Hi, I’m Azeem Azhar. I convene Exponential View to help us understand how our societies and political economy will change under the force of rapidly accelerating technologies.
🎓 Cracking member’s discussion on “What next for the University?”
🎧 Aurora’s Chris Urmson and I had a super discussion on the state of the autonomous vehicle industry.
Dept of the near future
💾 Encouraging news in the world of the consumer data economy. Google will stop selling ads based on browsing data across websites. You are free to roam the web in peace. Google’s decision might be the start of something larger. Ken Glueck, an executive vice-president at Oracle, published a clear articulation of why consumers need better data control. Consumers, Glueck writes, are “shamefully under-compensated for the data they create as they go about their daily life”. He follows this proclamation with a 12-point program to restore balance, including points about the need for an opt-in approach to data protection (as opposed to the opt-out model prevalent today) as well as a call to simplify the legalese of terms of service contracts that few people read anyway. (See my End Note too, and to dig deeper, listen to my discussion with Carissa Veliz on whether we should end the data economy.)
👀 Many will be familiar with the ideas Glueck is putting forward but given his position and the clarity of his calls, they have the opportunity to be impactful. Location sharing is broken. Even savvy users can’t fully insulate themselves from leaking location data to myriad websites and platforms. Consider this: the US military just bought location data mined from ordinary consumer apps. This data will likely be used in future drone strikes. (Dig Deeper: a couple of years ago, public health data from US soldiers using the popular Strava app accidentally revealed secret US military bases around the world. See EV151 for more).
💵 The power of UBI in the face of economic precarity. The Covid-19 pandemic ushered in a new era in the debate about UBI. From massive US government stimulus to actual UBI experiments, UBI is having a moment. And guess what? The results have been extremely encouraging. Stockton, California just concluded a UBI experiment (residents got $500 per month for two years with no restrictions) and found that employment rose. People were also much happier as debt was paid off and depression levels dropped. In the face of ongoing economic precarity and automation threatening jobs, we need to pay closer attention to these studies.
👁 China’s efforts to build and maintain a complete surveillance state are well known. The fruits of its labour are still breathtaking. The Sharp Eyes programme has the humble aim of surveilling all public space (and turning neighbours into eyes of the state a la the Stasi). Saudi Arabia’s slick new Neom city project is borrowing a page from the Chinese handbook by building surveillance into the very fabric of the urban environment. Between physical surveillance and algorithms that can predict our decision-making process, Leviathan may be among us. (Dig deeper: listen to my discussion with David Runciman on the power of states in an age of AI.)
🔋 Dept of decarbonisation: 415.94 ppm | 3,384 days
Each week, I’m going to remind you of the CO2 levels in the atmosphere and the number of days until we reach the 450ppm threshold.
The latest measurement (as of March 5, 2021): 415.94 ppm; March 2020: 413.5 ppm; 25 years ago: 360 ppm; 250 years ago, est: 250 ppm. Share this reminder with your community by forwarding this email or tweeting this.
🚙 Electric car batteries need far less raw materials than fossil fuel cars. New research confirming what we have known for some time throws more cold water on the argument that EV batteries present unseen environmental risks. There is more to this story and we are going to dig deeper in next week’s charts of the week. Next time someone brings up this talking point, direct them to this new research.
🇨🇳 The rise of renewable energy is giving way to a new form of geopolitics. Seeing the opportunity for what it is, China is positioning itself as a global leader in renewable projects. However, there are deeper colonial objectives. Two new books examine China’s “green colonialism” and add much more depth to our understanding of how green energy is fast becoming a vehicle for China’s global ambitions.
Short morsels to appear smart during your next NFT album drop
🐄 Plant-based milk is having a moment and dairy companies are feeling fresh pressure to enter the market.
Did a Chinese cyberattack cripple electricity supplies in Mumbai last year?
🗣 First China, now Saudi Arabia. Saudis are flocking to Clubhouse but for how long?
🚢 Don’t forget about the supply chain. China’s exporters are taking a beating thanks to a global shortage of shipping containers.
A sand shortage looms—and it could mean trouble for the construction and silicon chip industries.
🐙 A cephalopod has passed a cognitive test designed for human children.
♟Does online chess have a racism problem? Not really but all the talk of white and black has been tripping up algorithms.
