Move fast and fix things

This morning’s Observer column:

‘Move fast and break things”, was the exhortation that Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg originally issued to his developers. It’s a typical hacker’s mantra: while the tools and features they developed for his platform might not be perfect, speed was the key aspiration, even if there were some screw-ups on the way.

In 2016, we began to realise that one of the things that might get broken in Mr Zuckerberg’s quest for speed is democracy. Facebook became one of the favourite platforms for disseminating “fake news” and was the tool of choice for micro-targeting voters with personalised political messages. It also became a live broadcasting medium for those engaging in bullying, rape, inflicting grievous bodily harm and, in one case, murder.

One way of thinking about the internet is that it holds up a mirror to human nature…

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WannaCry? Not really

If you’re overwhelmed by all the good, bad and simply awful reporting of the WannaCry ‘ransomware’ attack, here are links to two sane and well-informed pieces.

  • Ross Anderson’s post on Light Blue Touchpaper — “Bad Malware, Worse Reporting”.
  • Ben Thomson’s long and thoughtful post on his Strachery blog — “WANNACRY ABOUT BUSINESS MODELS”.


The Economist had a useful briefing a while back on the general topic of our chronic insecurity — “Computer security is broken from top to bottom”.

And of course it goes without saying that this whole debacle provides a salutary confirmation of the foolishness of demanding that there should be ‘backdoors’ in encryption ‘for government use only’. WannaCry was turbocharged by some software written by the NSA (which knew about the Windows XP vulnerability but didn’t tell Microsoft) to exploit it. The moral: if the government knows about a vulnerability, then other people will too. And some of them will be more even more unscrupulous.

Vive la France! (For the time being)

This morning’s Observer column:

The two biggest lessons of 2016 were the discovery of how social media could be used for “voter suppression” and how the open web could be “weaponised” by the “alt-right” to pollute the public sphere. The conventional wisdom that Trump did not have a data operation was mistaken. He did have a “digital operations division” based in San Antonio with about 100 programmers, web developers, network engineers, data scientists, graphic artists, ad copywriters and media buyers. Their main approach seems to have involved using social media and other data to identify Democratic voters in swing states who were unenthusiastic about Clinton and to target them with messages likely to reduce the likelihood that they would vote for her. On other words, to engage in data-driven vote suppression.

The other insight of 2016 was provided by Jonathan Albright’s revelations of the extent of the far right’s online ecosystem and its ingenuity in exploiting YouTube and other legitimate sites to disseminate fake news and conspiracy theories. In doing this, the movement exploited both the business models of Google and Facebook, which depend on increasing “user engagement” (ie sharing, likes, links), and human psychology (which seems to find fake news more interesting and “shareable” than more sober, reliable information).

It is now surmised that the Brexit campaign in the UK may have been a dry run for these techniques and we know that they were deployed in France, presumably to increase the chances of a Le Pen victory…

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Back to the Future

“When steam power will be perfected, when, together with telegraphy and railways, it will have made distances disappear, it will not only be commodities which travel, but also ideas which will have wings. When fiscal and commercial barriers have been abolished between different states, as they have already been between the provinces of the same state; when different countries, in daily relations, tend toward the unity of peoples, how will you be able to revive the old mode of separation?”

Francois-René de Chateaubriand, 1841

Shattering the mask of the benevolent tech company

My Observer review of Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things:

Much has been made in previous histories of Silicon Valley’s counter-cultural origins. Taplin finds other, less agreeable roots, notably in the writings of Ayn Rand, a flake of Cadbury proportions who had an astonishing impact on many otherwise intelligent individuals. These include Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman who presided over events leading to the banking collapse of 2008, and [Peter] Thiel, who made an early fortune out of PayPal and was the first investor in Facebook. Rand believed that “achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life”. She had no time for altruism, government or anything else that might interfere with capitalism red in tooth and claw.

Neither does Thiel. For him, “competition is for losers”. He believes in investing only in companies that have the potential to become monopolies and he thinks monopolies are good for society. “Americans mythologise competition and credit it with saving us from socialist bread lines,” he once wrote. “Actually, capitalism and competition are opposites. Capitalism is premised on the accumulation of capital, but under perfect competition, all profits get competed away.”

