I bought an Apple watch a few weeks ago. “It’ll take a while to get used to it”, a friend said to me, and he was right. My expectations were low, based on previous experiences with so-called smartwatches, which were generally flaky. But because I have a policy of not writing about stuff that I don’t actually own, I bought the cheapest, and, as I thought, the least ostentatious, version of the Apple device.


Well, it grows on one. The battery life is better than I expected (and it charges quickly). The interface works. Most importantly, the linking with the iPhone is really seamless. What infuriated me about, say, the Pebble watch, was the flakiness of the ‘notifications’ system. It turns out that the main reason I want a smartwatch is so that it stops me having to take my phone out of my pocket all the time. The Pebble failed miserably in that regard, whereas the iWatch is excellent for that. When a message comes in, all it takes is a glance to identify the sender — and therefore to know whether it needs attention or not.

Apart from Quentin’s commentary, the most insightful comments on the watch that I’ve come across are by Ben Evans. For example:

Reading the Watch’s launch reviews, I sometimes got the sense that the tech press was writing about it as though the luxury goods industry didn’t exist and that the luxury press was writing as though technology didn’t exist: no-one spends money on things because they’re just nice and no-one buys things that don’t last forever. The gold version brought this out best – a tech product that’s $10,000 but has the same spec as the $350 one – heresy! And a gold watch that probably doesn’t last a lifetime – again, heresy! But all rules can be broken with the right product – that’s how progress happens. Meanwhile, the irony is that it’s not actually the gold that’s the luxury but the software – that tap on the wrist telling you to turn left. In a sense, the gold case is an accessory to the software in the same way that the strap is an accessory to the watch.

Spot on. Smartwatches are unlikely ever to be ‘must-have’ devices. They are luxuries.

The lessons of (computer) error

This morning’s Observer column:

A few years ago, I received a speeding ticket from the Metropolitan police claiming that a speed-camera in London had photographed my car – citing the correct registration number of the vehicle – doing 43mph in a 30mph zone. Most people would, I guess, be distressed by receiving such a communication. Your columnist, however, was perversely delighted – because it offered him the opportunity of not only irritating the cops but also of making an important point about the dangers of being overly dependent on technology.

The reason for my glee was that the car had definitely not been at the location specified on the speeding ticket at the time and I could prove that using the same technology that the Met had used in order to frame me. My family and I had been out of the UK in the week in question and the car was parked at Stansted airport, where its arrival and departure at the mid-stay car park were logged by the automated numberplate recognition technology that the airport authorities had recently installed.

Accordingly, I wrote to the commissioner of the Metropolitan police enclosing a copy of the speeding ticket and saying that I would be very interested to see what evidence he had in support of it, adding that I intended to contest it on the grounds that I could prove my car had been nowhere near the location at the time. But my hopes for a bloody good row were dashed within a fortnight: a computer-generated notice arrived, informing me that the speeding ticket had been cancelled. No explanation; no apology; nothing…

Read on.

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make acquiescent

One of the great puzzles of our time (for me at least) is the pervasive passive acquiescence of populations in Western democracies in what has been happening to society — and being done to ordinary people. Why did the economic catastrophe brought about by the madness and greed of the banking industry not lead to revolutionary outrage? Why did the Occupy movement in the end turn out to have such little purchase? Why did Syriza come in with a bang and surrender with such a whimper? And why are people so accepting of the abuses of state and corporate surveillance?

