Hi! In case you are new around here, I am Om. If you are new around here, here is something About Me and why you should read my newsletter. In this letter, I share what’s on my mind, my latest writings, articles worth reading from around the web, my recommendations & sometimes my photography. It’s mostly about technology and how it impacts our present future.
In this issue, I address the following:
- Housekeeping update
- Personal update + what’s on my mind
- ChatGPT: A Netscape moment.
- 2 Good Reads + Watch This
- A Mirror Conspiracy!
Housekeeping: The new format has met with the approval of the community. As an experiment (and by popular demand), I will increase the frequency of the newsletter to twice a month – the first and the fifteenth of every month, starting today.
Our life is half natural and half technological. Half-and-half is good. You cannot deny that high-tech is progress. We need it for jobs. Yet if you make only high-tech, you make war. So we must have a strong human element to keep modesty and natural life.
Nam June Paik
What I have been up to
I went for a short trip to Alaska to take in the brutally cold winter weather, and take some photos. But mostly, I wanted to escape what passes for our life.
Alaska’s vast emptiness, extreme nature, and, most importantly, landscapes speak to me deeply and emotionally. It allows my inner introvert to exist without interference from the outside world. It is where I have to learn to talk to myself and listen to a power higher than any contained in an office, bank account, or computer. Nature and its infinite magnificence and power are where it all starts and ends.
In the tundra, unlike a New York Times reporter or some Washington Post scribe, I didn’t need to type into a plain white box to be amazed, amused, and outraged. I didn’t need to be triggered by anger but instead be awakened by a walk at the edge of a glacier’s crevice, not knowing that one step could be the last. I felt a special delight when surrounded by many shades of blues inside an ice cave. Or the dread I felt from the sound of ice cracking.
I am replenished, my mind and soul in sync. As always, such grand places help me get proper context — when juxtaposed against the vastness and timeliness of the planet that we call home, the human construct is merely just that – an edifice, a reflection of our selfish need to scream: I am!
And nothing prays louder to this narcissism is the current obsession with AI, a technology generating as much fear as it inspires fabulous. In our world where hype trumps deliberations, we forget that technology is there to augment us — and if we want to obliterate us. A wheel takes us afar, and it runs us over. Telephone connects, and it makes us vulnerable to the proverbial Jordan Belfort. Atomic bomb kills at an inhuman scale, yet the same technology can be harnessed to produce energy to power our world.
Intelligence can be artificial. Or it can be a tool to help humans survive a more complex, more connected world that is moving ever so faster. I have said this and will say it again; we have to stop fearing AI. After decades of being a tech watcher, we need optimism to move forward. But we don’t have to be blind to its problems. A bit of skepticism is good because we humans have our fallacies, like technology.
My two columns on AI for:
The New Yorker: The hype and hope – of Artificial Intelligence. (2016)
The Spectator: We should stop worrying and learn to love AI. (2022)
What I am thinking about: ChatGPT, of course!
In case you were wondering, I view ChatGPT as one of those profound aha moments in the history of technology: I wasn’t around to see the birth of the first Apple machine, but I have read about it. I saw the world change when I started using the Netscape browser, even though I had used the Internet before. I was among the first few to experience pre-launch Google and then later at the launch of the iPhone. I picked these historical moments because they fundamentally changed our relationship with information.
Netscape browser opened us up to the wonder of infinite information. Google made it easy for us to search and pull up whatever we needed, whenever we needed. The iPhone (and later smartphones) made information available anywhere, anytime. These three events changed our behavior and how we viewed and interacted with information. ChatGPT is one of those moments — after this, we will interact with information in an entirely different way: as an almost human conversation.
We have been on this path for a long time. We have been typing complete questions into Google’s Search Bar and asking Siri and Alexa to do things for us. Our kids are growing up having a conversation with machines. For today’s kids, devices with no keyboard or ones that work with gestures and voice commands are as typical as a day starting with sunrise. ChatGPT and its progeny will be part of our future, where we experience reality through a thin veneer of mixed reality glasses or holographic displays. It is not if but when.
That said, I want to sprinkle a caution in our thinking around AI and ChatGPT, primarily because, in the recent past, I have seen Silicon Valley get high on its fumes. And we, indeed, are getting ahead of ourselves. How do I know — Salesforce and its chief, Marc Benioff, who hasn’t met a trend he didn’t incorporate into his corporate buzzword bingo, will announce EinsteinGPT. When Salesforce embraced the “cloud,” it crossed a marketing transom. Rinse, repeat. Anyway, let’s get back to the main thing — ChatGPT.
