Future Tense Newsletter: Close Encounters of the First Kind?

An artist’s impression shows the first interstellar asteroid, ‘Oumuamua.
ESO/M. Kornmesser

Greetings, Future Tensers,

In 2017, scientists at the University of Hawaii set their high-powered telescopes on a mysterious, cigar-shaped space rock traveling past the sun. After further study, they discovered that the object was unusual for more than just its outward appearance: They were looking at the first interstellar object to travel through our solar system ever observed by humans. They named it ‘Oumuamua (which translates as scout in Hawaiian), and since then, it’s become a fixation among the astronomy community—and outside of it. Although some parts of its trajectory and elongated shape can be explained away by science, that hasn’t stopped some (including, more recently, the chair of Harvard’s astronomy department) from speculating that it may be some kind of advanced alien craft or signal. Astrophysics professor Steve Desch examines some of the particulars of ‘Oumuamua, and how the theories about it show how amateurs and experts can’t help but anthropomorphize the universe.

While ‘Oumuamua continues to sail straight through the solar system, elsewhere on Future Tense, we’ve been covering more terrestrial matters related to power and technology. Justin Sherman argues that recent internet blackouts in three African countries reflect how the internet is becoming more centralized—and thus increasingly vulnerable to manipulation. Josephine Wolff attempts to explain the baffling reasoning behind a federal judge’s ruling that the police cannot compel you to unlock your phone using your fingerprint or other biometrics. And Aaron Mak looks into whether the #10YearChallenge could actually be used to improve facial recognition technology.

Other things we read between reapplying our sunscreen:

Pay up: The Federal Trade Commission is reportedly weighing what kind of fine to impose on Facebook for privacy violations stemming from the Cambridge Analytica scandal. But April Glaser argues that, to really make an impact, the FTC should levy fines against Facebook execs like Mark Zuckerberg as well.

Shutdown symptoms: Angela K. Wilson explains how the shutdown is jeopardizing vital government-funded science research in ways that will have reverberating consequences for decades to come.

Breaking big tech: As the new Congress settles in, April Glaser explains how antitrust oversight and legislation related to corporations like Facebook, Google, and Apple seems to be one of the few things lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in Congress can agree on—and what it might mean to have a legislature more vocal about reigning in the power of these companies.

Rest in peace: Good news: China recently grew the first-ever plant on the moon. Bad news: It’s already dead. Shannon Palus explains the Chinese moon mission, the mini-biosphere the mission created for the plant, and what the mission was intended to accomplish.

Fresh tracks: Streaming services like Spotify may reinforce many power imbalances in the music industry. But, as Brandon Tensley writes, some artists have found ways to use the platforms to push the boundaries of artist autonomy.


Join Future Tense at the Eighteenth Street Lounge in Washington, D.C., tonight for a happy hour conversation with Chris Molanphy of Slate, Cherie Hu of Billboard, Kevin Erickson of the Future of Music Coalition, and Elahe Izadi of the Washington Post to discuss how streaming is changing the music industry. You can RSVP here.

To Spotify’s sales-tax snafu,

Anthony Nguyen

For Future Tense

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.