Future #46: The shape of desirable spaces

How do we make the spaces we want to live in, both online and off? Do we innovate within the context of public works, or private markets? Once we build those spaces, how do we tend to them, make them safe, allow people to flourish personally and financially in them? This week’s newsletter gathers thinking on how we imagine, create, and care for our current and future communities. (And there’s an emoji palate cleanser at the end!)

— Alexis & Matt


1: Community moderation & the logic of care

How do we talk to each other online? How can we build the right guardrails for those conversations that protects against abuse, violence, and hate speech? We’ve become so accustomed to the dominant model of moderation — reactive deletion of problematic posts — that we rarely step back to consider alternatives. This nuanced, thoughtful piece by Sophie Haigney takes a look at that approach in contrast to the “community building” model that was more frequently seen in 1990s internet forums. 

In the earlier examples she cites, like The Thing and LambdaMOO, communities were moderated by hosts who had broad community-shaping roles that weren’t just about enforcing rules, but also about being “an exemplar for behavior in the group…responsible for safekeeping ‘community memory’, posting links to past conversations, and hunting down digital resources”. Responding to undesirable behavior was also part of the role, but that responsibility was undertaken by someone who had all the context of the community and was a trusted member. 

The most obvious reason for the change in approach to moderation has to do with the scale of platforms like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. You can’t curate and moderate something that has billions of posts a minute in the same way as a small BBS in 1993. But could there be ways to introduce more of that holistic flavor into these huge platforms? Perhaps it’s about a blended approach, or perhaps it involves identifying smaller cohorts within the larger platform to work with at a more human scale. One of Haigney’s interviewees, who runs a Discord community, put it this way:

“It’s not like we’re building a machine,” Moore said. “It’s more like we’re gardening. You need a good patch of land, sun and water, and you give it all that and hope the tomatoes turn out okay.”

Who really broke the discourse? | Study Hall


2: “Innovationism” and the myth of disruption

This short essay by Joshua Adams packs the criticism in tightly and succinctly, stemming from Elon Musk’s intention to create a company town called Starbase in Texas. While skepticism around this proposed municipality (particularly, the control it would give the company over safety regulations, taxation, and other “impediments” to innovation) the underlying motive is what is most interesting, and what Adams spends time pulling apart. 

If “solutionism” is the belief that any problem can be solved through new technology, “innovationism” is a broader, overarching position that claims a singular genius, unencumbered by rules or bureaucracy, is the only reliable force for change. While purporting to be about disruption, innovationism is actually all about cementing the economic status quo, rather than questioning or revolutionizing it. It assumes that public good comes from those with power working within the market, and that rather than improving things like cities through public policy, private companies should just go build their own cities anew.

Yet there is no evidence that this approach works; in fact, there is ample evidence that collective action and government subsidy are two critical components to successful inventions. What innovationism does have going for it is that it is complimentary to wealthy, powerful people’s egos; a prophecy that is both self-fulfilling and self-refuting, in which any success can be credited to the lone genius, and any failure the result of encroaching regulations or other outside forces.

On Elon Musk, Starbase, and “Innovationism” | Joshua Adams


3: Three futures of web monetization

Alexis had the pleasure of being a reviewer for Stephanie Rieger’s deep dive into web monetization and what the future of paying for content online might look like. Rieger uses the Interledger protocol and the Web Monetization API as a jumping-off point, giving a foundational explanation of the two technologies, which, when combined, enable users to stream micropayments to participating websites as they browse the web. (Coil is the first example of a provider that uses these technologies, and is still quite nascent.) 

Rieger then goes on to describe three future scenarios in which the same underlying technology might evolve quite differently, playing out different balances of power, emergent ecosystems, and more. Finally, the paper ends with a set of thoughts and recommendations on what to consider as we move forward, focusing on how to balance privacy and functionality, how to facilitate bundling (and who gets to control those bundles), and how to mitigate harm. As with all decentralized alternatives to proprietary systems, they may either cause disruption or remain on the sidelines, but this is a deep exploration of what might be possible if the monetization layer of the open web does gain traction.

Three futures: Exploring the future of web monetization | Stephanie Rieger


4: Creating future artifacts

We at Ethical Futures Lab have long been advocates of designing artifacts from the future(s). These speculative objects can distill broad ideas into visceral experiences, helping participants contend with ideas that are otherwise difficult to relate to. In this post, Stuart Candy describes a series of artifacts he created as part of a seminar with the United Nations Development Program. He conducted interviews with each participant, learned about the issues most important to them, and developed artifacts that spoke to their interests in improving the future.

Each object he created is rich and detailed in exactly the way real artifacts typically are. The construction shows the level of imagination and detail required to build a cohesive world; the details embedded within them could each spawn articles, research, and additional speculative making. (For me the phrase “New York City Memorial Protocol on the Prohibition of Weapons of Mass Destruction” spurred dozens of questions and ideas.) 

How these objects were used is also particularly inspired. Each participant brought their artifact to the seminar — participants did not see each other’s objects beforehand — and explained what they saw in it or what additional ideas it raised. This loop of making, thinking, and making is powerful, in that it mimics how the actual future is built: one small change on top of another, building in the distance to a point where the origin is barely visible. 

Adding dimensions to development futures with UNDP | Stuart Candy


5: “Algorithm—I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

Our reaction to this scathing critique of tropes in technology journalism was a resounding “Hell, yes!” Sara Watson’s rundown of common fallacies and failures is a must-read for anyone who writes about technology and includes such gems as:

  • Don’t write about ‘realms.’ What is this, Game of Thrones? The online and offline, virtual and real, continue to blur and are no longer meaningful distinctions.”

  • Data is not ones and zeros. No one codes like that. Don’t use it in imagery or in language to stand in for the digital.”

  • Algorithm—I don’t think it means what you think it means. “Algorithm” often stands in for something else, like “formula,” “filter,” or even “heuristic.” It may be that the misuse of the word is perpetuated by PR and marketing, which uses the word to make technologies seem complicated, futuristic, and, above all, proprietary.”

Read the whole thing. It’s very good.

Style guide for writing about technology | Tow Center


6: Pickup trucks and “petro-masculinity” 

This story in Bloomberg’s CityLab focuses on how hyper-masculine late model pickup trucks have become, and it immediately reminded us of the “Jobs to be Done” framework of product design. If you look closely at how pickup trucks have grown larger, more powerful, and more imposing on their environment, you could see how the job that the pickup was designed to do initially - haul large, dirty loads of cargo - has morphed into something deeply psychological: make the driver feel powerful in a world in which he (and it’s nearly always “he”) increasingly feels weak. 

Embedded in the toweringly high grille heights, “bull bars”, and the modifications that let trucks belch black smoke at the driver’s will, is an abdication of responsibility over anything outside that frame of steel and plastic. These designs allow the owner to feel coddled and comfortable — with leather seats, climate control, and other amenities not usually associated with hard, manual labor — while projecting an image of ferocity and strength. 

While regulations regarding hood height, emissions standards, and safety features could bring these designs down to earth a bit, we won’t solve the underlying motivations for these vehicles until we address the underlying societal dysfunction, particularly our ideas of what it means to be safe or powerful. 

What happened to pickup trucks? | Bloomberg CityLab


One 😍😂🧠 thing

One of our favorite recent finds, Dan Schultz connected an image processor to Slack emoji reactions, which will blend the emoji in a Slack message to create a new composite emoji that is then posted as a reaction to the message. Check out the whole thread for some very funny examples.