Apologies for the multi-week break in publishing this newsletter. After a winter in the trenches, we’ve all been on the road in various places — first together at FutureEverything 2016
in Manchester two weeks ago, then to Barcelona for a workshop and the second Internet Age Media
Weekend, then splitting between Amsterdam (for NRC Moonshot
and three upcoming events next week) and New York City (for Natalie’s talk yesterday at Theorizing the Web
). In the midsts of this transport-hopping, we’ve had some great discussions and catchups with friends and colleagues, clandestine meetings of the Cross-Quadrant Working Group, and attended some thought provoking talks.
Uncertainty has stalked us as we’ve traveled, from occasional flight delays to unclear terms of reference to the odd epistemological breakdowns. We’ve seen art pose interpretations of uncertainty, and supercomputers (live and decommissioned) who’s job it is/has been to render uncertainty statistically irrelevant. In Barcelona, we listened to John Willshire
talk about the uncertain metamechanics of information and knowledge manifested as the Internet, and I talked about uncertainty of how we even conceptualize the future—as a product, an aesthetic, an experience, or as a frontier. We even ran a workshop there, using minimal structure to solve for the uncertainty of presenting possible futures to unknown publics.
In Manchester, we were most moved by two talks: first, on the unexpected outcomes of trying to use technology to wring risk and uncertainty out of information—particularly financial information—given by Izabella Kaminska
of the FT, whom I mentioned a few weeks back. As I understood her talk, the certainty promised by technologies like the blockchain and big data stand not to liberate us from dysfunctions and ambiguities of markets and an elite of knowledge-keepers (read: banks), but instead may deliver us even more brittle, controlling systems. The second was from friend and colleague Madeline Ashby
, who delivered a brilliant critique of the false certainties of clinging to utopias. Her talk, a response to those who would criticize critical, even dystopian visions pointed to the value of these dark stories as a valuable form of thinking—a way to work out what could go wrong, and how we might deal with it.
In lieu of yet-to-be-posted video, here’s an excerpt from her talk*:
“And what is futurism, but a kind of defensive pessimism? Also a theory of cognition from the 1980’s, “defensive pessimism” is the idea that people with anxiety constantly pre-figure or imagine negative or even disastrous scenarios in order to avoid or prevent them. In psychology, this is called pre-factual thinking. In studies, people who engage in pre-factual thinking, people who imagine scenarios of failure and work to prevent them, perform just as well on tasks as people who optimistically expect themselves to do well. But the key difference is that people who engage in defensive pessimism have a constant drive to do better on the next task. Because what is pre-factual thinking? It’s really just strategic planning.”
Meanwhile, I’ve been looking at the artificiality of countries in advance of a talk coming in Brussels in June. The Panama Papers disclosure has shown us what a fiction the sovereign nation is, and parallel discussions of turning off and on bits of the European Union sound more like the quibbling around an OS update than negotiations around governance. I’ve added a few fun links in below on that topic. If you have thoughts or links, throw them this way
Last thing. Some of you may have noticed we finally created an unlocked Instagram
account, which we’re already making heavy use of. Too many shareable shots were disappearing behind a locked door. Follow if you’re brave enough.