Bitcoin in Africa? Not yet.

I was going to write about how bitcoin could help to improve economies in Africa through its efficient and low-cost secure method of transferring money. But after doing a fair amount of research, and realising that many of the companies mentioned in the press over the past year as being the “hope” of the future have since closed down, I’ve changed my mind. Instead, I’m going to write about how hard it is for a bitcoin-based company to do business in Africa. It’s not impossible – there are some success stories. But the advantages of bitcoin at this stage are not as obvious as they might seem. The theory is excellent. But the reality is complicated.

bitcoin in africa

Photograph by Robin Hammond for National Geographic

First, let’s talk about the promise. According to the World Bank, 66% of adults in Africa do not have a bank account. They deal in cash and in barter, with considerable lack of efficiency and security, and scant possibility of escaping that hand-to-mouth cycle. With bitcoin, they could effectively have a decentralized bank account and manage their finances more carefully, with control over what comes in and what goes out. Families could start to save and even lend. Payments would become easier and cheaper, leading to significant savings in both time and money. Current mobile money payment systems are efficient, but have a high fee structure. Bitcoin’s decentralization and security could economically empower those that are traditionally at the margin of the economy.

The ease and low cost of sending bitcoin anywhere around the world makes it the potential saviour of remittance services. Approximately $53bn was sent to the region in 2015 by workers abroad, with fees averaging 12.4%. Remittances cost more in Africa than in other areas – the world average is 7.8%. There are five remittance “corridors” (flows between two countries) in the world with fees over 20%, all of them in Africa. Using bitcoin, the fees would come down drastically, with the savings going directly to the beneficiaries.

The potential is huge. But the reality is very different.

Bitcoin has limited end uses in Africa. Very few merchants accept it as payment, and it can’t yet be used to pay for utilities or public services. That will change, but slowly. Bankymoon, a South Africa-based blockchain financial services company, has developed smart electricity meters that can be topped up from anywhere with bitcoin.

To be able to buy bitcoins on an exchange, you need access to a computer or a smartphone. Relatively few Africans have that. It is true that the majority of the adult population has a mobile device, but only 15% have a smartphone. According to the International Telecommunication Union, only 37% of adult Kenyans had access to Internet in 2014. In Ethiopia, the figure is 2%. So, buying bitcoin is possible but not simple, and the number of exchanges that can trade local African currencies for bitcoin is limited. Most require an initial conversion to dollars or euros, which significantly increases the transaction costs.

So, buying bitcoins is not simple, and even if you receive bitcoins as a remittance from a family member or friend working abroad, changing it into local currency on an exchange is difficult. Those without a bank account would need to find an agent willing to exchange bitcoins for cash. They do exist, but their scarcity and the technology access required allow them to charge very high fees for the service.

And bitcoin as a remittance rail has competition. Innovative international payment methods are eroding the incumbents’ market share by offering much lower fees. In Kenya, for example, WorldRemit, Equity Direct, and even new e-cash services offered by incumbents Moneygram and Western Union can transfer money for less than 5%. Of course, the low fee structure depends on electronic transactions. Once cash is involved, the fees shoot up.

And regulation, or the lack of, is an important structural problem. Although Nigeria’s Central Bank hascalled for bitcoin regulation, no country has it in place or is even, as far as we know, working on it. Kenya’s Central Bank issued a warning in December against Bitcoin use, citing its unregulated status. Unregulated does not mean illegal, but it does create obstacles for bitcoin exchanges, wallets and payment systems.

Regional differences and market size are also a complicating factor. Kenya alone, for instance, is not a big enough market to attract the funding needed to reach profitable scale. According to IMF estimates,its GDP is roughly equivalent to Bulgaria’s, and significantly less than Luxembourg’s. Each country has its own currency and phone system, so compatibility issues are barrier to rapid continent-wide expansion.

On top of the “typical” problems that startups have to face, new businesses in Africa also have to contend with relatively poor connectivity, recruiting difficulties and electricity outages. Africa has always been a very entrepreneurial continent, but at the micro level. The cultural and logistical difficulties of setting up cross-border businesses; recruiting, training and retaining a qualified team; the general lack of political and economic stability; high interest rates; limited access to funding… These and many other factors make the launch of scalable, profitable enterprises even more challenging.

In May of last year, Disrupt Africa ran a story on “5 African Bitcoin Startups to Watch”. Of the five, one shut down, one pivoted away from bitcoin, and one has had a major payment ramp blocked. Further digging uncovers several others that have closed down, and the bitcoin sector is littered with tombstones of good ideas that came to market a bit before their time.

And yet, bitcoin’s time in Africa will come, and its effect on the continent’s economy will be significant. Some remarkable businesses are struggling hard to make this happen. The use cases are much clearer there than in Europe or the US, where credit cards are ubiquitous and mobile payments are easy. The impact it can have on people’s lives is much greater. With persistence and brave first-movers, with rationally enthusiastic public comment and constant dialogue, regulators will see the economic advantages of further encouraging financial innovation. Tech hubs are springing up all over the continent, creative entrepreneurs are attracting international interest, and a lot more than transaction fees is at stake.

(This post also appears in fintechblue.com, where I write about bitcoin and fintech.)

Friday Five: coding, privacy and math

Some of the most interesting articles I came across this week:

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Why Learning To Code Won’t Save Your Job – by Douglass Rushkoff, for FastCompany

We hear so much about the importance of teaching people to code – it will guarantee them a job in this increasingly automated world that we live in, right? Wrong.

“Although I certainly believe that any member of our highly digital society should be familiar with how these platforms work, universal code literacy won’t solve our employment crisis any more than the universal ability to read and write would result in a full-employment economy of book publishing.”

It’s not just that code-writing and automization is obviously going to reduce the need for human labour. And those that don’t will fade away due to lack of funding, since they’re not “efficient”.

