Future #47: The one where we’re cyborgs

This week’s signals speak to the importance of questioning the premise — ways that we can alter the underlying web to make it better, how to see what could be subtracted from a system, and what kinds of incentives you might (intentionally or unintentionally) create. But first, we rant about something incredibly dumb. And we end with a sandwich.

—Matt & Alexis


Gamifying fame with crypto and oh god make it stop 

On April 15, pioneering musician Imogen Heap tweeted a cryptographic hash, claiming ownership of her profile in a new BitCoin-based social network. The basic premise of this network is that as people become more famous and well-known, the value of their currencies will rise, and if they fall out of favor—scandal, releasing a bad album, etc.—the value will fall. (Since this network essentially trades in media mentions, we aren’t mentioning its name.) 

We’ve linked here to a PDF document that describes the platform, how the currency works, and what some of the potential uses and outcomes might be. To save you the pain, we’ve read through it, and after a little gasping, shouting, and flailing of arms, have some conclusions to share. 

First, leaving aside the “ick” factor of someone essentially betting on your fame (and worse, shorting you, convinced you’ll fail), if this market works as described it is either gambling, commodities trading, or both, and should be regulated immediately. Second, one of the “emergent phenomena” described — buy some coin, then tweet a lot about it so other people will too — is a succinct description of a pump and dump scheme. Third, the price and rate at which new coins are released is directly related to how many people bought before you did, not about the relative value or perceived future value of the people who the coins represent. This means the minting process is a literal pyramid scheme. Finally, this all rides on top of the BitCoin network, which is an absolute ecologicaldisaster

As of this writing, over $225 million has been put into the network, and as you might imagine, most of the VC firms you can name off the top of your head have gotten involved. It might be time for those investing to brush up on the greater fool theory.

A detailed description of this terrible idea


Why newsletters?

This is an excellent piece by Robin Rendle that digs into why newsletters have become popular, especially when the medium and experience of email is so much more limited than the web: “Reading everything in my inbox is somewhat antiquated. It’s almost as if we’ve gone back to reading off parchment after we invented books.”

Rendle’s hypothesis is as follows: “Newsletters killed blogs because: 1. They’re impossibly easy to publish, 2. Your inbox is a notification stream, 3. Writers can actually, ya know, get paid. Alternatively, websites today: 1. Are difficult to make, 2. Can’t notify people of new work, 3. Aren’t able to pay writers easily.”

But email — it just doesn’t seem like the future, right? So how might we make it possible to actually use the web to write and read in a more compelling and functional way? Rendle examines how we might consider solutions that evolve some of the foundations of the open web. For payments, he points to the web monetization API, which we covered in our last issue. And as to subscriptions, he proposes that RSS be embedded in the browser. This changes the fact that currently “RSS is for nerds” and makes it simple to subscribe, get notifications, and read a variety of sites at once.

We’ve written previously about how some of the foundational assumptions in the architecture of the web have shaped its evolution, and this is an interesting example of how the web’s limitations have actually moved writers to a more primitive medium. It’s also notable that this seems like such a radical idea, and it made us realize how relatively ossified web and browser standards have become, whereas they used to be constantly changing in the earlier days of the web. Perhaps it’s time for some of that innovation to emerge once again? 

Newsletters; or, an enormous rant about writing on the web that doesn’t really go anywhere and that’s okay with me | Robin Rendle


Talk is cheap, but not talking is free

One of the problems with the fantastic William Gibson line “the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed” is that it imagines a singular “future” that everyone is heading toward. Often, differences in regulations, market forces, or cultural norms mean that the future is a very different thing depending on where you are. 

This brilliant piece at Rest of World describes the rise and inevitable fall of ZipDial, a once-popular service for mobile phone users in India. In the late 90s and early 2000s, millions of Indians got mobile phones, often well before they had bank accounts or Internet access. Outgoing call minutes were exorbitantly high, so people would ring each other and hang up before the call began, in order to send simple signals. ZipDial saw this behavior and created a massive business around it: call one of several special numbers and get a call back with sports scores, news, even the latest pop music. While the service was free to its users, ZipDial made money by collecting information about what numbers people called for what information and built lead lists and profiles for companies based off of this data. 

Please do read the whole thing, it’s a fascinating look into recent history. We were struck by the self-awareness shown by ZipDial’s founders; right from the beginning they knew that something would come and take their place. This mindset had a direct effect on the growth of the company — go fast, before it’s too late — but also helped focus their efforts on a single simple problem to solve. In an era of endless pivots, there’s something refreshing about doing just one thing really well, and knowing when it’s time to stop. 

Don’t pick up! The rise and fall of a massive industry based on missed calls | rest of world


On subtraction, again

Alexis has written before about subtraction as a design method, so this study reported in Nature was a fascinating read. Through a series of experiments, the study demonstrated that when solving a problem, people are more likely to consider solutions that add features rather than subtract them, even when removing them would be more efficient or simpler. Our analysis: it seems that we tend to take an existing system at face value, making it easier to think of creating something on top of it than changing the underlying structure. In other words, it’s very hard to question the premise, which is often the most powerful tool in problem solving. And when we think about  making things for positive futures, it’s especially important to examine what might be removed or altered rather than adding new solutions on top of the old, adding complexity when it may not be not necessary or desirable.

Adding is favoured over subtracting in problem solving | Nature


Do you even lift?

Usually when we talk about exoskeletons in this newsletter, it’s metaphorical, referring to the way that digital devices extend or offload our cognitive abilities. But this time, we really are talking about literal exoskeletons. This BBC piece documents the expanding use and manufacture of robotic exoskeletons in a number of contexts. Many early applications focused on medical or military use cases, but we’re starting to see a much wider range of contexts. There has been growth in use by manufacturing and manual labor workers, as the increased amounts of strength and endurance provided by the devices allows for workers to perform their jobs more easily, with lower risk of injury. And consumer-targeted models are being developed that can provide support in a range of everyday activities.

Of course, your average exoskeleton currently costs around $45,000, but those in the industry are optimistic that as the tech matures and economies of scale come into play, these devices will become much more accessible to consumers. The founder of SuitX, one of the companies profiled, predicts that you will be able to purchase one at your local hardware store in the not-too-distant future. Suit up, folks!

The 'Iron Man' body armour many of us may soon be wearing | BBC


“Created with eternity in mind” 

We came across this lovely thread of photos of the Tripiṭaka Koreana, a collection of over 80,000 wood blocks containing Buddhist scriptures, reference material, and even biographies of monks and nuns. The blocks were specially treated with sea water, dried in the sun, coated in poisonous lacquer and framed in metal to ensure they’d last forever. So far, they have; while the originals created in the mid-11th century were burned during the Mongol invasions of Korea, this version was begun in 1237 and finished 12 years later. 

We rather like the summary provided by the Twitter user who shared these pictures: “The Tripiṭaka Koreana is the largest, most successful data transfer over time yet achieved by mankind.” This commitment to preservation is remarkable, especially when we consider the relative ephemerality of our own cultural output (including rotting celluloid destroying early films, the loss of the machines needed to read early digital storage, or even the linkrot when web sites are abruptly taken down.) 


One lunchable thing: Watch a robot make a sandwich

I mean, why not? We’ll keep our strong opinions on the lack of condiments to ourselves, because honestly, the world is better with more sandwiches in it.

Watch a robot make a sandwich | Boing Boing