A fortnightly miscellany of science, technology, snow cyborgs, and good news. Not necessarily in that order.
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The Crunch # 56

Facts aren't dead. Yet. Plus, the face of China's cyberpunk movement, big news for microbiome research, and good news on Cape Town, the Amazon, and Indian beaches. 

It’s been a year since “post-truth” was announced as Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries, but the sentiment continues to resonate throughout the world, and in particular, in English speaking countries. The Anglo-Saxon media sphere is still in the throes of a sustained collective freakout. Every day, our journalists wonder out loud whether the facts are still sacred, worry that shady foreign entities are manipulating political debate, and fret that Facebook has left the outrage level permanently dialled up to 10. Orwell and Huxley it seems, were right all along.  

Bear in mind, this has all come off the back of a sustained period of unprecedented disruption to the world of news. For half a century, global media empires were built off a stable and very lucrative business model. You captured a mass audience through a combination of radio, television or print, charged advertisers for the privilege of speaking to them (without the audience's consent), and spent long hours over awards dinners congratulating yourselves for being the moral conscience of the free world. 

And then the internet arrived, and in the space of 20 years we went from classified ads and predictable cashflows, to paywalls, fake news, pivot-to-video, The News Feed and anchors reading prepared speeches on local television stations. Is it any wonder many journalists and large sections of the news media have been left reeling? The internet sucked all the oxygen out of the old ecosystem and once the tide receded, a bunch of old, big white fish were left lying on the beach gasping for air. The old revenue streams dried up. Advertising spend was swallowed by the new tech platforms, who became the new masters of content, and everyone was left playing catchup. 

The internet however, did far more than disrupt traditional media business models. As Branko Milanovic points out (in one of our favourite articles of 2018) the internet levelled the playing field for control over the narrative. In the good old days he argues, a relatively small number of gatekeepers determined what was reported, about whom and when. From the 1950s through to the mid 1990s, the Western media had no competitors, which meant they were able to operate largely uncontested in their own countries, as well as abroad. That gave editors incredible control over what people thought not just in the Anglo Saxon countries, but around the world. They had a monopoly, and they weren't afraid to use it. 

The honeymoon ended abruptly once the 'others' realised that they too could go global. First came Al Jazeera, and then state-sponsored news channels in Turkey, Russia, China and Latin America. Then came a shared, online media space and with it came blogs, cheap websites, Twitter, cameras on phones, Youtube, social media, Facebook, Reddit, and podcasts. In the space of a few years, the range of opinions available to the average person exploded, and that meant that people could suddenly choose their own news adventure. Confirmation bias, it turns out, is a hell of a drug - and the pharmacy was suddenly open for business.

That, says Milanovic, is why we are now going through a phase of hysterical reaction to fake news. It's the first time that Western media outlets have had to compete for the narrative not only on the global stage, but also at home. They've received a very rude shock; since when do foreigners get to tell you what's happening in your own backyard? (the rest of the world of course, has been dealing with that problem for decades). It's been a double whammy. The internet destroyed their business models, and globalisation destroyed their monopoly of the narrative. As we all know, the biggest kids cry the hardest when you take their toys away. 

Does that mean fact-based journalism is dead?

Should we all just give up, and resign ourselves to some kind of endless Foucaldian nightmare? Well, no. Bear in mind that the people writing about the end of journalism and the death of truth tend to be the same ones who lost their steady jobs at established news organisations. The complaints of the incumbents are predictable (and they've still got big loudspeakers). It's what happens every time we invent a new technology medium. The monks complained about the printing presses, the publishing houses complained about cheap daily newspapers, the wireless scared everyone into thinking that the Martians were coming, televisions destroyed an entire MTV generation, the internet blew up media and the smartphone ruined the teenagers. Apparently.

Sure, there's a lot less traditional, old-fashioned journalism. But what's left is better quality. Those English speaking newspapers that were quick and nimble enough to move into the modern era are seeing new opportunities open up. Following the tumult of the search and social media years, most of them have now settled on a new business model - digital subscriptions. Many, such as the New York Times, The Guardian, The Times and The Wall Street Journal have newly reliable revenue streams, and renewed journalistic independence, allowing them to continue to produce quality reporting. They're entering the most exciting period of digital journalism yet, the stories as a service era, where journalism is paid for not by the advertisers, but by readers, for readers.

