May 1st – ISSUE #14


Hi Folks,

Two weeks worth this edition. Eventually I’ll get into a rhythm where I’m posting the newsletter each weekend for your leisurely and pleasurable reading and you can turn up to work on Mondays with a whole lot of valuable new ideas, information, and resources.

We’ve currently got more than 26,000 subscribers to the newsletter. As soon as we get fully settled in the US I’ll think of ways of multiplying that so it is of some further benefit to you.

In the meantime, Change the World! Plenty of clues in this edition – plus a cornucopia of birthday celebrations 🙂

Best wishes,

Brendan Harkin

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“None of us is as smart as all of us” Bob Taylor – Xerox PARC Creator of some the greatest tech teams of all time.

Bankers, pharmaceutical giants, Google, Facebook … a new breed of rentiers are at the very top of the pyramid and they’re sucking the rest of us dry. Wealth isn’t created at the top, it’s merely devoured there. To understand why, we need to recognise that there are two ways of making money. The first is what most of us do: work. That means tapping into our knowledge and know-how (our “human capital” in economic terms) to create something new. Initiative and Innovation. But there is also a second way to make money. That’s the rentier way: by leveraging control over something that already exists, such as land, knowledge, or money, to increase your wealth. You produce nothing, yet profit nonetheless. By definition, the rentier makes his living at others’ expense, using his power to claim economic benefit through regulations, lobbyists, “campaign donations” (i.e., bribery), and a complicit media. As Umberto Eco said, the role of the news media is not to report the news, it’s to cover up the news.

Law professors Ariel Ezrachi and Maurice Stucke argue that competition authorities must look not only at the platforms’ effects on consumers, but also look upstream to the platforms’ suppliers of content, where “the super-platforms can squeeze millions of sellers, including photographers, photojournalists, writers, journalists, and musicians.” Ultimately, consumers lose out when content suppliers, forced to accept unreasonable terms, have less to invest in quality content. Ezrachi and Stucke are the authors of the book Virtual Competition (a product description well worth reading – and also check the invaluable ‘related links’ at the bottom of the page), which explores the harm that super-platforms inflict on consumers through use of our personal data, price discrimination, and lack of privacy protections. Ultimately, consumers lose out when content suppliers, forced to accept unreasonable terms, have less to invest in quality content.

The challenge is to create a learning society rather than a class of economic rentiers. The best blue-print I’ve seen in the past few years is Joseph Stiglitz’s book Creating a Learning Society. In a nutshell, to abstract from a fantastic diverse book, 1) successful and sustained growth requires creating a learning society; 2) an open, democratic society is more conducive to the creation of a learning society; 3) successful and sustained economic growth must be inclusive. If you don’t have time to read the book, Stiglitz has very generously published his incredibly valuable presentation notes you can skim through. Extremely highly recommended. Btw, a society’s best insurance against total capitulation to a Rentier economy is a decent Inheritance Tax. Trump has just announced he’s abolishing the Inheritance Tax altogether. Good news for his daughter, I suppose, inheritance -wise. Government as your private bank account. Won’t be long before people don’t believe in it anymore.

The internet, defined as the network switched on in January 1983, is now 34 years old. When it began, it was a gloriously decentralised, creative, non-commercial system that evoked in many of its early users utopian hopes about liberation, empowerment, creativity and sticking it to The Man. In those heady days, only a few sceptics wondered how long it would take for capitalism to get a grip on it. Now we know: it took only 21 years. Jonathan Taplin’s new book “Move Fast and Break Things” reveals how just three companies subverted the internet’s utopian ideals.

In agreement, Wired Magazine reports: Innovation is the only sustainable way to make society wealthier and better off. An increasingly popular concern is that robots will eat up labour’s share of income at an accelerating rate, leaving ordinary workers impoverished and unemployed. In other words, without genuine Innovation, we’ll end up with a fully Rentier economy + automated robotics + the Police to deal with any dissent. Entrepreneur Joe Lonsdale at the ever-technoptimist Wired Magazine reels-off 12 Jobs of the Future that Innovation will create: VR/AR, Nanotech, E-marketing, Space Tech, Senior Care, the Sharing Economy (????), Renewable Energy, & etc.

