Growth of Web3 and NFTs, conversations about AI, post Brexit Britain and a closerlook at China

The Christmas/NYE break provided a great opportunity to catch up with different commentators thoughts on the world. Here are some of the pieces that got me thinking:

Emily Stewart takes a critical look at the casino like investment markets for NFTs, cryptocurrencies and meme stocks and contrasts it with the collective illusion we have with money:

He’s right that NFTs — non-fungible tokens, little digital assets that exist on a blockchain — are having a moment. What’s not really clear is why. Then again, everything about money feels a little strange at the moment. Between NFTs, crypto, and GameStop, AMC, and other meme stocks, money has rarely felt more fake. Or, at the very least, value has rarely felt so disconnected from reality.

Speaking of cryptocurrencies, the shift from proof of work to proof of stake can’t come soon enough going on these figures from Digiconomist:

If you think the numbers for 2021 look bad, consider that with the current energy use the Bitcoin network is set to consume more than 200 TWh in 2022. That’s as much as all data centers around the world (so everything from Amazon, Facebook, Google, etc.). And that’s just Bitcoin.

Stuart Russell’s addresses for the 2021 Reith Lectures provide an insightful and entertaining look at the current and future impact of artificial intelligence including its impact on the economy, warface and humans.

Li Jin and Katie Parrott look at how technologies bundled under the banner of Web3 provide a greater opportunity for content creators to monetise their creations:

The internet was supposed to usher in a Golden Age of media—a world of infinite abundance where anyone can create whatever they want, and everyone can find whatever they’re interested in. But while Gates’ prediction that there was money to be made online through content has proven true, much of that money has bypassed the creators that produce the content, landing instead in the pockets of the platforms that aggregate it.

This is the story of how the web2 internet broke the business model of media, and how the advent of web3 signals a disruption to that business model that tilts the scales in favor of creators. Without native monetization methods built into the web2 internet, the predominant business models were opaque, advertising-based, and dependent on closed-garden networks, which gave an outsized advantage to platforms. On the horizon, new business models and technologies hold promise to unlock the kind of economic opportunity and control that will lead to a true creative Golden Age for artists and creators.

Tim O’Reilly provides a more grounded review contrasting the development of Web3 with those of earlier waves of our digital infrastructure

I suspect it will be the same for crypto. So much is yet to be created. Let’s focus on the parts of the Web3 vision that aren’t about easy riches, on solving hard problems in trust, identity, and decentralized finance. And above all, let’s focus on the interface between crypto and the real world that people live in, where, as  Matthew Yglesias put it when talking about housing inequality, “a society becomes wealthy over time by accumulating a stock of long-lasting capital goods.” If, as Sal Delle Palme argues, Web3 heralds the birth of a new economic system, let’s make it one that increases true wealth—not just paper wealth for those lucky enough to get in early but actual life-changing goods and services that make life better for everyone.

I definitely feel there’s a place for more equitable models for supporting the arts with Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurt’s Interdependence podcast providing a great window into current developments. That being said, the burgeoning NFT marketplace in many cases leave something to be desired as Dan Brooks suggests:

And this is why the future, be it NFTs or Memoji or the howling existential horror of the Metaverse, looks so ugly and boring: it reflects the stunted inner lives of the finance and technology professionals who produced it. As the visual manifestation of cryptocurrency, NFT art combines the nuanced social awareness of computer programmers with the soulful whimsy of hedge fund managers. It is art for people whose imaginations have been absolutely captured by a new kind of money you can do on the computer.

Tom McTague takes a personal look at the United Kingdom and the likelihood of it continuing or dissolving into its constituent parts:

The grim reality for Britain as it faces up to 2022 is that no other major power on Earth stands quite as close to its own dissolution. Given its recent record, perhaps this should not be a surprise. In the opening two decades of the 21st century, Britain has effectively lost two wars and seen its grand strategy collapse, first with the 2008 financial crisis, which blew up its social and economic settlement, and, then, in 2016, when the country chose to rip up its long-term foreign policy by leaving the European Union, achieving the rare feat of erecting an economic border with its largest trading partner and with a part of itself, Northern Ireland, while adding fuel to the fire of Scottish independence for good measure. And if this wasn’t enough, it then spectacularly failed in its response to the coronavirus pandemic, combining one of the worst death rates in the developed world with one of the worst economic recessions.

