Daily Digest: Technology and tyranny, lying to ourselves, and Spotify’s $1b repurchase

Daily Digest: Technology and tyranny, lying to ourselves, and Spotify’s $1b repurchase

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Harari on technology and tyranny

Yuval Noah Harari, the noted author and historian famed for his work Sapiens, wrote a lengthy piece in The Atlantic entitled “Why Technology Favors Tyranny” that is quite interesting. I don’t want to address the whole piece (today), but I do want to discuss his views that humans are increasingly eliminating their agency in favor of algorithms who make decisions for them.

Harari writes in his last section:

Even if some societies remain ostensibly democratic, the increasing efficiency of algorithms will still shift more and more authority from individual humans to networked machines. We might willingly give up more and more authority over our lives because we will learn from experience to trust the algorithms more than our own feelings, eventually losing our ability to make many decisions for ourselves. Just think of the way that, within a mere two decades, billions of people have come to entrust Google’s search algorithm with one of the most important tasks of all: finding relevant and trustworthy information. As we rely more on Google for answers , our ability to locate information independently diminishes. Already today, “truth” is defined by the top results of a Google search. This process has likewise affected our physical abilities, such as navigating space. People ask Google not just to find information but also to guide them around. Self-driving cars and AI physicians would represent further erosion: While these innovations would put truckers and human doctors out of work, their larger import lies in the continuing transfer of authority and responsibility to machines.

I am not going to lie: I completely dislike this entire viewpoint and direction of thinking about technology. Giving others authority over us is the basis of civilized society, whether that third-party is human or machine. It’s how that authority is executed that determines whether it is pernicious or not.

Harari brings up a number of points here though that I think deserve a critical look. First, there is this belief in an information monolith, that Google is the only lens by which we can see the world. To me, that is a remarkably rose-colored view of printing and publishing up until the internet age, when gatekeepers had the power (and the politics) to block public access to all kinds of information. Banned Books Week is in some ways quaint today in the Amazon Kindle era, but the fight to have books in public libraries was (and sometimes today is) real. Without a copy, no one had access.

That disintegration of gatekeeping is one reason among many why extremism in our politics is intensifying: there is now a much more diverse media landscape, and that landscape doesn’t push people back toward the center anymore, but rather pushes them further to the fringes.

Second, we don’t give up agency when we allow algorithms to submit their judgments on us. Quite the opposite in fact: we are using our agency to give a third-party independent authority. That’s fundamentally our choice. What is the difference between an algorithm making a credit card application decision, and a (human) judge adjudicating a contract dispute? In both cases, we have tendered at least some of our agency to another party to independently make decisions over us because we have collectively decided to make that choice as part of our society.

Third, Google, including Search and Maps, has empowered me to explore the world in ways that I wouldn’t have dreamed before. When I visited Paris the first time in 2006, I didn’t have a smartphone, and calling home was a $1/minute. I saw parts of the city, and wandered, but I was mostly taken in by fear — fear of going to the wrong neighborhood (the massive riots in the banlieues had only happened a few months prior) and fear of completely getting lost and never making it back. Compare that to today, where access to the internet means that I can actually get off the main tourist stretches peddled by guidebooks and explore neighborhoods that I never would have dreamed of doing before. The smartphone doesn’t have to be distracting — it can be an amazing tool to explore the real world.

I bring these different perspectives up because I think the “black box society” as Frank Pasquale calls it by his eponymous book is under unfair attack. Yes, there are problems with algorithms that need addressing, but are they worse or better than human substitutes? When eating times can vastly affect the outcome of a prisoner’s parole decisions, don’t we want algorithms to do at least some of the work for us?

Lying to ourselves

Photo: Getty Images / Siegfried Kaiser / EyeEm

Talking about humans acting badly, I wrote a review over the weekend of Elephant in the Brain, a book about how we use self-deception to ascribe better motives to our actions than our true intentions. As I wrote about the book’s thesis:

Humans care deeply about being perceived as prosocial, but we are also locked into constant competition, over status attainment, careers, and spouses. We want to signal our community spirit, but we also want to selfishly benefit from our work. We solve for this dichotomy by creating rationalizations and excuses to do both simultaneously. We give to charity for the status as well as the altruism, much as we get a college degree to learn, but also to earn a degree which signals to employers that we will be hard workers.

It’s a depressing perspective, but one that’s ultimately correct. Why do people wear Stanford or Berkeley sweatshirts if not to signal things about their fitness and career prospects? (Even pride in school is a signal to others that you are part of a particular tribe). One of the biggest challenges of operating in Silicon Valley is simply understanding the specific language of signals that workers there send.

