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I’m a free speech champion. I don’t even know what that means anymore

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The president of the United States is supposedly the most powerful man in the world. He also can’t post to Twitter. Or Facebook. Or a bunch of other social networks as we discovered over the course of the past week (He still has access to the nuclear launch codes though, so that’s an interesting dynamic to chew on).

The bans last week were exceptional — but so is Trump. There may not be another president this century who pushes the line of public discourse quite like the current occupant of the White House (at least, one can only hope). If the whole Trump crisis was truly exceptional though, it could simply be ignored. Rules, even rules around free speech, have always had exceptions to handle exceptional circumstances. The president provokes a violent protest, he gets banned. A unique moment in American executive leadership, for sure. Yet, apart from the actor, it’s hardly an unusual response from the tech industry or any publisher where violent threats have been banned for decades under Supreme Court precedent.

Why then aren’t we ignoring it? I think we can all feel that something greater is underfoot. The entire information architecture of our world has changed, and that has completely upended the structure of rules around free speech that have governed America in the modern era.

Freedom of speech is deeply entwined with human progressivism, with science and rationality and positivism. The purpose of a marketplace of ideas is for arguments to be in dialogue with each other, to have their own facts and deductions checked, and for bad ideas to be washed out by better, more proven ones. Contentious at times yes, but a positive contention, one that ultimately is meant to elucidate more than provoke.

I’m a free speech “absolutist” because I believe in that human progress, and I believe that the concept of a marketplace of ideas is the best mechanism historically we have ever built as a species for exploring our world and introspecting ourselves. Yet, I also can’t witness the events that transpired last week and just pretend that our information commons is working well.

I get it — that seems contradictory. I understand the argument that I’m supporting free speech but not really supporting it. Yet, there is a reasonable pause to be taken in this moment to ask some deeper, more foundational questions, for something is wrong with the system. I’m struggling with the same context that the ACLU in its official statement is struggling with:

It’s a milquetoast response, a “we condemn but we are also concerned” sort of lukewarm mélange. It’s also a reasonable response to a rapidly changing environment around speech. In the same vein, I’m a staunch defender of the marketplace of ideas, well, a marketplace of ideas, one that unfortunately no longer exists today. Just think about everything that isn’t working:

  • There’s too much information, and it’s impossible for any reasonable human to process it all
  • Much of that flood is garbage and outright fraud, or worse, brilliant pieces of psychological propaganda designed to distract and undermine the very information system it is distributed on
  • We’ve never allowed so many people to gain access to the public square to distribute their missives, drivel and invective with such limited constraints
  • Few ideas are in dialogue anymore. Collegiality is mostly dead, as is constructivist thought. There is no marketplace anymore since the “stores” are no longer in the same public squares but in each of our own individual feeds
  • Coercive incentives from a handful of dominant, monopoly platforms drive wildly damaging communication practices, encouraging the proverbial “clickbait” over any form of careful discussion or debate
  • The vast majority of people seem to love this, given the extremely high user engagement numbers seen on tech platforms

We’ve known this event was coming for decades. Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, about the inability of humans to process the complexity of the modern, industrialized world, came out in 1970. Cyberpunk literature and sci-fi more generally in the 1980s and 1990s has extensively grappled with this coming onslaught. As the internet expanded rapidly, books like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows interrogated how the internet prevents us from thinking deeply. It was published a decade ago. Today, in your local bookstore (assuming you still have one and can actually still read texts longer than 1,000 words), you can find a whole wing analyzing the future of media and communications and what the internet is cognitively doing to us.

My absolute belief in “free speech” was predicated on some pretty clear assumptions about how free speech was supposed to work in the United States. Those assumptions, unfortunately, no longer apply.

We can no longer assume that there is a proverbial public square where citizens debate, perhaps even angrily, the issues that confront them. We can no longer assume that information dreck gets filtered by editors, or by publishers, or by readers themselves. We can no longer assume that the people who reach us with their messages are somewhat vetted, and speaking from truth or facts.

We can no longer assume that any part of the marketplace is frankly working at all.

That’s what makes this era so challenging for those of us who rely every day on the right to free speech in our work and in our lives. Without those underlying assumptions, the right to free speech isn’t the bastion of human progressivism and rationality that we expect it to be. Our information commons won’t ensure that the best and highest-quality ideas are going to rise to the top and propel our collective discussion.

