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Tech Revolution
Issue #1027 • View online
Hello there,
Just as years’ worth of MRNA vaccine research had its moment to step into the limelight last year, the incredible Nasa mission to knock an asteroid off course feels like one of those pieces of research humanity might be very grateful for one day.
For all our worries about the ability of humans to come together to fight the slow march of the climate crisis or to combat the pandemic in all parts of the world, there’s nothing like a giant asteroid coming to wipe us out to unite the planet…. hopefully? Or maybe the need for politicians to pander to asteroid-denying voters would be the end of us.
I just wish I could get that song from Armageddon out of my head.
Meanwhile, this week I have been:
  • Baffled by how China seemingly defied physics to fire a missile from a hypersonic rocket.
  • Immersed in Radiohead’s brilliant Kid A Mnesia Exhibition ‘experience’ - I’ve never ‘played’ anything like it
  • Pleased that electric car chargers will be made mandatory for all new houses in England
  • Wondering if, given Russia’s recent test of destroying a satellite, Steve Wozniak has an even bigger job on his hands with the satellite network he plans to map space junk.
Okay, let’s dive into the most consequential tech news of the week, and what it means for the future…
— Martin

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🤔 Big questions
From this week’s news…
💰 Is 'get rich quick' thinking holding Web3 back?
If you’re a crypto cynic, it’s easy to laugh at the chaos that has surrounded ConstitutionDAO and say that it proves blockchain tech is useless. But to me it merely represents teething trouble for technology that will—eventually— have an important place in the world.
DAOs—decentralised autonomous organisations—could mean a step change in transparency and inclusiveness in many areas of life, but ConstitutionDAO is the first to garner mainstream attention. In case you missed it, people crowdfunded into the DAO, which then used the funds to bid at an auction for an original printed copy of the US constitution.
But the DAO was outbid, partly because the auction was conducted in US dollars, rather than Ethereum, meaning the DAO couldn’t vote to up their bid in real-time even if they wanted to - their Ethereum had been converted to a fixed amount of dollars beforehand.
The simple policy that ‘everyone gets refunded if we’re not successful’ fell apart and the whole thing descended into chaos as it became apparent that the organisers hadn’t planned for every eventuality.
It’s fair to bet that the next group to try something like this will be better organised.
At least some of the confusion appears to have come from many participants viewing this as an opportunity to buy a historic document and then sell it for a shared profit, although the organisers never presented it as that.
The Web3 and crypto world desperately needs to move beyond rampant price speculation of coins and tokens onto something a bit more forward thinking. There are clearly people trying to do that (after all, it’s worth finding out what a group with voting rights owning an important piece of history, deciding where it would be displayed etc, looks like in practice), but for now the audience most receptive to such projects seems to skew heavily towards people who want to make a quick buck.
There are some more forward-thinking uses for this technology that don’t centre around investment. I’d like to see co-operatives adopt DAOs to increase transparency, for example. Much has been made of El Salvador’s Bitcoin experiment (and ‘Bitcoin city’) but that’s essentially just using a different currency. What would a country governed (at least partly) by DAOs look like? That really would be forward thinking.
I’m not suggesting anyone tries it tomorrow, but moving in these directions is far more interesting than buying the latest hot NFT in the hope of making a profit.
I get the feeling that a lot of the Web3 cynics would be more into the scene if it was a little more about true fairness and transparency, rather than the profit and libertarian small-government ideology that dominates a lot of Web3 activity today. As with social audio platforms (see below), scams and greed lower the tone of the neighbourhood.
🏎️ Who else is playing fast and loose with your data?
File this under ‘assume everything you put online has been accessed in ways you wouldn’t want’. Wired reported this week on documents that demonstrate Amazon’s apparent fast-and-loose attitude to its own customers’ data:
In the name of speedy customer service, unbridled growth, and rapid-fire “invention on behalf of customers”—in the name of delighting you—Amazon had given broad swathes of its global workforce extraordinary latitude to tap into customer data at will.
It was, as former Amazon chief information security officer Gary Gagnon calls it, a “free-for-all” of internal access to customer information. And as information security leaders warned, that free-for-all left the company wide open to “internal threat actors” while simultaneously making it inordinately difficult to track where all of Amazon’s data was flowing.
