Facebook and the CCTV effect

This morning’s Observer column:

Jeremy Paxman, who once served as Newsnight’s answer to the pit-bull terrier, famously outlined his philosophy in interviewing prominent politicians thus: “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” This was unduly prescriptive: not all of Paxman’s interviewees were outright liars; they were merely practitioners of the art of being “economical with the truth”, but it served as a useful heuristic for a busy interviewer.

Maybe the time has come to apply the same heuristic to Facebook’s public statements…

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How about an Angry Founders Club?

Lovely rant by Dave Winer:

We should start an “Angry Founders of the Internet” social club to discuss what the fuck happened and how can we tell people about the magic that underlies the crapware that the bigco’s are shoveling at us. It really is beautiful and amazing in there. Think of it this way. It’s easier to take the Interstate highway everywhere, but if you do that, you miss the charming B&Bs, the dramatic beaches, restaurants, jazz clubs. The thrill of riding a bike, hiking the Appalachian Trail, skiing. All that intellectually unperpins this.

I’m not a ‘founder’ — though I count some of them among my friends. But I sympathise with Dave. The technology remains as magical as ever. It’s the corporate capture of it that rankles — plus the passivity and gullibility of so many of our fellow-humans.

Why is WhatsApp founder quitting Facebook? You can guess the answer

This morning’s Observer column:

Early in 2009, two former Yahoo employees, Brian Acton and Jan Koum, sat down to try and create a smartphone messaging app. They had a few simple design principles. One was that it should be easy to use: no complicated log-in and authentication procedures; instead, each user would be identified by his or her mobile number. And second, the app should have an honest business model – no more pretending it’s free while covertly monetising users’ data: instead, users would pay $1 a year after a certain period. Searching for a name for their service, they came up with WhatsApp, a play on “What’s Up?”

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Learning from Marx

Interesting interview with Gareth Stedman-Jones about his new book about Marx. I was struck in particular by this Q&A.

What should we keep from Marx’s thinking then?
The one thing we should preserve from what he said is really the sense of the overpowering nature of capitalism; of its dynamism; of the way it undercuts hierarchies; something which is restless and never ceasing to ‘move’. The idea of something so volatile and unstable has been with us – and is as much with us now as it was then – that’s really something which I would want to credit him with above all.

The second point I think is where he came from in terms of an intellectual formation. He was part of the Young Hegelian movement and that involves a critique of religion, which ends up with the idea of reversal: that it’s not God who created man but man created God. Marx transfers that thought into the way we identify with commodity production, commercialist society, capitalism. Where we think of ourselves as the creatures of a system rather than those who create the system – and that I think is also an important insight.

Thinking ten years ahead

Ben Evans is one of the tech commentators I follow. This para from one of his blog posts struck me:

First, ecommerce, having grown more or less in a straight line for the past twenty years, is starting to reach the point that broad classes of retailer have real trouble. It’s useful to compare physical retail with newspapers, which face many of the same problems: a fixed cost base with falling revenues, the near-disappearance of a physical distribution advantage, and above all, unbundling and disaggregation. Everything bad that the internet did to media is probably going to happen to retailers. The tipping point might now be approaching, particularly in the US, where the situation is worsened by the fact that there is far more retail square footage per capita than in any other developed market. And when the store closes and you turn to shopping online (or are simply forced to, if enough physical retail goes away), you don’t buy all the same things, any more than you read all the same things when you took your media consumption online. When we went from a corner store to a department store, and then from a department store to big box retail, we didn’t all buy exactly the same things but in different places – we bought different things. If you go from buying soap powder in Wal-Mart based on brand and eye-level placement to telling Alexa ‘I need more soap’, some of your buying will look different.

Intellectual imperialism and the behavioural turn in economics

Further to the decision of the Nobel committee to give Richard Thaler this year’s prize for economics (about which I bloggeda few days ago), Frank Pasquale pointed me to an interesting critique by Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra, who picks out “three problems in economics and its relation to the ‘real world’ it inhabits”.

Firstly, it skates over the fact that what Thaler is being rewarded for — realising “that people can be influenced by (mostly social) prompts to alter their behavior” — was, well, rather old-hat in other social science disciplines. So the Swedish recognition of behavioural economics is really just “a legitimation of economic imperialism: a finding is only truly relevant if published by an economist (corollary: being an economist from Chicago helps).” Ouch!

