Hi everyone - Drew Austin here, returning as guest editor for this week's issue. If you enjoy this edition, feel free to check out my own Prepared-adjacent newsletter, Kneeling Bus, where I write about technology and cities (or follow me on Twitter).
Kevin Slavin gave a prescient talk in 2011 about how algorithms shape the physical world, describing how high-frequency financial trading led Wall Street firms to fill hollowed-out skyscrapers with server stacks and connect far-flung cities with massive fiberoptic cables. In the talk, Slavin observes that “We’re actually terraforming the earth itself with this kind of algorithmic efficiency.” He goes on to describe algorithms as a third co-evolutionary force in the world, working in collaboration with both humans and nature. As insightful as Slavin's talk is, it already feels like a message from a bygone era: We’ve spent the last decade learning, often the hard away, about algorithms’ influence on everything imaginable. They still don’t feel like part of nature though.
Inventor Danny Hillis said that “technology is everything that doesn’t work yet,” which also implies that what has become invisible or natural reappears to us as technology once it breaks. Back in 2011, maybe, it was actually easier than it is now to think of algorithms as part of nature, because we hadn’t witnessed as many large-scale, consequential algorithmic failures yet. And in fact, algorithms have always accompanied human society; the analog kind are just simpler and more tangible. A cooking recipe is an algorithm. If the word “algorithm" today feels overused, and like a scapegoat for everything threatening and non-transparent about software, maybe that’s just because the concept became more necessary once algorithms overreached and started breaking.
The most clicked link in last week's issue (~22% of opens) was the pictures of Spencer's new workshop.
Architecture & Planning.
- The 1960s ideology that inspired and influenced the SimCity game, Jay Forrester's libertarian Urban Dynamics. The same text that "reduced the problems of the city to a series of 150 equations and 200 parameters" also enabled the Nixon administration to argue that welfare recipients would benefit from cuts to the welfare programs themselves.
- A critique of Sidewalk Toronto as a "a colonial experiment in algorithmic utopian citybuilding."
- Computational Landscape Architecture: "The possibility that we might someday begin landscaping our suburbs, our corporate campuses, our urban business parks, according to which species of vegetation are less likely to block WiFi." (Also linked in the post: Using WiFi to "see" behind closed doors is easier than anyone thought.)
Computers & People.
- The evolution of Google Maps and the uneasy relationships between digital platforms and physical geography. After the launch of Google Maps, "the network became the vantage point for mapping the world. In so doing, it became a means through which the network could perpetually mediate the world while the network itself became harder and harder to map and comprehend."
- Why CAPTCHAs have gotten so difficult and the arms race between bots and people.
Transportation & Infrastructure.
- A solid TransitCenter report on transit ridership trends in the United States. Unsurprisingly, the private car is still transit's strongest competitor: Transit riders are taking few transit trips on average, while driving has increased and "car trips unambiguously replace trips on transit and other modes of travel."
- A fun historical review of twentieth-century precursors to today's micromobility revolution: "larger-than-a-scooter-but-smaller-than-a-car vehicles" like L'Oeuf Electrique (The Electric Egg) and the Piaggio Ape.
- Due to a Bluetooth module flaw, a popular electric scooter model can be hacked to suddenly accelerate or brake mid-ride (the feature was meant to enable remote locking of the vehicle).
Distribution & Logistics.
- A fantastic speculative essay about how the declining costs and increasing speed of shipping could replace ownership (as we know it) with the physical equivalent of streaming media. "The express arrival of any object missing from your life with a minimum of effort could make it increasingly possible to live as though you already own everything."
- A Russian startup wants to put billboards into low-earth orbit, obviously to the chagrin of astronomers and the International Dark-Sky Association. See also: a Windows 98 error message hovering in the Ukrainian night sky.
- Play Tetris with Soviet-style housing blocks. "A playful tribute to a not so playful reality of monotonous and bleak cityscapes built out of same prefabricated concrete blocks."
- Fyre Ipsum: a text generator that aids in the formatting of visual layouts by filling them in with paragraphs from the original Fyre Festival pitch deck.
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