Azeem Azhar’s Weekly Wondermissive: Future, Tech & Society
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Dept of the near future
🚨 A majority of adults worldwide feel their country’s society is broken, according to a new global survey from twenty-seven countries. 70 percent believe society is rigged in favour of the rich; two-thirds believe politics doesn’t work for them; measures of nativism have also risen. (A Pew survey of Americans from March this year echoes this, with a strong sense of decline in both national relevance and individual circumstance.) Both make for sober reading.
🏳️ Aswath Damodaran breaks down the facts behind the unravelling of WeWork’s IPO and the role of narrative in company valuations: ‘As we saw with Theranos, in its rapid fall from grace, there is a dark side to story companies and it stems from the fact that value is built on a personality, rather than a business, and when the personality stumbles or acts in a way viewed as untrustworthy, the runaway story can quickly morph into a meltdown story, where the ingredients curdle.’ Long read.
⚔️ A new study has found that, contrary to popular belief, war is not declining. ‘We do see a decrease in the rate of conflict initiation at the end of the Cold War, but that’s about the only good news. Other than that, for the last 200 years at least, I can find no downward trend in the incidence or deadliness of warfare. If anything, ‘the opposite is true,’ says Bear Braumoeller, the author.
🎲 The three things which people hate most about being managed by algorithms: constant surveillance, limited transparency, and a lingering sense of dehumanisation. People are also beginning to find ways to game the system. Ironically, however, just as algorithms are making workers feel less human, human soft skills are becoming more valued in the workplace. IBM reckons that 120 million workers will need reskilling in the next three years.
👐 A great paper by EV reader, Brett Frischmann and collaborators rethinking Garret Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons fifty years later. Hardin essentially got it wrong. Collective resource-sharing can and does work. (🎧 Kate Raworth and I discussed this.) And as Frischmann points out, we have an opportunity to create trustworthy governance for shared resources. Hardin’s thesis gets way too much uncritical airplay. (A good example of a modern shared resource is the data trusts which help organisations make use of pooled data. Here is an interesting analysis on how they might work. The Economist’s Ryan Avent provides a decent 101 on the value of commons.)
Department of big tech
There is a fervent activity to peg back the market power of the GAFAs. We’ve been talking about it for several years, and this week you could see the contours of the next wave of battles emerging. I know that technology regulation can sometimes be a snoozefest but it really is one of the most important things we can design over the coming years. Read on.
My perspective is that we are at a point in the cycle where society will intervene, giving the size of the dominant players. Not because it is inherently anti-market or anti-corporate, but just because the scale of the companies (like Standard Oil, AT&T and IBM in the past) is just so large that it distorts innovation, enterprise, the balance of power and democratic functioning. I try not to read these investigations as an anti-capitalist move, rather just a necessary (and overdue) homeostatic response. Just as the breakup of AT&T and the heat put on Microsoft twenty years ago, gave competitors room to breathe and time to find their feet, antitrust investigations may play a similar ‘wingman’ role today.
Fifty US attorneys general have signed on to an antitrust investigation into Google. As a start, the investigation will be putting Google’s search and advertising business under the microscope, but the scope may expand. Interestingly, California and Alabama are the only two hold-outs. The probe will focus on Google’s advertising and search business. (The former has come under the spotlight in the UK through the Furman Report and from the Australian competition commission as well).
💯 The New York Times profiles the inimitable Margrethe Verstager, the EU regulator haunting big tech’s nightmares. (The EU has levied fines approaching $10bn against Google in the past two years. Still chump change for the firm.)
Brad Smith, Microsoft’s President (and someone I want on the EV podcast—hit me up if you can arrange this) is getting one step ahead of the game calling for more regulation of tech companies. ‘The greatest risk facing technology firms isn’t overregulation—it’s that government won’t do enough, swiftly enough, to address the technology issues affecting the world.’
Whether Jeff Bezos feels the same way is another question. Signs suggest the FTC may be in the early stages of an official investigation into Amazon’s marketplace. FTC officials have been conducting interviews and asking merchants how much of their revenue comes from Amazon sales in comparison with other e-commerce sites such as Walmart and eBay.
California regulators have passed a bill requiring gig economy companies to treat their contractors as employees. The bill, which would come into effect on January 1st 2020, poses a risk to the fundamental business model of companies like Lyft and Uber, which rely on access to cheap, obligation-free labor.
