Amazon’s Echo seems great, but what does it hear?

Illustration by James Melaugh/Observer

This morning’s Observer column:

I bought it [the Echo] because it seemed to me that it might be a significant product and I have a policy of never writing about kit that I haven’t paid for myself. Having lived with the Echo for a few weeks I can definitely confirm its significance. It is a big deal, which explains why the company invested so much in it. (It’s said that 1,500 people worked on the project for four years, which sounds implausible until you remember that Apple has 800 people working on the iPhone’s camera alone). Amazon’s boss, Jeff Bezos, may not have bet the ranch on it (he has a pretty big ranch, after all) but the product nevertheless represents a significant investment. And the sales so far suggest that it may well pay off.

Once switched on and hooked up to one’s wifi network, the Echo sits there, listening for its trigger word, “Alexa”. So initially one feels like an idiot saying things such as: “Alexa, play Radio 4” or: “Alexa, who is Kim Kardashian?” (A genuine inquiry this, from a visitor who didn’t know the answer, which duly came in the form of Alexa reading the first lines of the relevant Wikipedia entry.)

Read on

Whither Davos now?

From the Quartz daily briefing.

“The World Economic Forum begins next week in Davos, where politicians, CEOs, celebrities meet to establish the conventional wisdom over fondue, cocktails, and high-minded debates.

The conventional wisdom at Davos this time last year was that Donald Trump wouldn’t win the Republican presidential nomination, let alone the presidency; the British would bottle out of voting for Brexit; globalization was good; the tides of free trade lifted all boats; politicians should tell at least a semblance of the truth; and diplomacy was an erudite and tactful endeavor. Justin Trudeau’s starry-eyed optimism set the tone.

It has always been easy to mock Davos for its out-of-touch elitism, with delegates swooping in on private helicopters to address big issues like climate change, income inequality, and the gender gap. The Davos consensus is rarely spot on. But its rejection in 2016 was epic and comprehensive. Brexit is on and Trump is in; globalization is on the retreat; nationalism is on the rise; and the soon-to-be-leader of the free world conducts diplomacy and policy on the fly via Twitter. This year at Davos, Xi Jinping and Theresa May will rub elbows with Matt Damon and Shakira, but Trudeau isn’t going.

Strange to say it, this state of affairs might make Davos more relevant, not less.”

Hmm… maybe. We’ll see.

Trump and the US tabloids

Nice piece by Jack Shafer on how the National Inquirer and its ilk pushed the Trump candidacy. I particularly liked this bit:

Some consider Enquirer readers representative of the emerging “post-truth” era, reliant on their own beliefs and indifferent to the facts accepted by the mainstream. But a better way to look at Enquirer readers might be as a “pre-truth” group, drawn to arguments based on pure emotional appeal. Ted Cruz makes such a perfect tabloid villain because he looks like one, because he went to Princeton and Harvard, and because he seems unimpressed by anybody not named Ted Cruz. Hillary Clinton, too, is a paid-in-full member of the American elite: Wellesley, Yale, the Senate and global foundation muckety-muck. Going into 2016, the tabloids already had marked her as their campaign heavy.

Trump, on the other hand, could be cast as the perfect proletarian candidate: patriotic, plain-talking (or plain double-talking) and a nativist. Trump, being rich and educated at the Wharton School, isn’t an obvious ideological fit for these Enquirer readers. But when he wolfs down fast food or speaks in broken sentences, praises his tacky palaces as beautiful, or unexpectedly takes a vulgar turn in the middle of a speech, he ends up declaring a kind of class solidarity with a set of people who could never afford his resorts. His penchant for glitter, big hair, big things in general and bad grammar, and his disdain for all thing refined (his favorite musical is Evita), makes him highly representative of Rust Belt culture. I grew up with many of the people who voted for Trump in the primaries and the general election. They can smell condescension at the parts-per-billion level. With Trump, they don’t even sniffle.

