Facebook’s new gateway drug for kids

This morning’s Observer column:

In one of those coincidences that give irony a bad name, Facebook launched a new service for children at the same time that a moral panic was sweeping the UK about the dangers of children using live-streaming apps that enable anyone to broadcast video directly from a smartphone or a tablet. The BBC showed a scary example of what can happen. A young woman who works as an internet safety campaigner posed as a 14-year-old girl to find out what occurs when a young female goes online using one of these streaming services…

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How network effects amplify lies

This morning’s Observer column:

In the 1930s, a maverick young journalist named Claud Cockburn resigned from the Times and, with £40 borrowed from an Oxford friend, bought a mimeograph machine (a low-cost duplicating machine that worked by forcing ink though a stencil on to paper). With it he set up the Week, a weekly newsletter available by subscription in which Cockburn printed news and gossip that came to him from his diverse group of contacts in both the British and German establishments.

From the beginning the Week printed stuff that the mainstream newspapers wouldn’t touch because of fears of running foul of the Official Secrets Act, the libel laws or the political establishment. Cockburn, having few assets and a rackety lifestyle, proceeded as if none of this applied to him. But people in the know – the third secretaries of foreign embassies, for example, or City bankers – quickly recognised the value of the Week (for the same reasons as they now read Private Eye). Nevertheless the circulation of Cockburn’s scandal sheet remained confined to this small elite circle – and its finances were correspondingly dodgy.

And then one day everything changed…

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The real cost of a Bitcoin

This morning’s Observer column:

Once upon a time, a very long time ago – 2009 in fact – there was a brief but interesting controversy about the carbon footprint of a Google search. It was kicked off by a newspaper story reporting a “calculation” of mysterious origin that suggested a single Google search generated 7 grams of CO2, which is about half of the carbon footprint of boiling a kettle. Irked by this, Google responded with a blogpost saying that this estimate was much too high. “In terms of greenhouse gases,” the company said, “one Google search is equivalent to about 0.2 grams of CO2. The current EU standard for tailpipe [exhaust] emissions calls for 140 grams of CO2 per kilometre driven, but most cars don’t reach that level yet. Thus, the average car driven for one kilometre (0.6 miles for those in the US) produces as many greenhouse gases as a thousand Google searches.”

Every service that Google provides is provided via its huge data centres, which consume vast amounts of electricity to power and cool the servers, and are therefore responsible for the emission of significant amounts of CO2. Since the advent of the modern smartphone in about 2007 our reliance on distant data centres has become total, because everything we do on our phones involves an interaction with the “cloud” and therefore has a carbon footprint.

The size of this footprint has been growing…

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High IQ + childlike naiveté = Silicon Valley

Today’s Observer column:

Put simply, what Google and Facebook have built is a pair of amazingly sophisticated, computer-driven engines for extracting users’ personal information and data trails, refining them for sale to advertisers in high-speed data-trading auctions that are entirely unregulated and opaque to everyone except the companies themselves.

The purpose of this infrastructure was to enable companies to target people with carefully customised commercial messages and, as far as we know, they are pretty good at that. (Though some advertisers are beginning to wonder if these systems are quite as good as Google and Facebook claim.) And in doing this, Zuckerberg, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and co wrote themselves licences to print money and build insanely profitable companies.

It never seems to have occurred to them that their advertising engines could also be used to deliver precisely targeted ideological and political messages to voters. Hence the obvious question: how could such smart people be so stupid?

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Brexit: Fawlty Towers redux

Nice Observer piece by Fintan O’Toole:

We have been witnessing a very English farce, but one with a wholly new twist. In this version of Fawlty Towers, it is not Manuel the stereotypical foreigner who goes around saying: “Qué?” and: “I know nawthing!” It is the all-too-English Basil, acting out a pantomime of feigned perplexity.

Yeah, but Fawlty Towers was funny. This farce is anything but.

