Tech vs. Regulation | Tech vs. Journalism

Idée Fixe Interlude #26

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

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First up.

🎙 The Business of publishing (Another Podcast w/ Benedict Evans)

I’m really excited about this one. We kicked off season two of Another Podcast, and this season we have decided to continue our trend of ‘two people in tech who talk about things they don’t always fully understand’, and for such segments, we’ll bring in experts and guests who know a lot more about the topics than we do.

This week we talked with Jeremy White, Executive Editor of WIRED UK about the business of publishing. What does a better ad model look like? Are we getting another wave of unbundling and bundling? Are magazines betting big on affiliate revenue?

🎙 When athletes become activists (Unapologetic Women w/ Sorcha Rochford)

Sorcha and I closed out this season with a two-part conversation about sports, communities, activism and politics.

What does it look like when the athletes and entertainers we look up to in their field have an opinion on current affairs and politics, and become the activists we need and deserve? This activism can take many forms: From Marcus Rushford standing up for children without meals in the UK, to Taylor Swift voicing her opinion for the first time in the political landscape. From Jamela Jamil speaking up about body dysmorphia and the role of the beauty industry to Lewis Hamilton wearing BLM t-shirts on the F1 podiums. And most recently Naomi Osaka choosing her mental health above tennis. In doing so, they have all become unlikely ambassadors outside of their profession. 

What I’m reading.

👙 For some reason, this series of pools shot from above gave me great joy - maybe it’s the tranquility that a pool evokes, or maybe I just need a vacation. 💰 The Inequality of the GoFundMe Economy - this important piece by the NYT reminds me of an episode we did on Unapologetic Women back in March. There is absolutely nothing ‘lovely’ or ‘endearing’ about people having to count on others’ generosity to pay their medical bills. 📢 Do we really need influencers’ Israel-Palestine hot takes? - it’s certainly needed to have more people aware and pro-actively listening and asking questions about complex issues, but when is it not helpful? 😎 The US Government Is Finally Moving at the Speed of Tech, but is it really?

Politics 🗳️

Antitrust posturing (Benedict Evans, June 2021)

As this WIRED piece puts it, there are antitrust headlines just about everywhere these days and it’s often suggested that regulation cannot keep up with the pace of technology. I’ve often described it as an endless game of catch-up or a mindless wack-a-mole situation.

I would argue, however, that it’s not because a handful of bills have been introduced that they are actually useful in solving the global challenges we currently face. It’s also not always very clear what the end goal here actually is.

The most recent news is twofold: the introduction of five House antitrust bills (with different aims) and the swearing-in of Lina Khan on 15 June as Chair of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

If you read anything this week about tech, regulation, and antitrust, it should be Benedict’s piece on the latest in this space - Antitrust posturing.

Collectively, these bills are a catalogue of most of the major arguments made against large consumer tech companies in the last few years, and of the remedies that have been proposed. Unfortunately, some of them also show little sign that their authors have engaged with or even read any of the discussion we've all had around those ideas. I've listed these bills roughly in order of how coherent they are (the first is out of my scope). (read the full piece here)

And at the end of the piece, there is this very important reminder that there is still a big misunderstanding and lack of empathy between all the stakeholders needed to successfully regulate the tech landscape, and in a way that protects the users. Something that I have written about many times before.

When people in tech say 'you don't understand - it's complicated', a common and easy reaction is to think that this is special pleading - a claim that somehow the law should not apply to tech. But in fact, it's the exact opposite - this is a plea that tech policy has the same complexity and trade-offs as any other field of policy.

Technology 📱

Tech vs. Journalism: Inside the nasty battle between Silicon Valley and the reporters who write about it. (The Intelligencer, May 2021)

And whilst we are on the topic of tech vs. regulation, and tech vs. journalism, this (very long) piece from The Intelligencer is certainly worth a read.

Increasingly, Marc Andreessen felt there was a gap in tech coverage, and he decided that his own firm could create content that would be more future-positive and techno-optimistic — telling the tech story from the tech founder’s vantage point. 

A sentiment that reminds me of when political parties decide they don’t need campaigning software and can just as easily build what they need in-house. Spoiler alerts: it’s not that easy.

