Future #60: Things that don’t suck

Alexis Lloyd
Ethical Futures Lab


It could be that we’re looking forward to a joyful holiday season, but whatever the reason, this issue brings news of major initiatives — some certain, some speculative — to pull back from the brink and rethink policies and systems in more humane ways. Read on to learn how to fix your own tech devices, how the EU may protect the world’s privacy, and how cities can work better for all their residents.

— Alexis & Matt

1: Reimagining NYC streets

Prior to the radical changes Covid lockdowns brought to our cities, the streets of New York were already challenging to navigate, choked with traffic, and inhospitable to modes of transportation other than driving. While some promising efforts were breaking through — a significant investment in more bike lanes, closing 14th street to all vehicles except city buses — the overall system was one that begged for reinvention.

Since then, more city residents are getting around on bikes, car purchases (and subsequent demand for parking) are way up, delivery traffic of all kinds has skyrocketed, and outdoor dining sheds have taken sidewalk and road space alike. The system is under significant strain, and solving for any one user or situation means harming several others. It’s time for a top-down, systemic redesign of the city street.

New York magazine and Curbed recently commissioned artists and architects to work together on the problem, “to approach the streets as a matrix of overlapping, interrelated networks.” By designing for the system rather than the individual user, the coalition was able to envision a more humane and human-centric urban experience. We were struck in particular with how these plans harmonize interactions between pedestrians, bicycles, new mobility devices (electric scooters, hoverboards, etc.) with existing car and truck demands. These plans also reveal, however, that any single intervention is unlikely to solve much on its own; achieving a better street experience will require several changes happening together.

Perfecting the New York street | Curbed

2: Web3 possibilities and potholes

In our last issue, we dug into a few critiques of Web3, but those were by no means the end of the conversation. As Web3 continues to evolve and gain steam, we will continue to explore thinking and making in these new spaces — and keep trying to balance skepticism with curiosity and enthusiasm. This week, we’ve got a roundup of three pieces that examine various aspects of this new ecosystem.

First up is Intelligencer’s overview of DAOs. DAOs are one area where we see truly interesting new possibilities emerging. The potential for funding and governing organizations in a way that affords more transparency and egalitarian control for communities is a hopeful counterbalance to traditional corporations and VC funding. Next is one of the best overviews of crypto and the web3 space we’ve read, from the engineers at Pioneer Square Labs. It’s a deep dive into the fundamentals, an exploration of what the blockchain is (and isn’t) good for, the things that we still need to figure out, and more. Highly recommended for those who are looking for both a good primer and strong critical analysis. And finally, for a reminder that this is all still a system with some gaping holes in its foundation, read this overview of the ConstitutionDAO’s failed attempt to buy a copy of the U.S. Constitution, and the confusion and losses that resulted in the aftermath.

What’s a DAO? Why your group chat could be worth millions | Intelligencer

An engineer’s hype-free observations on Web3 (and its possibilities) | Pioneer Square Labs

‘Buy the Constitution’ aftermath: everyone very mad, confused, losing lots of money, fighting, crying, etc. | VICE

3: Will crypto doom Texas or save it?

Following China’s recent ban on cryptocurrency mining, Texas has seen a sudden influx of interest for new mining facilities. These massive data centers filled with computers require lots of electricity, but Texas is welcoming these new entrants with open arms and very little regulation.

If this sounds bad to you, you’re not wrong: in February, severe cold weather led to increased electricity demand that quickly overwhelmed Texas’s power grid, leading to over 210 deaths. What potential benefits could make adding thousands of megawatts of demand to this fragile system make sense?

Proponents say that the added demand will encourage faster transition to wind and solar. Since many data centers are signing multi-decade contracts for electricity, this makes investing in new power generation a better bet. The mining operations can also use up excess power in the grid (such as on temperate, sunny or windy days) turning waste into profit, and can also automatically scale down their use in times of peak demand when the regulator requests it.

