Software gets smarter, the growth of link rot, architectural flourishes and disasters and taking a critical look at diversity in culture

Jean Dubuffet painting from the Brutal Beauty exhibition at the Barbican

Find some of the stories that have caught my eye over the last fews weeks below reflecting current events and wider trends and changes:

This demonstration from OpenAI provides an exciting glimpse int how software will increasingly be able to translate our ideas into code:

There’s growing talk around privacy as Google and Apple put barriers up to the use of tracking by online advertising networks. Benedict Evans takes a closer look and looks at some of the impacts and unintended consequences:

The consumer internet industry spent two decades building a huge, complex, chaotic pile of tools and systems to track and analyse what people do on the internet, and we’ve spent the last half-decade arguing about that, sometimes for very good reasons, and sometimes with strong doses of panic and opportunism. Now that’s mostly going to change, between unilateral decisions by some big tech platforms and waves of regulation from all around the world. But we don’t have any clarity on what that would mean, or even quite what we’re trying to achieve, and there are lots of unresolved questions. We are confused.

Jonathan Zittrain takes a critical look at the internet and how link rot and content drift is undermining this otherwise invaluable resource:

This absence of central control, or even easy central monitoring, has long been celebrated as an instrument of grassroots democracy and freedom. It’s not trivial to censor a network as organic and decentralized as the internet. But more recently, these features have been understood to facilitate vectors for individual harassment and societal destabilization, with no easy gating points through which to remove or label malicious work not under the umbrellas of the major social-media platforms, or to quickly identify their sources. While both assessments have power to them, they each gloss over a key feature of the distributed web and internet: Their designs naturally create gaps of responsibility for maintaining valuable content that others rely on. Links work seamlessly until they don’t. And as tangible counterparts to online work fade, these gaps represent actual holes in humanity’s knowledge.

Fadeke Adegbuyi explores the online phenomenon of anti-fans, providing the flipside to the adoring stans.

This hater-fan mirror is at the heart of understanding anti-fandom or “hatedom.” Anti-fans are possessed with the same passion as fans: they follow, they discuss, they obsess. But rather than blind worship, they’re immersed in blind hatred. Instead of a positive bond characterized by affection for a creator, it’s a negative one characterized by obsession for an online influencer.

The last ten years has seen relatively limited changes in productivity compared to the previous years despite the increasingly digital nature of the economy. Austin Vernon explores the trend and the emerging technologies which could make a significant impact on future productivity:

Interpersonal dynamics can provide a fascinating area of study. Halfbrick Studios experiment with a game prototype provides an interesting example of where things can go wrong as colleague is turned against colleague in a seemingly low stakes situation:

The collapse of the Surfside condo building in Florida earlier in the year highlighted some of the potential flaws in our built infrastructure’s reliance on steel reinforced concrete. Spencer Wright takes a closer look at our love for this seemingly ubiquitous drawing material using crayfish as an interesting starting point:

Like symbioses, composite materials can be incredibly productive: two things coming together to create something stronger. But like crayfish and barbarae, their outcomes can also be tragic. Rarely are two materials a perfect match for each other, and as the environment changes their relationship can turn destructive. And when composites turn destructive – as was evident in the reinforced concrete when the Champlain Towers North were inspected back in 2018 – the fallout can be catastrophic.

One of things I really love about London in September is Open House providing me with the opportunity it provides to look inside normally out of the way corners. This year I’ve attempted to be a bit more organised with bookings for Antony Gormley’s Room and Abbey Mills Pumping Station.

Providing a valuable companion to Open House is the New York Times’ look at the most significant works of post war architecture (no London buildings make the cut…).

I can remember first coming across an ebike on the road and being a dyed in the wool cyclist, I inevitably saw this as not being “cricket.” My attitudes softened considerably after hearing the Danish Cycling Federation’s Klaus Bondam speak where he talked about how ebikes enabled people to commute further and continue to ride till much later in life – something which is supported by recent research from Norway.

Bertrand Cooper looks at how moves to broaden the diversity of voices in popular culture havent necessarly helped those voices least heard:

Though obviously class-blind and constrained by racist stereotypes regarding poverty and Black identity, some portion of the racial progress that has occurred in popular culture over the last decade has been motivated, I hope, by a genuine empathy for the Black poor. There is still time to use that energy to direct popular culture towards policies that recognize class within race. But this will require that the privilege of acting as public representatives for all Black people be taken away from the Black middle- and upper- classes. Black Americans fortunate enough to be born outside of poverty need to establish identities that do not depend on erasing class differences or falsifying connections to poor black oppression. And white Americans will need to accept Black identities not based in poverty as perfectly “real” too—just not authoritative on Black poverty.

I recently caught Summer of Soul which gave a taste of festival life for someone starved of live music and also a window into race relations in late 1960s New York. Making an interesting companion to the documentary is Henry Wong’s look at Frank William Miller Jr.’s work on the film’s visual identity for the documentary.

Ecommerce grows, criticisms of Kalanick and Basecamp, Substack’s impact on journalism and swell vibes

Find some of the stories that have caught my eye over the last fews weeks below reflecting current events and wider trends and changes:

Benedict Evan’s points to Britain’s ecommerce taking around 50% of non grocery retail and suggests this could have a range of impacts on both retail sector and wider society.

Travis Kalanick took a lot of stick for his cut throat management style. Meghan Morris’s reporting on his latest venture, CloudKitchens points to the fact that the criticisms have not led to a change in his approach:

The message was clear: The Kalanick leading CloudKitchens was not changed, humbled, or reformed. He was the same Kalanick who in just a few roller-coaster years had turned Uber into a global juggernaut — at one point the world’s most valuable tech startup — by barreling full speed ahead and ultimately crashing out.

As more Silicon Valley employees champion social justices issues in the workplace, Basecamp management’s attempt to silence political debate hasn’t gone down well:

“We’ve hired opinionated people, we’ve created opinionated software, and now basically the company has said, ‘well, your opinions don’t really matter — unless it’s directly related to business,’” one told me. “A lot of people are gonna have a tough time living with that.

