Archive for the 'Technology' Category

The future in your pocket

[link] Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

This morning’s Observer column:

If a year is a long time in politics (and it is), then it’s an eternity in communications technology. Fourteen years ago, about 400 million people were using the internet. Today, the number of net users is pushing the 3 billion mark. But that’s not the really big news. What’s truly startling is that 2 billion of these folks are getting their internet connections primarily via smartphones, ie, handheld computers that can access the internet as well as make voice calls, send text messages and do the other things that old-fashioned “feature phones” could do.

This is startling because smartphones are a relatively new development, and when they first appeared less than a decade ago, most of us thought that they would remain an elite consumer product for a long time to come, staples of affluent professionals in the industrialised world, perhaps, but of no relevance to poor people in the developing world who would continue to be delighted with crude feature phones that could just about do SMS.

How wrong can you be? We underestimated both the power of Moore’s law and human nature…

Read on

After Snowden, what?

[link] Sunday, October 19th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column.

Many moons ago, shortly after Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA first appeared, I wrote a column which began, “Repeat after me: Edward Snowden is not the story”. I was infuriated by the way the mainstream media was focusing not on the import of what he had revealed, but on the trivia: Snowden’s personality, facial hair (or absence thereof), whereabouts, family background, girlfriend, etc. The usual crap, in other words. It was like having a chap tell us that the government was poisoning the water supply and concentrating instead on whom he had friended on Facebook.

Mercifully, we have moved on a bit since then. The important thing now, it seems to me, is to consider a new question: given what we now know, what should we do about it? What could we realistically do? Will we, in fact, do anything? And if the latter, where are we heading as democracies?

I tried to put some of these questions to Snowden at the Observer Ideas festival last Sunday via a Skype link that proved comically dysfunctional. The comedy in using a technology to which the NSA has a backdoor was not lost on the (large) audience — or on Snowden, who coped gracefully with it. But it was a bit like trying to have a philosophical discussion using smoke signals. So let’s have another go.

First, what could we do to curb comprehensive surveillance of the net?

Read on…

Bruce Schneier’s next book

[link] Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

Title: Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World

Publisher: WW Norton

Publication date: March 9, 2015

Table of Contents

Part 1: The World We’re Creating
Chapter 1: Data as a By-Product of Computing
Chapter 2: Data as Surveillance
Chapter 3: Analyzing our Data
Chapter 4: The Business of Surveillance
Chapter 5: Government Surveillance and Control
Chapter 6: Consolidation of Institutional Surveillance

Part 2: What’s at Stake
Chapter 7: Political Liberty and Justice
Chapter 8: Commercial Fairness and Equality
Chapter 9: Business Competitiveness
Chapter 10: Privacy
Chapter 11: Security

Part 3: What to Do About It
Chapter 12: Principles
Chapter 13: Solutions for Government
Chapter 14: Solutions for Corporations
Chapter 15: Solutions for the Rest of Us
Chapter 16: Social Norms and the Big Data Trade-Off

Something to be pre-ordered, methinks.


[link] Friday, October 10th, 2014


Finally… a fibre-optic connection at home. Installed this morning. Upload speed is good enough to run my private cloud.

The state we’re in

[link] Friday, October 10th, 2014

In thinking about the state we’re in, I sometimes gloomily conclude that we need a theory of incompetent systems — i.e. systems that can’t fix themselves. Last night I participated in an interesting discussion about whether perspectives from network theory might be useful in improving public making. As the conversation proceeded over dinner I kept my mouth shut and made some notes in an attempt to sort out the jumble in my head. Here they are, for what they’re worth.

Why are democratic states like Britain struggling to cope with the challenges that now face them?

Some relevant factors:

  • A dysfunctional electoral cycle that makes it impossible to do long-term strategy. Exacerbated by rolling news cycle and tabloid media which make deliberative democracy more or less impossible.
  • The accelerating gap between the speed of technological advance and the pace of legislative and regulatory adaptation.
  • The fact that we have a world that is increasingly dominated by networking and related technologies that few people understand. (“The Internet is the first thing that humans have built that humans do not understand.” – Eric Schmidt)
  • This is exacerbated by the fact that the technology has affordances that make it different from earlier general-purpose technologies. These are: zero marginal costs; powerful network effects; the dominance of power-law distributions; and the possibility of technological lock-in.
  • The tensions between democracy’s need for openness, oversight and accountability and the security state’s need for surveillance and secrecy.
  • The apparent inability of legislatures to devise credible methods of democratic oversight of security services. Analog mindsets trying to cope with digital realities.
  • Law-making that is unduly influenced by corporate (or, in the case of surveillance laws, security agency) interests.
  • Enfeebled or corrupted democratic institutions at all levels: policy and political elites captured by neoliberal ideology and corporate interests; hollowed-out legislatures unable to impose effective control over the executive; apathetic, cynical and disaffected electorates.

