Why (and how) journalism has to change

This morning’s Observer column:

Let us pause for a moment to mourn the passing of Hans Rosling , one of the most gifted and humane educators of our age. He was professor of global health at Sweden’s prestigious Karolinska Institute and became famous when he gave a spectacular TED talk in 2006 using global data to show how the world had changed during the 20th century. Rosling specialised in devising striking ways of visualising statistical data and in using computers to provide animations showing, for example, how child mortality, family income and so on changed over time. But what probably clinched his fame was the way he talked his audience through the evolving worldview with a manic energy reminiscent of Newsnight’s Peter Snow and his general election night “swingometer”.

Rosling’s untimely death (from cancer) seems particularly poignant at this moment in our history, because he was such a fervent believer in the idea that we could find illumination, if not salvation, in facts. In that respect, he reminded me of the late David MacKay, another gentle polymath, who was for a time the chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change. At a lecture following the publication of his book, Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, he was assailed by an angry environmentalist who asked him why he was “so hostile” to wind power. MacKay smiled sweetly and replied: “I’m not hostile to anything. I’m just in favour of arithmetic.”

I thought about Rosling and MacKay a lot last week as the “fake news” crisis deepened…

Read on

The real problem with Trump

A while back I looked up the Mayo Clinic’s list of the symptoms and causes of ‘Antisocial Personality Disorder’ (aka sociopathy). Here are some of them:

  • Disregard for right and wrong
  • Persistent lying or deceit to exploit others
  • Being callous, cynical and disrespectful of others
  • Using charm or wit to manipulate others for personal gain or personal pleasure
  • Arrogance, a sense of superiority and being extremely opinionated
  • Recurring problems with the law, including criminal behavior
  • Repeatedly violating the rights of others through intimidation and dishonesty
  • Impulsiveness or failure to plan ahead
  • Hostility, significant irritability, agitation, aggression or violence
  • Lack of empathy for others and lack of remorse about harming others

What was striking about the list, I thought, is how many of the boxes Trump seemed to tick. What was even more striking, though, was that there seemed to be no mention of this in the mainstream media. In part this was probably due to the reluctance of the American professional associations to get involved in the remote diagnosis of prominent public figures. But still, given Trump’s extraordinary behaviour, the absence of discussion of the president’s mental health seemed odd.

Which is why I was pleased to see that Andrew Sullivan has ventured where others apparently fear to tread. Here’s an excerpt from his new column, entitled “The Madness of King Donald”.

Then there is the obvious question of the president’s mental and psychological health. I know we’re not supposed to bring this up — but it is staring us brutally in the face. I keep asking myself this simple question: If you came across someone in your everyday life who repeatedly said fantastically and demonstrably untrue things, what would you think of him? If you showed up at a neighbor’s, say, and your host showed you his newly painted living room, which was a deep blue, and then insisted repeatedly — manically — that it was a lovely shade of scarlet, what would your reaction be? If he then dragged out a member of his family and insisted she repeat this obvious untruth in front of you, how would you respond? If the next time you dropped by, he was still raving about his gorgeous new red walls, what would you think? Here’s what I’d think: This man is off his rocker. He’s deranged; he’s bizarrely living in an alternative universe; he’s delusional. If he kept this up, at some point you’d excuse yourself and edge slowly out of the room and the house and never return. You’d warn your other neighbors. You’d keep your distance. If you saw him, you’d be polite but keep your distance.

I think this is a fundamental reason why so many of us have been so unsettled, anxious, and near panic these past few months. It is not so much this president’s agenda. That always changes from administration to administration. It is that when the linchpin of an entire country is literally delusional, clinically deceptive, and responds to any attempt to correct the record with rage and vengeance, everyone is always on edge.

There is no anchor any more. At the core of the administration of the most powerful country on earth, there is, instead, madness.

Yep.

The education gap and its implications

In October last year, my colleague David Runciman wrote a sobering piece in the Guardian under the headline “How the education gap is tearing politics apart”. His starting point was an observation in The Atlantic in March 2015 that the best single predictor of Trump support in the Republican primary was the absence of a college degree.

