Saturday 16 May, 2020

The Brexit app

Why should proximity-sensing apps be restricted to detecting people who might be infected with a mere virus? Robert Shrimsley of the FT thinks we should also have an app “tailored to your political persuasion so that you never have to meet anyone with the opposite view on leaving the EU. This way you can create the perfect real world filter bubble. If you are a Remainer, the effect will be rather like living in Richmond.”


John Gray’s version of the future is the most realistic one

Yesterday I mentioned John Gray’s insight that the best guide to a post-Covid future is not provided by past pandemics but by 9/11. Our world was dramatically changed by that terrorist attack and the subsequent reactions of Western societies to the danger of Islamic terrorism. What made it especially difficult was, as one very senior British government official once put it to me, “there’s nobody one can negotiate with; and nothing one can negotiate about”. (This was in 2007; he was talking about the difference between Islamic terrorism and the IRA.) 9/11 added new layers of friction and difficulty to our lives. We felt it most directly in relation to air travel, but it manifested itself in countless other areas too — for example in onerous checks on any large bank transfer, records of travel to certain parts of the world, YouTube videos that were risky to watch, and so on. But we got used to it and put up with it, patiently putting our liquids into transparent plastic bags, taking off belts and shoes, leaving pen-knives at home whenever we went through an airport, etc.

Covid-19 will have similar long-term effects, introducing another layer of friction into our lives. Social distancing will be a norm for a long time — maybe 4 years until a reliable vaccine arrives and is distributed effectively. Everyone being expected to wear a mask in public. Travellers to other countries will have to produce a certificate of immunity, like the Rabies certificates currently required when transporting dogs. Many of the most basic acts of human solidarity — hugging or kissing someone, even shaking hands will continue to be verboten. And every stranger is potentially a risk.

We’ll adapt to this. Humans always do. But our lives will be marginally or even greatly impoverished for a long time to come. That’s why this pandemic is a crisis: crises really change things.

There is, however, one difference from 9/11’s impact: whereas Islamic terrorists wanted to destroy Western ‘infidel’ society, the virus has no interest in doing anything other than surviving and reproducing. There’s no ‘enemy’ to fear or hate or negotiate with. (Which of course is the aspect of the virus that so discombobulates Trump, and why he’s trying to pin it on China.)


The Richest Neighborhoods Emptied Out Most as Coronavirus Hit New York City

Headline on an interesting New York Times story. Data from a variety of sources suggest that the affluent areas of the city emptied out quickly and most comprehensively. In his Journal of a Plague Year Daniel Defoe described the same phenomenon in London in 1655.

Plus ca change.

It’s never the case that “we’re all in it together”.


Why those who can ‘work from home’ remain paid and valued — even if they’re doing very little — while others simply have to go out to work if they want to be valued

Lovely essay by Will Davies on the liberal and neoliberal concepts of people as economic agents. In the (classic) liberal view, workers are essentially ‘hired hands’, and the neoliberal idea that people are ‘social capital’

Within the American neoliberal imaginary described by Foucault, all human beings can be understood as ‘human capital’. A construction worker, a taxi driver or a factory worker could all acquire skills, change their ‘brand’ or seek a new niche, where ‘profits’ can be made. But sociological reality falls short of this. Austrian neoliberals always believed that entrepreneurship was a rare quality, and that most people were unable to endure such a solitary and burdensome existence (the mental health trajectory of neoliberal America suggests they may have had a point). Meanwhile, Feher argues that actually existing neoliberalism tends to rely on all-encompassing surveillance infrastructures with which to ‘rate’ us, as an alternative to relying on personal flexibility and disruption.

The inequalities that have become visible due to Covid-19 suggest a different way of thinking about this. It’s not simply that some work can happen at home, while other forms of work can’t; it’s that some people retain the liberal status of ‘labour’, and others have the neoliberal status of ‘human capital’, even if they are not in risky or entrepreneurial positions. To be a labourer, one gets paid in exchange for units of time (hours, weeks, months). To be human capital, one can continue to draw income by virtue of those who continue to believe in you and wish to sustain a relationship with you. This includes banks … but it is also clients and other partners. The former is a cruder market relation, whereas the latter is a more moral and financial logic, that potentially produces more enduring bonds of obligation and duty.

The furlough scheme disguises the difference, but one of the divisions at work here is between those whose market value is measurable as orthodox productivity (cleaning, driving, cooking etc), and those whose market value is a more complex form of socio-economic reputation, that they can retain even while doing very little. The likely truth is that there are all manner of people in the latter category, who are unfurloughed, ‘working from home’ but doing very little work because of caring responsibilities, anxiety or because there simply isn’t work to do. And yet their employers continue to pay them, because their relation is not one of supply and demand, but of mutual belief between capitals.

The issue of childcare becomes relevant here. As Melinda Cooper and Feher have both argued, neoliberalism dissolves the distinction between market and family life. Responsible personhood is both enterprising and caring, both financially creditable and morally dutiful. Entrepreneurship and parenthood are synthesised into a single ethos of flexibility and optimism. While this is undoubtedly very stressful, it is more practically compatible with the current Covid-created situation, in which a balance must be struck between paid and unpaid work, that is responsive to demands. For the white collar ‘human capital’ parent, it is reasonable to explain that they will be working at less than the usual rate due to childcare, and expect full pay. For the parent who is paid to labour, there is no justification (or no currently dominant justification) for continuing to pay them for more hours than they put in.

