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“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed”*…

Brewarrina Aboriginal Fish Traps, 1883 (source)

The future is not a destination. We build it every day in the present. This is, perhaps, a wild paraphrasing of the acclaimed author and futurist William Gibson who, when asked what a distant future might hold, replied that the future was already here, it was just unevenly distributed. I often ponder this Gibson provocation, wondering where around me the future might be lurking. Catching glimpses of the future in the present would be helpful. But then, I think, rather than hoping to see a glimpse of the future, we could instead actively build one. Or at the very least tell stories about what it might be. Stories that unfold a world or worlds in which we might want to live – neither dystopian nor utopian, but ours. I know we can still shape those worlds and make them into somewhere that reflects our humanity, our different cultures and our cares.

Of course, it is not enough to tell stories about some distant or unevenly distributed future; we need to find ways of disrupting the present too. It might be less important to have a compelling and coherent vision of the future than an active and considered approach to building possible futures. It is as much about critical doing as critical thinking. One approach to the future might be to focus less on the instruments of technologies per se and more on the broader systems that will be necessary to bring those futures into existence…

It might be less important to have a compelling and coherent vision of the future than an active and considered approach to building possible futures. It is as much about critical doing as critical thinking…

AI is always, and already, a lot more than just a constellation of technologies. It exists as a set of conversations in which we are all implicated: we discuss AI, worry out loud about its ethical frameworks, watch movies in which it figures centrally, and read news stories about its impact…

[S]tories of the future – about AI, or any kind – are never just about technology; they are about people and they are about the places those people find themselves, the places they might call home and the systems that bind them all together…

When I returned to Australia in 2017, I wanted to build other futures and to acknowledge the country where my work had started and where I was now working again. I knew I needed to find a different world and a different intersection, and to find new ways to tell stories of technology and of the future – I wanted some different pasts and some different touchstones.

I first saw a photograph of the Brewarrina Aboriginal Fish Traps in a Guardian news article, and the image stayed with me.. That black-­and-­white photograph from the late 1800s showed long, sweeping lines of grey stones arcing across a fast-­moving river. The water flowing around the lines of stones was tipped white at the breakpoints. And although there was no one in the image, the arrangement of the stones was deliberate, human-­made and enduring. It was a photograph of the one of the oldest known human-­built technical systems on the planet. And while there are ongoing debates about its exact age – 4,000 years, 10,000 years, 40,000 thousand years – there are no arguments about its complexity or sophistication…

I came to think that the importance of this place was not about the traps per se. It was about the system those traps create, and the systems in which they are, themselves, embedded. This is a system thousands of years in the making and keeping. This is a system that required concerted and continuous effort. This was something that required generations, both of accumulated knowledge about how the environment worked and accumulated knowledge about hydrology and about fish, and an accumulated commitment to continuing to build, sustain and upgrade that system over time.

The technical, cultural and ecological elements cement the significance of this place, not only as a heritage site but as a knowledge base on which contemporary systems could be built. Ideas about sustainability; ideas about systems that are decades or centuries in the making; ideas about systems that endure and systems that are built explicitly to endure. Systems that are built to ensure the continuities of culture feel like the kind of systems that we might want to be investing in now. This feels like the outline of a story of the future we would want to tell…

Now, we need to make a different kind of story about the future. One that focuses not just on the technologies, but on the systems in which these technologies will reside. The opportunity to focus on a future that holds those systems – and also on a way of approaching them in the present – feels both immense and acute. And the ways we might need to disrupt the present feel especially important in this moment of liminality, disorientation and profound unease, socially and ecologically. In a present where the links towards the future seem to have been derailed from the tracks we’ve laid in past decades, there is an opportunity to reform. Ultimately, we would need to think a little differently, ask different kinds of questions, bring as many diverse and divergent kinds of people along on the journey and look holistically and critically at the many propositions that computing in particular – and advanced technologies in general – present.

