The Week: Frankenstein, beers and Boss Baby
We're all over the shop this week
Welcome to this week’s free edition of The Terminal. If you’re not a subscriber and you’d like to be, hit the button below. Go on then.
This video — of a guy struggling through an agonisingly slow bitcoin purchase of a beer, inexplicably shared as a triumph by Bitcoin Magazine — has already been roasted enough, so I’m happy to let sleeping dogs lie on that front.
But what I do find interesting is that we’re coming up on a decade’s worth of content cycles surrounding this exact sort of thing. How many times do we need to watch videos of someone making basic small transactions with bitcoin, or read about a store that has decided to accept bitcoin at checkout, or about a new chain of bitcoin ATMs being installed in some major metro area? (Here’s a story from 2013 about a Sydney pub that briefly accepted bitcoin.)
Whether or not you think bitcoin is actually going to eventually function as widely-accepted tender (rather than as digital gold or something else) it’s definitely unedifying that we’re stuck in this years-long loop of watching weird crypto guys attempt to interface with the real world via new wallets, platforms and layer-two protocols. Meanwhile, the way normal people spend and use regular old fiat currency day-to-day has changed quite dramatically in the interim.
Hey, we have a new coronavirus situation. The ‘Omicron Variant’ sounds like either a cult hit Japanese mech shooter game for the original PlayStation, or maybe a fascist-adjacent synthwave album.
It’s neat that the perverse incentives of social media in the age of coronavirus still reliably play out every time there’s a new development. Everything I’m reading from publications and epidemiologists seems to suggest that this is very concerning, but that we need some time to determine whether the virus is more infectious, deadly, or resistant to vaccines.
Nonetheless, the way to do super-viral science communications on Twitter and elsewhere is to absolutely amplify the panic to crazy levels. It’s always the same guys too, who have generally become valued online throughout the pandemic not for their expertise but for their particular way of packaging information for wide attention:
I find this particular brand of catastrophising — which seems to mostly manifest online — equally as weird and unhelpful as those who argue Covid isn’t a problem at all.
Paid in fool
Our friends in the buy now, pay later world are facing a bit of a reckoning, it seems, as share prices plunge and bad debts accumulate. From The Guardian:
Shares in Australian-listed buy-now-pay-later companies have plunged by an average of about 80% compared to peak prices within the past year, driven down by swelling losses and lower-than-expected consumer interest in the product.
Investors have been willing to overlook the losses run up by BNPL companies in the hope that their growth will eventually make them extremely profitable.
However, Halverson said a $653m loss announced by big player Zip in August, a dramatic increase from its $20m loss last year, “surprised and even shocked many”.
When I wrote about the growing number of BNPL offerings earlier this year, I predicted that once the tide went out, only the big players were going to be left. Afterpay is set to be part of Square and will probably quite successfully operate as part of a larger payments ecosystem, but even second-tier players like Zip are struggling to make it all viable. (Zip recently partnered with Microsoft for future integration with the Edge browser, and you can see how well that is going down in this developer thread.)
That’s saying nothing about the rest of the pack, which become skeezier and skeezier debt operations as you move down the ladder, including the payday lenders trading with a lick of BNPL paint.
Another interesting data point: bigger BNPL companies like Affirm are the ones lobbying for more stringent regulation of the sector. Why? Because it’ll be the death knell for those lower-tier operators. From Byrne Hobart, writing at The Diff today:
Part of what the company worries about is the proliferation of payment options on checkout screens. If every incremental option offers a lift to merchants, they'll keep adding them, and Affirm probably doesn't want to be stuck striking expensive exclusive deals with everyone. Better to cut off some operators entirely, impose uniformity on the market, and turn it into a purer competition based on conversion optimization and underwriting skill.
The over-proliferation of BNPL and other payments options at checkout is a great point. I bought something online recently and the array of options presented to me kind of reminded me of browser bar overload in the early 2000s.
Anyway, it’s entirely possible that BNPL reckoning — and culling — is coming sooner than I expected.
It’s always interesting to see this argument pop up. Click on through to the NYT tweet and you’ll see a huge number of replies and quote tweets slamming the social media copy, and arguing that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in fact preceded Wells’ work by many years, and that it is sexist to deny that.
It’s not quite correct to suggest that Wells and publisher Hugo Gernsback invented science fiction. But it’s also not entirely clear-cut that Shelley did either — certainly she didn’t think she was working in the field of sci-fi when she wrote Frankenstein and The Last Man, because that wasn’t a term people used. The label was retroactively applied by various authors and critics after Hugo Gernsbeck popularised it while trying to find a through-line between disparate kinds of genre and pulp fiction that he liked:
By 'scientifiction' I mean the Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type of story—a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision... Not only do these amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading—they are always instructive. They supply knowledge... in a very palatable form... New adventures pictured for us in the scientifiction of today are not at all impossible of realization tomorrow... Many great science stories destined to be of historical interest are still to be written... Posterity will point to them as having blazed a new trail, not only in literature and fiction, but progress as well.