Anne Helen Peterson responds to critics of the unemployed in the US who have in some cases proven reluctant to return to paid work. Workers have found themselves with some degree of agency and some of them are prepared to use it:

The models up and down the American economy are unsustainable. They have been built on the belief that profit — and, in many cases, exponential growth — should, as a rule, supersede labor conditions. In ‘knowledge’ jobs, they have been guided by the false idols of productivity and workism; in the retail and hospitality industry, these conditions have been facilitated by anti-labor campaigns, perverse private equity imperatives, and lax (or non-existent) regulation of the gig economy.

The pandemic did not create these conditions. It simply made them even more impossible to ignore — and created scenarios in which some workers (not all, but some!) have been empowered, perhaps for the first time in their working lives, to opt out.

Will Oremus takes a valuable look at the impact on what Substack and associated offerings are likely to have on an already embattled traditional news media sector:

Leading newsletters such as Heather Cox Richardson’s Letter From an American, Roxane Gay’s the Audacity, and Scott Alexander’s Astral Codex Tenare wildly diverse in their perspectives and subject matter. But one thing they have in common is that they’ve never covered a city council meeting or rushed out to a crime scene to get the scoop. “I haven’t seen one of these independent Substacks that comes close to replicating what most news organizations spend most of their resources doing,” said Bill Grueskin, a professor at Columbia Journalism School and former senior editor at Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal.

Jonn Elledge looks at the role of demographics in Labour’s decline as more of its core supporters concentrate in urban electorates leaving older voters to dominate in many marginal electorates.

Roll the tape forward a couple of decades and you get the situation we’re in now – where Labour is piling up more and more votes in safe seats like Manchester Central or Hackney South, but solid Labour towns are turning Tory because they’re increasingly dominated by older people who, the data suggests, are more likely to vote Conservative. 

Kyle Chayka reports on the ascendancy of vibe driven social meda era as content becomes increasingly driven by audio and visuals:

In the social-media era, though, “vibe” has come to mean something more like a moment of audiovisual eloquence, a “sympathetic resonance” between a person and her environment, as Robin James, a professor of philosophy at U.N.C. Charlotte wrote in a recent newsletter. What a haiku is to language, a vibe is to sensory perception: a concise assemblage of image, sound, and movement. (#Aesthetic is sometimes used to mark vibes, but that term is predominantly visual.) A vibe can be positive, negative, beautiful, ugly, or just unique. It can even become a quality in itself: if something is vibey, it gives off an intense vibe or is particularly amenable to vibes. Vibes are a medium for feeling, the kind of abstract understanding that comes before words put a name to experience. That pre-linguistic quality makes them well suited to a social-media landscape that is increasingly prioritizing audio, video, and images over text. Through our screens, vibes are being constantly emitted and received.

The frequent talk of veganism in the media gives you the impression that meat consumption is going down. Unfortunately global statistics provide a rather different story which is rather concerning given the carbon footprint of meat.

The American television series Pose (Season 1 is great Season 2 less so) definitely left me feeling more sympathetic to the plight of the Trans community. Given this, it has been interesting to read about the role of Mumsnet in fostering anti Trans voices in the UK as Katie M. J. Baker reports:

Mumsnet’s women’s rights forum didn’t just offer women a safe space to organize. By providing a platform that tolerated TERFism, it had also handed users a convenient scapegoat for all of their problems — not austerity, not misogyny, but the relatively tiny and extremely marginalized and oppressed trans population. 

Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland left a great impression and led me on to checking out her earlier film The Rider which also gets the thumbs up. Thomas Flight explores the film and influence of Terrence Malick on Zhao’s work:

Buzzfeed have an interesting series of videos looking at food and drink habits from around the world from a first person perspective. It’s no surprise that the ice cream video was the one that caught my attention:

Cover photo is Strange Currents, EA by Jessica Rankin from the nostalgia for the infinite exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey.

Fundamental technology, artificial intelligence, blockchain, social media and the music industry

Find some of the stories that have caught my eye over the last fews weeks below reflecting current events and wider trends and changes:

Digits to Dollars looks at the challenges in launching a fundamental technology as opposed to those for which there’s already a proven market:

One of the hardest problems faced by such companies is that not only do they lack for customers, they lack for partners. Typically, they need a whole ecosystem of partners and developers to make their technology viable. For a start-up this often translates into a vast amount of time spent doing custom work and educating partners. These other parties are always larger which means they are going to make the start-up jump through hoops. Every start-up faces this when selling to enterprises, but here the challenged is doubled. Just to get to a working product means working with large, hard-to-work-with partners and only then selling to large, hard-to-work-with customers.

For all the talk of the machines are coming to get you, there are some interesting examples of where artifical intelligence falls short including GPT-3’s pick up lines and OpenAI’s image recognition tool being fooled by text.

It has been interesting watching the growing environmental criticisms of proof of work as a foundation for consensus in blockchain technologies. Whilst advocates have pointed to the option of using renewable energy, this is arguably simply displacing consumption from arguably more productive economic activities. As Noah Smith comments:

This spiraling resource consumption indicates a basic weakness in the technology that supports Bitcoin. For most financial assets, like gold, the cost of storage doesn’t go up much as the price goes up; it’s just about as easy to guard the world’s gold at $2,000 an ounce as at $200 an ounce. And for most currencies, transactions are super cheap. Because people already trust banks and the government, these centralized institutions can handle massive amounts of transactions with near-costless efficiency. Bitcoin’s decentralized trust, in contrast, keeps getting more expensive as Bitcoin gets more valuable.

You can tell Facebook is in damage control mode when it’s advertising for internet regulations on high profile podcasts. Another facet of Facebook’s attempt to control the narrative is its launch of an Oversight Board although it’s not without its criticisms as Pema Levy reports:

“What I worry is going to happen here is that there’s this kind of theater around the board’s decision that is entrenching the notion that it’s the content moderation decision that matters,” says Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “It’s much, much less important than all these design decisions”—algorithms that sort people into filter bubbles and amplify hate, for example—”that Facebook isn’t talking about, that Facebook doesn’t want anyone to talk about. And that Facebook will never turn over to the board, because those design decisions are what ultimately determine whether Facebook makes money or not.” 

Lee Vinsel provides a rather different framing of the power of social media, not exactly excusing them but warning against making them out to be worse than they are:

To be clear, I am NOT saying that there’s nothing to worry about or study when it comes to how social media use shapes behavior. There are many things to be concerned about and try to better understand, including misinformation, radicalization, the formation of mobs through online platforms, and more. There are also plenty of reasons to question Facebook’s, Google’s, and other firms’ monopolistic powers and potentially even to break them up. But none of these problems or our criticisms of them have anything to do with social media companies being able to control our minds.