It was seemingly a mess over there when it came to customer data on the retail (not AWS) side of the business:
Some low-level employees were using their data privileges to snoop on the purchases of celebrities, while others were taking bribes to help shady sellers sabotage competitors’ businesses, doctor Amazon’s review system, and sell knock-off products to unsuspecting customers. Millions of credit card numbers had sat in the wrong place on Amazon’s internal network for years, with the security team unable to establish definitively whether they’d been unduly accessed. And a program that allowed sellers to extract their own metrics had become a backdoor for third-party developers to amass Amazon customer data
It’s easy to say you protect customer data (as Amazon has done many times), but unless that protection includes strict internal policies on how it’s used there will always be weak points, or if you’re big enough, the possibility of gaping holes.
I worked at a bank on the customer service line briefly after I graduated from university. A popular (at the time) TV presenter called one day for help with their account and because I had to view their transactions, I got to see just how much this person was paid to present one of the biggest shows on British TV. Spoiler alert: it was a lot of money.
I’ve never shared with anyone who it was or how much they were paid because, well, it was confidential, but it was at that point I realised just how fragile personal data is.
Wired’s report about hasn’t really cut through into mainstream debate this week because personal data stories rarely do. Deep down, I think we all know that data is at risk but until someone starts sharing our purchase histories, salaries, and embarrassing messages on massive screens in city centres or all over the internet, we’ll be all too happy to turn a blind eye.
🚮 Why does social audio content gravitate to trash?
Twitter’s Spaces feature has really taken off as a destination for social audio. I’ve listened to lots of interesting conversations on there, but ever since Twitter started highlighting the Spaces the people you follow listen to and launched a Spaces tab highlight popular conversations, I’ve come to realise just how trashy a lot of the content on there is.
Insider’s Matt Weinberger tweeted this week that he sees “a non-stop mix of crypto stuff, get-rich-quick hashtag hustle rooms, and uh whatever the hell was going on here” (you maybe don’t want to know what’s going on there, but click if you must). As I write, the top room on the Spaces tab is called ‘Why You Can’t Trust Women’. Oh dear.
Admittedly, as I write there’s also a conversation about improving garbage collection in Nairobi, and another about the socioeconomic fallout of Covid-19 on migrants (neither of pressing interest to me personally, but both more important than the trash usually highlighted to me in the app). And Sing Your Dialect‘s success shows how something more interesting and unapologetically mainstream can gain traction.
The problem is, these conversations often get drowned out by the kind of trash content that has blighted Clubhouse for the past few months, as the hype wore off and many users drifted away.
The ever-responsive Spaces team told me they’re working on an imminent fix for highlighting irrelevant or trashy rooms, but the issue just goes to demonstrate how valuable media can rapidly go downhill in quality without careful, constant curation.
More news you shouldn’t miss…
  • Apple is suing Israeli spyware firm NSO Group as pressure mounts on the company behind software sometimes used by governments to hack the iPhones of activists, politicians and journalists. Is this kind of hacking, which depends on undisclosed exploits discovered by experts, set to be driven deeper underground? [BBC News]
  • Rolls-Royce claims it has broken a record with its 387.4mph electric plane. Shifting flights to battery power is an important long-term step in reducing carbon emissions around the world. There’s a long way to go before passenger jets go all-electric, though. [Gizmodo]
  • Meta has delayed end-to-end encryption for Facebook and Instagram messages until 2023. The delay comes amid growing pressure from governments around the world to reverse the plans so they can snoop on criminals at the expense of everyone else’s privacy and security. [The Guardian]
  • A record-breaking quantum computer has been shown off… by generating a Mario Bros GIF. Well, it’s a start! [MIT Technology Review $$$]
  • Apple has u-turned on self-service repairs. The company has long frustrated ‘right to repair’ advocates by making its products ever harder to repair by anyone other than approved engineers. But now it’s launched a programme that will allow confident members of the public repair their own iPhone 12 and 13 devices, and soon the latest MacBooks. It seems a shareholder fight prompted the change. [The Verge]
  • Iranian hackers are an increasing threat to the West according to a US, UK, and Australian warning. [TechCrunch]
🌟 Thing of the week
🛸 Almost sci-fi
Will printable solar cells reshape buildings?
📰 Big reads
What Are You Going to Tweet After You Die?
Revealed: the software that studies your Facebook friends to predict who may commit a crime
Meta’s prototype devices give us a glimpse of the metaverse life
🐣 Tweet of the week
Following the news that Gizmodo is working to release the Facebook Papers to the public, it’s worth asking… why them?
That's all for now...
A happy Thanksgiving for tomorrow to my American readers. Enjoy the turkey. I’ll be back next week, see you in your inbox then!
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