December 4, 2015
These kids might never read a map or stop at a gas station to ask directions, nor have they ever seen their parents do so. They will never need to remember anyone's phone number. Their late-night dorm-room arguments over whether Peyton or Eli Manning won more Super Bowl MVPs will never go unsettled for more than a few seconds. They may never have to buy a flashlight. Zac is one of the first teenagers in the history of teenagers whose adult personality will be shaped by which apps he uses, how frequently he texts, and whether he's on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or Snapchat. Or whatever comes after Snapchat. Clicking like, clicking download, clicking buy, clicking send—each is an infinitesimal decision in the course of the modern American teenager's life. They do this, collectively, millions of times a minute. But together these tiny decisions make up an alarming percentage of their lives. This generation is the first for whom the freedom to express every impulse to the entire world is as easy as it used to be to open your mouth and talk to a friend. ... You hear two opinions from experts on the topic of what happens when kids are perpetually exposed to technology. One: Constant multitasking makes teens work harder, reduces their focus, and screws up their sleep. Two: Using technology as a youth helps students adapt to a changing world in a way that will benefit them when they eventually have to live and work in it. Either of these might be true. More likely, they both are.
They’re a physical commodity, but they’re also a meme — popularized by celebrities, shared endlessly on Twitter and Instagram and Vine, discussed to death by the chittering idea factory that is the English-language internet. ... One of those factories is Gaoke (or “High Tech”) Times, a midsize plant situated on 120,000 square feet in a Bao An industrial park. ... churn out 600 boards in a day, for customers in the U.S., U.K., Dubai, and Australia. ... In the two decades Gaoke has been here in Shenzhen, it has made desktop phones, then DVD players, televisions, mobile devices, and eventually tablets, which today are the largest part of its business. ... About six months ago, at the request of some of the company’s existing tablet customers, Gaoke had started manufacturing them. New product crazes present struggling businesses and eager entrepreneurs alike with an opportunity to leave behind glutted markets, and the nature of China’s booming electronics business is to be adaptable to the whims of a global market. ... Fang Zuoyi estimated that there are at least 1,000 factories in the Shenzhen area making hoverboards. ... It starts when a (typically) Western company, eager to cash in on a product made popular by the social internet, contracts a Chinese factory to make it. From here, the idea spreads throughout the elaborate social networks of Chinese electronics manufacturing until the item in question is being produced by hundreds and hundreds of competitors, who subcontract and sell components to each other, even as they all make the same thing. It reaches its saturation point quickly. It moves from product to product without sentiment. And it is proof that our never-ending digital output, our tweets and Vines and Instagrams and Facebook posts, has the power to shape the lives of people on the other side of the world.
To approach the subject of red mercury is to journey into a comic-book universe, a zone where the stubborn facts of science give way to unverifiable claims, fantasy and outright magic, and where villains pursuing the dark promise of a mysterious weapon could be rushing headlong to the end of the world. This is all the more remarkable given the broad agreement among nonproliferation specialists that red mercury, at least as a chemical compound with explosive pop, does not exist. ... Legends of red mercury’s powers began circulating by late in the Cold War. But their breakout period came after the Soviet Union’s demise, when disarray and penury settled over the Kremlin’s arms programs. As declining security fueled worries of illicit trafficking, red mercury embedded itself in the lexicon of the freewheeling black-market arms bazaar. Aided by credulous news reports, it became an arms trafficker’s marvelous elixir, a substance that could do almost anything a shady client might need: guide missiles, shield objects from radar, equip a rogue underdog state or terrorist group with weapons rivaling those of a superpower. It was priced accordingly, at hundreds of thousands of dollars a kilogram. With time, the asking price would soar. ... Red mercury was a lure, the central prop of a confidence game designed to fleece ignorant buyers. ... When the Crocodile placed his order, Abu Omar said, the smuggler asked how much the Islamic State was willing to pay. The answer was vague. The Islamic State would pay, he said, ‘‘whatever was asked.’’ This was not the practical guidance a businessman needs. So the Crocodile sharpened the answer. Up to $4 million — and a $100,000 bonus — for each unit of red mercury matching that shown in a set of photographs he sent to Abu Omar over WhatsApp, the mobile-messaging service. ... the hoax has roots in an intelligence-service put-on, a disinformation campaign of phony news articles planted decades ago in Russian newspapers by the K.G.B. and one of its successors, the F.S.B.
Nearly everyone has hair they discard without a thought. Yet it can also be one of the world’s most precious resources, and businesses can’t get enough of it. ... When companies buy hair from the temple for as much as $700 per pound, it contains sweat, blood, and lice. ... To transform the best (longest) hair from trash into treasure, teams of workers untangle the hair, sort it by length, pick out lice and other particles, wash and dry it, and dye it a variety of colors. Companies then either ship the hair out to salons where stylists will sew, tape, or bond the extensions into customers’ hair, or sew the hair into wigs. ... Retailers like Lori’s Wigsite sell wigs made of fake, synthetic hair, and they cost $250 where a human hair wig would cost $1,500. ... History is full of examples of human hair being treated as a valuable commodity. Archeologists have discovered human hair wigs held together with resin and beeswax in Ancient Egyptian tombs. Upper class men in 18th century Europe wore long periwigs made of human or horse hair, and thieves commonly worked in teams to steal and resell them. An observer of an annual “hair harvest” in a poor Italian village in the 19th century described seeing girls “sheared, one after the other, like sheep.” Their hair went to Parisian markets that sold 200,000 pounds of human hair each year.