Tech reviews

Tech’s Inconvenient Truth | Financial Times

The Social Dilemma, a docudrama that debuted on Netflix on Thursday, tries to highlight the threat from social media in the same way Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth documentary sounded the alarm on how humanity was accelerating climate change.

Its director Jeff Orlowski is a big fan of the Gore movie and has tackled climate change himself in earlier documentaries Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral. He was inspired to look at social media after a conversation with a friend from college, Tristan Harris, who as president of the Center for Humane Technology features in the film, along with other Silicon Valley luminaries. All have ethical concerns about what they have created.

“He helped me realise there’s an existential threat [from technology],” Mr Orlowski says in a Financial Times interview “This is the climate change of culture that’s happening visibly through our devices. It was a huge lightbulb moment for me.”

He seems to have gained real insights into how Facebook and others have reeled in the young and the vulnerable with engagement tricks and by profiling them — techniques that are revealed in the acted-out parts where a family’s use of social media is shown. “How are Facebook and Google worth so much? There’s this saying, ‘If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product,’” he says.

The advice doled out over the end-credits is turn off all notifications on your phone, never click on recommended content and always fact-check before sharing. The FT’s film review advice is that this is flawed (there is no right of reply for Big Tech) but essential viewing. The world may not end with a bang, but a selfie.

Social media has been a breeding ground for conspiracy theorists and Ed Luce’s latest column on QAnon is essential reading. The FBI has concluded that the movement that fears the influence of a “deep state” has all the ingredients of a domestic terror threat. If President Trump loses November’s election, the defeat of a “righteous sword against evil” could lead to an ugly aftermath.

The Internet of (Five) Things

1. Reliance all the rage again
Middle Eastern sovereign wealth funds, including the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, are in talks to buy a stake in the retail arm of Mukesh Ambani’s Indian empire. The Indian billionaire is also reportedly in talks to sell a roughly $20bn stake to Amazon, and private equity group KKR is also showing interest. Facebook led the pack with a $5.7bn investment in the Reliance Jio digital business earlier this year.

2. SoftBank whale and smaller fish fry options
SoftBank caused a splash when it emerged as the “Nasdaq whale” that had placed big options bets linked to US tech stocks, but some analysts suspect the overall market impact may be less than that of a massive shoal of much smaller but frenzied fish — retail investors, our markets team reports.

Line chart of US equity purchase premiums on call options for trades of 10 contracts or less ($bn)* showing Retail investors pay up for options

3. Debt-shaming practices exposed over fintech loans
Debt-shaming tactics have been used by collection agencies working in Kenya on behalf of Branch, a Silicon Valley-based personal credit start-up. Branch insists it won’t ever “shame, share contacts or add calendar reminders for loan repayment purposes”.

4. China’s food delivery groups eat humble pie
Food delivery groups Meituan and, owned by Alibaba, have announced tweaks to their algorithms as they try to head off a growing societal backlash against the stringent demands placed on their drivers — who became heroes to many Chinese during the country’s coronavirus lockdown early this year. The new policies allow more time to deliver each food order — Meituan time limits for completing a 3km delivery had ticked down from one hour in 2016 to 45 minutes in 2017, and 38 minutes in 2018.

5. Black holes in biggest and unlikeliest merger
Anjana Ahuja explains that the newly discovered merger of two black holes 7bn years ago should have been impossible. The intriguing collision of light-slurping titans was a cataclysmic event that defies convention.

A simulation of the black hole merger named GW190521 © © N. Fischer, H. Pfeiffer/A. Buonanno/Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics/AFP

Forwarded from Sifted — the European start-up week

Europe is emerging as a powerhouse of eco-friendly start-ups, with the amount of money in “net zero” tech companies more than doubling in a year. Net-zero companies in Europe — those who add no incremental greenhouse gases to the atmosphere — raised £2.1bn from venture capital funds last year, a 129 per cent increase on the previous year, according to a new report from Tech Nation. In comparison, funding for similar US companies increased just 16 per cent over the same period and in China decreased by 30 per cent.

Elsewhere in European start-ups, buy-now-pay-later lender Klarna is reportedly on track to raise money at a $10bn valuation in a move which would make it by far the most valuable fintech in Europe; flying taxi company Lilium finds its first regional hubs in Germany to begin operations; and UK non-profit Diversity VC is launching a new ‘standard’ for VC firms to prove they care about promoting diversity. Finally, new data show that the Amsterdam tech sector is now worth €73bn, with more start-ups per person than any other city in Europe.

Tech tools — Surface Duo

Microsoft released its Surface Duo today and the reviews are out for the $1,400 dual-screen Android phone. “Like a notebook, it feels somehow more natural to hold than a phone’s vertical slab shape,” says The Verge. It criticises a “terrible camera”, buggy software and a price that is “absolutely not worth” it. But battery life is good and there is “a little less mental friction to multitasking on the Duo”’s two screens.


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