“You don’t change the world by doing what you’re told”. I love MIT Media Lab director Joichi Ito’s just announced $250,000 no-strings-attached Disobedience Award– “With this award, we honor work that impacts society in positive ways, and is consistent with a set of key principles. These principles include non-violence, creativity, courage, and taking responsibility for one’s actions. This disobedience is not limited to specific disciplines; examples include scientific research, civil rights, freedom of speech, human rights, and the freedom to innovate”. Let’s see who gets the award. In order to be more than a worthless ideological shambles, the award really needs to be given to someone in the US, and not some Chinese or Russian, or Iranian “activist”. That would be mere Obedience, not Disobedience.

One of the challenges of working in the tech industry is that it’s still very dominated by white men, not just in terms of the ratio of men to women, but in the way stories are told and expectations are set. Startup culture has a very strong narrative espousing the values of being (over)confident, aggressive, and going with your gut. Girls school graduates are six times more likely to study math, science, and technology than their counterparts in coed environments. Students at all girls schools have higher aspirations, feel more prepared for the real world, hold more leadership positions, and are more comfortable expressing their ideas. A fascinating article from Michelle Venetucci Harvey, product designer at Lyft, describing her experiences trying to maintain female spaces. Males can marauder wherever they like, right? Like, stick your feet on top of that woman’s desk in a meeting, you male asshole.

Btw, only three percent of venture capital funding goes to women and less than one percent to people of color. I love this project by 3 women called “Sex and Start-Ups (I think they mean “gender”, but anyway) to create “Zebra” companies rather than so-called Silicon Valley “Unicorns”. Why Zebras? 1) To state the obvious first: unlike unicorns, zebras are real. 2) Zebra companies are both black and white: they are profitable and improve society. They won’t sacrifice one for the other. 3) Zebras are also mutualistic: by banding together in groups, they protect and preserve one another. Their individual input results in stronger collective output, and 4) Zebra companies are built with peerless stamina and capital efficiency, as long as conditions allow them to survive. I love this!

Roger Schank challenges the idea that IBM’s Watson is in any way “Cognitive”. He argues: “Watson is not reasoning. You can only reason if you have goals, plans, ways of attaining them, a comprehension of the beliefs that others may have, and a knowledge of past experiences to reason from. A point of view helps too”. Roger was a special guest at the first international digital media event I ran in Melbourne, Australia more than 20 years ago. He examines IBM’s claims about Watson and finds them fraudulent. Noam Chomsky calls Watson “a scam” in an interview in Conversations with the Future: 21 Visions for the 21st Century (but doesn’t say why). Great book, btw.

Part of the reason for Roger Schank’s “understandable” annoyance is because it will never be possible to “understand” or “have an opinion or perspective” about a novel by “uploading” it, without actually reading it. It’s like saying that by walking into a library, you’ve suddenly read and understood every book in the library. It’s a misunderstanding of what understanding is. The brilliant Cathy O’Neill (Weapons of Math Destruction) apologises for only having a biological brain that needs to read things in order to understand them.

There’s been so much palaver about Elon Musk’s Neuralink brain-computer interfaces (BCI’s) I won’t even link to it. But how close are we really to successfully connecting our brains to our technologies? A fantastic introduction / summary from two “Neural Engineers”. Connecting our brains directly to technology may ultimately be a natural progression of how humans have augmented themselves with technology over the ages, from using wheels to overcome our bipedal limitations to making notations on clay tablets and paper to augment our memories. Much like the computers, smartphones and virtual reality headsets of today, augmentative BCIs, when they finally arrive on the consumer market, will be exhilarating, frustrating, risky and, at the same time, full of promise. And full of rubbish – one reason is that opening a person’s skull is not a trivial procedure, to put it mildly.