Ultimately, though, I was nonplussed with the book, because I felt that it didn’t end up leading to a broader sense of enlightenment, nor could I see how to change either my behavior or my perception’s of others’ behaviors as a result of the book. That earned a swift rebuke from one of the author’s last night on Twitter:

Okay, but here is the thing: of course we lie to ourselves. Of course we lie to each other. Of course PR people lie to make their clients look good, and try to come off as forthright as possible. The best salesperson is going to be the person that truly believes in the product they are selling, rather than the person who knows its weaknesses and scurries away when they are brought up. This book makes a claim — that I think is reasonable — that self-deception is the key ingredient – we can’t handle the cognitive load of lying all the time, so evolution has adapted us to handle lying with greater facility by not allowing us to realize that we are doing it.

No where is this more obvious than in my previous career as a venture capitalist. Very few founders truly believe in their products and companies. I’m quite serious. You can hear the hesitation in their voices about the story, and you can hear the stress in their throats when they hit a key slide that doesn’t exactly align with the hockey stick they are selling. That’s okay, ultimately, because these companies were young, but if the founder of the company doesn’t truly believe, why should I join the bandwagon?

Confidence is ambiguous — are you confident because the startup truly is good, or is it because you are carefully masking your lack of enthusiasm? That’s what due diligence is all about, but what I do know is that a founder without confidence isn’t going to make it very far. Lying is wrong, but confidence is required — and the line between the two is very, very blurry.

Spotify may repurchase up to $1b in stock

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Before the market opened this morning, Spotify announced plans to buy back stock starting in the fourth quarter of 2018. The company has been authorized to repurchase up to $1 billion worth of shares, and up to 10 million shares total. The exact cadence of the buybacks will depend on various market conditions, and will likely occur gradually until the repurchase program’s expiration date in April of 2021.

The announcement comes on the back of Spotify’s quarterly earnings report last week, which led to weakness in the company’s stock price behind concerns over its outlook for subscriber, revenue and ARPU (Average Revenue Per User) growth, despite the company reporting stronger profitability than Wall Street’s expectations.

After its direct-offering IPO in April, Spotify saw its stock price shoot to over $192 a share in August. However, the stock has since lost close to $10 billion in market cap, driven in part by broader weakness in public tech stocks, as well as by fears about subscription pricing pressure and ARPU growth as more of Spotify’s users opt for discounted family or student subscription plans.

Per TechCrunch’s Sarah Perez:

…The company faces heavy competition these days – especially in the key U.S. market from Apple Music, as well as from underdog Amazon Music, which is leveraging Amazon’s base of Prime subscribers to grow. It also has a new challenge in light of the Sirius XM / Pandora deal.

The larger part of Spotify’s business is free users – 109 million monthly actives on the ad-supported tier. But its programmatic ad platform is currently only live in the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia. That leaves Spotify room to grow ad revenues in the months ahead.

The strategic rationale for Spotify is clear despite early reports painting the announcement as a way to buoy a flailing stock price. With over $1 billion in cash sitting on its balance sheet and the depressed stock price, the company clearly views this as an affordable opportunity to return cash to shareholders at an attractive entry point when the stock is undervalued.

As for Spotify’s longer-term outlook from an investor standpoint, the company’s ARPU growth should not be viewed in isolation. In the past, Spotify has highlighted discounted or specialized subscriptions, like family and student subscriptions, as having a much stickier user base. And the company has seen its retention rates improving, with churn consistently falling since the company’s IPO.

The stock is up around 1.5% on the news on top of a small pre-market boost.

What’s next

  • We are still spending more time on Chinese biotech investments in the United States (Arman previously wrote a deep dive on this a week or two ago).
  • We are exploring the changing culture of Form D filings (startups seem to be increasingly foregoing disclosures of Form Ds on the advice of their lawyers)
  • India tax reform and how startups have taken advantage of it

Reading docket

Niantic overhauls Ingress to make it more welcoming for new players

Niantic overhauls Ingress to make it more welcoming for new players

Before there was Pokémon GO, there was Ingress. It was Niantic’s first game — and while it never became the overwhelmingly popular phenomenon that GO did, it’s undeniably what allowed GO to exist in the first place.

Now Niantic is taking another swing at it. The company has rebuilt Ingress from the ground up, with the goal of making it prettier, more immersive, and — most importantly — more accessible to new players.

Unfamiliar with Ingress? At its core, it shares its DNA with Pokémon GO; it’s a game that encourages you to walk around the real world, visit nearby landmarks and parks, and work together with your self-selected team (or, in Ingress’ terminology, your “faction”).

