Dark Matter: 4 October 2017

Nicolas Nova shared a highlight this week from a printed copy of Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (Tsing, Swanson, Gan, Bubandt). This quote feels very much of our collective present:

How can we repurpose the tools of modernity against the terrors of progress to make visible the other worlds it has ignored and damaged? Living in a time of planetary catastrophe thus begins with with a practice at once humble and difficult: noticing the worlds around us.

I was reminded at once of the above photo of my great grandfather, taken in about 1946 outside San Juan, Puerto Rico. Samuel Fitzpatrick was an automotive man — a supply chain and infrastructure guy — with a home in suburban Detroit and a remit to build a South American foothold for American truck manufacturers. His world was very much one defined by the tools of modernity, and — as evident here — the humble practice of engagement with the world around him.

Not entirely unrelated: my friend Maru, born and raised not far from the spot where this photo was taken, writes this week:

It is said that the coquí, a small toad native to Puerto Rico, can only sing on Puerto Rican soil. The same can be said of the diaspora. We’re heartbroken.

If you’ve not yet acted on this, our most recent planetary catastrophe, Maru tells me that Unidos por Puerto Rico is the organization to donate to. I’ve done so, and would encourage readers to do the same, if you’re able.

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Begin here:

You should absolutely, positively read Sakari Tamminen’s piece for EPIC on the urgency for contemporary anthropologists to challenge the lazy understanding of relationships between power and technology (9min)— tropes deeply embedded in great science fiction and storytelling that all too easily creep into more formal research. To wit:

And as the social scientists of humankind, we anthropologists need critique to explore and unearth the problems that technology might create. Yes, there might exist unfair value propositions that put us in an uneven, asymmetric power position with powerful companies that want to tie us into their much tighter, technologically enabled networks. Yes, there might be technologies that take away our freedom by enabling large-scale surveillance at individual level. And yes, there might be algorithms that do not work every time, everywhere, and for everybody. More than ever there is a role for critique, but we should not conflate political critique with flawed claims about humanity and technology. It is irresponsible to advance lazy arguments that can be disregarded as untrue and un-actionable.

Next time when you feel that so-called critical thinking urge come alive, ask yourself three questions: How do my critical thinking faculties shape my approach to field research and how I seek human truths in the experience of technology? How do I shape what I have learned about humans and technology into insights that can inspire a culturally valuable point of view? How can I participate in shaping more culturally sensitive and, ultimately, valuable experiences for people using technology?

Answer those questions without hitting an existential technology panic button and you are well on your way.

The same challenge likely applies to the stories brands tell — and the stories many of us tell about/for/with them. Read the whole piece.

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This week in fading memories of compression artifacts:

Spend a few minutes with Yagmur Karakaya and Jacqui Frost’s brief history of nostalgia research (3min), published in The Society Pages. Psychologist Jennifer Twenge, quoted in the piece and breaking a million hearts primed by Tom Brokaw to espouse the contrary:

The aim of generational study is not to succumb to nostalgia for the way things used to be; it’s to understand how they are now. Some generational changes are positive, some are negative, and many are both.

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From Scientific American’s fantastic Workplace Anthropology series, this question: Why does the departure of a key team member serve as the catalyst for turnover? (8min) This, in particular, rings true:

If we view embeddedness as the links that an employee has to others and to the organization, embeddedness can tell us how well the employee fits within her peer group or team (e.g., do they have the skills to get their tasks done well, do they get along with their peers, is their relationship complementary?) A highly embedded employee will believe that she is a good fit within the organization and has the tools and skills to get her tasks done, whereas a low embedded employee will not. For a highly embedded employee, the prospect of leaving the relationships she has established can act as a deterrent.

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All the stripey-shirted Flash 5 fanboys will remember James Paterson, whose work was as much a hallmark of early 2000’s online animation as 2Advanced intros. His new creation, Norman (3min), is a javascript framework that enables the development of browser-based 3D animations using VR controllers. Click through to see it in action, because it’s ridiculously good.

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Matt Webb asks all the good questions (3min) — this time about the patina of photo compression as artifact of legitimacy in a hyper-constructed digital and social world:

Wonder which version of the iPhone will have a computational photography mode to create pre-distressed selfies, for that already-shared look.

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Tip of the hat to Jefferson Burruss for pointing me to ArterBarter. Think: One Red Paperclip meets Steve Keene.

