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Space is the Place, Anti-Social Media, and Ode to a Beat: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week

From the pressing issues of the press to the final frontier, we learned a lot over the last seven days

We’re living in a world awash with content—from must-read articles and binge-worthy shows to epic tweetstorms and viral TikToks and all sorts of clickbait in between. The Elective is here to help cut through the noise. Each week, members of the Elective team share the books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and experiences that not only made them smarter but also changed how they see the world around them and, often, how they see themselves.

Screenshot of a red and white parachute deployed, seen from below


A camera on the top of the aeroshell protecting the Mars rover Perseverance looks up at the parachute that helped the rover land safely on the Red Planet.

Triumph of Perseverance

Last week was an epic one for space nerds. The NASA rover Perseverance—“Percy” to his close friends and engineering team—successfully landed on Mars, sending back fantastic images and the first audio ever recorded on the Red Planet. For all the attention we pay to the drama of liftoff, with the fire-breathing rockets and the awesome sight of an object breaking free of Earth's gravity, the most intense engineering challenge is slowing down and landing. Easing into a Martian parking space when you're going 25,000 miles per hour is impressive stuff, requiring deceleration rockets, a bunch of blown-off parts and pieces, and a massive parachute to compensate for the thinner atmosphere. (Also: the Perseverance parachute contained a coded message). Amazing stuff.
I once got to spend an afternoon with Ted Sorensen, speechwriter and advisor to President John Kennedy. Speaking to my class of White House Fellows, Sorensen told the story of President Kennedy gathering scientific advisors around the table in the White House to talk about what it would take to send a man to the moon by the end of the 1960s—literally the first "moonshot." The group felt confident that getting astronauts onto the moon was doable. Then Kennedy, in Sorensen's telling, walked towards the door, stopped, turned back to the group and said, "And bring them back alive." That minor caveat—that we not only had to send humans to another celestial body but somehow bring them home—was an exponentially harder lift. So hard, in fact, that when the moon landing finally did occur in 1969, just as Kennedy decreed, President Richard Nixon had a somber speech ready in case of disaster. "Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace,” the opening lines went. "In their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man." I'm grateful Nixon never had to use those lines, and awed that space travel is still binding us closer together. In triumph or tragedy, it reminds us what we're capable of achieving. —Stefanie Sanford

A white thumbs down icon in a blue circle overtop an Australian flag

Tetra Images/Naveed Anjum/Getty Images

A thumbs down down under is a thumbs up in Silicon Valley—right?

Relationship Status: It’s Complicated

Tensions between Big Tech and news providers have been strained for years, with calls for the social media giant to compensate news organizations for the content that gets shared on Facebook. The company has tried different kinds of revenue-sharing agreements with big publishers like the New York Times and BBC, but smaller news outlets—especially local newspapers—have been decimated. They’ve watched as their ad revenue—the lifeblood of their business—was siphoned off by Facebook and Google as they gobbled up ever-larger shares of the market. The result has been shrinking and shuttered newsrooms, expanding news deserts, and far fewer reporters to do real news gathering. Facebook launched in 2004; over the last 17 years, 1,800 American newspapers have ceased publication.
The threat California-based Facebook and Google pose to the industry extends well beyond American borders. Australia decided to tackle it head-on with a new national law, the News Media Bargaining Code, designed to force the big tech firms to pay Australian news providers for their work. The result was a standoff between a democracy of 26 million and tech firms employing nearly 200,000 people that operate more like nation-states than traditional businesses. Google quickly cut a deal with the Australian government before the law took effect, but Facebook held out. For a time, Facebook blacked out all Australian news on its platform, in the process taking down vital information on a number of government and nonprofit Facebook pages. “Facebook’s reputation has been damaged, highlighting the hubris of a big business taking on a powerful democratic nation head-on,” wrote the Financial Times.
Facebook ultimately struck its own last-minute deal to comply with the law, which was passed on February 25, but the episode could be a preview of larger fights to come. The United States and European Union are both launching antitrust and regulatory reviews of Big Tech, trying to figure out how democracy can coexist with hugely powerful online monopolies. “Other authorities including Canada, the UK and the EU that are considering Australia-style laws should take note," the FT wrote. "The Australian government describes its conflict as a proxy battle for the world.” And that battle is just beginning. —Eric Johnson

Close up photograph of pages of a magazine moving at high speeds through a printing press

James Hardy/Getty Images

This isn't a screenshot from The Atlantic's video tour of its printing press. Because the video was shot vertically on a phone. Sheesh.

Start the Presses!

“I’d like to show you some people making crayons.” That’s how Mr. Rogers segued from a drawing segment, in a 1979 episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, to a video that has become a cultural touchstone for people of a certain age (ahem): the tour of the crayon factory. The six-minute clip, which starts at 5:45 in the episode, is narrated by Mr. Rogers with a tinkling piano soundtrack (my kind of ASMR) and shows the process of turning a tanker car full of hot wax into a 64-count box of trusty Crayolas. I loved this video as a kid and I love it just as much now—the behind-the-curtain looks Mr. Rogers gave kids of how stuff got made (like erasers and towels) both demystified the everyday and expanded our appreciation of it. (These clips also now form a vital record of American manufacturing that has all but vanished.) The crayon factory tour was very much on my mind when I watched this short video published by The Atlantic showing how its covers get printed from inside the printing press. It’s from 2018, but the publication resurfaced it recently when the new issue hit a delivery snag. Good news for all of us who missed it the first time—and for everyone who loves seeing how the fishwrap is made. Two caveats, though. First, there are some strobe effects in the video, so be aware if they can impact you. And second, the video was shot in vertical mode—an absolutely inexplicable faux pas. Horizontal mode always and forever, people! —Dante A. Ciampaglia

Illustration of a star field streaking by

Yuichiro Chino/Getty Images

Will interstellar space exploration involve Matthew McConaughey? Because that could be a dealbreaker.

The Final Final Frontier

After my husband and I poured over the Percy coverage, we went down a YouTube wormhole of even more ambitious plans for navigating the stars. Traveling to a neighboring planet takes some of the greatest engineering skill on Earth—traveling to a neighboring galaxy gets you firmly into the realm of theoretical physics. It turns out there are plenty of people thinking hard about antimatter drives and black holes as potential travel portals. And just like the Mars rovers and the Apollo missions, the journey will be the easy part. Slowing down enough to land remains the real hurdle. "EDL"—entry, descent, and landing—is hard enough when you're zipping around our own solar system at 25,000 mph. But try slowing down from 10-50% the speed of light without accidentally breaking something. —Stefanie Sanford

Black and white photo of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg standing in front of a frieze, with Ferlinghetti looking at the camera and Ginsberg looking slightly to his left

M. Stroud/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Lawrence Ferlinghetti (left) and Allen Ginsberg at the Albert Memorial in South Kensington, London, June 11, 1965.

So We Beat On

Dove sta amore
Where lies love
Dove sta amore
Here lies love
The ring dove love
In lyrical delight
Hear love’s hillsong
Love’s true willsong
Love’s low plainsong
Too sweet painsong
In passages of night
Dove sta amore
Here lies love
The ring dove love
Dove sta amore
Here lies love

(A Coney Island of the Mind, no. 28, 1958)

R.I.P. Lawrence Ferlinghetti (and thanks for all the Beats)
Dante A. Ciampaglia