On the sociology of the last five minutes…

… or what Adam Gopnik calls “presentism” in his review article on books by Pankaj Misha, Joel Mokyr and Yuval Noah Harari.

Of all the prejudices of pundits, presentism is the strongest. It is the assumption that what is happening now is going to keep on happening, without anything happening to stop it. If the West has broken down the Berlin Wall and McDonald’s opens in St. Petersburg, then history is over and Thomas Friedman is content. If, by a margin so small that in a voice vote you would have no idea who won, Brexit happens; or if, by a trick of an antique electoral system designed to give country people more power than city people, a Donald Trump is elected, then pluralist constitutional democracy is finished. The liberal millennium was upon us as the year 2000 dawned; fifteen years later, the autocratic apocalypse is at hand. Thomas Friedman is concerned.

You would think that people who think for a living would pause and reflect that whatever is happening usually does stop happening, and something else happens in its place; a baby who is crying now will stop crying sooner or later. Exhaustion, or a change of mood, or a passing sound, or a bright light, something, always happens next. But for the parents the wait can feel the same as forever, and for many pundits, too, now is the only time worth knowing, for now is when the baby is crying and now is when they’re selling your books.

And so the death-of-liberalism tomes and eulogies are having their day, with the publishers who bet on apocalypse rubbing their hands with pleasure and the ones who gambled on more of the same weeping like, well, babies.

Characteristically good piece by one of the New Yorker‘s best writers. He’s not overly impressed by Mishra or Harari, and prefers Mokyr’s less grandiose interest in people who make and do things as the real movers of history.

The real word-processor


Matthew Kirschenbaum has written a fascinating bookTrack Changes: a Literary History of Word Processing — and in following a link to interviews with him I came on this lovely image, which made me laugh out loud.

Also: word processor seemed such a strange term for a tool designed (presumably) to aid composition. I always thought of it alongside the food processor that became a staple in so many modern kitchens (though never in ours), the whole point of which was to reduce everything to an undifferentiated pulp. (Or so I thought, anyway, never having used one.)

Kirschenbaum clears up the mystery: it seems that the ‘processor’ term came from IBM, who were marketing an office document-processing system which envisaged a process which took the document from initial outline to finished printed version to filed-away copy.

Remember, remember the ninth of September


For personal reasons I have vivid memories of 9/11, so today is always a sombre day in my calendar. But I was suddenly reminded this morning of how some of my Internet buddies rose magnificently to the challenge of the day. This is Dave Winer’s Scripting.com blog, for example. And here are Jeff Jarvis’s audio reports, as unforgettable now as they were then.

And then this memoir by the WSJ‘s John Bussey.

The long history of ‘cyber’

My Observer piece on Thomas Rid’s alternative history of computing, The Rise of the Machines: the Lost History of Cybernetics:

Where did the “cyber” in “cyberspace” come from? Most people, when asked, will probably credit William Gibson, who famously introduced the term in his celebrated 1984 novel, Neuromancer. It came to him while watching some kids play early video games. Searching for a name for the virtual space in which they seemed immersed, he wrote “cyberspace” in his notepad. “As I stared at it in red Sharpie on a yellow legal pad,” he later recalled, “my whole delight was that it meant absolutely nothing.”

How wrong can you be? Cyberspace turned out to be the space that somehow morphed into the networked world we now inhabit, and which might ultimately prove our undoing by making us totally dependent on a system that is both unfathomably complex and fundamentally insecure. But the cyber- prefix actually goes back a long way before Gibson – to the late 1940s and Norbert Wiener’s book, Cybernetics, Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, which was published in 1948.

Cybernetics was the term Wiener, an MIT mathematician and polymath, coined for the scientific study of feedback control and communication in animals and machines. As a “transdiscipline” that cuts across traditional fields such as physics, chemistry and biology, cybernetics had a brief and largely unsuccessful existence: few of the world’s universities now have departments of cybernetics. But as Thomas Rid’s absorbing new book, The Rise of the Machines: The Lost History of Cybernetics shows, it has had a long afterglow as a source of mythic inspiration that endures to the present day…

Read on

Why the arrival, not the journey, matters

I have an article on the evolution of the Internet in a new journal — the Journal of Cyber Policy. I was asked to give a talk at the launch last week in Chatham House, home of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. Here’s my text.

