Social media are performative spaces – even when you’re torturing your kids

Social media are performative spaces in which people try — and succeed — to project images of themselves as they want to be seen by others. We also see this in schools and even elite universities — where students are reluctant to meet face-to-face with their tutors. They want to communicate via electronic messaging — email, WhatsApp, FB Messenger, whatever. Why? Because they are scared of F2F encounters which will reveal their doubts, insecurities, failings, ignorance. Instead they want always to project their ‘edited selves’.

None of this is new. What is really extraordinary, though, about the case of the Californian parents who imprisoned their 13 children (and shackled three of them to furniture) is that they managed to project happy-clappy images of their family on social media.

Less haste, more security

This morning’s observer column:

I ran into my favourite technophobe the other day. “I see,” he chortled, “that your tech industry (he holds me responsible for everything that is wrong with the modern world) is in meltdown!” The annoying thing is that he was partly right. What has happened is that two major security vulnerabilities – one of them has been christened “Meltdown”, the other “Spectre” – have been discovered in the Central Processing Unit (CPU) chips that power most of the computers in the world.

A CPU is a device for performing billions of apparently trivial operations in sequences determined by whatever program is running: it fetches some data from memory, performs some operations on that data and then sends it back to memory; then fetches the next bit of data; and so on. Two decades ago some wizard had an idea for speeding up CPUs…

Read on

Meltdown and Spectre summarised

Lovely economical summary by the UK ICO’s Head of Technology Policy of the two vulnerabilities currently obsessing the CPU-design industry:

In essence, the vulnerabilities provide ways that an attacker could extract information from privileged memory locations that should be inaccessible and secure. The potential attacks are only limited by what is being stored in the privileged memory locations – depending on the specific circumstances an attacker could gain access to encryption keys, passwords for any service being run on the machine, or session cookies for active sessions within a browser. One variant of the attacks could allow for an administrative user in a guest virtual machine to read the host server’s kernel memory. This could include the memory assigned to other guest virtual machines.

Quote of the day

“People worry that computers will get too smart and take over the world, but the real problem is that they’re too stupid and they’ve already taken over the world.”

Pedro Domingos, The Master Algorithm1, (2015)

So what is Twitter really for?

This morning’s Observer column:

In a way, it’s no surprise that Trump should have taken to Twitter because it has the right bandwidth for his thought processes. Technically, bandwidth is the range of frequencies that a particular communications channel can transmit. The wider the bandwidth, the more information the channel can handle, which is why analog phone lines were OK for voice communication but hopeless for relaying music. Smoke signals are one of the oldest communication channels devised by humans and they were very good for communicating danger or summoning people to gatherings. But as the cultural critic Neil Postman once observed, they were lousy for philosophical discussions. The bandwidth is too low.

Same goes for Twitter. It’s great for transmitting news tersely, which is why an increasing amount of breaking news comes via it (and not just warnings from Trump about supposedly imminent nuclear exchanges, either)…

Read on