Venkatesh Rao Profile picture
20 Nov, 22 tweets, 6 min read
The Yak Collective @yak_collective has been doing a futures project called Astonishing Stories, led by @SachinB91 and @WabiSabiFutures to explore near-future scenarios. The output is a series of short stories being published as an evolving anthology…
The stories are based on some structured design fiction type visioning based on something called The Thing from the Future. Project participants spent a few weeks doing the exercises, then writing the stories.…
I’m not part of this project, but I’m gonna read all the stories (5 out so far and more on the way) and live-tweet my reactions. This will be my 🍿 critical review thread. I don’t quite get the process they used to get to this output, but I don’t think I need to as a reader.
First up, Wholeness in a Timeless Activity by Nathan Chen…
Pretty neat. A short riff on dark kitchens, through pov of an a sushi chef. AR, mechanical turking, machines training humans training machines, and unexpected effects of software eating farm-to-table supply chain.
Next up: Your Payment is Ready by Ben Smith…
So premise here is an indefinitely extended age of pandemics where in-person schooling opportunities are a luxury for high-achiever kids 🧐. Here we have Judd, a kid with a broken machine-learning based clarinet trying to make the orchestra. Fun story but not sure I buy premise.
The ending is a bit ambiguous. Also the kid is clearly as good a hacker as he us a musician. Wonder if remote schooling with AI assistance will reveal unexpected attitudes. Playing a smart clarinet brings out your jailbreaking skills?
Taking a break but next up Department of Restoration by Scott Garlinger. These pictures accompanying the stories btw are by artist @being_on_line…
taking a break, to be continued
Ok Scott’s thing is more an impressionistic premise than a story. A Department of Restoration that works on fixing the messy consequences of cancellation as a phenomenon. This could be the basis for an interesting story. Hmm. Conflict could be: the DoR itself gets canceled? 🤣
Next up Mechanical Turks All the Way Down by Chris Butler…
Okay another below-the-API story. There’s a theme here. 3 of the 4 stories have involved a human fighting an API Behaving Badly. This one has a Godelian loop of sorts where a machine is evaluating the performance of a human hired to do a humanizing thing against itself 🙃
Okay on to Out of the Loop by Sachin Benny.…
Okay this is a kitchen sink near-future with UBI, programmable microbot tattoos, a Joker Act to rehabilitate incels... and a hero with a tattoo mirroring his roam graph that he can’t get pretty enough to satisfy his girlfriend because his depression is reflected in his Roam notes
This story has a lot going on. Hero is depressed about dead father who wasn’t great and us now signing up for a surrogate father type dating app 🧐

GPT-45 makes an appearance. Also hero has ptsd growing up during pandemic as a high schooler so this maybe 2030s?
Hero moves on from real to GPT powered surrogate father. Good ending.

Well that’s it for now. Will continue this thread as more stories are added.
These are not pro scifi writers so don’t read with that expectation, but a nice mirror held up to the future to pop out big themes in the zeitgeist. Clearly API alienation caused by APIs Behaving Badly, and transhumanist forms of identity crises and trauma are big ones.
As stories these all rate between a C- and a B, but taken collectively, the futures exercise seems to have surfaced some A+ patterns. It’s almost a kind of speculative imagination Gallup poll mechanism. I’d like to see a tag cloud or sentiment analysis across the anthology 🤔
Though I’m obviously partisan as one of the original instigators of the @yak_collective I think this project has serious potential for demonstrating a futures methodology that combines bith scenario planning and design fiction, and does so in a collective intelligence framework.
There’s 5 stories so far and a few more queued, and then the intention I believe is to keep adding stories. I suspect this approach would really shine past ~25 stories with some meta analysis to bring out collection-level patterns.
Product placement: if you’re interested in hiring the yak collective to conduct such a futures exercise, contact @SachinB91 or @WabiSabiFutures. We’ve actually already done one similar client project (not public) that produced a slide deck of visual vignettes rather than stories.

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More from @vgr

20 Nov
Poll: Have you heard of Dalton’s law and the principle of partial pressure? If so, where/when did you learn it?
Dammit, trending small majority not heard of it 🙁

Wanted to use it as a metaphor for a piece. Didn’t realize it was that obscure.

I think I learned it in 8th grade by which time I think STEM kids were already on a separate track. For the curious ones:…
I keep forgetting how early STEM forks off from mainstream. In my high school, there were 4 tracks: CS and biology on STEM side (targeting engineering and medicine for college) and commerce and arts for humanities/social science side. I think ~40% was STEM and that was high.
Read 4 tweets
20 Nov
What Trump is up to is some true 4th world shit. Worse than third world because when first worlds fall, they fall below third world levels.…
In 2016 he just looked like many third world politicians. But the salting-of-the-earth type of vandalism he’s attempting now out of sheer rage is not something I’ve seen in even the worst third world politics.
Talking to my mom in India in 2016, I explained “he’s like Lalu Yadav” (archetypal modern Indian populist, CM of the state I grew up in through much of my childhood; eventually went to prison for corruption). Now I have to say: Lalu looks more civilized…
Read 5 tweets
19 Nov
Feeling unreasonably cheerful because I’ve made a tiny start towards starting a personal space program 😎
The first step is admitting you have a space program
Rocketry is easily the hardest subfield of aerospace engineering and one I don’t know much about. So I feel a bit guilty when someone says something like “ha ha so you’re an actual rocket scientist!”

I feel like responding, “no, I specialize in somewhat easier stuff”
Read 6 tweets
17 Nov
When you don’t solve problems they just go away, which is kinda a nice feature of the universe
This is my thread of true facts
The true facts will continue until morale improves
Read 4 tweets
17 Nov
bluecheck invasion ruining substack a bit 😬
I have more hope for the platform than for Medium or Patreon (that's why I'm on it). It has less of a top-down cultural feel, and little to no cross-talk/cross-flow across newsletters, which is a good thing. Sacrifices content-network effect for diversity.
Basically the bias-variance tradeoff writ large. An aggregator platform will either have a large bias or a large variance. So far, unlike Medium or patreon (or livejournal or tumblr or what have you) substack is heading towards higher variance. x
Read 40 tweets
17 Nov
Anyone actually enjoy the zoom-conference circuit? I’ve pretty much entirely avoided it. I’ve realized that to the limited extent I enjoy conferences at all, it’s 100% about getting to travel to places I want to visit. Take that out and it’s just feels like work to me.
The one thing I enjoyed was a very lowkey set of maker-skill demos hosted by a local repair cafe.
Looking back on a couple of decades of conferences, the memorable things I actually remember are the local side trips.
Read 4 tweets

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