Intrigued by an Ars Technica post about Amazon’s Alexa that suggested all was not well in the tech company’s division that looks after its smart home devices, I went rooting in a drawer where the Echo Dot I bought years ago had been gathering dust. Having found it, and set it up to join the upgraded wifi network that hadn’t existed when I first got it, I asked it a question: “Alexa, why are you such a loss-maker?” To which she calmly replied: “This might answer your question: mustard gas, also known as Lost, is manufactured by the United States.” At which point, I solemnly thanked her, pulled the power cable and returned her to the drawer, where she will continue to gather dust until I can think of an ecologically responsible way of recycling her…
The European commission has opened an antitrust investigation of Amazon, on the grounds that the company has breached EU antitrust rules against distorting competition in online retail markets. Amazon, says the commission, has been using its privileged access to non-public data of independent sellers who sell on its marketplace to benefit the parts of its own retail business that directly compete with those third-party sellers. The commission has also opened a second investigation into the possible preferential treatment of Amazon’s own retail offers compared with those of marketplace sellers that use Amazon’s logistics and delivery services.
The good news about this is not so much that the EU is taking action as that it is doing so in an intelligently targeted manner. Too much of the discourse about tech companies in the last two years has been about “breaking them up”. But “break ’em up” is a slogan, not a policy, and it has a kind of Trumpian ring to it. The commission is avoiding that.
It is also avoiding another trap – that of generally labelling Amazon as a “monopoly”…
Lovely post by Venkatesh Rao about the mindset induced by living in a world governed by Moore’s Law.
Moore’s Law was first proposed in 1965, then again in revised form in 1975. Assuming an 18-month average doubling period for transistor density (it was ~1 year early on, and lately has been ~3y) there have been about 40 doublings since the first IC in 1959. If you ever go to Intel headquarters in San Jose, you can visit the public museum there that showcases this evolution.
The future of Moore’s law seems uncertain, but it looks like we’ll at least get to 1-3 nanometer chips in the next decade (we were at 130nm at the beginning of the century, and the first new computer I bought had a 250nm Celeron processor). Beyond 1-3nm, perhaps we’ll get to different physics with different scaling properties, or quantum computing. Whatever happens, I think we can safely say Gen X (1965-80) will have had lives nearly exactly coincident with Moore’s Law (we’ll probably die off between 2045-85).
While there have been other technologies in history with spectacular price/performance curves (interchangeable parts technology for example), there is something special about Moore’s Law, since it applies to a universal computing substrate that competes with human brains.
GenXers are Moore’s Law people. We came of age during its heyday…
Original and interesting, like almost everything Rao writes. Worth reading in full.
Other, hopefully interesting, links
Diane Coyle’s Longlist for the economics book of 2020.Link. Damn: I’ve only read one of them.And she’s missed out Zachary Carter’s fine biography of Keynes (and Keynesianism).
iFixit’s iPhone 12 mini teardown looks at how Apple fit so much into such a tiny device. iFixit does wonderful analyses of intricate devices. This ‘teardown’ of the new mini version of the iPhone 12 is a gem. Link
Hermione Lee on what it’s like writing a biography of a living subject.Link In her case it’s the playwright Tom Stoppard. The book is out — and on my list. My friend Gerard is enjoying it. And I loved her biography of Virginia Woolf.
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The world’s largest tech companies have become propagators of deadly information, while they simultaneously profit from it. They have long treated the world as their private research lab while off-loading risk onto the public and refusing to be held accountable for their business practices.
the past 30 years, Silicon Valley has skimmed the cream from our public systems, while putting the stability and longevity of public goods at stake for the rest of us. Big Tech relies on federal tax subsidies and public grants from federal agencies to fund expensive research and uses entitlements to push low-income communities out of their neighborhoods as they expand their headquarters and geographic footprints.
