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a 90 million dollar mistake

Tech Revolution
Issue #1020 • View online
Well hello there,
I hope your week isn’t going as badly as the startup who accidentally gave 90 million dollars to its users, and resorted to threats in an effort to get it back.
Or as badly as Facebook, which took itself offline for hours on Monday to the point where its staff couldn’t even enter buildings to help solve the problem.
Both of these mega-messups were due to simple errors in software, but they had big implications. They’re a reminder that while tech wows us with its capabilities, it’s often incredibly fragile and can be brought to its knees by nothing more than a typo or a coder having an off-day. More on this below.
Meanwhile over the past week, I have been:
  • Delighted by Snapchat’s new ‘Run for Office’ feature that helps young people gain positions of authority in their communities. Bravo!
  • Agog at the Ozy Media scandal. The company essentially shut down on Friday after days of painful revelations. CEO Carlos Watson’s efforts to claim Ozy is already making a comeback seem to overestimate just how much anyone trusts him right now.
  • Wondering if the other space-billionaires are jealous that Jeff Bezos has signed up William Shatner. At age 90, he’ll beat the record for the oldest person to go to space, just months after it was last broken by 82-year-old Wally Funk.
  • Unsurprised that Rudy Giuliani used nothing but online rumours as the basis for his accusations of election fraud last year. For some reason, I have an image of a snake eating its own tail in my head.
  • Laughing at the solution being proposed to solve confusion over which USB-C leads can do what. The solution itself is… confusing.
Okay, let’s dive into the week’s most consequential tech news, shall we?
— Martin.

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🤔 Big questions
From this week’s news…
💔 Do we realise how fragile everything really is?
When the New York Times published an opinion piece on Monday morning saying the recent leaked documents showed Facebook was fragile, it didn’t know just how fragile it would prove to be a few hours later, in quite a different way.
If you’re not up-to-date with how it happened, the plain-English explanation for the huge Facebook outage was that a simple mistake in a configuration update led to the internet not being able to find Facebook services whenever anyone tried to access them. And because Facebook uses its own services for much of its internal communication, and even as authentication for opening physical doors in its buildings, the response took a lot longer than it might otherwise have done.
The modern world is dizzyingly complex, but at the heart of it is humans. Humans who make mistakes. Humans who assume other humans have thought about the problems they spot but aren’t responsible for fixing. Humans who—due to time pressures, budget restraints, or laziness—hold crucial software together with the coding equivalent of string and sticky tape.
It’s easy to shrug off a Facebook outage as not very important, but if you live in a country where Facebook or WhatsApp is the main communications infrastructure, you probably had a grim time on Monday.
The headlines shouting about how Mark Zuckerberg ‘lost’ $6bn of net worth in hours during the outage due to stock price drops highlight another problem. Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t meaningfully impacted by that drop. No-one was. The people who obsess over ‘world’s richest person’ charts will have got excited, but that’s about it.
So we had a problem caused by weak infrastructure that underpins a company often presented as far too strong. And that led to a fake problem with fake money, which was really nothing more than numbers on a spreadsheet triggering a narrative about wealth.
Much of the world as we know it today is actually layer upon layer of narrative about how the world really works. When we see the cracks in those layers, it can be disarming. But if all those layers were all stripped away, would really have much of a world left?
🙄 Can Facebook deflect itself through another crisis?
Another example of ‘everything is narrative’ came late yesterday, when Mark Zuckerberg responded to the Facebook whistleblower’s hearing in front of Congress.
Facebook’s PR approach to the hearing has been to not directly address any of the accusations and instead present former employee Frances Haugen as an unreliable witness. Zuckerberg’s own post reads quite persuasively until you realise that it doesn’t really say that much about recent controversies - it just deflects from them.
But yes, everything is narrative. I suspect Haugen’s testimony as a clear, credible communicator on a topic both US parties believe needs addressing, could be the catalyst politicians needed to do something, no matter how accurate her evidence may or may not be.
What they actually do to curb Facebook’s power is the big question. It could be toothless legislation or it could reform free speech in a way that hurts US citizens and people far beyond its borders. That remains to be seen, but for now Facebook is distinctly losing the communications war.
🛑 Why isn't user safety a showstopping priority for big tech?
Last week I discussed how Amazon staff had expressed reservations about its new in-home robot, but the company had launched it anyway. If any staff flagged up obvious problems with its new gifting feature, they must have been similarly ignored.
As the Verge explains:
Amazon is launching a new gifting feature today that will allow subscribers to its Prime service to send gifts to others using only an email address or phone number — no address required.
Gift-givers have to be Amazon Prime members, the program is limited to the continental US, and it can only be used on mobile devices for the time being. And even though Amazon has built in some safeguards— the gift-giver never gets access to the recipient’s mailing address— this sounds like a bad idea that is ripe for abuse by scammers, stalkers, and those who take pleasure in the online harassment of others.
I thought of several ways this could be abused within seconds of reading about it, and Amazon is staffed by smart people so they must have thought of them too… and yet other priorities seemingly won out over user safety.
User safety should be a primary concern before a big tech company launches a new product. The days of ‘launch quick and figure it out as we go along’ are mostly over. User behaviour and expectations around tech have matured, and big companies launching problematic products shouldn’t be excused anymore.
Any product like this should have to go through a user safety gatekeeper at Amazon who signs it off as not having the potential to make people’s lives less safe. Surely Amazon owes the world that at a minimum? I mean, they didn’t even build in a way for someone to opt out of being sent gifts by strangers! It’s maddening, it really is.
News you shouldn’t miss from the past week…
  • Windows 11 is out now, although it’s very much a work in progress, with big new features like support for Android apps still in development. [The Verge]
  • Amazon is said to be working on a smart fridge that tracks what you put into it, using similar tech to the company’s ‘just walk out’ in-store technology. [Insider $$$]
  • A grim sign of the times: Google Maps will now track wildfires. [TechCrunch]
  • Remember Clearview A.I.? The controversial facial recognition company has plans to become even more powerful, and potentially dangerous. [Wired $$$]
  • Twitter’s subscription service is getting an adblocker. Scroll, which Twitter acquired earlier this year will shut down as a standalone service, as it becomes part of Twitter Blue in the next few weeks. I expect Blue to be launched in more countries, too. [The Verge]
  • It’s going to be hard to buy a new console for many months to come, Xbox boss Phil Spencer has admitted. It’s not just the chip shortage; the wider global supply chain crisis will continue to make it difficult for you to buy a PS5 or Xbox Series X/S well into 2022. [Kotaku]
📰 Big reads
The classic cars being converted to electric vehicles
Siri’s 10-year anniversary is a reminder of Apple’s wasted head start
A libertarian ‘startup city’ in Honduras faces its biggest hurdle: the locals
More big reads:
That's all for now...
…and that’s everything I’ve got for you this fine Wednesday. If you enjoyed this newsletter, please share it with someone you think will like it.
See you in in your inbox exactly one week from now, give or take a few minutes.
— Martin
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