Random finds (2017, week 9) — On grassroots algorithms, short-lived Utopian communities, and shared creativity

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Soulages Museum in Rodez, France, by Pritzker Architecture Prize 2017 winner RCR Arquitectes.

“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 a reflection of my curiosity.

On grassroots algorithms

“Silicon Valley dominates the internet — and that prevents us from learning more deeply about other people, cultures, and places,” writes the author of Whose Global Village? Rethinking How Technology Impacts Our World, Ramesh Srinivasan in Silicon Valley has designed algorithms to reflect your biases, not disrupt them.

“The most prominent and globally used social media networks and search engines — Facebook and Google — are produced and shaped by engineers from corporations based in Europe and North America. As a result, technologies used by nearly 2 billion people worldwide reflect the design perspectives of the limited few from the West who have power over how these systems are developed.”

But the problem, says Srinivasan, goes far beyond filter bubbles. Over the next 100 years, an estimated half of the world’s 7,000 languages will be lost, and with them, the cultural meanings and values they stand for. “If the internet is to be part of a process of countering rather than aiding this trend, we need to reimagine technological connectivity in ways that are centered around the beliefs, values, and agendas of diverse peoples.” Otherwise we risk retreating deeper into global homogeny.

“If the perfect search engine is to be ‘like the mind of God,’ as once stated by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, should it not support the perspectives of the voiceless in our world? Instead of blindly accepting the Internet systems that shape our world, we can open up the cultural and political values that shape the design and engineering practices of these technologies.” — Ramesh Srinivasan

“We must learn from cultural differences rather than give into a misguided narrative of digital universality, which is a perspective whereby one presumes the experiences of all people, regardless of place or culture in relation to new technology, are the same. Embracing our differences means not taking users from different cultures and places for granted. We should design interfaces that shape how information is circulated and shared in ways that are consistent with the diverse cultures and communities that have begun to use internet technologies.”

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Next to being a writer, Ramesh Srinivasan is the Director of the Digital Cultures Lab and a Associate Professor of Information Studies and Design and Media Arts at the University of California.

Many of today’s technologies are encoded with Western biases, and we see these algorithms as untouchable and illusory. They conduct incredibly powerful tasks that affect our lives without us having any knowledge or control. But instead, Srinivasan argues, these algorithms should be the vehicle for grassroots cultural expression. User communities can categorize, organize, and design models by which information can be retrieved in various systems. Cultural knowledge can often be thought of in structural manners around how people choose to define and connect concepts with one another.

“We can think about algorithms similarly. We must now turn our gaze to the vast range of communities and cultures implicated in the global technology revolution, and think about how technology can support, rather than blur, our cultural differences.”

Bamboo-framed canopy shades Bangladesh community centre by Schilder Scholte. (source: dezeen)

In his recent open letter, Building Global Community, Mark Zuckerberg uses the term ‘community(ies)’ over 100 times. “I do not think it means what he thinks it means,” says Britney Summit-Gil in Facebook Is Not A Community.

“Facebook is a community. The city you live in is a community. The local university is a community. Your workplace is a community. Regardless of the actual characteristics of these social units, they get framed as communities. But more often than not, they are not communities. This is not merely a semantic distinction; it has important consequences for how we think about governance, scales of human interaction, norms and values, and politics.

[…]

But in reality, community serves us best when it is treated as a specific type of human relationship. It is a social unit based on voluntary association, shared beliefs and values, and contribution without the expectation of direct compensation. […] You know it when you see it. Or rather, you know it when you feel it, because community is ultimately an affective, emotional connection to other people.”

“And despite all the criticisms of Zuckerberg’s letter published in various media outlets, you need only look at the comments on his post to see that it’s working. The leader has given his people happy, tingly, community feelings.” — Britney Summit-Gil

“Facebook should not be thought of or presented as a community because it can never be governed as a community should be — based on egalitarian and horizontal decision making, a set of specific shared norms and values (not ‘safety’ and ‘engagement’ but rather ‘keeping the block clean’ or ‘supporting public schools’), and based not on profit and information gathering but on mutual aid without the expectation of direct compensation.”

More on Zuckerberg’s manifesto in last week’s Random Finds (2017, week 8).