“Most of the technologies we’re currently developing replace or obsolesce far more employment opportunities than they create. Those that don’t—technologies that require ongoing human maintenance or participation in order to work—are not supported by venture capital for precisely this reason. They are considered unscalable because they demand more paid human employees as the business grows.”

It also turns out that even coding is at risk of being automated away.

“As coding becomes more commonplace, particularly in developing nations like India, we find a lot of that work is being assigned piecemeal by computerized services such as Upwork to low-paid workers in digital sweatshops.”

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This is why I love travelling at night:

by Azul Obscura, via My Modern Met

by Azul Obscura, via My Modern Met

(Click on the photo to see more of the breathtaking photographs.)

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Technology, the Faux Equalizer – by Adrienne France, for The Atlantic

A cold look at the utopian hype of technology being the great equalizer, bringing knowledge and opportunity to all. Why do we assume that it will?

“Technological transitions often entail enormous social and cultural tension. There is hand-wringing about the loss of previously established customs, there is job displacement, there is inequality. “New technologies are for the elite who can afford them,” said Judith Donath, the author of The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online.”

Technology is a tool, that does what the people who wield it want it to. And unfortunately not everyone wants it to level the playing field. What would a level playing field mean, anyway, for social politics? Economics? Capital flows?

“There’s real danger in framing technological progress and social progress as mutually inclusive.”

And what technology are we talking about, anyway?

“Consider, for instance, that it wasn’t Gutenberg’s printing press alone—remarkable though it was—that made books available to the masses; but the eventual production of books made from cheap paper and wood pulp in the 19th century. (And that occurred in tandem with, as Rumsey pointed out to me, the development of technologically enhanced distribution systems like railroads.)”

A thought-provoking article that I’d like to see continued. Adrienne, more along this line, please?

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A hypnotic mix of paint, oil, milk and soap liquid, by Thomas Blanchard (via Colossal):

Memories of Paintings from Thomas Blanchard on Vimeo.

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With Privacy, you can create virtual debit cards to protect your online payments – by Romain Dillet, for TechCrunch

This sounds like a really good idea: a “burner” credit card that connects directly to your bank account, for online purchases. You can create as many as you like, and de-activate each one after use. You can use assumed names on the card itself, so the commerce in question can’t see who you are (if necessary the purchases can be tracked, but it’s a much more private transaction than a simple credit card).

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How to Give a Robot a Job Review – by Michael Schrage, for HBR

If you thought that it was hard to manage people, how about managing robots?

“Put bluntly, executives who can’t get their robots to do a better job may lose their own. Empowering smart machines to — pun intended — live up to their potential may well become the essential new 21st-century leadership skill.”

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This war on math is still bullshit – by Jon Evans, for TechCrunch

Brilliant. Jon Evans delivers a few more left hooks on the encryption debate. (See his previous punches here.)

“The day Apple allows any government to insist on back doors is the day every remotely competent bad actor in the world switches to third-party encrypted apps which require their own separate access codes. (The non-remotely-competent ones, by definition, can be caught without resorting to back doors.) This will immediately put them out of the reach of that “lawful access.” Any attempt to fight encryption with back doors is Whack-a-Mole with an infinite number of moles, unless the powers that be are willing to expand it into an all-out war on general-purpose computing.”

True, encryption, internet security and cryptography are complicated issues, not easy for the layman to understand. But the media’s scare-mongering (and in many cases, complete lack of comprehension) doesn’t help with stimulating reasoned debate, and instead appeals to emotions of fear and encourages the rush to the superficially secure option.

“Let us focus on that unfortunate but inarguable truth. Let us not talk about government overreach, or technology trumping law, or libertarianism, or the crypto wars of the 90s. Let’s focus on how encryption is merely math, which anyone can do, and let’s explain how world-class “military-grade” implementations of that math are already available, for free, to anyone and everyone. Whether you like it or not, that djinn is well and truly out of its shattered bottle, and no “elegant solution” might squeeze it back in. No one can win a war on math, so please let’s not start one. Everyone will lose.”

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Have a great weekend! Beautiful temperatures here in Madrid. We might have gone straight from winter to summer…

Friday Five: robots, music and digital feminism

As I mentioned last week, I’m going back to the Friday round-up instead of the Sunday round-up. It just feels right – Friday seems like a better day for a round-up. And that way I can also go back to throwing some digital art at you over the weekend. I hope that you like it.

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Why Quartz’s news app is so much bigger than news – by Tom Popomaronis, for TechCrunch

quartz-app-featured-image

image via TechCrunch

I am a fan of the Quartz app. And the Quartz news site, the newsletter, and the events. And I’m sad that The Atlantic are considering selling them, as it may affect their independence and/or style. The app is the only news app I haven’t gotten bored of. It delivers the news in chat format, informal, with gifs and emojis. You control the flow of the conversation.

The author seems to share my opinion on the app. And in this riveting article, takes the inference a step further.

“In other words, I was engaged in large part because I knew an immediate response would follow. It satisfies the “instant gratification” check box. And the medium is familiar — it mimics texting, which is how we spend much of our modern lives.

That’s when it hit me: The magnitude of what I was experiencing was much bigger than simply news-based interactive texts. In fact, it’s likely just the beginning. Here’s why:

It’s poised to send shock waves through the live-chat industry.”

It would be amazing to connect or dial in for support, and be greeted with an amusing, personable “conversation”. Or, imagine the now-boring FAQ page format enlivened by a bot chat.

image via TechCrunch

image via TechCrunch

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What is a robot? – by Adrienne LaFrance, for The Atlantic

Speaking of live chat support: the land line at our apartment has been out for a few days now. Each time I call the phone company to report it, I am asked to choose a series of paths (“please press 1 if you are calling about a technical difficulty”) and to perform a series of tasks (“please input the number you are calling about”). I file the complaint, and I get a reassuring message on my mobile. I have not spoken to a human.

