New Week Same Humans #32

Google reveals the Earth as you've never seen it before. China's digital currency could undo the global financial system. 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 rise of a movement that wants to build a new wave of independent city-states. Go here to read Charter City Dreams.💡

This week, Google Earth launches a new feature that lays bare the Anthropocene as never before.

Plus, China says its new digital currency is not intended to displace the US dollar.

Also, are we approaching the age of the Glass Box Algorithm?

Let’s go!

⌛ Timelapse machine

A new feature inside Google Earth allows for an amazing – and sometimes chilling – view of the impact we humans have had on our planet.

Timelapse uses satellite images of Earth taken from 1986 to the present day to create fast-forward animations that reveal change across that period.

Users can search for any location on the Earth’s surface, and watch 30 year’s worth of change play out in just a few seconds.

But Google have also made some featured animations: witness the incredible growth of Dubai, Alaska’s Columbia glacier retreat, or frightening deforestation in the state of Rondônia, northern Brazil: see the video above for more on that.

The tool utilises over 24 million satellite images, and Google worked with NASA, the United States Geological Survey's Landsat program – the world's oldest Earth observation program – and the EU’s Copernicus program to make it happen.

Meanwhile, advisors around President Biden say he’ll this week announce plans to cut US global warmings emissions in half from 2005 levels by 2030. Meeting the goal – far more ambitious than that set by the Obama administration – would require far-reaching changes when it come to transport, in-home heating, and industry.

⚡ NWSH Take: Astronauts talk about the overview effect: a new awareness of the fragility of our planet gained by looking down on the Earth from space. Google Earth is now so detailed that it offers something akin to an overview effect on your phone. The message is stark: we have transformed the planet in ways our ancestors never imagined possible. Now, we must act. // Biden’s move spells a return to evidence-based US climate policy. It may come just in time to avert the worst climate scenarios, and so become by far the most important aspect of his legacy. // The UK government is also about to announce a more ambitious emissions target. Why all this action? It’s leading up to November’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow; Biden and others hope to put pressure on every world leader to follow suit. // Put the date in your diary: humans face a reckoning with our past, and our shared future, on 1 – 12 November.

💵 Decline and fall of the banking empire

Jamie Dimon is CEO of US bank JPMorgan Chase. In his recent annual letter to shareholders, he made a startling admission:

Banks are facing extensive competition from Silicon Valley, both in the form of fintechs and Big Tech companies… that is here to stay. As the importance of cloud, AI and digital platforms grows, this competition will become even more formidable. As a result, banks are playing an increasingly smaller role in the financial system.

Yes, that’s the CEO and chairman of America’s largest bank admitting that traditional banks are becoming less relevant.

This week came news of the kind that has prompted this thinking. China is pushing ahead with its project to create a digital version of the yuan, and may trial the new currency with visitors at the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022.

Meanwhile, the Bank of England is considering a UK digital currency.

⚡ NWSH Take: These digital currencies will be issued by central banks. That means they are not like cryptocurrencies, which run on blockchains and so aren’t controlled by any central power. // But they could have a far-reaching effects on the global financial system, and the thrust of that will be to diminish the importance of the traditional banking and financial sectors. // In 2021, the US dollar is still the world’s currency. But a new tech-fuelled ecosystem of seamless digital payments, using currencies such as the digital yuan, could undermine that. Such an ecosystem will mean businesses have less need to keep dollars on hand in a bank account, and less need to borrow money from banks. // Put that together with the cryptocurrency revolution and, just as Dimon predicts, the traditional banking system starts to atrophy. // China, of course, knows all this. It says it has no intention for the digital yuan to replace the dollar as the global reserve currency. Rather, it says, ‘the market should decide’.

🤖 Make your MetaHuman

Back in New Week #22 I wrote about the MetaHuman Creator from Epic Games. It’s a tool that allows non-expert users to create and animate photorealistic virtual humans.

Now, the Early Access programme for the tool is open.

Epic – the people behind online video game Fortnite just announced a $1 billion investment round, including $200 million from Sony. They say they’ll spend the money building new social experiences inside Fortnite and other games, and developing their Unreal Engine, which allows creators to build new shared virtual worlds.

