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Gift Guide: Extremely Online books

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Gift Guide: Extremely Online books

Welcome to TechCrunch’s 2021 Holiday Gift Guide! Need help with gift ideas? We’ve got lots of them. We’re just starting to roll out this year’s gift guides, so check back from now until the end of December for more

If you can’t read a good book without stopping every few pages to tweet about it, you might be what we call Extremely Online. You unabashedly distinguish between real life and digital life by using phrases like IRL versus URL, you disabled the Screen Time app on your iPhone because you don’t need that kind of judgement. Maybe you’re so online that it’s your job to write about social media, and even when you’re not working, you’re still thinking about the vice grip that Meta has on your life. Okay, that last one hit a bit too close to home.

But if you’re someone who would gladly read a dissertation on what the Steak-umms Twitter account means for digital advertising strategy, I’ve got bad news for you — that gold mine doesn’t exist yet. Still, some great writers — from inside Silicon Valley and from firmly outside of it, through fiction and non-fiction — can bring us offline to teach us about tech culture. Here are some relatively recent books that confront everything from the rise of TikTok to a fictional metaverse gone wrong.

This article contains links to affiliate partners where available. When you buy through these links, TechCrunch may earn an affiliate commission.

“Several People Are Typing” by Calvin Kasulke

Image Credits: Doubleday

Here are the basic facts: book told exclusively through Slack messages, antagonistic Slackbot inhabits human’s body, human gets trapped in Slack, all his co-workers think it’s just a really elaborate bit, chaos ensues.

I’ve read this book twice this year, once as an e-book (yes, it really is just a bunch of Slack messages, no other exposition), and once as an audiobook, which features an ensemble cast performing as all the various Slack chatters. Both were lovely experiences. You might see “Slack book” and think it’s just a belabored treatise on how ~capitalism and the corporate world are eating us alive!~. This definitely isn’t a pro-capitalist book, but even as it tackles serious themes about our generation’s complete inability to understand how to create a work-life balance, it never feels overwrought, since it’s just so hilarious and absurd. Do you know how weird it looks to (1) read a book on the Philly bus and (2) laugh out loud at the book you are reading on the Philly bus? This book did that to me.

TechCrunch interviewed Calvin Kasulke (via text), where he shared some incontrovertible truths, like, “Capitalism is bad and bodies are prisons, but the only thing worse than having one is not having one.” But perhaps more importantly, Kasulke said: “Meatball subs are as good a reason to have a physical form as anything. Top 5 reasons to stay tethered to this mortal coil.”

Price: $18 from Amazon

“Uncanny Valley” by Anna Wiener

Image Credits: MCD

When this buzzworthy memoir about working in Silicon Valley came out last year, I deliberately chose not to read it, even though Goodreads kept telling me I would like it (semi-related: startup founders trying to “disrupt Goodreads” — I see you, and I appreciate you). I felt like I didn’t need a book to tell me something I already know: that startup culture can be toxic and misogynistic and that tech companies own too much of our data, because yes, we know that Browser A is better privacy-wise than Browser B, but what about all of our customized bookmarks and plugins? Even though none of these revelations were particularly shocking, Wiener’s perspective on the tech world as a non-technical startup employee was a reprieve from the corporate jargon that litters my inbox every day.

But the book isn’t so much about what it’s like to work in the Valley as it is about the experience of being a 20-something who just wants to work an innocuous, creative job that doesn’t hurt people, only to be seduced by the lucrative paychecks of the tech world, which may or may not hurt people. Wiener’s memoir begins as she slogs through a publishing gig in New York City, struggling to make ends meet while her bosses are taking lunch meetings at upscale bars and wearing designer clothes to the office. But you can’t blame her for abandoning her artsy college friends to move to the Bay and learn what MAUs are. It becomes clear to Wiener that it’s seemingly impossible to make it in fields like publishing or arts administration if your parents aren’t paying your rent. So what’s more evil: a corporate world that promises creative fulfillment and instead delivers inescapable student loan debt, or one that is wreaking havoc on the Bay Area and pushing longtime residents out of their homes but at least pays its workers well?