🧐 Facebook’s insistence that it is not a media organisation continues to convince absolutely no one, and leaked guidelines for Facebook’s plans to manage how news is presented on its platform will only add to the skepticism. Teams of editors will handpick stories from approved media outlets to feature in the Top Stories section of the upcoming news tab, which will debut for US-based users in October.
🥊 Carl Miller, research director at Demos: ‘It is time to forcibly reform big tech’. He argues that telling the tech giants to fix their own problems, or shape their own regulation, is just putting more power into their hands: ‘moralising the tech giants is an enormous distraction from what actually has to be done: reforming the moral architecture outside them.’ (See the Brad Smith argument as well for some similar perspectives.)
The New York Times delves into how each of the big tech companies may be targeted by US regulators, and how the companies are responding.
EV reader Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute, sees the current moment as the one in which big tech begins to fracture. Despite the weakness of the US federal government under the current administration, the action by state attorneys general, the House subcommittee, and authorities in Europe, Asia and other places around the world signals a paradigm shift in the balance of power between companies and regulators. (Matt runs a superb newsletter on monopoly power. If you are interested in that type of thing, subscribe to it here.)
🌡️ Climate breakdown: 408.54ppm | 3,902 days
Each week, we’re going to remind you of the CO2 levels in the atmosphere and the number of days until reaching the 450ppm threshold.
The latest measurement (as of September 12): 408.54ppm; 12 months ago: 405.66ppm; 25 years ago: 360ppm; 250 years ago, est: 250ppm. Share this reminder with your community by forwarding this email or tweeting this.
🤯 China’s data centre industry consumed over 2 percent of the country’s power last year and emitted as much carbon dioxide as 21 million cars on the road. Despite the growing push for renewables in China, the data centre industry continues to rely heavily on coal-fired power.
While some industries are trumpeting their environmental credentials, others are going green on the quiet. Experts think perceptions that sustainable practices are linked to compromising on quality products are leading some companies to keep their change to more environmentally-friendly business practices on a need-to-know basis.
🔋 ‘Battery guru’ Jeff Dahn claims a breakthrough development in pouch cells could power an electric vehicle for over 1.6 million kilometres.
Dept of technology
This section is open to Premium members only. Here, we discuss:
- Has the iPhone hit an evolutionary stasis?
- Why conversational commerce has failed to take off in the US?
- What’s the challenge with smart homes?
Short morsels to appear smart at dinner parties
🚴 Toronto swapped street parking for bike lanes and saw a boost for local businesses as a result.
🔎 The new Apple U1 chip is a way bigger deal than people realise.
Healthy microbiomes can help boost immunity.
🐕 Selective breeding hasn’t just changed dogs’ appearances, it changed their brains.
Water vapour has been detected on a planet with habitable temperatures.
🥤 Research finds that demand for sugary drinks is elastic enough that taxing them can be beneficial for public health.
Physicists have succeeded in measuring the exact size of protons: 833 attometres.
Menstruation apps are sharing incredibly sensitive details about users’ health, diet, even sex lives with third-party data brokers and social media platforms, including Facebook.
The team and I have been busy putting together next season’s podcast.
I haven’t yet checked with the producers, Marija and Fred, whether I’m allowed to say who is on it. But I am so excited about the work the team has done to assemble a cracking line-up of guests. And I can’t resist giving you a bit of a sneak preview.
We’ll be bringing together some of the world’s leading thinkers on key issues we’ve discussed in Exponential View. Ideas we’ll be discussing include:
- How the economic and social paradigm might change over the coming 10-20 years,
- How to effectively get your organisation to build an AI capability,
- How the nature of warfare has changed as we digitise the world—and whether we are prepared for it,
- Whether deep learning is the path to AGI,
- The geopolitics of quinoa,
- How our economies became obsessed with efficiency, why that could be a problem and what to do about it.
If you haven’t got into the podcast, give it a go: Apple Podcasts / Google Podcasts / Spotify / Breaker / Overcast
Have a great week!
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What you are up to — notes from EV readers
Russell Buckley is looking for a new General Partner at Kindred Capital! Great opportunity.
Tom Greenwood: Having the guts to say no to bad money.
Riccardo Volpato reviews the top trends of explainability in natural language processing.
David Klenert and Linus Mattauch assess the challenges in designing successful carbon pricing reforms.
Ben Reid has published a report Towards Our Intelligent Future - An AI Roadmap for New Zealand, which positions AI as a key enabler for achieving the country’s Wellbeing and Sustainability goals.
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