Is environmentalism only for the rich?

10Q, Volume 2

Hello y’all,

welcome to another edition of “10 Questions For the Future”, my newsletter. Or should I say “newsletter magazine”, because it sounds cooler and takes into account the length?

Anyways, as I am writing this on the last weekend of the year, we are trying to identify the differences between Gray Foxes and Coyotes out here in Texas. An animal that could be both has been showing up in our neighborhood, looking like a mixture between a wolf and an oversized German shepherd dog (remember: everything is bigger in Texas). The key difference: Coyotes eat pets, while gray foxes prefer to climb trees to prey on birds. You are supposed to spot the difference by looking at the tail. It is all very wild out here (I recently blogged about the neighborhood wildlife if you want to share my joy about these encounters).

But on to this edition. In case it’s the first time you’re reading this, some info:

► This newsletter includes ten topics I’ve been stumbling upon and have been thinking about. As the title suggests, more questions with context than direct answers.

► See this more like a small magazine if you don’t find time right away. Feel free to skip what’s not your cup of tea or read on later. It will still matter in 2019.

► I will send this newsletter every 10-15 days.

► My name is Johannes, I am located in Austin, Texas. And I am happy to talk about these questions or anything else, here or @kopfzeiler (German) @johakuhn.

Here we go.

1. Is environmentalism only for the rich?

There has been an interesting secondary discussion going on about the Yellow Vest protests in France. As you might remember (or not, because it is all rather confusing), their reason for taking to the streets in the first place was the higher gasoline tax, which has been postponed for now. Such a climate-tax affects you more if you live in rural and peri-urban areas and/or have a lower income.

The American sociologist Neil Gross suggests that the protests symbolise how deeply environmentalism is stuck, as such taxes lead to the perception that it is a project of the rich:

“Contrary to the theory of postmaterialism, the well-off aren’t the only ones who care about climate change and the environment. Yet in many of today’s capitalist democracies, class and status resentments, fostered by rampant inequality and whipped up by opportunistic politicians, have developed to such an extent that issues like the environment that affect everyone are increasingly seen through the lens of group conflict and partisan struggle.”

As a commenter under the article notes, inequality is also continuingly contributing to climate change. In unequal societies, people want to catch up with the better off. And the only accepted method to structurally solve poverty is economic growth, which is connected to higher CO2-emissions.

This obviously means that degrowth (an economy that is not based on rising output) cannot work without tackling inequality. Enter Branko Milanovic, my favourite researcher-firebrand. He uses the French climate-tax to attack ideas about degrowth and climate-protection that lack details and substance.

“Proponents of degrowth and those who argue that we need to do something dramatic regarding climate change are singularly coy and shy when it comes to pointing out who is going to bear the costs of these changes.” 

That is pretty much on point and you don’t have to wear a yellow vest to agree (though I have recently seen people wearing yellow vests when they walk their dogs around the neighborhood).

2. Is Organic Farming harming the planet?

The New England Skeptical Society (which I was disappointed to find out are not Freemasons in lab-outfits) has been arguing against organic farming for a long time. The current validation of this argument comes from a new study that was published in Nature. In short: It is all about land-use.

To calculate the CO2-emissions, the scientists (who didn’t declare any conflicts of interest, in case you wonder) included opportunity cost. What does that mean? Well, organic farming is less productive than conventional farming, so we need more farmland, which means less forests and meadows that can catch carbon. And, surprise:

The authors of the paper in Nature conclude: “A finite global land area implies that fulfilling these strategies requires increasing global land-use efficiency of both storing carbon and producing food.”

In all fairness, this equation is not completely fair and conventional agriculture itself brings a lot of problems regarding the effects of pesticides as well as soil degradation. But it is clear that the combination of a growing world population and climate change necessitates a systemic solution (probably starting with repairing the soil that has already made one third of the farmland worldwide unproductive).

