Tech Revolution

By Martin SFP Bryant

Stay away from that time machine. Here's why...



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Tech Revolution
Issue #1013 • View online
Hello there,
First today, going back in time might sound like the ultimate in tourism, but even if you don’t kill Hitler and rewrite history meaning you never get born, there’s another problem no-one talks about enough with time travel. Your immune system will thank you for staying in the present day.
Anyway, welcome to another weekly voyage into the most important tech news you need to understand if you want to understand the future.
If you’re new around here, you should know that I also throw in a few fun and interesting bits and pieces that don’t quite fit the brief, such as Toyota’s fascinating Taliban problem.
Meanwhile, don’t miss Boston Dynamics’ behind the scenes look at the making of its slick robot videos. It’s refreshingly open about the work that goes into making a robot look like a master of parkour.
This week I have mostly been disappointed that Google is staying true to its earlier word and only releasing its new Pixel 5a in the US and Japan. The smaller, cheaper ‘a’ variant Pixel phones are generally the best value Android phones you can buy. I won’t have anything for the people in the UK who occasionally ask for Android phone recommendations (other than ‘get the Pixel 4a while you still can’).
Anyway, that’s the starter consumed, let’s dig into the newsletter’s main course…
— Martin
PS: Keep an eye on the Geekout with Matt Navarra podcast feed. Coming very soon indeed will be the recording of the live interview Matt and I did on Monday with Carole Cadwalladr and David Carroll of activist group ‘The Real Facebook Oversight Board’ - it was a really interesting conversation, so don’t miss it.
PPS: Like this newsletter? Please share it with that one person you think will love it, and suggest they subscribe!