Davies thinks that this explains how the politics of the Coronavirus is now playing out.

If a person has the status of an asset, they are embedded in a much longer-term flow of investment and return, that is knitted together via a combination of balance sheets, mutual trust and duty. As Cooper stresses, the neoliberal subject is never simply a calculator, but also the maker and recipient of promises and pledges over the long-term. It’s not simply that such a person ‘works from home’ (it’s possible that they don’t), while others ‘go to work’; it’s that human capital is valued via an element of faith which can endure, and not a simple transaction.

The reason the Prime Minister wants others to be ‘encouraged’ back to work is because they are only valued and valuable while they are working. They don’t exist within a logic of investment and return, but one of exchange. Even if these people could do their work from home (imagine, say, a telesales assistant), they would not enjoy the same ability to integrate their work with childcare; there wouldn’t be the same levels of sympathy and humour when children disrupt their work; they are not being employed as an integrated moral-financial asset with a private life, but for the labour that they can expend in an alienating fashion.

Great stuff from one of the sharpest minds around.


Quarantine diary — Day 56

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Thursday 7 May, 2020

Quote of the Day

”Trump is the last station on the Reagan express.”

  • Michael Lewis

British exceptionalism vs Greek pragmatism

Statistics from Johns Hopkins today.

It’s worth doing the maths to calculate the death rate per 1,000 citizens. Interesting, ne c’est pas?


Paul Romer’s New Yorker interview

From the beginning, Romer has been one of the clearest thinkers around about the pandemic. In this interview with Isaac Chotiner he lays out what he sees as the only way through the Coronavirus catastrophe. The piece is worth reading in full, but this excerpt stood out for me:

What is your biggest fear about the economy right now?

There was some analysis that was done at the St. Louis Fed, going through job categories and just thinking about the employment consequences of physical lockdown and social distancing. Their conclusion was that we were going to be at an unemployment rate above thirty per cent, so that was the early-warning sign that we’re headed for an economic catastrophe that’s worse than the Great Depression.

Different people have talked about different ways to get through this. Your plan focusses on testing more than almost anything else, and more than some of the other plans. Everyone acknowledges that testing is important, but why is it so central to every idea that you’ve put forward?

The key to solving the economic crisis is to reduce the fear that someone will get sick if they go to work or go shop. So it’s really about building confidence. The thing about testing is that it’s easy to explain and it doesn’t frighten people the way digital contact tracing does. It’s not subject to technological and social, political uncertainty the way digital contact tracing is. It doesn’t require the organizational capacity that doing human contact tracing does. It’s really just a very simple, easy-to-explain idea—that to control the pandemic, we need to get a reasonable majority of the people who are infectious into a quarantine, and then we’re good. That’s really all it’s about. So I wanted to try and articulate a very simple approach for managing this crisis, because I think that’s central to restoring confidence.

For example, think about me going back to my dentist. It doesn’t really matter what the law says or the governor says I can do. I don’t want to go back to the dentist’s office in New York City until I know that he can show me a recent negative test, and he doesn’t want me to come into his office until I can show him that I’ve got a recent negative test. So I think it’s easy to explain this idea to people, and I think it’s also easy to convince people that this is something we could do for as long as it takes to manage this pandemic. Suppose it takes more than twenty-four months to get to a vaccine. If it takes more than twenty-four months, I could see going and getting tested before I go to the dentist and the dentist could get tested. Neither of us has a problem with that.

I really think that confidence is so central to investment decisions, to planning, to anticipating the future, that we need something so simple that nobody worries if it’s going to work, nobody worries if we’re going to abandon it because it’s too painful. Everybody just says, “O.K., yep, that’s the plan. We’re going to stick to it.” And then we go.

Interesting throughout. He’s also not much impressed by those of us who worry about the surveillance dangers of contact-tracing apps.

I’m not worried about the privacy issues, because it’s kind of, like, “Compared to what?” I think we’ve got enormous problems with surveillance right now. This doesn’t seem to me to make it much worse. But I was participating in digital discussions about response to the crisis, and the meeting would go like this: “We need more testing.” Financial people said, “Yep, we got it.” “We need masks and protective equipment.” “Yep, fine.” “And then we need to have the digital contact tracing.” And then, all of a sudden, the whole meeting is taken up with hand-wringing and anxiety and all kinds of fears.


Are tech realities beginning to dawn on NHSx?

NHSx, the tech arm of the NHS, has begun trials of a contact-tracing app on the Isle of Wight. The initial version of the app, though, takes a unique approach to Bluetooth-based tracking that gathers data in a central NHS database, which the government claims will allow researchers to better understand the spread of Covid-19. Well, it might or might not help the government, but it raises the hackles of many of us who fear the surveillance-creep implicit in that approach. Besides, for the app to be really useful it has to be (a) done in conjunction with a massively-upgraded national contact-tracing team — real people making telephone calls and perhaps visiting people in their homes, and (b) trusted by enough people who are willing to install it on their phones.

