Archive for the 'Observer' Category

Tech bubble: does it matter?

[link] Sunday, September 21st, 2014

This morning’s Observer column.

If one wanted to be critical, the most annoying thing about the current bubble is the way the visions and ambitions of startup founders seem to have narrowed. Many of them claim, of course, that what they want to build is a company that in the long term will transform the world or disrupt a particular market. But in actual fact their strategy is to create a product or a service that is sufficiently interesting or annoying to induce Google, Amazon, Facebook, Yahoo or Microsoft to buy the upstart venture. The poster child for this is WhatsApp, a fine company with a viable business model that did not depend on monitoring users and which was run by a chap who fervently declared his resolve to build a great, sustainable enterprise that treated its users well. And he doubtless believed that right up to the moment that Facebook offered him $19bn. And who can blame him: you only live once, after all.

At the end of the day, though, what’s much more worrying than the spectacle of venture capitalists blowing investors’ money is the fact that everywhere state funding for the kind of long-term, fundamental research that is needed to produce the technologies of tomorrow has been shrinking. The current wave of innovation and economic development enabled by the internet has only come about because 60 years ago the US government funded the project that produced first the arpanet and then the internet.

Private enterprise would undoubtedly have produced computer networks, but it would not have created the free and open platform for “permissionless innovation” that we got as a result of public investment. And we would have all been poorer as a result.

Read on

Why Apple Pay was the big news from Apple

[link] Sunday, September 14th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column

In the long view of history, though, the innovation that may be seen as really significant is Apple Pay – an ingenious blend of contactless payment technology with security features that are baked into the new iPhones. Apple Pay will, burbled Tim Cook, “forever change the way all of us buy things… it’s what makes the iPhone 6 the biggest advancement in the history of iPhones”.

The idea is to do away with the rigmarole of having to pull out a credit/debit card, insert in a store’s card reader, type a pin, etc. Instead, you simply bump your iPhone (and, eventually, your Apple Watch) against the store’s contactless reader and – bingo! – you’ve paid, and the store never gets to see your card. Why? Because Apple has stored the card details in heavily encrypted form on your device and assigned each card a unique, device-specific number, which is accepted by the retailer’s contactless reader.

This only works, of course, if the retailer has already signed up with Apple. Cook claimed that 220,000 US retailers have already opted in to the system, as well as six major banks, plus MasterCard, Visa and American Express – which means that 83% of all US credit card payment volume can theoretically already be handled by Apple Pay.

If true, this is a really big deal, because it puts Apple at the heart of an unimaginable volume of financial transactions. In a way, the company is now doing to the card payment business what it did to the music business with the iTunes store…

Read on

Celebgate: what it tells us about us

[link] Sunday, September 7th, 2014

My Observer Comment piece on the stolen selfies.

Ever since 1993, when Mosaic, the first graphical browser, transformed the web into a mainstream medium, the internet has provided a window on aspects of human behaviour that are, at the very least, puzzling and troubling.

In the mid-1990s, for example, there was a huge moral panic about online pornography, which led to the 1996 Communications Decency Act in the US, a statute that was eventually deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. But when I dared to point out at the time in my book (A Brief History of the Future: The Origins of the Internet), that if there was a lot of pornography on the net (and there was) then surely that told us something important about human nature rather than about technology per se, this message went down like a lead balloon.

It still does, but it’s still the important question. There is abundant evidence that large numbers of people behave appallingly when they are online. The degree of verbal aggression and incivility in much online discourse is shocking. It’s also misogynistic to an extraordinary degree, as any woman who has a prominent profile in cyberspace will tell you…

Read on

Why Facebook is for ice buckets and Twitter is for what’s actually going on

[link] Saturday, September 6th, 2014

Tomorrow’s Observer column

Ferguson is a predominantly black town, but its police force is predominantly white. Shortly after the killing, bystanders were recording eyewitness interviews and protests on smartphones and linking to the resulting footage from their Twitter accounts. News of the killing spread like wildfire across the US, leading to days of street confrontations between protesters and police and the imposition of something very like martial law. The US attorney general eventually turned up and the FBI opened a civil rights investigation. For days, if you were a Twitter user, Ferguson dominated your tweetstream, to the point where one of my acquaintances, returning from a holiday off the grid, initially inferred from the trending hashtag “#ferguson” that Sir Alex had died.

There’s no doubt that Twitter played a key role in elevating a local killing into national and international news. (Even Putin’s staff had some fun with it, offering to send human rights observers.) More than 3.6m Ferguson-related tweets were sent between 9 August, the day Brown was killed, and 17 August.

Three cheers for social media, then?

Not quite. ..

Read on

Dave Eggers has seen the future. Well, a possible future anyway…

[link] Monday, September 1st, 2014

Yesterday’s Observer column.

Fifteen months have passed since Edward Snowden began to explain to us how our networked world works. During that time there has been much outrage, shock, horror, etc expressed by the media and the tech industry. So far, so predictable. What is much more puzzling is how relatively relaxed the general public appears to be about all this. In Britain, for example, opinion polling suggests that nearly two thirds of the population think that the kind of surveillance revealed by Snowden is basically OK.

To some extent, the level of public complacency/concern is culturally determined. Citizens of Germany, for example…

Read on

The consolations of error

[link] Monday, August 25th, 2014

Lots of Observer readers have been writing to the Readers’ Editor (and emailing me directly) castigating me for claiming in my essay that Robert Capa’s D-Day Landing pictures were shot using a Leica camera. They maintain — as does Wikipedia — that he was using a Contax II rangefinder on the day, so I’m clearly in error on that point.

