High IQ + childlike naiveté = Silicon Valley

Today’s Observer column:

Put simply, what Google and Facebook have built is a pair of amazingly sophisticated, computer-driven engines for extracting users’ personal information and data trails, refining them for sale to advertisers in high-speed data-trading auctions that are entirely unregulated and opaque to everyone except the companies themselves.

The purpose of this infrastructure was to enable companies to target people with carefully customised commercial messages and, as far as we know, they are pretty good at that. (Though some advertisers are beginning to wonder if these systems are quite as good as Google and Facebook claim.) And in doing this, Zuckerberg, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and co wrote themselves licences to print money and build insanely profitable companies.

It never seems to have occurred to them that their advertising engines could also be used to deliver precisely targeted ideological and political messages to voters. Hence the obvious question: how could such smart people be so stupid?

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Sexual predation and power

Sobering editorial by Gideon Lichfield of Quartz:

Nobody can deny the ground has shifted in America. Formerly invincible men are tumbling one by one as victims come out with their stories of sexual assault. Some, like Harvey Weinstein, were already fading from power, but others, like Louis CK, were still at the height of it.

Yet one man continues to defy America’s new moral norm: its president. Seventeen women have accused Donald Trump of sexual harassment. Their claims are more numerous and no less credible than those against Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for senator in Alabama. Senate leader Mitch McConnell said this week, “I believe the women” who accused Moore, and that he “should step aside.” But asked if he believes the women who accused Trump, McConnell refused to answer. (Trump’s position: Every one of those 17 women is lying.)

So yes, the ground has shifted, but some still stand high enough on it to escape the cold, swirling waters of justice. In other words, it’s still, in the end, about power. Trump’s power is that the party still needs him (or believes it does). That means it will blatantly ignore accusations that would put any other man on the street, if not in jail.

Still, if you have to be president to achieve that sort of immunity, things aren’t so bad, right? Wrong. What Trump proves is not that you have to be president, just that you have to have leverage…

Yep. And, right on cue, comes this from the New York Times:

A year later, after a wave of harassment claims against powerful men in entertainment, politics, the arts and the news media, the discussion has come full circle with President Trump criticizing the latest politician exposed for sexual misconduct even as he continues to deny any of the accusations against him.

In this case, Mr. Trump focused his Twitter-fueled mockery on a Democratic senator while largely avoiding a similar condemnation of a Republican Senate candidate facing far more allegations. The turn in the political dialogue threatened to transform a moment of cleansing debate about sexual harassment into another weapon in the war between the political parties, led by the president himself.

Lifetime achievement

My friend Quentin has — deservedly — been given a Lifetime Achievement Award (called a Lovie after Ada Lovelace) for inventing the webcam. Here’s the presentation speech by Sophie Wilson (who designed the instruction set for the ARM processor and so also helped to shape our networked world):

And here is Quentin’s acceptance speech. He must have been moved by the award, because he briefly blanks as he’s getting into his stride. Normally, he’s the most fluent speaker I know. But note his graceful and witty recovery, once he’s found his notes.

This is IMHO long-overdue recognition for a technology pioneer.

Brexit: Fawlty Towers redux

Nice Observer piece by Fintan O’Toole:

We have been witnessing a very English farce, but one with a wholly new twist. In this version of Fawlty Towers, it is not Manuel the stereotypical foreigner who goes around saying: “Qué?” and: “I know nawthing!” It is the all-too-English Basil, acting out a pantomime of feigned perplexity.

Yeah, but Fawlty Towers was funny. This farce is anything but.

On not being evil

This morning’s Observer column:

The motto “don’t be evil” has always seemed to me to be a daft mantra for a public company, but for years that was the flag under which Google sailed. It was a heading in the letter that the two founders wrote to the US Securities and Exchange Commission prior to the company’s flotation on the Nasdaq stock market in 2004. “We believe strongly,” Sergey Brin and Larry Page declared, “that in the long term, we will be better served – as shareholders and in all other ways – by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short-term gains. This is an important aspect of our culture and is broadly shared within the company.” Two years ago, when Google morphed into Alphabet – its new parent company – the motto changed. Instead of “don’t be evil” it became “do the right thing”.

Heartwarming, eh? But still a strange motto for a public corporation. I mean to say, what’s “right” in this context? And who decides? Since Google/Alphabet does not get into specifics, let me help them out. The “right thing” is “whatever maximises shareholder value”, because in our crazy neoliberal world that’s what public corporations do. In fact, I suspect that if Google decided that doing the right thing might have an adverse impact on the aforementioned value, then its directors would be sued by activist shareholders for dereliction of their fiduciary duty.

Which brings me to YouTube Kids…

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Selfie macht frei

This is the kind of thing you really couldn’t make up. From the BBC:

A life-size model of Adolf Hitler used for “selfies” by visitors to an Indonesian museum has been removed.

Pictures shared on social media show people grinning as they pose with the Nazi leader in front of an image of the gates of Auschwitz concentration camp.

It was only when the international community reacted with outrage that the De ARCA Statue Art Museum realised it had caused any offence.

The museum, in Jogjakarta, Java, said it had only wanted to educate.

The selfies show the smartphone owner with the Führer in front of a huge photograph of the front gate of Auschwitz, complete with the Arbeit Macht Frei arch.

Political theatre in Washington

This morning’s Observer column:

Summing up: the companies have no incentive to change their ways. And there’s no real political will in the US to make them. All of which perhaps explains why Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t on Capitol Hill but in China to meet the great Thought Leader Xi Jinping. Now there’s a politician worth sucking up to.

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Google+ is a social network? No way, says Google

Lovely NYT report today:

SAN FRANCISCO — After years of trying unsuccessfully to build a social network to rival Facebook, Google finally got something out of all of its failures: cover.

Members of Congress grilled the executives of Google, Facebook and Twitter this week in a trio of hearings focused on the role that social media played in advancing a Russian disinformation campaign before the 2016 election. Google’s representative at two of the hearings, Kent Walker, the company’s general counsel, made a point of distinguishing the search giant from its internet brethren. Repeatedly and unequivocally, he answered questions at the hearings by saying, “We’re not a social network.”

Tech companies have taken a pounding in the court of public opinion in recent months. In the eyes of their critics, they have become too big, too powerful and too unmindful of their influence. And this week’s congressional hearings cast added and unflattering light on the industry’s growing embarrassment over the Russian election meddling.

Funny the way ‘social’ has suddenly become toxic.