Today, be sure to tune in to the BBC's Cultural Frontline, where you’ll hear me talking about the Very Serious Matter™ of animal memes in the COVID-19 age for Canine Couture: Inside Dog Fashion. You can catch it on air and online. 📻
In December last year, I’d written in Nieman Lab that “Disease spreads on the internet in unexpected ways, as Meedan’s Digital Health Lab’s Nat Gyenes and Megan Marrelli have found, because we built an internet without public health standards of care in mind.” Little did I or anyone else know that the novel coronavirus was already spreading to humans. On December 30, 2019, the late Dr. Li Wenliang sent the first WeChat missives to his medical school classmates, confirming 7 cases of SARS. His messages started circulating on the more open web, before they were censored. That was almost a year ago today.
By February of 2020, I attended what would be my last-ever in-person conference, at the University of California Irvine’s The Future of the Future: The Ethics and Implications of AI. I remember one guest, who’d visited from Asia, describing the challenges of physically arriving in Southern California, as the novel coronavirus was already impacting travel in some circles of the world. In our panel, I spoke about how magic is often the realm of women and witches, while AI — as with any sufficiently advanced technology — uses the language and symbolism of magic to awe us toward a sense of helplessness about what’s possible. The very use of the word “intelligence” implies something more than a math and data problem. Intelligence itself is a magical, loaded term.
In this year of years, I’ve become interested in the thin line between futurists — people who make a living telling us about what’s coming — and diviners — people who make a living telling us about what’s coming. The former is steeped in the language of business, economics and sociology, while the latter uses art, identity, and the stars as its guide. As the New Yorker reminds us, astrology is on the rise amongst millennials, no doubt because of the uncertainty of these times. The main reason these times feels shaky, I suspect, is because the path to the future is no longer a given.
One overlooked area of commonality between futurism and divination is that they are rarely about the future but are more commonly about present history. “Astrology has helped me to accept my past, present and future potential more radically and with greater certainty than anything else has,” writes astrologist Chani Nicholas in the lovely You Were Born For This: Astrology for Radical Self-Acceptance. As the cartomancers in my life remind me, tarot helps us more clearly see the present, and it’s understanding the present that informs what we do next.
Some of my favorite works in futures thinking include the Institute for the Future’s Ten Year Forecast, Amy Webb’s Tech Trends Reports, Nieman Lab’s annual predictions series, and the Economist’s “The World In…” series, which offers predictions for the coming year. Tom Standage, who edits this latter publication, has noted, “The noisier and the more frenetic the news environment gets, the more demand I think there is for trustworthy content, but also content that steps back and says, ‘What’s really going on here, what really matters?’ and so on.”
Like Standage, I do think the best way to see the future is to step back, look at the past and the present and feel out the conditions today that are likely to continue to shape our lives tomorrow. I think that’s why I wanted to call this newsletter “Yellow Canary Land 🐤 ” (yes, the emoji is part of the title). Like the proverbial canary in a coal mine, I’m looking for signs of the future by watching for what’s present, and perhaps overlooked, today.
This year has seen a stunning series of protests around the world, evoking comparisons to global upheavals of the 1960’s. Earlier this summer, New York Times writer Jonah Engel Bromwich reached out to talk to me about the latest trends in protest tactics, which resemble each other globally. As I pointed out to him, the future we’re living in now has been shaped by events I wrote about 6 years ago. We could, for all intents and purposes, see it coming:
In the summer of 2014, when the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong and the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States that followed the police killing of Michael Brown were taking place, [An Xiao Mina] noted that the protesters spoke a common language, even sharing the same hand gesture characterized by the chant “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
Occasionally, there was even direct acknowledgment between the disparate groups, “as when Ferguson protesters donned umbrellas against the rain and cheekily thanked protesters in Hong Kong for the idea,” Ms. Mina wrote in her 2019 book, “Memes to Movements.”
Back to that UCI conference on AI, because I want to tie the future to history again. Historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom invited me to write a provocation for the Los Angeles Review of Books, and I waxed poetic on the history of the Roman Forum, which has proven to be a fitting analogy for our contemporary internet, just not in the way many of us expected:
Today, we are seeing an age-old competition to shape the public space writ large, at the scale of the world, rather than a regional empire; at the speed of data, rather than the speed of cavalry and navies; and with nation states intermixing with multinationals whose powers often bypass those of governments. In an article for Foreign Policy, Sean McDonald and I observed that, “while much attention is paid to a tripartite technology world of the United States, China, and the EU, smaller initiatives abound: At the same time as states are navigating sovereign relationships, nearly every country is also wrestling with domestically defining and balancing state and political power.”
It’s tempting to think of this moment in technological history as one solely of engineering, but it is also one of power and society. The problems we’ve left unchecked and unnegotiated in our digital forums are now, thanks in part to AI, spilling over into our physical streets and plazas. Like urban infrastructure, we must contend with it and expect contention. And as with any negotiation of power, we should expect heads to roll, diseases to spread and rumors and propaganda to proliferate.