The three great monopolies of the digital world have followed the Thiel playbook and Taplin does a good job of explaining how each of them works and how, strangely, their vast profits are never “competed away”. He also punctures the public image so assiduously fostered by Google and Facebook – that they are basically cool tech companies run by good chaps (and they are still mainly chaps, btw) who are hellbent on making the world a better place – whereas, in fact, they are increasingly hard to distinguish from the older brutes of the capitalist jungle…

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If something can be done, then…

This morning’s Observer column:

The biggest impediments to automation are the practical difficulties that tech evangelists tend to ignore. Some of them have already sussed that self-driving cars are a distant prospect because their regulatory and infrastructural requirements are so complex. That’s why much of the excitement in the industry is now focused on trucks. It’s easy to see how autonomous “truck trains” could work on motorways, and indeed there have already been trials of such convoys.

The trouble starts when the vehicle has to leave the motorway in order to reach its final destination. Suddenly the truck faces the same obstacles as the self-driving car. So maybe it will be necessary to have human pilots to take it that last mile safely, just as ships have pilots to guide them into harbour. That’s also why we are unlikely to see autonomous white vans any time soon: their drivers do much more than simply drive – just like those DHL guys in Venice. So perhaps tech determinists need to revise their mantra: if something can be done, then it may be done – provided the economics and the practicalities are right.

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Sexism and gender bias in Silicon Valley

Even the Economist gets it:

For a set of people who finance disruptive firms, venture capitalists are surprisingly averse to disrupting their own tried-and-tested way of doing things. They sit in small groups, meet entrepreneurs and repeat a single formula for investing whenever possible. John Doerr, who backed companies like Google, summed up his philosophy thus: “Invest in white male nerds who’ve dropped out of Harvard or Stanford.”

Defenders of the valley have two retorts. One is that throwing stones at the most successful business cluster on Earth makes no sense. Market forces ensure that the best ideas win funding, irrespective of gender. The data suggest a different story. Only 7% of the founders of tech startups in America that raised $20m or more are women, according to recent research by Bloomberg. Yet nobody would argue that men make the best founders nine times out of ten. On average, firms founded by women obtain less funding ($77m) than those founded by men ($100m). The VC industry has been successful enough to ward off the pressure to change. That does not make it perfect.

A second defence is that VCs rely on tight-knit relationships, in which trust is essential. Call this the “dinner with Mike Pence” gambit, after the American vice-president’s reported refusal to eat alone with a woman other than his wife. On this argument, any outsider, particularly one lacking a Y chromosome, is liable to upset the club’s precious dynamic. Venture capital is indeed a strange mix of capital and contacts, and peculiarly hard to industrialise as a result. But as a justification for sexism, clubbiness is an argument that is as old as it is thin…

Yep. But when will society wake up to the fact that a technology that is changing everyone’s lives — male and female — is designed and financed by a tiny male only elite?

The search for the ultimate ‘man-cave’

My eye was caught by an extraordinary piece in the FT last weekend which, in a strange way, relates to my Observer column about the Silicon Valley crowd’s obsession with dodging mortality. The FT article is about the new market in apocalypse bunkers.

The location that has become something of an unlikely media sensation is the Survival Condo Project in the usually rather less than super-prime plains north of Wichita, Kansas. Situated on a 1960s Atlas F missile launch site, the 15 condos in the first site are all sold and orders are being taken for places in the second silo. The reason there has been so much interest, from media and buyers, is the spec.

We might think of bunkers as places of desperate last resort, bleak, damp concrete cellars with industrial shelving stacked with cans of beans and musty-smelling gas masks. These, however, are something altogether different. The “Penthouse” units, comprising 3,600 sq ft of living space spread over two storeys, start from $4.5m. LED screens offer a window onto a fantasy outside world of trees and waterfalls (not the actual, frazzled and burnt-out landscape). The communal facilities include a climbing wall, dog park, pool, cinema and shooting range (of course). They also provide hydroponic and aquaponic agriculture and aquaculture, and the machinery to filter air and water indefinitely. These are bunkers for the long haul: five years or more completely off-grid.

The FT piece claims that “the latest real estate trend among internet billionaires and hedge fund tycoons is, apparently, buying bunkers”. If this is indeed true then one wonders what it means. These, after all, are people who made their fortunes from correctly guessing the short- and medium-term future. Does their appetite for these hideous, inhuman residences suggest that they have real fears for the future? Or are they so rich that blowing $4.5m on a holiday house they might never need is a bit like the rest of us buying a ticket in the lottery? The cost is relatively trivial, and you never know… you might get lucky.

Making death optional

This morning’s Observer column:

In this world,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” This proposition doesn’t cut much ice in Silicon Valley, where they take a poor view of paying taxes. What’s interesting is that they are also coming to the view that perhaps death is optional too, at least for the very rich.

You think I jest? Well, meet Bill Maris, the founder and former CEO of Google Ventures, the investment arm of Alphabet, Google’s owners. Three years ago, Maris decided to create a company that will “solve” death…

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