Yet however extraordinary this run of events has been, it seems to me that Britain’s existential threat i s not simply the result of poor governance—an undeniable reality—but of something much deeper: the manifestation of something close to a spiritual crisis.

Dan Wang contrasts the different hubs of Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzen and a declining Hong Kong, providing valuable nuance to our views of China:

There’s a little joke that the ideal company is led by a Beijinger, who would provide the vision, leadership, and government-relations savvy; its finances would be led by someone from Shanghai, and its operations managed by someone from Shenzhen (who would hire people from Sichuan and Anhui to do the actual work). Entrepreneurial friends say that doing business is most straightforward in Shenzhen: people there get together over dinner, discuss how to allocate the workload, and then do things the next day. Dinner in Beijing features lots of drinking, bluffs about one’s connections in high places, and then little follow up.

Recent turmoil in Kazakhstan has taken both Russian and the world’s eyes away from conflict between Russia and the Ukraine. That being said, the issue still remains critical as Russia increasingly backs itself into a corner as Rob Lee details and Dmitri Alperovitch echoes:

They are deliberately backing themselves into a corner where their credibility will be questioned if they don’t achieve concessions or use military force. These are classic elements of a compellence strategy, which usually requires force if the target doesn’t change its behavior.

In a society that has the highest gender wage gap among wealthy countries, Choe Sang-Hun reports on a growing backlash against feminism by young males in South Korea:

“Out with man haters!” they shouted. “Feminism is a mental illness!”

On the streets, such rallies would be easy to dismiss as the extreme rhetoric of a fringe group. But the anti-feminist sentiments are being amplified online, finding a vast audience that is increasingly imposing its agenda on South Korean society and politics.

In the UK, the case of the Colston 4 who were accused of various charges relating to the toppling of the statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston prompted many column inches in the British papers. The Secret Barrister’s analysis of the case sheds some welcome light on the verdict regardless of whether you agree with the result (I do) or not:

The trial has widely been appropriated as a proxy battle in the culture wars. Those who believe it was wrong to pull down Colston’s statue see the verdict as an affront. Their grievance has been inflamed by comments from politicians and media commentators which misunderstand or misrepresent what the case was about, and what the verdicts mean.

The Christmas break has also provided me with time to catch on films and television that are on my watch list. Trailers below for shows or movies that made me smile/laugh/cry…

Thought Starters: venture capital’s global hubs, blockchains and Facebook’s ups and downs and Amazon as more than just a retailer (and we’re not talking about AWS)

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to look through the articles, research and opinion pieces I’ve read, highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in. This edition looks at the global hubs for venture capital, blockchains ups and downs, Facebook’s success and challenges and Amazon’s move from retailer to service provider among other trends and insights.

A profile of Martin Prosperity Institute points to the dominance the US has in venture capital with London ranking 7th among metropolitan centres:

Venture capital investment by metropolitan area

There’s been a lot of talk of the potential for blockchain technologies to upend the incumbents in the financial services sector, but the major banks are beginning to make themselves known. Tanaya Macheel profiles different blockchain based initiatives by some of the major American banks which includes attempts to patent innovations in a sector previously associated closely with open source technology:

Blocking off the Blockchain

Keeping on the blockchain theme, Timothy B. Lee profiles the growing pains that Bitcoin is experiencing as growing demand challenges the infrastructure of the technology as it currently stands:

The Bitcoin community is currently locked in a debate about whether to follow that same trajectory: whether to grow quickly at the cost of possibly becoming more centralized. The difference is that the way the Bitcoin network works means that early adopters have an effective veto over further growth. If a critical mass of Bitcoin stakeholders refuse to accept larger blocks, the Bitcoin network could be stuck with its current, limited capacity for years to come.

