A weekly summary of what I’ve found interesting at the intersection of economics, finance and technology. This week’s issue is late due to the Deepavali public holiday in Singapore.
WeWork’s main investor, Softbank, has agreed to take over the entire company. Ex-CEO Adam Neumann gets a 1.7bn USD payoff to sell his controlling shares. When the tech crisis hits, this debacle will be seen as the emblem of the greed, incompetence and impunity that affect parts of the industry.
After a dizzying rise in its valuation, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) company UiPath is embarking on a cost-saving drive. The official explanation is that it is a rationalisation effort after a period of high growth, but I think we’re already well in the era of declining marginal returns for RPA. Read
Google and Amazon’s home smart assistants can be hijacked by malicious apps to eavesdrop on conversations. There is a debate to be had about technical issues versus process issues (e.g. app review), but the upshot is simple, if you value your privacy, do not install a smart assistant… Read
NordVPN, one of the better known VPN providers, suffered a data breach a few months ago that only came to light now. VPN providers also suffer from the curse of complexity, so such a breach is to be expected, but of course, given their use case, it is highly problematic. Read
I particularly enjoyed two pieces this week on social media and its impact on society that cut through the hype and panic. The first is a discussion of the impact of technology on the Hong Kong protests by sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, in which she reaches a, perhaps unexpected, optimistic conclusion:
[T]he pessimism that abounds these days—as authoritarians have turned new technologies to their advantage—is likewise not decisive. It’s still early. We can’t predict who will win and how. That story is still to be written, by us.
The second takes an even longer view, and is another good reminder that the effect of technological change is not set in stone and is practically impossible to predict, contrary to what our short-term preoccupations would seem to tell us:
Six hundred years ago, Gutenberg’s printing press led to the Reformation, the modern nation-state […], and the Industrial Revolution. It also deeply affected the way individuals look at the world. But who could have predicted any of that in 1450? “The spontaneous assumption might instead have been that the Catholic Church would be empowered.”
Casual dining chains are installing surveillance technology to “maximize employee efficiency and performance.” This kind of creeping private surveillance, which will end up having real consequences for its subjects, isn’t any less dystopian than state surveillance. Read
Clear-eyed piece by Martin Wolf on the future of digital currencies and how they might transform the monetary system. Read ($)
Two-factor authentication (e.g. password + SMS code) is usually held up as the gold standard in security, but it’s not necessarily always the best approach. This discussion of messaging app keybase.io’s security setup explains it well. Read
A US NGO is using old mobile phones coupled with an AI algorithm to catch illegal loggers, among others in Indonesia. Read ($)
That’s it for this week’s edition. As always, thanks for reading and please forward this to anyone who you think might be interested, it would be much appreciated.