Turkey: what happens next

This from Dani Rodrik, who is Professor of International Political Economy at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

There is less uncertainty about what is likely to happen next. The coup attempt will add potency to Erdoğan’s venom and fuel a wider witch-hunt against the Gülen movement. Thousands will be sacked from their positions in the military and elsewhere, detained, and prosecuted with little regard for the rule of law or the presumption of innocence. There are already alarming calls to bring back the death penalty for putschists, which recent experience shows is a very broad category for Erdoğan. Some of the mob violence against captured soldiers portends a Jacobinism that would jeopardize all remaining due-process protections in Turkey.

The coup attempt is bad news for the economy as well. Erdoğan’s recent, somewhat skin-deep reconciliation with Russia and Israel was likely motivated by a desire to restore flows of foreign capital and tourists. Such hopes are now unlikely to be realized. The failed coup reveals that the country’s political divisions run deeper than even the most pessimistic observers believed. This hardly makes for an attractive environment for investors or visitors.

The first self-driving car fatality proves nothing

This morning’s Observer column:

In the US, about 33,000 people are killed in automobile accidents every year. That’s 90 a day on average. So on 7 May, about 89 other people as well as Joshua Brown were killed in car crashes. But we heard nothing about those 89 personal and family tragedies: the only death that most people in the US heard about was Mr Brown’s.

Societies have to decide what they want to do about automobile safety. It will come down to a cost-benefit analysis
Why? Because he was driving (or perhaps not driving) a semi-autonomous vehicle. Writing from Detroit (coincidentally, the capital of the traditional gas-guzzling, emission-spewing automobile), two New York Times reporters wrote that “the race by automakers and technology firms to develop self-driving cars has been fuelled by the belief that computers can operate a vehicle more safely than human drivers. But that view is now in question after the revelation on Thursday that the driver of a Tesla Model S electric sedan was killed in an accident when the car was in self-driving mode.”

Really? With whom is the safety of self-driving cars in question? Not with anyone who knows the facts about the dangers of automobiles…

Read on

For neoliberalism, inequality is a feature, not a bug

One of the things that the Brexit catastrophe shows is that neoliberal economics is very bad for democracy. That’s because, for neoliberalism, inequality is a feature, not a bug. Some of us have been saying that for quite a while — and wondering why it has taken until 2016 for the penny to drop. But now it has. As Joe Stiglitz puts it:

Letting bygones be bygones is a basic principle in economics. On both sides of the English Channel, politics should now be directed at understanding how, in a democracy, the political establishment could have done so little to address the concerns of so many citizens. Every EU government must now regard improving ordinary citizens’ wellbeing as its primary goal. More neoliberal ideology won’t help. And we should stop confusing ends with means: for example, free trade, if well managed, might bring greater shared prosperity; but if it is not well managed, it will lower the living standards of many – possibly a majority – of citizens.

Which is why Obama’s proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership deal with the EU should now be rejected by the EU.

The ‘Internet of Things’ will need better things

This morning’s Observer column:

You know the problem. You’re going abroad for a couple of weeks, during which time your house will be empty. You haven’t yet got round to installing a burglar alarm. But not to worry – just pop round to a supermarket and buy a couple of timer sockets. Plug them into the mains, set the timers to switch on and off at appropriate times twice a day, plug your lamps into them and off you go. Easy, peasy!

Well, yes. But it’s so 1950s. So analogue. Why not be really cool and have a proper networked timer socket, something that you can control from your smartphone from anywhere in the world? Something like the AuYou Wi-Fi Switch for example. Looks like it’s just the ticket. Plug it in, hold down the power button and it hooks up with the app on your (Android) smartphone, and – bingo! – job done. Now, where did you put that boarding pass?

But, hang on. Maybe you should just check the product reviews, just to be sure. Ah, here’s one by a guy called Matthew Garrett. “There’s a lot to like about this hardware,” Matthew writes, “but unfortunately it’s entirely overwhelmed by everything there is to hate about it.”

Eh? Turns out that Mr Garrett knows a lot about computer security…

Read on

Digital Dominance: forget the ‘digital’ bit

Some reflections on the symposium on “Digital Dominance: Implications and Risks” held by the LSE Media Policy Project on July 8, 2016.

In thinking about the dominance of the digital giants1 we are ‘skating to where the puck has been’ rather than to where it is headed. It’s understandable that scholars who are primarily interested in questions like media power, censorship and freedom of expression should focus on the impact that these companies are having on the public sphere (and therefore on democracy). And these questions are undoubtedly important. But this focus, in a way, reflects a kind of parochialism that the companies themselves do not share. For they are not really interested in our information ecosystem per se, nor in democracy either, if it comes to that. They have bigger fish to fry.

