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Main article: Review

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With better recall of our photos and videos, will our ability to forgive disappear?

20:45 | 27 February

We’re cruising through the short stories in Ted Chiang’s collection Exhalation. Today, we read one of the most popular from the set, The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling, which Lux Capital’s Josh Wolfe described in our end-of-year books guide a few weeks ago:

This year for me it was Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation”. The gap between sci-fi and sci-fact keeps shrinking. I contend either our authors are becoming less creative or our scientists more creative. Chiang disproves the former. One of the most provocative stories in this collection is The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling which parallels two protagonists set in the near future and the not-too-distant past. One sub-story centers on a Black Mirror-esque technology that gives high-fidelity perfect recall and recordings of prior experience. The other story is of a tribe that lives by oral tradition that has one member encounter an outsider with the technology of writing. Together they make a provocative poignant point on the distinction between being precise and being right—and the meaning in our lives between them.

It’s a great story, with tough questions that don’t posit easy answers. In short: it’s fantastic fodder for a book club. Read on for some analysis, plus some questions for the next (super) short story in the collection, The Great Silence.

Some further quick notes:

  • Want to join the conversation? Feel free to email me your thoughts at bookclub@techcrunch.com (we got a real email address!) or join some of the discussions on Reddit or Twitter (hashtag TCBookClub)
  • Follow these informal book club articles here: https://techcrunch.com/book-review/. That page also has a built-in RSS feed for posts exclusively in the Book Review category, which is very low volume.
  • Feel free to add your comments in our TechCrunch comments section below this post.

Reading The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling

This is a deeply meditative story on the purpose and mechanisms of memory. Perhaps not gorgeously written like some of the earlier short stories in this collection, but Chiang manages to interrogate an incredibly deep and intellectual question about what truth means in a world of digital remembrance.

Dichotomies flow throughout the text. The core of the story are twin narratives set in different eras. In one, a first-person narrator who works as a journalist discusses testing a new device called Remem that can search all data ever generated about a person and instantly recall that information to the user (photos, videos, or what have you). The parallel story is about a tribe called the Tiv and what happens when they encounter a European missionary who teaches some members of the tribe writing and literacy.

Those dual storylines create a kaleidoscope of other dualities. In the language of the Tiv are two words that describe different kinds of truths: “‘There is what’s right, mimi, and what’s precise, vough.’” That relates directly to the dichotomy in this short story’s title and its primary question around forgetting and forgiving.

Chiang structures the stories in such a way that we are compelled to confront our typical response to memory, that “forgiving” quite literally requires “forgetting,” and that new technologies — whether Remem, writing, or other ways of transmitting information — damage our ability to redefine and improve ourselves and others. A perfect memory will create a very imperfect society.

Plus, these technologies always lose information in their transcription process, as when the author describes what happens with storytelling among the Tiv:

When Kokwa told the story, he didn’t merely use words; he used the sound of his voice, the movement of his hands, the light in his eyes. He told you the story with his whole body, and you understood it the same way. None of that was captured on paper; only the bare words could be written down. And reading just the words gave you only a hint of the experience of listening to Kokwa himself, as if one were licking the pot in which okra had been cooked instead of eating the okra itself.

This whole frame is an illuminating if somewhat banal point, and if that was all this story offered, it would be an interesting meditation on a classic question if fairly unremarkable. But then Chiang does something surprising: he basically reverses the entire course of the plot, showing that in fact these technologies don’t really create problems themselves, but instead foist demands on people to confront their own memories and the underlying problems they signify.

In the case of the Tiv, writing forces the group’s elders to confront the fact that they have differing views on their own family lineages, and that they no longer believe in the same historical narrative of the tribe. In the case of the main narrator, his relationship with his daughter turns a corner when he realizes that he has, over the years, completely mis-remembered one of their major arguments from when she was young. In fact, he has essentially misremembered the entire period, casually transforming himself into a decent person rather than the pitiful father he has actually been.

Chiang thus turns the idea of “forgive and forget” into “remember and forgive,” and not just about forgiving others, but ourselves as well. We want to believe in the best possible narrative of our actions, and in so doing, construct stories for ourselves that carefully elide facts and memories that don’t fit. But technology will change this:

And I think I’ve found the real benefit of digital memory. The point is not to prove you were right; the point is to admit you were wrong.

And

With Remem providing only the unvarnished facts, my image of myself will never stray too far from the truth in the first place.

Far from constraining our potential or forcing us to stay the same, remembering more precisely who we are is exactly what we need to evolve and improve from where we have been before. In the words of the Tiv, we need vough in order to find mimi. Even after reading the story twice, I find myself enchanted by how deep a perspective this point raises.

Chiang lays on the thesis a bit thick at times (“I’ve told a story in order to make a case for the truth. I recognize the contradiction here.”) But with cynicism of “technology” at a zenith, he has carefully structured the story to create an empathetic connection with a narrator asking similar questions about our joint futures and holding similar fears as ours. The about-face hits us like whiplash, but also seems contextually reasonable — opening our minds to further questions around the meaning of memory.

