Our new bi-polar world

This morning’s Observer column:

What the Chinese have discovered, in other words, is that digital technology – which we once naively believed would be a force for democratisation – is also a perfect tool for social control. It’s the operating system for networked authoritarianism. Last month, James O’Malley, a British journalist, was travelling on the Beijing-Shanghai bullet train when his reverie was interrupted by this announcement: “Dear passengers, people who travel without a ticket, or behave disorderly, or smoke in public areas, will be punished according to regulations and the behaviour will be recorded in individual credit information system. To avoid a negative record of personal credit please follow the relevant regulations and help with the orders on the train and at the station.” Makes you nostalgic for those announcements about “arriving at King’s Cross, where this train terminates”, doesn’t it?

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Conspiracist thinking and social media

This morning’s Observer column:

The prevalence of conspiracy theories online explains why they tend to crop up whenever we track the cognitive path of someone who, like the alleged Pittsburgh killer, commits or attempts to commit an atrocity. A case in point is Dylann Roof, a South Carolina teenager who one day came across the term “black on white crime” on Wikipedia, entered that phrase into Google and wound up at a deeply racist website inviting him to wake up to a “reality” that he had never considered, from which it was but a short step into a vortex of conspiracy theories portraying white people as victims. On 17 June 2015, Roof joined a group of African American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, before opening fire on them, killing nine.

We find a similar sequence in the case of Cesar Sayoc, the man accused of sending mail bombs to prominent Democrats. Until 2016, his Facebook postings looked innocuous: decadent meals, gym workouts, scantily clad women and sports games – what the New York Times described as “the stereotypical trappings of middle-age masculinity”.

But then something changed. He opened a Twitter account posting links to fabricated rightwing stories and attacking Hillary Clinton. And his Facebook posts began to overflow with pro-Trump images, news stories about Muslims and Isis, ludicrous conspiracy theories and clips from Fox News…

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A picture is worth a trillion operations

This morning’s Observer column:

If you’re a keen photographer (which this columnist is) one of the things you prize most is a strange property called bokeh. It’s the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the parts of an image that are not of central interest – the way a lens renders out-of-focus points of light. You often see it in great portraits: the subject’s eyes are razor-sharp but the – potentially distracting – background is fuzzy.

In the era when all photography was analogue, the only way to get good bokeh was to use lenses that produced narrow depth of field at wide apertures. Since the optical performance of most lenses decreased at such apertures, that meant that serious photographers faced a trade-off: their lust for bokeh involved compromising on overall image quality. And the only way round that was to spend money on lenses of complex design and exceedingly high optical quality. Neither of these came cheap: a photo-buff of my acquaintance, for example, recently laid out a small fortune for a Leica Noctilux f0.95 aspherical lens, which, its manufacturer claims, provides “unique bokeh”. (At a retail price of £9,100 it jolly well ought to.)

Enter Apple, which was once a struggling computer company…

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Tech determinism and its consequences

This morning’s Observer column:

The polite term for the delusions that grip the lords of Silicon Valley (and their fans elsewhere) is technological determinism: the belief that technology is what really drives history and that they are on the right side of that history. It may also explain why they have manifested such blithe indifference to the malign effects that their machines are having on society. After all, if technology is the remorseless bulldozer that flattens everything in its path, then why waste time and energy fretting about it or imagining that it might be controlled?

Determinism, in that sense, removes human agency from the picture. The role assigned to people is essentially that of passive or active consumers of whatever wonders the tech industry chooses to lay before them. It also removes politics from the frame, because politics is about how societies make collective choices and determinism holds that there are no choices to be made. One of the infuriating tragedies of our time is how so many of our ruling elites seem to have swallowed this snake oil and how long it has then taken them to wake up to what’s going on…

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The great Chinese hardware hack: true or false?

This morning’s Observer column:

On 4 October, Bloomberg Businessweek published a major story under the headline “The Big Hack: How China Used a Tiny Chip to Infiltrate US Companies”. It claimed that Chinese spies had inserted a covert electronic backdoor into the hardware of computer servers used by 30 US companies, including Amazon and Apple (and possibly also servers used by national security agencies), by compromising America’s technology supply chain.

According to the Bloomberg story, the technology had been compromised during the manufacturing process in China. Undercover operatives from a unit of the People’s Liberation Army had inserted tiny chips – about the size of a grain of rice – into motherboards during the manufacturing process.

The affected hardware then made its way into high-end video-compression servers assembled by a San Jose company called Supermicro and deployed by major US companies and government agencies…

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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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Feeding the crocodile

This morning’s Observer column:

Last week, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, the co-founders of Instagram, announced that they were leaving Facebook, where they had worked since Mark Zuckerberg bought their company six years ago. “We’re planning on taking some time off to explore our curiosity and creativity again,” Systrom wrote in a statement on the Instagram blog. “Building new things requires that we step back, understand what inspires us and match that with what the world needs; that’s what we plan to do.”

Quite so. It’s always refreshing when young millionaires decide to spend more time with their money. (Facebook paid $715m for their little outfit when it acquired it; Instagram had 13 employees at the time.) But to those of us who have an unhealthy interest in what goes on at Facebook, the real question about Systrom’s and Krieger’s departure was: what took them so long?

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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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Controlling digital giants: new ideas wanted

This morning’s Observer column:

The five biggest companies in the world are now all digital giants, each wielding monopolistic power in their markets. We are increasingly aware that some of their activities are socially damaging: they are deepening inequality, avoiding taxation, undermining democratic processes, creating addictive products, eroding privacy and so on. And yet, with the odd exception (mostly represented by the European commission), our societies seem transfixed by them, like rabbits paralysed in the tractor’s headlights. Politicians bleat about the need to do something about the digital giants, but so far it’s been all talk and no action.

This is strange because democracies have extensive legal toolkits for dealing with overweening corporate power. We have antitrust and competition laws, monopolies and merger commissions and federal trade commissions coming out of our ears. And yet – again with the single exception of the European commission – they seem unable to deal with the digital giants. Why?

The answer is partly historical and partly ideological…

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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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