I truly believe in free speech in its extensive, American sense. So do many friends who are similarly concerned for the perilous state of our marketplace of ideas. Yet, we all need to confront the reality that is before us: the system is really, truly broken and just screaming “Free Speech!” is not going to change that.

The way forward is to pivot the conversation around free speech to a broader question about how we improve the information architecture of our world. How do we ensure that creators and the people who generate ideas and analyze them can do so with the right economics? That means empowering writers and filmmakers and novelists and researchers and everyone else to be able to do quality work, over perhaps extended periods of time, without having to upload a new photo or insight every ten minutes to stay “top of mind” lest their income tumbles.

How can we align incentives at every layer of our communications to ensure that facts and “truth” will eventually win the day in the asymptote, if not always right away? How do you ensure that the power that comes with mass distribution of information is held by those who embody at least some notion of a public duty to accuracy and reasonableness?

Most importantly, how do we improve the ability of every reader and viewer to process the information they see, and through their independent actions drive the discussion toward rationality? No marketplace can survive without smart and diligent customers, and the market for information is no exception. If people demand lies, the world is going to supply it to them, and in spades as we have already seen.

Tech can’t solve this alone, but it absolutely can and is obligated to be part of the solution. Platform alternatives with the right incentives in place can completely change the way humanity understands our world and what is happening. That’s an extremely important and intellectually interesting problem that should be enticing to any ambitious engineer and founder to tackle.

I’ll always defend free speech, but I can’t defend the system in the state that we see it today. The only defense then is to work to rebuild this system, to buttress the components that are continuing to work and to repair or replace the ones that aren’t. I don’t believe the descent into rational hell has to be paved by misinformation. We all have the tools and power to make this system what it needs to be — what it should be.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Unmind raises $47M for a platform to provide mental health support in your workplace

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Mental health has been put into the spotlight in a big way in recent times. For many of us, our lives and lifestyles have changed massively in the last year, and alongside that, we’re collectively facing pandemic-fueled mortality on a global scale in a way that hasn’t existed for generations, a perfect storm of sorts that has inevitably had an impact on our state of mind and our moods.

Today a startup that has built a platform to help people think about and respond to this situation is announcing a big round of growth funding, specifically to help address all of this and how it plays out in one of the more stress-inducing aspects of our life — our workplaces.

Unmind — a London startup that has built a mental health app for the workplace — has raised $47 million, a Series B that it will be using to continue investing in its research and development and also to expand its business reach. The funding is being led by EQT Ventures –- a very active investor at the moment in UK growth rounds — with participation also from Sapphire Ventures and previous backers Project A, Felix Capital, and True.

The core of Unmind’s service is an app built around a set of questions to help employees explore their own states of mental health, which could include depression, anxiety, insomnia, and a host of other manifestations. It provides advice and content to begin addressing the results of that — exercises, advice, podcasts, links for further reading, and links to seeing further help from professionals (not more machine interfaces, but humans). It also provides a service to the employers, sharing anonymized data from the app with them so that they, too, can consider how better to respond to their employees’ needs.

The app has seen some notable traction especially in the last year, a time when the conversation about mental health has become much more commonplace and critical, given the environment we’ve been living in.

Unmind does not disclose user numbers, nor how they have grown, but it tells me that uptake and adoption of its app ranges from 15% to over 60% of an organization’s workforce (this varies by size, and the emphasis that the organization itself puts on using the app, among other things). It said that of those employees who are using Unmind, 88% have said they experience an improvement in mental wellbeing, work, or relationships, while 92% report higher confidence, awareness, and understanding of mental health.

The company also said that revenues grew by more than 3x in the last 12 months. Meanwhile, its customers include major retailers like John Lewis and M&S, high street bank TSB, Uber, Samsung, Virgin Media, British Airways and Asos — a list of companies that have strong degrees of customer service around them, have been greatly impacted by the lockdowns, and you can imagine must have a lot of people working in them pretty stressed out as a result of being on the front lines of interfacing with a stressed-out wider population of consumers.

The company was co-founded by Dr Nick Taylor, who previously had been a clinical psychologist and worked for years in mental health care (and before that was a classically-trained singer), who said he came up with the idea after feeling like he was seeing too many people only for the first time at a stage when their issues were already very advanced.

“I kept encountering the same frustration time and again: I wish I’d met this person six months ago,” Taylor said in an interview.

As with all kinds of preventative healthcare, it’s always better to identify and work on issues before they grow big and more urgent, and so he set out to think about how one might approach the concept of a preventative check-up and check-in for mental health.