Perhaps ironically given the title, I found that the thread around emotion seemed to drop out a bit in the story. Talking about childhood amnesia, Chiang writes:

In fact, I suspect I no longer remember the day itself. It’s more likely that I manufactured the memory when I was first show the snapshots, and over time, I’ve imbued it with the emotion I imagine I felt that day.

But while many of the scenes and memories in the story are indeed fraught with emotion, his thesis around remembering doesn’t seem to answer why memories are hard to handle in the first place: some of our experiences may be just too intense or negative for us to ever want to remember again anyway.

While I did find this story to be a bit more didactic and direct with its conclusions than some of the previous short stories we have reviewed here, I do want to point out one beautiful symbol that he chose. The European missionary, Moseby, himself is a symbol of memory and technology, clutching a Bible that itself has been scribed and re-scribed throughout the centuries and represents the bedrock of European civilization. The motif of writing in the context of religion — of memory within culture and civilization — is a subtle layer that whispers throughout the text and that I appreciated.

Better, digital memories are coming — rapidly. And while dystopian accounts abound about what that all means, Chiang actually proposes maybe not a utopia, but a more human depiction of what’s to come next. Perhaps remembering who we are reminds us that we have the power to change who we want to become.

The Great Silence

Here’s a short short story for everyone, and some questions to think about as you are reading:

  • What message does the story present about empathy?
  • Would we recognize a different species if we met them?
  • Aspiration is a motif in this piece — how does that relate to some of the other stories in this collection?
  • What does the story say about attentiveness and focus?
  • What would be humanity’s contact call?

With the development of generalized AI, what’s the meaning of a person?

 


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How do we connect a child to technology?

00:24 | 24 February

We are now onto the fifth short story of nine in Ted Chiang’s collection Exhalations. This one is a very short one at only a couple of pages, but despite its brief length, it explores some of the most fundamental issues facing us as a society today: technology, children, love, and the meaning of connection as all these elements fuse together. It was not my favorite story so far, but it is certainly interesting, especially in light of the previous short story Lifecycle of Software Objects (which in case you missed it, you can read more analysis here).

 

Some further quick notes:

  • Want to join the conversation? Feel free to email me your thoughts at danny+bookclub@techcrunch.com or join some of the discussions on Reddit or Twitter.
  • Follow these informal book club articles here: https://techcrunch.com/book-review/. That page also has a built-in RSS feed for posts exclusively in the Book Review category, which is very low volume.
  • Feel free to add your comments in our TechCrunch comments section below this post.

Reading Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny

Chiang has constructed a creative framing device here: we observe a peculiar machine — Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny — in historical retrospective within the context of an exhibit entitled “Little Defective Adults — Attitudes Toward Children 1700 to 1950.” The entire story is essentially the museum placard next to the mechanical artifact describing its background and how it was designed to raise an infant without the need for a human nanny.

Much like in the last short story we read in the collection, the question of human connection mediated by technology is at the core of the story. Can we raise a child purely through a piece of technology? Chiang seems to take a definitive stand against such a notion, showing that the child’s psychosocial development is hindered by its nearly exclusive interaction with a non-human being. The author even plays a bit of a legerdemain right from the beginning: the exhibit’s title of “Little Defective Adults” could be applied to robots just as much as Victorian-era children.

But like the digients in the last story, we later learn that the child at the center of the story actually has fine interaction skills, but with robots instead of humans. As the automatic nanny is removed from service after two years of raising Lionel’s child Edmund, the child experiences stunted development. His development is rekindled once he has access to robots and other electronics again. Per the story:

Within a few weeks, it was apparent that Edmund was not cognitively delayed in the manner previously believed; the staff had merely lacked the appropriate means of communicating with him.

And so we are left with a continuation of the major questions from the last story: should human-robot interactions be considered equal to human-to-human interactions? If a child is more comfortable interacting with an electronic device instead of a human, is that just a sign that we privilege and value certain interactions over others?

It’s a question that is expounded on much more comprehensively in Lifecycle of Software Objects, but remains just as interesting a question here in our increasingly digital world. We are about to launch a multi-part series on virtual worlds tomorrow (stay tuned), but ultimately all of these questions boil down to a fundamental one: what is real?

Outside of that theme (which veers into philosophy and isn’t deeply meditated on in the couple of pages of story here), I think there are two other threads worth pulling on. The first has to do with the variability of human experience. This whole experiment begins when Lionel’s own father Reginald decides to replace a human nanny with a machine to provide a more consistent environment for his child (“It will not expose your child to disreputable influences”). Indeed, he doesn’t just want that consistency for his own child, but wants to clone the automatic nanny for all children.

Yet while Reginald feels that human nannies are defective, it is really the automatic nannies themselves that are impoverished. They lack the spontaneity and complexity of human beings, preventing the children in their care from handling a wider variety of situations and instead pushing them inward. Indeed, women (aka mothers) intuitively understand this dynamic: “The inventor [Reginald] framed his proposal as an invitation to partake in a grand scientific undertaking and was baffled that none of the women he courted found this an appealing prospect.”

