As the debate continues to rage around what to do about social media, it might be worth spending some time thinking about how they might evolve technologically. Tom Standage of The Economist is among the best observers of the world of tech, because he often uses the lens of history to make sense of the changes happening on ground today.
In Writing on the Wall: Social Media, the First 2000 Years, he points to the role of competition and how technology itself could evolve. He writes: “The contrast between big social platforms on the one hand, and e-mail and the web on the other, is striking. Both e-mail and web publishing work in an entirely open, decentralized way. The servers that store and deliver e-mail and the programs used to read and write messages are all expected to work seamlessly with each other, and for the most part they do. The same is true of web servers, which store and deliver pages, and the web browsers used to display pages and navigate between them. Anyone who wants to set up a new e-mail or web server can add it to the Internet’s existing ecosystem of such servers. If you are setting up a new blog or website, there are also plenty of companies to choose from who will host it for you, and you can move from one to another if you are unsatisfied with their service. None of this is true for social networking, however, which takes place inside huge, proprietary silos owned by private companies. Moving your photos, your list of friends, or your archive of posts from one service to another is difficult at best, and impossible at worst. It may be that healthy competition among those companies, and a reluctance to alienate their hundreds of millions of users by becoming too closed, will enable the big social platforms to continue in this semi-open state for many years to come.”
Competition is one force. There is also a gradual move towards decentralisation, whose value we are recognizing more than ever during the pandemic.
Standage writes: “But another possibility is that today’s social platforms represent a transitional stage, like AOL and CompuServe in the 1990s. They were proprietary, centralized services that introduced millions of people to the wonders of the Internet, but they were eventually swept aside by the open web. Similarly, perhaps the core features of social networking and social media—maintaining lists of friends, and exchanging information with them—will move to an open, decentralized model. Such a model is possible for e-mail and web publishing because of the existence of agreed technical standards on how e-mail messages and web pages ought to be encoded and transmitted. Several such standards have already been proposed for decentralized or distributed social networks, though none has yet gained much traction. There will be technical difficulties synchronizing friend lists, maintaining privacy and security, and delivering updates quickly across millions of users, all of which give centralized social networks a clear advantage at the moment. But every time a major social network is involved in a privacy violation, an unpopular change in the terms of service, or a spat over censorship, a few more adventurous users decide to give one of the various decentralized social networks a try. ‘I think it’s important to design new systems that work in a distributed way,’ says Tim Berners-Lee. ‘We must make systems in which people can collaborate together, but do it in a way that’s decentralized, so it’s not based on one central hub.’”
In this issue
- How Novavax works
- Michael Holding on racism in sports and society
- Abdul Kalam meets AR Rahman
Have a great day.
How Novavax works
India is likely to get Novavax by September, according to the Serum Institute, which will be manufacturing the Covid-19 vaccine in the country. It’s not clear how much we can count on the timelines, because there were also reports of raw material shortages. Even if it gets delayed by a couple of months, it will be a key lever in managing the pandemic.
Ars Technica has a piece on how Novavax can help the world at large. Here’s an explainer from the piece on how the vaccine works.
“Vaccine production starts by identifying a key gene from the pathogen of interest—the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, in this case—and inserting it into a virus that infects insect cells. Insect cells can easily be grown in culture, and they process any proteins they make in the same way that human cells do. (This processing can involve chemically linking sugars or cleaving off superfluous parts of the protein.) The activity ensures that the purified protein will be chemically identical to the spike protein found on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself…
“Like some other vaccines, Novavax's offering, NVX-CoV2373, is administered in two doses separated by a few weeks. Unlike the RNA vaccines, it can be stored in regular refrigerators, allowing it to be used in locations with no robust public health infrastructure. And because it relies on a very different technology, it shouldn't be in direct competition with other vaccines for most of its raw ingredients.”
Michael Holding on racism in sports and society
If you belong to a certain generation, you would have grown up admiring Michael Holding, one of the best fast bowlers in cricket. Even if you had missed those glorious years, you might have come across his passionate, impromptu speech on racism and Black Lives Matter last year.
Now, Holding has written a book on the theme, entitled Why We Kneel, How We Rise. It has contributions from some of the best known Black sportspersons, and will be out later this month.
Here’s an extract from a piece in The Guardian on the book:
“Usain Bolt reveals his first experience of racism was not in his home country of Jamaica, but in Britain, when he made his first visit in his early 20s. He recalls strolling around a shopping mall in London, taking some free time before an athletics event the next day. He needed a new watch, he says, so went into a jewellery store. “I said to the woman behind the counter, ‘I like this one. How much?’ She tells me the price, then says, ‘Are you sure you can afford it?’
“Her tone took Bolt by surprise. ‘I didn’t think back then, this is racist, because it was new to me—in that moment,’ he says. But remembering racism is an education in itself, Bolt says. ‘And you might tell that story and someone else goes, ‘that happened to me’.”
It did, to Holding—only two decades earlier. “Usain remembers that story and I remember mine because of the way it made us feel,” Holding says. “It hurt, and it still does.”
- Your smartphone is the gateway for platform businesses to drive their hooks deep into your psyche and pockets, edge out traditional businesses, and reset markets. In doing so, they are becoming monopolies, the likes of which we’ve never seen before. What is fair play in this new world? Haresh Chawla answers. Read: Making sense of the New Capitalists
- When the pandemic struck and almost all sports were suspended, fans were left with a void. This pair of armchair enthusiasts talk about how it is making them rethink their relationship with sports—especially when sports returned on TV with empty stadiums and simulated crowd noises, writes Atreyo Sinha. Read: Sports, the coronavirus, and a father-son relationship
Abdul Kalam meets AR Rahman
Here’s a poem by former President APJ Abdul Kalam, sung by a group of children on Children’s Day 2002 to a tune set by AR Rahman.
What’s helping you get through these tough times? Send us the song, poem, quote that is your balm now. And we will share it through this newsletter.
And if you missed previous editions of this newsletter, they’re all archived here.
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