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…

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.