Conditions: Clear and 17° C.
The story so far… Well, I thought I’d be able to get another issue of Five Futures out last weekend. But then my job took a lot more time and mental energy over the next two weeks than I anticipated. The intervening weekend was full of chores that all took a little bit longer than I planned. And, well, here we are: Two weeks late again.
Except this time I haven’t even had the chance to read enough to put together a double issue, and I’m not all that pleased with what I do have. But I’ll be damned if I let three weeks elapse between issues 4 and 5.
So, what’s been taking up so much head space over the last two weeks that I haven’t even been able to do that much reading?
Before I answer that question, let’s back up for a moment and talk about my trip to Las Vegas. Or rather, let’s talk about me talking about it. Because, oh boy, was that ever a mess of cryptic, convoluted sentences!
Here’s the thing… None of my current projects are hush-hush, but I suspect at least some things I do in the future will be. So it makes sense to me to be a bit circumspect about things from the beginning. But some of my projects are interesting, or at least lead to interesting things happening to me. I need to provide you with a little bit of context, or nothing I lead Five Futures off with is going to make sense!
To resolve this, I’m going to take a page from Warren Ellis’ newsletter, Orbital Operations, and give all my projects code names. With that in mind, here’s a list of my current projects, with the code names I’ll be using for them.
EPIPHYTE is a hardware upgrade project. It’s also my oldest active project, predating my current position by a good nine months. Despite a dramatic expansion in scope, I still think I’ll finish up EPIPHYTE before the end of the year.
GIBRALTAR is a corporate ethnographic research project, which sounds a lot sexier than it actually is. It’s also what I’ve been spending all my time on over the last two weeks, but things are winding down now. Unless something really wacky happens, GIBRALTAR should be in the bag by the end of the month.
DRAGOON is a corporate foresight project, and what I probably should be working on right now instead of GIBRALTAR. It turned out to be a much larger undertaking than I anticipated though, so right now I’m aggressive avoiding working on it.
KLONDIKE is a major, if pedestrian, cloud infrastructure project. It’s one of those things that will change everything, assuming it works out. The goal is to have the bulk of KLONDIKE done by mid-January, though the entire project will probably take until early next summer. (KLONDIKE is the reason for the trip to Las Vegas I talked about last time.)
MANTA is a “bread-and-butter” documentation project. It’s currently in hibernation mode, as both DRAGOON and KLONDIKE need to be further along than they currently are for me to start it. MANTA is currently scheduled for completion in July 2017.
Finally, MEMENTO is a new ongoing writing project. MEMENTO is a minor project right now, but it has the potential to be a far bigger deal than even KLONDIKE, at least for me. It’s also by far the most fun project on this list, and something I’m excited to just be part of.
I’ll include an appendix of current project code names in each issue of Five Futures from here on out.
Anyways, enough about me! I may not have as coherent a tale to tell about the future as I usual do, but there’s still a signal or five to discuss…
Sex is a disaster recovery plan… “While the benefits of sexual reproduction tend to be subtle and become evident only over many generations,” Jill Neimark observes in a recent issue of Nautilus, “its costs are heavy and immediate.” Sex is a pretty complicated thing even for single-celled protozoa. Why should the earliest eukaryotes have invested energy in a behavior that provided no immediate advantage over the decidedly non-sexual bacteria and archaea?
It turns out that the origins of eukaryotic life may have been something of a Faustian bargain. Sex, it would seem, is less about out-competing your neighbors, and more about staying one step ahead of the devil within…
The surprising instability of gender norms… The ever wonderful Atlas Obscura has a fascinating mini-biography up of Chevalier d’Eon, “who left France as a male spy and returned as a Christian woman”. What makes d’Eon’s story remarkable is that it is set in the waning days of the 18th Century, more than 200 years ago.
Despite its relative modernity, there are important points of departure in d’Eon’s story from contemporary conceptions of individual autonomy and social progress. d’Eon’s transition appears to have been equal parts radical ethical statement and palace intrigue. Christianity is used as an argument for proto-feminist principles and gender fluidity. d’Eon’s gender is publicly reassigned by royal degree… And then people just seem to accept this (imagine something similar occurring today).
Modern conceptions of gender tend to view it as either innate or socially constructed. Both viewpoints are, I think, incomplete (though I’m certainly more sympathetic to the second). Yes, the vast majority of gender’s context is social, but some is not. Different phenotypes provide individuals with different (and far less mutable) biological contexts. But human phenotypic differences are small (and have gotten smaller over time), so for us social contexts dominate.
d’Eon’s very public transition is an important to reminder that gender’s social context is a moving target. Even a few hundred years can produce a surprising amount of drift.
Data, politics, and storytelling… Over the past month, Native American tribes and their allies have been working to block the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a project perhaps best described as “Keystone XL v2.0”. While the pipeline has not yet been stopped, the tribes won a significant victory recently when the Obama administration temporarily halted its construction.
Within the federal government, the
#NoDAPL fight pitted the EPA against the Army Corps of Engineers. The key point of contention between the two agencies was the question of how to best determine DAPL’s environmental impact. The Corps used county-by-county and state-by-state data, while the EPA believed that finer-grained data from “census block groups or census tracts” was more appropriate. By assessing DAPL’s impact over larger areas, the Army Corps of Engineers obscured its effects on the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.
Subtle changes in how data is gathered and aggregated can lead to huge differences in the story that data tells. Unfortunately, there remain significant gaps between those telling our stories and those writing them.
Algorithmic propaganda… It turns out that Google has been algorithmically identifying potential ISIS recruits and manipulating their search results to surface “deradicalizing” content. Now that program is set to be deployed against right-wing extremists within the US.
Now, I’m happy to see non-violent approaches to dealing with potential terrorist threats. But sanctioning corporations to manipulate our information environment for political ends gives me pause.
What other programs like this are out there? Who decides which populations are targeted? Who decides what information they should be “nudged” towards? How do we hold programs like this accountable?
And perhaps most importantly, can we hold programs like this accountable at all?
Humans are an ecosystem service… Hermit crabs in Okinawa have begun using trash generated by the island’s human population for their homes. Which might seem terrible at first, except that solitary bees in Canada are doing something similar, and may actually be finding the new building materials beneficial.
Something that I think many in the environmental movement still struggle with is the idea that humanity is part of, not apart from, “nature”. The cities we build, the waste we produce, the landscapes we change… For many of our fellow travelers on Earth, human civilization is an unmitigated catastrophe.
But for others, our cities and waste are just another ecosystem service.
Current project code names…
- EPIPHYTE: A hardware infrastructure project.
- GIBRALTAR: An ethnographic research project.
- DRAGOON: A corporate foresight project.
- KLONDIKE: A cloud infrastructure project.
- MANTA: A “bread-and-butter” documentation project.
- MEMENTO: An ongoing writing project.