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The Week: Goodbye to 2021
Happy New Year to the haters and the losers
Welcome to this week’s free edition of The Terminal (and the last of 2021!)
More people than I expected took me up on the special deal I launched a couple of weeks ago, so I thought I’d extend it for another week. Sign up for a paid annual subscription to The Terminal by January 7 and you’ll get your first year for $50 instead of the usual price of $70.
You simply can’t make up that kind of bargain. And the punters are, by all accounts, loving it.
Not sure how I missed this story from back in September about a cul-de-sac in San Francisco which is haunted by an endless procession of self-driving Google cars.
A normally quiet neighborhood in San Francisco is buzzing about a sudden explosion of traffic. Neighbors say their Richmond District dead-end street has suddenly become crowded with Waymo vehicles.
“I noticed it while I was sleeping,” says Jennifer King. “I awoke to a strange hum and I thought there was a spacecraft outside my bedroom window.”
The visitors Jennifer King is talking about don’t just come at night. They come all day, right to the end of 15th Avenue, where there’s nothing else to do but make some kind of multi-point turn and head out the way they came in. Not long after that car is gone, there will be another, which will make the same turn and leave, before another car shows up and does the exact same thing. And while there are some pauses, it never really stops.
I read this interview with a16z’s Marc Andreessen back in May when it was published. It mostly plays out as a lengthy provocation, and was controversial for that at the time, but I revisited it now that everyone is talking about the metaverse and web3 — especially now that it’s clear Andreessen’s firm is the major venture capital player in the crypto world.
This passage is the one I wanted to find again:
Your question is a great example of what I call Reality Privilege. This is a paraphrase of a concept articulated by Beau Cronin: "Consider the possibility that a visceral defense of the physical, and an accompanying dismissal of the virtual as inferior or escapist, is a result of superuser privileges." A small percent of people live in a real-world environment that is rich, even overflowing, with glorious substance, beautiful settings, plentiful stimulation, and many fascinating people to talk to, and to work with, and to date. These are also *all* of the people who get to ask probing questions like yours. Everyone else, the vast majority of humanity, lacks Reality Privilege -- their online world is, or will be, immeasurably richer and more fulfilling than most of the physical and social environment around them in the quote-unquote real world.
The Reality Privileged, of course, call this conclusion dystopian, and demand that we prioritize improvements in reality over improvements in virtuality. To which I say: reality has had 5,000 years to get good, and is clearly still woefully lacking for most people; I don't think we should wait another 5,000 years to see if it eventually closes the gap. We should build -- and we are building -- online worlds that make life and work and love wonderful for everyone, no matter what level of reality deprivation they find themselves in.
Not really sure where the “5000 years” part comes from, but anyway. It’s a very honest statement of intent from someone that is trying to reshape the tech industry and by extension society more broadly. It’s also strange way of building a moral justification for a future that most would agree is mostly driven by commercial, not humanitarian, impulses.
Most people laughed at the wholesale lifting of the word ‘metaverse’ from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, where the virtual world is a fleeting escape from a horrible reality. Here we have one of the flagbearers of that prospective future saying, “Yeah, that’s exactly it – and that’s good!” Implicit also is the idea that the developing world isn’t going to get much nicer, and that an escape into the digital is the only path forward. Hence the trollish deployment of the word ‘privilege’.
(Vaguely related: the present and future of web3 is contained in this single Wikipedia talk page about whether it should be deleted.)
The revolution will be sequelised
I caught the new Matrix and Spider-Man movies over the past couple of weeks. Putting aside whether either of them are very good or not. Coming out of Spider-Man: No Way Home at the cinema, literally all of the posters lining the exit hallway were for sequels or reboots — there were ads for Ghostbusters, Scream and Batman in addition to the two I already mentioned.
This is obviously not particularly new, and we’ve been talking about this for well over a decade by this point. But the more interesting trend that has been developing over the past few years is that so many of these reboots attempt to say something about the process of rebooting itself, to varying degrees of success. Star Wars: The Last Jedi attempted to invert or critique the hero’s journey framework of the original film. The 2018 Halloween reboot frames itself initially with a true crime podcast metanarrative. The Matrix Resurrections openly sells itself as the product of a Warner Bros moneymaking effort, while trying to re-situate or upend many of the original trilogy’s themes. Spider-Man: No Way Home finds an in-universe explanation for Sony’s multiple efforts to squeeze box office money from the character license. Ghostbusters Afterlife wants to reclaim the franchise from its maligned all-female reboot, like some kind of war of restoration.
I’m not sure what this means, exactly, other than the fact that the Hollywood reboot complex has managed to absorb the critiques and spit them back out as entertainment. Also the fact that the creatives who work on these self-reflexive movies probably have the Nicolas Cage monologue from Adaptation running through their heads at all times.
Evil walks among us
A great rundown of this year’s “weird and stupid futures”.
A piece on the “dark academia” aesthetic on Instagram, which I’ve literally never seen before. But I’m probably not the audience.
Extremely my shit: “How a Pro Skateboarder Became an Apostle of Ancient Tuning”.
Everyone probably already read the Gawker NFT bit, but anyway. On a purely aesthetic level, it’s hard to disagree with the killer line: “As the visual manifestation of cryptocurrency, NFT art combines the nuanced social awareness of computer programmers with the soulful whimsy of hedge fund managers. It is art for people whose imaginations have been absolutely captured by a new kind of money you can do on the computer.”
Interesting interview with the guy who wrote the Peter Thiel biography.
This on why the global tech industry is turning its steely gaze on local corner shops as a new site of disruption.
Liked this newsletter on how Netflix’s algorithmic machine for determining thumbnails is killing the art of the keyframe.
Further to the Matrix stuff above, I liked this writeup on the new movie in Politico, of all places.
A good piece on the surge in dodgy finance influencers in Indonesia.