🔮 Twitter’s hive mind; Africa's microgrids; new chips; bitcoin++ #397
The ‘hive-mind’ notion is appealing but does require stewardship and directionality.
Hi, I’m Azeem Azhar. I convene Exponential View to help us understand how our societies and political economy are changing under the force of rapidly accelerating technologies.
In today’s edition…
I share my view on how we can fathom what’s happening at Twitter,
In the Climate Futures section, we trace the trails of the ongoing transition away from fossil fuels in Africa,
Finally, you’ll be treated with morsels to keep you smart while being jealous of Germany’s unlimited £1.50 ($1) train rides.
Enjoy with your morning coffee!
The weekly commentary: Elon & the morlocks mind
Twitter punches above its weight. Its social and interest graphs, the patterns of relationships and people that evolve over this asymmetric network, are exceptionally powerful. Musk recently acknowledged as much in a Tweet. I built an entire company that tried to make sense of the collective intelligence and signalling those emergent characteristics across that network.
Researcher Joe Bak-Colman tackles the question of Elon’s hive mind. In particular, emergent behaviour, like collective intelligence, is very sensitive to
the structure and nature of interactions between individuals. Changes to the network size or structure, altering how information is shared, or adding feedback tends to degrade collective behavior into failed states… Elon’s premise that Twitter can behave like a collective intelligence only holds if the structure of the network and nature of interactions is tuned to promote collective outcomes.
Bak-Colman expands his argument by exploring the scenarios in which complex systems can undergo cascading failures. Twitter (like the electrical grid, but more so) is just such a complex system.
The ‘hive-mind’ notion is appealing but does require stewardship and directionality. In this, the technology is not neutral. My sense would be that a profitable ad-driven Twitter, strongly oriented to Elon’s version of a global town hall and his reading of what “free speech” means, are unlikely to be design parameters that lead towards an effective hive mind. It’ll be butter or jam. He’ll need to decide which.
More than a simple company
Musk’s takeover of Twitter is fascinating through many lenses. It is the world’s third largest public-private transaction. He is also buying a very complex product. Twitter doesn’t make hard drives, sell shoes or conduct audits. It’s a really intricate thing that means different things for different people and groups. For some it is about football scores and celebrity gossip, for others a professional service, for others a campaigning tool. It has attained the status of some kind of public infrastructure, implicated in all sorts of public benefits and disbenefits. Nature, the most impactful academic journal in the world, has published hundreds of bits of research studying Twitter, ranging from understanding propagation models in networks and the diffusion of misinformation, automated behaviour detection, national well-being, aggression in gang members, and pandemic early warning.
Google Scholar finds 139,000 academic papers on the topic of Twitter as a public sphere. So the way in which it, as a business, delivers societal good is much more complex that the ways Tesla, Dyson or Brabantia provide that good.
Large scale platforms do, I believe, find themselves party to the Peter Parker Principle. They end up having responsibilities that are not easily thrown into a consultants spreadsheet Pareto’d to the nth degree. Every large scale platform finds itself here: Apple, whose products were simple by comparison to the cephalopodic entanglement of a social network, finds itself having to grapple with policy questions around the App Store, Apple Pay and, even, the contents of iPhones.
On the one hand one can simply say “you wanted it, you deal with it.” And that is to some extent true. Musk does own it and it is his to burnish or burn. And this is the risk with centralised systems like Twitter. They can fall foul to anyone’s interpretation of benevolent dictatorship (the former board, Zuckerbergs or Musks).
But there are certain services that go beyond simply dollar-and-cents, and end up having more systemic importance. Societies have recognised this. Look at the rules around the banking system. We recognise it within telecoms. It may be that Twitter has aspects of its operation that are more systemic (more like core telecoms or banking) than they are like Candy Crush or the Superbowl. The European Union through the Digital Services Act recognises this. America’s ACCESS Bill will attempt the same. Twitter is not a product like a dust bin, vacuum cleaner or high-end car.
So I think it’s worth pulling up some of the interesting analysis. There is excellent treatment of some of these issues in chapter 9 of my book. My essay on protocols vs. platforms is worth revisiting. Also worth considering:
Steven Levy on whether Elon can make Twitter soar: “He believes his Musk-itude will enable him to do what generations of previous Twitter leaders could not even begin to accomplish, swatting away historical precedent like an annoying gnat.”
Marietje Schaake: How will Musk assume responsibility of the platform’s many trade-offs?
Zeynep Tufekci: The ugly cost of ads on Twitter
Exponential View member Gianni Giacomelli wrote in EV several months ago about the emergent powers of collective intelligence.
Dept of our climate future
In every Sunday edition, we track key metrics that tell us a little about our shared climate future.
Our member, Marshall Kirkpatrick, takes the time to curate a view of our current climate status in this segment every week, and you can read Marshall’s view below.
