Random finds (2017, week 27-28) — On what we get wrong about technology, a pluralist, and the pop-up employer

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne

Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets, and reflection of my curiosity.

What we get wrong about technology

Forget flying cars or humanoid robots, the most disruptive inventions are often cheap, simple and easy to overlook, says Tim Harford in What we get wrong about technology.

“Forecasting the future of technology has always been an entertaining but fruitless game. Nothing looks more dated than yesterday’s edition of Tomorrow’s World. But history can teach us something useful: not to fixate on the idea of the next big thing, the isolated technological miracle that utterly transforms some part of economic life with barely a ripple elsewhere. Instead, when we try to imagine the future, the past offers two lessons. First, the most influential new technologies are often humble and cheap. Mere affordability often counts for more than the beguiling complexity of an organic robot such as Rachael [the heroine of the Ridley Scott’s dystopian film Blade Runner]. Second, new inventions do not appear in isolation, as Rachael and her fellow androids did. Instead, as we struggle to use them to their best advantage, they profoundly reshape the societies around us.”

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Illustrations (above and below): Matt Murphy for The Financial Times.

Many world-changing inventions hide in plain sight — too cheap to remark on, even as they quietly reorder everything. “We might call this the ‘toilet-paper principle,’ says Harford.

“It’s not hard to find examples of the toilet-paper principle, once you start to look. The American west was reshaped by the invention of barbed wire, which was marketed by the great salesman John Warne Gates with the slogan: ‘Lighter than air, stronger than whiskey, cheaper than dust.’ Barbed wire enabled settlers to fence in vast areas of prairie cheaply. Joseph Glidden patented it in 1874; just six years later, his factory produced enough wire annually to circle the world 10 times over. Barbed wire’s only advantage over wooden fencing was its cost but that was quite sufficient to cage the wild west, where the simple invention prevented free-roaming bison and cowboys’ herds of cattle from trampling crops. Once settlers could assert control over their land, they had the incentive to invest in and improve it. Without barbed wire, the American economy — and the trajectory of 20th-century history — might have looked very different.”

Some technologies transcend the simple pragmatism of paper or barbed wire to produce effects that would have seemed miraculous to earlier generations. “But they take time to reshape the economic systems around us — much more time than you might expect. No discovery fits that description more aptly than electricity, barely comprehended at the beginning of the 19th century but harnessed and commodified by its end.”

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If the fourth industrial revolution delivers on its promise, what lies ahead?, Harford wonders. “Super-intelligent AI, perhaps? Killer robots? Telepathy: Elon Musk’s company, Neuralink, is on the case. Nanobots that live in our blood, zapping tumours? Perhaps, finally, Rachael?”

Following the toilet-paper principle, we should be paying as much attention to the cheapest technologies as to the most sophisticated. “Whatever the technologies of the future turn out to be,” Harford writes, “they are likely to demand that, like the factories of the early 20th century, we change to accommodate them. Genuinely revolutionary inventions live up to their name: they change almost everything, and such transformations are by their nature hard to predict.”

One clarifying idea that has been proposed by economists Daron Acemoglu and David Autor. They argue that when we study the impact of technology on the workplace, we should view work in bite-sized chunks — tasks rather than jobs. […] A task-based analysis of labour and automation suggests that jobs themselves aren’t going away any time soon — and that distinctively human skills will be at a premium. When humans and computers work together, says Autor, the computers handle the ‘routine, codifiable tasks’ while amplifying the capabilities of the humans, such as ‘problem-solving skills, adaptability and creativity.’

But there are also signs that new technologies have polarised the labour market, with more demand for both the high-end skills and the low-end ones, and a hollowing out in the middle. If human skills are now so valuable, that low-end growth seems like a puzzle — but the truth is that many distinctively human skills are not at the high end. While Jane Austen, Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso exhibited human skills, so does the hotel maid who scrubs the toilet and changes the bed. We’re human by virtue not just of our brains, but our sharp eyes and clever fingers.”