The workplace is not a bad place to base that effort. Not only is it often a source of stress for people, but it’s a regular place for them to be every day so creating a way of assessing mental health through that implicitly creates a kind of routine to the effort. It also potentially means a closer connection to the employer to work on issues more collectively when and if they emerge, in a way that the employer might not do (or ever discover) through other means.

The connection between work and mental health is a longstanding one but has perhaps been proven out more than ever before in the last year.

“I didn’t know what would happen with mental health during Covid,” Taylor recalled. “I actually wondered if it would be demoted,” given all of the other conflicting priorities. “But the prevalence of mental illness has escalated. It’s out of control. And in the workplace, it’s a leading cause of absenteeism and turnover.” And given how full-on everything has become, including likely more hours spent working since now it all has merged with our home lives, we all know (and may well be among) many people who are feeling incredibly burned out right now.

Taylor said that in fact quite the opposite has happened to his early skepticism: mental health has become front of mind, “and the shackles of stigma are falling away.”

This is part of what has really caught the eye of investors: technology that is not just effective, but very relevant to right now. “It is now universally recognized that our Mental Health is as important if not more important than our physical health – but has long been neglected. That is now changing rapidly,” said Alastair Mitchell, a partner at EQT Ventures. “As a result there has been a massive rise in the popularity of consumer mental health apps which is now being matched by surging demand from employers and employees for the same in the workplace. Unmind is the leading mental health app for the enterprise and we are so excited to work with Dr Nick and the team to support their scaling globally.” EQT is also a strategic investor, not just a financial one: it’s rolling out Unmind across its own workplace and its many portfolio companies.

Unmind, it should be noted, is not the only company that has identified this “opportunity,” if you could call it that. They include other startups like SF-based Ginger — which has also built a platform that partners with employers, but also healthcare providers and other stakeholders, to help people identify and manage their state of mind. Ginger has been well-capitalised over the years. Others in the same space include Welbot in New York, Spill also out of London and a host of others providing different aspects of mental wellness like Calm and Headspace, the meditation apps.

I’m inclined to think that, given the size of the problem and that mental health should not be a bunfight but something that takes a village to address, the key will be in how each company approaches its remit, and how people respond to it, and whether what people do ultimately use results in better bridges for employees to getting the help and peace they need, whether it’s from the app or a professional.

“We have a responsibility to connect with our mental health in the same way that we do when it comes to healthcare,” Taylor said, likening the effort to how it takes a number of skill sets sometimes to work on the complexities of a health issue. “Great healthcare integrates across a number of systems.”

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Dutch startup QphoX raises €2M to connect Quantum computers with a Quantum modem

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When eventually they become a working reality, Quantum computers won’t be of much value if they simply sit there on their own. Just like the internet, the value is in the network. But right now there’s scant technology to link these powerful devices together.

That’s where QphoX comes in. Thus Dutch startup has raised €2 million to connect Quantum computers with a ‘Quantum modem’.

The funding round was led by Quantonation, Speedinvest, and High-Tech Gründerfonds, with participation from TU Delft.

QphoX aims to develop the Quantum Modem it created at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) into a commercial product. This networks separate processors together, allowing quantum computers to scale beyond 10’s or 100’s of qubits. Look out for the Singularity folks…

Simon Gröblacher, CEO and co-founder of QphoX told me: “It is the exact same thing as a classical modem except for quantum computers, so it kind of converts electrical and microwave signals to optical signals coherently, so you don’t do any of the quantum information in the process. It then converts it back so you can really have two quantum computers talk to one another.

I noted that there’s more than one type of quantum computer. He countered “We are in principle agnostic to what kind of quantum computer it is. All we do at the moment is we focus on the microwave part, so we can work with superconducting qubits, topological qubits etc. We can convert microwaves to optical signals and they can talk to each other. Currently, the only competitors I know are all the in the academic world. So this is we’re the first company to actually starts building a real product.”

Rick Hao, Principal with Speedinvest’s Deep Tech team, added: “ We want to invest in seed-stage deep technology startups that shape the future and QphoX is well-positioned to make a major impact. Over the next couple of years, there will be rapid progress in quantum computers. Quantum Modem, the product developed by QphoX, enables the development of quantum computers that demonstrate quantum advantage by combining separate quantum processors.”

