Monthnotes: play, wisdom, AI collaboration, ephemerality, systems

I'm excited to have joined the board at Now Play This, now a community interest company, and continuing to be a festival of experimental game design. We just opened up our call for 2021, which will focus around the climate crisis, games and play.

In similar vein, check out New Rules - "A collection of essays, poems and other writing that explores the repetitive, revelatory, grim, comforting, stressful, nostalgic, familiar and strange ways that play and games have fit into our lives during the Covid-19 pandemic." From my Now Play This colleague Holly Gramazio.

Drew Austin on the state of the worlds:

Venkatesh Rao wrote a short blog post last year about the perennially circulating idea that the United States is gradually becoming a third-world country. Rao argues that third world status is both too optimistic and too pessimistic an assessment, and that instead “a patchwork of post-industrial first and fourth-world conditions is emerging against a second-world backdrop.” These tiered categories, like most other environmental conditions, are unevenly distributed and far from uniform within individual nation states, in contrast to what the terms’ usage typically implies.

In his post, Rao defines the first and third worlds in the usual way: The first world is wealthy European countries along with the gentrified urban areas of the United States; the third world comprises the countries of the global south that modernized considerably later than Europe. In between those two he places the second world, which he characterizes as suburban and small town America along with wealthier Asian countries and some parts of Europe.

And then there is the fourth world, the product of a collapsing developed world in which the advantages of the industrial age have atrophied or vanished for many while the traditional community structures that preceded modernization also no longer exist and cannot provide a backstop to that decline.

... One idea I keep returning to is Bruce Sterling’s concept of “favela chic,” which describes the contemporary juxtaposition of material scarcity and digital abundance that also feels especially relevant now: being mired in student debt but having hundreds of thousands of TikTok followers, or dropping out of the labor market and gaming full time, or pushing your shrinking savings into Robinhood and swinging for the fences. Today, content is effectively free and unlimited, and even the hardware we use to access that content is increasingly affordable (along with most consumer goods). Meanwhile, the costs of more fundamental needs like health care, housing, and education have continued to increase, becoming less available to the average person as public austerity limits their distribution among those who can’t buy them on the market. 

... On the streets of New York City now, it feels like the multitude of wooden huts and inflatable plastic yurts for outdoor dining—filled with shivering patrons swathed in winter attire—is the perfect physical manifestation of Sterling’s favela chic concept. The resplendent interiors of Michelin-starred restaurants, some of the finest products of contemporary capitalism, sit empty... Most of our fourth world landscape, however, is invisible, and thus easier to ignore.

The best piece I saw about Google/AI ethics/Timnit - a great rant from J. Khadijah Abdurahman

If you were shocked by the firing of Timnit you haven’t been paying attention. We need to fucking take responsibility for the present because while you’re immobilized, debating whether if you’re the one who should mention the corporate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) lexicon (inherently de-coupled from a political economic analysis) is half of the problem. The most opportunistic and/or mediocre are defining the discourse on a global stage. We’re ruminating about Jeff Dean’s feelings instead of building a cross class labor movement that defines tech workers broadly, ie researchers, engineers, Uber drivers, Amazon warehouse workers, content moderators etc.  
...The failure of the AI ethics initiatives and fairness, accountability transparency framework has allowed this moment to happen where the codified institutional resistance is immobilized and only the opportunists feel agency.

... You people who I love and respect- out here with your AI resistance headbands on, with access to capital — but inhibited by your bourgeois anxiety — refugees, the homeless, the policed etc are for better or worse counting on you and you’re out here talking about corporate diversity. If the room taken up with building individual brands lent itself to researching with those most impacted; developing tactical initiatives like a social justice war room — we’d be in a very different place.

Carmen Molinari writes about what is missing from tech worker organising. Long read but interesting analysis. 

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Good thread from Alix:

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This is echoed in Adrian McEwen's note

Matt Webb has written up his talk: The hard work of imagining, ThingsCon 2020. If you think imagining utopias is hard work, just wait till you try implementing them.

I get, and broadly agree with, what Matt is saying. I'm a big fan of the Saint-Exupéry quote "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea." Yet reading it also frustrates me.

Looking up the quote just now to ensure I got it right, I noticed the second half of it, that I don't remember so much: "As for the future, your task is not to forsee it, but to enable it."

I think that gets at my frustration. I see lots of my peers, people whom I respect, writing essays and policy papers, producing manifestos and giving talks imploring the world to build more ethical, more sustainable, more humane tech. And none of it has any impact because the capitalists and big tech can happily ignore it all.

It might even help ossify the status quo. It makes it look like our concerns over surveillance capitalism are being taken seriously, but does nothing to increase the choices available to us. Leading to no improvement in Matt's observation that "it feels like I don’t get to choose, we don’t get to choose, those futures".

What we need are more people building possible better new futures. People working through the myriad implementation details that get glossed over in some design fiction but which first tread the new paths for Matt's marketers, retailers, supply chain experts, risk assessors, the MBAs, and policy-makers to follow.    

