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 Apple watch: a solution in search of a problem

As some readers know, I’m not a fan of the Apple watch. Nor, it turns out, is the Guardian‘s Alex Hern:

The future of the watch can’t be the same iterative improvements that Apple has pulled off with the iPhone, iPod and iPad. The interface is just too ill-thought-through to work, even if the device itself is sped up significantly. But the most obvious alternative is to massively increase the amount of voice control the watch offers, and Apple simply doesn’t have the technical chops to do so. While Google and Amazon have been creating voice assistants that people seem to actually use and wax lyrical about, Apple … hasn’t. There’s no easy solution there.

But the saving grace for Apple is that the broader problem isn’t the company’s fault. It’s that smartwatches are a solution in search of a problem. A technology created, not to serve consumer demand, but to serve the need of device manufacturers to fill the revenue hole created by declining smartphone growth. You don’t need one, and neither do I. It just took me nine months of wearing it to realise.

Yep.

BUT… This thoughtful comment from a reader:

If you have a significant medical condition like Diabetics, particularly if you have diabetic kids, the Apple Watch and their Android equivalent is revolutionizing how you can go out in the world. I have neighbors who would have never allowed their 8 year old daughter go out for a sleepover because they need to check their blood sugar levels so often and now all they have to do is glance at their watch to track their behavior. Previously that sort of equipment was over $50,000 and now you can do it for a few hundred.

Apple vs. FBI ought to have gone to the Supreme Court

Today’s Observer column:

So the FBI sought a court order to compel Apple to write a special version of the operating system without this ingenious destructive mechanism – which could then be downloaded to the phone. Apple refused, on various grounds both technological and legalistic, and the stage was set – so some of us thought – for a legal battle that would go all the way to the supreme court.

In the end, it didn’t happen. The FBI bought a hack from an Israeli security company which had already found a way round the problem, called off the legal suit, and nobody got their day in front of the supremes. Which was a pity, because it means that a really important question posed by digital technology remains unresolved. Put simply, it’s this: what limits, if any, should be placed on the power of encryption technology to render citizens’ communications invisible to law enforcement and security authorities?

Read on

Resources, resources, resources

Here’s an instructive story:

Just three months after launching Facebook Live to all users, Mark Zuckerberg decided to go big, realizing in a February meeting that the company should make Live a top priority. A BuzzFeed story on Live tells us what happens next, quoting Facebook Media’s product lead Fidjij Simo:

“The original Live team was composed of only a dozen or so people. But the vision laid out for the product at that February meeting would require more than 100 engineers to build. ‘The meeting was on a Thursday, and on Monday, [Facebook Media engineering lead Maher] Saba and I were standing in front of 150 engineers,’ said Simo.”

From 12 engineers to 150 in less than a week. That’s the new pace of the media business.

Now here’s another instructive question: how many engineers are working on the iPhone camera?

50?

150?

Nope. At the moment, there are 800 engineers working just on the camera.

Which leads me to wonder how many people work in the R&D divisions of Nikon and Canon?

See what conventional companies are up against?

flickr_stats

At present, the most popular cameras among Flickr users are all iPhone models. By a mile.

Deja vu: the Tesla Model 3 and the iPhone

I’m clearly not the only one to have a feeling of deja vu when reading the coverage of, and commentary about, Elon Musk’s launch of his Model 3.

Here, for example, is Tim Stevens:

I didn’t live-blog last night’s Model 3 event at the Tesla Design Studio in Hawthorne, California, mostly because there wasn’t anywhere to sit and type. I did my best to do the same effect via Twitter and the reaction was…well, it was pretty amazing. It was unlike anything I’ve experienced this side of an iPhone launch. (A real iPhone launch, that is, not down-sized rehash.)

I don’t need to iterate the parallels between an iPhone launch and the Model 3 launch, but I will anyway.

First there was the endless speculation and anticipation, the frantic forum debates arguing the veracity of various dubious sources. Then came the supposed leak which, of course, proved completely bogus. There were the lines, the self-perpetuating wave of preorder hysteria and, finally, the exclusive event with throngs of cheering attendees — plus a gaggle of mostly bitter journalists eyeing each other suspiciously in fear of a missed exclusive.

To call it deja vu would be an overstatement, but Thursday night’s Model 3 unveiling was unlike anything I’ve felt since the last time I heard the phrase “one more thing” uttered on the stage at a certain campus in Cupertino, California. Actually, I found last night’s Model 3 unveiling far more engaging.

The commentary about the car has also been eerily evocative of the commentary that followed Steve Jobs’s launch of the first iPhone in 2007. Here, for example, is the venerable Financial Times, pointing out the problems and challenges that lie ahead:

Yet annual sales of pure electric cars still total a mere 550,000, a fraction of a per cent of the global fleet. There are still big barriers to overcome before they can become mainstream: battery technology has not improved as quickly as hoped; charging takes time; and other issues such as cars’ resale value would become more pressing if they become more popular.

If he succeeds in creating a buzz around electric vehicles and bringing them into the mainstream, he will be performing a public service.

Scaling up production will already be a test of Tesla’s business model and its finances. It is alone in making almost all its own components and selling direct to consumers, a strategy that soaks up cash. The affluent enthusiasts that bought its earlier high-end models were tolerant of delays, but those who purchase the Model 3 may be less able to wait if there are similar hitches — especially since any significant delay could mean they were unable to take advantage of US government subsidies that are due to be phased out.

