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The Expanse season 6 makes me worry about the future of touchscreens

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As we hurtle towards The Expanse’s sixth and final episode of its sixth and final season — airing this Friday, January 14th — I can’t stop thinking about one thing: how many of this season’s pivotal moments revolved around pressing the wrong button on a touchscreen.

“If it comes across that the touchscreen is the hero of the show, then we will have truly failed,” says showrunner Naren Shankar, telling me he objects to my entire line of questioning.

I wouldn’t say they failed! I enjoyed the whole season, even if it felt a little… cramped. I’m excited for the game, too. But it’s been 15 years since Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone, and I’m kind of hoping touchscreens don’t still trip us up in another 300 years or so. Sadly, like much of the excellent series, it’s all too plausible.

I spoke to Shankar and authors / writers / showrunners Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham about those user interfaces last month. Also, I badgered them about whether and how The Expanse might return.

But first, you probably want to know what the heck I’m talking about re: touchscreens. And that requires spoilers.

Spoiler warning: this story contains huge spoilers for The Expanse season 6, episodes 1-5. If you’re caught up, you’re good; I won’t mention episode 6 at all.

1) Those buttons are right next to each other

At the end of The Expanse season 5, Camina Drummer and her Belter crew are on the run, having defected from Marco Inaros and his Free Navy. He effectively forced them to join or die, but they decided not to become his guns.

They are tired. Frazzled. So fatigued that in the midst of a carefully planned ambush necessary to escape the Free Navy’s clutches, Michio stabs the wrong touchscreen button. Not just any wrong button, either: instead of blowing the enemy to scrap, it sends out a signal that reveals their exact position. “What did you do?” Drummer screams.

Maybe don’t put buttons right next to each other when one of them will kill you? Then again, Belters jury-rig everything, so I suppose it’s not too surprising they carelessly bound this macro.
Screenshot by Sean Hollister / The Verge

This single action sets up the entire chain of events for Drummer’s crew right through episode 5. Critically low on supplies (they had to blow up two salvageable ships to save themselves, using physical buttons, I might add) and after deciding they need to offload the mentally weary Michio after the touchscreen debacle, they find themselves making an uneasy alliance with another Belter captain. He leads them to exactly what Drummer needs to undermine Marco Inaros’ credibility.

I’m totally fine with this plot-wise, even though I am the kind of person who would never, ever trust myself to stab a touchscreen in a moving vehicle. (Volume dials, please!)

2) Touchscreen drone controls

We now know the mysterious new world Laconia, accessible from our solar system via the Ring Gate, is home to intelligent lifeforms with the power to repair things… and perhaps even people. By the beginning of episode 5, the “Dogs” appear to have helped precocious little girl Cara bring her brother back from the dead — one of the biggest revelations about what humanity might be capable of in The Expanse.

What gave her the idea to drag her brother’s corpse into the wilderness? Way back in episode 2, she was flying a drone with touchscreen controls (already a bad idea if you ask me!), pushes the joystick the wrong direction without looking at the drone’s surroundings, and it hits a tree branch and crashes into the ground. But when she returns in episode 3, she finds the Dogs have fixed her drone (as well as an alien chick she’d befriended and accidentally killed).

Come on, The Expanse: we already had self-flying drones that could have dodged that branch in 2019, much less 2350.

3) The dud torpedo

Holden’s a pro with the wrist computer.
Screenshot by Sean Hollister / The Verge

This one’s 100 percent intentional. At the end of episode 3, The Rocinante has miraculously slipped out of Marco Inaros’ clutches (thanks to a combination of superior firepower, piloting, and luck) and is ready to deliver a killing blow… but after they fire a nuclear torpedo, Holden swiftly and secretly disables the nuke part from his touchscreen wrist computer to avoid killing Naomi’s son. The torpedo doesn’t explode, temporarily convincing everyone that it was a dud — except both the ship’s computer and the eventually recovered torpedo keep a record of Holden’s authorization in their logs.

You can argue whether Holden made the right choice or not, and in general, I love how The Expanse’s interfaces automatically surface the controls their owners might use next, like quickly opening, locking, and unlocking doors aboard a ship. But once again, it’s a pivotal moment where pressing one button on a touchscreen instead of another has lasting repercussions.

