DataDownload: Facebook is now Meta, but has anything changed? A weekly summary of all things Media, Data, Emerging Tech View this email in your browser
The Battle over the future of the metaverse is on, with Facebook firing the first shot. But it will surely not be the last. The metaverse of course needs software — and the Soul Machines announcement was timed remarkably well. Stay tuned for many more chapters in this ongoing and important story.
The Washington Post has a must-read today about Twitter and Conservative Politics. And make sure you’ve had a cup of coffee before you read the Peter Thiel piece in the New Yorker.
We’ve got the first video from Summit 2021 — our AI and Local News Panel — which takes a deep dive into how tech can be part of an important local news future.
And, the connection between Biometrics and societal behavior by the Guardian is a view into the complex future ahead.
One final note to Ranjan Roy and his team at the Edge Group. Our longtime newsletter partners, who’ve made this newsletter possible for many years. Amazing partners, thanks for driving this newsletter to remarkable heights over the years. A huge thank you for all these years.
And — for those of you celebrating — Happy Halloween.
Have a good week.
The NYC Media Lab Must-Read Introducing Meta: A Social Technology Company
As we read The Atlantic’s solemn investigative dive, The Facebook Papers: “History Will Not Judge Us Kindly”, we got a timely notification confirming what the LinkedIn crowd had already been murmuring across numerous comment threads: The Facebook Company’s new name is Meta, which encompasses all the umbrella company’s apps. While Meta’s corporate structure is not changing, starting Q4 this year, it will be reporting on two operating segments: Family of Apps and Reality Labs. There’s also a new ticker symbol — MVRS.
Somehow the cheery announcement felt even more ominous than The Atlantic’s dive into employee disenchantment. Maybe that’s because Facebook confirmed that the rebrand would not change any of the underlying tensions: “Today’s announcement does not affect how we use or share data.”
Meta / 2 min read
Soul Machines is just one of the companies aiming to fill future metaverses with autonomous NPCs that realistically respond and react to human interactions. For now, the company’s sort of creepy digital avatars pepper large brand chats — try speaking with Nestle’s Ruth character, for example (or check out the company’s original research project, BabyX). Co-founder Greg Cross imagines one day being able to create autonomous avatars of yourself, that can work and earn money in your stead. Here’s one utopian scenario:
“Where a less advantaged person may not be able to afford one-on-one time with a doctor or teacher, Soul Machines’ digital people — each programmed and trained in the relevant field and deployed at scale — would theoretically allow anyone to experience a greater degree of personalized care (which still requires an internet connection and webcam). He goes on to explain that in a hypothetical banking situation, users might feel more comfortable talking to a digital person about their personal finances.”
The Verge / 14 min read Read More Tech+Media What Happens When Your Favorite Thing Goes Viral?
Darker songs go viral on TikTok all the time; so does older stuff, like ABBA hits. But what’s weird about the Mountain Goats’ No Children going viral, says Vox, is that the mostly one-person band is the “least likely candidates for ‘viral TikTok sensation’ on the planet,” covering topics such as Dungeons & Dragons, professional wrestling, and child abuse. “The Mountain Goats getting TikTok famous sort of feels like if Ulysses suddenly became the bestselling book on Amazon,” says author Rebecca Jennings.
“Largely, though, the videos I’m seeing are a sort of meta-reaction to the trend, made by longtime Mountain Goats fans who are talking about what it’s like to see a song and a band that was so deeply important to them get sucked into the infinite churn of trending content. ‘As a 2010-era hipster in recovery from an insufferable superiority complex, I am constantly forced to reckon with unlearning the impulse to gatekeep everything I love from everyone,’ begins one TikTok.”
Vox / 8 min read Read More Twitter Amplifies Conservative Politicians. Is It Because Users Mock Them?