The Pluralist

3:AM Magazine published an interview with philosopher and the author of Natural Moralities: A Defense of Pluralistic Relativism, David B. Wong, titled The Pluralist. Two main areas of Wong’s research are the nature and extent of moral differences and similarities across and within societies (and how these differences and similarities bear on questions about the objectivity and universality of morality), and, secondly, the attempt to understand morality naturalistically as arising from the attempt of human beings to structure their cooperation and to convey to each other what kinds of lives they have found to be worth living.

One of the things Wong discusses in this interview is whether we should aim to preserve cultures:

“[…] The things we call cultures are dynamic, internally diverse, and their interpretation is internally contested among its members. I have suggested that cultures are like ongoing conversations with many voices, often telling stories about who ‘we’ are. An ongoing conversation can contain themes (beliefs, values, practices) that catch on. They become dominant voices in the conversation in the sense that many members assent to them, including many of the most powerful ones who are in positions to put economic and political power behind these themes. But these themes are typically very general, and they will always receive different interpretations.

Furthermore, a culture will likely contain themes that are in tension with the dominant ones. The conversation I call culture will often take the form of point and counterpoint. In the Chinese tradition, Confucian values and practices express the theme of the deeply social nature of human beings and point to the family as a model for harmonious social relationship. But Daoist texts will point to the oppressive and suffocating aspects of the human social world and instead present the alternative of our membership in a world much greater than the human world, one that we should be learning from and becoming attuned to.

[…]

Sustaining cultures in the face of globalization is the ethical task of thinking about what is valuable in cultures (both valuable in itself as a work of art is and valuable to its members because cultures provide the makings of their practical identities, helps them to see who they are in the world and what they are about). The ethical task involves seeing whether there are ways that enable people to continue transmitting, interpreting, and revising their cultures. Of course, we know that global capitalism, and the commercially driven culture that comes with it, can be a powerful solvent, but many of us who benefit from it economically can regret the effect it has on our own lives as well as on the lives of others, and we should not view ourselves as helpless in the face of an irresistible force, especially since we may very well be complicit. We should be prepared to help others or to leave them be to sustain their cultures if we judge that they are of intrinsic value or of value to their members.”

But doesn’t this idea that we should preserve cultures speak to the actual situation which isn’t diversity and plurality but an increasing homogeneity?, Richard Marshall, who conducts the interview, wonders. In which case, doesn’t this threaten the requirement for any sort of relativism? Isn’t the problem that languages and cultures are disappearing at a rapid rate and ‘sameness’ not ‘difference’ is the issue we face?

According to Wong, “Perhaps depressingly, both sameness and difference are issues for us. A sign of cultural homogenization is that languages are disappearing at an alarming rate. I am heartened by signs that some peoples are fighting back, e.g., the revitalization of the language of the Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts. But if we reject essentialism about culture, we will be cautious about overgeneralizing about what homogenization is and to what degree it exists. If we think of cultures as dynamic, internally diverse and contested, we will be aware that what looks like homogenization may be deeper down this more complicated thing. I think, and hope, this more complicated picture is to some degree correct.”

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“The silver lining of Brexit and Trump is that it has undermined the perception that globalization is an unstoppable force, whether or not we think it is a good thing or a bad thing.”

“I do fear that global capitalism is making us more like each other in regrettable ways, e.g., more people are increasingly captivated by spectacles of violence and aggression or of conspicuous consumption that are the subjects of the most commercially viable films across countries precisely because they don’t depend for their appeal on cultural fine points (a punch in the face means pretty much the same thing around the world); and more people are prone to deal with others on a purely instrumental and impersonal basis. My hope is that in different parts of the world, different kinds of hybridization are occurring, and that some of these kinds will point out the (plural!) ways we could live well with each other.

At the same time, the demonization of Islam and immigrants shows that perception of difference remains one of our biggest problems, and maybe always will be for a species that began in small groups competing with other groups for resources. These apparently competing forces for sameness and difference sometimes even seem to be mutually reinforcing. The homogenizing force of globalization tends to make many people feel they are on the losing side, economically and culturally, and it is they who are most easily turned against those ‘others’ who are demonized by demagogues. And then feelings of exclusion, persecution and oppression on the part of the demonized exacerbate the sense of alienation and anger.

