Episode Four: Any Sufficiently Advanced Economy

by danhon

1. Any Sufficiently Advanced Economy

You know how the Arthur C. Clarke quote goes. I’ve been thinking a bit, somewhat vaguely, about crypto currencies lately. There’s my gut response to the anarcho-Randian boosterism of Bitcoin/Dogecoin fans (the latter of which, I have to admit, is absolutely hilarious and a wonderful example of people taking things entirely not seriously and then being surprised at how much something they take entirely un-seriously takes off) which is: this seems like it solves problems for a subset of people, and isn’t, shall we say, inclusive, in a way that our boring old de facto physically instantiated “money” is, these days. Not to say that “money” itself isn’t without its own problems.

There was Charlie Stross’s blog post[1] about his problems with the *coins[1] which, according to the cryptocurrency fans is either partly wrong or completely wrong (see the comments), but what I’ve been interested in is the ability for a) anyone to spin off and start a new cryptocurrency – the democratization of minting – and b) the possibility of opinionated currencies.

The first is, I think, pretty clear now: what with the codebase of these crypto currencies being open and cloneable and the “only” requirement after that being other people knowing about the currency and the availability of spare processing cycles.

The second is interesting because instead of having currency as one object and laws and code that are applied to it that must be checked against every transaction, there’s the possibility that a cryptocurrency can be opinionated in and of itself, and declare what kind of transactions it’s happy to be involved in (and thus what transactions it’s not happy to be involved in).

And when I see ads here (or, more frequently, hear) for organizations like Christian-centric healthcare providers (very opinionated about women’s bodies, for one) or read about the success of Sharia banks, and then look at what feels sometimes as the increasingly clave-ification of online community, I’m not entirely kidding when I asked, somewhat facetiously[2], when something like the first branded cryptocurrency would occur. Like Starbucks launching a crypto currency called, um, Starbucks. Or *$. Or Fox News launching a cryptocurrency so Americans can (only) buy American[3].

Of course, there’ll be the inevitable exchanges so that wonderfully hypocritical humans can exchange their FoxCoins into SinoCoins so they can get hold of cheap electronics.

All of this is just a roundabout way for me to recommend you to read Paul Cornell’s British Summertime[4]. Yes, the Paul Cornell who’s a comic book writer and Doctor Who writer (the one with the time dragons. In the church. That one[5]. Oh, and the ones when the Doctor is in a watch[6, 7].) Suffice to say it’s a book that features algorithmic currency. It’s really good.

[1] http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2013/12/why-i-want-bitcoin-to-die-in-a.html
[2] Branded Cryptocurrencies: https://twitter.com/hondanhon/status/420320185220751360
[3] Fox News Coin: https://twitter.com/hondanhon/status/420321655798247424
[4] British Summertime, by Paul Cornell – no Kindle edition, I’m afraid: http://www.amazon.com/British-Summertime-Paul-Cornell/dp/1932265236
[5] Father’s Day: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Father%27s_Day_(Doctor_Who)
[6] Human Nature: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_Nature_(Doctor_Who_episode)
[7] The Family of Blood: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Family_of_Blood

2. The Halting Problem, Microsoft Exchange Edition

If I were pitching for magic VC money it would be for a self-healing email monitoring system for corporate communications designed to intercept reply-alls to prevent Exchange-killing auto replies[1].

Hat tip to Heather Champ.

[1] BP oops: http://gawker.com/oil-giant-struck-by-globe-spanning-timezone-trotting-r-1508296890
[2] @hchamp and https://twitter.com/hchamp/status/426853090352852992

3. You’ll Never Believe What Happened Next

Anil Dash, with whom I love to have a conversation, has written a piece[1] on the success of Upworthy-style headlines, somewhat in response to CNN’s Breaking News account’s wonderful tweet of the times, “14-year-old girl stabbed her little sister 40 times, police say. The reason why will shock you.”