The interesting thing about the NHSx app (which was developed by a Swiss tech firm) is that it explicitly avoids using the API (application programming interface) developed by Apple and Google to enable programmers to build apps for contact-tracing. A big question (for me, anyway) was whether that was due to

(a) the UK government objecting to the stipulation made by the two companies that data gathered by any app using their API must keep the data on the phone rather than uploading it to a central database (in other words a sovereignty issue), or

(b) to a belief in UK exceptionalism (i.e. that our boffins can do things better than anybody else — so yah-booh-sucks to Apple and Google)?

Given that this ‘exceptionalist’ ideology runs through the Johnson administration like the slogan in a stick of Blackpool rock, I had suspected the latter.

In that context, a scoop in today’s Financial Times is very interesting.

Contract documents obtained by Tussell, a data provider on UK government contracts and expenditure, and shared with the Financial Times, show that the London office of Zuhlke Engineering, a Switzerland-based IT development firm, has been awarded a new multimillion pound contract by NHSX, the state-funded health service’s digital innovation arm. The six-month contract to develop and support the Covid-19 contact-tracing app is worth £3.8m and was due to begin on Wednesday, the documents show.

The contract includes a requirement to “investigate the complexity, performance and feasibility of implementing native Apple and Google contact tracing APIs [application programming interfaces] within the existing proximity mobile application and platform”. The work is described as a “two week timeboxed technical spike”, suggesting it is still at a preliminary phase, but with a deadline of mid-May.

Interesting, isn’t it. I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that the non Apple-Google-API contact-tracing app rolled out by the Australian government appears to be having, er, technical difficulties. Or that the German government recently (and abruptly) abandoned its own approach and decided to use the Apple-Google API — and therefore the conditions laid down by the companies.


In praise of newsletters

I’ve always liked email newsletters. They were one of the earliest indications that the Internet might be a technology for rejuvenating the public sphere. Among other things, they long pre-dated the Web. And one of my favourites — Humanist — the newsletter of the Humanist Discussion Group — has just started on its 34th year. (It was founded on May 7, 1987.) It pops into my inbox every day, and is full of arcane, cerebral, intelligent and diverting discussions on an impossibly wide range of topics. What I particularly like about it is when Humanities scholars turn their attention to something that I actually know something about — programming languages, hyperlinks or Unix pipes, say — and I start to see things in a different light.

One of the reasons the newsletter works is that it has been adroitly edited for 33 years by Professor Willard McCarty of KCL, one of the most erudite — and certainly the best-read – scholar I am lucky enough to know. You could think of him as a curator of what Jaron Lanier used to call a “hive mind” — but in this case a hive full of clever and reflective bees. So more power to his elbow, as we say in Ireland.

_________________________________________________________________________ 

Bill Dutton on the Gadarene Rush by traditional universities to get online

Bill Dutton was the founding Director of the Oxford Internet Institute and the man who shepherded the fledgling institute through the shark-infested waters of Oxford academia until it was safely established as a leading research institute. He’s now back at the University of Southern California and has been watching quizzically as conventional universities desperately try to get online as a result of the pandemic. Here are some of his observations.

  • The rapid transition in response to the pandemic is pushing many educators and students into the use of tools and techniques that they did not choose and have not been trained to use. For instance, you can already see some of the teething problems with the problem of zoom-bombing.
  • The tools and platforms do indeed exist but they are not up to speed with the platforms used by most Internet users. They are relatively slow and clunky and more limited, such as with the use of video, or accessing the wider Internet, depending on the particular platform.
  • We don’t really know how to do online education in a way that is successful in motivating and holding students. The dropout rate of students in many online courses is unacceptably high. This is not to say that individual faculty think they know how to teach online – many sincerely believe they do. But the track-record of online courses has not seen the successful patterns of many other online innovations, such as shopping. To the contrary, many who have taught online have realized that it is far more difficult to teach online and even then the outcomes are not as satisfying to teachers or students.
  • So much of education is not simply the transfer of information. We can transfer information very well online, and online materials are being substituted for books and articles, but there are other processes that might be even more significant. These include social comparison with other students, learning from peers, and the social presence of the teacher, who can recognise an exceptional or a failing student and help them earlier and more effectively.
  • We really don’t have a business model or let’s say the business model of traditional educational institutions does not accommodate online education. Online courses need teams to deliver them well, when traditional teaching can be handled well by individuals. Already you are seeing students asking for reductions in their tuition payments. There will be some students who will pay whatever it costs to get a degree from a prestigious institution, but then we are moving into the territory of selling credentials, rather than teaching.

Quarantine diary – Day 47

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Tuesday 5 May, 2020

The office of the future?


The skillset needed to run online meetings

Effective chairing of a meeting is one of the most valuable (and rarest) arts in organisational life. One of the things I’ve learned from the Zoom and WebEx meetings I’ve been participating in since lockdown is that, if anything, the skills of effective chairing are even more important now.

