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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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Clubhouse announces plans for creator payments and raises new funding led by Andreessen Horowitz

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Buzzy live voice chat app Clubhouse has confirmed that it has raised new funding – without revealing how much – in a Series B round led by Andreessen Horowitz through the firm’s partner Andrew Chen. The app was reported to be raising at a $1 billion valuation in a report from The Information that landed just before this confirmation. While we try to track down the actual value of this round and the subsequent valuation of the company, what we do know is that Clubhouse has confirmed it will be introducing products to help creators on the platform get played, including subscriptions, tipping and ticket sales.

This funding round will also support a ‘Creator Grant Program’ being set up by Clubhouse, which will be used to “support emerging Clubhouse creators” according to the startup’s blog post. While the app has done a remarkable job attracting creator talent, including high-profile celebrity and political users, directing revenue towards creators will definitely help spur sustained interest, as well as more time and investment from new creators who are potentially looking to make a name for themselves on the platform, similar to YouTube and TikTok influencers before them.

Of course, adding monetization for users also introduces a method for Clubhouse itself to monetize. The platform is free to all users, and doesn’t yet offer any kind of premium plan or method of charging users, nor is it ad-supported. Adding ways for users to pay other users provides an opportunity for Clubhouse to retain a cut for its services.

The plans around monetization routes for creators appear to be relatively open-ended at this point, with Clubhouse saying it’ll be launching “first tests” around each of the three areas it mentions (tipping, tickets and subscriptions) over the “next few months.” It sounds like these could be similar to something like a Patreon built right into the platform. Tickets are a unique option that would go well with Clubhouse’s more formal roundtable discussions, and could also be a way that more organizations make use of the platform for hosting virtual events.

The startup also announced that it will be starting work on its Android app (it’s been iOS only for now) and that it will also invest in more backend scaling to keep up with demand, as well as support team growth and tools for detecting and prevuing abuse. Clubhouse has come under fire for its failure in regards to moderation and prevention of abuse in the past, so this aspect of its product development will likely be closely watched. The platform will also see changes to discovery aimed at surfacing relevant users, groups (‘clubs’ in the app’s parlance) and rooms.

During a regular virtual town hall the app’s founders host on the platform, CEO Paul Davison revealed that Clubhouse now has 2 million weekly active users. It’s also worth noting that Clubhouse says it now has “over 180 investors” in the company, which is a lot for a Series B – though many of those are likely small, independent investors with very little stake.

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SpaceX sets new record for most satellites on a single launch with latest Falcon 9 mission

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SpaceX has set a new all-time record for the most satellites launched and deployed on a single mission, with its Transporter-1 flight on Sunday. The launch was the first of SpaceX’s dedicated rideshare missions, in which it splits up the payload capacity of its rocket among multiple customers, resulting in a reduced cost for each but still providing SpaceX with a full launch and all the revenue it requires to justify lauding one of its vehicles.

The launch today included 143 satellites, 133 of which were from other companies who booked rides. SpaceX also launched 10 of its own Starlink satellites, adding to the already more than 1,000 already sent to orbit to power SpaceX’s own broadband communication network. During a launch broadcast last week, SpaceX revealed that it has begun serving beta customers in Canada and is expanding to the UK with its private pre-launch test of that service.

Customers on today’s launch included Planet Labs, which sent up 48 SuperDove Earth imaging satellites; Swarm, which sent up 36 of its own tiny IoT communications satellites, and Kepler, which added to its constellation with eight more of its own communication spacecraft. The rideshare model that SpaceX now has in place should help smaller new space companies and startups like these build out their operational on-orbit constellations faster, complementing other small payload launchers like Rocket Lab, and new entrant Virgin Orbit, to name a few.

This SpaceX launch was also the first to deliver Starlink satellites to a polar orbit, which is a key part of the company’s continued expansion of its broadband service. The mission also included a successful landing and recovery of the Falcon 9 rocket’s first-stage booster, the fifth for this particular booster, and a dual recovery of the fairing halves used to protect the cargo during launch, which were fished out of the Atlantic ocean using its recovery vessels and will be refurbished and reused.

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Watch SpaceX’s first dedicated rideshare rocket launch live, carrying a record-breaking payload of satellites

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SpaceX is set to launch the very first of its dedicated rideshare missions – an offering it introduced in 2019 that allows small satellite operators to book a portion of a payload on a Falcon 9 launch. SpaceX’s rocket has a relatively high payload capacity compared to the size of many of the small satellites produced today, so a rideshare mission like this offers smaller companies and startups a chance to get their spacecraft in orbit without breaking the bank. Today’s attempt is scheduled for 10 AM EST (7 AM PST) after a first try yesterday was cancelled due to weather. So far, weather looks much better for today.

The cargo capsule atop the Falcon 9 flying today holds a total of 143 satellites according to SpaceX, which is a new record for the highest number of satellites being launched on a single rocket – beating out a payload of 104 spacecraft delivered by Indian Space Research Organization’s PSLV-C37 launch back in February 2017. It’ll be a key demonstration not only of SpaceX’s rideshare capabilities, but also of the complex coordination involved in a launch that includes deployment of multiple payloads into different target orbits in relatively quick succession.

This launch will be closely watched in particular for its handling of orbital traffic management, since it definitely heralds what the future of private space launches could look like in terms of volume of activity. Some of the satellites flying on this mission are not much larger than an iPad, so industry experts will be paying close attention to how they’re deployed and tracked to avoid any potential conflicts.

Some of the payloads being launched today include significant volumes of startup spacecraft, including 36 of Swarm’s tiny IoT network satellites, and eight of Kepler’s GEN-1 communications satellites. There are also 10 of SpaceX’s own Starlink satellites on board, and 48 of Planet Labs’ Earth-imaging spacecraft.

The launch stream above should begin around 15 minutes prior to the mission start, which is set for 10 AM EST (7 AM PST) today.

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