Quote of the Day

Twenty years ago we searched for islands of digital access in a sea of meatspace—homes, offices, internet cafes; now we seek equally scattered pockets of protection from that connectivity, and those pockets are increasingly the products of conscious design.

  • From a nice essay by Drew Austin, who leaves his phone in the kitchen when he goes to bed.

Realism about carbon capture

From “Can we fix the Air?”, a sobering post by the Azimuth Project about the possibilities of absorbing CO2:

Totaling up some of the options I’ve listed, we could draw down 1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide by planting trees, 1.5 billion by better forest management, 3 billion by better agricultural practices, and up to 5.2 billion by biofuels with carbon capture. This adds up to over 10 billion tonnes per year. It’s not nearly enough to cancel the 37 billion tonnes we’re dumping into the air each year now. But combined with strenuous efforts to cut emissions, we might squeak by, and keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

We might. But the prospects of the world implementing the measures outlined in the post are, I think, zero.

In praise of bloggers

From a “Blogging in an expert society” by Ken Smith:

At least there are certain mistakes that bloggers don’t often make:

  • They usually don’t pull rank.

  • They usually don’t insist that a problem can be solved only by a certain kind of expert or talked about only in one kind of language.

  • They tend to think that people’s experience has something to offer.

  • They assume that tradition or dogma should be challenged by people reflecting on their experiences.

  • They get riled up, but down deep they like to hear more voices, not fewer. They want their turn to speak, not the only turn. They get really impatient, but down deep they want democracy.

(HT to Dave Winer)

Serial Killers: Moore’s Law and the parallelisation bubble

Cory Doctorow had a thoughtful reaction to Sunday’s Observer column, where I cited Nathan Myhrvold’s Four Laws of Software. “Reading it”, he writes,

made me realize that we were living through a parallel computation bubble. The period in which Moore’s Law had declined also overlapped with the period in which computing came to be dominated by a handful of applications that are famously parallel — applications that have seemed overhyped even by the standards of the tech industry: VR, cryptocurrency mining, and machine learning.

Now, all of these have other reasons to be frothy: machine learning is the ideal tool for empiricism-washing, through which unfair policies are presented as “evidence-based”; cryptocurrencies are just the thing if you’re a grifty oligarch looking to launder your money; and VR is a new frontier for the moribund, hyper-concentrated entertainment industry to conquer.

“Parallelizable problems become hammers in search of nails,” Cory continued in an email:

“If your problem can be decomposed into steps that can be computed independent of one another, we’ve got JUST the thing for you — so, please, tell me about all the problems you have that fit the bill?”

This is arguably part of why we’re living through a cryptocurrency and ML bubble: even though these aren’t solving our most pressing problems, they are solving our most TRACTABLE ones. We’re looking for our keys under the readily computable lamppost, IOW.

Which leads Cory (@doctorow) to this “half-formed thought”: the bubbles in VR, machine learning and cryptocurrency are partly explained by the decline in returns to Moore’s Law, which means that parallelizable problems are cheaper/easier to solve than linear ones.

And wondering what the counterfactual would have been like: if we had found a way of extending Moore’s Law indefinitely.

Quote of the Day

everywhere wander thousands of rumours,
falsehoods mingled with the truth, and confused reports
flit about. Some of these fill their idle ears with talk,
and others go and tell elsewhere what they have heard;
while the story grows in size, and each new teller
makes contribution to what he has heard. Here is
Credulity, here is heedless Error, unfounded Joy and
panic Fear; here sudden Sedition and unauthentic

  • Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 12

Remind you of any particular time in history? Like now.

(Thanks to Willard McCarty, who reads more widely than anyone else I know.)

Tech monopoly: the long view

Just been listening to a terrific conversation on the ‘Talking Politics’ podcast between the host, David Runciman, and Gary Gerstle (who is the Mellon Professor of American history at Cambridge1) about the great campaigner and journalist Ida Tarbell — the woman who brought down John D Rockefeller and his company, Standard Oil.

The conversation left me musing about why (and how) Tarbell (and her fellow ‘muckrakers’) managed to get so much traction with the American public?

One reason was outrage at the way ordinary smallholders were driven out of business by Rockefeller & Co. (Remember, as David Runciman pointed out in the podcast, that in the early days drilling for oil was what small farmers did in Pennsylvalia.) You could drill for your own oil, but if you needed to get it to market you’d have to pay freight rates determined by the railway monopolist — and beat the prices that Rockefeller could set. So even small folks felt the heat.

