In Screens We Trust
How can we tell what's real and what's not?
👋 Today I woke up and there were more than 1,000 climate buddies. Holy moly, thanks y’all! 🌳
What is this? This newsletter explores topics in climate, energy, and everything in between.
Today I’ll try something new.
We will start with a climate fiction (cli-fi) story before we dive into the framework.
In Screens We Trust (Story)
Every month, he would get out of town and drive up to his man cave.
That little forrest hut had been converted into his workshop. No one else seemed to bother fixing old audio gear these days. By 2027, most things had replaced flips and switches for circuits and processors, but he couldn’t care less.
It brought him joy and distracted him from the latest doom report: Thousands of climate refugees from Florida were being evacuated to the northern states.
Locked in a Cave
He didn’t believe in god, but if paradise existed it certainly would have been this workshop.
It was time to roll up the sleeves and fix one of grandpa’s “analogue radios.”
By the time Sunday afternoon came around, he hadn’t made significant progress despite pulling an all-nighter. This project would have to be finished later next month.
About to leave the hut, his phone vibrated 📱
Public Safety Alert ⚠️
Declaration of Public Health Disaster in the State of Texas due to a high likelihood of acid rain.
The Texas Department of State Health Services instructs all residents to shelter-in-place until further notice.
What the hell?
First, COVID-19 had messed things up during his grad school years and now this?
It was time to check-in with the family.
Shadows of Reality
By Tuesday, he was already getting bored by how repetitive the family Zoom calls felt.
How are you? Good.
What have you been up to? Nothing.
You? Not much.
Hope this goes by quickly. Yup.
Love you. Love you too.
Talk tomorrow? Yes.
This was real-life Groundhog Day.
No signs of the acid rain yet. But also, why would he want to risk going outside? There was still food for days and his next client appointment was in ten days.
No need to get back yet.
His mom reiterated that this whole acid rain situation couldn’t last more than two weeks. He wasn’t sure if it was acquired knowledge or wishful thinking. It didn’t matter.
If they had prevailed throughout COVID then a couple of days of this should be doable.
Besides, it gave him time to finish his project.
Looking Behind the Light
On Thursday night he had a breakthrough.
The correct wires matched and suddenly the radio jumped to life. A loud static noise boosted from the speakers.
Success at last! The machine is alive!
He turned the frequency knob until he hit the first weak signal. A bit more adjustment and he was listening to a rock song praising “Jesus Christ. Our Lord and Savior.”
91.9FM Christian Radio. Next.
He went through station by station. It proved that the analogue radio worked. But not a single radio station was mentioning the acid rain.
What was going on?
This certainly had to be the biggest news story in Texas, since he kept receiving these annoying Public Safety Alerts on a daily basis.
On the other hand, there was still no acid rain and the family conversations felt somehow off.
It was almost as if the Zoom calls were a theater play version of their family calls. They hit all the right notes, but there was something uncanny about it. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
He’s been here for close to a week. Maybe it was time to drive out and see what is going on outside his tiny little bubble.
The next service station was 20 minutes away. After arriving, he was surprised how normal everyone behaved. No one seemed to care about this state emergency.
He asked the cashier how they had dealt with the situation to which the cashier replied: “What the hell are you talking about? You kids should get out more often!”
He pulled out his phone and texted:
[9:12pm] Me: Mom, what’s the latest on this rain thing?
[9:13pm] Mom: They say it should blow over Caldwell county soon.
[9:13pm] Me: Where have you heard it?
[9:14pm] Mom: It’s all over the news.
He looked around and walked over to the magazine section. After sifting through a dozen or so newspapers and magazines, he couldn’t find a single mention of the acid rain.
Has he gone insane? What the hell is going on?!
Could it be his phone?
He asked the cashier if he could quickly use his phone for a call. Reluctantly, the cashier allowed him to use their landline.
He dialed his mom’s number.
Him: Hey, mom!
Mom: What’s this number you’re calling from?
Him: I’m at a service station and asked to call from their phone. Mom, I…
Mom: Why are you at a service station?
Him: Listen, mom! That’s not important now. Why did you tell me that the acid rain situation is all over the news?
Mom: You should really spend less time in your workshop.
Mom: Which acid rain are you talking about?
Epilogue: Whisperers of Reality
A screen dialogue pops up:
[9:37pm] op#49803: how long did it last?
[9:38pm] op#12973: test subject was kept in the loop for approx 100 hours
[9:38pm] op#49803: longest yet?
[9:38pm] op#12973: affirmative
[9:39pm] op#12973: multi-vector spoofing worked on various devices // local network/wifi, computer, phone
[9:39pm] op#49803: great progress
[9:39pm] op#49803: your team should be proud
[9:39pm] op#12973: thanks
[9:43pm] op#49803: proceed to phase 2
The screen closes.
