Facebook thinks it’s a state. US Congress disagrees

This morning’s Observer column:

Now that Wimbledon is over, if you’re looking for something interesting to watch, can I suggest heading over to the video of last week’s interrogation by the US Senate committee on banking, housing and urban affairs of Facebook’s David Marcus? Given the astonishing incompetence of the Senate’s inquisition of Marcus’s boss, Mark Zuckerberg, some time ago, my hopes for last week’s hearing were not high. How wrong can you be?

But first a bit of background might be helpful. Facebook, currently the tech world’s most toxic company, has decided to get into the currency business. It proposes to launch a new global cryptocurrency called Libra. Marcus is the guy leading this project. He formerly worked at PayPal and then moved to Facebook, where he ran the company’s Messenger service.

At first sight, Marcus appears to be a Smooth Man from central casting. At second sight, he evokes the “uncanny valley”, defined by Wikipedia as “a hypothesised relationship between the degree of an object’s resemblance to a human being and the emotional response to such an object”. In that respect, he is not unlike his boss…

Read on

Why traditional political parties are in trouble

Perceptive NYT article on the stress fractures now materialising in the two big political parties.

WASHINGTON — On the night that he conceded defeat in 1992 after the most successful independent presidential campaign of the last century, Ross Perot made it clear that he was not done shaking up the established order. “Believe me,” he declared, “the system needs some shocks.”

So perhaps it was only fitting that on the same week that Mr. Perot died nearly 27 years later, both of the two major political parties were being rattled by the aftershocks of the earthquake that his campaign represented. President Trump was busy quarreling with former Speaker Paul D. Ryan while the current speaker, Nancy Pelosi, was bickering with first-year House Democrats.

In both cases, those who represented the institutional order, Mr. Ryan and Ms. Pelosi, found themselves at odds with rabble-rousers within their own parties agitating for change from outside the traditional system through the power of social media. This was not a week that showcased the competition between the parties but within them. The stress fractures that Mr. Perot identified a generation ago are tearing at the foundations of the Republican and Democratic Parties.

The same process is evident in the UK.

Guess who benefits from Automation 2.0

This morning’s Observer column:

We have now lived through what one might call Automation 1.0. The paradigmatic example is car manufacturing. Henry Ford’s production line metamorphosed into Toyota’s “lean machine” and thence to the point where few humans, if any, are visible on an assembly line. Once upon a time, the car industry employed hundreds of thousands of people. We called them blue-collar workers. Now it employs far fewer. The robots did indeed take their jobs. In some cases, those made redundant found other employment, but many didn’t. And sometimes their communities were devastated as a result. But GDP went up, nevertheless, so economists were happy.

Now we’re embarking on Automation 2.0…

Read on

Social media enables pop-up parties

From today’s Guardian

The Brexit party used simple messaging, an active social media presence and a “overwhelmingly negative” attack to win the online battle before the European elections, according to a new analysis of the campaign.

Nigel Farage’s party accounted for 51% of all shared content on Facebook and Twitter during the campaign, despite only producing 13% of the content. The analysis, by the 89up digital agency, said the “scale of their success went beyond what we were expecting”.

Meanwhile, Change UK, made up of pro-Remain former Labour and Tory MPs, were the losers of the internet campaign. Despite spending more than £100,000 on 1,000 Facebook ads in the week before the vote, Change UK generated 1.1% of all shares on the platform – fewer than any other UK-wide party.

Why China won’t be democratised any time soon

I’m reading an extraordinary book by Kai Strittmatter, a German journalist who has lived in, and studied, China for many years. It’s a sobering account of how the Chinese Communist Party is making the transition from what Rebecca Mackinnon christened “networked authoritarianism” to networked totalitarianism. Digital technology is their tool of choice for enabling this transition, and the book provides some graphic insights into its potential for such a project.

The recent remarkable demonstrations in Hong Kong — which caused the territory’s Chief Executive to make a humiliating climb-down over a proposed extradition law — have led some people to wonder if this might prompt a reversal of Xi Jinping’s remorseless progress to totalitarian power. Tyler Cowen doesn’t think so, and neither do I. Here’s the money quote from his latest Bloomberg Column:

It’s also worth thinking through exactly what changes Chinese democracy is supposed to bring. China’s urbanization has been so rapid — it has had more urban than rural residents for less than a decade — that a national election might well reflect the preferences of rural voters, which after all most Chinese were until very recently. If you belong to the Chinese upper class or even middle class along the eastern coast, you may end up asking yourself the following question: Who is more likely to protect my basic economic interests, the current Chinese Communist Party, or a democratic representative of Chinese rural interests? China is also growing rich during a time of extreme economic inequality, which may make many Chinese elites think twice about democratization.

