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it's NOT a kind of magic

Tech Revolution
Issue #1029 • View online
Hello there,
Whether this is your first edition or you’ve been with this newsletter in its various forms for the past five years… welcome!
There’s plenty to dive into today, including why TikTok isn’t magic no matter how much it seems so. But first, here’s what’s been occupying my brain…
This week I have been:
  • Fascinated by synthetic lifeforms that can reproduce.
  • Angry that data protection commissioners sometimes seem more on the side of the companies they regulate than the public. We’ve had stories from Ireland and the UK this week giving that impression.
  • Excited that Sony reportedly plans to be following Microsoft’s lead and launching its own GamePass rival early next year. The PlayStation 5 feels *dead* compared to how much you can play on an Xbox for a monthly fee right now.
  • Perusing Atomico’s annual review of the European tech scene.
  • Pleased Twitter is going to make DMs better at last after acquiring messaging service Quill.
  • Hoping Google has a true Apple Watch rival on its hands with the Pixel Watch, which is reportedly due to arrive in the first quarter of 2022.
  • Shaking my head in bafflement at the metaverse property boom. People really will throw money at anything, won’t they?
Also, I want to give a shout out to Landscape, who today launched OpenScout, a whole new way to people to refer startups to investors. This could really shake things up in European tech investment.
Right, let’s dig into the newsletter proper, shall we?
— Martin

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🤔 Big questions
From this week’s news…
🪄 Why do we think TikTok is magic?
The New York Times got a decent scoop this week when Ben Smith obtained a leaked document detailing how TikTok’s incredibly successful content recommendation algorithm works.
While we’ve heard a bit about this in the past (from TikTok itself!) this document revealed more. And you know what? It’s entirely unremarkable. There’s nothing magical about it.
As one computer science academic told the NYT: “There seems to be some perception (by the media? or the public?) that they’ve cracked some magic code for recommendation, but most of what I’ve seen seems pretty normal.”
There is a sense when you use TikTok that it reads your mind. But it’s no more uncanny than Facebook advertising tents to you just when you thought about taking a camping trip. It’s science and maths based on data from millions and millions of users, not magic.
The immersive, full-screen, often intimate experience of watching TikTok videos adds to the sense of ‘magic’ in the algorithm though, and I can’t help but feel that we in the West fall foul of stereotypes about ‘Eastern mystery’ when we think of Chinese-built apps doing things Western apps don’t.
But the fact is, Instagram is just as good at giving you what you want. Check its Explore page and it’s almost certainly filled with relevant images and videos to keep you hooked. The difference is there’s not an all-video, full-screen ‘For You’ page to suck you in as soon as you open the app. But given how strongly Meta is pushing the TikTok-like Reels format, it wouldn’t surprise me if Facebook and Instagram made that switch sooner rather than later. After all, YouTube has already made Shorts the default for some users.
When everyone is doing exactly what TikTok does, perhaps it’ll be clearer that it’s the format and its presentation in the app as much as the algorithm that keeps us hooked.
🌍 Is globalisation dead?
Sometimes this newsletter touches on wider trends beyond pure tech, when tech has influenced them and will help shape the way they develop. This is one of those times.
For the whole of my life, tighter global integration and increased global trade has been the prevailing trend, and it was hard to see things ever going the other way as the internet made the world ever smaller.
But ever since the Trump and Brexit double whammy in 2016, it’s been clear things could move in the other direction - a more insular, self-reliant approach. Voters recognised that the current global economic system wasn’t working for them at all. And while the answers those people turned to (populists trading on the promise of reviving the so-called ‘good old days’) were deeply flawed, the voters had certainly hit on a truth - that the neoliberal economic system that dominated policy around the world for so long was no longer giving ever increasing wealth and prosperity to the masses.
A common argument against countries becoming less globally connected has often been ‘We’ll need to think and act globally or China will dominate the world economy’. But as China itself retreats somewhat from globalisation, the idea that countries, or regions like the EU, will need to do more of their own manufacturing, especially of strategic components like semiconductors is spreading more widely.
