‘Transparency’: like motherhood and apple pie

This morning’s Observer column:

On 25 October, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, wandered into unfamiliar territory – at least for a major politician. Addressing a media conference in Munich, she called on major internet companies to divulge the secrets of their algorithms on the grounds that their lack of transparency endangered public discourse. Her prime target appeared to be search engines such as Google and Bing, whose algorithms determine what you see when you type a search query into them. Given that, an internet user should have a right to know the logic behind the results presented to him or her.

“I’m of the opinion,” declared the chancellor, “that algorithms must be made more transparent, so that one can inform oneself as an interested citizen about questions like, ‘What influences my behaviour on the internet and that of others?’ Algorithms, when they are not transparent, can lead to a distortion of our perception; they can shrink our expanse of information.”

All of which is unarguably true…

Read on

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. 

So what was Google smoking when it bought Boston Dynamics?

This morning’s Observer column:

The question on everyone’s mind as Google hoovered up robotics companies was: what the hell was a search company doing getting involved in this business? Now we know: it didn’t have a clue.

Last week, Bloomberg revealed that Google was putting Boston Dynamics up for sale. The official reason for unloading it is that senior executives in Alphabet, Google’s holding company, had concluded (correctly) that Boston Dynamics was years away from producing a marketable product and so was deemed disposable. Two possible buyers have been named so far – Toyota and Amazon. Both make sense for the obvious reason that they are already heavy users of robots and it’s clear that Amazon in particular would dearly love to get rid of humans in its warehouses at the earliest possible opportunity…

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Privacy is sooo… yesterday: Google’s Chief Economist

“One easy way to forecast the future is to predict that what rich people have now, middle class people will have in five years, and poor people will have in ten years. It worked for radio, TV, dishwashers, mobile phones, flat screen TV, and many other pieces of technology.

What do rich people have now? Chauffeurs? In a few more years, we’ll all have access to
driverless cars. Maids? We will soon be able to get housecleaning robots. Personal assistants? That’s Google Now. This area will be an intensely competitive environment: Apple already has Siri and Microsoft is hard at work at developing their own digital assistant. And don’t forget IBM’s Watson.

Of course there will be challenges. But these digital assistants will be so useful that everyone will want one, and the scare stories you read today about privacy concerns will just seem quaint and old­fashioned.”

Hal Varian, “Beyond Big Data”, NABE Annual Meeting, September 10, 2013, San Francisco.

Facebook can’t be just a ‘platform’ if it’s distributing news

This morning’s Observer column:

Many years ago, the political theorist Steven Lukes published a seminal book – Power: A Radical View. In it, he argued that power essentially comes in three varieties: the ability to compel people to do what they don’t want to do; the capability to stop them doing what they want to do; and the power to shape the way they think. This last is the kind of power exercised by our mass media. They can shape the public (and therefore the political) agenda by choosing the news that people read, hear or watch; and they can shape the ways in which that news is presented. Lukes’s “third dimension” of power is what’s wielded in this country by outlets like Radio 4’s Today programme, the Sun and the Daily Mail. And this power is real: it’s why all British governments in recent years have been so frightened of the Mail.

But as our media ecosystem has changed under the impact of the internet, new power brokers have appeared….

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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

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.

The Viking who is taking on Silicon Valley

FT_Vestager

Terrific Financial Times profile of Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s Competition Commissioner, who is really getting up the noses of Silicon Valley’s overlords. Because of public hostility to the craven deal that HMRC negotiated with Google over back-taxes, many people here will be rooting for her. (She’s said that she is prepared to examine the deal.) But if her probe into Apple’s weird tax arrangements with the Irish government results in a colossal back-tax bill for the company, then we will really have moved into new territory.

For one thing, it’ll unravel a crazy system of international tax laws that dates back to 1928. And it’ll open all kinds of worm-cans — Amazon pretending that it’s based in Luxembourg; Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Google pretending they’re based in Dublin; and so on. And of course the US will be mightily pissed off. Not bad for the daughter of two Lutheran pastors. Just as well that she’s a tough cookie. The FT profile has a nice story about her time as Deputy Prime Minister of Denmark. An opposition spokesman complained in Parliament that her proposed spending plans were “small”.

“Some think it is a rather small plan,” she retorted, with a mischievous grin. “But I am a bit cautious about trusting any judgments on size from men, and perhaps — but this might be a woman’s perspective — I am more interested in the effect.”