Phones, photography and the Snapchat factor

This morning’s Observer column:

Living and working, as I do, in a historic city that is swamped by tourists in the summer, I regularly get the opportunity to do some photo-ethnography. You can tell someone’s age by the kind of camera they are using. Elderly folks are still using point-and-shoot compacts. Middle-aged folks are sporting “prosumer” digital single-lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) from Canon, Nikon, Fuji and Panasonic. But as far as I can see, everyone under the age of 25 is using a smartphone, possibly with the assistance of a selfie stick.

This is partly because the main reason young people take photographs is to post them on social media, and smartphones make that easy to do. But that’s not the whole story. Those who are more serious about photography tend to upload their pictures to photo-hosting services such as Flickr. Guess what the most popular camera for Flickr members is? Apple’s iPhone – by a mile… Read on

Review of ‘The Cyber Effect’

My Observer review of Maria Aiken’s new book.

Note the doctorate after the author’s name; and the subtitle: A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist Explains How Human Behaviour Changes Online; and the potted bio, informing us that “Dr Mary Aiken is the world’s foremost forensic cyberpsychologist” – all clues indicating that this is a book targeted at the US market, another addition to that sprawling genre of books by folks with professional qualifications using pop science to frighten the hoi polloi.

This is a pity, because The Cyber Effect is really rather good and doesn’t need its prevailing tone of relentless self-promotion to achieve its desired effect, which is to make one think about what digital technology is doing to us…

Read on

The first self-driving car fatality proves nothing

This morning’s Observer column:

In the US, about 33,000 people are killed in automobile accidents every year. That’s 90 a day on average. So on 7 May, about 89 other people as well as Joshua Brown were killed in car crashes. But we heard nothing about those 89 personal and family tragedies: the only death that most people in the US heard about was Mr Brown’s.

Societies have to decide what they want to do about automobile safety. It will come down to a cost-benefit analysis
Why? Because he was driving (or perhaps not driving) a semi-autonomous vehicle. Writing from Detroit (coincidentally, the capital of the traditional gas-guzzling, emission-spewing automobile), two New York Times reporters wrote that “the race by automakers and technology firms to develop self-driving cars has been fuelled by the belief that computers can operate a vehicle more safely than human drivers. But that view is now in question after the revelation on Thursday that the driver of a Tesla Model S electric sedan was killed in an accident when the car was in self-driving mode.”

Really? With whom is the safety of self-driving cars in question? Not with anyone who knows the facts about the dangers of automobiles…

Read on

The ‘Internet of Things’ will need better things

This morning’s Observer column:

You know the problem. You’re going abroad for a couple of weeks, during which time your house will be empty. You haven’t yet got round to installing a burglar alarm. But not to worry – just pop round to a supermarket and buy a couple of timer sockets. Plug them into the mains, set the timers to switch on and off at appropriate times twice a day, plug your lamps into them and off you go. Easy, peasy!

Well, yes. But it’s so 1950s. So analogue. Why not be really cool and have a proper networked timer socket, something that you can control from your smartphone from anywhere in the world? Something like the AuYou Wi-Fi Switch for example. Looks like it’s just the ticket. Plug it in, hold down the power button and it hooks up with the app on your (Android) smartphone, and – bingo! – job done. Now, where did you put that boarding pass?

But, hang on. Maybe you should just check the product reviews, just to be sure. Ah, here’s one by a guy called Matthew Garrett. “There’s a lot to like about this hardware,” Matthew writes, “but unfortunately it’s entirely overwhelmed by everything there is to hate about it.”

Eh? Turns out that Mr Garrett knows a lot about computer security…

Read on

The Apple watch: a solution in search of a problem

As some readers know, I’m not a fan of the Apple watch. Nor, it turns out, is the Guardian‘s Alex Hern:

The future of the watch can’t be the same iterative improvements that Apple has pulled off with the iPhone, iPod and iPad. The interface is just too ill-thought-through to work, even if the device itself is sped up significantly. But the most obvious alternative is to massively increase the amount of voice control the watch offers, and Apple simply doesn’t have the technical chops to do so. While Google and Amazon have been creating voice assistants that people seem to actually use and wax lyrical about, Apple … hasn’t. There’s no easy solution there.

But the saving grace for Apple is that the broader problem isn’t the company’s fault. It’s that smartwatches are a solution in search of a problem. A technology created, not to serve consumer demand, but to serve the need of device manufacturers to fill the revenue hole created by declining smartphone growth. You don’t need one, and neither do I. It just took me nine months of wearing it to realise.

Yep.

BUT… This thoughtful comment from a reader:

If you have a significant medical condition like Diabetics, particularly if you have diabetic kids, the Apple Watch and their Android equivalent is revolutionizing how you can go out in the world. I have neighbors who would have never allowed their 8 year old daughter go out for a sleepover because they need to check their blood sugar levels so often and now all they have to do is glance at their watch to track their behavior. Previously that sort of equipment was over $50,000 and now you can do it for a few hundred.

The spy in the cab

Interesting news for Tesla owners:

Everyone makes mistakes, and many people try to cover them up. But if you try to hide an error made behind the wheel of a car made by Tesla Motors, you are liable to be caught out. In fact, trying to hide what really happened in any kind of car accident could soon become just about impossible.

That’s the lesson of an incident over the weekend in which the owner of a Tesla Model X SUV crashed into a building and claimed it had suddenly accelerated on its own. But Tesla vehicles are constantly connected to their manufacturer via the Internet, and the company had this to say in a statement to the Verge:

“Data shows that the vehicle was traveling at 6 mph when the accelerator pedal was abruptly increased to 100 percent … Consistent with the driver’s actions, the vehicle applied torque and accelerated as instructed.”

Quite so. So what happens when your Tesla has been hacked and the hacker instructs it to accelerate into a wall? Or into a crowd?