So, I guess the book didn’t really teach me anything new — there’s no ethical consumption under global capitalism, blah blah, we’re all complicit, et. al. But it’s at least nice to know you’re not the only one having an existential crisis about these things, I guess? Don’t worry, I’m fine.

Price: $12 from Amazon

“No One Is Talking About This” by Patricia Lockwood

Image Credits: Riverhead Books

A nameless protagonist goes viral for posting, “can a dog be twins?” Of course, she becomes famous on the internet. It’s good content.

The first half of the book is told in post-ironic, somewhat nihilistic online-speak that feels mind-numbing. It’s the novelistic embodiment of doomscrolling. But when tragedy strikes close to home, the narrator is suddenly unconcerned with what’s going on in “the portal,” which is basically Twitter. Like “Several People Are Typing,” “No One Is Talking About This” is eerie in its mimicry of how Extremely Online people actually experience the internet. You’re sucked in, until suddenly, you’re not.

Price: $23 from Amazon

“A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor” by Hank Green

Image Credits: Dutton

Hank Green was one of the first YouTube stars, going on to found the YouTube conference VidCon and a bunch of other companies, like a charity sock subscription and an educational video company. He’s also weirdly popular on TikTok, so if anyone knows how the internet can change your life, it’s Hank, the enthusiastic nerd who probably taught you chemistry in high school.

Anyway, Green’s online footprint is relevant because his duology of “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing” and “A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor” is all about the internet (yes, the book I am recommending you is a sequel, which means you have to read two whole books). The first book chronicles (minor spoiler alert?) an overconfident 20-something’s rapid rise to global fame as she goes viral for unwittingly making first contact with aliens. April May, this struggling recent grad-turned-superstar, must reckon with what it’s like to go viral overnight — and now, in part thanks to TikTok, this experience is more relatable than ever.

But the second book, rather than the first, is highlighted on this list, because that was the story I couldn’t stop thinking about when Mark Zuckerberg unveiled Facebook/Meta’s plans for the Metaverse (it also might be relevant that I weirdly haven’t read “Ready Player One”). In the second book, April and her friends try to take down a wealthy tech founder whose virtual reality platform is a front for far more nefarious plans.

In one section of the book, Andy sinks deep into the VR “Altus Space,” where a leaderboard tracks which user can make the most money by selling goods in the space’s digital currency. The top 50 people on the leaderboard are promised an earth-shattering, “premium” experience. Andy climbs the ranks by adding value to the community, but he’s thwarted by celebrities who sell limited edition virtual trinkets in a last-ditch effort to win the contest. Without ever mentioning crypto, NFTs or DAOs, Green reminds us that the decentralized internet is not inherently utopian. As Andy’s girlfriend points out, since when has capitalism been a meritocracy?

Price: $16 from Amazon

“Bad Blood:  Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup” by John Carreyrou

Image Credits: Knopf

Every book on this list was published in 2020 or later, but “Bad Blood,” released in 2018, is the exception. Over three years since the non-fiction book was published, Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes is now being tried for criminal fraud, and things are getting spicy. So, if you’re Extremely Online, you’re probably going to hear about Elizabeth Holmes and her tiny vials of blood.

An investigative reporter at the Wall Street Journal, John Carreyrou published an exposé in 2015 revealing that Theranos, valued at $9 billion, didn’t actually produce accurate results through its blood testing technology. “Bad Blood” reveals how Carreyrou reported the story, including details from his research that didn’t make his original articles. Whether you’re eagerly watching Holmes’ trial unfold or you’ve never heard of Theranos, “Bad Blood” is a must-read for anyone interested in (or nervous about) the pitfalls of Silicon Valley culture. It’s almost too fascinating and horrific to be real.