But in addition to the skillset necessary for the effective running of face-to-face meetings, one now also needs:

  • a really good internet (fast and stable) connection
  • up to date kit with (ideally) a big screen
  • familiarity with the technical details and interface of the conferencing tool you’re using
  • making sure that the conventions for speaking and intervening are understood by all participants before the meeting proper commences
  • ensuring that you and the speaker at any moment are the only ones with un-muted microphones
  • ensuring that every participant understands how to share (and un-share) their screens

Experience so far indicates that not every chairperson has these skills.

On the other hand, chairing an online meeting does give you one power that would be very useful in face-to-face meetings: you have the power to mute other people’s microphones!


Cory’s epiphany

Cory Doctorow is one of the most gifted and productive writers I know. I still remember an essay he wrote many years on how to write which contained a simple rule: Write for 20 minutes every day, rain or shine. I often cite this when students ask me for advice on writing — particularly about how to overcome writer’s block. In fact, it’s a rule that many great writers have always obeyed. Graham Greene, for example, wrote every morning — often no more than 250 words. But in his prime he was producing a novel a year. (Just do the maths and you’ll see how.)

Cory’s just published some new reflections (in Locus magazine) on ‘rules for writing’, and on what he’s learned from running classes for aspiring writers. Here’s the money quote from that essay:

Take exposition, which is something I love to read and love to write – when it’s done well. From Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon to Westerfeld’s Peeps, to Moby-Dick, I will happily read intensely technical, intensely interesting exposition all day long. The injunction against exposition isn’t a rule, but a warning: as delightful as good exposition is to read, most exposition isn’t good, and bad exposition is terrible.

It took me an admittedly very long time to reach this conclusion, and I think it’s because the standard wisdom goes something like, “In order to break the rules, you must first master them.” That threw me off. If, instead, the writers and books I’d learned from had said, “These things are much harder to get right, so if your story goes wrong, try replacing them with something easier,” I’d have come to my epiphany far earlier.

Spot on.


Why did Boris Johnson & Co screw up the UK’s response to the Coronavirus?

I’ve just been reading the extraordinary Guardian account of the shambolic attempt by the administration to overcome the country’s desperate shortage of ventilators to equip the NHS for the coming pandemic.

Nearly seven weeks later, things look very different. The NHS has neither needed 30,000 ventilators, nor has it come close to calling on the 18,000 that health secretary Matt Hancock set as a revised target in early April.

The inside story of what happened in this period is one of early panic and confusion, of companies with expertise clashing with those seizing the limelight with ambitions to innovate, of questionable designs, and the desperation of a government setting targets and then deciding it didn’t need to meet them after all.

At the root of it all was a government in a state of blind panic (understandable) issuing a ‘challenge’ to British engineering firms which had never made sophisticated medical equipment to switch overnight to designing and making them. Among other things, this suggests an administration which knew bugger-all about how complex machines are made, but was nevertheless confident that native British ingenuity would be able to rise to the challenge.

Aside from the panic, though, there was an air of gung-ho lunacy about the idea that a vacuum-cleaner manufacturer or a manufacturer of mechanical diggers would be able to magic-up some of the desperately-needed ventilators. So where, I wondered, did this mindset originate?

Here’s a clue.

On February 3 Boris Johnson, fresh from minting a new coin to celebrate Brexit, made a speech in Greenwich on making clear his views on Wuhan-style lockdowns.

“We are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric,” he said,

“when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage.”

“Then, at that moment”, he goes on, “humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion of the right of the populations of the Earth to buy and sell freely among each other.”

Like I said, gung-ho lunacy, coming from the very top.

At the time, I thought that this was just another example of Johnson’s pathological frivolity. But a remarkable blog post by David Edgerton, one of Britain’s leading historians, who has published a number of works over 20 years which challenge conventional analyses of science and technology, puts it in a more illuminating context.

Edgerton’s thesis is that the government’s response to Covid-19 and Brexit are intimately connected. “Recognising this”, he says, “is vital to understanding the politics of both. Indeed as the trade expert David Henig has noted, we will know that the UK is really serious about Covid 19 at the moment in which is prepared to say that a Brexit extension is needed. That moment has not yet come, indeed it has been ruled out”.

At the beginning Boris Johnson stood behind ‘the science’ to justify a UK-only policy of ‘delay’ of the Covid-19 virus. This involved minimal intervention in what Johnson took to reminding us are the ‘freedom-loving’ proclivities of those ‘born in England’. Too late, what looked like a cunning plan to exemplify the virtues of the British way collapsed utterly. The UK is now broadly speaking following Europe and much of the rest of the world. ‘Following the science’ now sounds like a way of not answering legitimate questions.

But when it comes to ventilators, Edgerton says, “a Brexiter innovation-fixated logic applies”.

The current crisis has been an opportunity to illustrate the argument that the UK was a powerful innovation nation that could do very well without the EU. The government launched a programme, the details of which are still murky, to create new emergency ventilators. First off the stocks in the PR blitz was the Brexiter Sir James Dyson, who was teaming up with another Brexiter capitalist, Lord Bamford of JCB, to make many thousands. This, it turned out was just one of many projects to design new ventilators, and to modify others for mass production. There were lots of allusions to the second world war as if Spitfires had been conjured out of thin air in the heat generated by patriotic enthusiasm. It is telling too that the government decided not to take part in the EU ventilator procurement programme. This had to be a British programme for PR purposes, even though many of the companies making the components in the UK are European, like Siemens, Airbus, Thales ….