[…]

The silver lining of Brexit and Trump is that it has undermined the perception that globalization is an unstoppable force, whether or not we think it is a good thing or a bad thing. There have always been losers and as well as winners in this process, and cultural minorities have been among the most vulnerable losers. Now that sizable numbers of people in the most advanced economies have made their grievances felt in a fashion that is hard to ignore, we must address the genuine case to be made for those grievances while rejecting the repellant uses to which some reactionary groups and demagogues have put those feelings of grievance.”

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Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are one.” — A Li Tang style painting portraying three men laughing by a river stream (12th century, Song dynasty).

When asked what value Daoism, or, more specifically, the Daoist version of simplicity can have to the contemporary question about the good life, Wong replies:

“The Daoist appeal to simplicity can be very appealing to the many of us who feel that contemporary life is overwhelming. ‘Less is more’ can be a call to identify what it is we really need and appreciate doing for its own sake, as opposed to what we have been socialized into wanting, often to our detriment, or becoming consumed by activity that we would never do for its own sake but only for the sake of something else.

One kind of simplicity celebrated in Daoism is intuitive and particularly efficacious mode of action, illustrated in the Zhuangzi by stories of extraordinary skill such as Butcher Ding’s dance-like carving of an ox. The carving is simple by virtue of its felt immediacy and ease, by its relative lack of reflective self-monitoring. I say ‘relative’ because there is a moment in the story where the butcher encounters a difficult spot in the ox and has to slow down and take self-conscious care before proceeding. This is an important qualification and should put us on alert to ways in which this intuitive skillful activity turns out to be a complex achievement.

First, it takes a long period of methodical self-conscious practice to get to the level of relative ease and automaticity. Second, it is a mode of action that in practice takes into account the finest differences between situations. For the butcher each ox is different. The Cook’s intuitive cutting is exquisitely responsive to each ox as it is, even if no self-conscious thought records the differences between oxen. Indeed, the kind of simplicity displayed by this sort of intuitive activity seems to be tied up with this exquisite responsiveness. People become able to perform specially skilled and effortless actions such as the Butcher’s through a period of training that enables them to perform without conscious self-direction the component actions that form the infrastructure of the activity as a whole. The training, that is, allows them to execute the basics without thinking about them, and this in turn allows conscious awareness to fully focus on those aspects of the situation or activity that make for true skill. Thus the Butcher no longer has to pay conscious attention to the mechanics of the component actions that constitute cutting. His knife has become more like an extension of his hand and body while slicing through the spaces and joints of the ox. He is able to focus on the feel of the blade as it slides through the spaces and joints.

The skill level achieved is analogous to that of a musician who has mastered the technique of playing her instrument and who is freed to focus her attention on the music as she makes it, rather than, say the correct technique for bowing a violin. There is complex virtuosity that is displayed in this skilled intuitive action, and it is made possible by a kind of simplicity relative to action constantly guided by reflective self-monitoring. The simplicity of this kind of intuitive activity, then, is consistent with complex skills of discrimination in perception and response, of the type Rawls valued in fact! However, the activity is simple in the following sense: it is worth doing for its own sake, even if it is useful for other things we may want. Less is more when we can focus on doing what it is we want to be doing for its own sake.”

And this …

According to Stanford professors Melissa Valentine and Michael Bernstein, ‘flash organizations’ or ephemeral setups to execute a single, complex project in ways traditionally associated with corporations, nonprofit groups or governments suddenly seem a viable form across a number of industries.

“Temporary organizations capable of taking on complicated projects have existed for decades, of course, perhaps nowhere more prominently than in Hollywood, where producers assemble teams of directors, writers, actors, costume and set designers and a variety of other craftsmen and technicians to execute projects with budgets in the tens if not hundreds of millions,” Noam Scheiber writes in The Pop-Up Employer: Build a Team, Do the Job, Say Goodbye.

