The former Nazi rocket scientist who all too accurately saw the future

This morning’s Observer column:

… In June 1945, the [US] State department approved the transfer of Von Braun and his specialist team to the US. He worked on the US army’s ballistic missile programme and designed the rocket that launched the US’s first space satellite in 1958, four months after the USSR’s Sputnik sent the American political class into a panicky tailspin. In 1960, his group was assimilated into Nasa, where he became director of the new Marshall Space Flight Center and the lead architect of the Saturn V rocket that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the moon.

Not bad for a former SS officer, eh? But, as I discovered as I burrowed down the agreeable rabbit hole on which [Robert] Harris had launched me, the story gets better. During his early years in the US, Von Braun became pally with Walt Disney, with whom he collaborated on a series of three educational films and to whom he probably confided his dream of a manned mission to Mars. More intriguingly, in 1949, when he was stationed at Fort Bliss in Texas, he wrote a science fiction novel (in German) entitled Marsprojekt but failed to find a publisher for it. He wrote it, he writes in the preface, “to stimulate interest in space travel”. Eventually, the novel was translated into English, cleared by the Pentagon (on the grounds that its author’s visions of space travel were “too futuristic to infringe on classified matters”) and published in 2006 as Project Mars: A Technical Tale…

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  • And George Dyson sent a photograph of his father’s copy of the technical appendix to von Braun’s novel.

Twitter is not the town square – it’s just a private shop.

My take on the Musk-Twitter saga.

Musk now declares himself to be a “free speech absolutist”. He doesn’t, however, seem to have done much thinking about what would actually be involved in running a platform based on absolutist principles. As the FT’s John Thornhill put it: “He grandly declares that maximal free speech reduces civilisational risk. Cue widespread applause. But back in the day, Twitter also described itself as ‘the free speech wing of the free speech party’. Then it collided with porn bots, cyberbullies and terrorist extremists. ‘We have tried that. It did not work, Elon,’ says a former Twitter executive.”

Musk suffers from the delusion that “Twitter has become the de-facto town square”, which, frankly, is baloney. The internet, as Mike Masnick points out, is the metaphorical “town square”. Twitter is just one small private shop in that space – a shop in which hyperventilating elites, trolls, journalists and millions of bots hang out and fight with one another.

He also seems to have forgotten that Twitter operates outside the first-amendment-obsessed US – in Europe, for example. Last Tuesday, Thierry Breton, the EU’s commissioner for the internal market, warned that Twitter must follow European rules on moderating illegal and harmful content online, even after it goes private. “We welcome everyone,” said Breton. “We are open but on our conditions… ‘Elon, there are rules. You are welcome but these are our rules. It’s not your rules which will apply here.’” Since Musk seems temperamentally allergic to rules imposed by governmental agencies, Twitter under his command should have interesting challenges ahead in Europe…

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Subscriber slump may be bad news for Netflix, but better for the planet

This morning’s Observer column

In the early 1930s, when Claud Cockburn worked on the Times, the subeditors had a competition to see who could compose the dullest headline. Cockburn claimed that he won with “Small earthquake in Chile. Not many dead”. Alas, subsequent factcheckers have failed to unearth such a headline in the archives, but it came to mind last week when Netflix announced, in a quarterly earnings report, that for the first time in a decade it had lost subscribers – 200,000 of them, to be exact. In North America, it had lost 640,000 and suffered additional losses in every other region except for Asia-Pacific area, where it added a million.

This didn’t seem very interesting to this columnist, especially as it included the period when Netflix had pulled out of Russia, where it had 700,000 subscribers, which to my mind meant that the reported loss would have been a gain of half a million had Putin not invaded Ukraine.

