What happens in China stays in China. Ask Apple

This morning’s Observer column:

Here’s your starter for 10. Question: Apple’s website contains the following bold declaration: “At Apple we believe privacy is a fundamental human right.” What ancient English adage does this bring to mind? Answer: “Fine words butter no parsnips.” In other words, what matters is not what you say, but what you do.

What brings this to mind is the announcement that from now on, iCloud data generated by Apple users with a mainland Chinese account will be stored and managed by a Chinese data management firm – Guizhou-Cloud Big Data (GCBD). “With effect from 28 February 2018,” the notice reads, “iCloud services associated with your Apple ID will be operated by GCBD. Use of these services and all the data you store with iCloud – including photos, videos, documents and backups – will be subject to the terms and conditions of iCloud operated by GCBD.”

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Managing the future that’s already here

This morning’s Observer column:

As the science fiction novelist William Gibson famously observed: “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.” I wish people would pay more attention to that adage whenever the subject of artificial intelligence (AI) comes up. Public discourse about it invariably focuses on the threat (or promise, depending on your point of view) of “superintelligent” machines, ie ones that display human-level general intelligence, even though such devices have been 20 to 50 years away ever since we first started worrying about them. The likelihood (or mirage) of such machines still remains a distant prospect, a point made by the leading AI researcher Andrew Ng, who said that he worries about superintelligence in the same way that he frets about overpopulation on Mars.

That seems about right to me…

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Regulating the cloud

This morning’s Observer column:

Cloud computing is just a metaphor. It has its origins in the way network engineers in the late-1970s used to represent the internet as an amorphous entity when they were discussing what was happening with computers at a local level. They just drew the net as a cartoonish cloud to represent a fuzzy space in which certain kinds of taken-for-granted communication activities happened. But since clouds are wispy, insubstantial things that some people love, the fact that what went on in the computing cloud actually involved inscrutable, environmentally destructive and definitely non-fuzzy server farms owned by huge corporations led to suspicions that the metaphor was actually a cosy euphemism, formulated to obscure a more sinister reality…

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Theresa May’s pious hopes for Facebook

This morning’s Observer column:

It has taken an age, but at last politicians seem to be waking up to the societal problems posed by the dominance of certain tech firms – notably Facebook, Twitter and Google – and in particular the way they are allowing their users to pollute the public sphere with extremist rhetoric, hate speech, trolling and multipurpose abusiveness.

The latest occupant of the “techlash” bandwagon is Theresa May, who at the time of writing was still the UK’s prime minister…

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Amazon’s move into healthcare

This morning’s Observer column about the collaboration between Amazon, Warren Buffett and JP Morgan:

Launching the initiative with his customary folksy bluntness, Buffett said that “the ballooning costs of healthcare act as a hungry tapeworm on the American economy. Our group does not come to this problem with answers. But we also do not accept it as inevitable.” If this – plus the fact that the new venture is to be a not-for-profit enterprise – was intended to be soothing, then it failed. The announcement immediately wiped billions off the valuations of the corporate tapeworms that have for decades fastened like leeches on the US healthcare system. And it’s not Buffett that scares them, but Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive and founder.

They’re right to to be scared…

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Bitcoin’s silver lining?

This morning’s Observer column:

The downside of the media feeding frenzy around bitcoin is the way it obscures the fact that the technology underpinning it, the blockchain, or the public distributed ledger – a database securely recording financial, physical or electronic assets for sharing across a network through transparent updates of information – is potentially very important. This is because it may have more useful applications than supporting speculative bubbles or money laundering. In 2016, for example, Mark Walport, the government’s chief scientific adviser issued a report, arguing that the technology “could transform the delivery of public services and boost productivity”.

Which indeed it could, but that would be small beer if the messages I’m picking up from across the tech world are accurate. For the real significance of blockchain technology might be its capacity to retool the internet itself to make it secure enough for modern use and return it to its decentralised essence, in the process possibly liberating it from the tech companies that currently have a stranglehold on it…

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Why Facebook has abandoned news for the important business of trivia

Today’s Observer column:

Connoisseurs of corporate cant have a new collector’s item: Mark Zuckerberg’s latest Epistle to his Disciples. “We built Facebook,” it begins, “to help people stay connected and bring us closer together with the people that matter to us. That’s why we’ve always put friends and family at the core of the experience. Research shows that strengthening our relationships improves our wellbeing and happiness.”

Quite so. But all is not well, it seems. “Recently,” continues Zuck, sorrowfully, “we’ve gotten feedback from our community that public content – posts from businesses, brands and media – is crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other.”

Well, well. How did this happen? Simple: it turns out that “video and other public content have exploded on Facebook in the past couple of years. Since there’s more public content than posts from your friends and family, the balance of what’s in news feed has shifted away from the most important thing Facebook can do – help us connect with each other.”

Note the impersonality of all this. Somehow, this pestilential content has “exploded” on Facebook. Which is odd, is it not, given that nothing appears in a user’s news feed that isn’t decided by Facebook?

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Less haste, more security

This morning’s observer column:

I ran into my favourite technophobe the other day. “I see,” he chortled, “that your tech industry (he holds me responsible for everything that is wrong with the modern world) is in meltdown!” The annoying thing is that he was partly right. What has happened is that two major security vulnerabilities – one of them has been christened “Meltdown”, the other “Spectre” – have been discovered in the Central Processing Unit (CPU) chips that power most of the computers in the world.

A CPU is a device for performing billions of apparently trivial operations in sequences determined by whatever program is running: it fetches some data from memory, performs some operations on that data and then sends it back to memory; then fetches the next bit of data; and so on. Two decades ago some wizard had an idea for speeding up CPUs…

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So what is Twitter really for?

This morning’s Observer column:

In a way, it’s no surprise that Trump should have taken to Twitter because it has the right bandwidth for his thought processes. Technically, bandwidth is the range of frequencies that a particular communications channel can transmit. The wider the bandwidth, the more information the channel can handle, which is why analog phone lines were OK for voice communication but hopeless for relaying music. Smoke signals are one of the oldest communication channels devised by humans and they were very good for communicating danger or summoning people to gatherings. But as the cultural critic Neil Postman once observed, they were lousy for philosophical discussions. The bandwidth is too low.

Same goes for Twitter. It’s great for transmitting news tersely, which is why an increasing amount of breaking news comes via it (and not just warnings from Trump about supposedly imminent nuclear exchanges, either)…

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Catch-up time

This morning’s Observer column:

For me, the tech stories of 2017 turned out not to be really tech stories at all. Mostly they were about politics, as the non-tech world woke up to the fact that this digital stuff really affected them. As, for example, when they realised that for a mere $30,000 the Russians could beam subtle political messages to as many as 126 million US voters in an election year without anyone (including Facebook) apparently noticing. Or when big consumer brands suddenly realised that it wasn’t a good idea to have their ads running on YouTube alongside beheading or white supremacist videos. Or when parents woke up to the fact that not everything running on the YouTube Kids channel was wholesome or harmless.

That people were so surprised by these discoveries suggests that the perceptual time lag between technological change and public awareness is longer than we had supposed…

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