And yet, human contact is precisely what drives the continued pursuit of these robots in the first place. The nanny’s original inventor, Reginald, uses it on his own son Lionel, who wants to prove their utility to the world by using it on his son Edmund. So we see a multi-generational pursuit of this dream, but that pursuit is driven by the human passion to defend the work of one’s parents and the legacy they leave behind. Human-to-human contact then becomes the key driver to prove human-to-robot contact is just as effective, debunking the very claim under consideration in the process. It’s a beautiful bit of irony.

The other thread to untangle a bit is the scientific method and how far astray it can lead us. Reginald’s creation and marketing of the device is undermined by the fact that he never really performed any real experiments on his own child to evaluate the quality of different nannies. He just makes assumptions, based on his Victorian values, and pursues them relentlessly before heading back to pure mathematics, a field where he can be at ease with his models of the universe.

In the middle of this little pattern is a common lesson: sometimes the things that are least measurable have the greatest influence on our lives. This story — like the exhibit it’s a depiction of — is a warning, about hubris and failing to listen and love.

The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling

Some questions to think about as you read the next short story, The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling:

  • What is truth? What is honesty?
  • How do the two frames — an historical one about the Tiv and the “contemporary” one about the remem technology — work together to interrogate what truth means?
  • How important is it to get the details right about a memory? Does a compelling narrative override the need for accuracy?
  • Do different cultures have different approaches to storytelling, narration, and universal truth?
  • Does constantly recording photos and videos change our perception of the world? Are they adequate representations of the truth?
  • How important is it to forget? Memories are supposed to fade with time — is this fundamentally conducive to humanity or harmful?
  • Will we fact check each other’s behavior more and more in the future? What consequences would such a future bring?

 

 


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Can we debate free will versus destiny in four pages?

00:59 | 16 February

The informal TechCrunch book club (which is now a whole week off schedule thanks to the news cycle — let’s see if we can catch up here shortly!) is now venturing into the very, very short story What’s Expected of Us, the third piece in Ted Chiang’s Exhalation collection. If you’re one of those people that fall behind in book clubs, don’t fret: you’ve had two weeks to read four pages. You can probably read the short story before finishing this post.

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the previous editions of this book club which explores the first two (larger) short stories in the collection, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, a beautiful story exploring predestination and fate, and Exhalation, a vital yet subtle story about climate change, the connections between people and society, and so, so much more.

Next, we will read the lengthier story The Lifecycle of Software Objects — some reading questions are posted at the bottom of this article.

Some further quick notes:

  • Want to join the conversation? Feel free to email me your thoughts at danny+bookclub@techcrunch.com or join some of the discussions on Reddit or Twitter.
  • Follow these informal book club articles here: https://techcrunch.com/book-review/. That page also has a built-in RSS feed for posts exclusively in the Book Review category, which is very low volume.
  • Feel free to add your comments in our TechCrunch comments section below this post.

What’s Expected of Us

We are only three stories into Exhalation, but already there are threads that are starting to connect these disparate stories, none more important than the meaning of fate in lives increasingly filled with technological determinism.

Chiang loves to presuppose these novel technologies that prove that our fates are fixed. In The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, he imagines these teleporting gates that allows users to move forward and backwards in time, while in this story, it is the Predictor that sends a light signal back in time by one second after the button is clicked, forcing the device’s user to confront the fact that the future is already predetermined when the light burns bright.

While these two stories have certain symmetries, what’s interesting to me is how different their conclusions are from each other. In The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, Chiang notes that while our destinies may be fixed, and even if we had a time machine, we couldn’t change the past to affect our futures, he essentially argues that the journey itself is often its own reward. The past may indeed be immutable, but our understanding of the past is in fact quite malleable, and learning the context of our previous actions and those of others is in many ways the whole point of existence.

In What’s Expected of Us though, the Predictor creates a dystopic world where lethargy among people runs supreme. Here’s a simple device that transmits a basic signal across a short period of time, but provides overwhelming evidence that free will is essentially a myth. For many, that’s enough for at least some people to become catatonic and just stop eating entirely.

Our occasional fiction review contributor on Extra Crunch Eliot Peper wrote in with his favorite passage and a thought, which gets at one of Chiang’s solutions:

“Pretend that you have free will. It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know they don’t. The reality isn’t important; what’s important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma. Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has.”

As science reveals a clockwork determinism behind reality’s veil, it becomes ever more important for us to believe the opposite in order to build a better future. A belief in free will is enfranchising. It is the spark of hope that inspires us to push back against the invisible systems that shape our lives — creating a chance for change.

Peper gets at the core message of this story, but frankly, self-deception isn’t easy (as any less-than-perfectly-confident startup founder who has attempted to persuade investors about their product can tell you). It’s one thing to say “pretend it all doesn’t matter,” but of course it does matter, and you intrinsically acknowledge and comprehend the deception. It’s like that self-help dreck about setting artificial deadlines to get stuff done — yet their very artificiality is precisely why they are ineffective. As Chiang writes about the Predictor, “The person may appear to lose interest in it, but no one can forget what it means; over the following weeks, the implications of an immutable future sink in.” Fate locks into our very souls.

Chiang notes though that people respond differently to this realization. Some become catatonic, but it is implied in the story that others find a different path. Of course, those paths are all laid out before the Predictor even arrived — no one can choose their destiny, even about how they will confront the knowledge of fate and destiny itself.

