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Image: Starship

The war on cars

Starship

Good morning! This Wednesday, scooter and delivery companies are trying to beat cars off city streets, GameStop continues to be wild, Biden's making more cabinet appointments and Facebook's trying to explain its algorithm.

Also, a couple other exciting things. Today is the launch of Protocol | China, our new vertical focused on covering the people, power and politics of China's tech industry. You can check out our first stories here, and sign up to get access to updates and our China newsletter (the first edition is coming later today). Also today: our event with Benedict Evans, in which he will make sense of all the tech trends and craziness coming in 2021. It kicks off at 11 a.m. ET today. Come join us!

(Was this email forwarded to you? Sign up here to get Source Code every day. And you can text with us, too, by signing up here or texting 415-475-1729.)

The Big Story

The new transit system

This is maybe the most exciting moment ever for the scooter industry. I know that's a bonkers thing to say on a day when it's freezing and snowing across half the world, but hear me out.

With many people still nervous about getting into Ubers and subway cars, and cities and citizens alike more worried about climate change than ever, it's getting easier for companies such as Lime to make their case. And the huge increase in local delivery has made clear how inefficient cars are as a way to move people and things around a city. So it's not exactly surprising that folks are moving fast.

  • Lime is introducing mopeds to its fleet, it announced this morning, as the third mode of transportation — after scooters and bikes — in its arsenal. (CEO Wayne Ting told me the company's already working on mode four and five, but wouldn't say what they are.)
  • On the other side of the industry, Starship just raised $17 million and is taking its delivery robots to two new college campuses. It also announced that its robots have completed one million deliveries.

The key to these new systems is flexibility, both Ting and Starship CEO Ahti Heinla told me. Ting said: "If I say to you, 'you have to buy one thing for all your transportation,'" then of course you're going to buy a car. But "you're using a 5,000-pound tank to move a 200-pound human."

  • Lime thinks of mopeds as a way to move slightly faster and slightly farther, with a little more cargo space, than a scooter can allow, with only a little extra hassle. And since mopeds are such a mature, mass-market vehicle already, Lime was able to just buy existing models instead of having to build its own.
  • Starship has gone the opposite way: Its delivery robot was designed entirely in-house. Heinla said the robot needed to be light enough to not cause damage even in a collision, and it needed to not frighten people as it strolls autonomously down the sidewalk. Plus, he added, "you can't solve the unit economics if you have a really expensive robot."

Roads and sidewalks will soon look totally different, both CEOs told me. The tech is improving fast, regulators are getting more comfortable with the new ideas and users keep demanding more. These new systems — with new vehicles, new delivery systems, even new infrastructure — have been in the works for years, and are increasingly ready for mass consumption.

  • Lime has revamped some of its safety mechanisms to make its moped offering work, like an AI-powered camera system that tries to ensure riders are wearing their helmets and a much more strict drivers' license verification process. These are the same things, Ting said, that'll help Lime as it moves even further up the transportation stack.

Heinla told me he used to have to carefully guide city officials through everything Starship planned to do. "Nowadays," he said, "they are not nervous about anything." Neither are the companies building the future of local transport.

GameStop

The internet really is undefeated

The GameStop saga continues. And I can't stop thinking about the ways its incredible stock market fluctuations demonstrate so much about the internet right now.

  • After another wild trading day in which the company's stock price nearly doubled, $GME was up as much as 50% more in after-hours trading after Elon Musk tweeted the word "Gamestonk!!" with a link to r/WallStreetBets. Literally that was all he did.
  • Chamath Palihapitiya helped fuel the day's run by buying into GameStop's rise … after crowd-sourcing the decision on Twitter.
  • If you want to get super practical about it, the best case for GameStop's future is that it's … going to figure out how to sell games on the internet? Despite the fact that we live in an era of game downloads, Amazon and the fact that "stores on the internet" are not a new phenomenon.

Forget the craziness of the stock market, which is really just different people doing the same weird stuff in apps that has happened for decades on trading floors. (If you're wondering about the legality of all this, Bloomberg's Matt Levine has a good answer.) What we're seeing here is proof of a simple but mind-bending fact about the internet: A group of people, sufficiently large and motivated, can make almost anything happen. It's both thrilling and terrifying.

  • Some days it's WallStreetBets and "let's stick it to the finance gurus who think they're better than us"; others, it's QAnon and "the government is run by a bunch of Satan-worshipping cannibals."
  • It all seems sort of silly to think about, but there's no getting away from the fact that these things now have very real consequences.

