It doesn’t take a lot for Google to make headlines, but its prototype of the self-driving car, unveiled this week, surely earned them. To some the pod-like vehicle looks more like a koala, but others saw the future of, well, everything: It could replace public transport, enhance privacy, even alter the English language; it will “change the world,” “change everything” and “transform our lives.”
It’s the same story again and again. When Facebook bought Oculus VR, the virtual-reality headset maker, people conjured up visions of immersive social networking, almost like being with your friends in real life. When Amazon suggested that it might one day deliver packages by drone, we swallowed that too.
Yet Google’s self-driving car and Amazon’s drones are not so different from, say, Shell’s work on green energy or GlaxoSmithKline’s research on cancer drugs (since abandoned). Such experimental technologies stir our imaginations. They help companies seem exciting, perhaps even friendly. And yes, they are often wise investments—insurance against the future. But they may remain pie-in-the-sky for years, and they make us forget the mundane and sometimes harmful ways the firms make the bulk of their money. Google is an advertising company that harvests personal data as energetically as Shell drills for oil. So why do its futuristic projects evoke breathless fascination, while Shell’s clean-tech efforts are dismissed as “greenwashing“?
There are some obvious answers to that. The tech companies are newer, so we’ve had less time to become jaded. They have given us some wonderful things—new ways to communicate, to entertain ourselves, to find friends or even love. And we assume that, being younger than oil or pharma firms, they are more nimble and forward-thinking. But at the end of the day, they’re all businesses, which will never jeopardize whatever provides the bulk of their revenue. And just because they promise us a vision of the future doesn’t mean it will become reality.—Leo Mirani
Five things on Quartz we especially liked
How viable are electric cars? Steve LeVine explains why the “gigafactory”, Tesla’s planned behemoth of a lithium-ion battery plant, may not be as harebrained a scheme as it sounds. And he reveals that lithium-air batteries, long touted as the successors to lithium-ion, may not be the future after all.
The cartography of Planet Starbucks. The furthest point in the world from a Starbucks is in the southern Indian Ocean. There are 62 cafes in midtown Manhattan alone. David Yanofsky unearths these and many other fascinating facts of cafe geography in a series of maps of Starbucks’ world. And John McDuling explains why his home country, Australia, remains immune to the coffee chain’s charms.
Lessons from the Isla Vista massacre. Elliot Rodger, a young man who killed six people plus himself a week ago in California, left behind a 140-page memoir dripping with hatred of women. Yang dissects the damning things it says about the US’s culture. And Jenni Avins writes about how the killing made her realize the power of the friendships that she formed while a student in Isla Vista.
Don’t write off the far right in Europe. Mainstream European politicians were quick to dismiss the success of extremist euroskeptics in last week’s European Parliament election; national parliaments, they said, are a different story. Jason Karaian analyzes the numbers to show that might be too complacent a view.
The complete guide to biking to work. What to wear, how to assert your right to the road, the pros and cons of bike sharing, and the debates between different countries’ cycling federations about wearing a helmet—it’s all in Nick Stockton’s handy summary.
Five things elsewhere that made us smarter
Misplaced nostalgia for Habsburg rule. A century after the murder of archduke Franz Ferdinand that kicked off World War I, some are arguing that his family’s sprawling empire might have been a better way to run Europe than the current bureaucratic tangle. In Foreign Policy, Simon Winder takes a hatchet to the house of Habsburg’s reputation.
How vaccine skeptics fuel the spread of polio. After 15 years of being polio-free, Israel had an attack of the disease in 2013. Keren Landsman, an Israeli epidemiologist, writes in Aeon about the government’s frantic campaign to purge it again, and how it was nearly derailed by “anti-vaxxers”, egged on by the growing skeptical movement in the US.
What if computer programs were people too? Bots and algorithms are taking ever more decisions that affect human beings, but the chains of responsibility are often murky. Samir Chopra in The Nation proposes that programs be reclassified as legal agents, as corporations sometimes are, and explains how this would turn privacy law on its head.
Let’s imagine they nuked New Delhi. Well, let’s not. But as India-Pakistan relations enter a new—hopefully friendlier—phase in the wake of Narendra Modi’s election, Raghu Karnad in Caravan assesses where in the Indian capital would be safe, and where would be flattened, in the event of a nuclear strike.
How to hide a corporate jet. From shareholders, that is. You might think that a company can’t disguise something so expensive as an aircraft in its financial statements. Bethany McLean at Reuters explains the sneaky moves that US clothing retailer Jos. A. Bank employed to do just that.
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