Big Tech uses our roads, our airports, our post offices — and rather than help prop up the system to work in the interest of all, the industry eschews responsibility and creates housing and employment crises by relying on gig-workers and contractors, effectively reducing the number of workers in the tech workforce eligible for employer-based healthcare. Big Tech fails to hire African Americans in high-paying jobs, and it actively suppresses wages for women and other people of color, especially Black women, who continue to make significantly less than men. It benefits from talent nurtured in public school systems and cherry-picks researchers favorable to its interests, without investing in the public infrastructure that enables those skills to develop. What we get back is an ecosystem of workers who can’t afford to live or pay rent, or experience homelessness, in wealthy tech corridors.
On Witness and Respair: A Personal Tragedy Followed by Pandemic
Extraordinary, deeply moving essay by novelist Jesmyn Ward on losing her husband to Covid.
Here’s how it begins:
My Beloved died in January. He was a foot taller than me and had large, beautiful dark eyes and dexterous, kind hands. He fixed me breakfast and pots of loose-leaf tea every morning. He cried at both of our children’s births, silently, tears glazing his face. Before I drove our children to school in the pale dawn light, he would put both hands on the top of his head and dance in the driveway to make the kids laugh. He was funny, quick-witted, and could inspire the kind of laughter that cramped my whole torso. Last fall, he decided it would be best for him and our family if he went back to school. His primary job in our household was to shore us up, to take care of the children, to be a househusband. He traveled with me often on business trips, carried our children in the back of lecture halls, watchful and quietly proud as I spoke to audiences, as I met readers and shook hands and signed books. He indulged my penchant for Christmas movies, for meandering trips through museums, even though he would have much preferred to be in a stadium somewhere, watching football. One of my favorite places in the world was beside him, under his warm arm, the color of deep, dark river water…
Read it. And understand what’s happening to the United States.
Tom Penn, Graeber’s editor at Penguin Random House, said the publishing house was “devastated” and called Graeber “a true radical, a pioneer in everything that he did”.
“David’s inspirational work has changed and shaped the way people understand the world. In his books, his constant, questing curiosity, his wry, sharp-eyed provoking of received nostrums shine through. So too, above all, does his unique ability to imagine a better world, borne out of his own deep and abiding humanity,” Penn said. “We are deeply honoured to be his publisher, and we will all miss him: his kindness, his warmth, his wisdom, his friendship. His loss is incalculable, but his legacy is immense. His work and his spirit will live on.”
Amazon has deleted approximately 20,000 product reviews, written by seven of its top 10 UK reviewers, following a Financial Times investigation into suspicious activity.
The FT found evidence the users were profiting from posting thousands of five-star ratings.
Those who had their reviews deleted included Justin Fryer, the number one-ranked reviewer on Amazon.co.uk, who in August alone reviewed £15,000 worth of products, from smartphones to electric scooters to gym equipment, giving his five-star approval on average once every four hours.
Overwhelmingly, those products were from little-known Chinese brands, who often offer to send reviewers products for free in return for positive posts. Mr Fryer then appears to have sold many of the goods on eBay, making nearly £20,000 since June
The most useful reviews are generally the ones that tell you what’s wrong with a product.
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Matt Stoller is a determined campaigner for regulation of tech monopolies. He’s particularly sharp on Amazon’s strategies and tactics. This time he has a terrific analysis of the company’s ingenuity in responding to the loss of an important court case.
The background is this: An Amazon customer bought a laptop battery from a Chinese third-party seller on Amazon. The battery exploded, injuring her. She sued Amazon. The company tried to deny liability — including trying a preposterous legal stunt saying that it was protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act which exempts online platforms from liability for speech published on their platforms. The Judge declined to accept that selling an exploding battery constituted “speech”.
Anyway, the case went all the way in the Californian courts, and Amazon lost. So what did it do next? Stoller takes up the story:
What speaks to the savvy of Amazon is how the corporation reacted to its loss. After the court ruled, Amazon public policy lead (and former FTC and DOJ Antitrust official) Brian Huseman then swung into action. Last Friday, he published a blog post reversing Amazon’s position.
