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The Week: virtual supermarkets, little horror stories and pandemic politics
Happy new year.
Welcome to this week’s free edition of The Terminal.
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Shop ‘til you drop
The above video popped off on social media this week, ostensibly depicting US shopping giant Walmart’s entry into the metaverse. It’s a stultifying vision of plucking items off digital shelves with a translucent virtual hand in a PlayStation 2 quality recreation of a supermarket, while a spectral store assistant harangues you like a ghost in a Le Fanu novel.
Turns out the clip was actually from a SXSW brand activation in 2017, and therefore not related to the current metaverse craze. It just happens to look exactly the same as the other brand brain farts we’ve been exposed to over the past few months. James Vincent writes at The Verge:
Because although the clip itself is not an example of contemporary metaverse visionscaping, the fact that it’s indistinguishable from this material is damning.
It’s an illustration of the fact that the metaverse itself is not news. It is, in fact, a stagnant concept: a re-hashing of decades-old ideas of how we might live, work, and socialise in virtual environments.
It’s remarkable to me how quickly Facebook’s rebrand as Meta send the term crashing into the mainstream, but without any particular explanation on how it is going to happen, why it’s going to be in any way desirable, or even bothering to articulate a coherent expression of the concept that doesn’t just replicate the worst and most boring parts of human life like office meetings and shopping in the virtual realm.
Meta put on a series of metaverse concerts for New Years Eve, including artists like Young Thug, David Guetta and The Chainsmokers. “This is the first I’m hearing of this,” I hear you say — yes, exactly. Very few people actually showed up, and that’s even if you trust Facebook’s historically suspect viewer numbers.
As Futurism put it, which can be extrapolated out to just about every metaverse project: “Watching a concert alone while wearing a VR headset at home isn’t how a lot of people want to spend their New Year’s Eve — even if they are massive fans of The Chainsmokers for some reason.”
Here’s a great Twitter thread documenting every absurd use of or reference to the metaverse at the Consumer Electronics Show this year. A highlight:
“Who’s in charge, me or the devil?”
Quest for coins
Amid the unrest in Kazakhstan, financial media has focused quite a bit on the conflict’s effect on bitcoin. After China announced a blanket ban and crackdown on bitcoin mining in September, the country’s once leading share of the industry plummeted to effectively zero.
Kazakhstan has been a beneficiary of Chinese crackdowns, becoming the second-largest bitcoin mining centre on the planet after the United States. Cryptominers tend to flood into jurisdictions with cheap power and loose regulations, and Kazakhstan’s ageing coal-powered grid has been very appealing. (This is why Texas, with its wide open spaces and deregulated power market, is the centre of the US industry.)
After sacking his government and requesting the aid of Russian paratroopers to contain the fatal violence, president Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev ordered the nation’s telecom provider to shutter internet service. That shutdown took an estimated 15% of the world’s bitcoin miners offline, according to Kevin Zhang of digital currency company Foundry, which helped bring over $400 million of mining equipment into North America.
As Kazakh miner Didar Bekbau put it, “No internet, so no mining.”
Bitcoin dropped below US$43,000 for the first time since September in trade on Thursday, falling over 8% at one point.
I’ll give this one to the bitcoin heads: while the Web3 guys are desperately trying to exert some kind of effect on reality by starting crypto projects to buy up golf courses and fast food chains, bitcoin mining is already deeply insinuated into global conflict and geopolitics.
Circling the wagons
As we enter the third calendar year of the pandemic (or fourth, depending on how you count it) and most existing politics have been totally subsumed by how to deal with it, I’ve noticed a lot of arguments along the the lines of the above tweet — that all of this could have been avoided with the application of serious political will in early 2020.
It strikes me as the inverse of the maximalist right-wing argument, which is equally implausible, which is that the world could have soldiered on with absolutely no lockdowns or other government interventions and we would have all emerged on the other side with little economic or personal disruption. It assumes that any problems we faced were essentially artificial and more a product of fear than anything else.
