Facebook: the Psychopaths ‘R Us channel

Yesterday’s Observer column:

The old adage “be careful what you wish for” comes to mind. A while back, Facebook launched Facebook Live, a service that enables its users to broadcast live video to the world. Shortly after the service was activated, the company’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, said that the service would support all the “personal and emotional and raw and visceral” ways that people communicate. Users were encouraged to “go live” in casual settings – waiting for baggage at the airport, for example, or eating at a restaurant.

Note the phrase “raw and visceral”. Facebook Live has already broadcast a live stream of a young disabled man being tied up, gagged and attacked with a knife. In March, two Chicago teenage boys live-streamed themselves gang-raping a teenage girl. And around 40 Facebook users watched the video without reporting it either to Facebook or the police.

That’s pretty raw and visceral, you might think. But it turns out that it was just a prelude…

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Shattering the mask of the benevolent tech company

My Observer review of Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things:

Much has been made in previous histories of Silicon Valley’s counter-cultural origins. Taplin finds other, less agreeable roots, notably in the writings of Ayn Rand, a flake of Cadbury proportions who had an astonishing impact on many otherwise intelligent individuals. These include Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman who presided over events leading to the banking collapse of 2008, and [Peter] Thiel, who made an early fortune out of PayPal and was the first investor in Facebook. Rand believed that “achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life”. She had no time for altruism, government or anything else that might interfere with capitalism red in tooth and claw.

Neither does Thiel. For him, “competition is for losers”. He believes in investing only in companies that have the potential to become monopolies and he thinks monopolies are good for society. “Americans mythologise competition and credit it with saving us from socialist bread lines,” he once wrote. “Actually, capitalism and competition are opposites. Capitalism is premised on the accumulation of capital, but under perfect competition, all profits get competed away.”

The three great monopolies of the digital world have followed the Thiel playbook and Taplin does a good job of explaining how each of them works and how, strangely, their vast profits are never “competed away”. He also punctures the public image so assiduously fostered by Google and Facebook – that they are basically cool tech companies run by good chaps (and they are still mainly chaps, btw) who are hellbent on making the world a better place – whereas, in fact, they are increasingly hard to distinguish from the older brutes of the capitalist jungle…

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If something can be done, then…

This morning’s Observer column:

The biggest impediments to automation are the practical difficulties that tech evangelists tend to ignore. Some of them have already sussed that self-driving cars are a distant prospect because their regulatory and infrastructural requirements are so complex. That’s why much of the excitement in the industry is now focused on trucks. It’s easy to see how autonomous “truck trains” could work on motorways, and indeed there have already been trials of such convoys.

The trouble starts when the vehicle has to leave the motorway in order to reach its final destination. Suddenly the truck faces the same obstacles as the self-driving car. So maybe it will be necessary to have human pilots to take it that last mile safely, just as ships have pilots to guide them into harbour. That’s also why we are unlikely to see autonomous white vans any time soon: their drivers do much more than simply drive – just like those DHL guys in Venice. So perhaps tech determinists need to revise their mantra: if something can be done, then it may be done – provided the economics and the practicalities are right.

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Making death optional

This morning’s Observer column:

In this world,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” This proposition doesn’t cut much ice in Silicon Valley, where they take a poor view of paying taxes. What’s interesting is that they are also coming to the view that perhaps death is optional too, at least for the very rich.

You think I jest? Well, meet Bill Maris, the founder and former CEO of Google Ventures, the investment arm of Alphabet, Google’s owners. Three years ago, Maris decided to create a company that will “solve” death…

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So the iPad is “done”. Really?

This morning’s Observer column:

My eye was caught by a headline in the Register, an invaluable online source of tech news and opinion. “Clearance sale shows Apple’s iPad is over. It’s done,” it read. This was a quotation from a piece by Volker Weber on the latest product announcements from Apple. “iPad is the biggest news,” he wrote, “and it says: the iPad is done. Apple is just refining the components, but there isn’t much they can do these days to make yet another super-duper Earth-shattering innovation here.”

Since I was reading this on my iPad Pro, which is probably the most useful electronic device I have ever owned, it came as a bit of a shock. But in fact Volker was really just articulating a truth about digital hardware, which is that the evolution of all such products (and a good deal else besides) follows a sigmoid curve.

It sounds complicated, but it isn’t really…

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Hacking your tractor used to be a crime. Now it’s a breach of contract.

This morning’s Observer column:

John Deere is a large corporation that makes tractors. They’re green, big and powerful and they don’t come cheap. I’ve just noticed a nearly new 6175R model for £77,500 plus VAT, for example. That’s £93,000 in real money, so imagine how proud you’d feel if you were fortunate enough to own one of these magnificent machines.

Well, it depends on what you mean by “own”…

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Is Snapchat the canary in the post-literate mine?

This morning’s Observer column:

To the average grownup [Snapchat] seems weird. And it is. Just when we’d got used to the idea that digital technology never forgets – that there’s no way of being sure that the embarrassing photograph you posted to Facebook five years ago will not stay on some server somewhere for ever – here’s a digital service that runs completely counter to that. And of course Snapchat’s wild popularity must owe something to the ephemerality of its messages.