Still, the negative 200,000 figure seemed to spook Wall Street. Netflix’s stock price collapsed by nearly 40% in two days, taking more than $50bn off the company’s market value in the blink of an eye…

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A self-driving revolution? We’re barely out of second gear

This morning’s Observer column:

“Britain moves closer to a self-driving revolution,” said a perky message from the Department for Transport that popped into my inbox on Wednesday morning. The purpose of the message was to let us know that the government is changing the Highway Code to “ensure the first self-driving vehicles are introduced safely on UK roads” and to “clarify drivers’ responsibilities in self-driving vehicles, including when a driver must be ready to take back control”.

The changes will specify that while travelling in self-driving mode, motorists must be ready to resume control in a timely way if they are prompted to, such as when they approach motorway exits. They also signal a puzzling change to current regulations, allowing drivers “to view content that is not related to driving on built-in display screens while the self-driving vehicle is in control”. So you could watch Gardeners’ World on iPlayer, but not YouTube videos of F1 races? Reassuringly, though, it will still be illegal to use mobile phones in self-driving mode, “given the greater risk they pose in distracting drivers as shown in research”.

As usual, the announcement comes coated in three layers of prime political cant. This “exciting technology” is “developing at pace right here in Great Britain” (but apparently not in Northern Ireland; could it be that the DUP doesn’t approve of such advanced technology?). The government is “ensuring we have strong foundations in place for drivers when the technology takes to our roads”, which will be great once it has attended to the crumbling physical foundations of the roads in my neighbourhood. And of course it’s all happening “while boosting economic growth across the nation and securing Britain’s place as a global science superpower”…

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DIY surveillance *est arrivé*

This morning’s Observer column:

Once upon a time, intensive surveillance was a prerogative of states. After the arrival of the internet, and especially the rise of companies such as Google and Facebook, ISPs (internet service providers) and mobile networks, it became a prerogative shared between the state and private companies – corporations that log everything you do online. Surveillance became a kind of public-private partnership. The companies do much of the work and readily cooperate with security agencies when they come armed with a warrant.

Way back in 2009 the German Green politician Malte Spitz went to court to obtain the data that his mobile phone operator, Deutsche Telekom, held on him and then collaborated with the newspaper Die Zeit to analyse and visualise it. What emerged was a remarkably detailed timeline of his daily life, a timeline that would have been readily available to state authorities if they had come for it with appropriate legal authorisation.

But in internet time 2009 was aeons ago. Now, intensive surveillance is available to anyone. And you don’t have to be a tech wizard to do it…

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Has Facebook peaked?

My OpEd in today’s Observer:

Facebook was much in the news last week, although you may not realise that because it has been renamed Meta in the hope the bad vibes associated with its maiden name would gradually fade from public memory. (Google tried the same stunt with Alphabet and that hasn’t worked either.)

For a change, though, Facebook’s latest moment at the top of the news agenda had nothing to do with scandals and everything to do with its financial results, which were so unexpectedly bad that the shares dropped 25% at one point, taking $240bn (£177bn) off its market value, which in turn led to a 2% drop in the Nasdaq index.

Given that Facebook has hitherto been a licence to print money, so much so that at one stage (in 2019), when it was fined $5bn by the Federal Trade Commission, its shares actually went up as Wall Street registered that the ostensibly massive fine was actually the equivalent of a fleabite on an elephant.

But this time was different. Why? Three factors stood out from reports of Mark Zuckerberg’s conference call with stock market analysts: the impact of TikTok; Apple’s move to require iPhone users to consent to being tracked by advertisers; and the revelation that the hitherto unstoppable growth in the number of Facebook users has stalled…

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Spotify’s attempt to use the Facebook playbook over Joe Rogan won’t wash

This morning’s Observer column:

Two decades ago, the late and much-lamented David Bowie said something that was eerily prophetic. “Music itself,” he observed, “is going to become like running water or electricity.” His point was that in 2002 we were still carrying our music in little bottles called iPods, just as Victorian travellers in India carried bottles of drinking water because you couldn’t rely on their being a safe and sanitary public supply.