Edgerton points out an inconvenient truth about the wartime analogy, by the way: it’s baloney. The UK was a world leader in aircraft before the Battle of Britain. It had been making Spitfires since the late 1930s, and had huge long-planned specialist factories making them. “What is clear is that we are not in 1940. The UK is not a world leader in ventilator manufacture, far from it.”

It’s a great piece, worth reading in full. And it compellingly suggests that when Johnson & Co were claiming to be ‘following the science’, in fact they were simply expounding the ideology of British exceptionalism that underpinned the entire Brexit campaign.


Quarantine diary — Day 45

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Thursday 16 April, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Neoliberalism shrinks public budgets; solutionism shrinks public imagination. The solutionist mandate is to convince the public that the only legitimate use of digital technologies is to disrupt and revolutionise everything but the central institution of modern life – the market.”


Tools for blogging

Someone asked me the other day how I plan the content of this blog. Answer: I use the wonderful Little Outliner created by Dave Winer. It’s everything a tool should be — lightweight, always-on (it runs in the browser) and agile. Here’s a screenshot of yesterday’s plan.

Dave was the author of the first great outliner — ThinkTank for the Apple Macintosh. I still remember the first day I saw it. And I used it — and its successors — ever since.

An outliner is really a tool for thinking with. One of the great ideas Microsoft had when creating PowerPoint was to build into it an ‘outliner’ mode which allowed one to focus on the flow of the argument rather than fiddling with the slides.


When the world stopped

When The World Stopped from Michael S Cohen on Vimeo.

Nice idea: a photographer grabbed images from webcams all over the world, digitally enhanced them and made an eerily compulsive film.

Link


The tech ‘solutions’ for coronavirus take the surveillance state to the next level

Sobering and perceptive essay by Evgeny Morozov. He’s long been a critic of a particular Silicon Valley ideology — “solutionism” — the belief that for every problem, social or otherwise, there is a tech solution. But solutionism has transcended

its origins in Silicon Valley and now shapes the thinking of our ruling elites. In its simplest form, it holds that because there is no alternative (or time or funding), the best we can do is to apply digital plasters to the damage. Solutionists deploy technology to avoid politics; they advocate “post-ideological” measures that keep the wheels of global capitalism turning.

Morozov sees solutionism and neoliberalism as a sinister pair of ideological twins.

If neoliberalism is a proactive ideology, solutionism is a reactive one: it disarms, disables and discards any political alternatives. Neoliberalism shrinks public budgets; solutionism shrinks public imagination. The solutionist mandate is to convince the public that the only legitimate use of digital technologies is to disrupt and revolutionise everything but the central institution of modern life – the market.

Great essay. Worth reading in full.


Why does it suddenly feel like 1999 on the Internet again?

From Tech Review:

You see it in the rekindling of old relationships. Before sentimentality was replaced by an annual Facebook friends spring cleaning, it was a treat to keep in touch with middle school classmates and rediscover primary school teachers. Now we’re back to cherishing faraway old friends; after all, there’s no longer much difference between hanging out with them and those closer to home. People are going analog, too: sending postcards, leaving voicemail messages for family, putting together care packages.

The internet also used to be a place where you could learn about anything—that is, until the information overload became overwhelming. Now cabin fever and boredom have led people back to the internet to learn again, crowdsourcing the best sourdough recipe, mastering new languages, or picking up any number of other useless or handy skills.

Even Millennial-dominated apps have become more fun, less filtered, like the days before Photoshop and AI-powered touch-ups made us more vain about our digital appearance. The glossiness that pervaded Instagram the past few years has crumbled. Now there’s a delightful rawness to virtual yoga sessions done in cluttered living rooms, Martha Stewart and Ina Garten sharing their culinary tips from unflattering angles, even celebrities chiding their mother-in-law for being too loud.

Nice piece, but it will only make sense to those of us who were early users of the Net. 1999 was the year before the first Internet bubble burst. Google and Blogging were still new. And Facebook wasn’t even a glint in an eye.

And, as Andrew Sullivan of the Internet Society points out, in 1999 the Internet was much smaller. Also, many people still accessed it via dial-up lines, which meant that it could be expensive scrolling through endless messages etc.

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.


Quarantine diary — Day 26

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Wednesday 25 March, 2020

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Why America is so bad at Covid-19.

It’s our attitude, there are never consequences for Americans. That’s for other people. We have wars and tax cuts at the same time. We don’t see the coffins of our returning dead. Nothing happens to us. We can’t imagine things not being normal. The generation that grew up during World War II, who experienced the Holocaust, the advent of nuclear weapons, that generation is gone now. Everyone alive today, not just boomers, have been spoiled. We’re all coming awake now from a life-long trance. For the first time in our lives, we have to deal with the mortality of our country. Don’t cry for America. It’s time to grow up, again. Couldn’t have a more perfect person as president. It’s easy to see he is our past. Now how do we move beyond that?

Dave Winer


The Real Pandemic Danger Is Social Collapse

Branko Milanovic: “As the Global Economy Comes Apart, Societies May, Too”.

