The Week: New economies, talk shows and truth seekers
Plus: straight facts, absolute truth, and indisputable arguments
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We got two big platform-oriented free speech debates this week:
Spotify is still catching heat for its massive partnership with Joe Rogan, which has became even more fraught as Rogan spends a lot of time with guests who question Covid and vaccine narratives. Neil Young announced that Spotify would have to choose between him and Rogan, and the company, as one would expect, went with its nine-figure deal.
Substack published a sprawling blog defending the fact it hosts many popular vaccine skeptics and other assorted weirdos on its platform. Its central argument was that a) it does not want to be in the business of censorship except in extreme edge cases, and b) that society has a serious trust problem and this would only be worsened if Substack started acting as an arbiter for truth.
The Substack blog came with a thread from its comms VP:
In both cases, it’s obviously impossible to evaluate it in a purely moral sense because both companies extract a huge amount of value from the controversial viewpoints in discussion. Some of the biggest paid political newsletters on Substack are the ones that invite the most ire, and the company is clipping 10% off those tickets, so obviously they’re going to want to keep the peace there1. Spotify dropped $100 million on Rogan’s podcast as part of their broader audio push — presumably that won’t pay itself off for a while yet.
Covid, which is the lightning point for this particular discussion, is also a touchy subject. As Casey Newton writes at his newsletter Platformer, tech companies “generally do not want to be called to adjudicate matters of science or medicine” but they also “do not want the president to say that they are killing people through their inaction”. I’d say there are a lot of speech-adjacent platforms hoping they can white knuckle their way through the pandemic and hope that the next tranche of culture war issues are easier to navigate.
I generally lean towards agreement that banning antivax views from a particular platform will just send those views elsewhere for expression, and that the nature of the internet means they’re always going to be accessible to people who want to find them, as well as those suggestible to it. As Jason Wilson writes at The Guardian, there’s always a section of the population that resists medical intervention, and this has been historically true since just about forever. It can’t entirely be put down to the internet’s malign influence.
Though I’m generally the type to agree that more speech is better, I’m less and less convinced by the argument, put forward by Substack, that “examination and mockery” is in any way powerful in countering bad ideas. This has long been the convenient argument of choice for free speech advocates who concede that there are indeed harmful, wrong and bad ideas out there. I think it just feels true, and doesn’t bear out in actual lived reality outside of debate clubs. It’s the inverse of the argument being tackled here, and just as absurd:
At least Substack has articulated a very clear platform position and stuck to it. Spotify is much more mealy-mouthed. It has deleted over forty episodes of Rogan’s podcast since the partnership began, and said in its statement on Neil Young that it has “removed over 20,000 podcast episodes related to COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.” So obviously it does think that Covid misinformation causes harm and is willing to act on it, just with no particular principles in place — and especially not when its golden goose is concerned.
As many have pointed out, it’s also funny that Spotify scaled up and became powerful on the back of musicians and artists, but is completely willing to cut them loose in pursuit of its new podcast frontier. It has much less claim to being a neutral bit of infrastructure compared to Substack. It scooped up podcast studios and seems comfortable being a publisher except when the heat is on. I have absolutely no sympathy now that its feet is to the fire.
Diem, Facebook’s long, troubled effort to make its own stablecoin for use within its broader product ecosystem, appears to be a goner.
The Diem Association, a cryptocurrency initiative once known as Libra backed by Meta Platforms Inc., is weighing a sale of its assets as a way to return capital to its investor members, according to people familiar with the matter. Diem is in discussions with investment bankers about how best to sell its intellectual property and find a new home for the engineers who developed the technology, cashing out whatever value remains in its once-ambitious Diem coin venture, said the people, asking not to be identified because the discussions aren’t public.
This tweet makes a great point: Facebook — Meta, sorry — has never actually built anything really lasting beyond its core social network. Basically everything else has either failed or, in the case of Instagram, was already exploding in popularity when it was acquired and has been made less and less pleasant and usable under Facebook’s management. (Caveat: they’re quite good at eking out profit from these platforms.)
It comes as Meta is collapsing everything they own under their new branding and aesthetic.
I’ve harped on this a lot in this newsletter, but there’s something bleak about everything being flattened and smashed into this fairly grim aesthetic of dead-eyed metaverse dolls that look like they’re straight out of a barely functional web chat app from 2008.
As a bonus: the latest metaverse video from the company is still not making it look very appealing. (Plus, they should figure out a way to give them legs.)
This Jimmy Fallon clip did the rounds widely online over the past few days, featuring Jimmy and Paris Hilton showing off their respective Bored Apes to a mildly restive crowd of Midwestern studio audience tourists, who don’t seem entirely sure whether they should be applauding it or not.
Honestly can’t tell you whether this is bullish for the apes or not. It does, as one commenter pointed out, have a real Paul Verhoeven / RoboCop aura to it. This vibe alone could presage a terrible crash. (On the other hand, I’m very comfortable saying that scam empress Gwyneth Paltrow joining is bad.)
Meanwhile, there were also a series of ape heists over the past week. From The Verge:
A bug in OpenSea, the popular NFT marketplace, has let hackers buy rare NFTs for well below market value, in some cases leading to hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses for the original owners — and hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits for the apparent thieves.
