Big data: the new gasoline

This morning’s Observer column:

“Data is the new oil,” declared Clive Humby, a mathematician who was the genius behind the Tesco Clubcard. This insight was later elaborated by Michael Palmer of the Association of National Advertisers. “Data is just like crude [oil],” said Palmer. “It’s valuable, but if unrefined it cannot really be used. It has to be changed into gas, plastic, chemicals, etc to create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity; so must data be broken down, analysed for it to have value.”

There was just one thing wrong with the metaphor. Oil is a natural resource; it has to be found, drilled for and pumped from the bowels of the Earth. Data, in contrast, is a highly unnatural resource. It has to be created before it can be extracted and refined. Which raises the question of who, exactly, creates this magical resource? Answer: you and me…

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If the EU doesn’t take on Google, who will?

Last Sunday’s Observer column:

Last week, the European commission, that bete noire of Messrs Gove, Johnson & co, resumed its attack on Google. On Wednesday, Eurocrats filed formal charges against the company, accusing it of abusing its dominance of the Android operating system, which is currently the world’s most-used mobile operating system software. This new charge comes on top of an earlier case in which the commission accused Google of abusing its overwhelming dominance of the web-search market in Europe in order to favour its own enterprises over those of competitors.

This could be a big deal. If the commission decides that Google has indeed broken European competition law, then it can levy fines of up to 10% of the company’s annual global revenue for each of the charges. Given that Google’s global sales last year came to nearly $75bn, we’re talking about a possible fine of $15bn (£10.5bn). Even by Google standards, that’s serious money. And it’s not exactly an idle threat: in the past, the Eurocrats have taken more than a billion dollars off both Microsoft and Intel for such violations.

To those of us who follow these things, there’s a whiff of Back to the Future here.

Read on

Zuckerbergus Imperator

This morning’s Observer column:

Power and money are the two great aphrodisiacs, and few people or institutions are immune to their attractions. Not even the Economist, a posh magazine which resolutely sees itself as floating above the vulgar ruckus of journalistic hackery. Last week, like an elderly dowager seduced by Justin Bieber, the venerable publication checked its collective brains at the door and swooned over Mark Zuckerberg, the infant prodigy who now presides over Facebook, and so possesses both power and money.

For the cover illustration, the magazine photoshopped a picture of a celebrated statue of Emperor Constantine the Great (272-337). Young Zuckerberg’s head, adorned with a wreath of gold laurel leaves, replaced Constantine’s. The sword in his left hand was replaced by a Facebook logo, and the emperor’s languidly drooping right hand was rotated 180 degrees so that it now gave the thumbs-up that is Facebook’s “like” symbol. (The gesture had a rather different interpretation in Roman times.) On the plinth of the statue were the words: “MARCVS ZVCKERBERGVS” and CONIVNGE ET IMPERA”, which is the nearest the photoshopper could get to “connect and rule”.

On inside pages one finds an editorial and a long article explaining why Marcvs Z is the greatest thing since Constantine.

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Ad-blocking hypocrisy


This interesting illustration comes from a typically-insightful piece by Doc Searls about the blight that covert web-tracking has unleashed on the Web. Interestingly, he points out that the trackers are, in fact, not important for the Times.

Those four tracking-protecting systems (RedMorph, Privacy Badger, Ghostery and Disconnect) would all have given green lights to the Times if the paper just ran ads that aren’t based on tracking. You know, like the ones they run in print. Advertisers would still reach the Times’ desirable readers. And signaling to readers by advertisers would be clear and uncontaminated by the shitty practices that now pollute the whole digital media environment.

Great stuff. Worth reading in full.

Corporate logic

Apple has over $200B in cash, and yet it borrows money to fund buy-backs of its shares — to keep its investors happy. How come?

Simple, says the NYT:

Mr. Maestri [Apple’s CFO] said that Apple would continue to raise money in debt markets in the United States and abroad to continue to return money to investors in the form of dividends and stock buybacks. Because Apple houses the majority of its $216 billion in cash overseas, it has borrowed money over the last three years to pay out more than $9 billion to investors.

And why is that $216B housed overseas? Equally simple: if Apple repatriated it to the US, it would have to pay tax.

Uber, disruption and Clayton Christensen

This morning’s Observer column:

Over the decades, “disruptive innovation” evolved into Silicon Valley’s highest aspiration. (It also fitted nicely with the valley’s attachment to Joseph Schumpeter’s idea about capitalism renewing itself in waves of “creative destruction”.) And, as often happens with soi-disant Big Ideas, Christensen’s insight has been debased by overuse. This, of course, does not please the Master, who is offended by ignorant jerks miming profundity by plagiarising his ideas.

Which brings us to an interesting article by Christensen and two of his academic colleagues in the current issue of the Harvard Business Review. It’s entitled “What Is Disruptive Innovation?” and in it the authors explain, in the soothing tones used by great minds when dealing with those of inferior intelligence, the essence of Christensen’s original concept. The article is eminently readable and cogent, but contains nothing new, so one begins to wonder what could be the peg for going over this particular piece of ground. And why now?