Bonus: Holden’s hammer


I’m not sure if it’s technically a pry bar or a nail puller he’s holding, but either way it’s tiny and probably not the real reason the engine stops? Probably.
GIF by Sean Hollister / The Verge

Twenty-five minutes into episode 1, shortly after Michio’s touchscreen button fail, Holden is standing on an asteroid that’s been outfitted with its own engine so the Free Navy can fire it at Earth. Suddenly, that engine starts to fire up… and with no time to react, Holden just smashes the damn thing with a pry bar till it stops.

What The Expanse’s writers had to say

So I asked the authors and showrunners: how, exactly, did user interfaces hurt you?

“I did almost 10 years of frontline tech support; user interfaces and I are going to die with our teeth in each other’s necks,” replies Daniel Abraham.

“And I’m going to take issue with the question,” says Naren Shankar (as I’ve already mentioned). “Yes, all of them involve buttons,” he admits, “but the scene is about the emotional decision to push a button.”

“What we should have done was go back and have a bunch of those switches,” Abraham jokes. “The old toggle switches and everything,” agrees Ty Franck. “I wish we had a lot more of those buttons in the show.”

“But to be more serious for a second, all of those moments that you cite are quite emotionally motivated, extremely in two of the cases […] That’s how they fly the ship. Sometimes they do some things by talking to it, that doesn’t mean it’s always a voice-to-text parser,” adds Shankar.

“Except in the Solomon Epstein one we did, that was totally the fault of the voice parser,” says Franck, I think, though I’ve started to lose track as they’re talking over each other. He’s referencing how season 2, episode 6 flashes back to how an engineer accidentally invented long-range space travel and dies because he can’t turn the engine off; he disabled his crappy voice parser before launch, and the g-forces are too strong for him to reach the other controls.

What do touchscreens mean to you?

“It’s kind of the same question as ‘why do we use guns instead of laser blasters or something like that?’” says Abraham. “There’s kind of a technological endpoint you can reach where something works well, and then you kind of stick with it. We have cartridge guns in The Expanse because they work really well; they’re kind of the sharks of personal weaponry.”

“What we’re positing here is that these touchscreens and these kinds of interfaces are robust and work well in these kinds of conditions, where jacking into your brain, maybe not so much? Speech, yelling commands to the ship is cool, but it’s kind of a shitty interface in practice,” he adds.

“Humans interact with the world with their fingertip; there’s millions of years of evolution behind that — our fingers are connected to our brains differently than any other part of us,” Franck chimes in. “When we want to accomplish a thing, our first instinct is to reach out and touch something and manipulate it with their fingers … so when I see something where people are no longer using their hands to do work, it feels false to me, it’s ignoring the realities of what humans do as biological entities.”

All that said, The Expanse’s authors and showrunners caution that they’re not trying to predict the future. “Science fiction is about the age in which it’s written. We’ve been trying to keep what we’ve done plausible, but I don’t know if we’re really aiming to say how a fusion drive will really work, how stealth technology will really work. I’ve always said we’ve reached for a Wikipedia level of plausibility,” says Abraham.



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YouTube considers jumping on the NFT bandwagon

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YouTube is the latest platform eyeing a move into NFTs. In a new letter to creators about YouTube’s 2022 priorities, CEO Susan Wojicki said the company is exploring how its creators could benefit from the digital collectibles.

In the letter, Wojicki said that Web3 — a term used by crypto enthusiasts to refer to the collection of blockchain based technologies they believe will usher in a new era of the internet — has been a “source of inspiration” for the company. She didn’t say exactly how YouTube may integrate NFTs into its platform, but suggested the technology could be a new source of revenue for creators.

“The past year in the world of crypto, nonfungible tokens (NFTs), and even decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) has highlighted a previously unimaginable opportunity to grow the connection between creators and their fans,” she wrote. “We’re always focused on expanding the YouTube ecosystem to help creators capitalize on emerging technologies, including things like NFTs, while continuing to strengthen and enhance the experiences creators and fans have on YouTube.”

If YouTube allowed creators to sell NFTs directly to their fans, it would be a major boon for the technology, which in popularity over the last year, but hasn’t been widely adopted by major social platforms. But there are already signs that could change in 2022.

Twitter just introduced its first experiment with NFTs, with Instagram’s top executive has also expressed an interest in the technology, and The Financial Times last week that Facebook and Instagram are working on an NFT marketplace and other features,

NFT aren’t the only new monetization opportunities YouTube is looking at in the coming year, though. Wojicki also said the company is “excited” about podcasts and that “we expect it to be an integral part of the creator economy.” She also confirmed that YouTube would expand its shopping features to more creators, and test “how shopping can be integrated into Shorts.”