Sobering essay in Foreign Affairs. Sample:

The world faces the prospect of a profound shift: a return to natural—which is to say, self-sufficient—economy. That shift is the very opposite of globalization. While globalization entails a division of labor among disparate economies, a return to natural economy means that nations would move toward self-sufficiency. That movement is not inevitable. If national governments can control or overcome the current crisis within the next six months or a year, the world would likely return to the path of globalization, even if some of the assumptions that undergirded it (for example, very taut production chains with just-in-time deliveries) might have to be revised.

But if the crisis continues, globalization could unravel. The longer the crisis lasts, and the longer obstacles to the free flow of people, goods, and capital are in place, the more that state of affairs will come to seem normal. Special interests will form to sustain it, and the continuing fear of another epidemic may motivate calls for national self-sufficiency. In this sense, economic interests and legitimate health worries could dovetail. Even a seemingly small requirement—for instance, that everyone who enters a country needs to present, in addition to a passport and a visa, a health certificate—would constitute an obstacle to the return to the old globalized way, given how many millions of people would normally travel.

If de-globalisation does indeed start to happen, then that will produce — in Arnold Kling’s terms — “losers and bigger losers (it won’t produce many winners)”. What matters in a de-globalised world is how self-sufficient you are. Kling cites Peter Zeihan’s view that the U.S. is one of the few countries that produces enough food and energy for itself. China, on the other hand, needs to import both. That would lead one to predict that China will be in the “bigger loser” category.

Hmmmm…


Quarantine FM

My son Pete is a talented podcast producer. He’s currently hunkered down on his narrow boat in London and had the idea of creating something that would provide pleasure to people stuck in the self-isolation zone. This is the first episode. Subscribe using whatever you use to catch podcasts.


The last global crisis didn’t change the world. But this one could

Typically insightful essay by the incomparable Will Davies. He addresses a question that has always puzzled me, namely why the 2008 banking crisis didn’t provoke a radical rethink of how we run our societies. It did, of course, eventually produce a populist backlash against the ‘austerity’ imposed on ordinary citizens in order to ensure that banks would be rescued while no bankers went to gaol. But in most ways, the system continued as it had before, except with slightly better financed banks (outside of Italy, perhaps). So in that sense the 2008 cataclysm wasn’t a real crisis — i.e. an event that leads to structural and ideological change.

“The decade that shapes our contemporary imagination of crises”, he writes,

is the 1970s, which exemplified the way a historic rupture can set an economy and a society on a new path. This period marked the collapse of the postwar system of fixed exchange rates, capital controls and wage policies, which were perceived to have led to uncontrollable inflation. It also created the conditions in which the new right of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan could ride to the rescue, offering a novel medicine of tax cuts, interest rate hikes and attacks on organised labour.

Oddly, the 1970s inspired a vision of crisis as a wide-ranging shift in ideology, which has retained its hold over much of the left ever since.

For over 40 years after Thatcher first took office, many people on the left have waited impatiently for a successor to the 1970s, in the hope that a similar ideological transition might occur in reverse. But despite considerable upheaval and social pain, the global financial crisis of 2008 failed to provoke a fundamental shift in policy orthodoxy. In fact, after the initial burst of public spending that rescued the banks, the free-market Thatcherite worldview became even more dominant in Britain and the eurozone. The political upheavals of 2016 took aim at the status quo, but with little sense of a coherent alternative to it. But both these crises now appear as mere forerunners to the big one that emerged in Wuhan at the close of last year.

So the question now is whether COVID-19 is really a pivotal moment? Davies thinks that it might be.

Great essay. Worth reading in full.


Herd immunity redux

Remember the ‘herd immunity’ strategy for dealing with Coronavirus? That’s the strategy that was kyboshed by the Imperial College model. Well now a modelling team at Oxford is suggesting that the virus may already have infected far more people in the UK than scientists had previously estimated — perhaps as much as half the population — according to a report in yesterday’s Financial Times.

If the results are confirmed, they imply that fewer than one in a thousand of those infected with Covid-19 become ill enough to need hospital treatment, said Sunetra Gupta, professor of theoretical epidemiology, who led the study. The vast majority develop very mild symptoms or none at all.

The research, observes the FT,

presents a very different view of the epidemic to the modelling at Imperial College London, which has strongly influenced government policy. “I am surprised that there has been such unqualified acceptance of the Imperial model,” said Prof Gupta.

(Experts in the conventions of academic warfare will be able to decode that genteel observation.)

But Prof Gupta was reluctant to criticise the government for shutting down the country to suppress viral spread, because the accuracy of the Oxford model has not yet been confirmed and, even if it is correct, social distancing will still reduce the number of people becoming seriously ill and relieve severe pressure on the NHS during the peak of the epidemic.

Let the war of the models begin. We will only know the truth when the UK has a large-scale programme for testing in the population at large. At the moment we’re still flying blind.


Quarantine diary — Day 4

Link

Thursday 19 March, 2020

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England’s green and pleasant land

One part of the country that’s not currently under lockdown: the river Cam at Grantchester, photographed on Tuesday morning.