For me, the Brewarrina Fish Traps are a powerful way of framing how current technological systems should and could unfold. These present a very different future, one we can glimpse in the present and in the past; one that always is and always will be. In this moment, we need to be reminded that stories of the future – about AI, or any kind – are never just about technology; they are about people and they are about the places those people find themselves, the places they might call home and the systems that bind them all together.

Genevieve Bell (@feraldata) on the importance of stories of systems, serendipity, and grace: “Touching the future.” (via Sentiers)

For more, see her Long Now talk, “The 4th Industrial Revolution: Responsible & Secure AI.”

And for an extended riff on the context and implications of the Richard Brautigan poem that she quotes in her piece, see Adam Curtis’ “All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace” (streaming on Amazon Prime).

And for an apposite look at the Renaissance, when mechanical inventions served as a medium for experimental thinking about all aspects of the cosmos, see “When Engineers Were Humanists.”

* William Gibson (in an interview on Fresh Air in August, 1993; repeated by him– and others– many, many times since)

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As we think like good ancestors, we might spare a thought for Henry, Duke of Cornwall. The the first child of King Henry VIII of England and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, celebrated as the heir apparent, he died within weeks of his birth, on this date in 1511. His death and Henry VIII’s failure to produce another surviving male heir with Catherine led to succession and marriage crises that affected the relationship between the English church and Roman Catholicism, giving rise to the English Reformation.

Michael Sittow’s Virgin and Child. The woman appears to have been modelled on Catherine of Aragon.

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“As for memes, the word ‘meme’ is a cliche, which is to say it’s already a meme”*…

(Roughly) Daily began nearly two decades ago as a (roughly daily) email to friends. One of the earliest “editions” featured a then-current video (and the myriad reactions to and appropriations of it)…

As the Internet began crystallizing into its modern form—one that now arguably buttresses society as we know it—its anthropology of common language and references matured at a strange rate. But between the simple initialisms that emerged by the ’90s (ROFL!) and the modern world’s ecosystem of easily shared multimedia, a patchwork connection of users and sites had to figure out how to establish a base of shared references.

In some ways, the Internet as we know it really began… 20 years ago [this week], when a three-word phrase blew up: “All Your Base.”

On that day, a robo-voiced music video went live at Newgrounds.com, one of the Internet’s earliest and longest-lasting dumping grounds of Flash multimedia content, and went on to become one of the most beloved Internet videos of the 21st century. Though Flash support has since been scrapped across the entire Web-browsing ecosystem, Newgrounds continues to host the original video in a safe Flash emulator, if you’d like to see it as originally built instead of flipping through dozens of YouTube rips.

In an online world where users were previously drawn to the likes of the Hamster Dance, exactly how the heck did this absurdity become one of the Internet’s first bona fide memes?

One possible reason is that the “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” video appealed to the early Internet’s savviest users, since it was sourced from an unpopular ’90s video game. Zero Wing launched on the Sega Genesis in 1992… Across the earliest post-BBS Internet, underappreciated 8-bit and 16-bit games changed hands at a crazy rate thanks to small file sizes and 56K modems—and if you were an early Internet user, you were likely a target audience for activities like emulating a Sega Genesis on a Pentium II-powered PC.

That was the first step to exposing the world to Zero Wing‘s inadvertently hilarious text, translated from Japanese to English by an apparent amateur. Classic Japanese games are littered with crappy translations, and even mega-successful publishers like Nintendo are guilty of letting bad phrases slip into otherwise classic games. But Zero Wing soundly trounced other examples of wacky mistranslations thanks to its dramatic opening sequence pitting the generic “CAPTAIN” against a half-robot, half-demon creature in a robe named “CATS.”