“In principle, many companies would find it more cost-effective to increase staff members as needed than to maintain a permanent presence. The reason they do not, economists have long argued, is that the mechanics of hiring, training and monitoring workers separately for each project can be prohibitively expensive.

But Ms. Valentine, who studies management science, and Mr. Bernstein, a computer scientist, note that technology is sharply lowering these costs. ‘Computation, we think, has an opportunity to dramatically shift several costs in a way that traditional organizations haven’t realized,’ Mr. Bernstein said. “It’s way easier to search for people, bargain and contract with them.’”

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Illustration: CreditMinh Uong for The New York Times.

One of the lessons that stands out across flash-type models is the importance of well-established roles. “Sociologists and organizational theorists have marveled for decades at the way disaster response teams or emergency room trauma units pull off complex tasks, even if they have never met before, because the division of labor is understood. The same goes for flash teams.” According to Melissa Valentine, “One thing that was really surprising and exciting about what we saw was how quickly flash organizations developed solidarity and collective behavior.”

“This could be a potent force among many in the future,” according to her colleague, Michael Bernstein. “From a policy perspective, we have to figure out how to empower labor when contracts last a few minutes or a few weeks.”

Silicon Valley doesn’t look so good, says Allison Arieff in One Thing Silicon Valley Can’t Seem to Fix. “The built environment of the Valley does not reflect the innovation that’s driving the region’s stratospheric growth; it looks instead like the 1950s. Looking at aerial views of midcentury campuses like the Eero Saarinen-designed Bell Labs next to contemporary ones like Apple, it’s nearly impossible to tell the midcentury structures from the 21st-century ones,” Arieff writes.

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The new Apple headquarters under construction in Cupertino, Calif. (Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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Bell Labs in Holmdel, N.J., designed by Eero Saarinen in the late 1950s. (Photograph: Leland R. Beaumont)

“I’ve spent the last year researching the future of the corporate campus — not with the goal of accommodating the desires of all those curious tourists, but through the lens of urbanism. The project has explored how the Bay Area’s workplaces might become more socially, economically and sustainably efficient, but also how applying new ways of thinking about the design, form and location of these buildings could help create a sense of place. It’s become somewhat urgent — the world’s leading innovation region is seeing many warning signs that its continued success is not a given. […] Solving this isn’t rocket science; it’s common sense. Don’t design buildings that function only as pristine objects with no relationship to their surroundings. Don’t put workplaces in locations inaccessible to transit. Do consider the broader context.”

Arieff wonders why we remain wedded to the old suburban, car-dependent model for workplaces. “If autonomous vehicles (or even flying ones) are truly imminent, why are we building millions of square feet of supposedly soon-to-be-obsolete parking spaces? With so many studies touting the benefits of walkable, bike-able and transit-accessible environments, why are we designing in such a way that makes long, painful commutes inevitable?”

One can’t point a finger solely at the companies themselves. “[T]he public sector, the community and the private sector all need to collectively tackle these problems. And these aren’t Bay Area-specific issues (though they may be felt most acutely here). As cities everywhere […] clamor to be ‘the next Silicon Valley,’ they would do well, frankly, to take some lessons from this region to learn what not to do.”

Silicon Valley is living in a bubble of technology that’s not accessible to the rest of the world. According to Jan Dawson in an article for Recode, “The tech industry is missing out on another form of diversity — exposure to those parts of the U.S. and the world where many of the services that Bay Area residents take for granted are simply not available.”

“A tech worker living in San Jose can likely commute to work using Uber or Lyft or a number of other tech-based transportation services, order lunch through Postmates, and get groceries delivered at night from Instacart, Amazon Fresh or Google Express. But many of those services aren’t available (or in some cases relevant) in much of the rest of the country.

Living in such an environment and among other people who are benefiting from the rise of technology alternatives to traditional services, it must be tempting to think of these innovations as unmitigated boons to mankind. Of course, it’s often in the rest of the country where the negative impacts of these changes are felt, as jobs get sucked out of rural and suburban areas, either to disappear completely or to be replaced in high-tech zones. Engineers who only ever see the tech-infused version of the world they live in can have little conception of the impact it causes elsewhere, or the way the other half — or more accurately, the other 99 percent — lives.”