If you’re only going to read only one thing on “AI” this edition make it Kevin Kelly’s superb “The AI Cargo Cult: the myth of a superhuman AI“. It’s full of great insights and a lot of wisdom, beautifully and thoughtfully-written, with his typical humility. Btw, Kevin Kelly also attended that event I organised in Melbourne over 20 years ago.

“The duty of someone who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is the goal, is to make oneself an enemy of all that one reads … and attack it from every side. One should also suspect oneself at the same time as one performs critical examination of it, so that one may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency” Ibn al-Haytham (965-1040 CE).

Science is in the midst of a data crisis. Last year, there were more than 1.2 million new papers published in the biomedical sciences alone, bringing the total number of peer-reviewed biomedical papers alone to over 26 million. However, the average scientist reads only about 250 papers a year. Meanwhile, the quality of the scientific literature has been in decline. Some recent studies found that the majority of biomedical papers were irreproducible. Ahmed Alkateeb at Harvard Medical School wonders if the three axis of the scientific method (data collection, hypothesis generation, experimental testing) can indeed be automated along the lines of AI. A much-needed reminder of what science is supposed to be: truth-seeking, anti-authoritarian, and limitlessly free.

Btw, here’s five reasons blog posts are of higher scientific quality than journal articles: 1) blogs have open data, code, and materials; 2) blogs have open peer review; 3) blogs have no eminence filter; 4) blogs have better error correction; and 5) blogs are open access and might be read more.

Algorithms pervade our lives today, from music recommendations to credit scores to now, bail and sentencing decisions. But there is little oversight and transparency regarding how they work. Typically, government agencies do not write their own algorithms; they buy them from private businesses. Managing data privacy is becoming an increasingly difficult challenge for massive corporations littered with data silos. New data regulations–from the EU to the US to China– illustrate that this challenge is really just beginning. This trend underscores the importance of anonymization – one of the most important tools in a data scientist’s “privacy toolbox.” But check out how a university student was able to de-anonymize and trace celebrity’s New York cab trips and tips from city data.

No-one is prepared for the robot onslaught – how they are on their way to vaporize the jobs of tens of thousands of bankers and brokers on Wall Street. How they are bent on inflicting similar mayhem in law and accounting firms, and in computer-programming pools. How, if you wear a white collar, male or female, watch your back. Blue-collar workers—forget about it. The robots will kill off the positions of half a million oil-rig hands, up to half the industry’s workforce around the world, along with hundreds of thousands of warehouse employees, Amazon-ized by automated forklifts and other machines. Then there are the drivers—the navigators of taxis and long-haul trucks, who make up some 17% of the adult US work force, adding up to about 7 million people, to be replaced by robot cars if competition from Uber’s roster of of 1.5 million drivers doesn’t put them out of business first. Fast-food workers—the hard-working teens, first-generation immigrants, and return-to-work moms who are the bedrock of burger joints everywhere. Even so-called “academics” can be replaced by curating youtube videos as a curriculum.

The Dark Secret at the Heart of AI – No one really knows how the most advanced algorithms do what they do. If you could get access to these mathematical models, it would be possible to understand their reasoning. But banks, the military, employers, and others are now turning their attention to more complex machine-learning approaches that could make automated decision-making altogether inscrutable.

A real complication will come when the use of AI by cyber criminals becomes more mainstream. It would be naive to think AI will only be used for good, and you can almost guarantee there are countless AI algorithms being developed to probe an organization’s perimeter, searching for a means to penetrate security features.

As the growth of new ventures suggests, there’s currently a lot of hype around digital identity. Entrepreneurs recognize that digital identity is the linchpin that ties together all the services, devices, and organizations that we care about and want to connect with, and there’s money to be made for whoever controls that key. Most interesting are the new identity startups that are emerging. Companies such as Blockstack, Consent, Global ID, Evernym, miiCard, ShoCard, and Yoti are using advancements in biometrics, mobile sensors, distributed ledgers, and encryption to develop next-generation digital identity solutions that are more secure than our social network profiles, and more functional than our government identities.

