, and building, in the Zone of Proximal Development, to some shared idea of a desirable world.
- 😍 🤓 📚 Inside a hollow library book, a secret library. “Someone had carved a rectangular hole into the book’s pages. The space held a collection of zines that varied in shape, size, colour. Thumbing through them, Tatton also noticed a range of content—political, erotic, humourous. Some zines were hand-written and drawn; others had been typed out.”
- 📚 🤓 ⭐️ The Terraforming 2022: Reading List. “From the history of quarantine to space expansionism, this reading list from The Terraforming team offers an insight into the themes that will be covered in the final year of the design research program.”
- 🇿🇼 🤓 🧱 Superb animated ‘longscroll’ at The Economist. Unearthing the truth. ”The outer wall of the Great Enclosure, the apogee of the medieval state known as Great Zimbabwe, is a triumph of engineering. … More than a million granite stones are stacked without a drop of mortar, but with a geometric precision that ensures the stoutness of the edifice centuries later.“
- 🎥 🤯 🤖 👍🏼 26-year-old builds $8,000 mind-controlled bionic arms. “True Limb is both functional and realistic-looking, serving as a mirror image of the amputee’s opposing limb, even down to the fingertips. And while the prosthetic arm is 60-90% cheaper than traditional prosthetics, many users say it’s far superior to market alternatives.”
- 🇬🇷 ⚙️ 😍 I’m always there for articles and papers about the Antikythera mechanism. An Ancient Greek Astronomical Calculation Machine Reveals New Secrets. “The new model of the Antikythera mechanism proposes a total of 69 gears, forming a shockingly complex astronomical calculation tool. Most of this complexity was hidden in the innards of the devices, where trains of gears worked together on different calculations, and some gears served double duty for multiple purposes.”
- 📜 Sweet, sweet paper geekery. I blew $720 on 100 notebooks from Alibaba and started a Paper Website business “TLDR; I started a business that lets you build websites using pen & paper. In the process I went viral on Twitter, made $1,000 in two days, and blew $720 on 100 paper notebooks from Alibaba.”
- 👏🏼 🇫🇷 ♳ That’s a wrap: French plastic packaging ban for fruit and veg begins. “A law banning plastic packaging for large numbers of fruits and vegetables comes into force in France on New Year’s Day, to end what the government has called the “aberration” of overwrapped carrots, apples and bananas, as environmental campaigners and exasperated shoppers urge other countries to do the same.”
- 😱🤬 🧊 David Wallace-Wells 🧵 “Thwaites Glacier is the size of Florida. It is the cork in the bottle of the entire West Antarctic ice sheet, which contains enough ice to raise sea levels by 10 feet.” The great @jeffgoodel on the scary signs from the “Doomsday” glacier.
- 🤓 😍 Fantastic 🧵 of 🧵s by the brilliant Tim Urban of Wait But Why. 21 thoughts from 2021 I'd like to take into 2022.
Join thousands of generalists and broad thinkers.
Each issue of the weekly features a selection of articles with thoughtful commentary on technology, society, culture, and potential futures.