Archive for the 'Observer' Category

Internet Explorer RIP

[link] Sunday, March 22nd, 2015

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?

[link] Sunday, March 15th, 2015

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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Getting to bedrock

[link] Sunday, March 8th, 2015

This morning’s Observer column:

The implication of these latest revelations is stark: the capabilities and ambitions of the intelligence services mean that no electronic communications device can now be regarded as trustworthy. It’s not only your mobile phone that might betray you: your hard disk could harbour a snake in the grass, too.

No wonder Andy Grove, the former boss of Intel, used to say that “only the paranoid survive” in the technology business. Given that we have become totally dependent on his industry’s products, that knowledge may not provide much consolation. But we now know where we stand. And we have Edward Snowden to thank for that.

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Straw and Rifkind had nothing to hide, but…

[link] Sunday, March 1st, 2015

This morning’s Observer column:

The really sinister thing about the nothing-to-hide argument is its underlying assumption that privacy is really about hiding bad things. As the computer-security guru Bruce Schneier once observed, the nothing-to-hide mantra stems from “a faulty premise that privacy is about hiding a wrong”. But surveillance can have a chilling effect by inhibiting perfectly lawful activities (lawful in democracies anyway) such as free speech, anonymous reading and having confidential conversations.

So the long-term message for citizens of democracies is: if you don’t want to be a potential object of attention by the authorities, then make sure you don’t do anything that might make them – or their algorithms – want to take a second look at you. Like encrypting your email, for example; or using Tor for anonymous browsing. Which essentially means that only people who don’t want to question or oppose those in power are the ones who should be entirely relaxed about surveillance.

We need to reboot the discourse about democracy and surveillance. And we should start by jettisoning the cant about nothing-to-hide. The truth is that we all have things to hide – perfectly legitimately. Just as our disgraced former foreign secretaries had.

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Technology and Inequality

[link] Sunday, February 22nd, 2015

This morning’s Observer column:

Someone once observed that the difference between Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher was that whereas Thatcher believed that she was always right, Blair believed not only that he was right but also that he was good. Visitors to the big technology companies in California come away with the feeling that they have been talking to tech-savvy analogues of Blair. They are fired with a zealous conviction that they are doing great stuff for the world, and proud of the fact that they work insanely hard in the furtherance of that goal. The fact that they are richly rewarded for their dedication is, one is given to believe, incidental.

The guys (and they are mostly guys) who manage these good folk are properly respectful of their high-IQ charges. Chief among them is Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, and a man who takes his responsibilities seriously. So seriously, in fact, that he co-authored a book with his colleague Jonathan Rosenberg on the care and maintenance of these precious beings. Dr Schmidt objects to the demeaning term – “knowledge workers” – that economists have devised for them. Google employees, he tells us, are much, much more impressive than mere knowledge workers: they are “smart creatives”.

In the opinion of their chairman, these wunderkinder are very special indeed…

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Why the Chinese really get the Net

[link] Sunday, February 15th, 2015

This morning’s Observer column:

Here’s a proposition to make you choke on your granola: the only government in the world that really understands how to manage the internet is China’s. And I’m not talking about “the great firewall of China” and other cliches beloved of mainstream media. Nor, for the avoidance of doubt, am I saying that I approve of what the Chinese regime does: I do not. It’s just that I think it is better to deal with the world as it actually is, rather than as we fondly imagine it to be.

Western media coverage of China is a mixture of three parts fantasy to one part misinformation. The fantasy bit has deep ideological underpinnings: it asserts that the Chinese are embarked upon a doomed enterprise – to build a modern economy that is run by an authoritarian regime…

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The prosecution of Aaron Schwartz – and what it might mean

[link] Sunday, February 8th, 2015

This morning’s Observer column:

On Monday, BBC Four screened a remarkable film in its Storyville series. The Internet’s Own Boy told the story of the life and tragic death of Aaron Swartz, the leading geek wunderkind of his generation who was hounded to suicide at the age of 26 by a vindictive US administration. The film is still available on BBC iPlayer, and if you do nothing else this weekend make time to watch it, because it’s the most revealing source of insights about how the state approaches the internet since Edward Snowden first broke cover…

Read on.

Keen still has his edge

[link] Sunday, February 1st, 2015

My Observer review of Andrew Keen’s new book, The Internet is Not the Answer:

Andrew Keen – like many who were involved in the net in the early days – started out as an internet evangelist. In the 1990s he founded a startup in the Bay Area and drank the Kool-Aid that fuelled the first internet bubble. But he saw the light before many of us, and rapidly established himself as one of the net’s early contrarians. His first book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture, was a lacerating critique of the obsession with user-generated content which characterised the early days of web 2.0, and whenever conference organisers wanted to ensure a bloody good row, Andrew Keen was the man they invited to give the keynote address.