WhatsApp has done a great job of expanding its reach which has seen it recently pass the 1 billion user maker despite having only 57 engineers. What the mobile messaging platform has been less successful in doing is monetising its user base compared to Line and WeChat as Terence Lee reports although there are indications this is likely to change:

WhatsApp Statistics

Amazon is one organisation that has done a great job of monetising its platform, moving from a bare bones online retailer to a dominant player in retail providing a range of ecommerce related services to third parties (see illustration below). This ties in nicely with a recent Jan Dawson blog post where he stresses the need for providers to absorb as many activities as possible (eg Facebook) or alternatively be on as many domains as possible (eg Uber):

Amazon ecommerce value chain

An interesting recent development in Amazon’s strategy is its experiment with the opening of a physical store in Seattle with reports that they plan on rolling out 300 to 400 stores across the US in the future.

Tal Shachar with Liam Boluk point to the growing glut of content that consumers face across a range of media and with this comes the growing issue of discovery and opportunities for content curation. Sentiments further echoed in a recent post by Benedict Evans:

https://twitter.com/BenedictEvans/status/677977465373896704

WeAreSocial have recently published the Digital in 2016 report, providing a range of digital benchmark statistics including internet, mobile internet, social media and mobile app usage along with a range of other indicators. Well worth bookmarking for future use:

It’s financial results season in the US with recent announcements from Apple, Alphabet and Facebook. One of the interesting points to emerge from Facebook’s results is how well the company has transitioned to a mobile first company since 2010 as Alice Truong reports:

Facebook's mobile users as percentage of all active users

Where Facebook has been less successful is in the launch of its Free Basics offering in India. The service looks to offer free access to limited selection of mobile optimised content to mobile users but has come into fierce opposition from net neutrality campaigners in India according to Lauren Smiley’s report:

Free Basics only serves a tiny Facebook-endorsed portion of the Internet to users for free — a “walled garden” as opponents call it — while users must pay to access anything else on the web. As Backchannel has been chronicling for some time, they see it as a violation of the principle of net neutrality, that all things on the internet should be treated the same to preserve competition: no faster data connection for deep-pocketed companies, no charging consumers for some sites but not others, no cordoning off slices of the internet by private companies.

Sometimes the internet doesn’t prove quite as virtual as you’d imagine. Dan Wang profiles the physical delivery of data to servers around the world by content delivery networks (CDNs) as a means of speeding up the delivery of content to internet users in a curious mix of the physical and the virtual:

So instead of using the Internet to transfer big pieces of data, companies have turned to the global freight network. High-traffic websites copy data onto hard drives (which are no bigger than what you’d use to back up your laptop), pack them into cardboard boxes, and then fly them around the world. They can be in a box in the belly of a passenger plane, right beside cartons full of iPhones.

Business Insider profiles the digital habits of American teens. Whilst the sample size of 60 is a far from representative sample, it does provide some interesting insights into the habits of younger consumers:

Most Important Social Networks Among Teens

Alexander J. Motyl warns of a Russian collapse, fueled by an economy hamstrung by its dependence on a declining petroleum market and a political system resistant to change and reform:

The problem for Putin—and for Russia—is that the political–economic system is resistant to change. Such a dysfunctional economy is sustainable only if it is controlled by a self-serving bureaucratic caste that places its own interests above those of the country. In turn, a deeply corrupt authoritarian system needs to have a dictator at its core, one who coordinates and balances elite interests and appetites. Putin’s innovation is to have transformed himself into a cult-like figure whose legitimacy depends on his seemingly boundless youth and vigor. Such leaders, though, eventually become victims of their own personality cult and, like Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Mussolini, do not leave office voluntarily. Russia is thus trapped between the Scylla of systemic decay and the Charybdis of systemic stasis. Under such conditions, Putin will draw increasingly on Russian chauvinism, imperialism, and ethnocentrism for legitimacy.

Ben Judah recently published This is London: Life and Death in the World Citytaking the approach of a foreign correspondent to reporting on the experience of immigrants in his home city.  His interview in London School of Economics’ lecture series is well worth a listen for anyone interested in the experience and impact of London’s many immigrant communities:

The featured image is a CT mural from Torino published in ekosystem.