In this article, Adrienne LaFrance points out that we interact with machines more often than ever, sometimes without even realising. Which begs the question, what is a robot, anyway?

“Just as “robot” was used [in the past] as a metaphor to describe a vast array of automation in the material world, it’s now often used to describe—wrongly, many roboticists told me—various automated tasks in computing. The web is crawling with robots programmed to perform tasks online, including chatbots, scraper bots, shopbots, and twitter bots. But those are bots, not robots. And there’s a difference.”

The difference is important, because it represents the growing “disappearance” of robots in our lives. “Robots have a tendency to recede into the background of ordinary life.” Technically, a washing machine is a robot. But, it doesn’t look like what we think a robot should look like.

Which is what, exactly?

““When you ask most people what a robot is, they’re going to describe a humanoid robot,” Wilson, the novelist, told me. “They’ll describe a person made out of metal. Which is essentially a mirror for humanity. To some extent a robot is just a very handy embodiment of all of these complex emotions that are triggered by the rate of technological change.””

Would we find it easier to tolerate the presence of robots that are cute? Or would their cuteness evolve into their control over us? Could you bring yourself to dismantle a robot that seemed “humanoid”? I’m pretty sure that I couldn’t. And if you can’t, isn’t that the same as giving them control?

“Robots are everywhere now. They share our physical spaces, keep us company, complete difficult and dangerous jobs for us, and populate a world that would seem, to many, unimaginable without them. Whether we will end up losing a piece of our humanity because they are here is unknowable today. But such a loss may prove worthwhile in the evolution of our species. In the end, robots may expand what it means to be human. After all, they are machines, but humans are the ones who built them.”

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Tell me you don’t have some sort of sympathy for this robot…

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In Shift to Streaming, Music Business Has Lost Billions – by Ben Sisario and Karl Russell, for The New York Times

Finding music seems to be easier than ever. Discovery and access is getting more creative almost by the day. And more and more musicians seem to be making a living outside the traditional label scene. Income is down, though. Does this mean the end of the industry as a viable business proposition? Or is this the next stage of the revolution?

“There is plenty of good news in the music industry’s latest sales report released this week. Streaming is up. Vinyl has continued its unlikely renaissance. And did we mention that streaming is up?

But a closer look shows that the big sales numbers that have sustained the recorded music business for years are way down, and it is hard to see how they could ever return to where they were even a decade ago.”

Get this: vinyl records earn more money for the music industry, today, than music on YouTube. That’s crazy. Vinyl?? It’s all about the margins.

“CDs and downloads have been gradually abandoned as streaming has become the platform of choice. The result is that the music industry finds itself fighting over pennies while waving goodbye to dollars.”

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The trigger for electronic cash comes from the Underbanked – by Bernard Lunn, for Daily Fintech

A fairly good explanation of why electronic cash will find its way into the western psyche, via the developing world.

“Electronic cash is simply the venerable stored value card gone to a mobile phone. Mobile wallets are just electronic Fiat cash with no regulatory issue (unlike Bitcoin) and no single company like Vodafone calling the shots (like Mpesa). Sometimes simple is best. Expect this to reach the West via Refugees who cannot use ATMs or Credit Cards.”

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Feminism is in the details – by Nogah Senecky, for TechCrunch

Could the subliminal gender divide in tech be blurring? The hacking of “traditional” games such as Zelda, a subtle change in Facebook’s friends logo, the unrealistic portrayal of women in stock photos, and the sass of the (female) virtual assistants Cortana and Siri are taking small steps towards levelling the reinforcement of stereotypes and cultural tropes.

Tech feminism is not just about getting females to stay in tech jobs, in spite of harassment and ceilings.

“The topic of women in tech … is also about developing technology that can help us make this world kinder to women, by offering solutions to problems that have to do with women’s health, safety and career dilemmas. And not last nor least, it is about how the information we consume and are exposed to influences the representation (or, once again, the lack thereof) of women everywhere.”

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Have an amazing Spring weekend!

spring weekend

Sunday Seven: data, surveillance and compulsion

As of next week, I’m going to go back to publishing the round-up on Friday, with a digital art piece on Sunday. Why? Because I miss it. And I think a shorter round up (Friday Five instead of Sunday Seven) will be easier to digest. It will be harder to choose only five items to share, but you’ve probably noticed that I’ve never been a stickler for keeping to the numbers anyway, so… you know, who’s counting?

Anyway, here you have some of the most interesting articles found this week:

If you are reading this, we might be in the same news bubble – by CJ Adams and Izzie Zahorian of Jigsaw, via Medium

unfiltered

And now for a totally amazing twist on the power that algorithms and filters, even the self-imposed ones, have on the information and ideas that we see.

“Search engines, social media and news aggregators are great at surfacing information close to our interests, but they are limited by the set of topics and people we choose to follow. Even if we read multiple news sources every day, what we discover is defined by the languages we are able to read, and the topics that our sources decide to cover. Ultimately, these limitations create a “news bubble” that shapes our perspective and awareness of the world. We often miss out on the chance to connect and empathize with ideas beyond these boundaries.” “It’s a common lament: Though the Internet provides us access to a nearly unlimited number of sources for news, most of us rarely venture beyond the same few sources or topics. And as news consumption shifts to our phones, people are using even fewer sources”

Launched by Jigsaw, the tech incubator formerly known as Google Ideas, Unfiltered shows what topics are popular in certain regions of the world, and which ones are being under-reported. A very cool bubble interactive graphic (visual pun noted) shows what is being covered in different parts of the world, and what is being covered elsewhere but not in your region. Furthermore, you can click on any subject displayed to find out more about the type of coverage that it is receiving. You can also see how coverage of a topic has changed over time.

