Catch-up time

This morning’s Observer column:

For me, the tech stories of 2017 turned out not to be really tech stories at all. Mostly they were about politics, as the non-tech world woke up to the fact that this digital stuff really affected them. As, for example, when they realised that for a mere $30,000 the Russians could beam subtle political messages to as many as 126 million US voters in an election year without anyone (including Facebook) apparently noticing. Or when big consumer brands suddenly realised that it wasn’t a good idea to have their ads running on YouTube alongside beheading or white supremacist videos. Or when parents woke up to the fact that not everything running on the YouTube Kids channel was wholesome or harmless.

That people were so surprised by these discoveries suggests that the perceptual time lag between technological change and public awareness is longer than we had supposed…

Read on

When the falcon no longer hears the falconer

From a really thoughtful assessment by Andrew Gelman and Julia Azari of lessons from the 2016 election:

In 2016, Trump was opposed vigorously as dangerous, incompetent, xenophobic, tyrannical, and unhinged, by almost everybody in elite circles: most of his Republican primary opponents at one time or another, a large number of conservative intellectuals, former Republican candidates Romney and McCain, the various Bushes, the media, almost all newspaper editorialists including those that were reliable Republican supporters, all Democrats, about 10 Republican senators, and even some pundits on Fox News. Further, Trump’s breaking of all the standard niceties of politics was there for all to see for themselves. But half the voters said, we go with this guy anyway. “The falcon no longer hears the falconer,” as W. B. Yeats put it.

To put it another way, the elites in the Republican party had a coordination problem, which allowed one of the most disliked choices to win the nomination in a multi-candidate primary campaign. At this point, one might well ask whether elites are now following public opinion: are elected officials who would like to challenge Trump afraid to alienate their voters? These sorts of questions demonstrate the connections between public opinion and legislative politics: Congressional Republicans are reliant on Trump’s support within their party but fearful of his unpopularity among Democrats and independence; meanwhile, Trump relies on the forbearance of a Republican-led Congress to avoid being engulfed by investigations of scandals.

Their Lesson 13 is also interesting:

13. There is an Authoritarian Dimension of Politics

Political scientists used to worry about authoritarianism within the electorate. Mainstream politicians, ranging from Republicans on the far right to lefties such as Sanders, tend not to go there. Trump did. In doing so he broke the rules of politics with extreme comments about his opponents, etc., that are hard to forget. But a significant segment of the electorate, maybe 20%, have always been waiting for its authoritarian champion on what we now call the alt-right dimension. There had not been one in the modern era. Trump’s absolute dominance of the political news for over a year signifies this uniqueness. There had been others with this sort of appeal, notably Joe McCarthy or George Wallace, but they never came close to becoming our national leader.

The dark underbelly of online ‘safety’

This morning’s Observer column:

Alarmed by this, the companies have been bragging about the number of extra staff they are recruiting to deal with the [‘inappropriate content’] problem. Facebook, for example, is hiring 10,000 extra people to work on “safety and security generally” – which means that by the end of 2018 it will have 20,000 people working in this area. And YouTube’s CEO, Susan Wojcicki, announced her goal of “bringing the total number of people across Google working to address content that might violate our policies to over 10,000 in 2018”.

What these impressive-sounding commitments do not specify is how many of the new hires will be actual employees and how many will be merely contractors. My hunch is the latter. A more important question – and one we have all shamefully ignored until now – is what kind of work will they be required to do, and under what conditions?

Read on

Brexit wasn’t just because of social media

This morning’s Observer column:

It seems obvious now that the weaponisation of social media played some role in both the Brexit referendum and the US election. What’s much less clear, however, is whether it was critical in determining the outcome. Personally, I’m sceptical. Our current obsession with digital technology as the trigger for these political earthquakes may actually be a kind of displacement activity. What we’re overlooking is that none of this would have happened if our ruling elites had noticed what four decades of globalisation and neoliberal economics had done to the life chances of many of our fellow citizens.

Nearly four million people in the UK voted for Ukip in 2015, for example, and got just one MP for their trouble. So when David Cameron presented them with a chance to give the neoliberal order a good kicking, they hardly needed their Facebook feeds to tell them what to do. I hope the information commissioner does succeed in unearthing the role of data analytics in Brexit. But even if she does, she’ll only have retrieved one piece of the jigsaw.

