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Thought Starters

Thought starters: coronavirus, the Republican Party, sensory deprivation and other matters

The following is a collection of articles and commentary that has caught my eye over the last week. Coronavirus still dominates news although fortunately there’s more to what I’ve read than talk of social distancing and estimates on fatalities. I hope you enjoy…

While Britain wasted the opportunity to get ahead of the coronavirus outbreak, it is America that really dropped the ball as Jay Rosen aptly makes clear :

The plan is to have no plan, to let daily deaths between one and three thousand become a normal thing, and then to create massive confusion about who is responsible— by telling the governors they’re in charge without doing what only the federal government can do, by fighting with the press when it shows up to be briefed, by fixing blame for the virus on China or some other foreign element, and by “flooding the zone with shit,” Steve Bannon’s phrase for overwhelming the system with disinformation, distraction, and denial, which boosts what economists call “search costs” for reliable intelligence. 

Getting a clear understanding on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic is complicated by the fact that it is associated with particularly affecting those with pre-existing health conditions. Despite this, research reported in The Economist estimates that many of those people whose deaths has been attributed to coronavirus would have been otherwise had many more years of life:

Estimated years of life lost from covid-19 deaths by age group and long-term conditions

The coronavirus pandemic presents challenges in many cases where the business as usual approach simply doesn’t work. Susan Athey, Michael Kremer, Christopher Snyder and Alex Tabarrok point to the need for the right incentives to ensure that vaccines aren’t simply invented but also get produced in quantities needed:

Usually, to avoid the risk of investing in capacity that eventually proves worthless, firms invest in large-scale capacity only after the vaccine has proved effective. But in the middle of a pandemic, there are huge social and economic advantages to having vaccines ready to use as soon as they have been approved. If we leave it entirely to the market, we will get too little vaccine too late.

The coronavirus pandemic is a health problem that can readily be mitigated or compounded by the distribution of the right information in a timely manner. Anne Helen Petersen reports on Montana based Dr. Annie Bukacek’s questioning of the severity of the coronavirus nd how it has exacerbated political divisions:

Bukacek and others like her frame their opposition to COVID-19 restrictions, now and in the future, as part of a larger spiritual, political, and ideological battle. Their resistance is local, and, even here in Montana, still very much in the minority. Which perhaps explains the feeling of discombobulation, watching and hearing about the protests in the news or in your feeds: They’re such a small percentage of an otherwise largely compliant whole. But in a state of emergency, it only takes a handful, speaking to people’s deepest and darkest fears, to destabilize an entire society.

China adopted a rather different approach as the crisis became more apparent. Chinese state took a tight grasp on what information could be shared by the press and social media as reported by Shawn Yuan:

As the outbreak began to slow down in mainland China, the government remained cautious in filtering out any information that might contradict the seemingly unstoppable trend of recovery. On March 4, a Shanghai news site called The Paper reported that a Covid-19 patient who had been discharged from the hospital in late February later died in a post-discharge isolation center; another news site questioned whether hospitals were discharging patients prematurely for the sake of “clearing all cases.” Both stories vanished.

Coronavirus and the associated social distancing has brought forward all sorts of experiments which might otherwise have taken years to come forward. One of these is Universal Studios’ decision to release Trolls World Tour directly into homes at the 48-hour rental price of $19.99, earning a healthy $77m in revenues before marketing expenses. It will be interesting to see if this represents an outlier based on an unprecedented circumstances or a sign of the declining importance of the cinematic experience.

Taking a more far reaching approach, author Kim Stanley Robinson suggests that the coronavirus pandemic may be enough to wake us from complacency and the status quo:

We’re now confronting a miniature version of the tragedy of the time horizon. We’ve decided to sacrifice over these months so that, in the future, people won’t suffer as much as they would otherwise. In this case, the time horizon is so short that we are the future people. It’s harder to come to grips with the fact that we’re living in a long-term crisis that will not end in our lifetimes. But it’s meaningful to notice that, all together, we are capable of learning to extend our care further along the time horizon. Amid the tragedy and death, this is one source of pleasure. Even though our economic system ignores reality, we can act when we have to. At the very least, we are all freaking out together. To my mind, this new sense of solidarity is one of the few reassuring things to have happened in this century. If we can find it in this crisis, to save ourselves, then maybe we can find it in the big crisis, to save our children and theirs.

