Consequences matter. If there was one clear message from football’s temporary boycott of social media earlier this month, in protest at the torrent of online hate experienced disproportionately by black players, that was it.
The former England striker Ian Wright has said that he’d almost given up reporting the vile stuff he receives daily because nothing ever seemed to happen to the perpetrators. “It makes you feel very dehumanised. You feel like there’s nothing you can do, you’re helpless,” he said. So two cheers, at least, for the inclusion in this week’s Queen’s speech of a long-delayed online safety bill aimed at holding big tech more accountable. Who wouldn’t agree with the culture secretary Oliver Dowden’s desire to rid social media of what he called “the bile and the threats”?
For all the good social media brings, it has also created unrivalled opportunities for the resentful, the bitter and the frankly sociopathic to reach those they couldn’t previously touch. Children have been groomed for sexual exploitation, terrorists radicalised, the gullible sucked into conspiracy theories, teenage girls coached to self-harm, and hate normalised on platforms that have faced too little by way of consequence. Unlike some of the straw men set up by this Queen’s speech for ministers to knock down noisily, this problem is real. But as with too many of this government’s grand plans, it’s one thing to announce you’re going to fix the internet, and another to actually do it.
The case for action is so overwhelming that even Silicon Valley’s smarter players are actively lobbying for governments to step in and regulate them, like teenagers whose illicit party has been gatecrashed by some scary-looking characters and who just want an adult to step in and deal with the problem they unwittingly created. Facebook’s vice-president for global affairs, Nick Clegg, has long argued that its job would be easier if “some of the sensitive decisions we have to make were instead taken by people who are democratically accountable to the people at large” not by a private company. Let someone else take the flak for deciding whether Donald Trump should be banned for inciting riots, or in what circumstances posting an exposed nipple is acceptable. Judging by this rather vague and in places contradictory bill, however, it won’t be that easy.
The government’s proposals require tech companies to curb the use of their platforms for illegal purposes,under threat of sanction from Ofcom. So far, so clear. But it also imposes a “duty of care” on the biggest companies to prevent activities that aren’t necessarily illegal, but are potentially harmful – capable of causing “physical or psychological impact” – while simultaneously safeguarding the right to free expression, protecting political campaigners’ right to argue their case online and avoiding taking sides in political arguments.
All of which sounds eminently sensible, until you try applying it all in practice. Dowden ducked the question when asked by ITV’s Robert Peston whether calling gay men “tank-topped bumboys”, as Boris Johnson once did in a newspaper column, should be outlawed online. But that’s almost the easy bit.
To say that biological sex is real, and immutable, would be seen in some circles as transphobic hate speech, and in others as a perfectly reasonable statement of fact. Who decides what’s harmful to whom when teenagers on TikTok are shocked and upset by very different things to their parents on Mumsnet? What about comments that aren’t discriminatory but are obnoxious, stupid or exhausting enough to cause cumulative “psychological impacts” if you’re swamped with them? Where does an individual’s responsibility to walk away end and the platform’s responsibility to stop people feeling they have to leave begin? And how can a site not take sides in political arguments where one party chooses a liar or a bigot for a leader, and the other doesn’t?
Answering these questions will shape popular culture profoundly, making the still vacant position of the Ofcom chair – contenders for which reportedly include the former Daily Mail editor-in-chief Paul Dacre – very powerful indeed. But they will also require from tech executives the judgment of Solomon, or at the very least, editorial skills more usually demanded of the BBC and newspaper executives – who won’t, incidentally, be covered by this bill. Online journalism is exempt in the interests of press freedom, but, interestingly, so is below-the-line comment by readers, meaning that what a person can write underneath a tabloidarticle about Meghan Markle may diverge sharply from what can be said about her on Twitter – or indeed in a student union debate, where a separate free speech bill will guarantee the right of controversialists to sue for compensation if they’re no-platformed by universities.
What’s the guiding principle here, the one rule that makes the boundaries of free speech clear to everyone? There isn’t one, partly because Dowden is right that in a democracy there are some things politicians shouldn’t dictate, and partly because setting hard-and-fast rules on this stuff is like nailing jelly to a moving wall. Yet the success of this bill depends in some ways on pretending that there is; that deep down we know what’s right, and that social media companies therefore have the power to fix things, if only they’re threatened with the right stick. Well, maybe. But if not, then the story of regulating big tech may continue to be one of a shrinking circle of people passing the hot potato endlessly, each one desperately hoping the music doesn’t stop with them.
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This week marks a truly important video game anniversary: it is 50 years since Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney incorporated Atari Inc, the company that laid the foundations for the video games industry. There have been many appraisals of the company and its landmark achievements in the games press over the past few days – from the arrival of a Pong machine in Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California, in 1972, through classic titles such as Breakout, Asteroids and Missile Commands, to the iconic home consoles. So many moments of creative genius, so many genres, concepts and conventions bursting into existence at the hands of scruffy engineers and designers such as Ed Logg, Larry Kaplan and Dona Bailey.
