Censorship 2.0

This morning’s Observer column:

One of the axioms of the early internet was an observation made by John Gilmore, a libertarian geek who was one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The internet,” said Gilmore, “interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” To lay people this was probably unintelligible, but it spoke eloquently to geeks, to whom it meant that the architecture of the network would make it impossible to censor it. A forbidden message would always find a route through to its destination.

Gilmore’s adage became a key part of the techno-utopian creed in the 1980s and early 1990s. It suggested that neither the state nor the corporate world would be able to censor cyberspace. The unmistakable inference was that the internet posed an existential threat to authoritarian regimes, for whom control of information is an essential requirement for holding on to power.

In the analogue world, censorship was relatively straightforward…

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Kremlinology 2.0

This morning’s Observer column:

In the bad old days of the cold war, western political and journalistic institutions practised an arcane pseudoscience called Kremlinology. Its goal was to try to infer what was going on in the collective mind of the Soviet Politburo. Its method was obsessively to note everything that could be publicly observed of the activities of this secretive cabal – who was sitting next to whom at the podium; which foreign visitors were granted an audience with which high official; who was in the receiving line for a visiting head of state; what editorials in Pravda (the official Communist party newspaper) might mean; and so on.

The Soviet empire is no more, much to Putin’s chagrin, but the world now has some new superpowers. We call them tech companies. Each periodically stages a major public event at which its leaders emerge from their executive suites to convey messages to their faithful followers and to the wider world. In the past few weeks, two such events have been held by two of the biggest powers – Google and Apple. So let’s do some Kremlinology on them…

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Tech-driven wealth is the new aphrodisiac

This morning’s Observer column:

It’s a quintessential Silicon Valley story. A smart, attractive 19-year-old American woman who has taught herself Mandarin while in high school is studying chemical engineering at Stanford, where she is a president’s scholar. Her name is Elizabeth Holmes. In her first year as an undergraduate she persuades her professor to allow her to attend the seminars he runs with his PhD students. Then one day she drops into his office to tell him that she’s dropping out of college because she has a “big idea” and wants to found a company that will revolutionise a huge part of the healthcare system – the market for blood testing services. Her company will be called Theranos.

Holmes’s big idea was for a way to perform multiple tests at once on a tiny drop of blood, and to deliver the results wirelessly to doctors. So she set about pitching to investors…

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‘Social credit’ in China

This morning’s Observer column:

In the old days, western snobbery led to the complacent view that the Chinese could not originate, only copy. One hears this less now, as visitors to China return goggle-eyed at the extent to which its people have integrated digital technology into daily life. One colleague of mine recently returned exasperated because he had been expected to pay for everything there with his phone. Since he possesses only an ancient Nokia handset, he was unable to comply and had been reduced to mendicant status, having to ask his Chinese hosts to pay for everything.

If the future is digital, therefore, a significant minority of China’s 1.4 billion citizens are already there. More significantly, the country’s technocratic rulers have sussed that digital technology is not just good for making economic transactions frictionless, but also for implementing sophisticated systems of social control.

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Facebook and the CCTV effect

This morning’s Observer column:

Jeremy Paxman, who once served as Newsnight’s answer to the pit-bull terrier, famously outlined his philosophy in interviewing prominent politicians thus: “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” This was unduly prescriptive: not all of Paxman’s interviewees were outright liars; they were merely practitioners of the art of being “economical with the truth”, but it served as a useful heuristic for a busy interviewer.

Maybe the time has come to apply the same heuristic to Facebook’s public statements…

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The Bitcoin/blockchain story: a mixture of greed and idealism

This morning’s Observer column:

Because I write about technology I am regularly assailed by people who are exercised about so-called “cryptocurrencies” like bitcoin, which most of them regard as a scam. But when I reply that while bitcoin might be newsworthy, the really important story concerns the blockchain technology that underpins it, their eyes glaze over and they start looking for the nearest exit as they conclude that they are in the grip of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner.

And, in a sense, they are. Blockchain technology is indeed important, but it seems largely incomprehensible to ordinary mortals, even though the web teems with attempts to explain it…

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Why is WhatsApp founder quitting Facebook? You can guess the answer

This morning’s Observer column:

Early in 2009, two former Yahoo employees, Brian Acton and Jan Koum, sat down to try and create a smartphone messaging app. They had a few simple design principles. One was that it should be easy to use: no complicated log-in and authentication procedures; instead, each user would be identified by his or her mobile number. And second, the app should have an honest business model – no more pretending it’s free while covertly monetising users’ data: instead, users would pay $1 a year after a certain period. Searching for a name for their service, they came up with WhatsApp, a play on “What’s Up?”

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So are the Democrats ready to unfriend Facebook?

Nice Observer piece by Thomas Frank, reminding us of how Obama & Co drank the Facebook Kool-Aid:

Seated with a panel of entrepreneurs from around the world, the president [Obama] lobbed his friend Zuckerberg an easy question about Facebook “creating this platform for entrepreneurship around the world”. In batting it out of the park, the Facebook CEO, clad in his humble costume of jeans, T-shirt and sneakers, took pains to inform everyone that what animated him were high-minded ideals. “When I was getting started,” he burbled, “I cared deeply about giving everyone a voice, and giving people the tools to share everything that they cared about, and bringing a community together …”

No rude senator spoke up to interrupt this propaganda. Instead, Zuckerberg went on to describe his efforts to connect everyone to the internet as a sort of wager on human goodness itself.

“It’s this deep belief that you’re trying to make a change, you’re trying to connect people in the world, and I really do believe that if you do something good and if you help people out, then eventually some portion of that good will come back to you. And you may not know up front what it’s going to be, but that’s just been the guiding principle for me in the work that we’ve done …”

That’s how it works, all right. Gigantic corporate investments are acts of generosity, and when making them, kind-hearted CEOs routinely count on Karma to reward them. That’s the “guiding principle”.

Reader, here is what the president could be heard to say as Zuckerberg ended this self-serving homily: “Excellent.”

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Facebook’s Terms & Conditions in human-readable form

This morning’s Observer column:

One of the few coherent messages to emerge from the US Senate’s bumbling interrogation of Mark Zuckerberg was a touching desire that Facebook’s user agreement should be comprehensible to humans. Or, as Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana put it: “Here’s what everyone’s been trying to tell you today – and I say it gently – your user agreement sucks. The purpose of a user agreement is to cover Facebook’s rear end, not inform users of their rights.”

“I would imagine probably most people do not read the whole thing,” Zuckerberg replied. “But everyone has the opportunity to and consents to it.” Senator Kennedy was unimpressed. “I’m going to suggest you go home and rewrite it,” he replied, “and tell your $1,200 dollar an hour lawyer you want it written in English, not Swahili, so the average American user can understand.”

Since Zuckerberg’s staff are currently so overworked, the Observer is proud to announce that it has drafted a new, human-readable user agreement that honours Zuckerberg’s new commitment to “transparency”. Here it is…

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Automation isn’t just about technology

This morning’s Observer column:

Ideology is what determines how you think when you don’t know you’re thinking. Neoliberalism is a prime example. Less well-known but equally insidious is technological determinism, which is a theory about how technology affects development. It comes in two flavours. One says that there is an inexorable internal logic in how technologies evolve. So, for example, when we got to the point where massive processing power and large quantities of data became easily available, machine-learning was an inevitable next step.

The second flavour of determinism – the most influential one – takes the form of an unshakable conviction that technology is what really drives history. And it turns out that most of us are infected with this version.

It manifests itself in many ways…

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