What’s Next, Cameras, Post-truth, Brazil, and Myanmar.

Thoughtful Net #37. Interesting links from the past few weeks.

It’s been almost a month since my last newsletter, and a lot’s happened since then. 2016 has been a weird and mostly horrid year, from my point of view, but I’m trying to be calm and stoical about it, because I know that things could be a lot, lot worse. Just be thankful for what you’ve got, and all that.

I doubt there’ll be another newsletter before the end of the year, so if that’s the case, I hope you all have a great Christmas and New Year (if, like me, you live in a region that follows the (pre-)Christian tradition and Gregorian calendar).

The Best

This Is What Happens When Millions Of People Suddenly Get The Internet, by Sheera Frenkel, looks at Myanmar, where the majority of the population are coming online for the first time, and discovering an internet that wasn’t made for them, and they’re not prepared for.

When asked whether customers choose their own email address, Mai Thu Sien looked confused. “Nobody asks, they don’t care about the email,” he said, explaining that most don’t know that creating an email address is free, and easy. “No one is using that. They have Facebook.”

I Wrote This

Observations on São Paulo, in Four Apps is by me. I went to São Paulo to visit my family (wife’s side), and wrote up a few things I noticed about how technology has impacted daily life.

Around São Paulo there are all sorts of informal services offered — these range from receiving nude pictures, to small scale witchcraft (love spells, and the like). They’re all organised through WhatsApp.

(I wrote this before the last newsletter, but forgot to include it.)

What’s Next

Interfaces On Demand, by Matt Hartman, is better explained by its subtitle: The rise of services that live in Chatbots, Voice Computing, & Mixed Reality. It posits that we’re at the start of a shift in the way we communicate with computers, signified by a reduction of friction in interfaces.

One way to think about new technology companies is by abstracting away their interface from the “brain” underlying it. A single interface — an app or a website — is no longer the product. The product is the brain itself — the set of assets behind the instantiation in any single interface.

Hugh Durkin argues that Browsers, not Apps, are the Future of Mobile, as messaging provides a much-needed social and distribution layer. I think it’s a compelling argument.

We’re spending increasing amounts of time inside messaging apps and social networks, themselves wrappers for the mobile web. They’re actually browsers. And these browsers give us the social context and connections we crave, something traditional browsers do not.


In Benedict Evans’ Cameras, eCommerce and Machine Learning he explores the new possibilities raised by cheap, plentiful cameras, combined with cheap, plentiful machine learning that can make sense of the images the capture.

We should expect that every image ever taken can be searched or analyzed, and some kind of insight extracted, at massive scale. Every glossy magazine archive is now a structured data set, and so is every video feed.

David Pierce’s article, Snap’s Spectacles Are the Beginning of a Camera-First Future, follows on from Ben Evans’ piece and looks at the history of the new video-capturing Snapchat glasses, and more broadly at cameras as a primary input.

Long-term, the idea that a camera isn’t just for making scrapbooks is crucial to Snap’s future. Everyone’s future, really: camera lenses seem to be poised to reinvent computing the way the keyboard and mouse once did, or the touchscreen after that.

NB I think this is big, and important. People dismiss Snapchat, but I think there’s smart stuff going on there and you should keep an eye on them.


In Watching the Election from The Post-Truth Future, Christina Xu takes a different perspective on how propaganda spreads — in China’s state-controlled social media. In her opinion, government propaganda is the least insidious, because it’s so obvious. The real danger is a complete collapse of trust.

Contrary to popular sentiment in the US, Chinese readers don’t blindly trust the state-run media. Rather, they distrust it so much that they don’t trust any form of media, instead putting their faith in what their friends and family tell them.

Tim O’Reilly’s Media in the Age of Algorithms confronts the idea that Facebook, et al, should be more hands-on in tackling fake news, instead using Google as an example of how to deal with the problem robustly.

Designing an effective algorithm for search or the newsfeed has more in common with designing an airplane so it flies, or designing a new airplane so that it can fly faster than the old one, than with deciding where that airplane flies.


Who Will Command The Robot Armies? is yet another brilliant talk by Maciej Ceglowski (how does he do it so consistently?). In this he wonders who will be ultimately responsible for the automated systems in our homes and workplaces.

The real answer to who will command the robot armies is: Whoever wants it the most. And right now we don’t want it. Because taking command would mean taking responsibility.

In The Internet Era of Fun and Games is Over, Austin Powell transcribes highlights of Bruce Schneier’s address to the US government in which he makes a case for regulatory control of the internet.

When it didn’t matter — when it was Facebook, when it was Twitter, when it was email — it was OK to let programmers, to give them the special right to code the world as they saw fit. We were able to do that. But now that it’s the world of dangerous things — and it’s cars and planes and medical devices and everything else — maybe we can’t do that anymore.

The Thoughtful Net is an occasional (less than weekly, more than monthly) publication collecting great writing about the internet and technology, culture, information, soci­ety, science, and philo­sophy. If you prefer to receive it in your inbox you can follow this publication or or subscribe to the email newsletter.