But one element that often gets overlooked in these nostalgic reveries is the way in which Atari taught the first generation of electronic gamers how to think symbolically. With two rectangles and a square, Pong invited us to visualise tennis, while Night Driver’s series of moving rectangles convinced us we were driving a car. Some will point to the 1972 console the Magnavox Odyssey as the originator of these concepts, but it was Atari putting them in arcade machines – and later consoles –all over the world.
It was also Atari that generated a whole universe around its simple games. Through beautiful cabinet designs, expert use of iconography and graphic design, and the gorgeous illustrations on its Atari VCS cartridges, the company sought to simulate the imagination of players before they even held the controller. The boxes for titles such as Berzerk and Defender, all highly abstract and visually simple games, were alive with drama; they showed human characters, explosions and colours that were impossible to achieve on screen at the time, quietly providing players with the imaginative tools they needed to become immersed. Would we have cared so much about the fate of the lifeless rock at the base of the screen in Missile Command if it hadn’t been for George Opperman’s package art? The tense commander at his desk, the explosions, the missiles seemingly scorching out of the box itself …
It was George Opperman who also designed Atari’s now legendary logo, consisting of three simple lines, the two exterior shafts curving inwards toward the peak. Over the years Opperman claimed many influences for his design – Mount Fuji, Japanese alphabet symbols, Pong itself – personally, I’ve always viewed it as a spaceship. But it’s how the image seems to sum up the excitement and futuristic promise of the company that really matters. When we see the logo flash briefly on the screen in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, it’s a quick visual signifier that this is a highly technological landscape. It fits in perfectly with a world of androids and flying cars.
Nolan Bushnell saw how video games could naturally bleed from the screen into real space, meat space. During the 1970s, the industry started in pubs and taverns, then moved into arcades and eventually the home, and they had effects on all of them: they changed behaviours and got written into our lives in subtle ways. His introduction of the Chuck E Cheese pizza restaurant chain, which combined family eating with a video game arcade, brilliantly monetised the ways that games, although graphically simple, had worked their way from the TV screen to dinner table conversation. We laugh about how the original VCS console had wood panelling, but this was a deliberate attempt to ape the aesthetics of the 1970s living room, with its wooden furniture, TV and stereo cabinets. Atari understood that assimilation would be a vital element of success.
Even now, in this age of near photorealism, video games rely on the kind of abstractions that Atari perfected. The heart symbols to denote the number of lives we have left; the heavy use of icons and exterior narratives; the endless references to familiar cinema tropes. We saw Atari being played on TV shows and films, we saw Atari in comics. While its games were still being drawn with two sprites each a single byte in size, the iconography of Atari was out there in the world. It’s something Nintendo would learn from, and later Sony, with its cultural melting pot of a console: the PlayStation. Atari was a myth maker too: from the Easter egg hidden in Adventure to the buried copies of E.T. in the California desert, the company itself became a source of digital folklore that took on meanings beyond anything portrayed on your TV.
50 years ago, Atari began to show us that games exist in a strange liminal space between the screen and the brain, and they are constantly able to escape. The dots on the screen are only ever part of the picture, and the picture never stops moving.
What to play
While we’re in a nostalgic mood, I’m really enjoying Capcom Fighting Collection. You’d probably expect a dozen famous titles from the Street Fighter series, but that’s already been covered by Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection. Instead, we get five games from the spooky, goth-infused Darkstalkers series, the mid-1990s fantasy-themed Red Earth and a bunch of offbeat Street Fighter dalliances including the ridiculously compelling Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, which brilliantly combined fighting game dynamics with … Tetris. The games are filled with blistering attacks and truly imaginative character designs, all lovingly updated for the modern era.
Available on: PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One Approximate playtime: As long as you want
What to read
Eurogamer is running a whole series of features for Pride, including this piece talking to Captain Fluke about being the first openly trans esports commentator and this one on the joy of gay fan faction and mods. Elsewhere, IGN has listed its favourite ever LGBT+ characters in video games.
Verge has a really interesting piece on a group of creatives making branded worlds for big companies in Fortnite. Everyone talks about Facebook when referencing the coming era of the metaverse, but I’m pretty sure Fortnite is going to be just as important as an explorable shared space for interconnected worlds – and the advertising potential therein.
We also found out this week that Hidetaka Miyazaki, the creative genius behind Dark Souls and Elden Ring, is almost finished on his next project. This is good news for me as, after 225 hours, I’m nearing the end of Elden Ring and would be very happy to slide straight into his next game if possible.
If I’ve got you interested in Atari’s design and illustration philosophy, The Art of Atari by Tim Lapetino is a gorgeous book. For a more technical analysis of the company, try Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost.
