Quote of the Day

As one social media executive said to me recently, with an audible sigh: “For one set, we can’t take enough down; for another set, we can’t leave up enough. One side thinks social media enabled populism, while the other thinks the opposite. There will be no fixing this.”

Kara Swisher, writing in the New York Times.

How things change

When Pope Paul II came to holy catholic Ireland in 1979 his mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park in Dublin is estimated to have been the largest gathering of Irish people in history with an estimated 1.25 million attending the event, nearly a third of the country’s population.

But this weekend only 130,000 attended Pope Francis’ mass in the same spot, illustrating the extent of the Catholic church’s decline in Ireland over the past four decades. Less than half the people holding tickets turned up at the event, with weather, travel restrictions and acts of protest all thought to have caused the low turnout.


Facebook can’t control its users. And it has no incentive to do so

This morning’s Observer column:

Most people I know who use Facebook seem normal. And the uses to which they put the service also seem normal – harmless to the point of banality. So when they see reports of how social media is being used to fuel extremism, violence, racism, intolerance, hatred – even ethnic cleansing – they are puzzled. Who are the people who do things like that? And why doesn’t Facebook stop them?

To answer the first question, let us visit Altena, a town of about 18,000 souls in North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany. After Angela Merkel opened Germany’s doors to refugees, Altena took its quota, like any good German town. When refugees first arrived, so many locals volunteered to help that Anette Wesemann, who runs Altena’s refugee integration centre, couldn’t keep up. She’d find Syrian or Afghan families attended by groups of volunteer German tutors. “It was really moving,” she told a New York Times reporter.

But when Wesemann set up a Facebook page to organise food banks and volunteer activities, things changed…

Read on

Dominic Raab: Theresa May’s flight attendant

Lovely report by Ian Dunt of the press conference in which the minister responsible for Brexit unveiled the government’s “planning’ for a no-deal exit from the EU:

He kept trying to sound upbeat about it, but his nerves gave him away. As the press conference wore on, Dominic Raab started to come across like some kind of deranged flight steward, insisting that in the “unlikely scenario” of no-deal, everything would be fine. The plane would hit the water smoothly, just like in those cartoons they put on the safety leaflets, and then happy families would slide down into the inflatable rafts.

The Brexit secretary had been sent out to release the first batch of the government’s summer holiday airport thrillers, in the form of about 70 technical papers on what the UK would do in the event of no-deal. He attempted to maintain a smile and confident manner throughout, but his brow glimmered with sweat and his voice kept wavering mid-sentence. It was not a convincing performance.

His task was, to be fair, unenviable. He needed to make no-deal look terrible and also fine, because it is only by the simultaneous maintenance of both of these contradictory propositions that the Tory party can be held together.

Theresa May needs no-deal to look awful, because a comparison with it is the only thing to recommend her own rubbish Chequers plan. The ERG hardliners on the backbenches need it to look completely normal, because it is the only form of Brexit which does not demand that they face the existence of objective reality.

This must be the worst government in Britain’s history.

Why stupidity is not the best explanation for the Brexit vote

From Simon Wren-Lewis’s splendid blog:

We are where we are with Brexit not because people were stupid in 2016, but because Brexiters controlled key parts of the means of information. We had Brexit because we had large parts of the press who turned their newspapers into propaganda vehicles for Leave. To believe that almost no one who read these papers were influenced by all this is equivalent to saying advertising does not work at all. What Brexit shows is not that people are stupid but that it is vital who controls the means of information, and the restraints they face from government agencies (which in the UK’s case for the press is pretty much zero).

I am often told that the circulation of newspapers is falling (true) and therefore they no longer have any influence (false). A factor of 2.5 is often used to translate circulation into readership. So even if the combined circulation of the Brexit dailies is 4 million, that means a readership of 10 million (the Leave vote was 17 million). But if you ask people whether they have read a particular newspaper in the past month you get much higher figures: 10 million for the Sun alone, 9 million for the Mail. Electronic readership then multiplies that by a factor of around 3 for those.

Typically thoughtful piece. He omits to take the impact of social media in the Brexit campaign, though. If he had, his argument would have been even stronger.

Quote of the Day

“In shifting the focus of regulation from reining in institutional and corporate malfeasance to perpetual electronic guidance of individuals, algorithmic regulation offers us a good-old technocratic utopia of politics without politics. Disagreement and conflict, under this model, are seen as unfortunate byproducts of the analog era – to be solved through data collection – and not as inevitable results of economic or ideological conflicts.”

Evgeny Morozov: “Why the Internet of Things could destroy the Welfare State”

Quote of the Day

“Services like Uber and online freelance markets like TaskRabbit were created to take advantage of an already independent work force; they are not creating it. Their technology is solving the business and consumer problems of an already insecure work world. Uber is a symptom, not a cause.”

Louis Hyman, an economic historian, writing in the New York Times

He has a new book coming out soon – Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary.

How digital technologies went from being instruments for democracy to tools for undermining it

This morning’s Observer column:

Here’s the $64,000 question for our time: how did digital technologies go from being instruments for spreading democracy to tools for undermining it? Or, to put it a different way, how did social media go from empowering free speech to becoming a cornerstone of authoritarian power?

I ask this as a distressed, recovering techno-utopian. Like many engineers of my generation, I believed that the internet would be the most empowering and liberating technology since the invention of printing by moveable type. And once the web arrived, and anyone who could type could become a global publisher, it seemed to me that we were on the verge of something extraordinary. The old editorial gatekeepers of the pre-internet media world would lose their stranglehold on public discourse; human creativity would be unleashed; a million flowers would bloom in a newly enriched and democratised public sphere. In such a decentralised world, authoritarianism would find it hard to get a grip. A political leader such as Donald Trump would be unthinkable.

Naive? Sure. But I was in good company…

Read on

France ahoy!

We go to Provence every summer, and for many years we flew there and rented cars. And then one year we decided that this was silly: and so now we drive down south — slowly, on those wonderful secondary roads that the French excel at. By the time we get to Arles after three leisurely days on the road, we have completely acclimatised to life in the South.

The thing that proved crucial in making the change was Eurotunnel. It enables us to drive to Folkestone and then onto a train (as in the photograph). 25 minutes later we drive off and are on our way to Burgundy. It still seems like magic. And in a way it is.