Yet, even without that choice, we must move on. Structurally, the story (similar again to The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate) is told retrospectively, with a future agent sending a note back in time warning about the consequences of the Predictor. Rhetorically asking whether anything would change by this note, the future agent says no, but then says that “Why did I do it? Because I had no choice.”

In other words, maybe everything is indeed predetermined. Maybe everything in our lives can’t be changed. And yet, we are still going to move forward in time, and we are still going to take the actions we are predetermined to make. Maybe that requires self-deception to muddle through it. Or maybe, we just need to vigorously commit to the actions in front of us — regardless of whether we had the ability to choose them in the first place.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects

The next short story in the collection is a bit more sprawling, touching on a huge numbers of topics around virtual worlds, the entities we raise in them, and what that means for us as humans. Here are some questions to think about as you read the story:

  • What’s it mean to love something? We understand love in the context of (human) children, but can you love an AI? Can you love an inanimate object like a statue? Is there a line when our ability to love stops?
  • What makes an entity sentient? Does it take experience delivered from others, or can sentience be constructed out of thin air?
  • Chiang sometimes fast-forwards time in a variety of different circumstances: hothouses to accelerate AI learning, and for the human characters themselves in the plot. What is the meaning of time in the context of the story? How do the concepts of time and experience interact?
  • The author touches on but doesn’t deeply explore the legal questions around “human rights” in the context of sentient AI beings. How should we think about what rights these entities have? Which characters’ views best represented your own?
  • How can we define concepts like consciousness, sentience, and independence? What elements of the story seem to indicate where Chiang defines the boundaries between those definitions?
  • One of the central under-tones of the plot is the challenge of money and the profitability of AI. Should AI be judged in terms of the utility it provides humans, or the ability of AI to create their own worlds and cultures? How do we think about “success” (very broadly conceived) in the context of what these computer programs can do?
  • How will human empathy change in the coming years as we surpass the uncanny valley and more and more technologies connect with our emotional heartstrings? Is this ultimately an evolution for humanity or just another challenge to overcome in the years ahead?

 


0

Can a time machine offer us the meaning of life?

20:35 | 22 January

We are continuing our discussion of Ted Chiang’s Exhalations. Today (and one day late thanks to the MLK holiday), I give some thoughts on the first short story of the collection, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” and kick off the discussion for the second short story of the collection, the eponymous “Exhalation.”

Previous editions of this “book club”:

Some quick notes:

  • Want to join the conversation? Feel free to email me your thoughts at danny+bookclub@techcrunch.com or join some of the discussions on Reddit or Twitter.
  • Follow these informal book club articles here. That page also has a built-in RSS feed for posts exclusively in the Book Review category, which is very low volume.
  • Feel free to add your comments in our TechCrunch comments section below this post.

Reading The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

I was electrified reading this short story. It’s one of the most obvious examples I can give on the power of re-reading the same work multiple times: what begins as a fairly open-ended and fractal plot finally comes all together in its final lines, beautifully inviting the reader to come back around a second time to understand how the various puzzle pieces fit together even better.

Structurally, Chiang has done something marvelous in such a short number of pages. He has taken the familiar trope of the time machine and has managed to create a multi-layered and non-linear narrative about fate and destiny, while also maintaining a sense of progressive plotting. There is the overarching story of the main character talking to His Majesty, but then this story is also a retrospective of multiple tales, all of which interrelate with each other directly and through their messages. Like the Gate itself, this structure is truly a masterwork of craftsmanship.

A bit aggressively, Chiang has laid on his primary theme quite thickly, with the main message of the story bottled up and exhorted in its closing pages. As Eliot Peper pulled out in the reading guide for this story, the primary passage is this:

Past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully. My journey to the past had changed nothing, but what I had learned had changed everything, and I understood that it could not have been otherwise. If our lives are tales that Allah tells, then we are the audience as well as the players, and it is by living these tales that we receive their lessons.

What Chiang is exploring is the definition of a “lived” existence. It’s one thing to go through the motions and do our work every day, connecting with friends along the way. It is quite something else to understand how our actions affect the world around us, and to viscerally begin to comprehend exactly what our actions mean to us and to others.

In this way, the theme reminds me a bit of the arch-plot of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, in which the actions of a character in one era have reverberations down through the years. Notes taken by an explorer get read by someone decades later and changes their life, and so we have these chaos/butterfly effect moments where even slight intentions can have long-term historical ramifications.

Chiang is saying something more taut: we aren’t just performing for a future audience — we are actually performing for ourselves, and sometimes for ourselves in the past. We are in fact sending a message back in time. I thought that the Gate, and the fact that it allows people to both travel to the future and to the past, creates this interesting connection. While it is a linear time impossibility that our future destinies are performing for us today, the message behind the theme I think has deep resonance.

At multiple times throughout the story, characters withhold crucial details from themselves in order to heighten the experience of living. Chiang writes, “In pursuing the boy, with no hint of whether he’d succeed or fail, he had felt his blood surge in a way it had not in many weeks.” Knowing the actual surprises of daily life comes with it its own reward, even as further rewards are acquired as we understand the meaning and lessons of how we react in such moments.