Therapy on demand sounds like a dream come true. Molly Fischer’s look into the growth of startups therapy providing therapy online provides a much more mixed picture with providers struggling to meet demand and concerns about the quality of care:

But chatbots and mood scores aren’t generally what people are imagining when they say, for example, that their ex needs therapy. “Therapy” here conjures an intervention to fix the personality and save the soul. Different people want different things from therapy. They want to break bad habits, work through trauma, vent about their boss, their boyfriend, their mom. They want to feel better (always easier said than done). They want someone to talk to, and they want some tools. When I resumed seeing my longtime therapist over video, I wanted her to tell me whether the problem was my brain or the pandemic — I needed someone I trusted to judge the situation. That is to say, I wasn’t sure what I needed, but I wanted the help of someone who knew better. And this — expert counsel in the palm of your hand — is what the high end of an emerging class of therapy apps claims to deliver.

Mark Leopold drawing on his research into the life of Idi Amin points to benefits of political buffoonery with obvious parallels with some of our contemporary politicians:

1) It leads opponents to underestimate the ability and intelligence of the buffoon.

2) It provides deniability— “it was only a joke.”

3) It appeals to core supporters (many Africans loved Amin’s teasing of the former colonial masters).

4) It serves as a distraction from the more serious, perhaps frightening or incompetent, actions of the leader, what we now call the “dead cat” tactic.

5) It leads to ambiguity (was it a joke or not?), producing confusion and uncertainty about how to respond.

Musicians are one of the parts of society most hurt by the coronavirus pandemic and will be among the last to see a return to “normal.” David Dayen in his look at the music market points to musicians as being increasingly powerless particularly in the US where they are at the mercy of a consolidated network of distributors, venues and ticketsellers:

This has severed the traditional relationship between musicians and commerce. Artists used to rely on labels, and while that could get antagonistic, the labels still needed hit music to stay alive. “Apple stepped in, if they abandoned music tomorrow, it wouldn’t change their bottom line,” said Damon Krukowski. “They’re not a music company, Spotify is not a music company, YouTube is not a music company. None of them need me, but I need them. That is unsustainable for music.”

A recent addition to my podcast feed is Aubrey Gordon and Michael Hobbes’s Maintenance Phase. It describes itself as “debunking the junk science behind health fads, wellness scams and nonsensical nutrition advice” and is great for reframing issues of body image.

Providing a good complement to the podcast is the Shimano sponsored film All Bodies on Bikes. The video follows Kailey Kornhauser and Marley Blonsky, a couple of self described fat women on their two wheeled adventure. It provides a refreshing look at an activity that all too often fetishes suffering rather than having fun.

Cover photo is Walala Parade by designed by Camille Walala in Leyton. You can find more photos here

Dissent in Russia, non-fungible tokens, the Gulf Stream and Slate Star Codex

Find some of the stories that have caught my eye over the last fews weeks below reflecting current events and wider trends and changes:

I’ve found reports of Vladimir Putin’s arrest of Alexei Navalny fascinating. On the one hand, he provides a selfless and invaluable check on a longstanding totalitarian regime. On the other hand he’s certainly not the liberal that many Westerners would like to see leading the Russia opposition (although criticisms are no doubt fuelled by Putin’s allies). Vox has created a valuable primer on why Navalny is such a thorn in Putin’s side:

What the actions of Putin’s critics has made clear is that Russia is a an environment that has few of the privacy protections that we have come to expect in Western society. This can prove something of a gold mine for journalists and opposition researchers as Ben Smith reports:

Probiv is only one of the factors that have made Russia, of all places, the most exciting place in the world for investigative journalism. There is a new wave of outlets, many using more conventional sourcing to pierce the veil of President Vladimir V. Putin’s power. And there is a growing online audience for their work in a country where the state controls, directly or indirectly, all of the major television networks.

I have been fascinated by the growth of blockchain technologies. At times it feels like it’s a solution searching for a problem. The growth of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) seems like an interesting use case, providing a new channel for creators to be rewarded for digital creations. That being said, it does raise some interesting questions as Marc Hogan reporting for Pitchfork:

The idea that a digital certificate of authenticity is valuable, but the infinitely replicable artwork itself is not, may raise interesting questions about what “art” and “authenticity” truly mean, but it’s a conversation for philistines, privileging financial worth above all else. There’s a reason that great art is often called “priceless.”

Growing computational power and a growing array of data has provided us with increasingly accurate weather and climate forecasts. Whilst there is definitely consensus on rising global temperatures, there’s far less consensus on exactly how this plays out. Moises Velasquez-Manoff and Jeremy White take the opportunity to look specifically at the impact of global warming on the Gulf Stream. Changes to this ocean current could see temperatues falling for those of us living around the North Atlantic. As an added bonus, the data visualisations accompanying the article are a feast for the eyes:

It’s one of the mightiest rivers you will never see, carrying some 30 times more water than all the world’s freshwater rivers combined. In the North Atlantic, one arm of the Gulf Stream breaks toward Iceland, transporting vast amounts of warmth far northward, by one estimate supplying Scandinavia with heat equivalent to 78,000 times its current energy use. Without this current — a heat pump on a planetary scale — scientists believe that great swathes of the world might look quite different.

Slate Star Codex provided a hub of sorts for the self described rationalist community that has a particularly strong following in Silicon Valley. The site’s creator recently got into a dispute with the New York Times over the latter’s plan to publish his full name in part of now published profile piece. Elizabeth Spier’s analysis of the dispute provides some valuable reflections on the community around Slate Star Codex and Silicon Valley:

I hope that someone does a longer more comprehensive story on the Rationalist community and the site—selfishly, because I love this sort of thing. But I’d also like to see people who self-identify as Rationalists be a little more self-aware about when they are letting their emotions trample their logic—when they’re tempted to argue that questions of justice are ancillary to question of progress, and when they, for example, get angry and project all manner of emotion onto reporters whose reporting they don’t like. 