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Molly Fischer’s profile of poet Rupi Kaur for The Cut makes for brilliant reading. A choice cut:

She is, deeply and truly, a poet of Instagram: In the manner of that medium, her work is human experience, tidily aestheticized and monetized, rendered inspirational and relatable in perfect balance. Her poems are, for the most part, short enough to fit easily in Instagram’s square frame, and her sentiments general enough to be universally recognizable.

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This week in training bots to make machines to train bots to:

Detect.Location is a GitHub project from KrauseFx that will absolutely change the way you consider the seemingly innocuous app requests to access your phone’s photo library. From the project README:

Does your iOS app have access to the user’s image library? Do you want to know your user’s movements over the last several years, including what cities they’ve visited, which iPhones they’ve owned and how they travel? Do you want all of that data in less a second? Then this project is for you!

Tip of the hat to Avi Cieplinski.

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So what you’re saying is that I can upload a bot version of my Facebook self to the Matrix?

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Peter Bihr has a really interesting post on the intersection of AI, IoT and (mostly) education policy (6min) that’s worth reading, particularly if you work in/at/with institutional teams.

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Everything commoditizes and miniaturizes: first, we get Teachable Machine, an introduction to using training data that’s simple enough to use with young kids. Then, something even more interesting:

deeplearn.js is an open source hardware-accelerated JavaScript library for machine intelligence. deeplearn.js brings performant machine learning building blocks to the web, allowing you to train neural networks in a browser or run pre-trained models in inference mode.

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Mkomazi (7min) is a fascinating project: embedding sensors in the horns of rhinos to monitor herds and ensure the security of a protected space in Tanzania, keeping poachers at bay. The project runs entirely on solar power, and uses a low-energy LoRa network. Spend a few minutes with it.

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Do read Neil Perkin on Annie Oakley, Kaiser Wilhelm, and frozen accidents (with an able assist from Shane Parrish). The story is excellent, but the payoff is golden — and worth repeating loudly and with some frequency:

Making rigid predictions in complex adaptive environments is largely a fools game. Like mutations in evolution, random accidents are just as important in shaping the future as incremental improvements.

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This week in the dangers of obscurantism:

Shane O’Leary on planners’ habit of equating complexity with sophistication (4min) is searing, and correct.

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The story of the Media Lab team road trip to Shenzhen area factories to hack manufacturing processes (13min) reads like fantasy fanfic for materials science types:

We were particularly interested in how K-Tech’s knitting process uses various yarn types. This variety gave us a wide design space to try out new functional textiles in production-level quality and quantities. We started by learning how to program our own knitting patterns, and then we hacked the process by writing our own computer software to control the knitting machines independently and to test materials that are usually considered too difficult to be machine-handled.

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Sarah Watson’s piece on the academic habits that become watch-outs for new agency hires (3min) on the APG UKwebsite is whip-smart. If you ever have a chance to see Sarah speak in-person, grab at the opportunity. She’s a delight.

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I took a lot from Frédéric Caplette’s piece for We Seek on the hidden value of code reviews (5min). This reads as terribly obvious, but has rather significant implications, I think:

The magic of the code review is that no matter your level, if everyone participates with the intention of learning, then everyone will get something out of it.

Read the whole piece, friends. I’m curious how the idea of code reviews translates to other fields of (especially less-technical) work. Hat tip to Patrick Tanguay for the link.

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Mark Pollard is writing the Internet faster than you can read it. This week, I’m fond of #7 on his ways strategists and planners keep creatives happy (5min):

Planners on the rise in places in which I’ve worked aren’t seen as obstacles and are hustlers, finding interesting stuff, rushing back to share it. Careerists take themselves too seriously. It’s a turn-off and people will want to take you down. HADOKEN.

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I wrestled a bit with Adrian Ho’s post on the Zeus Jones blog on reimagining consumer journeys as modular entities (6min) — it’s not an especially new approach outside the advertising and comms community. Adrian makes some provocative and smart points, though — this, especially:

building interactions on the theory of emotional marker moments ensures we know which pieces have a dramatic impact on users. The theory shows us that emotional interactions matter more than their relative actual importance, and can, in fact, shape our entire memory and perception of a whole experience. When we know what those moments are, we can over-deliver in a few key interactions, and make a strong lasting impression on the experience overall.

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Jobs and Events for Misfit Toys:

If you’re in the Boston area, Processing Community Day on 21 October at the MIT Media Lab is going to be mega: Ben FryCasey Reas! Eva Diaz! Sydette HarryTickets are still available.

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Instrument is wonderful, and hiring (mostly) developers. You should probably go work for them.

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Just an open Creative Director role for digital product areas at the BBC. Go ahead and make mum proud.

Until next week.