Five Things: June 20, 2024

This is my bi-weekly “newsletter,” delivered straight to subscribers‘ inboxes — with at least one guaranteed typo I’ll catch after hitting send! If it’s not your thing, please don’t hesitate to unsubscribe; no hard feelings. If you’re enjoying it, though, reply to the email, drop a comment on the blog, or find me on the socials.

_ONE

AI isn’t useless. But is it worth it? | Molly White

Though AI companies are prone to making overblown promises that the tools will shortly be able to replace your content writing team or generate feature-length films or develop a video game from scratch, the reality is far more mundane: they are handy in the same way that it might occasionally be useful to delegate some tasks to an inexperienced and sometimes sloppy intern.

White takes one for the team, experimenting with various practical use cases for “AI” — and the results won’t be surprising to anyone with a splash of intellectual curiosity, digital literacy, or critical thinking. It’s a long read but I highly recommend investing the time, especially if you’re in an industry where “AI” is being relentlessly pushed as a magic bullet. (If you’re not, let me know if you’re hiring!)

As I recently wrote, I don’t believe there’s anything inevitable about “AI”, unless you choose to accept the sales pitch and make it true for yourself. Be skeptical; question and verify every outlandish and mundane claim; and most importantly, understand what is and isn’t applicable to YOU and YOUR needs.

__TWO

Tech is cool; business is boring. | Justin Pot

I started writing about tech for a mainstream audience in the early 2010s, when the tech press was best understood as an enthusiast press. We thought the things we were writing about were neat, and to be fair, a lot of it was. But our enthusiasm for shiny new things made us blind to the economics of the underlying businesses.

I’m always happy to see pundits journalists publicly address their missteps, and tech pundits journalists are among the least likely to ever do it, simply moving on to the next new shiny without ever looking back, or at best, subtly shifting the goal posts in their favor.

Pot acknowledges tech darlings like Uber and Airbnb were just predatory regular businesses disguised as tech companies, but incredulous media coverage helped drive incredible valuations and minimal regulations. He also makes it personal, noting how “AI” is supercharging content mills that plagiarize articles for ad impressions — one of the few truly inevitable outcomes — with a pretty funny example of one his own.

Always remember that tech vs. business angle when you’re reading about the latest “AI” product or service targeting your own industry, and then dig into the backgrounds of everyone involved — from the journalist who wrote the article (or moderated the panel/webinar) to business executives making the bold claims.

___THREE

Notes From “You Are Not A Gadget” | Jim Nielsen

While Lanier was talking about ‘the hive mind’ of social networks as we understood it then, AI has a similar problem: we begin to care more about the training data than the individual humans whose outputs constitute the training data, even though the training data by itself is meaningless. Only people are meaningful.

You Are Not a Gadget was a revelation when I first read it back in 2010, right after DBW launched and TOC was still the dominant vibe. It sits alongside Amusing Ourselves to Death, The Cluetrain Manifesto, and most recently, The Intelligence Illusion and Range as one of the most influential books that have shaped and evolved my thinking about how we engage with technology.

“AI”, et al, is the sequel to the Web 2.0 hype Lanier was criticizing back then, and it’s not at all surprising that he isn’t a fan of “AI” hype, either: “This is my plea to all my colleagues. Think of people. People are the answer to the problems of bits.”

We’ve seen this movie before, and like so many sequels no one asked for, it’s even worse than its predecessor. Even the FTC has had enough of the “AI” hype!

____FOUR

The lifecycle of a tech bubble | Baldur Bjarnason

What this means to the rest of us is that the bubble is unlikely to pop until the core investment demographic loses faith. That the general public thinks “AI” is synonymous with garbage won’t matter because, compared to the investment class, we’re poor as dirt and only growing poorer. The moneyed classes have faith in tech and that’s what drives the bubble. Faith is hard to budge.

I think of the tech bubble in two ways: Hype and Investment. Most of us will get pulled into the former whether we want to or not, while the latter is basically for the 1% and their capitalist sycophants.

I think the hype bubble will deflate first, but it will have very limited impact on investment, at least in the short-term. It’s similar to the pivot to video — another investment-driven disaster — but it didn’t really hurt any of the tech platforms who were pushing it when it finally popped, only the suckers who fell for it and disrupted their own businesses in a rush to prematurely embrace the inevitable.

I see the same thing happening in most industries “AI” is touching right now. The only “success” required to keep the investment bubble growing for a while longer is the belief that inevitability will either become a self-fulfilling prophecy or linger long enough that early investors can cash out and move on the next “inevitable” new shiny.

_____FIVE

Pokémon Is All About Reading | Joseph Earl Thomas

The crowd is mostly male, though one might be surprised, or not, in comparison to other gaming events at this scale, by how many women and trans people attend, through force of will, putting in work over the pre-ascriptions of boys’ club etiquette, just like one might be surprised, or not, at the casual anti-black structure of feeling also common everywhere else in the world.

The original Pokemon was the game that got me back into gaming as an adult back in the late 90s, first played on a friend’s GameBoy during a road trip. Fast-forward a few years and I’d bought my first Xbox, joined an active D&D group for the first time since High School, and was actively reading comics again.

That’s only tangentially what this essay is about, though, and not why I want you to read it. Suffice to say that I loved it, and I might also have to rethink my vague preconceptions about The Paris Review?


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4 thoughts on “Five Things: June 20, 2024

  1. Really enjoyed the post from Bjarnason. So much so that I’ve signed up for yet another newsletter!

  2. I’m completely on board with you on AI. It’ll have its mundane uses, like spell-checking and helping to sort through large data sets, but it’s not leading to Skynet or C-3PO. For the investment class, it’s just the next shiny thing after crypto. The main thing I use AI for now is to transcribe the podcast (which I still have to edit) and to write the description for each episode of the podcast (which – again – I still have to edit). Describing it as “an inexperienced and sometimes sloppy intern” is exactly right!

    1. I wish we could focus more on the practical use cases and the realistic limitations, because that would be a very different conversation. It wouldn’t drive clicks or stock values, though, so we get the worst timeline instead.

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