One of the most interesting explorations of this phenomenon is a new book, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power by Steve Fraser. It’s already had a few thoughtful reviews — for example Jill Lepore’s essay in the New Yorker. “To chronicle the rise of acquiescence”, Lepore writes,

Fraser examines two differences between the long nineteenth century and today. “The first Gilded Age, despite its glaring inequities, was accompanied by a gradual rise in the standard of living; the second by a gradual erosion,” he writes. In the first Gilded Age, everyone from reporters to politicians apparently felt comfortable painting plutocrats as villains; in the second, this is, somehow, forbidden. “If the first Gilded Age was full of sound and fury,” he writes, “the second seemed to take place in a padded cell.” Fraser argues that while Progressive Era muckrakers ended the first Gilded Age by drawing on an age-old tradition of dissent to criticize prevailing economic, social, and political arrangements, today’s left doesn’t engage in dissent; it engages in consent, urging solutions that align with neoliberalism, technological determinism, and global capitalism: “Environmental despoiling arouses righteous eating; cultural decay inspires charter schools; rebellion against work becomes work as a form of rebellion; old-form anticlericalism morphs into the piety of the secular; the break with convention ends up as the politics of style; the cri de coeur against alienation surrenders to the triumph of the solitary; the marriage of political and cultural radicalism ends in divorce.” Why not blame the financial industry? Why not blame the Congress that deregulated it? Why not blame the system itself? Because, Fraser argues, the left has been cowed into silence on the main subject at hand: “What we could not do, what was not even speakable, was to tamper with the basic institutions of financial capitalism.”

Now, in Dissent Rich Yeselson muses on the same paradox.

The moment of resistance to capitalism in its period of violent gestation is now gone; the defense of a then still vibrant moral economy has ended. His evocative prose grows more abstract as he lacks a narrative of conflict to hang it on. He presents three “fables of freedom” that serve as ballasts of the current order: the addiction to consumption; the odd deification of high-tech titans and even criminal investment bankers as anti-establishment rebels; and the fantasy of the “free agent,” the independent contractor liberated from the constraints of security, benefits, and community.

In an Observer column a while back, I pondered possible explanations for apparent acquiescence in corporate surveillance. One is that people simply have no idea what’s going on. This seems to me to be unduly patronising: it assumes that most people are clueless idiots. Another possible explanation is that people really value the ‘free’ services they get in return for sacrificing their privacy.

And then I hit on an interesting piece of research done by researchers in the University of Pennsylvania in conjunction with the PEW Internet and American Life project. They polled a representative survey of 1,500 US internet users to see what they thought about surveillance-driven business models. They concluded that internet companies are misrepresenting a large majority of Americans by claiming that people give out information about themselves as a trade-off for benefits they receive.

The findings also suggest that users’ willingness to provide personal information to web services cannot be explained by ignorance. Instead, the researchers propose a different explanation – that

a majority of Americans are resigned to giving up their data – and that is why many appear to be engaging in trade-offs. Resignation occurs when a person believes an undesirable outcome is inevitable and feels powerless to stop it. Rather than feeling able to make choices, Americans believe it is futile to manage what companies can learn about them. Our study reveals that more than half do not want to lose control over their information but also believe this loss of control has already happened.

If this is really what’s going on, we have arrived at a very strange place indeed – a neoliberal paradise in which people display the kind of passive resignation Václav Havel observed in Czechoslovakia under Soviet rule and analysed in his great essay The Power of the Powerless. “Human beings are compelled to live within a lie,” Havel wrote, “but they can be compelled to do so only because they are in fact capable of living in this way.”

Has it really come to this?

Brooding on this, I wondered what a serious pushback might be like. Hacktivism is one possible avenue. The trouble is that you need technical nous to do it seriously, and most people don’t possess that kind of expertise. Also it can have serious personal downsides, like infringing the Computer Misuse Act, for example.

But there is another kind of activism that doesn’t require any expertise. It just requires an act of will. It is that of boycotting services that one regards as exploitative. If a few million people in Britain and elsewhere boycotted Facebook then the impact would be significant, both in terms of breaking the spell of resigned acquiescence, and also in sending a signal to the corporation (and, more particularly, its board of directors) that perhaps their exploitative and manipulative practices might, in the long run, be damaging to shareholder value. After all, if the illusion of inexorable growth is challenged, then valuations will fall. Look, for example, at current Wall Street concern about the slowing down of Twitter’s growth. And if valuations start to fall, then the fiduciary duties of directors will come into play.

