Human agency in a world of AI

    An equilateral triangle with most of it shaded red except the top (pointy) bit which is shaded yellow. The red part is labelled 'The bit technology can do' and the yellow part is labelled 'The human bit'

    Dave White, Head of Digital Education and Academic Practice at the University of the Arts in London, reflects on a recent conference he attended where the tone seemed to be somewhat ‘defensive’. Instead of cheerleading for tech, the opening video and keynote instead focused on human agency.

    White notes that this may be heartening but it’s a narrative that’s overly-simplistic. The creative process involves technology of all different types and descriptions. It’s not just the case that humans “get inspired” and then just use technology to achieve their ends.

    The downside of these triangles is that they imply ‘development’ is a kind of ladder. You climb your way to the top where the best stuff happens. Anyone who has ever undertaken a creative process will know that it involves repeatedly moving up and down that ladder or rather, it involves iterating research, experimentation, analysis, reflection and creating (making). Every iteration is an authentic part of the process, every rung of the ladder is repeatedly required, so when I say technology allows us to spend more time at the ‘top’ of these diagrams, I’m not suggesting that we should try and avoid the rest.

    I’d argue that attempting to erase the rest of the process with technology is missing the point(y). However, a positive reading would be that, as opposed the zero-sum-gain notion, a well-informed incorporation of technology could make the pointy bit a bit bigger (or more pointy). The tech could support us to explore a constantly shifting and, I hope, expanding, notion of humanness. This idea is very much in tension with the Surveillance Capitalism, Silicon Valley, reading of our times. I’m not saying that the tech does support us to explore our humanity, I’m saying it could and what is involved in that ‘could’ is worth thinking about.

    Source: David White

    5 ways in which AI is discussed

    An illustrated group of diverse people in a meeting room, with a large chalkboard in the background featuring an intricate drawing of a humanoid robot head filled with gears and symbols representing various aspects of technology and thought. The group appears engaged in a discussion about artificial intelligence.

    Helen Beetham, whose work over at imperfect offerings I’ve mentioned many times here, has a guest post on the LSE Higher Education blog about AI in education.

    She discusses five ways in which it’s often discussed: as a specific technology, as intelligence, as a collaborator, as a model of the world, and as the future of work. In my day-to-day routine, I tend to use it as a collaborator, because I have (what I hope to be) a reasonable mental model of the capacities and limitations of LLMs.

    What’s particularly useful about this article is the meta-framing that more ‘productivity’ isn’t always to be valued. Sometimes, what we want, is for people to slow down and deliberate a bit more.

    AI narratives arrive in an academic setting where productivity is already overvalued. What other values besides productivity and speed can be put forward in teaching and learning, particularly in assessment? We don’t ask students to produce assignments so that there can be more content in the world, but so we (and they) have evidence that they are developing their own mental world, in the context of disciplinary questions and practices.

    Source: LSE Higher Education blog

    14 years of Tory (mis)rule

    A cup of tea in a fancy teacup on a fancy plate

    I don’t even have words for how bad the last 14 years have been under the Tories. Thankfully, people who do have the words have written some of them down.

    This piece in The New Yorker is very long, but even just reading some of it will help those outside the UK understand what is going on, and those inside it hold your head in shame.

    Some people insisted that the past decade and a half of British politics resists satisfying explanation. The only way to think about it is as a psychodrama enacted, for the most part, by a small group of middle-aged men who went to élite private schools, studied at the University of Oxford, and have been climbing and chucking one another off the ladder of British public life—the cursus honorum, as Johnson once called it—ever since.

    […]

    These have been years of loss and waste. The U.K. has yet to recover from the financial crisis that began in 2008. According to one estimate, the average worker is now fourteen thousand pounds worse off per year than if earnings had continued to rise at pre-crisis rates—it is the worst period for wage growth since the Napoleonic Wars. “Nobody who’s alive and working in the British economy today has ever seen anything like this,” Torsten Bell, the chief executive of the Resolution Foundation, which published the analysis, told the BBC last year. “This is what failure looks like.”

    […]

    “Austerity” is now a contested term. Plenty of Conservatives question whether it really happened. So it is worth being clear: between 2010 and 2019, British public spending fell from about forty-one per cent of G.D.P. to thirty-five per cent. The Office of Budget Responsibility, the equivalent of the American Congressional Budget Office, describes what came to be known as Plan A as “one of the biggest deficit reduction programmes seen in any advanced economy since World War II.” Governments across Europe pursued fiscal consolidation, but the British version was distinct for its emphasis on shrinking the state rather than raising taxes.