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Hiroshi Sambuichi creates sculptural roofs over Naoshima community centre. (source: dezeen)
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On short-lived Utopian communities

Most utopian communities are, like most start-ups, short-lived. What makes the difference between failure and success?, Alexa Clay wonders in Utopia Inc. Clay is “a writer and researcher in pursuit of misfit subcultures.” and the co-author of The Misfit Economy (2015).

What’s interesting is that attrition rates for intentional communities are not all that different from many other types of human endeavour. Failure rate for start-ups is around 90 per cent, and the longevity of most companies is dismal. Is it therefore realistic the expect more longevity from experimental communities? And if not, what can we learn from these experiments? What have been the key factors undermining communitarian living?

“Perhaps the irony is that many of the administrative and managerial forces that individuals are running away from within mainstream society are exactly the organisational tools that would make intentional communities more resilient: that regardless of how much intentional communities with utopian aims seek to step to one side of worldly affairs, they succeed or fail for the very same pragmatic reasons that other human enterprises — notably businesses and start-ups — succeed or fail,” Clay writes.

According to Clay, the real challenge for successful communities comes, as it does inside companies, when core values must pass to the next generation. “Within the entrepreneurial sector, start-up founders tend to be replaced once the characteristic passion that was an asset in catalysing a venture is no longer seen as the best attribute to sustain and grow an organisation. […] More than 50 per cent of founders are replaced as CEOs by the time a start-up raises its third round of financing: after first-round financing, 25 per cent of founders have already been replaced.”

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The Shakers, one of the more successful communities in US history, numbered more than 6,000 at their mid-19th-century height. Their success owed to a religious philosophy of hard work, honesty and frugality, which made them good farmers and artisans — that famous furniture.

“We can learn as much from failed communities as from their successful counterparts. Not least because, while many communities ‘fail,’ their lineage lives on: temporal and short-lived experiments in community have acted as powerful provocations for mainstream society. For example, the ideas of universal and compulsory education, and town meetings, were pioneered by the Puritans. City planning and architecture, likewise, owes much to utopian dreamers. Early utopian communities sought to incubate certain virtues that would later become part of a mainstream ethos. Concerns with inequality, for example, or the abolition of slavery, religious freedom, and a focus on universal education were all notions pioneered in failed utopias.

[…]

In this way, intentional communities and utopias can serve as short-lived petri dishes for emergent culture.”

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Lost utopias: how the world imagined its future. Montreal 1967 World’s Fair, ‘Man and His World’, Habitat ’67 (2012)

Today’s experiments in intentional communities benefit from the ease with which best practice and know-how can travel digitally. Experience, wisdom and insight can be shared with a click. It’s far easier to collaborate, manage projects and make collective decisions. Still, it remains to be seem whether today’s collaborative experiments will create tentacles into more diverse populations or tackle agendas of social justice and economic inequality.

“Perhaps a more useful construct than intentional community is the idea of ‘shadow culture,’ defined by [the late psychologist Eugene] Taylor as a ‘vast unorganised array of discrete individuals who live and think different from the mainstream, but who participate in its daily activities.’ Shadow cultures have the potential to hold distinct values, but also utilise the infrastructure and opportunities of mass society. In many ways, then, utopias are only ever tightly glued pockets of shadow culture that mistakenly parade themselves as isolated entities.”

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Utopia, Ohio, is made up of a few houses, and about 30 inhabitants, along the Ohio River. (Marta Giaccone)

Inspired the history of Utopian communities across the United States, Italian photographer Marta Giaccone decided to find out their fate. Her photo series Systems of Harmony reveals present-day life in these former utopian communities.

In many towns, there is scant history left of their founders’ original hopes. A commemorative plaque stands in the center of only a few. “This simply shows that an idealized, perfect and safe land cannot exist, and the more one tries to protect it and make it inaccessible to alleged enemies, the more one will not succeed,” says Giaccone. (source: QUARTZ)

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A sign along the Ohio River Scenic Byway between Utopia and Higginsport, Ohio. (Marta Giaccone)

A bit more …

RCR Arquitectes, this year’s winners of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, prove that genius isn’t always solitar.

According to says Anne Quito in QUARTZ, “The era of the lone starchitect is ending. The Pritzker Architecture Prize announced today (March 1) that it’s awarding the coveted career-making honor to Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramón Vilalta, three Catalan architects who ardently champion the idea of shared creativity.