“Even with the power of the internet, it can be surprisingly difficult to explore the diversity of global perspectives. Technology has made it easier for everyone share information, but it hasn’t made us better at finding viewpoints that are distant from our own.”

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The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism – by Shoshanna Zuboff, for Frankfurter Allgemeine

This isn’t from the past week, but I’m breaking the rules here because 1) I only came across it last week, and 2) it’s such a gob-smacker of an article that it deserves to be shared, whenever. Shoshanna Zuboff of Harvard Business School writes in Frankfurter Allgemeine about the new type of capitalism brought on by our active online lives. We’ve heard the term “info-capitalism” before, but she calls it “surveillance capitalism”, a much more unsettling name. The effect is no doubt intentional.

“Some attribute the assault to an inevitable “age of big data,” as if it were possible to conceive of data born pure and blameless, data suspended in some celestial place where facts sublimate into truth… I’ve come to a different conclusion:  The assault we face is driven in large measure by the exceptional appetites of a wholly new genus of capitalism, a systemic coherent new logic of accumulation that I call surveillance capitalism.”

Our activity online creates data. Even Google, back in the early days, discarded this data, not realising that it would become the backbone of its lucrative business. The generated information, or “behavioural surplus”, is the basis of surveillance capitalism, and raises all sorts of thorny issues such as privacy, independence and free will.

“We’ve entered virgin territory here. The assault on behavioral data is so sweeping that it can no longer be circumscribed by the concept of privacy and its contests.  This is a different kind of challenge now, one that threatens the existential and political canon of the modern liberal order defined by principles of self-determination that have been centuries, even millennia, in the making.”

The “efficiencies” of online business create new mechanisms of distribution and profit generation which, data protection laws aside, are largely unregulated. And why regulate something that people in general aren’t even aware is happening? Without regulation, it will be difficult to develop an antidote, or to at least channel them towards humanity-enhancing freedoms.

“Mass production was interdependent with its populations who were its consumers and employees. In contrast, surveillance capitalism preys on dependent populations who are neither its consumers nor its employees and are largely ignorant of its procedures.”

Ms. Zuboff likens surveillance capitalism to a coup, “an overthrow of people’s sovereignty”, which challenges our principle of self-determination. And it’s happening without our realising. We don’t realise what we are consenting to.

“It’s happened quickly and without our understanding or agreement. This is because the regime’s most poignant harms, now and later, have been difficult to grasp or theorize, blurred by extreme velocity and camouflaged by expensive and illegible machine operations, secretive corporate practices, masterful rhetorical misdirection, and purposeful cultural misappropriation.”

The conclusion is powerful, eye-opening and beautifully put. The emphasis is mine, and calls into question what exactly is this utopia we are striving to achieve?

“The bare facts of surveillance capitalism necessarily arouse my indignation because they demean human dignity. The future of this narrative will depend upon the indignant scholars and journalists drawn to this frontier project, indignant elected officials and policy makers who understand that their authority originates in the foundational values of democratic communities, and indignant citizens who act in the knowledge that effectiveness without autonomy is not effective, dependency-induced compliance is no social contract, and freedom from uncertainty is no freedom.”

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Your Data Footprint Is Affecting Your Life In Ways You Can’t Even Imagine – by Jessica Leber, for FastCoExist

Not quite as gut-punching as the previous article, this one continues on the riff of the burning question: how much control over our lives have we given up, without even realising?

“Predictions about you (and millions of other strangers) are starting to deeply shape your life. Your career, your love life, major decisions about your health and well-being, and even if you end up in jail, are now being governed in no small part by the digital bread crumbs you’ve left behind—many of which you don’t even know you’ve dropped in the first place.”

Behind-the-scenes algorithms of dating sites, commerce, civic interaction and crime prevention are ostensibly there to help us, to improve our quality of life, to prevent bad things from happening. But how much is cause, and how much is effect? To what extent are the predictions self-fulfilling, further entrenching future assumptions?

“When you rely too much on data—if the data is flawed or incomplete, as could be the case in predictive policing—you risk further validating bad decisions or existing biases.”

Are prediction algorithms enablers, freeing up valuable time and producing end results that we’re happy with? Or are they taking our way our agency and our free will? Would you have bought that vase if your feed hadn’t shown it to you? Would you have gone on a date with that person if an algorithm hadn’t decided for you that he or she was a good fit?

“Even major life decisions like college admissions and hiring are being affected. You might think that a college is considering you on your merits, and while that’s mostly true, it’s not entirely. Pressured to improve their rankings, colleges are very interested in increasing their graduation rates and the percentage of admitted students who enroll. They have now have developed statistical programs to pick students who will do well on these measures.”

Personal finance, college admissions, hiring decisions are all becoming increasingly based on predictive assumptions, tweaked to emphasize factors that optimize outcomes. This sounds efficient. But is it fair?

“What happens when a computer says you’re likely to commit a crime before you do it, and, worse, what if the data underlying that prediction is wrong and you can’t do anything about it? What happens when a dating program is slowly pushing us to a more segregated society because it shows us the people it thinks we want to see? Or when personalized medicine can save lives, but because it is based mainly around genomes sequenced from white people of European descent, it’s only saving some lives?”

And yet, the possibilities are huge, and important. Information leads to insight which leads to fixing problems or improving outcomes.

“On the other hand, big data does have the potential to vastly expand our understanding of who we are and why we do what we do. A decade ago, serious scientists would have laughed someone out of the room who proposed a study of “the human condition.” It is a topic so broad and lacking in measurability. But perhaps the most important manifestation of big data in people’s lives could come from the ability for scientists to study huge, unwieldy questions they couldn’t before.”