Price: $12 from Amazon

“The Atmospherians” by Alex McElroy

Image Credits: Atria Books

Here’s another fiction selection, but this one comes screeching with trigger warnings: eating disorders, suicide, cults, you name it. But it’s also worth noting that Alex McElroy approaches these sensitive topics responsibly, even writing an essay in The Atlantic about how to broach eating disorder narratives without tacitly providing readers with instructions on how to mimic dangerous behaviors. In the case of this novel, McElroy addresses a character’s eating disorder by showing how his friends react to his suffering, rather than chronicling his exact symptoms.

“The Atmospherians” is so Extremely Online enough that its book cover is literally Instagram, but much of the book takes place in the woods. After a beauty influencer gets “cancelled” on social media, she starts a cult with her childhood best friend, where they attempt to reform “bad men,” teaching them to unlearn the behaviors of toxic masculinity. But maybe the most online moment is when the narrator is offered a lucrative contract to be the spokesperson for a product that wants to change social media by asking people, “are you sure you want to post that?” before they say something that might offend people. It’s not too far off from real-world warnings that exist on Twitter and Instagram.

Price: $18 from Amazon

“Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry ” by Jason Schreier

Image Credits: Grand Central Publishing

If you’re Extremely Online in that you play a lot of video games, you’ve probably heard about how the gaming giant Activision Blizzard, which produces games like Candy Crush, Call of Duty and World of Warcraft, is facing SEC investigations and sexual harassment scandals. But Jason Schreier’s reporting reveals that this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problems in the video game industry.

The start of the book can feel a bit depressing as Schreier recounts numerous stories of game studios closing without notice, developers struggling between jobs and staff being poorly compensated for 70-hour work weeks. But the book’s subtitle delivers on its promise to chronicle not just ruin, but also, recovery! Ultimately, Schreier creates a hopeful narrative. You’ll never look at Bioshock Infinite the same way after learning how bad things got behind the scenes, but Schreier shows how independent studios, unionized teams and outsourcing studios like Disbelief can help solve the toxicity of the video game industry.

Price: $16 from Amazon

“Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home” by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen

Image Credits: Knopf

I knew that the definitive pandemic-era work from home book was coming, but I’m glad it was written by Charlie Warzel, who writes the Extremely Online Galaxy Brain newsletter, and Anne Helen Petersen, author of that viral “millennial burnout” article-turned-book. Thankfully, Warzel and Petersen’s book is less about ~these unprecedented times~ and more about how the culture shift of the pandemic can maybe be an opportunity to solve issues that have existed in the corporate world since before we wore masks every day.

“Capitalism is inherently exploitative, but it is also — at least for the immediate future — our guiding economic system,” the pair writes. “If we’re going to live under it, how can we bend it to make that experience involve less suffering?”

“Out of Office” focuses more on “knowledge workers” than, let’s say, an Amazon fulfillment center employee. But, bonus recommendation if you’re itching to get radicalized about awful capitalism: “On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane” by Emily Guendelsberger. It’s relevant reading given current events.

Price: $23 from Amazon

“TikTok Boom: China’s Dynamite App and the Superpower Race for Social Media” by Chris Stokel-Walker

Image Credits: Canbury Press

This comprehensive history of TikTok’s rise to social dominance begins as the author, a tech journalist who also wrote a book about YouTube, attends a panel at VidCon. It’s February 2019. The British writer remembers of the time, “I know that TikTok is popular, but only in the way that people outside of the U.S. know that the NFL pays astronomical salaries without ever getting a grip on it, or comprehending why anyone would care about it.” How quickly things changed for us all. Now, with over 1 billion monthly active users, TikTok feels like something that’s always existed, yet its prevalence is still relatively new. Trillion-dollar companies like Meta look at TikTok like the popular kid who just transferred schools and threatens to upend its seemingly impenetrable social dominance. How did this happen, and with a Chinese app nonetheless, in a time when Western xenophobia is horrifyingly rampant? Stokel-Walker picks apart just how TikTok rose to prominence, charting its impact on the creator economy, Silicon Valley, geopolitics and more.

Price: $20 from Amazon

Source: Tech

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Clean energy firm Husk signs UN energy compact as it begins solar mini-grid expansion in Nigeria, rest of Africa

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Husk Power Systems, a clean energy company that has been at the forefront of fueling rural electrification since 2008, is planning to launch 500 solar mini-grids in Nigeria over the next five years.