Shoutout Interlude: Mike Taylor (Gen AI Explorer & Prompt Engineer)
It was a blast to finally collaborate with my buddy Mike.
He first gave me a private invite to Midjourney back in January 2022 when it was still in a closed beta phase. Also, he has the highest rated Udemy course on Prompt Engineering.
I can vouch for his teaching, since I benefitted from it tremendously.
A couple weeks ago, we first discussed the story.
Initially, I thought that I would send him my finished draft and he would generate the images. Instead, he sent me this message 👇
To paraphrase the old wisdom: “Generate an image for a friend and he’ll have content for one essay. Teach a man how to engineer prompts and he’ll be generating for life.”
I adapted the prompt structure to the specific needs of this story. I’m super happy with the coherent look of this story.
What do you think?
In Screens We Trust (Essay)
In this section, I’ll walk you through three things:
How this cli-fi story came about
Two implications for climate
Inspiration for the Story
“In Screens We Trust” is the fourth cli-fi short in my fictional G.E.C.O. universe. The previous editions included:
The story was inspired by the recent convergence of two trends:
📱 Abstraction from Reality: These days, we rarely interact with reality and rely on interfaces. Think of Google Analytics. Do you sit and count every view and click on your website? Or do you trust that Google Analytics shows you the correct numbers?
🪄 Capabilities of Generative AI: Generative AI tools are becoming more powerful every day.
The combination of those two was interesting enough to explore via a cli-fi story. The goal was to see if we could derive any practical learnings.
Inspo from Real-Life Events
Companies like Zoom use user data to train their own AI algorithms.
In a hypothetical case, Zoom’s generative AI capabilities could be trained on your phone calls with your loved ones. How could you tell whether the next family call is real or generated?
Oh man… conspiracy theorists will have a field day with this 🙈
This reminded me of a section in Ben Thompson’s great essay about generative AI:
This technology does not feel like a better search. It feels like something entirely new — the movie ‘Her’ manifested in chat form — and I’m not sure if we are ready for it. It also feels like something that any big company will run away from, including Microsoft and Google. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a viable consumer business though, and we are sufficiently far enough down the road that some company will figure out a way to bring [it] to market without the chains. …
Here’s the twist, though: I’m actually not sure that these models are a threat to Google after all. This is truly the next step beyond social media, where you are not just getting content from your network (Facebook), or even content from across the service (TikTok), but getting content tailored to you. And let me tell you, it is incredibly engrossing, even if it is, for now, a roguelike experience to get to the good stuff.
Plato’s Cave [Framework]
Even the Greek philosophers were asking themselves how you could know that what you see is actually true?
This is know as Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.
How many hours a day do you look at a screen vs at the world?
The answer is probably that we it’s an uncomfortable amount of hours looking at digital screens.
If you think about it, Plato’s Cave is more relevant today than ever:
Our Perception: 👀
Implications for Climate
I can think of two situations where Plato’s allegory might be a useful framework:
🗞️ Personal Information Diet: Chances are that your news/info feed is skewed towards one of two extremes. Either, technology is advancing at a radical pace and we are going to be alright (= techno utopia). Or, the world is going down the drain and there’s nothing we can do about it (= climate doomerism). The reality is most likely somewhere in between but what you see in your feed is algorithmically optimized for engagement. The question is: Which message resonates more with your sentiment?
💽 Climate-related Data: Many business depend on energy or climate data. Emission levels, energy usage, resource usage, etc. Climate objectives these days are measurable: 55% greenhouse gas reductions by 2030 and net zero by 2050. To get there, everyone has to do their part and measure correctly. But what happens when certain parties - like Volkswagen - try to trick the system by manipulating the data? How would we know what’s real?
The former is highly relevant in figuring out how to get more people to join the climate fight instead of doing nothing. The latter is something that policymakers and business operators should have an honest look at.
Intuitively, I would say that the complexity of climate-related data is still poorly understood.
Recently, a policy advisor told me that Scope 3 emissions - “emissions that are not produced by the company itself and are not the result of activities from assets owned or controlled by them, but by those that it's indirectly responsible for up and down its value chain” - make up the bulk of GHG emissions but are not properly measured yet. That’s a problem.
I am left with more questions than answers but that’s not a bad thing.
These are some questions that I’m pondering about:
What are examples of common abstractions in the climate-/energy-data space?
What are examples of undesirable outcomes due to incorrect representations of data/reality?
What are possible dangers in the future?
What type of data are we currently not tracking at all?
What are the limits of tracking energy-/climate-related data?
Which companies are successfully tackling this problem? How?
I’ll be expanding this list of questions over time. I’d love to hear your opinions.
If you have thoughts/critique/etc. feel free to ping me directly.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider forwarding it to a friend.
Onwards and upwards ✌️