Not only did Amazon support legislative action to hold itself strictly liable for products sold on its platform, Huseman wrote, but it would support legislation to go beyond the court’s decision. Huseman said Amazon supported Stone’s bill on online marketplace liability, but Amazon wanted it to be even stronger and broader. Amazon, after being held liable in court for hurting someone by selling defective products, would pose in a legislative fight as the consumer’s biggest champion.
Huseman is an increasingly important player in the Amazon public policy shop, and as Amazon is a creature of public policy, it makes him one of the more important executives at the corporation. Former Obama press secretary Jay Carney, who ostensibly runs global affairs for Amazon, is a public relations guy and glad-handler of political VIPs, whereas Huseman, though behind the embarrassing HQ2 fiasco, does understand law.
The California bill, AB 3262 in its original form [which Stoller’s organization endorsed in its report on Amazon], would have forced Amazon to take responsibility for what merchants sold on its platform, but the court decision essentially took care of this problem for the legislators. .
Huseman, recognizing that Amazon will have take responsibility for what it sold, in turned asked the legislature to apply strict liability to anyone remotely connected to selling things online. Not only should Amazon be held liable for products its merchants sell, wrote Huseman, but all online platforms or websites should be liable, not just for helping to place products into the marketplace but under any business model. The ultimate language of the legislation included not only placing products into the marketplace, but ‘facilitating’ the placing of such products into the marketplace.
Note the significance of this. If this were enacted it would means that every dog and pony selling anything online would be subject to strict liability. And guess what that would do to the dogs and ponies? The outfit with the deepest pockets and the best lawyers (aka Amazon) would finally be the only game in town.
Which is why Bezos winds up with a net worth of $200B.
George Packer: How Biden can lose
Grim — really grim — and perceptive piece. The nub of it is that protests about police violence against black citizens creates a no-win trap for the Democrats.
The day before, on Monday, the Republicans began their remote convention. The simultaneous mayhem in Kenosha seemed like part of the script, as it played into their main theme: that Biden is a tool of radical leftists who hate America, who want to bring the chaos of the cities they govern out to the suburbs where the real Americans live. The Republicans won’t let such an opportunity go to waste. “Law and order are on the ballot,” Vice President Mike Pence said on Wednesday night. Other speakers were harsher.
It’s no use dismissing their words as partisan talking points. They are effective ones, backed up by certain facts. Trump will bang this loud, ugly drum until Election Day. He knows that Kenosha has placed Democrats in a trap. They’ve embraced the protests and the causes that drive them. The third night of the Democratic convention was consumed with the language and imagery of protest—as if all Americans watching were activists.
On Monday, the day after Blake’s shooting, Biden and his vice-presidential nominee, Senator Kamala Harris, released statements expressing outrage. The next day, Biden’s spokesperson released a statement opposing “burning down communities and needless destruction.” And on Wednesday, Biden, after speaking with the Blake family, condemned both the initial incident and the subsequent destruction. “Burning down communities is not protest,” he pleaded in a video. “It’s needless violence.” He said the same after George Floyd’s killing.
How many Americans have heard him?
The Irish Passport podcast on #golfgate
This episode is an hour long, but worth a listen: it provides a really good insight into why the flouting of social-distancing rules by some of the Irish Establishment figures (who had promulgated the said rules) has caused such outrage in Ireland.
Seeing like a city: how tech became urban
This scholarly — and open access academic article, by the prominent urban sociologist Sharon Zukin, is the best survey article I’ve seen on the complicated infatuation of city planners and urban elites with tech companies. It asks why so many cities have failed to resist the allure of Big Tech and digital capitalism (i.e. lost their marbles). And it examines what is lost as city administrations keep genuflecting before the gods of “innovation and entrepreneurship.”
