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.

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?

Read on

Lifetime achievement

My friend Quentin has — deservedly — been given a Lifetime Achievement Award (called a Lovie after Ada Lovelace) for inventing the webcam. Here’s the presentation speech by Sophie Wilson (who designed the instruction set for the ARM processor and so also helped to shape our networked world):

And here is Quentin’s acceptance speech. He must have been moved by the award, because he briefly blanks as he’s getting into his stride. Normally, he’s the most fluent speaker I know. But note his graceful and witty recovery, once he’s found his notes.

This is IMHO long-overdue recognition for a technology pioneer.

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?

Read on

Social media, anger and the Russians

From the NYT:

YouTube videos of police beatings on American streets. A widely circulated internet hoax about Muslim men in Michigan collecting welfare for multiple wives. A local news story about two veterans brutally mugged on a freezing winter night.

All of these were recorded, posted or written by Americans. Yet all ended up becoming grist for a network of Facebook pages linked to a shadowy Russian company that has carried out propaganda campaigns for the Kremlin, and which is now believed to be at the center of a far-reaching Russian program to influence the 2016 presidential election.

A New York Times examination of hundreds of those posts shows that one of the most powerful weapons that Russian agents used to reshape American politics was the anger, passion and misinformation that real Americans were broadcasting across social media platforms…

What’s coming across loud and clear from the emerging realisation of the extent of Russian meddling in the US election confirms my long-held view: that the only two regimes in the world that really understand the Internet are the Chinese and Russian governments. They have different understandings, of course. For the Chinese version, see the work of Rebecca MacKinnon and Gary King. The Russians have understood the dilemmas (and opportunities) of postmodernism, and act accordingly. They have also have integrated information-warfare into their strategic military doctrine.

Sixty years on

Today is the 60th anniversary of the day that the Soviet Union announced that it had launched a satellite — Sputnik — in earth orbit. The conventional historical narrative (as recounted, for example, in my book and in Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon’s history) is that this event really alarmed the American public, not least because it suggested that the Soviet Union might be superior to the US in important fields like rocketry and ballistic missiles. The narrative goes on to recount that the shock resulted in a major shake-up in the US government which — among other things — led to the setting up of ARPA — the Advanced Research Projects Agency — in the Pentagon. This was the organisation which funded the development of ARPANET, the packet-switched network that was the precursor of the Internet.

The narrative is accurate in that Sputnik clearly provided the impetus for a drive to produce a massive increase in US capability in science, aerospace technology and computing. But the declassification of a trove of hitherto-secret CIA documents (for example, this one) to mark the anniversary suggests that the CIA was pretty well-informed about Soviet capabilities and intentions and that the launch of a satellite was expected, though nobody could guess at the timing. So President Eisenhower and the US government were not as shocked as the public, and they clearly worked on the principle that one should never waste a good crisis.