Donald Trump is often perceived as something of a roughneck that rubbed more traditional elements of the Republican Party the wrong way. Given this, it’s interesting to read Evan Osnos’ detailed read on how Trump furnished support from the wealthy enclave of Greenwich Connecticut.

On the ground where I grew up, some of America’s powerful people have championed a version of capitalism that liberates wealth from responsibility. They embraced a fable of self-reliance (except when the fable is untenable), a philosophy of business that leaches more wealth from the real economy than it creates, and a vision of politics that forgives cruelty as the price of profit. In the long battle between the self and service, we have, for the moment, settled firmly on the self. To borrow a phrase from a neighbor in disgrace, we stopped worrying about “the moral issue here.”

Virtual reality is one of those technologies that has appeared just around the corner for quite some time. An indication of the still limited uptake can be found in Steam’s release of figures that point to just 1.9% of their users owning VR headsets…still very niche.

Many of us are on the lookout for the next big thing in digital media which is likely to unseat Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Tik Tok…Nathan Baschez gives a pretty detailed look at Clubhouse which he describes as “halfway between a podcast and a party” in what is being described as an emerging wave of spontaneous social apps.

It’s sometimes hard to visualise the income inequalities we face not only between nations but also within them. Matt Korostoff’s data visualisation of the average median US household income in comparison to the wealth of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos makes a good start.

Comparison median US household income with wealth of Jeff Bezos

In a rather different world to Jeff Bezos’ Amazon is Sirin Kale’s exploration of the world of dropshipping which begins to sound more and more like a Ponzi scheme:

This year, his Shopify records show he’ll clear about $90,000 (£69,000) in personal profit. He describes dropshipping as a “real-life video game”, albeit one he doesn’t seem to enjoy an awful lot. “When you do dropshipping and Facebook ads, it’s like going to the casino and pressing the slot machine, and based off what happens, that’s how your emotions are going to be,” he says.

Tom Lamont uses Sam Winstons experiment with sensory deprivation in his exploration of how we are all responding to a world of over stimulation and information overload:

Winston went into the dark for a month in a bid to escape the digital bell-chimes, the bouncing icons, the bulletins and info-blasts – our exhausting daily scroll. “But when you go into the dark for a long time,” Winston admitted to me, recently, “you’re not going into a void. You’re going into yourself. And good luck finding blissful empty quiet there.” There was nothing to compete with the loud, incessant inner monologue or drown it out. I wondered, then, whether we’d created and refined all our sparkly informational distractions because on some level we knew the relentlessness of the subconscious had the real power to overload.

Kevin Kelly pulled together 68 pieces of unsolicited advice on his birthday. You will probably have heard a number of them before but it’s hard to fault them for providing advice for life.

Header image: Home by Gordon Cheung from the Tears of Paradise exhibition at Edel Assanti gallery.

Categories
Thought Starters

Thought Starters: looking critically at mobile apps, venture capital, how Volkswagen ***ked up and the decline of pornography

The following is a look through articles, research and opinion pieces highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in, with an emphasis on technology.

Consumers are spending more of their time on their smartphones in mobile apps which inevitably leads many media owners to see the development of their own as a means of increasing consumer engagement. Priya Ganapati warns that this approach is flawed in many cases with the development of mobile web offering providing a much better use of resources:

“Apps aren’t magical universes. They are part of a platform that is not viral, resource-hungry and hard to grow. So why not bet on the mobile web instead?”