One of my favourite autobiographies is that of Leonard Woolf, the saintly husband of Virginia. It’s a multi-volume work, but my favourite one is the volume covering the years 1939-1969. It’s entitled The Journey, Not the Arrival, Matters and it came to mind when I was pondering this talk, because in the case of the evolution of digital technology I think it’s the other way round: the arrival, not the journey, matters. And I’d like to explain why.

In 1999, Andy Grove, then the Chief Executive of the chip manufacturer Intel, said something interesting. “In five years’s time”, he declared, “companies that aren’t Internet companies won’t be companies at all”. He was speaking at the peak of the first Internet boom, when irrational exuberance ruled the world, but even so many people though he was nuts. Was the CEO of Intel really saying that all companies needed to be selling information goods by 2004?

In fact, Grove was being characteristically perceptive. What he understood — way back in 1999 — was that the Internet was on its way to becoming a General Purpose Technology or GPT, like mains electricity, and that every organisation in the world would have to adapt to that reality. So on the big story, Andy was right; he was just a bit optimistic on the timing front.

My article in the first issue of the new journal is entitled “The evolution of the Internet”, but the real meat is in the subtitle: “From military experiment to General Purpose Technology”. I say that because as the network has been evolving we have focussed too much on one aspect of its development and impact — namely the production, consumption and exchange of information goods — and too little on the direction of travel, which — as my subtitle implies — is towards becoming a GPT.

Arthur C Clarke is famous for saying that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and for most of its users the Internet already meets that requirement. As Eric Schmidt, Google’s Chairman, once observed, it is the first technology that humans have built that humans do not understand. But while a General Purpose Technology may or may not be incomprehensible to humans, it has impacts which are visible to everyone

This is because GPTs have an impact on the world way beyond the domain in which they first appeared. They are technologies that can affect an entire economy and “have the potential to drastically alter societies through their impact on pre-existing economic and social structures”. Think steam engine, electricity, electronics, the automobile. GPTs have “the potential to reshape the economy and boost productivity across all sectors and industries, like electricity or the automobile”. And these transformations are about far more than simple technical innovation, because they often require the wholesale remaking of infrastructure, business models, and cultural norms. GPTs are the motive forces behind Joseph Schumpeter’s waves of ‘creative destruction’ and in that sense leave almost nothing untouched.

But if, as now seems obvious, the Internet is a GPT, then our societies are only at the beginning of a journey of adaptation, not the end. And this may surprise some people because the Internet is actually rather old technology. How you compute its age depends really on where you define its origins. But if you think — as I do — that it starts with Paul Baran’s concept of a packet-switched mesh in the early 1960s, then it’s now in its mid-fifties.

So you’d have thought that our society would have figured out the significance of the network by now. Sadly, not. And that’s not because we’re short of information and data about it. On the contrary, we are awash with the stuff. Our problem is that we don’t, as a culture, seem to understand it. We remain in that blissful state that Manuel Castells calls “informed Bewilderment”. So a powerful force is loose in our societies and we don’t really understand it. Why is that?

One good reason is that digital technology is incomprehensible to ordinary human beings. In that sense, it’s very different from some GPTs of the past. You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand steam power, for example. You might not know much about Boyle’s Law, but you could readily appreciate that steam could powerfully augment animal muscle power and dramatically speed up travel. But most people have very little idea of what digital technology can — and potentially could — do. And this is getting worse, not better, as encryption, machine-learning and other arcane technologies become commonplace.

