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.

Lessons of history?

This morning’s Observer column:

The abiding problem with writing about digital technology is how to avoid what the sociologist Michael Mann calls “the sociology of the last five minutes”. There’s something about the technology that reduces our collective attention span to that of newts. This is how we wind up obsessing over the next iPhone, the travails of Uber, Facebook being weaponised by Russia, Samsung’s new non-combustible smartphone and so on. It’s mostly a breathless search for what Michael Lewis once called “the new new thing”.

We have become mesmerised by digital technology and by the companies that control and exploit it. Accordingly, we find it genuinely difficult to judge whether a particular development is really something new and unprecedented or just a contemporary variant on something that is much older…

Read on

Technology and democracy

I went to Oxford last week to interview Philip Howard for the Talking Politics podcast. Since June last year he has been Professor of Internet Studies at the University and Director of Research in the Oxford Internet Institute where his current project is on Computational Propaganda, which he elegantly defines as “algorithms + lies”.

I’ve been keen to interview Philip for ages, because his work illuminates the question that currently preoccupies me: what is the Internet doing to our politics, and thereby to democracy? He’s a sociologist by background, and he first came to this question in 2000, when he worked as an intern (but really as an ethnographer) on both the Al Gore and George W. Bush campaigns. What he saw, close-up, was a small group of techies who had already sussed the potential of the Net for political campaigning, and were experimenting with data-driven strategies which, among other things, played fast and loose with people’s privacy. From this came his first book on technology and democracy — New Media Campaigns and the Managed Citizen.

After observing how the technology operated in a liberal democracy, Philip then moved to ask what does the technology mean for societies where the culture of use is greatly constrained. In the end, this produced a book — The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam which covers a large number of predominately-Muslim countries. What he found was that while authoritarian rulers gradually became attuned to the potential of digital technology for social control, nevertheless availability of the Internet also brought noticeable changes in what politics meant for their populations. These changes were in areas like gender politics and in the places where ordinary people would go to learn about religious texts. The Net, he found for example, was where young Muslim women learned to talk about love in cultures where marriages were arranged; the place where people with questions about their lives and faith could go to mullahs and imams who were not necessarily those in their locality. In this work he found what in retrospect looks like “a very clear arc to the Arab Spring”.

The third book of his that I wanted to talk about was his latest — *Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up — in which, instead of looking back at recent history of the impact of digital technology, he tries to look forward. This is always a dangerous thing for an academic to do, and he has experienced much more pushback from critics than he had from his earlier books. I can see why. What he’s trying to do is to figure out how the ‘Internet of Things’ juggernaut that is currently heading our way will change societies, and that’s a really big question.

I found the book both fascinating and frustrating. Fascinating because it’s bold: for example, he thinks that a comprehensively networked world will have some of the uneasy stability that the era of the Cold War had: states will be wary of engaging in cyberwarfare simply because the consequences are so incalculable. (A kind of virtual Mutual Assured Destruction.) The Pax Technica of the title is a play on the Pax Britannica of history — a world order imposed by the dominance of a particular global power. That’s an interesting idea, if only because discussions about digital technology rarely wind up in the realms of geopolitics. Another — less speculative IMHO — idea is that a major determinant of our networked future will be the technical standards that emerge as the dominant ones (much as TCP/IP emerged as dominant in the 1980s). There are echoes here of Ross Anderson’s pathbreaking paper “Privacy versus government surveillance: where network effects meet public choice”.

What’s frustrating is that there’s a whiff of technological determinism about Pax Technica. I was reminded at times of Tom Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization and The World is Flat. Friedman really does seem to believe that technology drives history. And I guess that a criticism of Pax Technica is that its author does too. (Which is a bit odd for a sociologist.) The difference between him and Friedman, though, is that Philip thinks that we might be able to divert the path of the juggernaut, whereas Friedman believes that we just have to grin and bear it.

Anyway, I greatly enjoyed that conversation in Oxford. As with all good conversations we had to break off long before we had exhausted the subject. It’ll be on the Net soon after this is posted. Hope you enjoy it.

If you do, then Philip’s Inaugural Lecture is also thought-provoking and interesting. His question: Is Social Media Killing Democracy?

And his answer? … well, tune in and find out…

Oh — and about the photograph: Philip is a Professorial Fellow of Balliol College. Which means that, among other things, he has a secure place to keep his bike.

The best camera…

(Larger image here)

… is always the one you happen to have with you. Since I always carry an iPhone 6, that means I have a pretty useful camera on me. Good though it is, it’s obvious not a patch on, say, a proper DSLR. On the other hand, I don’t want to lug one of those around with me all the time. Also, traditional cameras are standalone devices (though my Leica Q has a kind of rudimentary WiFi capability). So I’ve been on the lookout for ways of having the best of both worlds.

I tried some of the add-on lenses for the iPhone and they’re ok as far as they go, which is not far. Now I’ve been trying the DXO-one, a tiny add-on for the iPhone which is actually a pretty capable little camera in a tiny package.

It’s got an f1.8 prime lens and — more important — the same sensor as the rather pricey (but excellent) Sony RX100 IV. Which means it has a much bigger sensor than the camera in the iPhone. It plugs into the phone using the Lightning connector, and effectively turns it into a high-res viewfinder. The DXO can also be used in standalone mode, but then you can’t frame shots.

It produces both RAW and JPG images. Experts say that while the jpegs are not as good as those produced by the iPhone, the RAW files are outstanding. I haven’t been able to confirm that yet. (Work is so annoying in that regard — it just keeps getting in the way.) There’s also a super-RAW facility for low light in which the camera produces four images and then does some esoteric post-processing on them to extract an impressive amount of additional detail from the images.

It takes a bit of getting used to, and it’s not something you’d use for rapid-fire street photography, but the results (even in the jpegs) seem excellent. The shot of the roses above, for example, was a cinch and provided the bokeh you can’t get with the iPhone 6 camera.

It also works just fine with my iPad.

In a way, though, this is just an early step on an obvious journey: one day all cameras — high- as well as low-end — will have to be networked.