Saturday 27 June, 2020

Quote of the Day

Other countries are used to loathing America, admiring America, and fearing America (sometimes all at once). But pitying America? That one is new.


The dead tree

On one of our cycle routes. Dead trees make for very dramatic photographs, sometimes. I’m always tempted to stop and photograph them.


Can this really be right?

From today’s Guardian:

The UK government’s plan to invest hundreds of millions of pounds in a satellite broadband company has been described as “nonsensical” by experts, who say the company doesn’t even make the right type of satellite the country needs after Brexit.

The investment in OneWeb, first reported on Thursday night, is intended to mitigate against the UK losing access to the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system.

But OneWeb – in which the UK will own a 20% stake following the investment – currently operates a completely different type of satellite network from that typically used to run such navigation systems.

“The fundamental starting point is, yes, we’ve bought the wrong satellites,” said Dr Bleddyn Bowen, a space policy expert at the University of Leicester. “OneWeb is working on basically the same idea as Elon Musk’s Starlink: a mega-constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit, which are used to connect people on the ground to the internet.

“What’s happened is that the very talented lobbyists at OneWeb have convinced the government that we can completely redesign some of the satellites to piggyback a navigation payload on it. It’s bolting an unproven technology on to a mega-constellation that’s designed to do something else. It’s a tech and business gamble.”

If true, it looks like Trump-level imbecility.


Simon Kuper on why football matters

Lovely essay:

I’m British but I grew up mostly abroad, so when I went to university in England I discovered a new species of man: the Total Fan, the teenager whose main identity was the football club he supported. I witnessed conversations in the common room that went like this:

Student in plastic Manchester United shirt: “We’re brilliant this season.”

Student in Spurs shirt: “No, you’re shit.”

Student in Crystal Palace shirt: “He’s right, Steve. You’re shit.”

They weren’t exactly casting aspersions on Steve’s personality. They were talking about his football club. However, they saw the two things as essentially the same. Steve was Manchester United. The Spurs fan once told me that, when his team won the FA Cup, he walked into the common room to receive everybody’s congratulations as if he personally had lifted the trophy.

Even if you’re not a football fan (and I’m not) this is worth reading.


Share the wealth as we recover health (hopefully)

Noema magazine (a new publication from the Berggruen Institute) has an interesting conversation with Joe Stieglitz and Ray Dalio about how to ensure that the benefits of any recovery from the Covid crisis are shared with the population as a whole.

The basic idea: the massive taxpayer-financed cash infusion to save some of the largest companies that are otherwise viable may present a unique opportunity to more effectively tackle inequality by bolstering the assets of the less well-off. If the same taxpayers who are bearing the costs of the bailout also share an upside when we recover prosperity, wealth will be shared more fairly.

“This can be done”, says the magazine,

by establishing a sovereign wealth fund, or national endowment, that pools the taxpayer’s ownership shares from all the bailed-out companies and distributes regular dividends to all citizens. We call this “universal basic capital,” as distinct from the idea of a universal basic income. Instead of only once again relying on redistributing income to close the gap after wealth has been created, that wealth should be shared upfront in what we call “pre-distribution.”

There are many models out there that guide us on this path. Alaska has long had a social wealth fund that pays dividends to citizens from the revenues of the state’s oil leases. Norway has a similar fund, also from oil revenues, that pays into the general pension system. Australia has what is calls the superannuation fund, in essence a sovereign wealth fund financed by employees, employers and state contributions for its universal pension scheme. The wealth of that fund now stands at almost $2 trillion, a sum greater than Australia’s GDP. Singapore has a similar plan, called the Central Provident Fund, from which citizens can also draw for health and housing needs. It is so profitable from its global investments that it is even able to fund some government services and help keep taxes low.

What is important at this point is to recognize the opportunity for reducing social inequality that can be created by a fair and innovative approach to economic recovery. If everyone in this pandemic must share the downside, all must share in the upside as well.

Some promising ideas here. And the good thing is that none of the corporations in which governments might take a stake in return for support during the pandemic are tech companies, for the simple reason that those companies are the ones that will have benefited most from the crisis.

Noema‘s good, btw.


We can make you hurt if you don’t do what we want

Jonathan Zittrain is my idea of a perfect academic. Staggeringly bright, knows both digital tech and the law intimately (he has Chairs in both Harvard Law and Engineering), fizzes with original and often productive ways of viewing tricky problems, etc. So whenever he writes or lectures about anything I pay attention.