How come? Well, there are two reasons. The first is that although those of us who work in media and education may not like to admit it, our ‘industries’ are actually pretty small beer in industrial terms. They pale into insignificance compared with, say, healthcare, energy or transportation. Secondly, surveillance capitalism, the business model of the two ‘pure’ digital companies — Google and Facebook — is probably built on an unsustainable foundation, namely the mining, processing, analysis and sale of humanity’s digital exhaust. Their continued growth depends on a constant increase in the supply of this incredibly valuable (and free) feedstock. But if people, for one reason or another, were to decide that they would prefer to be doing something other than incessantly checking their phones, Googling or updating their social media statuses, then the evaporation of those companies’ stock market valuations would be a sight to behold. And while one can argue that such an outcome seems implausible, because of network effects and other factors, then a glance at the history of the IT industry might give you pause for thought.

The folks who run these companies understand this. For if there is one thing that characterizes the leaders of Google and Facebook it is their determination to take the long, strategic view. This is partly a matter of temperament, but it is powerfully boosted by the way their companies are structured: the founders hold the ‘golden shares’ which ensures their continued control, regardless of the opinions of Wall Street analysts or ordinary shareholders. So if you own Google or Facebook stock and you don’t like what Larry Page or Mark Zuckerberg are up to, then your only option is to dispose of your shares.

Being strategic thinkers, these corporate bosses are positioning their organizations to make the leap from the relatively small ICT industry into the much bigger worlds of healthcare, energy and transportation. That’s why Google, for example, has significant investments in each of these sectors. Underpinning these commitments is an understanding that their unique mastery of cloud computing, big data analytics, sensor technology, machine learning and artificial intelligence will enable them to disrupt established industries and ways of working in these sectors and thereby greatly widen their industrial bases. So in that sense mastery of the ‘digital’ is just a means to much bigger ends. This is where the puck is headed.

So, in a way, Martin Moore’s comparison2 of the digital giants of today with the great industrial trusts of the early 20th century is apt. But it underestimates the extent of the challenges we are about to face, for our contemporary versions of these behemoths are likely to become significantly more powerful, and therefore even more worrying for democracy.


  1. Or GAFA — Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon — as our Continental friends call them, incorrectly in my view: Apple and Amazon are significantly different from the two ‘pure’ digital outfits. 

  2. Tech Giants and Civic Power, King’s College London, 2016. 

The politics of the fake orgasm

Magnificent essay by Fintan O’Toole:

In the days after the Brexit vote, a number of rueful commentators were drawn to WB Yeats’s lines from the apocalyptic poem The Second Coming: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

But this is to miss the point of our particular political moment in the Anglophone world. It may be true that the best lack conviction, but the second part of Yeats’s comparison emphatically does not apply. The worst are not full of passionate intensity; they are, to borrow from a different Yeats poem, just a pretty bellows full of faux-angry wind. They have no serious intention – no plan and no means – of doing the things they say they will do.

Great stuff. Well worth reading in full. As is Kipling’s poem about phoney statesmen.

Appeasing the crocodile

This morning’s Observer column:

Winston Churchill famously defined “appeasement” as “being nice to a crocodile in the hope that he will eat you last”. By that definition, many of the world’s biggest news publishing organisations have been in the appeasement business for at least the past two years and the crocodile to which they have been sucking up is Facebook, the social networking giant.

The reason for this extraordinary self-abasement is simple: Facebook currently has more than 1.6 billion users worldwide, most of whom are very engaged with the service. Around half of them check their page every day, for example, and when they are online they spend significant amounts of time on the site or its smartphone app.

More significantly, research by the Pew Research Center revealed that these users increasingly get much of their news from their Facebook feeds. Accordingly, publishers started doing deals with Facebook to publish some (or all) of their content on it, with initially agreeable results in the shape of “referrals” – ie traffic to their own websites coming from the social network.

There was, however, a fly in the ointment…

Read on

Lest we forget

While the calling of the Referendum can be laid at the door of two people, Nigel Farage and David Cameron, the catastrophe of the Brexit majority is really the work of one man — Boris Johnson. The best articulation of this salutary truth that I’ve seen is Jonathan Freedland’s Guardian piece. It’s worth reading in full, but here’s the key bit:

This week’s antics of Gove and Johnson are a useful reminder. For the way one has treated the other is the way both have treated the country. Some may be tempted to turn Johnson into an object of sympathy – poor Boris, knifed by his pal – but he deserves none. In seven days he has been exposed as an egomaniac whose vanity and ambition was so great he was prepared to lead his country on a path he knew led to disaster, so long as it fed his own appetite for status.

He didn’t believe a word of his own rhetoric, we know that now. His face last Friday morning, ashen with the terror of victory, proved it. That hot mess of a column he served up on Monday confirmed it again: he was trying to back out of the very decision he’d persuaded the country to make. And let’s not be coy: persuade it, he did. Imagine the Leave campaign without him. Gove, Nigel Farage and Gisela Stuart: they couldn’t have done it without the star power of Boris.

He knew it was best for Britain to remain in the EU. But it served his ambition to argue otherwise. We just weren’t meant to fall for it. Once we had, he panicked, vanishing during a weekend of national crisis before hiding from parliament. He lit the spark then ran away – petrified at the blaze he started.