Chilling effects

The removal of conspiracy enthusiast content by InfoWars brings us to an interesting and important point in the history of online discourse. The current form of Internet content distribution has made it a broadcast medium akin to television or radio. Apps distribute our cat pics, our workouts, and our YouTube rants to specific audiences of followers, audiences that were nearly impossible to monetize in the early days of the Internet but, thanks to gullible marketing managers, can be sold as influencer media.

The source of all of this came from Gen X’s deep love of authenticity. They formed a new vein of content that, after breeding DIY music and zines, begat blogging, and, ultimately, created an endless expanse of user generated content (UGC). In the “old days” of the Internet this Cluetrain-manifesto-waving post gatekeeper attitude served the slacker well. But this move from a few institutional voices into a scattered legion of micro-fandoms led us to where we are today: in a shithole of absolute confusion and disruption.

As I wrote a year ago, user generated content supplanted and all but destroyed “real news.” While much of what is published now is true in a journalistic sense, the ability for falsehood and conspiracy to masquerade as truth is the real problem and it is what caused a vacuum as old media slowed down and new media sped up. In this emptiness a number of parasitic organisms sprung up including sites like Gizmodo and TechCrunch, micro-celebrity systems like Instagram and Vine, and sites catering to a different consumer, sites like InfoWars and Stormfront. It should be noted that InfoWars has been spouting its deepstate meanderings since 1999 and Alex Jones himself was a gravelly-voice radio star as early as 1996. The Internet allowed any number of niche content services to juke around the gatekeepers of propriety and give folks like Jones and, arguably, TechCrunch founder Mike Arrington, Gawker founder Nick Denton, and countless members of the “Internet-famous club,” deep influence over the last decades media landscape.

The last twenty years have been good for UGC. You could get rich making it, get informed reading it, and its traditions and habits began redefining how news-gathering operated. There is no longer just a wall between advertising and editorial. There is also a wall between editorial and the myriad bloggers who write about poop on Mt. Everest. In this sort of world we readers find ourselves at a distinct loss. What is true? What is entertainment? When the Internet is made flesh in the form of Pizzagate shootings and Unite the Right Marches, who is to blame?

The simple answer? We are to blame. We are to blame because we scrolled endlessly past bad news to get to the news that was applicable to us. We trained robots to spoon feed us our opinions and then force feed us associated content. We allowed ourselves to enter into a pact with a devil so invisible and pernicious that it easily convinced the most confused among us to mobilize against Quixotic causes and immobilized the smartest among us who were lulled into a Soma-like sleep of liking, sharing, and smileys. And now a new reckoning is coming. We have come full circle.

Once upon a time old gatekeepers were careful to let only carefully controlled views and opinions out over the airwaves. The medium was so immediate that in the 1940s broadcasters forbade the transmission of recordings and instead forced broadcasters to offer only live events. This was wonderful if you had the time to mic a children’s choir at Christmas but this rigidity was bed for a reporter’s health. Take William Shirer and Edward R. Murrow’s complaints about being unable to record and play back bombing raids in Nazi-held territories – their chafing at old ideas are almost palpable to modern bloggers.

There were other handicaps to the ban on recording that hampered us in taking full advantage of this new medium in journalism. On any given day there might be several developments, each of which could have been recorded as it happened and then put together and edited for the evening broadcast. In Berlin, for example, there might be a bellicose proclamation, troop movements through the capital, sensational headlines in the newspapers, a protest by an angry ambassador, a fiery speech by Hitler, Goring or Goebbels threatening Nazi Germany’s next victim—all in the course of the day. We could have recorded them at the moment they happened and put them together for a report in depth at the end of the day. Newspapers could not do this. Only radio could. But [CBS President] Paley forbade it.

Murrow and I tried to point out to him that the ban on recording was not only hampering our efforts to cover the crisis in Europe but would make it impossible to really cover the war, if war came. In order to broadcast live, we had to have a telephone line leading from our mike to a shortwave transmitter. You could not follow an advancing or retreating army dragging a telephone line along with you. You could not get your mike close enough to a battle to cover the sounds of combat. With a compact little recorder you could get into the thick of it and capture the awesome sounds of war.

And so now instead of CBS and the Censorship Bureau we have Facebook and Twitter. Instead of calling for the ability to record and playback an event we want permission to offer our own slants on events, no matter how far removed we are from the action. Instead of working diligently to spread only the truth, we consume the truth as others know it. And that’s what we are now chafing against: the commercialization and professionalization of user generated content.

