💡The "dark forest" theory of the internet

Issue #007, plus the rise of Impossible Foods and the issue with brand purpose marketing

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Fascinating piece from Yancey Strickler (best known as the co-founder of Kickstarter) on the changing nature of how we consume and share media online. He names the shift towards private messaging and media as the “Dark Forest Theory of the Internet”: in essence, we’re avoiding the fray of Facebook’s News Feed and Twitter’s timeline by retreating into “dark forest” channels like email newsletters, podcasts, and direct messaging.

This shift has been well documented—and it hit its peak a few weeks ago when Zuckerberg declared “the future is private”—but there are two things that Strickler does a good job of exploring in this piece:

  1. Why are we spending more time on “dark forest” channels?

  2. What impact will this shift have on us individually, and on society at large?

According to Strickler, dark forest spaces are becoming more popular because:

“They provide psychological and reputational cover. They allow us to be ourselves because we know who else is there. Compared to the free market communication style of the mass channels — with their high risks, high rewards, and limited moderation — dark forest spaces are more Scandinavian in their values and the social and emotional security they provide.”

Yep, you heard that right: Hygge has hit the Internet.

I struggle with this, because on one hand, I’m a big believer in this shift towards human-curated, non-algorithmic media and private messaging. That’s why I started this newsletter, for example: to share content directly—privately, in a sense—to a group of people who want to read it. And it’s great that people are looking for more curation in a world of endless scrolling. But the “dark forest” label has tainted my otherwise rosy view of this trend: the reality is that there are very real downsides, from a social and political perspective, to this shift to dark forest platforms. The biggest one is that we’re removing ourselves—and our voices—from the public forum. Strickler puts it well, emphasis mine:

“The influence of Facebook, Twitter, and others is enormous and not going away. There’s a reason why Russian military focused on these platforms when they wanted to manipulate public opinion: they have a real impact. The meaning and tone of these platforms changes with who uses them.”

In some ways, you can imagine this shift towards dark forest channels resulting in more polarization: algorithmic filter bubbles may be bad, but “opt-in filter bubbles” may be much worse. Give the piece a read here and let me know what you think.

Photo by Rosie Fraser on Unsplash


Quick links

🍔 Interesting longread that charts the rise of Impossible Foods and gives an inside look at the company and its vision. They’ve just raised another $300 million, are launching new products this year, and expanding into more countries. Money quote:

“Ethical consumerism is a failure and doesn't really accomplish what we want it to accomplish… What you need to do is create things that are ethical and moral as a baseline but make them compete on metrics of taste, price and convenience, which is what people actually buy food on, and Impossible has really embodied that."

👎 Every company is trying to market its brand purpose and sustainability efforts, but this approach is starting to fall flat with young people. Here’s why.

🏛 Tech is getting closer to government. Silicon Valley tech firms have rented a record amount of office space in Washington DC this year: over 1.2 million square feet, up from just 360,000 square feet in 2014.

📈 Transcripts from earnings calls and investor conferences have revealed an interesting trend: the leaders of public companies are talking about capitalism and socialism more than ever before. Quartz: “It signals a shift in the overall conversation.”

📱 Facebook removed a record 2.2 billion fake accounts, but many—like Kara Swisher in her column this week—aren’t convinced that the company can succeed in the fight against misinformation.


Endnote

If you have feedback or stories you found interesting, please send them my way: hugh.mcfall@gmail.com. If this was forwarded to you and you want to subscribe, you can do that hereThanks for reading!

San Francisco bans facial recognition by police; Inside Google's civil war

Issue #006, plus Nike gets in on circular design, Google cracks down on Huawei

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San Francisco bans facial recognition technology

Photo: New York Times

This week, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 8 to 1 to ban the use of facial recognition technology by the police and other public agencies in the city. This was done largely due to surveillance concerns—not to mention that these systems are still flawed and biased.

I think this is the right move: facial recognition tools have a lot to offer in public safety efforts, but without regulation, they give our public agencies an unprecedented level of surveillance power. Now, with this ban, the city has an opportunity to take its time, get this right, and show the rest of the world what smart regulation of this technology should look like.


Inside Google’s civil war

Photo: Michael Short—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Fascinating longread about the rise of employee activism within Google in the past two years, from the Damore memo, to the successful Project Maven and Project Dragonfly protests, to the recent claims of retaliation. One takeaway from this is that Googlers, increasingly aware of their power (Google now has over 100,000 employees) are fed up with the lack of progress the company is making on key issues, and are starting to turn to more old-school labor organizing tactics and finding success. They’re also sparking a larger debate within Google:

“Who decides what is the soul of Google and what Google is?” asks Lokman Tsui, formerly Google’s go-to executive on issues of free expression and censorship in Asia and the Pacific. “Is it leadership or employees? There’s a real battle for the soul of these companies right now.”


