The perniciousness of online EULAs

(That’s those click-to-agree buttons that users of free services invariably accept.)

“In theory, contract law enables and ought to enable people, first, to exercise their will freely in pursuit of their own ends and, second, to relate to others freely in pursuit of cooperative ends. In practice, electronic contracting threatens autonomy and undermines the development of meaningful relationships built on trust. Optimised to minimise transaction costs, maximise efficiency, minimise deliberation, and engineer complacency, the electronic contracting architecture nudges people to click a button and behave like simple stimulus-response machines.”

Brett Frischmann, co-author of Re-engineering Humanity in an interview with the Economist.

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?

Read on

Cognitive Dissonance in Silicon Valley? Or maybe they know something we don’t?

Very interesting NYT piece by Nellie Bowles:

The futurist philosopher Yuval Noah Harari worries about a lot.

He worries that Silicon Valley is undermining democracy and ushering in a dystopian hellscape in which voting is obsolete.

He worries that by creating powerful influence machines to control billions of minds, the big tech companies are destroying the idea of a sovereign individual with free will.

He worries that because the technological revolution’s work requires so few laborers, Silicon Valley is creating a tiny ruling class and a teeming, furious “useless class.”

But lately, Mr. Harari is anxious about something much more personal. If this is his harrowing warning, then why do Silicon Valley C.E.O.s love him so?

He has a hunch:

“One possibility is that my message is not threatening to them, and so they embrace it?” a puzzled Mr. Harari said one afternoon in October. “For me, that’s more worrying. Maybe I’m missing something?”

Could it be that they’re not that concerned about his warnings that digital tech is dangerous for democracy because, basically, they’ve given up on it?

Zuckerberg’s monster

Here’s an edited version of a chapter I’ve written in a newly-published book – Anti-Social Media: The Impact on Journalism and Society, edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tait, Abramis, 2018.

Ponder this: in 2004 a Harvard sophomore named Zuckerberg sits in his dorm room hammering away at a computer keyboard. He’s taking an idea he ‘borrowed’ from two nice-but-dim Harvard undergraduates and writing the computer code needed to turn it into a social-networking site. He borrows $1,000 from his friend Eduardo Saverin and puts the site onto an internet web-hosting service. He calls it ‘The Facebook’.

Fourteen years later, that kid has metamorphosed into the 21st-century embodiment of John D Rockefeller and William Randolph Hearst rolled into one. In the early 20th century, Rockefeller controlled the flow of oil while Hearst controlled the flow of information. In the 21st century Zuckerberg controls the flow of the new oil (data) and the information (because people get much of their news from the platform that he controls). His empire spans more than 2.2bn people, and he exercises absolute control over it — as a passage in the company’s 10-K SEC filing makes clear. It reads, in part…

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Tech stasis and planned obsolescence

Like most of my peers in the tech-commentary business, I generally tune into the twice-yearly events at which senior Apple executives reveal the latest wonders to emerge from the creative imagination of Jony Ive. Part of the entertainment value of these gabfests is seeing grown billionaires talking like teen tech worshippers (everything is ‘incredible’ or even ‘fantastic’; the company exists to help customers to enhance their innate ‘creativity’ with new products that we will all ‘just love’, etc). But usually, buried in the superheated hoopla there’s the odd genuinely interesting new thing.

But this week’s event — which was held in New York rather than San Francisco (itself a first, I think) — was strangely dull. There’s a new MacBook Air, but actually it’s hard to see why it’s needed. The new one has a Retina screen, but I can’t see why anyone would get excited just about that when the underlying hardware is much the same as before. And, overall, Apple’s laptop lineup looks strangely incoherent. The two big announcements, to judge from the presentations, were a substantially enhanced Mac Mini and a new iPad Pro. The new Mini is welcome because for many of us it’s the most useful little workhorse that Apple has ever produced. And the new iPad is clearly a a serious upgrade of a product that’s already way ahead of the competition.

But here’s the rub. I’ve had an iPad Pro since the product was first launched, and it’s the most useful — and usable — device I’ve ever owned. In combination with the Apple Pencil it has entirely replaced the paper notebooks that I’ve always used up to now. It goes everywhere with me, does exactly what I need a tablet to do, and does it very well. So no matter how fancy the new iPad ( and its enhanced Pencil) is, I have no rational reason to consider upgrading.

(And much the same applies to all the other Apple kit I own and use on a daily basis. My four year old MacBook Pro is still a terrific workhorse. My iPhone 6 has been re-energised by a new battery and IoS12. And the watch does what I want it to do, even if it could use a longer battery life.)

These big Apple events are often — and justly — ridiculed for being just revivalist meetings for the Church of Apple. Tim Cook & Co are always preaching to the choir. And, since I’m a long-term Apple user, I could be regarded as one of the above. But if even a hardened user can find no reason to upgrade, what’s the point of all the hoopla?

