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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Why (and how) journalism has to change

This morning’s Observer column:

Let us pause for a moment to mourn the passing of Hans Rosling , one of the most gifted and humane educators of our age. He was professor of global health at Sweden’s prestigious Karolinska Institute and became famous when he gave a spectacular TED talk in 2006 using global data to show how the world had changed during the 20th century. Rosling specialised in devising striking ways of visualising statistical data and in using computers to provide animations showing, for example, how child mortality, family income and so on changed over time. But what probably clinched his fame was the way he talked his audience through the evolving worldview with a manic energy reminiscent of Newsnight’s Peter Snow and his general election night “swingometer”.

Rosling’s untimely death (from cancer) seems particularly poignant at this moment in our history, because he was such a fervent believer in the idea that we could find illumination, if not salvation, in facts. In that respect, he reminded me of the late David MacKay, another gentle polymath, who was for a time the chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change. At a lecture following the publication of his book, Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, he was assailed by an angry environmentalist who asked him why he was “so hostile” to wind power. MacKay smiled sweetly and replied: “I’m not hostile to anything. I’m just in favour of arithmetic.”

I thought about Rosling and MacKay a lot last week as the “fake news” crisis deepened…

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Why fake news won’t be easy to fix

This morning’s Observer column:

The debate about “fake news” and the “post-truth” society we now supposedly inhabit has become the epistemological version of a feeding frenzy: so much heat, so little light. Two things about it are particularly infuriating. The first is the implicit assumption that “truth” is somehow a straightforward thing and our problem is that we just can’t be bothered any more to find it. The second is the failure to appreciate that the profitability, if not the entire business model, of both Google and Facebook depends critically on them not taking responsibility for what passes through their servers. So hoping that these companies will somehow fix the problem is like persuading turkeys to look forward to Christmas…


AI now plays pretty good poker. Whatever next?

This morning’s Observer column:

Ten years ago, [Sergey] Brin was running Google’s X lab, the place where they work on projects that have, at best, a 100-1 chance of success. One little project there was called Google Brain, which focused on AI. “To be perfectly honest,” Brin said, “I didn’t pay any attention to it at all.” Brain was headed by a computer scientist named Jeff Dean who, Brin recalled, “would periodically come up to me and say, ‘Look – the computer made a picture of a cat!’ and I would say, ‘OK, that’s very nice, Jeff – go do your thing, whatever.’ Fast-forward a few years and now Brain probably touches every single one of our main projects – ranging from search to photos to ads… everything we do. This revolution in deep nets has been very profound and definitely surprised me – even though I was right in there. I could, you know, throw paper clips at Jeff.”

Fast-forward a week from that interview and cut to Pittsburgh, where four leading professional poker players are pitting their wits against an AI program created by two Carnegie Mellon university researchers. They’re playing a particular kind of high-stakes poker called heads-up no-limit Texas hold’em. The program is called Libratus, which is Latin for “balanced”. There is, however, nothing balanced about its performance…

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The real secret of China’s mastery of the Net: distraction

Last Sunday’s Observer column:

If you ever want to annoy western policymakers or politicians, then here is a surefire way to do it. Tell them that the only government in the world that really understands the internet is the Chinese communist regime. And if you want to add a killer punch, add the assertion that almost everything we think we know about Chinese management of the net is either banal (all that stuff about the great firewall, paranoia about keywords such as “Falun Gong”, “democracy”, etc) or just plain wrong. Having thus lit the fuse, retreat to a safe distance and enjoy the ensuing outburst of righteous indignation.

For the avoidance of doubt, this is not an apologia for the Chinese regime, which is as nasty and illiberal as they come. But it’s best to have a realistic view of one’s adversaries. China’s leaders have invented a new way of running society. It’s been christened “networked authoritarianism” by Rebecca MacKinnon, a noted scholar of these things. President Xi Jinping and his colleagues are followers of Boris Johnson in at least one respect: they believe that it is possible to have one’s cake and eat it too…

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Amazon’s Echo seems great, but what does it hear?

Illustration by James Melaugh/Observer

This morning’s Observer column:

I bought it [the Echo] because it seemed to me that it might be a significant product and I have a policy of never writing about kit that I haven’t paid for myself. Having lived with the Echo for a few weeks I can definitely confirm its significance. It is a big deal, which explains why the company invested so much in it. (It’s said that 1,500 people worked on the project for four years, which sounds implausible until you remember that Apple has 800 people working on the iPhone’s camera alone). Amazon’s boss, Jeff Bezos, may not have bet the ranch on it (he has a pretty big ranch, after all) but the product nevertheless represents a significant investment. And the sales so far suggest that it may well pay off.

Once switched on and hooked up to one’s wifi network, the Echo sits there, listening for its trigger word, “Alexa”. So initially one feels like an idiot saying things such as: “Alexa, play Radio 4” or: “Alexa, who is Kim Kardashian?” (A genuine inquiry this, from a visitor who didn’t know the answer, which duly came in the form of Alexa reading the first lines of the relevant Wikipedia entry.)

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Be careful what you wish for

This morning’s Observer column:

In 1996, two US congressmen, Chris Cox (Republican, California) and Ron Wyden (Democrat, Oregon), drafted a law that they felt was essential if the nascent internet was to grow and prosper. The clause they wrote eventually found its way on to the statute book as section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, part of the sprawling Telecommunications Act, which Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996.

Cox and Wyden had been troubled by the rise of libel suits against internet service providers (ISPs) for defamatory content posted on websites that they hosted. The key sentence in the clause that they eventually drafted read: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

This single sentence provided the legal underpinning for how the world wide web has evolved…

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