The renewable energy firm revealed the plans today when it announced the signing of a voluntary commitment with the United Nations to grow its energy market in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The commitment is contained under the 24/7 Carbon-free Energy Compact, by leading energy buyers, suppliers, equipment manufacturers and governments. The compact represents a global effort to accelerate the uptake of carbon-free electricity as a way of averting the perilous effects of climate change.

The startup currently has operations in Nigeria, Tanzania and India (Uttar Pradesh and Bihar), where it has the ambitious goal of installing at least 5,000 mini-grids by 2030 and in the process make 1 million connections – half of which will be micro, small and medium-sized enterprises. Husk launched its first six mini-grids in Nigeria November last year, and it’s looking to have 100 mini-grids operational in the country within two years.

“Husk is committed to powering households, but our focus is first and foremost on micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), and public institutions like health clinics and schools. MSMEs are the engine of economies in Africa, and powering existing small businesses and encouraging the formation of new MSMEs helps create the type of economic growth and social benefit that carries over to households by creating more opportunity and more jobs,” the company’s CEO and co-founder Manoj Sinha, told TechCrunch.

The renewable energy firm is planning to launch 500 mini-grids in Nigeria in a period of five years, and is eyeing the rest of Africa for expansion. Image Credits: Husk Power Systems

The firm is now exploring growth opportunities in the western, southern and eastern regions of Africa, while prioritizing the countries that have a “supportive regulatory environment” like its current markets. In Nigeria, for example, mini-grid operators are “largely free of permit requirements for either standalone off-grid mini-grids or interconnected mini-grids.”

The Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission Mini-Grid Regulation (2016) stipulates the transfer of assets and financial compensation for mini-grid operators in cases where the national grid finally connects the regions where private mini-grids are operational.

Husk is one of the companies participating in the Nigeria Electrification Project, which provides performance-based grants, a sort of capital subsidy, to mini-grid developers — part of the national effort to solve the country’s chronic power supply issues.

“In terms of policy frameworks and regulation, the states where Husk works in India (Uttar Pradesh and Bihar) have supportive policies. And the Nigerian mini-grid policy is actually based on those policies, with additional improvements. As a result, Nigeria is seen to have the most conducive policy in sub-Saharan Africa at the moment, which also includes their Nigeria Electrification Project (NEP), a program administered by the Rural Electrification Agency and funded by the World Bank to provide a capital subsidy to mini-grid developers and accelerate market development,” said Sinha.

The company plans to have additional technological and business model innovations, and the use of AI and IoT to remotely manage its fleet. Image Credits: Husk Power Systems

Nigeria and India are the company’s biggest markets at the moment. A supportive environment encourages investments from private players like Husk, and bridges the energy needs of households and small businesses, especially in rural areas.

Potential markets for Husk include Kenya, which at the start of this month, recognized mini-grid power systems granting them 50% tax allowance and other tax incentives enjoyed by large-scale generators.

“We welcome the Energy Compact commitments made by Husk Power and appreciate their leadership. It showcases the business opportunity presented by the global energy transition, and how private enterprises can drive accelerated action on ending energy poverty, expand renewable energy solutions for consumptive and productive load, and improve the adoption of energy efficiency solutions by end consumers,” said UN Energy programme manager, Kanika Chawla.

According to the World Bank, mini-grids have the potential to provide half a billion people with clean energy by the end of this decade (including those using overburdened grids) with the right policies in place. They also provide cleaner and cheaper alternatives of energy, which could transform the lives of millions of people living in darkness.

Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 75% of the world’s population with no access to renewable energy solutions and electricity. Countries like South Sudan, Burundi, Chad, Malawi, Burkina Faso, Madagascar, Tanzania are among some of the least electrified countries in the world, and could benefit from clean energy from solar or wind.

