Future #49: Breaking apart to make anew

A few months ago, we wrote about being in a “plastic hour”, and that the pandemic might be a portal to new possibilities. This week’s newsletter surfaces both those possibilities and those tensions. We see opportunities to remake systems, from our relationship with work to the shape of the internet. But we also see the immense pressure of the status quo and those who benefit from it, right down to how we make decisions and what factors we consider to be important. As always, we lighten it up with some fun things at the end, including a crypto-art-project-slash-multi-player-game.

—Alexis & Matt

1: Counting what counts

Our systems — both technical and societal — love quantifiable data. For AI and computation, quantitative information is obviously required. And for business and policy decisions, measurable data provides a sense of certainty and defensibility. But “measuring what matters” implies that all that matters can be measured. In this essay, Cory Doctorow demonstrates the necessity of incorporating qualitative factors into our systems and processes.

This is the quant’s version of the drunkard’s search for car-keys under the lamp-post: we can’t add, subtract, multiply or divide qualitative elements, so we just incinerate them, sweep up the dubious quantitative residue that remains, do math on that, and simply assert that nothing important was lost in the process.”

Doctorow applies this argument to a number of different situations. He starts with the fallibility of Covid-19 contact tracing apps that attempted to replace human understanding with algorithms. He then expands to look at how dominant economic scholarship has built models for political impact that have led to enormous social harm in the realm of monopolies and anti-trust law. This second example demonstrates how the implied objectivity of math can be used to manipulate a model to produce the outcome you prefer, laundering the bias of intent through clever selection of information. We see these tensions, and the bias toward quantification, playing out in nearly every significant techno-societal issue today. How might we develop more holistic approaches, and find structural ways to integrate qualitative meaning into our models for decision making?

Cory Doctorow: Qualia | Locus

2: From Internet to internets

We often toss around the term “internet” as if it describes a unified, singular experience. But that’s never really been true, and in some ways is increasingly inaccurate. The two pieces below speak to different aspects of this splintering and the opportunities it affords for making better experiences on the Internet. 

First is a new series from the Electronic Frontier Foundation that is focused on the “public interest internet” — a concept we’ve seen discussed by a wide range of thinkers, including Eli Pariser, Ethan Zuckerman, Anil Dash, and Hana Schank. The EFF argues that while so much conversation is focused on Big Tech, there is still a vast network of sites that embody our earlier, more idealistic visions of the internet, but they tend to be overlooked and underfunded. Their blog series is intended to “serve as a guided tour of some of the less visible parts of the modern public interest internet” as a means of revitalizing discussion and innovation around these efforts.

The second piece here is a rundown of how individual states have started to step in and regulate tech companies, filling a vacuum left by Congress’s inaction around legislation to protect data privacy, encourage competition, and regulate speech policies. The result of these local regulations is that people’s experience of the internet may soon become quite fragmented, with different rights and restrictions depending on what state you live in. And in some cases, tech companies may make blanket policy changes based on a single state’s laws, when it’s easier to do so than to support different, geo-dependent experiences (much like we’ve seen in response to privacy regulations in Europe and California).

Introducing the public interest internet | EFF

As Congress dithers, states step in to set rules for the internet | The New York Times

3: No patience for crap jobs

One of the myriad impacts of the pandemic has been how people engage with the job market. On the heels of a disappointing jobs report, Heather Long at The Washington Post has a prescient analysis: after more than a year of living differently, people are changing their criteria of what constitutes a “good job”. 

Long takes a trip through the details of the data, identifying several important trends. The data show that women are still hardest hit by the pandemic and child care continues to be a key reason that people aren’t returning to work. This isn’t simply a resource availability issue, however; many parents are rethinking working challenging, time-consuming jobs in favor of spending more time with family or in activities that bring more personal fulfillment. There also appears to be an uptick in wages, particularly for jobs that are hardest to fill and in most demand right now: warehouses and hospitality. These workers got people through the pandemic with critical supplies while being at significant risk for infection, and now are demanding better wages that correlate with the importance and the difficulty of their positions. 

