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Back to the Future
the industry #9 // zuckerberg's ultrahuman metaverse, the unending legal harassment of elon musk, drama at ted, tech links, clown world
SAN FRANCISCO READERS: Myself and the Pirate Wires crew invite you to drink with us at Zeitgeist on Thursday, October 12 at 5:30 PM. Be there (or die).
Tech’s new aesthetic. About a year ago Mark Zuckerberg released the first images of his avatar in the metaverse — a horrifying, dead-eyed cartoon — and was widely mocked. Over time, the images were forgotten… as was, to a certain extent, the metaverse. It’s been a very busy AI year, after all. Does “Meta” even still exist? And didn’t I see Zuck on Threads the other day, diving back into the OG social media wars?
But that’s all more a summary of recent press attention than an accurate read of the last year. In the first place, Facebook has, in total, surpassed 3 billion monthly active users. Then, last week Lex Fridman filmed his most recent podcast in the metaverse, with special guest Zuckerberg jacked in miles away, revealing the company’s quantum leap in avatar realism. And okay look, I have never been a big ‘new toys’ guy, but these effects are incredible. Lex and Zuck look like people in this clip. Or, they are very close to looking like people, now safely beyond the uncanny valley.
In Spielberg’s Ready Player One, the cartoonish look of the OASIS never made much sense. From the earliest days of Snowcrash to the Matrix holy trilogy, we have always known the dream: the parallel virtual world needs to look and feel like the real world, but elevated + we get superpowers. A lot of this is just a vibe, but you know it when you feel it, and a year ago the vibe was off. Today? I’m leaning in.
You’ve probably seen the viral, AI generated Instagrams of cozy rainy rooms, a clash of ancient books and stunning architecture, with huge windows before a rainstorm, say, or some other stunning vista.
These, along with recent advances at Meta, and everything produced by David Holz’s Midjourney, feel like the first, real, aesthetic direction of the 21st Century. The future doesn’t look and feel like a video game, or some luminescent 80s Tron-scape (though that is also cool as hell (and okay probably there will be a little bit of that)). Because that’s not what people want. The future will look ultrahuman, which is to say more human than the human world. What I mean by this: as the aesthetics of the future come together, we will steep ourselves entirely in human dreaming, unencumbered by the laws of reality. That doesn’t mean cartoon shit, that just means we can finally build out the world we’ve always wanted. Or, at least in the digital.
THE FIFTH ESTATE
NOTABLE INDUSTRY TRENDS
TED drama. Coleman Hughes accused TED of suppressing his talk on the value of “color blindness” in race relations. TED’s perspective: ignoring race is actually racist, so institutions must be focused on the issue at all times (in other words, the key to combating systemic racism is architecting a systemically racist system). After the story broke, backlash was immense. Yes, what we’ve seen from TED is the same racist operating philosophy that’s shaped the last five or ten years of American history. But in our slightly freer social media landscape the public’s actual opinion on these issues is no longer silenced. Or, not like it was. People were, and continue to be, pissed. In their defense, TED provided an array of erroneous or misrepresented data supporting their ‘scientific’ claim that racism is good, actually, every bit of which Coleman challenged in a piece for the Free Press, and in a pod with the All-In guys.
Perhaps this subject seems a little far afield of what we usually cover in the Industry, but the racism here demonstrated by TED is of the same philosophy governing recruiters and HR professionals throughout tech. It’s also the same philosophy that led to the widespread racist hiring in 2021. If you’re running a company, you will be forced to have a perspective on this, because inevitably one of your well-meaning but nonetheless racist recruiters or HR professionals will insist you hire based on race. You will think to yourself “hmm, this seems racist.” You will be right. Trust yourself. Resist. Also, you’re in charge. Consider firing these people.
As of Tuesday, head of TED Chris Anderson has only defended the company’s pushback and suppression of the talk. (@TEDchris)
The State vs. Elon Musk. Since Pirate Wires launched its Industry newsletter, not a week has gone by without some aggressive, legal targeting, often from the state or federal government, of Elon Musk. This week is no exception. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a governmental agency meant to enforce federal discrimination law, is suing Tesla, alleging tolerance of racism (FT). Elsewhere, the estate of Micah Lee, a 37-year-old Tesla owner who allegedly died while using Autopilot, is also suing the company. That trial started Thursday (WaPo).
Is all of this starting to seem a little too much like a pattern to you? You’re not alone. A recent WSJ opinion piece details the extensive “harassment of Elon Musk” at the hands of the Biden administration, cataloging the “legal deluge” Musk-led companies have found themselves in since Musk famously bought Twitter, and promised to end the institution of de facto state censorship. One notable front of the ongoing state hostilities: after Starship’s first flight, “the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scoured the environmental damage after a SpaceX rocket exploded shortly after takeoff. Seven bobwhite quail eggs and a collection of blue land crabs were found to have been charred.” (WSJ)
Yacc Attack. Tomorrow, X CEO Yaccarino will meet with seven of the company’s bank lenders, which have been saddled with $13 billion of debt from the acquisition, to present her plans for profitability (FT). This follows the large, noisy drama centering Yaccarino and the Code conference, Kara Swisher’s stagnant circle jerk, in which Yaccarino was ambushed by the surprise presence of Yoel Roth, one of Twitter’s former chief censors. A day earlier, Yacc appeared in a crucifixion pose in a Financial Times feature, apparently unaware of why FT would 1) be interested in a story about X at all, given the media’s abject hatred of the company, and 2) why the photographer was… asking her to stand like that?
