Uncool Can Beat Flashy Tech

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One in every of my missions is to get extra individuals to understand the wonders of uncool technology.

This isn’t solely as a result of I’m profoundly uncool personally, but in addition as a result of I fear that we fixate on whiz-bang know-how on the expense of much less flashy stuff that may make a profound distinction in individuals’s lives.

To provide you a story of two extremes: Thrilling helium balloons and unremarkable smartphones with the feel and appear of 1990s flip telephones.

The Data, a know-how information publication, wrote this week about Loon, a virtually decade-old venture from Google’s guardian firm to beam web indicators to distant locations utilizing high-altitude balloons that act like floating cellphone towers. The concept is thrilling. The balloons appear like rad jellyfish. However, uh, they may not be working very properly.

The Data discovered that Loon had spent a bunch of cash together with on prices it didn’t anticipate like repeatedly changing balloons — one thing that extra typical web supply choices don’t require. The Data identified some examples the place Loon balloons have been helpful, together with when Hurricane Maria destroyed cell towers in Puerto Rico.

My colleague Abdi Latif Dahir has written that critics of a Loon venture in Kenya stated it was an answer looking for an issue, as most Kenyans already had web entry via extra typical cellphone towers and fiber optic cables.

He and the Data article implicitly requested a profound query: Is flashy know-how higher and extra financially viable than cheaper, easier options? It’s a superb query, proper?

If fancy know-how isn’t inherently higher and could also be worse, what’s the choice?

I wrote final 12 months about two uncool applied sciences which have profoundly helped increase the number of people connected to the internet in poorer countries: Smartphones with easy software program and bare-bones components that price as little as $20, and cheap gear like solar-powered poles to carry web wiring and carry indicators to hard-to-reach spots on this planet.

(It additionally helps to have billionaires like India’s Mukesh Ambani who’re keen to pour money and political persuasion into constructing web networks.)

A solar-powered telecommunications pole within the floor is boring to have a look at however is the results of some refined know-how, smart enterprise planning and savvy politicking. These are the unflashy forces which have made a far larger distinction for much much less cash than helium balloons, Facebook’s failed internet-ferrying drone project and efforts to beam internet service from satellites.

That’s to not say that flashy by no means works, nor that folks and corporations shouldn’t dream massive. We’d like that, too.

However efforts to widen web entry utilizing satellites and helium balloons suck up consideration and cash that is likely to be extra successfully lavished on seemingly boring infrastructure like laying extra thick coils of cables that carry our web information.

There’s an inclination to obsess on grand fixes that won’t repair something. Apps that try (and fail) to “modernize” an election get extra consideration than a simple election information website that simply provides voters what they want quick. And whereas some well being methods are splurging on creepy, possibly ineffective software to foretell sufferers’ coronavirus-related well being dangers, unfussy virus-exposure apps will help individuals keep protected now.

We have to pay extra consideration to the uncool and the incremental. I want there have been MacArthur “genius” grants for pondering small.


I need to speak to you a few chart. A clunky one. It’s from Mark Zuckerberg, and it explains rather a lot in regards to the complicated, shouty data we discover ourselves mucking round in.

In 2018, the Fb boss wrote a very long post that had two pretty profound explanations of human conduct. First, he stated, individuals are intrigued by no matter is titillating, sensational and outrageous — usually even when they are saying they don’t prefer it. (I do love scanning the gossip magazines at my hair salon.)

And second, he stated, regardless of the place Fb drew the road at exercise that went too far — harmful lies, bullying, requires violence, sexually suggestive images — individuals tended to publish materials that went proper as much as the road. They usually did that as a result of, once more, individuals discovered it partaking.

Zuckerberg even included that chart, which my colleague Kevin Roose tweeted on Thursday, to visually present that as materials on Fb edged nearer to breaching the location’s guidelines, individuals tended to work together with it extra. Zuckerberg known as this a “primary incentive drawback.” When individuals discovered “borderline content material” attention-grabbing and fascinating, that inspired them to make extra borderline content material.

The essential incentive drawback stays. We’ve talked about this rather a lot: Outrageous, bombastic and typically unfaithful issues are extra partaking than the reality. We’ve seen that with the ocean of misinformation in regards to the U.S. election.

Politico lately published a ballot discovering that 70 % of Republicans don’t imagine the election was free and honest regardless of the shortage of credible proof to assist this view.

Fb, YouTube and different web firms are usually not solely guilty for the rubbish soup of unhealthy data and conspiracies, which germinate from or are inspired by President Trump and other powerful people and establishments.

The way in which false election concepts have unfold has performed out as Zuckerberg described two years in the past. Kevin said it best: “Voter fraud conspiracy theories pushed by a sitting president are an even bigger drawback than social media firms alone can resolve, however man, rating data primarily based on how attention-grabbing it’s has penalties.”


  • Your tween’s obsession is a giant enterprise, too: Roblox, the corporate that makes a Lego-like on-line sport beloved by youngsters, launched monetary particulars that reveals it has gained many more users and revenue through the pandemic, my colleagues Kellen Browning and Lauren Hirsch reported. (Kellen has additionally written in regards to the young people who create Roblox add-ons, like digital clothes and mini-games that they promote to fellow Roblox gamers.)

  • It is a massive milestone in leisure: Plans to launch the following version of the “Surprise Girl” film each in theaters and on HBO Max present that film theaters have misplaced their energy and that leisure firms are determined to make their streaming companies massive and quick, Peter Kafka wrote for Recode.

  • The other of “doom scrolling” is Zillow browsing? Individuals who “need to flee not simply their houses however the actuality of 2020” are wallowing in online home listings to daydream about alternate realities, my colleague Taylor Lorenz reported. The Occasions’s Nellie Bowles additionally wrote a hilarious confession earlier within the pandemic about browsing Zillow to fantasize a few completely different life involving an costly cargo bicycle or a yard hen coop.

Badger the cat may be very annoyed at having so many fabulous outfits and nowhere to go to indicate them off. (Due to our On Tech editor, Hanna Ingber, for locating this TikTok video and making me watch it 45 occasions.)


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