Within the TechCrunch world, we talk about startups and the future all the time. There is incredible ambiguity in the work that founders and venture capitalists do every day. Will this decision lead to the right outcome? Am I investing in the right company in the space? Why won’t someone just give me the right answer?

But Chiang is getting to something insightful, which is that the ambiguity in many ways is the definition of living. If we already knew the answer, then what is the point? It’s the satisfaction of acting a certain way at a certain time — even if it may well be fixed in advance — that ultimately provides meaning to our lives. Half the “fun” (and it isn’t fun, is it?) of being an entrepreneur is simply not knowing the answers in the first place.

Finally, I want to point out something that Chiang does better than almost any startup founder, and that is his introduction of the Gate itself. Chiang brilliantly enthralls the reader with this new technology, without ever having to explain in minute detail how the thing works or its patterns.

By having Bashaarat wave his hands through the gate, he visually demonstrates the technology for both the narrator and for us as readers, even while the complexity of the device becomes more apparent over the coming pages. The device (both plot and technology) is explained so naturally and progressively that we never have to stop to think — it’s purpose just comes organically. If only more startup pitches were like this!

All together then, the short story manages to weave a discussion of fate, destiny, truth, ambiguity, and the meaning of existence into a handful of pages based around a small tech device that really is just a backdrop to a deeper human tale. If this isn’t science fiction at its finest, I don’t know what is.

Thank you to Gio, Eliot, Joanna, Justin, Veronica, Bruce, Damion, and Scott who sent me emails related to this short story. Will try to include more reader comments in future editions.

Reading guide to Exhalations

We will read the next short story in the collection, Exhalations, for next week (targeting Tuesday January 28th). Here are some questions to think about as you read and enjoy the story:

  • How does Chiang think about connections, both between individuals, and also between civilizations?
  • What do the various metaphors in the story (air, copper, gold, etc.) mean? Why did he choose these specific metaphors?
  • Chiang chooses this extensive metaphor of the body as machine. Why? What purpose does considering our bodies this way have for the story?
  • The story dwells on memory and death. What message is the author sending about what it means to experience something?
  • This story would seemingly connect with several major global issues today. What are those connections, and how does Chiang try to navigate the controversies of them in this short story?
  • Is the story ultimately hopeful or sad? What emotions resonate for you in this story?

If you have feedback or thoughts you would like me to include, please feel free to email me at danny+bookclub@techcrunch.com.

 


0

Week in Review: Forget cord cutting, here comes the stream slashing

00:45 | 19 January

Hey everyone, welcome back to Week in Review where I dive deep into a bit of news from the week or just share some thoughts and go over some of the more interesting stories of the week.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox here, and follow my tweets here.


The big story

“Cord cutting” might still be a major trend for those walking away from cable subscriptions in favor of online streaming services, but the world of online subscription TV is nearly saturated and as 2020 prepares to inundate us with more services, it’s likely growing time for consumers to stop adding services and start prioritizing.

NBCUniversal delivered some more details this week on its Peacock network and earlier this month we heard more about the mobile-only streaming network Quibi . These launches will come along in the spring, arriving just months after the high-profile launches on Apple TV+ and Disney+. Adding four high-spend streaming platforms in a short time frame could rattle the cages of consumers that have been bumbling along with only a couple streaming service subscriptions.

NBCUniversal’s Peacock seems to walk the line between both worlds, leveraging Comcast subscribers without seeming to invest heavily in original content for the service. Their strategy is pinned on the attractiveness of their existing content library which they’re promoting heavily on both free and paid plans. There could be something here, it feels like a marked return to the early Hulu playbook, which could very well be played out.

I still don’t know what to think of Quibi. They are dropping plenty of cash but spending your way into building a Gen Z network seems like a tall order. They’ve already nabbed a big partnership with T Mobile which seems promising when considering their broader industry adoption and yet it still seems like Snapchat Discover Prime. I’ll withhold judgment until launch but other mobile-first video networks have had less than stellar receptions.

Side note: At this point in the streaming video product life cycle, I would imagine cracking down on password-sharing is going to start being a more attractive option for streaming service operators.

We’ll see how this all shakes out, but it’s getting crowded.

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context:

  • Visa buys Plaid for $5.2 billion
    The biggest acquisition of the week was the very bold purchase of Plaid by Visa. Visa paid up double the banking API startup’s last private valuation. Read more here.
  • Google acquires Pointy
    Google has announced a couple deals in the past few weeks. This week, we heard that they had acquired the Dublin startup Pointy, which builds hardware and software to help physical retailers track product inventory levels. Read more about it in our coverage.
  • Alphabet is a $1 trillion company
    In the current age of big tech, there’s an elite club for public companies worth more than $1 trillion in market cap. This week, Alphabet joined its ranks. Read more here.

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription business had another great week of content. My colleague Darrell Etherington talked a bit about the next frontier of early-stage space investments.

