“Prompt hoarding” and the future of art

Maybe it’s just that I lean towards the verbal over the visual, but the tweet above from Adam Holwerda struck a chord with me. As much as I agree that having serious conversations around algorithmic appropriation of artistic styles and tech firms profiting off of the labour of emerging artists is essential if we want to understand the impact of computer-generated imagery—as someone without much artistic ability, I can’t deny the appeal of being able to come up with ideas for imagery and within seconds seeing how a machine-learning model can approximate my vague visual suggestions. It’s something different from the feeling I get from actual artistic creation, but it was, to put it crudely, neat.

Switch the medium from visual art to the written word, though, and the criticisms of AI hit closer to home for me. The idea that “future writers are hoarders of prompts” strikes me as deeply dystopian, an abdication of the creative impulse to something superficially related but profoundly different. Because it reduces art to strictly something to be consumed, ignoring the other, literally creative side of the creative process—which is a profound and deeply rooted human drive, with its own inherent value for the creator.

The art that machine-learning creates is, in a way, utilitarian. This isn’t to say it can’t also be beautiful, just that regardless of the intent of the prompter, the goal of the software isn’t expression, it is matching a set of specifications. Its decisions stem from some mix of subject and style that is specified in an initial prompt and likely refined through a series of iterations, the text returning an image that inspires tweaks to the prompt, which returns slightly different images, and so on until an image arrives that is either sufficiently close to the prompter’s original vision, or interesting enough in its own right to be chosen as an end point.

In this sense, creating AI art, at least with our current tools and models, is somewhere between a commission and a negotiation (which all commissions are, to some extent). This isn’t to be dismissive of commissioned pieces, which account for a significant portion of Western art’s canonical works—although notably the credit for those works goes to the artist who made it, not the patron who commissioned it. Some artists are creating fascinating and compelling works with AI tools already, and I’m sure those works will only get more sophisticated. But it strikes me as a very different process from what I’ll call “direct creation” for lack of a better term (acknowledging that all artistic creation is mediated and indirect to at least some extent).

Direct creation involves a different sort of negotiation—a constant self-negotiation, both conscious and unconscious, to refine the ideas you’re exploring. This is something I’m much more familiar with in terms of the written word, so I’ll focus on that here: the value of writing for me isn’t in having an idea and formalizing it in words, but in having an impulse and working it through in the process of writing. It can be slow and painful and full of revision; it can be wonderfully quick in rare instances; but however it happens, it’s a process that relies on reflection, self-knowledge, and some degree of personal growth, however small or indirect.

Getting a finished novel that matched your initial idea to a tee strikes me as almost a monkey’s paw situation. It eliminates the possibility for growth in the artistic process, replacing it with something closer to wish fulfilment. Even ignoring the fact that the algorithmic version of art is one that almost by definiton limits itself to styles and techniques that have already been created, archived, and tagged as art, this sort of creation taken to its extreme (and the tech isn’t there yet) is essentially stagnant. At the risk of romanticizing struggle, eliminating any friction between the creative impulse and its execution robs the artistic process of opportunities for personal growth. You’re no longer working through ideas if the idea leads immediately to the finished work.

All that said, I could see the publishing industry going the route of AI-generated novels, as Holwerda’s tweet imagines. If it went that way, I doubt authors and publishers would be involved at all. It’d more likely be algorithms all the way down, a mix of trending topics and deep personalization that wouldn’t need human interference to maximize engagement and profit. If writing novels can be handed over to the machines, generating ideas for those novels certainly could be, too, with other algorithms surfacing the content most likely to be consumed by each individual. The notion that prompt generation is somehow more immune to automation than any other artistic field strikes me as almost wilfully naive.

The impulse for people to tell stories isn’t going to go away, though. The personal value in hammering out specific wordings, developing metaphors, and working through your own contradictory thoughts is probably significant enough to outweigh the easier but relatively shallower process of creating written works from prompt-generation, at least for a significant subset of people who have the impulse to write.

Maybe what ultimately comes of this is the separation of content generation from artistic creation. When a version of every imaginable image or premise (or melody or whatever else) is available with a few second’s effort, the consumptive side of art, of getting exactly the niche content we want to see, will be as easy as clicking OK. But the need for the creative side of art will still remain. The need to make things—to work through thoughts, to fine-tune compositions, to put your fingers on an instrument and see what sounds you can coax out of it—that experience of creation will remain essential to a well-rounded life.

Our relationship to art has changed dramatically in the last century. Before recorded music was widespread, group singing was common. Recorded music led to professionalization and a percieved separation between performers and listeners that has contributed to the idea that making music is a rarified skill instead of a fundamental part of being human. We’ve become increasingly isolated from forms of expression that should be as natural as breathing.

The onset of AI art might make that worse. If algorithmic art can achieve the sublime, or even approximate it, the entertainment industry is in for a profound reckoning. It might be enough to scare off human creators from even trying to match machine-generated works. Or, it might be freeing. It’s a long shot, but the glut of content might be the reminder we need that the value of art is as at least as much in its creation as in its consumption. At the very least, it’s unlikely that the impulse to create the old fashioned way will ever totally disappear. Whether those more hand-made creations hold any economic value in an algorithmically generated mass entertainment complex, well, only time will tell.

