Random finds (2016, week 50) — On framing the future, Barry Lopez, and the rhetoric of disruption

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Detail from Douglas House, by Richard Meier (1971–1973).

On Fridays, I run through my tweets to select a few observations and insights that have kept me thinking during the week.

On framing the future

The titans of tech control the story of progress and automation, as they always have. It’s time to challenge them, and articulate better alternatives, says Jared Robert Keller.

After listening to Travis Kalanick, CEO and co-founder of Uber, explain why his world-conquering ride-hailing service is ultimately better for drivers than the taxi industry, Keller writes, the host The Late Show, Stephen Colbert, queried Kalanick’s grand plans. “I know you talk about how good this is for drivers, but you said you want, like, self-driving Uber cars […] that’s not for the driver, [you’re] employing robots at that point. How is that helping livery drivers?”

Kalanick responded by shifting the conversation:

“Google is doing the driverless thing. Tesla is doing the driverless thing. Apple is doing the driverless thing. This is going to be the world. So a question for a tech company is, do you want to be part of the future or do you want to resist the future?”

What struck Keller about Kalanick’s response was “the way that it so subtly but effectively controlled the narrative around automation and the future. By maintaining that the future is predetermined, Kalanick manoeuvred us, the public, into a position where we, too, are seemingly left with just two choices: resist that future, or embrace it. Of course, this is not true: every technological advance involves human agency, and so there are choices available to us, but Kalanick’s response circumvents this. We shouldn’t get in the way of technological determinism.”

Illustration for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.

Kalanick is far from the first industry boss to frame the future of automation in this way. In an essay for TheLong+Short, Futures not of our making, Keller examines how these narratives were deployed in the past. This, he says, can offer insight into how they are currently being used today — and what to do about it.

“The fact that industry bosses from Henry Ford to Travis Kalanick have been deploying similar rhetoric for more than a century speaks to the success of these narratives, and to the extent to which these same industry bosses have largely been able to avoid engaging in meaningful discussions about the impact of automative technologies. Indeed, their success makes it difficult to even imagine any alternatives. Such framing, according to the philosopher Elizabeth Groszn, ‘annihilates any future uncontained in the past and present.’”

Keller believes it’s time to challenge dominant discourses and articulate our alternative visions of the future. This will require taking steps to encourage an informed dialogue between tech companies, governments, non-profits, and the public. “Along these lines, the Government Data Science Partnership recently developed a Data Science Ethical Framework which aims to help policymakers and data scientists ‘think through some of the ethical issues which sit outside the law.’ […] It is far from perfect, but it is a start.”

On the industrial side, Google, Amazon, IBM, Microsoft, and Facebook recently joined forces to create the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society, which serves as an open platform for discussion and engagement about AI and its influences on people and society. Time will tell whether this is a genuine attempt to engage in meaningful dialogue or simply an effort to mollify public fears.

On the edge, calling back

Barry Lopez is an American author, essayist, and fiction writer whose work is known for its humanitarian and environmental concern. The questions Lopez sets out to answer are questions we could all spend our lives trying to answer:

“How do people imagine the landscapes they find themselves in? How does the land shape the imagination of the people who dwell in it? How does desire itself, the desire to comprehend, shape knowledge?”

Patrick Pittman visited Lopez in the wilds of Oregon to reflect on ethics, hope, death, and the importance of good people in times that are not. You can read the entire interview from issue 3 of The Alpine Review, titled On the edge, calling back: Barry Lopez, on Medium.

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“Growth Potential,” by Phillip Hua.

[Pittman] “In our privileged, urban lives, we have a problematic relationship with land and wildness. We have a romanticized idea of authenticity and preservation that often means we should go nowhere near something. There is of course often an ethical obligation to not go near, to respect, to stay away. But also, it seems vital for humanity that we do know and connect with land at a profound level. How do we do both of those things simultaneously?”

[Lopez] “I think you can. When you travel in Alaska, it all looks pristine to you, or much of it does, but then you realize: people have been living here for thousands of years, but it appears undisturbed. That’s because their intercourse with it is at the level of the human, not at an industrial level. Once you have industrial logging, industrial mining, that leaves noticeable scars, and seems to us, ethically, to be more than is necessary. It’s very damaging, and it’s depressing to see. So if you draw a line around a piece of landscape and say, ‘This is a wilderness area,’ it’s going to get an impact merely because it’s defined as a wilderness area. But you can go outside a designated wilderness area — you can go right over on that hillside [points over river] and there’d be many places where you’d be the first person that was ever there. It’s because it’s too steep to log, and now there are protections in place that would keep it from being logged. Pristine wilderness? You’re looking right at it, right there, a thousand yards away.

The dilemma that you describe though, I don’t know how to answer. I’ve entered a period in my life where I think so much of what I’ve seen and celebrated has been pulverized. My own effort to understand what’s there and to try to communicate it to a reading audience, I don’t know anymore what the point of it is. I’ve made an effort over the past ten years to insert myself in places that are truly desecrated — in the Middle East, places like northern Sumatra that were devastated by tsunami, desertification. If you took aerial photographs over the past sixty years, you’d see the Sahara moving south, where there once was greenery. So all of these changes, it seems a juggernaut. The momentum is something impossible.”

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“Lessons from History,” by Phillip Hua.

