Idée Fixe Interlude #17

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I’m Toni Cowan-Brown and each week I share with you insights from tech, politics, and pop culture that matter and dominate our minds. I’ve also added a section on the latest in the F1 2020 season. And each month I dig into one specific idea that is particularly top of mind. 🧠



First up.

I’m sending this week’s newsletter out purposefully ahead of the US elections results as I know I’ll have a hard time putting pen to paper on just about anything thereafter. Take care of yourself today.

What I’m reading.

📣 55 Voices for Democracy: “The Smallest Refusals” by Karen Tongson. 🏀 An NBA player turned his $350,000 salary into a net worth of $600M (a Twitter thread). 🎬 Don’t listen to the outrage - ‘Cuties’ is a great film. 👉 The Lifecycle of Media Manipulation (a guide). 🚨 Watch Out for This Misinformation on Election Day.


Politics 🗳️

As America decides, big tech weighs in

Last week I was asked to join a pretty impressive line-up of American political pundits and go on The Media Show (BBC Radio) to discuss the furor that has erupted over the censorship of the Hunter Biden story and alleged corruption.

I was very much outside of my comfort zone because I’m not a political pundit and I’m not American so this election is obviously hitting me differently. I spent a better part of the discussion awkwardly watching the heated exchanges between the left and the right, and a few things came up for me.

Firstly, a few months out from an election (let alone a few weeks) is the absolute wrong time to be figuring out what we want and don’t want the tech platforms to do when it comes to regulating speech and misinformation. However, the focus is really only on these issues when the elections are in full swing. We’ve got to get better at focusing on such complex issues all year round.

Secondly, right before an election is probably the hardest time to reach bipartisan agreements on the standardised regulation that is going to be needed to solve these global and complex problems. Not only do we need bipartisan agreements but we probably also need cross-Atlantic cooperation.

How The Epoch Times Created a Giant Influence Machine (NYT, October 2020)

This is a fantastic and somewhat obscure story of a once “small, low-budget newspaper with an anti-China slant that was handed out free on New York street corners” that has now become “one of the country’s most powerful digital publishers.” It demonstrates the dangers of today’s media business model which often needs polarising content in order to survive.

But at a staff meeting in 2015, leadership announced that the publication was in trouble again, Ms. Belmaker recalled. Facebook had changed its algorithm for determining which articles appeared in users’ newsfeeds, and The Epoch Times’s traffic and ad revenue were suffering.

In response, the publication assigned reporters to churn out as many as five posts a day in a search for viral hits, often lowbrow fare with titles like “Grizzly Bear Does Belly Flop Into a Swimming Pool.”

Free speech will save our democracy (NYT Magazine, October 2020)

Harvard released early this month found that effective disinformation campaigns are often an “elite-driven, mass-media led process” in which “social media played only a secondary and supportive role.” 

This is a very long read (you can also listen to it) but one worth your time. A bipartisan group called the Transition Integrity Project sought to address the reality that Trump could refuse to accept the results of the election. A reality that is even more daunting as the US faces both a massive public-health crisis and a vast information crisis caused by the speed of viral and effective disinformation.

This summer, a bipartisan group of about a hundred academics, journalists, pollsters, former government officials and former campaign staff members convened for an initiative called the Transition Integrity Project. By video conference, they met to game out hypothetical threats to the November election and a peaceful transfer of power if the Democratic candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, were to win. 


Technology 📱

How Discord (somewhat accidentally) invented the future of the internet (Protocol, October 2020)

A great read and a nice reminder that what we set out to do isn’t always what will actually happen, sometimes other opportunities arise, pivots are often necessary and diversification is a good thing. And Discord is doing exactly that, it has taken note of how its users are engaging on the platform and want to see the platform evolve into “a communication tool not just for gamers, but for everyone from study groups to sneakerheads to gardening enthusiasts.”

And then that extremely Silicon Valley thing happened: Citron and his team realized that the best thing about their game was the chat feature. (Not a great sign for the game, but you get the point.) This was circa 2014, when everyone was still using TeamSpeak or Skype and everyone still hated TeamSpeak or Skype. Citron and the Hammer & Chisel team knew they could do better and decided they wanted to try.

