The Download: Trolling text scammers, and China’s social media censorship
This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.
The people using humor to troll their spam texts
The other night, I received a mysterious WhatsApp message. “Dr. Kevin?” it began, the question mark suggesting the sender felt bad for interrupting my evening. “My puppy is very slow and won’t eat dog food. Can you make an appointment for me?”
I was mystified. My name is not Kevin, I am not a veterinarian, and I was in no position to help this person and their puppy. I nearly typed out a response saying “Sorry, wrong number” when I realized this was probably a scam to get me to confirm my number.
I didn’t respond, but many others who received similar texts have. Some are even throwing it back at their spammers by spinning wild tales and sending hilarious messages to frustrate whoever is on the other side. They’re fighting back with snark, and in some cases posting screenshots of their conversations online.
Experts don’t recommend responding like this. But it is cathartic and funny. Read the full story.
China wants all social media comments to be pre-reviewed before publishing
The news: On June 17, China’s internet regulator Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) published a draft update on how platforms and creators should handle online comments. One line stands out: all online comments would have to be pre-reviewed before being published.
How would it work? The provisions cover many types of comments, including anything from forum posts, replies, messages left on public message boards, and “bullet chats” (an innovative way that video platforms in China use to display real-time comments on top of a video). All formats, including texts, symbols, GIFs, pictures, audio, and videos, fall under this regulation.
What does it mean? Users and observers are worried that the move could be used to further tighten freedom of expression in China. While Beijing is constantly refining its controls over social media, the vagueness of the latest revisions makes people worry that the government may ignore practical challenges, forcing platforms to hire a vast army of censors. Read the full story.
I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.
1 Crypto’s value is still plummeting
It’s fallen by more than two-thirds since November, but purists are unfazed. (WSJ $)
+ Bitcoin fell below $20,000 for the first time since last November over the weekend. (FT $)
+ Investors are nervously watching stablecoin Tether to see what happens next. (NYT $)
+ Crypto insurance sounds like a good idea right about now. (Vox)
2 The timeless virality of Juneteenth
Because freedom from slavery is something we can all agree on, regardless of political and religious afiliations. (Wired $)
+ It’s been an awful year for the politics of race in America. (NY Mag)
3 Ambushing a comet is risky business
But it’ll be worth it if it gives us our first real glimpse of a primordial body. (Nature)
+ Astronomers wrongly thought comet Borisov was pretty boring. (MIT Technology Review)
+ The Pentagon is exploring using SpaceX rockets to thwart future threats. (The Intercept)
+ When is a black hole not a black hole? (Inverse)
4 How thousands of seabound robots are combating climate change
By spending 90% of their time 1,000 meters below the ocean’s surface. (Spectrum IEEE)
+ Why heat pumps are emerging as a key decarbonizing tool. (Protocol)
+ UN climate report: Carbon removal is now “essential.” (MIT Technology Review)
+ A Peruvian fishing community is still suffering, five months after an oil spill. (Hakai Magazine)
5 AI can do so much more than convince us it’s sentient
And yet, we keep falling into the trap of missing the bigger picture. (The Atlantic $)
+ We’re missing the point of the Turing test, too. (WP $)
+ What the history of AI tells us about its future. (MIT Technology Review)
6 Anti-vaxx conspiracies are a global problem
Spreading far wider than their American roots. (Slate $)
7 Can a steak made from recycled carbon dioxide ever taste good?
It takes just a few days to make an ‘air steak,’ compared to the years it takes to raise and nurture a cow. (Neo.Life)
+ Why oat milk companies may have to stop marketing their goods as ‘milk.’ (Slate $)
+ Your first lab-grown burger will be “blended”. (MIT Technology Review)
8 Why Peter Thiel unfriended Facebook
And what’s next for the billionaire with a penchant for crypto. (WP $)
+ Facebook is going to be a very different place without Sheryl Sandberg, too. (The Atlantic $)
9 How Dril’s influence spread beyond Weird Twitter
The platform’s court jester has infiltrated the mainstream. (New Yorker $)
10 What it’s like to become the worst person on the internet
And another case of why putting images in the public domain can backfire. (The Guardian)
Quote of the day
“Are we going to bow our heads for Jeff Bezos just to give him his pleasure boat?”
— Paul van de Laar, a professor at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, is infuriated by the Amazon founder’s request to dismantle part of the city’s bridge to facilitate his superyacht, he tells the Financial Times.
The big story
This company delivers packages faster than Amazon, but workers pay the price
Early one morning in October 2020, 27-year-old Jang Deok-joon came home after working his overnight shift at South Korean e-commerce giant Coupang and jumped into the shower. He had worked at the company’s warehouse in the southern city of Daegu for a little over a year, hauling crates full of items ready to be shipped to delivery hubs. When he didn’t come out of the bathroom for over an hour and a half, his father opened the door to find him unconscious and curled in a ball in the bathtub, his arms tucked tightly into his chest. He was rushed to the hospital, but with no pulse and failing to breathe on his own, doctors pronounced him dead at 9:09 a.m. The coroner ruled that he had died from a heart attack.
Jang was the third Coupang worker to die that year, adding to growing concern about the nature of the company’s success. And it has been astoundingly successful: rising to become South Korea’s third-largest employer in just a few years, harnessing a vast network of warehouses, 37,000 workers, a fleet of drivers, and a suite of AI-driven tools to take a commanding position in South Korea’s crowded ecommerce market.
Coupang’s proprietary AI algorithms calculate everything from the most efficient way to stack packages in delivery trucks, to the precise route and order of deliveries for drivers. In warehouses, AI anticipates purchases and calculates shipping deadlines for outbound packages, allowing it to promise delivery in less than a day for millions of items. Such innovations are why Coupang confidently bills itself as the “future of ecommerce,” and were the driving force behind its recent launch on Nasdaq—the biggest US IPO by an Asian company since Alibaba in 2014. But what does all this innovation and efficiency mean for the company’s workers? Read the full story.
—Max S. Kim
We can still have nice things
A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)
+ Happy birthday to the one and only Brian Wilson, who turns 80 years old today. Out of all his incredible tunes, this one may just be the best.
+ A total mystery: how did a UK trash can travel more than 1,900 kilometers to Ukraine?
+ What a relief—Denmark and Canada’s polite ‘whisky war’ has finally been resolved.
+ This Rage Against the Machine performance played on dog toys is a masterpiece.
+ Here’s a selection of dresses we wouldn’t mind Kim Kardashian ruining next.