Dystopia and its discontents

Kim Stanley Robinson breaks down the various flavors of utopia and dystopia and comes out in favor of writing about, and pursuing, utopias, despite their limitations.

He concisely explains why dystopias are unable to spur real change:

These days I tend to think of dystopias as being fashionable, perhaps lazy, maybe even complacent, because one pleasure of reading them is cozying into the feeling that however bad our present moment is, it’s nowhere near as bad as the ones these poor characters are suffering through…If this is right, dystopia is part of our all-encompassing hopelessness.

And why utopias meet such strong opposition:

It is important to oppose political attacks on the idea of utopia, as these are usually reactionary statements on the behalf of the currently powerful, those who enjoy a poorly-hidden utopia-for-the-few alongside a dystopia-for-the-many.

It’s interesting to read his comments in the context of reactions to politically progressive efforts like the Green New Deal and universal healthcare. Some of the loudest opposition has come from those who already enjoy the desired benefits.

Immediately many people will object that this is too hard, too implausible, contradictory to human nature, politically impossible, uneconomical, and so on. Yeah yeah. Here we see the shift from cruel optimism to stupid pessimism, or call it fashionable pessimism, or simply cynicism. It’s very easy to object to the utopian turn by invoking some poorly-defined but seemingly omnipresent reality principle. Well-off people do this all the time.

Crafting a compelling utopia–or as I sometimes put it, designing a better way to live together–is the defining project of our generation. We have the resources and capability; what we still lack is the right design and pathway.

Working less, deliberately

Interesting research on how we might be more productive working 4 days a week, and/or 4 hours a day.

The basic premise is that humans are severely limited in our cognitive capacity, and working more than that amount of time actually causes us to do worse:

The [productivity] curve rose steeply at first and peaked at between 10 to 20 hours per week. The curve then turned downward. Scientists who spent 25 hours in the workplace were no more productive than those who spent five. Scientists working 35 hours a week were half as productive as their 20-hours-a-week colleagues.

I recently finished Why We Sleep, which makes a persuasive argument that while studying and exercising are important, we only learn and grow when we sleep. Perhaps our cognitive capacity is capped not by the amount we work or study, but by how much we can then solidify through rest?

The 4-hours-a-day article closes with a similar thought:

This is how we’ve come to believe that world-class performance comes after 10,000 hours of practice. But that’s wrong. It comes after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, 12,500 hours of deliberate rest, and 30,000 hours of sleep.

Our geologic legacy

The Anthropocene is still getting started, but it’s unlikely to last forever–either we’ll transform ourselves or make ourselves extinct. In 50 million years, what will be left? Probably just a few centimeters of geologic debris:

We note that effective sedimentation rates in ocean sediment for cores with multi-million-year-old sediment are of the order of a few cm/1000 years at best, and while the degree of bioturbation may smear a short-period signal, the Anthropocene will likely only appear as a section a few cm thick, and appear almost instantaneously in the record. – The Silurian hypothesis: would it be possible to detect an industrial civilization in the geological record?

100-word utopias

Several years ago Kevin Kelly challenged people to describe a desirable and believable future world in 100 words. I didn’t get my submission in at the time but just found it again in my inbox:

Ahmad Rosencrantz skated across the sky bridge toward the empathygrove. The flowers were glowing softly as they effused dharmabiotics to be carried into the city by the morning breeze. He took a deep breath, and his sympathetic twinges sensed that his wife was happily playing with his daughter up the hill to the right. Ahmad leaned back and his shoes’ nanowheels slowed him enough to take a bite from the nearest chocolate tree. He winked to capture a VR360 of the beautiful scene as his shoes skated him uphill. “Hi guys!” he telepathed to his family.

Still interesting to me, though I might dial down the “tech” aspects in favor of more mindful experiences if I wrote it today.