“Silicon Valley is supposed to be a place where a couple of guys in a garage or a dorm room can start companies that change the world. It happened with Apple and Microsoft in the 1970s, AOL in the 1980s, Amazon, Yahoo, and Google in the 1990s, and Facebook in the 2000s. But the 2010s seem to be suffering from a startup drought. People are still starting startups, of course. But the last really big tech startup success, Facebook, is 13 years old,” Timothy B. Lee writes in The end of the internet startup.

Lee provides us with a number of reasons. First, he says, technology giants acquire early and often. “These acquisitions proved to be hugely significant,” Lee writes. “One ranking shows WhatsApp and YouTube as the internet’s top social networks after Facebook. Instagram is next on the list if you ignore Chinese sites. If these companies had remained independent, they easily could have emerged as major competitors to Google and Facebook. Instead, they became one more piece of the Google and Facebook empires.”

Second, tech companies that remain independent face tough competition. This can be a powerful inducement for independent startups to sell to the incumbents, but “not every technology startup accepts the giants’ acquisition offers. Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel, for example, turned down a $3 billion acquisition offer from Mark Zuckerberg in 2013, then took his company, renamed Snap, public in 2017.”

A third reason is that modern consumer technology startups need massive warchests. While the costs of building an online service are cheaper than ever, companies spend millions of dollars on advertising to get their app or service in front of potential users. And a large share of that money flows to Google and Facebook.

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Snap co-founders Bobby Murphy and Evan Spiegel rejected Mark Zuckerberg’s overtures and took the company public. (Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

According to Lee, it’s important not to overstate these critiques. “Because for all the challenges modern startups face, there’s little doubt that a startup with a truly revolutionary mass-market product would find a way to reach customers. I think that ultimately, there’s a lot of merit to the low-hanging fruit hypothesis: We haven’t seen any big new internet companies emerge because there’s a finite number of opportunities to build big, lucrative online services.

[…]

[E]ven if incumbents like Google, Facebook, and Amazon continue to dominate the market for online services, that doesn’t mean they’ll remain the leaders of technology innovation more broadly. Rather, innovation may shift in dramatically different directions — toward electric cars and delivery drones, for example, rather than smartphone apps. We’ve gotten used to thinking of Silicon Valley, the internet, and innovation as interchangeable, but the next wave of innovation might look very different from what we’re used to.”

Katrin Bennhold wrote an intriguing article about the fight for the future between London’s black cabs and Uber. “London’s cabby wars are less about the disruptive power of an app, or a new business model, than about the disruption of Britain,” she says. They “echo the culture wars that fueled Britain’s vote last summer to leave the European Union — and that have brutally flared up again in recent weeks: immigrant versus native, old versus new, global versus national.”

Bennhold tells the story of Uber driver Zahra Bakkali, daughter of Moroccan immigrants, and taxi driver Paul Walsh, son of a north London construction worker. “For Mrs. Bakkali, black cabs have become a byword for populism and racism. For Mr. Walsh, Uber is shorthand for everything he believes is wrong with globalization — and proof that successive governments have failed hard-working citizens like him,” Bennhold writes. But despite their differences, they both want the same thing: “to claw their way into the middle class and give their children a shot at a better life. Yet they are on opposite sides of a kind of low-level guerrilla warfare on London’s streets.”

A highly recommended read with beautiful photographs by Andrew Testa. Katrin Bennhol also moderated a discussion between both drivers who met and and talked about their two worlds on camera. You can watch the video on Facebook.

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Zahra Bakkali preparing her car for a shift as an Uber driver. She immigrated from Morocco in 1997 and started driving for Uber last year. (Photograph: Andrew Testa for The New York Times)
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Paul Walsh driving his black cab. Uber, he said, is not just killing a business model: “It’s killing a culture.” (Photograph: Andrew Testa for The New York Times)
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Black-cab drivers prepared signs for a protest in which they blamed Uber for an array of wrongs and Britain’s government for siding with the ride-hailing service. (Photograph: Andrew Testa for The New York Times)

“Mr. Walsh accepts that black cabs have been slow to adapt to change. Credit-card machines were made mandatory only last fall. Ride-hailing apps for black cabs remain fragmented. But he believes that his brain can beat a navigation system any day. Years ago, he took part in a research project at University College London that found that memorizing a map of the city resulted in an enlarged hippocampus.