Today, information now travels instantaneously to billions of nodes across the world. It isn’t nailed to a church door, printed from an engraving, whispered in public houses, or set to familiar musical tunes for ease of conveyance. It comes into our smartphones, to our computers, to our social media feeds, and gets reproduced in media outlets of varying repute. However, although the means and methods have changed, the desire to distort and control information for political purposes remain the same.

Information warfare isn’t Russian – it’s American as apple pie. The allure of half-truths that we want to hear, the selective inclusion of evidence, a closed mind to different points of view, and a lack of critical thinking have been shown to be national security challenges as complex, insidious, and dangerous as terrorism or even conventional warfare. Author Erick Waage is an Army Cyber Operations officer at the Army Cyber Institute at West Point

Meanwhile, Glenn Greenwald reports on Trump’s CIA Director Pompeo, targeting WikiLeaks and whistle-blowers, explicitly threatening speech and press freedoms. He does not understand that the First Amendment is a limitation on government rather than a granting of rights to citizens.

The Troubling Contradictions of Dronestagrams – one the one hand, Drone technology has birthed a new way of seeing ourselves and the world—and enabled us to surveil anyone or anything, without any legal process. On the other hand, not only do drones empower users to document their own unique views, they also challenge the perspectives presented by larger and better-equipped institutions. This newfound visual authority can be used to disrupt authority itself—but only if we spend more of our time examining the nature of power than looking at ourselves.

Onto Bots:  Recent figures indicate that 180 bot-related companies have attracted a staggering $24 billion in funding to date, with hundreds of other bot companies vying for investor dollars. Here is A Concise Overview of Recent Advances in Chatbot Technologies complete with supporting videos. And here’s 11 amazing things you may not know about chatbots, including that people don’t like being fooled about whether they’re conversing with a bot or a human. Nor do they appreciate having their voice-activated speaker hijacked by a television advertisement. (Btw, people are still convinced that Facebook is eavesdropping on their conversations through their phone’s mic)

Facebook is quietly trying to develop the most useful virtual assistant ever, in a project that illustrates the current limitations of artificial intelligence. “Human in the Loop” is a phrase you’re going to hear a lot. In the past two years, companies offering do-anything concierges (Magic, Facebook’s M, GoButler); shopping assistants (Operator, Mezi); and e-mail schedulers (, Clara) have sprung up. Companies who employ humans pretending to be robots pretending to be humans.

Voice-powered speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home have carved out a place on kitchen counters and nightstands in countless homes. What makes their immense popularity all the more remarkable is that they’ve achieved it without a key feature: Knowing exactly who’s talking. That changes with Google Home’s introduction of support for multiple accounts. Starting today, your Google Home device can identify as many as six voices, and summon information based on each person’s calendars, services, and preferences.

“You cannot change things by fighting existing reality: To change things you must build a new model to make the existing model obsolete.” Buckminster Fuller.

“The new and unknown cannot be extrapolated logically from the old and the known” Pek van Andel.

An outstanding summary of the state-of-art in VR and AR by Leo Mirani for The Economist: Personal technology is going to change not only your world but the world around you (an extract from Megatech: Technology in 2050 edited by Daniel Franklin).

A primer on the Metaverse: The next iteration of the Internetthe Metaverse itself will likely grow and spread quickly, beyond the scope of what WebVR offers in isolation, encapsulating technology like blockchains, AI, bots, haptic gear, and IoT all under one roof.

In the meantime, Facebook’s plans to augment reality are as dystopian as they are smart. Our AR future could be an advertising and social hellscape. who could forget that disturbing photo of Zuckerberg last year, amid a sea of headset-wearing audience members looking like an army of slavish corporate citizens?

If you think online e-commerce isn’t changing things drastically- physical retailers are going bankrupt at a staggering rate. The always excellent Visual Capitalist shows the Retail Apocalypse – everything you need to know in one splendid infographic. Even though The Outline thinks that it’s because Amazon is taking over everything (an on-going theme in this newsletter), The Atlantic thinks the reasons go far beyond Amazon (e.g., way too many Malls) and speculates that self-driving mini-vans patrolling neighborhoods could obliterate retail altogether.

