Tim Wu: ‘The internet is like the classic story of the party that went sour’

My Observer piece about Tim Wu’s new book, plus an email exchange between him and me.

Tim Wu is a law professor at Columbia University. His specialities include competition, copyright and telecommunications law. So far, so conventional. But Wu is an unconventional academic. For one thing, he ran for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governorship of New York (and won 40% of the popular vote, though not the primary election). For another, he served for a time in the office of New York’s attorney general, specialising in issues involving technology, consumer protection and ensuring fair competition among online companies. “If I have a life mission,” he said once, “it is to fight bullies. I like standing up for the little guy and I think that’s what the state attorney general’s office does.”
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As I said, no ordinary academic. But it gets better. Wu is also the guy who coined the phrase “net neutrality”, which has turned out to be a key concept in debates about regulation of the internet. He was for a time a senior adviser to the Federal Trade Commission, America’s main consumer protection agency. And somehow, in the middle of all this activity, he writes books that make a big impact.

The cue for his new book, The Attention Merchants, is an observation the Nobel prize-winning economist Herbert Simon made in 1971. “In an information-rich world,” Simon wrote, “the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

Read on

Backward into the future

From Gideon Lichfield of Quartz:

Yes, there have been far worse years in history. Yes, it’s in our (and the media’s) nature to give too much weight to bad, short-term news. Sure, you can take solace in the vast longer-term strides humanity has made, or in devil-may-care existential nihilism, or in hopeful bromides—the arc of the moral universe, yadda yadda. Choose your flavor of forced optimism, and indulge in it all you want. By any objective measure, this has still been an awful year.

It’s not just because of Aleppo, Nice, Brussels, Orlando, and other milestones in carnage. Nor because of the rise of Trump, Farage, Le Pen, Fillon, Duterte, and other merchants of hatred. Nor because free trade and movement are on the retreat. Nor even because a newly isolationist US, resurgent Russia, and aggressive China are about to take the world’s geopolitical balance and shake it like a snow-globe.

No: It’s also because this has been the year of post-truth, when the combined effects of polarizing social media, weakening traditional media, shameless politicians, and economic and political tribalism reached their logical destination. In countries whose systems of governance were premised on at least a veneer of reasoned debate about mutually agreed-on facts, the scope for such debate is shrinking fast. This is fundamental. Don’t like the way the world is going? Want to change it? How do you convince people if they won’t even hear you?

So yes; things are bad, and it’s foolish to pretend otherwise. But it’s equally foolish to wallow in despair.

Well, I agree with that last sentence anyway.

We’re in a new era, folks. And not just because of Trump.

From the New York Times of December 9:

WASHINGTON — American intelligence agencies have concluded with “high confidence” that Russia acted covertly in the latter stages of the presidential campaign to harm Hillary Clinton’s chances and promote Donald J. Trump, according to senior administration officials.

They based that conclusion, in part, on another finding — which they say was also reached with high confidence — that the Russians hacked the Republican National Committee’s computer systems in addition to their attacks on Democratic organizations, but did not release whatever information they gleaned from the Republican networks.

In the months before the election, it was largely documents from Democratic Party systems that were leaked to the public. Intelligence agencies have concluded that the Russians gave the Democrats’ documents to WikiLeaks.

The Republicans, naturally, deny that their networks were hacked. To which the answer is: how would they know?

This story merely confirms what we have intuited for ages, namely that Russian investment in the disruptive potential of the Internet (as part of the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’) is now beginning to pay off.

Wodehouse comes home

“Into the face of the young man … who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to speak French.”

Thus P.G. Wodehouse in The Luck of the Bodkins — one of the quotations in the Observer‘s scoop that the great man’s archive is coming to the British Museum. Hooray!

That sinking feeling

leaving_venice

According to Jennifer Senior, reviewing Salvatore Settis’s If Venice Dies in the New York Times, Venice

“had 174,808 inhabitants in 1951. By 2015, the number had dropped to 56,072. That’s about 2,000 fewer residents than Venice had in the aftermath of the plague of 1348. Maybe the ancient records can’t be trusted. But you get the idea.”

I do. Better book that holiday now.

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Horse’s Ass elected President of the United States

“In the old days”, said Liz Smith [who was once New York’s leading gossip columnist], “Donald reminded me of my brothers in Texas. He was attractive and dynamic and took up all the oxygen in the room. When he saw me he’d give me a big hug and tell me I was the greatest. I never took him seriously. I didn’t even think he would last in New York, because people hated him once they got to know him. He was a horse’s ass. Still is”.

As told to Jeffrey Toobin, New Yorker, September 5, 2016, p.19.

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize

Naturally, I’m delighted to see him honoured. Not everybody is, though. Irvine Welsh, the author of Trainspotting (and many other memorable works) is enraged. “This is”, he fumes,

“an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies”.

You always know where you stand with Welsh.

Cabinet told to watch it

According to the Torygraph (so it must be true) Theresa May has stipulated that her senior ministers will be barred from wearing Apple Watches during Cabinet meetings amid concerns that they could be hacked by Russian spies.

Under David Cameron, several cabinet ministers wore the smart watches, including Michael Gove, the former Justice Secretary.

However, under Theresa May ministers have been barred from wearing them amid concerns that they could be used by hackers as listening devices.

Mobile phones have already been barred from the Cabinet because of similar concerns.

One source said: “The Russians are trying to hack everything.”

Apparently Michael Gove (who was once a serious politician, apparently) used to wear an iWatch and once treated the Cabinet to a few bars of a Beyoncé song while surreptitiously checking his email.

It’s a logical precaution. Mobiles have been verboten in Downing Street for a long time. Many years ago, when I was doing some consulting work in Whitehall, I once had to go to 10 Downing Street to see a senior civil servant. Upon entering through the front door, I was instructed to leave my mobile phone on the hall table and given a post-it note on which to write my name. I did so and went to my meeting in the warren of rooms behind No 10. When I got back to the entrance hall I went to reclaim my phone. Next to it was another handset (a Nokia, I think) with a post-it note saying “First Sea Lord”.

Subduing wishes to possibilities

An excerpt from Francis Spufford’s Backroom Boys, a memorable history of the early British personal computer industry. He’s writing about how two Cambridge students, David Braben and Ian Bell, used ingenious mathematical tricks to get round the limited memory available on the BBC Model B when they were creating their trailblazing computer game, Elite:

Whether the components are atoms or bits, ideas or steel girders, building something is a process of subduing wishes to possibilities … A real, constructed thing (however dented) beats a wish (however shiny) hands down; so working through the inevitable compromises, losing some of what you first thought of, is still a process of gain … But sometimes the process goes further. Some of the best bridges, programs, novels – not all the best, but some – come about because their makers have immersed themselves in the task with such concentration, such intent openness to what the task may bring, that the effort of making wishes real itself breeds new wishes. From the thick of the task, in the midst of the practical hammering, the makers see further possibilities that wouldn’t have been visible except from there, from that spot, from that degree of engagement with the task … This is what happened when Bell and Braben wrote their game … It became great because they saw the possibility of it being great while they were just trying to make it good.

This is wonderful, insightful writing about the creative process.