But mostly, I want them to be more rigorous: to acknowledge that ideas are meaningless in a vacuum that does not include real world material conditions, and that people pursuing innovation are not the only people who matter, or even the people who matter most. And another structural reality is that organizations—companies, say, startups—are terrible at policing themselves. What journalism seeks to do is illuminate the areas where destructive means are being utilized to achieve ends that might actually be virtuous or worthy in some other way. This is useful, in the public interest, and good for the tech industry in the long term. It mitigates things that are destructive to the industry, and destructive to society. 

The departure of Donald Trump from the Oval Office means that TikTok will no longer be forced to sell off its US operation (at least for the foreseeable future). Eugene Wei provides a fascinating analysis of some of the key features and dynamics that make the platform such a powerful player in social media:

TikTok is a form of assisted evolution in which humans and machine learning algorithms accelerate memetic evolution. The FYP algorithm is TikTok’s version of selection pressure, but it’s aided by the feedback of test audiences for new TikToks.

Samanth Subramanian’s account of the takeover of the Wentworth Golf Club by wealthy Chinese billionaire Yan Bin is titled The rich vs the very, very rich. It makes for a fascinating tale of how even the Surrey’s well to do are not spared the excesses of global capital – although it is worth adding that this is impacting their ability to play a round of golf rather than feed their families:

In escalating the fees, he was looking for a new kind of member, which left the old kind of member out in the cold. Moss described it to me as a “culture clash. He made no attempt to understand the club. He thought he could do what he wanted, basically.” He had the right to think this, Moss said: it was his club.

A podcast that’s been getting a lot of love from me lately is Willa Paskin’s Decoder Ring. The show explores different cultural phenomenon with a recent favourite being a look at the rise of metrosexual and the Karen.

Cover photo is Palm Temple by Luke Jerram which was installed in Lewis Cubitt Square last year. You can find more photos here.

The realities of Brexit, the rise of vaccine nationalism and who is counter cultural

Now that Donald Trump has had the keys for social media and the White House taken off him, it feels like we can now get back to the more serious issues of Brext and Covid-19 (with a side serving of GameStop). Find below some of the stories that have caught my eye over recent weeks.

Brexit arrived and warnings which were being described as “Project Fear” are now proving all too true as George Parker, Peter Foster, Sam Fleming and Jim Brunsden lay out in this report from the Financial Times:

The bill for Johnson’s relentless focus on sovereignty is now due. The government’s deal does allow for the continuation of tariff-free trade for goods that qualify as British- or EU-made. However, Britain’s exit from the customs union and single market on January 1 created a thicket of customs declarations, health checks and other barriers to trade. Services, which make up 80 per cent of the British economy including its crown jewel — the City of London — barely get a look-in.

Providing a more first hand account of Brexit is Philip Hammond’s interview with UK in a Changing Europe. The interview provides a fascinating account of UK’s relationship with Europe and what we’ve lost by going our own way:

As Foreign Secretary, I discovered that the European Union was a very useful platform and a multiplier of British influence because there were only 2½ countries that were credible foreign policy players in Europe: the UK, France, and the Germans in respect of certain areas of activity and certain geographies. Then smaller players, like the Dutch, Swedes and Danes who were absolutely present but small scale. The UK was able to exert significant influence through that medium, but it was the creation of the Single Market – frankly, a British, or we like to think, a British invention – that leveraged the value of Europe for the UK.

I have generally seen the European Union as acting in good faith in its negotiations with the UK on Brexit. Recent friction over the supply of Covid-19 vaccines signals something of what I’m hoping is a temporary departure from this as Daniel Boffey and Dan Sabbagh report for The Guardian.

“We were worried about vaccine nationalism – but the person we feared was Trump, that he would be able to pressurise a US company, and perhaps buy up the drug stocks,” said a former adviser at the Department of Health. “We never expected there would be a row with the EU.”

The roll out of Covid-19 vaccinations has given many Britons something to cheer about and the country’s tracking of different variants is admirable. That being said, there’s been much to criticise in Britain’s handling of the pandemic with politicians often making decisions far too late. The Lowy Institute provides visitors with chance to compare the performance of different regions, populations political systems and countries. Britain doesn’t come out particularly well:

Anthony Fauci has proven one of the stars of the Covid-19 pandemic providing words or reason when leadership from Donald Trump and the Republican Party was sorely lacking. Sam Adler-Bell provides a more critical take suggesting that if Fauci had taken a tougher stance, America could well have seen a less tragic outcome:

Anthony Fauci is no doubt a dedicated public servant, respected by his colleagues, beloved by many Americans. But the puzzle remains: why has the man most closely associated with the public health response to the pandemic entirely avoided accountability for its failure?

Providing a more personal perspective is the account of a NHS consultant anaesthetist working in intensive care who makes clear the pain felt by both the patients and the carers:

Three hours later, we are asked to intubate this patient. She bursts into tears, saying: “I’ve got children at home. I can’t go on a ventilator. I’m not ready. I can’t die.” She is 35 years old. I kneel down and hold her hand. I explain again that we are here to help her with her breathing. As she FaceTimes her children, we urgently get our equipment and drugs ready. Her young children are crying. I must look really scary to them. I can see them but can’t communicate with them at all, even as their mum is becoming increasingly hypoxic and agitated. “I love you, I love you, I love you… ” she says, until she finally presses “end” on the screen with her shaking fingers.

Britain will be hosting COP Climate Change Conference in Glasgow later in the year so it’s interesting to look where UK stands in terms of moves to a low carbon future. MIT’s Green Future Index points to Britain doing alright in global comparison but not so well against its Western European neighbours:

In a world of encroaching social media and influencers, what does it mean to be counter cultural? Caroline Busta takes a closer look for Document:

To be truly countercultural today, in a time of tech hegemony, one has to, above all, betray the platform, which may come in the form of betraying or divesting from your public online self.

Whilst Harvey Weinstein may represent the most predatory form of sexual harassment, there’s plenty of other cases of sexism in the workplace. Jennifer Barnett provides a demoralising account of life at The Atlantic under the leadership of James Bennet:

Adapt. Be one of the guys. It was a boy’s club after all, and it was celebrated as such. Despite the fact that my boss openly acknowledged and resented the reputation of being a boy’s club — he frequently pointed out the number of women working there (yet at the time, I was one of the few at the top of the masthead and he still shut me out of meetings) this was the culture that was actively fostered. The publisher at the time was quoted in an outrageous article extolling the manliness of magazines.

