An Ugly Truth: review

My Observer review of An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination:

I approached An Ugly Truth with a degree of scepticism on account of its subtitle: “Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination”. But this book is different. For one thing, its co-authors are not “insiders”, but a pair of experienced New York Times journalists who were members of a team nominated in 2019 for a Pulitzer prize. Much more importantly, though, they claim to have conducted over 1,000 hours of interviews with 400-odd people, including Facebook executives, former and current employees and their families, friends and classmates, plus investors and advisers to Facebook, and lawyers and activists who have been fighting the company for a long time. So if this is an “insider” account, it’s better sourced than all of its predecessors in the genre.

We’ll get to what this account reveals in a moment, but first let’s clear up the title. It comes from the header on an internal memo sent by Andrew Bosworth (AKA “Boz”), a senior Facebook executive and one of Mark Zuckerberg’s closest confidants. “So we connect more people,” it says. “That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs someone a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And still we connect people. The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is de facto good.”

In a way, this tells you everything you need to know about Facebook…

Do read the whole thing

How mainstream media can’t hold tech companies to account

This morning’s Observer column:

The interview was a classic mainstream media production. Rajan had done the kind of homework that big-time reporters do, right down to reading Henry Kissinger’s musings on the subject of artificial intelligence. “I want to find out,” he declared at the beginning, “who he [Pichai] actually is, apply some proper scrutiny to Google’s power, and understand where technology is taking all of us.” It turns out that he and Pichai both have family in Tamil Nadu and are obsessed with cricket. In the end they even managed to have a cod cricket game in which Rajan tried to bowl a googly at the boss of Google. So they’re both nice guys, got on like a house on fire and told us absolutely nothing.

Like I said: a classic mainstream media treatment of tech. The BBC’s media editor wanted to find out “where technology is taking all of us”. He is thus a native speaker of the narrative of tech determinism – the view that technology drives history and the role of society is simply to mop up afterwards and adjust to the new reality. It is also, incidentally, the narrative that the tech companies have assiduously cultivated from the very beginning, because it usefully diverts attention from awkward questions about human agency and whether democracies might have ideas about which kinds of technology are tolerable or beneficial and which not.

Do read the whole thing

Enjoy the restored Night Watch, but don’t ignore the machine behind the Rembrandt

This morning’s Observer column:

In the late 1970s I lived and worked briefly in the Netherlands. Often, on Sundays, I would travel to Amsterdam, go to the morning concert in the Spiegelzaal of the Concertgebouw, and afterwards walk over to the Rijksmuseum, Holland’s national gallery, and spend a couple of hours there. The museum is a wonderful storehouse of Dutch art and there was always much to explore. But on nearly every visit I found myself being drawn back to one of Rembrandt’s most famous pictures – The Night Watch – which I guess is to the Rijksmuseum what the Mona Lisa is to the Louvre.

Its official title is Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq. It came to be called The Night Watch because by the end of the 18th century it had darkened considerably through the accumulation of layers of dirt and varnish, leading to the belief that the painted scene had occurred after dusk.

It’s a huge painting (379 x 453cm) and it has an overwhelming presence. One is stunned by its sweep and scale. What I hadn’t known, all those years ago though, was that I was only contemplating a part of the original painting…

Read on

Memo to corporate leaders post-Covid: the disruption to businesses has only just begun

This morning’s Observer column:

The problem with having had the fast-forward button suddenly propel us into an unexpected place, though, is that we find ourselves unmoored. We start wondering about what lies ahead as the immediate threat of the virus recedes. What will our post-pandemic future be like? In relation to work, three main possibilities are currently taking up all the airtime: continuing to work from home (WFH); a hybrid mode in which we spend some time in the office but also two or three days WFH; and a return to ye olde days commuting to the office to gather round the water cooler and pretend to be doing something useful.