Now he has an article in The Atlantic about what social media outfits should do about Trump. At the beginning, his discussion of the possible options for regulating the speech of an authoritarian nutter takes a fairly standard detached, scholarly tone. His emerging conclusion seems to be that every plausible configuration of social media in 2020 is unpalatable.

But then, he briefly switches to a different register:

Those proposals can be analyzed and judged on their own terms as if they simply appeared on Congress’s docket out of nowhere, and I’d normally offer here some thoughts on their details. But I can’t stay in my academic lane. The executive order, and the push for more legislation, is part of a larger pattern in which the president appears to seek vengeance against those who even mildly criticize him, retaliating in any way he can, including by using the powers of his office. When, for instance, he didn’t like The Washington Post’s reporting about him, he made it clear—on Twitter, fittingly enough—that, because the paper is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, he would like to disadvantage Amazon however he can, including by demanding that the U.S. Postal Service raise its shipping rates. Here, the executive order is so scattershot, and the legislation so crudely sweeping, that it’s important to recognize that it conveys more than its text says. What it really says is: We can make you hurt unless you do what we want, and what we want is what helps the president personally. [Emphasis added.]

Yep: full marks. That’s the nub of Trump’s authoritarian threat. Same as Erdogan, Orban, Bolsonaro & Co.

So what does Zittrain think we should do?

“In the near term, the simplest solution is to vote Trump out of office.”

Well, yes: but you don’t have to be a bi-Chaired Harvard prof to come to that conclusion.

What if that option doesn’t work?

“In the longer term”, says Zittrain,

the most promising path for online content moderation lies in taking up unavoidable decisions by the largest companies in ways that respect the gravity of those decisions — likely involving outside parties in structured, visible roles — and, even more important, in decentralizing the flows of information online so that no one company can readily change the map.

So when Twitter tempers its deference and wades into a fraught zone by fact-checking in its own voice, still judged in the public sphere by its attention to the real facts, I respect its decision. One way to try to break what is raging behavior even—and especially—by a president is to create policies to deal with it, policies that would collect dust if the rule of law and the institutions designed to reinforce it were not under such extraordinary and explicit attack.

Yeah, sure. But this seems a bit feeble after the build-up. What might those policies look like? And how might we ‘decentralize’ those information flows?

Maybe there’s a sequel to this piece coming. If so I can’t wait.


Quarantine diary — Day 98

Link


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? It’s free. One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. And there’s a one-click unsubscribe button if you decide that your inbox is crowded enough already!


Silicon Valley ideology in a nutshell

The proprietor of N-gate is an engineer who grew up in Palo Alto and now lives in the Pacific Northwest, where he works in high-performance computing. He agreed to exchange e-mails on condition of anonymity. “Almost every post deals with the same topics: these are people who spend their lives trying to identify all the ways they can extract money from others without quite going to jail,” he wrote. “They’re people who are convinced that they are too special for rules, and too smart for education. They don’t regard themselves as inhabiting the world the way other people do; they’re secret royalty, detached from society’s expectations and unfailingly outraged when faced with normal consequences for bad decisions. Society, and especially economics, is a logic puzzle where you just have to find the right set of loopholes to win the game. Rules are made to be slipped past, never stopping to consider why someone might have made those rules to start with. Silicon Valley has an ethics problem, and ‘Hacker’ ‘News’ is where it’s easiest to see.”

From a terrific New Yorker essay on the task of moderating Hacker News.

What Trump doesn’t know

From Kara Swisher:

I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell the president, but someone has to: Social media is not the public square, not even a virtual one.

Not Facebook. Not Reddit. Not YouTube. And definitely not Twitter, where a few days after Facebook announced it was barring some extremist voices like Alex Jones, President Trump furiously tapped out: “I am continuing to monitor the censorship of AMERICAN CITIZENS on social media platforms. This is the United States of America — and we have what’s known as FREEDOM OF SPEECH! We are monitoring and watching, closely!!”