    Like the choice of the word itself, austerity was politically calculated. Huge areas of public spending—on the N.H.S. and education—were nominally maintained. Pensions and international aid became more generous, to show that British compassion was not dead. But protecting some parts of the state meant sacrificing the rest: the courts, the prisons, police budgets, wildlife departments, rural buses, care for the elderly, youth programs, road maintenance, public health, the diplomatic corps.

    In the accident theory of Brexit, leaving the E.U. has turned out to be a puncture rather than a catastrophe: a falloff in trade; a return of forgotten bureaucracy with our near neighbors; an exodus of financial jobs from London; a misalignment in the world. “There is a sort of problem for the British state, including Labour as well as all these Tory governments since 2016, which is that they are having to live a lie,” as Osborne, who voted Remain, said. “It’s a bit like tractor-production figures in the Soviet Union. You have to sort of pretend that this thing is working, and everyone in the system knows it isn’t.”

    Source: The New Yorker

    Identifying things that don't work

    Super Mario screenshot

    I always find something I agree with in posts like this. Here are some of those things in a list of “things that don’t work”:

    1. Tearing your hair out because people don’t follow written instructions. You can fill your instructions with BOLD CAPS and rend your garments when this too fails. A more pleasant option is to craft supportive interfaces where people don’t need instructions. I’m convinced the best interface in history is the beginning of Super Mario Brothers. You just start.

    […]

    1. Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is a beautiful idea, but often other people simply don’t have the same needs you do.

    […]

    1. Trying to figure it all out ahead of time. For hard problems, you can sit around trying to see around all corners and anticipate all possibilities. This can work—when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, everything worked the first time. But it’s really hard. If you can, it’s easier to build a prototype, learn from the flaws, and then build another one. (This, of course, contradicts the previous point.)

    […]

    Things that work: Dogs, vegetables, index funds, jogging, sleep, lists, learning to cook, drinking less alcohol, surrounding yourself with people you trust and admire.

    Source: Dynomight

    The art of distraction

    Depicts a contemporary individual in a minimalist room, gazing out at a vast sky transitioning from blue to light gray, symbolizing the move from distraction to introspection. Modern devices are present but unused, emphasizing a deliberate choice for solitude. The individual's contemplative yet uneasy demeanor reflects the struggle and importance of facing one's own thoughts.

    L.M. Sacasas has written a lengthy commentary on an essay by Ted Gioia, which is well worth reading in its entirety. The main thrust of Gioia’s essay is that we have substituted ‘dopamine culture’ for the arts and creative pursuits. Sacasas believes that this is too simplistic a framing.

    I’m quoting the part where he uses Pascal to show Gioia, and anyone else who holds a similar point of view, that human beings have been forever thus. Except these days we live like kings of old, where we have the means to be distracted easily and at will. I think, in general, we’re far too bothered about how other people act, and not bothered enough about how we do.

    It might be helpful to back up a few hundred years and consider a different telling of our compulsive relationship to distraction, and from there to ask some better questions of our current situation. Writing in the mid-seventeenth century, the French polymath Blaise Pascal wrote a series of strikingly relevant observations about distraction, or, as the translations typically put it, diversions. Frankly, these centuries-old observations do more, as I see it, to illuminate the nature of the problem we face than an appeal to dopamine and they do so because they do not reduce human behavior to neuro-chemical process, however helpful that knowledge may sometimes be.

    Pascal argued, for example, that human beings will naturally seek distractions rather than confront their own thoughts in moments of solitude and quiet because those thoughts will eventually lead them to consider unpleasant matters such as their own mortality, the vanity of their endeavors, and the general frailty of the human condition. Even a king, Pascal notes, pursues distractions despite having all the earthly pleasures and honors one could aspire to in this life. “The king is surrounded by persons whose only thought is to divert the king, and to prevent his thinking of self,” Pascal writes. “For he is unhappy, king though he be, if he think of himself.”

    We are all of us kings now surrounded by devices whose only purpose is to prevent us from thinking about ourselves.

    Pascal even struck a familiar note by commenting directly on the young who do not see the vanity of the world because their lives “are all noise, diversions, and thoughts for the future.” “But take away their devices diversions,” Pascal observes, “and you will see them bored to extinction. Then they feel their nullity without recognizing it, for nothing could be more wretched than to be intolerably depressed as soon as one is reduced to introspection with no means of diversion.”