In a remarkable essay published a few days ago, first as a long blog post entitled Creating the Future of Work and later as an engaging Tweetstorm, Stephen Sinofsky, a former senior Microsoft executive, argues that if these are the only options under consideration then we have gravely underestimated the industrial significance of the pandemic. Of course the nature of work will have been changed by what has happened. But what is more significant, he contends, is that the shock will also reshape the nature of the corporations in which most of us work. The problem is that most of the people who run large organisations and corporations haven’t twigged that yet…

Read on

Is Biden’s appointment of a pioneering young lawyer bad news for big tech?

Answer: hopefully, yes.

This morning’s Observer column:

Arrayed on big screens before the members of the subcommittee are the four bosses of the aforementioned tech giants: Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, then midway through his Star Trek makeover; Tim Cook of Apple, looking like the clean-living lad who never understood the locker-room jokes; Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, wearing his trademark glued-on hairdo; and the Google boss, Sundar Pichai, every inch the scholarship boy who can’t understand why he’s been arrested by the Feds. And on the vast mahogany bench towering above these screened moguls sits David Cicilline, subcommittee chairman and the politician who has overseen the investigation.

To be honest, I was watching out of duty and with low expectations. All the previous congressional interrogations of Zuckerberg and co had alternated between political grandstanding and farce. I expected much the same from this encounter. And then I noticed a young woman wearing a black mask standing behind Cicilline. She looked vaguely familiar, but it took me a few moments before I twigged that she was Lina Khan. At which point I sat up and started taking notes.

I had been following her for years, ever since a paper she had published as a graduate student in the Yale Law Journal in January 2017…

Read on

Data isn’t oil, whatever tech commentators tell you: it’s people’s lives

This morning’s Observer column:

The phrase “data is the new oil” is the cliche du jour of the tech industry. It was coined by Clive Humby, the genius behind Tesco’s loyalty card, who argued that data was “just like crude. It’s valuable, but if unrefined it cannot really be used. It has to be changed into gas, plastic, chemicals, etc to create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity; so must data be broken down, analysed for it to have value.”

It turned out to be a viral idea: marketers, tech companies, governments, regulators and the mainstream media went for it like ostriches going after brass doorknobs (as PG Wodehouse might have put it) and it rapidly attained the status of holy writ.

But it’s a cliche nevertheless and cliches are, as my colleague David Runciman once observed, “where the truth goes to die”.

Humby’s cliche, however, is also a metaphor – a way of describing something by saying it is something else and that should concern us. Why? Because metaphors shape the way we think and, as the philosopher George Lakoff pointed out aeons ago, the best way to win arguments is to use metaphor to frame the discourse and dictate the language in which it is conducted. Thus American anti-abortion campaigners framed abortion as murder and the music industry framed filesharing as theft. And who’s in favour of murder or theft?

If Apple is the only organisation capable of defending our privacy, it really is time to worry

This morning’s Observer column:

The computerised, high-speed auction system in which online ads are traded seems not to be compatible with the law – and is currently unregulated. That is the conclusion of a remarkable recent investigation by two legal scholars, Michael Veale and Frederik Zuiderveen Borgesius, who set out to examine whether this “real-time bidding” (RTB) system conforms to European data-protection law. They asked whether RTB complies with three rules of the European GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) – the requirement for a legal basis, transparency and security. They showed that for each of the requirements, most RTB practices do not comply. “Indeed,” they wrote, “it seems close to impossible to make RTB comply.” So, they concluded, it needs to be regulated.

It does. Often the problem with tech regulation is that our legal systems need to be overhauled to deal with digital technology. But the irony in this particular case is that there’s no need for such an overhaul: Europe already has the law in place. It’s the GDPR, which is part of the legal code of every EU country and has provision for swingeing punishments for infringers. The problem is that it’s not being effectively enforced…

Read on

Welcome to DarkSide – and the inexorable rise of ransomware

This morning’s Observer column:

You get the picture. This is awfully like the kind of dialogue you would see in a conventional business negotiation. What it shows is what the security expert Ross Anderson has been pointing out for years: that cybercrime has been industrialised and that one can analyse it using the methods and economic concepts that one would use if studying any burgeoning line of business.