3. Will Urban Farming become sustainable?

Speaking of farming: Urban farming has become something like a cultural movement recently, bringing with it countless stereotypes about city hipsters in Latzhosen talking to their tomatoes. But is this kind of agriculture effective? Well, not yet, says a study from Australia that Ars Technica explained. The study is only a limited snapshot, but makes the argument to better link urban farms to existing systems. By using compost from city resources instead of buying it, for example, or by storing rainwater (which some municipalities do not allow). Actually, I thought this already was being done!

A lot of inefficiency is also hidden in the labor that’s necessary, though it is a hobby for most gardeners, I suppose. Well, at least from the “carbon and land-use”-angle could say that urban gardens should only be done on top of buildings. And of course, vertical farming will be much more interesting as far as efficiency is concerned. Though less hip, I suppose.

4. What does reality mean in the internet-age?

Max Read recently listed all the things that have become fake on the internet. Fake clicks, fake people, fake content, fake influence. For god’s sake, even aspiring Instagram influencers are posting fake sponsored content to get real sponsorship deals. Oh and about those thousands of video-views…

(btw: how do they route the IP-addresses?)

You can laugh about it, but it would be funnier if it wasn’t this complicated to fix it. But it is. Traffic and influence measurement has been following the same shady metrics that the advertising industry always has been known for. Networks have become too big, content works too deeply with emotional triggers. Disinformation has become a business model.

So this involves different corners to look for a solution, like auditing (advertising), antitrust (companies), realism about the long tail (in a world of near endless content it’s hard to build something steady), media-awareness (becoming fluent in building networked knowledge) and questioning individualism (placing authentic personalities above what they say & feeling like as human beings we deserve an audience). And there is a role the government has to play regarding disinformation, but it has to be a measured one, or we are going to find ourselves in censorship- and surveillance-territory, especially as social media is becoming more private (groups, chats).

I am still trying to figure out a unified theory about this, so if you don’t hear from me again, my head has probably exploded while doing so.

5. Will truth survive or succumb?

This is obviously related to the above. I can recommend this primer by Jonathan Rauch about how we’ve been creating knowledge and identifying truth since the enlightenment. It is incredibly long, but I appreciate the optimistic conclusion, especially after another year of madness and disorientation.

The End Of Hypocrisy?

10Q, inaugural edition

Hello y’all,

you are the (self-)chosen few first subscribers of “10 Questions For the Future”, my new newsletter. Thank you for opening this!

This is how the format will roll:

► This newsletter includes ten topics I’ve been stumbling upon and have been thinking about. As the title suggests, more questions with context than direct answers.

► It starts with a technology focus and goes on to cover a broader range of issues once you get closer to number ten. Feel free to skip what’s not your cup of tea or read on later. It will still matter tomorrow, hopefully.

► I will send this newsletter every 10-15 days.

► My name is Johannes, I am located in Austin, Texas. And I am happy to talk about these questions or anything else, here or @kopfzeiler (German) @johakuhn.

Here we go.

1. Will hypocrisy become impossible?

The Hyprocalypse is coming! At least this is what Robin Hanson has been proclaiming in one of the more original futurist ideas this year. The argument goes like this: Your face doesn’t lie and we will live to meet technology that is excellent at reading your feelings in real-time (for example via Augmented Reality). Thus, technology and hypocrisy are on a collision course in a couple of decades, surfacing secret crushes on office-mates or giving you trouble with that angry guy in the bar who recognises that you think he’s an idiot.

To be honest, when I first heard the term I thought Hyprocalypse was describing the impossibility to fool yourself about whether you lead a moral life. All the infos about your ecological footprint, the impact of things you do and products you use are becoming readily available. No way to pretend you live sustainably. But I guess that’s me, feeling the crushing guilt about climate change coming for humanity.

But let’s stick with Robin’s idea: This field of emotion recognition is called “affective computing”. A former engineer in this field commented under the blog, calling the scenario “SkyNet”-like. Which means ridiculous. Computers suck at recognising emotion, and probably will continue to do so. Which to me doesn’t mean that the tech might not be used, if “only” for interrogations or in small-scale surveillance. Technology moves gradually and there are countries and circumstances where this would be found acceptable. Maybe - and this is a big maybe - even to the point of even becoming a consumer product like the one Hanson describes in his scenario.