Nike gets in on circular design

Photo: Nike

Nike worked with Central St. Martins, a design school in London, to launch a guide for circular design. What’s interesting about this is that it takes the main ideas and principles of circular design—environmentally friendly materials and packaging, durability, avoiding waste, etc.—and packages them into a single system that other designers can learn from and use. See the guide here.



Quick links

⚡️In order to continue the acceleration towards renewable energy, Bill Gates argues that there’s three main areas we need to invest in: energy storage, carbon capture, and high-voltage, long-distance transmission lines.

🚫Google suspends some business with Huawei after U.S. blacklist.

🏙The Sidewalk Labs smart city experiment in Toronto continues to hit roadblocks—and increased pushback from the city.

🧠Tech companies are shaping the rules that govern AI. Here’s a look at how they’re doing it.


Endnote

If you have feedback or stories you found interesting, please send them my way: hugh.mcfall@gmail.com. If this was forwarded to you and you want to subscribe, you can do that hereThanks for reading!

It's time for a 21st century stock exchange

Issue #005: The Long Term Stock Exchange (LTSE) gets regulatory approval

A popular criticism of today’s public markets is that, by making companies live and die by quarterly reporting, they foster short-term thinking at the expense of long term value creation and sustainability.

In part because of this concern, high-growth startups are opting to stay private for longer. Despite the current wave of high-profile IPOs from the likes of Uber and Lyft—with Airbnb and Slack on the way—the number of public companies in the U.S. is actually declining:

Meanwhile, the average age of newly listed companies is growing:

The result is that founders, early employees, and investors reap the majority of the benefits of an IPO, while public investors are left out of much of the critical growth stages of the company. Consider the difference between Amazon and Facebook’s IPO (from this piece, which goes into detail):

“Amazon went public at a $500 million valuation, and the public could benefit from its high-growth early days. Facebook went public at $100 billion. While the public has been able to benefit from Facebook’s ~5x growth since IPO, they were locked out from accruing the 100x gains of that $1 billion to $100 billion growth curve.”

Then there’s the even bigger problem of balancing quarterly cycles with long-term environmental stewardship. Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever, scrapped quarterly reporting on his first day on the job, citing both business and environmental concerns: “Stewardship does not manifest itself quarterly,” he said. “You have to lay seeds and let them grow.”

While Polman’s decision inspired other publicly listed firms to shun quarterly reporting, it hasn’t been enough to shift us away from a culture of short-termism. But the Long Term Stock Exchange (LTSE)—which was approved this week by the SEC to operate a national securities exchange—may be able to do it.

The Long Term Stock Exchange was founded in 2012 by Eric Ries, who wrote the Lean Startup, and backed by Marc Andreessen, Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, and other notable investors. It has an ambitious goal: to build a new exchange for companies and investors that want to take a long-term view.

They intend to do that with a new set of listing rules that have yet to be approved by the SEC and, as a result, are still being kept under wraps. But we have a good sense of how the LTSE will work as of now, and once it earns final approval later this year, it will be America’s newest stock exchange.

The LTSE says, for example, that they expect all companies that list with them to “adopt a set of governing practices that mirror their long-term horizon”. As their VP of Operations writes:

“We expect that companies listed on LTSE will, among other things, develop indicators of progress toward long-term success and link executive pay to long-term performance. And that they will disclose investments in long term-focused research and development, and explain their approaches to community, diversity, and the environment.”

Another way they want to accomplish this is through tenured voting, in which a shareholder gets more votes the longer they hold a stock.

The LTSE has a long road ahead, but its impact could be far greater than simply giving startup founders a more compelling reason to go public. If it succeeds, the LTSE could help shift capitalism in a better direction by creating a new kind of system that not only makes it possible to take a long-term view, but make it business as usual.

Read more


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If you have feedback or stories you found interesting, please send them my way: hugh.mcfall@gmail.com. If this was forwarded to you and you want to subscribe, you can do that hereThanks for reading!

💡Facebook's pivot to privacy, using systems thinking to fix capitalism

Issue #004, plus the terrifying potential of 5G, rise of the plant-based meat industry, losing faith in democracy, and more

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Facebook’s pivot to privacy

Facebook once proudly described itself a “digital town square”. As the last couple of years has shown, they’ve struggled to live up to that promise: the company has repeatedly mishandled user data, and the platform has become a powerful tool for spreading misinformation and undermining democracies across the world.

This week at F8, their biggest event of the year, they changed course.

