Implications of a new machine age

This morning’s Observer column:

As a species, we don’t seem to be very good at dealing with nonlinearity. We cope moderately well with situations and environments that are changing gradually. But sudden, major discontinuities – what some people call “tipping points” – leave us spooked. That’s why we are so perversely relaxed about climate change, for example: things are changing slowly, imperceptibly almost, but so far there hasn’t been the kind of sharp, catastrophic change that would lead us seriously to recalibrate our behaviour and attitudes.

So it is with information technology…

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Missing the Beats

This morning’s Observer column:

This time last year Apple paid $3bn to acquire a company called Beats that made overpriced headphones and ran an unsuccessful music-streaming business. This acquisition made Beats co-founder Dr Dre the first hip-hop billionaire at the same time as it baffled many observers of the industry. For example, Benedict Evans, a seasoned analyst, tweeted: “If you think Apple’s lost it, Beats deal is confirmation. If you don’t, it’s… perplexing. Few really convincing rationales.” This columnist was likewise puzzled. Apple normally designs and makes its own kit, and if it wanted to do headphones it would certainly do better than the Beats products. So the conclusion had to be that if Apple didn’t want Beats for the headphones, it had to be the music-streaming service that it craved.

And so it has proved. We have just discovered – in a roundabout way – just how much Apple wants to get into the streaming business…

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Magical thinking in surveillance circles

This morning’s Observer column:

The power of magical thinking – the notion that you can make something happen merely by thinking about it – has been much in evidence in the current election campaign. And that’s not entirely surprising, because as politicians get desperate, rationality goes out of the window. What is surprising, however, is when high government officials – for example, heads of intelligence and law-enforcement agencies – begin to show clear signs of the syndrome.

Exhibit A in this respect is James Comey, the current director of the FBI. Mr Comey has become so exercised by the decisions of Apple and Google to implement strong encryption in their devices and services that he appears to have lost his marbles. “I am a huge believer in the rule of law,” he told reporters last September, “but I am also a believer that no one in this country is above the law. What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves above the law.”

It’s good to know that the FBI director believes that nobody should be above the law. Except, of course, for his colleague, the former NSA director, James Clapper, who lied under oath to the US Congress about the existence of bulk data collection programs and yet remains at large. But we will let that pass: after all, as Oscar Wilde observed, consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative, and Mr Comey is nothing if not imaginative….

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Our fragile, incomprehensible networked world

This morning’s Observer column:

At first sight, it looked like an April Fools’ story. The US Department of Justice is seeking to extradite a day-trader from Hounslow to stand trial on charges that he brought the US stock market briefly to its knees on 6 May 2010. Navinder Singh Sarao is accused of using a computerised share-trading program to manipulate the market for S&P 500 futures contracts on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, thereby adding (so the prosecution alleges) to wider selling pressure that caused the Dow Jones industrial average to plunge briefly by 6% before bouncing back.

In that short interval, stocks in huge companies such as Procter & Gamble dropped by 25% and established companies such as General Electric and Accenture briefly traded as penny shares. The British courts, not to mention the rest of us, are invited to believe that this mayhem was caused by a 36-year-old geek in the bedroom of his parents neat semi-detached house under the Heathrow flight path.

There are, it seems to me, only two possible interpretations of this. One is that Mr Sarao is indeed responsible for the chaos. The other is that the US authorities have no real idea who is responsible, but need to make an example of somebody and Mr Sarao will do nicely. Either way, we are left with a really alarming conclusion, namely that we have constructed a world that is totally dependent on systems that are a) astonishingly fragile and unpredictable, and b) incomprehensible not only to the average citizen but to those who are supposed to regulate them…

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Googlepower challenged? Not really

This morning’s Observer column:

To those of us who follow these things, the most interesting thing about Thursday’s announcement is the way it highlights the radical differences that are emerging between European and American attitudes to internet giants. The Wall Street Journal recently revealed that the US Federal Trade Commission had investigated similar claims about Google’s abuse of monopoly power in 2012 and that some of the agency’s staff had recommended charging the company with violating antitrust (unfair competition) laws. But in the end, the FTC backed off.

Now it turns out that its staff had been in regular communication with the European commission’s investigators in Brussels, which means that the Europeans knew what the Americans knew about Google’s activities. But the commission has acted, whereas the FTC did not. Why?

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Batteries not excluded

This morning’s Observer column:

Many years ago, in 1999 to be exact, Andy Grove, who was then chairman of the giant chip-maker Intel, famously predicted: “Companies that are not internet companies in five years’ time won’t be companies at all.” He was widely ridiculed for this assertion, mostly because his critics didn’t understand what he was getting at. All he was saying was that the internet, which in 1999 was still regarded by much of the world as exotic, would one day be regarded as a utility, like mains electricity.

