The future of Search

This morning’s Observer column:

ype “What is the future of search?” into Google and in 0.47 seconds the search engine replies with a list of sites asking the same question, together with a note that it had found about 2,110,000,000 other results. Ponder that number for a moment, for it reflects the scale of the information explosion that was triggered by Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the web in 1989-90. Back then there were no search engines because there was no need for them: there were very few websites in those early days.

Google turned 20 recently and the anniversary prompted a small wave of reflections by those who (like this columnist) remember a world BG (before Google), when information was much harder to find. The nicest one I found was a blog post by Ralph Leighton, who was a friend of Richard Feynman, the late, great theoretical physicist.

The story starts in 1977 when Feynman mischievously asked his friend “whatever happened to Tannu Tuva?” …

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You’re never extreme enough for YouTube’s recommendation algorithm

This morning’s Observer column:

Early one Sunday morning a month ago, a German carpenter was fatally stabbed in a street fight in Chemnitz in eastern Germany. Little is known about how the brawl started, but rumours rapidly circulated online that the man was defending a woman from sexual assault. Within hours of his death, rumours that his killers were two refugees triggered a violent reaction. For two nights running, thousands of rightwing extremists and sympathisers took to the streets of the city. Shocking videos of demonstrators openly using the Nazi salute (a criminal offence in Germany) and chasing and attacking people of foreign appearance rapidly appeared online.

The reverberations of the riots continue to roil German politics and society. They appear to have given a massive boost to the right-wing AfD party, for example, which according to some opinion polls is now in second place in Germany. And last week, Angela Merkel removed the head of the domestic intelligence agency, Hans-Georg Maaßen, from his post after he faced criticism for his reaction to anti-immigrant protests in the city of Chemnitz. He had cast doubt on the authenticity of the videos showing dark-skinned people being chased and attacked.

What’s going on? How did many Germans become so worked up about a street brawl?

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Why Google wants to get back into China

From Kara Swisher:

Rather than obsessions about whether Google is ‘censoring’ right-wing politicians, Washington lawmakers

should take all their sanctimony and direct it at the China issue, which actually deserves some scrutiny. Perhaps that is the real reason Google avoided sending its current chief executive, Sundar Pichai, to the recent Senate hearings, so he could avoid explaining what it was thinking when it came China 2.0: Now With 100 Percent More Hypocrisy.

Google seems to have no problem climbing down off its high horse to grab the thing it needs in China.

Which is, simply put, more data.

In his new book, “AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order,” Dr. Lee [Dr Jai-Fu Lee, head of Google China] argues that advances in artificial intelligence — the future of computing — will be enjoyed only by those with the ability to essentially shove increasing amounts of data into the maw of the machine.

Right now, he notes, with China’s aggressive use of sensors and you-say-facial-recognition-I-say-surveillance, a population hooked on mobile in a much more significant way than here and consumers more willing to trade away their privacy for digital convenience, China’s internet companies have access to 10 to 15 times more data than American ones. Dr. Lee and others have called it a “data gap” that Google has to bridge, and soon, if it wants to remain competitive.

As James Carville might have said: it’s the data, stoopid.

The Google era

This morning’s Observer column:

This is a month of anniversaries, of which two in particular stand out. One is that it’s 10 years since the seismic shock of the banking crisis – one of the consequences of which is the ongoing unravelling of the (neo)liberal democracy so beloved of western ruling elites. The other is that it’s 20 years since Google arrived on the scene.

Future historians will see our era divided into two ages: BG and AG – before and after Google. For web users in the 1990s search engines were a big deal, because as the network exploded, finding anything on it became increasingly difficult. Like many of my peers, I used AltaVista, a search tool developed by the then significant Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), which was the best thing available at the time.

And then one day, word spread like wildfire online about a new search engine with a name bowdlerised from googol, the mathematical term for a huge number (10 to the power of 100). It was clean, fast and delivered results derived from conducting a kind of peer review of all the sites on the web. Once you tried it, you never went back to AltaVista.

Twenty years on, it’s still the same story…

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Tech companies and ‘fractal irresponsibility’

Nice, insightful essay by Alexis Madrigal. Every new scandal is a fractal representation of the giant services that produce them:

On Tuesday, BuzzFeed published a memo from the outgoing Facebook chief security officer, Alex Stamos, in which he summarizes what the company needs to do to “win back the world’s trust.” And what needs to change is … well, just about everything. Facebook needs to revise “the metrics we measure” and “the goals.” It needs to not ship code more often. It needs to think in new ways “in every process, product, and engineering decision.” It needs to make the user experience more honest and respectful, to collect less data, to keep less data. It needs to “listen to people (including internally) when they tell us a feature is creepy or point out a negative impact we are having in the world.” It needs to deprioritize growth and change its relationship with its investors. And finally, Stamos wrote, “We need to be willing to pick sides when there are clear moral or humanitarian issues.” YouTube (and its parent company, Alphabet), Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Uber, and every other tech company could probably build a list that contains many of the same critiques and some others.