“The possibility that education has become a fundamental divide in democracy”, he wrote,

with the educated on one side and the less educated on another – is an alarming prospect. It points to a deep alienation that cuts both ways. The less educated fear they are being governed by intellectual snobs who know nothing of their lives and experiences. The educated fear their fate may be decided by know-nothings who are ignorant of how the world really works. Bringing the two sides together is going to be very hard. The current election season appears to be doing the opposite.

Trump continues to poll far ahead of Clinton among voters who did not go to college, while Clinton still leads by a considerable margin among college graduates. This is a significant change from 2012, when the picture was far more mixed. Four years ago, the college-educated vote was almost evenly split, with graduates favouring Obama over Romney by a narrow margin, 50 to 48. Recent polling puts Trump’s lead over Clinton among white men without a college degree at a sobering 76 to 19.

Turning then to Brexit, David observed that:

Voters with postgraduate qualifications split 75 to 25 in favour of remain. Meanwhile, among those who left school without any qualifications, the vote was almost exactly reversed: 73 to 27 for leave. A report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last month confirmed that “educational opportunity was the strongest driver” of the Brexit vote. Again, there were plenty of other factors at work – including a significant generational divide. Older voters were far more likely to vote leave, which partly helps to explain the education gap, since the rapid expansion of higher education in recent decades means older voters are also much less likely to have attended university. But the Rowntree report concludes that educational experience was the biggest single determinant of how people voted. Class still matters. Age still matters. But education appears to matter more.

Now from the BBC comes a more localised breakdown of votes from nearly half of the local authorities which counted EU referendum ballots last June. Among the findings are:

  • Confirmation that local results were strongly associated with the educational attainment of voters – populations with lower qualifications were significantly more likely to vote Leave. (The data for this analysis comes from one in nine wards); and

  • The level of education had a higher correlation with the voting pattern than any other major demographic measure from the census.

And if you wanted a vivid graph of this, here’s the correlation diagram:

This is really sobering stuff. It shows, in a picture, why a failure to invest in education and tackle educational underachievement eventually imposes massive social costs (possibly including the breakdown of democracy). It’s not rocket science, either. In an information economy, people who are poorly educated are always going to find it hard to find employment. And when they do it will be in precarious, exploitative, under-paid jobs. No wonder they voted the way they did — for the first charlatan who came along and said he could fix it.

Understanding what happened

From an extraordinary essay by Jedediah Purdy in The New Republic:

We know from our everyday lives that much of our decision-making is not entirely rational. But Trump has played on a deep sense of unreality about the political process. His candidacy reflected the peculiar idea that someone “strong” and “smart” could singlehandedly master a complex world, untangle the politics of the Middle East and the South China Sea, renegotiate trade agreements, and see behind the obfuscations of intelligence agencies. This is a bizarre view of what it means to act in politics. It combines the epistemic amateurism of the conspiracy theorist with the virtual self-assertion of a first-person-shooter video game. It is an approach to politics tailored to people for whom politics is a domain of fantasy.

And this:

It is perfectly clear that both economic inequality and racism fueled support for Trump. Only the left is equipped to explain how these two factors are entangled, by looking at the experience of life under capitalism. In this economy, most people lack important forms of security and control over their lives. They answer to bosses, who answer to investors, who answer to global flows of goods and capital. As Marx pointed out long ago, the system assigns the roles, and people fill them. An investor need not be a greedy person, nor a boss a bossy one; but if they do not maximize returns in the face of competition, they will be replaced by someone who will try harder, so they had better be prepared to act greedy, or bossy, or—in the case of the line worker—diligent and subservient.

When no one talks about how the system itself produces economic insecurity and a loss of control, scapegoating falls on the groups and individuals closest at hand. Immigrants particularly get scapegoated because often they are willing to take low-paying jobs or lack legal authorization to work. When no one in politics talks about brutal economic realities—including a merciless and de-unionized labor market, the unfettered mobility of capital, and the investor-driven imperative to squeeze every possible “efficiency” out of people—then your competitor for wages on the building site becomes the only economic rival you can actually see. Racism and xenophobia are not merely symptoms of economic anxiety, and are not to be morally or politically excused on account of hard times. But they are likely to be stronger and more politically effective when there appears to be no other way for people to address their sense of helplessness.

