Ring, ring: the stalker’s here.

This morning’s Observer column:

Standing on a tube platform the other day, I found myself looking at a huge ad for the Nest Hello, “the doorbell you’ve been waiting for”. Apparently, “it makes other doorbells seem like dumbbells”. That’s because it “lets you know who’s there, so you never miss a thing. It replaces your existing wired doorbell and delivers HD video and bright, crisp images, even at night. It’s designed to show you everything on your doorstep – people head to toe or packages on the ground. And with 24/7 streaming, you can check in any time. Or go back and look at a three-hour snapshot history to see what happened.”

The Nest doorbell fits neatly into the emerging narrative of networked devices that will make your home “smarter”. The company already markets the Nest Learning Thermostat – “an electronic, programmable and self-learning wifi-enabled thermostat that optimises heating and cooling of homes and businesses to conserve energy”. It’ll go nicely with your networked lightbulbs, your Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod or Google Home.

The industry’s spiel for having all these networked devices in your home is, of course, that they make your life easier…

Read on

Implications of Facebook’s changed newsfeed curation algorithms

Interesting piece in *Slate about the impact of news publishers of Facebook’s new-found desire to escape from news.

Slate — yes, the publication you’re reading right now — got more than 85 million clicks that originated from external sites and apps in January 2017 alone. Almost a third of them — 28 million—came from Facebook. That was more than any other single outside traffic source. Other online publications with a political focus, such as Vox and Politico, posted similarly blockbuster numbers.

It was, in retrospect, the zenith of Facebook’s influence over the news industry. Starting in about 2013, when the social network began prioritizing actual news in users’ news feed rankings—the order in which posts appear when you scroll through its app or site—Facebook had grown increasingly critical to many media outlets’ business, for better or worse. Every visitor the social network sent to an outlet’s pages translated to much-needed ad views. And it sent so many that newsrooms remolded their editorial strategies to maximize clicks, likes, and shares on Facebook. For less scrupulous publishers, that sometimes meant sensationalizing headlines or framing stories in ways that pandered to people’s biases—a trend that Facebook tried to combat algorithmically, with limited success. By August 2016, the New York Timess’ John Herrman wrote that Facebook had “centralized online news consumption in an unprecedented way,” shaping how the public perceived politics by determining which stories they’d see in their feeds. And by 2017, some antitrust thinkers concerned with its centrality to the news business were calling for Facebook to be regulated as a monopoly.

Zuckerberg’s monster

My Observer review of Siva Vaidhyanathan’s Anti-social Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy:

The best metaphor for Facebook is the monster created by Dr Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s story shows how, as Fiona Sampson put it in a recent Guardian article, “aspiration and progress are indistinguishable from hubris – until something goes wrong, when suddenly we see all too clearly what was reasonable endeavour and what overreaching”. There are clear echoes of this in the evolution of Facebook. “It’s a story”, writes Siva Vaidhyanathan in this excellent critique, “of the hubris of good intentions, a missionary spirit and an ideology that sees computer code as the universal solvent for all human problems. And it’s an indictment of how social media has fostered the deterioration of democratic and intellectual culture around the world.”

Facebook was founded by an undergraduate with good intentions but little understanding of human nature. He thought that by creating a machine for “connecting” people he might do some good for the world while also making himself some money. He wound up creating a corporate monster that is failing spectacularly at the former but succeeding brilliantly at the latter. Facebook is undermining democracy at the same time as it is making Mark Zuckerberg richer than Croesus. And it is now clear that this monster, like Dr Frankenstein’s, is beyond its creator’s control…

Read on

Why surveillance techology is usually better than we realise

This morning’s Observer column:

The images of the moon’s surface coming down from the orbiters were of astonishingly high resolution, good enough to blow up to 40ftx54ft pictures. When Nasa engineers initially stitched the images together they had to hang them in a church to view them. Eventually, they found a hangar where they could be laid on the ground for astronauts to walk on them in stockinged feet in order to search for suitable landing sites. Sign up for Lab Notes – the Guardian’s weekly science update Read more

For decades, nobody outside of Nasa and the US military knew how good these images were. The few that were released for public consumption were heavily degraded and fuzzy. Why? Because the cameras used in the lunar orbiters were derivatives of the cameras used in high-altitude US aerial reconnaissance planes and satellites and the Pentagon didn’t want the Soviets to know the level of detail that could be derived from them.