‘Cabdrivers’ brains are bigger,’ Mr. Walsh said proudly.

Navigation systems do not know nicknames like the Policeman’s Hook. They cannot deal with incomplete addresses and do not know the best shortcuts when traffic is bad. And they cannot tell you where to buy the best salt beef bagels.

‘We’re still better than the machines,’ he said. ‘But who will come and protect us?’”

Alison Abbott wrote about the Venice Time Machine, the machine-learning project that will analyse 1,000 years of maps and manuscripts in order to reconstruct the social networks of ancient Venice, the only European city deemed worthy of inclusion in the great philosopher Ibn Khaldun’s late 14th century world map.

“The project, which is lead by computer scientist Frédéric Kaplan, will scan documents including maps, monographs, manuscripts and sheet music. It promises not only to open up reams of hidden history to scholars, but also to enable the researchers to search and cross-reference the information, thanks to advances in machine-learning technologies.

If it succeeds, it will pave the way for an even more ambitious project to link similar time machines in Europe’s historic centres of culture and commerce, revealing in unprecedented detail how social networks, trade and knowledge have developed over centuries across the continent. It would serve as a Google and Facebook for generations long past, says Kaplan, who directs the Digital Humanities Laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL).”

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Venice, as depicted in Ibn Khaldun’s late 14th century world map.

“Kaplan has spent his career applying artificial intelligence in the humanities, mostly in linguistics. He has modelled the evolution of language, for example, by using AI to search centuries of newspaper reports for patterns of words and phrases. But he had always yearned to apply these techniques to building a time machine in a European city with a couple of centuries’ worth of archives. His thoughts first turned to Paris, Amsterdam or Geneva, Switzerland. But when the rectors of EPFL and the Ca’Foscari University of Venice decided to collaborate and called for ideas, he immediately offered to develop his time-machine idea for Venice. He vividly recalls the first time he entered the archives, in 2012. Time stands still in the warren of more than 300 rooms, which are neither air-conditioned nor heated. In winter they are bitingly cold, in summer stiflingly hot. The fragile documents are stacked floor to ceiling, and occasional flakes of yellowing paper drift down from their edges. ‘I felt completely overwhelmed,’ he says. ‘Seeing what a 1,000 archive looks like, knowing that most of it was not available — I knew we needed to do it,’” Abbott writes.

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The Venice Time Machine can link citizens and businesses with historic maps, such as this 16th century view of the city. (Photograph: EPFL/Archivio di Stato)

“Kaplan hopes that Venice is just a starting point. The Venice Time Machine has applied, with partners around Europe, to become one of the next billion-euro flagship programmes funded by the European Union. […]

The unbridled ambitions of the time-machine project are a concern for some researchers, not least because many of its core technologies are still being developed. ‘The vision of extending digital representation into different time slots is absolutely, self-evidently right — but it might be better to develop things more in a lot of different, small projects,’ says Jürgen Renn, a digital-humanities pioneer and a director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.

Nevertheless, [Lorraine] Daston [a director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin] suspects that the time machine heralds a new era of historical study. ‘We historians were baptized with the dust of archives,’ she says. ‘The future may be different.’”

A virtual time machine for Venice. (Video: nature video)

Typography determines if you trust your news sources, says Leeron Hoory in an article for Quartz. Visual design elements are important filters for readers to gauge authenticity online.

“Typography not only creates familiarity with readers, but it’s also a large part of how publications establish authenticity and trust with their audience. On the surface level, a badly designed or ill-considered site influences how seriously readers view the content. ‘If you’re interviewing people to work in a law firm and they show up in jeans, they’re telling you they don’t take this job seriously. Type can do the same thing,’ renowned type designer Tobias Frere-Jones told Quartz. ‘It can support the content that’s being delivered, fight against it, or undermine it.’”