Why fake news won’t be easy to fix

This morning’s Observer column:

The debate about “fake news” and the “post-truth” society we now supposedly inhabit has become the epistemological version of a feeding frenzy: so much heat, so little light. Two things about it are particularly infuriating. The first is the implicit assumption that “truth” is somehow a straightforward thing and our problem is that we just can’t be bothered any more to find it. The second is the failure to appreciate that the profitability, if not the entire business model, of both Google and Facebook depends critically on them not taking responsibility for what passes through their servers. So hoping that these companies will somehow fix the problem is like persuading turkeys to look forward to Christmas…

Read

Why AI Home Assistants Need a Screen

From MIT Technology Review:

You may control your home with your voice, but having it speak back is often impractical. Asking Amazon’s Alexa to play a specific song, for instance, is a joy. But if you’re not sure what to listen to, the voice-only system can feel limiting. At the same time, voice assistant apps grow in number but go unused because people simply forget about them. Speaking to the [Tech Review] Download, Andrew Ng, chief scientist at Baidu, explained that, while a 2016 study by Stanford researchers and his own team showed that speech input is three times quicker than typing on mobile devices, “the fastest way for a machine to get information to you is via a screen.” He continued: “Say you want to order takeout. Imagine a voice that reads out: ‘Here are the top twenty restaurants in your area. Number one …’ This would be insanely slow!” No surprise, then, that Baidu has been working on a smart assistant device called Little Fish that includes a screen, and Amazon is also rumored to be developing a similar piece of hardware. The AI assistant revolution, it seems, may be televised.

Yep. My experience with Amazon Echo chimes with this.

Trump’s numbers

Here’s a neat idea — an online petition opposing the idea of a State Visit to the UK for Trump as pathetically proffered by Theresa May. Note that it doesn’t rule out the idea of Trump coming on an ordinary visit (for example for a NATO meeting) — just that the Queen shouldn’t be involved. As I write 1,438,415 people – plus me — have signed it. It’ll be 1.5m by the time you read this. The Petition site also has a nice ‘heat map’ showing the geolocation of the signatories.

Oh — and wouldn’t it be interesting to see if this heat map inversely correlates with the equivalent map for Brexit support? I’m sure some talented data-wrangler is already at work on this.

LATER They were! The Economist has published this correlation chart:

It also summarises the inferences one can draw from it.

This tells us several things. First, geographical patterns of opposition to Mr Trump in America may well be reflected in other countries too. Second, the demographics of his support and support for Brexit speak to similarities between the two phenomena (their “pull up the drawbridge” character in particular). Third, Britain’s divide over Brexit was not a one-off: the political behaviour of cosmopolitan places and nativist ones remains quite distinct. And fourth: there are many thousands of British people, many of them living in or near the capital, who may be minded to line the streets, protest and generally cause disruption when Mr Trump comes to London. He should not expect a warm welcome.

Many thanks to Philip Cunningham for spotting the chart.

The privacy vs secrecy question properly framed

This neat formulation from a 2014 essay by Shoshanna Zuboff:

We often hear that our privacy rights have been eroded and secrecy has grown. But that way of framing things obscures what’s really at stake. Privacy hasn’t been eroded. It’s been expropriated. The difference in framing provides new ways to define the problem and consider solutions.

In the conventional telling, privacy and secrecy are treated as opposites. In fact, one is a cause and the other is an effect. Exercising our right to privacy leads to choice. We can choose to keep something secret or to share it, but we only have that choice when we first have privacy. Privacy rights confer decision rights. Privacy lets us decide where we want to be on the spectrum between secrecy and transparency in each situation. Secrecy is the effect; privacy is the cause.

I suggest that privacy rights have not been eroded, if anything they’ve multiplied. The difference now is how these rights are distributed. Instead of many people having some privacy rights, nearly all the rights have been concentrated in the hands of a few. On the one hand, we have lost the ability to choose what we keep secret, and what we share. On the other, Google, the NSA, and others in the new zone have accumulated privacy rights. How? Most of their rights have come from taking ours without asking. But they also manufactured new rights for themselves, the way a forger might print currency. They assert a right to privacy with respect to their surveillance tactics and then exercise their choice to keep those tactics secret.

We need more writing like this. On the phony ‘privacy vs security’ question, for example.