Secondly, though Thaler’s contribution might make economics “more human—and real”, the behavioural turn “doesn’t make away with the ontological commitments of discipline, privileging market processes and individual action as the fundamental sources of virtue.” Take the metaphor of the ‘nudge’, as articulated by Thaler and Sunstein. “Rather than questioning the economics of general equilibrium”, says Pardo-Guerra, “‘nudging’ is a proposal in calculated engineering: we can build policies that create outcomes similar to those of theory by gently walking slightly irrational, bounded economic agents through the correct ‘architectures of choice’”. But who conceptualises those architectures? And within what ideological constraints?

And finally, this year’s prize confirms that to win a Nobel prize in economics, it really helps to be male and white. To date, only one woman — Elinor Ostrom — has been recognised, and Amaryta Sen is the only non-white laureate so far. I don’t know much about the overall demographics of the economics discipline, but if the Nobel list is representative then one can see why it might be more problematic than the Swedes recognise.

MadMen 2.0: The anthropology of the political

Gillian Tett, who is now the US Editor of the Financial Times, was trained as an anthropologist (which may be one reason why she spotted the fishy world of Collateral Debt Obligations and other dodgy derivatives before specialists who covered the banking sector). She had some interesting reflections in last weekend’s FT about data-driven campaigning in the 2016 Presidential election.

These were based on visits she had paid to the data-mavens of the Trump and Clinton campaigns during the election, and came away with some revealing insights into how they had taken completely different views on what constituted ‘politics’.

“Until now”, she writes,

”whenever pollsters have been asked to do research on politics, they have generally focussed on the things that modern western society labels ‘political’ — such as voter registration, policy surveys, party affiliation, voting records, and so on”. Broadly speaking, this is the way Clinton’s data team viewed the electorate. They had a vast database based on past voting patterns, voter registration and affiliations that was much more comprehensive than anything the Trump crowd had. “But”, says Tett, “this database was backwards-looking and limited to ‘politics’”. And Clinton’s data scientists thought that politics began and ended with ‘politics’.

The Trump crowd (which seems mainly to have been Cambridge Analytica, a strange outfit that is part hype-machine and part applied-psychometrics), took a completely different approach. As one of their executives told Tett,

”Enabling somebody and encouraging somebody to go out and vote on a wet Wednesday morning is no different in my mind to persuading and encouraging somebody to move from one toothpaste brand to another.” The task was, he said, “about understanding what message is relevant to that person at that time when they are in that particular mindset”.

This goes to the heart of what happened, in a way. It turned out that a sophisticated machine built for targeting finely-calibrated commercial messages to particular consumers was also suitable for delivering calibrated political messages to targeted voters. And I suppose that shouldn’t have come as such a shock. After all, when TV first appeared, all of the expertise and resources of Madison Avenue’s “hidden persuaders” was brought to bear on political campaigning. So what we’re seeing now is just Mad Men 2.0.

How to be smart and clueless at the same time

Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘defence’ of Facebook’s role in the election of Trump provides a vivid demonstration of how someone can have a very high IQ and yet be completely clueless — as Zeynep Tufecki points out in a splendid NYT OpEd piece:

Mr. Zuckerberg’s preposterous defense of Facebook’s failure in the 2016 presidential campaign is a reminder of a structural asymmetry in American politics. It’s true that mainstream news outlets employ many liberals, and that this creates some systemic distortions in coverage (effects of trade policies on lower-income workers and the plight of rural America tend to be underreported, for example). But bias in the digital sphere is structurally different from that in mass media, and a lot more complicated than what programmers believe.

In a largely automated platform like Facebook, what matters most is not the political beliefs of the employees but the structures, algorithms and incentives they set up, as well as what oversight, if any, they employ to guard against deception, misinformation and illegitimate meddling. And the unfortunate truth is that by design, business model and algorithm, Facebook has made it easy for it to be weaponized to spread misinformation and fraudulent content. Sadly, this business model is also lucrative, especially during elections. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, called the 2016 election “a big deal in terms of ad spend” for the company, and it was. No wonder there has been increasing scrutiny of the platform.