Every medium goes through this confusion. From Penny Dreadfuls to Pall Mall sponsoring nearly every single new television show in the 1940s, media has grown, entered a disruptive phase that changes all media around it, and is then curtailed into boredom and commoditization. It is important to remember that we are in the era of Peak TV not because we all have more time to watch 20 hours of Breaking Bad. We are in Peak TV because we have gotten so good at making good shows – and the average consumer is ravenous for new content – that there is no financial reason not to take a flyer on a miniseries. In short, it’s gotten boring to make good TV.

And so we are now entering the latest stage of Internet content, the blowback. This blowback is not coming from governments. Trump, for his part, sees something wrong but cannot or will not verbalize it past the idea of “Fake News”. There is absolutely a Fake News problem but it is not what he thinks it is. Instead, the Fake News problem is rooted in the idea that all content deserves equal respect. My Medium post is as good as a CNN which is as good as an InfoWars screed about pedophiles on Mars. In a world defined by free speech then all speech is protected. Until, of course, it affects the bottom line of the company hosting it.

So Facebook and Twitter are walking a thin line. They want to remain true to the ancillary GenX credo that can be best described as “garbage in, garbage out” but many of its readers have taken that deeply open invitation to share their lives far too openly. These platforms have come to define personalities. They have come to define news cycles. They have driven men and women into hiding and they have given the trolls weapons they never had before, including the ability to destroy media organizations at will. They don’t want to censor but now that they have shareholders then they simply must.

So get ready for the next wave of media. And the next. And the next. As it gets more and more boring to visit Facebook I foresee a few other rising and falling media outlets based on new media – perhaps through VR or video – that will knock social media out of the way. And wait for more wholesale destruction of UGC creators new and old as monetization becomes more important than “truth.”

I am not here to weep for InfoWars. I think it’s garbage. I’m here to tell you that InfoWars is the latest in a long line of disrupted modes of distribution that began with the printing press and will end god knows where. There are no chilling effects here, just changes. And we’d best get used to them.

TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield is coming soon to Beirut, São Paolo and Lagos

Everyone knows there are thriving startup communities outside of obvious hubs, like San Francisco, Berlin, Bangalore and Beijing, but they don’t always get the support they deserve. Last year, TechCrunch took a major page from its playbook, the Startup Battlefield competition, and staged the event in Nairobi, Kenya to find the best early stage startup in Sub-Saharan Africa, and also to Sydney, Australia, to find the same for Australia and New Zealand. Both were successes, thanks to talented founders and the hard traveling TechCrunch team. And now we’re pleased to announce that we’re stepping up our commitment to emerging ecosystems.

TechCrunch is once again teaming up with Facebook, our partner for last year’s Nairobi event, to bring the Startup Battlefield to three major cities representing regions with vital, emerging startup communities. In Beirut, TechCrunch’s editors will strive to find the best early stage startup in the Middle East and North Africa. In São Paolo, the hunt is for the best in Latin America. And in Lagos, Nigeria, TechCrunch will once again find the top startup in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Early stage startups are welcome to apply. We will choose 15 companies in each region to compete, and we will provide travel support for the finalists to reach the host city. The finalists will also receive intensive coaching from TechCrunch’s editors to hone their pitches to a razor’s edge before they take the stage in front of top venture capitalists from the region and around the world. Winners will receive $25,000 plus a trip for two to the next TechCrunch Disrupt event, where they can exhibit free of charge, and, if qualified, have a chance to be selected to participate in the Startup Battlefield competition associated with that Disrupt. In the world of founders, the Startup Battlefield finalists are an elite; the more than 750 Startup Battlefield alums have raised over $8 billion and produced 100+ exits to date.

What are the dates? They will be finalized shortly but Beirut is on track for early October, São Paolo for early November, and Lagos in early December.  In the meantime, founders eager start an application for one of these Startup Battlefields may do so 
by visiting apply.techcrunch.com . Look for more details next week.

Interested in sponsoring one of the events? Email us at Sponsors@TechCrunch.com

Nike’s Vaporfly Elite FlyPrint leans hard into computational design

Computational design is the hottest phrase in manufacturing and 3D printing at the moment. It’s changing the way people make all kinds of goods, and Nike used it to design and manufacture its new Vaporfly Elite FlyPrint shoe, which it’s announcing today.

The shoe is a specialized edition of its Zoom Vaporfly Elite 4%, which was used by elite runner Eliud Kipchoge during Nike’s Breaking2 event, which resulted in the fastest marathon ever run. The special sauce in this edition is the FlyPrint upper, which is printed on the fly by a specially customized 3D printer out of a proprietary Nike polymer.