Another reason for our bewilderment is that digital technology has some distinctive properties — the posh term for them is ‘affordances’ — that make it very different from the GPTs of the past. Among these affordances are:

  • Zero (or near-zero) marginal costs;
  • Very powerful network effects;
  • The dominance of Power Law statistical distributions (which tend towards winner-takes-all outcomes);
  • Technological lock-in (where a proprietary technology becomes the de-facto technical standard for an entire industry);
  • Intrinsic facilitation of exceedingly fine-grained surveillance; low entry thresholds (which facilitates what some scholars call “permissionless innovation”);
  • A development process characterised by ‘combinatorial innovation’ which can lead to sudden and unexpected new capabilities, and an acceleration in the pace of change and development;
  • And the fact that the ‘material’ that is processed by the technology is information — which is, among other things, the lifeblood of social and cultural life, not to mention of democracy itself.

These affordances make digital technology very different from the GPTs of the past. They’re what led me once, when seeking a pithy summary of the Internet for a lay audience, to describe it as “a global machine for springing surprises”. Many of these surprises have been relatively pleasant — for example the World Wide Web; VoIP (internet telephony); powerful search engines; Wikipedia; social networking services; digital maps. Others have been controversial — for example the file-sharing technologies that overwhelmed the music industry; or the belated discovery (courtesy of Edward Snowden) of the pervasive surveillance enabled by the technology and exploited by governments and corporations. And some surprises — particularly the capabilities for cybercrime, espionage, IP and identity theft, malware, blackmail, harassment, and information warfare — have been worrying and, in some cases, terrifying.

But maybe another reason why we are taken aback by the rise of the Internet is because we have been so dazzled by the technology that we have been infected by the technological determinism that is the prevailing ideology in the reality distortion field known as Silicon Valley. The folks there really do believe that technology drives history, which is why their totemic figures like Marc Andreessen — the guy who co-authored Mosaic, the first proper web browser, and now heads a leading venture capital firm — can utter infantile mantras like “software is eating the world” and not get laughed off the stage.

But technology is only one of the forces that drives history because it doesn’t exist — or come into being — in a vacuum. It exists in a social, cultural, political, economic and ideological context, and it is the resultant of these multifarious forces that determines the direction of travel. So in trying to understand the evolution of the Internet, we need to take these other forces into account.

As far as the Internet is concerned, for example, the things to remember are that, first of all, it was a child of the Cold War; that in its early manifestations it was influenced by a social ethos which had distinct counter-cultural overtones; and that it was only relatively late in its development that it was taken over by the corporate interests and intelligence concerns which now dominate it.

Oh — and I almost forgot — there is that enormous elephant in the room, namely that it was almost entirely an American creation, which perhaps explains why all the world’s major Internet companies — outside of China — are US corporations and thus powerful projectors of American ‘soft power’, a fact which — coincidentally — might help to explain current European fears about these companies.

Just for the avoidance of doubt, though, this is not a rant about American dominance. My personal opinion is that US stewardship of the Internet was largely benign for much of the network’s early history. But such stewardship was only acceptable for as long as the Internet was essentially confined to Western industrialised nations. Once the network became truly global, US dominance was always likely to be challenged. And so it has proved.

Another problem with focussing only on the evolution of the network only in terms of technology is that it leads, inevitably, to a Whig Interpretation of its history — that is to say, a record of inexorable progress. And yet anyone who has ever been involved in such things knows that it’s never like that.

With hindsight, for example, we see packet-switching — the fundamental technology of the network — as an obvious and necessary concept. But, as Janet Abbatte has pointed out in her illuminating history, it wasn’t like that at all. In 1960 packet-switching was an experimental, even controversial, idea; it was very difficult to implement initially and some communications experts (mostly working for AT&T) argued that it would never work at all. With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, these sceptics look foolish. But that’s always the problem with hindsight. At the time, the scepticism of these engineers was so vehement that it led Paul Baran to withdraw his proposal to build an experimental prototype of a packet-switched network, thereby delaying the start of the project by the best part of a decade.

Focussing exclusively on the technology creates other blind spots too. For example, it renders us insensitive to the extent to which the Internet — like all major technologies — was socially constructed. This is how, for example, surveillance became “the business model of the Internet” — as the security expert Bruce Schneier once put it. In this case the root cause was the interaction between a key affordance of the technology — the power of network effects — and Internet users’ pathological reluctance to pay for online services. Since the way to succeed commercially was to “get big fast” and since the quickest way to do that was to offer ‘free’ services, the business model that emerged was one in which users’ personal data and their data-trails were harvested and auctioned to advertisers and ad-brokers.