Another was that the idea of ‘monopoly’ had unique historical resonance for American citizens: it was linked in the public mind with the American revolution — seen in part as a revolt against the charter-granting proclivities of the English Crown.

Also, the rise of new industrial Titans was seen as a challenge to the American dream — of how lowly immigrants seeking a better life in the New World could flourish by their own efforts with no monarch or grandee to stop them. The big trusts could therefore be portrayed as an attack on the very idea of what the US was supposed to be — and thus as a threat to its democracy.

As a result, Tarbell and her peers may have been preaching to people who were ripe for conversion. At any rate, public hostility to the monopolists of the first Gilded Age seems to have flourished and spread. This was manifested in the 1912 presidential election, for example, where the three main candidates were extremely hostile to the monopolists, though in different ways.

Turning to the present…

The contemporary tech giants are also a threat to democracy but in rather different ways. This means that they might be more difficult to bring under democratic control. Apart from anything else, there is much less public outrage about them than there was in 1912 United States. Among the reasons for this public lassitude are:

  • the nature of the threat is more indirect and requires a relatively sophisticated mental model of democratic essentials to be properly appreciated
    • Unlike in late 19th-century America, the contemporary public benefits from — and enjoys using — many of the services provided by the modern monopolists (think WhatsApp, Skype, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook); in the late 19th century the benefits to the public of the great wealth and power being accumulated by the Robber Barons were less obvious or perceived as non-existent; the new tech titans may not look like middle-aged bastards in Homburg hats, but they are just as ruthless and acquisitive
    • there’s little public understanding of the implications of the implicit Faustian data-bargain that users have struck with the surveillance capitalists
    • official reactions to digital monopoly have been neutered by a combination of neoliberal ideology, Chicago Law School judicial thinking and tech lobbying.
    • Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Morgan & Co had operations mostly concentrated in a single jurisdiction. Their Trusts were not global operations in the way that modern transnational corporations are.

Since the shocks of 2016 we have seen the growth of a degree of public unease about the dangers of our current generation of Robber Barons (the so-called ‘techlash’). We see this, for example, in the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren at the moment. And there is also some evidence of tech-disaffection on the Right in the US. But the diagnoses and remedial policies that are being discussed seem inchoate, incoherent and unlikely to be fit for contemporary purpose. And — most importantly — there is, as yet, no sign of the kind of public outrage that would motivate serious political action.

One final historically-inspired thought. It took about 35 years for the public outrage that was manifested in the 2012 election to find its full expression in legislation in FDR’s first term as President. Gary Gerstle attributed much of the delay to the length of time it took the US Supreme Court to change its collective mind on some of the key issues involved. That problem remains— maybe in more acute form if Trump gets re-elected. So if anyone is hoping to see rapid and effective control of our current monopolists, they will need the patience of Job.

  1. Ironically in the present context, Gary’s Chair is endowed by the foundation established by the last of the great monopolists, Andrew Mellon! 

Maternal scepticism

Dave Winer writes:

A family story. My mother was a pure capitalist. She believed in hard work, being productive. She felt threatened by evidence of idleness. I drove her crazy. Even as a kid I would sometimes just sit in a chair in the living room of our apartment in Jackson Heights and think. Once she saw me sitting, lights off, no TV, no book, appearing to be doing nothing, and she lost her shit right there. Anyway, many years later, when I sold my company and then it went public, after years of begging me to get a job, her stock in the company was all of a sudden worth a lot of money. It was the only time I remember getting her unqualified approval. She boasted, even when I could hear, that I was profitable. In other words, the money and time she put into raising me made her money.

That rings a bell. I’ve been a journalist and an academic all my working life. (My Observer Editor-in-Chief, Conor Cruise O’Brien, who straddled the same two occupations with great distinction, once said to me that he and I “had a foot in both graves”.) My mother, who hoped I would become an engineer with the national Electricity Supply Board, went to her grave believing that I never had held a proper job.

As Moore’s Law runs out of steam, it’ll be back to the future

This morning’s Observer column:

In a lecture in 1997, Nathan Myhrvold, who was once Bill Gates’s chief technology officer, set out his Four Laws of Software. 1: software is like a gas – it expands to fill its container. 2: software grows until it is limited by Moore’s law. 3: software growth makes Moore’s law possible – people buy new hardware because the software requires it. And, finally, 4: software is only limited by human ambition and expectation.

As Moore’s law reaches the end of its dominion, Myhrvold’s laws suggest that we basically have only two options. Either we moderate our ambitions or we go back to writing leaner, more efficient code. In other words, back to the future.

Read on