    I don’t know, you tell me? I wouldn’t limit that description to the “young.” What do you feel when confronted with a sudden unexpected moment of silence and inactivity? Do you grow uneasy? Do you find it difficult to abide the stillness and quiet? Do your thoughts worry you? Solitude, as opposed to loneliness, can be understood as a practice or maybe even a skill. Have we been deskilled in the practice of solitude? Have we grown uncomfortable in our own company and has this amplified the preponderance of loneliness in contemporary society? Recall, for instance, how Hannah Arendt once distinguished solitude from loneliness: “I call this existential state [thinking as an internal conversation] in which I keep myself company ‘solitude’ to distinguish it from ‘loneliness,’ where I am also alone but now deserted not only by human company but also by the possible company of myself.”

    It seems to me that these are all now familiar issues and tired questions. As observations about our situation, they now strike me as banal. We all know this, right? But perhaps for that reason we do well to recall them to mind from time to time. After all, Pascal would also tell us that the stakes are high, quite high. “The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries,” he writes. “For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves, and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death.”

    Source: The Convivial Society

    The problem with private property societies

    A panoramic view of a mountain range with peaks in Dark and Light Gray, topped with glowing crystals in Bright Red and Yellow. The scene features a Blue river reflecting the sky and crystals, blending natural majesty with fantasy elements.

    I still subscribe to a few author’s publications on Substack, although I wish they’d leave the platform. One of these is Antonia Malchik’s On The Commons whose posts often include a turn of phrase which really resonates with me.

    This week, I’ve been listening to Ep.24 of Hardcore History: Addendum where the host, Dan Carlin, interviews Rick Rubin, the legendary music producer. Towards the end, Rubin turns the tables and asks Carlin a few questions. One of them is about what life was like before land ownership. Carlin, who usually hugely impresses me, seemed to suggest that humans have always owned land in one way or another, and that it’s only aberrations where it was collectively owned.

    I’m not sure that’s true. I think Carlin would do well to read, for example, Dave Graeber’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Private ownership of everything is something that seems to be burned into the American psyche. But it doesn’t have to be this way. As Malchik points out in her post, private ownership within a capitalist economy is essentially why we can’t have nice things.

    In their book The Prehistory of Private Property, authors Karl Widerquist and Grant S. McCall repeatedly go back to the main difference that they see in a private property society versus one where private ownership of, say, land, much less water and food, is unknown: freedom to leave. That is, if you want to walk away from your people, or your place, can you do so and still support yourself? Can you walk away and find or make food, shelter, and clothing? In non-private property societies, the freedom to walk away and still live just fine is the norm. In private property societies, it’s almost nonexistent. You have to work to make rent. Land-rent, you might call it. Someone else owns the land, and you have to pay to live on it.

    The extent to which this reality runs counter to most of our existence, even if we’re just counting the few hundred thousand years that Homo sapiens have been here and not the millions of years of hominin evolution before that, is mind-bending. There have been territories and civilizations and controlling empires for thousands of years all over the world, but for most of our species’ existence, most humans had some kind of freedom to live on, with, and from land without needing to pay someone else for the privilege of existing. Until relatively recently.

    We can’t all spend our time as we would wish not just because capitalism allows a few humans to hoard an increasing amount of money and power, but because the planet’s dominant societies force land to be privately owned, and make access to food and clean water something we have to pay for.

    Source: On The Commons

    More equal societies perform better

    Scatter plot titled 'Unequal Outcomes' indicating that nations with larger gaps between rich and poor tend to have worse health, social, and environmental problems. Data points for various countries are plotted against income inequality (Gini coefficient) on the x-axis and an index of health, social and environmental problems on the y-axis. The UK is positioned in the upper middle, suggesting it has higher income inequality and more health, social, and environmental issues compared to countries like Belgium, Netherlands, and the Nordic countries, but less than the United States and Israel.

    It’s easy to say that you hate the Tories. The reason, of course, is that while they’re in government they institute policies and pass laws that make the country more unequal. This is problematic for everyone, not just those impoverished.

    This well-referenced article is published in Nature. I’d also check out this video I saw posted to LinkedIn (but originally from TikTok) about the argument about more capitalism not being better.

    Even affluent people would enjoy a better quality of life if they lived in a country with a more equal distribution of wealth, similar to a Scandinavian nation. They might see improvements in their mental health and have a reduced chance of becoming victims of violence; their children might do better at school and be less likely to take dangerous drugs.