Unbeknownst to most shoppers, the retail experience is poised for drastic, game-changing disruption. Sure, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have already started to shape how we shop, but the real fun is only just beginning. A series of recent innovations could push these new technologies to the next level, making the VR shopping experience as prevalent as online shopping is today. Welcome to the hologram you can live in.

Caveat Emptor: Buyer Beware – this is how online shopping makes suckers of us all – Will you pay more for those shoes before 7 p.m.? Would the price tag be different if you lived in the suburbs? Standard prices and simple discounts are giving way to far more exotic strategies, designed to extract every last dollar from the consumer.

I couldn’t agree more with Robert Yang’s “If you walk in someone else’s shoes, then you’ve taken their shoes. Empathy Machines as Appropriation Machines”. The rhetoric of the empathy machine asks us to endorse technology without questioning the politics of its construction or who profits from it. Elsewhere he argues very eloquently for a progressive future for VR: “even the most embarrassing VR evangelists are preaching patience for 3-5 more years. But it would be a huge mistake to “wait and see” until VR is a success or a total waste of time. Artists and queers and weirdos need to hit VR now, and hit hard, before VR culture ends up as conservative as the worst of gamer culture.

Adult toys and Kid’s toys: the first robot-doll brothel has opened in Barcelona. You can spend an hour with Katy, Kanda, Niki, Lily, or Aki for 100 euros and even arrange to take them home for a night (probably NSFW). For kids’ on the other hand, CogniToys are smart devices in toy form, tailored just for kids to provide an educational and entertaining experience without the need for a screen. While other smart toys rely on pre-programmed responses, the IBM Watson-powered Dinosaurs listen to kids’ questions and adapt to their age, allowing them to grow over time.  “CogniToys are educational companions that learn and grow with kids. Dinos aren’t personal assistants, they are friends who answer questions, tell stories, practice spelling, play games and even lead guided meditations — all without the need for a screen”. The Wi-Fi-enabled Dinos engage kids in interactive conversation and get smarter with each automatic content update.

Azuma Hikari, “Japan’s answer to Alexa,” is a virtual assistant that tells her master she misses him when he’s gone, that she can’t wait for him to get home. That sort of thing is not only uncomfortably tangled up with sex and submissiveness, but also with companionship, care, and the drip of daily interactions that constitute emotional work in the digital age. We want our robots to be women because we already expect to get our emotional labor from women.

Every creative industry is engaged in a civil war. The creatives — whether writers, painters or musicians — want to play with new forms of expression; the capitalists prefer to go with what worked last time. But sometimes the two sides come together, on equal terms, in gloriously fertile equilibrium. We call these periods golden ages. TV is in a golden age right now; so was the Paris Art Market between 1870 and 1930. Both needed the establishment system to crumble in order to flourish. In the long run, an industry hostile to new ideas and talent will either die or be reinvented.

If you haven’t seen Lyrebird, you can record 1 minute from someone’s voice and Lyrebird can compress her/his voice’s DNA into a unique key and use this key to generate anything with its corresponding voice. In other words, you can make anyone say anything. And combine that with this video hack, you can control their expressions in any video. Talk about a post-fact world!

OK – to finish this section with something with the authorial tone (light-hearted but weighty): This Comics Artist Turned Apple’s Terms and Conditions Into a Graphic Novel (great interview), and here’s a wonderful history of the artwork and typology of Penguin Books over 80 years. Warning: Don’t judge a book by its cover.

“The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence” Nikola Tesla.

If you haven’t see Google Earth 2.0 – it’s astonishing! The whole world is now in your browser. Fly through landmarks and cities like London, Tokyo and Rome in stunning 3D, then dive in to experience them first hand with Street View. See the world from a new point of view with Voyager. Here’s a short video intro. Start exploring: It’s amazing.

