One reason why the Brexit referendum vote was inevitable

Because the British First-Past-The-Post electoral system provides no safety valve for dissatisfied or disaffected voters. As Andrew Gamble points out in a seminal article on “The Realignment of British Politics in the Wake of Brexit”:

Other third parties have had bursts of success, but have not been able to break the stranglehold of the two main parties. The most recent example is UKIP. Despite its success in winning more seats in the European Parliament than any other party, and winning four million votes in the 2015 general election, it only won one Westminster seat, and that was a seat held by a Conservative defector. If seats had been allocated proportionally in 2015, UKIP could have expected to win more than eighty. The main impact of third parties has been to reshape the policies, leadership and electoral strategies of the two main parties, rather than to replace them. Could Brexit change this?

Four million votes — and one MP.

Trump meets his match on social media

Interesting column by Jack Shafer on Politico:

Setting aside for a moment the fact that Trump and Ocasio-Cortez don’t agree on anything, the two New Yorkers with Queens connections have a lot in common. Both made their political marks as outsiders, collapsing traditional power structures from within to become political celebrities. Both ran thrifty campaigns, substituting news coverage for advertising. Trump proved at the ballot box that Republican voters held no real allegiance among to the usual conservative stands on trade, immigration and foreign policy. Ocasio-Cortez likewise toppled a tenured insider, Joe Crowley, in a primary by catching him coasting.

Both command Twitter brigades in the millions—Ocasio-Cortez 2.63 million (up from 379,000 in July) and Trump 57.7 million—and use their audiences to delight their friends and aggravate their enemies. Ensconced in Washington, the pair has sustained their newsworthiness by jousting against their opposition and their putative allies, and this tension adds to their media appeal. On any given day, there are probably as many high-ranking members of their own party gunning for them as high rankers from the other side of the aisle. From mid-December to mid-January, reported Axios, Ocasio-Cortez generated 14 million interactions (retweets plus likes), twice as many as Sen. Kamala Harris, and almost six times as many as Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer. To give you a sense of scale, CNN generated only 3 million interactions in the interval.

He also reveals something interesting about Trump — that he immediately spotted the significance of AOC:

Last August, Trump told Bloomberg News of his first encounter with her in his usual rambling style, and it’s unusually flattering:

“So I’m watching television, and I see this young woman on television. I say, ‘Who’s that?’ ‘Oh, she’s campaigning against Joe.’

“You know who Joe is, right? So Queens. Crowley. So I say, ‘Ah, let me just watch her for a second’— wonderful thing, TiVo. So you go back —‘huh, tell him he’s going to lose.’”

As they say, it takes one to know one.

Quote of the Day

“Too much is at stake, especially for those who don’t live in the wealthier parts of white America, to let our technological world to become merely a shopping mall where we buy things and exchange half-truths.”

Cindy Cohn, Executive Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Foreword to The End of Trust.

So what’s the Killer App for 5G?

If Ben Evans doesn’t know (and he doesn’t, really), then nobody knows.

In 2000 or so, when I was a baby telecoms analyst, it seemed as though every single telecoms investor was asking ‘what’s the killer app for 3G?’ People said ‘video calling’ a lot. But 3G video calls never happened, and it turned out that the killer app for having the internet in your pocket was, well, having the internet in your pocket. Over time, video turned out to be one part of that, but not as a telco service billed by the second. Equally, the killer app for 5G is probably, well, ‘faster 4G’. Over time, that will mean new Snapchats and New YouTubes – new ways to fill the pipe that wouldn’t work today, and new entrepreneurs. It probably isn’t a revolution – or rather, it means that the revolution that’s been going on since 1995 or so keeps going for another decade or more, until we get to 6G.

Paris in la Belle Époque

Extraordinary collection of high quality remastered prints from films made by the Lumière company in Belle Époque-era Paris, France from 1896-1900. Slowed down footage to a natural rate and added in sound for ambiance. Gives on an extraordinary feel life on the streets at the end of the nineteenth century.

Shoshana Zuboff’s new book

Today’s Observer carries a five-page feature about Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism consisting of an intro by me followed by Q&A between me and the author.

