Memia 2020.27: Here we go again🦠😷// less noise📢,more signal📶// scaling UP food production⤴️🌾// beautiful AR playground🧒

Algorithms, assholes and viruses everywhere.

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Here we go again…🦠😷


Less noise📢, more signal📶

Did I mention the election campaign?😩

Despite ongoing efforts at curation, many of my feeds have suddenly turned into 99% noise, 1% signal. In particular on Twitter and mainstream news sites it’s impossible to get away from lowest common denominator soundbites, shouty/shrill sloganeering and cliched photo opportunities…5 more weeks of this just doesn’t feel like an efficient use of everyone’s time and attention somehow.

Don’t get me wrong - at #4 in the 2019 EIU Democracy Index we have a lot to be thankful for relative to most other countries:

  • Democracy, period.

  • …MMP proportional representation

  • …a short 3-year political cycle to turf them out if we want to

  • …a relatively civilised and centrist political debating field

  • …thankfully, *so far*, lack of significant traction for interference via the social media/disinformation/QAnon advertising-intelligence-service complex

…but still, the actual *implementation of electoral democracy* feels like an inefficient, outdated anachronism in 2020. Plus with every new deepfake video the whole apparatus feels distinctly more fragile and vulnerable to external interference.

Ubiquitous, mature digital consumer technology enables most of us to participate in our daily lives using a 4G-connected smartphone wherever we are: so how could a small, progressive democratic nation iterate its “electoral democracy algorithm”, perhaps optimising for:

  1. Getting measurably closer to democratic principles (eg one person, one vote on individual issues)

  2. More informed voter decisions grounded in scientific evidence rather than personalities

  3. More resilience against external interference

  4. Lowering the administrative overhead and cost of running elections

  5. Improving accessibility and participation rates for underrepresented voters (particularly younger generations, nomadic types, eligible voters overseas…)

  6. …while at the same time maintaining existing accessibility for voters who choose to still vote with a pen once every three years.

A few riffs on the question below, open discussion invited in the comments section: what other ideas do you have?

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  • Rolling general elections - 1/36 of constituencies and list seats up for re-election every month, rather than one big election every 3 years. (Parliament becomes a rolling maul of responsive policy consensus rather than a triennial personality-driven adversarial popularity contest?)

  • Non-geographical “virtual” constituencies - opportunity for voters to choose to vote for a candidate in one of (say) 10 “virtual” constituencies rather than one defined by a fixed address within a geofence. (Different to MMP party vote: not everyone is tied to one place, not everyone feels that local matters are the highest priority, some independent candidates may get critical mass with a nationwide issues-(or, let’s face it, personality)-based campaign.)

  • Complementing constituency MPs with liquid/delegative democracy: transferable or direct voting on some or all issues coming before Parliament. Creates a far greater diversity of choice for voters to delegate their vote on a particular issue or vote directly.

  • Online e-voting / delegation for those who want it. (And yes I know there are smart people who are vocally against digital voting - but compared to, say, *postal voting* how is this provably more open to fraud or manipulation?) A raft of security features could be implemented on mainstream smartphones and browsers. Also this instantly solves the problem of voting during a pandemic lockdown. And I would imagine way less cost and simpler to administer.

  • Direct issue-based e-voting - this reduces the e-voting risk even further as malicious actors would need to manipulate lots of parliamentary votes, not just one every three years.

  • (More controversial…) Validate that those voting directly on an issue are sufficiently informed: perhaps a short test on scientific data / evidence base / current uncertainties before being allowed to tap “Vote”. Potentially a mitigation against Brexit-type voter manipulation. (Yeah, right…)

  • (Easy…) Complement the physical Parliament debating chamber with virtual debates and committees - for example like the far more accessible committee sessions held over Zoom during lockdown. Use technology to change the dynamics of AoNZ’s political debate away from adversarial oratory performance dictated by 100-year old Edwardian architecture. Experiment in VR even: headline Aotearoa - the first country to hold a parliamentary debate in Virtual Reality). Why not?

While we’re here… why scope this in to just national-level voting? Perhaps there’s a global citizen suffrage system in the offing here for issues which extend beyond national borders. Of which, *there are a few*.

Scaling UP food production⤴️🌾

You may have seen the report just over a week ago that a group of scientists have modeled how vertical indoor farming could radically (220-600X) improve the yield per hectare of wheat production, while also minimising negative environmental impacts including water consumption, erosion, fertiliser and pesticide runoff:

With the global population projected to be heading towards 11Bn, food demand will require a >60% increase in global grain production, within the limits of an increasingly fragile global ecosystem.

While the financials and real-world evidence don’t quite stack up yet…

“Although it is unlikely that indoor wheat farming will be economically competitive with current market prices in the near future, it could play an essential role in hedging against future climate or other unexpected disruptions to the food system. Nevertheless, maximum production potential remains to be confirmed experimentally, and further technological innovations are needed to reduce capital and energy costs in such facilities.”

…following Ramez Naam’s analysis, they may soon:


Coincidentally, also this week Australia’s CSIRO published geospatial AI applied to satellite imagery to identify the boundary of every individual paddock in Australia’s grain growing region – around 1.7 million in total.

A few corollaries spring to mind:

  • The long term value of wheat-growing agricultural land becomes proportional to the cost of solar electricity…eg approaching zero

  • Unused land would likely be freed up over the next 20-30 years, to be replanted with forests and/or just returned to nature.

  • Rural wheat farmers and their communities would be put out of business.

  • Food miles for all wheat-based products will approach zero as vertical wheat (/any other vegetable) growing sheds spring up in urban industrial parks worldwide (…in residential areas?)

  • Modular, automated, indoor food production systems - sensors, AI and robotics, are at the early end of an exponential J-curve of demand.

    • An opportunity here for AoNZ’s agricultural CRIs to embed their decades of plant-growing knowledge into the next generation of automated indoor food-growing systems. Will they seize it?

[Weak] signals

Just a few signals from the near and far future this week:

(…But seriously the only way that concerns around security and dodgy intelligence-service backdoors in any communications technology is to ensure it’s open source - OpenAirInterface is one such open source 5G consortium.)

  • SpaceX, fresh from taking people to space and back, showed that modern day UFOs are cylindrical, not disc-shaped. Apparently we’re going to Mars sometime soon, too.


Who’s been saying and doing what in Aotearoa this week:

Mind expanding

  • A couple of recommended scifi reads I’ve enjoyed recently:

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar · OverDrive ...
  • This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone - recent winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella - the most original time travel scifi I've ever read, a romance story told through love letters between two espionage agents (Red" and "Blue") on opposing sides of the future, travelling up and down braids of multiverse time and unpicking / reweaving the threads throughout ancient, modern and future history. Expressive, evocative, lyrical. Apparently each author actually wrote their respective character’s letters.

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  • Instantiation by Greg Egan - a collection of 11 highly readable scifi short stories - including the opener “The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine”, near-future humans caught inside a scarily dumb/smart automated economy.

Hidden gems

  • Outpouring: anthropologist Wade Davis in Rolling Stone magazine: The Unravelling of America - how COVID-19 signals the end of the American era. Compelling read.

The usual 🙏 appreciation to those readers who take the time to get in touch with links and feedback!

…And as always if you enjoy these Memia posts, please take the time to share with a friend in AoNZ or around the 🌎🌍🌏. Thank you!

Cheers / Ngā mihi