    […]

    Many commentators have drawn attention to the environmental need to limit economic growth and instead prioritize sustainability and well-being. Here we argue that tackling inequality is the foremost task of that transformation. Greater equality will reduce unhealthy and excess consumption, and will increase the solidarity and cohesion that are needed to make societies more adaptable in the face of climate and other emergencies.

    […]

    Other studies have also shown that more-equal societies are more cohesive, with higher levels of trust and participation in local groups16. And, compared with less-equal rich countries, another 10–20% of the populations of more-equal countries think that environmental protection should be prioritized over economic growth. More-equal societies also perform better on the Global Peace Index (which ranks states on their levels of peacefulness), and provide more foreign aid. The UN target is for countries to spend 0.7% of their gross national income (GNI) on foreign aid; Sweden and Norway each give around 1% of their GNI, whereas the United Kingdom gives 0.5% and the United States only 0.2%.

    Source: Nature

    Toward the ad-free city?

    An abstract, vibrant community scene in Sheffield, with figures of varying ages engaging in transforming a public space from advertisement-dominated to a green, communal area, symbolized by bright, playful shapes and colors.

    I can’t stand adverts whether appearing on the web (adblockers!), TV (sound off!) or on billboards (ignore!) It feels like mind pollution to me.

    I’m glad that Sheffield, a city I called home for three years while at university, has decided to do something about the most pernicious forms of advertising. It’s particularly interesting that they’ve done a cost/benefit analysis against the cost to “the NHS and other services”.

    Adverts for a wide range of polluting products and brands, including airlines, airports, fossil fuel-powered cars (including hybrids) and fossil fuel companies, will not be permitted on council-owned advertising billboards under the new Sheffield City Council Advertising and Sponsorship Policy. The council’s social media, websites, publications and any sponsorship arrangements will also be subject to the restrictions.

    […]

    This breaks new ground in the UK, with Sheffield going further than any other council to remove polluting promotions. Sheffield declared a climate emergency in 2019, alongside many other local councils. This step demonstrates a real commitment to reducing emissions, driving down air pollution, and encouraging a shift towards lower-carbon lifestyles.

    […]

    By including specific criteria that prioritises small local businesses, the policy also aims to protect Sheffield’s local economy. After consultation with other councils and outdoor advertising companies, Sheffield’s Finance Committee concluded that the financial impact of the policy was likely to be low (approx. £14,000-£21,000) compared to the costs incurred via pressures on the NHS and other services.

    Source: badvertising

    The impact of the pandemic

    A solitary child in a playroom, wearing bright red and blue, plays with colorful blocks, surrounded by fading grays, symbolizing isolation and developmental challenges during the pandemic.

    This is a difficult read. Without even going into the breakdown in social relations and trust, it lays out the health and development impact of the pandemic for different age groups.

    I can only thank my lucky stars that neither of our kids weren’t born in 2020. It still had an effect on them, in different ways; thankfully, that doesn’t seem to have been in terms of health or development.

    The article attempts to end on a positive note, which I’ve included here. But it’s difficult to see that, unless a newly-elected Labour government manages to completely turn things around 180-degrees from the direction we’re headed under the Tories, things getting much better soon.

    Across all age groups, the pandemic appears to have chipped away at health and the NHS treatment that people receive.

    The challenge of reversing these trends can appear overwhelming and insurmountable, but recognising the scale of a problem can also, in time, galvanise a proportionate response.

    “There are parallels with the Industrial Revolution, which was really bad for health inequalities,” said Steves. “But that was followed by a period of philanthropy, government leadership and infrastructure changes. The pandemic does have a legacy that’s important for health. So we need to also think about how this could be a major opportunity.”

    Source: The Guardian

    Microcast #104 — Questioning uncritical acceptance

    An abstract, colorful representation of a microcast featuring geometric shapes. The central abstract microphone is crafted from overlapping circles and lines in bright red, yellow, and blue, set against a light and dark gray gradient background. Surrounding the microphone, abstract sound waves are depicted as concentric circles and erratic lines, capturing the essence of broadcasting in a vibrant, non-literal form.

    A microcast to respond to a thread on the Fediverse about uncritical acceptance of new technologies .

    Show notes

    Bluesky's approach to decentralised moderation

    Bluesky account with option to follow for moderationModeration toggle screenshot

    Over the last 5-6 years I’ve had to think deeply about moderation in decentralised networks, first for MoodleNet and then for Bonfire. In that time, a new network has come along called Bluesky, seeded with money from Twitter (pre-Musk).

