The Week: Fortress Australia, Fortnite, and Babylonian tablets

And you know what? Some links, for your trouble

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Beyond the walls

Plenty of conversation this morning about Conor Friedersdorf’s bit in The Atlantic about Australia’s Covid response, titled ‘Australia Traded Away Too Much Liberty’. Putting aside the fact it does not engage in any way with the history of Australia’s border obsession, including among many liberals — making it more or less worthless as analysis anyway — I find it and the response interesting on two fronts.

First, it’s the dislocating feeling of international media turning on Australia while the underlying facts did not change very much. Australia’s cultural cringe was well-fed throughout 2020, with much international coverage praising us as an example of well-executed Covid policy resulting in (largely) greater freedoms while the world contended with high virus death tolls1. Now, we’re being described as authoritarian laggards with a failed vaccine rollout and persistent, tyrannical controls on liberty. I think this general shift has caused a lot of subtle psychic distress, and you can see it all over Twitter in response to the Atlantic piece in particular.

Secondly, it’s interesting to see that among the death of globalism and resurgence of nationalism narratives of the past few years, Covid has really swung the needle back to globalism. Even the right-wing nationalist blob bristles at border closures and internal efforts deployed in other countries to control the virus, and a tour through American MAGA Twitter will reveal a lot of commentary about Australia and its response. It’s interesting seeing people try to wrestle with this and understand it through these prisms:

I have a dream

Fortnite’s tentative steps into becoming a metaverse property generally focus on two things: user-created content, and becoming a staging ground for shared cultural experiences. The latter work well when its a carefully choreographed in-game Travis Scott or Ariana Grande concert. Perhaps less so when it’s Martin Luther King’s famous speech foregrounded by a partying Superman.

Even this less immediately insane video from GameSpot is weird as hell: the player is running around a garden and playing a bespoke platforming game while MLK’s speech echoes in the background.

Epic Games was forced to disable the majority of ‘emotes’ (i.e. the dances and physical actions your character can do) within the MLK experience as a result. It wasn’t just the dancing — there’s a whip cracking emote in Fortnite, delivered as part of DC Comics and Catwoman branded content, which some players were spamming.

Even the MLK event itself was branded content, in partnership with TIME magazine. This is our beautiful future: pre-internet history, delivered as part of a brand activation within Fortnite, accompanied by Rick from Rick & Morty twerking. This is true immersion.

Welcome… to gay banking (it’s banking, but gay)

There was plenty of consternation on social media this week about Daylight, “the first LGBTQ+ digital bank in the United States”. Mostly because the bank, which is still in beta, is starting to do some targeted advertising on Instagram.

Not for nothing, it reminds me a little bit about the yearly discourse around ANZ’s relationship with Mardi Gras (which culminated last year, amusingly, in a widely derided TV ad campaign featuring a bunch of luminaries saying homophobic slurs down the barrel of the camera.)

As I mentioned in a post over the weekend, Banking as a Service (BaaS) and the development of fintech and DeFi platforms means we’re going to see a lot more of this kind of thing. Rather than monolithic financial institutions trying in vain to target their square products at everybody, they’ll manifest through various shopfronts and white-labelled services, more closely targeting and catering for a range of perceived needs. A “hall of mirrors”, I called it in the piece.

In Daylight’s case, it does have features one might describe as queer-friendly, like allowing account names to differ from ID, or specialised financial products for services like gender confirmation surgery or in-vitro fertilisation. But at the end of the day, it’s a digital bank with a new coat of paint, and is no less beholden to the predatory incentives of the rest of the financial system. There’s no doubt something to the immediate, public revulsion of its intended audience.

The sesame is visibly dying

I love seeing these little snippets of insight into communication in ancient bureaucracies. The per my last tablet form reveals that the way people encounter systems has been more or less a constant since we started working out how to formalise and make legible this whole ‘agriculture’ nonsense. (I think I’ve recommended it on this newsletter before, but Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott is a revelatory book on this process.)

The canonical example of this is, of course, the complaint tablet to Ea-nasir. Inscribed in Akkadian cuneiform, it is a very annoyed communication to an allegedly rude Mesopotamian merchant who sold substandard copper. It’s considered to be the oldest known written complaint in existence, and has a minor subreddit dedicated to it named r/ReallyShittyCopper.

This week’s reading

  • The Sackler family is in the news, which has motivated me to finally pick up Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain. Far be it for me to say a widely lauded New York Times bestseller is “very good”, but it’s very good. Framing it as a sprawling, Northeastern Gothic family history does seem to compress a lot of historical events and trends into the parts that intersect with the Sackler dynasty, but it gives it all very compelling thrust as a story of American capitalism in 20th century, overmedication, addiction and industrial decline.

  • This piece on the weirdness of LinkedIn. Despite being at its a core a hunting ground for recruiters, it has also developed a strange culture of would-be influencers and hustlers thriving in the weeds which grow up around its harebrained and often abandoned social features. Contains a great observation that you can find some of the most psycho discourse of any platform in the LinkedIn comments section — only with absolutely zero anonymity:

    While these comments are nothing new in terms of online culture, they feel out of bounds on a professional website where people use their full names and disclose precisely where they work and the city they live in. In the alternate universe of LinkedIn, cancel culture either doesn’t exist, its inhabitants are blissfully unaware, or they simply don’t care.

  • Seems many have noticed that Netflix, in an effort to juice metrics, is increasingly relying on some of the tried-and-true tricks of early 2010s clickbait: provocative hero images, misleading titles and copy text, the kind of overt raunch you only see in terrible Outbrain/Taboola placements these days. A good piece in Slate on this.

  • I liked this from Ryan Broderick’s newsletter which asks the question: what makes a digital media outlet — like VICE, for example — different from Logan Paul’s small but reasonably sophisticated (and very popular!) media operation?

  • Interesting and underrated ad industry story: Facebook’s app install measurement for iPhone 12 users has been busted since February. In short: if you were advertising an app or game through Facebook, it wasn’t properly counting the number of iPhone 12 users who went through the ad and downloaded your product, meaning it was “undercounting paid attributions for the wealthiest, most lucrative owners of iOS hardware”. Since February! The media’s disastrous ‘pivot to video’ has often been blamed on Facebook’s bung video metrics, and this is just another example of how their bugs and product management failures can have outsized effects.

  • This piece on the relationship between low interest rates, inequality, and ageing populations.

  • Amazon is partnering with Affirm for buy now, pay later services in the US. One to watch. (It partners with Zip here.)

  • Enjoyed this piece on Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville and “the myth of American leisure”.

  • A great story if you’ve ever found yourself wondering about the intelligence of slime mold (I haven’t, but I try to accommodate all types on this newsletter.)


America’s ability to simply absorb over half a million deaths into the general background madness of the country is certainly worthy of study, though. At least the British seem to be expressing their anguish, even if it’s through esoteric avenues like the death of Geronimo the alpaca.