How Social Media Influences Everything, from Architecture to the Outdoors
Because I recently graduated law school and I'll be studying for the bar exam all summer, I've decided I'll be doing something a bit different with this blog/newsletter for the next few months. Recently, I've noticed a lack of a well-curated newsletter of long form essays on technology and its impact on society. Social media and other algorithms are great at surfacing the news of the day, but aren't great at curating the long reads that step back and force us to think about the big picture.
This tweet from Andressen Horowitz's resident tech pundit, Benedict Evans, crystallized the gap:
In short, this is what I'm going to do over the next few months. I'll provide links to a few great long reads from the past week, with a short synopsis and some takeaways.
I love thinking in depth about technology and society, but more than that, I love reading others' in-depth thoughts on how technology is impacting what it means to be human. While books often address these topics, technology moves so fast it can be better to read digital essays that don't have to go through the time-consuming book editing process to understand quickly evolving trends.
And so without further distraction, here are this week's long reads.
🗻 Death in the Alpine, High Country News
The story of two buddies who attempt to hike one of Colorado's famed fourteeners, and what happens when outdoor adventures are inspired by social media.
"Even in the wildest places, we are connected to a universe of people and information through Instagram and Facebook, while those same apps bring distant landscapes into the comfort of our living rooms. That can affect people’s assessments of how dangerous things are: What once seemed extreme becomes normal if you look at enough Instagram photos showing other people doing it....
If mountain climbing has traditionally reflected the most heroic versions of ourselves — triumphant and invincible — social media has amplified that projection."
It's another story of the way the digital world has come to reshape the physical world around it, and how the physical world is responding to reshape that digital milieu.
On the 20th anniversary of the filing of the Justice Department’s antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft, the Ringer convened the lawyers who tried the case, the competitors who found themselves under Microsoft’s heel, and the journalists tasked with making sense of it all to recount tech’s most important legal battle, in their own words.
A fascinating oral history of the DOJ's case against Microsoft, with little gems like this: "The line in the sand for Microsoft was the freedom to put anything it wanted to into Windows. And [Steve] Ballmer’s line was, 'If we want to put a ham sandwich in it, we can.'"
It also tells the tale of lead prosecutor David Boies using Bill Gates' awkwardness against him, starting with opening arguments (sound anything like another famous founder under regulatory scrutiny now?)
Can a living art project be found guilty of identity theft? A new lawsuit alleges that a YouTube star Poppy “copied Mars Argo’s (a former YouTube star) identity, likeness, expression of ideas, sound, style,” and “dyed her hair a specific platinum blonde and, in character as Poppy, started to alter her voice to be a pitch higher to mimic Mars Argo’s distinctive speaking voice.”
In addition to concerning accusations of domestic violence and abuse, the lawsuit brings important questions regarding copyright and fair use to the fore. In a world where nothing is new and everything is derivative, every character or caricature that comes into question could be subject to legal proceedings. — an avenue few YouTubers want to travel down.
It’s quickly become one of the most important legal battles in YouTuber history, and an interesting challenge for adapting old copyright laws to new mediums.
😱 I Tried to Get an AI to Write This Story, Bloomberg
The author goes on a fun adventure to get machine learning tools (TensorFlow) to create real-sounding meetings. It highlights the promises and potential pitfalls of a future powered by machine learning, including the possible centrality of Google to AI infrastructure:
"Even if TPUs shrink and everyone in the world can do machine learning, I’ll (Google) have the data. The beautiful, expensive-to-acquire data. I will have turned all my maps into self-driving cars, all my conversations into phones that have conversations for you, all my emails into automated replies. And I will be providing the cloud infrastructure for a whole machine learning world—clawing back what’s rightfully mine from those mere booksellers at Amazon—because my tools will be the standard, and our data will be the biggest, and the applications the most immense."
🏢 The Brand Builder, The New Republic
A profile of the work of "starchitect" Bjarke Ingels. Ingels' firm, BIG, many current commissions include campuses for Google, station and car designs for Elon Musk's Hyperloop, a private school for WeWork ("WeGrow") in Chelsea.
"BIG is as much a brand as an architectural practice, devoted less to building timeless structures than to associating itself with the newest and latest. This might explain why Silicon Valley clients like Google and WeWork find Ingels’s sensibility so appealing."
As BIG continues to win commissions and followers, the result may be a kind of aggregate BIG world, in which rapid change and flexibility take precedence over a textured sense of place and community, as architecture merges with brand building.
Wired's June cover story – an in-depth exploration of special counsel Robert Mueller's time in Vietnam.
📜 Section 230 as First Amendment Rule, Harvard Law Review
Section 230 of the Community Decency Act, often referred to as the law that made the internet possible (the law provides for intermediary liability protection, which shields websites from lawsuits directed at user activity, while also encouraging these sites to engage in content moderation), has found itself the target of many attacks against big tech over the past couple years. Cary Glynn, a graduating Harvard Law student, argues that even without Section 230, protecting internet intermediaries from liability should be the First Amendment rule