Sure enough, reports about this kind of emotion mining in a workplace context have already surfaced from China - though the medium is not visual recognition, but brainwave-tracking via a helmet, apparently used in factories to “design the workflow”. In authoritarian capitalism, hypocrisy consists of not working enough, I suppose. I always treat such reports with a healthy dose of scepticism; not the existence of such a program, but whether it shows anything useful. And that’s the double bind: Such technologies might not work and still be used - maybe leading to faulty decisions because of faulty recognition. Or just intimidating people enough to blend in a little bit more, to think what you are supposed to think until you won’t recognise the difference between your own thoughts and those superimposed on you.


2. Should we take note of the term “Streambait”?

Analysis on how Spotify is changing music has become a genre of its own this year, and I find it a very enjoyable one. Liz Pelly has written some of the most insightful pieces about it for the Baffler and now she is dropping the term “streambait” on us: Clickbait! But for streaming. Music that is made for easy consumption & Spotify singles. Not risky, but fine-tuned for being a background soundtrack with a hook.

“These sounds and strategies all have streambait tricks embedded within them, whether they aim to wedge bits of a song into our skulls or just angle toward the inoffensive and mood-specific-enough to prevent users from clicking away.”

This sounds a bit like the soulless stuff Major labels released for decades, though with no technological sophistication and pattern analytics back then. And as Liz Pelly notes, now it is models, Reddit-celebrities and Ed Sheeran’s girlfriend who are recording songs that sound like Lana del Rey. Unlike in the 1980s I suppose, when it was models, nightlife-celebrities and the young girlfriend of a label-executive recording songs that sound like Madonna.

But indeed Liz Pelly is on to something. I have a suspicion that “streambait” is a key motivator for Netflix to keep “Friends” in its catalogue for $100 million: A series that for many Americans offers a warming familiarity, forgoes any disturbing plot-shockers and allows you to do your painting, cooking or to just turn off your brain while watching.


3. A second paradigm for “AI”?

As some of you know, Prediction Machines (to use a less loaded term than “Artificial Intelligence”) are currently using layers of computer nodes that work together to find patterns in data. The fantastic Karen Hao recently caught up with David Duvenand from the University of Toronto. He and his team have been trying out an alternative method that gets rid of the layer-concept altogether and uses: equations. The system has the name “ODE solver” with ODE meaning “ordinary differential equations”. In this field, I appreciate the dull name. Or whatever else keeps the marketers and Ted-talkers at bay!

Karen does a great job of explaining the details, what stood out for me was the idea that equations absolve you from choosing how many layers you use on the training data and that they can handle fuzzy data points better. Right now ODE is in a very early phase, but with billions pouring into the field, it is a good time to try out new ideas.


4. Are sports drones becoming tools of war?

Well, if the Pentagon has its way, they probably will: It is currently trying to convince drone producers to update their consumer models for military use. They will be used to monitor battlefields from above, at least that’s the promise of “Project Phoenix”. Actually, I was surprised twofold: For once, the spendthrift U.S. military seems to look to reduce spending. And I would have imagined they already have similar types of drones.

What is interesting is the argument that the DoD is making to the tech companies. It goes like this: China and the U.S. are replaying the cold war between the Soviets and the U.S., but this time in cyberspace. You better help. Yes, you remember correctly: A consumer-friendly version of this was used by Mark Zuckerberg in his Senate-hearing - if you regulate us, China will have all the important tech breakthroughs. My guess is you will hear different versions of this all over the world in the years to come and it will collide with the “let’s talk about ethical tech”-narrative that has been gaining traction since 2017.


5. What if transhumanists lack fantasy?

If you read this, you are probably as tired of Ray Kurzweil as any sane person should be. But obviously, like any decent science-fiction-genre, transhumanism won’t go away anytime soon. But what are we actually trying to achieve? Enter the Anglican Archbishop, poet and philosopher Rowan Williams who has a suspicion: Gene editors and transhumanists alike will face the reality that they are running into a problem that software developers have been criticised for - that is, designing a pattern that mirrors your own biases.

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