What Brexit means for Labour

In Cambridge, where I live and work, 74% voted to Remain in the EU, while 26% voted Leave. In Stoke-on-Trent, the respective figures were 31% Remain, 69% Leave. My friends and academic colleagues were astonished by the results from places like Stoke.

I wasn’t — because I know Stoke well. My late wife Sue came from there and my parents-in-law still lived there, so I spent a lot of time in the city and so saw at close hand how it had been devastated by globalisation, automation and central (and local) government neglect.

A few days ago I read Dominic Cummings’s astonishing account of the Brexit campaign, and afterwards started digging back into pre-referendum coverage. In the process I came on this remarkable video made by John Harris in Stoke-on-Trent. From my knowledge of the city, it’s spot on. And Harris is right — the video also illustrates the depth of the problem that the Labour party now faces in UK politics.

UPDATE And no sooner had I posted this than the news broke that Tristram Hunt, the improbable Labour MP for Stoke Central constituency, has been appointed Director of the V&A Museum and so will resign his seat. Which means there will now be a by-election in Stoke.

Magical thinking and President Trump

In psychology, the term magical thinking denotes “the belief that one’s thoughts by themselves can bring about effects in the world or that thinking something corresponds with doing it”. It’s what small children do, often in entrancing ways. But at the moment it’s what the entire ‘liberal’ establishment appears to be engaging in, as its members contemplate the prospect of a Trump presidency. So there’s much chatter along the lines of “well, of course, he’s just the President-elect and doesn’t yet have to operate under the constraints of office”, or “surely he’ll have to give up Tweeting when he’s President”.

For a salutary antidote to this kind of fatuous thinking, see Polly Toynbee’s scarifying piece in today’s Guardian. Way back in 1988 she interviewed — and profiled — Trump. And it’s clear from her report that the monster hasn’t changed one bit. “Trump’s nature”, she writes, “was never a secret”.

He has never dissembled, he can’t dissemble. Why would he when he worships every aspect of himself, each hair on his head, each word he tweets? Greater self-love hath no man.

Apart from his lost good looks, he is unchanged since I interviewed him for the Guardian back in 1988. He was 41 and in Britain to plug his book, The Art of the Deal. Then as now, he was a petrifying megalomaniac with no grip on reality, or not a reality shared by others. At the time I described his “demonic power and energy waiting to spring”. Now look how far he has sprung.

I wrote about his aura of “glitz, greed, glamour and an ambition so colossal that it will probably not rest until he rules the world – which one day he just might”. And next week, God help us, he will. But nearly 30 years ago was his eye already on running for the presidency? I put the question to him. “Not for a period but I am involved politically. You could do it from where I am,” he replied with the same nonchalance he might describe making a pitch for some new property or casino in New York.

She asked him what his platform would be if he ran for President. “Respect”, he replied.

We’re a second-rate economic power, a debtor nation. We’re getting kicked around.” His current determination to tear up Barack Obama’s carefully brokered nuclear deal with Iran has a long history. He told me that as president, “I’d be harsh on Iran. They’ve been beating us psychologically, making us look like a bunch of fools … It’d be good for the world to take them on.”

Sound familiar? That was 29 years ago. Toynbee asked him what he thought about Britain. “Your country’s distaste for success”, he replied, “is a national disease.” Brexiteers, please note. “What kind of trade deal”, asks Toynbee, “does Liam Fox imagine he will broker with this man whose contempt for Britain, even back in its most Trumpish era, was so withering? Just as Trump’s view on Iran is unchanged, I doubt he has formed any new views about Britain”.

And the moral of this little story: if you think the presidency might domesticate Trump, think again. Magical thinking is best left to toddlers.

Quote of the Term

“Increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.”

Barack Obama in his farewell speech, Chicago, 10 January 2017.

