New Week #65
A cunning NFT trick raises deep questions about web3. Hyundai's new metaverse will connect us to robots on Mars. Plus more news and analysis from this week.
Welcome to the mid-week update from New World Same Humans, a newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.
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💡 In this week’s Sunday note I wrote about the future of this newsletter. Go here to read New Beginnings.💡
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The first New Week of 2022!
Thanks for the great response to Sunday’s note, New Beginnings, in which I wrote about plans to double down on the philosophical project at the heart of this newsletter.
The mid-week update will evolve accordingly, in ways I’m still figuring out. It will remain a scrapbook of what I’ve seen and thought about across the week. But I’d like, for example, to start including snippets from the books I’m reading alongside the more topical material. Eventually, that can evolve into a book club.
In the meantime, let’s get going.
This week, the founder of messaging app Signal poses some searching questions about the future of web3. New data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the Great Resignation is intensifying. And Hyundai dream of a metaverse fuelled by robots on Mars.
👁️ Web3 is in the eye of the beholder
This week, a penetrating critique of web3 sent waves through the crypto community.
That critique came from Moxie Marlinspike, the founder of message app Signal. Marlinspike this week announced that he will step down as Signal CEO, and it seems he’s been using his down time to explore the nascent web3 space. TL;DR — he’s not convinced.
Marlinspike’s essay covers much ground, but at its heart is an intriguing experiment. Using typical specifications, he created a strange new kind of NFT: one changes its appearance based on the platform it is being viewed from.
Yes, a viewer would see different abstract designs on marketplaces OpenSea and Rarible, and would have ended up with a 💩 in their crypto wallet had they purchased the NFT.
A clever stunt, sure. But there are deeper concerns underlying it. Cryptoheads are spending millions of dollars on NFT artworks. Most don’t realise, says Marlinspike, that there is no inherent connection between the NFT they’ve bought and the image they see. Essentially, they’re just buying some code that points to an image, and that image can be changed at any time. Given that, can NFTs really be said to enact meaningful ownership of a digital entity, as proponents claim?
There’s more. After a few days, OpenSea summarily deleted the NFT ‘without warning or explanation’. The even more powerful challenge that Marlinspike poses: if web3 is the decentralised paradise it’s meant to be, then how do we account for the fact that after this deletion the NFT wasn’t viewable in any crypto wallet on any device?
⚡ NWSH Take: Marlinspike’s essay is long and thoughtful; if you’re invested (literally or figuratively) in the future of web3 it’s a must read. // A growing number of in the Valley and beyond believe web3 is a digital salvation moment; a technology of decentralisation that can make real the dreams that animated the early web pioneers. Like Marlinspike, I’m not so sure. A new, shadow financial elite – including the world’s richest man – is forming around cryptocurrencies. The only people getting rich from NFTs were relatively rich already. And Marlinspike’s point, that web3 activity is coalescing around a few big, centralising platforms such as OpenSea, is powerful. // The broader signal here? In 2022, the crypto debate is set to ignite. Marlinspike has already prompted a reply from Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin, who says the essay fails to account for how crypto can evolve in the years ahead. Prepare to hear much more about this, some of it bound to be ill-tempered, in the coming months.
💭 A resign for life
In November last year 4.53 million US workers quit their job, according to data released by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics this week.
That’s the highest quit rate since records began in 2001. Here’s the picture across the last decade:
The Great Resignation continues apace. On the face of it, there’s nothing shocking here. But I can’t help but wonder if the forces driving all this run deeper than many economists want to acknowledge.
⚡ NWSH Take: To explain the Great Resignation, economists are doing what economists do: telling a rational choice story about human behaviour. US workers are resigning in record numbers, they say, because there are lots of vacant jobs and wages are rising. // No doubt those factors are impactful. But there are signs, too, that something deeper and less measurable is afoot. Labour force participation in the US still hasn’t reached pre-pandemic levels; some people are quitting and not taking up another job. Meanwhile, membership of /antiwork on Reddit – in which members argue for lifestyles outside traditional forms of employment – has jumped from 180,000 in October 2020 to 1.6 million. // The pandemic is a profound psychological shock. One that’s causing many to question the entire Techno-Capitalist Machine that they’ve spent their lives feeding. At least, that’s my sense of it; this isn’t the kind of thing you can prove (yet). But in the millions of workers missing from the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s spreadsheets, I think we can glimpse the beginnings of a deep desire, a need, to realign our relationship with the Machine. If I’m right, there are turbulent times ahead.
🦾 We can immerse you in it wholesale
Back in New Week #42 last summer, I wrote on Hyundai’s acquisition of robotics startup Boston Dynamics.