Spool forward 20 years and Spotify, the Swedish audio streaming and media services provider founded in 2006 by Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon, is, in Bowie’s terms, the global music authority, providing sanitised recorded music everywhere, on demand. At the moment, it has something like 406 million active monthly users, of whom more than 180 million pay for its “premium” (advertising-free) service…

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The metaverse is dystopian – but to big tech it’s a business opportunity

This morning’s Observer column:

Once upon a time, a very long time ago – until Thursday 28 October 2021, to be precise – the term “metaverse” was known only to lexicographers and science fiction enthusiasts. And then, suddenly, it was everywhere. How come? Simply this: Mark Zuckerberg, the supreme leader of Facebook, pissed off by seeing nothing but bad news about his company in the media, announced that he was changing its name to Meta and would henceforth be devoting all his efforts – plus $10bn (£7bn) and thousands of engineers – to building a parallel universe called the metaverse.

And then, because the tech industry and the media that chronicle its doings are basically herds of mimetic sheep, the metaverse was suddenly the newest new thing. This was news to Neal Stephenson, the writer who actually invented the term in his 1992 novel, Snow Crash…

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Monday 24 January, 2022

Sunset in Norfolk

Walking back from the beach late Friday afternoon, I saw this through the trees on the path.

Quote of the Day

“To paraphrase Gramsci, crypto is the morbid symptom of an interregnum, an interregnum in which the gold standard is dead but a fully political money that dares to speak its name has not yet been born. Crypto is the libertarian spawn of neoliberalism’s ultimately doomed effort to depoliticize money.”

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Little Village | She Runs Hot


I once heard a marvellous performance of this by Ry Cooder and David Lindley, but can’t find it anywhere now. So this one will have to do.

Long Read of the Day

Dan Wang’s 2021 letter from China

If you’re interested in China (and who isn’t, just now), then Dan’s annual letter is a must-read. The current edition, which sums up his impressions of the most important things that happened last year, is characteristically fascinating and thought-provoking.

It’s very long (15,200 words) so you need to make an appointment with it. What I value most about it is the way Dan tries to intuit how the ruling regime is thinking, and therefore come closer to understanding what Xi Jinping & Co are trying to do, rather than viewing their a actions through the distorting lens of Western hegemonic anxiety.

For at least a year, for example, I’ve had the feeling that the Xi regime has seen through the delusion that social media companies are technological innovators. Dan’s letter confirms that, as the following long excerpt suggests:

While Beijing has restrained internet companies, it has done nothing to hurt more science-based industries like semiconductors and renewables. In fact, it has offered these industries tax breaks and other forms of political support. The 14th Five-Year Plan, for example, places far greater emphasis on science-based technologies than the internet. Thus one of the effects of Beijing’s squeeze has been prioritization of science-based technologies over the consumer internet industry. Far from being a generalized “tech” crackdown, the leadership continues to talk tirelessly about the value of science and technology.

In nearly all of my letters over the years, I’ve lamented the idea that consumer internet companies have taken over the idea of technological progress: “It’s entirely plausible that Facebook and Tencent might be net negative for technological developments. The apps they develop offer fun, productivity-dragging distractions; and the companies pull smart kids from R&D-intensive fields like materials science or semiconductor manufacturing, into ad optimization and game development.” I don’t think that Beijing’s primary goal is to reshuffle technological priorities. Instead, it is mostly a mix of a technocratic belief that reducing the power of platforms would help smaller companies as well as a desire to impose political control on big firms.

But there is also an ideological element that rejects consumer internet as the peak of technology. Beijing recognizes that internet platforms make not only a great deal of money, but also many social problems. Consider online tutoring. The Ministry of Education claims to have surveyed 700,000 parents before it declared that the sector can no longer make profit. What was the industry profiting from? In the government’s view, education companies have become adept at monetizing the status anxieties of parents: the Zhang family keeps feeling outspent by the Li family, and vice versa. In a similar theme, the leadership considers the peer-to-peer lending industry as well as Ant Financial to be sources of financial risks; and video games to be a source of social harm. These companies may be profitable, but entrepreneurial dynamism here is not a good thing.

