The Internet is morphing into billion-channel TV

This is a sobering illustration. Netflix and YouTube now account for over a quarter of global data traffic on the network. The technology that was supposed to liberate people’s creativity, enable anyone to become a global publisher, foster user-generated-content and what Yochai Benkler called ‘peer production’, etc. etc. is evolving into billion-channel TV — a paradise for couch-potatoes. Mencken would not have been surprised. Nobody ever went broke underestimating the passivity of the average consumer.

Source

Tech determinism and its consequences

This morning’s Observer column:

The polite term for the delusions that grip the lords of Silicon Valley (and their fans elsewhere) is technological determinism: the belief that technology is what really drives history and that they are on the right side of that history. It may also explain why they have manifested such blithe indifference to the malign effects that their machines are having on society. After all, if technology is the remorseless bulldozer that flattens everything in its path, then why waste time and energy fretting about it or imagining that it might be controlled?

Determinism, in that sense, removes human agency from the picture. The role assigned to people is essentially that of passive or active consumers of whatever wonders the tech industry chooses to lay before them. It also removes politics from the frame, because politics is about how societies make collective choices and determinism holds that there are no choices to be made. One of the infuriating tragedies of our time is how so many of our ruling elites seem to have swallowed this snake oil and how long it has then taken them to wake up to what’s going on…

Read on

Why political correctness has disabled the Democrats

Interesting — and I think perceptive — column by Tyler Cowen:

Imagine the perfect political and intellectual weapon. It would disable your adversaries by preoccupying them with their own vanities and squabbles, a bit like a drug so good that users focus on the high and stop everything else they are doing.

Such a weapon exists: It is called political correctness. But it is not a weapon against white men or conservatives, as is frequently alleged; rather, it is a weapon against the American left. To put it simply, the American left has been hacked, and it is now running in a circle of its own choosing, rather than focusing on electoral victories or policy effectiveness. Too many segments of the Democratic Party are self-righteously talking about identity politics, and they are letting other priorities slip.

Sic transit gloria

The New York Times today reports that Sears, which more than a century ago pioneered the strategy of selling everything to everyone, filed for bankruptcy protection early on Monday. In terms of ambition, its only rival is Amazon, but even Amazon hasn’t yet got round to selling houses in kit form, as Sears did as long ago as 1908. Here’s one from the catalogue: two bedrooms, two reception rooms, a kitchen and a splendid porch — yours for $1248.00. No mention of a bathroom, though.

The cost of insecurity (not to mention of Windows XP)

From The Inquirer:

THE WANNACRY RANSOMWARE ATTACK cost the already cash-strapped NHS almost £100m, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) estimates.

Until now, the financial damage caused by the sweeping cyber attack – which it’s now been revealed affected 8 per cent of GP clinics and forced the NHS to cancel 19,000 appointments – has been unclear, but the DHSC estimates in a new report that the total figure cost in at £92m.

WannaCry cost approximately £19 in lost output, while a whopping £73m was racked up in IT costs in the aftermath of the attack, according to the report. Some £72m was spent on restoring systems and data in the weeks after the attack struck.

“We recognise that at the time of the attack the focus would have been on patient care rather than working out what WannaCry was costing the NHS,” the report says.

Following the attack, the NHS has pledged to upgrade all of its systems to Windows 10 after it was found that the service’s outdated, and unpatched Windows XP and Windows 7 systems were largely to blame.

Dinner-table capital

Well, well. This from the Sloan School at MIT:

A new study shows that, thanks to inequality, the U.S. has potentially missed out on millions of inventors during that time — what the researchers refer to as “lost Einsteins.” Kids born into the richest 1 percent of society are 10 times more likely to be inventors than those born into the bottom 50 percent — and “this is having a big effect on innovation,” MIT Sloan professor John Van Reenen said.

The research also shows that innovation in the U.S. could quadruple if women, minorities, and children from low-income families became inventors at the same rate as men from high-income families. Making that happen is the hard part, though. It means exposing more children to innovation when they are young — and the younger they are, the better.

The researchers wanted to see what part childhood wealth plays on future innovation. And guess what? “The most striking thing was how sharp the relationship was between the wealth of your parents and whether you grew up to be an inventor or not” reported one of the researchers.

