Memia 2020.32: Scenes from the anthropocene🔥// how do you do, fellow kids?🧓// into the tech policy void🕳️ // the code of capital🔣💲

This to—wn is coming like a Zoom town👨‍💻

Hi / Kia ora,

I’m Ben Reid and each week I pull together the Memia newsletter, a scan across unfolding futures and emerging tech, as viewed from my corner of the world, Aotearoa New Zealand. I hope you enjoy reading it.

The most clicked link in the last issue (~20% of openers) was the video of the tree-cutting laser.

Scenes from the anthropocene🔥

Here in Aotearoa right now we are watching the terrible footage of the out of control forest fires in the Western US from the other side of the Pacific: for those readers who are living through it right now, kia kaha, stay strong and I hope you can recover quickly when it’s over.

Not wanting to trivialize the human impact of the fires, but as I processed the daily newsfeeds, I came across this video of San Francisco drone footage set to the Blade Runner 2049 soundtrack: the most quintessential depiction yet of the Anthropocene era we find ourselves living through (sound ON):

Friends Kelly (San Francisco) and Anna (Wellington) Pendergrast from Antistatic Partners comment in their latest newsletter:

“These comparisons are a useful shorthand at a time when our usual models for understanding the world fall short, but Blade Runner-izing the current moment risks depoliticizing our current crisis by removing it from its historical context.”

I actually disagree on this - while acknowledging the heightened political tensions rolling around the world right now: Covid-19, BLM, US-China, India-China, Taiwan-China, Russian poisonings, Brexit, conspiracy theories… increasingly I think the ecological situation just can’t be treated as “political” any more. The relevant historical context here is geological, not human; the scale is the global ecosystem, not national politics. Our usual models for understanding and controlling the world just do not apply. Climate change is - very likely now - outside human [political] control.

This most recent CO2 and temperature anomaly is actually not unique on a geological timescale: I recently learned about the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum which is an analogous time period 55.5 million years ago with more than 5–8 °C global average temperature rise. This short period included mass extinctions of some species, proliferation of others, including early primates. (There’s an illuminating discussion on BBC’s In Our Time podcast).

The sheer systemic pressure of technological- and fossil fuel-driven global population growth is now probably beyond politics on a human, national, 3/4-year election cycle scale.

Yes, electoral politics has a part to play to shift the oil tanker rudder slightly - for example this week here in AoNZ the Green Party announced a policy for mandatory climate-related financial disclosure for large firms, a potential systemic change with slow time to expected outcomes. In the private sector, Google just announced that they have eliminated their carbon legacy through offsets and are continue to operate carbon neutral going forward. More than gestures, but likely not enough to change the outcome?

So… if this stark global [eco-]systemic challenge humans now face is very likely beyond the scale of current political or economic incentive systems to solve…wondering out loud, what new systems would be required and what changes to society / economy / individual freedoms would result? This year’s pandemic lockdowns perhaps hint at future cohesive/coercive coordinated responses on a whole other scale…

How do you do, fellow kids?🧓

On to more mundane matters…the Extortion Dance (or Distraction Dance?) for Tiktok’s US operations just got sillier:

  • Last word on the topic from tech analyst Benedict Evans in his latest newsletter ($paywalled):

“…it’s still possible that Tiktok will just disappear in the USA in a few weeks on the basis of no coherent technical analysis or legal due process at all. That would be good for Instagram, but not for anyone else”.

Into the tech policy void🕳️

Paul Brislen in the NZ Herald went looking for tech policies from AoNZ’s political parties during the election campaign:

“After all, ICT is the second largest export earner (sorry tourism), employs thousands of people, brings innovation and opportunity to the table, doesn't require us to dig up national parks or drill for oil and is a highly paid, highly skilled, highly sought after sector...”

…but came back empty handed:

“…And so it was I trotted off to the internet to review the parties' policies and muse out loud about their plans for your enjoyment and edification. Unfortunately, this is not that column. Not because I changed my mind or because something more important came up but because they don't have any policies to scrutinise. They don't have any plans to unpick. There is no strategy, there is no policy.

The full article’s worth reading as instead Paul proposes 10 tech policy ideas of his own, including Number 10: A Tech Czar. (Hasn’t that been tried before…? Didn’t work out so well...)

My 2¢:

  • The CTO debacle / storm in a teacup was the result of (1) civil servants and elected politicians not understanding the domain of changing technology well enough and hence overloading multiple policy and delivery responsibilities into one (guaranteed to fail) role definition, but mainly (2) mishandling of the process and communications surrounding the CTO (non-)appointment and the resulting media shitstorm.

    • Politicians, electorates and media have long memories: any attempt to resurrect a “CTO/ Tech Czar” role is now doomed before it starts.