Sam Altman and Paul Graham look critically at the financial fundamentals of startups in a market where valuations don’t necessarily match up with future prospects:

“Here’s a common way startups die. They make something moderately appealing and have decent initial growth. They raise their first round fairly easily because the founders seem smart and the idea sounds plausible. But because the product is only moderately appealing, growth is ok but not great. The founders convince themselves that hiring a bunch of people is the way to boost growth. Their investors agree. But (because the product is only moderately appealing) the growth never comes. Now they’re rapidly running out of runway. They hope further investment will save them. But because they have high expenses and slow growth, they’re now unappealing to investors. They’re unable to raise more, and the company dies.”

Also looking at the startup universe is Ben Thompson who points to less successful venture capitalists as being increasingly squeezed between angel investors below and more traditional investors above:

“So it is with venture capital: once startup funding requirements were reduced, the superior information and the willingness to hustle of angels and incubators earned the trust of the big companies of tomorrow, reducing more and more venture capitalists to dumb money hardly worth the 20% premium. The inputs to the Silicon Valley system have been changed, and we’re only now seeing the effects, and that should be a cautionary tale for just about everyone who thinks they and their industry are safe from the Internet’s impact.”

Matt Roskoff contrasts the falling prices of consumer electronic hardware with the rising price of television and radio services:

Prices for Electronic Goods and Services

Paul Kedrosky suggests that the Volkswagen emissions scandal may have been the result of cultural norms within the engineering department rather than a deliberate move on the automotive manufacturers management:

“It is still possible, of course, that we will learn that the engineers were under orders from management to beat the tests by any means necessary, but based on what we now know, that seems implausible. It’s more likely that the scandal is the product of an engineering organization that evolved its technologies in a way that subtly and stealthily, even organically, subverted the rules.”

Credit Suisse in their annual Global Wealth Report looks at the current spread of financial wealth across countries and regions including the disparities between the wealthy and the poor:

Global Wealth Pyramid

We are seeing a broader array of jobs affected by technology, as smarter systems enable more technically complex tasks to be automated. MIT Professor David Autor looks at the costs and benefits of these changes, suggesting that the opportunities will outweigh the threats if societies ameliorate the negative effects with education, taxation and transfer programmes.

The migrants pouring into Europe has focused largely on the plight of refugees fleeing civil war in Syria. What Alex Tabarrok points to is that by focusing on the plight of refugees, we fail to acknowledge the benefits that more open borders would provide both to people trapped in less developed societies and to global society as a whole:

“Closed borders are one of the world’s greatest moral failings but the opening of borders is the world’s greatest economic opportunity. The grandest moral revolutions in history—the abolition of slavery, the securing of religious freedom, the recognition of the rights of women—yielded a world in which virtually everyone was better off. They also demonstrated that the fears that had perpetuated these injustices were unfounded. Similarly, a planet unscarred by iron curtains is not only a world of greater equality and justice. It is a world unafraid of itself.”

Pornography has been getting plenty of column inches lately thanks to Playboy’s announcement that it will no longer be publishing full nudity, reflecting falling profitability of ‘legitimate’ operators (no tears shed here). Whilst the industry has long been pointed to as technological leader, recent changes mean that the sector is becoming something of a technological laggard according to Cade Metz:

“With the rise of mobile devices and platforms from the likes of Apple and Google, not to mention the proliferation of free videos on YouTube-like porn sites, the adult industry is in a bind. Money is hard to come by, and as the industry struggles to find new revenue streams, it’s facing extra competition from mainstream social media. Its very identity is being stolen as the world evolves both technologically and culturally.”

Another area where technology has changed the balance of power is music where we’ve seen a democratisation of the tools of production. Art Tavana looks at GarageBand’s role as a stepping stone for many budding musicians looking to get their music out and about.

If you find yourself in London between now and the start of January, I’d definitely recommend visiting Ann Veronica Janssens’ yellowbluepink installation at the Wellcome Collection. A great exercise in disorientation:

The featured image is the SatOne mural Insomnia in Mannheim, Germany and published in Graffuturism.