Time to stop kowtowing to China

My OpEd piece in today’s Observer:

What’s happening is that the delusions of decades of wishful western thinking about China are finally being exposed by the crisis in Hong Kong. These delusions took various forms over the years. First, there was the theory that since economic development required capitalism, then that would bring democracy. The Chinese said they would have one without the other, thank you very much. And they did.

Then there was the fantasy that adopting the internet would bring openness and therefore democracy. Same story. The most recent delusion is that China’s current turn towards totalitarianism is doomed because such societies stagnate and decay. Xi Jinping and his colleagues beg to differ: they believe that information technology can enable them to have total control without sclerosis. Given their track record, it’d be unwise to bet against them…

Read on.

Why the blogosphere matters

This morning’s Observer column:

Last Monday was a significant anniversary in the evolution of the web. It was 25 years to the day since the first serious blog appeared. It was called Scripting News and the url was (and remains) at scripting.com. Its author is a software wizard named Dave Winer, who’s updated it every day since 1994. And despite its wide readership, it has never run ads. This may be partly because Dave doesn’t need the money (he sold his company to Symantec in 1987 for a substantial sum) but it’s mainly because he didn’t want to compete for the attention of his readers. “I see running ads on my blog,” he once wrote, “as picking up loose change that’s fallen out of peoples’ pockets. I want to hit a home run. I’m swinging for the fences. Not picking up litter.”

When some innovators cash out big, as Winer did, they more or less retire – play golf, buy a yacht and generally hang out in luxury. Not so Dave. He has a long string of innovations to his name, including outliner and blogging software, RSS syndication, the outline processor markup language OPML and podcasting, of which he was a pioneer.

And his daily blog at scripting.com continues to be a must-read for anyone interested in the intersection between technology and politics. Winer has a quirky, perceptive, liberal and sometimes contrarian take on just about anything that appears on his radar. He is the nearest thing the web has to an international treasure.

He’s also a reminder of the importance of blogging, a phenomenon that has been overshadowed as social media exploded and sucked much of the oxygen out of our information environment…

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Child abuse, encryption and the rule of law

This morning’s Observer column:

Last week the New York Times published the most depressing piece I’ve read in a long time. “The Internet Is Overrun With Images of Child Sexual Abuse,” said the headline. “What Went Wrong?”

The article was the outcome of a major investigation by two NYT reporters – Michael Keller and Gabriel Dance – into what they described as “an insatiable criminal underworld that had exploited the flawed and insufficient efforts to contain it”.

The reporters also found that (as with hate speech and terrorist propaganda) many tech companies failed to adequately police sexual abuse imagery on their platforms, or failed to cooperate sufficiently with the authorities when they found it; law enforcement agencies tasked with the problem are understaffed and underfunded; and the US justice department, despite being given major responsibility for the problem by Congress, has fallen down on the job. Sign up to the Media Briefing: news for the news-makers Read more

Given the outrage-fatigue that now grips many of us as liberal democracy self-destructs, it would be tempting to just file this disturbing report in the “more downsides of tech” folder and move on. That temptation should be resisted…

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Quantum supremacy?

This morning’s Observer column:

Something intriguing happened last week. A paper about quantum computing by a Google researcher making a startling claim appeared on a Nasa website – and then disappeared shortly afterwards. Conspiracy theorists immediately suspected that something sinister involving the National Security Agency was afoot. Spiritualists thought that it confirmed what they’ve always suspected about quantum phenomena. (It was, as one wag put it to me, a clear case of “Schrödinger’s Paper”.) Adherents of the cock-up theory of history (this columnist included) concluded that someone had just pushed the “publish” button prematurely, a suspicion apparently confirmed later by stories that the paper was intended for a major scientific journal before being published on the web.

Why was the elusive paper’s claim startling? It was because – according to the Financial Times – it asserted that a quantum computer built by Google could perform a calculation “in three minutes and 20 seconds that would take today’s most advanced classical computer … approximately 10,000 years”. As someone once said of the book of Genesis, this would be “important if true”. A more mischievous thought was: how would the researchers check that the quantum machine’s calculation was correct?

A quantum computer is one that harnesses phenomena from quantum physics, the study of the behaviour of subatomic particles, which is one of the most arcane specialisms known to humankind…

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We can write genetic code. But what about the (inevitable) bugs?

This morning’s Observer column:

A few days ago, on my way to a discussion in the exquisite little McCrum theatre, which is hidden away in the centre of Cambridge, I had to pass through the courtyard of the Eagle pub in Bene’t Street. As I did so, I suddenly remembered that this is the hostelry where, on 28 February 1953, Francis Crick, rushing in from the nearby Cavendish Lab, announced to astonished lunchers that he and James Watson had discovered the secret of life. (They had just unveiled their double-helix model of the DNA molecule to colleagues in the laboratory; there’s now a blue plaque on the wall marking the moment.)