The one thing to consider about our climate future this week: Transition away from the carbon economy isn’t a matter for the future, it’s happening now, but there are important questions to ask about how it will happen. Disruptions to the petro-economy are boosting the financial appeal of renewables and accelerating these questions. Case in point: Africa, where commercial and industrial scale solar is said (by the leader of a solar startup acquired by Shell) to be approaching a tipping point of commercial momentum due to covid supply chain and Russian war-caused spikes in the cost of widely-used diesel fuel. In Nigeria, diesel prices have surged 290%, says Jasper Graf von Hardenberg, and now costs 5x more than solar power. African microgrid providers, on the other hand, believe micro- and minigrid installation is the key to transitioning the continent away from diesel. Questions of scale and centralisation aren’t questions for the future anymore.
Choosing our path: Ten years ago, The Institute for the Future (IFTF) looked forward to today and said “Over the next 10-15 years […] an emerging ‘energopolitics’ will reshape everything from what we consume, how we live, why we work, and ultimately, the condition of our planet.” IFTF predicted in 2011 that we’d steer ourselves toward one or more of four potential futures: Growth, Constraint, Collapse or Transformation. We have chosen elements of all four, but we are deciding the future now each day.
For those whose goals aren’t high enough: General Motors announced it has secured 100% of the energy needed to power all its U.S. facilities with renewables by 2025, five years earlier than its target was set at just last year, and 25 years ahead of the target it set for itself in 2016.
California Microgrid Community: Homebuilding firm KB Homes has partnered with the US Department of Energy and a wide range of related firms to launch what it calls the first microgrid community in the trend-setting state of California, 200 all-electric and battery homes with bi-directional EV charging, starting at $520K, an hour and a half from LA.
A tenth of Americans gets their news from TikTok.
$2bn has been spent buying land on various metaverse platforms in the past year.
Apple may reach 2bn active devices within a year.
$1.2 trillion: automakers’ commitments to electrification by 2030.
As limited partners continue to back funds, US venture capital has a record $300bn of dry powder.
Western nations have pledged 1.4% of their weapons to Ukraine.
Chips are running too hot and using too much energy. Dylan O’Laughlin points out that increasing electricity costs are hitting Amazon and Azure by 1-2% of their top line. Longer term, this might revive the importance from novel architectures for chips.
Short morsels to appear smart while Sie auf einen Zug warten
🏋️♀️ The story of two documents that would change finance: how the Bitcoin White Paper outperformed the Dodd-Frank Act.
🧬 Meta’s AI team ventures into protein prediction space. See also, the AI team shared progress on a novel audio compression method which could be transformative for low-bandwidth communication.
🐶 A new bee with a dog-like snout has been discovered!
🦠 How space changes the gut microbiome.
🚈 Germany introduces unlimited train travel for £1.50 per day in efforts to reduce emissions.
👁 The science of seeing: color is in the experience of the beholder.
Generative AI is just getting started but boy is it going quickly. I played around with Vana’s Portrait generator. Send it eight pics and it spits out dozens of portraits of you. You can check mine out here. Which is your fave?
I was sick and knocked out most of this week. Thanks to the team working triple time we’ve got an issue out for everyone. Hopefully back to normal from Monday.
P.S. If you don’t keep up with what other EV readers are doing, you are m-i-s-s-i-n-g out. Check out below.
What you’re up to – notes from EV readers
Annalee Bloomfield did a podcast with CIBC on how sustainability software for SMEs can help accelerate climate action.
Roger Dennis published an op-ed countering the idea that we’re in a “polycrisis” and made the case for realistic optimism.
Carl Hahn was a guest on the In AI We Trust podcast, where he and host Miriam Vogel discussed the impact of the DoD and how to develop AI responsibly.
Frank Kumli and his team are showcasing live pitching tracks by Health Tech startups and hosting high-level discussions at DEMO DAY 2022 on November 22nd.
To share your projects and updates, fill out your details here. Because of space constraints, we prioritise updates from paying members and startups I have invested in. (You can become the former by subscribing, if you have not already, and the latter by getting an intro to me via a trusted contact.)
I like your weekly commentary leading off the wonder-missive. Prefer that to being a separate distribution.
You might find Metafilter an interesting study in comparison to Twitter and Musk's plan for collective intelligence. Ask Metafilter has been around for 19 years and has fielded a remarkable number of factual, surveying, and emotional advice, and the collective intelligence focused towards each problem seems to (anecdotally) have a remarkable success rate. The site's human moderation is worth a look, in that they've been handling the problem seemingly correctly for 23 years. (The site has a thread on 9-11-01 that captures reactions, by the minute. In an age when Facebook wasn't what it was, it's a remarkable equivalent to how people might've reacted on social media.)