Issue #401
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Hello!

This week, a neighbour told me that in disaster relief circles it's common knowledge that there's a 'six month wall' people hit when there's no end in sight. My neighbour pointed out that we're now over six months into this pandemic, so what many of us are feeling is entirely normal.

Personally, I'm trying to ensure our family has things to look forward to. Until this week, it was my wife's birthday, then we've got a couple of days booked away at half-term (government restrictions permitting), and then just before Christmas it's my 40th birthday. Creating our own horizons is something that's absolutely necessary during the current situation.

On my personal blog this week I published:
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Ethics is the result of the human will

Sabelo Mhlambi is a computer scientist, researcher and Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. He focuses on the ethical implications of technology in the developing world, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, and has written a great, concise essay on technological ethics in relation to the global north and south.
Ethics is not missing in technology, rather we are witnessing the ethics in technology – the ethics of the powerful. The ethics of individualism.

Mhlambi makes a number of important points, and I want to share three of them. First, he says that ethics is the result of human will, not algorithmic processes:
Ethics should not be left to algorithmic definitions and processes, ultimately ethics is a result of the human will. Technology won’t save us. The abdication of social and environmental responsibility by creators of technology should not be allowed to become the norm.

Second, technology is a driver of change in society, and, because technology is not neutral, we have individualism baked into the tools we use:
Ethics describes one’s relationship and responsibilities to others and the environment. Ethics is the protocol for human interaction, with each other and with the world. Different ethical systems may be described through this scale: Individualistic systems promote one’s self assertion through the limitation of one’s relationship and responsibilities to others and the environment. In contrast, a more communal ethics asserts the self through the encouragement of one’s relationship and responsibilities to the community and the environment.

This is, he says, a form of colonialism:
Technology designed and deployed beyond its ethical borders poses a threat to social stability in different regions with different ethical systems, norms and values. The imposition of a society’s beliefs on another is colonial. This relationship can be observed even amongst members of the South as the more economically developed nations extend their technology and influence into less developed nations, the East to Africa relationship being an example.

Third, over and above the individualism and colonialism, the technologies we use are unrepresentative because they do not take into account the lived experiences and view of marginalised groups:
In the development and funding of technology, marginalized groups are underrepresented. Their values and views are unaccounted for. In the software industry marginalized groups make a minority of the labor force and leadership roles. The digital divide continues to increase when technology is only accessible through the languages of the well developed nations. 

It's an important essay, and one that I'll no doubt be returning to in the weeks and months to come.

Even while a thing is in the act of coming into existence, some part of it has already ceased to be

Cat next to laptop which has on-screen "System error"
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Quotation-as-title from Marcus Aurelius. Image from top-linked post.

Forward momentum above all things

This page on a Brian Eno fan site was re-shared on Hacker News this week. It features text from an email from Eno himself, explaining why, although he's grateful that people want to discuss his work, he doesn't want to necessarily see it:
I think the reason I feel uncomfortable about such a thing is that it becomes a sort of weight on my shoulders. I start to feel an obligation to live up to something, instead of just following my nose wherever it wants to go at the moment. Of course success has many nice payoffs, but one of the disadvantages is that you start to be made to feel responsible for other people's feelings: what I'm always hearing are variations of "why don't you do more records like - (insert any album title) " or "why don't you do more work with - (insert any artist's name)?". I don't know why, these questions are un answerable, why is it so bloody important to you, leave me alone....these are a few of my responses. But the most important reason is "If I'd followed your advice in the first place I'd never have got anywhere".

Eno goes on to explain that being constantly reminded of your 'exhaust', of what you've already done isn't very conducive to future creative work:
I'm afraid to say that admirers can be a tremendous force for conservatism, for consolidation. Of course it's really wonderful to be acclaimed for things you've done - in fact it's the only serious reward, becasue it makes you think "it worked! I'm not isolated!" or something like that, and irt makes you feel gratefully connected to your own culture. But on the other hand, there's a tremendously strong pressure to repeat yourself, to do more of that thing we all liked so much. I can't do that - I don't have the enthusiasm to push through projects that seem familiar to me ( - this isn't so much a question of artistic nobility or high ideals: I just get too bloody bored), but at the same time I do feel guilt for 'deserting my audience' by not doing the things they apparently wanted. I'd rather not feel this guilt, actually, so I avoid finding out about situations that could cause it.

