Oddly elegiac essay by Joi Ito, the Director of the MIT Media Lab, who clearly is, like me, a recovering utopian:
Legacy businesses have been disintermediated by the rise of companies built around the internet which have, within a very short period, exerted dominion over the world. This is the GDE [Great Digital Event], and it reminds me of nothing so much as the GOE [Great Oxidation Event — which caused the mass extinction of anaerobic bacteria between 2 and 3 billion years ago] in its impact and implications. As our modern dinosaurs crash down around us, I sometimes wonder what kind of humans will eventually walk out of this epic transformation. Trump and the populism that’s rampaging around the world today, marked by xenophobia, racism, sexism, and rising inequality, is greatly amplified by the forces the GDE has unleashed. For someone like me who saw the power of connection build a vibrant, technologically meshed ecosystem distinguished by peace, love, and understanding, the polarization and hatred empowered by the internet today is like watching your baby turning into the little girl in The Exorcist.
Toys for dogs seen in a New York store.
My OpEd piece from yesterday’s Observer:
Conspiracy theories have generally had a bad press. They conjure up images of eccentrics in tinfoil hats who believe that aliens have landed and the government is hushing up the news. And maybe it’s statistically true that most conspiracy theories belong on the harmless fringe of the credibility spectrum.
On the other hand, the historical record contains some conspiracy theories that have had profound effects. Take the “stab in the back” myth, widely believed in Germany after 1918, which held that the German army did not lose the First World War on the battlefield but was betrayed by civilians on the home front. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 the theory was incorporated in their revisionist narrative of the 1920s: the Weimar Republic was the creation of the “November criminals” who stabbed the nation in the back to seize power while betraying it. So a conspiracy theory became the inspiration for the political changes that led to a second global conflict.
More recent examples relate to the alleged dangers of the MMR jab and other vaccinations and the various conspiracy theories fuelling denial of climate change.
For the last five years, my academic colleagues – historian Richard Evans and politics professor David Runciman – and I have been leading a team of researchers studying the history, nature and significance of conspiracy theories with a particular emphasis on their implications for democracy…
This morning’s Observer column:
In 1965, the mathematician I J “Jack” Good, one of Alan Turing’s code-breaking colleagues during the second world war, started to think about the implications of what he called an “ultra-intelligent” machine – ie “a machine that can surpass all the intellectual activities of any man, however clever”. If we were able to create such a machine, he mused, it would be “the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control”.
Note the proviso. Good’s speculation has lingered long in our collective subconscious, occasionally giving rise to outbreaks of fevered speculation. These generally focus on two questions. How long will it take us to create superintelligent machines? And what will it be like for humans to live with – or under – such machines? Will they rapidly conclude that people are a waste of space? Does the superintelligent machine pose an existential risk for humanity?
The answer to the first question can be summarised as “longer than you think”. And as for the second question, well, nobody really knows. How could they? Surely we’d need to build the machines first and then we’d find out. Actually, that’s not quite right. It just so happens that history has provided us with some useful insights into what it’s like to live with – and under – superintelligent machines.
They’re called corporations, and they’ve been around for a very long time – since about 1600, in fact…
Insightful piece in The Atlantic:
The most recent controversy provides the perfect metaphor for Trump’s part-symbiotic, part-parasitic relationship with the media: infection. In epidemiology, a virus cannot multiply on its own. First, it must find a host, whose cellular machinery it commandeers to reproduce. For a virus, all distribution—all amplification—is infection.
So it is for Trump. The president’s conspiratorial language is an odious virus that has found a variety of hosts in the U.S. media ecosystem. The traditional news media amplify his words for a variety of reasons, including newsworthiness (he is, after all, the president), easy ratings (cable-news audiences have soared in his term), and old-fashioned peer pressure (the segment producer’s lament: “If everybody else is carrying Trump, shouldn’t we?”).
But a virus doesn’t just borrow a host’s cellular factory to reproduce; it often destroys the host in the process. So, too, does the president seek to destroy the traditional news media that have often amplified his messages…
So why do editors publish headlines which essentially just paraphrase Trump’s tweets? Especially when they know that most readers only read (and remember) the headline.
Simon Wren-Lewis on Osborne & Co:
You do not need experts, or you are only interested in experts who are one of us, because you have an ideology to guide you to the truth, or you are suspicious of any expertise that does not share your ideology. One of us is one who shares an ideology, in this case the ideology of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism wants as much as possible to be organised as a market. If that includes democracy itself (democracy is just a market for votes) then there is nothing preventing you employing all the tricks of advertising, preferably not encumbered by any regulators. Politics becomes the art of selling, rather than the assessment of policy.
