I trust by now we’ve all seen and been at least a little disturbed by The Selfish Ledger, the nearly 9-minute-long concept video from inside Google’s “moonshot factory” X labs. In the wake of it becoming public this week, Google quickly disavowed the video, claiming it was just a thought experiment “not related to any current or future products.” And yet, the company’s patent applications exhibit a mode of thinking that runs at least in parallel, if not on the exact same tracks, as The Selfish Ledger’s total data collection proposal.
A reader pointed me in the direction of a Google patent application from 2015, made public last year, titled “Detecting and correcting potential errors in user behavior.” A core part of the Selfish Ledger concept can be defined in very similar terms: its premise, on the individual level, is to help users with self-improvement and behavior modification.
In all honesty, the idea described in this patent document sounds all kinds of helpful. It proposes a system wherein your device would use information Google already collects — such as travel itineraries from your email inbox — and act on that knowledge if it detects you’re going astray. So if, like me on at least one occasion, you start heading to the wrong airport, your phone would be smart enough to notify you that you’re going the wrong way.
In order to make itself useful, however, your phone would require rather intimate knowledge of your life. Beside knowing your plans in advance, it has to also know your usual driving or commuting patterns, and it needs to be aware of your current location and activity in order to determine whether it’s in alignment with the earlier-indicated plan. This is the eternal dichotomy of Google’s services: they are genuinely useful and they do help, but how much of your privacy are you willing to give away to Google for the sake of that convenience?
Another Google patent application, also from 2015 and public since last year, is titled “Guided purchasing via smartphone.” This one is an automatic shopping assistant, which kicks in when it detects that you’re looking at a product that the system may be able to help you to buy. Say you’re browsing through the latest sneakers on High Snobiety or The Verge’s phone reviews. That’s when the system would offer to guide you through a purchasing process that has you select product type, features, model, and merchant.
To provide users with the correct guidance to complete a purchase, the proposed system would use information it has gained from previous users who had performed the required task sequence. To quote, it would “determine an order for the tasks within the associated sequence of tasks based at least in part on information gathered from consumers who have performed some or all of the tasks in the associated sequence of tasks.” Is this sounding like The Selfish Ledger yet?
One of the secondary claims in this “guided purchasing” patent application inserts advertisers into the final stages of the purchasing process. Specifically, Google would collect bids from companies wanting to have their products surfaced on specific product searches within this system. In this respect, the patent application departs from the highfalutin Brave New World aspects of The Selfish Ledger and gets right back to what makes money for Google: creating new services that help advertisers better flaunt their goods.
The thing that has most stood out to me, in witnessing the strongly negative reaction to The Selfish Ledger, has been how few people truly understand the extent of data collection that Google already engages in. The Selfish Ledger is not a radical departure from Google’s practices of today, it’s just a conceptual video taking them to their logical extreme.
Look out world, Coca-Cola is introducing beverages to Bluetooth.
On Friday, the company announced its brand new soda machine, the Coca-Cola Freestyle 9100, which will utilize Bluetooth connectivity to allow users connect via the Freestyle mobile app.
Remember how Coca-Cola Freestyle brought its innovative touch screen soda machines — stocked with close to 200 drink options — to eateries, college campuses, and other beverage-loving establishments in 2009? Well, things have really taken off since then.
According to the company, “more than 50,000 Coca-Cola Freestyle units pour 14 million drinks per day” around the world, so they figured it was time to take the innovation to the next level.
In the future, not only will people be able to concoct their own beverages, but they can use the Freestyle app to connect to the machine with Bluetooth, create a mix via their mobile devices, and ensure it’s ready to pour ASAP.
“Choice and customization are not fads – they’re here to stay,” Chris Hellmann, Freestyle’s VP general manager, said in a statement. “So we’re focused on making sure the Coca-Cola Freestyle platform stays current and contemporary and that we continue to offer more beverages people want.”
“We’ve built features into this dispenser that are not only contemporary for today,” Hellmann went on. “We’ve also future-proofed the platform with not-yet-activated features like audio capability, optical sensors and a new equipment option that will eventually support the addition of drink categories not available on Freestyle today, such as teas, cold coffees and new varieties of juices.”
The Coca-Cola Freestyle 9100 will reportedly be unveiled at the National Restaurant Association (NRA) tradeshow in Chicago this weekend. The company hopes to roll out the snazzy new machine nationally in 2019, and also has plans to implement a new Freestyle operating system across all existing machines.
With the season of graduations underway, the new grads in your life are preparing for life in the real world. If you’re looking for a gift for a new grad, The Verge put together a convenient Graduation Gift Guide with ideas ranging from practical (a financial planner) to fun (a Nintendo Switch). If you’re looking for something in between, a nice pair of wireless headphones or a new laptop is sure to make both the graduate and their parents happy.
Best Buy is running an Apple Shopping Event with savings of up to $200 on MacBooks, iPads, Apple TVs, and more. The landing page includes full-price items as well as discounted items, which is probably why it’s labeled as an “event” instead of a sale, but you can still find some pretty great deals without having to dig too hard. College students can save up to an additional $50 off by signing up for Best Buy’s free Student Deals program.