The maze like world of QAnon, where we’re at on climate change and views on British class identity

It has been an interesting couple of weeks with the fallout that accompanied the departure of Donald Trump and on a more personal note, my return to work coming back from furlough. Find below some of the stories that caught my eye, with lively coverage of QAnon, some guarded optimism on climate change and insights on how British see their own social class among other stories.

The debacle that was the storming of the U.S. Senate has left many of us thinking how could this happen. Kevin Roose interviews “QAnon meme queen” Valerie Gilbert, giving a more personal take on how people can fall down this particular rabbit hole:

What attracts Ms. Gilbert and many other people to QAnon isn’t just the content of the conspiracy theory itself. It’s the community and sense of mission it provides. New QAnon believers are invited to chat rooms and group texts, and their posts are showered with likes and retweets. They make friends, and are told that they are not lonely Facebook addicts squinting at zoomed-in paparazzi photos, but patriots gathering “intel” for a righteous revolution.

David Gilbert on the other hand looks at how we can help family and friends step outside the maze of QAnon:

It’s not a one-time interaction process; it has to be incremental over time,” Hasan said. “That’s why family members and friends are the best agents to effect change over time, because they can also say, ‘Hey, I grew up with you, we used to play basketball together. Do you remember?’ That brings up warm feelings and your real self, not your cult self.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have begun to engage more actively with content moderation on their platforms – something which has came to the fore with the storming of the United States Senate recently. Alex Kantrowitz looks at how newer platforms to content moderation such as Substack, Spotify and Clubhouse are engaging with the subject:  

Though the big social networks have been the main focus in the debate over how — and whether — online platforms should moderate user content, the fight is migrating toward smaller platforms devoid of rollicking social feeds. They include email providers like Substack, podcast platforms like Spotify (hello Joe Rogan), and nascent startups like Clubhouse.

The departure of Donald Trump and America’s rejoining of the Paris climate agreement has provides us with some more hope on the subject of climate change. David Wallace-Wells argues we have turned a corner, although we’re still in for bumpy ride:

All year, a planet transformed by the burning of carbon discharged what would have once been called portents of apocalypse. The people of that planet, as a whole, didn’t take much notice — distracted by the pandemic and trained, both by the accumulating toll of recent disasters and the ever-rising volume of climate alarm, to see what might once have looked like brutal ruptures in lived reality instead as logical developments in a known pattern. Our time has been so stuffed with disasters that it was hard to see the arrival of perhaps the unlikeliest prophecy of all: that the plague year may have marked, for climate change, a turning point, and for the better.

The growth of single person households and the relative decline of the traditional nuclear family norm is encouraging suburbs to rethink how they can attract and retain residents. June Williamson and Ellen Dunham-Jones talk about the phenomenon of “suburban retrofitting” in the US:

The suburbs largely sold themselves on the value of the terrific private realm that they present. The suburbs emphasize privacy. As these demographics are changing, there’s more and more people recognizing, “I’m lonely. I would like a little bit more of a public realm.”

Have you got an interesting product idea that you would like to turn into a viable business? Digits to Dollars provide a look at what’s involved in turning an idea into a viable business and it makes you realise why many people choose to stick to purely startups that are all code:

That being said, the realities of hardware can be daunting. Take the $3 million the company needs to get a product out the door, a similarly sized team could build a software application that can potentially grow much faster and they would still have a million dollars to do customer acquisition. Compounding this, the software would come with a recurring revenue stream. The trouble with hardware is that for the company to grow, they have to come out with the Smart Horn 2 and the Smart Horn 3, and go through all of the above again, and again.

Hardware has immense financial leverage, but the upfront costs and more crucially the time required are daunting.

Having spent much of my formative years growing up in New Zealand, I find it fascinating when academics provide a more critical look at that strange species known as the English. Sam Friedman, Dave O’Brien and Ian McDonald’s recent work on class identity definitely fits the bill:

Why do people from privileged class backgrounds often misidentify their origins as working class? We address this question by drawing on 175 interviews with those working in professional and managerial occupations, 36 of whom are from middle-class backgrounds but identify as working class or long-range upwardly mobile. Our findings indicate that this misidentification is rooted in a self-understanding built on particular ‘origin stories’ which act to downplay interviewees’ own, fairly privileged, upbringings and instead forge affinities to working-class extended family histories. Yet while this ‘intergenerational self’ partially reflects the lived experience of multigenerational upward mobility, it also acts – we argue – as a means of deflecting and obscuring class privilege. By positioning themselves as ascending from humble origins, we show how these interviewees are able to tell an upward story of career success ‘against the odds’ that simultaneously casts their progression as unusually meritocratically legitimate while erasing the structural privileges that have shaped key moments in their trajectory.

A friend who is really into film introduced me to Letterboxd as a way of tracking wanted and watched films. I was more than happy to move part of my digital life out of the clutches of Amazon (via IMDB) and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s a New Zealand startup that’s nourishing a new breed of film critic as Calum Marsh reports:

Although May said she is “first and foremost a fan of film,” and The unedited, anything-goes spirit of Letterboxd can be off-putting: D’Angelo confessed he finds it “maddening” when writers “use all lowercase” or refuse “to use normal grammar or punctuation,” which on the site is often. But the lack of rules or structure can also lead to some interesting, unconventional criticism, and offers a platform to voices that might otherwise not be heard. On Letterboxd, you can discover not only new movies to watch, but new critics to follow.

Science moves forward, verdicts on BoJo, Trump and Amazon

Lucy McLauchlan mural in Leytonstone for London Mural Fest

A look at some of the stories that have caught my eye over the last couple of weeks. These include science’s impact on the coronavirus pandemic, verdicts on the leadership of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump and a closer look at tech giant Amazon.

Ed Yong looks at the scientific research community’s successes and occasional failures in addressing the coronavirus pandemic:

The scientific community spent the pre-pandemic years designing faster ways of doing experiments, sharing data, and developing vaccines, allowing it to mobilize quickly when COVID‑19 emerged. Its goal now should be to address its many lingering weaknesses. Warped incentives, wasteful practices, overconfidence, inequality, a biomedical bias—COVID‑19 has exposed them all. And in doing so, it offers the world of science a chance to practice one of its most important qualities: self-correction.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson made the difficult but necessary decision of “cancelling Christmas” this year. Despite this, it’s hard to feel too sorry for him given the lack of leadership shown in managing the pandemic as ably described by Andrew Rawnsley:

The coronavirus crisis could not have been more cunningly engineered to expose Mr Johnson’s flaws. He was made prime minister not because anyone thought that he was a cool and decisive head with the leadership skills and moral seriousness required to handle the gravest public health emergency in a century. He was put there because he was a successful representative of the entertainer branch of populist leadership that prospered in the pre-virus era. “We elected him to be a ‘good times’ prime minister,” comments one senior Tory. “His curse is to be prime minister in bad times.”