So the issue revolves around the quality of the data, and its end use. Life has always been based on assumptions, so we can´t ban those. Predicting is a human trait that goes back to pre-history. And the collection of data isn’t going anywhere, it is becoming an increasingly significant factor in daily interactions and that trend will be very difficult to stop. But, we can at least start to ask the questions about the potential negative outcomes, rather than gleefully rush into the imagined utopias of all-seeing, all-knowing code that makes our lives more pleasant, but at the same time, less free and less human.

“And while it’s true that analytics can already make smarter guesses than humans in many situations, people are more than their data. A world where people struggle to rise above what is expected of them—say a college won’t admit them because they don’t seem like someone with a good chance of graduating—is a sad world. “There’s this danger we lose our identity as people and we become categories,” says Dhar.”

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The Value of Using Podcasts in Class – by Michael Godsey, for The Atlantic

I don’t want to become known as “The Podcast Girl” (although I can think of worse titles), but I do find them fascinating as a medium and as a content generator. They “reach the parts that other media don’t reach”, to paraphrase an iconic Carlsberg ad. But I confess that I haven’t yet given much thought to their usefulness in the classroom. I had thought that podcasts were for personal time, and classroom interaction was teacher-student.

But, why not? Group listening brings out the social aspect of podcasts, making them the most communal of media. I would argue that they are even more “social” than video, since with visual you are both listening and watching. With audio you’re just listening, and can interact with your fellow listeners with your eyes and your voice.

“Earlier this week, I asked each of my own students to write down what they’d honestly like to do for the rest of the semester: read a good book together, listen to another podcast, or listen to a podcast with the words on the screen. Sixty-two voted for the latter, while just two voted for podcasts alone, and one for reading alone.”

I did think it strange that reading books is being pushed aside in favour of reading transcripts. And this would definitely validate Nicholas Carr’s theory that the internet makes us “dumber” by eroding our ability to deep read. But, as the author points out, some reading is better than no reading. And the juxtaposition of transcripts and podcasts, of audio and text, is going to create new synapses, new learning experiences and perhaps even new media. It would be premature to dismiss it as less “meaningful”, until we try it out, and see what effect this combination has on learning.

“The reasons were as varied as they were compelling. Many of them said that reading along with the audio helped with their focus and kept them from “spacing out” while listening. Others, paradoxically, wrote that they were able to multi-task—they could take notes or write on their worksheets and could keep up with the story even with their eyes off the screen. Some explicitly recognized that they could look back and re-read something they didn’t understand when they first heard it; others said they read slightly ahead and then could write down a quote while they listened to it. A student with eyesight problems said he appreciates the ability to take reading breaks without stopping his enjoyment of the story. A few students learning English as a second language wrote that they like how they can read the words and—as one student put it—promptly “hear how they’re supposed to sound.””

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Things Organized Neatly: A New Book of Compulsively Organized Things by Austin Radcliffe – via Colossal

image via Colossal

image via Colossal

I’m a bit concerned about how much I love this: OCD turned into art. Does that mean I might have compulsive tendencies? No, you should see my office. But the photo of the cars and containers stacked up? That was my recurring nightmare when I was a little girl – I couldn’t get my toy cars to stack up. So, maybe… Whatever, these photos are amazing.

image via Colossal

image via Colossal

image via Colossal

image via Colossal

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What Happens When We Become A Cashless Society? – by Charlie Sorrell, for FastCoExist

Is cash becoming obsolete? This article cites the growing encroachment of electronic commerce on our daily lives to argue that yes, we don’t need it any more.

“The promise is that banning cash would end black markets, but for honest citizens, the end of paper cash brings many unsettling downsides. Credit card transactions are already trackable, and electronic cash could bring that lack of anonymity to every single transaction you make.”

As a society, are we comfortable with that level of scrutiny? Governments around the world are trying to curtail the use of cash, to reduce fraud, money laundering and to lower the costs of producing and handling the stuff. Could part of their motivation be to reduce the anonymity that cash gives us?

“While anonymous digital cash is technically possible, governments are unlikely to pass up the chance to have all currencies tracked as they move through the system (like with credit card transactions), or with new digital currency that carries a record of its own history along with it. Once this information exists, it will become a target of government agencies such as the police and intelligence services and trafficked to insurance companies, tax collectors, fraud squads, and even marketers.”

And if you look around, you can see that it’s already happening.

“The end of cash may seem like fancy thinking, but look at how money has changed since credit and debit cards started to usurp cash. We already route money around with bank transfers enacted from our tablets, we pay for Uber cars with the convenience of a phone app, and we travel abroad without even thinking about buying foreign currency before we go. And PayPal, the original cashless payment system, turned 18 years old this year. Cash is already on its way out.”

Technologically, it’s both disconcerting and very interesting. Would better data give governments stronger control over the economy? Could money be programmed to only be spent in certain sectors? And with more payment-like data flying around the ether, security will become even more of an issue than it already is. While cash is not exactly secure, at least we know when we have it.

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Things I enjoyed this week:

· You’ve Got Mail: Just the sweetest film, with an excellent, retro soundtrack, and nostalgic dial-up interfaces.

youve-got-mail-movie-poster

· A new MOOC on cryptography by Stanford University. Dense, and hard work, but exciting.

coursera cryptography

Sunday Seven: payments, pops and lols

I’ve been out for part of the week, speaking at a Digital Media Congress in the north of Spain on new media business models, so this round-up is a bit choppier than usual.

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Are payments necessary? – by Christoffer O. Hernæs, via TechCrunch

One of the purposes of the aforementioned conference was to explore ways that media can become and stay profitable, which is more and more difficult in this age of dwindling print revenues, resented paywalls and online ad blockers. Could invisible payments be part of the answer?

“In the future, there will not be one universal way to pay as we are used to with traditional cash and plastic cards. Payment options will be context-based, and in many cases payments will become “invisible” and integrated into services.”

Uber, Amazon’s Dash buttons, restaurant apps – platforms in which you don’t even have to pull out a credit card are carving out an ever-larger niche, in which payment becomes synonymous with experience and the concept of value changes. How can we incorporate this into media?

