How do you throw the book at an algorithm?

This morning’s Observer column:

When, in the mid-1990s, the world wide web transformed the internet from a geek playground into a global marketplace, I once had an image of seeing two elderly gentlemen dancing delightedly in that part of heaven reserved for political philosophers. Their names: Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek.

Why were they celebrating? Because they saw in the internet a technology that would validate their most treasured beliefs. Smith saw vigorous competition as the benevolent “invisible hand” that ensured individuals’ efforts to pursue their own interests could benefit society more than if they were actually trying to achieve that end. Hayek foresaw the potential of the internet to turn almost any set of transactions into a marketplace as a way of corroborating his belief that price signals communicated via open markets were the optimum way for individuals to co-ordinate their activities.

In the 1990s, those rosy views of the online world made sense…

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Metaphors for our networked future

My longish essay on ways of thinking about the Internet — in today’s Observer:

So we find ourselves living in this paradoxical world, which is both wonderful and frightening. Social historians will say that there’s nothing new here: the world was always like this. The only difference is that we now experience it 24/7 and on a global scale. But as we thrash around looking for a way to understand it, our public discourse is depressingly Manichean: tech boosters and evangelists at one extreme; angry technophobes at the other; and most of us somewhere in between. Small wonder that Manuel Castells, the great scholar of cyberspace, once described our condition as that of “informed bewilderment”.

One way of combating this bewilderment is to look for metaphors. The idea of the net as a mirror held up to human nature is one. But recently people have been looking for others. According to IT journalist Sean Gallagher, the internet ‘looks a lot’ like New York of the late 70s: ‘There is a cacophony of hateful speech, vice of every kind… and policemen trying to keep a lid on all of it’…

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What’s in a year? How about 2007?

This morning’s Observer column:

It’s interesting how particular years acquire historical significance: 1789 (the French Revolution); 1914 (outbreak of the first world war); 1917 (the Russian revolution); 1929 (the Wall Street crash); 1983 (switching on of the internet); 1993 (the Mosaic Web browser, which started the metamorphosis of the internet from geek sandpit to the nervous system of the planet). And of course 2016, the year of Brexit and Trump, the implications of which are, as yet, unknown.

But what about 2007? That was the year when Slovenia adopted the euro, Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU, Kurt Vonnegut died, smoking in enclosed public places was banned in the UK, a student shot 32 people dead and wounded 17 others at Virginia Tech, Luciano Pavarotti died and Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. Oh – and it was also the year that Steve Jobs launched the Apple iPhone.

And that, I suspect, is the main – perhaps the only – reason that 2007 will be counted as a pivotal year, because it was the moment that determined how the internet would evolve…

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Zuckerberg’s problem: he makes money from fake news

This morning’s Observer column:

Zuckerberg says that he doesn’t want fake news on Facebook, but it turns out that getting rid of it is very difficult because “identifying the ‘truth’ is complicated”. Philosophers worldwide will agree with that proposition. But you don’t need to have a Nobel prize to check whether the pope did indeed endorse Trump or whether Clinton conducted the supposed purchases of arms or a Maldives house.

Zuckerberg’s problem is that he doesn’t want to engage in that kind of fact-checking, because that would be a tacit acknowledgement that Facebook is a publisher rather than just a technology company and therefore has some editorial responsibilities. And what he omits to mention is that Facebook has a conflict of interest in these matters. It makes its vast living, remember, from monitoring and making money from the data trails of its users. The more something is “shared” on the internet, the more lucrative it is for Facebook…

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‘Transparency’: like motherhood and apple pie

This morning’s Observer column:

On 25 October, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, wandered into unfamiliar territory – at least for a major politician. Addressing a media conference in Munich, she called on major internet companies to divulge the secrets of their algorithms on the grounds that their lack of transparency endangered public discourse. Her prime target appeared to be search engines such as Google and Bing, whose algorithms determine what you see when you type a search query into them. Given that, an internet user should have a right to know the logic behind the results presented to him or her.

“I’m of the opinion,” declared the chancellor, “that algorithms must be made more transparent, so that one can inform oneself as an interested citizen about questions like, ‘What influences my behaviour on the internet and that of others?’ Algorithms, when they are not transparent, can lead to a distortion of our perception; they can shrink our expanse of information.”

