It Is What It Is #4

Irregular newsletter with Interesting things from around the world and other people.

Welcome to the fourth one

“It is what it is” is what this is. 

This is a thing from me, Tom Goodwin, with co-writer/curator Adriana Stan. It’s not sent at a set time or at a set interval or especially frequently. It’s not always the same format, nor the same length. It’s not necessarily newsy. It’s curated based on what feels interesting and worth sharing.

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A time for hope 

“To be an optimist is to be highly familiar with the historical situation of mankind throughout most of its existence.” I love the thinking in this piece, which explores the notion of “reflexive modernity”. As a society, we have progressed from “unconscious modernity,” where science and technology developed without any concern for the consequences of its evolution, to a world where what humanity does is reflexively examined for its potential future risks.  

Over the 15 months, we have been horrified by what was happening, what had happened, and by projections of what was going to happen, all at the same time. We’ve had space and time bend. We’ve never been more aware of the precise physical space around us, yet our geography became less important in a world of virtual connection. We’ve never had working hours or days of the week feel so arbitrary and unclear, while also having the oddly precise cadence of Zoom meetings hypnotize us. We’ve never been through so much trauma, so many emotional and complex events, while being unable to discuss them properly in person with others. And yet, I think we will be amazed at how quickly the past fades into the rear view mirror and how quickly things can become wonderful again. 

Most aspects of the lives we lead are shaped more by assumptions than by carefully weighed decisions. Our existence then becomes fixed around a series of trade-offs. You might get to live in a big house or have a short commute or work long hours. Now, some of these laws have been suspended. We don’t know for how long, but many may feel freedom from constraints. Some can build new lives with new parameters. Perhaps for a short time we also get to rethink our workplaces, our homes, and our cities. 

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Ideas and explorations

“Are schools social levelers or do they reinforce the class pyramid by tracking and sorting children from a young age?,” Astra Taylor asks in this provocative essay. Can we trust our human capacity to learn and be curious, or do we need to be made to do it? Is learning best achieved in a regimented manner? Do we need a system for regulating our curiosity--and to what extent is it priming us to operate within clearly defined parameters vs. preparing us for life with all of its variety, unpredictability, and possibilities? 

In Taylor’s words: “Everyone knows that school is about the management of boredom, the administration of mental fatigue. On the one hand, it acclimates children to clerical-technical piecework so that as adults they can work long hours at jobs they will more than likely describe as uneventful, mind-numbing, soul-destroying, or something that must simply be done and stoically endured. But school also inculcates boredom as an attitude, a habit, a way of being in the world, as all they’re really entitled to feel. It’s an ethos, one that lingers in adult life.” 

Are the “factories of ennui, restlessness, lethargy, monotony, tedium” of our upbringing leading us into similar factories that glorify compliance and presenteeism? And is a movement like the Great Resignation enough to stop the cycle, or can we do more to address the root cause?

Speaking of systems that shape our understanding of the world, here is a brief history of our relationship with algorithms, from David Auerback. A warning: if we continue to “define and regiment our lives, including our social lives and our perceptions of ourselves, in ways that are conducive to what a computer can understand, their dumbness will become ours.” 

Our best weapon? Weirdness. Owning our idiosyncrasies, breaking conformity, reveling in nuances, enjoying all the things that make us human. “Anomalous behavior defeats the systems of social control,” says Douglas Rushkoff.

So what is our role in shaping these technologies, and can we encode ethics or fairness in their design and applications? Could AI become the very first technology whose development is dictated by moral principles? According to danah boyd, “most data-driven systems, especially AI systems, entrench existing structural inequities into their systems by using training data to build models. These systems are also primarily being built within the context of late-stage capitalism, which fetishizes efficiency, scale and automation. A truly ethical stance on AI requires us to focus on augmentation, localized context and inclusion, three goals that are antithetical to the values justified by late-stage capitalism.” 

Another thing we continue to fetishize: predictive modeling, despite its flaws and consequences.

On a related note: wouldn’t it be nice if all of our most complex, deeply rooted social problems could be neatly solved, self-help style? If they could be reduced to one thing you can optimize about yourself, like boosting your “grit”? Think again.

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Five questions 

In their endless pursuit of better, has the aspirational class lost its way

Substackerati: did a newsletter company create a more equitable media system—or replicate the flaws of the old one?

Is the glue that holds humanity’s knowledge together coming undone? 

The cube farm is a consequence of a well-intended philosophy gone astray. How did this happen?

Can a company that loses all of its staff still manufacture a sense of community?  

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A gentle reminder

Systems are just collective stories we all buy into. When we change them, we write a better reality for us all. We can change the action, which changes the story, which changes the system that allows those stories to happen. — Baratunde Thurston

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Little bits

“I think this is a ten year transformation, but you should have me do the job for only five years.” I love this line from here. How would our outputs change if jobs had built-in end dates? 

Being in Time - in which realm do you spend the most time: past, present, or future? 

Japan’s Freeter movement: a fascinating look at how society shifts based on technology and norms, and how reactions form.

Quereinsteiger. A once-shunned German concept is helping people find their place in the world of work.    

An interesting phenomenon: “No politician wants to talk about the porn industry because then they have to acknowledge how it is part of everyday life.” It’s the same with marketers or tech experts. What can we learn from one of the first industries to be disrupted? 

Observations from China and the mega app.

A lovely thread. Where has all the productivity gone? Somehow we’ve become congested by complexity.

Five historical takeaways on how to see change in context

A song designed to sound like English went a bit viral.  

The role of high-end branded buildings

A collection of 52 fascinating things.

Random shipping forecasts.

Is this car unusual, ugly, or a collection of design errors?

Mapping the future or what’s old is new again?

Electric planes are getting tantalizingly close to a commercial breakthrough. 

How to design a post-pandemic city. Or just a better city.

Why we need to imagine better futures by Anab Jain.

Design is often shaped by invisible forces, from muscle memory to assumptions coming from expertise, but sometimes history or regulation. Why are Vietnamese houses so thin? This explains it. How do taxes change construction? Have a look.

Urbanization and the rise of fold-down furniture

A trip down memory lane. When online travel booking first emerged, this is how we understood its potential: “Even the best travel agent makes mistakes. Having a laptop is the great equalizer because you can check airline schedules at the last minute, even when your travel agent’s office is closed. But once you’ve done that, it’s still important to pick up the phone and check person to person.”

Cucumber time.

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Idle thoughts

Cities and companies are both complex adaptive systems. So why do cities keep growing and companies eventually die? Physicist Geoffrey West boils it down to this

“Cities are tolerant of extraordinary diversity.” As they grow, their dimensionality increases. They open up and adapt around newness, divergence and unpredictability. The opposite tends to happen with companies. “A company that was more multi dimensional, more evolved, becomes uni dimensional. It closes down.” 

When companies allow themselves to be dominated by bureaucracy and administration over creativity and innovation, they kill the vibrancy that once propelled them to flourish. Their processes work in predictable times, but prevent them from adapting to the complexity of their environment. Orchestrating scale, rather than nurturing the ecosystem, comes with a steep cost. Meanwhile, “it’s the freedom of the city that keeps it alive.”

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This newsletter is commercially useless and editorially ambitious.

Please share if you find this interesting, feel free to send things my way for next time & please give me any feedback, not in number form.

Have the best day you can in these strange times. It seems likely the next one of these will come into your life in better circumstances. Be excited about that idea. Look forward to the nostalgia we will have glancing back on these moments.

Tom & Adriana