Anil attacks the disdain with which the hamfisted attempt to apply the techniques of headline writing garnered from sites like Upworthy and Viralnova (and all their hangers on) with the counter that surely writing headlines like this is a good thing if it gets more people exposed to more news. To which yes, that’s a valid argument, but that doesn’t mean that the headline is *better*. It just means that it’s more effective in inducing click through rates in attracting attention. Which, yes, is something that historically print headlines haven’t had to do quite as hard outside of the front page because at that point, you’re pretty much sitting in front of a bit of paper with the story on it in front of you and you don’t have to click through. And, honestly, you probably didn’t have a smartphone the last time you did that because they hadn’t been invented yet.

Perhaps the most telling is in Anil’s closing of his piece, quoting a tweet from Adam Mordecai, founder of Upworthy, saying that most Upworthy headlines don’t sound like 2012-era Upworthy, because they’re not as effective in click-through rates anymore[2].

I feel a little like the backlash is in partly noticing the distinction between a headline that’s diverting your attention away from something you’re paying attention to versus something that’s gently diverting your attention to something on the same page, as in your conventional broadsheet-out-on-the-kitchen-table-over-breakfast.

Upworthy headline construction is designed explicitly to work in streams – the most effective whiplash headline to pull you out of a social stream (Twitter, Facebook or email) and land you somewhere else, namely Upworthy’s site. And arguably, that’s been their main success – witness the commentary spawned by Robinson Meyer’s seminal article in early December explaining the relationship between Upworthy’s copy and Facebook’s News Feed algorithm[3].

Upworthy’s social spread and referral traffic has been *off the scale* in terms of how well its content has performed after Facebook’s News Feed algorithm adjustment. And while it may not be a major factor, I do wonder if their success in jerking people out of hypnotic streams is part of the reason why (taste, notwithstanding) people are starting to have a negative reaction to Upworthy’s naked attention-grabbing. In a reversal, it may be desensitization to manipulation that’s causing the backlash.

[1] http://dashes.com/anil/2014/01/one-simple-trick-worked-to-improve-headlines-and-you-wont-believe-what-happened-next.html
[2] https://twitter.com/advodude/statuses/427844143490953216
[3] http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/12/why-are-upworthy-headlines-suddenly-everywhere/282048/

4. The Anthropomorphisation Of Space Exploration

China’s lunar rover is dying: and it wants to tell you about it in first person[1].

Perhaps one of the biggest PR wins that NASA has had in the past few years has been its ability to find both an audience and, if I may, a ‘brand voice’ through Twitter. And that voice has been through anthropomorphizing its probes (and introducing us to the humans who look after them) since 2008[2], through the Mars Curiosity rover.

Now this kind of thing didn’t completely happen by accident[3] but as a geek who’s incredibly sad that he’ll never get to take his son to see a Shuttle launch (hopefully I’ll get to take him to see something much, much better), what’s fantastic is how this anthropomorphisation has brought some wonder back to robotic space exploration. And yes, it might be partly Wall-E’s fault, and yes, it does help that the rovers are pretty easy to anthropomorphize, and yes, it might be soppy, but there’s something so wonderful about these machines that we’re sending out into the universe so literally carrying our hopes and dreams with us.

Just don’t click on this one[4].

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/27/world/asia/china-jade-rabbit-moon-rover-goodnight/index.html
[2] https://twitter.com/marscuriosity/status/1012517833
[3] http://www.forbes.com/sites/alexknapp/2012/08/10/the-women-whove-transformed-a-mars-rover-into-a-sassy-social-superstar/
[4] http://xkcd.com/695/

Okay, that’s it for Episode Four. I mentioned on Twitter the other day that I was working on some Her fan fiction but it doesn’t look like that’s quite ready yet. So fingers crossed some of that will pop up in tomorrow’s episode.

I like getting replies! I’ve had a couple so far, but it’s great to hear from you about how you’re finding these emails.

Dan