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War, freedom and word games
Welcome to the week
Welcome to this week’s free edition of The Terminal. A few things I’ve published recently for subscribers:
A conversation with academic and lawyer Harry Hobbs about micronations and the weird units who found them.
The tech industry’s fascination with The Lord of the Rings, and its corporatisation over the years.
Brief notes on tech revanchism, the effort to reclaim territory lost to the tech backlash in the 2010s.
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Freedom ain’t free
The Canadian trucker convoy against vaccine mandates raised a secondary concern about monetary freedom after a judge ordered the freezing of fundraising, bank accounts and crypto wallets for those involved, in an effort to halt transactions related to the protest:
Facing the upheaval of unprecedented demonstrations, blockades and other civil disobedience in Canada’s capital, a fed-up group of Ottawa residents has launched a class action for damages against the leaders of the so-called Freedom Convoy.
The private citizens’ latest salvo was an ex parte injunction approved Thursday by a judge that freezes millions of dollars, including cryptocurrency, that had been raised by the convoy. Paul Champ, an Ottawa-based lawyer for the plaintiffs, said it’s the first “Mareva injunction” freezing cryptocurrency in Canada. A Mareva injunction is a type of interlocutory relief designed to freeze the assets of a defendant, pending determination of a plaintiff’s claim.
Ontario Superior Court Justice Calum MacLeod ordered banks, financial institutions, money service businesses, fundraising platforms or websites, cryptocurrency exchanges or platforms, and holders of any cryptocurrency wallets to stop transactions related to the organizers’ accounts and digital wallets.
(For what it’s worth, it seems like the majority of these accounts are now being unfrozen.)
This led to debate on fundamental rights and freedoms, perhaps best captured by this widely shared Twitter thread on the ‘freedom to transact’.
To summarise this argument in simple terms:
Constitutional democracies are the best system we have for ensuring human rights.
Within constitutional democracies, it’s generally agreed that we have various rights, like freedom of speech, assembly, due process and so on.
Exercising those rights — such as by owning a computer to start a blog or catching a train to a protest — cost money.
Therefore, within these systems, the freedom to transact is the freedom from which all others emerge.
Money and finance are mostly digital now, and cash infrastructure is withering away. Online banking and payments, in all their myriad forms, are how people form economic relationships.
A government dealing with a political or legal problem — like the trucker protests — by cracking down on this payments and banking infrastructure, essentially cutting people off from the financial system, is violating the most fundamental right to transact.
It seems related to the old free marketeer fixation on the freedom of contract, but updated for a new reality in which the vast majority of economic and financial activity is digital and therefore subject to surveillance and intervention by the state.
It’s hard to disagree that states shouldn’t have the power to unilaterally cut someone off from the financial system without due process, in much the same way as they shouldn’t be able to imprison someone without due process. If you lose access to your bank account, you are essentially locked out of participating in society. That shouldn’t be tampered with lightly, and the power to do so shouldn’t be issued lightly.
But on the other hand it also feels like a jury-rigged rights framework that applies only to an existing political context. The fact that it costs money to exercise rights doesn’t seem like a fundamental truth about the world. Rather, it seems like a fact of our existing economic order. One can imagine a political system where exercises of freedom do not rely on spending money — in fact, people love to imagine those sorts of systems. In that respect, it seems like circular logic: we’ve created a system which requires money to do anything including exercise basic rights, so therefore freedom comes from the ability to freely spend money.
I thought these two posts from JP Koning at Moneyness on the Canadian convoy funding were good reads. Also this: “In our cashless society, we need to take digital jail seriously”.
Interesting interview [$] with usually fairly low-key Afterpay co-founder Anthony Eisen in The Information this week. His view is that the pandemic tailwinds for the buy now, pay later sector and ecommerce more broadly are fading, and that players are going to have to scale up or get acquired if they want to survive.
There may be a point where smaller players find the environment different to the way that they did before in various markets, because everything’s at a greater scale.
We’re in a period where, with government stimulus, reverting to a more open post-Covid environment, that creates a lot of change and dislocation in the environment as well. Interest rates rising, et cetera, put various pressures and demands on different aspects of the model. And I think depending on what your model actually is, and the type of sophistication you have as a player in the industry, it will create more differentiation. You may see some consolidation.
His point about inevitably rising interest rates putting serious pressure on lesser BNPL and consumer financing companies is one I wrote about last year.
Among the trillions of words that have already been posted about Russia-Ukraine, I really liked this 2014 interview with Gleb Pavlovsky, former student dissident and spin doctor for Putin, on the Russian leader’s thinking.