Factor in the ‘Cold War II’ (or World War III as I’ve called it here in the past) already being waged across the internet in hacking attacks and disinformation campaigns—and more openly in trade wars and sanctions—and the argument that globalisation is over becomes even stronger.
And then there’s the pandemic. I don’t entirely agree with everything in the Bloomberg opinion piece I’ve linked to above (the author is the only person I’ve seen raise alarm about the potential for Omicron to be more harmful to children than other Covid variants, for example). But as countries around the world start to increase their Covid restrictions again, and worldwide large-scale vaccination is nowhere near where it should be, it’s clear these variants will keep on coming and messing up our world, making self-sufficiency more than just a reactionary kickback - it could be an absolute necessity.
And finally we have the potentially very dangerous conflicts bubbling around the world - particularly on the Russia/Ukraine border and between China and Taiwan. In a hypothetical 2022 scenario where both those conflicts kicked off at the same time, ‘is World War III already here?’ might no longer be a niche question.
Just as World War I and II entirely rewrote the geopolitical map, it’s fair to assume that whatever was left of the world after a third global conflict (I’d like to hope it would be more cyberwar than nukes these days) would have to start globalisation again from scratch. Heck, even the countries we know today might be reimagined sooner rather than later. Given how things are going, it’s hard to imagine the UK or USA sticking together in their current forms for much more than a decade as internal division and polarisation forces them towards splits.
Maybe after all this, we’ll decide that the idea of a ‘nation’ as we know it today is no longer fit for use.
Almost 10 years ago, I wrote a piece called ‘I’m a citizen of the internet, where do I get my passport’? It was about how I felt more connected to a global community of friends and associates than I did to my country. While that sentiment feels a bit old-school now, the survivors of another world war might find that - while they’ll always feel an affinity to those in their immediate vicinity, it’s time to admit how limiting the idea of nationhood can be in the face of global challenges like the climate emergency.
There’s no getting away from how small tech can make the world feel. And that could make the next wave of globalisation very different from the last.
More news you shouldn’t miss…
  • The US has rejected calls for a worldwide ban on ‘killer robots’ - the automated, A.I.-powered combat technology being developed for the battlefields of the future. It doesn’t want binding regulation, either. It wants to go for a softer ‘code of conduct’ instead. [The Guardian]
  • US authorities are investigating Tesla’s safety record amid accusations Elon Musk has pushed Autopilot onto the public too quickly and with overblown claims about its true capabilities. [New York Times $$$]
  • Apple is really feeling the pinch as the supply chain crunch makes it difficult to make enough devices. It reportedly halted production of iPhones and iPads entirely for several days in October. [9to5Mac]
  • Donald Trump’s new tech and media company is under investigation over its plans to list on the stock market. Trump claims to have raised $1bn for the venture, which would be large-scale fraud if it proved to be false. Republican politician Devin Nunes was named CEO of the company this week. [CNBC]
  • Life360 sells precise location data on its users, it has been revealed. The family safety app is popular in the US, where these kinds of shenanigans are easier to get away with than in Europe. [The Markup]
  • Square has followed Meta in rebranding. The fintech giant is now called Block, although it will continue to offer Square-branded services. It follows CEO Jack Dorsey’s move to focus solely on the company, after leaving Twitter last week. [TechCrunch]
🏭 Future of work
Google makes its holodeck-like tech for video calls sound so good, we wish we could use it now
Here's how much of a pay cut Google employees face if they relocate from Silicon Valley and New York City
Apple’s frontline employees are struggling to survive
AI can't steal your job if you work alongside it — here's how
📰 Big reads
Is web3 bullshit?
How Donald Trump Could Subvert the 2024 Election
Spotify Wrapped, unwrapped
More big reads:
⌚ The past was good too
The insane resurgence of vinyl records
That's all for now...
Phew - bit of a heavy one this week, eh? Next week will be the last edition before Christmas so I’ll try to keep it light… if events in the world will let me.
I’ll also have had my Covid-19 vaccine booster that morning so…. [insert lazy ‘newsletter to be written by Bill Gates’ joke here].
See you in your inbox then.
— Martin
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