I spoke with Nike’s Brett Holts, product line manager for running footwear and Roger Chen, a senior director for Nike’s NXT Digital Innovation department, about the process and the shoe.

The material is printed out in a pattern specifically designed for a given athlete’s needs and attached to the much hyped Zoom X foam midsole from the 4% model. The process, which Nike is calling FlyPrint, has some similarities to Nike’s other famous ‘fly’ process, FlyKnit, hence the name. The printing process, says Chen, is a lot like painting the material.

The uppers I saw pre-lasting look a lot like a regular butterfly upper, with the same kind of flexibility you’re used to seeing from fabric or other polymer-based upper materials. This is not a hard-shell 3D-printed material, it’s a fabric of sorts. This is reinforced by the fact that several components of the shoe are still made of FlyKnit including the tongue and collar. Those parts are so similar in chemical composition that there is no glue needed to attach them. Instead, the FlyPrint material is bonded seamlessly with the FlyKnit, making for a one-piece design that is stronger and lighter.

The process of computer aided design in consumer products has a long history — but computational design is an evolution of this concept and has begun to gain steam lately with production-ready 3D-printing processes like Carbon’s M-series digital light synthesis printers and Desktop Metal’s Production System. The guiding force behind computational design is that you feed parameters and physical properties into a model — basically limitations and desired outcomes — and get designs that would either be impossible or incredibly time consuming for humans to produce.

In the case of the new FlyPrint upper, the constraints are the properties of the material and the forces that Kipchoge’s feet were exerting on that material. With that data, along with the chemical composition of the polymer, a computational model allowed Nike to tweak the design for support, flexibility, reinforcement or relaxation on a much more granular level than they could ever accomplish with FlyKnit.

If, for instance, Kipchoge felt that he needed more support through the arch area, the team could tweak that metric in that region, resulting in a more compact pattern of diamond-shaped lattice. In the FlyKnit world (and the world of most knit running shoes) this is done by creating various panels that reflect the properties you want from that portion of the shoe and glueing or stitching them together, adding weight and reducing strength.

Now, Nike can print a fully customized upper in one go, blending it seamlessly with FlyKnit where it makes sense for comfort.

The result of all of this is that the shoe is incredibly light. A 12 gram, or 6% reduction in weight to start. On top of that, one of Kipchoge’s big issues with the Vaporfly Elites in Berlin was water retention in the rain. The shoes started out light but water soaked into the FlyKnit and couldn’t fully make its way out. The FlyPrint upper is nearly translucent it’s so porous, which solves the drainage issue.

Chen says that Kipchoge said that it ‘felt like he was flying’ because he could feel the wind on his feet.

Another huge advantage to FlyPrint, points out Holts, is speed. Nike was able to design and construct every iteration of the shoe through to the final model in just 4 months. As a frame of reference, it typically takes 9 months to a year to get a shoe off the ground.

“We would never have been able to do that [with FlyKnit],” says Holts, “we were addressing the needs of our athlete within 24 hours.”

This day-long cycle — taking into account the Kenyan time differential — of trading feedback with Kipchoge and turning around his requested updates to fit or function was uniquely enabled by using the FlyPrint process.

Additionally, the modeling component of the process allows Nike to scale the shoe through various sizes while maintaining the appropriate ratios of material to negative space for each section.

Nike is using an established 3D printing process called fused deposition modeling, basically painting shapes onto a surface with production-ready TPU materials, but Chen says that the proprietary components of the process lie in how the printers are being driven to lay down the FlyPrint. Neither will say what printers Nike is using but note the company’s history in ‘hacking’ manufacturing tools to get the job done. As an industry note, Stratasys is one of the more established players in FDM printing.

Computational design and production ready 3D printing are changing footwear as we speak. Adidas and Carbon are focusing on the midsole in fashion and basketball, Nike is reinventing the upper for elite runners. But the real gem here might not be the speed or customization — both important advancements.

Instead, it could be the way that the design process is compressed down to mate directly with the manufacturing process. This has the potential to change not just footwear, but every kind of product made. Instead of the lengthy and costly process of injection molding or milling, product designers are, for the first time ever, able to start taking direct ownership of the production process, realizing impossible designs and goals with the use of a powerful feedback loop that includes designer, materials and process in one flow of data.

The Vaporfly Elite FlyPrint is a product for elite runners only, and a small amount of them will be available at an event in London soon, as well as on the feet of Kipchoge and other Nike runners. But there is an epochal shift in the way shoes (and other products) are made coming, and this is one of the harbingers of that shift. Pay attention.