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Apocalypse now

The Wall Street Journal reports from the Papa Giovanni XXIII Hospital, a large, modern medical facility in Bergamo, a prosperous Italian city that has been overwhelmed by the coronavirus disease:

Bergamo shows what happens when things go wrong. In normal times, the ambulance service at the Papa Giovanni hospital runs like a Swiss clock. Calls to 112, Europe’s equivalent of 911, are answered within 15 to 20 seconds. Ambulances from the hospital’s fleet of more than 200 are dispatched within 60 to 90 seconds. Two helicopters stand by at all times. Patients usually reach an operating room within 30 minutes, said Angelo Giupponi, who runs the emergency response operation: “We are fast, in peacetime.”

Now, people wait an hour on the phone to report heart attacks, Dr. Giupponi said, because all the lines are busy. Each day, his team fields 2,500 calls and brings 1,500 people to the hospital. “That’s not counting those the first responders visit but tell to stay home and call again if their condition worsens,” he said.

Ambulance staff weren’t trained for such a contagious virus. Many have become infected and their ambulances contaminated. A dispatcher died of the disease Saturday. Diego Bianco was in his mid-40s and had no prior illnesses.

“He never met patients. He only answered the phone. That shows you the contamination is everywhere,” a colleague said. Mr. Bianco’s co-workers sat Sunday at the operations center with masks on their faces and fear in their eyes…

This is why social-distancing has to be made to work.


MEOW

Our local supermarket announced that the first hour after opening this morning would be reserved for people who would have to ‘self-isolate’ from next weekend. I fall into that category because of my age, but people with particular medical conditions also fall into it. Think of it as voluntary house arrest! The supermarket was fairly busy with customers of retirement age. The atmosphere was cheery and civilised, with a vague feeling of wartime solidarity. In a way, I reflected, on discovering that all the milk had gone and further stocks were not expected until midday, that in a sense this is the moral equivalent of war.

And then I remembered that during the 1979 energy crisis in the US, the then president Jimmy Carter had used that phrase — I think in the context of making the US independent of oil imports from the Middle East. For Carter, the phrase was a way of signalling how important his campaign was. But of course his Republican opponents resisted it — and found a way of effectively ridiculing it by making an acronynm from the initial letters of each word: MEOW. And it worked.


AI is an ideology, not a technology

Nice essay in Wired by Jaron Lanier, arguing that, at its core, “artificial intelligence” is a perilous belief that fails to recognize the agency of humans. “The usual narrative goes like this”, he writes.

Without the constraints on data collection that liberal democracies impose and with the capacity to centrally direct greater resource allocation, the Chinese will outstrip the West. AI is hungry for more and more data, but the West insists on privacy. This is a luxury we cannot afford, it is said, as whichever world power achieves superhuman intelligence via AI first is likely to become dominant.

If you accept this narrative, the logic of the Chinese advantage is powerful. What if it’s wrong? Perhaps the West’s vulnerability stems not from our ideas about privacy, but from the idea of AI itself.

The central point of the essay is that “AI” is best understood as a political and social ideology rather than as a basket of algorithms. And at its core is the belief

that a suite of technologies, designed by a small technical elite, can and should become autonomous from and eventually replace, rather than complement, not just individual humans but much of humanity. Given that any such replacement is a mirage, this ideology has strong resonances with other historical ideologies, such as technocracy and central-planning-based forms of socialism, which viewed as desirable or inevitable the replacement of most human judgement/agency with systems created by a small technical elite. It is thus not all that surprising that the Chinese Communist Party would find AI to be a welcome technological formulation of its own ideology.

Thoughtful piece. Worth reading in full.


Will the virus enable us to rediscover what the Internet is for?

The wonderful thing about the Net — so we naive techno-utopians used to think — was that it would liberate human creativity because it lowered the barriers to publication and self-expression. The most erudite articulation of this was probably Yochai Benkler’s wonderful The Wealth of Networks, a celebration of the potential of ‘peer production’ and user-generated content. We saw the technology was an enabling, democratising force — a ‘sit-up’ rather than a ‘lie-back’ medium. And we saw in its apparently inexorable rise the end of the era of the couch potato.

What we never expected was that a combination of capitalism and human nature would instead turn the network into million-channel TV, with billions of people passively consuming content created by media corporations: the ultimate lie-back medium. And indeed, if you look at the data traffic on the Net these days, you see the effects of that. According to Sandvine, a network equipment company, in 2019, for example, video accounted for 60.6 percent of total downstream volume worldwide, up 2.9 percentage points from 2018. Web traffic was the next biggest category, with a 13.1 percent share (down 3.8 points year over year), followed by gaming at 8.0 percent, social media at 6.1 percent and file sharing at 4.2 percent. The same report found that Google and its various apps (including YouTube and Android) accounted for 12 percent of overall internet traffic and that Facebook apps took 17 percent of downstream internet traffic in the Asia-Pacific region, as compared with 3 percent worldwide.