“For off-grid communities, where diesel generation is the default source of electricity, the savings to our customers are significant. Businesses can expect about a 30% reduction in their monthly energy costs by switching from diesel to solar mini-grid electricity,” said Sinha.

Husk has to date raised $40 million from investors, including the Shell energy company and the Dutch Development bank FMO. The startup, which also provides financing for household and commercial appliances, was recognized last year by the 2021 Renewables Global Status Report as the only mini-grid developer with over 100 community sites in operation.

Source: Tech

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Baidu’s electric car brand Jidu closes $400M Series A round

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Once an industry with long development cycles, the automotive space is being upended by China’s tech giants. One can hardly keep up with all the new electric vehicle brands that come out of the country nowadays. Jidu, an electric carmaking company founded by Baidu and its Chinese auto partner Geely only a year ago, said Wednesday it has banked nearly $400 million in a Series A funding round.

The new injection, bankrolled by Baidu and Geely, which owns Volvo, is a boost to the $300 million initiation capital that Jidu closed last March. The proceeds will speed up Jidu’s R&D and mass production process and allow it to showcase its first concept “robocar” — which it classifies as an automotive robot rather than a car — at the Beijing auto show in April. The mass-produced version of the robocar will launch in 2023.

Jidu’s chief executive Xia Yiping previously headed the connected car unit of Fiat Chrysler in the APAC region and co-founded Mobike, the Chinese bike-sharing pioneer acquired by Meituan in 2018.

The rate at which Jidu has moved forward is remarkable but could easily attract skeptics who question its tech’s viability. The speedy cycle, the carmaker explained, is thanks to its strategy of using a simulated prototype car to develop its smart cockpit and autonomous driving systems, rather than testing individual hardware parts in a mass-produced vehicle.

The carmaker said in as short as nine months, it has “tested and proven” the safety and reliability of its Level 4 (autonomous driving without human interaction in most circumstances) capabilities for urban and highway roads.

The EV startup is also putting a big emphasis on branding and fan community, something its competitor Nio is known for. In December, it started recruiting car lovers to join its “Jidu Union” to geek out about cars at online and offline events.

Moving forward, Jidu will be hiring and training talent specializing in autonomous driving, smart cockpits, smart manufacturing and other related technologies.

Source: Tech

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Resilience raises $45 million for its cancer care startup

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French startup Resilience announced yesterday that it has raised a $45 million (€40 million) Series A round led by Cathay Innovation. The startup wants to improve the treatment journey when you’re diagnosed with cancer so that you live a healthier and longer life.

In addition to Cathay Innovation, existing investor Singular is also participating. Other funds are joining the round, such as Exor Seeds, Picus Capital and Seaya Ventures. Finally some healthcare investors are rounding up the round — Fondation Santé Service, MACSF, Ramsay Santé and Vivalto Ventures.

I already profiled Resilience in March 2021 so I encourage you to read my previous article to learn more about the company. Co-founded by two serial entrepreneurs, Céline Lazorthes and Jonathan Benhamou, the company wants to help both patients and caregivers when it comes to cancer care.

On the patient side, Resilience helps you measure, understand and deal with the effects and side effects of cancer and cancer treatments. Users can track various data points in the app and find content and information about their illness.

But Resilience isn’t just an app that you use at home. It is also a software-as-a-service solution for hospitals so that they can better personalize their treatments. Resilience has been founded in partnership with Gustave Roussy, one of the leading cancer research institutes in the world.

Practitioners will be able to take advantage of all the data that patients have gathered from the app. This way, cancer treatment facilities understand the patient better and can adapt their care more quickly. Resilience has acquired Betterise to gain a head start when it comes to data-driven cancer care.

The long-term vision is even more ambitious than that. If you talk with a caregiver working for a cancer treatment facility, they’ll tell you they never have enough time.

And it’s even more difficult to keep track of new treatments that are becoming more and more specialized. Resilience doesn’t want to replace doctors. But it wants to help them overcome blindspots.

The result should be better care for patients, as well as more support through the Resilience app. Cancer care is a long and painful process, so anything that can improve this process is a good thing.

Source: Tech

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