By linking patent records with de-identified IRS data and school district records for more than one million inventors, the researchers found that, while ability does play some part in a child’s chance of becoming an inventor in the future, it is far from the biggest factor.

Instead, wealth played a much larger role. Among children who excelled in math in third grade, those whose families’ incomes fell into the highest fifth of the population were more than five times as likely to be inventors than those whose families’ incomes were in the lowest fifth.

This disparity is amplified among children whose parents were in the top 1 percent of earners — they were 10 times more likely to be inventors than those in the bottom 50 percent.

Oh – and white children were three times as likely as black children to be inventors. And only 18 percent of inventors were women.

Why digital tech might not be the key to development for poor countries

Interesting essay by Dani Rodrik:

Any optimism about the scale of GVCs’ contribution must be tempered by three sobering facts. First, the expansion of GVCs seems to have ground to a halt in recent years. Second, developing-country participation in GVCs – and indeed in world trade in general – has remained quite limited, with the notable exception of certain Asian countries. Third, and perhaps most worrisome, the domestic employment consequences of recent trade and technological trends have been disappointing.

Upon closer inspection, GVCs and new technologies exhibit features that limit the upside to – and may even undermine – developing countries’ economic performance. One such feature is an overall bias in favor of skills and other capabilities. This bias reduces developing countries’ comparative advantage in traditionally labor-intensive manufacturing (and other) activities, and decreases their gains from trade.

Second, GVCs make it harder for low-income countries to use their labor-cost advantage to offset their technological disadvantage, by reducing their ability to substitute unskilled labor for other production inputs. These two features reinforce and compound each other. The evidence to date, on the employment and trade fronts, is that the disadvantages may have more than offset the advantages.

The usual response to these concerns is to stress the importance of building up complementary skills and capabilities. Developing countries must upgrade their educational systems and technical training, improve their business environment, and enhance their logistics and transport networks in order to make fuller use of new technologies, goes the oft-heard refrain.

And here’s the punchline:

But pointing out that developing countries need to advance on all those dimensions is neither news nor helpful development advice. It is akin to saying that development requires development. Trade and technology present an opportunity when they are able to leverage existing capabilities, and thereby provide a more direct and reliable path to development. When they demand complementary and costly investments, they are no longer a shortcut around manufacturing-led development.

Great essay.

Facebook: another routine scandal

From today’a New York Times:

SAN FRANCISCO — On the same day Facebook announced that it had carried out its biggest purge yet of American accounts peddling disinformation, the company quietly made another revelation: It had removed 66 accounts, pages and apps linked to Russian firms that build facial recognition software for the Russian government.

Facebook said Thursday that it had removed any accounts associated with SocialDataHub and its sister firm, Fubutech, because the companies violated its policies by scraping data from the social network.

“Facebook has reason to believe your work for the government has included matching photos from individuals’ personal social media accounts in order to identify them,” the company said in a cease-and-desist letter to SocialDataHub that was dated Tuesday and viewed by The New York Times.

Piketty: our politics is now about Brahmin vs Merchant elites

Fascinating paper by Thomas Piketty. He constructs a long-run data series from post-election to document a striking long-run evolution in the multi-dimensional structure of political cleavages in the US, UK and France.

The nub of it is this:

In the 1950s-1960s, the vote for “left-wing” (socialist-labour-democratic) parties was associated with lower education and lower income voters. This corresponds to what one might label a “class-based” party system: lower class voters from the different dimensions (lower education voters, lower income voters, etc.) tend to vote for the same party or coalition, while upper and middle class voters from the different dimensions tend to vote for the other party or coalition.

Since the 1970s-1980s, “left-wing” vote has gradually become associated with higher education voters, giving rise to what I propose to label a “multiple-elite” party system in the 2000s-2010s: high- education elites now vote for the “left”, while high-income/high-wealth elites still vote for the “right” (though less and less so) — i.e. the “left” has become the party of the intellectual elite (Brahmin left), while the “right” can be viewed as the party of the business elite (Merchant right).

I show that the same transformation happened in France, the US and Britain, despite the many differences in party systems and political histories between these three countries.

This links to the observations of Daniel Rodgers summarised below.