As George Lakoff pointed out many years ago (but only right-wingers listened), creative framing is the way to win both arguments and votes.

No more magical thinking about Trump

And while we’re on the subject, there’s a terrific piece by Eliot Cohen in The Atlantic.

“I am not surprised by President Donald Trump’s antics this week’, he writes.

Not by the big splashy pronouncements such as announcing a wall that he would force Mexico to pay for, even as the Mexican foreign minister held talks with American officials in Washington. Not by the quiet, but no less dangerous bureaucratic orders, such as kicking the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff out of meetings of the Principals’ Committee, the senior foreign-policy decision-making group below the president, while inserting his chief ideologist, Steve Bannon, into them. Many conservative foreign-policy and national-security experts saw the dangers last spring and summer, which is why we signed letters denouncing not Trump’s policies but his temperament; not his program but his character.

Yep: temperament and character. Or, to use a technical term, sociopathic.

In an epic week beginning with a dark and divisive inaugural speech, extraordinary attacks on a free press, a visit to the CIA that dishonored a monument to anonymous heroes who paid the ultimate price, and now an attempt to ban selected groups of Muslims (including interpreters who served with our forces in Iraq and those with green cards, though not those from countries with Trump hotels, or from really indispensable states like Saudi Arabia), he has lived down to expectations.

And because it’s caused by temperament and character, it’s not going to get better. Au contraire we ain’t seen nothing yet.

It will get worse, as power intoxicates Trump and those around him. It will probably end in calamity—substantial domestic protest and violence, a breakdown of international economic relationships, the collapse of major alliances, or perhaps one or more new wars (even with China) on top of the ones we already have. It will not be surprising in the slightest if his term ends not in four or in eight years, but sooner, with impeachment or removal under the 25th Amendment. The sooner Americans get used to these likelihoods, the better.

Theresa May, please copy.

A modest proposal for the Silicon Valley crowd

Well, well. Looks like the Silicon Valley crowd are having to wise up about the threat of Trump to their interests. The New York Times claims in a headline that “Silicon Valley’s Ambivalence Toward Trump Turns to Anger”.

On Friday morning, Silicon Valley was largely ambivalent about President Trump. The software programmers, marketing experts and chief executives might not have voted for him, but they were hopeful about finding common ground with the new administration.

By Saturday night, much of that optimism had yielded to anger and determination.

Mr. Trump’s executive order late on Friday temporarily blocked all refugees while also denying entry to citizens of Iran, Iraq and five other predominantly Muslim countries. The directives struck at the heart of Silicon Valley’s cherished values, its fabled history and, not least, its embrace-the-world approach to customers. Two worldviews collided: the mantra of globalization that underpins the advance of technology and the nationalistic agenda of the new administration.

In response, a significant part of the tech community went to the barricades.

All of which is good news. But what’s this? Another piece in the same issue with the headline “Google, in Post-Obama Era, Aggressively Woos Republicans”.

Few companies have been as intimately tied to the Democratic Party in recent years as Google. So now that Donald J. Trump is president, the giant company, in Silicon Valley parlance, is having to pivot.

The shift was evident a day after Congress began its new session this month. That evening, about 70 lawmakers, a majority of them Republicans, were feted at the stately Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, where they clinked champagne and bourbon glasses and posed for selfies with the 600 guests assembled in their honor.

The event’s main host was not from the Republican establishment. Instead, the party was primarily financed and anchored by Google.

“We’ve partnered with Google on events before, but nothing like this party,” said Alex Skatell, founder of The Independent Journal Review, a news start-up with a right-leaning millennial audience, which also helped host the event. “I’ve never heard of an event as big.”

The chief schmoozer, naturally, is none other than Google’s Executive Chairmam, Eric Schmidt. He’s decided that the thing to do is to adopt the Theresa May strategy — cozy up to the monster in the hope that he won’t be nasty to you.

What’s astonishing in both pieces is now naive the Silicon Valley crowd are about power. What they’ve been trying to do is what is technically called appeasement. Britain tried it with Hitler in the 1930s. And guess what?

So here’s a helpful suggestion for them. Print out Winston Churchill’s famous definition of appeasement as “Being nice to a crocodile in the hope that he will eat you last” in 95-point Helvetica Bold and hang it over your desk.