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UK fashion portal Lyst raises $85M in a ‘pre-IPO’ round, reportedly at a $500M valuation

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E-commerce continues to be a huge focus for investors watching consumer behavior and spending patterns in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the latest development, UK startup Lyst, a portal for high fashion brands and stores to sell directly to users, has picked up $85 million, in what the startup is describing as a ‘pre-IPO’ round.

The news comes as the company says that it has now grown to 150 million users browsing and buying from a catalog of 8 million products from 17,000 brands and retailers.

List said that gross merchandise value in 2020 was over $500 million, with new user numbers growing 1100% growth in new users. GMV has definitely been accelerating. Lyst has been around since 2010 and said today that lifetime GMV is more than $2 billion.

“Lyst is rapidly becoming a fashion category leader, which hundreds of millions of fashion lovers rely on to decide what to buy. While our app and website already enjoy very large audiences in the USA & Europe, fashion e-commerce remains under-penetrated in general, with huge growth potential globally. We’re excited to use this raise from top-tier investors to continue personalising the fashion shopping experience to each of our millions of customers, while helping our partner brands thrive,” said Chris Morton, Lyst’s CEO and founder, in a statement.

We have contacted the company to ask about the timing and location for a public listing and while it has not commented, we understand that London or New York would be the most obvious locations for a listing, which is not likely to be for another year or even three.

For now, Lyst has disclosed that investors in this latest injection include funds managed by Fidelity International, Novator Capital, Giano Capital and C4 Ventures, as well as a mix of financial and strategic previous backers Draper Esprit, 14W, Accel, Balderton Capital, Venrex and LVMH. Carmen Busquets — a strategic advisor to the company who co-founded Net-a-Porter, one of Lyst’s competitors in the space — also increased her investment in the company with this round, the company said.

Lyst is not disclosing its valuation but PitchBook notes that with this round, it is $500 million post-money. (We’ve also asked the company to confirm whether this is an accurate figure.) Sky News, where the funding news was leaked last night, did not have a valuation figure.

For some further comparison and context, though, Farfetch, another competitor in the same space as Lyst, listed publicly some years ago and currently has a market cap of $14.4 billion. And more generally, there is a lot to play for here online, not just against other pure-play fashion portals, but also standalone retailers, marketplaces like Amazon, and increasingly social media apps like Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat, which are all looking at how they can better capitalize on how their platforms are already being used quite aggressively and widely for social commerce.

Social media sites would be an ironic but perhaps very unsurprising competitor for Lyst, which started life as a pioneer in the concept, creating a way for people to follow influential high fashion brands and influencers on its platform — who were not actually called “influencers” at the time, but curators and bloggers (the more things change, eh?) — and get alerts when items would be posted by them for sale.

People might have originally been very skeptical about how well high fahion (read: expensive, sometimes esoteric) might play over screens, but over time Lyst and the others in the same proved it all out in spades, raising successive rounds over time to back up its premise. Balenciaga, Balmain, Bottega Veneta, Burberry, Fendi, Gucci, Moncler, Off-White, Prada, Saint Laurent and Valentino are among the brands that appear on Lyst today.

Over the years, more variations and competitors have presented themselves, but the salient fact remains that high fashion has a huge target audience delivered in the right way, and that is something that investors, brands, influencers, and these marketplaces themselves have all doubled down on in the pandemic.

It’s been a time when people who have not found themselves outright struggling financially (and there are lot of those, unfortunately), have instead found themselves with more disposable income since they went out and travelled significantly less than before. Fashion and buying goods for ourselves has become a form of escapism, and for those who get a lift out of the tree falling in the forest and being there to hear the sound, we can still put on the outfits, snap ourselves for our Stories, and exposure will still be ours.

“Lyst has made huge progress over the past year with its industry leading app for the fast- growing online luxury fashion market – a trend which looks set to continue as consumers retain their newfound digital habits, and demand for fashion rises further post-pandemic. In recent years we have seen other high-growth fashion tech businesses taking the next step, and we believe Lyst is well positioned to capitalise on this market momentum. Draper Esprit has backed Lyst since Series A and we believe this latest round sets the business up for an exciting next phase,” said Nicola McClafferty, a partner, Draper Esprit, in a statement.

Lyst also announced a few appointments to firm up its executive bench in the lead-up to its next steps as a company. Mateo Rando previously at Spotify, is joining as chief product officer to focus largely on Lyst’s popular mobile app. And Emma McFerran, formerly general counsel and chief people officer, is stepping up as COO and a new board member.

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