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Robin Hanson's _The Age of Em_ | Books | The Guardian

Early on, Hanson cheerfully says: “This book mostly ignores humans.”

This human mostly ignores economists who believe that being aware of the existence of cognitive bias makes them magically immune from it. Go back to touching yourself with the invisible hand.

 

Story of cities: what will our growing megacities really look like? | Cities | The Guardian

The mainstreaming of urban design fictions continues apace.

For the moment, we remain largely wedded to superficial visual futures. The likelihood is that the prevailing chrome and chlorophyll vision of architects and urbanists will become as much an enticing, but outdated, fashion as the Raygun Gothic of The Jetsons or the cyberpunk of Blade Runner. Rather than a sudden leap into dazzling space age-style cityscapes, innovations will unfold in real-time – and so too will catastrophes. The very enormity of what cities face seems beyond the realms of believability, and encourages postponement and denial.

[...]

Terreform One’s ideas and designs might seem wildly visionary on first glance but looking closer, they go beyond speculative concepts into proposing functioning models. “What we do is create very detailed fictive scenarios that don’t promise the future will end up this way, but rather we think about what the inherent issues are and bring these to the foreground and talk in a logical way how cities might respond.”

 

All Problems Can Be Illuminated; Not All Problems Can Be Solved [Ursula Franklin]

While producing wonderful artifacts and mind-blowing techniques, prescriptive technologies create a world in which it’s normal to do what we’re told, and to do so without the ability to control and shape the process or the outcome. They also require a command and control structure. A class of experts—the architects, the planners—and others who follow the plans and execute the tasks. This structure creates a “culture of compliance . . . ever more conditioned to accept orthodoxy as normal and to accept that there is only one way of doing ‘it.’”8 A view through Franklin’s lens reveals that, as a “byproduct” of what we call progress, we have created societies easily ruled and monitored— and accustomed to following orders whose ends they don’t question.

 

Legible Policy [Superflux]

"We strongly believe that there is a clear need for safe spaces, both physical and conceptual, where future policies can be openly extrapolated and their implications considered. An environment is needed where alternate future visions and aspirations of citizens could be expressed without the constraints of existing socio-political, economic and legal conditions that can bind them to present day lived realities. When people envision such futures it becomes easier to also envision and understand their consequences. Furthermore, they feel encouraged to create and share their aspirations, as well as their doubts around particular policies.

The practice of envisioning futures via speculative design can be a powerful tool, particularly worth considering in this context. Presented through visual aids, the proposed policy becomes a drawing board where relevant stakeholders and citizens can annotate their own suggestions through pictures, words, photographs and much more. It becomes a vehicle for creating an open and editable policy for the future, paving the way for an iterative approach to participatory governance, where policies can be publicly versioned through collaborative visioning."

 

Innovation is overvalued. Maintenance often matters more | Aeon Essays

Interesting piece, arguing for more attention being paid to the maintainance of existing systems than the production of new ones. Particularly liked this bit:

... focusing on infrastructure or on old, existing things rather than novel ones reminds us of the absolute centrality of the work that goes into keeping the entire world going. Despite recurring fantasies about the end of work or the automation of everything, the central fact of our industrial civilisation is labour, and most of this work falls far outside the realm of innovation. Inventors and innovators are a small slice – perhaps somewhere around one per cent – of this workforce.

A thousand times, yes! Though I'd be remiss in not mentioning having been annoyed by this bit:

... especially in some corners of the academic world, a focus on the material structures of everyday life can take a bizarre turn, as exemplified in work that grants ‘agency’ to material things or wraps commodity fetishism in the language of high cultural theory, slick marketing, and design. For example, Bloomsbury’s ‘Object Lessons’ series features biographies of and philosophical reflections on human-built things, like the golf ball. What a shame it would be if American society matured to the point where the shallowness of the innovation concept became clear, but the most prominent response was an equally superficial fascination with golf balls, refrigerators, and remote controls.

What a shame it would be if scholarship matured to the point where an entire series of books might be trashed by someone who likely hasn't read any of them.

 
 

Science and democracy: a peculiarly British disease? | Science | The Guardian

Not peculiarly British at all, no -- though it does seem to be at something of an apogee in the nation right now. But this:

But what is going on when someone is introduced as an “evangelist” for their own technology, but then turned to as an arbiter of what the interviewer calls “stark scientific facts” about this same technology, in order to correct criticisms that are dismissed merely as “peoples’ prejudices”?

That's about as good an example of Latour's "Janus-faced" science as you could ever ask for.

 

Dymaxion: Infrastructural Games and Societal Play

The larp toolkit for building power relationships is well-tuned, as are the sensibilities of both players and game designers for reading the power balance of a situation.  Introducing structural changes in a system during play allows us to see how power structures shift.  This experiential and immersive reading yields a higher resolution understanding than an a priori analysis.  When sociotechnical systems cause unpredicted shifts in social power relationships, it often indicates unseen dependencies between different social scripts, or stratifications in society that give different social groups different abilities to interact or adapt to change.  For example, one of the goals of Uber was to change the power relationship between passengers and taxi drivers.  They were successful at this, but differentially; in many countries, minorities who had a hard time flagging down taxis at all got to be first-class users of the system.  Of course, a number of other power shifts were also designed into this system, putting Uber itself at a significant advantage over both passengers and drivers, but in different (and in both cases intentionally opaque) ways.  Diegetic prototyping in play could have exposed many of these effects.  Critical use of narratives extracted from that play could have informed the debate around regulation and licensing for Uber and similar services.

