Jan. 10-16, 2021
Like a lot of Americans, I'm concerned about the health of my country's democracy heading into the inauguration of a new president this Wednesday. On the other hand, I'm happy to report that democracy is very much alive online. That comes through loud and clear in the latest headlines, I think:
- A muscular official response to the siege of the U.S. capitol took shape both online and off. Authorities collared dozens of rioters across the country and anticipate more arrests in the weeks ahead, aided in part by information gleaned from social networks. Parler, which had become a digital gathering spot for right-wing extremists, remained shuttered after being banned from major Big Tech platforms. However, an independent researcher told Gizmodo that prior to Parler's shutdown she archived all its users' public posts from Jan. 6, the day of the capitol siege. The trove is now likely to become a fertile hunting ground for law enforcement. Separately, Facebook's own employees complained that the platform has been showing ads for military products alongside news about the Washington insurrection.
- Wikipedia celebrated its 20th anniversary, widely hailed as one of the internet's crown jewels. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the worldwide web's inventor, tweeted that the reference site is "a shining example of the #WebWeWant — an open, collaborative space providing free access to knowledge across the globe." The Washington Post's Heather Kelly said Wikipedia "might be the safest place online."
- Bitcoin retreated from its record run. The crypto world's flagship token tumbled more than 10% for the week as investors took profits and deleveraged. Prices recently hovered around $36,000, down from recent records near $42,000. However, most bitcoin whales and influencers maintained that broader dynamics supporting the token remain in place for the longer term, includuing tight supply and rising consumer demand. Kraken's Dan Held tweeted that Silicon Valley venture capitalists are still underestimating the token's potential as an innovative force.
- The Web3 Foundation said is has now issued grants to 200 recipients. The organization, based in Zug, Switzerland, began issuing grants in December 2018 with an eye toward nurturing cutting-edge applications for decentralized web software protocols. The pace of its grantmaking has recently accelerated, with more than 100 teams funded just since May 2020.
- The blockchain industry received a round of mostly positive news about U.S. regulation. Reuters reported that incoming President Joe Biden is poised to name Gary Gensler as his pick to head the Securities and Exchange Commission. Gensler, who previously chaired the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, is widely seen as friendly to crypto markets. Separately, the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) decided to reopen its rulemaking period and public comment period for controversial proposals to regulate crypto wallets.
- The New York Stock Exchange's parent said it will take its crypto trading unit public by merging it with a special-purpose acquisition company. The venture, called Bakkt, is expected to have a valuation of $2.1 billion after completing the merger with VPC Impact Acquisition Holdings, according to the Wall Street Journal. The deal also highlights the rising importance of SPACs in general as an increasingly popular alternative to traditional initial public offerings of stock by tech companies.
- The MIT Technology Review reports that the way artificial intelligence software handles jumbled sentences shows that it doesn't truly understand language yet, even if the AI programs sometimes spit out useful answers to queries regardless.
- Writing for Wired, veteran web developer Kevin Marks says the recent design trend of lower-contrast type is adversely affecting legibility, to the point of rendering many sites "unreadable." Marks says the trend is largely based on designers' misunderstanding of guidlines published in 2008 by the Web Assembly Initiative.
- The venerable Consumer Electronics Show was held virtually. No single category of devices dominated the show, as has sometimes been the case in years past. However, many of the new products on display related to mobility and remote work. CNET and Wired both published comprehensive, highly recommended roundups of the show.
That's it for now. Thanks for spending some time with the newsletter today! If you'd like to get updates like this in your inbox every Sunday, please join our email list here.
— Peter A. McKay
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