What Makes a Platform, Anyway?


Laura Bernhardt | Flickr

“Platform” used to mean things like: A railway station waiting area. A soapbox from which one addressed the world. Or a set of positions and policies that a political organization embraced. In the NewCo universe, it means something different — but what, exactly? Paul Ford (Track Changes) takes a stab at defining the word as it has evolved in the tech-internet-sharing economy.

In Ford’s formulation, a platform is any system that handles transactions: financial transactions like buying and selling stuff, communications transactions like sending an email or a text, data transactions like saving an image or tracking an ad. When platforms work well, they lower the individual cost of these transactions the more people use them.

The internet itself is a decentralized platform. But most of the platforms we use today — Google, Facebook, Amazon, Uber, Apple’s App Store — are centralized. As Ford sees it, centralized platforms aren’t the only option. But they’re the option that’s working best right now.

The Upside of a Trade Breakdown

Economists agree: Protectionist trade policies shrink the global pie. Still, we believe that testing assumptions is always a useful exercise. If you want a careful and evidence-based argument for the idea that maybe tariffs don’t necessarily lead to economic disaster, here you are (courtesy of Bloomberg).

Gloomy predictions based on president-elect Trump’s trade policies are “overdone,” writes Noah Smith. His silver-lining case isn’t all-out rosy. But he does see “an outside chance” that “a mild trade war could even be good for the U.S. economy,” he writes.

More likely, though, he says the harm caused by picking fights with Mexico, China, and other trading partners might just be less brutal than we imagine, for a variety of technical reasons. What nobody wants to see — and what would almost certainly be an unmitigated economic disaster — is a trade war precipitating an actual war between the U.S. and, say, China.

Boston Is the Next U.S. City to Test Self-Driving Cars

Boston, known for its confusing street grid and its reckless drivers, is joining the ranks of urban testbeds for autonomous vehicles (The Verge). nuTonomy, a self-driving car company that emerged from MIT and has been conducting tests in Singapore, has announced plans to deploy a small fleet of its cars in an industrial park in South Boston.

This adds Boston to the list of U.S. cities that are hosting such tests, like Pittsburgh, Mountain View, and Austin, where Google and Uber have pilot programs in place. The Boston test cars won’t be available to public riders as they are in Singapore. But nuTonomy aims to gain more experience and data with U.S. road and sign conditions as a first step toward wider deployment here.

Infrastructure Spending Carries No Jobs Guarantee

Infrastructure spending has been this election year’s one shining bipartisan cause. Rebuilding America’s roads, bridges, railroads, and energy grid was a goal that both bitterly divided parties seemed to share. But the infrastructure plan the incoming administration has outlined may not be the job-creating, pump-priming public-works program you think it is, according to one expert on the Democratic side (The Washington Post).

The GOP’s plan, unlike the Obama stimulus or the New Deal, doesn’t envision a lot of government spending to build new projects or fix existing ones. Instead, it’s mostly tax breaks for contractors and investors.

The problem with that? You hand money to businesses for projects they’re already building or planning. Unfortunately, that’s more of a giveaway than a stimulus. It’s great if you believe that all taxes are bad taxes. But it’s not going to provide the jobs or the economic growth that infrastructure spending promises.

The Life and Times of a Fake News Story

There’s a robust and important debate right now about “fake news” on social media and whether it did (or didn’t) influence the election. But how exactly do false news stories gain currency? Sapna Maheshwari (in The New York Times) offers a fascinating case study of how a tweet by a guy with 40 Twitter followers became a national story, even though it wasn’t true.

The day after the election, an Austin marketer named Eric Tucker saw some buses near an anti-Trump protest and tweeted some photos suggesting that the demonstrators had been shipped in. His tweet hopped to Reddit and then to the Free Republic conservative forum. These sites became the vectors for massive sharing on Facebook. Ultimately, Trump himself tweeted a complaint about “professional protesters.”

Tucker, meanwhile, learned that he’d been wrong — the buses belonged to a software conference. He deleted his tweet and later re-shared it with the word FALSE stamped on it. But the debunking efforts had only a fraction of the reach of the original post.

You’ve probably heard the old adage, “A lie is halfway around the world while the truth is still getting its boots on.” But it’s not every day you get the chance to follow the route — in Waze-like detail — the falsehood used to lap a fact.


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