There is more disagreement about whether Capa’s famous Spanish Civil War photographs were shot with a Leica. There’s a photograph of him from the time carrying a movie camera with a stills camera in a leather case hanging round his neck. Not being an expert on camera cases, I don’t know whether it’s a Leica case or a Contax one. I guess Capa himself, a guy who covered five major wars, would have regarded this controversy as trivial. But it’s the kind of detail that we obsessives obsess about!

I wish I’d taken the trouble to check the D-Day assertion, but I guess because Capa had been one of the founder-members of Magnum I lazily assumed he had also been a Leica user. Myths endure because nobody checks. Mea culpa.

The same is true for the myths about Dorothy Parker, who is famous for being a world-class wisecracker. In an aside in the piece I claimed that she had reviewed Christopher Isherwood’s I Am A Camera with the crack “Me No Leica”. But, as many readers pointed out, the credit belongs elsewhere — with the theatre critic Walter Kerr. One of his most famous reviews was his three word summary of John Van Druten’s I Am A Camera in 1951: ‘Me no Leica.’

Parker has an enviable trove of wisecracks attributed to her, and she was an exceedingly funny (and exceedingly sad) lady. But in at least one other case she gets more credit than she deserves. When Robert Benchley came to her and said “Calvin Coolidge is dead”, she famously replied, “How could they tell?”, and this has gone down in history as an example of her wit. What’s not so well known, however, is that Benchley replied “He had an erection”, but this was deemed too scandalous for polite society at the time and so Parker’s punchline was the one that endured. Benchley’s widow allegedly went to her deathbed infuriated by the fact that her husband hadn’t got the credit he was due for that exchange.

Still, Eric Clapton hasn’t written in (yet) to say that he does sometimes remember to take the lens cap off his M8. And nobody from the Royal Household has been in touch to say that Her Majesty has, on occasion, forgotten to remove the cap on her M3.

The Leica phenomenon

[link] Sunday, August 24th, 2014

naughton with leica

Photograph by Antonio Olmos for the Observer.

My Observer essay marking the centenary of the Leica camera.

I’m a photographer. No, let me rephrase that: I would like to be a photographer. In reality I’m merely an obsessive who takes lots of photographs in the hope that some day, just once, he will produce an image that is really, truly memorable. Like the images that Henri Cartier-Bresson captured, apparently effortlessly, in their thousands. Think, for example, of his famous picture of the guy leaping over a puddle; or the one of the two stout couples enjoying a picnic on the banks of the Marne; or his magical picture of a cheeky young boy carrying two bottles of red wine on the Rue Mouffetard in 1954. I like this last one particularly, because the lad in the photograph is about the same age as I was then and I often wonder if he’s still around, and what he looks like now.

You can think about this obsessiveness, this quest for the one perfect picture, as a kind of illness. If so, then I’ve had it for more than half a century. And I’m not the only sufferer…

Read on

Web services are ‘free’, which is why we’re all in chains

[link] Sunday, August 24th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column.

‘Be careful what you wish for,” runs the adage. “You might just get it.” In the case of the internet, or, at any rate, the world wide web, this is exactly what happened. We wanted exciting services – email, blogging, social networking, image hosting – that were “free”. And we got them. What we also got, but hadn’t bargained for, was deep, intensive and persistent surveillance of everything we do online.

We ought to have known that it would happen. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, after all…

Read on

Why Wikipedia matters

[link] Sunday, August 10th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column.

Wikipedia is a typical product of the open internet, in that it started with a few simple principles and evolved a fascinating governance structure to deal with problems as they arose. It recognised early on that there would be legitimate disagreements about some subjects and that eventually corporations and other powerful entities would try to subvert or corrupt it.

As these challenges arose, Wikipedia’s editors and volunteers developed procedures, norms and rules for addressing them. These included software for detecting and remedying vandalism, for example, and processes such as the “three-revert” rule. This says that an editor should not undo someone else’s edits to a page more than three times in one day, after which disagreements are put to formal or informal mediation or a warning is placed on the page alerting readers that there is controversy about the topic. Some perennially disputed pages, for example the one on George W Bush, are locked down. And so on.

In trying to figure out how to run itself, Wikipedia has therefore been grappling with the problems that will increasingly bug us in the future. In a comprehensively networked world, opinions and information will be super-abundant, the authority of older, print-based quality control and verification systems will be eroded and information resources will be intrinsically malleable. In such a cacophonous world, how will we know what is reliable and true? How will we deal with disagreements and disputes about knowledge? How will we sort out digital wheat from digital chaff? Wikipedia may be imperfect (what isn’t?) but at the moment it’s the only model we have for addressing these problems.

Read on

The Minecraft phenomenon

[link] Sunday, August 3rd, 2014

This morning’s Observer column

A funny thing happened on the way to this column. Browsing idly through the Publishers Weekly site, I came on the list of the Nielsen bestselling books of 2014 (so far) in the US. The Top 20 list was dominated by “young adult” fiction, books such as Divergent by Veronica Roth and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, plus the usual movie tie-ins. At No 9 ,there’s a religious book, Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence by missionary Sarah Young. At No 11 is Heaven is for Real (“A little boy’s astounding story of his trip to Heaven and back”).

Two slots further down there’s a “junior novelisation” of the Disney film, Frozen. At No 15 is an “activity book”, complete with 50 stickers, based on the same film.

At this point, your columnist was losing the will to live. Is this, he wondered, what a free society really chooses to read? But what’s this? At 16 and 17 there are two computer game manuals – Minecraft: Redstone Handbook and Minecraft: Essential Handbook.

The only people in your household who will be astonished that two computer game manuals are selling like hot cakes are the adults. This is because they don’t know what every child from the age of six upwards knows, namely that Minecraft is the most absorbing and intriguing gaming idea since David Braben and Ian Bell created Elite in 1984…

Read on