In a way, it’s like judo: using the opponent’s strength against him. Richard Stallman did it with copyright law — he used it to protect the right of programmers to give stuff away on condition that anyone who used their stuff had also to give it away on the same conditions. He called it Copyleft.

It’s the technique the Guardian has used in its climate change campaign. The paper fastened on a simple idea that anybody could understand: that if we extract and burn all the fossil reserves on earth then we will generate enough global warming to fry the planet several times over. So: leave those reserves in the ground. And campaign for disinvestment in companies which still have plans to extract fossil reserves.

Since disinvestment by serious outfits like pension funds will have the impact of reducing share prices (and therefore ‘shareholder value’), directors of such companies suddenly had a fiduciary duty to take an interest in what their companies are doing — which may lead them to conclude that protecting the shareholder interest may involve getting out of fossil fuel extraction.

We could use a similar approach with Facebook, Google & Co.

Alphabetical order

Google’s decision to morph into Alphabet — i.e. a holding company which has one enormously profitable cash-cow (Google) plus a raft of unprofitable and speculative ventures, has prompted a search for models and analogies. In a thoughtful piece, Neil Irwin sees three possible models:

  • Berkshire Hathaway
  • General Electric
  • AT&T in its monopolistic heyday

Of the three, Irwin sees AT&T as the most likely model, basically because of Bell Labs, which AT&T owned until it was broken up for anti-trust reasons. The Labs were only viable because AT&T had monopoly profits from its phone business, which enabled the company to fund all kinds of fabulous long-term research, only some of which actually benefited AT&T. So long as Google search remains a money-pump, that model will work for Alphabet. If the Search well runs dry, though, one wonders what will happen.

French regulator vs. First Amendment

This morning’s Observer column:

Although Google is an American company, it had no option but to comply with the ECJ ruling because it trades with – and has assets in – all the countries in the European Union. But because it is based in the US, it also has to obey the laws of that particular land. And in the US, the first amendment to the constitution means that people take a very dim view of any interference with free speech. Sanitising Google search results to comply with the rulings of a foreign court would certainly be perceived as such an interference. So while RTBF links are removed from, say, google.fr, they remain visible on search results from Google.com, which is easily accessible from any European country.

It turns out that some of Europe’s data protection regulators are not amused by this…

Read on

The (political) power of search engines

This is interesting:

We present evidence from five experiments in two countries suggesting the power and robustness of the search engine manipulation effect (SEME). Specifically, we show that (i) biased search rankings can shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20% or more, (ii) the shift can be much higher in some demographic groups, and (iii) such rankings can be masked so that people show no awareness of the manipulation. Knowing the proportion of undecided voters in a population who have Internet access, along with the proportion of those voters who can be influenced using SEME, allows one to calculate the win margin below which SEME might be able to determine an election outcome.

Writing as someone who is working on a piece about the new kinds of power wielded by Internet companies, this seems pretty significant.

The anti-innovation system

The patent system has become dysfunctional. Even The Economist thinks so. This from the current edition:

Patents are supposed to spread knowledge, by obliging holders to lay out their innovation for all to see; they often fail, because patent-lawyers are masters of obfuscation. Instead, the system has created a parasitic ecology of trolls and defensive patent-holders, who aim to block innovation, or at least to stand in its way unless they can grab a share of the spoils. An early study found that newcomers to the semiconductor business had to buy licences from incumbents for as much as $200m. Patents should spur bursts of innovation; instead, they are used to lock in incumbents’ advantages.


The puzzle at the heart of modern history

… well, as Isaiah Berlin saw it anyway (as summarised by Mark Lilla in his essay in The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin):

“The puzzle is this: how did the optimistic and progressive spirit of 18th-century Europe give way to the dark and terrifying world of the 19th and 20th centuries? How did the Europe that produced Goethe and Kant, Voltaire and Rousseau, Tolstoy and Chekhov, also produce the Lager and the Gulag?”