    Bluesky (atpro) and Fediverse apps such as Mastodon, Pixelfed, and Bonfire (ActivityPub) use different protocols. There’s no reason why they can’t be bridged, but attempts to do so have met with some hostility. Moderation in ActivityPub-compatible networks rely on the server/instance that you’re on. There’s advantages to this, but I guess the downside is that if you like the people but not the moderation policy, you’ve got to decide to stick or twist.

    What Bluesky is doing is something similar to something Bonfire has proposed: allowing people to follow accounts that focus on moderation. This means that you can decide to, for example, dial down the profanity, or mark things as spam based on a definition you share with someone else.

    Today, we’re excited to announce that we’re open-sourcing Ozone, our collaborative moderation tool. With Ozone, individuals and teams can work together to review and label content across the network. Later this week, we’re opening up the ability for you to run your own independent moderation services, seamlessly integrated into the Bluesky app. This means that you’ll be able to create and subscribe to additional moderation services on top of what Bluesky requires, giving you unprecedented control over your social media experience.

    At Bluesky, we’re investing in safety from two angles. First, we’ve built our own moderation team dedicated to providing around-the-clock coverage to uphold our community guidelines. Additionally, we recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to moderation — no single company can get online safety right for every country, culture, and community in the world. So we’ve also been building something bigger — an ecosystem of moderation and open-source safety tools that gives communities power to create their own spaces, with their own norms and preferences. Still, using Bluesky feels familiar and intuitive. It’s a straightforward app on the surface, but under the hood, we have enabled real innovation and competition in social media by building a new kind of open network.

    […]

    Bluesky’s vision for moderation is a stackable ecosystem of services. Starting this week, you’ll have the power to install filters from independent moderation services, layering them like building blocks on top of the Bluesky app’s foundation. This allows you to create a customized experience tailored to your preferences.

    Source: Bluesky blog

    Barnacle ball

    A half-submerged football with a cluster of mussels attached below the waterline, floating in clear greenish waters.

    Some great photos in this year’s British Wildlife Photography Awards. I was going to share the black and white one of the mountains, but this one, the overall winner, is incredibly powerful. It’s also just a fantastically-composed image.

    An incredible image of a football covered in goose barnacles is the winner of this year’s British Wildlife Photography Awards.

    The picture was chosen from more than 14,000 entries by both amateur and professional photographers.

    The photograph, which also won the Coast and Marine category, was taken by Ryan Stalker.

    “Above the water is just a football. But below the waterline is a colony of creatures. The football was washed up in Dorset after making a huge ocean journey across the Atlantic,” says Stalker.

    “More rubbish in the sea could increase the risk of more creatures making it to our shores and becoming invasive species.”

    Source: BBC News

    Anti-AI hyperbole

    <img src=“https://cdn.uploads.micro.blog/139275/2024/dalle-2024-03-20-18.21.59illustrate-a-scene-where-a-large-exaggerated-bubbl.webp" width=“600” height=“342” alt=“A figure resembling Ed Zitron pops a large, shimmering “AI Hype” bubble against a tech city skyline, with digital particles and a palette of light gray, dark gray, bright red, yellow, and blue.">

    This post has been going around my networks recently, so I’ve finally got around to giving it a read. The first thing that’s worth pointing out is that the author, Ed Zitron, is CEO of a tech PR firm. So it’s no surprise that it’s written in a way that’s supposed to try and pop the AI hype bubble.

    I’m not unsympathetic to Zitron’s position, but when he talks about not knowing anyone using ChatGPT, I don’t think he’s telling the truth. I’m using GPT-4 every day at this point, and now supplementing it with Perplexity.ai and Claude 3. A combination of the three can be really useful for everything from speeding up idea generation to converting a bullet point list to a mindmap.

    One thing I’ve found AI assistants to be incredibly powerful for is to spot things I might have missed, to provide a different perspective. Or even to put in a list of things and to generate recommendations based on that. You can do this for music playlists through to business competitors.

    Every time Sam Altman speaks he almost immediately veers into the world of fan fiction, talking about both the general things that “AI” could do and non-specifically where ChatGPT might or might not fit into that without ever describing a real-world use case. And he’s done so in exactly the same way for years, failing to describe any industrial or societal need for artificial intelligence beyond a vague promise of automation and “models” that will be able to do stuff that humans can, even though OpenAI’s models continually prove themselves unable to match even the dumbest human beings alive.