But Ingress is a good bit more… intense than GO (Ingress players like to poke at GO as being “Ingress Lite”.) There are no cutesie monsters to collect or Pokéstops to spin; instead, you’re “hacking” portals (the same real-world locations, mostly, that act as Pokéstops) and “linking” them together in an effort to conquer as much of the map as you can for your faction. Link three portals, and everything in between becomes your team’s turf. It’s like capture the flag mashed up with one massive worldwide game of tug of war, with a bit of Matrix-y cyberpunk dressing slathered on top.

Ingress Prime, as version 2.0 is known, replaces the original Ingress app with one built on Unity — the same gaming engine that powers Pokémon GO and many thousands of other games.

If you’ve been playing Ingress for a while, many of the changes here are “quality of life”-type tweaks: the UI has been cleaned up, and they’ve added all sorts of shortcuts and gestures to make it faster to do things like attack nearby portals or manage your inventory. The new map interface is easier to pan and zoom around with one hand, with a one-finger control scheme that’ll feel pretty familiar for GO players. The new UI is bound to be a point of contention at first, if only because it means a bit of habit breaking for players who’ve spent hundreds to thousands of hours getting used to the old one, and, well, people don’t like change. Hopefully, they come around.

Speaking of those hours spent in Ingress already: your progress and badges carry over to Ingress Prime. If you’re Level 16 in the original Ingress, you’ll be Level 16 in Ingress Prime. New here, though, is the ability to “recurse”. Sort of like the “prestige” concept made popular by Call of Duty, recursing sets you back to level 1 to start the grind all over again, but with your myriad unlocks (your lifetime AP score, recharge distance, and inventory items) still in tow.

Niantic tells me that certain things moving forward will only be available to those who opt to recurse and start afresh, but didn’t elaborate on what those could be. (With many longtime players approaching Pokémon Go’s level cap of 40, I’d be quite surprised if a similar concept doesn’t make its way into GO eventually.)

It’s the players who are new to Ingress, though — or those who gave Ingress a glance before and were spooked away by the steep learning curve — that Niantic seems most interested in here.

Whereas the original Ingress just sort of dumped you into the thick of it, Ingress Prime offers a bit more handholding out of the gate. A plot-driven tutorial introduces new players to the concepts of portals, hacking, etc, all while starting to plant the seeds of the game’s backstory and lore. You’re introduced to the two factions and the rival AIs behind them, eventually being asked to choose a side.

I ran through a beta build of the game’s onboarding process last week, and, as someone who admittedly fits right into that “gave Ingress a glance and got spooked away” camp mentioned above, Ingress Prime does a much better job of clarifying what the heck is going on. It feels like it could use a bit more play testing (particularly in explaining when I’m doing the wrong thing), but it’s a big step forward. It doesn’t spoon feed you, but it does a much better job of getting the ball rolling.

(Pro tip: the game recommends using headphones, and I don’t think that’s just so you can hear things at the highest fidelity. With the tutorial’s voice-acted tracks talking about hacking systems and controlling minds, anyone playing in public sans earbuds is bound to get some preeeeetty weird looks.)

Once they’ve gotten a new player hooked, Niantic intends to go a bit harder with the aforementioned plot/lore this time around. A weekly live-action web series called the “Dunraven Project” will fill in the game’s backstory, while an anime series (which debuted in Japan in October with an English version coming to Netflix in 2019) is meant to explore the wider universe.

According to Niantic, Pokémon GO was downloaded onto nearly a billion times. Ingress, meanwhile, capped out at around 20 million downloads.

Will this overhaul get Ingress downloads up into the billions? Probably not. Pokémon Go had that powder keg spark of nostalgia and familiarity to draw in massive crowds right off the bat — but, built on someone else’s intellectual property, there are limitations in what Niantic can do with GO and where GO can… er, go. But by rebooting Ingress, Niantic is using existing IP it already owns/fully controls as a springboard; they’re striving to keep the existing player base happy, while setting it up to grow dramatically by lowering the barrier to entry and expanding the storyline. It’s a tough tightrope act to pull off, but it really seems that they’re starting out on a good foot here.

The Haunting of Hill House director breaks down that one-shot episode

The Haunting of Hill House director breaks down that one-shot episode

'The Haunting of Hill House' episode 6 attempted the old one-shot trick.
‘The Haunting of Hill House’ episode 6 attempted the old one-shot trick.

Image: Steve Dietl/Netflix

Wondering how the sixth episode of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, the one that looks like it’s all one continuous shot, was made? 

Writer and director Mike Flanagan gave fans a rare look at how the ambitious episode of the streaming platform’s horror series was created, in a lengthy Twitter thread on Sunday.

Flanagan broke down the scenes for the episode, and the difficulties involved in filming what he describes as essentially “five long takes,” three in a funeral home, two in Hill House. 