I recognise my bias here - I definitely fall into Alix's third camp, and get slightly jealous of the easy lives of the other two :)

Adrian is also very correct here:

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It's me:

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Joe Morrison writes about Open Street Map:

OpenStreetMap (OSM) is now at the center of an unholy alliance of the world’s largest and wealthiest technology companies. The most valuable companies in the world are treating OSM as critical infrastructure for some of the most-used software ever written.

The four companies in the inner circle— Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft— have a combined market capitalization of over six trillion dollars.¹ In almost every other setting, they are mortal enemies fighting expensive digital wars of attrition. Yet they now find themselves eagerly investing in and collaborating on OSM at an unprecedented scale (more on the scale later).

... Not only was there already significant corporate investment happening in OSM in 2018, but in many cases corporate editors were responsible for the majority of edits in the specific geographies they were focused on.  ...

Jennings noted, importantly, that as of 2018 non-corporate editors were still responsible for the majority of activity on OSM (about 70% of all edits) and were significantly more active on edits to buildings, places of interest, and amenities.

...The question on my mind is how idiosyncratic this situation really is. Does OSM represent a model for strategic corporate sponsorship of public goods moving forward? Or is it tragically inimitable?

For instance: I work for a company called Azavea that, among many noble efforts, maintains Cicero. It’s a database of elected officials and legislative districts in several countries around the world that gets updated daily. You can imagine that this should be a public good — like, doesn’t the government already have this information? Turns out…nah. Cicero requires ceaseless, grueling work to keep updated, and that means serious investment of time and money.

One of the key differences between Cicero and OSM is a community of contributors. Community is what makes OSM special. Without it, the project is “default dead,” as they say in Silicon Valley. Much like elected official information, map data goes stale fairly quickly and therefore requires constant life support.

OSM’s community seems conflicted about whether or not corporate participation is ok (let alone good) for the future of the project.

Thanks to Nat Torkington for that link. 

Russ Garrett notes the shift at Mapbox around open source tools.  

Entertaining research into a side-channel attack, where voice assistant microphones can detect what you type on your phone nearby.

Paul Ford has written an amusing reflection on the web today vs twenty years ago.

It’s easy — unbelievably easy compared to how it had been— to set up community forums, raise money for a cause, and so forth. But you’re in competition with a lot of other things when you do this. In a lot of ways this happens with every medium. Early TV proponents were excited that people would be able to watch Shakespeare plays at home and get educated. There’s still a lot of great TV to watch, in the scheme of things.  

Alexis Lloyd on how R2D2 is a great model for human-AI collaboration

In many ways, C3PO is the perfect encapsulation of the popular fantasy of what a robot should be and the common failures inherent in that model. ... we have examples of the failure of the C3PO model in the voice assistants we use every day. They’ve gotten pretty “good”, but still can’t understand context well enough to respond appropriately in a consistent way, and the interactions are far from satisfying. It turns out that even with incredibly rich computational and machine learning resources, interacting like a human is really hard.

I was especially intrigued by this:

We don’t all talk to each other the same way. We don’t all have the same set of cultural backgrounds or conversational expectations. Below are charts created by British linguist Richard Lewis to show the conversational process of negotiating a deal in different cultures.

Instead, a more compelling approach would be to exploit the unique affordances of machines....  I think things get really interesting, both functionally and aesthetically, when we get to the end of the spectrum where the machine is not only separate from the self but also has agency — it has ways of learning and rubrics for making its own decisions.

... When we’re talking about machines that have agency of some sort, we’re working with entities over which we don’t have complete control and that opens up the possibility of many different kinds of relationships with these entities. They could be collaborators, but they could also be antagonists, friends, bureaucrats, pets, and more.

... R2D2 clearly has agency — he often follows orders from humans, but just as often will disobey orders to pursue some higher priority goal. And R2D2 has his own language. He doesn’t try to emulate human language; he converses in a way that is expressive to humans, but native to his own mechanic processes. 

... Let’s not let the future of AI be weird customer service bots and creepy uncanny-valley humanoids. Those are the things people make because they don’t have the new mental models in place yet. They are the skeuomorphs for AI; they are the radio scripts we’re reading into television cameras.

Cambridge Computer Lab research is the best:

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Amusing thread from Tom Forth about what sovereignty means at different scales. Example:

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Much-shared thread from Robert Saunders about UK food anxieties in the 1970s, and now.

Hackney Council had a cyberattack in October and are still struggling hugely - payments, property transfers, benefits, the list of services that aren't working is astonishing.  HT Ian

Depressing article from Peter Apps in the Spectator about the Grenfell Tower inquiry uncovering  worrying ways the various construction businesses operate, and safety systems don't.

The full experience of a Freedom of Information request in the UK [thread] - when you have to pursue the case - thanks to Gavin Chait for both many efforts on FOI, and sharing the tale.

Are many UK assumptions about the pandemic really myths? Thread from Phil Woodford, noting amongst other things the apparently low levels of self-isolation and compliance with guidance in general. I wonder how that varies country to country - not seen any comparative research - and also about the branding of "COVID-secure."  