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How ‘LOL’ Became a Punctuation Mark – by Megan Garber, for The Atlantic

An excellent article on the mutability of language and need for humanizing punctuation. Seriously, read it. It’ll make you laugh, nod sagely, possibly weep and definitely think twice about the abbreviations we think convey emotion we’re not really feeling.

lol nothing matters

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Startup funding is drying up and fintech is no exception – by Ian Kar, for Quartz

More popping of bubble stuff.

via Quartz

via Quartz

And it seems like fintech is the next sector the media is gunning for.

“Meanwhile, traditional financial institutions say they can best startups by digitizing their own businesses. “I think the banks are pretty good at using digital technology to make it easier for customers…It will be a challenge for anyone to be better, faster, cheaper than us,” JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said in a recent interview with Bloomberg.”

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The Thing About Cycles – by Michael Eisenberg, via TechCrunch

An anti-anti-bubble piece. Bubbles are opportunities, especially when they pop.

“Just like Unicornism was a herd, and the up market in late-stage funding was a herd, as pessimism grabs hold, it too will become a herd.”

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(I featured this in my bitcoin roundup this week, but it’s also applicable to tech in general.)

My Wet and Wild Bitcoin Weekend On Richard Branson’s Island Refuge – by Hannes Grassegger, for Motherboard

via Motherboard

via Motherboard

Envious?? No, of course not.

Apart from descriptions of the amazing sunsets and drunk lemurs, the article does raise some interesting ideas:

“Poverty, according to the theory that brought [Hernando] de Soto international fame, is not exploitation, but exclusion. In other words, people are unable to participate in capitalism because they have nothing to bargain with. Slum residents, for example, build huts but cannot own them, as there is no place and no law that will register them. If they had some kind of official paper, a certified claim to the property, a title, the hut would be worth something. They could sell it, or take on debt to start a business. To raise people out of poverty, therefore, their valuables must somehow be linked to them as individuals. They must have property rights.”

Enter, you guessed it, the blockchain.

“The blockchain would, in essence, allow capitalism to more fully move into the realm of the internet. This has always failed in the past, because in digital environments, everything is so easy to copy. Therefore nothing is scarce, which is why digital content, like music, images, and text, is almost always free, or extremely protected. The blockchain’s comprehensive ability to allocate each piece of code within its system could completely eliminate the possibility of copying a song, for example, because who has which digital copy when would be traceable. A digital magazine based on the blockchain system would have unique copies, just like a printed magazine. It could be bought and sold like a physical object.”

An insight into the power that is either all-in or poking around the bitcoin space, this article leaves you with the feeling that the sector is disorganized, creative and the harbinger of a new world order. Perfect fodder for an elite meeting on a tropical island.

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Reimagining Money – by Douglas Rushkoff, for The Atlantic

I am a fan of the concept of bitcoin (and write about it here), but love that this article shows some other currency possibilities and how their value goes beyond that of simple exchange.

“In important ways, Bitcoin transposes some of the shortcomings of traditional currency onto the digital realm. It ignores a whole host of questions about the potential to reimagine what money can be designed to emphasize: What sorts of money will encourage admirable human behavior? What sorts of money systems will encourage trust, reenergize local commerce, favor peer-to-peer value exchange, and transcend the growth requirement?”

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Reparations, One Meal at a Time

Have you seen this? If not, take a look, it’s an excellent send-up of the startup pitch: Equipay  – Comedy Hack Day SF 2016 Grand Prize Winner

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Stuff I really enjoyed this week:

Aimlessly wandering around the breathtaking beauty of northern Spain. Stunning. Nice people. Good food. Great hotel (Real Posada de Liena, in Murillo de Gállegos). Really lovely.

murillo de gallego

Sunday Seven: bubbles, progress and celebrity

There were a ton of great articles this week, so many that I had to arbitrarily choose which made it into this summary. Not an easy choice. I’ll be tweeting the rest over the next few days, so follow me on Twitter at @noelleinmadrid. (And I’m still trying to figure out WHAT is going on with the formatting here… Several posts seem to have disappeared from the feed, along with my sidebar. Working on it…).

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Secondary Shops Flooded With Unicorn Sellers – by Connie Loizos, for TechCrunch

Is that the popping of the bubble that we hear? This may be premature, but if you take the jug of cold water that this article delivers in terms of evidence that unicorn valuations are falling fast, and combine it with increasing and vocal concern about the state of the world economy, you may start to hear that much-feared (but probably inevitable) sound.

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Not Another African Tech Article – by Clinton Mutambo, for TechCrunch

image via TechCrunch

image via TechCrunch

Speaking of popping bubbles, I finally found an article that questions the tech world’s interest in Africa and points out how hard it will be for us from the “western world” to apply what we know to their circumstances. See? Even that sentence sounded a bit condescending. Clinton recommends that we stop thinking that they need our help, and just step back and watch them grow their own way.

“The lack of data and “exotic charm” of Africa makes it an easy target for baseless, heavily flawed or downright ridiculous content. This benefits no one, as it has the effect of painting a false picture about the continent and each of its 54 diverse states. Everyone from potential investors to collaborators is made more ignorant by most articles.”

As Clinton points out, “technology doesn’t operate in a silo”, and the evolution of the sector is inextricably entwined with its cultural, social and economic development. And that needs to be left up to the Africans. We should try to avoid the colonialist mistakes of the previous century.

“There shouldn’t be a tug of war this time around. Extending perceptions of such only advances exploitative tendencies that have contributed toward the challenges in Africa.”

And enough with the paternalistic articles that treat Africa as one entity. It isn’t.

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The highly profitable, deeply adorable, and emotionally fraught world of Instagram’s famous animals – by Corinne Purtill, for Quartz

hedgehogs

Ok, so I’m including this article mainly because of the adorable pictures. However, its tongue-in-cheek take on the role of social media is worth reading.