‘It’s a source of happiness for us that for the first time, three people have received the prize,’ said Ramon Vilalta in a filmed interview for the Pritzker. ‘It represents what we believe is needed in a complex world: ideas arise in dialogue and conversation. It’s almost a reaction against the contemporary world that has promoted, in an exaggerated way, the value of the individual.’”

From left, Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta have jointly won the Pritzker Prize for architecture. Collaboration is integral to their practice.

“For us, it’s very important to work together — one of the most important things we talk about is shared creativity. It’s not a question of one person; it’s all three. Sometimes we say six hands, one voice.” — Carme Pigem in 3 Win the Pritzker, Long a Prize for Starchitects (The New York Times)

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Soulages Museum, in collaboration with G. Trégouët, 2014, Rodez, France. (Credit: Hisao Suzuki/Pritzker Architecture Prize)

What lay behind Russia’s interference in the 2016 election — and what lies ahead? This is the question that Evan Osnos, David Remnick, and Joshua Yaffa explore in their highly recommended long read in The New Yorker, Trump, Putin, and the New Cold War (issue March 6, 2017).

“No reasonable analyst believes that Russia’s active measures in the United States and Europe have been the dominant force behind the ascent of Trump and nationalist politicians in Europe. Resentment of the effects of globalization and deindustrialization are far more important factors. But many Western Europeans do fear that the West and its postwar alliances and institutions are endangered, and that Trump, who has expressed doubts about nato and showed allegiance to Brexit and similar anti-European movements, cannot be counted on. Although both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis have expressed support for traditional alliances, Trump remains entirely uncritical of Putin. ‘Trump changes the situation from a nato perspective,’ General Shirreff said. ‘The great fear is the neutering of nato and the decoupling of America from European security. If that happens, it gives Putin all kinds of opportunities. If Trump steps back the way he seemed to as a candidate, you might not even need to do things like invade the Baltic states. You can just dominate them anyway. You’re beginning to see the collapse of institutions built to insure our security. And if that happens you will see the re-nationalizing of Europe as a whole.’”

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Illustration by Christiana Couceiro, The New Yorker.

“Strobe Talbott, the former Clinton adviser, said, ‘There is a very real danger not only that we are going to lose a second Cold War — or have a redo and lose — but that the loss will be largely because of a perverse pal-ship, the almost unfathomable respect that Trump has for Putin.’ Talbott believes that Trump, by showing so little regard for the institutions established by the political West in the past seventy years, is putting the world in danger. Asked what the consequences of ‘losing’ such a conflict would be, Talbott said, ‘The not quite apocalyptic answer is that it is going to take years and years and years to get back to where we — we the United States and we the champions of the liberal world order — were as recently as five years ago.’ An even graver scenario, Talbott said, would be an ‘unravelling,’ in which we revert to ‘a dog-eat-dog world with constant instability and conflict even if it doesn’t go nuclear. But, with the proliferation of nuclear powers, it is easy to see it going that way, too.’”

“Friedrich Nietzsche, an almost fanatical walker, once wrote, ‘all truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.’ Friedrich Nietzsche’s mountain walks were athletic, but walking, Frédéric Gros maintains in his A Philosophy of Walking, is not a sport; it is ‘the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found,’” Josh Jones writes in How Walking Fosters Creativity: Stanford Researchers Confirm What Philosophers and Writers Have Always Known.

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‘A Philosophy of Walking,’ by Frédéric Gros. (Illustration: Klaas Verplancke, The New York Times)

“Gros discusses the centrality of walking in the lives of Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Kant, Rousseau, and Thoreau. Likewise, Rebecca Solnit has profiled the essential walks of literary figures such as William Wordsworth, Jane Austen, and Gary Snyder in her book Wanderlust, which argues for the necessity of walking in our own age, when doing so is almost entirely unnecessary most of the time. As great walkers of the past and present have made abundantly clear — anecdotally at least — we observe a significant link between walking and creative thinking.”

More about wandering in The Case for the Flâneuse by Arnav Adhikari, who talked with Lauren Elkin about Flâneuse, her recent book about the forgotten history of women artists who wandered the city and fought back against the masculine notion of the drifter.

