Good morning, Quartz readers!
In Davos this week, 3,000 world leaders and business bosses attended hundreds of talks, workshops, dinners, and other get-togethers. The takeaway: Artificial intelligence and climate change are going to ruin us, but blockchain and women are going to save us.
While advances in AI are undoubtedly significant for humanity—Google CEO Sundar Pichai compared AI to the invention of fire—the potential for job losses and instability as industries adjust (or not), is tremendous. “At the end of the day, we have to fire a lot of people,” said Ursula Burns, chairman of the supervisory board at telecom group VEON. The angst of these losses could even lead to wars, warned Alibaba’s Jack Ma. “Each technology revolution has made the world unbalanced,” he said.
Meanwhile, tech giants like Facebook, feted as world-changing innovators last year, faced pointed criticism and calls for heavy regulation in areas like data privacy and fake news. Even tech executives—from Salesforce’s Marc Benioff to PayPal’s Dan Schulman—joined the chorus.
And then there are the truly existential threats, such as climate change and pandemics. When not talking about Trump’s intentions, Macron’s ambitions, or which party to go to, delegates were stunned into silence by scientists with apocalyptic environmental projections and frightening simulations of how outbreaks spread in our increasingly connected world.
On the plus side, it seemed that there was no problem too daunting that couldn’t be solved with blockchain technology. Multinational CEOs talked about how distributed ledgers could streamline supply chains and cut accounting costs. The younger, rowdier crowd at crypto-themed fringe venues that sprang up around Davos for the first time considered applications for mining space minerals and establishing no less than a “new base layer of our reality.” Although certainly fueled by cryptocurrency froth, the blockchain banter represented a genuinely novel topic of conversation that attracted fresh faces to an event where the same people often repeat their spiels about the same subjects year after year.
And finally, gender equality has been a Davos agenda item for years, but this time around there were signs of tangible action. Amid the raw, sweeping force of #MeToo, the debates on everything from sexual harassment to making financial markets more equitable took on palpable momentum. The physical manifestation of this was the perpetually oversubscribed Equality Lounge. The long-overlooked economic opportunity that comes from closing the gender gap, measured in the tens of trillions of dollars, is at last being recognized by a crowd supposedly obsessed with the bottom line.—Jenny Anderson, Kevin J. Delaney, Jason Karaian, Eshe Nelson, and Heather Timmons
Yes, your phone is spying on you. If you’re using an Android phone, David Yanofsky discovers, Google may be tracking every move you make through its Location History feature. The setting isn’t turned on by default, but several flagship Google Android apps, like Maps, Photos, and Assistant, prompt you to enable it. However, “none of those apps use the same language to describe what happens when Location History is enabled, and none explicitly indicate that activation will allow every Google app, not just the one seeking permission, to access Location History data,” later uploading it to Google’s servers for storage and analysis.
Reconsider the lobster. Lobsters feel pain. Our laws need to protect them, Ephrat Livni explains. On the news of Switzerland banning the boiling of live, non-stunned crustaceans of the species, it’s time to reopen the ongoing discussion about animal consciousness and cognition. The more we learn about it—and there has been an explosion of research in recent years—the more it’s clear that humans need to think about what killing them for food or sport says about us.
A Silicon Valley-backed company’s controversial plan to educate the world’s poorest kids. Bridge International Academies has a laudable mission: To help solve the global learning crisis with a chain of low-cost, high-quality schools in developing countries. But, as Jenny Anderson writes, the company’s unusual educational model—which relies on scripted learning, in which teachers read lesson plans directly from tablets—worries some critics, who suggest it doesn’t do enough to promote the critical-thinking skills that are essential in an increasingly competitive, globalized economy.
Think slow. “We live in opinionated times, writes Ephrat Livni. “Between a relentless news cycle and deep ideological divides, we feel pressure to take positions quickly, often on stories that are still developing, or on topics we know little about.” Yet, Barack Obama found time to read a book for an hour a day while he was president. Business giants like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have similar routines, for good reason: “Slow thinking is not just wise—it’s also a revolutionary act right now.”
Pop music has become obsessed with death. On the occasion of the 60th Grammy Awards on Sunday, Amy X. Wang and Dan Kopf noticed a rising trend in song lyrics containing “deathly words,” so they that they decided to run a statistical analysis on pop song lyrics going back to 1958. The data supported their hypothesis, and they take a stroll through music history to figure out why morbid thoughts are on the rise. (It’s not just the emergence of hip hop.)
How hedge funds (secretly) get their way in Washington. Fake grass roots. An inflatable rat. Testimony with hidden ties. Billionaires are using the public affairs firm known as DCI Group to make their bets pay off—while keeping the public in the dark. Zachary Mider and Ben Elgin report for Bloomberg on the front groups and fakeouts the 1% use to mask their scale-tipping influence in the US capital.
Andreessen Horowitz’s not-so-secret weapon. As an influential public relations executive recruited to be an operating partner at Andreessen Horowitz, Margit Wennmachers is among the most skilled spin masters in Silicon Valley. For Wired, Jessi Hempel explains how Wennmachers came to be a behind the scenes macher whose influence extends far beyond the venture capital firm’s impressive investment portfolio.
How the 1% get high: private jets. Meet Steve Varsano, owner of the Jet Business, a plane broker to the global elite. For the New York Times, Gideon Lewis-Kraus finds out who equips the jet set with their sky chariots, and how the marketplace operates. Don’t miss the scene where Varsano nudges a tipsy capitalist friend into seriously considering an upgrade, thinking over whether a new Boeing Business Jet would fit his traveling entourage (it would) and allow him to land at Aspen (it wouldn’t—too heavy).
Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t use Facebook the way you do. “The 33-year-old chief executive has a team of 12 moderators dedicated to deleting comments and spam from his page,” writes Alex Hern for the Guardian. Social media and tech industry bosses, it turns out, don’t use social media very much, and don’t want to let younger family members online, either. The reality is, no one is sure whether the generation currently hooked on it will be better or worse off, a new normal or an aberration. And the creators of it all aren’t about to take that kind of risk with themselves or those that matter to them.
Apple Watch’s nudges are only playing at true behavioral science. For The Verge, Elizabeth Lopatto gamed her Apple Watch into completing the activity-measuring rings that are supposed to act as a positive reinforcement, encouraging wearers to take more steps, bike more miles, and do more yoga. The Watch’s simplistic, Skinner-like feedback loop is far behind the curve of modern behavioral research—which is part of the reason you keep failing at satisfying its programming.
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