Sadly, I think he’s right. Besides, I can’t see Xi having any truck with ‘democracy’.

The Self-Destruction of American Power

For anyone interested in escaping from “the sociology of the last five minutes”, this long essay by Fareed Zakaria about the ending of American hegemony is a great read.

Sometime in the last two years, American hegemony died. The age of U.S. dominance was a brief, heady era, about three decades marked by two moments, each a breakdown of sorts. It was born amid the collapse of the Berlin Wall, in 1989. The end, or really the beginning of the end, was another collapse, that of Iraq in 2003, and the slow unraveling since. But was the death of the United States’ extraordinary status a result of external causes, or did Washington accelerate its own demise through bad habits and bad behavior? That is a question that will be debated by historians for years to come. But at this point, we have enough time and perspective to make some preliminary observations.

As with most deaths, many factors contributed to this one. There were deep structural forces in the international system that inexorably worked against any one nation that accumulated so much power. In the American case, however, one is struck by the ways in which Washington—from an unprecedented position—mishandled its hegemony and abused its power, losing allies and emboldening enemies. And now, under the Trump administration, the United States seems to have lost interest, indeed lost faith, in the ideas and purpose that animated its international presence for three-quarters of a century.

Worth reading in full.

Wanting to be Margaret

David Runciman has a lovely essay in the current issue of The London Review of Books.

Most British prime ministers since Margaret Thatcher, he observes, have wanted to be Thatcher in one way or another.

This pattern is now repeating itself among the farcically long list of would-be contenders for the Tory leadership. They all, in their different ways, want to be another Thatcher. And they are all desperate to demonstrate that they won’t be another May. How to make that case? By frantically channelling their inner iron lady. ‘Dominic is the male Thatcher,’ Raab’s supporters will tell anyone who’ll listen. ‘Like Thatcher, he is “unyielding”,’ one former cabinet minister said. What this seems to mean is that he will keep hammering away until he gets his way. Raab puts it like this: ‘I would use every lever of the executive to make sure we could execute government policy.’ He is hardly alone in this kind of talk. As his rivals lay out their various Brexit plans, one thing they have in common is the promise to supply the sense of purpose that has been missing until now. Whether it’s outright no deal, managed no deal, renegotiation, revival of the existing deal or even a second referendum, they will avoid the fate that befell May by being more resolute than she was. They won’t let the Europeans or the civil service or the judges or the Speaker or the parliamentary opposition or the chatterati knock them off course. They are not for turning.

There is, however, one problem with this.

It is hard to imagine any politician being more resolute than May. Remember, she thought she was Thatcher too. She went at it with an iron determination not to be deflected from her course. And look where that got her. What are the levers they can pull which she couldn’t? Parliament has shown that it does not take kindly to being bullied on the question of Brexit, and the Speaker is barely on speaking terms with the executive. Talk of proroguing Parliament to force through a no deal Brexit before 31 October is surely for the birds. Ignoring the views of the judges is not a way to avoid being troubled by them; it’s what gets you into trouble with them. The Irish government is not going to budge any more than the Brexit negotiators in Brussels are. In any case, Westminster’s authority barely extends to the devolved parts of the UK these days, let alone any further afield. Trying to browbeat the civil service doesn’t make sense unless the goal is to get nothing done at all. There is no magic switch that can be flicked to make the Irish border question go away; whatever fantasies of a technological solution have been entertained, it remains beyond the present government’s grasp. Raab can huff and puff all he likes. Being a successful prime minister is not just a question of willpower. Getting the job done depends on bringing people along with you. And people are not levers you can pull.

Great piece. Worth reading in full.

Why has the US got it in for cryptographers?

Ross Anderson is one of my most remarkable academic colleagues. He’s one of the world’s leading experts on cryptography, a Fellow of the Royal Society and a thoroughly good egg. His landmark book Security Engineering: A Guide to Building Dependable Distributed Systems (which is now going into a third edition) has recently been inducted into the cybersecurity canon, but Ross’s application for a US visa to attend the gala awards ceremony has been mysteriously flagged for a four-month “administrative review” by the US immigration authorities. So he decided to give his acceptance speech in Cambridge and relay it via YouTube.

Interestingly, another world expert on cryptography, Adi Shamir, (he’s the “S” in “RSA”) was denied a visa to visit the USA to participate in this year’s RSA conference. Shamir is a recipient of the Turing Prize — computer science’s answer to the Nobel Prize. And other attendees at the conference reported that other crypto experts have been denied access to the US.

So what’s going on?

UPDATE Ross has made the second edition of his book available as a free download from here. In the same place you can also find advance drafts of several of the new chapters of the forthcoming third edition.