In the cases of both the Christ photo and Kara Swisher’s scheming, many people on X have taken up for the Yacc. That is, frankly, ridiculous. The PR failures of the CEO of X are entirely on the CEO of X. We all know who Kara Swisher is. We all know what the Code conference is. We all know what the tech press is. If you are giving these people your time, in a public forum, after every twisted lie they’ve told about you? After every celebration they’ve thrown as you’ve stumbled? After every admission they want you to fail! Then you are, I am sorry to say, an idiot who deserves it.
The Yacc has frankly not been good, and I do not believe the Yacc will last.
In the latest episode of the Pirate Wires podcast, Liz Wheeler joined to discuss the Philly riots and NYC migrant crisis, Florida's high speed rail (and California’s non-existent one), the RNC debates, and more. Please watch, rate, like, and subscribe:
New tech boy pilgrimage just dropped: the Las Vegas Sphere, the first world wonder of the new era, opened on Friday with a U2 performance. America’s sphere. We absolutely love this sphere. (Insider)
Today in literal Chinese spy app news: “Nearly any TikTok or ByteDance employee around the world” — including those in China — is able to “search and scrutinize” the close contacts of people with huge TikTok accounts, such as the Bidens, Beyonce, and members of Congress, per a Forbes investigation.
Nikki Haley criticized Vivek for using TikTok, which he decided to do following dinner with influencer Jake Paul, at last Wednesday’s Republican debate. “Every time I hear you,” she said, “I feel a little bit dumber for what you say.”
Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky gave a candid interview to Bloomberg, in which he discusses a laundry list of problems with his company as it navigates return-to-work, big cities freezing the company out of the hospitality market, and shrinking profit margins. (Bloomberg)
Last week, after men flooded a tech conference targeting “women and non-binary” people, organizers took to social media to express their horror. But why would they expect droves of men wouldn’t take advantage of queer theory loopholes letting them attend a major networking event? Sanjana breaks the story down in yesterday’s piece, Reality Asserts Itself at a Women’s Tech Conference.
Fortnite video game company Epic Games will lay off 800 to 900 staffers, or around 16% of the company, as it divests its ad tech operation and music venture Bandcamp. (The Information)
Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast studio Pushkin Ventures laid off 30% of its staff, or 17 of its 54 employees. (Bloomberg)
Musk cut half of X’s election integrity team, saying the “‘Election Integrity' Team... was undermining election integrity.” (Ars Technica)
Y Combinator no longer has its small admissions team, having laid off all its staff this summer, the Information reported.
Two-thirds of commercial real estate investors expect the sector to experience a severe crash before recovering, according to Bloomberg’s latest Markets Live Pulse survey (Bloomberg).
OpenAI, Jony Ive, and Softbank are in “advanced” talks surrounding a potential $1 billion investment to build “the iPhone of artificial intelligence.” (FT)
Marc Lore’s food startup Wonder will buy meal prep delivery company Blue Apron for $103 million. In 2017, Blue Apron went public at a $1.9 billion valuation. (The Information)
Bill Ackman, Wall Street’s most online billionaire, is launching a novel twist on the SPAC, called SPARC; instead of serving as a blank check acquisition company, investors can exercise rights to buy in after the acquisition target is identified. When asked if he’d consider a transaction with X, Ackman replied, “Absolutely.” (Bloomberg)
Jasper AI, a marketing-focused GPT wrapper that was early to the generative AI game, cut the internal value of its shares by 20%, indicating a paper valuation of $1.2 billion, down from $1.5 billion in June. Increasingly, GPT has become the company’s own main competitor, and is much cheaper than the $80 monthly subscription fee Jasper charges two-thirds of its users. (The Information)
SpaceX won a $70 million US Space Force contract for Starshield, through which SpaceX will provide secure communication for the US government, military, and intelligence services via the Starlink constellation. (Bloomberg)
Last week X user @asxn_r pointed out that FTX led Anthropic’s April 2022 Series B with a $500 million investment, a move which could go a long way toward making FTX creditors whole, now that Anthropic is receiving up to a $4 billion investment from Amazon, at a likely higher valuation. It would be awesome if we could get SBF out of jail, btw, as it would lead to more stories like:
Before the legendary altruist went down for (allegedly!) extraordinary fraud, he apparently entered talks with Donald Trump and tried to pay the man $5 billion to not run for president. Incredible piece btw, in which Donald Trump, and not SBF, is framed as the criminal. (Vanity Fair)
Litigation and regulation:
Monday, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella took the stand against Google in the Justice Department’s antitrust case against the search giant. The Verge published detailed reporting on his testimony.
