A tech startup wants to turn violence, pain and tragedy into entertainment

Plus: Sandworm robots, margarita robots and sneakers made out of food!

A job listing on a journalism job site is looking for "field team members" in New York and Los Angeles who would live-stream crime and accident scenes from their smartphones. Essentially, they want you to be the main character in Nightcrawler, a 2014 thriller drama starring Jake Gyllenhaal about a creepy conman who earns money selling videos of crimes and accidents to the media.

nearly identical ad appeared on a casting site — the same place where you can get a job as a Hollywood extra or a Disney cast member — along with a different ad for a "host" for the same kind of content but for double the pay. 

It appears that they want a large number of people to simply stream, plus additional people to be more of an on-screen personality that describes the scenes and interviews witnesses, or whatever. 

The likely speculation is that the job poster is working for the startup the makes the Citizen app. 

Citizen first appeared in 2016. It was called Vigilante. But Apple terminated the app after two days because it encouraged people to place themselves in dangerous situations in order to feed content to other app users. 

After relaunching as "Citizen," the startup raised $133 million from backers that include Peter Thiel, Sequoia Capital and Greycroft. Citizen currently claims 7 million users. 

Part of the Citizen mission, they say, is to dispatch private security teams to homes and crime scenes for users. Future monetization is likely to come in the form of security services and products.

But the main “content” on the site is recorded 911 calls (many of which are false or misleading, and always unverified). But the effect of using the app is to be constantly bombarded with smartphone alerts leading to recordings of panicky people calling emergency dispatchers to report crimes and accidents.

The ultimate idea is to get people to respond to these 911 calls by rushing to the scene to capture streaming video to feed to other users.

One Citizen user named "Chris," who uses the handle @cgutter_ on the Citizen app, claims to be a concerned citizen, but is in fact an employee of the company who has already streamed over 1,600 crime and accident videos from the streets of New York City. It’s not clear how many current streamers are employees and how many are users or freelancers. But the job ads appear to call for more freelancers.

Citizen bills itself as a neighborhood watch style "safety" app, but which in fact tries to monetize fear of crime through its app in the same way that fear-mongering TV news does, but taking it to the next level. While "safety" is the stated reason for the app, its real purpose is to create an addictive compulsion to obsess over violent crimes and bloody car accidents. 

The organization placing the ads is actually a casting agency called Flyover Entertainment. And this is appropriate. Like local and cable TV news that shows videos of crimes and accidents, their purpose is to glue eyeballs to screens rather than inform about newsworthy events. As Neil Postman once said, TV news isn't news — it's entertainment.

Flyover knows that live streams of murder, robbery, deadly car accidents, drug overdoses and other horrors is entertainment. That’s why they’re seeking “Nightcrawlers” on a casting site for performers and entertainers, and not just on journalism sites.

As the “Nightcrawler” Wikipedia page says, “A common theme in the film is the symbiotic relationship between unethical journalism and consumer demand.”

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Mike’s List of Brilliantly Bad Ideas

1. Sandworm robots

Just in time for the new “Dune” movie, robotics geniuses at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the Georgia Institute of Technology have invented a worm-like robot that travels in sand beneath the surface. It uses pneumatically-driven locomotion using compressed air or nitrogen. They hope this kind of locomotion may guide future vehicles for exploration on other planets. Best of all, it looks like a sock puppet.

2. Margarita robots

You’ve heard of the “Futurama” cartoon robot “Bender.” Call this real robot “Blender.” Robotic eggheads at Boston Dynamics have set aside their industrial, military and scientific robots and finally built something useful: A Spot dog robot that delivers a blender full of margaritas. They did it to demonstrate the flexibility of the Boston Dynamics Spot payload API, which they combined with a custom configuration for balancing and operating the blender. It also showcases spot’s ability to deliver electrical power to an attached payload. I want one.

3. Sneakers made out of food

A French startup called MoEa is making sneakers out of apples, grapes, pineapples, cactus and corn. The discarded foodstuffs are re-engineered into a new material that’s as durable as leather, but vegan and environmentally friendly, according to the company. They’re also recyclable — once consumers are done with the shoes, they can send them back to the company and the material is broken down and re-integrated into new sneakers. I wonder how they taste?

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Here’s what I’ve been up to lately:

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