.People encountering problems online probably don’t think of every single one of these institutional issues when something happens. But they sense that the pattern they are seeing is linked to the fact that these are the most valuable companies in the world, and that they don’t like the world they see through those services or IRL around them. That’s what I mean by fractal irresponsibility: Each problem isn’t just one in a sequence, but part of the same whole.

Interesting also that facebook’s Chief Security Officer has left the company, and that his position is not going to be filled.

Google, Facebook and the power to nudge users

This morning’s Observer column:

Thaler and Sunstein describe their philosophy as “libertarian paternalism”. What it involves is a design approach known as “choice architecture” and in particular controlling the default settings at any point where a person has to make a decision.

Funnily enough, this is something that the tech industry has known for decades. In the mid-1990s, for example, Microsoft – which had belatedly realised the significance of the web – set out to destroy Netscape, the first company to create a proper web browser. Microsoft did this by installing its own browser – Internet Explorer – on every copy of the Windows operating system. Users were free to install Netscape, of course, but Microsoft relied on the fact that very few people ever change default settings. For this abuse of its monopoly power, Microsoft was landed with an antitrust suit that nearly resulted in its breakup. But it did succeed in destroying Netscape.

When the EU introduced its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – which seeks to give internet users significant control over uses of their personal data – many of us wondered how data-vampires like Google and Facebook would deal with the implicit threat to their core businesses. Now that the regulation is in force, we’re beginning to find out: they’re using choice architecture to make it as difficult as possible for users to do what is best for them while making it easy to do what is good for the companies.

We know this courtesy of a very useful 43-page report just out from the Norwegian Consumer Council, an organisation funded by the Norwegian government…

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Kremlinology 2.0

This morning’s Observer column:

In the bad old days of the cold war, western political and journalistic institutions practised an arcane pseudoscience called Kremlinology. Its goal was to try to infer what was going on in the collective mind of the Soviet Politburo. Its method was obsessively to note everything that could be publicly observed of the activities of this secretive cabal – who was sitting next to whom at the podium; which foreign visitors were granted an audience with which high official; who was in the receiving line for a visiting head of state; what editorials in Pravda (the official Communist party newspaper) might mean; and so on.

The Soviet empire is no more, much to Putin’s chagrin, but the world now has some new superpowers. We call them tech companies. Each periodically stages a major public event at which its leaders emerge from their executive suites to convey messages to their faithful followers and to the wider world. In the past few weeks, two such events have been held by two of the biggest powers – Google and Apple. So let’s do some Kremlinology on them…

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Fixing Facebook: the only two options by a guy who knows how the sausage is made

James Fallows quotes from a fascinating email exchange he had with his friend Michael Jones, who used to work at Google (he was the company’s Chief Technology Advocate and later a key figure in the evolution of Google Earth):

So, how might FB fix itself? What might government regulators seek? What could make FaceBook likable? It is very simple. There are just two choices:

a. FB stays in its send-your-PII1-to-their-customers business, and then must be regulated and the customers validated precisely as AXCIOM and EXPERIAN in the credit world or doctors and hospitals in the HIPPA healthcare world; or,

b. FB joins Google and ALL OTHER WEB ADVERTISERS in keeping PII private, never letting it out, and anonymously connecting advertisers with its users for their mutual benefit.

I don’t get a vote, but I like (b) and see that as the right path for civil society. There is no way that choice (a) is not a loathsome and destructive force in all things—in my personal opinion it seems that making people’s pillow-talk into a marketing weapon is indeed a form of evil.

This is why I never use Facebook; I know how the sausage is made.


  1. PII = Personally Identifiable Information 

The ethics of working for surveillance capitalists

This morning’s Observer column:

In a modest way, Kosinski, Stillwell and Graepel are the contemporary equivalents of [Leo] Szilard and the theoretical physicists of the 1930s who were trying to understand subatomic behaviour. But whereas the physicists’ ideas revealed a way to blow up the planet, the Cambridge researchers had inadvertently discovered a way to blow up democracy.

Which makes one wonder about the programmers – or software engineers, to give them their posh title – who write the manipulative algorithms that determine what Facebook users see in their news feeds, or the “autocomplete” suggestions that Google searchers see as they begin to type, not to mention the extremist videos that are “recommended” after you’ve watched something on YouTube. At least the engineers who built the first atomic bombs were racing against the terrible possibility that Hitler would get there before them. But for what are the software wizards at Facebook or Google working 70-hour weeks? Do they genuinely believe they are making the world a better place? And does the hypocrisy of the business model of their employers bother them at all?

These thoughts were sparked by reading a remarkable essay by Yonatan Zunger in the Boston Globe, arguing that the Cambridge Analytica scandal suggests that computer science now faces an ethical reckoning analogous to those that other academic fields have had to confront…

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