    Altman wants to talk about the big, sexy stories of Average General Intelligences that can take human jobs because the reality of OpenAI — and generative AI by extension — is far more boring, limited and expensive than he’d like you to know.

    […]

    I believe a large part of the artificial intelligence boom is hot air, pumped through a combination of executive bullshitting and a compliant media that will gladly write stories imagining what AI can do rather than focus on what it’s actually doing. Notorious boss-advocate Chip Cutter of the Wall Street Journal wrote a piece last week about how AI is being integrated in the office, spending most of the article discussing how companies “might” use tech before digressing that every company he spoke to was using these tools experimentally and that they kept making mistakes.

    […]

    Generative AI’s core problems — its hallucinations, its massive energy and unprofitable compute demands — are not close to being solved. Having now read and listened to a great deal of Murati and Altman’s interviews, I can find few cases where they’re even asked about these problems, let alone ones where they provide a cogent answer.

    And I believe it’s because there isn’t one.

    Source: Where’s Your Ed At?

    Microcast #103 — Microphones and Moving to Micro.blog

    An abstract, colorful representation of a microcast featuring geometric shapes. The central abstract microphone is crafted from overlapping circles and lines in bright red, yellow, and blue, set against a light and dark gray gradient background. Surrounding the microphone, abstract sound waves are depicted as concentric circles and erratic lines, capturing the essence of broadcasting in a vibrant, non-literal form.

    The first microcast of 2024 and also the first on micro.blog. This one discusses the reasons for the move, and how it went.

    Show notes

    Taking seriously the noise and free-floating anxiety

    Cards with images and words such as 'interoperability', 'diversity', and 'consent'

    I’ve always enjoyed Helen Beetham’s writing, and her more recent work on AI has filled a gap for me after Audrey Watters shifted gears. With this post, I’m most interested in the ending, in which Helen reflects on how much time it takes to refute the bullshit.

    She links to notmy.ai which outlines why AI is a feminist issue (clue: patriarchal by design, embedded racism, precarious labour).

    [W]hen I started a blog about critical approaches to technology in education, I never imagined that generative AI would fill my own horizon. It has not been entirely fun. A colleague recently described it to me as ‘the constant intellectual labour involved in having to take seriously the noise and free-floating anxiety’, and that labour feels increasingly pointless. Talking ‘AI’ down is still talking about AI, it still adds to the vortex of attention. There are other many more important things in the world to be anxious about (though ‘AI’ seems set to make all of them worse).

    AI will probably give paying users a new interface on their work and play that will be fun for a while, and then invisible - part of an ever-more-immersive life online. When ROI falters there will be another story (or a newer, better, ‘smarter’ version of the AI story) to sell hyper-productivity and automation to businesses, and to keep driving capital towards the biggest platforms. I just keep thinking that the idea all this has something to do with knowledge or learning is so obviously detrimental to education, and so obviously stupid and wrong, that education will find a way of talking back. Or - because alternative stories are available - will tell these stories confidently, so I can think about something else.

    Source: imperfect offerings

    Image: The Oracle for Transfeminist Technologies

    Austerity is not efficiency

    A surreal illustration depicting the UK shaped as a tangled web, representing the failing council services with frayed and broken strands, set against stormy clouds.

    The UK is currently limping towards a General Election which, although it hasn’t been called yet, will probably be in October 2024. The past 14 years have absolutely decimated my country, with cuts to public services, a massive loss of trust in public officials, and spiraling inequality. The costs of Brexit cannot even be put into meaningful terms.

    This article in The Guardian talks about the impact of Tory cuts to English councils, meaning that they have had to cut services. Some councils, either through bad luck, incompetence, or both, are in a really bad way. I wonder how much this will affect internal migration in the UK, as up here in Northumberland the NHS performs well, our bins are collected regularly, and the quality of life (I would say) is better.

    Most of us now know the basics. In 2023, Birmingham city council – which is controlled by Labour, and is reckoned to be Europe’s largest local authority – effectively went bankrupt. There were three key reasons: massive cuts in funding from Whitehall, the cost of the belated resolution of the council’s gender pay gap, and the mind-boggling mishandling of a new IT system. In the midst of the rising need for council services – much of which was rooted in all the dislocation and disaster of the Covid crisis – all this spelled disaster. Now, many of the city’s services must be either hacked down or done away with, in pursuit of savings of about £300m over two years. As far as anyone understands it, this is the deepest programme of local cuts ever put through by a UK council.