This week’s question comes from Tim and his daughter Caitlin, and is answered by Keza:
“We got really into Hades over lockdown, loving the ‘it’s the same each time but really different too’ concept as well as the lore and the artwork. Can you recommend a similar game that we could play together?”
Hades is what’s known as a roguelike – one of those games where you have to start again from the beginning each time, but each playthrough throws different challenges at you – and, happily for you both, this genre has been having a moment over the past few years. Hades is a contender for the very best game in this genre, so it’s hard to rival, but here are some others to try.
Dead Cells is a kind of cyberpunk-fantasy action game where you gradually explore a shapeshifting castle; Spelunky 2 has you delving down below the Earth through caves full of amusing hazards, and has a great sense of humour (you can also play co-op); Into the Breach is something a little different, a strategy game where you have to defend the world from hostile invaders, travelling back in time after each failed attempt. And for a story and art style as good as that of Hades with a different gameplay feel, try developer Supergiant’s previous games Pyre,Transistor and Bastion, if you haven’t already.
China is claiming that as of Wednesday, its Tianwen-1 Mars orbiter has officially photographed the entire Red Planet. And it’s shown off new photos of the southern polar cap and a volcano to prove it.
“It has acquired the medium-resolution image data covering the whole globe of Mars, with all of its scientific payloads realizing a global survey,” state-sponsored media quoted the China National Space Administration (CNSA) announcing.
Among the images are one of Mount Askra with its crater, shots of the South Pole whose ice sheet is believed to consist of solid carbon dioxide and ice, the seven-kilometer deep Valles Marineris canyon, and the geomorphological characteristics of the rim of the Mund crater.
Mount Askela. Click to enlarge
Mars South Pole. Click to enlarge
Valles Marineris. Click to enlarge
Mund crater. Click to enlarge
Tianwen-1 had been in orbit around Mars for 706 days. The orbiter circled Mars 1,344 times, as of an announcement from CNSA. The space org said Tianwen-1 has completed its scheduled missions.
In conjunction with its rover Zhurong, Tianwen-1 amassed 1,040 gigabytes of raw scientific data through 13 onboard scientific payloads.
The mission has allowed CNSA to observe solar occultation and solar wind together with international observatories – including those in Russia, Germany, Italy, Australia and South Africa – to improve the accuracy of space weather forecasts. Good news for Matt Damon.
CNSA said it will share more scientific data with the international community in due course.
In December, Zhurong and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft performed an in-orbit relay communication test to demonstrate it was possible to relay data from Zhurong back to Earth via Mars Express. The demonstration was successful, if a bit complicated – Mars Express had to “listen” for Zhurong since the rover was unable to communicate directly because the frequencies used don’t match.
Even though the mission is officially over, the orbiter and rover are still in working order. The orbiter will stay in orbit and continue its remote sensing and data relay activities while Zhurong will hibernate until weather conditions improve – likely in December. ®
Founded in 2011, Entrepreneur First’s portfolio has grown to more than 500 companies, which together are worth more than $10bn.
London-based scale-up investor Entrepreneur First has raised $158m in a Series C funding round, with backing from some of the world’s biggest tech founders.
The funding round included participation from Stripe co-founders Patrick and John Collison. They were joined by Wise co-founder Taavet Hinrikus (who also launched a new VC fund this week), LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg, Monzo co-founder Tom Blomfield, Nested co-founder and CEO Matt Robinson, and many others.
There was also investment from longstanding institutional backers such as Transpose Platform, Vitruvian Partners, Encore Capital and Isomer Capital.
“It feels right that this round of funding comes from the most successful technology founders of today,” Entrepreneur First CEO Matt Clifford said. “Their support will build their counterparts of tomorrow.”
Founded in 2011, Entrepreneur First describes itself as “the best place in the world to meet your co-founder”. It says the best companies come from co-founding partnerships, but that finding the right person can be hugely challenging.
Entrepreneur First invests in early-stage founder talent. It works to bring people together from all walks of life to help meet potential co-founders, while giving them access to advisers in a three-month programme.
The company currently has 120 employees with offices in London, Toronto, Paris, Berlin, Bangalore and Singapore.
Its portfolio now includes more than 500 companies, which together exceed $10bn in value. These companies include computer vision unicorn Tractable, employment platform Omnipresent and advertising infrastructure platform Permutive.
“We built a way for the world’s most talented people, from all walks of life, to come together to find co-founders and build from scratch,” Clifford said. “Now, that fix has introduced co-founders who wouldn’t have otherwise met, to build companies that wouldn’t have been built.”
Entrepreneur First aims to see the value of companies built from its platform cross $100bn and beyond in the years to come.
“What we do may no longer seem crazy, as it did 10 years ago,” Clifford added. “But we’re just as committed to keep innovating to serve entrepreneurs better – and be the best place in the world to find a co-founder.”
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