Path dependency

  • The options available to us at any given moment are determined by decisions and choices we made (explicitly or implicitly) at earlier points in time. An example: we now live in a networked world the business model of which is intensive surveillance by both state agencies and corporations. The state does it because (supposedly) it is necessary to protect society from terrorism, crime etc. Corporations do it because it enables advertising-funded business models. But those business models were a response to (i) the fact that Internet users from the beginning were implacably opposed to paying for online services; and (ii) that since the key to online success was to get quickly to the point where network effects kicked in, the quickest way to get to that point was to provide ‘free’ services. So we are now coping with the consequences of choices that Internet users made in the 1990s.

Ideological capture

  • Governing elites in most democracies appear to have been captured by neoliberal philosophies which devalue public services and over-value private enterprise. This leads to a failure to appreciate the importance of the state in fostering and enabling long-term technological innovation and development. (All of the prosperity of our current Internet companies is built on a network that was built by the state. The history of most general purpose technologies shows the importance of state funding in various stages in the evolution of the technology.) Yet the idea of “the entrepreneurial state” (to use Mazzucato’s term) is regarded by governing elites as an oxymoron. (Like “military intelligence”?)

How democracies change

  • Reluctantly, slowly and generally only in response to serious crises, of which the most common historically has been the trauma of war. In general (cf David Runciman’s books) they muddle through. But muddling through takes time. The big questions about our current challenges (climate change, managing the networked society) is whether we will have enough time to muddle through.

How to tweet a storm

[link] Thursday, September 25th, 2014

Little Pork Chop is a lovely tool developed by — who else? — Dave Winer. You type your mini-essay into the text box, and the software then chops it neatly into bite-sized tweets and posts them in sequence. It’s a typical Winer creation — ingenious, elegant and useful. What a man!

Tech bubble: does it matter?

[link] Sunday, September 21st, 2014

This morning’s Observer column.

If one wanted to be critical, the most annoying thing about the current bubble is the way the visions and ambitions of startup founders seem to have narrowed. Many of them claim, of course, that what they want to build is a company that in the long term will transform the world or disrupt a particular market. But in actual fact their strategy is to create a product or a service that is sufficiently interesting or annoying to induce Google, Amazon, Facebook, Yahoo or Microsoft to buy the upstart venture. The poster child for this is WhatsApp, a fine company with a viable business model that did not depend on monitoring users and which was run by a chap who fervently declared his resolve to build a great, sustainable enterprise that treated its users well. And he doubtless believed that right up to the moment that Facebook offered him $19bn. And who can blame him: you only live once, after all.

At the end of the day, though, what’s much more worrying than the spectacle of venture capitalists blowing investors’ money is the fact that everywhere state funding for the kind of long-term, fundamental research that is needed to produce the technologies of tomorrow has been shrinking. The current wave of innovation and economic development enabled by the internet has only come about because 60 years ago the US government funded the project that produced first the arpanet and then the internet.

Private enterprise would undoubtedly have produced computer networks, but it would not have created the free and open platform for “permissionless innovation” that we got as a result of public investment. And we would have all been poorer as a result.

Read on

So did they really go to the moon in 1969?

[link] Monday, September 15th, 2014

This is 13 minutes long, but worth every second. In it film-maker S.G. Collins argues that in 1969, it was easier to send people to the Moon than to fake the landing in a studio. Technologically speaking, he says, it was impossible to shoot that video anywhere other than the surface of the Moon. A lovely piece of debunkery, filmed with the assurance of an Errol Morris.

Thinking about the End

[link] Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

Great talk by Martin Rees.

Sometimes, the camera doesn’t lie

[link] Monday, August 4th, 2014

This is fascinating. It’s also rather embarrassing for the Kremlin.

Selfies taken by Russian soldier Alexander Sotkin appear to provide damming evidence that Russian forces have been operating in Ukraine. Sotkin posted a number of images on social networking site instagram, apparently without realising that they were being geotagged to reveal his location when he took them.