The director speaks to problematic flooding caused by rain machines, praises the stand-in actors who helped rehearse the lighting, blocking and cinematography, and explains how the crew pulled off a 360-degree shot featuring adult characters being replaced with their child selves.

Flanagan even details exactly how long each shot runs for, which would be stitched together in post-production for the seemingly one-shot full episode.

Here we go. There’s a mild spoiler vibe in a few of the tweets, just so you know.

Phew! So much detail. But there was one final question to answer.

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10,000 flames lit at the Tower of London mark 100 years since WWI

10,000 flames lit at the Tower of London mark 100 years since WWI

10,000 flames were lit in the moat of The Tower of London as part of a memorial installation marking the centenary of WWI.
10,000 flames were lit in the moat of The Tower of London as part of a memorial installation marking the centenary of WWI.

Image: In Pictures via Getty Images

This year marks 100 years since the end of World War I. 

700,000 British soldiers lost their lives in the war, which was fought from 1914 to 1918. The fallen soldiers are being commemorated at The Tower of London in the British capital with a pretty spectacular light show. 

10,000 individual flames are being lit every night around the 950-year-old castle in central London. The flames will be lit from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. every night until Armistice day on November 11th — the day marking the truce signed in 1918.

The installation, located in the old moat of the fortress, is entitled “Beyond the Deepening Shadow.”

Image: In Pictures via Getty Images

The installation was designed by artist Tom Piper, who previously worked on the 2014 installation “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” — a project which involved 800,000 ceramic flowers being spread throughout the moat surrounding The Tower of London. 

As commemoration of the centenary of the end of the First World War, an installation at the Tower of London, called Beyond the Deepening Shadow: The Tower Remembers fills the moat with thousands of individual flames: a public act of remembrance for those who lost their lives in the Great War, on 4th November 2018 in London, United Kingdom. The tribute will run for eight nights, leading up to and including Armistice Day. (photo by Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)

Image: In Pictures via Getty Images

The title of this year’s installation derives from a war sonnet by poet Mary Borden, which reads:

“They do not know that in this shadowed place/
It is your light they see upon my face.”

As commemoration of the centenary of the end of the First World War, an installation at the Tower of London, called Beyond the Deepening Shadow: The Tower Remembers fills the moat with thousands of individual flames: a public act of remembrance for those who lost their lives in the Great War, on 4th November 2018 in London, United Kingdom. The tribute will run for eight nights, leading up to and including Armistice Day. (photo by Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)

Image: In Pictures via Getty Images

The torches will be lit for the last time on November 11th.

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Robb Vices has the fanciest subscription box weve ever seen

Robb Vices has the fanciest subscription box weve ever seen

Just to let you know, if you buy something featured here, Mashable might earn an affiliate commission.

The Rosé All Day box with Macari Vineyards Rosé,  20 oysters, and leather wine storage.
The Rosé All Day box with Macari Vineyards Rosé,  20 oysters, and leather wine storage.

Image: robb vices

Did seeing pictures from The Royal Wedding have you feeling like a damn peasant? Because same.

If you’re trying to be treated like royalty too, up your fancy game big time with a Robb Vices luxury subscription box to give you a monthly dose of that good life. 

If you’re wondering what we mean by “fancy,” just think about that video of Nick Offerman (AKA Ron Swanson) drinking whiskey by a fireplace. The monthly box from Robb Vices is basically that in subscription box form.

We’re talking top shelf alcohol, luxury kitchenware, cigars, leather accessories, artisan food samples, and more — one month’s box had a literal record player and a record. The creators (from Robb Report magazine) refer to these curated items as “vices,” picked especially for you to have a unique experience for whatever type of connoisseur you are.

Each box has a fun theme, too. Sometimes it’ll be geared toward the specific month or season (last August’s was called “Sun Salute,” which came  with a pair of gold-plated aviators, natural mineral sunscreen, and BBQ sauces) or may be a more general theme like “The Art of Being a Gentleman.” They’ll also throw in a nice little booklet filled with fun stuff like food or drink recipes.

Yes, that’s a Bluetooth speaker pictured above and yes, that’s pair of over-the-ear headphones. Both look expensive AF and were in boxes from 2017. Robb Vices partners with premium brands, which is how they’re able to get their hands on such nice stuff for you.

You can apply and prepay for one of four plans: Month-to-month for $99.95/month, three months for $94.95/month, six months for $89.95/month, or one year for $84.95/month. (Before you say “That sounds a little pricey,” remember that the value of each box is like, two to five times more than what you’re paying.) Besides, you’re a baller — time to act like one.

If you’re in need of a gift idea for someone who enjoys the finer things in life, they definitely don’t have this yet. Learn more here.