    […]

    Birmingham may be an outlier, but comparable stories are playing out all over England: in Nottingham, Somerset, Hampshire, Leicester, Bradford, Southampton and more. The House of Commons levelling up, housing and communities select committee puts English councils’ current financial gap at about £4bn a year, which could have been filled more than twice over by the money Jeremy Hunt used for that almost meaningless cut in national insurance. He seems to still think that councils must sink or swim: even more depressingly, he and his allies in the rightwing press have reprised old and stupid rhetoric about millions supposedly being wasted on “consultants” and “diversity schemes”.

    […]

    Continuing austerity does not just kill people’s services; it has long since warped most political debates about what we should expect from the state. In lots of places, squalor, mess and festering social problems are now seen as the norm. So too is a scepticism about people’s need for help, which is endlessly encouraged by politicians and people in the media. That absurd opportunist Lee Anderson made his name by claiming that food banks were “abused” by people who didn’t need them. Now, the Times columnist Matthew Parris claims to “not believe in ADHD at all” and says that autism is “a much abused diagnosis”, while other voices insist that parents whose disabled children get some dependable help from their local councils are the possessors of “a golden ticket”. In both cases, the insidious process is much the same. First, services fail. Then, casting doubt on the resulting pain and letting the people responsible off the hook, there are loud suggestions that levels of need may not have been that great in the first place. As a result, austerity can be recast as efficiency, a move that always appeals to politicians, of whatever party.

    Source: The Guardian

    Reframing as small i's

    he image depicts a small letter 'i' in an imaginative, fancy font, designed in black against a white background.

    This is such an important reframing. I, for one, definitely have a tendency to let my latest success, failure, or injury define me. It ends up being a bit of a rollercoaster.

    “I am such a loser, I can’t even do >insert attempt here< “. This creates an overblown sense of guilt (and self-pity), robbing us of any empowerment that might be had and tends to leave us moping in a corner somewhere. The ‘Big I, Small I’ visual gives us a perspective check. The Big I represents you as the shiny complex structure that is you altogether, while the Small I’s each represent one aspect of you. Every small I (for example: you trying to reach a deadline with good quality content) is one of many small I’s. It is part of you and therefore not to be trifled with but it does not define you. You are not this one thing that you are trying to achieve, you are many.

    Source: Priscilla Haring

    Image: DALL-E 3

    Scaling AI requires 'muddling through'

    The image depicts a surreal landscape where whimsical figures attempt to stack bricks to build a skyscraper. The structure defies the laws of physics, twisting and turning in dream-like ways. It's illuminated in an abstract, surreal light, with a color palette of Light Gray, Dark Gray, Bright Red, Yellow, and Blue. Some bricks appear almost melting, falling off as the skyscraper bends impossibly, showcasing the chaotic and doomed attempt.

    The always thought-provoking Venkatesh Rao poses the question of what kind of scaling we need for AI. His analogy with building skyscrapers out of bricks-and-mortar is an interesting one. It’s a long read, but worth it.

    The part which really resonated with me is when Rao starts talking about governance for AI agents, which needs to be in the form of liberal democracy rather than autocracy. “Regulating [AIs] will look like economic regulation, not technology regulation” he says.This is why you need people who can think philosophically about technology and the future of humanity.

    Fascinating.

    To keep AI evolving, we need the various heterodoxies to cohere into one or more alternative positive visions of how to build the technology itself, not just creative reframes that make for stimulating cocktail party conversations. Into one or more new idea of what sort of AI we should attempt to built, in an engineering rather than ethical sense of should. As in well-posed, architecturally sound, and conceptually elegant enough to handle whatever we choose to throw at it.

    I’m asking the question in the same sense as one might ask, how should we attempt to build 2,500 foot skyscrapers? With brick and mortar or reinforced concrete? The answer is clearly reinforced concrete. Brick and mortar construction simply does not scale to those heights. Culture wars in architecture and urbanism around whether or not skyscrapers are a good idea for society are moot unless you have good options for actually building them.

    […]

    The current idea seems to be: If we build AI datacenters that are 10x or 100x the scale of todays (as Sam Altman appears to want to), and train GPT-style models on them that are also correspondingly scaled up, we’ll get to the most interesting sorts of AI. This is like trying to build the Burj Khalifa out of brick-and-mortar. It’s a fundamentally unsound idea. Problems of data movement and memory management at scale that are already cripplingly hard will become insurmountable. Just as the very idea of a 2,500 foot high brick structure is unsound because bricks don’t have the right structural properties, the current “bricks” of modern AI (to a first approximation, the “naked” Large X Models thinly wrapped in application logic) are the wrong ones.