Its wackiness circulated on the early Internet as a tiny GIF, with each of its silly phrases (“How are you gentlemen!!”, “Somebody set up us the bomb”) pulling significant weight in terms of weirdly placed clauses and missing punctuation. Early Internet communities poked fun at the sequence by creating and sharing gag images that had the silly text inserted in various ways. But it wasn’t until the February 2001 video, as uploaded by a user who went by “Bad-CRC,” that the meme’s appeal began to truly explode. The video presents the original Sega Genesis graphics, dubbed over with monotone, machine-generated speech reading each phrase. “You are on your way to destruction” in this voice is delightfully silly stuff…

Newgrounds was one of many dumping grounds for Flash animations, making it easier for friends to share links not only to videos but also free online games—usually in ways that school computer labs didn’t necessarily block, which led kids to devour and share their favorites when teachers weren’t carefully watching students’ screens. And in the case of “All Your Base,” its general lack of vulgarity made it easier to reach kids without drawing parental ire. This wasn’t like the early ’90s Congressional hearings against violent and sexual video games. It was just… weird.

And, gosh, it still is. Yes, this video’s 20th anniversary will likely make you feel old as dirt [indeed it does], but that doesn’t mean the video itself aged badly. There’s still something timeless about both the wackiness and innocence of so many early-Internet pioneers sending up a badly translated game. And in an age where widely disseminated memes so often descend into cruelty or shock value, it’s nice to look back at an age when memes were merely quite stupid.

Back in the day, memes didn’t benefit from centralized services like YouTube and Twitter: “An anniversary for great justice: Remembering “All Your Base” 20 years later.”

See also: “All Your Base Are Belong To Us has turned 20.”

James Gleick

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As we watch time fly, we might recall that it was on this date in 1986 that the Soviet Union launched the base unit of the Mir Space Station into orbit. Mir was the first modular space station; it was systematically expanded from 1986 to 1996. And while it was slated to last five years, it operated for fifteen– outliving the Soviet Union– after which it was replaced by the International Space Station.

Mir seen from Space Shuttle Endeavour (February 1998)

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(We might also note that it was on this date in 1962 that John Glenn, in Friendship 7, became the first American to orbit the earth. Yuri Gagarin had become the first person to accomplish this feat when he orbited the Earth in a Soviet Vostok spacecraft on April 12, 1961.)

“How many things have been denied one day, only to become realities the next!”*…

Electricity grids, the internet, and interstate highways are enormous in scale, yet we take them for granted

In 1603, a Jesuit priest invented a machine for lifting the entire planet with only ropes and gears.

Christoph Grienberger oversaw all mathematical works written by Jesuit authors, a role akin to an editor at a modern scientific journal. He was modest and productive, and could not resist solving problems. He reasoned that since a 1:10 gear could allow one person to lift 10 times as much as one unassisted, if one had 24 gears linked to a treadmill then one could lift the Earth… very slowly.

Like any modern academic who prizes theory above practice, he left out the pesky details: “I will not weave those ropes, or prescribe the material for the wheels or the place from which the machine shall be suspended: as these are other matters I leave them for others to find.”

You can see what Grienberger’s theoretical device looked like here.

For as long as we have had mathematics, forward-thinking scholars like Grienberger have tried to imagine the far limits of engineering, even if the technology of the time was lacking. Over the centuries, they have dreamt of machines to lift the world, transform the surface of the Earth, or even reorganise the Universe. Such “megascale engineering”  – sometimes called macro-engineering – deals with ambitious projects that would reshape the planet or construct objects the size of worlds. What can these megascale dreams of the future tell us about human ingenuity and imagination?

What are the biggest, boldest things that humanity could engineer? From planet lifters to space cannons, Anders Sandberg (@anderssandberg) explores some of history’s most ambitious visions – and why they’re not as ‘impossible’ as they seem: “The ‘megascale’ structures that humans could one day build.”