“The pet world on Instagram is as stylized and edited as the human one. Fur looks pristine. There are no litter boxes in sight. The lighting is perfect. Even animals on social media live better than you do.”

There is actually a celebrity dog management agency. Not kidding.

All this leaves me with the feeling that Instagram is replacing TV in the crazy fame stakes.

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The financialization of news is dimming the lights of the local press – by Ken Doctor, for NiemanLab

An in-depth and penetrating macro, big-picture article on the news industry and the decline of print publishing. Ken starts by painting a relatively apocalyptic picture of the world economy:

“The data points have been coming at us increasingly rapidly. What had been just a long downward slide is now getting wacky. Erratic behavior on one side of the country is quickly trumped by weirder happenings on the other, until even more befuddling news makes us forget the oddities of last month. These are all signs of a deeper reckoning than all the reckonings we’ve so far seen. And as bad as it the U.S. right now, also consider the deepening plight of our northern neighbors in Canada and the tinderbox that Europe is becoming.”

… and continues with the demise of local and print news:

“Print is dying, and that’s not news — it’s just news that the news industry itself shies away from publishing, believing the nonsense that publishing the truth is a main cause of the decline. It’s not news reading that’s going away, though: that’s grown by leaps and bounds. It’s still the great digital disruption of local newspapers’ monopoly businesses that has caused the major impacts — impacts greatly exacerbated, sadly, by publishers’ own inability to reinvent themselves for the new age.”

The “financialization” of the press – the running of media companies on a profit basis – is inevitable in this disruptive, fail fast, media-as-an-investment cycle. But it is also gutting the spirit of reporting, and commoditizing our attention even further.

“Yes, money matters, but it’s that beating heart of the business — creating news that local citizens need to run their governments and better their lives — that still has to be an antidote to the single-minded financial view of local news. (If “the market” won’t support local news, many have said to me, than maybe it isn’t needed. I ask them: If the same were true of education, the arts, or even roads, where would our struggling democracy be?)”

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A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace – by John Perry Barlow

This is absolutely not from the past week, it’s from 1996, but it should be taken out, dusted and re-read every now and then. It may sound a bit dated, but it’s surprising how still relevant it is, and it’s fascinating to see how far the internet world has veered from its initial libertarian motivation of sharing information.

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks.”

Apart from the sentiment which will make your heart beat just a little bit faster, the declaration contains stunning (if at times grandiloquent) language:

“You are terrified of your own children, since they are natives in a world where you will always be immigrants. Because you fear them, you entrust your bureaucracies with the parental responsibilities you are too cowardly to confront yourselves… In our world, all the sentiments and expressions of humanity, from the debasing to the angelic, are parts of a seamless whole, the global conversation of bits. We cannot separate the air that chokes from the air upon which wings beat.”

While awakening the debate about regulation/safety vs. decentralization/freedom (reminiscent of the debates around bitcoin), Barlow does point out that the Internet exists in and because of the physical world, that it is not completely separate.

“Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.”

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The chips are down for Moore’s law – by M. Mitchell Waldrop for Nature

Moore’s Law is reaching its natural end? Now what?

“Every time the scale is halved, manufacturers need a whole new generation of ever more precise photolithography machines. Building a new fab line today requires an investment typically measured in many billions of dollars — something only a handful of companies can afford. And the fragmentation of the market triggered by mobile devices is making it harder to recoup that money.“ As soon as the cost per transistor at the next node exceeds the existing cost,” says Bottoms, “the scaling stops.””

So, this is where ingenuity and innovation take over.

“At least some industry insiders, including Shekhar Borkar, head of Intel’s advanced microprocessor research, are optimists. Yes, he says, Moore’s law is coming to an end in a literal sense, because the exponential growth in transistor count cannot continue. But from the consumer perspective, “Moore’s law simply states that user value doubles every two years”. And in that form, the law will continue as long as the industry can keep stuffing its devices with new functionality.

The ideas are out there, says Borkar. “Our job is to engineer them.””

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What will the bank of the future look like? – by Taavet Hinrikus, via the World Economic Forum

Maybe I’m obsessing a bit too much over banks this week, but there are some interesting ideas worth thinking about. Banks are changing, that’s obvious. As they should, that’s pretty obvious, too. Or is it? And what do we want them to change into?

“The most important result will be the true democratisation of finance. The nature of the current “bundled” model of banking is fundamentally unfair. The costs of the system and the profits of the banks are overwhelmingly accrued from fees and charges that hit the poorest hardest.”

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2 things I really enjoyed this week:

· A classic from the Ink Spots, circa 1940 – “Whispering Grass”. Just listen to the words. It’s not often you hear a crooning song about “babbling trees”.

· A hypnotic and truly inspiring book: Humans of New York. If you don’t follow the account on Tumblr, you should. The book is a collection of some of the more interesting anecdotes (although how he can choose is beyond me, they’re all really interesting), each one showing the incredible variety and creativity of the human spirit. I plan to look at this again and again and again.

humans of new york

humans of new york 1

Sunday Seven: filters, floating and finance

Some interesting tech articles and ideas from the past week:

Here’s What’s Wrong With Algorithmic Filtering on Twitter – by Matthew Ingram, for Fortune

While ostensibly about Twitter, this article is really about the role that algorithms play in the world that we live in, sorry, I mean the news that we see.

“In a nutshell, the problem with filtering is that the algorithm — which of course is programmed and tweaked by human beings, with all their unconscious biases and hidden agendas — is the one that decides what content you see and when. So ultimately it will decide whether you see photos of refugees on the beach in Turkey and shootings in Ferguson or ice-bucket videos and photos of puppies.