Wild boars are invading Canada

Jana G. Pruden’s article on the ongoing wild boar invasion of Canada is the kind of piece where I can’t go more than a few sentences without quoting something to my partner. Its description of the boars is consistently fascinating and more than a little terrifying, making them seem almost supernaturally tough to control — they’re smart, vicious, mean-spirited, and shockingly fertile.

I have vague memories of hearing about boars escaping in the small town where my grandparents lived in the ’90s, and the town needing to impose a curfew to keep kids from getting gored. At the time it seemed ridiculous, its seriousness tempered by how cartoonish it all sounded to my thoroughly urban self. I never thought it would be a harbinger of a near-future plague of pigs, but here’s Canada’s paper of record publishing quotes like “There’s two types of people in the world: People that have pigs, and people that are about to have pigs.”

Guess I should do my best to enjoy the pig-free present before things go south.

Of course, the only reason the boars are here is because we imported them for farming, then set them free when profits dried up. Or worse, let them loose for game hunting because we knew they were tough and clever and resilient — and now we’re shocked that those same traits are helping them survive. Like any good horror stories, the true monster here is human shortsightedness, hubris, our complete unwillingness to think through (or care about) the consequences of our actions.

Kindle Highlights: April and May, 2022

Again presented largely without commentary (and in the case of May, largely without highlights… getting married and preparing to start a new job apparently takes away a lot of your reading and writing time). The main books involved here are Jeremy Lent’s The Web of Meaning, Lionel Snell’s SSOTBME Revised, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s substantial The Ministry for the Future, the latter two of which I’m still chipping away at.

Is there a common thread between them? Probably not. Web of Meaning is an attempt to bridge traditional knowledge and current scientific understanding, while shedding the faulty scientific and cultural assumptions we’ve built up over the past few centuries. SSOTBME is a primer on magic, which is ultimately about other lenses to view the world, so somewhat compatable with Lent’s Web. Robinson’s Ministry is an outlier, a speculative near-future that acknowledges the dangers of our path while still holding onto a narrow optimism. It’s quite bleak in places, but hopeful enough to keep me reading.

These Highlight posts are more for my own reference than anything I imagine anyone else would get something out of reading.

The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 32 | location 489-493 | Added on Friday, 1 April 2022 23:08:02

How would you make sense of your present experiences if you were oblivious to their antecedents or future implications? Researchers have discovered that this is how the right hemisphere perceives reality. It focuses on spatial patterns between things. It readily accepts an ambiguous or incomplete situation without trying to impose coherent meaning on it. It savors fluid, indeterminate and vague conditions. It’s also more closely connected with internal bodily experience, making its perception of the world more vibrant, filled with smell, sound and sensation.

The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 68 | location 1037-1038 | Added on Sunday, 3 April 2022 22:07:51

‘Only in the mirror of other life can we understand our own lives. Only in the eyes of the other can we become ourselves.’

The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 90 | location 1366-1371 | Added on Tuesday, 5 April 2022 02:00:09

our instincts honed us to act amicably with our in-group but to treat those who seemed different from us with suspicion. Nowadays, most of us live in cosmopolitan societies and interact daily both with intimate acquaintances and strangers. Sapolsky’s wise rule is to rely on our intuition when we’re engaging with our in-group of family and friends, but when interacting with those who appear different from us, to ‘keep intuitions as far away as possible’. Instead, he suggests, we should utilize the theory of mind that evolution bequeathed to us. ‘Think, reason, and question,’ he writes. ‘Take their perspective, try to think what they think, try to feel what they feel. Take a deep breath, and then do it all again.’

SSOTBME 148×216 – Lionel Snell

  • Your Highlight on page 28-28 | Added on Tuesday, 5 April 2022 02:33:39

Magic processes data in parallel (ie as ‘sympathies’) where Science would process data in sequence (ie as ‘causes’). Thus sympathetic Magic is the core of all Magic. To invoke a god or spirit you bring together qualities, objects and actions sympathetic to that spirit. To precipitate an event you bring together gods and spirits sympathetic to that event

The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 108 | location 1649-1650 | Added on Tuesday, 5 April 2022 21:06:48

‘What is the heart, but a spring,’ wrote Thomas Hobbes, ‘and the nerves but so many strings?’ Descartes boldly declared, ‘I do not recognize any difference between the machines made by craftsmen and the various bodies that nature alone composes.’

The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 129 | location 1963-1966 | Added on Tuesday, 5 April 2022 22:09:39

We can trace the holarchy of life from the microscopic components of a cell to the cell itself, many of which combine to form tissues, which make up organs such as the liver or skin, which are part of an organism. Organisms combine to form populations, which in conjunction with other organisms create ecosystems. The ultimate self-organized system containing all these holons is known by biologists as the biosphere – the interconnected web of all life on Earth.