LATER Nick Carr has a perceptive review of the book in the LA Review of Books. John Thornhill also had a good long review in last Saturday’s Financial Times, sadly behind a paywall.

The perniciousness of ‘personalisation’

Interesting Scientific American article by Brett Frischmann and Devan Desai on how — paradoxically — personalised stimuli can produce homogenous responses:

This personalized-input-to-homogenous-output (“PIHO”) dynamic is quite common in the digital networked environment. What type of homogenous output would digital tech companies like to produce? Often, companies describe their objective as “engagement,” and that sounds quite nice, as if users are participating actively in very important activities. But what they mean is much narrower. Engagement usually refers to a narrow set of practices that generate data and revenues for the company, directly or via its network of side agreements with advertisers, data brokers, app developers, AI trainers, governments and so on.

For example, Facebook offers highly personalized services on a platform optimized to produce and reinforce a set of simple responses — scrolling the feed, clicking an ad, posting content, liking or sharing a post. These actions generate data, ad revenue, and sustained attention. It’s not that people always perform the same action; that degree of homogeneity and social control is neither necessary for Facebook’s interests nor our concerns. Rather, for many people much of the time, patterns of behavior conform to “engagement” scripts engineered by Facebook.

The point about what the companies actually regard as ‘user engagement’ is a useful reminder of how tech companies have become consummately adept at Orwellian doublespeak and euphemism. “In our time”, Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language”, “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.” Well, in our time, we have strategic euphemisms like “the sharing economy”, “user engagement” and “connecting people”.

Peak Apple? No: just peak smartphone

This morning’s Observer column:

On 2 January, in a letter to investors, Tim Cook revealed that he expected revenues for the final quarter of 2018 to be lower than originally forecast.

Given that most of Apple’s revenues come from its iPhone, this sent the tech commentariat into overdrive – to the point where one level-headed observer had to point out that the sky hadn’t fallen: all that had happened was that Apple shares were down a bit. And all this despite the fact that the other bits of the company’s businesses (especially the watch, AirPods, services and its retail arm) were continuing to do nicely. Calmer analyses showed that the expected fall in revenues could be accounted for by two factors: the slowdown in the Chinese economy (together with some significant innovations by the Chinese internet giant WeChat); and the fact that consumers seem to be hanging on to their iPhones for longer, thereby slowing the steep upgrade path that had propelled Apple to its trillion-dollar valuation.

What was most striking, though, was that the slowdown in iPhone sales should have taken journalists and analysts by surprise…

Read on


There’s nothing quite like a “strong and stable” leader for helping one jump off a cliff. This is the cartoon in today’s Financial Times.

So, referendum results are sacred? Except when they’re not

Wow! Here, courtesy of the Economist, is something I hadn’t remembered:

A second issue is the nature of British democracy, and in particular how badly equipped it is to cope with referendums. Other countries that use them, such as Switzerland or Ireland, have constitutional provisions laying down when and how to do so. But the unwritten British constitution confers total sovereignty on Parliament, as the epitome of a representative rather than a direct democracy. This sits uncomfortably with the notion of asking voters to make policy choices, as David Cameron did when putting Britain’s EU membership to a referendum in June 2016.

Despite this, Britain has in recent years made extensive use of referendums. Indeed, if one includes regional ones, in the past 20 years it has had more of them than it has had general elections. But the idea that they can settle contentious issues has been repeatedly disproved. The 1975 referendum on membership of the European Economic Community produced a decisive two-to-one result for staying in. Yet within eight years the Labour Party promised to pull out of the EEC without even consulting voters again.

A more recent example is more embarrassing for Mrs May. This week she argued that the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum must be honoured by all, because a 1997 referendum narrowly backing the creation of a Welsh assembly had been similarly accepted. Yet this overlooked the awkward truth that, along with her Tory colleagues, she had voted against the assembly, despite the referendum. What’s more, eight years later the Tories were campaigning for a second referendum with the option of overturning the result of the first—something she has explicitly ruled out for Brexit.