And then comes the answer: Uber. Christensen & co are obviously irritated by the valley’s conviction that the car-hailing service is a paradigm of disruptive innovation and so they devote a chunk of their article to arguing that while Uber might be disruptive – in the sense of being intensely annoying to the incumbents of the traditional taxi-cab industry – it is not a disruptive innovation in the Christensen sense…

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Algorithmic-driven markets and the future

This morning’s Observer column:

‘When a true genius appears,” wrote Jonathan Swift, “you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him.” We need to update this for our age: whenever a really new technology arrives, you can tell it by the fact that most right-thinking people think it’s a scam.

Thus, to the average person the idea of a “cryptocurrency” like Bitcoin seems daft. I mean to say: a “currency” that was invented by a geek; is not backed by any bank or government; has no central authority; and operates on the basis of a public ledger that is secured by arcane cryptography. It has to be a scam, doesn’t it? Well, actually it doesn’t – but it would take more space than is available here to explain why. The point is that most people can’t see the point of cryptocurrencies, which, paradoxically, is why they are interesting.

On the other hand, most people – non-geeks as well as geeks – can see the point of Uber, the cab-hailing service that is causing such turmoil on the other side of the Channel (and occasionally over here too). You download an app to your smartphone. When you need a cab you launch the app and it shows you on a map where the nearest available cars are, and you hail the nearest one. Within three to five minutes it shows up. And when you arrive at your destination, you don’t pay the driver: the fare is charged to your credit card. QED.

Compared with currencies, therefore, Uber seems pretty comprehensible…

Read on

Technology and the future of work

Our Technology and Democracy research project had a terrific talk this afternoon by Mike Osborne of the Oxford Martin School about the research that he and Carl Frey published in “The future of employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerisation?”.

That paper is impressive in lots of ways. Unlike many academic research reports, for example, it’s written in pellucid prose. And it’s historically informed — which is unusual in technology publications: the authors know that the issue of the impact of machinery on jobs goes back a long, long way — at least to Elizabethan times with William Lee and his request for a patent on his stocking frame loom.

But most importantly, the Frey-Osborne study is the best analysis to date of what we in our project regard as one of the most significant puzzles of our time: namely what does the combination of infinite computational power, big data, machine learning and advanced robotics mean for our future? Or, to quote the title of Norbert Wiener’s book, what will constitute “the human use of human beings” in a digital future?

What preoccupies us is the question of whether we now stand on a hinge of history. Are there things about digital technologies which make our situation and prospects different from the disruptions that our ancestors faced when confronted with the seminal general-purpose technologies of the past? Can we say with any confidence that this time it’s different?

Mike’s presentation provoked lots of thoughts…

The first is the objection often made by historians and economists who argue say that apocalyptic concerns about digital technology are just outbreaks of a-historical hysteria. Historically, they say, technological progress has always had two conflicting impacts on employment. One is the overtly destructive impact — the leading edge of the Schumpeterian wave, if you like. The other is the capitalisation effect, as companies start to enter industries where productivity is relatively high, leading to the expansion of employment in these new or revitalised industries. So, according to the sceptics, although automation definitely taketh away, it also giveth.

But if I’ve understood Mike and Carl’s work correctly, this time it might be different, for two reasons.

  • One is that whereas automation historically served to eliminate manual and/or highly routinised tasks, the new digital technologies mean that automation is remorselessly moving into work domains that have traditionally been seen as cognitive and non-routine.

  • The second is that what happening now is what Brian Arthur called “combinatorial innovation”, which is basically the network effect applied to technological innovation. This means that the pace of innovation is increasing exponentially, which in turn means that our traditional capacity to transition into employment in new areas is going to be outpaced by the pace of change. In which case, the life-chances of a lot of human beings could be undermined or destroyed.

Which leads to a final thought, namely that in the end this will have to come down to politics. Mike and Carl’s analysis is not a deterministic one — they don’t imply that the job-destruction that they think could happen will happen. Decisions about whether to deploy these technologies will, in the end, be made by people –- the owners of capital — not by machines. And if there’s no element of societal control in all this, then the clear implication is that Piketty’s rule about the returns from capital generally outrunning the returns from employment will be turbocharged, with predictable consequences for inequality.

But of course, it doesn’t have to be like that. The economic and productivity gains that result from these technologies could be used for different purposes other than giving even more to those who already have. And that brings to mind Keynes’s famous essay on “The Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” in which he saw the possibility that, through technology-driven productivity gains, man “could for the first time since his creation … be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well”.

Only politics can ensure that that agreeable prospect comes to pass, however. This isn’t just about technology, in other words.

And now here’s the really strange thing: in all the sturm und drang of our recent election campaign, the implications of computerisation for employment weren’t mentioned once. Not once.