As a graduate student in the late 1960s, I knew the pub well because it was where some of my geeky friends from the Computer Lab, then located in the centre of town, used to gather. We talked about a lot of things then, but one thing that never really crossed our minds was that there might be a connection between what Crick and Watson had done in 1953 and the software that many of us were struggling to write for our experiments or dissertations…

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Creative wealth and moral bankruptcy

Tomorrow’s Observer column, which for some reason is online today:

In the parallel moral universe known as the tech industry, the MIT media lab was Valhalla. “The engineers, designers, scientists and physicians who constitute the two dozen research groups housed there,” burbled the Atlantic in a profile of what it called the Idea Factory, “work in what may be the world’s most interesting, most hyper-interdisciplinary thinktank.” It has apparently been responsible for a host of groundbreaking innovations including “the technology behind the Kindle and Guitar Hero” (I am not making this up) and its researchers “end up pollinating other projects with insights and ideas, within a hive of serendipitous collaboration”.

That was written in 2011. In the last two weeks, we have discovered that some of this groundbreaking work was funded by Jeffrey Epstein, the financial wizard who took his own life rather than face prosecution for sex trafficking and other crimes. It should be pointed out that most of those researchers were entirely unaware of who was funding their work and some of them have been very upset by learning the truth. Their distress is intensified by the discovery that their ignorance was not accidental…

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MORE danah boyd’s Acceptance Speech (link in the post below) is worth reading in this context, because she worked for a time at the Media Lab.

Zero-days and the iPhone

This morning’s Observer column:

Whenever there’s something that some people value, there will be a marketplace for it. A few years ago, I spent a fascinating hour with a detective exploring the online marketplaces that exist in the so-called “dark web” (shorthand for the parts of the web you can only get to with a Tor browser and some useful addresses). The marketplaces we were interested in were ones in which stolen credit card details and other confidential data are traded.

What struck me most was the apparent normality of it all. It’s basically eBay for crooks. There are sellers offering goods (ranges of stolen card details, Facebook, Gmail and other logins etc) and punters interested in purchasing same. Different categories of these stolen goods are more or less expensive. (The most expensive logins, as I remember it, were for PayPal). But the funniest thing of all was that some of the marketplaces operated a “reputation” system, just like eBay’s. Some vendors had 90%-plus ratings for reliability etc. Some purchasers likewise. Others were less highly regarded. So, one reflected, there really is honour among thieves.

But it’s not just credit cards and logins that are valuable in this underworld…

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The downside of tech platforms

This morning’s Observer column:

But because capitalism never knows when to stop, eventually even the exponential growth rate promised by Metcalfe’s law wasn’t good enough for Google and co. They noticed Reed’s law, which said that if a network can have sub-groups then its utility can grow at an even more colossal rate. And so they began to turn themselves into platforms on which entrepreneurs could build services. A platform in this sense is a set of tools provided by the owner to enable third-party developers to create applications that interact with core features of the platform (thereby keeping users within the network to leave monetisable data trails)…

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Where is the understanding we lose in machine learning?

This morning’s Observer column:

Fans of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy treasure the bit where a group of hyper-dimensional beings demand that a supercomputer tells them the secret to life, the universe and everything. The machine, which has been constructed specifically for this purpose, takes 7.5m years to compute the answer, which famously comes out as 42. The computer helpfully points out that the answer seems meaningless because the beings who instructed it never knew what the question was. And the name of the supercomputer? Why, Deep Thought, of course.

It’s years since I read Adams’s wonderful novel, but an article published in Nature last month brought it vividly to mind. The article was about the contemporary search for the secret to life and the role of a supercomputer in helping to answer it. The question is how to predict the three-dimensional structures of proteins from their amino-acid sequences. The computer is a machine called AlphaFold. And the company that created it? You guessed it – DeepMind…

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Silicon Valley discovers politics

This morning’s Observer column:

For many years, Silicon Valley companies didn’t even bother to have lobbyists in Washington. As late as 2015, Eric Schmidt, then the executive chairman of Google, was predicting that authoritarian governments would wither away in a comprehensively networked world, which made some of us wonder what exactly Dr Schmidt was smoking.

During that period, governments generally played along with this myth of their irrelevance. Presidents and prime ministers queued up for invitations to the campuses of the Silicon Valley giants. And insofar as the tech moguls paid any attention to presidential politics, it was to support the Democrats. Schmidt, for example, played a big role in Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency.

Unsurprisingly, the valley was thunderstruck by the election of Donald Trump…

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