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.

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