“You sort of already know, as a woman, that the space of the city is not made for you. […] It just feels like the urban landscape is not built at the height of a woman, but at the height of a man. We’re also told from an early age to be careful, not to make eye contact, and if someone talks to you on the street, don’t talk back. Women are brought up to feel like we don’t have power out in the city, so we have to be cautious in how we interact with it and in it.” — Lauren Elkin

Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue was beloved for his book Anam Ċara, Gaelic for ‘soul friend,’ and for his insistence on beauty as a human calling. Shortly before his death in 2008, On Being’s Krista Tippett engaged in a wonderful conversation with O’Donohue, The Inner Landscape of Beauty.

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[Krista Tippett] “But if we think, as you’ve suggested, as beauty as relevant to some of the most troubling problems in our world and in ourselves, how do we pursue that calling, given the limitations, given that a lot of what is around us is not visibly, objectively beautiful and may not be?”

[John O’Donohue] “Absolutely, and that’s a very fair question. And you know it’s like in old notions of growth and development there was always this idea, as Noel Hanlon, a poet friend of mine says, you know, in a poem about her daughter, ‘Like me you needed something to push against’ — that somehow we needed something to push against in order to grow. Now there is almost a feeling like as that growth should be delivered to us. And I think that from the way you state it is that it’s a recognition. That there is this dialectic there, that around us the forces are not kind in terms of either recognizing, awakening, or encouraging beauty, but that actually, they should be the impetus and the spur to do it. Now how do we do it?

One way, and I think this is a really lovely way, and I think it’s an interesting question to ask oneself too. And the question is: when is the last time that you had a great conversation, a conversation which wasn’t just two intersecting monologues, which is what passes for conversation a lot in this culture. But when had you last a great conversation, in which you overheard yourself saying things that you never knew you knew? That you heard yourself receiving from somebody words that absolutely found places within you that you thought you had lost and a sense of an event of a conversation that brought the two of you on to a different plane. And then fourthly, a conversation that continued to sing in your mind for weeks afterwards. And I’ve had some of them recently, and it’s just absolutely amazing, as we would say at home, they are food and drink for the soul.

Second thing, I think a question to always, ask oneself, who are you reading? Who are you reading? And where are you stretching your own boundaries? Are you repetitive in that? And one of the first books I read as a child — we had no books at home, but a neighbor of ours had all these books and he brought loads of books, that’s how I ruined my eyes and I have to wear glasses. But one of the first books I read was a book by Willie Sutton, the bank robber, who was doing 30 years for robbing banks. And in the book somebody asked Willie, and they said, ‘Willie why do you rob banks?’ And Willie said, ‘Cause that’s where the money is. And, why do we read books? ’Cause that’s where the wisdom is.”

At the end of their conversation, John O’Donohue reads one of his poems, Beannacht, Gaelic for blessing, in a beautiful Irish accent:

On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.

And when your eyes
Freeze behind
The gray window
And the ghost of loss
Gets in to you,
May a flock of colors,
Indigo, red, green,
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
In the curragh of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.

In a rare interview with Alex Anderson for Kinfolk, German designer Dieter Rams, 84, has called for a return to well-made, long-lasting products, even if it comes at the expense of design innovation.

Rams tells that restrained aesthetics and optimised functionality are key to creating products that will endure, even if these qualities “act as a constraint upon innovation.” His comments reiterate the values he promoted in his Ten Principles for Good Design, which were first published in the late 1970s, and argued that the long-term usefulness of an object is intrinsically linked to how it looks.

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Photograph: © Vitsœ

[Alex Anderson] Does a conflict between practical utility and abstract beauty still encourage innovation in product design, or are there other more assertive mechanisms at play?

[Dieter Rams] “Calm, sober and intellectual surprises should always be possible with design. Practical value and beauty are not mutually exclusive, even today, and they are unlikely to be so in the future either. For me, a restrained aesthetic and function that is as optimized as possible have always been important. These qualities lead to long utilization cycles: The objects do not become visually unbearable after a short time because they have not pushed themselves into the foreground. Certainly, these qualities also act as a constraint upon innovation. We really should consider very carefully whether we constantly need new things. I have been arguing for a long time for less, but better things.”

“The only plausible way forward is the less-but-better way: back to purity, back to simplicity. Simplicity is the key to excellence!” — Dieter Rams

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Braun T 41 transistor radio, by Dieter Rams.
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Dieter Ram’s 10 principles of good design.

“Beauty isn’t all about just nice, loveliness like. Beauty is about more rounded substantial becoming. So I think beauty in that sense is about an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depth, and also a kind of homecoming for the enriched memory of your unfolding life.” — John O’Donohue

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