People Are Talking

On Protocol: Machine learning is not some content-moderation silver bullet, Block Party's Tracy Chou said:

  • "People who think ML is going to solve everything are generally men who are enamored with this technology. They don't experience the problem and see how much basic stuff you can do with simple products."

A few Facebook executives endeavored to explain the News Feed algorithms, and the hard-to-quantify goal the company's working toward:

  • "How can we measure whether something creates long-term value for a person? We ask them. For example, we survey people to ask how meaningful they found an interaction with their friends or whether a post was worth their time so that our system reflects what people say they enjoy and find meaningful."

Ajit Pai stands by the repeal of net neutrality, and sees hypocrisy in the fight over Section 230:

  • "The very same people who were advocating so strenuously for so-called net neutrality have turned around and said to some of the tech giants and other platforms, 'We actually want you to censor speech that we disagree with on the internet.'"

And Commerce secretary nominee Gina Raimondo thinks 230 could use some changing:

  • "We have to hold these companies accountable, we need platform accountability. But of course that reform would have to be balanced against the fact that these businesses rely upon user-generated content for their innovation, and they've created many thousands of jobs."

A MESSAGE FROM NASDAQ

Nasdaq

From commerce to content and from Big Tech to Big Government, leading technology analyst Benedict Evans has a knack for seeing the future. At this event, he'll debut and discuss his 2021 trends and predictions for a tech industry — and a world — in the middle of huge change. Join us for this event today, Jan. 27 at 11 a.m. ET.

RSVP today.

Making Moves

Amazon is hiring 3,000 new employees in Boston. Which is in addition to the thousands it's already hiring in practically every other city in America. Because Amazon is basically trying to turn the U.S. into a company town.

Archie Puri is Galileo's new chief product officer. She comes from PayPal, and told Protocol's Ben Pimentel she'd been trying to get to Galileo for a while.

Antony Blinken is the new U.S. secretary of state. And from the sound of it, he's ready to pick a serious tech fight with China.

Chris DeRusha is Biden's new CISO, after working in cybersecurity during the Obama administration.

ByteDance is cutting staff in India, reportedly telling employees "we don't know when we will make a comeback in India." The company's generally doing better than thought though: Its revenue reportedly more than doubled last year.

In Other News

  • Eric Schmidt called for U.S.-China tech "bifurcation." He was one of a group of experts, including Jigsaw founder Jared Cohen, Scale AI founder Alexandr Wang and Google quantum engineer Marissa Giustina, to warn of China's technological advancement and the lack of a level playing field.
  • Fifty-nine percent of Americans want to break up Big Tech, according to a Vox/Data for Progress poll. The majority of both Democrats and Republicans support breakup plans, though Republicans are more keen on it.
  • Amazon and SpaceX are fighting over satellites. SpaceX wants to put some Starlink satellites in a lower altitude than had been authorized, but Amazon says that will get in the way of its Project Kuiper constellation. Amazon said SpaceX is trying to "smother competition in the cradle."
  • On Protocol: Twitter's future is newsletters and podcasts, not tweets. It acquired newsletter platform Revue yesterday, following recent acquisitions of Breaker and Squad.
  • Apple is accelerating supply-chain diversification. Nikkei Asia reports that the company is increasing production in India and Vietnam in an effort to be less reliant on China.
  • DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman reportedly bullied staff, according to The Wall Street Journal. Complaints about his behavior led to him being stripped of most management responsibilities.
  • Susan Wojcicki named her three big product priorities for YouTube in 2021, which boil down to: making YouTube Shorts into a true TikTok competitor, integrating shopping into YouTube and improving the YouTube experience on televisions.
  • Two TikTok rivals are merging: Clash acquired Byte, Dom Hofmann's short-form video app.

One More Thing

Flash is dead. Long live Flash.

Flash: old, outdated, huge security risk, good that it's gone. Flash: also surprisingly important to some parts of the internet! The South African Revenue Service decided to build its own Flash-supporting browser just so people could file their taxes. A city in China had some trouble with its railroads until it went back to an older version. Flash may be gone, but it'll never die.

A MESSAGE FROM NASDAQ

Nasdaq

From commerce to content and from Big Tech to Big Government, leading technology analyst Benedict Evans has a knack for seeing the future. At this event, he'll debut and discuss his 2021 trends and predictions for a tech industry — and a world — in the middle of huge change. Join us for this event today, Jan. 27 at 11 a.m. ET.

RSVP today.

Today's Source Code was written by David Pierce, with help from Anna Kramer and Shakeel Hashim. Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to david@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the company Starship in one instance, as well as Dom Hofmann's name. This story was updated on Jan. 27, 2021.

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