This week's notable links (really)
Earlier today you received a weekly notable links email with exactly one link in it. As it turns out, this was a bug with my newsletter service provider, which I'm told will be fixed this week. (For the record, Buttondown is responsive and highly recommended.) In the meantime, here's the email you should have received!
This is my regular digest of links and media I found notable over the last week. Did I miss something? Let me know!
"A wide swath of the ruling class sees books as data-intake vehicles for optimizing knowledge rather than, you know, things to intellectually engage with. [...] Some of us enjoy fiction. And color." Amen.
I'm firmly on team fiction. A brilliant novel can teach you more about the world than a hundred AI "thunks"; as this article says, it's about the interpretation more than it is about data. Writing and reading are inherently human endeavors. They're a conversation that sometimes takes place over generations. There is no shortcut.
"Intricate, invisible webs, just like this one, link some of the world’s largest food companies and most popular brands to jobs performed by U.S. prisoners nationwide, according to a sweeping two-year AP investigation into prison labor that tied hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of agricultural products to goods sold on the open market."
It's very on the nose that a former Southern slave plantation is now the country's largest maximum-security prison and a hub for this kind of forced labor.
The former Editor in Chief of the Guardian on Julian Assange: "I know they won’t stop with Assange. The world of near-total surveillance, merely sketched by Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-four, is now rather frighteningly real. We need brave defenders of our liberties. They won’t all be Hollywood hero material, any more than Orwell’s Winston Smith was."
It's interesting that every description of Assange's actions needs to start with, "I'm not a fan of Assange." He's certainly a problematic character. But I do believe that the war leaks he helped release were an important insight into what was being done in our name. They were important, and it's also notable that they're being downplayed now.
Rusbridger's larger point - that his potential extradition has larger implications for press freedom - is also well-made. We need people to hold truth to power; sometimes that involves revealing the secrets that are being kept from us.
"Threads users will be allowed to follow accounts that post political content, but the algorithm that suggests content from users you don't follow will not recommend accounts that post about politics."
It's not clear to me what the definition of "politics" encompasses here. Is it just literal party / election politics? Does it include discussions about equal rights, which would disproportionately hit users from underrepresented groups?
Adam Mosseri says that he wants to create a "less angry place", but what about the topics where people are right to be angry?
"The FCC announced the unanimous adoption of a Declaratory Ruling that recognizes calls made with AI-generated voices are "artificial" under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA)."
A sign of the times that the FCC had to rule that making an artificial intelligence clone of a voice was illegal. I'm curious to understand if this affects commercial services that intentionally use AI to make calls on a user's behalf (eg to book a restaurant or perform some other service).
Tony is a smart, analytical person, which comes across strongly in this useful, transparent interview about the future of Medium. It's doing better than it ever has.
Also, I like this, which is very close to how my career has worked to date:
"The creator economy locked a lot of people into this passive income game that just doesn’t pay nearly as well as the other game, which is research something until you know more about it than anyone else, and then go get paid for that."
"“I would tell my family to avoid the Max. I would tell everyone, really,” said Joe Jacobsen, a former engineer at Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration." And so I shall.
This is going to be a textbook example of how moving to a sales-led rather than engineering-led culture can be incredibly harmful. Clearly Boeing is feeling stress from its competition, but rushing planes out the door has hurt its standing rather than helped it. This ongoing incident makes me incredibly reluctant to fly on any Boeing plane at all.
"Computer - enhance!"
I like the approach in this release from Apple: an open source AI model that can edit images based on natural language instructions. In other words, a human can tell the engine what to do to an image, and it goes and does it.
Rather than eliminating the human creativity in the equation, it gives the person doing the photo editing superpowers: instead of needing to know how to use a particular application to do the editing, they can simply give the machine instructions. I feel much more comfortable with the balance of power here than with most AI applications.
Obviously, it has implications for vendors like Adobe, which have established some degree of lock-in by forcing users to learn their tools and interfaces. If this kind of user interface takes off - and, given new kinds of devices like Apple Vision Pro, it inevitably will - they'll have to compete on capabilities alone. I'm okay with that.
"You’ve got to offer your content to the hellish, overstuffed, harassment-laden, uber-competitive attention economy because otherwise no one will know who you are. [...] The commodification of the self is now seen as the only route to any kind of economic security."
In the new economy, every artist must also be an entrepreneur. In doing so, they compromise their intentions; a world where everyone is just shilling is one free from the purity of ideas and discourse. There is no such thing as being discovered or being heralded on the merit of your work alone. You've got to sell.
"In order to be able to choose their own browser, people must be free to download it, easily set it to default and to continue using it – all without interference from the operating system. Windows users do not currently enjoy this freedom of choice."
What's interesting to me is that this is very similar to the tactics that got Microsoft into hot anti-trust water a few decades ago. And here it is again: research that shows Microsoft is prioritizing its Edge browser in Windows. New browser, same dark pattern.
"Limiting average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels has been the gold standard for climate action since at least the 2015 Paris Agreement. A new scientific study published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Climate Change, however, suggests that the world unknowingly passed this benchmark back in 2020."
Not so great, but what's cool here is how they determined this: by analyzing strontium to calcium ratios in a species of sea sponge that lives for hundreds of years. Previously we'd only been able to determine ocean temperatures starting in 1850, when the industrial revolution was already underway.
This new analysis suggests that the pre-industrial oceans were cooler than had been previously understood, meaning we may be 20 years further along the global warming curve than we'd known. Even more reason to take dramatic action now.
"If your position is that public money will irrevocably taint journalism but the biggest companies in America buying ads will not, I submit that you have not thought about this issue very deeply."
I don't know how I feel about a publicly-funded media, although I couldn't be a bigger fan of independent public media entities like the BBC and Channel 4. What I do think is that we're a long way from a US government administration that will actually do that and guarantee freedom from interference.
"Today, I am just trying to make a singular, clarifying point: We need to build a large, continual public funding stream for journalism not because it is an easy task, but because it is the only way. Stop looking for magical alternative solutions."
This, on the other hand, may turn out to be true.
"As social traffic collapses and Google makes ominous AI-powered sounds about search, publishers across the board have started to reemphasize their websites as destinations, and that means there are a lot of new ideas about what makes websites valuable again." A lot of which look like blogging.
Semafor Signals, described in this piece, may be AI-augmented, but it really comes down to a collection of links that form an umbrella story, with some context from an editor to link it all together.
What's groundbreaking here is the newsroom tool used to produce it, not the product itself. And that's where AI - and a lot of other technology - becomes more interesting. Not as a way to replace journalists or churn out content at speed, but as a way to give them more information to work with in order to produce work (written and created by humans) that might not have been possible otherwise.
"Only 44 percent of adults completely rebelled at the notion of giving the former president — who is currently facing 91 felony charges — dictatorial authority, calling it “definitely bad” for America."
In case anyone was still wondering what the stakes are this election season.
"The only way to predict the future is to control it." An interesting idea that powers a book that has a lot to say about 21st century oligarchy and our relationship to technology. There's one conclusion that hits home particularly hard; I can't describe it without spoiling the story, but I'm glad it's there.
If I have a criticism, it's that the author has so many ideas to share that they sometimes burst the seams of the thriller that forms this novel's page-turning center. But I enjoyed every minute, nodding along and wondering what was going to happen next.