New Week Same Humans #24

Memes are selling for millions of dollars. See 200 years of human history in 60 seconds. Plus more news and analysis from this week.

Welcome to the Wednesday update from New World Same Humans, a newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.

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💡 This week’s Sunday instalment was inspired by the NASA Perseverance rover. Go here to read Mars, modernity, and new frontiers for the 2020s.💡

This week, the digital art market is exploding thanks to crypto tokens.

Also, the NYPD wants to put Boston Dynamics robots on patrol. And TikTok plays host to a new conspiracy theory involving Bill Gates and the Texas snow.

Plus, the Perseverance rover sends back real audio from Mars.

Let’s go!

🖼️ Digital art and the status race

The visual arts landscape is being revolutionised by non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

An NFT is a unique code that’s stored on a blockchain. Online creators can irreversibly associate an NFT with a piece of digital content, and so mark it out as the first, created by their own hand. Sure, the content – picture, meme, whatever – can still be copied or captured by screenshot. But those reproductions will be just that; mere copies of the original.

Now, online visual artists are using NFTs to sell originals of their work. Artist Chris Torres created the iconic Nyan Cat meme 10 years ago. Last week he put a special version, authenticated by an NFT, up for sale on the digital marketplace Foundation. It sold for $580,000.

Back in December celebrated digital artist Beeple sold 20 NFT works for $3.5 million.

YouTube star Logan Paul just created 3,000 NFTs and sold them for over $3.5 million. Lindsay Lohan sold a single picture of her face for $15,000; it resold for $59,000.

And this week, recognition of the phenomenon from the high temple of elite art culture. London auction house Christie’s will host an online auction of Beeple’s digital collage Everydays: The First 5,000 Days; it’s the first time the house has sold a digital-only artwork. The auction starts tomorrow, and Christie’s will accept the cryptocurrency Ethereum as payment.

⚡ NWSH Take: People are going crazy at the idea that someone would pay $$$ for a meme that can be copy/pasted and sprayed all over the internet. But NFTs are a way to authenticate a file as the original, and that means they bring the dynamics that prevail in real-world art to digital art, too. Anyone can Google the Mona Lisa and view it a million different ways; anyone can print a life-sized copy and stick it on their wall. The original is still worth a fortune. Ownership of the original isn’t about access to the art; it’s about the status of having the one, the authentic, work. // This means NFTs have unlocked a powerful new way for digital art to serve the eternal human need for status. It’s a classic case of new world, same humans. // Revolutions in the creative industries often revolve around the original or the copy. In the early 20th-century, recording technologies made it possible for musicians to sell millions of copies. Cue Caruso, the Beatles, and pop culture as we know it. Now, the power to create originals is set to transform the digital art landscape, and deliver a host of meme creator millionaires.

📈 Got to admit it’s getting better

It’s been a tough 12 months. So here’s a reminder of the broader picture.

This amazing new visualisation charts rising global affluence and health between 1800 and 2021. A reminder that, across the long run, we are making this planet a better home for humans.

There’s something strangely affecting about seeing 221 years of history compressed into 60 seconds. See the devastating impacts of WWI in 1919 and WWII in 1939. And the incredible surge that China begins in 1990.

🤖 A tale of two robots

The NYPD have put a Boston Dynamics robot dog on patrol.

The Spot robot was deployed alongside officers to the site of a home invasion in the Bronx this week. A spokesperson said Spot is currently in a test phase with the NYPD, who hope to use the robots to survey crime scenes and relay information back to officers.

Meanwhile, the long-awaited Dawn Avatar Robot Cafe will open in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district in June. The cafe is staffed by robot waiters who are remotely controlled by disabled people. The technology company behind the project, Ory Laboratory Inc, says it’s intended to make work accessible to people unable to leave their homes, or, in some cases, even their beds.

The cafe first made headlines in late 2018 when Ory trialled a pop up version; this video tells the story.