The cases Moody v. NetChoice and NetChoice v. Paxton challenge Florida and Texas laws restricting major social media firms from moderating content (“safety,” according to One Party statists, or “political censorship” according to the rest of us). Friday, the Supreme Court announced it will hear each of these cases in the judicial term that started on Monday. (WaPo)
Texas’ attorney general is suing Yelp for slapping labels on crisis pregnancy centers in the state, which often counsel women against having an abortion. The labels say the centers “typically provide limited medical services and may not have licensed medical professionals on-site,” according to the lawsuit. (WaPo)
Uber and Doordash lost their bid to block a New York City law that would set a minimum wage of close to $20/hr for delivery workers. (Reuters)
Jury selection for SBF’s trial began yesterday. WSJ reports that his ex-girlfriend Caroline Ellison is set to be a star witness against him in his fraud trial which starts this week (fellas, choose carefully).
I tried to warn you guys about Canada. Many times now. For years. I often refer to Canadian policies as authoritarian, but we are increasingly close to real, textbook authoritarianism. Most recently, in the Bolshevik tradition of Trudeau: per the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, all online streaming services must register with the agency to “ensure [they] make meaningful contributions to Canadian and Indigenous content.” According to the new edict, if you’re a company that makes over $10 million in annual revenue, you will “need to provide information about [your] activities in Canada [...] related to [your] content and subscribership.” Elon reposted Glenn Greenwald’s post about this saying “Trudeau is trying to crush free speech in Canada. Shameful.” My read: this means they’ve probably already privately come to Elon, demanding compliance.
Major European telecommunications providers sent an open letter to the EU demanding American tech companies “contribute” to the “funding” of Europe’s “digital infrastructure” (FT). Lol. Lmao, even. A counter proposal for the Old World: start funding your own wars, and build your own infrastructure. We can’t even build high speed rail in California, ffs. We’re busy. We’re dealing with our own crazy idiots. Gfys.
Last Wednesday, French feds raided Nvidia’s local offices following suspicions of “anticompetitive practices” at the company. Interesting move in the middle of an escalating international chip war pitting the US against China. Much love to our French “allies,” and thanks for once again reminding ambitious Europeans where they belong (the United States). (WSJ)
California spent 15 years and billions of dollars trying to build high-speed rail, yet hasn’t laid a single mile of track. Florida, on the other hand, just connected Orlando to Miami with its high-speed train called Brightline. Why can Florida follow through on these projects, but California can’t? River Page breaks it down.
GPT can now use Bing to browse the internet. (@OpenAI)
Mistral AI released its open source LLM dubbed Mistral 7B last week, which the company says outperforms versions of Meta’s Llama on many benchmarks. Since it will apparently reply to all prompts with no moral hang-ups, AI “safetyists” (censors) are up in arms. (Mistral AI)
Rumor has it that Microsoft is developing a cheaper-to-run, less powerful conversational AI to bundle with some of its products that don’t need the capabilities GPT can bring. (The Information)
Rewind.ai introduced its pendant, a wearable that will record everything you say and hear, then transcribe, encrypt, and store it on your phone (rewind.ai). Online, the product has been met with widespread condemnation. Tl;dr, people are tired of living in an episode of Black Mirror.
The DoD will hold an AI symposium in February to “determine viable use of LLMs” for the department, among other things. (Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office)
VC firms such as Bain Capital Ventures, General Catalyst, Lux Capital, Mayfield and IVP are “working with the U.S. Commerce Department to develop ‘responsible AI’ guidelines for themselves and their portfolio companies” (Axios). Not a big “pledge” guy. Not a big centralized techno supergod guy. This one’s a “no” for me, thanks.
Last week, we covered a fascinating local drama in Hamtramck, Michigan, in which the town’s far left elected an all-Muslim city council, and was then shocked to discover devout Muslims really, extremely do not like things like “gay pride” (who could have predicted it?). A preview:
“We welcomed you, we created nonprofits to help feed, clothe, find housing. We did everything we could to make your transition here easier, and this is how you repay us, by stabbing us in the back?” said Catrina Stackpool, a lesbian former city council member, after her Muslim successors voted to block the display of Pride flags on city property this June.
Pride month came and went, but the battle raged on in Hamtramck. In July, the council voted to remove two commissioners from the city’s Human Relations Commission for violating the new flag ordinance. Two months later, the mayor and council balked at the idea of marching in front of the Hamtramck Queer Alliance, a local LGBT organization, during the city’s annual Labor Day parade, demanding the parade planning committee place them further ahead of the group. Mayor Ghalib told local press it was “a provocative move, intentionally done by the organizing committee to make us look, in front of the community, like we are leading the queer group with the flags flying behind us.” He added: “They have become very predictable. I told some council members three days ago that I expect them to do this and, for that reason, the first thing we did was to look at the order of the marching groups and we found what we expected.”
If the parade planning committee — officially called the Hamtramck Labor Day Festival Volunteer Committee — had intended to get a rise out of local officials, it probably got more than it bargained for. On Labor Day, the mayor and councilmen led the parade in an SUV, instead of walking in it as had been tradition for local officials, and threatened to ban future Labor Day celebrations in Hamtramck.
Read River’s full piece here.
This newsletter was composed with considerable help from Brandon Gorrell and the Pirate Wires staff.