This week, we investigate how personal and collective identities are evolving: from the role of shared infrastructure in our lives to changes in how and what we eat. We also explore systems people can expand on, machines people can collaborate with, and a fun playground for images and text.
— Alexis & Matt
The people behind the data
“He imposed a rule: he wouldn’t work with a data set about a place unless he’d been to that place, and wouldn’t work with a data set involving people unless he’d met with that group of people.”
Ethical collection and use of data has long been a topic we’ve covered at Ethical Futures Lab, so we’d be remiss if we didn’t point you to this interview with Jer Thorp, author of “Living in Data”. Thorp is an old friend and colleague of ours; his book is simultaneously a memoir of his career thus far working in data visualization and a set of guidelines that change our perspectives on how large data sets are collected, stored, and manipulated.
This interview touches on one of the more disruptive of his suggestions, and one that demonstrates such empathy and consideration: Thorp has made it a policy of his to visit with the people and places from which data is collected in order to bring context to the information being analyzed, and encourages others to do similarly.
“I’m not suggesting that journalists in a newsroom who are doing the data work have to go [to the source of the data]. But you still need to ‘go’ to those places, whether it’s physically to go there or to make the time to understand the thing you’re representing better than you already do.”
Thorp calls on those working with large data sets to remember that any data point in it represents some real-world action or interaction, an understanding that is critical to contextualizing the conclusions made from that data.
→ People-centered data, with Jer Thorp | Slow Build
Making systems for making
What makes a user interface one that is both easy to comprehend and easy to create with? What are the intersections between interface and notation and how might the two concepts inform one another? These questions frame this post by Matt Webb, in which he works towards some principles for good user-facing systems.
To us, it seems that the relationship between notation and interface has to do with the fact that a good interface often does the work of describing the underlying system it manipulates. Therefore, many of the qualities that make for a good notational system also apply to interface design. Webb lists a number of these characteristics, including: composability, shareability, intentionality, legibility, and more. There’s a lot of good thinking in here for designers, and some overlap with this piece Alexis wrote on 3 principles for designing playable systems.
What’s relevant to this newsletter about these ideas is that they’re not just guidelines for how to design usable or intuitive interfaces, but they’re ways to think about designing interfaces that empower their users. Webb’s piece looks specifically at the ways that UI and notational systems can be used as creative tools, for generating new things. However, many of the interfaces we use every day are designed with very rigid constraints on how they can be used. Think about Figma vs. Instagram: both have relatively simple interfaces, but one allows for emergent creativity and the other is intended to limit possibility. One of the key arts of interface design is striking the right balance between simplicity and virtuosity. A compelling interface is easily learnable but infinitely masterable, like a piano, with a vocabulary that is limited but can be combined in infinite ways.
→ Collecting my thoughts about notation and user interfaces | Interconnected
“Central to any new technology is the concept of justice.”
This essay by Deb Chachra is beautiful and we encourage you to read the entire thing. It brings together threads we often discuss in Six Signals — shared infrastructure, the freedom that utility services can bring to people, the debts we owe each other — interwoven with biographical details that bring these ideas together in deeply personal ways.
Chachra digs into the relationship between money as an individual system and infrastructure as a collective one. Infrastructural systems, such as plumbing and electricity, allow us to become “collective cyborgs”, tapping into systems that are necessarily communal in order to give our individual selves immense freedom from various forms of labor.
However, while these systems are collective, we distribute them like any other individual good or service in a capitalist marketplace, and we assume constraints accordingly. For example, recent gluts in solar energy production have led to zero or negative electric prices for power under certain conditions. This has been framed as a problem for the industry, that solar is becoming “too cheap to build”. But it’s not really too cheap to build, it’s too cheap to profit from, and that underlying profit model for these foundational services is at the root of the problem. Chachra asks us to reimagine how equality and justice might be radically expanded if we were to treat these infrastructures as collective assets and rights, giving everyone equal access to the freedoms they afford.
→ Care at scale | Comment
Cultivated meat is real, and could change the world
The report released earlier this month by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) regarding global warming held dire predictions for the coming years if humans do not drastically reduce greenhouse emissions. While many of the solutions to this crisis require engineering and policy changes at national or global scales, one recommendation the IPCC made can be taken on by individuals: plant-based diets are far better for both human health and the environment than meat-based ones.
A couple of recent developments in lab-grown meat point toward a possible future where we can eat meals with fish and chicken while still benefiting from a lower impact on the environment. (Early studies show that cultivated meat does create more greenhouse gas emissions than purely plant-based foods, but on a similar level as processed plant-based meat substitutes, far below the impact of farmed meat.) Upside Foods has partnered with Dominique Crenn, a San Francisco chef, to serve cultivated chicken on her otherwise vegetarian menu. Separately, Wild Type has developed a cultivated salmon product that is nearly indistinguishable from traditional salmon sushi. While widespread availability of these products is still a way off, reaching these milestones is an enormous accomplishment for an industry that was still very much in the trial phases just a few years ago. Might it be possible to change our diets to be far more environmentally friendly without losing access to cheeseburgers and chicken fingers?
How do you say “yippee-ki-yay” in Russian?
While we have a decent track record of foresight, it’s unusual for something to come to pass mere weeks after we speculate about it. A couple of issues ago, we dove into deepfake ethics and discussed how people might need to legally direct or constrain the use of their likeness for simulation. This week, we learned that Bruce Willis has become the first celebrity to license his deepfake rights for advertising purposes. Willis “stars” in a series of Russian mobile service commercials, in which he appears to speak perfect Russian. In reality, the actor does not speak Russian, nor did he appear in the commercials in a traditional sense, but had his performance virtually created.
While we’ve typically seen deepfakes of actors in situations where the person is deceased, this development opens the door for a whole new set of possibilities. Licensing deepfake rights not only allows actors to earn money for appearances without having to actually travel or perform, but it also provides creative alternatives to in-person appearances when there are health and safety concerns (such as in the midst of a pandemic). One risk that has yet to be addressed, though, is how a viewer knows whether a performance is faked or licensed or both; the tech that has Wills selling mobile phones could just as easily be used to create celebrity endorsements for anti-vaccine policies, financial scams, and other hazardous advertisements.
→ Bruce Willis licenses deepfake image rights to Russian ads | Design Taxi
Putting words to grief, with the help of AI
One of our core areas of interest is the collaborative potential between human and machine intelligence in creative spaces. How might we use the unexpected outputs of the computational gaze to bring new possibilities into creative work and process? In this piece by Vauhini Vara, she collaborates with GPT-3 to write about the death of her sister, something that she had struggled to write about given her emotional proximity. It’s a fascinating example of how machine-generated language can help us find ways to express something that we may have difficulty writing on our own.
Using OpenAI’s GPT-3 Playground, she produced nine versions of a short story about her sister’s death. Each version starts with a different seed paragraph written by Vara, with the remainder of the story generated by the AI model based on that seed (as well as the underlying language model of the system). Her initial seed paragraphs are brief and reticent, but then as the feedback loop between human and machine continues, she becomes more candid and forthcoming in her own writing: “As I tried to write more honestly, the AI seemed to be doing the same… Candor, apparently, begat candor.”
→ Ghosts | The Believer
One experimental playground
Constraint Systems is a super-fun set of interfaces for editing and creating images and text. Created by Grant Custer, this playground lets you draw with pixels, generate cellular automata, shatter and recompose images, and more. Go play!
→ Constraint Systems | Grant Custer
To get Six Signals in your inbox every two weeks, sign up at Ethical Futures Lab