Tyler Cowen on the iPhone

Like many others, I’ve been reflecting on the tenth anniversary of the iPhone. The Computer History Museum ran a fascinating two-hour show in which John Markoff talked to some of the people who designed and built the first phone. Tyler Cowen also devoted his latest Bloomberg column to it and, as usual, he’s come up with an angle that I hadn’t thought about much:

First, we’ve learned that, even in this age of bits and bytes, materials innovation still matters. The iPhone is behind the scenes a triumph of mining science, with a wide variety of raw materials and about 34 billion kilograms (75 billion pounds) of mined rock as an input to date, as discussed by Brian Merchant in his new and excellent book “The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone”. A single iPhone has behind it the production of 34 kilos of gold ore, with 20.5 grams (0.72 ounces) of cyanide used to extract the most valuable parts of the gold.

Especially impressive as a material is the smooth touch-screen, and the user’s ability to make things happen by sliding, swiping, zooming and pinching it — the “multitouch” function. That advance relied upon particular materials, as the screen is chemically strengthened, made scrape-resistant and embedded with sensitive sensors. Multitouch wasn’t new, but Apple understood how to build it into a highly useful product.

Imagine putting together a production system that could make 1.2 billion of these devices.

Who’s missing from the tech industry? Er, women

This morning’s Observer column:

In front of me as I write this is a photograph. It’s an interior shot of one of the buildings on Facebook’s campus in California. It looks as big as an aircraft hangar, except that it has steel pillars at regular intervals. The pillars are labelled to enable people to find their desks. It’s all open-plan: nobody in this building – not even the founder of the company, Mark Zuckerberg – has a private office. And as far as the eye can see are desks with large-screen iMacs and Aeron desk chairs.

The people working at these desks are the folks who write, curate, design and maintain the algorithms that determine what appears in your Facebook newsfeed. I’ve been looking at the picture until my eyes begin to pixelate. What I’ve been trying to determine is how many women there are. I can see only three. So I ask a colleague who has better eyesight. She finds another two. And that’s it: as far as the eye can see, there are only five women in this picture.

Welcome to Silicon Valley, where most of the digital technology that currently dominates our lives is created…

Read on

And while we’re on the subject…

Recode has recently obtained a copy of an email that Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, sent to all his staff before a staff outing in Miami in 2013.

The subject line read: “URGENT, URGENT – READ THIS NOW OR ELSE!!!!!,” he also noted at the top: “You better read this or I’ll kick your ass.”

Here’s the gist (from Recode):

Among the dos that Kalanick advised: “Have a great fucking time. This is a celebration! We’ve all earned it.” He also noted that “Miami’s transportation sucks ass,” the first shot in what became a battle to have Uber serve that city.

That was the tame part of the email, which Kalanick actually sent again the next year when there were 1,800 employees at Uber.

The don’ts advice was much more specific, giving information about everything from vomiting (a $200 “puke charge”) to drug use to throwing beer kegs off buildings to, well, proper fornication between employees (and sometimes, apparently, more than one).

Wrote Kalanick: “Do not have sex with another employee UNLESS a) you have asked that person for that privilege and they have responded with an emphatic ‘YES! I will have sex with you’ AND b) the two (or more) of you do not work in the same chain of command. Yes, that means that Travis will be celibate on this trip. #CEOLife #FML.”

FML, in internet slang, means “Fuck my life.” Welcome to Silicon Valley startup culture.

Enough said? If you were a woman, would you want to work in this frat-house culture?

What happened? And how did we get here?

Very thoughtful post by Willard McCarty in the Digital Humanities newsletter:

In the wake of the latest terrorist attack in London, the Scottish novelist and editor Andrew O’Hagan spoke on Radio 4 this morning about the Internet.

He recalled the millenarian hopes for it during his youth and contrasted them with what has become of it in the hands of those with evil intentions. His conclusion (spoken in sorrow) was that “We are not good enough as people to have an unrestricted network”. We need “a battalion of mindful editors” to regulate it, he said.

Perhaps neither seems surprising now; once, as O’Hagan remarked, the Internet seemed to many a cure for the world’s problems, as indeed the telephone did in its early days. But the darkness visible of terrorism isn’t the only sign of the times. I think, for example, of that unmoderated online forum recently shouted down during a discussion of the word ‘motherboard’ and then shut down to figure out where from here. Yes, professionally we live in a sheltered world, but the problems at the root of seemingly minor annoyances are very real — and applicable out there, where people run mortal risks.

Consider that the “battalion of mindful editors” requires the recruitment and training our universities should be able to give, indeed should be giving. But they are crippled, as social anthropologist Marilyn Strathern wrote in 1992, by an Enterprise Culture which “like a slick that smothers everything in shine” gives us workplaces “where students are supposed to mean numbers, public accountability must be interpreted as resource management, and education has to appear as a service for customers”.1


  1. Marilyn Strathern, “Introduction: Artificial Life”, in Reproducing the Future: Anthropology, Kinship and the New Reproductive Technologies (Manchester University Press, 1992), p.8. 

Kasparov: now racing with — rather than against — the machine

My Observer review of Garry Kasparov’s new book — Deep Thinking:

Garry Kasparov is arguably the greatest chess player of all time. From 1986 until his retirement in 2005, he was ranked world No 1. He is also a leading human rights activist and is probably close to the top of Vladimir Putin’s hitlist, not least because he tried to run against him for the Russian presidency in 2007. But for people who are interested only in technology, Kasparov is probably best known as the first world champion to be beaten by a machine. In 1997, in a famous six-game match with the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue, he lost 3½-2½.

In the grand scheme of things, losing by one game in a six-game match might not seem much, but at the time it was seen as a major milestone in the long march towards “artificial” intelligence (AI). With the 20/20 vision of hindsight we can view it in a less apocalyptic light: the triumph of Deep Blue was really a victory of brute computing power, clever programming and the ruthless determination of a huge but struggling corporation to exploit the PR advantages of having one of its products do something that would impress the world’s media. But if you believe that AI has something to do with cognition, then Kasparov’s epochal defeat looks like a sideshow.

That it retains its fascination owes more to the popular view of proficiency at chess as a proxy for superintelligence rather than as possession of a very specialised skill…

Read on

And see also Kasparov’s long conversation with Tyler Cowen.

Celebrating Walt

This morning’s Observer column:

Walt Mossberg has written his final column. Some people in the tech industry will probably have heaved a sigh of relief, because the one guy in mainstream journalism who never drank their Kool-Aid is going dark. But for those of us who value common sense and a cussedly independent temperament, his retirement is a moment for reflection…

Read on

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…

Read on

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”.

Also…

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.