I personally think it’s basically indisputable that Shelley established the groundwork for the science fiction novel, and that novels like Frankenstein and The Last Man fit uncannily neatly into our contemporary conception of the genre. But its antecedents stretch all the way back into antiquity, and you can find science fictional elements everywhere from medieval literature to speculative writing in the 16th and 17th century during the Age of Reason.
Basically, what I’m saying is that the term is so fluid and artificial that you can really say whatever you like about it in order to score internet points towards whatever school of political and social thought you subscribe to, and I encourage you to do so. Go, start a fight about it.
He is risen
Power to the people
For subscribers this week I wrote a postmortem for the ConstitutionDAO project, which descended into infighting and chaos after it failed to buy the copy of the US Constitution and — funnily enough — everyone had different ideas about what to do next. There was also a good writeup at VICE about this.
The thing that has really struck me throughout all of this is that the most committed boosters of Web3 and the next phase of the internet are big fans of wrenching power from institutions and returning it to ‘the people’ — or, at least, a tokenised collective of investors — but seem less concerned right now with what actually happens after that. Funnily enough, political institutions come with their own set of problems which humanity has been dealing with for a few millennia now, and those problems persist into this world, cool and new as it may be. Crypto tokens and NFTs are probably not going to solve the inherent challenge of managing contradictory interests that have challenged institutions since just about forever.
But, in no small part because this world is animated primarily by software developers, venture capitalists and wild-eyed speculators, it seems like these problems have to be litigated from square one again. There’s this undergirding assumption you see that token-based voting and market forces are somehow automatically going to produce democratic outcomes. (Stop me if you’ve heard that before.)
I thought this comment on the subscriber-only post, from Jack McPherson, was worth highlighting:
I've been involved in a "DAO" since Packy McCormick's "Not Boring" newsletter organised a PartyBid to purchase the punk NFT in my pfp back in August.
Basically, there was a huge flurry of activity on the project's discord for about a fortnight and then absolutely nothing. The last post on the discord is from 28/10 and is just a dude posting a twitter link to another NFT project.
Basically a bunch of people chipped in on this thing, and then never thought about it again. Only 40% of the people who pitched in have even joined the project discord. This means even something as simple as updating the reserve price on the NFT is impossible because we need to have more than 50% of the DAO members by token weight vote on the new reserve price.
Funnily enough, one suggestion has been to create a "board" of 5 to 10 people to oversee governance of the DAO and the asset. Which would seem to me to be suspiciously like a centralised company rather than any new DAO paradigm.
This is a much simpler situation where there were vastly less people involved, I can't imagine how it would work for something at this scale had ConstitutionDAO been successful. People sign on to these things on a lark (me included!) and it seems kind of crazy to think that they will hang around and do the boring admin work required to manage an asset collectively.
There’s definitely something there about DAOs replicating the mania cycle of NFTs and altcoins. There’s a blast of manic interest, then everyone sort of just files out the door, offloads their tokens and looks for the next thing. Is that a sustainable way to run an organisation?
This story about the guy who runs RentAHitman.com and forwards serious inquiries to the cops. Bob Innes says he has fielded requests for contract killings from “650 to 700 people” since he launched the site 16 years ago.
A story on Pakistan’s national biometric ID system.
A good piece on how algorithmic recommendations change how we experience nostalgia. “Predictive algorithms don’t really predict anything; they just make certain kinds of pasts repeatedly reappear.”
Something of a follow to the above Boss Baby float video: an oral history of when the Sonic the Hedgehog float crashed at the 1993 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, injuring a child and an off-duty cop. Includes quotes from someone credited as “Ronald McDonald balloon handler and eyewitness”.
I thought this was a good and extremely exhaustive bit on ivermectin and Covid. In short: studies in the developing world that showed the drug helping with coronavirus were likely accurate, but not for the reasons boosters have argued. Instead, author Scott Alexander argues with a huge trove of data that it was precisely ivermectin’s deworming properties that helped most. A lot of people in the subcontinent are infected with worms, and this can cause problems for the immune system in fighting a viral infection. So by fixing the worms (which ivermectin does) you make their Covid prognosis better. Super interesting if true, and it makes intuitive sense. Probably not all that helpful for Western anti-vaxers though.
Pour one out for these ten forgotten image formats, discarded without ceremony on the long journey to .jpegs, .tiffs and .pngs.
This piece on sicko rich people paying to get dumped out in the middle of nowhere in order to feel something.
Interesting bit on “feminist Ponzi schemes” sweeping through Argentina via WhatsApp.
An interesting bit on low interest rates and inequality.
Seen, read or imagined anything this week you think would be interesting to readers of The Terminal? Drop it in the comments below.