If his new book is anything to go by, Keen has lost none of his edge, but he’s expanded the scope and depth of his critique. He wants to persuade us to transcend our childlike fascination with the baubles of cyberspace so that we can take a long hard look at the weird, dysfunctional, inegalitarian, comprehensively surveilled world that we have been building with digital tools. In that sense, The Internet Is Not the Answer joins a number of recent books by critics such as Jaron Lanier, Doc Searls, Astra Taylor, Ethan Zuckerman and Nicholas Carr, who are also trying to wake us from the nightmare into which we have been sleepwalking.

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Levelling the playing field

[link] Sunday, February 1st, 2015

This morning’s Observer column:

Whenever regulators gather to discuss market failures, the cliche “level playing field” eventually surfaces. When regulators finally get around to thinking about what happens in the online world, especially in the area of personal data, then they will have to come to terms with the fact that the playing field is not just tilted in favour of the online giants, but is as vertical as that rockface in Yosemite that two Americans have finally managed to free climb.

The mechanism for rotating the playing field is our old friend, the terms and conditions agreement, usually called the “end user licence agreement” (EULA) in cyberspace. This invariably consists of three coats of prime legal verbiage distributed over 32 pages, which basically comes down to this: “If you want to do business with us, then you will do it entirely on our terms; click here to agree, otherwise go screw yourself. Oh, and by the way, all of your personal data revealed in your interactions with us belongs to us.”

The strange thing is that this formula applies regardless of whether you are actually trying to purchase something from the author of the EULA or merely trying to avail yourself of its “free” services.

When the history of this period comes to be written, our great-grandchildren will marvel at the fact that billions of apparently sane individuals passively accepted this grotesquely asymmetrical deal. (They may also wonder why our governments have shown so little interest in the matter.)…

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So what’s driving the deficit reduction mania?

[link] Sunday, January 25th, 2015

I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but…

Neither is Simon Wren-Lewis, the Oxford economist. But consider this interesting post on his blog:

I have searched hard to find a macroeconomic rationale for Osborne’s policy stance. A belief that QE is as effective as conventional monetary policy (there is no liquidity trap) comes close, but as I explained here it does not really fit with what Osborne has said (or not said). Osborne is certainly no market monetarist, as he has shown no interest in nominal GDP targeting. So there does not appear to be a coherent case for Osborne’s fiscal proposals that a macroeconomist could take seriously.

Second, the idea that the real motive is a small state is not the preserve of some small group of left wing conspiracy theorists. Here I quote Jeremy Warner, economics editor of the Telegraph (for non-UK readers, a newspaper firmly to the right): “In the end, you are either a big-state person, or a small-state person, and what big-state people hate about austerity is that its primary purpose is to shrink the size of government spending.” He also wrote: “The bottom line is that you can only really make serious inroads into the size of the state during an economic crisis. This may be pro-cyclical, but there is never any appetite for it in the good times; it can only be done in the bad.” I also think many of my non-UK readers will wonder why I am having to justify what is obvious in their countries.

Third, it must have become clear to many people now that reducing the deficit cannot be the overriding priority when there have been so many tax giveaways (50p rate, Help to Buy which creates large contingent liabilities, Cameron’s conference commitments, stamp duty changes that are far from fiscally neutral, pensioner bonds). Putting these down to ‘politics’, but counting spending cuts as ‘economics’, will not wash. (See Brad DeLong for the equivalent in the US). You cannot pretend that deficit reduction is driving government policy, when that driver only operates on the spending side of the accounts.

Economists in the media are beginning to realise this. It is really important that political commentators do so as well, so that those without an economics background get a clearer idea of the nature of the choices they will have to make in 100 days time.

Of course, it’s also conceivable that Osborne & Co don’t really know what they’re doing. It’s been known to happen with British governments.

And then, later this from Joseph Stiglitz:

For the past six years, the West has believed that monetary policy can save the day. The crisis led to huge budget deficits and rising debt, and the need for deleveraging, the thinking goes, means that fiscal policy must be shunted aside.

The problem is that low interest rates will not motivate firms to invest if there is no demand for their products. Nor will low rates inspire individuals to borrow to consume if they are anxious about their future (which they should be). What monetary policy can do is create asset-price bubbles. It might even prop up the price of government bonds in Europe, thereby forestalling a sovereign-debt crisis. But it is important to be clear: the likelihood that loose monetary policies will restore global prosperity is nil.

This brings us back to politics and policies. Demand is what the world needs most. The private sector – even with the generous support of monetary authorities – will not supply it. But fiscal policy can. We have an ample choice of public investments that would yield high returns – far higher than the real cost of capital – and that would strengthen the balance sheets of the countries undertaking them.

The big problem facing the world in 2015 is not economic. We know how to escape our current malaise. The problem is our stupid politics.

Bill Clinton was famous for his mantra “It’s the economy, stoopid”. The mantra we need now is “It’s the politics, stoopid”.