Space Angels’ Chad Anderson on entering a new decade in the ‘entrepreneurial space age’

“Space as an investment target is trending upwards in the VC community, but specialist firm Space Angels has been focused on the sector longer than most. The network of angel investors just published its most recent quarterly overview of activity in the space startup industry, revealing that investors put nearly $6 billion in capital into space companies across 2019.…”

Sign up for more newsletters, including my colleague Darrell Etherington’s new space-focused newsletter Max Q, here.

 


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Join us for the TechCrunch 2020 book club, starting next week

22:15 | 7 January

It’s a new year, a new decade, and a renewed opportunity to read great non-fiction and fiction that strikes at the heart of the ambition, power, and challenges of technology and its effect on society at large.

That’s why TechCrunch is launching an informal “book club” for our readers, starting next week. The idea is to bring our audience together around an important piece of writing, discuss it, and perhaps learn a thing or two (or just enjoy great writing). This is a beta test — we are going to figure out the logistics a bit along the way (“move fast and read things”).

Late last year, we published three different best-books-of-the-year lists, with recommendations from our own TechCrunch writers, Extra Crunch readers, and leading venture capitalists.

I’m borrowing from Josh Wolfe at Lux Capital to select Exhalations by Ted Chiang as our first book.

As Arman Tabatabai wrote in our overview:

Chiang’s newest work is a collection of science fiction short stories and novelettes that stray away from the speculative dystopian side of the genre. Using common sci-fi motifs such as aliens and AI proliferation, the selected writings instead dial-in on the characters living in these imagined universes as they examine how societal and technological evolutions impact the ethical, philosophical and cognitive aspects of the human psyche and existence.

Exhalations has not only been lauded by the likes of VCs, but was also selected as a top 10 book of the year by The New York Times for 2019.

For next week, we will start slowly and just read the first short story in the collection, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.” There are nine chapters in Exhalations, some very short, some longer, and we will balance out the reading over the next 4-6 weeks or so.

Each week, we will read a story or two from the book, and I will curate responses from any reader that wants to email me their thoughts about what they just read for a post on Tuesday (email: danny+bookclub@techcrunch.com). TechCrunch has discussion comments available on our posts, so we can continue the conversation there as well.

Join us! And if you have feedback on this concept, feel free to email me at danny@techcrunch.com.

 


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Week in Review: Selling out in the Instagram age

17:45 | 5 January

Hey everyone, happy 2020. Welcome back to Week in Review where I dive deep into a bit of news from the week or just share some thoughts and go over some of the more interesting stories of the week.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox here, and follow my tweets here.


The big story

Dip a toe into the world of influencers and as you click through Instagram stories, and you’ll see that peddling endorsements for bizarre products is an essential part of the new influencer economy. What’s interesting isn’t that these (often) self-made influencers looking to leverage their fame to and monetize themselves with sponsorship deals, it’s how low the expectations are of their followers and fans when it comes to advertising suspect products.

The age of fanbases considering a celebrity a sellout after hocking junk in commercial appearances is far, far gone. Follower exploitation isn’t even questioned, something that grows less funny when you realize how young most of the fans are of some of these figures.

As you click through actual online influencers with 10 million+ followers advertising weight-loss supplements, juice cleanses and knockoff AirPods, you might be wondering where the bar is and whether it can go any lower. Followers don’t really seem to care for a lot of reasons, but one intriguing thought is that as social media platforms have made fame seem more accessible, user empathy for internet stars has increased and people understand that these figures are just looking for their payday.

Ultimately, high art and capitalism have also never been closer and when you look at the relationship between brand endorsements and some of the top visual artists and musicians, it’s not surprising that those that occupy lesser rungs on the fame ladder don’t mind hocking lesser products. This great piece in The Atlantic by Taylor Lorenz from 2018 reported on how teens were acting like they were selling ads as a way to lend themselves credibility. The “coolness” of advertising has only seemed to accelerate.

It’s clear that the influencer economy has shaped popular culture in ways that make a backlash to influencers “selling out” seem nearly impossible at this point in time. After all, if sticking your name on products that literally contain poison doesn’t dampen your charm, what will?

Evan Spiegel SnapDSC04084

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context:

  • Snap buys up an AI startup
    This week, TechCrunch reported that Snapchat had bought up a Ukrainian AI startup to build its latest Cameo feature. The $166 million acquisition is a significant purchase for the social media company which spent the bulk of 2019 getting back to basics.
  • Former HBO boss joins up with Apple
    Former HBO exec Richard Plepler has signed an exclusive deal with Apple for his new production company, a move that’s sure to make waves in the entertainment space but could also shift how Apple spends its behemoth original content budgets.

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription business had another great week of content. My colleague Josh Constine started a series with advice for getting your startup press coverage.

Finding the right reporter to cover your startup

Pitch the wrong reporter or publication, and your story won’t see the light of day.

Before you start seeking press, you’ll need to look for reporters who have reach, respect and expertise when you choose who to talk to. You’ll also need to be prepared to accept the truth about your business, even if it hurts. It’s critical that you find a writer who’s a good fit for the business you’re building and the audience you’re seeking…”

Sign up for more newsletters, including my colleague Darrell Etherington’s new space-focused newsletter Max Q, here.