* Jules Verne (imagineer of many megascale projects)

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As we think big, we might send very carefully measured birthday greetings to (the other noteworthy) John Locke; he was born on this date in 1792. A geologist, surveyor, and scientist, he invented tools for surveyors, including a surveyor’s compass, a collimating level (Locke’s Hand Level), and a gravity escapement for regulator clocks. The electro-chronograph he constructed (1844-48) for the United States Coast Survey was installed in the Naval Observatory, in Washington, in 1848. It improved determination of longitudes, as it was able to make a printed record on a time scale of an event to within one one-hundredth of a second. When connected via the nation’s telegraph system, astronomers could record the time of events they observed from elsewhere in the country, by the pressing a telegraph key. Congress awarded him $10,000 for his inventions in 1849.

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“Create more value than you capture”*…

As Donald Trump’s presidency careened to its ignominious end, with a mob of his supporters storming of the US Capitol, Facebook and Twitter banned the US president for inciting the violence. With that act, the scope of the political power wielded by Big Tech became impossible to ignore.

Whether these platforms have too much political power is a debate that is just beginning. Their outsize economic power, though, is unquestionable. The combined market capitalization of the five largest US tech platforms – Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft – rose by $2.7 trillion in 2020. Following the addition of Tesla to the S&P 500, the Big Six tech firms now represent nearly one-quarter of the index’s valuation. And with the spread of COVID-19, the leading digital platforms have become de facto essential service providers, enabling a mass transition to remote and isolated living.

And yet the political pressure on Big Tech has continued to rise. There is a growing consensus that platforms have been abusing their power, driving profits by exploiting consumer privacy, crushing the competition, and buying up potential rivals.

The economics of platforms is different from the economics of traditional offline and one-sided markets. Policymakers therefore need to reconsider some of their most basic assumptions, asking themselves whether they are even focusing on the right things.

A key challenge is to determine how the value of data diverges from the value created by providing a data-generating service. Platforms have the power to shape how decisions are made, which in turn can alter the value of the data being amassed. The implication, as Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin foresaw in a 1998 paper, is that advertisers or any other third-party interest can embed mixed motives into the design of a digital service. In the case of internet search, the advertising imperative can distract from efforts to improve the core service, because the focus is on the value generated for advertisers rather than for users.

As this example shows, it is necessary to ask who benefits the most from the design of a given service. If a platform’s core mission is to maximize profits from advertising, that fact will shape how it pursues innovation, engages with the public, and designs its products and services.

Moreover, it is important to understand that even if antitrust authorities were empowered to break up companies like Google and Facebook, that would not eliminate the data extraction and monetization that lie at the heart of their business models. Creating competition among a bunch of mini-Facebooks would not weed out such practices, and may even entrench them further as companies race to the bottom to extract the most value for their paying customers…

Digital markets do not have to be extractive and exploitative. They could be quite different, but only if we ourselves start to think differently. We need to recognize, as Adam Smith did, that there is a difference between profits and rents – between the wealth generated by creating value and wealth that is amassed through extraction. The first is a reward for taking risks that improve the productive capacity of an economy; the second comes from seizing an undue share of the reward without providing comparable improvements to the economy’s productive capacity.

For the past half-century, corporate governance has rested on the notion of shareholder value. The result is an economy in which it is increasingly important to differentiate firms that are actually driving innovation from those that are not. There is no shortage of firms that are engaged merely in financial engineering, share buy-backs, and rent-seeking, extracting gains from actual risk takers while under-investing in the goods and services that generate value.

The digital economy has accelerated this conflation of wealth creation and rent extraction, making it all the more difficult to differentiate between the two. The issue is not just that financial intermediaries are shaping how value is created and distributed across firms, but that these extractive mechanisms are embedded within user interfaces; they are baked into digital markets by design…

The proliferation of such practices shows why we need to focus more on the “how” of wealth creation, and less on the “bottom line.” An economy that produces wealth from privacy-respecting innovations would not function anything like one that encourages the systematic exploitation of private data.

