The techlash

People hate hubris and hypocrisy more than they hate evil, which is, I think, why we’re seeing the beginnings of a bipartisan cultural backlash against the tech industry. A backlash which is wrongly conceived and wrongly targeted … but not entirely unfounded. It’s hard to shake the sense that, as an industry, we are currently abdicating some of our collective responsibility to the world.

I don’t want to overstate the case. The tech industry remained the single most trusted entity in America as recently as last year, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. Jeff

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The piggyback problem

I wanted to write about scooter startups this week, but, alas, I failed to care enough about them to muster any opinion at all. The problem is that they are pure piggyback startups, and pure piggyback startups are boring because they have no chance of being genuinely transformative. Let me explain. Many, or even most, successful tech startups / movements succeed because they manage to piggyback on existing infrastructure. This is so painfully obvious it’s almost a truism, where the infrastructure is “the Internet” or “smartphones” — but there are other kinds, too. In its early days, Amazon was a pure piggyback startup, relying on UPS/FedEx/postal infrastructure. Similarly, the scooter startups are obviously reliant on existing city infrastructure. Hollywood movies follow a three-act structure, and so do transformative tech startups and movements. Act I almost always consists of piggybacking on pre-existing infrastructure. In Act II, they build / evolve their
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Whither VR/AR?

“Despite many pronouncements that 2016 was the year of VR, a more apt word for virtual reality might be absence,” The Economist observed caustically last summer, noting that during that year forecasts of combined sales of VR hardware and software dropped from $5.1bn to $3.6bn to the harsh reality of $1.8bn. But hey, one rough holiday season does not an industry make, right? Surely in 2017 things began to — — oh. “Shock Stat: In 2017, VR Headset Shipments For Most Top Brands Went DOWN Compared To 2016.” So much for the many predictions that VR headset shipments would grow exponentially for years. Crow appears to be the appetizer for nearly every industry dinner these days. But that was before the Oculus Go, right? Except … the Go seems to have sold at most a quarter of a million units in its first few
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Pornography and the butterfly effect

“Whatever happens to musicians happens to everybody,” said Bruce Sterling years ago, referring to the effects of free downloadable music on their industry; and so it has come to pass for pornographers, as depicted by the great Jon Ronson in his equal parts charming and spellbinding podcast series “The Butterfly Effect.” Pornography, however, is much weirder than music, both as concept and as industry; and so, unsurprisingly, the emergent properties of the overturning of the porn industry are much weirder too, and the full extent of their ripple effects have yet to be measured. It’s at least plausible that the latest salvos in our intensifying culture wars, the subjects of “incels” and “enforced monogamy,” stem from touchpaper lit long ago by the butterfly in Ronson’s story. That story seems simple in outline. A Belgian named Fabian starts trading in passwords to porn sites in the 1990s. Next decade,
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The crypto alternative

Suppose, just for a moment, just for argument’s sake, that (some) cryptocurrencies are not a giant scam, and what’s more, they’re not just another kind of financial asset. Come on. Don’t look at me like that. Work with me here. Imagine, just for a moment, that there exist plausible futures in which they matter. An interesting question to ask is: what exactly do those futures look like? Because if we can’t come up with any compelling answers, then we may conclude, by reductio ad absurdum, that a cryptofuture is awfully unlikely. So let’s walk through a few scenarios, shall we? And then judge how likely each one is. 1. The Crypto Maximalist Future Situation: Bitcoin is the global currency. Except for “System D,” of course, and transactions hidden for reasons of tax avoidance, which run on ZCash, which is (ineffectively) banned by governments who fear the loss of their
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Personal privacy vs. public security: fight!

Personal privacy is a fairly new concept. Most people used to live in tight-knit communities, constantly enmeshed in each other’s lives. The notion that privacy is an important part of personal security is even newer, and often contested, while the need for public security — walls which must be guarded, doors which must be kept locked — is undisputed. Even anti-state anarchists concede the existence of violent enemies and monsters. Rich people can afford their own high walls and closed doors. Privacy has long been a luxury, and it’s still often treated that way; a disposable asset, nice-to-have, not essential. Reinforcing that attitude is the fact that it’s surprisingly easy, even instinctive, for human beings to live in a small community — anything below Dunbar’s Number — with very little privacy. Even I, a card-carrying semi-misanthropic introvert, have done that for months at a stretch and found it unexpectedly, disconcertingly
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Mutual assured dronestruction

Western airstrikes on the Middle East: déjà vu all over again. Twenty years ago, the USA attacked Sudan and Afghanistan with Tomahawk cruise missiles. Two days ago, the USA attacked Syria with … Tomahawk cruise missiles. Aside from the (de)merits of each attack, isn’t it a bit surprising that technology hasn’t really changed small-scale strategic warfare in that time? Just you wait. In the next decade, that strategic calculus will change a lot, and probably not in a good way. Consider this sharp one-liner from Kelsey Atherton last week:

Of course cheap drones are already being used on the battlefield in small-scale ways: by Daesh, by Hezbollah, by Hamas, by drug cartels, and of course by traditional nation-state militaries worldwide. But those are piloted drones, used

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Towards a world without Facebook

