Permanent Triage

Last month I was sitting next to a lake with a college friend while the sun set. He's in grad school for biology, and he was telling me about studying with ecologists while the Amazon burns.

The most surprising part wasn't the pessimism he described in the heart of academic science. (By now I think most of us know that climate catastrophe is inevitable on some level.) But it was wild to hear what ecologists are doing about it, which apparently is building computer models to help them make a thousand different Sophie's Choices. Faced with limited time, scientists are scrambling to assign value to the "ecosystem services" that different species and habitats provide – so they can decide which natural resources humans should save while we still can.

To my friend, it feels like trying to save the planet using the very same system of knowledge that’s destroying it in the first place. Like using the spreadsheet a private equity firm would use to strip assets from some distressed company.

Mark Fisher was well-known for saying that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. This feels like a pretty literal example — where rather than dismantle an institutional structure that’s inadequate to the problem, we see well-meaning people use the tools of investors to usher in the end of some worlds before others.

The thing is, I can relate. I think a lot of people operate in a similar cognitive state, which you might call permanent triage, where you try to manage an obviously unmanageable number of demands on your attention with perverse rationality. The volume of emails and articles and bills and gigs never goes down, but there’s no way out of the situation. This is the economic logic of a time of information abundance and political austerity, where triage means managing tons of communications while rationing essentials like rent money and insulin. More and more I’m realizing that the most exciting political campaigns — Bernie, the Green New Deal, No New Jails — are the ones that reject the structure of pure accumulation.

Last month I reported on a redesign at Citizen, the peer-to-peer crime-spotting app. The company is trying to roll back the paranoia of the interface, but it turns out there are some bigger un-answered questions. Like what it means exactly when the head of product says, “we want to be known as a safety utility company from here on forward.”

You can read the full story at Eye on Design. (Thanks to Meg Miller for editing!)

I was very, very lucky to spend a week canoeing in the Boundary Waters last month. This newsletter isn’t supposed to be a travelogue, but the quality of attention required to navigate and paddle out there felt like a real release. It was a good way to reflect on some of the ideas I’ve been messing around with in this digital space.

In the spirit of trail reporting, here’s a map of our route: a roughly 40-mile loop along the Canadian border that took us about 6 days.

It’s funny that the aerial view is so intricate, because the view from the water is extremely similar from one lake to the next. Everything – landforms, wind, temperature, light – changes all the time by subtle gradations. Here’s another postcard:

More things I’m reading:

Thanks for reading,


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