Thus was born a completely new kind of industrial activity — dubbed “surveillance capitalism” by the Harvard scholar Shosana Zuboff — in which extractive corporations like Google and Facebook mine user data which can then be ‘refined’ (i.e. analysed) and sold to others for targeted advertising and other purposes. Although this kind of spying is technologically easy to implement, it could not have become the basis of huge industrial empires without user consent, or without legal arrangements which discourage assignation of ownership of distributed personal data.

One of the most noticeable things about our public discourse on the Internet is how a-historical it is. This is partly a reflection of the way the tech media work — most journalists who cover the industry are essentially perpetually engaged in “the sociology of the last five minutes,” chasing what Michael Lewis memorably described as The New New Thing. As a result, the underlying seismic shifts caused by the technology seem to go largely unnoticed or misunderstood by the public. Yet when we look back at the story so far, we can spot significant discontinuities.

One such, for example, was the appearance of Craigslist in 1996. It was a website providing free, localised classified advertising which started first in San Francisco and gradually spread to cover cities in 70 countries. For a surprisingly long time, the newspaper industry remained blissfully unaware of its significance. But if journalists had understood their industry better they would have seen the threat clearly.

For newspapers are value chains which link an expensive and loss-making activity called journalism with a profitable activity called classified advertising. But one of the affordances of the Internet is that it dissolves value chains, picking off the profitable bits that it can do better than conventional operations. And classified advertising turned out to be one of the things that the internet could do very well: instead of having to wade through acres of small print looking for that used car of your dreams, you simply typed your requirements into a search engine and Bingo! — there were the results. The end result was that newspapers were left holding only the unprofitable, loss-making, part of their value chains.

“The peace of God,” says the Bible, “passeth all understanding”. So too do the valuations of Internet companies. We saw that in the first Internet boom of 1995-2000 — that extraordinary outbreak of what the economist Robert Schiller dubbed “Irrational Exuberance” and which was later christened the “dot-com bubble”. What fuelled the mania was speculative interest in the stock-market valuation of the multitude of Web-based companies (‘dot-coms’) which materialised following Netscape’s IPO in 1995 and which was amplified by the fantasies of fund managers, stock analysts, journalists and pundits. As one sceptical observer put it, what really happened is that “Wall Street moved West”.

The core business model of these fledgling companies was the idea of harnessing the network effects implicit in the rapid growth of consumer interest in the Internet to obtain a dominant market share in a range of sectors. At the height of the frenzy, dot-com companies with few customers, few (sometimes no) revenues and handfuls of employees briefly enjoyed stock-market valuations greater than those of huge companies like General Motors.

The boom followed the traditional pattern of speculative manias through the centuries, and eventually, in March 2000, it burst. In just over a month the total market capitalisation of companies on the NASDAQ exchange fell from $6.71 trillion to $5.78 trillion. In other words, nearly a trillion dollars in value had been obliterated. And less than half of the dot-coms founded in the boom survived the crash.

But here’s the strange thing: the bubble created much of the technological infrastructure necessary to hasten the maturing of the network. When the mania began, some canny observers quoted the old maxim of the Californian gold rush of the 1850s – that the people who made most money in California were not the miners and prospectors, but the merchants who sold them pickaxes and shovels. The modern embodiments of those merchants were the telecommunications companies which in the 1990s invested heavily in building large fibre-optic cable networks and server farms to service the ‘new’ economy that was apparently coming into being. When the bubble burst, these companies were left with apparently unwanted assets, and some went bankrupt. But the infrastructure that they had built remained, and turned out to be critical for enabling what came next.

The interesting thing is that — to those who know their economic history — this is an old story. Brad DeLong points out, for example, that the ‘railway mania’ of the 19th century lost investors a lot of money, but the extensiveness of the railway network that was the product of the frenzy enabled completely new industries to be built. It was the completion of the railway network, for example, that enabled the rise of the mail-order industry — which for two generations was a licence to print money in the United States.