Why hasn’t space tourism taken off? (The Guardian Youtube channel, October 2020)


(Pop) Culture 🍿

Gen Z VCs Weigh In: Top 4 Trends We’re Watching and Our Favorite Companies (Meagan Loyst, October 2020)

Four questions asked and answered, and some good food for thought for anyone thinking about the future of content and campaigns. I specifically liked the idea of the ‘creator and curator economy’ as I feel like I’ve fallen into this space during the past nine months where I’ve started multiple projects and not a day goes by where I am not creating some type of content.

  1. What trends are you interested in?

  2. What’s an unexplored area or trend you think can be served by a new company focused on Gen Z?

  3. What are your favorite “Gen Z” brands or companies?

  4. What’s your favorite mission-driven company?

The Rise of the Virtual Being (WIRED, August 2020)

Since reading about how Grimes’ virtual avatar in February, I have been very interested and curious about the rise of virtual beings and avatars - specifically how people were going to adopt them and how they would be used. Some virtual beings have become increasingly popular, we have virtual influencers that only exist virtually and we have the rise of K/DA - a virtual girl group consisting of four themed versions of League of Legends characters.

Back in February, I obviously had no idea how the rise of virtual beings was going to be top of mind for many as we find ourselves spending a lot of our time online.

For many of us, the pandemic means we’re living increasing portions of our lives through screens: working, Zooming, streaming, gaming, connecting. That last part—connecting—is in some ways the most challenging. Spend enough time on screens, and even the real live humans we’re interacting with can start to feel like avatars. So what happens, in the future, when the people we’re chatting with actually are avatars? And what if that future is now?

Lucy Mort also wrote about the rise of the digital girlfriend especially as platforms like onlyFans gain in popularity.


Formula One 🏎

A new F1 record was set this past weekend - Mercedes AMG Petronas are now the first constructors to win seven constructors’ championships in a row. Ferrari still has the most constructor titles with a total of 16 - the last one was in 2008. Lewis has now led more than 5,000 career laps which is mighty impressive. The only other driver that has put in more laps is Schumacher with 5,111 laps.

With that said, there are some uncertainties over at Mercedes, Toto Wolff, Team Principal at Mercedes, has a contract with Mercedes that expires at the end of the year. He has hinted that he is both looking for his successor and what other positions he might be interested in for himself. Lewis also mentioned this past weekend in Imola that there is “no guarantee” he will continue in F1 in 2021, even though he is in talks with Mercedes on his new contract. But would Hamilton really walk away now? Hamilton strikes me as a driver who will leave F1 when he is at the top of his game, and go off and do something else after his racing career but I can’t see him leaving just as he is breaking so many records. Wolff and Hamilton both joined Mercedes in 2013 and have been quite the team so I also have the feeling that they are going to want to find a way to continue working together.

Mercedes couldn’t believe Botta’s aero loss from Ferrari part (The Race, October 2020)

Things didn’t work out quite so well for Valterri Bottas. Even though he kicked off the race in pole position and was leading throughout the first phase of the race, he couldn’t keep up the pace, and the reason why is pretty wild. Bottas was losing out on performance throughout most of the race because on lap 2 he ran over some Ferrari debris which ended up being lodged on the bottom of his car but not visible until the race was over. And it’s pretty significant in size. Bottas deserves serious respect for still ending up on the podium. The whole situation did lead to some great banter.

Renault was back on the podium with Daniel Ricciardo securing another third-place - their second of the season. George Russel missed out (somewhat stupidly) getting his first point(s) of the season - a lesson he won’t be forgetting anytime soon.


How to destroy a tech monopoly? (Another Podcast, November 2020)

I’m going to promote our new podcast some more. Mostly, because I’m really proud and excited about this episode. It’s the perfect example of why it’s important, specifically when new technologies are involved, to really think about what we are trying to solve and what is the right approach to any given challenge. Solving for the rise of tech monopolies cannot be to ‘break them up’ - it’s far from being that easy. These new problems we are faced with are global in scale and extremely complex and so they will require global solutions, all stakeholders involved, and time.

The trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix)

Not an easy or pleasant film to watch on the eve of the US elections, but definitely one worth watching. The film is based on the trial transcripts and was directed and written by Aaron Sorkin (in 2007). Watching the film, you get that sinking feeling that not a lot has changed in America over the past 60 years which is obviously not entirely true, but nonetheless, that feeling was definitely there for me throughout the movie.

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