I don’t know why people express surprise about the rise of China as an IP powerhouse. Since the last Five Year Plan, the metric of evaluation for all State Owned Enterprises (SOE’s) and all universities has been the number of patents filed. Techcrunch marvels that “China is not only taking the spotlight in strong defense of global markets and free trade, filling a vacuum left by retreating Western capitalist democracies, China is quickly becoming a (if not the) global leader in intellectual property protection and enforcement”. Chinese companies and innovators filed more than 1 million patent applications in 2015, more than one-third the total number of patents filed globally and roughly double the number filed by innovators in the United States.

Americans owe over $1.4 trillion in student loan debt, spread out among about 44 million borrowers. That’s about $620 billion more than the total U.S. credit card debt. Meanwhile in Germany, University education is not only completely free, it’s completely free for anyone – national or international students alike. “Universities are motors of economic welfare, they attract people to Germany”, explained Marijke Wahlers, head of the international department of the German Rectors’ Conference.

As the Xerox Parc quote for the Smart Everything section said, “None of us is as smart as all of us”. Successful collaboration might be a code worth cracking, which is why London-based writer and curator Ellen Mara De Wachter asked the real pros—25 leading artist duos and collectives—about what it’s like to work collaboratively, and what we (artists and everyone else) can learn from their experiences.

Creativity. It is the secret of what makes humans special, hiding in plain sight. Anthropologist Augustín Fuentes explores in his new book, The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional. The great drivers of human progress have been creativity and cooperation, and that many of the things we believe about ourselves, from religion to race, are wrong. Here’s an interview with the author in National Geographic.


Last week, I forgot a link to Herbie Hancock’s “Groove is in the Heart”. The Best Music Video Ever – “DIG”?

How could you possibly pick any quote from birthday boy Samuel Beckett – how about this from Harold Pinter: “The farther he goes the more good it does me. I don’t want philosophies, tracts, dogmas, creeds, ways out, truths, answers, nothing from the bargain basement. He is the most courageous, remorseless writer going and the more he grinds my nose in the shit the more I am grateful to him”. Amen.

The sadly gone and long-lost Kathy Acker: “Your mind is a nightmare that has been eating you. Now eat your mind”. Interview with Melvyn Bragg. She died so young – such a tragic loss. The whole New York, Freedom of Thought, Freedom of Sexuality – she mesmerised us when we were university students. (Bonus material – the photographer who does the photo shoot in the video is Robert Mapplethorpe!)

I’m in two minds about including Robert Oppenheimer – same as he was about himself. Hiroshima and Nagasaki is an amazing book – profound and disturbing. And here is a great article from The New Atlantis on Oppenheimer’s “Agony of Atomic Genius”.

It’s Tristan Tzara’s birthday this week – here’s one of his “tone poems” set to music by Talking Heads – I Zimbra at West 45th Street in NY.

Jonsi Birgisson from Sigur Ros – Probably the most beautiful video ever made: “Music expresses that which cannot be said on which it is impossible to be silent” Victor Hugo.

Robert Smith from The Cure – and the sublime “Pictures of You”.”If only I’d thought of the right words …”, “There was nothing in the world that I ever wanted more”.

Iggy Pop – take your pick – Lust for Life, Real Wild Child, or Candy.

Peter Garrett from Midnight Oil – if you want to see the Australia I grew up in, here it is. Also, when I moved to Sydney from Melbourne I lived about 150 meters from where this video was filmed.

Pete Shelley from the Buzzcocks – Homo Sapien – “I’m a HOMO Sapien, and you’re a HOMO Sapien too”. I think I get the idea.

How to paint a watercolour like J.M.W. Turner – a beautiful video on how Turner created his watercolor masterpieces.

The beauty of Joan Miro’s paintings, and Constatin Brancusi’s sculptures: “Don’t look for obscure formulas or mystery in my work. It is pure joy that I offer you. Look at my sculptures until you see them“.

Birthday-boy Conan O’Brien began life as a writer on The Simpsons. Here’s a delightful reminiscence among the original writing crew about how they put the early masterpieces together.


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