The Abstract reads:
The emergence of urban tech economies calls attention to the multidimensional spatiality of ecosystems made up of people and organizations that produce new digital technology. Since the economic crisis of 2008, city governments have aggressively pursued economic growth by nurturing these ecosystems. Elected officials create public-private-nonprofit partnerships to build an “innovation complex” of discursive, organizational, and geographical spaces; they aim not only to jump-start economic growth but to remake the city for a new modernity. But it is difficult to insert tech production space into the complicated urban matrix. Embedded industries and social communities want protection from expanding tech companies and the real estate developers who build for them. City council members, state legislators, and community organizations oppose the city government’s attempts to satisfy Big Tech companies. While the city’s density magnifies conflicts of interest over land-use and labor issues, the covid-19 pandemic raises serious questions about the city’s ability to both oppose Big Tech and keep creating tech jobs.
Longish read. Not for everybody, but if you’re interested in tech and society (as I am) it’s good stuff.
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Bach: Toccata and Fugue, BWV 565, played by Edson Lopes. (9 minutes)
Doc Searls is 65+
Doc is one of the Elder Statesmen of the Web. (He was one of the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto). And he’s just turned 65, which means he’s now in the blanket category known to marketers as “the over 65s”.
Thus I have now fallen over the edge of a demographic cliff, at the bottom of which is little of major interest to marketers, unless they’re hawking the cushy human equivalent of parking lots. You know: cruises, golf, “lifestyle communities,” “erectile dsyfunction,” adult diapers, geriatric drugs, sensible cars, dementia onset warnings…
For individuals, demographics are absurd. None of us are an age, much less a range of them. We’re animals who live and work and have fun and do stuff. Eventually we croak, but if we stay healthy we acquire wisdom and experience, and find ourselves more valuable over time.
Yet we become less employable as we climb the high end of the demographic ladder, but not because we can’t do the work. It’s mostly because we look old and our tolerance for bullshit is low. Even our own, which is another bonus.
Nearly 100% of the people I work with are younger than me, usually by a generation or two. I almost never feel old among them. Sometimes I joke about it, but I really don’t care. It helps to have been around. It helps to know how fast and well the mighty rise, and then fall. It helps to see what comes and stays, and to know why those things matter more than what comes and goes. It helps to know there are sand dunes older than any company born on the Internet.
Aww isn’t this sweet? Alexa sitting just above your ear.
Meet Echo Frames – All-day glasses with hands-free access to Alexa. Just ask Alexa – Make calls, set reminders, add to your to-do lists, listen to podcasts, or control your smart home from anywhere. Designed for all-day wear – Echo Frames are lightweight and compatible with most prescription lenses. VIP Filter – Customize which notifications to receive from the contacts and apps that matter most to you (Android only). Thoughtful design – Amazon open-ear technology directs sound to your ears and minimizes what others can hear. And with no camera or display, you stay in the moment.
Don’t you just love the idea of “staying in the moment”!
Cummings saga damaged UK lockdown unity, study suggests
The scandal over Dominic Cummings’ trips to and around Durham during lockdown damaged trust and was a key factor in the breakdown of a sense of national unity amid the coronavirus pandemic, research suggests.
Revelations that Cummings and his family travelled to his parents’ farm despite ministers repeatedly imploring the public to stay at home – as exposed by the Guardian and the Daily Mirror in May – also crystallised distrust in politicians over the crisis, according to a report from the thinktank British Future.
The findings emerged in a series of surveys, diaries and interviews carried out over the first months of the pandemic as the public got to grips with profound changes to their habits, relationships and lifestyles.
The only thing that’s surprising is that anybody would be surprised by these findings.
What’s involved in stripping Huawei out of UK mobile networks
Well, up to £500m if you’re BT, according to evidence given to a Commons Select Committee by a senior BT executive quoted by the Register.
Nikon versus Canon: A Story Of Technology Change
If you’re a photography geek (which, I’m sorry to say, I am), then you could happily spend a good deal of the morning following Steven Sinofsky’s wonderfully detailed account of how Canon displaced Nikon as the standard camera system for professional photographers. It’s really an illustration of some of the points Clayton Christensen was making in The Innovator’s Dilemma all those years ago.