The CEO also touched on the controversy surrounding YouTube’s decision to remove public from its platform. She noted that the dislikes was often used to target smaller creators for harassment, and that the feature could still be used to inform individuals’ recommendations. “Every way we looked at it, we did not see a meaningful difference in viewership, regardless of whether or not there was a public dislike count,” she said. “And importantly, it reduced dislike attacks.”

All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.



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Plaid’s new privacy controls let you manage your financial data from a single hub

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Plaid, a go-between for financial apps like Robinhood, Venmo, and Betterment and bank accounts, has created a privacy hub where you can manage all of your financial connections. The hub is a requirement of a lawsuit Plaid settled about its handling of user data.

The hub, called Plaid Portal, shows users exactly which apps they’re connected to by Plaid. It can be found by accessing my.plaid.com, where the service will prompt users to set up an account. Then, it’s possible to browse connections and disconnect unused apps from bank accounts. The portal details the kinds of data users sharing through Plaid, as well as which bank accounts are connected. It’s also possible to wipe all of a user’s linked data through the portal.

Plaid, which is used by more than 5,500 apps to connect to bank accounts, has been accused of taking too much financial data from users and using that information to access and sell their transaction history. A class-action suit alleged that Plaid collected users’ bank account login information through web pages that mimicked “the look and feel of the user’s own bank account login screen.” The company settled the suit for $58 million without admitting wrongdoing, and claimed it was adequately transparent with the user.

As part of the settlement, Plaid is required to delete some of its stored data, minimize the data it collects going forward, as well as “improve and maintain” the changes it has already made to Plaid Link, the tool Plaid uses to connect users’ bank accounts to apps. It was also required to create a privacy dashboard, which we now know as the Plaid Portal.

If you’re a US resident and connected your bank account through Plaid from January 1st, 2013 and November 19th, 2021, remember to file a claim through the class-action settlement’s site by April 28th, 2022.



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Amazon is taking up to 40 percent off WD and Sandisk storage for today only

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All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

If you’re looking to buy new microSD cards, external hard drives or flash drives, you may want to take a look at Amazon’s deal of the day sale. You’ll be able to get SanDisk and WD storage products for up to 40 percent off their usual prices, including the SanDisk 256GB Extreme microSDXC card for its all-time low price of $32. That’s $6 off its original retail price of $38 and is the lowest we’ve seen it sell for on the website. The microSDXC card has read speeds of up to 160MB/s for fast file transfers of large images and videos, and it also has 90MB/s write speeds for fast shooting. It’s a UHS speed class 3 card with a video speed class of 30 (V30), making it capable of handling 4K UHD and Full HD files. 

Buy SanDisk and WD storage products at Amazon

SanDisk’s 512GB Ultra microSDXC is also currently on sale for its lowest price yet — you can get it for $50.49, which is almost 50 percent off its original retail price of $100. Advised for use with smartphones, tablets and mirrorless cameras, this microSDXC card has read and transfer speeds of up to 120MB/s. 

But if what you really need is an SD card for your camera, you can get the SanDisk 256GB Extreme PRO SDXC card instead. It’s currently on sale for $46, which is 54 percent off its original price of $100 and is the lowest we’ve seen it sell for on Amazon. That’s $2 less than the previous all-time low for the card with shoot speeds of up to 90MB/s and transfer speeds of up to 170MB/s. It’s V30 card with a UHS speed class of 3, and SanDisk says it’s perfect for shooting 4K UHD video and sequential burst mode photography.

In case you need an external drive to store all those videos, images and other files, you can also get the SanDisk 1TB Extreme PRO Portable SSD for 45 percent off. It’s back to its all-time low price of $170 that we last saw in November. That’s a whopping $140 off its full price of $310. The portable SSD can reach read and write speeds of up to 2000MB/s and is enclosed in a forged aluminum chassis that acts as a heatsink to be able to sustain those speeds. It’s also water-and-dust resistant and can withstand drops of up to 6.5 feet. There are a lot more drives and other products included in the sale if none of the above catches your eye — you just have to grab them before the sale ends within the day before they go back to the full price.

Follow @EngadgetDeals on Twitter for the latest tech deals and buying advice.

All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.





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