He can monitor (yes, that’s definitely a creepy word) and watch all he wants, but it will not matter one bit. Because the First Amendment requires only that the government not make laws that restrict freedom of speech for its citizens…

Getting things into perspective

From Zeynep Tufecki:

We don’t have to be resigned to the status quo. Facebook is only 13 years old, Twitter 11, and even Google is but 19. At this moment in the evolution of the auto industry, there were still no seat belts, airbags, emission controls, or mandatory crumple zones. The rules and incentive structures underlying how attention and surveillance work on the internet need to change. But in fairness to Facebook and Google and Twitter, while there’s a lot they could do better, the public outcry demanding that they fix all these problems is fundamentally mistaken. There are few solutions to the problems of digital discourse that don’t involve huge trade-offs—and those are not choices for Mark Zuckerberg alone to make. These are deeply political decisions. In the 20th century, the US passed laws that outlawed lead in paint and gasoline, that defined how much privacy a landlord needs to give his tenants, and that determined how much a phone company can surveil its customers. We can decide how we want to handle digital surveillance, attention-channeling, harassment, data collection, and algorithmic decision­making. We just need to start the discussion. Now.

Quote of the Day

“The problem will never be solved, if solving it means getting rid of all the bad stuff, because we can’t agree on what the bad stuff is. Knowing that things won’t be perfect, what do we feel is most desirable? A system that errs on the side of caution, or one that errs on the side of being permissive?”

Rasmus Nielsen, Reuters Institute, Oxford.

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…

Read on

Tyler Cowen on the impossibility of regulating speech on Internet platforms

From his latest Bloomberg column:

I’d like to suggest a simple trilemma. When it comes to private platforms and speech regulation, you can choose two of three: scalability, effectiveness and consistency. You cannot have all three. Furthermore, this trilemma suggests that we — whether as users, citizens or indeed managers of the platforms themselves — won’t ever be happy with how speech is regulated on the internet.

One view, which may appear cynical, is that the platforms are worth having, so they should appease us by at least trying to regulate effectively, even though both of us know they won’t really succeed. Circa 2019, I don’t see a better solution. Another view is that we’d be better off with how things were a few years ago, when platform regulation of speech was not such a big issue. After all, we Americans don’t flip out when we learn that Amazon sells copies of “Mein Kampf.”

The problem is that once you learn about what you can’t have — speech regulation that is scalable, consistent and hostile to bad agents — it is hard to get used to that fact. Going forward, we’re likely to see platform companies trying harder and harder, and their critics getting louder and louder.

I like his ‘trilemma’ idea. It reminds me of Dani Rodrik’s one, which says that democracy, national sovereignty and global economic integration are mutually incompatible: we can combine any two of the three, but never have all three simultaneously and in full.

Context, not content, is what’s needed now. And collaboration, not competition.

From a striking CJR post by Todd Gitlin:

After months of recalculation, of reappraisals agonizing and not, of euphemisms and of mea culpas loud and soft, the Times does not know with whom it is dealing. It is as if the mafia were being approached as a quaint bunch of oddballs. It’s as if oversight were the most plausible reason why the famous Rob Goldstone email addressed to Donald J. Trump, Jr., subject-lined “Russia – Clinton – private and confidential,” failed to “set off alarm bells” among the likes of Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and Trump Jr. in Trump Tower—and not the far more plausible explanation that Russian cronies were nothing new at making approaches to Trumpworld. Trump’s buildings were homes away from home for all manner of criminals and Russian investors, as were his foreign ventures.

This is what journalists called “context.” Call it background, call it whatever you want. But if you ignore it, you are reporting a baseball game as if people in uniforms are running around a diamond and chasing a ball for no apparent reason at all.

Yep. This essay goes nicely with Dan Gilmor’s plea for journalists to get their acts together on reporting Trump. There’s a strange way in which the competitiveness of journalists is preventing them from collaborating to fight Trump’s campaign to sideline the First Amendment.

That means breaking with customs, and some traditions — changing the journalism, and some of the ways you practice it, to cope with the onslaught of willful misinformation aimed at undermining public belief in basic reality. You can start by looking at the public’s information needs from the public’s point of view, not just your own.

The collaboration needs to be broad, and deep, across organizations and platforms. It can be immediate — such as an agreement among White House reporters to resist the marginalizing, or banning outright, of journalists who displease the president. If a legitimate reporter is banned from an event, or verbally dismissed in a briefing or press conference, other journalists should either boycott the event or, at the very least, ask and re-ask his or her question until it’s answered. In the briefing room, show some spine, and do it together.

The trouble is: most journalists are not by instinct collaborative — which is why they find networked journalism difficult. And their employers are rarely helpful in this regard. That’s also why collaborative ventures — like the one that reported and analysed the Panama Papers — represent such a welcome change.