The bug appears to have been present for weeks and seems to be referenced in at least one tweet from January 1st, 2022. But exploitation of the bug has picked up significantly in the past day: blockchain analytics company Elliptic reported that in a 12-hour stretch before the morning of January 24th, it was exploited at least eight times to “steal” NFTs with a market value of over $1 million.
The bug was pretty simple. Essentially, the owners of these NFTs had put their apes up for sale in the past, which generated a smart contract on the blockchain. Instead of terminating the sale by cancelling the smart contract (which would incur a gas fee) the owners transferred their NFTs from one crypto wallet to another and back again.
This seemed to cancel the contract, and the user interface on OpenSea showed that it had, but they were still sitting up on the blockchain. The thieves used the OpenSea API to accept the sale via the earlier smart contracts, which were listed at a much lower price than the NFTs are currently worth. Because those contracts are still completely valid as far as the blockchain is concerned, the NFTs were therefore transferred.
Two things came to mind about this. The first is the disconnect between the principle that the blockchain ledger is immutable — which is one of the things proponents love about it — and the fact that most people are going to access it through centralised services like OpenSea. The blockchain was law, but in this case the user interface did not reflect that law correctly. I get the feeling this is going to be an enduring problem that will show itself in all sorts of ways, and especially as blockchain tech becomes more integrated into consumer-level tech that normal, less tech literate people use.
Secondly, it was interesting that these people who hold an asset that is ostensibly worth hundreds of thousands of dollars were trying to dodge a gas fee that probably amounted to about a hundred bucks at most. It raises the spectre of an asset holder who is rich in apes but cash poor. Truly one of the strangest economic classes in world history.
But it’s also probably not that uncommon. Some interesting replies in this thread about ape holders who got in early but now hold a theoretically massively valuable asset and not much else. It’s probably not a stretch to assume this kind of investor is the kind most vulnerable to scamming. (Thanks to Garth Travers for pointing it out to me.)
On virtual hatters
I’ve long been fascinated by the fact that former Greek finance minister and self-described ‘erratic Marxist’ Yanis Varoufakis did a stint working for Valve Software in the early in the 2010s trying to apply serious economic thought to the company’s in-game economies. Doing something like that was a curiosity back then, but it presaged so much of the current discourse on metaverses, NFTs and play-to-earn gaming.
I think this fresh interview with The Crypto Syllabus contains the most detail on what he was actually doing there, and it’s very interesting.
Ten years ago, the metaverse was already up and running within gaming communities. Valve’s games had already spawned economies so large that Valve was both excited and spooked. Some digital assets that had previously been distributed for free (via the game’s drops) began to trade for tens of thousands of dollars on eBay, well before anyone had thought of NFTs.
What if the prices of these spontaneously lucrative items and activities were to crash? That was what kept the people at Valve awake at night. You can see this from the email with which I was approached: ‘I have been following your blog for a while… Here at my company we were discussing an issue of linking economies in two virtual environments (creating a shared currency), and wrestling with some of the thornier problems of balance of payments, when it occurred to me “this is Germany and Greece”, a thought that wouldn't have occurred to me without having followed your blog’.
My reasons for getting involved were many. One was the prospect of studying an economy as an omniscient researcher: Since I would have access to the full data set in real time, I did not need statistics! Another was the lure of playing ‘god’; i.e. being able to do with these digital economies things that no economist can do in the ‘real’ world, e.g. alter rules, prices, and quantities to see what happens. Another objective was to forge empirically supported narratives that transcend the border separating the ‘real’ from the digital economies.
It’s a great interview otherwise, touching on Varoufakis’ leftist perspective on crypto, blockchains, stablecoins, virtual clothing, all that jazz.
Despite my claim in last week’s newsletter that I had “no further comment” on the Steve Smith NFT, when The Guardian darkened my doorstep with demands for comment I had no choice but to accede. (It’s written for an audience who knows very little about this stuff.)
Thought this was an interesting review of Out of Office, Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen’s new book/manifesto on the future of remote work and how to make it better. It kind of gets at a lot of issues I have with some of the discourse about improving remote work for those who do it. Basically: who is supposed to be the revolutionary class here? Who in power is incentivised to make these changes happen?
This isn’t new, but I hadn’t heard about it before: after the success of the original SimCity, a number of companies approached developer Maxis to make simulations of their industries for instructional purposes. Via a sub-brand, Maxis Business Simulations, it ended up developing one for Chevron, named SimRefinery. From Maxis boss Will Wright: “[SimRefinery was] a simulation of their refinery operation, for orienting people in the company as to how a refinery works. It wasn't so much for the engineers as it was for the accountants and managers who walked through this refinery every day and didn't know what these pipes were carrying.” Here’s a very long read from 2020 on it.
The White House plans to issue an executive order regulating crypto and digital assets “as a matter of national security”, per Barron’s.
Interesting read on the decline of public bathrooms. US-centric, but some broad insights there. (I had a toilet-related longread in last week’s newsletter. Consider the matter closed from here on out.)
This WIRED read on the sweaty era of bloghouse.
Lovely profile of Wee Man, of Jackass fame.
Last week I flagged the speculative fiction drama over ‘squeecore’. Here’s more drama if you like: sci-fi fans are restless that Solarpunk Magazine — which covers a subgenre which “envisions how the future might look if humanity succeeded in solving major contemporary challenges with an emphasis on sustainability, climate change and pollution” — appears to be run by NFT heads.
I like to think paid subcriptions to The Terminal are equally as important to Substack’s bottom line.