This week, via Hyundai’s presence at the annual CES technology event, we got a glimpse of the automaker’s longterm plans for Spot the robot dog, et al. That vision centres on what Hyundai is calling metamobility: a vision that brings together robots, autonomous vehicles, and the metaverse.
Metamobility will see Hyundai turn a new generation of autonomous vehicles into immersive metaverse-projectors able to transport riders into new virtual worlds.
Meanwhile, inhabitants of Hyundai’s metaverse will be able to interact with robots that roam around the real world. The company even wants to send Spot the dog to Mars, so that it can beam back virtual representations of real Martian landscapes; see the video above.
⚡ NWSH Take: The first New Week of 2022, and we’re already deep into the metaverse. If you’re hoping the hype will die down this year, then I’m afraid I can’t bring good news. Get ready for more on Hyundai’s metaverse, Disney’s metaversal theme park, and, of course, Meta’s push to build The Metaverse to Rule them All. // Where is all this taking us? It’s hard to argue with the observation, made by many, that amid an intensifying environmental crisis the Big Stories emerging from the media-tech industrial complex are those of escape from Earth — either into virtual worlds or new planets, or in Hyundai’s case both. I’m increasingly obsessed with the metaverse as the end point in a long journey through systems of representation that started with primitive languages, travelled through media, and looks set to arrive soon at VR and AR worlds. And, crucially, with the ways those virtual environments will estrange us from reality. On Sunday I wrote about my intention to turn the weekly Sunday note into a longer, deeper essay published once a month. The first essay, provisionally called The Worlds to Come, will focus on just this.
🗓️ Also this week
🍽️ TikTok announced that it will launch delivery-only restaurants across the US in March. The social app is partnering with GrubHub to roll out around 300 locations; menus will be based on the most popular viral food posts on the app.
🧑✈️ German airline Lufthansa says it will operate over 18,000 empty flights this winter, so that it keeps its European airport slots. EU rules say airlines must use at least 80% of their scheduled slots or risk losing them to rivals.
👾 Japanese media reported that the world’s first esports high school will open in the country later this year. At Esports Koutou Gakuin, students will learn the standard high school curriculum, as well as receiving expert tuition in video games from leading esports competitors.
🚜 Farm equipment giant John Deere launched a new autonomous tractor. The large tractor can plow fields and plant crops without the need for a human driver. John Deere makes half of all farm machinery sold in the US.
🌐 Researchers at Tufts University have created a model that describes the dissemination of fake news. They say the model will allow the development of new media and content strategies that combat disinformation.
🦹 The CCP issued new rules intended to clamp down on deepfakes. The new rules state that social platforms are banned from recommending ‘synthetic content’. The injunction could prove tricky for platforms; deepfakes are difficult to detect.
☀️ Elon Musk criticised the state of California’s proposal to end incentives for citizens to buy solar panels. Tesla, which sells solar panels, has received billions in subsidies from the Californian government.
🤖 Chinese etail giant JD.com launched two ‘robotic shops’ in the Dutch cities of Rotterdam and Leiden. Customers order from an app, and then head to one of the stores to collect; orders are sorted and packed by robots. The move marks JD.com’s first push into physical retail in Europe.
⛷️ Members of the UK’s Winter Olympics team are being given special phones to take to the Games, amid fears the CCP will try to spy on them. Meanwhile, Dutch athletes have been told not to take personal phones or computers.
🌍 Humans of Earth
Key metrics to help you keep track of Project Human.
🙋 Global population: 7,919,863,176
🌊 Earths currently needed: 1.8008151942
💉 Global population vaccinated: 50.5%
🗓️ 2022 progress bar: 3% complete
📖 On this day: On 12 January 1967, US psychologist Dr James Bedford becomes the first person to be cryogenically preserved after death with the intention of future resurrection.
Thanks for reading this week.
It’s great to be back. And if the first mid-week instalment of the year signals anything, it’s that 2022 is set to send us on a wild ride.
New World Same Humans will view it all through the lens of the three questions I laid out on Sunday. What is the nature of technological modernity? What is the nature of a human being, and the human collective? What new forms of life are possible, and desirable?
It means a lot that you’re coming along for the journey. And if you think others would enjoy it too, then let them know! Why not forward this email to a friend or colleague? Or share it across one of your social networks, with a note on why you found it valuable. Remember: the larger and more diverse the NWSH community becomes, the better for all of us.
I’ll be back this Sunday. Until then, be well,
P.S Huge thanks to Nikki Ritmeijer for the illustration at the top of this email. And to Monique van Dusseldorp for additional research and analysis.