The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 129 | location 1970-1974 | Added on Tuesday, 5 April 2022 22:10:04

Stuart Kauffman puts it in these terms: What is the weave? No one yet knows … But the tapestry has an overall design, an architecture, a woven cadence and rhythm that reflect underlying law – principles of self-organization … We enter new territory … We are seeking a new conceptual framework that does not yet exist.53

The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 133 | location 2025-2026 | Added on Tuesday, 5 April 2022 22:14:40

As another early systems theorist, Norbert Wiener, put it, ‘We are but whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water. We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves.’

Instapaper: Sunday, Apr. 3rd (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 657-659 | Added on Thursday, 7 April 2022 00:14:03

For Chambers, who didn’t ask to be labeled hopepunk but likes the term “very much,” the simple act of being kind in her writing, of imagining futures in which decency triumphs and people are allowed to cry tears of joy, qualifies as more than sufficiently rebellious in the 21st century.

Instapaper: Wednesday, Apr. 6th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 98-100 | Added on Thursday, 7 April 2022 08:48:59

In a nutshell, he has shown that it’s possible to eliminate 70 percent to 80 percent of US carbon emissions by 2035 through rapid deployment of existing electrification technologies, with little-to-no carbon capture and sequestration.

Instapaper: Wednesday, Apr. 6th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 267-270 | Added on Thursday, 7 April 2022 09:05:19

The Green New Deal made some lofty demands for rapid industrial mobilization and decarbonization. The response of its critics was often that it lacked a detailed roadmap to accomplish its goals. Griffith has provided that roadmap, with detail down to the machine level. It is possible to substantially decarbonize the US economy by 2035 — we know what to build, how fast to build it, and where to put it.

Instapaper: Wednesday, Apr. 6th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 431-433 | Added on Thursday, 7 April 2022 09:35:45

“If we stay [focused] on the coast,” he adds, “like any coastal people—out of necessity, salvaging and reusing is, [and] was, just part of life. Right? So the circular economy, if you call it that, has been going on forever.”

Instapaper: Wednesday, Apr. 6th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 444-445 | Added on Thursday, 7 April 2022 09:37:12

Sci-fi often paints the future as an increasingly virtual dystopia. But a book like The Diamond Age pulses with inventive possibilities that could lead to more grounded, ecologically sound possibilities, too.

SSOTBME 148×216 – Lionel Snell

  • Your Highlight on page 36-36 | Added on Thursday, 7 April 2022 23:37:00

Because we are so steeped in the idea of causality, it is correct that I should approach the Magical position from a starting point of causality, even though it is ultimately irrelevant. So in answer to the question “what does the Magician have in place of an idea of causality?”, I will answer that the Magician does not deny a connection between events, but rather assumes that every event is connected to every other. This assumption makes the search for a chain of causes ridiculous: the links are too numerous and complex for analysis.

The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 161 | location 2465-2467 | Added on Saturday, 9 April 2022 07:59:33

The notes aren’t competing or cooperating with each other, but the way in which their differences act upon each other creates a blended experience that is richer and more beautiful than any of them alone. Could it be that the best description of how nature works is, in fact, a harmonic meshwork of life?

The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 165 | location 2527-2530 | Added on Saturday, 9 April 2022 08:04:56

Geneticist Mae-Wan Ho captures this idea with her portrayal of life as ‘quantum jazz’. She describes it as ‘an incredible hive of activity at every level of magnification in the organism … locally appearing as though completely chaotic, and yet perfectly coordinated as a whole. This exquisite music is played in endless variations subject to our changes of mood and physiology, each organism and species with its own repertoire.’

The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 174 | location 2663-2664 | Added on Tuesday, 12 April 2022 22:12:05

We’re back to Weber’s First Law of Desire: ‘Everything that lives wants more of life. Organisms are beings whose own existence means something to them.’

The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 181 | location 2773-2777 | Added on Tuesday, 12 April 2022 22:25:56

In this case the embryo produces a large number of neurons – vastly more than it ultimately needs – all of which are committed to destroying themselves (called apoptosis) unless they receive certain survival factor proteins, which they can only get from other neurons. As a result, neurons that connect with plenty of neighbors stay alive, whereas those that formed in the wrong place or wandered in the wrong direction eventually kill themselves, recycling their components for the cells that were more successful.

The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 185 | location 2828-2831 | Added on Wednesday, 13 April 2022 08:30:10

As described evocatively by embryologist Karl Ernst von Baer, living organisms – animals, plants, bacteria or fungi – can be understood as the thoughts of nature. Ever since life began, it has continually applied its thoughts for greater learning, etching its successes into the genomes of its organisms, then using those achievements as building blocks for its next adventure.41

The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 190 | location 2905-2907 | Added on Wednesday, 13 April 2022 08:37:18

Leslie White, who portrayed the rise of human civilization as a series of enhancements in energy utilization. Agriculture, White explained, harnessed the negentropy of horses, cows and sheep, who spent their days consuming the sun’s energy stored in plants, and then made it available to humans in the form of work, milk, wool and meat.

