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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Developer’s Remorse kicks in

At last! The Center for Humane Technology has launched.

From the NYT report:

Its first project to reform the industry will be to introduce a Ledger of Harms — a website aimed at guiding rank-and-file engineers who are concerned about what they are being asked to build. The site will include data on the health effects of different technologies and ways to make products that are healthier.

Jim Steyer, chief executive and founder of Common Sense, said the Truth About Tech campaign was modeled on antismoking drives and focused on children because of their vulnerability. That may sway tech chief executives to change, he said. Already, Apple’s chief executive, Timothy D. Cook, told The Guardian last month that he would not let his nephew on social media, while the Facebook investor Sean Parker also recently said of the social network that “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

Mr. Steyer said, “You see a degree of hypocrisy with all these guys in Silicon Valley.”

The new group also plans to begin lobbying for laws to curtail the power of big tech companies. It will initially focus on two pieces of legislation: a bill being introduced by Senator Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, that would commission research on technology’s impact on children’s health, and a bill in California by State Senator Bob Hertzberg, a Democrat, which would prohibit the use of digital bots without identification.

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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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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Meltdown and Spectre summarised

Lovely economical summary by the UK ICO’s Head of Technology Policy of the two vulnerabilities currently obsessing the CPU-design industry:

In essence, the vulnerabilities provide ways that an attacker could extract information from privileged memory locations that should be inaccessible and secure. The potential attacks are only limited by what is being stored in the privileged memory locations – depending on the specific circumstances an attacker could gain access to encryption keys, passwords for any service being run on the machine, or session cookies for active sessions within a browser. One variant of the attacks could allow for an administrative user in a guest virtual machine to read the host server’s kernel memory. This could include the memory assigned to other guest virtual machines.

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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Thinking ten years ahead

Ben Evans is one of the tech commentators I follow. This para from one of his blog posts struck me:

First, ecommerce, having grown more or less in a straight line for the past twenty years, is starting to reach the point that broad classes of retailer have real trouble. It’s useful to compare physical retail with newspapers, which face many of the same problems: a fixed cost base with falling revenues, the near-disappearance of a physical distribution advantage, and above all, unbundling and disaggregation. Everything bad that the internet did to media is probably going to happen to retailers. The tipping point might now be approaching, particularly in the US, where the situation is worsened by the fact that there is far more retail square footage per capita than in any other developed market. And when the store closes and you turn to shopping online (or are simply forced to, if enough physical retail goes away), you don’t buy all the same things, any more than you read all the same things when you took your media consumption online. When we went from a corner store to a department store, and then from a department store to big box retail, we didn’t all buy exactly the same things but in different places – we bought different things. If you go from buying soap powder in Wal-Mart based on brand and eye-level placement to telling Alexa ‘I need more soap’, some of your buying will look different.

The really significant thing about cryptocurrencies: the blockchain

The Bitcoin boom is leading many people to lose their marbles. It’s also distracting public attention from what really important about cryptocurrencies — the blockchain or public ledger that underpins them. This is the really significant innovation IMHO, but it’s hard to convince people who know little about the technology and see just the Bitcoin hype in mainstream media.

Tyler Cowen has a thoughtful Bloomberg column about this, in which he comes up with a really useful suggestion:

If you think of these assets as “cryptocurrencies,” central bank involvement will seem natural, because of course central banks do manage currencies. Instead, this new class of assets is better conceptualized as ledger systems, designed to create agreement about some states of the world without the final judgment of a centralized authority, which use a crypto asset to pay participants for maintaining the flow and accuracy of information. Arguably these innovations come closer to being substitutes for corporations and legal systems than for currencies.

I like that: a blockchain is a public ledger which creates agreement about some state(s) of the world without the need for a centralised authority.

The biggest problem with the technology at the moment is that it doesn’t scale because of the computing (and associated environmental costs. But maybe we will find a way of overcoming this.