    […]

    [Going] back to the analogy to reinforced concrete. [The AIs Rao is arguing for] are fundamentally built out of composite materials that combine the constituent simple materials in very deliberate ways to achieve particular properties. Reinforced concrete achieves this by combining rebar and cement in particular geometries. The result is a flexible language of differentiated forms (not just cuboidal beams) with a defined grammar.

    [They] will achieve this by combining embodiment, boundary management, temporality, and personhood elements in very deliberate ways, to create a similar language of differentiated forms that interact with a defined grammar.

    Source: Ribbonfarm

    Born to run

    Camille Herron surrounded by bubbles and a cameraman pointing a camera at her

    I set myself the target of running 1,000km this year. Camille Herron just ran 900km in six days 🤯

    When the FURTHER event started last Wednesday, Herron was already the holder of multiple world records from 50 to 250 miles. A small crowd gathered under four towers of stage lights and rows of orange and white tents. The 42-year-old was in shades, a water bottle stuffed in the crotch of her shorts. On day one, she chugged a Coke float and ran 133 miles. Day two, she downed tacos and added another 113 miles. On 8 March International Women’s Day, she broke the American 48-hour road record for women. More would follow.

    Each time Herron broke a record, she held her arms out wide, her hands pointing to the sky as if to say, “isn’t this incredible?” The fact that she is openly awed by what she does has at times made her a target in the ultrarunning community. Her whimsical pre-race mantra of “letting the magic come out” only adds to that. But it’s hard to argue with the numbers. And the numbers and records were piling up: a new 300km mark, the American 48-hour road record, a new 300-mile road record, the women’s 500km world record, the women’s 500 mile. When she completed the latter, she danced around the start line in pink compression socks, celebrating with high fives and hugs.

    […]

    But Herron isn’t done. As the sun rises over the Santa Rosa Mountains, she lifts herself to her feet once more. One more push. One more loop, then two, three. She reaches 900km, another record, then it’s over. In her wake are 11 world records recognized by GOMU and a world best performance by the IAU. Either way, the numbers on the LED screen read a clear 560.3 miles. Above is one word in all caps: FURTHER.

    Source: The Guardian

    Consciousness porn

    An ultra-high-resolution image depicting a nighttime scene on a deserted urban street leading to a railway crossing. The street is wet, with light reflections and white road markings. A building on the left side has a light gray facade with bright red graffiti, a red-lit window, and is lined with pipes and wires. A brown metal fence with barbed wire and a leaning pole with a yellow stripe is on the right, separating the sidewalk from the railway tracks. The background showcases illuminated street lamps, greenery, and building silhouettes, evoking a quiet, mysterious urban atmosphere.

    Sometimes, I come across a post which comes from leftfield and is almost impossible to quote in a meaningful way. This one revolves around three things I’ve never even heard of, let alone experienced. The author puts them under the heading ‘consciousness porn’, with the three examples being quite diverse.

    What I find so fascinating is that there are layers upon layers to this. For example, one of the commenters points out that the guy shooting the long videos of walks around Tokyo posted to his YouTube channel that he was depressed, wasn’t going to do any more after uploading the ones he’d already recorded, and didn’t know why anyone watched them in the first place.

    It took me a while to comprehend why my son would watch other people play videogames. After a while I began to understand that there was an element of learning how to improve his own gameplay, but there was also an aesthetic to it. This consciousness porn seems to be almost pure aesthetic. I guess the next stage is endless versions of this created using AI.

    Rambalac does everything he can to avoid intruding on the world he is observing, to be, like the character in Christopher Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin, “a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” But occasionally we catch a glimpse of his reflection in a store window or elevator mirror – oh, he’s not Japanese! And in every frame we feel his presence – quiet, sweet, and a little sad, stopping to watch a black cat thread its way across a cluttered stoop, showing us the label of the green tea he’s bought from a vending machine, looking away politely from a fellow pedestrian, or standing still, on a rainy night, before the red gate that marks the entrance to a Shinto shrine, entranced.

    […]

    I often listen to dub techno while watching Rambalac videos, which amplifies their chill, phenomenological trippiness, and makes me feel like I’m experiencing a mutant artform invented by William Gibson. An artform I call consciousness porn.

    Source: Donkeyspace

    Image: DALL-E 3

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