“No real-world harm” says Facebook. Really?

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge on Friday rejected Facebook’s argument that it cannot be sued for letting third parties, such as Cambridge Analytica, access users’ private data because no “real world” harm has resulted from the conduct.

“The injury is the disclosure of private information,” U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria declared during a marathon four-and-a-half-hour motion-to-dismiss hearing Friday.

Facebook urged Chhabria to toss out a 267-page consolidated complaint filed in a multidistrict case seeking billions of dollars in damages for Facebook’s alleged violations of 50 state and federal laws.

There’s a class-action suit coming triggered by the Cambridge-Analytica scandal.

Think that self-driving cars will eliminate traffic? Think again

Fascinating paper, “The autonomous vehicle parking problem” by Adam Millard-Ball. In it he: identifies and analyzes parking behavior of autonomous vehicles; uses a traffic simulation model to demonstrate how autonomous vehicles can implicitly coordinate to reduce the cost of cruising for parking, through self-generated congestion; discusses policy responses, including congestion pricing; and argues that congestion pricing should include both a time-based charge for occupying the public right-of-way, and a distance- or energy-based charge to internalizes other externalities.

The Abstract reads:

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) have no need to park close to their destination, or even to park at all. Instead, AVs can seek out free on-street parking, return home, or cruise (circle around). Because cruising is less costly at lower speeds, a game theoretic framework shows that AVs also have the incentive to implicitly coordinate with each other in order to generate congestion. Using a traffic microsimulation model and data from downtown San Francisco, this paper suggests that AVs could more than double vehicle travel to, from and within dense, urban cores. New vehicle trips are generated by a 90% reduction in effective parking costs, while existing trips become longer because of driving to more distant parking spaces and cruising. One potential policy response—subsidized peripheral parking—would likely exacerbate congestion through further reducing the cost of driving. Instead, this paper argues that the rise of AVs provides the opportunity and the imperative to implement congestion pricing in urban centers. Because the ability of AVs to cruise blurs the boundary between parking and travel, congestion pricing programs should include two complementary prices—a time-based charge for occupying the public right-of-way, whether parked or in motion, and a distance- or energy-based charge that internalizes other externalities from driving.

What this suggests is that society — in this case city authorities — should think of urban streets as analogous to radio spectrum. We auction rights to communications companies to operate on specific chinks of the radio spectrum. When autonomous vehicles arrive then those who operate them ought to be treated like radio spectrum users. The one tweak we’d need is that AV operators would be charged not only for the right to use a particular slice of the road ‘spectrum’ but also for the amount of use they make of it.

The Unicorn bubble and its aftermath

This morning’s Observer column:

Some unicorns have astonishing valuations, which are based on the price that new investors are willing to pay for a share. Uber, for example, currently has a valuation in the region of $80bn (£61bn) and there is feverish speculation that when it eventually goes for an initial public offering (IPO) it could be valued at $120bn (£91bn). This for a company that has never made anywhere near a profit and currently loses money at an eye-watering rate. If this reminds you of the dotcom boom of the late 1990s, then join the club.

There is, however, one significant difference. The dotcom boom was based on clueless and irrational exuberance about the commercial potential of the internet, so when it became clear that startups such as Boo.com and Pets.com were never likely to make a profit, the bubble burst as investors tried to get out. But investors in Uber probably don’t care if it never makes a profit, so long as it gets to an IPO that enables them to cash out with a big payoff. If Uber did go public at a valuation of $120bn, for example, the Saudi royal family alone would have a $16bn (£12bn) payday from their investment.

So what’s going on?

Read on

Famous Seamus and February 1st

Today is St Brigid’s Day, still celebrated in my native land. John Humphreys of Radio 4’s Today programme had a lovely interview with Seamus Heaney’s widow, Marie, and their daughter, Catherine.

Just before the end, Humphreys asks them to name their favourite poem from Heaney’s formidable oeuvre. Catherine chose ‘Postscript’, which also happens to be mine.

Slowbalisation

From this week’s Economist:

The golden age of globalisation, in 1990-2010, was something to behold. Commerce soared as the cost of shifting goods in ships and planes fell, phone calls got cheaper, tariffs were cut and finance liberalised. Business went gangbusters, as firms set up around the world, investors roamed and consumers shopped in supermarkets with enough choice to impress Phileas Fogg.

Globalisation has slowed from light speed to a snail’s pace in the past decade for several reasons. The cost of moving goods has stopped falling. Multinational firms have found that global sprawl burns money and that local rivals often eat them alive. Activity is shifting towards services, which are harder to sell across borders: scissors can be exported in 20ft-containers, but hair stylists cannot. And Chinese manufacturing has become more self-reliant, so needs to import fewer parts.

This is the fragile backdrop to Mr Trump’s trade war. Tariffs tend to get the most attention. If America ratchets up duties on China in March, as threatened, the average tariff rate on American imports will rise to 3.4%, its highest for 40 years. (Most firms plan to pass the cost on to customers.) Less glaring, but just as pernicious, is that rules of commerce are being rewritten around the world. The principle that investors and firms should be treated equally regardless of their nationality is being ditched.

