The 5G enigma

This morning’s Observer column:

The dominant company in the market at the moment is Huawei, a $100bn giant which is the world’s largest supplier of telecoms equipment and its second largest smartphone maker. In the normal course of events, therefore, we would expect that the core networks of western mobile operators would have a lot of its kit in them. And initially, that’s what looked like happening. But in recent months someone has pressed the pause button.

The prime mover in this is the US, which has banned government agencies from using Huawei (and ZTE) equipment and called on its allies to do the same. The grounds for this are national security concerns about hidden “backdoors”: it would be risky to have a company so close to the Chinese government building key parts of American critical infrastructure. Last week Huawei filed a lawsuit against the US government over the ban. New Zealand and Australia have obligingly complied with the ban, blocking the use of Huawei’s equipment in 5G networks. And last December BT announced that it was even removing Huawei kit from parts of its 4G network.

Other countries – notably Japan and Germany – have proved less compliant; the German Data Commissioner was even tactless enough to point out that “the US itself once made sure that backdoor doors were built into Cisco hardware”.

The UK’s position is interestingly enigmatic…

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The dark side of recommendation engines

This morning’s Observer column:

My eye was caught by a headline in Wired magazine: “When algorithms think you want to die”. Below it was an article by two academic researchers, Ysabel Gerrard and Tarleton Gillespie, about the “recommendation engines” that are a central feature of social media and e-commerce sites.

Everyone who uses the web is familiar with these engines. A recommendation algorithm is what prompts Amazon to tell me that since I’ve bought Custodians of the Internet, Gillespie’s excellent book on the moderation of online content, I might also be interested in Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism and a host of other books about algorithmic power and bias. In that particular case, the algorithm’s guess is accurate and helpful: it informs me about stuff that I should have known about but hadn’t.

Recommendation engines are central to the “personalisation” of online content and were once seen as largely benign…

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Xi Jinping’s Little Red App

This morning’s Observer column:

We need to update Marx’s famous aphorism that “history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. Version 2.0 reads: history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as an app. Readers with long memories will remember Mao Zedong, the chairman (for life) of the Chinese Communist party who, in 1966, launched his Cultural Revolution to preserve Chinese communism by purging remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society and reimposing his ideas (aka Maoism) as the dominant ideology within the party. One propaganda aid devised for this purpose was a little red book, printed in the hundreds of millions, entitled Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-tung.

The “revolution” unleashed chaos in China: millions of citizens were persecuted, suffering outrageous abuses including public humiliation, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, hard labour, sustained harassment, seizure of property and worse…

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The inescapable infrastructure of the networked world

This morning’s Observer column:

“Quitting smoking is easy,” said Mark Twain. “I’ve done it hundreds of times.” Much the same goes for smartphones. As increasing numbers of people begin to realise that they have a smartphone habit they begin to wonder if they should do something about the addiction. A few (a very few, in my experience) make the attempt, switching their phones off after work, say, and not rebooting them until the following morning. But almost invariably the dash for freedom fails and the chastened fugitive returns to the connected world.

The technophobic tendency to attribute this failure to lack of moral fibre should be resisted. It’s not easy to cut yourself off from a system that links you to friends, family and employer, all of whom expect you to be contactable and sometimes get upset when you’re not. There are powerful network effects in play here against which the individual addict is helpless. And while “just say no” may be a viable strategy in relation to some services (for example, Facebook), it is now a futile one in relation to the networked world generally. We’re long past the point of no return in our connected lives.

Most people don’t realise this. They imagine that if they decide to stop using Gmail or Microsoft Outlook or never buy another book from Amazon then they have liberated themselves from the tentacles of these giants. If that is indeed what they believe, then Kashmir Hill has news for them…

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Why, sooner or later, societies are going to have to rein in the tech giants

My OpEd piece in yesterday’s Observer:

Spool forward to the tragic case of Molly Russell, the 14-year-old who killed herself after exploring her depression on Instagram. When her family looked into her account, they found sombre material about depression and suicide. Her father said that he believed the Facebook-owned platform had “helped kill my daughter”. This prompted Matt Hancock, the health secretary, to warn social media platforms to “purge” material relating to self-harm and suicide or face legislation that would compel them to do so. In response, Instagram and Pinterest (another social media outfit) issued the standard bromides about how they were embarking on a “full review” of their policies etc.