My friend Charles Arthur — he of the wonderful Overspill and an acute observer of these things — thinks that people like me were not the intended audience for this week’s event. It was, he wrote in an email, “one of those events where they’re not speaking to people who already have them – it’s those who haven’t found a need to cross the gap to doing more work on the iPad. USB-C would be interesting to quite a lot of photographers, perhaps.”

Perhaps. But maybe we’ve arrived at what Charles calls — “a sort of tech stasis”. Many of the things we have are now Good Enough, and so despite Moore’s Law and the wonders of computational photography, etc. we don’t need to upgrade them every year, or every two years.

If that’s indeed what’s happening, then what are the implications for tech companies that are hooked on planned obsolescence to a degree that even General Motors in its heyday couldn’t dream of?

Gab, Gab, Gab

From ArsTechnica:

Gab, a “free speech” alternative to Twitter that’s popular with the far right, has been shut down after losing service from a number of mainstream technology platforms, including PayPal, Joyent, Medium, and GoDaddy.

“Gab is under attack,” the company’s home page now reads. “We have been systematically no-platformed by App Stores, multiple hosting providers, and several payment processors.” Gab is working to get back online using new service providers.

The attacks on Gab follow revelations that the man accused of Saturday’s deadly mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh appeared to be a regular Gab user. An account with his name was “rife with anti-refugee, anti-Semitic and white supremacist posts,” according to The Washington Post. One post complained about a “kike infestation.”

Here’s the aforementioned front page:

Note the claim about “80% of normal everyday people”. This is typical of the alt-right strategy of always claiming victimhood when challenged or banned. In an interesting Vanity Fair piece, Tina Nguyen quotes some of the posts that appeared on Gab celebrating what the alleged killer (Robert Bowers) had done. For example:

“I can’t wait to hear about how many lampshades the alleged synagogue shooter made out [sic] these jews in Pittsburg,” wrote @EmilyAnderson, followed by three laughing cat emojis; another user predicted that Bowers’s statement—“All these Jews have to die”—would “be a meme as long as the Internet lives. Which wont [sic] be long after this LOL.”

This is so utterly revolting that it beggars description. But it will not only continue — and will probably increase. As Nguyen observes,

the existence of Gab reflects a larger trend on the right, wherein those banished from mainstream social-media sites create evermore extreme platforms on which to express themselves. Fox News initiated this trend more than two decades ago: the cable channel was explicitly founded to offer a conservative take on the news, while Andrew Breitbart built his namesake site to cater to an even more conservative audience. The bigger the Internet has become, and the lower the cost of entry, the more likely sites like Gab.com and those further afield will proliferate—not just as social hubs, but as an alternate Internet with its attendant-support networks.

The deeper problem here is about what the Internet has revealed about humans. I’ve argued for a long time that one way of interpreting it is to think of the network as holding up a mirror to human nature. Much of what we see in it is uplifting, informative, inspirational and/or banal — unproblematic, in other words. But the mirror also reflects many of the ugliest sides of human nature, and the technology gives expression to that in ways that has real-world effects. Which is why the riposte that all those ugly sides of human nature already existed in the pre-Internet age rather loses its force: in earlier times, this ugliness was more localised and generally had limited traction (though of course there were genocidal exceptions). Now it can find expression anywhere.

It’s also strange how the technology seems to lead some people inexorably towards more and more extreme views — and then to action. Take the mail-bomb suspect, Cesar Altieri, whose social-media activities were usefully chronicled by the New York Times:

Until 2016, Cesar Altieri Sayoc Jr.’s life on social media looked unremarkable. On his Facebook page, he posted photos of decadent meals, gym workouts, scantily clad women and sports games — the stereotypical trappings of middle-age masculinity.

But that year, Mr. Sayoc’s social media presence took on a darker and more partisan tone. He opened a new Twitter account and began posting links to sensational right-wing news stories, adding captions like “Clinton busted exposed rigging entire election.” On Facebook, his anodyne posts gave way to a feed overflowing with pro-Donald Trump images, news stories about Muslims and the Islamic State, far-fetched conspiracy theories and clips from Fox News broadcasts.

By the time he was arrested in Florida on Friday, charged with sending pipe bombs to at least a dozen of President Trump’s critics, Mr. Sayoc appeared to fit the all-too-familiar profile of a modern extremist, radicalized online and sucked into a vortex of partisan furor. In recent weeks, he had posted violent fantasies and threats against several people to whom pipe bombs were addressed, including Representative Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. His vehicle, a white van plastered with right-wing slogans, came to resemble a Facebook feed on wheels.

So he went from posting pictures of women, real estate, dining and cars to posting pictures of ISIS, guns and people in jail — and then to posting mail-bombs to prominent Democrats.

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…

Read on

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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