[Lopez, in response to another of Pittman’s questions] “I said to a friend the other day — it’s one of those things where you say something quickly, it was that question of, What are we supposed to be doing? — and what I said was, ‘To comfort the wounded and undermine the strategies of the selfish.; There is a group of people that are fundamentally selfish, What’s in it for me, me, me, me, the whole me thing. More money for them is more heartbreak for Third World people. I want to undermine that. Not destroy it or burn people at the stake, just unhinge it. I know capitalism is such a whipping boy, but at the stage at which it is practiced in the modern world, it’s lethal.”

A bit more …

Every startup wants to disrupt something but it has clouded what it means to produce progressive change,” Ian Bogost writes in an article for WIRED, titled Startups need to ‘stop disrupting and start innovating’.

“For years, ‘disruption’ has been the rallying cry of the business of tech,” he writes. “And through tech’s influence, disruption has become valued in education, governance and day-to-day life. But there is a bigger idea than upsetting and tearing things asunder: embracing them as they already are and finding respectful, true — and therefore pleasurable and beneficial — ways of improving them.”

For tech innovators, the doubtful or the curious become opponents of the supposedly obvious need to ‘disrupt taxis.’

But the rhetoric of disruption makes it hard to raise doubts about technology companies. “Critics worry that Uber and Airbnb flout local regulation, or that Facebook […] undermines the independence and viability of the news media,” Bogost argues. Such ideas, however, are seen as retrograde attacks on progress itself. Disruptors frame themselves as revolutionaries, and in parallel their targets become oppressors.

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Illustration: Anna Wray

“The irony of purported disruptors such as Uber is that they often offer incremental improvements anyway. They demonstrate that real and lasting change comes from taking something for what it is and finding ways to marry it to compelling novelty. In Uber’s case, that meant making it possible to hail a car via smartphone, and building a network to make that app effective anywhere.”

Truly creative individuals are not islands unto themselves, but participants in industries, organisations, families and communities, Bogost writes “To make progress by promising to dispose of the inconvenient is not to innovate, but to impede. […] Real progress comes from playing within the limitations of multiple materials in order to find novelty that betters all who participate.”

According to Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD, cosmopolitanism is not the same as globalization. In an article for Harvard Business Review, titled In Defense of Cosmopolitanism, he writes:

“One is a fragile personal attitude, the other is a relentless socio-economic force. One strives to humanize the different, the other to homogenize it. One celebrates curiosity, the other convenience. (Curiosity is often inconvenient.) One is embracing, the other expansive. One is easy to lose, the other hard to stop. Nationalism and globalization are more similar to each other than to cosmopolitanism, that way. And cosmopolitanism is what might help us counter nationalism and humanize globalization, pushing it to be a vehicle of freedom and opportunity for most, not just a privileged few.”

“I have always considered ‘tolerance’ a highly problematic concept: it is today considered to describe a positive attribute, when in fact it refers to a rather negative one,” says pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim in It will take more than tolerance to protect human rights.

“This ambivalence was succinctly put by Goethe, who, in one of his Maxims and Reflections, stated: ‘Tolerance should really only be a passing attitude: it should lead to appreciation. To tolerate is to offend.’”

“For me, one of the very good things about Trump [winning] is that it really discredits the whole Silicon Valley complacency, language and culture,” Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas said, speaking exclusively to Dezeen. “Every single Silicon Valley company contributed to making ‘disrupt’ a fashionable word, and they are now moaning about the disruption of this election.”

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Rem Koolhaas (Photograph from Dezeen)

He also said that “in the last 10–15 years we have almost exclusively looked at cities.” Almost all of our intellectual activity is focused on urban issues. “This focus has made us blind to what is happening in the countryside,” where dramatic changes are taking place including the robotisation of both agricultural and industrial production.

“The issue of automation clearly already has an enormous impact,” Koolhaas said. “In architecture there’s simply no awareness that in the near future we may have to plan buildings for machines rather than for human beings. I don’t know what that could be, because for machines you don’t need handicapped access, you can be harsh. It will have an effect on everything.”

New York is losing its character to a new wave of skyscrapers according to architect Richard Meier, who is known for his use of white, on projects like Douglas House, finished in 1973 and recently added to the USA’s National Register of Historic Places. In an exclusive interview with Dezeen, Meier — who, at 82, is one of America’s most respected architects and one of the last of the 20th-century modernists still practicing — said that New York’s latest towers are an insult to the city.

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Richard Meier’s Douglas House, Harbor Springs, US. (Photograph by James Haefner)
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Detail from Douglas House, Harbor Springs, US. (Photograph by James Haefner)
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Detail from Douglas House, Harbor Springs, US. (Photograph by Scott Frances)

“There’s a scale to New York as there is a scale to London, and that’s what makes the city great,” said Meier, whose office overlooks the controversial Hudson Yards development. “That’s started changing — the way it is now, it’s disrespectful to the whole city,” he said. “This is not Kuala Lumpur, it’s New York. New York has a quality to it and you have to respect the context.”

One of the buildings singled out for particular criticism is Rafael Viñoly’s 432 Park Avenue residential tower, which is, according to Oliver Wainwright, one of the top 10 building of 2016 (#10). Meier, however, finds it ridiculous, and out of scale. “If you want to go out for a bottle of milk, it’s a half hour to go up and down. I don’t know how people are going to live there.”

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Meier said buildings like the Rafael Viñoly-designed 432 Park Avenue were “disrespectful” to New York.
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“Anything of a serious nature isn’t ‘instant.’ You can’t ‘do’ the Sistine Chapel in one hour.” — Leonard Bernstein

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