And a publication that has since been created - Future - which certainly does offer a more positive take on technology, albeit with little nuance and not much in the way of letting readers know who’s behind the publication and pieces. Maybe, because we all know who a16z is, right? Such lack of context is often one of the issues when trying to have a useful conversation with people in tech, policy and media.

Depending on whom you ask, the great Tech vs. Media Standoff of 2020–21 is either a “fake fight” between “20 people and 500 other people,” all quick to take offense and thirsty for clout, or it’s a cataclysmic rift that threatens democracy or, at least, the accurate portrayal of the most important industry in the world.

The reality is it’s both. Understanding the hostilities from both sides is crucial and it’s also clear that such back-and-forth is creating lots of noise in an already noisy space. But it seems like the personal reward is too good for some - “a war is on between the tech titans and a relentless generation of largely digital-native reporters looking to speak truth to power while racking up Twitter followers in the process.” Why be boringly nuanced and factual, when you can create online drama and have people hanging on to your every word, waiting for your next move. Similar to gossip rags in the 90s, I fear that the audience will quickly get bored of the antics, and although they may be intrigued, the respect for such individuals will be long gone.

(Pop) Culture 🍿

The death of the girlboss: Girlbosses convinced us they would change capitalism. We weren’t wrong in hoping they would. (Vox, June 2021)

There is this cruel thing that happens time after time; we are told that the barrier to entry to [insert space] is lower than it has ever been, now is the moment to strike and everyone can win at this game. With Substack, everyone could make a living writing online, with TikTok everyone has access to all the tools to create and edit videos online and can become famous, with Descript, everyone can become a top-notch audio editor…

There certainly is an element of truth here in that the software and tools available to us today are easier to use and more affordable than they have ever been. But it’s also true that the power of networking, algorithms, existing follower-count are also all important pieces in the narrative - you too can make it. And the same was true with the narrative that all women could be a girlboss. It was also packaged up in a fun aesthetic and a community, you will want to be a part of. In other words, “the girlboss is one of the cruelest tricks capitalism ever perpetrated.” But it’s also a story of our changing times.

Formula One 🏎

Formula 1’s big America push (, Will Buxton, May 2021)

It’s no secret that F1 has been trying to make more headway into the American market. For 70 years, F1 has been incredibly popular in Europe, and far less so across the Atlantic although the numbers have been growing.

  • F1 recently announced the addition of a second race in North America for 2022, in Miami to be specific, which will be a parking race track. The addition of this second race demonstrates F1’s commitment to growing the audience in the USA.

  • In their latest 2021 earnings call, Liberty Formula One Group (FWONA), amongst many things, also brought up the excitement around the second race in Miami for 2021. Stefano Domenicali, President & CEO F1, also mentioned that TV viewership grew during the first two races this year with particular strength in Italy, the Netherlands, France, the UK, the US and Spain.

  • He also shared his excitement for the battle between Lewis and Max that is currently unfolding. And he wasn’t wrong as this is proving to be one of the closest Championship battles we’ve had in a while.

  • On the grid, there are currently no American drivers and only one American team, namely Haas, whose drivers are more often than not found at the end of the grid and being lapped. However, currently in F3 - one of F1’s Feeder series, there are a handful of strong American drivers pursuing their dream for a seat in F1.

The question seems to be, will an American driver be the “holy grail” to create more interest, excitement and regular engagement from a newly interested audience? And is it the individual athletes who are key nowadays in a sport, vs. the teams or even the governing body?

Cultish: The language of fanaticism, Amanda Montell

I absolutely loved Montell’s last book - Wordslut - and so I am delighted to get my hands on her second book. And as someone who has worked in the tech startup space, where founders are often given the status of cult leader and where lots of Koolaid is being ingested, the word cult has certainly been thrown around - a lot.

Our culture tends to provide pretty flimsy answers to questions of cult influence, mostly having to do with vague talk of “brainwashing.” But the true answer has nothing to do with freaky mind-control wizardry or Kool-Aid. In Cultish, Montell argues that the key to manufacturing intense ideology, community, and us/them attitudes all comes down to language. In both positive ways and shadowy ones, cultish language is something we hear—and are influenced by—every single day.

Lupin (Netflix)

This short French TV series is in its second season and it’s a delight to watch. The show and story are inspired by the adventures of Arsène Lupin, gentleman thief. The cast is great but Omar Sy really steals the show. This is one where quality > quantity with just five episodes in the series, making it that much more special.

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