In a way, we shouldn’t be surprised by this revelation. It’s an old story: powerful states have often possessed more sophisticated surveillance technology than their adversaries – or their citizens – knew or suspected…

Read on

The madness of neoliberalism

This is from the front page of today’s Financial Times. It’s a vivid demonstration of what happens to governments when they have imbided an ideology that says that when there is a choice between the state providing a service or outsourcing it to a private company, then it’s always best to do the latter.

Here’s the nub of this particular act of folly:

As a result, fire services at 69 RAF bases will be outsourced to the riskiest company available.

Confirms my definition of ideology as “what determines how you think when you don’t know you’re thinking”.

Autocracy 2.0

Further to the previous post and the erosion (if not yet the implosion) of the post-war world order, another significant shift lies in the rise of new kinds of autocracies. In the post-war era, democracies were generally much more prosperous and better governed than autocracies, most of which were disaster zones. The Soviet Union was full of shops that had nothing to sell and citizens queueing for hours to buy consumer goods and even bread. And — just in case they were minded to try their luck elsewhere — they were locked behind an Iron Curtain that kept them from fleeing to the West. (Cue images of the Berlin Wall.) I remember the occasional visitor from the Soviet bloc arriving in Cambridge and being transfixed by a visit to Sainsburys. China was a backward country that had just recovered from a major famine and Maoist madness. Albania and Romania and even Poland were backward dystopias. Ethiopia was a byword for famine, suffering and death. And so on.

But now? Here’s Tyler Cowen’s take on it:

Since that time, governance in those regions has become much, much better, even though China, Ethiopia and Russia still are not democracies in the Western sense. China for instance has built one of the world’s most impressive economic growth miracles ever, with the Communist Party still firmly in power. Ethiopia is coming off of some years of double-digit economic growth and is developing its manufacturing. Yet the country is autocratic and has a history of censoring the internet. Putin rules Russia with a firm hand, but today consumer goods of virtually all kinds are widely available and most Russians are free to leave whenever they want.

What led to these beneficial changes? In the 1970s and 1980s, it was a common view that if authoritarian or totalitarian regimes liberalized, it would bring an end to their rule. The collapse of Soviet and Eastern European communism over 1989-1992 seemed consistent with this prediction, as perestroika and relaxed travel restrictions caused those regimes to implode.

But maybe that was wishful thinking on our part. Tyler says that modern autocrats — most of all in China — have found ways of both liberalizing and staying in power.

The good news is that people living under authoritarian governments have much, much better lives than before. The corresponding bad news is that autocracy works better than it used to and thus it is more popular and probably also more enduring. The notion that autocratic government would fade away, either in practice or as an ideological competitor to Western liberalism, simply isn’t tenable any more.

The basic message, therefore, might be this: autocracy works! For most of us liberals, this is an appalling thought. But since most people are not much interested in politics — or perhaps in free speech, judicial independence, the rule of law, etc. — so long as the system delivers jobs, economic growth and public order then that’s good enough for them.

Present at the Destruction

Reflecting on Trump’s decision to walk away from the G7 Summit at Charlevoix without signing the joint communique, the New Yorker‘s George Packer was reminded of an earlier era:

Dean Acheson, President Truman’s Secretary of State, called his autobiography Present at the Creation. The title referred to the task that confronted American leaders at the end of the Second World War and the start of the Cold War, which was “just a bit less formidable than that described in the first chapter of Genesis,” Acheson wrote. “That was to create a world out of chaos; ours, to create half a world, a free half, out of the same material without blowing the whole to pieces in the process.” A network of institutions and alliances—the United Nations, Nato, the international monetary system, and others— became the foundation for “the rules-based international order” that the leaders in Charlevoix saluted. It imposed restraints on the power politics that had nearly destroyed the world. It was a liberal order, based on coöperation among countries and respect for individual rights, and it was created and upheld by the world’s leading liberal democracy. America’s goals weren’t selfless, and we often failed to live up to our stated principles. Power politics didn’t disappear from the planet, but the system endured, flawed and adaptable, for seventy years.

“In four days, between Quebec and Singapore”, Packer continues,

Trump showed that the liberal order is hateful to him, and that he wants out. Its rules are too confining, its web of connections—from trade treaties to security alliances—unfair. And he seems to find his democratic counterparts distasteful, even pathetic. They speak in high-minded rhetoric rather than in Twitter insults, they’re emasculated by parliaments and by the press, and maybe they’re not very funny. Trump prefers the company of dictators who can flatter and be flattered. Part of his unhappiness in Quebec was due to the absence of President Vladimir Putin; before leaving for the summit, Trump had demanded that Russia be unconditionally restored to the G-7, from which it was suspended over the dismemberment of Ukraine. He finds nothing special about democratic values, and nothing objectionable about murderous rulers. “What, you think our country is so innocent?” he once asked.