In that sense, public discourse about cybercrime and its practitioners is way behind the curve. As Ross and his colleagues have shown, criminals are rational actors, not lone hackers with poor hygiene and a penchant for pizza. They see what they do as a low-risk activity with very high profit margins. And they operate in a networked world in which even large and wealthy companies are still failing to take computer security seriously. The significance of the Colonial hack is its confirmation of cybercrime as a major new industry…

Read on

The meltdown at Basecamp shows even small tech firms are sociopathic

A culture war between founders and employees at the software firm is a reminder that new industries aren’t any more caring than older ones are. This morning’s Observer column:

Basecamp is a plucky little (57-person) tech company that makes useful and imaginative project-management software and innovative email software. Or, rather, it was until a fortnight ago, when it suddenly became embroiled in a traumatic internal row between its employees and its two cofounders, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, a row that has transformed Basecamp into a much smaller company bearing the scars of collateral damage from a firefight in the culture wars.

Although Basecamp is a minnow in the world of tech giants, what happened there reflects what is already commonplace in its bigger counterparts. This is because, at base, the company’s internal dissension highlighted that the conflict was actually between the sociopathic imperatives of a corporation and the feelings of skilled employees concerned about the racism and sexism that is endemic in both US society and in an industry that for decades pretended that it was above such sordid concerns.

The first indication to the outside world that something was awry came on Monday 26 April when Fried, the company’s CEO, published a blogpost entitled “Changes at Basecamp”…

Read on

Tuesday 16 March, 2021

Russia at the heart of British government

This comes to you fresh from the you-couldn’t-make-it-up department.

A Russian-owned company played a key role in the £2.6m renovation of No.9 Downing Street in an undisclosed contract to get it ready for White House-style televised media briefings, a source has told HuffPost UK.

According to the source, Megahertz carried out crucial work, including installing computers, cameras, microphones and a control desk, to get the building ready for briefings from Boris Johnson’s press secretary Allegra Stratton.

In 2013, Megahertz was bought by the UK arm of Okno-TV – a Moscow-based firm that has carried out technical work for state-controlled broadcasters Russia Today, Channel One, and Public Television of Russia.

Most of Megahertz’s current shareholders are either current or former workers at the Russian firm, according to Companies House.

That’s the great thing about sovereignty: you can do your own thing without being shackled by Brussels red tape about competitive tendering and so on. I mean to say, under those old Brussels rules the UK would have had to put the job out to tender. And when Huawei came in with the lowest bid, they’d have to get the job, backdoor and all.

What’s going on with the AstraZeneca vaccine?

The Financial Times today reports that Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands suspended all use of the jab on Monday. They all described their actions as ‘precautionary’. At the same time the UK is steaming ahead with the vaccine.

The reason for the suspension seems to be a smallish number of people who suffered blood clots after having the jab. In Austria one person, under the age 50, was reported to have died with blood clots after receiving the shot. Denmark, Iceland and Norway halted AstraZeneca vaccinations altogether last week after further so-called thromboembolic events, including the death of one woman in Denmark. One Norwegian health worker has died and two have been hospitalised with what health authorities there called “rare clinical pictures” after taking the vaccine. Their symptoms included severe blood clots in both large and small blood vessels, low platelet counts and bleeding. Dutch authorities said 10 cases of problems, including possible thrombosis or embolisms, had been reported by people who had received the jab. Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands, suspended all use of the shot on Monday.