All of which is unarguably true…

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So the government is serious about cybersecurity? Really?

This morning’s Observer column:

On Tuesday, the chancellor, Philip Hammond, announced that the government was “investing” £1.9bn in boosting the nation’s cybersecurity. “If we want Britain to be the best place in the world to be a tech business,” he said, “then it is also crucial that Britain is a safe place to do digital business… Just as technology presents huge opportunities for our economy – so to it poses a risk. Trust in the internet and the infrastructure on which it relies is fundamental to our economic future. Because without that trust, faith in the whole digital edifice will fall away.”

Quite so; cybersecurity is clearly important. After all, in its 2015 strategic defence and security review, the government classified “cyber” as a “tier 1” threat. That’s the same level as international military conflict and terrorism. So let’s look at the numbers. The UK’s defence budget currently runs at £35.1bn, while the country’s expenditure on counterterrorism is now running at about £3bn a year. That puts Hammond’s £1.9bn (a commitment he inherited from George Osborne, by the way) into perspective. And the money is to be spent over five years, so an uncharitable reading of the chancellor’s announcement is that the government is actually investing just under £400m annually in combating this tier 1 threat.

All of which suggests that there’s a yawning chasm between Hammond’s stirring rhetoric about the cyber threat and his ability to muster the resources needed to combat it…

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Apple mania

This morning’s Observer column:

It’s that time of year again. Apple has released its results for the fiscal quarter ended 24 September 2016 and we are immediately plunged into “Has Apple peaked?” speculation. How come? Well, the company posted quarterly revenue of $46.9bn and net income of $9bn. Not bad, eh? Ah, yes, but not if you’re a Wall Street analyst, because these numbers compare to revenue of $51.5bn and net income of $11.1bn in the same quarter the year before. And – shock, horror! – the company’s gross margin was only 38% compared to 39.9% a year ago. The numbers are down, in other words.

Cue fevered speculation about the fate of the company. The numbers, burbled one analyst, show “the danger of being a one-trick pony when everyone already owns a pony. The company’s reliance on the smartphone, which is now a mature and saturated market in the developed world, is starting to create a growth problem for Apple. Breaking through will be a challenge, reminding investors Apple’s fundamentals and stock price have peaked.”

Pause for a reality check: Apple has cash reserves of $237.6bn, up $32bn from last year. At $622bn (at 26 October 2016), it is the most valuable company in the world…

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How your shower could participate in a DDOS attack

This morning’s Observer column:

My eye was caught by a Kickstarter campaign for a gizmo called a SWON, described as “a connected conservation device for your shower”. You unscrew the shower head, screw on the SWON and then screw the head back on to it. From then on, water goes through the SWON before it reaches you. The Kickstarter campaign needs $50,000 to be pledged before the product can be made. Last time I checked, it had 75 backers and had raised pledges of $4,798.

Before consigning it to the “leading-edge uselessness” bin, I clicked on the link…

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Deep-fat data frying

This morning’s Observer column:

The tech craze du jour is machine learning (ML). Billions of dollars of venture capital are being poured into it. All the big tech companies are deep into it. Every computer science student doing a PhD on it is assured of lucrative employment after graduation at his or her pick of technology companies. One of the most popular courses at Stanford is CS229: Machine Learning. Newspapers and magazines extol the wonders of the technology. ML is the magic sauce that enables Amazon to know what you might want to buy next, and Netflix to guess which films might interest you, given your recent viewing history.

To non-geeks, ML is impenetrable, and therefore intimidating…

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Just because it’s ‘trending’ doesn’t mean it’s true

This morning’s Observer column:

On 27 September, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton faced up to one another in the first of the televised presidential debates. Most observers concluded that Clinton had come off best. She was better prepared, they thought, and towards the end Trump seemed rattled and rambling.

Needless to say, this didn’t stop the Trump campaign team from using the phrase “Trump Won” in ads even before the debate ended. Aha, you say, that’s American politics for you: you get what you pay for. And in these circumstances, every candidate says that she or he has won anyway, no matter what happened in the debate.

But then something interesting happened. The hashtag #TrumpWon went viral on Twitter and in a few hours had reached the top of the global trending list. Trump was on to it like a shot. “The #1 trend on Twitter right now,” he tweeted, “is #TrumpWon – thank you!”

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