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If you blink, you miss it. (Photograph: Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

“According to a recent report PEW Research Center, more than 60% of Americans turn to social media for news, and as social media has increased the amount of information we are presented with online, it has also reduced the time we have to process it. A lot of the information coming through these news feeds isn’t credible or factually correct, but we usually only have a split second to decide whether a link looks credible enough to click on it. Because of this, type allows us to quickly make subconscious judgement calls on an article’s validity.”

‘I think subconsciously there are design filters our mind goes through,’ says Samuel Berlow, CEO of Type Network. ‘We scan the URL, and then we look at the color scheme and the logo, and then…we absorb the typography.’ In this way, before we even start reading an article on an unfamiliar site, there are considerations that we process. These visual design elements become important filters for readers to gauge authenticity online. ‘If there’s enough validity, you’ll scroll down and look at the text,’ Berlow says.

The goal of fake-news outlets is to get through those validity filters. In order to do this, they must take on the challenge of mimicking the design and typographic elements of a credible news outlet. But designing typography is a lot more complex than it appears to the average reader. ‘It’s a difficult process because it takes a lot of design, and coordinating the logos with the headlines, the text, the column widths, the visuals, the illustrations and the pictures,’ Berlow says. ‘All of those things combined create legitimacy.’”

And finally, the Dutch architect and co-founder of MVRDV, Winy Maas at DESIGN INDABA, talking about the future of architecture and how he is unlocking the potential of buildings in overcrowded cities.

“If you are reading this while sitting in one of the world’s big cities chances are that you’re in a tall grey-looking building overlooking several more of them. For Rotterdam-based architect Winy Maas, unlocking these kinds of built-up areas and creating new spaces in our overcrowded cities is one of his curiosities. Instead of rows and rows of skyscrapers, Maas says he is interested in unlocking those spaces and making them greener and more communal.”

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The Dutch architect and co-founder of MVRDV, Winy Maas.

“One example he showed is of a building in Rotterdam that was transformed just by adding a flight of stairs that lead from the ground floor all the way to the rooftop. That way many visitors can come to a site that was not always accessible to them. Instead the building becomes a place to hang out on the roof, take pictures or have fashion shows along the stairs and simply a way of attracting visitors to the city. Maas says a simple solution like this can work to unlock many other similar buildings in cities around the world.

Maas, of MVRDV, says he is not that interested in the current move towards open-source design, preferring instead to look at how to improve on what is already there: ‘I don’t care about open source. I don’t care for it. We have to use things from the past, bring it further [into the future] and develop it.’

He says that is what he, along with his PHD and master’s students, spend their time thinking about. ‘We have built up everything. There is too many of us here. What is the alternative?’ he asks.

A clever solution they came up with is to create the illusion of space in a high street by making bricks out of glass. For Crystal House, instead of bricks, the bottom half of the building is made out of glass bricks, making the high street look like something made of ice.

He says that as a result: ‘everyone wants to touch the building. That is what I am most proud of. I finally made a building like the Taj Mahal that everyone wants to touch.’”

Also: Asian cities have best urban design, says Winy Maas (dezeen).

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One of MVRDV’s many projects in Asia is a sunken lagoon park in the Taiwanese city Tainan.
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The Seated Boxer, Museo delle Terme, Rome. (Photograph: Bradley Weber/Flickr)

“Surprisingly enough, then, the idea that Greece ‘just ain’t what it used to be’ originated in classical Athens. Like many other classical Athenian ideas, it has also had remarkable staying power. Now, however, the inimitable ancestors in question are no longer the Athenian Marathonomachai, but rather the ‘ancient Greeks’ as an imagined whole. This is one lesson from classical Athens that often goes overlooked: once a society has proclaimed its own decline, compelling new chapters of greatness become all the more difficult to write.’ — Johanna Hanink, an associate professor of classics at Brown University in Rhode Island, in Even the ancient Greeks thought their best days were history.

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