Instapaper: Monday, Apr. 11th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 439-440 | Added on Wednesday, 13 April 2022 09:36:21

Unlike the Enlightenment, where progress was analytic and came from taking things apart, progress in the Age of Entanglement is synthetic and comes from putting things together.

Instapaper: Monday, Apr. 11th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 458-461 | Added on Wednesday, 13 April 2022 09:38:56

For example, it may be difficult to tell the purpose of a particular line of code in an evolved program. In fact, the very concept of it having a specific purpose is probably ill-formed. The notion of functional decomposition comes from the engineering process of arranging components to embody causes and effects, so functional intention is an artifact of the engineering process. Simulated biological processes do not understand the system in the same sense that a human designer does. Instead, they discover what works without understanding,

SSOTBME 148×216 – Lionel Snell

  • Your Highlight on page 43-43 | Added on Thursday, 14 April 2022 23:15:32

. SCIENCE Truth Yes Yes Conditional Absolute MAGIC Wholeness No No Unconditional RelativeRelationship by distinction is a particularly Scientific notion of relationship. As Magical thinking relies more on spacial, pattern recognition abilities, it is more inclined to ask where Magic ‘stands relative to’ Science. This is a different approach to relationship

SSOTBME 148×216 – Lionel Snell

  • Your Highlight on page 44-44 | Added on Thursday, 14 April 2022 23:17:28

concluded that, in the terms of my recent volume of essays — What I Did In My Holidays — Dawkins had evoked a demon. Like myself, he is a champion of the notion that ideas can replicate and evolve within the ecology of human culture in a manner akin to the Darwinian model. The demon he had evoked was the apparent fear that New Age ideas might now be proving fitter to survive than his own ideas. Having demoted ‘goodness’ or ‘godliness’ and replaced it with ‘fitness’ as the key determinant, he has to face the possibility that Science’s ‘Truth’ might not be enough to save it from extinction. He can thus appear as a tribal shaman dancing a devil dance to protect his mind-children from a stronger foe.

SSOTBME 148×216 – Lionel Snell

  • Your Highlight on page 46-46 | Added on Thursday, 14 April 2022 23:29:21

The Magical method is to act ‘as if ’ a theory is correct until it has done its job, and only then to replace it with another theory. A theory only fails if it cannot take hold in the mind and allow one to act ‘as if ’. As long as this approach is carried out properly — with a Magician’s understanding that the theory is being accepted only because it is ‘working’, not because it is ‘true’ — then there is little danger of delusion

SSOTBME 148×216 – Lionel Snell

  • Your Highlight on page 57-57 | Added on Thursday, 14 April 2022 23:58:25

Magic, in turn, inherits unconscious skepticism from Science. Just as the ‘open minded’ Scientist is deep down a total believer in material reality, so also the ‘gullible’ Magician deep down does not really believe in anything

SSOTBME 148×216 – Lionel Snell

  • Your Highlight on page 60-60 | Added on Friday, 15 April 2022 00:05:15

it strikes me that you could play with this cycle as a conversational gambit in the presence of anyone who is strongly polarised towards one of my four directions of thought. This is how you do it. If you want to irritate the speaker, question his ideas from the perspective of the previous quadrant. To offend or disturb, use the opposite quadrant. To intrigue and stimulate, use the following quadrant.

The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 200 | location 3066-3069 | Added on Friday, 15 April 2022 07:44:09

In the words of entomologist Lewis Thomas, a single ant is not much more than a ‘ganglion on legs’. However, ‘four ants together, or ten, encircling a dead moth on a path, begin to look more like an idea’. It’s only when you see ‘the dense mass of thousands of ants, crowded together around the Hill, blackening the ground, that you begin to see the whole beast, and now you observe it thinking, planning, calculating. It is an intelligence.’

The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 212 | location 3240-3242 | Added on Friday, 15 April 2022 09:01:50

Wanderer, the road is your footsteps, nothing else; wanderer, there is no path, you lay down a path in walking.

Instapaper: Friday, Apr. 15th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 460-463 | Added on Sunday, 17 April 2022 08:23:06

If you spend enough time with GPT-3, conjuring new prompts to explore its capabilities and its failings, you end up feeling as if you are interacting with a kind of child prodigy whose brilliance is shadowed by some obvious limitations: capable of astonishing leaps of inference; possessing deep domain expertise in a vast range of fields, but shockingly clueless about many basic facts; prone to strange, senseless digressions; unencumbered by etiquette and social norms.

The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 239 | location 3662-3664 | Added on Sunday, 17 April 2022 08:51:07

Becoming a fully integrated organism means not just integrating within, but also integrating fractally with community, society and the entire ecosystem. We exist in a holarchy. Just as a single cell can’t flourish in a diseased organism, so the well-being of an individual human requires a healthy society.

The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 286 | location 4374-4376 | Added on Tuesday, 19 April 2022 08:26:18

You ask me to plow the ground! Shall I take a knife and tear my mother’s breast? Then when I die she will not take me to her bosom to rest. You ask me to dig for stone! Shall I dig under her skin for her bones? Then when I die I cannot enter her body to be born again.