Fact based reporting is also still very much alive. People aren't stupid. They're able to separate bias from bullshit. In Europe for example, trust levels in written, broadcast and radio media have increased in the last five years. In the United States, the most trusted publications, in order, are The Economist, public television, Reuters, the BBC, National Public Radio, The Guardian and the Wall Street Journal. Here in Australia, trust in traditional news media and journalism has rebounded from 46% in 2017 to 61% in 2018. And according to Edelman’s “Trust Barometer 2018,” there has been an overall global increase in trust in traditional media, reaching levels not seen since 2012. 

There are also incredible new mediums made available by the digital revolution, and they're breathing new life not just into English language journalism, but to journalism around the world. Independent journalists have found new, niche audiences via email newsletters, Youtube, Twitter, podcasts, and new blogging platforms such as Medium. This newsletter is a case in point. There's been an explosion of new, high quality online publications in every imaginable field (if you're science junkies like us, the past few years alone have given us Nautilus, Aeon, Undark, and Quanta). The same is true for almost any field of your choice. If diversity is the sign of a healthy ecosystem then it's looking pretty good out there. Or, as we're fond of reminding our friends, "if you're tired of Facebook, why not try the internet instead?" 


The next time someone starts lamenting the death of truth at a dinner party, challenge them to donate or subscribe to good quality journalism. If you need some inspiration, check out the finalists from the most recent Shining Light Awards for investigative journalism around the world. If you're in the United States, consider supporting the amazing work being done by ProPublica and the Centre for Public Integrity, both winners of Pulitzer Prizes in recent years. If you're a lefty snowflake then how about finally giving in to the endless pleas from The Guardian? Their reporting on the Panama Papers and Mossack Fonseca are surely worth a few dollars a month alone. South African subscribers, you all owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the amaBhungane. Perhaps it's time to consider how much their impact on the future of the country is worth to you?

To all our readers from other countries, consider this an invitation to do some of your own research and finally put down a few dollars a month on supporting quality journalism. The best things in life aren't free. But they're pretty cheap. 

Good news you probably didn't hear about

Portugal generated enough renewable energy to power the entire country in March, and the government has also just suspended all fossil fuel subsidies. C'mon Australia. Quartz

More bad news for fossil fuels. New Zealand just banned new oil and gas exploration, and only half of the United States' coal plants earned enough to cover their costs last year.

Around the world, the number of people dying due to insufficient calorie or protein intake has fallen from almost half a million in the 1990s to roughly 300,000 today. OurWorldinData

The global media went into a frenzy over Cape Town's water shortages and Day Zero. Strangely, nobody is reporting how the Mother City successfully averted the crisis. apolitical

A cryptocurrency startup just funded all 35,647 open projects on public school crowd-funding platform, reaching more than 16,500 schools in the US. Fast

A new report says that, thanks to shifting tastes amongst millenials, 70% of the world's population is reducing meat consumption or leaving meat off the table altogether. Forbes

Four years after imposing a 5p levy, the United Kingdom has used 9 billion fewer plastic bags, and the number being found on the seabed has plummeted. Independent

Colombia has been ordered by its courts to protect the Amazon, in Indonesia they're cleaning up the world's dirtiest river, and in Mumbai, turtles are returning to the beaches.

Indistinguishable from magic

Scientists in Antarctica have harvested their first crop of vegetables grown without soil or sunlight. Eventual goal? Growing food for astronauts on other planets. Quartz

A drone delivery company now manages 20% of rural Rwanda's blood supply, has flown more than 300,000km, and has carried more than 7,000 units of blood. IEEE

A neural network in Germany has digested all 12.4 million chemical reactions known to humanity, and the resulting insights will likely transform the field of chemistry. Nature

Check out these exoskeletons for snow skiing that absorb shock, provide support and "make you look like a crazy cyborg sent back from the future to punish snow." TechCrunch

In the UK, the NHS has given the green light to the first medically certified 3D printed bionic arm. Adjustable, breathable, can lift 8kg, and on sale from the 29th of April. 3dprint

The diversity of a person’s microbiome helps determine their response to cancer therapies. Clinical trials are now underway to alter patients' gut bacteria to improve treatment. STAT

Korean researchers have used a brain implant to steer a mouse through a maze, obeying human navigation commands while ignoring basic impulses like sex and food. IEEE

The information superhighway is still awesome

Naomi Wu is a Shenzhen maker, Youtube celebrity and the face of China's cyberpunk movement, and she's waging an online war to get Vice to take this profile of her down. 

