Do you trust the adverts in Blade Runner?
Plus, negotiating with an AI that's better at negotiating than you
You’ve seen Blade Runner, of course. It’s set in Los Angeles, November 2019; certainly gets the air quality pretty much right, though most of the other stuff is, well, a bit ahead of where we got to. Still, made in 1982: all that pessimism about the climate, eh?
Now, remember the adverts? Not the Coca-Cola ones or the Japanese lady popping a mysterious pill in her mouth, but the ones blasted from overhead blimps: “A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies! A chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure!” (At this juncture I’d love to include a clip of that moment from the film, but in any search for Blade Runner, YouTube is awash in absolute crap.)
Here’s the question: do you trust that advert about the off-world colonies? Do you think it’s telling the truth about a golden land? Subliminally, nobody who watches the film does. You take it as read that the off-world colonies actually aren’t golden lands, and that the “opportunity” means you’ve got to do everything from scratch, and the “adventure” is referring to some sort of stuff involving unknown wildlife you’d rather not tangle with. Even though the planet you’re on is beset by horrible weather, relentless skyscraper-high adverts and police who might kill you if you squint wrongly at them, it’s still preferable to a place where superhuman androids roam free and might kill you if, well, we don’t quite know why. But they can. Hence Los Angeles is (still) home to 106 million people, apparently.
Which brings us to Mastodon, and Hive, and Post, and all the other alternative social networks that are getting hyped as alternative places to go as everyone reckons that Twitter is falling into a deep hole, in thrall to right-wingers, Silicon Valley “goons” and a dwindling staff to moderate content.
Mastodon! It’s the off-Twitter colony for you, a golden land of opportunity and adventure! As some people are already discovering:
Using journa.host feels a little like crossing the border to a kinder, more rule-bound, less dynamic country. Susanne Althoff, a user and former magazine editor, compared journa.host to zine culture.
“The conversation is still very much a low murmur,” Mr. Weiss said.
Many journa.host members use the service no differently than they use Twitter, sometimes posting the same text simultaneously to each platform.
Indeed, at times, journa.host looks a lot like Twitter, just without all the non-journalists and most of the nastiness.
None of the nastiness? Oh, hang on—most of the nastiness, you say?
The conflicts that have at times inflamed Twitter have already caused problems for [Adam] Davidson [of the New Yorker, who set up journa.host] and his team [who have been deciding who can join].
On Nov. 18, the journalist Mike Pesca, who hosts the popular news podcast “The Gist,” posted a link to a [New York] Times story about health concerns associated with the puberty-blocking drugs sometimes prescribed to transgender youths, writing, “This seemed like careful, thorough reporting.”
In response, Parker Molloy, a journalist who writes the Substack newsletter “The Present Age,” accused Mr. Pesca of anti-trans bigotry, and then posted angrily at Mr. Davidson for not removing the post.
“@adamdavidson’s decision not to take action on anti-trans content isn’t inspiring confidence and I totally understand why other places are doing instance-level blocking,” she wrote on journa.host. (Instance-level blocking refers to the ability, on Mastodon, for one server to block content from another.)
Zach Everson, one of the journa.host administrators, responded that he agreed with Ms. Molloy, then added, “Banning someone for posting a link to an NYT article sets a precedent that we really need to work through.”
The upshot? Pesca was suspended from journa.host, apparently for referring to Molloy as an “activist”, which was deemed “dismissive”. (I very often wonder how American journalists would fare in the bare-knuckle atmosphere of the Daily Mail, whose former editor Paul Dacre’s rants at people were known as the Vagina Monologues. Let’s really find out what dismissive means, shall we?) But then Molloy was also suspended from the journa.host Mastodon instance, aka server, though she could still set up an account on a different instance, aka server, and did.
Opportunity (to recapitulate early-days Twitter rows) and adventure (setting up another account after you got banned)! Mastodon’s got it in spades! At which point we note that both Pesca and Molloy are still both active on Twitter, and discussion about that New York Times article has generated hundreds, perhaps thousands of tweets, and it doesn’t seem to have led to any huge ructions. Or at least, none out of the ordinary for the topic, itself a classic scissor statement. And we might conclude that Twitter has survived this long for a reason. It might not be the free speech wing of the free speech party any more, but the way it enables people to square off at each other and then withdraw is valuable.