Dear blockchain people: this is your hour. Abandon your transparently greedy get-rich-quick schemes, turn away from your casinos of de-facto modern-day penny stocks, and focus your decentralized attention on what the world needs. Save us, O blockchainers, from the scourge that is Facebook! Decentralize all the things! I’m kidding, of course. For now. Every year, it seems, a new “new Facebook” arises, swells, deflates, and vanishes, generally in a matter of weeks. Remember Diaspora? Ello? Mastodon? Vero? I imagine them as gangs of bandits charging The Wall in Game of Thrones, prompting the Night’s Watch of Menlo Park to … ignore them completely until they go away. The critical mass of everyone you know, plus the cost and complexity of an infrastructure that provides a broad panoply of valuable features to two billion people — those are Facebook’s 700-foot-high barrier of enchanted ice. And yet. It is whispered in
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Everything is terrible: an explanation

Facebook is a breeding ground for fake news and polarized outrage, accused of corrupting democracy and spurring genocide. Twitter knows it has become a seething battleground of widespread, targeted abuse — but has no solution. YouTube videos are messing with the minds of children and adults alike — so YouTube decided to pass the buck to Wikipedia, without telling them. All three of those sentences would have seemed nearly unimaginable five years ago. What the hell is going on? Ev Williams says, of the growth of social media: “We laid down fundamental architectures that had assumptions that didn’t account for bad behavior.” What changed? And perhaps the most important question is: have people always been this awful, or have social networks actually made us collectively worse? I have two somewhat related theories. Let me explain. The Uncanny Social Valley Theory “Social media is poison,” a close friend of mine
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The un-lonely planet

 It used to be easy to get lost. Pick up your passport, board an airplane, and zoom, you were gone, disconnected, all on your own, until and unless you stopped by an Internet cafe or an international phone booth. Nowadays my T-Mobile plan gives me free data roaming in more than a hundred countries, and even those without, like Vietnam, where I write this, tend to have near-ubiquitous… Read More

The three key CTO skills

 I’ve been CTO of HappyFunCorp since last year, and it has been a deeply edifying experience. Everything people told me was mostly true: I write less code; I go to more meetings, and turn up in more conference calls; I think more strategically, and less tactically; my time is spent in a more fragmented and kaleidoscopic manner. Oh, yeah — and I’m a lot more involved in bizdev… Read More

Fake news is not the real problem

 It’s the Internet’s fault, we’re told. Brexiters and Remainers, Republicans and Democrats — every side of every political dispute now lives in its own separate reality, bellowing “fake news!” at every attempt to breach their borders of belief. The fragmentation of the media, coupled with the filter-bubble effect and the dominance of Facebook and Google,… Read More

The Falcon Heavy backlash and the public trust

 I watched the Falcon Heavy launch this week. Not as an accredited journalist, from an observation tower, but as one of the masses on Alan Shepard Beach twelve miles south. Watched it arc across the sky; watched the two boosters return safely to the landing pads like a video game; heard the sonic booms. And then, over the next few days, I watched the opprobrium rain down: the clearest sign… Read More

Here comes the sun

 Let’s talk about the side effects of the creeping apotheosis of solar power. I mean, don’t get me wrong, we’re a ways away yet — but we’re definitely heading in that direction. “Renewables are about to become our cheapest form of energy,” Wired UK observes. “We expect $7.4 trillion to be invested in new renewable energy plants by 2040 – 72%… Read More

The insight-industrial complex

 I don’t like tech conferences. I mean, of course I don’t, they’re not meant for people like me. I’m an introvert, so I find them exhausting, and am (presumably) less likely than an extrovert to meet interesting or contributory people. I read much faster than people talk, so they’re not a good way for me to learn things. But there’s more to my dislike than… Read More

A modest primer for Ethereum programming

 The world is full of web programmers, but there’s a real paucity of cryptocurrency developers, and the chasm between the two fields is hard to cross. So I thought I’d take what I’d learned from architecting and building out our own Ethereum-based projects, and turn it into an open-sourced tutorial for web devs, in the hopes of encouraging a little more actual development… Read More

Everyone hates us, and it’s not because of our sex parties

 It was, briefly, the zeitgeist’s perfect Silicon Valley story: a sex-and-drugs party hosted hosted by since-ousted top-tier VC Steve Jurvetson, at an official Draper Fisher Jurvetson event,attended by multiple billionaires including Elon Musk. So said Paul Biggar, founder of CircleCI, in a widely read Medium post, expanding on Vanity Fair’s excerpt of Emily Chang’s new book.… Read More

The cryptocurrency bubble is strangling innovation

 Sure, fine, maybe it’s a bubble. OK it’s definitely a bubble, but that’s a good thing, a bubble brings attention and investment in infrastructure, which breeds real innovation. Right? Look at the dot-com boom. A lot of people lost a whole lot of paper money, but it brought us a cheap worldwide fiber backbone and companies like Amazon and Google. Today’s crypto bubble… Read More

It’s the Jons 2017!

 Happy New Year! It’s been a transformational year in tech. The golden era of startups ended. Sorry about that. The tech industry finally rolled over a big rock it had ignored and/or leaned on for years, and exposed the squirming morass of sexual harassment beneath. We witnessed major AI breakthroughs, a cryptocurrency megaboom, really truly self-driving cars, and 18 SpaceX launches. But… Read More