Both standpoints, which are more widespread than ever right now as everyone battles serious pandemic fatigue, seem to rely on a truly alienated vision of how politics works, and has consistently worked throughout the pandemic. Even assuming that the virus wouldn’t find some reservoir somewhere on the planet, the prospect of a global, coordinated, perfectly enforced and properly compensated hard lockdown for at least three weeks at any time in the past two years is so implausible as to be complete fantasy. Equally, the notion that the world would have absorbed significant excess death without serious consequences along the way if governments had done nothing doesn’t line up either.
There are plenty of things you can take from this, but to me it seems like a consequence of the pandemic being the only major political issue for much of the planet for the past two years. It becomes a lens for absolutely everything, and the only way to resolve your particular political position is by trying to go back to first principles on the virus itself.
I love the Bad Two Sentence Horror account on Twitter, which collates the worst (or best, depending on perspective) entries from the subreddit dedicated to the dark art of horror flash fiction.
One funny phenomenon which seems universal to every kind of account like this is that they inevitably ruin the communities they are trying to lampoon. The account now has over 225,000 followers, meaning that everything it posts becomes a marketing opportunity, and the subreddit is flooded with posts deliberately trying to be featured on the account. (Whoever runs Bad Two Sentence Horror had to plead with its followers not to do this.)
A story about everyone’s new favourite word game Wordle in the NYT. It’s always interesting when a simple personal internet project with absolutely no commercial imperative goes viral like that, like a throwback to an earlier phase of the internet. In fact, creator Josh Wardle’s resistance to every possible avenue of commercialisation, including even putting a simple link to the game in the now-ubiquitous share grid, are part of why it has become as popular as it has.
Good podcast episode discussion about the political revolutions of 1848.
This story on America’s “most successful secessionist movement” in the Pacific Northwest.
This story out of India about Tek Fog, a mysterious app reportedly used by members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to “artificially inflate the popularity of the party, harass its critics and manipulate public perceptions at scale across major social media platforms.”
I thought this was a relatively clear-eyed engineer’s perspective on what could be beneficial about Web3 beyond the hype, as well as the potential roadblocks and pitfalls. For a contrary view, I interviewed crypto-skeptic software engineer Stephen Diehl for subscribers this week [$].
A good thread on another crypto scam — this one was selling itself as basically the Spotify Wrapped for the Ethereum blockchain.
Interesting thread on Hacker News trying to answer the question of why DocuSign, the document signing platform, is worth $50 billion.
The New Yorker tackled the metaverse/Web3 state of affairs. Liked this para from author Anna Wiener:
Listening, I wondered, Could I make this my life? Banking dashboards, cryptocurrency wallets, ledgers and spreadsheets. I tried to imagine myself in a corporate-owned and venture-funded metaverse: a virtual axolotl in a virtual sweater, writing for a virtual magazine in a virtual office, hemorrhaging virtual money. I might covet the Gen Z copy-editor’s avatar, and hope that readers would invest in NFTs of my work. I could be paid in CondéCoin, with a cut going to Meta or Minecraft or Microsoft, whatever corporation or game was my virtual landlord. Weekends would be spent at the arcade, or the casino. My husband and I would go on virtual vacations to virtual worlds, stay with virtual hosts who played virtual games set on virtual farms. I could play to earn—and earn, and earn. I could have everything I wanted, and nothing at all.
An interesting bit about how messaging app Signal is trying to build end-to-end encrypted and anonymous payments infrastructure, and why employees at the company are unsettled about what that could mean.
Good read on PragerU, the right-wing YouTube empire.
At Jacobin: “What Happened to the Friendly Neighbourhood (Working-Class) Spider-Man?” I rewatched the 2002 Spider-Man movie recently and was definitely struck how grounded the characters felt versus the new ones, where, instead of worrying about holding down a job and paying rent, Peter Parker’s biggest material concern is his billionaire best friend dying in space.
I haven’t read Neal Stephenson’s new novel Termination Shock as yet but I liked this review.
Fascinating story about the guy who designed perennial educational video game The Oregon Trail.
Have something you think readers of The Terminal would find interesting? Leave it in the comments!