But some perceptive observers are beginning to think that there’s more to it than that. One clue can be found in something that Evan Spiegel, the chief executive of Snap, recently said to a reporter. “People wonder why their daughter is taking 10,000 photos a day,” he said. “What they don’t realise is that she isn’t preserving images. She’s talking.” Another clue is hiding in plain sight in the name of the app: “snap” (the term introduced by Kodak for the act of taking a photograph) plus “chat” (which has connotations of oral conversation). So, in some strange way, is Snapchat beginning to assume the qualities of an oral medium?

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Online advertising and the return of the Wanamaker problem

This morning’s Observer column:

And so the advertisers’ money, diverted from print and TV, cascaded into the coffers of Google and co. In 2012, Procter & Gamble announced that it would make $1bn in savings by targeting consumers through digital and social media. It has got to the point where, according to last week’s Financial Times, 2017 will be the year when advertisers spend more online than they do on TV.

Trebles all round, then? Not quite. It turns out that the advertising industry is beginning to smell a rat in this hi-tech nirvana. In a speech to the annual conference of the Internet Advertising Bureau in January, the Procter & Gamble boss, Marc Pritchard, said this: “We have seen an exponential increase in, well… crap. Craft or crap? Technology enables both and all too often the outcome has been more crappy advertising accompanied by even crappier viewing experiences… is it any wonder ad blockers are growing 40%?”

But the exponential growth in crap is not the biggest problem, he said. Much more worrying was the return of the Wanamaker problem: how many people are actually seeing these ads?

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Should robots be taxed

This morning’s Observer column:

The problem with the future is that it’s unknowable. But of course that doesn’t stop us trying to second-guess it. At the moment, many people – and not just in the tech industry – are wondering about the impact of automation on employment. And not just blue-collar employment – the kind of jobs that were eliminated in the early phase of automating car production, for instance – but also the white-collar jobs that hitherto seemed secure…

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At the end of the piece I mentioned (and applauded) Bill Gates’s suggestion that robots should be taxed — just as human workers are — to enable the social and human costs of automation to be mitigated. There’s a thoughtful Schumpeter column in this week’s Economist arguing that this might not be such a good idea.

“A robot is a capital investment”, writes the Schumpeter columnist,

like a blast furnace or a computer. Economists typically advise against taxing such things, which allow an economy to produce more. Taxation that deters investment is thought to make people poorer without raising much money. But Mr Gates seems to suggest that investment in robots is a little like investing in a coal-fired generator: it boosts economic output but also imposes a social cost, what economists call a negative externality. Perhaps rapid automation threatens to dislodge workers from old jobs faster than new sectors can absorb them. That could lead to socially costly long-term unemployment, and potentially to support for destructive government policy. A tax on robots that reduced those costs might well be worth implementing, just as a tax on harmful blast-furnace emissions can discourage pollution and leave society better off.

The biggest problem with the Gates proposal, he goes on, is not that automation is happening but that it is not happening quicker.

Mr Gates worries, understandably, about a looming era of automation in which machines take over driving or managing warehouses. Yet in an economy already awash with abundant, cheap labour, it may be that firms face too little pressure to invest in labour-saving technologies. Why refit a warehouse when people queue up to do the work at the minimum wage? Mr Gates’s proposal, by increasing the expense of robots relative to human labour, might further delay an already overdue productivity boom.

And even if automation speeds up, the share of income attributed to the machines might also decline quickly — or at any rate follow the historic trend.

A new working paper by Simcha Barkai, of the University of Chicago, concludes that, although the share of income flowing to workers has declined in recent decades, the share flowing to capital (ie, including robots) has shrunk faster. What has grown is the markup firms can charge over their production costs, >ie, their profits. Similarly, an NBER working paper published in January argues that the decline in the labour share is linked to the rise of “superstar firms”. A growing number of markets are “winner takes most”, in which the dominant firm earns hefty profits.

Large and growing profits are an indicator of market power. That power might stem from network effects (the value, in a networked world, of being on the same platform as everyone else), the superior productive cultures of leading firms, government protection, or something else. Waves of automation might necessitate sharing the wealth of superstar firms: through distributed share-ownership when they are public, or by taxing their profits when they are not. Robots are a convenient villain, but Mr Gates might reconsider his target; when firms enjoy unassailable market positions, workers and machines alike lose out.: the owners of robots have to be taxed so that the increases in productivity (and profits) that they enable is redistributed.

Thus by a roundabout route the Economist columnist reaches the right conclusion — although even then it’s a rather weaselly concession: waves of automation might necessitate sharing the wealth of superstar firms. Might??? Gates’s proposal may have been motivated by a shrewd conviction that, in this neoliberal world, redistributive taxation of that kind is never going to happen. Taxing robots like workers is, in contrast, something that even the dumbest government can organise.

LATER Yanis Varoufakis isn’t impressed by the Gates proposal.

And the USA’s greatest cybersecurity vulnerability is… its President

This morning’s Observer column:

My favourite image of the week was a picture of the Queen opening the National Cyber Security Centre in London. Her Majesty is looking bemusedly at a large display while a member of staff explains how hackers could target the nation’s electricity supply. The job of the centre’s director, Ciaran Martin, is to protect the nation from such dangers. It’s a heavy responsibility, but at least he doesn’t have to worry that his head of state is a cybersecurity liability.

His counterpart in the United States does not have that luxury…

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