Welcome to the world after Brexit! And note the kicker at the end of the Economist piece:

Globalisation made the world a better place for almost everyone. But too little was done to mitigate its costs. The integrated world’s neglected problems have now grown in the eyes of the public to the point where the benefits of the global order are easily forgotten. Yet the solution on offer is not really a fix at all. Slowbalisation will be meaner and less stable than its predecessor. In the end it will only feed the discontent.

The truth about the Brexit endgame

Very perceptive commentary by Rafael Behr about the magical thinking embodied in yesterday’s voting in the House of Commons:

There are two possible reasons for pursuing that strategy. One is stupidity: failure to grasp what the negotiations so far have actually been about and how May’s deal was their logical outcome. The second is cynical vandalism: knowing that the plan will fail and hoping, when it does, to pin blame for a chaotic no-deal Brexit on Brussels intransigence. In truth it would be the fruition of Eurosceptic zealotry.

It is sad to see self-styled Tory “moderates” taken in by such a con and alarming to hear May indulge it in the Commons as a “serious proposal”. Her next move is to Brussels, in a quest for something that two years of negotiation have already failed to uncover. But it seems the way to unite Tories these days is to expunge the period 2017 to 2018 from memory. May still acts as if Brexit is something that must be settled to the satisfaction of the Conservative party first, and only then shared with the rest of Europe. The British public is at the very back of the queue.

Such obtuseness infuriates continental leaders more than the intent to quit their club…

And so it should. They thought that Theresa May was some kind of pragmatist. What they didn’t see was that when she took the referendum result as her personal mission

she also anointed herself with sacred oils of Brexiteer mythology. Her inscrutable demeanour and robotic speeches conceal a fervour that would be instantly identifiable as demagogy in a more expressive politician. At first, the prime minister’s rigid mask tricked Europeans into thinking she was a reasonable and capable person. It had a similar effect on the domestic audience. May’s bland style flattered a collective belief in the innate moderation of our politics. Her parochial mediocrity has nurtured the complacent assumption that the worst cannot happen here, that we are, at heart, a pragmatic nation not given to fanatical lurches. MPs imagine parliament as a political equivalent to the Greenwich meridian – the zero line from which other countries’ deviations are measured. We are slow to notice when the whole enterprise drifts wildly off course.

So, when you boil it down to its core, the strategy is — as Behr says — to have a chaotic no-deal exit for which the British can blame the EU.

Surprise, surprise

From Recode:

We seem to have accepted that the robots will someday take our jobs — but it’s the men, for once, who will be getting the short end of the economic stick. Automation and artificial intelligence will affect Americans unevenly, according to data from McKinsey and the 2016 US Census. Meanwhile, many executives have been wringing their hands in public over the negative consequences that AI and automation could have for workers. But many of the suits at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos privately admit to racing to automate their workforces to stay ahead of the competition, with little regard for the impact on workers.

Usual story: corporations are full of nice, decent human beings (well, some companies are anyway). But the organisations for which they work are still sociopathic artificial intelligences. There are exceptions, but they’re rare. That’s why, among other things, we have to rethink the nature of the corporation — as thinkers like John Kay and Colin Meyer have been arguing.

What’s in a name?

On my way to Brussels to chair a discussion on Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism I fell to reading Leo Marx’s celebrated essay, ”Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept”, in which he ponders when — and why — the term ‘technology’ emerged. The term — in its modern sense of “the mechanical arts generally” did not enter public discourse until around 1900 “when a few influential writers, notably Thorstein Veblen and Charles Beard, responding to German usage in the social sciences, accorded technology a pivotal role in shaping modern industrial society.”

Marx thinks that, to a cultural historian, some new terms, when they emerge, serve “as markers, or chronological signposts, of subtle, virtually unremarked, yet ultimately far-reaching changes in culture and society.”

His assumption, he writes,

”is that those changes, whatever they were, created a semantic—indeed, a conceptual—void, which is to say, an awareness of certain novel developments in society and culture for which no adequate name had yet become available. It was this void, presumably, that the word technology, in its new and extended meaning, eventually would fill.”

Which brought me back to musing about Zuboff’s new book and why it (and the two or three major essays of hers that preceded it) came as a flash of illumination. Especially the title. What ‘void’ (to use Marx’s idea) does it fill?

On reflection I think the answer lies in the conceptual vacuity of the terms we have traditionally used to describe the phenomenon of digital technology — in particular the trope of “the Fourth Industrial Revolution” beloved of the Davos crowd, or “the digital era” (passim). For one thing these terms are drenched in technological determinism, implying as they do that it’s the technology and its innate affordances that are driving contemporary history. In that sense these cliches are the spiritual heirs of “the age of Machinery” — Thomas Carlyle’s coinage to describe the industrial revolution of his day.

That’s why ‘Surveillance Capitalism’ represents a conceptual breakthrough. It does not assume that our condition is inexorably determined by the innate affordances of digital technology, but by particular ways in which capitalism has morphed in order to exploit it for its own purposes.