Best Buy Apple Sale
Computers and Accessories
Looking for gaming deals? Check out Polygon’s gaming deals roundup here.
Good Deals is a weekly roundup of the best deals on the internet, curated by Vox Media’s commerce team, in collaboration with The Verge’s editorial team. You can submit deals to email@example.com and find more Good Deals here. All prices are reflective of time of publication and are updated periodically to account for changes.
China celebrated the country’s first rocket launch by a private spaceflight company this week. OneSpace Technologies, based out of Beijing, launched its OS-X rocket from an undisclosed location on a suborbital trajectory on Wednesday, reaching a reported altitude of 25 miles and traveling about 170 miles before falling back to Earth. It’s the first demonstration of what the company says will become a scalable business built around sending small satellites into space.
Until now, China’s space industry has been dominated by the government’s space agency, the China National Space Administration (CNSA). The agency has sent satellites, science missions, and even people to space. It has also put robots on the Moon, placed two space stations in orbit, and has big plans for the coming decades.
After about half a century of a national space program, China decided to get private enterprise into space, too. President Xi Jinping made it a particular priority for the country in 2012, when he said he wanted China to become a “spaceflight superpower.” And in 2014, the Chinese government formally allowed private companies to start working toward launching satellites.
OneSpace is the first private Chinese company to launch a rocket, and it has big plans. The company’s CEO, Shu Chang, told state-run news outlet China Daily that he hopes OneSpace becomes “one of the biggest small-satellite launchers in the world,” and that it plans to perform 10 launches in 2019.
Shu also likened the company to SpaceX in an interview with CNN Money. It’s a comparison that other outlets have drawn, but one that doesn’t totally bear out. For one thing, OneSpace is using different technology. While Shu says the company plans to eventually build rockets capable of lifting larger satellites (and potentially humans) into space, its current rocket stands just 30 feet tall and can only carry about 220 pounds into orbit. That’s less than half the 70 foot height of SpaceX’s first rocket, the Falcon 1, and far below the height (230 feet) and lift capacity (more than 50,000 pounds) of its current rocket, the Falcon 9. OneSpace also uses solid rocket fuel, which is generally more stable and simple to build, but means the rocket boosters can’t be reused; SpaceX, meanwhile, uses liquid fuel, and recovers its rockets after launch.
Shu told CNN that “this is the first rocket developed and built entirely with homegrown technology,” but the outlet noted that he previously worked for a “state-owned aerospace company.” OneSpace was reportedly founded with money from the State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense, and this particular flight was paid for China’s state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation, according to Quartz. And the rocket’s other name (the “Chongqing Liangjiang Star”) is a nod to state-run Chongqing Liangjiang Aviation Industry Investment Group — which OneSpace is partnering with to build a research and manufacturing base that will be part of the Chinese government’s massive Belt and Road initiative.
However, OneSpace is emulating SpaceX by straddling the line between being privately-run and government-funded. While Elon Musk’s spaceflight company is private, it has benefitted greatly from a number of NASA contracts throughout the years as it built up its commercial customer base — including one that essentially saved the company from an early collapse in 2008.
It’s also not clear whether US or other western satellite companies would be able to even buy a ride on a OneSpace rocket. The US government places strict controls on the export of satellites, which until a few years ago were still classified as weapons. “Chinese rockets are not an option for US companies,” a spokesperson for Planet, one of the leading operators of Earth-imaging satellites, tells The Verge.
Dystopian stories are often described as warnings, but they can also be Rorschach blots. Readers dive in with specific fears — about technology, society, or the future — and find an allegory to validate them. And Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s classic 1953 novel, is a perfectly adaptable cautionary tale. It’s an elegant high-concept story backed by a complicated web of broad social complaints, critiquing everything from social justice to the zipper. This might be why it’s produced two dramatically different films: one from French auteur François Truffaut in 1966, and the other from 99 Homes director Ramin Bahrani, premiering this weekend on HBO.
As many readers likely know, the novel Fahrenheit 451 is set in a future in which books are illegal, and instead of putting out fires, “firemen” hunt down caches of literature and burn them. The protagonist is a fireman named Guy Montag, who one day smuggles a book home and reads it, setting himself on the path to knowledge and, ultimately, rebellion.
The most overtly ideological target in Bradbury’s original novel is essentially identity politics. Firemen exist because racial minorities fought to ban books that insulted or dehumanized them, then other people adopted “minority” labels to ban books that insulted them, and soon all books were considered offensive. Like most “political correctness run amok” commentary, it’s frustratingly glib, suggesting that any attempt to curb racism is a slippery slope that leads to dangerous places. But that backstory is also isolated to a small section of the book, which people often ignore when they talk about Fahrenheit 451 — perhaps because Bradbury’s takedown of mass media is so much more vivid.