Few of his strengths as a politician have been of much utility in this emergency. All of his weaknesses have been searingly exposed. A man who spent his career ducking responsibility was suddenly confronted with a challenge that could not be run from, though that didn’t stop him vanishing at the outset when he went missing from critical meetings. In the coronavirus, he met an opponent impervious to glib slogans and empty promises. Here was a disease posing hideous and inescapable dilemmas that confounded the “have your cake and eat it” philosophy by which he had lived his life.

Being single during the coronavirus pandemic left me reflecting on how rules and regulations have predominantely been designed for couples/families rather than the growing number of people living alone. Megan Nolan provides a personal take on how “lockdown life” has hampered her and many other singles natural quest for intimacy:

Mostly, the government here in Britain — as in many other places — pretended that sex doesn’t take place except between cohabiting couples. When public health advocates have brought themselves to allude to the existence of sex, the advice is usually unrealistic and inadequate, instructing couples who don’t live together to meet up outside and not touch. News releases from sex toy companies began filling my email inbox, advertising remote-controlled vibrators, as though the loss of physical connection was purely about missing an orgasm.

There has been no serious effort to confront the particular challenges of what it is to be single — to be alone — in 2020. There have been no major harm-reduction initiatives, just the deluded implication that all of us who failed to partner up by March 2020 should live without meaningful connection until there is a vaccine.

Despite Donald Trump’s loud protestations, he’s going down as one of the most inept American presidents of all time. Given this, it’s interesting to read David Frum pointing (through clenched teeth) to 12 achievements that Trump has made during his time in power:

Yet nobody does nothing as president, not even someone who watches television for five or six hours a day. There were achievements in the Trump years, and even if they hardly begin to compare to Jimmy Carter’s, they are still worth noting as this presidency comes to an end. 

Anne Helen Petersen looks at the financially precarious position of many people in the American middle class which she describes as the hollow middle:

Forty years ago, the term “middle class” referred to Americans who had successfully obtained a version of the American dream: a steady income from one or two earners, a home, and security for the future. It meant the ability to save and acquire assets. Now, it mostly means the ability to put your bills on autopay and service debt. The stability that once characterized the middle class, that made it such a coveted and aspirational echelon of American existence, has been hollowed out.

It has been over 13 years since the launch of the first iPhone and the various iterations on the smartphone has changed the world we now live in. Benedict Evans looks at what technologies are likely to make an outsize impact in the coming years but also forecasts that the smartphones will continue to drive plenty of changes in years to come:

Amazon like many of the tech giants has seen its market position strengthen during the coronavirus pandemic as more people push their shopping online. Dana Mattioli examines how Amazon’s intense competitive spirit has increasingly brought it to the attention of both competitors and market regulators:

He still exhorts employees to consider Amazon a startup. “It is always day one,” he likes to say. Day two is “stasis, followed by irrelevance, followed by excruciating, painful decline, followed by death.” Mr. Bezos originally considered calling his company Relentless, and www.relentless.com still redirects to Amazon’s site.

Providing an interesting compliment to Mattiolis’ piece is Logic’s interview with an anonymous Amazon employee. There’s plenty of coverage of Amazon’s efforts to provide a secure environment for its web services. Where I found it particularly interesting was its commentary on Amazon as a workplace, particularly as it compared to the other tech giants:

I think your question kind of misses the forest for the trees. For most people at Amazon, glancing at the Apple News feed on their iPhone is about as much of the discourse as they consume. They don’t care about the news. It doesn’t contribute anything to their life. There are colleagues I’m friends with who don’t really know who ran for president. They figure it’s all going to be the same anyway, so why bother.

But by the same token, if they hear someone criticize Amazon, they’re not inclined to be super defensive. There aren’t a lot of intense loyalists. People at Amazon are mercenaries. The company doesn’t have great benefits. Office life kind of sucks and it’s not that fun of a place to work. It’s a grind. People work there because it pays a little bit better than the competition and it looks good on a resume. They can go in, do their job, go home, spend time with their kids, watch sports. That’s the good life.

Amazon has around a million employees worldwide. The majority work in shipping and logistics and delivery. There are maybe eighty thousand corporate employees. And I would estimate that fewer than two thousand of them have participated in discussions around organizing.

Joe Cascarelli looks at the world of music fandom which reflects the increasingly polarised world of politics:

n what is known as Stan Twitter — and its offshoots on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Tumblr and various message boards — these devotees compare No. 1s and streaming statistics like sports fans do batting averages, championship wins and shooting percentages. They pledge allegiance to their favorites like the most rabid political partisans or religious followers. They organize to win awards show polls, boost sales and raise money like grass roots activists. And they band together to pester — or harass, and even dox — those who may dare to slight the stars they have chosen to align themselves with.

Thought starters: growth of Substack, dominance of NY Times and China vs USA

A look at some of the stories that have caught my eye over the last couple of weeks. These include the impacts of the coronavirus, the growth of Substack email newsletter platform and competition between China and the USA.

It’s no secret that the coronavirus has seen ecommerce experience something of a purple patch in 2020. Benedict Evans does a good job of pulling figures together from the UK and the US. It will be interesting to see what happens when lockdowns ease and fears of infection subside:

Substack is the new kid on the block providing a new outlet for journalists and commentators to reach audiences and earn a crust. Clio Chang looks at the opportunities it provides but also suggests that it doesn’t necessarily upend barriers to new voices emerging:

Substack, established in 2017 by three tech-and-media guys—Chris Best, Hamish McKenzie, and Jairaj Sethi—is a newsletter platform that allows writers and other creative types to distribute their work at tiered subscription rates. Newsletters go back at least as far as the Middle Ages, but these days, with full-time jobs at stable media companies evaporating—between the 2008 recession and 2019, newsroom employment dropped by 23 percent—Substack offers an appealing alternative. And, for many, it’s a viable source of income. 