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Most extensive study to date of who’s most vulnerable to Covid-19 in the UK
A pre-print (i.e. non-peer-reviewed) version of “Factors associated with COVID-19-related hospital death in the linked electronic health records of 17 million adult NHS patients” has just been published. It’s a statistician’s delight (i.e. pretty complicated) but my reading of it is that it confirms two things — one expected, and one disturbing (thought not all that surprising). The first is that certain ill-health preconditions do indeed make people more vulnerable to Covid-19. The second is that people from non-white backgrounds and poor people are also more vulnerable, but for reasons that don’t include medical pre-conditions. Doesn’t take much imagination to suggest what lies behind that.
But that’s just my interpretation. Here’s what the authors say:
Policy Implications and Interpretation
The UK has a policy of recommending shielding (i.e. minimising face to face contact) for groups identified as being extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions. We were able to evaluate the association between most of these conditions and death from COVID-19, and confirm that people with these conditions do have substantially increased mortality risk, supporting the shielding strategy. We have demonstrated -for the first time – that only a small part of the substantially increased risks of death from COVID-19 among non-white groups and among people living in more deprived areas can be attributed to existing disease. Improved strategies to protect people in these groups from COVID-19 need urgent consideration.
If we want better conditions for Amazon staff we need to be patient…
Tim Bray resigned as an Amazon vice-president last week. “Who he?” I hear you say. And why is this news significant? Answers: first, Bray is an ubergeek who’s an alumnus of many of the outfits in tech’s hall of fame (including DEC, Sun Microsystems, the OED project at the University of Waterloo, Google’s Android team and, eventually, Amazon Web Services); and second, he resigned on an issue of principle – something as rare as hen’s teeth in the tech industry.
In his blog, he wrote: “I quit in dismay at Amazon firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of Covid-19.” It was an expensive decision. Bray said the decision to resign would probably cost him more than a million dollars in salary and shares, and that he regretted leaving a job he enjoyed, working with good colleagues. “So I’m pretty blue.”
James Max has a column in the weekend Financial Times under the heading “Rich People’s Problems”. I can never work out if it’s satire, but even if it’s not it’s amusing. This weekend he’s contemplating the problems nobs have under lockdown conditions.
Lockdown “haves” are those with gardens, a half-decent wine cellar and a dog or two for on-demand social contact. Trappings such as sports cars, watches, black cards [Eh?], bling, boats, private jets and club membership are somewhat superfluous to our existence now. Many avenues for spending money are also closed off (as someone whose social life revolved around going on for lunch and dinner, it’s been tough).
But worse than that? For now, I have no domestic help. This is “situation critical”.
The wealthy can no longer run a finger along the skirting board or windowsill, tut and make a mental note to have a word with their cleaner…
You get the point. I think it’s satire. Maybe.
Naomi Klein on the ‘Screen New Deal’
Splendid blast in The Intercept by the famous activist against the tech industry’s pivot to perceiving the pandemic as the opportunity of a lifetime to redefine our futures.
For a few fleeting moments during New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily coronavirus briefing on Wednesday, the somber grimace that has filled our screens for weeks was briefly replaced by something resembling a smile.
“We are ready, we’re all-in,” the governor gushed. “We are New Yorkers, so we’re aggressive about it, we’re ambitious about it. … We realize that change is not only imminent, but it can actually be a friend if done the right way.”
The inspiration for these uncharacteristically good vibes was a video visit from former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who joined the governor’s briefing to announce that he will be heading up a blue-ribbon commission to reimagine New York state’s post-Covid reality, with an emphasis on permanently integrating technology into every aspect of civic life…
Thought-provoking and original. I mention it in today’s Diary (below).
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Write For Yourself: Don’t try to guess what people want to read; you’re the only person whose interests you really understand. In particular, don’t thrash around trying to appeal to a larger audience; the only surefire way is pictures of celebrity breasts, and the world already has enough.
He’s been blogging since 2003. More than a million words, he says, and I believe him.
Tim has just resigned as VP and Distinguished Engineer at Amazon Web Services — on principle. Read his blog post explaining why he took this step.
How to screw up
Setting up the email version of this blog last night, I meticulously checked all the links and then hit ‘Publish’ without noticing that the title said “Tuwsday” instead of Tuesday!
