The Download: how to log off, and the future of energy

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

How to log off

As soon as I wake up, I grab my phone to check any messages that have arrived overnight and thumb through news alerts before scrolling quickly through Twitter and Instagram. At work, I’m tethered to Slack and email, apart from the occasional TikTok video or meme I send to my friends over WhatsApp. And if I end up watching mindless reality TV in the evening (hello, Love Island), I’ll inevitably head back to Twitter to see if everyone else is as wound up by the contestants’ latest antics as I am.

None of this makes me feel bad, exactly. But it doesn’t make me feel great, either. It’s easy to lose hours to pointless scrolling with nothing to show for it.

In search of ways to cut down on aimless time online, I went to talk to some experts about how to forge a healthier, happier relationship with my devices and the internet. Here’s my mini-guide on how to log off. Read the full story.

—Rhiannon Williams

Inside the government agency shaping the future of energy

The US government had a hand in creating some of the most iconic inventions of the last century, from personal computers to modern GPS. Now, it’s making a similar push for energy.

The ARPA-E agency has awarded over $3 billion in funding to over 1,400 projects in advanced energy research since it was founded in 2007, and appointed its new director, Evelyn Wang, in January. 

She sat down with our climate reporter Casey Crownhart to discuss the agency’s role in advancing technology, the challenges that lie ahead, and why we’re living in a critical time for energy. Read the full story.

The internet is about to get a lot safer

If you use Google, Instagram, Wikipedia, or YouTube, you’re going to start noticing changes to content moderation, transparency, and safety features on those sites over the next six months.

Why? It’s down to some major tech legislation that was passed in the EU last year but hasn’t received a whole lot of attention, especially in the US. The Digital Services Act, which deals with digital safety and transparency from tech companies, and the Digital Markets Act, which addresses antitrust and competition in the industry, are actually quite revolutionary. Let Tate Ryan-Mosley, our senior tech policy reporter, explain why. Read the full story.

Tate’s story is from The Technocrat, her new weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things power, politics, and Silicon Valley. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Friday.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Scammers are using AI to impersonate loved ones in distress 
They’re using cheap programs to make eerily convincing phone calls to victims. (WP $)
+ Bing is already showing signs of being a persuasive scammer, too. (Motherboard)
+ Audio deepfakes are poised to become a massive political problem. (The Atlantic $)

2 How Binance sought to evade US authorities
The exchange went to extreme lengths to avoid regulation. (WSJ $)
+ It’s okay to opt out of the crypto revolution. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Russia wants to build its own Android phone
It wants to become more self-sufficient amid biting tech sanctions. (Wired $)

4 Inside Afghanistan’s climate crisis
Scientists in the country are urging the international community to engage with the Taliban. (Undark)
+ The Taliban, not the West, won Afghanistan’s technological war. (MIT Technology Review)

5 What it’s like to take Ozempic for its actual intended purpose
The drug, which is used to treat diabetes, has been cooped by already-slim people looking to lose weight. (Slate $)
+ It’s crucial to ensure the people who need it are still able to access it. (Economist $)

6 What the very first chatbot can teach us about AI
Its warnings are disturbingly prescient today. (Vox)
+ It turns out that Ask Jeeves was right all along. (The Atlantic $)
+ The inside story of how ChatGPT was built from the people who made it. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Alexa, what happened?
Amazon’s once-innovative voice assistant has fallen by the wayside. (FT $)

8 How YouTube birthed a dubbing empire
Dubbing popular videos into new languages unlocks new audiences—and a whole lot of cash. (Rest of World

9 Mouse-jigglers are foiling workplace surveillance plans
They’re freeing workers to pop to the shops or watch the football in peace. (The Guardian)
+ What to do if your boss is watching you. (Wired $)

10 Meet Silicon Valley’s youngest founders
Gen Z are cutting deals and raising investment before they even graduate highschool. (The Information $)

Quote of the day

“We already had Elizabeth Holmes. … we’ve already dug the grave.”

—Seraj Desai, a law student at Stanford, mulls over whether Sam Bankman-Fried’s house arrest on campus sullies the university’s reputation in a chat with the Washington Post.  

The big story

How to measure all the world’s fresh water

December 2021

The Congo River is the world’s second-largest river system after the Amazon. More than 75 million people depend on it for food and water, as do thousands of species of plants and animals. The massive tropical rainforest sprawled across its middle helps regulate the entire Earth’s climate system, but the amount of water in it is something of a mystery. 

Hydrologists and climate scientists rely on monitoring stations to track the river and its connected water bodies, but what was once a network of some 400 stations has dwindled to just 15. Measuring water is key to helping people prepare for natural disasters and adapt to climate change—so researchers are increasingly filling data gaps using information gathered from space. Read the full story.

—Maria Gallucci

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ The bar for maverick duets has truly been raised: I give you James Brown and Luciano Pavarotti (thanks Peter!)
+ This incredible frog real estate journey just keeps getting better and better. 
+ The magnificent De La Soul’s back catalog is finally available on streaming services.
+ Watch what you tweet, these emoji technically count as financial advice:
+ It’s not hard to see why TikTok’s ceramicists are getting a lot of attention.