One interesting question raised by the COVID-19 crisis is whether people who find themselves isolated in their homes will discover affordances of the network of which they were hitherto unaware. Kevin Roose of the NYT explores this in “The Coronavirus Crisis Is Showing Us How to Live Online”. We’ve always hoped that our digital tools would create connections, not conflict, he says. We now have a chance to make it happen. After a week in self-isolation, he finds himself agreeably surprised:

Last weekend, in between trips to the grocery store, I checked up on some friends using Twitter D.M.s, traded home-cooking recipes on Instagram, and used WhatsApp to join a blockwide support group with my neighbors. I even put on my Oculus virtual reality headset, and spent a few hours playing poker in a V.R. casino with friendly strangers.

I expected my first week of social distancing to feel, well, distant. But I’ve been more connected than ever. My inboxes are full of invitations to digital events — Zoom art classes, Skype book clubs, Periscope jam sessions. Strangers and subject-matter experts are sharing relevant and timely information about the virus on social media, and organizing ways to help struggling people and small businesses. On my feeds, trolls are few and far between, and misinformation is quickly being fact-checked.

Well, well. Reporters should get out more — onto the free and open Internet rather than the walled gardens of social media.


Ideology and tech evangelism

This morning’s Observer column:

For my sins, I get invited to give a few public lectures every year. Mostly, the topic on which I’m asked to speak is the implications for democracy of digital technology as it has been exploited by a number of giant US corporations. My general argument is that those implications are not good, and I try to explain why I think this is the case. When I’ve finished, there is usually some polite applause before the Q&A begins. And always one particular question comes up. “Why are you so pessimistic?”

The interesting thing about that is the way it reveals as much about the questioner as it does about the lecturer. All I have done in my talk, after all, is to lay out the grounds for concern about what networked technology is doing to our democracies. Mostly, my audiences recognise those grounds as genuine – indeed as things about which they themselves have been fretting. So if someone regards a critical examination of these issues as “pessimistic” then it suggests that they have subconsciously imbibed the positive narrative of tech evangelism.

An ideology is what determines how you think even when you don’t know you’re thinking. Tech evangelism is an example. And one of the functions of an ideology is to stop us asking awkward questions…

Read on

Impunity vs. democracy

I’m at Ireland’s Edge, consistently the most interesting event I go to every year. It’s held in Dingle, which is on the westernmost edge of Europe and a place I’ve loved ever since I was a student. And what conference Centre anywhere has a backdrop like the one shown in the pic?

Yesterday, one of the sessions was on “A New Era of Investigative Journalism: Political Polarisation and Surveillance Capitalism”. It was moderated by Muireann Kelliher, co-inventor of Ireland’s Edge, and had a terrific panel: my Observer colleague Carole Cadwalladr, Peter Geoghegan of openDemocracy and Donie O’Sullivan of CNN. There was a spirited discussion of the way in which journalistic exposés of the blatant flouting of electoral and other laws in the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential election by political parties, foreign and domestic actors and social media companies have not resulted in any meaningful penalties for the wrongdoers. The audience came away having been stirred by the manifest injustices and institutional dysfunctionality described by the journalists, but also (I think) deeply pessimistic that anything will be done about the problematique (to use the French term for a real mess) portrayed in the discussion.

On reflection, it occurs to me that the fundamental problem underpinning all this is impunity — i.e. the discovery that there are agents in liberal democracies which are able to behave badly without having to worry about the consequences. We saw this with the banks in the 2008 crisis, and we’re seeing it now with political activists, foreign actors and tech companies. And the reason this is so poisonous is that impunity goes to the heart of the matter. Democracy depends on the rule of law (not, as the Chinese regime maintains, rule by law). Its fundamental requirement is that no one or no institution is above the law, and what we’re discovering now is that that no longer holds in many democracies — and most shockingly in two supposedly mature democracies: the UK and the US.

How did we get here? One of the reasons is that since the 1970s governments and ruling elites have drunk the neoliberal Kool Aid which privileges markets — and the corporations that dominate them. One of the reasons the 2008 banking crisis happened is that in preceding decades the regulations under which banks operated were loosened (using the hoary old “red tape” trope) to create a legal environment in which they were able to screw the world economy with impunity. And our failure to anticipate the growth of tech power led to a failure to create a regulatory environment which would punish monopolistic and irresponsible business models. And now we’re living with the consequences.

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.

Networked totalitarianism

My Observer review of Kai Strittmatter’s remarkable new book.

Kai Strittmatter is a German journalist who writes for Süddeutsche Zeitung and is currently based in Copenhagen. From 1997 until recently, he had been a foreign correspondent in Beijing. Prior to those postings, he had studied sinology and journalism in Munich, Xi’an and Taipei. So he knows China rather well. Having read his remarkable book, it’s reasonable to assume that he will not be passing through any Chinese airport in the foreseeable future. Doing so would not be good for his health, not to mention his freedom.

We Have Been Harmonised is the most accessible and best informed account we have had to date of China’s transition from what scholars such as Rebecca MacKinnon used to call “networked authoritarianism” to what is now a form of networked totalitarianism. The difference is not merely semantic. An authoritarian regime is relatively limited in its objectives: there may be elections, but they are generally carefully managed; individual freedoms are subordinate to the state; there is no constitutional accountability and no rule of law in any meaningful sense.
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Totalitarianism, in contrast, prohibits opposition parties, restricts opposition to the state and exercises an extremely high degree of control over public and private life…

Read on