Finally, Eno explains that, just like everyone else, there are days when he wonders where the creative spark comes from:
The problem is that people nearly always prefer what I was doing a few years earlier - this has always been true. The other problem is that so, often, do I! Discovering things is clumsy and sporadic, and the results don't at first compare well with the glossy and lauded works of the past. You have to keep reminding yourself that they went through that as well, otherwise they become frighteningly accomplished. That's another problem with being made to think about your own past - you forget its genesis and start to feel useless awe toward syour earlier self "How did I do it? Wherever did these ideas come from?". Now, the workaday everyday now, always looks relatively less glamorous than the rose-tinted then (except for those magic mhours when your finger is right on the pulse, and those times only happen when you've abandoned the lifeline of your own history).

Being creative comes not from looking back, but looking forward. As the enigmatic Taylor, a character in the TV series Billions states in one episode, we should prize "forward momentum above all things".

We all think we are exceptional, and are surprised to find ourselves criticised just like anyone else

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Quotation-as-title by Comtesse Diane. Image from top-linked post.

Scenario planning, climate change, and the pandemic

Tim O'Reilly is a funny character. Massively talented and influential, but his political views (broadly right libertarian) seem to mean he miss things when he's neverththeless heading in the right direction.

In a long article published recently, O'Reilly introduces his readers to scenario planning from a very US-centric point of view. It's also a position that, on first reading at least, is a bit techno-solutionist.

He starts by explaining that just because we date decades and centuries a particular way ("the 90s", "the twentieth century") it's actually cataclysmic events that define the start and end of eras:
So, when you read stories—and there are many—speculating or predicting when and how we will return to “normal”, discount them heavily. The future will not be like the past. The comfortable Victorian and Georgian world complete with grand country houses, a globe-spanning British empire, and lords and commoners each knowing their place, was swept away by the events that began in the summer of 1914 (and that with Britain on the “winning” side of both world wars.) So too, our comfortable “American century” of conspicuous consumer consumption, global tourism, and ever-increasing stock and home prices may be gone forever.
Tim O'Reilly, Welcome to the 21st Century: How To Plan For The Post-Covid Future

For me, the 21st century began on September 11th, 2001 with the twin towers attack. The aftermath of that, including the curtailing of our civil liberties in the west, has been a defining feature of the century so far.

O'Reilly, however, points to the financial crisis:
Our failure to make deep, systemic changes after the financial collapse of 2009, and our choice instead to spend the last decade cutting taxes and spending profusely to prop up financial markets while ignoring deep, underlying problems has only made responding to the current crisis that much more difficult. Our failure to build back creatively and productively from the global financial crisis is necessary context for the challenge to do so now.
Tim O'Reilly, Welcome to the 21st Century: How To Plan For The Post-Covid Future

All of these things compound one another, with financial uncertainty leading to political instability, and the election of populist leaders. That meant we were less prepared for the pandemic than we could have been, and when it hit, we've suffered (in the UK and US at least) from an incompetent response.

I recently finished reading A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara E. Tuchman, which discusses at length something that O'Reilly picks up on:
If you are a student of history, you know that the massive reduction of the workforce in post-Black Death Europe forced lords to give better terms of tenure—serfdom all but disappeared, and the rise of a mercantile middle class set the stage for the artistic and scientific progress of the Renaissance. Temporary, but catastrophic, events often usher in permanent economic changes. Sometimes the changes appear to be reversed but it just takes time for them to stick. World War II brought women into the workforce, and then victory ushered them back out. But the wine of opportunity, once tasted, was not left undrunk forever.
Tim O'Reilly, Welcome to the 21st Century: How To Plan For The Post-Covid Future

I'm hoping, like O'Reilly, that there are silver linings that come out of the pandemic related to climate change. Unlike him, I don't think the answer is more consumption. As an article I shared recently points out, not only can we not have billionaires and solve climate change, but the whole edifice of over-consumption needs to collapse under its own weight.

Until next week!

Doug
Dr. Doug Belshaw is an Open Thinkerer, currently working with We Are Open Co-op to help make the world more open and awesome. You can hire him to help improve your organisation!

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