In those days of the ancient forum, one popular way to know the future was to cast lots. “Lots of what?” I’d always ask in my head. It turns out these lots may have taken the form of dice, or stalks, or pebbles, a way of tapping into the divine. It is through sorting the numbers, picking through the data, that the ancients figured out a way forward. We of course get the word “forecasting,” a term used by meteorologists and futurists alike, from this ancient, divinatory sense of casting. Today, the types of data we use are considerably broader than rolls of dice.
If there’s anything to be learned from 2020, it’s not that we live in a new age of uncertainty. It’s that the previous age of supposed certainty was built on shaky data and assumptions to begin with. As I wrote in my prediction this year for Nieman Lab, “These times demand that we say that even while the end of the pandemic is in sight, going back to normal is not, because ‘normal’ is what got us here.”
Here’s to building a new normal.
New From Me
2020 is not our swan, not our rhino. It’s our canary.
The phrase “canary in a coal mine” comes from the fact that canaries — which are more susceptible to methane than human beings — were brought to mines as an early warning system. If the canary died, it meant methane was leaking, and that the miners needed to evacuate immediately. The canary was an indicator that something was structurally wrong, a sign of greater danger.
One problem I see is that many journalists reporting on Chinese technology have limited experience reporting within and about China. They might not fully understand the economic and media aims of the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese language, or the underlying logic of global capitalism. China has a population of 1.3 billion people—more than the European Union and North America combined—but little of the tech coverage in the West recognizes the country’s complexity. Technology writers will argue at length the fine points distinguishing San Francisco and Silicon Valley tech culture but say nothing about the Pearl River Delta, a metropolitan complex whose population surpasses that of California and whose exports shape the global economy of electronic goods.
Slate: WeChat Has Both Connected Families and Torn Them Apart (with Xiaowei Wang)
Holding platforms like WeChat to account should not come at the expense of user rights and due processes, nor should it seek to replicate the very blanket bans on internet services that authoritarian nations enact. As U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler wrote in the preliminary injunction that granted WeChat a brief reprieve, the national security concerns are real, but so are questions regarding First Amendment rights: “[T]here are obvious alternatives to a complete ban, such as barring WeChat from government devices, as Australia has done, or taking other steps to address data security.”
In the case of emerging knowledge, it might be helpful to think not just about misinformation but midinformation. We know a little now, we’ll know more later, and we may never know everything ever. In other words, information stands in the middle, and we’re trying. Scientists are gaining some clarity, but it’s going to take some time for scientific consensus to build, and for public understanding to catch up.
Midinformation, in other words, is the sort of information crisis that happens when not all the facts are known. In that vacuum of knowledge, all kinds of rumors, conspiracies, misunderstandings and misconceptions can emerge, because it’s comforting to have an anchor that feels true and reliable.
I speak with writer Yasemin Craggs Mersinoglu:
An Xiao Mina, author of the book Memes to Movements, says the full extent of the influence of these platforms will only become apparent by tracking the digital content over time. She highlighted the influence of, for example, #BlackLivesMatter and the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. “Often, the most visible thing is the meme,” says Mina. “What may not be apparent is the networks that are being built, the narratives being shaped and the organisational structures that ultimately might help us yield effective change.”
As the world shuts down and all of us go indoors, it is to the internet we travel for solace, comfort, and community. Today, each of us is ensconced in square boxes — literally called user icons — on platforms like TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram which designed their algorithms and recommendation engines to make anyone internet famous for a brief moment. We gaze into our devices at people and worlds beyond the dreariness of our homes and bitterness of our self-isolation as spring approaches in the Northern Hemisphere. The emergence of spiritual circles online in the face of COVID-19 strikes me as the opposite of viral — a place to be still in the face of viral turbulence on the streets and in the air and viral turbulence on social media and the broader internet.
Recent Talks and Podcasts
City Lights Bookstore: Launch Event for Blockchain Chicken Farm, by Xiaowei Wang, one of my favorite books on technology and China and my favorite book this year.
As you can see, I’m on Substack now, because apparently it’s what the cool kids are doing. I’ve added a paid subscription option, in case you’re moved to contribute, but my intention is to keep this newsletter free, so please feel no obligation to pay. If I do see traction on paid subscriptions, I’ll publish monthly; high traction, I’ll go weekly. In both cases, I’ll add some paid-subscriber-only pieces and open up the comments for discussion. Otherwise, I’ll aim to publish quarterly with general updates and thoughts.
Thanks for joining me on this journey. The yellow canaries abound.
Yellow Canary Land 🐤 is a regular look at societal trends, with a focus on the future of media and technology. It’s ostensibly about some distant tomorrow, but really, it’s about how the forces of our yesterdays and todays are likely to shape the times to come. In the true spirit of slow journalism, don’t expect a lot of emails, but do expect a a lot of thought put into each one. Written by author, technologist and artist An Xiao Mina.