Does that have real-world consequences? Of course it does, as sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has pointed out in a number of blog posts. It can serve to reinforce the “filter bubble” that human beings naturally form around themselves, and that can affect the way they see the world and thus the way they behave in that world.”

Are you ok with only seeing what someone else wants you to see? The problem is, with so much out there, we need filters, it’s just not manageable otherwise. Even if we choose to design our own filters, is that not self-limiting? What impact will this have on ideas and discourse?

“By definition, algorithmic filtering means that you are not the one who is choosing what to see and not see. A program written by someone else is doing that. And while this may be helpful — because of the sheer volume of content out there — it comes with biases and risks, and we shouldn’t downplay them. As social platforms become a larger part of how we communicate, we need to confront them head on.”

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One of the craziest music videos I’ve ever seen – by OKGo

Whatever you think of OKGo’s music (this song’s not bad but will never make my all-time favourite list), the art here is the video. It’s crazy fun, very clever and quite unforgettable.

If you’ve ever wondered what opening a piñata in zero gravity would be like, watch this.

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What Would Actually Happen If We Broke Up The Banks? – by Michael Maiello, for Rolling Stone

I include this article because the structure of banks going forward will have so much influence on the role of money in society, and on the rollout of alternative forms of financing. We’ve all grown up in an era of Big Banks, and we lived through a Big-Bank-initiated recession. And while regulation has tightened and the IPO market has lost its allure, the overall structure of our main financial institutions has not changed much.

As this article points out, fintech companies are encroaching onto the bank’s territory. But most, especially P2P lenders, are struggling to be true to the initial calling, which is peers lending to peers.

“After the financial crisis, the banks shied away from making consumer and small-business loans. Some online start-ups like Lending Club and OnDeck entered the scene, as a way for people to lend money to each other directly, without going through a bank. But that model didn’t quite work. Matching up a guy who needs $10,000 to buy a pizza oven with a willing lender is rough work. Enter hedge funds, which are now increasingly buying the loans that Lending Club and OnDeck make.”

Yet once (ok, if) we achieve bank fragmentation, then smaller challengers will have more of a chance to innovate, to create new services and to capture market share. Size used to be the ultimate goal, the only way to achieve uniform customer service quality and scaled efficiencies. Yet today metrics and agility make client retention a matter of analysis and design. And as what we ask of our banks changes, so should their focus and priorities. The fragmentation of banks would both increase their value as a whole, and generate a new field of finance for the new business world we live in.

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A Look at the Marketplace Lending Originator Ecosystem – by Michael Gilroy, for TechCrunch

Speaking of the difficulties that marketplace lenders are having, here is a look at the “commoditization” of their product. P2P loans have gone from being a finance disruptor and an innovation that will revolutionize the banking sector, to a replicable product. The swashbuckling romance is gone. Now, selling alternative finance is a question of packaging and pricing.

“On the surface, e-commerce and marketplace lending are two incredibly different types of businesses. One has disrupted stores like Macy’s and Sears by selling anything from underwear to couches in a regulation-lite environment. The other disrupted massive banking institutions such as Wells Fargo and Bank of America by selling highly regulated loans.

However, when you peel back the layers, MPLs and e-commerce platforms provide a relatively fungible product, where differentiation comes down to customer experience and price, in markets that breed increasingly low barriers to entry.”

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Information Overload and the Tricky Art of Single-Tasking – by Alina Selyukh

A radical idea – stop multitasking???? really???? – that has turned out to be surprisingly refreshing. I’ve tried it, and life is better when you 1) accept that you’re not going to be able to read everything and connect to everyone that you want to in the course of the day, and 2) that doesn’t make you less of a person.

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How ‘Aggregation Theory’ is Fueling a Multi-Trillion Dollar Technology Revolution – by Tikue Anazodo, via Medium

Product distribution used to be a relatively monopolistic endeavour, with profitability and reach going to the largest players. Not anymore. Now, anyone can distribute.

“Over the last two decades, the distribution chain for most goods and services have been redefined end-to-end. The distributor’s role in the chain has been commoditized. ‘Makers’ can now bring their goods and services direct to consumers.

This turned out to be both good and bad.

Good in the sense that makers can essentially become their own distributors by creating their own websites and distributing to consumers directly through their own channels. They get to choose what, when, where and how to distribute.

Bad in the sense that because all makers were given the ability to create independent outlets for distribution, discovery became exponentially more complex for the demand side of the equation i.e. consumers would effectively have to navigate millions of independent outlets to find goods, services and content.

Enter the ‘aggregators’.”

Tikue then goes on to list the largest 10 (by market capitalization) public consumer internet companies. Guess what? They’re all aggregators. Interesting.

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My Little Sister Taught Me How To “Snapchat Like The Teens” – by Ben Rosen, for BuzzFeed

via BuzzFeed

via BuzzFeed

Much more riveting than it has any right to be, this “how-to” on Snapchat turns out to be more about teen culture and the role media plays in the social scene. Surprising, disconcerting and slightly awe-inspiring.

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Things I’ve been enjoying this week:

· This

Really, it’s a service that’s actually called “This”, and it sends you a daily email with 5 recommended reads from around the web. What I love about it is that it gets me reading things outside my circle of interest. There’s no way I can keep up with all the great media sites out there, I barely manage to keep up with my sector. This broadens my scope and introduces me to great journalists that I might otherwise never come across. And it keeps me from becoming boring. I hope.

this 2

· The History of the Internet

As an example of how boring I could become if left to my own devices, the other thing I’m geeking out over this week is a MOOC on Coursera called “Internet History, Technology and Security”, from the University of Michigan. Seriously interesting and very well done, it includes relaxed and enthralling lectures by Charles Severance, and interviews with the people who developed the Internet! It’s half way through, but the videos are worth watching even if you don’t take the course, especially the ones in weeks 5 and 6 that explain how the whole thing works.

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I hope that you’re enjoying your weekend!