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…

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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.

The life and death of helicopter commuting

I once spent a day during a general election campaign going round the UK in a helicopter. It was a fascinating experience, but not one I’d like to repeat. Choppers seem to me to be ludicrously primitive machines — a bit like steam-powered automobiles. They are also, of course, vanity toys for the very rich. And they are incredibly noisy. So this Bloomberg video brings a welcome dose of reality to chopper-worship.

HT to Ben Evans for the link.

Robotic judgments?

Today’s Observer column:

“The sadness about the bar nowadays,” wrote John Mortimer QC in 2002, “is that the Rumpoles are dying out, to be replaced… by greyish figures who think that the art of advocacy has been replaced by computer technology.”

Now spool forward to October 2016 and to Gower Street, a stone’s throw from Gray’s Inn, where a group of computer scientists is huddled in a laboratory in University College London. They are tending a machine they have built that can do natural language processing and machine learning and, in that sense, might be said to be an example of artificial intelligence (AI).

The machine has an insatiable appetite for English text and so the researchers have fed it all the documents relating to 584 cases decided by the European court of human rights (ECHR) on alleged infringements of articles 3, 6 and 8 of the European convention on human rights. Having ingested and analysed this mountain of text, the machine has been asked to predict the judgment that it thinks the court would have reached in each case. In the end, it reached the same conclusion as the judges of the court did in 79% of the cases…

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The end of the internal combustion engine

This morning’s Observer column:

Two interesting things happened last week. One was Tesla’s delivery of the first batch of its Model 3, the company’s first “affordable” car. (If you think $35,000, about £26,500 – is affordable, that is.) The second was a “diesel summit” held in Berlin, a meeting where the bosses of Germany’s leading car manufacturers (VW, BMW, Audi, Ford, Porsche and Daimler) got together with ministers to ponder the industrial implications of the emissions-cheating scandal and the decisions of the British and French governments to outlaw petrol cars and vans from 2040.

Although no one in the car industry will say so, diesel technology has been a dead duck since the emissions-cheating scandal erupted, followed by the revelations of how polluted London’s atmosphere has become, with emissions of nitrous fumes from diesels being blamed for much of the problem. And the fallout is already being seen in the sales figures…

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The auto industry’s ‘iPhone moment’

The bosses of Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW are meeting with ministers in Berlin today to discuss the end of diesel cars and the disaster that the industry brought on itself. Ironically, the meeting more or less coincides with the hoopla over the delivery of the first Tesla Model 3 ‘affordable’ electric vehicles in the US. There’s a 400,000-long waiting list for this car, which means that if you placed an order (and paid the $1,000 deposit) you’ll probably have to wait two years before delivery. But if you want a nice VW, BMW or Mercedes diesel model, well any dealer will be happy to offer one by lunchtime, and maybe even give you a good price. Writing in today’s Financial Times, John Gapper wonders if the automobile industry is suddenly experiencing its own ‘iPhone moment’.

Good question, to which I suspect that the answer is “yes”. It’s not the manufacturer that matters most, it’s the technology. The significance of the iPhone in 2007 was that it was the first real smartphone. The significance of the Model 3 is not that it’s a Tesla but that it’s a working electric car with a decent range that many people can afford.

If at first you don’t succeed…

This morning’s Observer column:

There were just two problems with Glass. The first is that it made you look like a dork. Although Google teamed up with the company that made Ray-Bans, among other things, if you were wearing Glass then you became the contemporary version of those 1950s engineers who always had several pens and a propelling pencil in their top jacket pockets. The second problem was the killer one: Glass made everyone around you feel uneasy. They thought the technology was creepy, intrusive and privacy-destroying. Bouncers wouldn’t let wearers – whom they called “Glassholes” – into clubs. The maître d’ would discover that the table you thought you had booked was suddenly unavailable. And so on.

In the end, Google bit the bullet and withdrew the product in January 2015. Privacy advocates and fashionistas alike cheered. Technology had been put in its place. But if, like this columnist, you believe that technology has the potential to improve human lives, then your feelings were mixed…

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Automation is more about tasks than ‘jobs’

This morning’s Observer column:

We are currently going through one of those periodic phases of “automation anxiety” when we become convinced that the robots are coming for our jobs. These fears are routinely pooh-poohed by historians and economists. The historians point out that machines have been taking away jobs since the days of Elizabeth I – who refused to grant William Lee a patent on his stocking frame on the grounds that it would take work away from those who knitted by hand. And while the economists concede that machines do indeed destroy some jobs, they point out that the increased productivity that they enable has generally created more new jobs (and industries) than they displaced.

Faced with this professional scepticism, tech evangelists and doom-mongers fall back on the same generic responses: that historical scepticism is based on the complacent assumption that the past is a reliable guide to the future; and that “this time is different”. And whereas in the past it was lower-skilled work that was displaced, the jobs that will be lost in the coming wave of smart machines are ones that we traditionally regard as “white-collar” or middle-class. And that would be a very big deal, because if there’s no middle class the prospects for the survival of democracy are poor.

What’s striking about this fruitless, ongoing debate is how few participants seem to be interested in the work that people actually do…

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