Azeem Azhar’s Weekly Wondermissive: Future, Tech & Society
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Dept of the near future
🔑 Google reached an important milestone in proving that quantum computers can hugely outperform classical ones. The Economist has a good rundown of the leaked paper. Scott Aaronson’s FAQ is worth reading, too.
💢 Chaos vs. order: is this the beating heart of populism, asks Matthew Taylor. Based on two new pieces of research, Taylor argues that ‘[m]any people’s need for chaos is bigger than their need for truth,’ and that has implications for how populism needs to be countered. Exceptional read.
🎯 More than seventy countries have been targeted by disinformation campaigns, according to research from the Oxford Internet Institute. The researchers argue that the use of online disinformation tactics on both domestic and international audiences is growing. (See also, how Cambridge Analytica honed its skills in military-disinformation scenarios before working for Trump and a UK pro-Brexit campaign.)
🧱 Apple continues to build its walls ever higher, and so far its garden seems to be flourishing. CEO Tim Cook has announced Apple’s goal to double the size of its business services in the next four years, reaching $50 billion in revenues. ‘A garden is lovely after all. The walls are there to keep danger and chaos away as much as to keep you in it. The constraints simplify as much as they restrict. Though it may be contrary to some modular and interoperable utopias which paralyze with choice, we might well be experiencing a triumph of the walled garden.’
👔 Digital microtasking is an increasingly significant but understudied part of the gig economy. The ILO surveyed 3500 workers on five digital labour platforms, and found that workers are based in every region of the world, but are physically clustered in cities; they are highly educated despite the relatively low-skilled nature of the tasks; and there are significant gendered differences in both participation and experience on the platforms. Workers’ average hourly earnings ranged between $2 and $6.50.
Dept of TikTok
TikTok, the social network formerly known as Musical.ly, was the fourth most downloaded app in 2018. Particularly popular with the under-24s, it now rivals Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube in reach. In June 2018, it exceeded 500 million global monthly active users. Uniquely, it is the first global social network of this size not domiciled in the US and birthed from Silicon Valley’s peculiar libertarian and anti-establishment crucible.
Rather, TikTok is owned by China’s ByteDance, a septodecaoctocorn (valued at $78 billion). ByteDance was behind the addictive news app, Toutiao, and acquired Musical.ly for less than a billion dollars in 2017. Rebecca Fannin explains the background to TikTok’s rise.
Move over Youtubers, the TikTokkers have arrived. Like other platforms before it, TikTok is propelling a new wave of social media stars. These teenagers are building up tens of millions of followers and can charge up to $300,000 for sponsored posts.
TikTok’s appeal is that it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is: a pointless distraction, argues Jia Tolentino:
I found it both freeing and disturbing to spend time on a platform that didn’t ask me to pretend that I was on the Internet for a good reason. I was not giving TikTok my attention because I wanted to keep up with the news, or because I was trying to soothe and irritate myself by looking at photos of my friends on vacation. I was giving TikTok my attention because it was serving me what would retain my attention, and it could do that because it had been designed to perform algorithmic pyrotechnics that were capable of making a half hour pass before I remembered to look away.
TikTok isn’t the neutral, carefree platform it may appear to be to users, however. ByteDance has little option but to dance to the tune of the Chinese government, including censoring content on TikTok. A very interesting case study on how platforms will have to manage regulating their hosted content, and how this will play out as they step into far-from-home markets.
TikTok’s in-video search feature allows users to select faces or clothes of a person appearing in a video and search for other videos or images containing the same person or clothes. The feature is meant to boost e-commerce opportunities on the platform, but it’s not hard to think of a multitude of ways for this to be abused.
ByteDance told the Indian government that it removed almost 135,000 videos from TikTok between January 2017 and June 2019, and received 1.7 million complaints. TikTok has been skating on thin ice with the Indian government, and was briefly banned in April, partially over ‘objectionable’ content. India is TikTok’s largest market, and the ban hit ByteDance hard.
I’ve found TikTok quite challenging. There is amusing creativity, slapstick humour, hilarious videos and wonderful paeans to dogs. It is enabling a new suite of expression that will keep semioticians and media theorists busy. But I really worry about the vulnerability of teens and tweens to the exhibitionism this app encourages and rewards. It is one thing to have a cool tool for teens that allows them to ‘subvert their parents’ — something they need to do. It is another to lure them into a creeping Kardashianisation in the fast cycle of the dopamine-reward loop.
Uber is merging its travel and food apps to become an all-in-one app for everyday life (as is common in many Asian markets.)
🌡️ Climate breakdown: 408.57ppm | 3,890 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 25): 408.57ppm; 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.
👏 The Scottish Parliament has just passed what it says is the toughest framework of statutory climate change targets of any country in the world.
We might be watching the end of big oil. The final nail in the coffin is still a long way off, but the lowest S&P rating for oil and gas stocks in forty years suggests it might at least be time to start getting the hammer ready.
Short morsels to appear smart at dinner parties
The stereotype of STEM degrees leading to well-paying jobs, and liberal arts degrees leading to a life of well-educated penury is more complicated than you might think.
🤓 Here are some reading recommendations on the relationship between social norms and entrepreneurialism.
Stanislav Petrov, whose cool head literally prevented nuclear war in 1983, has died at 77.
🐕 Boston Dynamics’ robot dog is available for hire.
🔎 The advance of personal surveillance is less creeping and more steam-training ahead thanks to Amazon’s Ring doorbells.
🏁 Do you really like flags? Then you’ll really like this.
Water isn’t the best drink for hydration. 🥛
Where to park, according to mathematicians.
Watch an octopus change colour as she dreams. This is beautiful.
Our amazing readers are up to amazing things. Please check the notes below!
Next week, the EV podcast season starts again. If you haven’t latched onto it yet, mosey over here to start.
This edition has been supported by our partner, Masterworks
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What you are up to—notes from EV readers
Jolyon Maugham won a court case in the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom which has some constitutional significance.
John Danaher has a new book out: Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World Without Work.
A number of EV readers participated in launching of a new Oxford Initiative on AIxSDGs which seeks to determine how AI can be used to fulfill the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Anna and Kelly Pendergrast write about the transformation of plant-based meat into a high tech product and the challenges that lie ahead.
Alexandra Mousavizadeh announces the launch of the Responsibility 100 Index, the first ranking of FTSE 100 companies measured by their commitment to key social, environmental and ethical objectives.
Paul Orlando writes about the lessons learnt while writing fifty essays about the unintended consequences and tech.
Riya Pabari and her team launched the newest spin-out from the group called Founders Academy – a zero-tuition, 9-month ‘alt-MBA’ that combines active and applied learning.
Rob Estreitinho writes a philosophy newsletter for creative and strategic minds.
Ronald Richman co-wrote a paper on managing the risks posed by deep learning models applied for insurance modelling.
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