  • While tech may be the 2nd biggest export earner, tech sector policy is just not a vote winner. It’s boring, complicated, and not enough New Zealanders care - hence, it’s just absent from manifestos. (Despite technocratic data modeling being one of the underpinnings for AoNZ’s effective pandemic response, people don’t make the connection).

A few Aotearoa tech policy delivery suggestions from me:

  • As with any other intractable, complex problem, break it out into distinct strategy/policy groupings and restructure the portfolios/responsible agencies accordingly:

    • Growing tech sector exports: NZTE does a pretty good job of this already, keep at it. And keep growing suitable local capital sources.

    • Public Data: Stats NZ becomes “Data NZ” and stewards national public datasets and digital twins.

      • [Private Data: Here be dragons. See Tech Regulation below…]

    • Digital economy and digital government - MBIE is an amorphous sprawl, instead take the last few years’ of Productivity Commission reports as an agenda and form a new, nimble dedicated agency with a mandate to accelerate digital tech adoption and absorption throughout the economy and government service delivery. Done right, this is the biggest economic win, dwarfing any “shovel ready” opportunity by orders of magnitude.

    • Tech skills and training: This is a hard one…but one radical position is that there is actually no longer a “skills shortage” in AoNZ since remote working practices are normalised and all firms now have access to a global workforce.

    • Cybersecurity and Defence: GCSB clearly owns this right now and will continue to. However, increasingly sovereign defence capability is about keeping digital infrastructure operating, not navy ships floating. Allocate resources appropriately and coordinate with international strategic partners. Two particular initiatives spring to mind:

      • Like Estonia, create an offshore backup of NZ government systems for continuity if the onshore systems are taken down.

      • Like Russia (but with different motivations, clearly), ensure the internet (and enough cloud infrastructure) still works if the undersea fibres get cut off for an extended period of time.

    • Providing crisp, independent advice on tech: a Chief Technology Advisor (pretty much the same function as the Chief Science Advisor but with broad and deep technology knowledge) should work.

    • Digital Divide: Reduce it, obviously. MSD to lead a programme of work here?

    • Tech Regulation: A new Digital Technology Regulation Charter to be overseen by MBIE would be a start - and then close coordination with the most aligned international regulatory regimes (likely Australia, UK, Canada and maybe the EU). Regulation will always lag technology change - but it could lag less. AoNZ can be out front here.

    • Tech Ethics/Trust/Social Licence: While this appears to be a primary focus of the current Digital Council advising government, I’m sceptical whether this really is a function of government long term? Do other domains (think “Agricultural Ethics”, “Environmental Trust”, “Transport Social Licence”…) have formalised workstreams like this inside government? Why just tech?)

      • Regardless, many tech natives might expect that by the time the recommendations are put into action the actual tech causing the issues will have long been “debugged” and international tech companies will have moved on to the next thing…

    So that’s a few suggestions… please feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments below, perhaps there’s an online Memia event to organise here.

    Leave a comment

[Weak] signals

Some lenses on today from near and far futures:

“What if companies competed with each other not to extract more data from their users or suppress working conditions, wiping away rights that people have fought for over generations, but instead to offer better deals through shared ownership?…For the same reasons that startups often share stock with early employees, the platforms would get economic alignment with their users and loyalty. Society as a whole would get more built-in accountability for our platforms, a kind of accountability that doesn’t rely on any one jurisdiction or legislature.”

Mind expanding

A couple of pointers this week:

  • 🔣💲This has been on my reading list for a year now - The Code of Capital by Katharina Pistor. Just started it this week, from the overview:

“What is it, exactly, that transforms mere wealth into an asset that automatically creates more wealth? The Code of Capital explains how capital is created behind closed doors in the offices of private attorneys, and why this little-known fact is one of the biggest reasons for the widening wealth gap between the holders of capital and everybody else.”

"Through extensive case studies, Pistor demonstrates that no one deliberately set out to construct the ‘empire of law.’ Rather, it is the result of a decentralized, unplanned process in which individual private lawyers helped individual clients protect their assets through the use of pre-existing legal constructs."

—Nouriel Roubini, Project Syndicate

I sense that this thesis gets as close, if not closer to the heart of the matter of inequality than Piketty’s Capital and Ideology. Will report back when I’m finished reading. Intrigued to see if there are any references to law as code woven into the narrative.

“- …Would this theory mean we’re living in a simulation?

- No, we live in a neural network, but we might never know the difference.”🤪

Hidden gems

A mostly serious newsletter this week, but I did get pointed to this gem by regular reader Rob Warner:

  • 🕺Never Gonna Give You Up by Rick ASCII:

  • …And what I got up to at the weekend, so good to get out into the mountains:

🙏🙏🙏 Thanks to everyone who takes the time to get in touch with links and feedback, it’s always great to hear from you.

…And please take a moment to share this email with those in your network who you think might enjoy it. Thank you!

More next week.

Cheers / Ngā mihi