This data also points to the unfulfilled promise of automation: letting people do the jobs they’d rather do, leaving the boring or the dangerous to the robots. Professor Alan Winfield describes how we’ve ended up in an opposite reality, where instead, the jobs created by these technologies are actually among the most boring and dangerous. Some of them support automation directly (tagging street signs and traffic lights for autonomous vehicles, content moderation for social platforms). Others make humans into cogs in an algorithmic system, forcing them to operate as robots would if they more capable (delivery drivers, warehouse pickers). Workers in these jobs are increasingly looking for options, using this historic moment to either retrain for more stable, less dangerous work, or advocating for their compensation to match the importance of their work to society. 

It’s not a ‘labor shortage.’ It’s a great reassessment of work in America. | The Washington Post

The grim reality of jobs in robotics and AI | Alan Winfield

4: Scanning the environment

At EFL, we like to look at “newly possible” spaces — areas where we see emerging technical innovation that may lead to new kinds of experiences. One of those areas is the work being done to help computers better understand the spaces and objects around them. We’ve seen these capabilities grow in the past several years, with improvements in AI and computer vision, but continued engineering innovation in this space may lead to much more sophisticated capabilities in the coming years. 

Alexis’s colleague Kawandeep Virdee writes about these possibilities, using a recent Apple patent that “takes point cloud data in the environment and creates 3D reconstructions” as a jumping-off point. The technology uses LiDAR to build a 3D representation of the world out of voxels (essentially, 3D pixels), and has potential applications ranging from augmented reality apps to autonomous vehicles. On the one hand, there are a wide variety of potentially useful applications here, from helping those with visual disabilities navigate spaces to helping you virtually rework your interior design. But we can also easily imagine the horror show that ensues when the ad tech industry gets a hold of this technology. As always, newly expanded abilities should encourage us to ask not just “what can we make?” but “what should we make?”  

Teaching computers what’s placed in their environment | Whichlight

5: The crypto-creator economy

Who is fueling the boom in NFTs, and what do those communities look like? Is the hype around crypto art actually showing results for independent artists? Friend of EFL Jay Owens brings actual data to a critique of non-fungible tokens (NFT) with revealing results. 

Her analysis first centers on the communities of conversation, showing how initial interest from cryptoartists (and a not-insignificant number of giveaway seekers) was soon joined by sports fans, music fans, and participants in the mainstream art world. Largely her analysis shows that independent creative artists have, and are continuing to, drive the conversation around NFTs, which is somewhat unsurprising, in that they are the target audience for the sales pitch.

What is surprising is that these independent artists aren’t actually making that much money on NFTs. There are certainly big, splashy wins for large sums of money, but they are very few and far between. Most sales of NFT are for under 0.5 ETH (half an Ethereum token, the coin most often used in NFT transactions), which works out to less than $500. In short, this market seems to be behaving like many other creative markets have, from the music industry to Substack: a very small number of people are making a whole lot of money, where the vast majority of people engage as hobbyists or “side hustlers” and never reach that level of success. Whether a “middle class” of artists and creators can be sustained in these markets remains to be seen, but there’s little historical evidence that this will happen. 

Who's driving the chatter online around NFTs? | Meltwater

6: NFT art as prisoner’s dilemma

“Off is an artist edition, artwork, and multiplayer game. Each image corresponds to the exact pixel dimensions of a large collection of computer monitors, smart phones, and tablets. Each piece in the edition has two parts: a public image, and a secret image. Within each secret image is hidden two things: an encrypted sentence and a shard of the private key that was used to encrypt it. Across the full edition of 255 images, an entire essay and the entire private key are hidden. A majority of the private key shards (2/3) are required to decrypt any of the text, therefore the essay can only be read if a majority of collectors collaborate to share their images. Think of this as a multiplayer game that will be played by the collectors of this artist edition, or perhaps, a massively multiplayer prisoner's dilemma. Will you choose to cooperate or defect?”

Among the many things we found fascinating about this piece is that it uses an NFT as a means of critiquing NFTs. A significant aspect of the desire and culture around crypto art is the idea of singular ownership — this is mine and not yours, and I have the ledger to prove it. But in Off, you only realize the conceptual value of the artwork by sharing your images, and thereby diluting the monetary value of your ownership and decreasing the artificial scarcity of the object. Also, “after 170 are sold, the rules change”, adding an element of uncertainty for any collector / participant.

Off | Sarah Friend

One virtual plaything

From the perspective of several years from now, this may seem archaic and rudimentary, but for the moment, this Microsoft demo of humans interacting with virtual objects is pretty damn cool.