2019-02-25 3 min read


Notes, 2019-02-25.
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.

Computers & People.

Transportation & Infrastructure.

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 "groundscraper" hotel in a Chinese quarry

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