A few years ago, the hype machine decided that “self driving” was the new wonder bread just around the corner. And then it was web3. And now it is GPT. Technology is more complex and not as straightforward as a hot take. The fact is that the science and technology of technology are very hard — and keep getting more challenging. We live in a growing complexity of how “tech” interacts with the real world. This complexity means that there are no overnight miracles. No overnight stars, no overnight collapses.
Even though much has been written about AI, its impact, and its challenges, this video by comedian John Oliver gives us an overview of the state of AI today. And it is funny! I highly recommend you watch it. As Oliver points out, AI and ChatGPT are complex issues. Here are some articles that I found enjoyable and informative.
- From Samantha to Dolores: M.G. Siegler, an investor, and cinema buff writes about virtual chatbots and how they have been portrayed in popular culture, their hope, and their hype. (A long time ago, I interviewed KK Barrett, a production designer on the movie Her, which has become quite a rage amongst twitter-pundits. KK told me something that has always stayed with me: “It was the story of the attempt to be connected with another human.” For me, all technology is about humans. If we remember that, we be okay. If we don’t, we end up with the likes of Meta.
- What is ChatGPT, and why does it work?: Stephen Wolfram needs no introduction. In this in-depth article, he brings a scientist’s view on ChatGPT. Bookmark this for future reference.
- Building guide rails around ChatGPT: AI will be a topic of immense debate in Washington DC., and as a result, think tanks will help influence the legislation around AI and its widespread impact. Brookings Institution has shared its thinking on ChatGPT.
- The Gigabit Generation: Build it, and they will come! And no, I don’t mean the fabulous baseball movie but high-speed broadband networks. And not only will they come, but they will also know how to use the speeds. This is just the start for a generation of consumers growing up on gigabit connections and relying on the “network” for everything.
- Writing shouldn’t be hard: I embrace and welcome our AI overlords and all the tools they bestow on us for writing better memos, easy-to-understand emails, and just boring stuff we need to do because all we do is text.
- The podcasting bubble is coming to an end. You can thank Spotify for it. Ironic, considering that the company created a bubble by over-investing in podcasting, buying companies, overpaying for celebrity deals, and controversial shock jocks.
- Information Streams as design patterns are still alive, say web gurus. And yet, the end customers think they are.
- Why manual rangefinder cameras are great for landscape photography, I know it is not tech, but the long essay does have many pretty photos!
- The Junkification of Amazon: According to John Herrman, Amazon might be the biggest store on the web, but it is also the shittiest place to shop on the web. I couldn’t agree more — my overall experience with Amazon has deprecated, and I am always worried about what crap I will get in the box. I have shifted about a third of my dollars to Walmart — Amex underwrites the Walmart equivalent of Prime — and another third to Target or independent stores. Shopify has made it easier to shop with independents. Amazon’s great advantage is “returns.” You will see Amazon as just another web place when someone cracks that. (Ironically, New York magazine has no problem linking to Amazon for affiliate revenues.)
- Streaming is a steaming pile of mess. No matter what you do to fix this, there are losers on all sides – creators, platforms, and rights holders. And what is clear that’s any tweaks will come at the expense of people like you and me. This is one of the best pieces I have read about streaming music and its economic troubles.
I have been late to discover Mr.InBetween, a dark crime comedy from Australia. It started airing on FX in 2108, but I just started watching it on Hulu, and I am addicted. The protagonist Ray Shoesmith is a hitman for hire who lives in Sydney suburbs and tries to balance his job with his everyday life. Remind you of a certain Tony?
A Mirror Conspiracy
America (and, by proxy, the west) is locked in a bitter economic and political battle with China. The salvos have been fired over “chips” and “chip technologies.” Chips are the key to the future, so the US is doing its best to ensure China doesn’t get that technology. This kind of “technology” gamesmanship isn’t anything new.
In 1507, Venetians developed a “technique of coating glass with an alloy of tin and mercury,” leading to somewhat modern mirrors. For about 150 years, Venice (Italy) enjoyed the lead and made large mirrors. In 1664, France stole technology from them and created “mirror halls.” Eventually, the technology became so commonplace that the mirrors went from royal halls to homes. Since I started talking about China, the Chinese had halls of mirrors as far back as 565–77.
FWIW, I am interested in reading more about mirrors and their history. If you have any book recommendations, drop me a note. (The title for this section is a tip of the hat to Thievery Corporation’s amazing album of the same name — an all-time favorite)
My photography: I would love for you to check out my latest
PS: Some of these photos are available for sale as prints. Drop me a line if you want to add them to your living space.