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🤔 Big questions
From this week’s news…
❌ Should the Taliban be banned from social media?
You don’t need to be an expert in world politics to know that the Taliban are bad guys to pretty much anyone who isn’t an extreme Islamic fundamentalist with a penchant for medieval times. The Afghans rushing to remove any sign of connections to the West from their online lives certainly do.
But the Taliban’s swift rise to power in Afghanistan over the past few days has proved tricky for social media companies. Given the group’s murderous, terrorist ways, should they be allowed to post publicly to the world?
Facebook, perhaps looking to move on from criticism of its hesitancy around dealing with Trump, moved quickly. It made clear that the Taliban was banned from all of its platforms.
On the other hand, Twitter and YouTube argued that until the group—now, remember, the actual government of a nation state—broke their platforms’ rules, they would be allowed to continue posting. Despite having faced some heat online from some quarters for this approach, it appears to have been the right call.
Just as Facebook’s hesitancy to ban Trump backfired with the January 6th insurgency and a humiliating dressing down by the company’s own Oversight Board, its fast-moving approach with the Taliban appears to have backfired too.
The Taliban had established an emergency communications channel on Facebook-owned WhatsApp, allowing citizens to report looting and violence on the streets of Kabul. But that went down along with everything else.
As the Financial Times (syndicated here by Ars Technica so you can read it without a subscription), reported:
“Preventing communication between people and the Taliban doesn’t help Afghans, it is just grandstanding,” said Ashley Jackson, a former Red Cross and Oxfam aid worker in Afghanistan, and author of a book on the Taliban and its relationship to Afghan civilians.
“If the Taliban all of a sudden can’t use WhatsApp, you’re just isolating Afghans, making it harder for them to communicate in an already panicky situation. [WhatsApp’s actions] are really misguided.”
Operating critical social media infrastructure comes with serious responsibilities. Facebook doesn’t seem to have come fully to terms with those responsibilities, which amount to a lot more than just ‘advertising the right things to nearly half the world’s population’.
🧭 Can Twitter decentralise itself?
Remember when Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey surprised us all by announcing a project to research a decentralised alternative to the way Twitter works today?
While decentralised services like Mastodon have been kicking around for a while, they’ve always seemed like a pastime for hobbyists, people with a particular dislike of how big American companies dominate the online ‘public square’, and those with extremist views. Could Twitter do something to change that?
I’ve had real-time alerts switched on the Twitter’s Bluesky project ever since, but it felt like it had run out of steam as no real progress was announced for months. Had Twitter realised that decentralising social media wasn’t in the best interests of social media companies as we know them?
It turns out that no, Twitter was just taking its time to find a leader for the project. And Jay Graber, an expert in decentralised systems and cryptocurrencies, has been well received as the person chosen for the job.
We’re still a long way from seeing Twitter decentralise itself, but you can join the Bluesky Discord server if you’d like to find out how the project is developing. Along with Facebook’s planned switches to end-to-end encryption and privacy-respecting ad targeting, it’s fascinating to see big social companies see which way the wind is blowing and disrupting themselves before someone else has a chance.
💚 Can IKEA help make clean energy simple for the masses?
There’s no escaping the climate crisis these days. Dire warnings of future turmoil have turned into present-day turmoil we can see every day in the news. Wildfires, record high temperatures, floods… chances are you’ve experienced something like that somewhere close to home recently, and you’ll no doubt experience more in the near future.
While big industry continues to be where the most impact can be made on stopping things getting worse, it’s natural for individuals to want to do *something* useful. IKEA (yes, the flatpack furniture and meatballs company) is helping the situation with a new ‘electricity subscription’ offering.
The electricity from fossil fuels used at home has an impact on both our health and our planet. One simple action we can all take is switching to more renewable energy at home. IKEA offers more sustainable solutions that can be integrated seamlessly into our everyday lives….
Through the STRÖMMA offer in Sweden, customers can buy affordable, certified electricity from solar and wind, and use an app to track their own electricity usage. Customers who have already bought solar panels from IKEA can also track their own production in the app and sell back the electricity they don’t use themselves.
IKEA is far from the first company to do this, but by being a known, trusted, and liked brand already integrated into many people’s lives, it could succeed in shifting more people over to more future-focused energy consumption. Bravo.
Important stories you shouldn’t miss
  • Twitter is FINALLY letting users report misinformation. Given the scale of falsehoods on the service, it’s baffling that you haven’t been able to report misinformation like you could spam or abuse until now. The feature is being tested in the US, South Korea, and Australia. It’ll mainly be used for research purposes for the time being, but that’s better than nothing. [The Verge]
  • Folding phones look ready for the mainstream. Samsung has stuck at refining smartphones with folding screens for a few years, and with the new Galaxy Z Fold3 and Z Flip3 it’s finally got the pricing down to an competitive level. [Wired]
  • Social media regulation is getting gutsier. UK regulators could force Facebook to unwind its acquisition of Giphy, a sign of which way the wind is blowing when it comes to big tech M&A. [Ars Technica]
  • RIP (soon) the magnetic strip on your bank card. Mastercard is to ditch the outdated technology by 2033, and many cards should not feature a strip in regions such as Europe as soon as 2024. Europe is way ahead of places like the US when it comes to payments technology. [BBC News]
  • Anonymous chat is back. The trend for identity-free social apps was a big thing a few years ago but a combination of abuse and the novelty wearing off led to its demise. But now one of the biggest apps of that period, Yik Yak, is back on the iOS App Store in the US… for some reason. Given the problems we have with disinformation these days, it doesn’t feel like a good thing. [Mashable]
  • The EU is still trying to standardise smartphone charger ports. But it’s a largely pointless exercise, as much as I’d love to plug a USB-C lead into my iPhone. [9to5Mac]
  • UK landlines are going online. Copper wire technology will be replaced by internet-based connections via VoIP, although the actual phones will still work the same way as ever. So if you’re one of the few people who still uses their land line at home, you won’t notice any difference except perhaps better quality calls. All that copper wire though? Obsolete. [BBC News]
🌟 Thing of the week
Welcome to Nestflix
🏭 Future of work
You might not be able to read the whole of the paywalled article above, but the Verge has a summary too. Essentially, in a trend that started to emerge over a year ago as knowledge work went almost all-remote, people are choosing to take on two full-time jobs and then get by as best they can juggling between them:
Alone in their home offices, they toggle between two laptops. They play “Tetris” with their calendars, trying to dodge endless meetings. Sometimes they log on to two meetings at once. They use paid time off—in some cases, unlimited—to juggle the occasional big project or ramp up at a new gig. Many say they don’t work more than 40 hours a week for both jobs combined. They don’t apologize for taking advantage of a system they feel has taken advantage of them.
It would seem to be the best possible argument in support of managers keen to get everyone back in the office where they can keep an eye on them. But really it just speaks to the inefficiencies in many jobs these days.
How much of an office job is spent chatting to the people next to you, doing coffee and tea runs for colleagues, listening to pointless talks from the boss, or just getting set up in the morning and getting ready to leave in the evening? And how much time is spent ‘quickly’ checking your personal email or your doing some ‘essential’ shopping on your employer’s time?
People can get away with carrying out two jobs ‘inefficiently’ because the way work is set up is often inefficient, with people physically in the office but doing nothing like ‘real work’ but a chunk of the day.
Bosses who discover staff cheating on them with another employer should maybe thank them for highlighting a flawed system that lets them get away with it.
More future of work:
  • Gig economy companies have a supply-side problem. Doordash is finding it harder to find delivery drivers, while Airbnb has a shortage of hosts. In Doordash’s case this could be down to the more widespread labour shortages we’ve seen across many industries, while in Airbnb’s case, maybe people—no longer traveling as much for business— no longer have empty homes to offer up for travellers to rent. [CNBC]
  • Big tech’s return to the office continues to falter. Facebook has delayed a full reopening of its US offices until January. [Engadget]
📰 Big reads
The Tether controversy, explained
The metaverse will not look the way Facebook imagines it
How These Young Activists Are Uniting Middle Easterners
More big reads:
🐣 Tweet of the week
That's all for now...
That’s all for this week. Okay, I’m about to venture into the outside world, where there weather looks disturbingly more like Autumn than August.
But before I go, as a treat for you reading right to the very end, here’s what to do if an A.I. flirts with you.
See you next Wednesday!
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