This is an exceedingly prescient article. It highlights the wilful blindness of many commentators who are outraged by what is happening — particularly the disintegration of the post-war, US-designed, ‘liberal’ world order which enabled societies (at any rate the West) to recover from the trauma of the second world war and enjoy a period of relative peace and prosperity. Almost everything we see now — the growing difficulties of the EU as it grapples with the increasingly illiberal regimes in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Trump’s ‘America First’ obsessions, the rise of China, Putin’s triumphalism, etc. — suggests a reversion to a world dominated by old-style power-politics.

The liberal game is over, in other words. Although I am/was a beneficiary of it (like many members of various Western elites) I was never an unqualified admirer of it. From the 1970s onwards, it was really a system for making the world ready for neoliberalism, with all the inequality and injustice that that implied. But maybe, pace Churchill, it was the least bad of the available alternatives.

The challenge now is to see if there is a creative side to the destruction of Acheson’s creation.

Censorship 2.0

This morning’s Observer column:

One of the axioms of the early internet was an observation made by John Gilmore, a libertarian geek who was one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The internet,” said Gilmore, “interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” To lay people this was probably unintelligible, but it spoke eloquently to geeks, to whom it meant that the architecture of the network would make it impossible to censor it. A forbidden message would always find a route through to its destination.

Gilmore’s adage became a key part of the techno-utopian creed in the 1980s and early 1990s. It suggested that neither the state nor the corporate world would be able to censor cyberspace. The unmistakable inference was that the internet posed an existential threat to authoritarian regimes, for whom control of information is an essential requirement for holding on to power.

In the analogue world, censorship was relatively straightforward…

Read on

US diplomacy, 2018-style

From the Washington Post:

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who spoke with Trump as he flew home from Singapore on Air Force One, said the president was simply being his natural “salesman” self.

“He is selling condos, that’s what he is doing,” Graham said. “He’s approaching North Korea as a distressed property with a cash-flow problem. Here’s how we can fix it.”

In a news conference Tuesday before departing Singapore, Trump hinted at his dreams of real estate diplomacy, noting that he had played Kim a video — derided by some as more akin to North Korean propaganda than the work of the president’s National Security Council — to show him the possibilities of a deal with the West.

“As an example, they have great beaches,” Trump said. “You see that whenever they’re exploding their cannons into the ocean, right? I said, ‘Boy, look at the view. Wouldn’t that make a great condo behind?’ ”

The AT&T judgment shows how how far US antitrust law has drifted

In today’s FT, the paper’s US Editor trumpets the Circuit Court’s approval of the AT&T-Time-Warner merger as evidence of the resilience of the judicial system in the face of Trump’s aggression. (He has regularly spouted his opposition to the deal.) But Tim Wu sees it more of a confirmation of how far antitrust law and judicial interpretation has drifted from the original determination of Congress to prevent corporate agglomeration.

When Congress enacted the Anti-Merger Act of 1950, the law by which American courts still adjudge corporate mergers, it did so with the repeatedly stated goal of fighting excessive economic concentration. The “dominant” concern, as the Supreme Court wrote in a 1962 merger case that analyzed the law, was about “a rising tide of economic concentration in the American economy.” At the time, the court explained, a wave of corporate consolidation posed the threat of an “accelerated concentration of economic power” and also a “threat to other values,” like the independence of smaller businesses and local control of industry. In particular Congress had said it intended the new law to stop a wave of mergers in its “incipiency.”

That’s why, for the 1950 Congress, the law would surely have allowed the Justice Department to block the recent AT&T-Time Warner merger. The merger, which a federal judge approved on Tuesday, combines AT&T, the nation’s largest wireless provider and a major seller of pay TV, with Time Warner, one of the most powerful media companies, in an $85 billion deal. No one can deny that the new AT&T will have more economic power and also more political power than before, even as it now carries more debt ($181 billion) than many industrialized nations. The ruling, by Judge Richard J. Leon of United States District Court in Washington, implicitly encourages the rest of the industry to integrate as well, and AT&T’s comrades have taken the hint: Comcast has already announced its intent to acquire much of 20th Century Fox, while other deals are said to be imminent.

Judge Leon’s decision shows just how far the law has wandered from congressional intent. The law has become a license for near-uncontrolled consolidation and concentration in almost every sector of economy. Whether involving airlines, hospitals, the pharmaceutical industry, cable television or the major tech platforms, mergers leading to oligopolies or monopolies have become commonplace…

Yep.