Quartz Weekend Brief—The next billion, Blockbuster’s last stand, the Putin-Bush bromance, unicorns

November 9, 2013
November 9, 2013

Good morning, Quartz readers!

Since the very first day of Quartz, we’ve been obsessed with what will happen as the next billion people come online, most of them on mobile devices in emerging markets. This week we held our first major conference, The Next Billion, on that very topic. One attendee complained of “topic whiplash,” as the discussion swung between the awesome possibilities and the terrifying risks that such a technological explosion brings.

That’s how discussions about technology tend to go. As security guru Bruce Schneier wrote recently, a gap typically emerges between the nimble early adopters of a new technology, from entrepreneurs to crooks, and the established institutions that appropriate it later. There are winners and losers in both the short and the longer term.

Some of the winners identified at The Next Billion included African villagers to whom connectivity is worth spending up to 10% of their income on mobile data plans; students in Mongolia who can get a first-class online education from MIT; and startups of the “sharing economy” such as Uber, Airbnb, and Taskrabbit.

But even as e-learning closes the education gap, a new one may open between people who have a good home environment for e-learning and those who don’t. The increasing automation and commoditization of so many types of work puts millions of livelihoods at risk. And then there are the security risks; after all, the emerging “internet of things” means that it’s not just a billion extra people coming online, but billions more connected devices.

Still, for all that the internet destroys existing structures and ways of life, it also, perhaps uniquely among technological revolutions, provides the tools for people to build new ones. That doesn’t mean we can lie back in easy optimism. It does, however, mean that getting those tools into as many people’s hands as quickly as possible is the best way to mitigate the ill effects. —Gideon Lichfield

Five things on Quartz we especially liked

The science behind “Asian Fit” sunglasses. Though many don’t like to talk about it, eyeglass manufacturers make special frames for people with Asian features. Matt Phillips dives into what scientists know about the extent and causes of cranio-facial variation. (Hint: It has a lot to do with climate.)

Why it’s quite OK for India to send a rocket to Mars. Leo Mirani challenges the argument that poor countries shouldn’t splurge on space missions. For one thing, India’s Mars mission is quite cheap. For another, rich countries have poverty too.

Meet the fish that’s eating your plastic. Gwynn Guilford profiles the lanternfish, which despite being tiny makes up at least half the deep ocean’s biomass and is thought to be eating up to 99% of the plastic trash that ends up in the oceans. That makes it hard to assess just how much damage the debris is doing to the ecosystem.

Marketers just invented yet another kind of human being. We told you about manfluencers™. Now hear about PANKs. That’s “Professional Aunt, No Kids.” Lily Kuo looks at how the latest marketing strategy—coined, in fact, more than a year ago—is now being taken up by travel firms.

Where to find the last remaining Blockbuster. Ritchie King dug into the website of the once-proud video-store chain to map the locations of every last one of its 303 remaining US stores—most of which it has just announced it will close this January. (Surprising discovery: San Antonio, Texas, has more stores left than 40 other entire states.)

Five things elsewhere that made us smarter

The impossibility of being a philosopher-king. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Evan R. Goldstein profiles Canada’s Michael Ignatieff, who was lionized as an intellectual but ridiculed as a politician, and tugs at the question, as old as Socrates, of why it’s so hard for high ideas to co-exist with the dirty, pragmatic business of politics.

How Vladimir Putin seduced George W. Bush. A detailed profile of the two by the New York Times’ Peter Baker depicts the Russian leader as a wily and unpredictable hard-charger, with whom the US president fumblingly strove to forge a friendship after famously saying, at their first meeting, “I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

How Barack Obama came back from the dead. In an extract from their new book Double Down, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin reconstruct a nail-biting 24 hours in which the president’s strategists battled to reprogram him after a disastrous first debate came close to costing him the 2012 election.

How to breed unicorns. Which is what venture capitalist Aileen Lee calls the 0.07% of venture-backed software startups that have become worth more than $1 billion. A methodical, data-rich breakdown of what kinds of business models, founders, and growth strategies have led to the ultimate level of success.

The hidden technology that makes Twitter huge. Paul Ford in Businessweek dissects the 31 data fields that every tweet contains (only one of which is the tweet text itself) and explains how they made it possible for the company to allow mass-scale communication and now have a market cap of some $25 billion.

Best wishes for a relaxing but thoughtful weekend. Please send any news, comments, undiscovered Blockbuster locations and unicorns to hi@qz.com. You can follow us on Twitter here for updates throughout the day.

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