Five Things: May 25, 2023

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Writing when tech has broken the web’s social contract | Baldur Bjarnason

This is not a remotely fair deal for those of us on the “putting stuff up on the web for free” side of the equation. It doesn’t matter whether it’s illegal or not—though legislation is probably the only way to get the tech industry to stop it—because the social contract is broken.

I first “met” Baldur in my DBW days, when he was working on ebooks and self-publishing an entertaining fantasy series he’s since walked away from, and have always valued his thoughts on technology, especially his recent focus on artificial intelligence. I’ve had similar thoughts over the past several years about my own blog and engagement with various social platforms, further complicated by deciding to start a newsletter a couple of years ago as a tool to force me to get back to writing — on the web for free! — on a regular basis. Like him, I’m not planning to stop writing anytime soon, but hitting publish on a blog post or sending out a newsletter these days feels less Cluetrain, more Matrix.

Related, I finished his newest book, The Intelligence Illusion: A practical guide to the business risks of Generative AI, this week and really enjoyed it. When it comes to the current hype surrounding AGI and LLMs, whether you’re a true skeptic (like me) or a true believer, it’s like a splash of lemon juice in the greasy pool of incredulous media coverage. Accessible for anyone who’s spent more than 15 minutes with a clueless executive or myopic developer (or, frankly, engaged with any of the technological “disruptions” of the past two decades), he rigorously unpacks the many risks involved with the most popular use cases being promoted by unscrupulous executives. He brings plenty of receipts to support his observations, too, while also spotlighting areas where this technology might have legitimate potential for good. Highly recommended!

PS: The images throughout do an amazing job of subtly reinforcing the book’s title and premise and would be worthy of a print edition.

[NOTE: Part of this is from my review on The Storygraph where I’m tracking my reading and occasionally posting reviews these days, because of course I am.]


Incuriosity, Inc. | Hamilton Nolan

There is nothing that the public (you, and me, inclusive) loves to do more than to complain about the cheap, unserious nature of the media, while also being the cause of that… The public, generally speaking, gets what it wants, even if they don’t admit it.

I used to agree with Brooke Gladstone’s core argument in her excellent 2011 book, The Influencing Machine: “We get the media we deserve.” It follows the same trail laid down years earlier by one of my all-time favorites, Neil Postman’s still-relevant Amusing Ourselves to Death, but it requires an asterisk, especially in the 21st century.

Nolan connects the dots between a fundamental (albeit not sacrosanct) truth — clicks and eyeballs drive revenue — and the people funding and creating the media we supposedly deserve, whom he correctly labels “the world’s most incurious demographic.”

I’m deeply religious about avoiding content mills and bad faith news operations — you’ll never see me link to Forbes or the New York Times — but search and social algorithms reward their attention-hacking tactics because everyone’s revenue models and imaginary valuations have been built around them. We don’t “deserve” a lack of robust local news coverage or disingenous “both-sidesism” editorial missions, but the business and advertising geniuses who’ve steadily eroded the media ecosystem over the past few decades can’t even imagine a different world being possible.


Libraries Confront Post-Pandemic Challenges | Claire Kirch & Nathalie op de Beeck

Instead, librarians must contend with “a dystopian new normal” of individuals, organizations, and even elected officials using intimidating tactics and attempting to prevent them from making books accessible to all.

Publishers Weekly‘s “Book Banning in America” panel discussion did a great job of outlining the dystopian reality librarians are dealing with today — from politically motivated book challenges to incredulous media coverage helping spread misinformation. Bookended by John Chrastka and EveryLibrary’s pragmatic politics and Kelly Jensen’s fire-breathing activism, the panelists really dug into the issues, including calling publishers out for not stepping up, with at least one smaller publisher weakly complaining about it in the live chat.

[NOTE: The panel was recorded before PRH’s surprise involvement in a relevant lawsuit was announced, although as Albanese wisely caveated, “lawsuits are not a panacea.”]

For librarians, speaking out invites slanderous accusations and risks losing their jobs because their bosses, local politicians and/or key partners fear (or sometimes agree with) an ignorant, bigoted vocal minority who hate diversity and are being incited by well-funded groups that hate public education. The ones who are able to speak out are lauded as heroes, often by people who are simultaneously capitulating at the first hint that revenue in states like Florida and Texas might be in jeopardy.

It’s a troubling situation all around, and it seems like it’s going to get much worse before it gets better, with the ground being ceded around intellectual freedom and privacy possibly never being fully regained.


The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning | Peacock

Everyone is going to die.

I first heard of “Swedish Death Cleaning” from Jennifer Howard’s excellent book, Clutter: An Untidy History, which I read and recommended earlier this year. The main idea behind Döstädning is that we shouldn’t leave a mess for others to sort through after we die, so thoughtfully weeding and curating your stuff ahead of time is one of the most loving things you can do while you’re still alive. The Swedes also apparently have a better relationship with death than we do here in America, so what seems like a very pragmatic approach to life for them can potentially feel traumatizing to us.

As intrigued as I was by the concept, I was extremely leery of a reality show based on it, especially one produced by a snarkmeister like Amy Poehler, but my wife and I decided to give it a shot and the first episode was… not great. It indulges in every reality show stereotype, Poehler’s snarky commentary frequently misses the target, and Suzi’s defenses are so strong that any potentially emotional beats are constantly being muted. The Swedish trio are an absolute delight, though, and when they’re allowed to do their respective and collective thing, there’s an undeniable spark to the show.

Fortunately, the first episode is the worst of them and can either be skipped or squeezed somewhere in the middle to avoid souring the rest of the episodes. While the reality show stereotypes and snarky comments never stop, unfortunately, a few episodes manage to transcend it all and tell compelling stories that highlight death cleaning is as much about living as dying, particularly in Sue (4), Godfrey (5), and Doug’s (7) episodes.

PS: After watching all eight episodes, I finally ordered Margareta Magnusson’s The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning and am fully expecting to land in “The book was better!” camp.


The “Electrify Everything” Movement’s Consumption Problem | Amy Westervelt

But so far, all executives and politicians have been willing to talk about is expanding energy development in the Global South. Tackling consumption in the Global North has been painted as radical austerity, “taking our hamburgers,” or a slippery slope to communism.

I generally surface things here that I either have a strong opinion on or connection to, but sometimes it’s just an insightful article on a topic I’m actively learning more about. The more I’ve looked into EVs and cars’ impact on, well, everything, the more I’m starting to see the bigger picture — and it’s way more complicated than simply converting from gasoline and building up a charging infrastructure.

“Follow the money” is always a good rule of thumb, and Westervelt does a great job of connecting multiple dots.

Related, the CNBC mini-doc, Why Chile’s Lithium Mining Is at a Crossroad, offers a glimpse at some of the underlying factors that will determine how, and how quickly, our electrified future might play out, and who potentially gets left behind in the process. It doesn’t go as deep as I’d hoped, but it’s a good reference point to branch out from.

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