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.
(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.
A discussion about the REF and expenses today has reminded me (as such discussions often do) of this famous dispatch from the Duke of Wellington to his political masters in London.
Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests which have been sent by H.M. ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch to our headquarters.
We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty’s Government holds me accountable. I have dispatched reports on the character, wit, and spleen of every officer. Each item and every farthing has been accounted for, with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence.
Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion’s petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain. This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstance, since we are war with France, a fact which may come as a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.
This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty’s Government so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either one with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both:
1 To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London
2 To see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.
Your most obedient servant,
Nice point by Joe Stiglitz:
In responding to the hurricane – and in funding some of the repair – everyone turns to government, just as they did in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis. Again, it is ironic that this is now occurring in a part of the country where government and collective action are so frequently rebuked. It was no less ironic when the titans of US banking, having preached the neoliberal gospel of downsizing government and eliminating regulations that proscribed some of their most dangerous and anti-social activities, turned to government in their moment of need.
There is an obvious lesson to be learned from such episodes: markets on their own are incapable of providing the protection that societies need. When markets fail, as they often do, collective action becomes imperative…
One of my rules is that whenever Louis Menand writes anything in the New Yorker, I drop tools and read it. IMHO, he’s the best literary critic living today. In July he wrote a marvellous review piece on a whole raft of books about the role and importance (or lack thereof) of poetry. I was struck by this para:
One of [Ben] Lerner’s chief examples of misplaced expectations for poetry is what he calls “nostalgia for a poetry that could supposedly reconcile the individual and the social, and so transform millions of individuals into an authentic People.” He says that this kind of poetry never existed. To which there is a one-word response: Dante. The Divine Comedy is a first-person poem about a man who suffers a crisis (“I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost”), which he resolves by undertaking an imaginary journey that he pretends has been made possible by the soul of a dead woman he loved. That poem, written in the vernacular in the fourteenth century, is still at the heart of national identity in Italy. As the Iliad and the Odyssey were for ancient Greece, and as the Aeneid was for Rome.
Towards the end of the piece Menand quotes from a poem by Frederick Seidel in a post-election collection of 50 poems edited by Amit Majmudar. This is how it goes:
And you could say we’ve been living in clover
From Walt Whitman to Barack Obama
Now a dictatorship of vicious spineless slimes
We the people voted in has taken over.
Once we’d abolished slavery, we lived in clover,
From sea to shining sea, even in terrible times.
This morning’s Observer column:
One of the stranger sights of June was watching the titans of Silicon Valley meekly obeying Trump’s summons to a tech summit (dubbed his American Technology Council) at the White House… Some attendees looked pretty sheepish, as well they might. Many, if not most of them, abhor everything the president stands for. The meeting, as with many of Trump’s other round-table assemblies, brought to mind footage of Saddam Hussein’s cabinet in session. But while it was clear that many of those present would have preferred to have been elsewhere, they were also chary of being seen to snub a populist hero. So the aphrodisiac effect of power was much in evidence.
For politically-savvy observers, the delicious irony was that many of the tech crowd were known Democrat supporters and donors. We’ve known this for a while…