Grove was right. What he omitted to say, however, was that the net would never be as important as electricity. This fact appears to have escaped the notice of some folks in the computing business; it certainly escapes many of those who breathlessly report its doings. But it’s obvious the moment you think about it. If we had to choose between the internet or access to electrical power, which one would we go for? No contest.

What we have come to accept as civilised life depends utterly on secure supplies of electricity. We would miss the net, of course, and large chunks of our technical infrastructure depend on its continuance, but we could get by without it. Take away electricity, however, and our modern machine, including the net, stops…

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Apple: the Toyota of precision manufacturing?

This morning’s Observer column. Excerpt:

Most of the discussion about the watch comes down, in the end, to reveries about Apple’s now legendary ability to design objects that are both beautiful and functional. But in taking this line we are, in fact, overlooking a more important point. Because what is really interesting about Apple is not just that it can design great products, but that it can actually manufacture the things in huge volumes, and deliver them to market on time.

Just to put that point about volumes in context, consider the iPhone 6. It weighs 129g, and its bigger brother, the 6 Plus, weighs in at 172.1g. In the last quarter of 2014, Apple sold 74.5m iPhones, which works out at an average of 846, 590 a day. If we assume that 15% of those sales were of the heavier Plus, then that means Apple shifted 114,676kg of iPhones a day, on average. Just for comparison, the operating dry weight of a Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner is 117, 707kg…

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Crime doesn’t pay, unless it’s online

This morning’s Observer column:

Now I know that there are lies, damned lies and crime statistics, but everyone in the UK, including the Office for National Statistics, seems to agree that recorded crime is decreasing – and has been for quite a while. This is one of the arguments the government is using to justify its savage cuts in police budgets. Given that we’ve got crime on the run (so the argument goes) all we have to do now is to get the coppers to become more efficient – working smarter, making better use of information technology and computers, etc. Reduction in crime means we don’t need so many police officers. QED.

The only fly in this rosy ointment is that it’s based on a false premise. Recorded crime is declining, but that’s largely due to the fact that crime has moved on – specifically from the physical world to cyberspace. And there’s a very simple reason for this: cybercrime is a much safer and more lucrative activity than its real-world counterpart. The rewards are much greater, and the risks of being caught and convicted are vanishingly small. So if you’re a rational criminal with a reasonable IQ, why would you bother mugging people, breaking into houses, nicking cars and doing all the other things that old-style crooks do – and that old-style cops are good at catching them doing?

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Internet Explorer RIP

This morning’s Observer column:

Let’s spool back a bit – to 1993. By then, the internet was roughly 10 years old, but for its first decade had been largely unknown to anyone other than geeks and computer science researchers. Two years earlier, Tim Berners-Lee had created and released the world wide web onto the internet, but initially no one noticed. Then in the spring of 1993, Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina released Mosaic – the first graphical browser – and suddenly the “real world” realised what the internet was for, and clamoured to get aboard.

But here’s the strange thing: Microsoft – by then the overwhelmingly dominant force in the computing world – failed to notice the internet. One of Bill Gates’s biographers, James Wallace, claimed that Microsoft didn’t even have an internet server until early in 1993, and that the only reason the company set one up was because Steve Ballmer, Gates’s second-in-command, had discovered on a sales trip that most of his big corporate customers were complaining that Windows didn’t have a “TCP/IP stack” – ie, a way of connecting to the internet. Ballmer had never heard of TCP/IP. “I don’t know what it is,” he shouted at subordinates on his return to Seattle. “I don’t want to know what it is. But my customers are screaming about it. Make the pain go away.”

But even when Microsoft engineers built a TCP/IP stack into Windows, the pain continued…

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So what kind of time will you get from the iWatch?

This morning’s Observer column:

A few months ago I bought a “smartwatch”. I did so because there was increasing media hype about these devices and I don’t write about kit that I haven’t owned and used in anger. The model I chose was a Pebble Steel, for several reasons: it was originally funded by a Kickstarter campaign; a geek friend already had one; and, well, it looked interesting. Now, several months on, I am back to wearing my old analogue watch. The Pebble experiment turned out to be instructive. The watch was well made and well presented. It had reasonable battery life and the software was easy to install on my iPhone. The bluetooth link was reliable. Its timekeeping was accurate, and it could display the time in a variety of ways, some of them humorous. One could download a variety of virtual watch-faces, and so on.

So why is it not still on my wrist? Well, basically most of its “features” were of little or no actual use to me; and for much of the time, even apps that I would have found useful – such as having the watch vibrate when a text message arrived – turned out to be flaky: sometimes they worked; more often they didn’t. Which of course led to the thought that if anybody can make the smartwatch into a successful consumer product that “just works” it would be Apple. And indeed it was amusing to note how many people who, upon seeing the Pebble on my wrist, would ask me: “Is that the new Apple Watch?”

Well, now the Apple Watch is here and we will find out if the world really was waiting for a proper smartwatch to arrive…

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