The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 300 | location 4592-4597 | Added on Tuesday, 19 April 2022 08:58:38

The next time you go for a hike in nature and marvel at its beauty, take a moment to realize that you are looking at a pale, shrunken wraith of what it once was. An accumulation of studies around the world measuring the declines of species and ecosystems indicates that overall we’ve lost around 90 percent of nature’s profusion. We live, MacKinnon observes, in a ‘ten percent world’. Those of us who gain sustenance from the sacred beauty of nature sometimes like to think of it as a temple. But, as MacKinnon notes, ‘a greater truth should be foremost in mind: Nature is not a temple, but a ruin. A beautiful ruin, but a ruin all the same.’

The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 305 | location 4672-4674 | Added on Tuesday, 19 April 2022 09:08:57

Stories abound of Western visitors observing native people leaving some of the harvest and misunderstanding this as either laziness or inefficiency. ‘We Indians like to leave something for the one who comes after,’ explained a Native American to a Western observer in the 1930s.

The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 312 | location 4781-4782 | Added on Tuesday, 19 April 2022 09:20:04

Whether we call it shi, tending, or conscious symbiosis, the pivotal lesson is the same: there is an alternative to the dichotomy that views civilization as either the triumph of humans over nature or the inevitable ruination of life’s plenitude.

Instapaper: Friday, Apr. 15th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 779-781 | Added on Wednesday, 20 April 2022 22:42:43

Once social-media platforms had trained users to spend more time performing and less time connecting, the stage was set for the major transformation, which began in 2009: the intensification of viral dynamics.

The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 348 | location 5335-5337 | Added on Thursday, 21 April 2022 22:58:24

‘When we embrace integration as a central drive in our lives, we cultivate meaning and connection, happiness and health … Beginning with integration within, extending integration to those you are connected with, and moving integration into our larger world: these may just be the reasons we are here … in this life.’

The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 371 | location 5675-5676 | Added on Friday, 22 April 2022 09:03:15

‘Heaven and earth are my coffin, the sun and moon are my burial jades, the stars and planets are my burial jewelry. Ten thousand things make up my sacrificial feast. Is not my funeral preparation complete? What can be added upon this?’

The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 407 | location 6234-6236 | Added on Saturday, 23 April 2022 09:44:31

Hope, in the resounding words of dissident statesman Václav Havel, is ‘a state of mind, not a state of the world’. It is a ‘deep orientation of the human soul that can be held at the darkest times … an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.’

Meditations (Emperor of Rome Marcus Aurelius)

  • Your Highlight on page 43 | location 600-602 | Added on Thursday, 28 April 2022 23:22:32

At what time soever thou wilt, it is in thy power to retire into thyself, and to be at rest, and free from all businesses. A man cannot any whither retire better than to his own soul; he especially who is beforehand provided of such things within, which whensoever he doth withdraw himself to look in, may presently afford unto him perfect ease and tranquillity.

Meditations (Emperor of Rome Marcus Aurelius)

  • Your Highlight on page 44 | location 625-625 | Added on Thursday, 28 April 2022 23:27:35

This world is mere change, and this life, opinion.

The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson)

  • Your Highlight on page 58 | location 879-886 | Added on Saturday, 30 April 2022 09:54:49

There was scientifically supported evidence to show that if the Earth’s available resources were divided up equally among all eight billion humans, everyone would be fine. They would all be at adequacy, and the scientific evidence very robustly supported the contention that people living at adequacy, and confident they would stay there (a crucial point), were healthier and thus happier than rich people. So the upshot of that equal division would be an improvement for all. Rich people would often snort at this last study, then go off and lose sleep over their bodyguards, tax lawyers, legal risks—children crazy with arrogance, love not at all fungible—over-eating and over-indulgence generally, resulting health problems, ennui and existential angst—in short, an insomniac faceplant into the realization that science was once again right, that money couldn’t buy health or love or happiness.

The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson)

  • Your Highlight on page 74 | location 1135-1137 | Added on Sunday, 1 May 2022 09:41:30

Also, the two billion poorest people on the planet still lack access to basics like toilets, housing, food, health care, education, and so on. This means that fully one-quarter of humanity, enough to equal the entire human population of the year 1960, is immiserated in ways that the poorest people of the feudal era or the Upper Paleolithic were not.

The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson)

  • Your Highlight on page 124 | location 1887-1887 | Added on Monday, 2 May 2022 23:21:21

Say the order of your time feels unjust and unsustainable and yet massively entrenched, but also falling apart before your eyes.

The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson)

  • Your Highlight on page 124 | location 1891-1892 | Added on Monday, 2 May 2022 23:21:57

we are all definitely always falling apart, and not massively entrenched in anything at all.

The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson)

  • Your Highlight on page 148 | location 2264-2264 | Added on Tuesday, 3 May 2022 23:07:18

Demonstrations are parties. People party and then go home. Nothing changes.

The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson)

  • Your Highlight on page 158 | location 2415-2416 | Added on Wednesday, 4 May 2022 08:43:06

Robustness and resilience are in general inefficient; but they are robust, they are resilient. And we need that by design.