The Frankfurt School redux

As the world tries to adjust to the election of a narcissistic fantasist and incorrigible liar as President of the US, thoughtful people have been re-reading those prickly academics of the Frankfurt School, particularly Theodor Adorno. Long before Trump appeared on the horizon, though, the New Yorker critic Alex Ross wrote an interesting review article about a raft of biographies of these guys and noted that they were enjoying

a modest resurgence. They are cited in brainy magazines like n+1, The Jacobin, and the latest iteration of The Baffler. Evgeny Morozov, in his critiques of Internet boosterism, has quoted Adorno’s early mentor Siegfried Kracauer, who registered the information and entertainment overload of the nineteen-twenties. The novelist Benjamin Kunkel, in his recent essay collection “Utopia or Bust,” extolls the criticism of Jameson, who has taught Marxist literary theory at Duke University for decades. (Kunkel also mentions “The Corrections,” noting that Chip gets his salmon at a shop winkingly named the Nightmare of Consumption.) The critic Astra Taylor, in “The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age,” argues that Adorno and Max Horkheimer, in their 1944 book “Dialectic of Enlightenment,” gave early warnings about corporations “drowning out democracy in pursuit of profit.”

Having recently been corresponding with Tim Wu about his new book, The Attention Merchants: From the Daily Newspaper to Social Media, How Our Time and Attention is Harvested and Sold — about the way the Internet’s early promise has been attenuated by corporate capture, Ross’s perceptive essay resonated with me. Especially in this passage:

The Internet threatens final confirmation of Adorno and Horkheimer’s dictum that the culture industry allows the “freedom to choose what is always the same.” Champions of online life promised a utopia of infinite availability: a “long tail” of perpetually in-stock products would revive interest in non-mainstream culture. One need not have read Astra Taylor and other critics to sense that this utopia has been slow in arriving. Culture appears more monolithic than ever, with a few gigantic corporations—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon—presiding over unprecedented monopolies. Internet discourse has become tighter, more coercive. Search engines guide you away from peculiar words. (“Did you mean . . . ?”) Headlines have an authoritarian bark (“This Map of Planes in the Air Right Now Will Blow Your Mind”). “Most Read” lists at the top of Web sites imply that you should read the same stories everyone else is reading. Technology conspires with populism to create an ideologically vacant dictatorship of likes.

Ross concluded the piece (which was published in 2014) with the thought that “If Adorno were to look upon the cultural landscape of the twenty-first century, he might take grim satisfaction in seeing his fondest fears realized.”

Well, guess what? In a new essay, “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming”, Ross writes:

I spoke too soon. His moment of vindication is arriving now. With the election of Donald Trump, the latent threat of American authoritarianism is on the verge of being realized, its characteristics already mapped by latter-day sociologists who have updated Adorno’s “F-scale” for fascist tendencies. To read “Prophets of Deceit” is to see clear anticipations of Trump’s bigoted harangues. (The script in 1949: “We are coming to the crossroads where we must decide whether we are going to preserve law and order and decency or whether we are going to be sold down the river to these Red traitors who are undermining America.”) As early as the forties, Adorno saw American life as a kind of reality show: “Men are reduced to walk-on parts in a monster documentary film which has no spectators, since the least of them has his bit to do on the screen.” Now a businessman turned reality-show star has been elected President. Like it or not, Trump is as much a pop-culture phenomenon as he is a political one.

What Adorno identified as the erasure of the “borderline between culture and empirical reality” is endemic on social media. The failure of Facebook to halt the proliferation of fake news during the campaign season should have surprised no one; the local hirelings of logic are too enamored of their algorithms—and of the revenue they generate—to intervene. From the start, Silicon Valley monopolies have taken a hands-off, ideologically vacant attitude toward the upwelling of ugliness on the Internet. A defining moment was the turn-of-the-century wave of music piracy, which did lasting damage to the idea of intellectual property. Fake news is an extension of the same phenomenon, and, as in the Napster era, no one is taking responsibility. Traffic trumps ethics.

So here we are, living in a novel that Don DeLillo hasn’t quite finished yet.