Read on

That Alabama ‘victory’

I agree with Dave Pell’s assessment:

“Before anyone gets too excited, I think it’s worth keeping this particularly unusual race in perspective. Roy Moore; an ill-informed, racist, misogynist, anti-gay, child molesting criminal who was shunned by many in his own party lost an election — and that was still considered an upset.”


The madness of King Donald

Interesting post by Elizabeth Drew, who IMHO has been a shrewd observer of US politics over many decades. She outlines the two current theories circulating in Washington about Trump’s mental state thus:

The most widely accepted view is that he suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder, which is far more serious than simply being a narcissist. According to the Mayo Clinic, such a disorder “is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.” Moreover, “behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”

This definition is all too reflective of traits that Trump regularly exhibits. Another view held by a number of medical professionals, based on how Trump spoke in interviews in the late 1980s and how he speaks now – with a far more limited vocabulary and much less fluency – is that the president is suffering from the onset of dementia. According to the highly respected medical reference UpToDate, a subscription-financed service used by professionals, the symptoms of dementia include agitation, aggression, delusions, hallucinations, apathy, and disinhibition.

So, which is it? Or maybe it’s both. But the worst delusion of all is the one shared by all of us liberals — namely that even if it becomes clear that the President is off his rocker or incapable, the Republicans will do nothing about it. And then there’s the terrible thought that if they did do something about it then the world will be stuck with Mike Pence.

Facebook’s new gateway drug for kids

This morning’s Observer column:

In one of those coincidences that give irony a bad name, Facebook launched a new service for children at the same time that a moral panic was sweeping the UK about the dangers of children using live-streaming apps that enable anyone to broadcast video directly from a smartphone or a tablet. The BBC showed a scary example of what can happen. A young woman who works as an internet safety campaigner posed as a 14-year-old girl to find out what occurs when a young female goes online using one of these streaming services…

Read on

Thinking ten years ahead

Ben Evans is one of the tech commentators I follow. This para from one of his blog posts struck me:

First, ecommerce, having grown more or less in a straight line for the past twenty years, is starting to reach the point that broad classes of retailer have real trouble. It’s useful to compare physical retail with newspapers, which face many of the same problems: a fixed cost base with falling revenues, the near-disappearance of a physical distribution advantage, and above all, unbundling and disaggregation. Everything bad that the internet did to media is probably going to happen to retailers. The tipping point might now be approaching, particularly in the US, where the situation is worsened by the fact that there is far more retail square footage per capita than in any other developed market. And when the store closes and you turn to shopping online (or are simply forced to, if enough physical retail goes away), you don’t buy all the same things, any more than you read all the same things when you took your media consumption online. When we went from a corner store to a department store, and then from a department store to big box retail, we didn’t all buy exactly the same things but in different places – we bought different things. If you go from buying soap powder in Wal-Mart based on brand and eye-level placement to telling Alexa ‘I need more soap’, some of your buying will look different.

Quote of the Day

“Data is neither a good or service. It’s intangible, like a service, but can easily be stored and delivered far from its original production point, like a good.” Michael Mandel

He goes on to make a useful observation about how our national statistics surveys may be missing something important:

Paradoxically, economic and regulatory policymakers around the world are not getting the data they need to understand the importance of data for the economy. Consider this: The Bureau of Economic Analysis, the U.S. agency which estimates economic growth, will tell you how much Americans increased their consumption of jewelry and watches in 2011, but offers no information about the growing use of mobile apps or online tax preparation programs. Eurostat, the European statistical agency, reports how much European businesses invested in buildings and equipment in 2010, but not how much those same businesses spent on consumer or business databases. And the World Trade Organization publishes figures on the flow of clothing from Asia to the United States, but no official agency tracks the very valuable flow of data back and forth across the Pacific.

The problem is that data-driven economic activities do not fit naturally into the traditional economic categories. Since the modern concept of economic growth was developed in the 1930s, economists have been systematically trained to think of the economy is being divided into two big categories: ‘Goods’ and ‘services’.

Goods are physical commodities, like clothes and steel beams, while services include everything else from healthcare to accounting to haircuts to restaurants. Goods are tangible and can be easily stored for future use, while services are intangible, and cannot be stockpiled for future use. In theory, a statistician could estimate the output of a country by counting the number of cars and the bushels of corns coming out of the country’s factories and farms, and by watching workers in the service sector and counting the number of haircuts performed and the number of meals served.

But data is neither a good or service…