The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson)

  • Your Highlight on page 202 | location 3092-3095 | Added on Sunday, 8 May 2022 09:24:58

These SAPs were instruments of the postwar American economic empire, which was unlike the older empires in that it did not insist on ownership of its economic colonies; it only owned their debts and their profits, no more than that. The best empire yet, in terms of efficiency, and the neoliberal order was all about efficiency, in its purest economic definition: the speed and frictionlessness with which money moved from the poor to the rich.

The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson)

  • Your Highlight on page 209 | location 3190-3192 | Added on Sunday, 8 May 2022 09:39:48

But what if it wasn’t a mistake? What if you had been forced, by being taken hostage, to focus for once on the reality of the other—on their desperation, which had to have been extreme to drive them to their own rash act? What if you saw that you might do the same sort of thing in the other’s shoes?

The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson)

  • Your Highlight on page 234 | location 3575-3576 | Added on Monday, 9 May 2022 22:31:27

Simply talking was the strongest social media of all of course, it was obvious once we rediscovered it, but those posters made the city itself our text, as it had been more than once before.

The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson)

  • Your Highlight on page 276 | location 4220-4222 | Added on Wednesday, 18 May 2022 08:47:40

Shorting civilization and imagining living on in some fortress island of the mind was another fantasy of escape, one of many that rich people entertained, as ridiculous as retreating to Mars. Money was worthless if there was no civilization to back

The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson)

  • Your Highlight on page 278 | location 4260-4262 | Added on Wednesday, 18 May 2022 08:51:36

On the other hand, all central banks were undemocratic technocracies, not that dissimilar to China’s top-down system. They were run by financial elites who did what they felt was best without consulting even their own legislatures, much less the citizens of their countries.

The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson)

  • Your Highlight on page 283 | location 4333-4337 | Added on Wednesday, 18 May 2022 09:00:48

They were only really doing things to try to ameliorate the situation they were falling into after it was too late for those things to succeed. They kept closing the barn door after the horses were out, or after the barn had burned down. At that point their actions, which a few years or decades earlier might have been quite effective, weren’t enough. Maybe even close to useless. Over and again it was a case of too little too late, with nothing stronger anyone could think of to apply to the worsening situation.

Instapaper: Thursday, May. 19th (Instapaper)

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The correct response to uncertainty is mythmaking.

How to Grow Old

Beautiful advice from Bertrand Russell on aging gracefully. Interesting the way it treats expansive interests as a sort of ego death, gradually recognizing that the end of the self is at most the briefest of flickers in the flame of existence.

The best way to overcome [an unhealthy fear of dying] — so at least it seems to me — is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.

Bertrand Russell’s “How to Grow Old”, from Portraits From Memory And Other Essays

The Landfill of the Future

(from Hakai Magazine: Photo by vchal/Shutterstock, illustration by Mercedes Minck)

I’ve been in pretty dire need of more optimistic stories lately, and this piece in Hakai Magazine is a good start. A look at 3F Waste Recovery, a Newfoundland start-up that repurposes waste from fishing, farming, and forestry to create consumer products, it touches on circular economies; creative re-use of waste materials; resilient communities; and embracing experimentation and failure as paths to learning; all in a very grounded, practical context. The headline frames it as a utopian sci-fi concept brought to life, but I appreciated how the article itself acknowledges the role the community’s own historical practices played in developing 3F’s vision:

Lynch bristles at the notion that this model is anything new. “It’s talked about as this brand-new idea, and it’s not,” Lynch says. “And so the history of it matters.”

It also made me think of this piece from Low Tech Magazine‘s “Obsolete Technology” series on urban fish ponds as a surprisingly efficient and sustainable form of sewage treatment. That one’s a fair bit more academic, and the subject matter is even more squeamish than the 3F piece (which still gets into fish guts and other unsavory topics), but it was also one of the most memorable pieces I read last year. It’s also on a solar-powered website that contains a handy weather forecast for its local area so you can see when it might have to go offline. Very cool.

Directions and Destinations

“The problem is whether we are determined to go in the direction of compassion or not… If I lose my direction, I have to look for the North Star, and I go to the north. That does not mean I expect to arrive at the North Star. I just want to go in that direction.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace

It’s important to understand the difference between directions and destinations. We typically set goals based on destinations rather than directions, because a destination is clear and unambiguous. A target, if clearly set and understood, will either be met or it won’t. You motivate yourself towards it, and celebrate your arrival once you reach it.

The limitation of destinations is that they are rooted in the known. They can’t take you further than what you already understand, because your current understanding is what chooses the destination. Directions, on the other hand, aren’t meant to be reached. We don’t set our direction to the North Star because we mistakenly believe it’s within our reach. We choose it because sometimes the unreachable is the clearest view we have of where we want to be.

Directions require an embrace of ambiguity and uncertainty. In striving towards something like compassion (in Hanh’s case), or empathy, or reconciliation, there is no point at which you can say you’ve done it, you’ve reached your goal and now you can stop. There are days where you stay on course, and others veer wildly off track. There are days where you don’t move at all, and others where the wind is at your back and the distance passes easily. And whichever day you have, your reward is to do it again the next day.

