You pays your money and takes your choice (of filter bubble)

This morning’s Observer column:

The only problem is that outside the Washington Beltway – DC’s version of the M25 – few people seem terribly excited about the supposed evils of Facebook, Google and co. (That’s not entirely true: lots of intellectuals and commentators not in the United States, including this columnist, are concerned about these companies, so for current purposes we can think of the “Beltway” as a metaphorical filter bubble.) But outside that bubble, life goes on. People log on to Facebook every day and use Google to find recipes or train timetables, regardless of whether these platforms might be playing a role in undermining democracy.

One can see why people don’t care. Antitrust lawyers and European commissioners may be concerned about the monopoly powers of internet companies, but it’s very difficult to persuade the average internet user that s/he is being gouged by outfits whose services are free. Given that, the prospect of a popular uprising against Google and Facebook seems pretty remote…

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The education of Mark Zuckerberg

This morning’s Observer column:

One of my favourite books is The Education of Henry Adams (published in 1918). It’s an extended meditation, written in old age by a scion of one of Boston’s elite families, on how the world had changed in his lifetime, and how his formal education had not prepared him for the events through which he had lived. This education had been grounded in the classics, history and literature, and had rendered him incapable, he said, of dealing with the impact of science and technology.

Re-reading Adams recently left me with the thought that there is now an opening for a similar book, The Education of Mark Zuckerberg. It would have an analogous theme, namely how the hero’s education rendered him incapable of understanding the world into which he was born. For although he was supposed to be majoring in psychology at Harvard, the young Zuckerberg mostly took computer science classes until he started Facebook and dropped out. And it turns out that this half-baked education has left him bewildered and rudderless in a culturally complex and politically polarised world…

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Lessons of history?

This morning’s Observer column:

The abiding problem with writing about digital technology is how to avoid what the sociologist Michael Mann calls “the sociology of the last five minutes”. There’s something about the technology that reduces our collective attention span to that of newts. This is how we wind up obsessing over the next iPhone, the travails of Uber, Facebook being weaponised by Russia, Samsung’s new non-combustible smartphone and so on. It’s mostly a breathless search for what Michael Lewis once called “the new new thing”.

We have become mesmerised by digital technology and by the companies that control and exploit it. Accordingly, we find it genuinely difficult to judge whether a particular development is really something new and unprecedented or just a contemporary variant on something that is much older…

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The Technical is Political

This morning’s Observer column:

In his wonderful book The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, the literary historian Stephen Greenblatt traces the origins of the Renaissance back to the rediscovery of a 2,000-year-old poem by Lucretius, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). The book is a riveting explanation of how a huge cultural shift can ultimately spring from faint stirrings in the undergrowth.

Professor Greenblatt is probably not interested in the giant corporations that now dominate our world, but I am, and in the spirit of The Swerve I’ve been looking for signs that big changes might be on the way. You don’t have to dig very deep to find them…

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One rule for big data, another for the rest of us…

This morning’s Observer column:

Last week, much of the tech world was temporarily unhinged by a circus in Cupertino, where a group of ageing hipster billionaires unveiled some impressive technology while miming the argot of teenage fandom (incredible, amazing, awesome, etc) and pretending that they were changing the world. Meanwhile, over in the real world, another tech story was unfolding. Except that this is not just a tech story: it’s a morality tale about how we have come to inhabit a world in which corporate irresponsibility, incompetence and greed goes unpunished, while little people can’t get a loan because they have an incorrect blemish on their credit records, which is almost impossible to detect and correct.

This story concerns Equifax, an outfit of which I’m guessing you’ve never heard. Nor had I. It’s one of the three largest American credit agencies (the others are Experian and TransUnion). Its business – its only business – is to collect, securely store and aggregate information on more than 800 million individual consumers and nearly 90m businesses worldwide…

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Oh, and there’s a UK angle on this…

The new Democrats who hate Trump — but also hate trade unions

This morning’s Observer column:

One of the stranger sights of June was watching the titans of Silicon Valley meekly obeying Trump’s summons to a tech summit (dubbed his American Technology Council) at the White House… Some attendees looked pretty sheepish, as well they might. Many, if not most of them, abhor everything the president stands for. The meeting, as with many of Trump’s other round-table assemblies, brought to mind footage of Saddam Hussein’s cabinet in session. But while it was clear that many of those present would have preferred to have been elsewhere, they were also chary of being seen to snub a populist hero. So the aphrodisiac effect of power was much in evidence.

For politically-savvy observers, the delicious irony was that many of the tech crowd were known Democrat supporters and donors. We’ve known this for a while…

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An existential threat for the digital giants?

This morning’s Observer column:

So now we find ourselves in a strange place where huge corporations are in a position to determine what is published and what is not. In a working democracy, this kind of decision should be the prerogative of the courts. It’s as if society has outsourced a critical public responsibility to a pair of secretive, privately owned outfits. And it raises a really interesting question: why have two companies that have hitherto always maintained that they are mere conduits for free expression suddenly become conscientious censors?

The answer is that they fear that if they are not seen to be doing something about it, then the lawmakers will act. Until recently, this didn’t seem very likely. But things have changed…

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Sexism in the Valley

This morning’s Observer column:

A few months ago, a Google engineer named James Damore wrote an incendiary internal memo on a 12-hour flight to China. He had just attended a “diversity programme” run by his employer, which had clearly annoyed or disturbed him. “I heard things that I definitely disagreed with,” he later told an interviewer. He said there was a lot of shaming at the programme. “They said ‘No you can’t say that, that’s sexist… You can’t do this…’ There’s just so much hypocrisy in a lot of the things that they’re saying.”

Damore’s 10-page memo – entitled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber: how bias clouds our thinking about diversity and inclusion” – went viral within Google, and eventually news of it reached the outside world. When it did, it provoked a predictable firestorm…

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Enter the GDPR

This morning’s Observer column:

Next year, 25 May looks like being a significant date. That’s because it’s the day that the European Union’s general data protection regulation (GDPR) comes into force. This may not seem like a big deal to you, but it’s a date that is already keeping many corporate executives awake at night. And for those who are still sleeping soundly, perhaps it would be worth checking that their organisations are ready for what’s coming down the line.

First things first. Unlike much of the legislation that emerges from Brussels, the GDPR is a regulation rather than a directive. This means that it becomes law in all EU countries at the same time; a directive, in contrast, allows each country to decide how its requirements are to be incorporated in national laws…

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Robotic judgments?

Today’s Observer column:

“The sadness about the bar nowadays,” wrote John Mortimer QC in 2002, “is that the Rumpoles are dying out, to be replaced… by greyish figures who think that the art of advocacy has been replaced by computer technology.”

Now spool forward to October 2016 and to Gower Street, a stone’s throw from Gray’s Inn, where a group of computer scientists is huddled in a laboratory in University College London. They are tending a machine they have built that can do natural language processing and machine learning and, in that sense, might be said to be an example of artificial intelligence (AI).

The machine has an insatiable appetite for English text and so the researchers have fed it all the documents relating to 584 cases decided by the European court of human rights (ECHR) on alleged infringements of articles 3, 6 and 8 of the European convention on human rights. Having ingested and analysed this mountain of text, the machine has been asked to predict the judgment that it thinks the court would have reached in each case. In the end, it reached the same conclusion as the judges of the court did in 79% of the cases…

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