But building a new economic foundation will require a shift from the shareholder model to a stakeholder model that embodies a deeper appreciation of public value creation. Wealth and other desirable market outcomes are collectively co-created among public, private, and civic domains, and should be understood as such. Policy analysis and corporate decision-making can no longer be guided solely by concerns about maximizing efficiency. We now also must consider whether wealth generation is actually improving society and strengthening the ability to respond to social challenges.

After all, the fact that platforms are creating wealth does not mean they are creating public value. A firm with access to massive amounts of data and network effects could, in theory, use its position to improve social well-being. But it is unlikely to do so if it is operating under a framework that prizes the generation of advertising revenue over everything else, including the performance of products and services…

Today’s digital economy has grown up around a business model of data and wealth extraction, confounding traditional antitrust paradigms and undermining the public and social value that otherwise could be derived from technological innovation. An acute diagnosis of a fundamental structural challenge, and thoughts on steps to address it– Mariana Mazzucato (@MazzucatoM), Tim O’Reilly (@timoreilly), and colleagues: “Reimagining the Platform Economy.” Do click through to read piece read the entire piece.

* Tim O’Reilly

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As we dig deep, we might recall that it was on this date in 2005 that YouTube was founded and registered (though it didn’t launch until November of that year). The creation of three PayPal vets (Chad HurleySteve Chen, and Jawed Karim), it was bought by Google one year after launch (in November 2006) for $1.65 billion. Operating as one of Google’s subsidiaries, it is now (per Alexa Internet Rankings) the second most trafficked web site, after its parent’s search page.

YouTube logos over time

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Written by LW

February 14, 2021 at 1:01 am

“We know the past but cannot control it. We control the future but cannot know it.”*…

Readers will know of your correspondent’s fascination with– and admiration for– Claude Shannon

Within engineering and mathematics circles, Shannon is a revered figure. At 21 [in 1937], he published what’s been called the most important master’s thesis of all time, explaining how binary switches could do logic and laying the foundation for all future digital computers. At the age of 32, he published A Mathematical Theory of Communication, which Scientific American called “the Magna Carta of the information age.” Shannon’s masterwork invented the bit, or the objective measurement of information, and explained how digital codes could allow us to compress and send any message with perfect accuracy.

But Shannon wasn’t just a brilliant theoretical mind — he was a remarkably fun, practical, and inventive one as well. There are plenty of mathematicians and engineers who write great papers. There are fewer who, like Shannon, are also jugglers, unicyclists, gadgeteers, first-rate chess players, codebreakers, expert stock pickers, and amateur poets.

Shannon worked on the top-secret transatlantic phone line connecting FDR and Winston Churchill during World War II and co-built what was arguably the world’s first wearable computer. He learned to fly airplanes and played the jazz clarinet. He rigged up a false wall in his house that could rotate with the press of a button, and he once built a gadget whose only purpose when it was turned on was to open up, release a mechanical hand, and turn itself off. Oh, and he once had a photo spread in Vogue.

Think of him as a cross between Albert Einstein and the Dos Equis guy…

From Jimmy Soni (@jimmyasoni), co-author of A Mind At Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age: “11 Life Lessons From History’s Most Underrated Genius.”

* Claude Shannon

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As we learn from the best, we might recall that it was on this date in 1946 that an early beneficiary of Shannon’s thinking, the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer), was first demonstrated in operation.  (It was announced to the public the following day.) The first general-purpose computer (Turing-complete, digital, and capable of being programmed and re-programmed to solve different problems), ENIAC was begun in 1943, as part of the U.S’s war effort (as a classified military project known as “Project PX”); it was conceived and designed by John Mauchly and Presper Eckert of the University of Pennsylvania, where it was built.  The finished machine, composed of 17,468 electronic vacuum tubes, 7,200 crystal diodes, 1,500 relays, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors and around 5 million hand-soldered joints, weighed more than 27 tons and occupied a 30 x 50 foot room– in its time the largest single electronic apparatus in the world.  ENIAC’s basic clock speed was 100,000 cycles per second. Today’s home computers have clock speeds of 1,000,000,000 cycles per second.

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