Destinations are an important tool in motivating ourselves to keep moving. It’s easier to climb a hill when we imagine ourselves basking in the view at the top. But if we have the courage to follow a direction instead of a destination, then we acknowledge we will never be perfect, we can always do better, and we won’t let our preconceptions stop us from traveling farther.

Station Eleven and the Fantasy of the Hard Reset

It was an essay about podcasting and Spotify, of all things, that helped me understand something new about apocalyptic fiction. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by the insight, given that the essay was written by Roxane Gay, but it still caught me off guard. Gay was writing about her (justifiable) unwillingness to share her work on a platform that gave $100 to $200 million to Joe Rogan while claiming to be a content-agnostic bastion of free expression, but it was an early tangent on the appeal of survivalist reality TV that hit me:

“It’s clear that what these modern-day hermits want is to exist in a vacuum,” she wrote, “where they are not affected by nor do they affect anything beyond the boundaries of their home. That is, certainly, an illusion, but I can see the appeal.”

I’d just finished watching HBO’s Station Eleven when I read that article. The post-apocalyptic drama had been popping up everywhere, and all I knew about it before starting it was that it involved a theatre troupe that had emerged after some kind of global catastrophe. That was enough to sell me. I’ve seen a lot of films and TV shows about the end of the world, but they always tackle the immediate aftermath, and they’re always about survival. As dramatic as that can be, it’s such a limited topic in the scope of the human experience. I wanted something about rebuilding, and a show about art in the face of annihilation sounded like something made just for me.

As it turned out, Station Eleven wasn’t quite the show I thought it was, although it did have elements of what I imagined. Where the vast majority of mainstream fiction set in the aftermath of calamity take every opportunity to show humanity at its Hobbesian worst, taking as a given that we’re only a handful of hardships away from a war of all against all, Station Eleven tried to capture a wider swathe of the human experience. It understood that the compulsive desire for art, expression, and inspiration have been part of our nature for as long as humans have been around, sharing space with and helping to mitigate our more negative impulses. Ultimately it seemed like the show was more interested in exploring what makes a family than making a statement on the fundamental nature of our species, but at least it felt a little more optimistic than the average apocalyptic tale.

What Gay’s essay showed me, though, was that what lies at the heart of so much disaster fiction is the same thing that makes those modern-day hermits so watchable: the simplicity of it all. That may seem like a strange thing to say about fictional worlds where threats hide around every corner and scrounging up a meal is a matter of life and death, but what those stories all share is a wiping away of social complexity in favour of pure survival. It’s horror, but it’s also a fantasy: the fantasy of the hard reset.

Social reality is incredibly complicated. As Gay explores in her essay, none of us exist in a vacuum. The decisions we make all have consequences, and those consequences are often so intricate and multilayered that it’s almost impossible to track their ethical implications. When something as seemingly straightforward as buying a chocolate bar has a better-than-not chance of supporting child slavery, it’s easy to toss up your hands and say morality is just too ambiguous—a theme that was explored surprisingly well in the sitcom The Good Place, for what it’s worth. Cruelty and exploitation aren’t just the long-buried foundations of our political and economic system, they’re still actively necessary for keeping our day-to-day world running. And where our extension cords and supply chains used to be long enough to keep the costs of our lifestyle out of sight, our ever-more-networked world keeps reminding us of consequences we’d rather stay blind to. Every day gives new examples of one inescapable truth: absolutely nothing is simple.

In that world, the appeal of the fantasy of the hard reset is obvious. When the disaster hits, history ceases to be a continuum. The complicated web of causes and effects that we’re currently worried about gets reduced to a single threat: zombies, cannibals, and marauders may be unpleasant, but they’re also unambiguous. We can wrap our heads around the threat and our relationship to it in a way we just can’t with essentially any contemporary issue.

Survival also tends to be an individualist affair in those spec-fic worlds, which plays into the desire for simplicity. Stereotypical post-apocalyptic science fiction idolizes the lone survivor, the jack-of-all-trades and master of most who doesn’t need your help to get by. Never mind that he had to learn those skills from someone, or more likely from a large number of someones. Never mind that those skills were honed over generations by societies of one form or another, passed along by teachers and caregivers, preserved by knowledge-keepers and storytellers. Never mind that the only reason we were able to develop those survivalist skills in the first place was through cooperative communities dividing up tasks to allow for specialization and growth. That communal history was wiped out by The Event, whatever it may be, leaving only the individual.

Once you recognize the Fantasy of the Hard Reset, you can’t stop seeing it. Its most dramatic manifestations may be in ideas like the singularity or the Metaverse (let’s scrap the physical world for a fresh start in a digital wonderland) or the notion of Martian colonies as an ecological escape hatch (as if terraforming a whole world from scratch is somehow simpler than finding a way to exist on the only planet we’re remotely adapted to), but it has been at the root of almost every techno-utopian fantasy. The internet will let us abandon the politics and philosophy of nation-states for a truly borderless world. Disruptive apps can shed the weight of regulations and oversight without any negative repercussions. Time and again, people convince themselves that we can shake off our current reality through cleverness and will. They imagine we can make a clean break from history, and then wonder why things spiral out of control.