Why do I call the period after 2010 in the US and UK neoliberal overreach, as opposed to straight neoliberalism in the 1980s? After all there are some similarities in the UK between the two periods. Both Osborne and Thatcher started their terms in government with economic experiments that went against received economic wisdom. Both tried austerity (a fiscal contraction in a recession). I don’t want to minimise the harm Thatcher did to parts of the country, but her austerity was temporary  and the monetarist experiment was quickly abandoned, with the result that the recovery was only delayed by a year or two and the economy in aggregate eventually recovered in the true sense of the term. In contrast the slow recovery in the UK, US and Europe since 2010 seems to have had permanent and large negative effects. An interesting question is how much this difference between the two periods in the UK reflects different degrees of control over the media.
But the main reason I call what happened after 2010 overreach is that the neoliberalism of both Reagan and Thatcher was in many ways popular, and so there was less need to dress policies up as something they were not. In 2010 there was no popular demand for a reduction in the size of the state, so it required a form of subterfuge: what I call deficit deceit. Tight targets for immigration made no sense for neoliberals who wanted to reduce red tape for firms, but it was useful as a way to deflect anger over austerity and win votes.
A better way to describe Brexit than heart over head is the triumph of ideology over knowledge. Neoliberalism isn’t the only ideology behind Brexit. There are elements of English nationalism that William Davies discusses in his piece noted above and Anthony Barnett discusses so well in the Lure of Greatness. But the disinterest in facts or experts and the absence of shame in telling whatever lie is required to get what they want is very much part of what I call neoliberal overreach. To those to whom evidence based policy is natural they appear fools, but they know exactly what they are doing and in terms of deception they are rather good at it.
From the New Yorker:
WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Calling for an “immediate end” to the recount in Florida, Donald J. Trump warned on Monday that it could set a dangerous precedent of the person with the most votes winning.
Speaking to reporters at the White House, Trump said that those in favor of the recount had a “sick obsession with finding out which candidate got the most votes.”
“Democrats are going on and on about counting every last vote until they find out who got the most,” Trump said. “Since when does getting the most votes mean you win?”
Trump said that, if the recounts are allowed to proceed, “We could be looking at a very bad, very sad situation where to be considered legitimately elected you have to get more votes than the other candidate.”
Just for the avoidance of doubt, this is a satirical piece.
Terrific FT column by Rana Foroohar. Sample:
If the Facebook revelations prove anything, they show that its top leadership is not liberal, but selfishly libertarian. Political ideals will not get in the way of the company’s efforts to protect its share price. This was made clear by Facebook’s hiring of a rightwing consulting group, Definers Public Affairs, to try and spread misinformation about industry rivals to reporters and to demonise George Soros, who had a pipe bomb delivered to his home. At Davos in January, the billionaire investor made a speech questioning the power of platform technology companies.
Think about that for a minute. This is a company that was so desperate to protect its top leadership and its business model that it hired a shadowy PR firm that used anti-Semitism as a political weapon. Patrick Gaspard, president of the Open Society Foundations, founded by Mr Soros, wrote in a letter last week to Ms Sandberg: “The notion that your company, at your direction”, tried to “discredit people exercising their First Amendment rights to protest Facebook’s role in disseminating vile propaganda is frankly astonishing to me”.
I couldn’t agree more. Ms Sandberg says she didn’t know about the tactics being used by Definers Public Affairs. Mr Zuckerberg says that while he understands “DC type firms” might use such tactics, he doesn’t want them associated with Facebook and has cancelled its contract with Definers.
The irony of that statement could be cut with a knife. Silicon Valley companies are among the nation’s biggest corporate lobbyists. They’ve funded many academics doing research on topics of interest to them, and have made large donations to many powerful politicians…
There is a strange consistency in the cant coming from Zuckerberg and Sandberg as they try to respond to the NYT‘s exhumation of their attempts to avoid responsibility for Facebook’s malignancy. It’s what PR flacks call “plausible deniability”. Time and again, the despicable or ethically-dubious actions taken by Facebook apparently come as a complete surprise to the two at the very top of the company — Zuckerberg and Sandberg. I’m afraid that particular cover story is beginning to look threadbare.
This morning’s Observer column:
And then the penny dropped (I am slow on the uptake). I realised that what I had been doing was adding to a dataset for training the machine-learning software that guides self-driving cars – probably those designed and operated by Waymo, the autonomous vehicle project owned by Alphabet Inc (which also happens to own Google). So, to gain access to an automated service that will benefit financially from my input, I first have to do some unpaid labour to help improve the performance of Waymo’s vehicles (which, incidentally, will be publicly available for hire in Phoenix, Arizona, by the end of this year).
Neat, eh? But note also the delicious additional irony that the Captcha is described as an “automated Turing test”. The Turing test was conceived, you may recall, as a way of enabling humans to determine whether a machine could respond in such a way that one couldn’t tell whether it was a human or a robot. So we have wandered into a topsy-turvy world in which machines make us jump through hoops to prove that we are humans!
The strangest aspect of this epochal shift is how under-discussed it has been…