 


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This new wireless charger from Zens nearly fulfills the promise of Apple’s AirPower

16:37 | 3 January

Apple’s cancellation of its AirPower wireless charging mat was one of the company’s few big public flubs, but the concept behind the cancelled product remains attractive: A wireless charging pad that supports multiple devices, and that isn’t picky about how you set down your device in order to make a connection. Wireless charging accessory maker Zens has actually created such a device with the Liberty Wireless Charger, and while it doesn’t offer everything that AirPower claimed to be able to do, it’s a big step up from current wireless chargers and a a great companion for iPhone, AirPods and Apple Watch.

Coils, coils coils

The Zens Liberty is special because of how it uses the wireless charging coils that are responsible for the charging ability of any wireless chargers – wound circular loops of copper cable that provide the induction power received by devices like the latest iPhones and AirPods charging case. Zens has stacked 16 such coils in an overlapping array – which, conveniently, you can see in pretty much full detail in the transparent glass edition charger that’s available today alongside the fabric-covered version.

These overlapping coils are the key to the unique abilities of the Zens Liberty: Specifically, their arrangement means you can place your devices down in basically any orientation and they’ll begin charging right away. Most charging pads, by comparison, have one, two or sometimes three coils placed in specific locations, meaning you have to make sure your device is properly situated above one to actually get it to start charging. If you’ve been using wireless chargers for any length of time, you’ve probably had the unfortunate opportunity to get this orientation match-up wrong, resulting in a phone that didn’t charge at all when you wake up the next morning.

Zens’ Liberty does indeed solve this annoyance, and I found I was able to put devices down basically however I wanted them and have them charge up.

Flexible seating for two

Up to two Qi-compatible devices can be charged at once, and they’ll each work with up to 15w of power, which is at the top end of what any current devices support. I tested it out with Android phones, iPhones and AirPods (plus AirPods Pro) and found that all worked without issue and basically however I wanted to lay them across the surface. The caveats here are that you should think of the areas around the edges of the charger as basically non-active, so stay around an inch in from the outer surface and you should be fine.

This flexibility may not seem like much (why not just pay attention when you’re putting your devices on a more traditional charger?) but it actually is a very nice convenience. Just that small assurance that you can easily put your device down on the Liberty’s generous surface and not worry too much about checking whether a connection was actually made is a big relief, when you charge a device as much as you do your iPhone or your AirPods.

Apple Watch, too

The Zens Liberty can’t charge the Apple Watch on the pad, the way that Apple had advertised the cancelled AirPower would’ve been able to. But with an accessory, the pad can become a truly all-in one charging station for your mobile Apple kit, Watch included. An officially supported Apple Watch charger with a USB A connector on one end is an add-on option that Zens offers, and it conveniently slots right into a USB port present on the Zens Liberty (and protected/hidden by a rubber flap when not in use).

This port actually supports any kind of USB powered device, so you can also use it with a cable to charge another gadget, like an iPad for instance. But it’s perfectly designed for the new Zens Apple Watch charger accessory, which comes with a little plastic shelf that snaps in to support your Watch when it’s charging. It provides just the right angle for Apple Watch’s Nightstand mode, and is a necessary addition for anyone looking for an all-in one solution.

Bottom line

The Zens Liberty is the best all-around charging option available currently, based on my testing so far. It’s also powered by an included 60w USB-C charger, which comes with two international plug adapters that makes it a great travel brick for other devices, too. That means you can also use standard USB-C power bricks with it, too, rather than requiring some kind of proprietary power adapter.

There are some downsides to keep in mind, however: You should realize that this is a big charger, for instance. That’s good in that it supports multiple devices easily, but it’s also going to take up more space than your average wireless charger. It’s also thick, which allows for the stacked coils and cooling system (this is the only wireless charger I’ve used that has clear and obvious vents, for instance).

That said, the Zens Liberty makes good on the true promise of wireless charging, which is convenience and flexibility. And it’s well-designed and aesthetically attractive, in both the fabric-covered and striking transparent glass designs. Zens is now accepting pre-orders for these, with shipping starting sometime this month, and the standard fabric version retails for 139.99 ($155 USD) while the glass edition is €179.99 ($199 USD), and the Apple Watch USB stick sells for €39.99 ($44.50 USD).

 


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These ten enterprise M&A deals totaled over $40B in 2019

00:00 | 2 January

It would be hard to top the 2018 enterprise M&A total of a whopping $87 billion, and predictably this year didn’t come close. In fact, the top 10 enterprise M&A deals in 2019 were less than half last year’s, totaling $40.6 billion.

This year’s biggest purchase was Salesforce buying Tableau for $15.7 billion, which would have been good for third place last year behind IBM’s mega deal plucking Red Hat for $34 billion and Broadcom grabbing CA Technologies for $18.8 billion.

Contributing to this year’s quieter activity was the fact that several typically acquisitive companies — Adobe, Oracle and IBM — stayed mostly on the sidelines after big investments last year. It’s not unusual for companies to take a go-slow approach after a big expenditure year. Adobe and Oracle bought just two companies each with neither revealing the prices. IBM didn’t buy any.