Thought Starters: the outlook for the global and the Chinese economy, India’s middle class, the growing importance of migration and publishing in the digital age

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to look through articles, research and opinion pieces, highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in. This edition looks at forecasts for the year ahead, China’s economy and India’s middle class, migration’s growing role in contemporary societies, publishing in the digital age and lots more.

The Economist has published its forecast for the global economy which sees a further shift in momentum from emerging to developed markets, although India, China and Indonesia are seen as top performers:

Emerging markets losing their grips

Malcolm Scott takes a closer look at the slowdown in China’s economy, suggesting that it’s not nearly as significant as some of the more vociferous critics are suggesting:

China's slowdown in context

India as The Economist’s figures above suggest, is one of the powerhouses of the global economy and the country’s growing middle class is seen as providing enormous opportunities for local and international brands. The problem is there are wide variations in estimates of India’s middle class depending on the spending power you apportion to the Indian rupee as the Research Unit for Political Economy shows:

Some estimates of India's middle class

The Wall Street Journal in its profile of demographic trends has taken a closer look at the globe’s growing migrant population. Kim Mackrael and Charles Forelle in their broader analysis of immigration contrast Canada’s more assimilationist and economically driven policies with those of Europe. Whilst I’d argue that Europe is currently in a very different position to Canada due to its proximity to Syria, it does provide some valuable pointers as the continent faces an ageing population:

A growing migrant pool

Angus Hervey provides an important reminder that for many important human development indicators things are on the up (although this is certainly no argument for complacency). Among the indicators he points to are reductions in poverty, malnutrition, polio, infant mortality and AIDS deaths and improvements in universal education, internet access and financial inclusion:

Global poverty has reached a record low

Felix Salmon looks at the maturing of the fintech sector as it  focuses on providing tangible improvements on services offered rather than rhetoric about turning the financial sector upside down:

The problems such fintech companies are trying to solve aren’t the type that can be tackled by a few hyperactive coders in a garage. Rather, they require dozens of different skillsets, not to mention the ability to manage them all. In that sense, the startups are becoming much more like the banks they’re seeking to disrupt. That’s Lunn’s Great Convergence. No one believes the banks are going to solve these problems. The trillion-dollar question is, can the fintech companies do something important and socially useful before they, like the banks, become bogged down in regulation and bureaucracy.

Om Malik reports on how the movement towards a software enabled world has moved a lot of business categories into a winner takes all market (eg Amazon, Uber, Google). It’s also worth adding that innovations in technology and business strategy can see even these advantages quickly fall over time if management aren’t vigilant:

This loop of algorithms, infrastructure, and data is potent. Add what are called network effects to the mix, and you start to see virtual monopolies emerge almost overnight. A network effect occurs when the value of a product or service goes up with the number of people using it. The Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe called it Metcalfe’s Law. Telephone services, eBay, and Skype are good examples of the network effects at work. The more people who are on Skype, the more people you can call, and thus the more likely it is that someone will join.

While physical book sales in the US are on the up according to Nielsen BookScan figures, ebooks are heading in the opposite direction with a consolidation around the Kindle and Kobo platforms according to Michael Kozlowski’s report:

In a few short years most digital bookstores will be out of business and Amazon and Kobo will likely be the only players left standing.  The only digital bookstores that will survive will be companies offering both hardware/software solutions to encapsulate people into their walled gardens.  The destruction of the digital book market has already been set in motion and nothing will stop from the industry from collapsing.

In 2013 Amazon created a media storm by announcing they were working on drone delivery with commentators debating whether this was a real story or a public relations stunt. Two years on and the pathway to drone delivery looks clearer. Dan Wang looks at where drone logistics have proven successful and where we’re likely to see it make real inroads in the near future:

Amazon Drones vs Current Delivery Options

As we start a new year we’re seeing various commentators giving their prognosis for the year ahead. Fred Wilson and Bob O’Donnell make good starting points.

Finally, it’s worth watching Extra Credit’s review of China’s Sesame Credit which has seen the Chinese Government collaborate with Tencent and Alibaba on gamifying good behaviour by Chinese citizens. A case of Nudge theory heading in a distinctly dystopian direction:

The featured image is an INTI mural from the Artesano Project in Nagua, Dominican Republic.