Twitter reporting that its timeline algorithm amplifies right-wing politicians is a great step towards transparency; also optics, as you’d rather be seen as part of the solution than the subject of WSJ and NY Times investigative pieces. WaPo has their theory on why this skewing occurs in the first place: conservative US politicians are more likely to be ratioed — Twitter slang for a disproportionate amount of replies to likes or retweets (aka negative sentiment). The algorithm might then judge the reply rate as increased engagement, and thus amplify the tweet.
The Washington Post / 3 min read Read More What Is It About Peter Thiel?
The question “What is it about Peter Thiel?” could fill an essay. And it has — New Yorker pores over the contrarian’s polarizing allure. And there’s certainly reason to dissect it. Unlike, say, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg, Thiel does not “helm a company that obviously shapes everyday life.” Even PayPal, which Thiel co-founded, is far from polarizing (compared to Amazon or Facebook).
To his followers, he’s a techno-libertarian who “associates technological advancement with personal freedom, scientific progress, and even salvation.” To critics, his views represent “a tangle of unprincipled hypocrisies.” Yet despite the eccentricity and the divided opinions, there’s a part of Thiel’s outlook for everyone:
“Thiel has a more esoteric intellectual identity, which draws on anthropology, political theory, and theology. In public conversation, he moves fluidly across the vocabularies of high tech, theory, finance, and religion — an unusual mix, regardless of its cohesiveness. There is something for everyone: the Christian M.B.A. curious about Silicon Valley, the young executive searching for digestible learnings, the politics enthusiast searching for a new schema.”
The New Yorker / 20 min read
As we consider the critical importance of local news in fostering the fabric of our communities, newsrooms are facing unprecedented challenges: consolidated ownership, shrinking readership, and budget pressure from declining advertising and subscription revenues. Perhaps the most powerful force to bolster local news is the use of tech to give journalists ways to automate repetitive tasks and free up human capital for more news reporting. The role of AI in the local newsroom has the potential to be game changing, but it doesn’t come without risks.
Watch the AI & Local News Panel from NYC Media Lab’s Summit 2021: Future Imperfect on October 6, 2021. Speakers: Steven Rosenbaum (Moderator), Executive Director of NYC Media Lab; Aimee Rinehart, Program Manager for AI & Local News at AP; Audrey Cooper, Editor-in-Chief at WNYC; Mark Hansen, Journalism Professor at Columbia University; Claire Leibowicz, Head of AI & Media Integrity at Partnership on AI.
nycmedialab (YouTube) / 52 min watch
“It may seem as though we got the Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccines incredibly quickly. But Hungarian biochemist Katalin Karikó had been trying to make mRNA vaccines work for 30 years while fighting scientific gatekeepers who thought her idea was absurd. Her grants were denied, her papers rejected, her speaking invitations withdrawn; eventually, the University of Pennsylvania demoted her. But she still refused to quit, and in 2005, she and collaborator Drew Weissman cracked the code. They figured out how mRNA could direct our own cells to manufacture medicines to order.”
Spotify / 40 min listen
Listen Now Virtual Events & Jobs Free Event: NY Times DealBook Online Summit
Date: November 9–10
“We’re bringing together some of the most influential minds in business, policy and culture to take stock of a world in the midst of rapid reinvention, grappling with the ripples of Covid and rewriting the rules in real time.” Register Here. A Deeper Look ‘Conditioning an Entire Society’: The Rise of Biometric Data Technology
At first, enthusiasm for facial recognition company CRB Cunninghams’ tech was high. The company successfully trialed a system that speeded up lunch lines by scanning students’ faces and automatically deducting money from their accounts.
The tech made its way to dozens of schools before public backlash — from parents and tech ethics experts alike — questioned the efficiency/privacy tradeoff and slowed things down. As Sandra Wachter, a data ethics expert at the Oxford Internet Institute, put it: “Is that worth having a database of children’s faces somewhere?” The Guardian explores several other controversial facial recognition companies, including Clearview AI and FaceWatch.
The Guardian / 6 min read