Where does Beijing prefer dynamism? Science-based industries that serve strategic needs. Beijing, in other words, is trying to make semiconductors sexy again. One might reasonably question how dealing pain to users of chips (like consumer internet firms) might help the industry. I think that the focus should instead be on talent and capital allocation. If venture capitalists are mostly funding social networking companies, then they would be able to hire the best talent while denying them to chipmakers. That has arguably been the story in Silicon Valley over the last decade: Intel and Cisco were not quite able to compete for the best engineering talent with Facebook and Google. Beijing wants to change this calculation among domestic investors and students at Peking and Tsinghua.

So here’s a regime believing that the best talent in the country should work in manufacturing sectors rather than consumer internet and finance. This is heresy to Western political elites who think it’s fine that so many bright physics PhDs have gone to work in hedge funds and Silicon Valley where they contribute little of value to most of the people in the country — not to mention the world — while at the same time powering the insane enrichment of a small tech elite and venture capitalists.

Dan is also very good on Xi’s new-found enthusiasm for “common prosperity”, i.e. some kind of official backlash against the rising social inequality engendered by the rise of tech and related industries.

“If Beijing were only brutal or unpredictable,” he writes,

then people wouldn’t be so on edge. But it is both. No one is sure how far the state will prosecute its values-based agenda. A lot of things happened this year that remain too bizarre for belief. For example, the end of the summer was the time when everyone’s nerves were most short, as they wondered what “common prosperity” will herald and whether the state will ravage other industries with the ferocity it brought to bear on online tutoring. The organs of state media chose that moment to publicize the ultra-left ravings of an obscure blogger. To the author’s own astonishment, he found his celebration of the crackdown splashed onto the homepages of state media and pushed into newsfeeds. The rest of us were left feeling bewildered that the propaganda officials selected such fringe view for a news push.

Government officials subsequently emerged to assure people that common prosperity will not mean egalitarianism. Still, precisely what it will mean is still not scoped out. Beijing reined in its control tendencies only after it had thoroughly terrified people. The essential bet of top leader Xi Jinping is that there will always be a large stock of dynamism in the country, and the job of the party-state is to steer that energy in the right directions. That bet might turn out to be successful, but this push is also demonstrating the odium of never-ending restrictions on personal liberty.

There’s lots more interesting stuff here. Worth your time.

How do we make the move to electric cars happen? Ask Norway

Two-thirds of all new cars bought by Norwegians last year were electric. Turns out you just need a government with a clue.

Yesterday’s Observer column:

So that’s how to do it. You just need lashings of money, a political system that responds to public opinion and a government that knows what it’s doing. Which is why it would be unwise to bet on the UK meeting its deadline of being an EV-only society by 2030 – a failure that would have pleased Douglas Adams (of blessed memory). “I love deadlines,” he once said, “I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” And the great thing about EVs is that they don’t growl, they merely whoosh.

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My commonplace booklet

If, having read this, you thought it was April 1st, then join the club.

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Why the climate-wrecking craze for crypto art really is beyond satire

Today’s Observer column:

On 24 December, the movie Don’t Look Up began streaming on Netflix following a limited release in cinemas. It’s a satirical story, directed by Adam McKay, about what happens when a lowly PhD student (played by Jennifer Lawrence) and her supervisor (Leonardo DiCaprio) discover that an Everest-size asteroid is heading for Earth. What happens is that they try to warn their fellow Earthlings about this existential threat only to find that their intended audience isn’t interested in hearing such bad news.

The movie has been widely watched but has had a pasting from critics. It was, said the Observer’s Simran Hans, a “shrill, desperately unfunny climate-change satire”. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw found it a “laboured, self-conscious and unrelaxed satire… like a 145-minute Saturday Night Live sketch with neither the brilliant comedy of Succession … nor the seriousness that the subject might otherwise require”.

Those complaints about crudity and OTT-ness rang a bell. It just so happens that a distinctly over-the-top satire published in 1729 attracted comparable reactions…

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