Opponents point out that these massive installations bring very few new jobs, make predicting the energy needed far more difficult, and raise demand for all power sources, whether polluting or not. They are likely to also add stress to the distribution portions of the grid; while generation is important, getting power from the plant to the data center requires transformers, transmission lines, and other physical infrastructure, all of which is already strained and begging for repair.

Texas plans to become the Bitcoin capital, vulnerable power grid and all | Bloomberg

4: (Re)opening Twitter

Twitter is launching a new version of their developer API, and we’re having some serious déja vu. Twitter’s API is designed to allow third-party developers to access and interact with tweet data in order to build anything from a funny bot to a full-fledged Twitter client app. Except it’s typically been quite hard to do the latter, as the API imposed restrictions on features, number of users, and more. The new API removes many of these restrictions to an extent that seems to represent a significant shift in Twitter’s strategy. The company’s press release states that it is looking to external developers to “drive the future of innovation on Twitter”. This overview from The Verge points out that “Twitter has been working on becoming…a ‘standard for the public conversation layer of the internet’ instead of a traditional social media platform.”

This all seems like good news that opens up lots of potential for creative innovation using Twitter data. Ironically, this is exactly how the Twitter API used to work in the early days of the platform, and it led to tons of great projects, including a bevy of alternate Twitter reading apps like Tweetbot, Twitterific, and TweetDeck. Independent developers built the first Twitter client for Mac and the first native app for iPhone, and were the first to introduce features like mute and pull-to-refresh. But in 2012, the company explicitly changed its policies to prevent competition and consolidate their hold on the market. It updated its APIs to prevent outside developers from making user-facing apps, and also bought a number of third-party apps to either incorporate or kill them. We’re happy to see the company swinging back in the direction of openness, but history also demonstrates the risks of relying on access to platform data for the success of one’s business.

Twitter makes big changes for devs as it eyes decentralized future | The Verge

5: Apple will let you fix your own iPhone

In another surprising shift towards openness, Apple recently announced that it will make device parts and repair instructions available to the public. The company has been notorious in its fight against consumers’ right to repair their own devices, including making products that are difficult to fix by design and lobbying against “right to repair” legislation.

This piece from The Verge delves into the details behind Apple’s momentous change in strategy. The timing of the company’s announcement seems to have been in response to a shareholder resolution that was putting pressure on the company to change their repair policies, tying them to negative environmental impact. Apple had appealed to the SEC to block the resolution, arguing that it would affect their business operations, but there were signs that the regulatory body would side against them. Specifically, the SEC recently issued new guidance that “shareholders can bring resolutions that affect a company’s day-to-day business operations if those proposals raise issues with significant societal impact”. This is a quintessential example of how the confluence of cultural zeitgeist and regulation (or at least, the threat of regulation) can come together to force positive change.

The shareholder fight that forced Apple’s hand on repair rights | The Verge

6: Germany signals EU leanings on privacy

While the tide of political opinion has been turning against widespread facial recognition, even we were surprised to see the news this week coming from Germany’s recent election. The new coalition in parliament announced support for “banning facial recognition technologies in public spaces and restricting the use of mass surveillance tools to a minimum.”

While any country considering such a move would be news that caught our attention, this announcement comes as the European Union is debating its AI Act, which aims to build trust into artificial-intelligence-based interactions throughout European society. Germany’s shift on facial recognition — a departure from the policies of soon-to-be-former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government — puts significant support behind the EU’s efforts. Germany is one of the EU’s most influential members, so initiating its own regulation on this tech is being seen as a step toward broader EU adoption. Given how the EU has led the world on issues of privacy so far, it’s likely that the AI Act may drive global policy around artificial intelligence.

New German government to ban facial recognition and mass surveillance | Euractiv

One fun rabbit hole

Looking to escape your social feeds for a minute? Take a look at Smashing Magazine’s roundup of charming, compelling, and quirky websites to find some more creative rabbit holes.

A showcase of lovely little websites | Smashing Magazine

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