 

Call for Blog Posts: Fiction and Sociology | Blog | The Sociological Review

This special section of The Sociological Review’s website invites short blog posts (1500 words or less) reflecting on these trends. This could include questions such as the following: 

  • Is the value of fiction for sociology simply a matter of finding new ways to write about existing research? Or can fiction inform the research process itself? 
  • What are the risks involved in writing in a fictional mode about research? Is there a possibility we undermine the value of sociological research? 
  • Is the promise of sociological fiction simply a matter of accessibility or is it something more? 
  • Is there an important distinction to be drawn between writing sociological fiction and being a sociologist who writes fiction?
  • How can fiction be used, as Bourdieu put it, to give “symbolic force, by way of artistic form, to critical ideas and analyses”?  

Interesting opportunity for people working the fiction/futures coalface. Thanks to @hautepop for the heads-up.

 

Behind the scenes in the "Northern Powerhouse"

The North rejects the Oyster card model... but what does that actually mean?

“It’s not an Oyster card … We are putting something in for a next generation,” said Brown, adding the thinking behind smart ticketing was all about how to persuade drivers stuck in jams to take the train instead: “It’s about people sitting getting frustrated on the M62. What do they need that would persuade them to use a northern powerhouse rail system? None of them say: ‘I want a blue card in my wallet.’ They want affordable travel that they know how much they are going to pay to use, with a system that is easy to use and that they can use on every train.”

He added: “What people want is certainty about what you are going to pay in a day. You’d want some sort of account which said ‘thanks for travelling across the north, you’re going to get a discount’, and not worrying if you have got on the right train or bus, or wondering ‘have I bought the right ticket?’”

It's pretty apparent that they're talking about some sort of flexible contactless/near-field ticketing set-up, whether through cards or mobile devices; one suspects that the only difference from the Oyster system will be the opportunity to have a non-registered card which you top up as and when you need it; while that's a useful system for us as end-users, it doesn't capture enough valuable data exhaust and personal travel profile data, the reselling of which can be assumed to be a revenue stream already baked in to any plans. And of course we can't have anonymous travel because [terrorism].

Also, people are talking about a new cross-Pennine tunnel crossing:

Building a new road and rail tunnel under the Pennines was a “bold” idea, said TfN’s chair, John Cridland, former director general of the CBI, who insisted that as a very new organisation having been founded in November, TfN was in the early days of creating a pan-northern transport system.

“We have economic assets, Manchester and Sheffield, that are completely disconnected at the moment,” he said, revealing that a feasibility study had shown digging a trans-Pennine tunnel with road and rail side by side was possible. “If you are building a single economic entity while respecting the fact there are still the Pennines in the way you need to run up the flag post some bold thinking,” he said.

It's not bold at all -- it was bold in the 1800s, perhaps, when the original transPennine tunnels and canals were built, but now the only boldness lies in imagining that Gideon will actually put his hand into his pocket and give the grubby proles the toffee he's promised them.

Cynicism aside, what's often overlooked is that the idea of connecting up the Liverpool-Manchester-Sheffield-Leeds corridor isn't a new idea so much as an attempt to revert to the original and long-established economic orientation of the north, which was always dominated by an east-west flow with export connectionss to Europe, the Americas and beyond, and it has been argued that the dismantling of that east-west network, particularly the railways during the regrouping exercise of the interwar years, effectively removed the possibility of economic independence for the region.

However, over the last century we've moved from a situation where almost all long-distance freight went by rail to where it almost all goes by road, so improved transPennine rail links are only going to improve passenger travel times; the secondary infrastructure for rail freight that still exists is slowly rotting away since its abandonment during privatisation; hence the suggested need for a road link, which has the added bonus of being easier to sell to parliament (which has always loved roads, particularly when Tory) and car users (whose sense of entitlement to new infrastructure has been very carefully manufactured and sustained by parliament).

And who knows -- perhaps they'll pull it off:

Cridland urged northerners to take the powerhouse concept seriously, saying he would not have taken the 30-day-a-year chairmanship if he thought it was an empty gimmick.

(What a hero! Though I expect the compensation package may have been something of an inducement, too.)

The devolution deals signed with Greater Manchester and other city regions showed Osborne was serious, he insisted: “I just see an opportunity, of London prepared to let go. You have to almost pinch yourself a bit. [Osborne] has not just made a speech about it, he’s signing these deals, he’s signing off on things flowing in our direction."

Oh, yes: responsibility is definitely flowing in their direction, if not the ability to raise and spend funds, and I'm sure there'll be bountiful opportunities for the usual suspects in the consultancy industry before it gets kicked off into the long grass. 

If the north wants its destiny back, it'll have to do more than tug its collective forelock to London.