Growl. And apologies.
What lay behind the ‘Yes, Minister’ TV series
Lovely set of reflections by Anthony Jay on how he and his co-author, Jonathan Lynn, came to write my second-favourite TV comedy series, Yes, Minister. (My all-time favourite is John Cleese’s and Connie Booth’s Fawlty Towers.)
Clearly this conflict of policies [between a Minister and his or her civil servants] comes into sharpest focus in the persons of the Cabinet Minister and his Permanent Secretary, and it suddenly came to me that this relationship, if taken to its extreme, had all the ingredients of a classic situation comedy: two people whose background, ambitions and motivations pull them in diametrically opposite directions, but who are held together because of their deep dependence on each other. It is the heart of every husband-and-wife sitcom, and of one of my favourite of all comedies, Steptoe and Son, which I always saw as a husband-and-wife comedy in disguise.
The relationship has two further features to commend it. In the first place, it lets the viewer into a private world, and one which he is highly unlikely to experience directly. There is a considerable bonus for a comedy if it has a documentary dimension, and the reason I enjoyed Porridge more than Going Straight was precisely and only because of the additional information and insights into the (literally) closed world of prisons that the first series provided. In the same way, Dad’s Army gave extra joy by the little documentary touches that recreated the minutiae of life during World War Two. And second, comedy also has an extra appeal – at least for Jonathan Lynn and me – when it is actually about something, in the sense that Butterflies and The Good Life are about something.
In close up, on television, at a glance, with the volume down, Donald Trump can from time to time look like a president. That effect becomes less convincing the more you pay attention, though. Even under professional lighting, Trump reliably looks like a photographic negative of himself; on his worse and wetter days, he has the tone and texture of those lacquered roast ducks that hang from hooks in Chinatown restaurant windows. The passing presidentiality of the man dissipates utterly in longer shots, where Trump can be seen standing tipped oddly forward like a jowly ski jumper in midair, or mincing forward to bum-rush an expert’s inconvenient answer with an incoherent one of his own, or just making faces intended to signal that he is listening very strongly to what someone else is saying. (These slapdash performances of executive seriousness tend to have the effect, as the comedian Stewart Lee once said of James Corden, of making Trump look like “a dog listening to classical music.”) Seen from this long-shot vantage, the man at the podium is unmistakably Donald Trump—uncanny, unknowing, upset about various things that he can’t quite understand or express.
It gets even better. Unmissable.
The film-maker Sheila Hayman has a lovely essay on Medium about the ways the Coronavirus lockdown reveals both human potential and the kinds of meaningful work that actually needs doing.
So, right before Covid-19, what did we have? A world in which over a third of us were doing crappy jobs, which made us sick, and whose defining characteristics were overwhelmingly, lack of agency and lack of reward — in all its forms.
Jobs which, according to yet another YouGov poll, 37% of us said were ‘not making a meaningful contribution to the world’.
But what has the lockdown actually produced? A massive, spontaneous, bottom-up geyser of human ingenuity, creativity, enterprise, initiative, dedication and love, all lying unsuspected and untapped as its owners trekked day after day to those bullshit jobs — jobs which overwhelmingly involve a nasty commute to eight hours in front of a screen, or managing the dehumanisation of colleagues — or more often, both.
On the other hand, our isolated elderly need befriending, our streets need greening, our air needs cleaning, our diet needs improving and our children need company and attention. These are needs as great as the jobs we’re not doing, if not more so.
This is human capital: the capacity, imagination, love and organisational ability we all carry within us, just by being alive. Moreover, at least in my experience, it effortlessly obliterates the other great stranglehold of British society: I have literally no idea whether my colleagues in the local Covid-19 WhatsApp group are working class, upper middle class, or aliens with green antennae. Capability and common sense prevail, hierarchies are meaningless, and we all happily go along with whatever seems to work best.
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England’s green and pleasant land
As seen on our permitted ‘exercise walk’ yesterday.
Who needs a government when you’ve got Amazon to keep things running?