You can find more commentary and writings about Substack here. Among the writers who have joined Substack recently is ex Vox editor Matthew Yglesias who writes about the dominance of the New York Times in the US media ecosystem:

But fundamentally the digital media startup dream of obtaining massive scale and disrupting the incumbents hasn’t really worked. So we’re left with a giant that’s incapable of self-scrutiny, because that might lead to implosion, paired with a set of institutions that increasingly all reflect the same worldview and do so in very strange ways.

Language is often not as neutral as we would like it to be and the technology sector is certainly no exception. The NYT Open Team look at what theyre doing to create more inclusive language in the way they talk about technology:

Whether it’s terminology like “master” or “blacklist,” words with harmful connotations have been baked into tech communication for decades. Words like these bring with them the weight of slavery and discrimination, and signal that those who have held power in the tech industry have had the privilege to ignore the impact of these antiquated terms. People of color are still underrepresented in tech, and the industry’s continued use of these terms acts in direct opposition to an inclusive and equitable culture.

America’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic hasn’t exactly done wonders for the country’s international reputation. Despite this, Tyler Cowen still sees the country in a favourable position when compared to its key global competitor, China:

Overall, it would be a mistake to be pessimistic about China. Its on-the-ground campaign against Covid-19 was very effective, its leadership pays great heed to science, it just signed on to a large Asia-Pacific trade deal, and its economic growth has resumed. Chinese supply chains proved remarkably robust through the major global crisis of the pandemic.

Still and all, the fact remains: When it comes to the ideas and the people that matter, America and the West are not losing the lead.

US government imposed restrictions on the supply of technology to Huawei have exposed how vulnerable elements of China’s economy is to global supply chains. Pranay Kotasthane and Rohan Seth take a look at the challenges the Chinese government faces in developing a semiconductor sector that would free it from the dependence on US technology:

Does this silicon rush mean that China will become self-sufficient in semiconductors soon? Not quite. China’s state-backed funds may well spur private investment, even producing a few champions, but such moves are unlikely to result in a self-sufficient Chinese semiconductor industry any time soon.

The Republican Party has traditionally been happier to cosy up with big business. Given this, it’s interesting to read research which suggests American CEOs are increasingly favouring the Democratic Party in a trend that pre dates the arrival of Donald Trump. I like to think we might see a growing counterbalance to the likes of the Koch Brothers and other associated libertarian and conservative voices:

We demonstrate that since the early 1990’s, it is becoming increasingly common for firms to be run by CEOs who are aligned with the Democratic Party, which we refer to as the blue trend. We find evidence that at least one factor driving this trend appears to be the rise of the role of women, who tend to have values that align with the Democratic Party. Further, we find that the blue trend is stronger in industries that are more considerable to women as a source of employees or customers (e.g., hospitality, computers, etc.).

The rise in Donald Trump, Brexit and various other contentious subjects has not always helped in the fostering of intelligent debate. Paul Graham’s hierarchy of disagreement provides a valuable way of filtering out those critics who are well off the mark:

I have found debates over Corbyn’s sacking and reinstatement both interesting and tricky given the need to differentiate between anti semitism and criticism of Israel’s policy towards Palestinian territories. I found this post definitely saw me take a more critical stand towards Corbyn and David Schneider’s write up helped in understanding where lines are that should probably not be crossed:

It’s obviously not my place to tell Palestinians how they should define their oppression, but for the rest of us, people need to be able to criticise Israel and Jews need to be reassured at a time of rising antisemitism.

With careful language, we can do both.

Sarah Zhang provides a thoughtful look at the introduction of widespread prenatal testing for Down Syndrome in Denmark. This has seen the condition become increasingly scarce among the country’s children:

Denmark is unusual for the universality of its screening program and the comprehensiveness of its data, but the pattern of high abortion rates after a Down syndrome diagnosis holds true across Western Europe and, to a somewhat lesser extent, in the United States. In wealthy countries, it seems to be at once the best and the worst time for Down syndrome. Better health care has more than doubled life expectancy. Better access to education means most children with Down syndrome will learn to read and write. Few people speak publicly about wanting to “eliminate” Down syndrome. Yet individual choices are adding up to something very close to that.

Any media consumption now has to compete with our ever present smartphones for attention. Kyle Chayka points to Emily in Paris as an example of the growth of ambient TV thats designed to complement the distracted viewer rather than require close attention.

But all of that barely matters. The purpose of “Emily in Paris” is to provide sympathetic background for staring at your phone, refreshing your own feeds—on which you’ll find “Emily in Paris” memes, including a whole genre of TikTok remakes. It’s O.K. to look at your phone all the time, the show seems to say, because Emily does it, too. The episodic plots are too thin to ever be confusing; when you glance back up at the television, chances are that you’ll find tracking shots of the Seine or cobblestoned alleyways, lovely but meaningless. If you want more drama, you can open Twitter, to augment the experience. Or just leave the show on while cleaning the inevitable domestic messes of quarantine. Eventually, sensing that you’ve played two episodes straight without pausing or skipping, Netflix will ask if you’re still really watching. Shamed, I clicked the Yes button, and Emily continued being in Paris.

Header image: Mural by Thierry Noir by Zetland House in Shoreditch, London

Thought starters: gatekeepers, the spread of Covid-19 and the growth of ecommerce

Coronavirus lockdown and the American elections are dominating the headlines and these are some of the stories that have caught my attention recently.

There were rumours circulating on social media that there was a large story about to land that would seriously damage American presidential candidate Joe Biden’s campaign. Ben Smith reports on how the Donald Trump’s campaign tired and failed to seed the story with the Wall Street Journal and sees it as a strong argument for the continuing role of journalists as gatekeepers:

The media’s control over information, of course, is not as total as it used to be. The people who own printing presses and broadcast towers can’t actually stop you from reading leaked emails or unproven theories about Joe Biden’s knowledge of his son’s business. But what Mr. Benkler’s research showed was that the elite outlets’ ability to set the agenda endured in spite of social media.

