A weekly(-ish!) summary of what I’ve found interesting at the intersection of economics, finance and technology.
By design, this newsletter is not intended to be news-driven. Instead it’s meant to point to larger themes, from a social and economic perspective, and to highlight interesting, non-mainstream articles and stories related to these themes. The “Six Links” section serves for the latter. This section is for the former, and is essentially an attempt to paint the backdrop to this newsletter in broad strokes, which will hopefully provide more relief to the individual links within.
Tiktok’s Forced Sale—After threats from the President that it may not be allowed to operate in the US, Bytedance was pretty much forced to sell TikTok, which took the world by storm this year. China then warned that it would not allow the key feature to be sold, namely the AI algorithms that power discovery of new videos. Ultimately, ByteDance ended up ‘partnering’ with Oracle, which doesn’t seem to resolve any of the US’ initial concerns. Read (The Verge)
Apple’s 2020 Fall Event (Part 1?)—September is normally the month that Apple unveils the new iPhone lineup, but not this year. The new phones are delayed because of pandemic-related supply chain disruption. Instead, the focus was on the watch, iPad’s and services, with a new subscription fitness service launching later this year. Services is already an important driver of growth for the company, and health and fitness is clearly another strategic priority. Read (Apple)
Social Media’s Losing Fight against Fractious Politics—It is becoming ever clearer that the detrimental impact of “social media”, and Facebook in particular, on politics and society across the globe is inevitable, baked in by design, if unintentionally. Every week brings news of dystopian situations enabled by manipulation on Facebook, and, despite affirmations to the contrary, the company appears not only unable but also largely unwilling to do anything about it. The latest shocker comes from a fired employee, who struggled to police the platform in several countries across the globe, and Facebook’s obdurate refusal to try and make things better. The former employee reckons the platform’s failures led to civil unrest, and her story also highlights the personal toll of this kind of work. With each such story, the redeeming qualities of social media platforms become harder and harder to discern. Read (BuzzFeed News)
Be an Informed User—WhatsApp Edition—Looking after your privacy online is a constant balancing act between shedding too much personal data and convenience. In order to make informed decisions in this regard, understanding how your apps use your data is a critical first step, and this overview of what WhatsApp collects and how to make it more private is very useful. Read (Wired $)
The Necessary Debate on AI Requires Nuance—The Guardian published an article (The Guardian) purportedly written by “AI”, to illustrate that the robots are coming and we should all be scared. Such a shrill warning usually merits further scrutiny, which quickly throws up that the published article was the result of six different versions edited together by a human; the algorithm used was GPT-3 of course, which we covered in Issue 55. There are of course genuine reasons to worry about the rise of AI, but sensationalist, generalising stunts like this muddle the debate rather than informing it. The Next Web’s commentary is worth reading as well. Read (The Next Web)
On the ‘I’ in ‘AI’—Case in point, this funny story about students figuring out that the “AI-algorithm” grading their assignments just gives points based on keywords in the answer, and the resulting word soup they write in as their answer. I’d call it a human adversarial attack, but this grading algorithm is obviously not “intelligent” by any definition, so I can’t… Read (The Verge)
Fast-Growing Retail Share Trading App Robinhood Sells Its Users’ Orders to High Frequency Traders—Robinhood seems to follow the playbook of social media companies in a compressed timeframe: grow like a weed by offering a free service, sell your users’ data to their detriment without their knowledge, and of course break things (CNN). Read (WSJ $)
Apple vs Advertisers—This probably merits to be part of the big stories as well, but this specific diatribe on Daring Fireball is too good to subsume in the larger picture. I’ll just let it speak for itself:
Just because there is now a multi-billion-dollar industry based on the abject betrayal of our privacy doesn’t mean the sociopaths who built it have any right whatsoever to continue getting away with it. They talk in circles but their argument boils down to entitlement: they think our privacy is theirs for the taking because they’ve been getting away with taking it without our knowledge, and it is valuable. No action Apple can take against the tracking industry is too strong. Read (Daring Fireball)
From the Unlikely Innovators Department: Custom Ringtones—This exhaustive and insightful history of custom ringtones makes the—solid—case that they laid the foundation for innovations such as micropayments, app stores etc. Plus, there are surprising stats in this, for example that ringtones made up 50% of BMI’s revenue stream in the mid-2000’s. As for me, custom ringtones peaked the day I saw a beer-bellied, middle-aged salesman in ill-fitting suit swagger through the Thistle Tower Bridge hotel lobby in 2000, Nokia monotone “Sex Bomb” blaring in his wake. Good times. Read (OneZero)
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.