All true, of course. But what I remember most about 2007 was how dubious many people (including yours truly) were about the Apple device. I mean to say: the mobile phone industry was a mature global industry, dominated by one huge company (Nokia) and a few sizeable ones (Motorola, Blackberry, et al); Apple had no experience in that market — a market that was dominated by the carriers, not the manufacturers; battery life was poor and you couldn’t even replace the battery, for God’s sake; there was no real keyboard; the screen was too small to give a satisfactory browsing experience; etc., etc.

All true too. And yet, all wrong, or at any rate irrelevant — because it turned out that none of that mattered once you realised that you could SSH into the damn thing.

Why the Apple vs. the FBI case is important

This morning’s Observer column:

No problem, thought the Feds: we’ll just get a court order forcing Apple to write a special version of the operating system that will bypass this security provision and then download it to Farook’s phone. They got the order, but Apple refused point-blank to comply – on several grounds: since computer code is speech, the order violated the first amendment because it would be “compelled speech”; because being obliged to write the code amounted to “forced labour”, it would also violate the fifth amendment; and it was too dangerous because it would create a backdoor that could be exploited by hackers and nation states and potentially put a billion users of Apple devices at risk.

The resulting public furore offers a vivid illustration of how attempting a reasoned public debate about encryption is like trying to discuss philosophy using smoke signals. Leaving aside the purely clueless contributions from clowns like Piers Morgan and Donald Trump, and the sanctimonious platitudes from Obama downwards about “no company being above the law”, there is an alarmingly widespread failure to appreciate what is at stake here. We are building a world that is becoming totally dependent on network technology. Since there is no possibility of total security in such a world, then we have to use any tool that offers at least some measure of protection, for both individual citizens and institutions. In that context, strong encryption along the lines of the stuff that Apple and some other companies are building into their products and services is the only game in town.

Read on

The Wille E Coyote effect

Benedict Evans is at the huge annual mobile phone gabfest in Barcelona. On his way he wrote a very thoughtful blog post about the world before smartphones, and why Nokia and Blackberry didn’t see their demises coming.

Michael Mace wrote a great piece just at the point of collapse for Blackberry, looking into the problem of lagging indicators. The headline metrics tend to be the last ones to start slowing down, and that tends to happen only when it’s too late. So it can look as though you’re doing fine and that the people who said three years ago that there was a major strategic problem were wrong. You might call this the ‘Wille E Coyote effect’ – you’ve run off the cliff, but you’re not falling, and everything seems fine. But by the time you start falling, it’s too late.

That is, using metrics that point up and to the right to refute a suggestion there is a major strategic problem can be very satisfying, but unless you’re very careful, you could be winning the wrong argument. Switching metaphors, Nokia and Blackberry were skating to where the puck was going to be, and felt nice and fast and in control, while Apple and Google were melting the ice rink and switching the game to water-skiing.

I love that last metaphor.

In a way, it was another example of Clayton Christensen’s ‘innovator’s dilemma’. It’s the companies that are doing just fine that may be most endangered.

It’s a great blog post, worth reading in full. Also reminds us that mobile telephony was much more primitive in the US than it was in Europe (because of the GSM standard over here), and that Steve Jobs and co really hated their ‘feature’ phones as primitive devices. Evans sees something similar happening now with cars. It’s no accident, he thinks, that tech companies (Apple, Google) are working on cars. Techies hate cars in their current crude manifestations, whereas the folks who work in the automobile industry love them. Just as Nokia engineers once loved their hardware.

What the FBI vs Apple contest is really about

Wired nails it

But this isn’t about unlocking a phone; rather, it’s about ordering Apple to create a new software tool to eliminate specific security protections the company built into its phone software to protect customer data. Opponents of the court’s decision say this is no different than the controversial backdoor the FBI has been trying to force Apple and other companies to build into their software—except in this case, it’s an after-market backdoor to be used selectively on phones the government is investigating.

The stakes in the case are high because it draws a target on Apple and other companies embroiled in the ongoing encryption/backdoor debate that has been swirling in Silicon Valley and on Capitol Hill for the last two years. Briefly, the government wants a way to access data on gadgets, even when those devices use secure encryption to keep it private.

Yep. This is backdoor so by another route. It’s also forcing a company to do work for the government that, in this case, the government wants to do but claims it can’t. This will play big in China, Russia, Bahrain, Iran and other places too sinister to mention.

The FBI’s argument that the phone is vital for its investigation Seems weak. They already know everything they need to know, and the idea that the San Bernardino killers were serious ISIS stooges seems the prevalence of mass shootings in the US, and the say they conformed to type. What’s more likely is that the agency is playing politics. They’ve been arguing for yonks that they simply must have back doors. The San Bernardino killers presented them with a heaven-sent opportunity to leverage public outrage to force a tech company into conceding the backdoor principle.

No matter what you get up to in bed, there’s an app for it. Apparently.

This morning’s Observer column about the obsession with ‘datifying’ our bodies.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are obsessed with the datafication of their bodies and those who are not. I belong to the latter category: the only thing that interests me about my heart is that it is still beating. And when it isn’t I shall be past caring. But if the current craze for wearable devices such as fitness trackers is anything to go by, I may soon find myself a member of a despised minority, rather like cigarette smokers, whisky drinkers and followers of David Icke…

Read on