England is heading into lockdown after some dangerous procrastination on the part of the government. El Pais’ data visualisations provide a handy review of the imporance of social distancing:

For more coronavirus related visualisations, check out the New York Times’ look at how face masks reduce the spread of the pandemic:

One of the more thoughtful commentators on how to slow the growth of the coronavirus pandemic was sociologist Zeynep Tufekci. As attention moves to the Amercian elections, her analysis on the limitations of election forecasting provides a useful antidote to some of the wilder predictions:

This is where weather and electoral forecasts start to differ. For weather, we have fundamentals — advanced science on how atmospheric dynamics work — and years of detailed, day-by-day, even hour-by-hour data from a vast number of observation stations. For elections, we simply do not have anything near that kind of knowledge or data. While we have some theories on what influences voters, we have no fine-grained understanding of why people vote the way they do, and what polling data we have is relatively sparse.

Benedict Evans looks at some of the implications of recent changes in the retail landscape catalysed by the coronavirus pandemic. These changes aren’t just limited to the retail sector with flow on effects in the shape of our urban landscape and in how brands develop relationships with consumers:

Physical retail itself has been a ‘boiling frog’ for 20 years. Every year ecommerce gets a little bigger and the problem gets a little worse, but the growth in any given year was never big enough for people to panic, and you could always tell yourself that sure, people would buy that other industry’s product online, but not yours. I think we all now understand that anyone will buy anything online, given the right experience, and if your retail model is based on being an end-point to a logistics chain then you have an existential problem. 

For more of Benedict Evans with co-host Toni Cowan-Brown, check out Another Podcast, looking at tech’s impact on society we live in.

I remember fondly trips to Amsterdam’s supermarkets some years ago where conveyor belts would swallow up used packaging, providing consumers with a credit and brands with their packaging for reuse. Trips to Britain’s supermarkets even now feel like a step back with their tendency to wrap everything in plastic and limited attempts to close the loop. It’s no surprise to find UK near the top of the podium when it comes to the use of plastics according to reports in The Guardian:

Music is one of those passions I’ve held close to me through the years. My music collection started as CDs, flirted with MiniDiscs and migrated with time to MP3/AAC/FLAC. The impending demise of Google Play has seen me scrabbling towards Double Twist’s CloudPlayer but I’ve always been fascinated by people’s obsession with vinyl. The format struck me as a retrograde step but there’s a lot to be said for a record’s role as a cherishable artifact in your hand. I enjoyed Adam Gonsalves’ descriptions of the ups and downs of vinyl for the listener:

The vinyl LP is a format based on technology that hasn’t evolved much over the last six decades: in some ways, it’s the audio equivalent of driving a Ford Pilot. Sonically, vinyl has both strengths and weaknesses compared to digital files, just as movie buffs have argued over the pros and cons of 35mm film against 4K digital.

Header image: Mural by Iker Muro in Stratford, London for London Mural Fest

Thought starters: Trump’s base, the increasingly global internet and life off the beaten path

Life working from home continues with the prospect of a tightening lockdown looming. Coronavirus continues to dominate headlines along with the looming American elections. Here are some of the stories and podcasts that have been getting my synapses snapping recently:

I’ve made no secret of my distaste for Donald Trump and sometimes find myself wondering how he manages to garner support given his polarising politics. Anne Helen Peterson gives a thoughtful view on why many people continue to support him, not because they like him but because he is the one that is least likely to upset their precarious middle class existence:

These are the people who get lost when the media focuses on the stereotype of the Fox News-addled backwoods Trump voter. There are so many well to do suburban and small town women — mostly, but certainly not entirely, white — for whom all the ideological stuff, all the character issues, all the racism and white supremacist baiting, all the stuff so many people find morally repugnant, it just doesn’t figure. Part of that is because their class (and, often, race) means that it just doesn’t have to. But part of it has to do with an eagle-eyed focus on their own financial future. Other concerns, no matter how morally pertinent, fall to the side.

Donald Trump’s call for restricting TikTok’s access to the US market has illustrated how America no longer rules the internet like it once did…something that Benedict Evans explores in a recent blog piece:

You can argue about the details of these all day, but it does seem clear that we should just presume a global diffusion of software creation and internet company creation. It doesn’t really matter if Silicon Valley ends up as 25% or 75% of the next 100 important companies – America doesn’t have a monopoly on the agenda any more.

Increasingly accessible international travel (Covid aside) and advances in telecommunications often give the sensation that the world is shrinking. So it’s great to read Sarah Gilman’s account of St Matthew Island which continues to prove resistant to human habitation (and adventure tourism):

It occurs to me that to truly arrive on St. Matthew, you have to lose your bearings enough to feel the line between the two blur. Disoriented, I can sense the landscape as fluid, a shapeshifter as sure as the rootball and whale bones—something that remakes itself from mountains to islands, that scatters and swallows signs left by those who pass across.

Mark O’Connell provides a rather different travelogue with his trip to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, with a rather critical and personal look at disaster tourism:

I wondered whether Igor and Vika held us in contempt, us Western Europeans and Australians and North Americans who had forked over a fee not much lower than Ukraine’s average monthly wage for a two-day tour around this discontinued world, to feel the transgressive thrill of our own daring in coming here. If it were I in their position, I knew that contempt is exactly what I would have felt. The fact was that I didn’t even need to leave my own position in order to hold myself in contempt, or anyone else.

Listening Pleasures

Lockdown life has scuppered many of my original holiday plans. A pleasing substitute has been taking on cycling trips around the UK (Cymru, Wessex and Norfolk). This has given me plenty of time to spend listening to podcasts and these have been more recent discoveries:

Rabbit Hole: Kevin Roose looks at what happens when we spend more of our time online for the New York Times with star turns from Pewdiepie and QAnon.
Wind of Change: Patrick Radden Keefe looks into how music is used as a tool of propaganda and social change and asks whether the German band the Scorpions acted as CIA stooges.
Interdependence – Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst talk about culture and technology with a range of guests. Participants have included Evgeny Morozov, David Turner (Penny Fractions), Kate Crawford (AI Now), Dr Larisa Kingston Mann (DJ Ripley) and Bruce Sterling.
Home Cooking: Cooking show hosted by Samin Nosrat (Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat) and Hrishikesh Hirway (Song Exploder) with a healthy dose of personality.
Imaginary Advice – The Golden House series This is something of an outlier given that pretty much all my podcast listening is factual but it’s definitely managed to get under my skin. File under odd but amusing.

Header image: Mural by Will Vibes at New River Studios in Finsbury Park, London