This pandemic will radically transform the industrial and commercial landscape of western societies. Lots of companies – large and small – will go to the wall, no matter how fervent government promises of support are. But when the smoke clears and some kind of normality returns, a small number of corporations – ones that have played a central role in keeping things going – will emerge strengthened and more dominant. And chief among them will be Jeff Bezos’s everything store.
What we will then have to come to terms with is that Amazon is becoming part of the critical infrastructure of western states. So too perhaps are Google and Microsoft. (Apple is more like a luxury good – nice but not essential, and the only reason for keeping Facebook is WhatsApp.) In which case, one of the big questions to be answered as societies rebuild once the virus has finally been tamed will be a really difficult one: how should Amazon be regulated?
Why the US now has a health crisis, an economic crisis and a democratic crisis — simultaneously
From this weekend’s Financial Times.
How an actual virus should make one chary of celebrating ‘Going Viral’
Lovely essay by Lee Siegel on the irony that it seems only yesterday when “going viral” was a sign of contemporary online success.
Consider what is now surely the quaint abomination of going “viral.” It was never really clear what was so great about a viral phenomenon anyway, except for the uncertain benefits briefly bestowed on some of those who went viral. If you are swept along with a viral event, then you are robbed of your free will every bit as much as if you were sick.
But so smitten were we by the personal gratification and commercial rewards of going “viral” that we allowed the blithe use of the term to dull our alertness to its dire scientific origins, as well as to what turned out to be the political consequences.
For much of the populace, any proud possessor of viral status was king or queen for at least a day. The eerie images of the virus now stalking humanity, its spikes resembling a crown, are like a deliberate, malevolent mockery of our viral internet royalty.
Writing in “The Tipping Point,” published in 2000 and the bible of viral culture, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how what he calls “emotional contagion” can be a powerful tool for the world’s influencers. He then goes on to make an analogy between the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 — a nightmare long unspeakable, suddenly oft-cited — and his concept of “stickiness,” a precious quality of persuasion that fastens people’s attention on whatever you are trying to sell.
And now? The only way of avoiding ‘going viral’ is to hide away and cut yourself off from society. Suddenly, Siegel writes, “slow the spread” and “flatten the curve” has made “going viral” and “trending” sound like “telephone” and “typewriter.”
I’ve got a good friend who has an Amazon doorbell and seems tickled pink by it. Normally, this would worry me, but he’s a sophisticated techie and I’m sure his security precautions are good.
But that’s definitely not true for most of the thousands of people who are buying the devices.
The New York Times has a helpful piece aimed at these neophytes. It opens with some cautionary notes, though:
The internet-connected doorbell gadget, which lets you watch live video of your front porch through a phone app or website, has gained a reputation as the webcam that spies on you and that has failed to protect your data. Yet people keep buying it in droves.
Ring, which is owned by Amazon and based in Santa Monica, Calif., has generated its share of headlines, including how the company fired four employees over the last four years for watching customers’ videos. Last month, security researchers also found that Ring’s apps contained hidden code, which had shared customer data with third-party marketers. And in December, hackers hijacked the Ring cameras of multiple families, using the devices’ speakers to verbally assault some of them.
“Don’t be evil” was the mantra of the co-founders of Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the graduate students who, in the late 1990s, had invented a groundbreaking way of searching the web. At the time, one of the things the duo believed to be evil was advertising. There’s no reason to doubt their initial sincerity on this matter, but when the slogan was included in the prospectus for their company’s flotation in 2004 one began to wonder what they were smoking. Were they really naive enough to believe that one could run a public company on a policy of ethical purity?
The problem was that purity requires a business model to support it and in 2000 the venture capitalists who had invested in Google pointed out to the boys that they didn’t have one. So they invented a model that involved harvesting users’ data to enable targeted advertising. And in the four years between that capitulation to reality and the flotation, Google’s revenues increased by nearly 3,590%. That kind of money talks.
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Rana Foroohar has adopted the Google mantra as the title for her masterful critique of the tech giants that now dominate our world…