So is Molly’s case a crisis or a scandal? You know the answer. Nothing much will change because the business models of the platforms preclude it. Their commercial imperatives are remorselessly to increase both the number of their users and the intensity of those users’ “engagement” with the platforms. That’s what keeps the monetisable data flowing. Tragedies such as Molly Russell’s suicide are regrettable (and of course have PR downsides) but are really just the cost of running such a profitable business.

Asking these companies to change their business model, therefore, is akin to “asking a giraffe to shorten its neck”, as Shoshana Zuboff puts it in her fiery new book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism…

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How the technical is political

This morning’s Observer column:

The only computer game I’ve ever played involved no killing, zombies, heavily-armed monsters or quests for hidden keys. It was called SimCity and involved developing a virtual city from a patch of undeveloped land. The game enabled you to determine where to place development zones, infrastructure (like roads and power plants), landmarks and public services such as schools, parks, hospitals and fire stations. You could decide the tax rate, budget and social policy for your city – populated by Sims (for “simulated persons”, I guess) who had to live and work in the three zones you created for them: residential had houses and apartment buildings, commercial had shops and offices and industrial had factories, warehouses, laboratories and (oddly) farms.

SimCity was the brainchild of Will Wright, a software developer who had first made a splash with a shoot-’em-up (well, bomb-’em-flat) video game in which the player controls a helicopter dropping bombs on islands. But he became more fascinated with the islands than with the weaponry and started to wonder what a virtual city would be like – and how it would work. What he came up with was magical for its time: it gave the player a feeling of omnipotence: you decided where Sims should live, whether their electricity should come from nukes, where schools and offices should be located, how much tax they paid…

What you discovered early on, though, was that your decisions had consequences…

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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?

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WhatsApp tries damage limitation

This morning’s Observer column:

In the last two years, around two dozen people in India have been killed by lynch mobs inflamed by rumours on WhatsApp, the encrypted messaging service owned by Facebook. WhatsApp has also been fingered for its role in other hateful or unsavoury episodes in Brazil and Pakistan. In each case, the accusation is essentially the same: disinformation and lies, often of an inflammatory kind, are effortlessly disseminated by WhatsApp and obviously believed by some of the recipients, who are thereby encouraged to do terrible things.

In terms of software architecture and interface design, WhatsApp is a lovely system, which is why it is a favourite of families, not to mention Westminster plotters, who are allegedly addicted to it. Its USP is that messages on the platform are encrypted end to end, which means that not even Facebook, the app’s owner, can read them. This is either a feature or a bug, depending on your point of view. If you’re a user, then it’s a feature because it guarantees that your deathless prose is impenetrable to snoopers; if you’re a spook or a cop, then it’s definitely a bug, because you can’t read the damned messages.

A few years ago, WhatsApp added a key new feature – an easy way to forward a message to multiple chat groups at once…

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Shoshana Zuboff’s new book

Today’s Observer carries a five-page feature about Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism consisting of an intro by me followed by Q&A between me and the author.

LATER Nick Carr has a perceptive review of the book in the LA Review of Books. John Thornhill also had a good long review in last Saturday’s Financial Times, sadly behind a paywall.

Peak Apple? No: just peak smartphone

This morning’s Observer column:

On 2 January, in a letter to investors, Tim Cook revealed that he expected revenues for the final quarter of 2018 to be lower than originally forecast.

Given that most of Apple’s revenues come from its iPhone, this sent the tech commentariat into overdrive – to the point where one level-headed observer had to point out that the sky hadn’t fallen: all that had happened was that Apple shares were down a bit. And all this despite the fact that the other bits of the company’s businesses (especially the watch, AirPods, services and its retail arm) were continuing to do nicely. Calmer analyses showed that the expected fall in revenues could be accounted for by two factors: the slowdown in the Chinese economy (together with some significant innovations by the Chinese internet giant WeChat); and the fact that consumers seem to be hanging on to their iPhones for longer, thereby slowing the steep upgrade path that had propelled Apple to its trillion-dollar valuation.

What was most striking, though, was that the slowdown in iPhone sales should have taken journalists and analysts by surprise…

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