On not being evil

This morning’s Observer column:

The motto “don’t be evil” has always seemed to me to be a daft mantra for a public company, but for years that was the flag under which Google sailed. It was a heading in the letter that the two founders wrote to the US Securities and Exchange Commission prior to the company’s flotation on the Nasdaq stock market in 2004. “We believe strongly,” Sergey Brin and Larry Page declared, “that in the long term, we will be better served – as shareholders and in all other ways – by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short-term gains. This is an important aspect of our culture and is broadly shared within the company.” Two years ago, when Google morphed into Alphabet – its new parent company – the motto changed. Instead of “don’t be evil” it became “do the right thing”.

Heartwarming, eh? But still a strange motto for a public corporation. I mean to say, what’s “right” in this context? And who decides? Since Google/Alphabet does not get into specifics, let me help them out. The “right thing” is “whatever maximises shareholder value”, because in our crazy neoliberal world that’s what public corporations do. In fact, I suspect that if Google decided that doing the right thing might have an adverse impact on the aforementioned value, then its directors would be sued by activist shareholders for dereliction of their fiduciary duty.

Which brings me to YouTube Kids…

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Political theatre in Washington

This morning’s Observer column:

Summing up: the companies have no incentive to change their ways. And there’s no real political will in the US to make them. All of which perhaps explains why Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t on Capitol Hill but in China to meet the great Thought Leader Xi Jinping. Now there’s a politician worth sucking up to.

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Challenging earthly powers

From this morning’s Observer: the Introduction to my 95 Theses project.

A new power is loose in the world. It is nowhere and yet it’s everywhere. It knows everything about us – our movements, our thoughts, our desires, our fears, our secrets, who our friends are, our financial status, even how well we sleep at night. We tell it things that we would not whisper to another human being. It shapes our politics, stokes our appetites, loosens our tongues, heightens our moral panics, keeps us entertained (and therefore passive). We engage with it 150 times or more every day, and with every moment of contact we add to the unfathomable wealth of its priesthood. And we worship it because we are, somehow, mesmerised by it.

In other words, we are all members of the Church of Technopoly, and what we worship is digital technology. Most of us are so happy in our obeisance to this new power that we spend an average of 50 minutes on our daily devotion to Facebook alone without a flicker of concern. It makes us feel modern, connected, empowered, sophisticated and informed.

Suppose, though, you were one of a minority who was becoming assailed by doubt – stumbling towards the conclusion that what you once thought of as liberating might actually be malign and dangerous. But yet everywhere you look you see only happy-clappy believers. How would you go about convincing the world that it was in the grip of a power that was deeply hypocritical and corrupt? Especially when that power apparently offers salvation and self-realisation for those who worship at its sites?

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Why Rocket Man may be smarter than we think

This morning’s Observer column:

Rule No 1 in international relations: do not assume that your adversary is nuts. Rule No 2: do not underestimate his capacity to inflict serious damage on you. We in the west are currently making both mistakes with regard to North Korea. Our reasons for doing so are, at one level, understandable. In economic terms, the country is a basket case. According to the CIA’s world factbook, its per-capita GDP is $1,800 or less, compared with nearly $40,000 for the UK and $53,000 for the US. Its industrial infrastructure is clapped out and nearly beyond repair; the country suffers from chronic food, energy and electricity shortages and many of its people are malnourished. International sanctions are squeezing it almost to asphyxiation. And, to cap it all, it’s led by a guy whose hairdo is almost as preposterous as Donald Trump’s.

And yet this impoverished basket case has apparently been able to develop nuclear weapons, plus the rocketry needed to deliver them to Los Angeles and its environs. Given the retaliatory capacity of the US, this is widely taken as proof that Kim Jong-un must be out of what might loosely be called his mind. Which is where rule No1 comes in…

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LATER: The NYT has an editorial that says, in part:

“Kim Jong-un is ruthless in his quest for power and survival, and hacking, even more than the nuclear power North Korea is rapidly developing, is the perfect weapon for a small, impoverished, isolated, totalitarian state.”

Yep.

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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