So anyway this “federation” idea…
My doubts about Mastodon emerge from this federated approach, where (as John Siracusa put it on the Accidental Tech Podcast) every instance is run by a tiny tyrant. The discussion starts at 53m23s, and goes on for a while, but Siracusa makes the excellent points that all the instances/tyrants are going to face the exact same problems that early Twitter did—moderation, scaling, cost of running a server, challenge of running a server if you’re getting attacked actively or passively—and all without venture funding or any obvious source of income except asking people to give them some money pleeeeease.
By contrast, Twitter raised $100,000 in venture funding in July 2007, when it was barely a year old; just three months later, in October 2007, it raised another $5.5m. Running a fast-growing social network takes cash because it takes servers and people. Mastodon’s problem is that if the growth isn’t there, people won’t stay; but if the growth is there, instances won’t be able to keep up. We can predict one likely outcome, too: one instance will become dominant through a network effect, and in order to limit how hard it has to work will increasingly favour posts from its own instance.
Next it’ll get some funding, and the federation of Mastodon servers will increasingly look like a hub-and-spoke system, with the funded server in the middle. People will migrate to the funded server, the spokes begin to fade out, and.. you’ve got a centralised decentralised system. That’s how things have played out in the crypto exchange market1, and there's no reason to think those network effects won't happen here too.
The alternative is that Mastodon just rumbles along in the background, never gaining traction because it lacks many of the things that people have become used to on Twitter, such as unique handles (yes yes, the same handle on different servers is differentiated like email between firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, but that’s really not what you want to deal with in a messaging system), and a consistent set of rules all across the network. The spat between Pesca and Molloy, above, might have led to neither, or one, or both again being banned from a different instance; it’s impossible to say. Some instances ban “crude” language. On Twitter, you’d better set a mute keyword.
A third helping of primordial soup
I think we’ve forgotten too that we’ve gone through the “primordial soup” stage with social networks at least twice before. There were the really early days: Friendster, MySpace, Ringo, Foursquare, Orkut, Pownce, Jaiku, Qaiku, Trube, Path, Bebo, something called Instagram. (See the first chapter of Social Warming.) As you know, from our perspective, they all melted away apart from a few.
Then there were the middle years: Ello, Hey, Yo, and something called Musical.ly, which was built around lipsyncing music videos. Who remembers any of those? Except the latter one was bought and turned into TikTok.
There’s an interesting intermediate. Some people, seeing the way Twitter is spiralling uncontrollably like the spacecraft in Interstellar after Matt Damon screws up the airlock, wonder if there’s some way to create a meta-service that shows you all your feeds from all the different social networks you belong to, aggregating them in one place.
And: yes, this has been done. Successfully. So successfully that it was wiped off the face of the earth. What those people are asking for is Friendfeed, which did exactly what you’re asking for. The problem is, the networks themselves don’t like being aggregated: they want to show adverts on their sites to their users, rather than let someone else do it elsewhere. And so Facebook quickly bought this dangerous rival.
We’re probably at another inflection point, where lots of new social networks will spring up, and nothing much will come of it. Which is really frustrating, seeing how determined Musk is to flush the whole thing down the toilet. But there’s only one world to live in, and we’ve got to make do with what we’ve got.
Meanwhile, ponder this musical interpretation of “A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies”. I quite like its vibe. More after the break!
Glimpses of the AI tsunami
(Of the what? Read here.)
• Facebook has developed an AI negotiator whose silky-smooth skills are so great that it can play Diplomacy (similar to Risk) better than many humans. Imagine getting into a contract negotiation, or something similar, and not knowing if you were up against a machine or a human? The Cicero bot (as it’s called) has the advantage of not getting emotional; it just wants what it wants, and will try to work you to it.
• There’s a new AI-derived search engine which works rather like a text-to-image generator, called Metaphor. Neat idea. Have a play!
• But of course there’s a deepfake of live performance art installation Sam Bankman-Fried in which a paid-for Verified Twitter account was used to masquerade as SBF and offer “refunds” where, I cannot believe I am writing this, people were invited to send some money and they would be sent back twice as much.
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ignoring all the malarkey about which exchanges have loaned magic beans to other exchanges offering different magic beans and counted them as assets