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This week: why status envy runs the world, the mystery of the Cuban death ray, and the price of innovation.
I loved this blog post by Eugene Wei (yes, people still write blog posts!) on why the secret sauce of online social networks is social status. People have an inherent need to show themselves to be higher up the social ladder than their peers and they jump at any opportunity to do so. To be popular, an app has to offer utility, like the ability to keep up with a large circle of friends, or share pictures. This is the bit people usually focus on. But unless the app has a way for people to translate that utility into status gains, it probably won't be successful. There is an app called Prisma, fairly popular a while back, that never got huge, despite having a great utility function: it can turn your photos into impressionist art. The problem is, it's so good, it has an equalising effect. Everyone's pictures look great, so nobody can "win". Facebook got a head start in the status game because it began as an exclusive network for one of the most elite social groups in the world: Harvard students. But it was its invention of the news feed that really made it explode - suddenly, everyone could assess how everyone is doing all the time on a universal status dashboard. Users soon get good at working out the kinds of posts that increase status. Eugene Wei discusses Twitter but one thing he doesn't mention is the role of moral status. A hugely powerful driver of activity on Twitter, as well as one of the things that can make it unbearable, is that it allows people to signal that they are morally better, more decent people than some other group of people or person. Eugene's post is very long (too long, really - as he remarks at the beginning, he doesn't have an editor) but full of treasures, and if you want to understand the way modern media works, it's a must-read. Status is one of my obsessions (purely intellectually, you understand). I wrote it about how it's become the driver of modern politics - in the UK and the US - here.
COMETH THE TORTOISES
May and Corbyn must be the oddest pair of senior politicians we've ever had. Odd, because in both cases, the job of leadership almost perfectly plays to their weaknesses. Oddest of all, their weaknesses match each other's. Both of them hate making decisions. They're both introverts with an empathy deficit. Both are cognitively rigid and enormously stubborn. Both have heavily armoured egos, which makes them impervious to criticism or humiliation. The armour helps them survive attacks, but it also immobilises them. When events scream 'move' they stay rooted to the spot, or move extremely slowly. Having said all that, if May gets her deal through (and after months of everyone saying she can't, everyone is now saying she might), her reputation will undergo a sharp uptick. I'm not sure anyone is prepared for that, least of all her competitor in this hareless race.
It was one of the strangest stories of last year: American diplomats in Cuba were being targeted in their homes by a mysterious high-pitched drone sound that made them ill. A major international incident was sparked, with Trump blaming the Cuba government. It sounded like science fiction. In fact, it's biology. What sounded like a mechanical or electronic noise was in fact the sound of crickets. It's like the solution to a Sherlock Holmes story. As Ed Yong brilliantly explains, with audio examples, many noises from the natural world sound weirdly inorganic to our ears.
I've already linked to one Silicon Valley dude and how I'm going to tell you about two more, both in podcasts (with transcripts). It's fashionable to harp on the hubris and arrogance of Californian technologists, for good reason, but don't let that blind you to the fact that some of the tech scene's leading figures are genuinely interesting thinkers. First up, Patrick Collison, a young man from County Limerick who set up Stripe with his brother and is now worth billions. He has an incredible mind; I challenge you not to come away stimulated and impressed. Second, check out Sam Altman in conversation with Tyler Cowen, also hugely interesting and thoughtful. I particularly liked his rant, during the Q&A, against co-working spaces.
AI is getting really good at generating political rants (click through the link for background). Ranting is much easier to code for than thoughtful argument, something I discussed a while back, here. Paradoxically this development might lead to fewer arguments online because we'll assume the person disagreeing with us is a bot.
For the first time ever, luxury cars break down more often than mass market cars. They have more sophisticated technology, which means more things can go wrong. Solve for the equilibrium, as Tyler Cowen would say. What price will people pay for more and better features, vs the price they will pay for simplicity and reliability? This is a question that affects more categories than cars.
For Republicans, the most trusted institution in the country is the military; for Democrats, it's Amazon.
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