Play and parent brains

A new study wired up parents and kids to watch their brains while they played together. Perhaps not surprisingly, things went better when the parents payed attention:

Parents are neurally responsive to their infants during social play, and that, when the parent is more neurally responsive, the infant is more attentive.
Or as it’s known in our house, “Dad, put down your phone!”

Cows vs. geeks

“Unlike the cow, we get better at making meat every single day” – Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown

Launched at a tech conference, naturally.

Be careful little eyes what you see

The past few years have taught the human race a few surprising things about itself, and they’re not very flattering.

First, we are not the rational creatures we think we are; our decisions are largely driven by emotions, biases, and even unrelated activities. For instance, simply using hand sanitizer can temporarily change your political beliefs.

Second, the new way to exert power in the world is not physical but digital. Online social networks have immense mindshare and impact on our lives.

And third, dangerous, powerful professionals are using these digital tools to manipulate us.

Renee DiResta has written an in-depth article looking at how state-sponsored professional attackers use misinformation to divide and influence society. Increasingly, their strategy is to directly target individual citizens, through the media and social networks, feeding them misinformation to steer their minds in specific directions.

In a warm information war, the human mind is the territory. If you aren’t a combatant, you are the territory. And once a combatant wins over a sufficient number of minds, they have the power to influence culture and society, policy and politics…
Combatants are now focusing on infiltration rather than automation: leveraging real, ideologically-aligned people to inadvertently spread real, ideologically-aligned content instead.

What’s especially dangerous about this kind of polarization is that it’s often good business. Digital influence is cheap, as online advertising platforms love to remind us, and angry or scared viewers are especially profitable.

Combatants evolve with remarkable speed, because digital munitions are very close to free. In fact, because of the digital advertising ecosystem, information warfare may even turn a profit.

If you’ve ever felt that a news show, reshared Facebook post, or blog post was designed to rile you up and make you angry…well, it probably was. And this misinformation will only get more extreme and convincing over time, as technologies like deepfaked videos move into politics.

So what can we do against such attacks? DiResta’s analogy of the Maginot Line suggests that our current understanding of how to fight this war is outdated, and she lists several alternative defenses that will require the world to work together against the attackers. Much responsibility lies with the tech platforms to develop and enforce stronger policies and filters, but DiResta also argues:

The government has the ability to create meaningful deterrence, to make it an unquestionably bad idea to interfere in American democracy and manipulate American citizens.

As individuals, meanwhile, we can be far more critical in what we read and believe. Understanding that malevolent forces are constantly trying to manipulate us is a good first step.

We can also be more careful in what we repeat and share with others, checking multiple trusted sources and fact-checkers (like PolitiFact and Snopes) before resharing an article with friends or online. The best way to influence Americans, after all, is to get another American they trust to do it for you.

World War III is a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation. – [Marshall McLuhan, 1970](https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2018/11/28/the-digital-maginot-line/?fbclid=IwAR3t_52VLqXcaO8oy7Ve8y0I7NnlZuDg-i9dguTLW0l_p6OHKwlZgVC8XpQ)

And there’s never been a better time to support a professional, free, and independent press. One good way to tell if a news outlet is worth trusting and supporting is, of course, how they cover the news about digital manipulation and misinformation. People and sources that deny manipulation is happening are likely not worth trusting about other things either.

Be careful, little eyes, what you see.

The Automation Charade

The phrase “robots are taking our jobs” gives technology agency it doesn’t (yet?) possess, whereas “capitalists are making targeted investments in robots designed to weaken and replace human workers so they can get even richer” is less catchy but more accurate. – The Automation Charade

The Ethical OS

Great toolkit and checklist for designing software that doesn’t “accidentally” turn into a tool for addiction, oppression, inequality, and hate: The Ethical OS

If the technology you’re building right now will some day be used in unexpected ways, how can you hope to be prepared? What new categories of risk should you pay special attention to now? And which design, team or business model choices can actively safeguard users, communities, society, and your company from future risk?

Maybe the most important fact about living in the 21st century is that we are now hackable animals.