The Week: Smart glasses, stablecoins and antitrust

Hell, some links too. I've got plenty to spare

Welcome to this week’s free edition of The Terminal. Here’s what I’ve published in the past week:

There are a couple more paid posts coming over the weekend (sorry, this week is heavy on the back end). If you’re not a paid subscriber and you’d like to be, smash the button below.

Glass-eyed stare

Facebook is having a crack at smart glasses in partnership with Ray-Ban. Predictably, it’s Ray-Bans branding that is emphasised, as the notion of putting a camera-laden Facebook product between you and the people you are interacting with could charitably be described as ‘socially hostile’. From a review by Katie Notopoulos at BuzzFeed:

For clarity's sake, I will herein refer to Ray-Ban Stories as “Facebook glasses,” because that’s exactly what I know you are thinking when you read this. The words “Facebook” and “glasses” are making the hair on the back of your neck stand up, right? The phrase “secret spy camera glasses” is making your heart race. The phrase “and it’s made by FACEBOOK!” makes you emit a blood-curdling scream. Knowing that Facebook is discussing building facial recognition into these things curdles the stomach.

We’re about to see an effort from Silicon Valley to try and get smart glasses back into the conversation, after the unmitigated failure of Google Glass last decade. It’s all part of this very trendy acceleration towards the metaverse, which is sold as a more seamless integration of the physical world and cyberspace. The assumption is the new framing — and a more internet-forward generation — will make these a success where Glass wasn’t.

But people really hated Glass and baulked at the very concept of it, and this new generation of smart glasses are consciously being a little less ambitious (and more surreptitiously designed) than their much-maligned forebear. We should still freak out about this backdoor effort to turn up the level of casual surveillance we’re willing to tolerate.

Trust us

There’s been a generally interesting posture from the Australian government and its various organs against international tech companies which has bubbled up again in recent weeks.

The news media bargaining code, which led to payments from Facebook and Google to Australia’s media companies, was also framed in antitrust terms. Contentious as that was — many quite reasonably didn’t feel the national interest was served by a modest cash transfer from Google to News Corp — it fits into the interesting ongoing narrative from Australia against the market power of US tech companies.

Of course, as we’ve seen, these companies have few qualms about pulling entire products from the local market entirely if they think we’ve overstepped the line in a way that might endanger their global interests.

Buy! Sell! Buy!

I was just thinking the other day about how rapidly the critical race theory discourse receded from the internet and wider conversation. As is often the case, it made its way from the US down under via the usual vectors in degraded form, but then it melted into some other culture war front.

I don’t think this is at all a new phenomenon — the 24-hour news cycle has rapidly chewed up and spat out various bogeymen for as long as it has existed — but it does feel like it booms and busts on an unsustainably rapid basis now. You really need to work hard to keep that outrage plate spinning under the rhythmic demands of the internet, especially during the pandemic.

There were numerous writeups a few months ago about conservative thinktanker Christopher Rufo as the animating force behind the strategic denunciation of CRT as a Marxist trojan horse. He’s still pumping it hard, as are other Right influencers, but where is it in the wider conversation?

Mr. Anderson…

I imagine the new Matrix movie (trailer out now) will be a two-and-a-half hour meditation on recontextualising what the ‘redpill’ means in 2021 after a decade of right-wing memes. Which is fine. Get it out of your system, Lana Wachowski.

Tales from the crypto

Afterpay is pushing for the creation and adoption of a stablecoin pegged to the Australian dollar.

For the uninitiated, stablecoins are a class of cryptocurrency which are linked to the price of some other reserve currency or asset. This means you get the best of both worlds in theory: the private, decentralised processing function of cryptocurrency along with the relative stability of fiat currency. The volatility of traditional cryptocurrencies make them largely unsuitable for day-to-day transactions (and not great for consumer confidence) and stablecoins are meant to resolve that.

Afterpay’s self-interest is pretty obvious: if the company’s merchants trade with stablecoins, they can minimise exposure to interchange fees charged by card issuers.

All of this comes at the same time as the Reserve Bank more enthusiastically looks toward issuing a digital version of the Australian dollar. Many governments are considering — or actively implementing — central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) in an effort to fight off the threat posed by stablecoins and the more volatile cryptocurrencies to regular old fiat.

I’ll probably do a full post on all of this soon.

This week’s reading

  • This story in OneZero about the “unbearably depressing” world depicted by Google’s CAPTCHA images — a melancholic universe with no people amid endless, repetitive urban forms.

    CAPTCHA images are never joyful vistas of human activity, full of Whitmanesque vigor. No, they’re blurry, anonymous landscapes that possess a positively Soviet anomie.

  • I found this literature review by Scott Alexander about Long Covid useful. If there’s one thing the online rationalist community is truly good at, it’s summarising long documents and research papers with very long Substack posts. I can see Long Covid becoming a new front of the pandemic culture war — lots of people out there arguing its basically psychosomatic or related to anxiety, for example — so it was good to get the hard data. (Here’s a more literary read from Ed Yong.)

  • An interview in Protocol with Facebook’s crypto boss about the company’s upcoming money projects. The underlying theme here is that Facebook really wants to be part of the next phase of money on the internet, but must deal with the fact that asking consumers to entrust their economic lives to a company like Facebook is (extremely deservedly!) a very tough sell.

  • Fun story on the collapse of a would-be legal cannabis empire.

  • Interesting on the internecine politics of Spotify playlists. Apparently, bad actors will report popular playlists for various terms of service infractions, as part of a war of attrition to boost the popularity of their own playlists.

  • Reuters has a bit on the artificial intelligence projects big tech has turned down over ethical concerns.

  • A great story in the Boston Review about conspiracy theories being a social rather than cognitive problem. That’s not a particularly radical thesis, but it’s expressed well. However, it contains a completely unnecessary use of the word ‘lacustrine’, which I had to look up. It means ‘associated with lakes’.

  • A 2013 interview in The Atlantic with one of the designers of the SimCity game had just come out. That game ended up not being particularly good, but I’m nonetheless interested in simulation game design — specifically, how creators attempt to build a game that is both a believable approximation of the process its trying to simulate (in this case city building and urban management) and something that is actually fun to play. In this case, one thing they had to sacrifice was car parks:

    While you were making those measurements of different real-world cities, did you discover any surprising patterns or spatial relationships?

    Yes, definitely. I think the biggest one was the parking lots. When I started measuring out our local grocery store, which I don't think of as being that big, I was blown away by how much more space was parking lot rather than actual store. That was kind of a problem, because we were originally just going to model real cities, but we quickly realized there were way too many parking lots in the real world and that our game was going to be really boring if it was proportional in terms of parking lots.

  • While I’m on SimCity, I’ll never baulk at an opportunity to remind people of the art project Magnasanti, by a Filipino architecture student Vincent Ocasla, a thoroughly evil megalopolis built entirely in SimCity 3000 and based on Bhavacakra, the wheel of life and death in Buddhism. [Correction: I originally said it was SimCity 2000]