Future #45: Superfans, superbugs, & starships

This week takes us on a journey from the web of the past to the objects of the future — and even further to some truly wild, speculative futures. One theme throughout is that innovation often isn’t about a shiny new object, but about the nuances of how that object works in relationship to everything around it. The design of incentives, defaults, protocols, and interconnections is what really determines how our reality unfolds. So let’s continue to pay attention to the nuances and seams in order to create the things we’ll want to live with.

— Alexis & Matt

1: A future object is designed for an alternate reality

Friend-of-the-lab Christopher Butler’s latest newsletter had us highlighting every other sentence. It’s an exploration of how we design future objects, re-examining Bruce Sterling’s concept of “spimes” as a jumping-off point. He digs into the tension between:

  1. “sPIMES, or small, networked objects that facilitate smarter interactions but require no direct user-interaction with themselves, and…

  2. SPYmes, or networked objects that trade privacy for the convenience of not having to wrangle with Gizmo functions.”

Butler goes on to articulate six design principles for making good future objects, which include:

  • A future object is locally controlled

  • A future object is indefinitely powered

  • A future object is sustainably made, used, and disposed

  • A future object is safely autonomous

  • A future object is private

  • A future object is designed for an alternate reality

There’s fantastic food for thought in all of these principles, but the last one especially resonated with us. In it he talks about the tension we experience when making something new, where it needs to operate within the constraints of a reality it is designed to alter: “When we make objects, we find ourselves caught between the world in which we make them and the world which will be made by them.”

Future objects | Christopher Butler

2: The Web that wasn’t

Many of us (Alexis included) who were on the web in its early days lament the loss of experimental creativity that era brought. In this essay — one of five soon to appear in Olia Lialina’s upcoming book, Turing Complete User: Resisting Alienation in Human-Computer-Interaction — we’re confronted with the idea that the web never truly embraced the messy personal site, handcoded in HTML with animated GIFs and <blink> tags. While the “amateurish” designs and code were the focus of contemporary criticism, the real rejection was that of personal expression of one’s interests, a reflection of one’s home online. Lialina asserts that “[t]here was no time in the history of the Web when building your home was celebrated and acknowledged by opinion leaders,” and cites none other than Tim Berners-Lee to back up her claim.

Through the essay Lialina illustrates the gradual shift from expression, hyperlinking and community to performance, walled gardens, and celebrity. The shift from “my” to “me” parallels this reduction in connection. No longer is my site about my favorite music, shows, art, or film, it’s about me as a person, a brand, a professional, a constructed identity. 

Do read the whole thing, then read it again, as there’s a ton here to ponder. When you’re done, we hope you follow Lialina’s exhortation to make your own web page and to heed her warning when doing it: “The challenge is to get away from Me, from the idea that you are the centre of your online presence. Don’t take this imposed, artificial role into the new environments. It will poison and corrupt the best of initiatives.” 

From my to me | Interface Critique

3: So your grandmother is a starship now

In a world where speculative fiction is filled with dystopian futures that are all too close to the dystopian present, it is a joy and relief to read something truly divergent. This piece—published in Nature, of all places—is an FAQ for folks whose elderly relatives have uploaded their consciousness into a spacecraft. It includes answers to such pressing questions as: Will my grandmother be radioactive? Will my grandmother have, like, laser guns? Will she be able to visit me? And the crucial question: What is happening, seriously, what is even happening?

So your grandmother is a starship now: a quick guide for the bewildered | Nature

4: An innovation can be a relationship

This summary is difficult to write, in that the article is an interview with an author about a book which explicitly refuses to be about one simple idea. Instead, “Medium Design” by Keller Easterling is about how ideas accrue, how futures build on top of the past, and how “the next big thing” should really be a thing that interacts well with all the things that came before it. 

This interview is filled with ideas both revolutionary and simply stated, but if we had to summarize it in a simple way, it would be this: to truly understand the possibilities that face us, we must reject our binary ways of thinking. Ideas can be supportive and destructive; policies can be neither left or right leaning; possibilities do not exist along a line, or even a plane, but in full 3D space. For example, this is Easterling talking about Covid-19:

“It goes from a scale of microns to the scale of territories, with all kinds of things in between — like tiny vapor droplets coming out of our mouths; big, lumpy six-foot distances; masks; and all kinds of behaviors. The innovation is not just the vaccine or new technology but the way we’re acting, the way we put things together.”

How to Design Better Systems in a World Overwhelmed by Complexity | OneZero

5: When your only KPI is your biggest problem

If you are a regular reader of EFL you have probably already seen this story in your Twitter feed or in one of the various newsletters you subscribe to. We’d urge you to read it again. 

This deeply-reported MIT Tech Review piece tells the story of Joaquin Quiñonero Candela, an engineer and leader brought to Facebook just prior to its IPO to help target content (and advertising) to its users more effectively using machine learning techniques. Quiñonero was successful, and along the way built simple tools for Facebook’s engineers to use to more quickly build learning models that optimized for more and more engagement.

What happens next is well-understood by now: Facebook’s use of AI led to posts that inflamed emotions being recommended more and more often, leading to more and more time spent on the platform. Any time this led to bad side effects - from increased membership in radical groups to the Rohingya genocide - Facebook would apologize, investigate how AI could solve the problem, and when it realized that reducing radicalization meant reducing engagement, abandoned the project. The company went so far as to have its CEO Mark Zuckerberg announce a new AI initiative to suppress “borderline” content before it crossed a policy line — but no group was ever actually tasked with building such a product. 

There are more gasp and spit-take worthy moments in this piece, which may be why Facebook PR attempted to dampen, discredit, and defuse it. In short, the trouble with Facebook is that it strives always and only for growth, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence of the harm it causes.

How Facebook got addicted to spreading misinformation | MIT Technology Review

6: A different kind of social platform

The Facebook example is just one of many discussions we’ve had in this newsletter about some of the thorny issues that social platforms tend to run into. We’ve also looked at a number of folks who are trying to build different kinds of social networks by changing the interactions, incentives, or constraints. Column is the latest example of a social network that is trying to solve some of the problems they see in the most popular platforms. They describe themselves as “built to be high-signal in a world of noise”, and the product has a few distinctive features:

The core interactions are built around user-generated communities that are intended to be specific and focused, kind of like subreddits. Examples include “Optimistic science fiction”, “Covid-19 and other pandemics”, “Sustainability executives”, and more. These groups can be public or private, long-lived or ephemeral. There are also features that allow users to build reputation based on their interactions, though the exact mechanism for how reputation is determined isn’t quite clear. And finally, Column has a monetization feature whereby you can charge subscription fees for a column that you organize. This last bit is intriguing, as it’s explicitly placing value on community building and moderation, tasks that have been typically volunteer or low-paid tasks on the internet. It’s unclear what the future of Column is, but we’re excited to see new approaches emerging for how social platforms might engender different kinds of behavior and community.

Column is a new social network for signal over noise | Column

One over-engineered workaround

File under: When we build technology to rescue ourselves from the technology we already built.

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