Similarly with the Internet. While the bubble caused a financial crash, it also resulted in a massive expansion in the communications infrastructure needed to turn the network into a ubiquitous public utility — a General Purpose Technology — much as happened with railway networks in the late 19th century. So now the internet is mature and extensive enough to serve as a foundation on which new kinds of innovation – much of it in areas apparently unrelated to information goods – can be built. In that context, it’s conceivable that enterprises like the cab-hailing application Uber, or the room-hiring service Airbnb may turn out to be the contemporary equivalent of the mail-order services of the 19th century: unthinkable before the technology and unremarkable afterwards.

We’ve taken a long time to get here, but we’ve made it. Now all we have to do is figure out how to deal with it. Which is why I say that the arrival, not the journey, matters.

Thank you.

The significance of eBay

This morning’s Observer column:

Twenty years ago this month, a French-born Iranian-American computer programmer named Pierre Omidyar added an experimental online auction section to his personal website, which at that time focused mainly on the Ebola virus. He called it AuctionWeb because it enabled people to bid to purchase items that other people were advertising for sale. One of the earliest, and most puzzling, sales on the site was of a broken laser pointer, which went for $14.83. The story goes that Omidyar wrote to the buyer asking if he understood that the laser pointer was broken. The guy replied that he was a collector of broken laser pointers. At this point, Omidyar realised he might be on to something.

He was: he called it eBay…

Read on

YouTube’s first decade


YouTube turns ten this year. ArsTechnica has a nice post that reflects on its history and its significance.


The site has become so indispensable that it feels like a basic part of the Internet itself rather than a service that lives on top of it. YouTube is just the place to put videos, and it’s used by everyone from individuals to billion-dollar companies. It’s obvious to say, but YouTube revolutionized Web video. It made video uploading and playback almost as easy as uploading a picture, handled all the bandwidth costs, and it allowed anyone to embed those videos onto other sites.

The scale of YouTube gets more breathtaking every year. It has a billion users in 61 languages, and 12 days of video are uploaded to the site every minute—that’s almost 50 years of video every day. The site just continues growing. The number of hours watched on YouTube is up 50 percent from last year.

It’s easy to forget YouTube almost didn’t make it. Survival for the site was a near-constant battle in the early days. The company not only fought the bandwidth monster, but it faced an army of lawyers from various media companies that all wanted to shut the video service down. But thanks to cash backing from Google, the site was able to fend off the lawyers. And by staying at the forefront of Web and server technology, YouTube managed to serve videos to the entire Internet without being bankrupted by bandwidth bills…

Great read. Recommended.

Bletchley Park and the erosion of the freedoms it was set up to defend

This morning’s Observer column.

It’s terrific that Bletchley Park has not only been rescued from the decay into which the site had fallen, but brilliantly restored, thanks to funding from the National Lottery (£5m), Google (which donated £500,000) and the internet security firm McAfee. I’ve been to the Park many times and for years going there was a melancholy experience, as one saw the depredations of time and weather inexorably outpacing the valiant efforts of the squads of volunteers who were trying to keep the place going.

Even at its lowest ebb, Bletchley had a magical aura. One felt something akin to what Abraham Lincoln tried to express when he visited Gettysburg: that something awe-inspiring had transpired here and that it should never be forgotten. The code-breaking that Bletchley Park achieved was an astonishing demonstration of the power of collective intelligence and determination in a quest to defeat the gravest threat that this country had ever faced.

When I was last there, the restoration was almost complete, and I was given a tour on non-disclosure terms, so I had seen what the duchess saw on Wednesday. The most striking bit is the restoration of Hut 6 exactly as it was, complete with all the accoutrements of the tweedy, pipe-smoking genuises who worked in it, right down to the ancient typewriters, bound notebooks and the Yard-O-Led mechanical pencil that one of them possessed.

Hut 6 is significant because that was where Gordon Welchman worked…

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