The problem with capitalism is that we used the productivity gains to create useless jobs. David Graeber's seminal 2013 essay feels more relevant today than ever. Strike

Eat your heart out Wakanda. Yennenga was an African warrior princess who lived 900 years ago, known for her horse-riding skills, and bravery on the battlefield. Design Indaba

Still wondering who the next global superpower is going to be? Check out this new library in China that's straight out of a Kim Stanley Robinson novel. Bored Panda

Don't worry, if you need reasons to feel hopeful about the outgoing superpower, here are 50 US citizens with the boldest, most ambitious solutions to 21st century challenges. Grist

If you're at all interested in healthcare you really need to watch The Code, a three-part mini doco from the outstanding folks at STAT exploring the roots of the genetic revolution. 

Our favourite old grouchy technology druid, Warren Ellis, has just introduced us to the amazing Lot2046, as well as this lovely little hacker's manifesto, from Vadik Marmeladov.

WARNING - language alert (sorry everyone, it wasn't us this time!)
  1. Think long term (like 30 years from now)
  2. Build stories and languages, not things
  3. Create your own universe (or join ours)
  4. Collect samples
  5. Be a sample for somebody else 
  6. Look for loyalty, not for a skill set
  7. Do not build utilitarian products. However, use them as a medium to express yourself
  8. Do not exploit introverts — doesn't work long term. Learn to be an introvert yourself 
  9. Travel more
  10. Do not work for corporations. Old corporations were meaningful when their founders were alive, but now, they have outlived their relevancy. They exist only to keep their numbers growing
  11. New corporations are no better. They have scaled up features, and today’s founders want hyper-growth for growth’s sake (it seems like every line of code, every feature deserves its own corporation — it sure doesn't)
  12. So, fuck the corporations
  13. Tell the truth (bullshit never works long term)
  14. Study and research fashion
  15. Your phone is a temporary feature — don’t spend your life on it (like you wouldn’t spend it on a fax machine)
  16. Fuck likes, followers, fake lives, fake friends
  17. Remake your environment. Build it for yourself, and people will come 
  18. Only trust those who make things you love
  19. Move to LA 
  20. Don’t buy property
  21. Don’t go to Mars (just yet)
  22. Use only one font, just a few colors, and just a few shapes
  23. Use spreadsheets, but only to map out 30 cells — one for each year of the rest of your life
  24. The next three are the most important
  25. The past doesn’t exist — don’t get stuck in it
  26. Don’t go to Silicon Valley (it’s not for you if you’re still reading this)
  27. Remind yourself daily: you and everyone you know will die
  28. We must build the most beautiful things
  29. We are 2046 kids

Meanwhile, back at Future Crunch HQ...

If you've never seen one of our shows, then listen up.

We've been asked by the City of Melbourne to come up with a brand new talk for the opening of Melbourne Knowledge Week. We're calling it Know Next Now, and tickets have just been released. We're doing one night only, on Monday 7th May at 7pm at the Meat Market in North Melbourne. And straight after us there's an opening party featuring indigenous techno crew, Tongberang'i Ngarrga. That's right... we're going to find out what happens when the Kulin Nation is celebrated via electronic music. 


We're going big on this one, collaborating with resident musical philosopher Will Tait, calling in our production and lighting friends, and using some of our greatest hits to tell a new story about human knowledge. It's a story about the future of Melbourne (and the planet) that you’ve never heard before. We know the challenges we face here, and around the world. Know Next Now shows how – with boldness, optimism and revolutionary technologies that build on 80,000 years of human ingenuity – we are rising to meet them.

Another fortnight, another newsletter. Thanks for hanging in there, hope you're all doing your best to keep on keeping on. 

If you feel like you're getting value from us, and you think our newsletter is worth at least worth the price of a bottle of water, then please head on over to our Patreon. Remember, like we said, the best things in life aren't free, they're just really cheap. And if you don't feel this was worth $2, well then perhaps you'd consider doing us a favour instead, and tell a friend to subscribe right here

Much love,

Gus and Tane
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