Microsoft didn’t show up on this year’s list either, but still managed to pick up eight new companies. It was just that none was large enough to make the list (or even for them to publicly reveal the prices). When a publicly traded company doesn’t reveal the price, it usually means that it didn’t reach the threshold of being material to the company’s results.

As always, just because you buy it doesn’t mean it’s always going to integrate smoothly or well, and we won’t know about the success or failure of these transactions for some years to come. For now, we can only look at the deals themselves.

 


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Week in Review: Apple’s rebirth as a content company has a forgettable debut

16:00 | 1 December

Hey everyone. Thank you for welcoming me into you inboxes yet again.

Hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. After dodging your inboxes for a couple weeks as I ventured off to China for a TechCrunch event in Shenzhen, I am rested up and ready to go.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox here, and follow my tweets here.


The big story

When Apple announced details on their three new subscription products (Apple TV+, Apple Arcade and Apple News+ — all of which are now live) back in March, the headlines that followed all described accurately how Apple’s business was increasingly shifting away from hardware towards services and how the future of the company may lie in these subscription businesses.

I largely accepted those headlines as fact, but one thing I have been thinking an awful lot about this week is how much I have loved Disney+ since signing up for an account and just how little I have thought about Apple TV+ despite signing up for both at their launches.

It’s admittedly not the fairest of comparisons, Disney has decades of classic content behind them while Apple is pushing out weekly updates to a few mostly meh TV shows. But no one was begging Apple to get into television. The company’s desires to diversify and own subscriptions that consumers have on their Apple devices certainly make sense for them, but their strategy of making that play without the help of any beloved series before them seems to have been a big miscalculation.

At TechCrunch, we write an awful lot about acquisitions worth hundreds of million, if not billions, of dollars. Some of the acquisitions that have intrigued me the most have been in the content space. Streaming networks are plunking down historic sums on series like Seinfeld, Friends and The Big Bang Theory. The buyers have differed throughout these deals, but they have never been Apple.

That’s because Apple isn’t bidding on history, they’re trying to nab directors and actors creating the series that will be the next hits. And while that sounds very Apple, it also sounds like a product that’s an awfully big gamble to the average consumer looking to try out a new streaming service. Why pick the service that’s starting from a standstill? Apple has ordered plenty of series and I have few doubts that at least one of the shows they plan to introduce is going to be a hit, but there isn’t much in the way of an early favorite yet and for subscribers that haven’t found “the one” yet, there’s very little reason to stick around.

Apple tv plus tv app 091019

Other networks with a half-dozen major series can afford a few flops because there’s a library of classics that’s filling up the dead space. Apple’s strategy is bold but is going to lead to awfully high churn among consumers that won’t be as forgiving of bad bets. This is an issue that’s sure to become less pronounced over time, but I would bet there will be quite a few consumers unsubscribing in the mean time leaving those on freebie subscriptions responsible for gauging which new shows are top notch.

Apple has also made the weird move of not housing their content inside an app so much as the Apple TV’s alternative UI inside the TV app. One one hand, this makes the lack of content less visible, but it also pushes all of the original series to the back of your mind. If you’re a Netflix user who has been subconsciously trained never to use the TV app on your Apple TV because none of their content is housed there, you’re really left forgetting about TV+ shows entirely when using the traditional app layout.

We haven’t received any super early numbers on Apple News+, Apple Arcade or Apple TV+, but none of the three appears to have made the sizable cultural splashes in their debuts that were hoped for at launch. Apple’s biggest bet of the three was undoubtedly TV+ and while their first series haven’t seemed to drop any jaws, what’s more concerning is whether the fundamentals of the service have been arranged so that unsatisfied subscribers feel any need to stick around.

Send me feedback
on Twitter 
 or email
lucas@techcrunch.com

On to the rest of the week’s news.

Image via AMY OSBORNE/AFP/Getty Images

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context:

  • Facebook buys a game studio building Light saber Fruit Ninja
    One of the things I wrote about this week was Facebook buying the game studio behind one of virtual reality’s most popular titles, Beat Saber. No details on a price tag for the deal, but the buy brings the hop IP underneath Facebook’s corporate umbrella which seems poised to be eying more VR content acquisitions.
  • Twitter plans for account memorials
    Almost any time Twitter decides to make a big product change, one gets the feeling it was either snuck through or brute-forced by the CEO or another exec. That’s because there often doesn’t seem to be a lot of consideration for caveats that users seem to collectively identify almost immediately. This week was time for another one of these situations, after Twitter announced it was planning to deactivate old unused Twitter accounts en masse, something users realized was just going to lead to deactivating deceased people’s accounts and erasing what they had ever tweeted. Twitter, to their credit, decided to pause and rethink things.

GAFA Gaffes

How did the top tech companies screw up this week? This clearly needs its own section, in order of badness:

  1. Google appears to bring the hammer down on activism:
    [Google employee activist says she has been fired]

Disrupt Berlin

DISRUPT SF 530X350 V2 berlin

It’s hard to believe it’s already that time of the year again, but we just announced the agenda for Disrupt Berlin and we’ve got some all-stars making their way to the stage. I’ll be there this year, get some tickets and come say hey!

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