⚡ NWSH Take: One robot is a bit creepy; another is cool. These two stories exemplify the mixed blessings that robotics will deliver in the 2020s. // If the Boston Dynamics dog helps keep officers safe and makes police response more effective, then it’s pretty cool, too. But, unsurprisingly, many are already voicing concerns over police use of Boston Dynamics robots. A new argument over surveillance, privacy, and regulation is brewing. // We talk a lot about how automation will eat jobs in the coming decades. Less, though, about how new technologies can create jobs in new and unexpected ways. The Dawn Avatar initiative is a great example of automation technologies put to work to unleash human potential, and offer opportunities to those usually excluded from them.

❄️ What do you snow?

TikTik and other platforms this week saw the rise of a new viral conspiracy theory, which claims the recent Texas snow is actually fake plastic snow, sent by the government, or maybe Bill Gates, to heighten fear of climate change.

In many videos, concerned citizens attempt to prove the snow is fake by holding a cigarette lighter to a snow ball and pointing out that the snow is not melting.

Reuters has a good explainer on why yes, the snow is melting.

In other news, a new study by researchers at the University of Cambridge found that people with extreme political views are more likely to struggle with complex cognitive tasks. The researchers administered tests – such as memorising shapes and tracking the position of dots – to 330 people, and also surveyed the participants on their political opinions and worldview.

It would be interesting to test whether there’s a similar correlation between complex cognition and conspiracy theories. New ways to identify and help those who fall prey to these theories would be a game-changer.

🗓️ Also this week

🤝 Facebook will restore news content to users in Australia. The Australian government has shifted its position, and says Facebook won’t have to pay every time it displays news content if it can prove it is signing payment deals with news outlets.

♟️ Chess keeps getting bigger on video game streaming site Twitch. Last week it briefly surpassed League of Legends and Fortnite to become the top gaming category by viewer numbers.

💵 Amazon is throwing its support behind President Biden’s attempt to raise the US minimum wage to $15 per hour. The retail giant raised its own starting pay for US employees to $15 back in 2018.

🛒 AI startup AiFi is teaming up with autonomous retailer Wundermart to roll out 20 autonomous convenience stores in Europe. Wundermart is a Dutch retailer with 70 stores in hotels and transport hubs.

🔗 The US wants to bring allies together to build a China-free technology supply chain. The move is yet another sign of growing US/China tensions over digital technology.

🧐 Twitter is experimenting with crowdsourced fact-checking, and early signs are not good. Many users of the new Birdwatch tool gave favourable ratings to Tweets claiming Biden stole the US Presidential election.

🧬 The UK government faces a court battle over a health data deal with analytics company Palantir. Palantir is best known for its providing security and immigration data services to the US government.

💸 The Federal Reserve says it may issue a digital US dollar. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell says the digital dollar is a ‘high priority project’.

🏦 Banking giant HSBC plans to halve its office space in the years ahead. CEO Noel Quinn says the move will help the business cut costs and reduce its carbon footprint.

🪐 NASA’s Mars rover, Perseverance, sent back real audio from the Red Planet. Don’t get too excited; turns out it’s pretty quiet up there.

🌍 Humans of Earth

Key metrics to help you keep track of Project Human.

🙋‍♀️ Global population: 7,848,170,617
🌊 Earths currently needed: 1.7787777218

💉 Global population vaccinated: 0.6%

🗓️ 2021 progress bar: 15% complete

📖 On this day: On 24th February 1582 Pope Gregory announced the papal bull Inter gravissimas, which introduced the Gregorian calendar.

New World originals

Thanks for reading this week.

If you’re planning to bid on Beeple’s Everyday: The First 5,000 Days, I wish you luck. I’m expecting a seven figure price tag.

The rise of digital original art is a fascinating story of creativity, commerce, and the endless race for status. And it’s only just getting started.

NWSH will be watching this story, and a thousand others, every step of the way. In the meantime, don’t forget that the email you’ve just read is a shareable currency of its own!

Remember, our community becomes smarter, more creative, and more useful as it becomes larger and more diverse. To help, why not take a second to forward this email to one person – a friend, relative, or colleague – who’d also enjoy it? Or share New World Same Humans across one of your social networks, and let others know why you think it’s worth their time.

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Your membership of this community is more valuable to me than any NFT. I’ll be back on Sunday. Until then, be well,


P.S Thanks to Monique van Dusseldorp for additional research and analysis.

David Mattin is the founder of the Strategy and Futures Research Unit. He sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.