In his keynote, Zuckerberg announced a redesigned Facebook, one that’s more of a privacy-focused “digital living room” than a town square. These changes are as much about improving privacy—which they, of course, desperately need to do—as they are a response to changing user behavior. As Zuckerberg said: “By far, the three fastest-growing areas of online communication are private messaging, groups and Stories.”

The main announcement was a redesign of the Facebook web and mobile apps. The News Feed was barely discussed, but, for all of Facebook’s talk about private communication and ephemeral content, the News Feed is still the core of the Facebook experience, an infinite scroll of public posts and targeted ads:

To me, in part because of this lack of meaningful change to the core product, the most interesting news about Facebook this week didn’t come from F8, and it wasn’t even that they finally banned dangerous conspiracy theorists. It came from this New York Times story about how the company, as part of its incoming $3-5 billion “traffic ticket” from the F.T.C. for privacy violations, is working with the agency to create a new governance structure centered on privacy. From the NYT:

“The company has offered what it has described to the F.T.C. as a new corporate governance structure built around privacy, the people said. The promises include the creation of an independent committee, which could include members of Facebook’s board of directors, to oversee privacy policy. The committee would meet quarterly.

Facebook also agreed to the creation of a position for an independent assessor, the people said. The assessor would be appointed by the F.T.C. and the privacy committee. That person would determine whether the company is complying with a new F.T.C. privacy order as well as the company’s own privacy policy for users. The assessor would give biannual reports to the company and F.T.C. The company would also designate a compliance officer internally at the executive ranks.”

More:

  • Facebook set to create privacy positions as part of F.T.C. settlement

  • Watch the highlights of Zuckerberg’s speech (8 minutes)

  • Facebook bans “dangerous” conspiracy theorists

  • Facebook will open up its data to academics to study its impact on elections

  • Ephemeral content is harder to fact check


History of the Capital AI & Market Failures in the Attention Economy

Fascinating essay from Andrew Kortina (one of the founders of Venmo) in which he suggests thinking about consumer capitalism as an objective function, or an AI, that’s been “optimized for the satisfaction of our short term desires rather than our long term interests”. This focus on short term desires, he argues, has given rise to many of the social, political, and economic issues we face today, from “Wrestlemania politics” to wealth disparity to social media addiction.

“When I think about everything that is wrong with our society, I constantly find myself falling into the trap of ‘hating the player’ and forgetting that the behavior of the player is dictated by the rules of the game.”

What is the objective function of a politician, for example? Kortina argues that it’s optimized not for results, but for votes.

“I think we need to reframe the discourse around the problems in terms of “Systems Thinking,” rather than in terms of good and bad actors.”

Whether or not you like his notion of the “Capital AI”, I think his broader point—that we need to focus on the systems, not just the actors within them—is important and deserves more focus. It’s easy to blame politicians for chasing votes, media companies for chasing clicks, and tech companies for chasing engagement at all costs. And it’s important to call them out when they do. But it’s more important that we examine and re-architect the systems that are incentivizing them in the first place. Kortina’s piece does a great job explaining why, and his practical recommendations for how are interesting, too. Read the piece here.

More on systems thinking:


“If you have to bet, the United States will be way more like Canada pretty soon, in terms of more free education at the university level and more Medicare and some kind of medicine for all. And that we can afford without ruining the productivity of the civilization.”

Charlie Munger


5 stories worth reading

📱New Yorker piece on the “terrifying potential” of the 5G network. “As 5G begins to be rolled out, the pressure to capture and capitalize on new streams of data from individuals, businesses, and governments will only grow more intense."

🌱The plant-based meat industry just had what was probably its biggest week ever. Just this week, Beyond Meat went public, Impossible Foods announced a shortage due to high demand, Burger King announced a nationwide rollout of the Impossible Burger, and Ikea announced plans to start making plant-based meatballs. Read more.

📸Get an inside look at a Chinese facial recognition system that was accidentally made public.

🏛A survey across 27 countries found that people are increasingly dissatisfied with the state of democracy in their country. Pairs well with Kortina’s piece, especially this bit: “If we lose too much faith in institutions too quickly, our institutions will lose the authority to enforce all of these norms and we could easily slip into a state of anarchy.”

🌉Cities have emerged as the unlikely power brokers that could stop—or at least slow down—Big Tech.


Or, maybe none of this matters and we should just keep an eye on Pitbull. He’s having the time of his life out here.


Endnote

I hope you’ve been enjoying Forward so far—thanks to all of you who’ve shared thoughtful feedback, stories, and ideas! Please keep it coming :-)

I want to recommend my friend Nick deWilde’s monthly newsletter, The Jungle Gym. He describes it as a “monthly note about managing your fast-moving career” but it’s much more than that, delving into topics like geopolitics and the social responsibility of tech companies.