🏎 The explosive growth of electric cars is forcing a rethink about what makes a supercar extraordinary.
⚽️ Moneyball comes to football. Data experts are increasingly the most valuable parts of a European football team.
🎻 Relative disconnection and Beethoven’s loss of hearing.
This weekend I was on the hunt for a SodaStream so that I can enjoy fizzy water at home and retire my San Pellegrino habit (with its terrible misuse of plastic bottles). The SodaStream website leads rather a lot to be desired, but eventually, I found the appropriate item in question. I popped the order through Amazon: the device was selling 40% cheaper from Soda Stream’s Amazon store than its own website.
Some minutes later my wife found a social feed, on her phone, full of Soda Stream adverts. Ad tech at its worst. Presumably, Soda Stream was doing cross targeting based on IP address, having spotted my laptop on its website. (A brief message to SodaStream’s marketing team that is too rude to place here.)
Therein lies the problem with ad tech. Google’s decision to “stop using or investing in tracking technologies that uniquely identify web users as they move from site to site across the internet” is to be welcomed. And as citizens and consumers, we’re right to ask “what took you so long”?
It is super hard to avoid the worst tendrils of ad tech. Advertising itself is not a problem, a reasonable tool for publishers, but the extremes of ad tech, beset as they are with a sense of invasiveness, the selling and reselling of our profiles in ways we can’t control, the growing problems of fraud that have been documented widely. Not to mention the putative market dominance abuses, it is well past time to stand up.
Karen Hao explores how effective steps you can take to resist these excesses identifying three tactics (quoting Karen)
- Data strikes, inspired by the idea of labor strikes, involve withholding or deleting your data so a tech firm cannot use it—leaving a platform or installing privacy tools, for instance.
- Data poisoning, which involves contributing meaningless or harmful data. AdNauseam, for example, is a browser extension that clicks on every single ad served to you, thus confusing Google’s ad-targeting algorithms.
- Conscious data contribution, which involves giving meaningful data to the competitor of a platform you want to protest, such as by uploading your Facebook photos to Tumblr instead.
Google has banned the AdNauseam extension from the Chrome store, but you can still play around with it if you want to fiddle.
I’ve tried switching to DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t track you. I try every couple of years but I do feel you lose just enough quality and I scurry back to Google. Browsing via VPNs can afford some anonymity but doesn’t block cookies. PiHole accelerates browsing by hiding ads but does break large parts of the Web experience.
In reality, we’re going to be reliant less on hacks and more on large scale changes, from leaders like Apple, and followers like Google, and the right kind of regulatory pressure. For publishers, which, in Jeff Jarvis’s words lack “first-party data and competence”, this could be an issue. Jeff’s series of tweets are worth reading.
He is, of course, right. Traditional publishers have largely refused to tool themselves up over the previous decade. My old employer, Schibsted, largely did—and it was hard work. For the rest, I suspect they will leverage their political clout to force (bad) local laws to encourage marginal handouts from Facebook and Google. (See Australia.) What small crumbs they gain will come at the distraction of not solving the real issues, either of the problems of ad tech or their own shaky business models.
Back to Google, this is at least some good news. Slowly but surely, and rather patchily, we’re able to push back on these worst aspects of the data economy. It certainly isn’t too soon. I’ll raise a glass of some home-fizzed water to that.
What you’re up to – notes from EV readers
Sameh Wahba published “Future of Cities Will Shape Post-Covid-19 World” at The World Bank.
Gideon Lichfield was appointed Global Editorial Director at Wired. Congratulations!
Lejjy Gaffour’s company, Future Field, landed $2.2m in seed funding and shipped the first cellular meat medium.
Jacob Taylor and team at the Center for Sustainable Development at Brookings published a report on the "17 Rooms" initiative: a novel approach to convening and problem-solving for the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.
Paul Albertella published “Safety is a system property, not a software property” at Codethink.
Tom Wheeler published “A Turning Point in the Oversight of Digital Platforms: A Challenge for American Leadership”
Alan Rusbridger says that the Oversight Board will ask to see Facebook’s algorithm.
Gianni Giacomelli published “The distance-less future, and you”.
Chris Locke is collecting stories of how African youth are hustling platform livelihoods amidst Covid 19.
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