Author: Jon Evans

Privacy is a commons

“The commons is the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society,” quoth Wikipedia, “held in common, not owned privately.” We live in an era of surveillance capitalism in a symbiotic relationship with advertising technology, quoth me. And I put it to you that privacy is not just a virtue, or a value, or a commodity: it is a commons. You may well wonder: isn’t privacy pretty much definitionally “owned privately”? What does it matter to you, or to me, much less to society as a whole, if some 13-year-old somewhere (and her legal guardians) decide to sell her privacy to Facebook for $20 a month? OK, maybe you think rootcerting a teenager is sketchy — but if an adult chooses to sell their privacy, isn’t that entirely their own business? The answer is: no, actually, not necessarily; not if there are enough of them; not if the commodification of privacy begins to affect us all. Privacy is like voting. An individual’s privacy, like an individual’s vote, is usually largely irrelevant to anyone but themselves … but the accumulation of individual privacy or lack thereof, like the accumulation of individual votes, is enormously consequential. As I’ve written before, “This accumulation of data is, in and of itself, not a “personal privacy” issue, but a massive public security problem. At least three problems, in fact.” Those are:...

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The infrastructural humiliation of America

I’m flying back to the USA today, and as an infrastructure aficionado, it’s nice to be going home, but I’m dreading the disappointment. I just spent two weeks in Singapore and Thailand; last year I spent time in Hong Kong and Shenzhen; and compared to modern Asia, so much American infrastructure is now so contemptible that it’s hard not to wince when I see it. The USA is nine times wealthier than Thailand, per capita, but I’d far rather ride Bangkok’s SkyTrain than deal with NYC’s subway nowadays. I’d much prefer to fly into Don Muang, Bangkok’s ancient second-tier airport — which was actually closed for years, before being reopened to handle domestic flights and low-cost airlines — than the hostile nightmare that is LAX. And those are America’s two primary gateway cities! So imagine what it’s like coming to America from wealthy Asian nations, and their gleaming, polished, metronomically reliable subways, trains, and airports. I don’t think Americans understand just how that comparison has become a quiet ongoing national humiliation. If they did, sheer national (and civic) pride would make them want to do something about it. Instead there’s a learned helplessness about most American infrastructure nowadays, a wrong but certain belief that it’s unrealistic to dream of anything better. It’s not just those two cities. Compare Boston’s T to, say, Taipei, or San Francisco’s mishmash of messed-up...

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The new Two Minutes Hate

You see it first on Facebook or Twitter. Something contemptible: an image, or a video, or a tweet. One accompanied by a furious, snarky caption, highlighting just how awful and unacceptable it is, a dunk fueled by rage. The outrage rises within you. How can it not? You’re primed for outrage. We all are, now. Outrage grenades just waiting for our pins to be pulled. Usually, if you dig down behind the outrage to its fuel, it’s because our most cherished beliefs, the ones with which we most strongly identify, are – maybe implicitly, maybe implicitly – being attacked....

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Technology’s dark forest

We used to be such optimists. Technology would bring us a world of wealth in harmony with the environment, and even bring us new worlds. The Internet would erase national boundaries, replace gatekeepers with a universal opportunity for free expression, and bring us all closer together. Remember when we looked forward to every advance? I just finished Liu Cixin’s magisterial science-fiction trilogy Remembrance of Earth’s Past. It is very much a bracingly pessimistic story for our era. Without spoiling it too much, I’ll just say that it’s a depiction of a transition from optimistically anticipating contact with other worlds...

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Our dystopian cyberpunk here and now

We in the West love our apocalyptic science fiction, in which cartoonishly evil authorities ruthlessly oppress all who so much as wonder about its absolute power, enforced via ubiquitous surveillance technology. Think The Hunger Games, Blade Runner 2049, V for Vendetta, just to pick a few. Well — to trot out that infamous William Gibson line, the future is here, it’s just unevenly distributed. Yearly reminder: unless you’re over 60, you weren’t promised flying cars. You were promised an oppressive cyberpunk dystopia. Here you go. — Kyle Marquis (@Moochava) July 10, 2013 I’m thinking of Xinjiang, northwest China, which,...

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The YKarma experiment

Blockchains are boring now. It’s been ten years since Bitcoin launched, and cryptocurrencies have almost exclusively been used to recapitulate existing monetary systems in slightly new forms. This is boring. Programmable currencies give us the ability to build whole new categories of economies, ones which reject all traditional assumptions about how value is generated, transferred, or stored. It’s past time to start experimenting with such systems. Putting my reputation where my mouth is, your (not-so-)humble correspondent has done just that. Specifically, I have created, and open-sourced, an experimental, blockchain-based, non-monetary economy, one which quantifies reputation as a spendable currency...

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It’s the Jons 2018!

It was the best of years, it was the worst of years, it was the wokest of years, it was the most problematic of years, it was the year of AI, it was the year of scooters, it was the year of Big Tech triumph, it was the year of Big Tech scandals, it was the year of Musk’s disgrace, it was the year of Tesla’s redemption, it was the year of shitcoin justice, it was definitely not the year of AR or VR, it was the dumbest timeline, it was the spring of stanning, it was the winter of wtf. It was, in short, a year tailor-made for The Jons, an annual award celebrating tech’s more dubious achievers, named, in an awe-inspiring fit of humility, after myself. So let’s get to it! With very little further ado, I give you: the third annual Jon Awards for Dubious Technical Achievement! (The Jons 2015) (The Jons 2016) (The Jons 2017) THE FEET AND LEGS AND TORSO OF CLAY AWARD FOR SUDDEN REGRESSION TO THE MEAN To Elon Musk, who in the past year went from (in many eyes) “messiah who could do no wrong” to “man who has paid a $20 million fine and stepped down as chairman in order to settle with the SEC regarding allegations of tweeted fraud; been sued for very publicly accusing a stranger of pedophilia...

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Here comes the downturn

It’s remarkable how fast the tenor of the times has changed. Only a few months ago we were in a boom that seemed like it might never end. Now the yield curve has inverted; the markets have gone bear; and Google Trends has the word “recession” at its highest level since 2009. There seems to be near-universal consensus that a major, worldwide economic downturn is coming. When exactly? Who knows? Late 2019 or early 2020, says the smart money; much sooner than that, quoth the doomsayers (including a truly remarkable percentage of CEOs.) What effect will it have on tech, in particular? Ah, now there’s a very interesting question indeed. You can make a pretty good case that technology, as an industry, will actually see a net benefit from any downturn. Note how tech essentially ignored the Great Recession of 2008 and kept on thriving, despite much of the smart money at the time warning us that the tech industry as we knew it was all but doomed — who can forget Sequoia Capital’s infamous “R.I.P. Good Times” deck? The theory goes: every industry is becoming a technology industry, and downturns only accelerate the process, because software is eating the world, and recessions bring fresh carrion we don’t even have to hunt. It’s plausible. It’s uncomfortable, given how much real human suffering and dismay is implicit in the economic...

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