Bradbury’s future is intellectually vacant, but endlessly stimulating. While the government has banned books, few people in Bradbury’s vision of the future would choose to read them anyway. Multi-wall screens play sensational variety shows or programs starring an inane fictional “family,” which captivates Montag’s wife. Thrill-seeking kids entertain themselves at destruction-themed fun fairs. “Talking politics” means discussing which presidential candidate is more handsome. (This was a whole seven years before the famous televised debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, the future “TV president.”) Imagine all the most annoying aspects of television and teenagers, both of which were relatively new developments in the 1950s, and dial them up to unbearable levels.
But Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 isn’t just aiming at clearly vapid forms of media. It criticizes the practice of learning as rote self-improvement, where people churn through ever-shorter news stories and Reader’s Digest condensed novels out of a solemn duty to keep up with the world. “Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals,” says Montag’s superior Beatty, explaining the process of social control. “Chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information.”
Bahrani wrote in a New York Times essay that Bradbury’s concerns about headline-scanning and hyper-condensation make Fahrenheit 451 “the book for our social media age.” Readers can certainly use the book as a cudgel against Wikipedia and Twitter, if they’re so inclined. But that’s just one potential set of targets. Any system that encourages frenetically acquiring knowledge without stopping for reflection is fair game — and that covers large swathes of American cultural institutions, past and present.
Truffaut’s version of the story, on the other hand, doesn’t spend a lot of time on this kind of media commentary, and the world of his film doesn’t feel like a society spinning out of control. It’s almost the opposite. His version of Fahrenheit 451 is a more straightforward depiction of suburban malaise, where people are not just distracted, but miserably numb. Truffaut draws out the book’s most surreally boring moments, devoting an entire scene to a hypnotic faux-interactive soap opera about assigning guest bedrooms. He expands a subplot about Montag’s free-spirited neighbor Clarisse, who is given a larger role as a young teacher resisting her school’s stifling educational curriculum. New technology plays a role in the film, but old-fashioned peer pressure and oppressive bureaucracy are the greatest villains.
Behind a striking near-future aesthetic, Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 outlines an extremely 20th-century problem: bourgeois men who chafe at their meaningless jobs and shallow wives, and can only be saved by leaving respectable society with the help of a beautiful young woman. (In this film, that’s literally Montag’s wife with a hipper haircut, since actor Julie Christie played dual female lead roles.) His cultural anxiety feels almost like a punchline today. Wow, remember when people were scared of having an excessively stable lifestyle?
Bahrani’s version of the film doesn’t even try to make that particular anxiety seem relevant. His version of Montag (played by Black Panther star Michael B. Jordan) has no wife and no suburban home. He lives in a sterile apartment with a virtual assistant who’s bristling with surveillance cameras, more like a talking appliance than a friend. Instead of being mid-level functionaries, firemen are stars in a COPS-like internet reality show, where they can bask in waves of floating emoji during busts. His viewers aren’t numb or thoughtless — they’re furious at book-hoarders, who function as a generic hated underclass. And since there aren’t many books left, firemen have turned to torching things like films and old computers, even though the fumes would be incredibly toxic and the whole practice completely unnecessary.
This new Montag is a futuristic e-celeb, but he’s shaped by problems that long precede social media. Older versions of the character had middle-class blue-collar jobs, in eras — or at least, futuristic versions of those eras — when that was relatively unremarkable. Those jobs seem almost mythical today, so the best Jordan’s character gets is a nonsensical, performative simulacrum of one. Beatty (The Shape of Water villain Michael Shannon) is grooming Montag to take over his department and lead a new generation of firemen, but it’s not clear that people need their services anymore. The livestreamed performance is all that matters — which is presumably why they still get awesome flamethrowers for destroying computers, instead of, say, very strong magnets.
This might make Bahrani’s Fahrenheit 451 sound unduly interesting or pointed, because its main social commentary is that every hyped-up tech trend from the past several years is awful. Emoji? They destroy literacy, obviously. Virtual reality? Isolates people. Livestreaming? Encourages mob mentality. Alexa? Spies on you and gives you drugs. Social media? Ate the internet. Algorithms? I’m still piecing the reasoning together, but you’d better believe they’re bad.
“Technology is horrible” is hardly an unusual premise, but Bahrani’s Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t even stay consistently technophobic. (Without spoiling a weird and complicated new subplot, let’s just say that DNA data storage is improbably good.) There’s no grounding to any of its social commentary, just a lot of jumbled slogans, as thoughtlessly distracting as Bradbury warned television might be. And for an adaptation of a book so full of possibilities, that’s almost as bad as just burning the thing.
In 1953, Ray Bradbury created a mirror for our worst fears about mass media, conformity, and anti-intellectualism. And we’ve kept those fears alive, updating them to reflect how the details of society have changed from decade to decade. In the 1960s, Fahrenheit 451 reflected a barren world of complacent suburbanites, longing to feel anything at all. Today, the same story in a new form reflects a world where people are trying to recapture a purpose they lost years ago, doing too much and thinking too little. If only that description didn’t apply to the film, too.