In other words, Epic Games wants to own the metaverse: that means the simulated worlds that people congregate inside, and the avatars they use. But they’ll have to fight Facebook and Snap, among others, to win this one.

🔍 Glass box algorithms

Spain is set to enact new laws that recognise gig economy delivery riders as employees. Among the new provisions: gig economy giants such as Deliveroo and UberEats will be forced to expose to riders the inner workings of the algorithms that fuel their platforms.

These algorithms typically assign riders a score, which determines the number of hours per day they’re allowed to work, the orders they are eligible to deliver, and more. If the score falls too low, the rider is banned from the app.

Now, gig economy companies operating in Spain will have to let riders know how those scores are calculated. They say that this will infringe their intellectual property rights. But Spanish labour unions say it’s a crucial step towards stopping gig economy worker exploitation.

⚡ NWSH Take: I’ve written often in this newsletter about the quest to protect workers from gig economy giants. This feels a step forward. But it’s the central idea here, algorithmic transparency, that’s particularly intriguing: it has implications far beyond the gig economy. // Algorithms are responsible for sorting processes that impact our lives in all kinds of ways. They decide, or soon will, whether we’re eligible for a loan, which school our children go to, whether we’re prioritised for preventative health checks, and more. Scandals such as the one that unfolded around Apple Card last year, when it emerged that the algorithm fuelling the card offered less credit to women, will become more common. // So, a key emerging demand in the decades ahead? People will want to smash the black box algorithms and expose their inner workings to the light. In the 20th-century the struggle to empower ordinary people revolved around labour power. In the 21st-century, it looks set to focus on algorithmic power.

🗓️ Also this week

🎤 Facebook is launching itself into the social audio. Zuck says FB will launch a suite of audio products in the coming months, including a Clubhouse clone and ‘Soundbites’, which will allow users to share short audio snippets.

🪐 NASA’s Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, took the first ever powered flight on an alien planet. The helicopter climbed to an altitude of around 10 metres and hovered for a few seconds before landing.

🇮🇳 The Indian government is drafting a bill to ban cryptocurrencies. Under new plans citizens who trade in the currencies, or hold them, will be fined.

🏙️ Senegalese-American rapper Akon is planning a second crypto-city in Uganda. In Charter City Dreams on Sunday I wrote about Akon’s plans for a crypto-fuelled city state in Senegal.

💇 Amazon will open a giant hi-tech hair salon in London. The retail giant recently launched a section on its website dedicated to supplying small beauty businesses and independent practitioners.

🙏 Charles Geschke, co-founder of Adobe and inventor of the PDF, died aged 81. Geschke helped spark the desktop publishing revolution when he established Adobe in 1982.

Whole Foods customers will soon be able to pay with their palms. It’s all courtesy of the Amazon One palm-scanning payment technology.

🚗 A Tesla crashed in Texas killing two, and police believe no one was in the driving seat at the time. Elon Musk says data shows that autopilot was not to blame for the crash.

🤑 The NFT craze has been great for people who unwittingly became internet-famous via memes. Laina Morris, better known as the Overly Attached Girlfriend, made $400,000 out of this iconic picture of her from a 2012 video.

🌍 Humans of Earth

Key metrics to help you keep track of Project Human.

🙋 Global population: 7,860,630,622
🌊 Earths currently needed: 1.7826077745

💉 Global population vaccinated: 2.7%

🗓️ 2021 progress bar: 30% complete

📖 On this day: On 21 April 1509 Henry VIII ascends to the throne of England.

New World Overview

Thanks for reading this week.

Playing with Google Earth is the closest most of us will get to the famous overview effect that astronauts talk about. At least, until we get space tourism.

In the meantime, New World Same Humans will continue to seek an overview effect of its own. That means watching the human story – trends, technology and society – as it unfolds, and working to make sense of what it all means for our future.

There’s one thing you can do to support that mission: share!

Now that you’ve made it to the end of this week’s instalment, please consider forwarding the email to someone who’d also enjoy it. 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!

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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.