Putin is a Soviet person who did not draw lessons from the collapse of Russia. That is to say, he did learn lessons, but very pragmatic ones. He understood the coming of capitalism in a Soviet way. We were all taught that capitalism is a kingdom of demagogues, behind whom stands big money, and behind that, a military machine which aspires to control the whole world. It’s a very clear, simple picture which I think Putin had in his head—not as an official ideology, but as a form of common sense. His thinking was that in the Soviet Union, we were idiots; we had tried to build a fair society when we should have been making money. If we had made more money than the western capitalists, we could have just bought them up, or we could have created a weapon which they didn’t have. That’s all there is to it. It was a game and we lost, because we didn’t do several simple things: we didn’t create our own class of capitalists, we didn’t give the capitalist predators on our side a chance to develop and devour the capitalist predators on theirs.
If you wanted to find a microcosm of the general arc of tech culture over the past decade or so, you could do a lot worse than the saga of Wordle, the fun little social-first word game which briefly captured the attention of the world before disappearing into the ravenous maw of The New York Times Company.
Earlier this week, a general unease bubbled to the surface on social media and seeped into the press. Wordle — a romantic gesture between a software developer and his girlfriend, a carefree Omicron wave distraction, a resolutely non-commercial social bonding tool in an antisocial dystopia – was ruined. Ruined! It had become ‘harder’ and more ‘elitist’, presumably thanks to the commercial imperatives of the bloodless suits at 620 Eighth Avenue.
It wasn’t actually true, even if it did have a kind of innate poetry to it. In fact, by removing a few words from the list and inbuilt dictionary including a handful of antiquated racial slurs, the NYT had in fact made Wordle marginally easier. The real source of complaint among people who believed it had become harder under its new corporate taskmasters was that words containing multiples of the same letter — which the simple colour-coded interface doesn’t indicate — were against the ‘spirit of the game’. People got very emotional about this.
It’s become a common joke these days to say that The New York Times is a cookbook and crosswords app regrettably saddled with a legacy publication. It isn’t really true, but it’s certainly the case that those products make up a sizeable chunk of its growth momentum. In the third quarter of this financial year, the company added 455,000 subscriptions, of which 135,000 were for Cooking, Games and its product recommendation platform Wirecutter. The NYT wants 10 million digital subscribers by 2025, and it thinks its gaming offering is going to help it get there.
Even before Wordle’s acquisition, it had already been rapidly integrated into a much larger internet money machine. Dozens of clones of varying levels of quality had emerged, ranging from a guessing game based on word semantics, to one based on map geography. Versions of the original game pitched as being free of NYT influence are also out there, but it seems unlikely they will attain the same level of user saturation. It has also generated a shameless SEO economy around the daily answers, and app stores are polluted with Wordle solvers.
(All of those stories are hilariously long in order to cohere with Google best practice, so they generally include a 500 word history of the game with the actual answer slapped at the end.)
Today’s issue of ‘No comment’
Forbes points the finger at 36-year-old Austrian programmer Toby Hoenisch as the perpetrator of the 3.6 million ETH hack of The DAO in 2016. That particular attack was so bad that it led to the entire Ethereum blockchain being forked.
Great bit on the “ugly truth” behind how Hollywood scores are written. It’s no great surprise that most big-ticket composers have a substantial team behind them which helps fill it out, but this goes into some of the attendant labour and underpayment issues.
In Avengers: Infinity War, villain Thanos causes half of life in the universe to disappear in an instant. In the next film, everyone is brought back five years later in the same location. A Redditor wrote a whitepaper calculating how many “awkward toilet encounters” this would generate — i.e. the number of people on Earth who vanished while on a toilet and reappeared while someone else was using it.
The team of South Korean presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol have created a deepfake avatar for voters to engage with.
Fascinating story by a Pornhub moderator from the early days of the site, which gives a quite detailed sense as to what it was like as an organisation, as well as the online adult industry more broadly. Great quote: “I got pissed-off emails from guys who uploaded clips of themselves jacking off, only to realise that these videos — of which there were hundreds — were eventually placed in the Gay section. “I’m not gay!” they would fume, demanding the video be removed.”
Meta has announced it wants to build a ‘universal translator’ with AI.
A new study has disavowed the ‘marshmallow test’.
A more comprehensive look at the Spotify/Joe Rogan deal at the NYT, including the suggestion they actually paid double what has been widely reported.
Also from the NYT: “How Did Squarespace Know Podcasts Would Get This Big?”
A somewhat dour view on instant grocery delivery companies. It focuses on US companies, but you can probably draw some insights about the Australian entities like Milkrun and Send.
On the mainstreaming of “sexual wellness” products by lifestyle brands.