I’ve been wondering how much the fantasy version of apocalypse is clouding our ability to act on issues like COVID and climate change and democratic decline. It sometimes feels like we’re so consumed by a need for narrative that we deny the reality of anything that doesn’t operate on the clear logic of beginnings and endings. We ask ourselves when the disaster phase of climate change will start, as if that’s a question of fact and not one of arbitrary definition. We look at emission targets and temperature goals as if they’re on-off switches between safety and chaos, when they’re points along spectrums of probabilities. We want things to be binary. They almost never are.

The hard reset only exists in the narrative realm, not the physical one. It marks the end of an old word and a beginning of a new one, when reality doesn’t have beginnings and endings, just effects and causes, which are in themselves effects of other causes. Beginnings are useful in storytelling, but with the possible exception of the big bang (and even that is debatable), nothing emerges free from initial conditions. As badly as we may want to believe we can start fresh, either now or in the near future with a magical technology, it is ultimately a form of escapism: a way to avoid responsibility for the world we’ve built.

Narratives can be troublesome, but they can also be enlightening, so let’s take it back to Station Eleven. At first I was frustrated with how the show kept flashing back to the days before its world-changing pandemic. I was more interested in the story of rebuilding, and especially in the role of art as a central aspect of our humanity. Because of that disappointment, I almost missed one of the show’s most insightful aspects, which I’ll try to share with as few spoilers as possible.

One of the series’ main conflicts is between a group of people dedicated to remembering the pre-disaster world, and a faction who believe that the only way forward is to erase that past and start anew. The show doesn’t present those stories in a chronological fashion, though; it loops back and forth between the early days of the disease and a world that, 20 or so years later, is still dangerous but at least verging on a kind of functionality. And although it’s hard to imagine a cleaner break from history than a disease wiping out 90% of humanity, those temporal leaps make it clear that even that wasn’t enough to sever the influence of history. The decisions that were made before the disaster, and the people our central characters were before the disaster, were still shaping the “new” world.

In other words, the world changing isn’t enough to provide a fresh start, because there is no version of the future that doesn’t emerge from the past. Imagining a clean break is the same impulse as the modern-day hermit wishing they could live in a vacuum—it’s a wish for simplicity rooted in a refusal to accept the complexity and uncertainty that are fundamental to existing as social creatures in a cumulative culture.

Despite what this apocalyptic fantasy may hope, and despite what some utopian fantasies advocate, the way forward isn’t to sever ourselves from the past. It’s to confront that past, to look at how it shaped the world and how it shaped ourselves. We need to understand the impulses that have led us to the brink of ecological disaster, and what they say about our relationship to the Earth. It isn’t enough for the world to change, because the world is always chaning anyway. We have to change ourselves.

Love and Longing in the Seaweed Album

From Charles F. Durant’s Algae and Corallines of the Bay & Harbor of New York (1850), via Public Domain Review

A lovely essay from the Public Domain Review, on the 18th and 19th century fad of seaweed collection, touching on its countercultural and feminist connections, and some of the fascinating figures who became obsessed with the “useless” plants. Sasha Archibald captures the strange allure of seaweed collecting, seen by its advocates as a more refined alternative to the more obvious, less subtle pleasure of flower collecting. This passage on the hobby’s effect on air-balloon pioneer, pseudoscience debunker and generally fascinating character Charles Durant really struck me:

His research served only to remind him, again and again, how partial his knowledge. Algology is a concession, and a surrender too. Durant seems to bow his head before the “unfathomable abyss” of his topic, which proves “too wide, too deep, too vast for perfect exploration”. Seaweed chastened his ego, and abasement made space for love.

Longreads: The Sounds of Silence

My first piece for Longreads was published this week, sharing five articles about listening to nature. The Reading List format is a pretty natural one for me—I’m much more comfortable sharing other people’s thoughts than passing off my own as in any way authoritative—and the process of writing it helped me to clarify some of my own thoughts on music, noise, and silence

It also led to a conversation with a friend about their own experience of listening to music, and how it can be a way to take us out of the present, “to go someplace that isn’t this, either to the past or the craving for something new.”

I think there’s definitely truth in that, but there’s a positive side to it, too. A while back, I started seeing a certain kind of active musical listening as essentially training wheels for being present in a moment. To really enjoy a song, you have to ride along with it and get lost in it, experiencing each note as it comes. In the last few years, I’ve been working on getting that same experience of a stretch of time without the music.

For a long time, though, I thought the training wheels were the bicycle. Music has been such an accessible way to get fully absorbed in the flow of time that I never thought to wonder if it was keeping me from experiencing something more. Now that I’ve made the connection, though, I’ve found one of the best ways to enjoy silence and contemplation is to imagine it as music without the music. It makes emotional and intuitive sense even if I can’t quite explain it in more depth.

In any case, go read the piece on Longreads, and enjoy some thoughtful writing by much wiser folks than me.