These are all serious side-effects, obviously, but it seemed to me to be a surprising over-reaction, given the numbers of people who have already (like me) had the jab. But then, I’m no expert. On the other hand, a real expert — Penelope Ward, Penelope Ward, a professor of pharmaceutical medicine at King’s College London — who has reviewed data collected by the UK medicines regulator, told the FT that “the number of reports of blood clots among recipients of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was still comparatively low”. In the UK, she went on,

“about 165 people a day might suffer a thrombotic episode, some of which will be fatal. In contrast, the number of reports from the ongoing vaccine programme in the UK and EU, which includes 20m individuals vaccinated to date, is just 37. By chance alone, at least 15,000 such events might have been expected from a population of that size.”

In a way, therefore, one could argue that the AstraZeneca vaccine has already had the biggest public study there’s ever been. So what’s going on in the EU?

Seeking enlightenment, I phoned a Dutch friend who has high-level experience of policy-making in the Netherlands. His view was that the decisions should be seen in the context of higher levels of vaccine hesitation and suspicion in Continental countries, together with the proliferation of anti-vaxx conspiracy theories and misinformation on social media and — not least — the fact that there’s a Dutch general election on March 17 in which there’s a serious prospect that a right-wing opposition populist party might come out on top.

In these circumstances, he argued, even if most public-health authorities actual believe that the AstraZeneca vaccine is safe, they think it would be dangerously counter-productive to appear to discount the side-effects issue out of hand. The days are over when a government minister or a senior medic in a white coat would get away with declaring that there was nothing much to worry about. (Which, in a way, is what British health authorities did those years ago when the dodgy claims about the MMR vaccine first surfaced.) In an age of social media, distrust of experts and erosion of deference taking such a stance would be wilfully counter-productive. Far better to be seen to be taking the doubts seriously, to await further examination and more data . In other words: be seen to be “putting public safety first”.

That sounds like a plausible argument to me. And, in a way, it’s corroborated By Derek Lowe, writing in Science Translational Medicine the other day.

It’s a mess. And it’s a mess that leads us right into the third problem, which is public confidence. The AZ/Oxford vaccine has been in trouble there since the day the first data came out. The efficacy numbers looked lower than the other vaccines that had reported by then, and as mentioned, the presentation of the data was really poorly handled and continued to be so for weeks. Now with these dosing suspensions, I have to wonder if this vaccine is ever going to lose the dark cloud it’s currently sitting under. Even if EU countries start dosing again in a few days, what are people going to think? And this fear and uncertainty can spill over into hesitancy for all the vaccines, of course, and that’s the last thing we need.

Let’s say, he concludes, that when the next set of figures about the vaccine come in

at a solid, inarguable 60%. You would want to see a higher number in a better world, but 60% is a damn sight better than not getting vaccinated at all. Which is effectively what a number of European countries have chosen to do instead. If I were living in one of those countries where the cases are heading right back up, I would bare my arm immediately for a 60% effective vaccine and hope that as many other people as possible did the same.


Quote of the Day

”Lady Capricorn, he understood, was still keeping open bed.”

  • Aldous Huxley, Chrome Yellow

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Máire Ní Ghradha (Uileann pipes) and Mick Daly (Guitar) | The Trip to Athlone and The Peacock’s Feather | Live | 1996


Wonderful piping. And tomorrow is St Patrick’s Day, after all.

Long Read of the Day

Far-right news sources on Facebook more engaging

We kind-of knew that right-wing sources on social media are much better at generating the ‘user engagement’ that tech platforms prize so highly, but this NYU study of 8.6 million posts provides an empirical confirmation of their ability to get people worked up.

In conclusion, we found that far-right sources receive considerably more engagement per follower than pages with other political leanings. Furthermore, far-right misinformation sources are the only ones that engage better with their followers than non-misinformation sources of the same partisanship as an aggregate. Which is why liberals are fighting a losing battle on these platforms.

Chris Clark’s tribute to Jonathan Steinberg…

… is now on the Cambridge History Faculty’s website. Chris is a great historian and was a good friend of Jonathan’s. His is a lovely, informed, generous memorial.

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