Nautical signal flags for online events, from Alastair Somerville. Example:


Allissa Richardson writes about the ephemerality of modern protest records - social media is gone so soon. And it's complicated:

What footage, I wondered, would future generations have when they looked to recount the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in May 2020.

... In July 2016, Ms. Reynolds became the first person to livestream a fatal police encounter ... One month later, however, in August 2016, Korryn Gaines attempted to leverage the new technology to livestream the Baltimore County Police Department’s unlawful entry into her home. ... While Gaines was able to broadcast the beginning of the encounter, Facebook cut her feed eventually, at the police’s request. Then police rushed into her home and shot her fatally, wounding her five-year-old son, Kodi, in the process. This time, Zuckerberg did not release a statement about the incident. Facebook, in both cases, had the power to elevate or suppress the Black witnessing that occurred on its platform.

... My team and I found hundreds of dedicated citizen journalists who posted ephemeral videos, most commonly to Instagram Stories and Snapchat. Did these citizens have a “right to be forgotten,” even though they may have the only footage from a major protest in their town?12 Moreover, if we were to curate our data and make it available to the public eventually, what potential harm could we bring to the citizen journalists who had hoped to disappear their civic participation? This was an especially tragic point of discussion among Ferguson protestors, who urged the public to remember the six high-profile Black men activists who died suspiciously after being photographed incessantly in 2014.

... One of Stanford University’s new artificial intelligence tools placed brown fists over every face in a photograph, for example. Likewise, developers created tools that scrubbed EXIF metadata from pictures, and selectively blurred faces and other identifiable features. ... Would the 1963 photograph of Gloria Richardson pushing away a US National Guardsman’s bayonet carry the same resonance had her face been blurred?16 We need a study that surveys how people remember (and react to) protest-themed photojournalism when faces are obstructed, to determine whether calls for protester privacy can live in a space that endeavors to save impactful protest journalism.

 ... I mention this because Instagram and TikTok admitted this summer that they did silence Black voices algorithmically, by hiding African Americans’ profiles and hashtags from in-app search. ... If we find, for example, that livestreams of peaceful protests are removed or suppressed, while more violent imagery of cities on fire is allowed to remain in discoverable feeds, then we can begin to theorize about whether the social media platform mirrors legacy media’s normative news values about mediating protests. 

...We are at an odd crossroads, where we have more cameras than ever before—and even more vantage points—but limited places to archive that content for broad consumption.

Deb Chachra re-posted her 2013 article

I gave to a local food bank because women with infants are going hungry thanks to the shutdown. But it fills me with fury.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr is reported to have said, now famously:

I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization.

Taxes aren't the only way to pay for civilization, of course: community groups, charities, and churches also contribute. 

... Even excellent charities are inefficient. Take food banks. We have a distribution system that goes from farms to warehouses to grocery stores. Food banks then set up more warehouses and pick-up sites to get sustenance out to those in need, often food that's already gone down the first chain. It's far more efficient to give people the means to use the retail distribution network than to create and have them use an alternate system.

Charity is also ad hoc: it's difficult to get help to people who need it in a systematic way that makes sure no one falls through the cracks. And charities, especially ones that do take on the challenge of large-scale issues, need to spend much of their income asking people like me to help.

... We live in an enormous, connected web of systems, and some building blocks of our civilization just can't be addressed by individuals or small groups of people. Most of us flat-out don't have the expertise to deal with them. Those groceries are the end-point of a global supply chain – how do we keep our food safe?

... So, while I regularly donate to charities and I believe they play an important role in society, I don't want them in lieu of more efficient systems.

... I don't want to be a resident of a tiny village where everyone keeps an eye on everyone else, even if it were possible to do so and still be part of the 21st century. I want to live as part of a community of 300 million people, and I want it to be one where we take care of each other.

That's civilization worth paying for.

How payments business Stripe is getting into carbon removal.

Russia is thawing; much more food production will be possible there soon (super long article).
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An indigenous view of Raworth's Doughnut Economics by Juhi Shareef

To inform the local context for sustainability, I felt New Zealand needed a doughnut of its own. I have been to too many meetings held to discuss issues affecting minority groups (Māori, Pasifika, women, children) without them at the table.  Clearly, the process of reimagining the doughnut needed be led by an indigenous voice – female if possible.

... Teina and I first met at the Ōhanga Āmiomio Pacific Circular Economy Summit in 2019 where she spoke powerfully about the divine kinship Māori have with the natural world.  I asked her to take on the interpretation of the doughnut in the hope that it would provide New Zealand with the social and environmental context for the nascent circular economy.    

... we didn’t just share the translation of the doughnut, we shared a second version: Teina’s reimagining of the doughnut from a Tūhoe Māori perspective, with the environment as its foundation, and social elements on the outer ring

... While I was initially confronted by Teina’s ‘flipped’ version, I soon realised that this was her worldview, and all the more relevant because of this. I also understood the power of Te Reo Māori: our planetary boundaries, or ecological ceiling, becomes hā tuamātangi: the Earth’s last breath: incredibly rich and evocative.

... As Kate Raworth said when we shared our versions with her on Twitter:

A lovely profile of a Cambridge gardener.