Links for 17/7/2017

  1. As a Guru, Ayn Rand May Have Limits. Ask Travis Kalanick. The obsession of Silicon Valley types (and Donald Trump’s crowd) with Rand passeth all understanding.

  2. David Brooks: Moral Vacuum in the House of Trump. “It took a few generations of the House of Trump to produce Donald Jr.”

  3. New law would force Facebook and Google to give police access to encrypted messages. The Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has whatsApp and other encrypted messaging systems in his sights. It’s insisting that the companies have to give it warranted access. But how? After all, WhatsApp doesn’t have the keys. Charles Arthur has an interesting idea. “This isn’t totally absurd”, he writes. “The clue is in Turnbull’s quote about “updates on your phone” and Brandis’s “obligation.. to provide appropriate assistance”. What’s likely to happen is that targeted individuals will receive SIM updates which let the authorities spy on them. Simple as that. If you read the above (and the story) in that light, it becomes feasible – sensible, even. If you think they want to have access to everyone’s encrypted messages all the time, you’re overthinking it.”

  4. Scholars Cry Foul at Their Inclusion on List of Academics Paid by Google. Looks as though that scoop by an advocacy group may be unravelling.

Automation is more about tasks than ‘jobs’

This morning’s Observer column:

We are currently going through one of those periodic phases of “automation anxiety” when we become convinced that the robots are coming for our jobs. These fears are routinely pooh-poohed by historians and economists. The historians point out that machines have been taking away jobs since the days of Elizabeth I – who refused to grant William Lee a patent on his stocking frame on the grounds that it would take work away from those who knitted by hand. And while the economists concede that machines do indeed destroy some jobs, they point out that the increased productivity that they enable has generally created more new jobs (and industries) than they displaced.

Faced with this professional scepticism, tech evangelists and doom-mongers fall back on the same generic responses: that historical scepticism is based on the complacent assumption that the past is a reliable guide to the future; and that “this time is different”. And whereas in the past it was lower-skilled work that was displaced, the jobs that will be lost in the coming wave of smart machines are ones that we traditionally regard as “white-collar” or middle-class. And that would be a very big deal, because if there’s no middle class the prospects for the survival of democracy are poor.

What’s striking about this fruitless, ongoing debate is how few participants seem to be interested in the work that people actually do…

Read on

Links for 13/7/2017

  1. David Runciman: How climate scepticism turned into something more dangerous. Doubts about the science are being replaced by doubts about the motives of scientists and their political supporters. Once this kind of cynicism takes hold, is there any hope for the truth?

  2. APnews: Survey: 4 in 10 US adults have experienced online harassment. This is a summary of a sobering PEW Report on online harassment.

  3. WSJ: Paying Professors: Inside Google’s Academic Influence Campaign. Article (sadly, behind a paywall) claims that Google paid anywhere from $5,000 to $400,000 for research supporting business practices that face regulatory scrutiny; a ‘wish list’ of topics. Other tech firms doubtless do the same.

  4. Frank Pasquale: When antitrust becomes pro-trust: the digital deformation of US Competition policy. As bracing as you’d expect from Frank. Great paper.

Can neoliberals learn from history?

Just came on this.

“I can’t help thinking of the Venetian republic in their last half-century. Like us, they had once been fabulously lucky. They had become rich, as we did, by accident. They had acquired immense political skill, just as we have. A good many of them were tough-minded, realistic, patriotic men. They knew, just as clearly as we know, that the current of history had begun to flow against them. many of them gave their minds to working out ways to keep going. It would have meant breaking the pattern into which they had been crystallised. They were fond of the pattern, just as we are fond of ours. They never found the will to break it.”

The Two Cultures, 1959.

Links for 12/7/2017

  1. Peter Turchin: What Economics Models Really Say. A Review of Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science by Dani Rodrik (Norton, 2015). Really useful review — by a mathematical biologist!

  2. David Edgerton on ‘Digital Transformation’. Guaranteed to infuriate tech determinists. 20 minutes, but worth it. Make some coffee first.

  3. What Did North Korea’s Missile Test Really Change? – The Atlantic. Useful reminder that the people most at risk from Kim Jong Un are not Americans, but South Koreans.

  4. Vili Lehdonvirta: The online gig economy grew 26% over the past year. Useful empirical research. And the gig economy isn’t just about Deliveroo, btw.

May vs. Blair: no contest

Tony Blair has become a toxic brand because of the Iraq war, with the result that his achievements are now overlooked. So I was struck by this passage from Polly Toynbee’s Guardian column marking the first anniversary of Theresa May’s arrival at the top of the greasy pole:

Consider what Tony Blair did in his first year: the Good Friday agreement signed; the national minimum wage and human rights acts passed; the Bank of England made independent; a £5bn windfall from privatised utilities; and devolution to the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly begun, along with a London mayor. He stripped the House of Lords of most hereditary peers, brought in a Freedom of Information Act, lowered the gay age of consent, ordained the right to roam, and saved the Kosovans. There was much more in the pipeline, with benefits for families increasing hugely. Any one of those achievements would be totemic in hapless May’s wasted year.


Links for 11/7/2017

  1. The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas by Daniel Drezner.

  2. Dani Rodrik: Economics of the populist backlash. The backlash to globalisation was predictable, but the forms that it took weren’t.

  3. Richard Fletcher and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen: Using social media appears to diversify your news diet, not narrow it. The counter-narrative to the Cass Sunstein mantra about echo-chambers and ‘enclave extremism’.

  4. David Wallace-Wells: The Uninhabitable Earth. The most alarming article on climate change that I’ve ever read.

Links for 10/7/2017

  1. End of the shopping mall: “Sears is closing another 43 struggling stores.”. Wow! Sears Holdings announced last week that it will close eight of its Sears department stores and 35 Kmart locations, adding to the list of 236 stores the company plans to shut down in 2017. In March it said that it had “substantial doubt” about its ability to remain in business. It’s lost $10 billion since 2010, the last time it turned a profit. Sears closed 240 stores in 2016 and 53 in 2015.

  2. How often do people have sex?. Only Google knows, apparently.

  3. Echoes of Wall Street in Silicon Valley’s grip on money and power. Yep.

  4. LSE Blog: Seven Signs of Over-Hyped Fintech. Useful. Doesn’t just apply to Fintech either.

How things change

The €2.4B fine on Google handed down by the European Commission stemmed originally from complaints by shopping-comparison sites that changes in Google Shopping that the company introduced in 2008 had amounted to an abuse of its dominance in search. But 2008 was a long time ago in this racket, and shopping-comparison sites have become relatively small beer because Internet users researching possible purchases don’t start with a search engine any more. (Many of them start with Amazon, for example.)

This is deployed (by the Internet giants) as an argument for the futility of trying to regulate behaviour by dominant firms: the legal process of investigation takes so long that the eventual ruling is so out of date as to be meaningless.

This is a convenient argument, but the conclusion isn’t that we shouldn’t regulate these monsters. Nevertheless it is interesting to see how the product search scene has changed over time, as this chart shows.


The obvious solution to the time-lag problem is — as the Financial Times reported on January 3 — for regulators to have “powers to impose so-called “interim measures” that would order companies to stop suspected anti-competitive behaviour before a formal finding of wrongdoing had been reached.” At the moment the European Commission does have powers to impose such measures, but only if it can prove that a company is causing “irrevocable harm” — a pretty high threshold. The solution: lower the threshold.