If you have feedback, questions, or underrated Pitbull songs, my email’s hugh.mcfall@gmail.com. If this was forwarded to you and you want to subscribe, you can do that here. Thanks for reading!

The “conscience of Silicon Valley” has a new plan to fix tech

Tristan Harris, a former product manager at Google, first made a name for himself with a viral presentation urging Google colleagues to “respect user’s attention”. Then he founded the Center for Humane Technology and coined the term “time well spent”, which helped spark a movement that helped get the likes of Apple, Facebook, and Google to acknowledge that screen addiction was real and important.

Then, unsatisfied with the lack of meaningful progress, he disappeared for almost a year and went back to the drawing board, trying to find the words to define the “cacophony of grievances” of the tech industry. Eventually, he had his diagnosis: “human downgrading” a catch-all description for the ways the technology, in Harris’s view, is making us worse off. Harris has become one of the leading voices for a stronger sense of ethics in the tech industry—the Atlantic even called him “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience”—so a new campaign from him is worth taking note of.

Wired published a feature on Harris’s return to the spotlight. Parts of the article—which celebrates Harris’s Erlich Bachman-like ‘vision quest’ in Big Sur to find the phrase to describe what’s wrong with tech—are absurd. It describes Harris “draped his office with white sheets of paper,” brainstorming phrases and ideas like “humans swiss cheese” and “headgear for tech”.

His pitch about “human downgrading”, which he laid out this week in a talk in San Francisco, raised some eyebrows, and beyond just the phrase itself. Many felt that Harris’s focus on distraction being tech’s problem said he missed the larger issues of bias and discrimination. “Equity is the challenge, not distraction,” one said. There was also scant mention of the power of regulation or end customers, instead putting the keys solely in the hands of engineers and designers. Others criticized him for being light on actual solutions and opting to promote his podcast and conference.

These are all valid criticisms that Harris and the CHT should listen to, acknowledge, and address. They should expand their mandate to tackle algorithmic bias and discrimination, not just distraction.

That said, Harris and the CHT are hitting on an important point: Meaningful change won’t come because the leaders of these firms wake up one day and deciding to fundamentally change their business models, which are predicated on capturing unending amounts of attention for ad dollars. And, though regulation is critical—and governments across the world are increasingly holding tech firms accountable—regulation isn’t going to get the job done on its own. This change also needs happen from the inside, from the people that build these platforms every day. And we’ve learned that when tech workers take action, it works. Look to various organizing efforts at Google over the past few years against top-down initiatives like Project Dragonfly.

Though the “human downgrading” movements may have started off awkwardly, and though organizations like the Centre of Humane Technology might not have all the answers just yet, they do have the attention and interest of the changemakers in tech, especially in Silicon Valley. As far as I can tell, the CHT is one of the main organizations actually bringing all of these people together.

There’s a saying that I like about deciding where to go when on unclear path, like a career or, in this case, a social movement: “follow the streetlights”. It means to trust in the opportunities that have been presented to you right now, though they may not be perfect or the payoff’s not entirely clear. Right now, whether we like it or not, Tristan Harris is one of the main people turning on the lights. We should pay attention and get involved.

Photo: Wired

More reading:


Quick links

  • The Sri Lankan government blocked social media in the wake of terrorist attacks. But do these type of shutdowns actually work? And who benefits from them? Kara Swisher’s column and this story New Zealand’s “Christchurch Call”—a pledge to get terrorist and violent content removed from social media platforms—are worth a read.

  • Microsoft, having learned its lesson from the anti-trust battle in the ‘90s, has navigated itself through the current tech backlash relatively unscathed.

  • Now Tim Cook is calling for tech regulation: “We have to be intellectually honest, and we have to admit that what we’re doing isn’t working. Technology needs to be regulated.”

  • Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, had a closed door meeting with Trump to discuss how he uses Twitter. It doesn’t seem that anything meaningful actually came from it, aside from a couple of tweets.

  • Google is facing complaints of retaliating against employees that protested the company by participating in a walkout.

  • Elon Musk promised 1 million Tesla robotaxis on the road by next year. It probably won’t happen by next year, but, knowing Musk, it’ll happen. Also, an idle Telsa Model S burst into flames in a parking lot in China. The video’s a fun watch.


Endnote

Please send any feedback, ideas, or robotaxis my way: hugh.mcfall@gmail.com. If you enjoyed this issue, I’d appreciate you sharing with someone you think might like it as well! Thanks for reading. See you next week.

Hugh

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