Quote of the Day
I started at the top and worked my way down
- Orson Wells
A virtual May Week
In pre-pandemic times, when exams were over, Cambridge had a May Week (which of course was in June) full of events — boat races, College Balls, open air performances, madrigals on the river etc. — in which students let off steam and celebrated. Given that the virus has consigned all of that to the dustbin, at least for the moment, the question was what, if anything, could be done to mark the end of the academic year?. The answer was a mega-online event last Sunday evening, to which something like 10,000 alumni and staff logged in at one time or another. Here’s the finale to the evening. It’s wacky but nice.
What’s wrong with WhatsApp
Will Davies has a characteristically thoughtful Long Read in the Guardian about the significance and dangers of WhatsApp. Sample:
The political threat of WhatsApp is the flipside of its psychological appeal. Unlike so many other social media platforms, WhatsApp is built to secure privacy. On the plus side, this means intimacy with those we care about and an ability to speak freely; on the negative side, it injects an ethos of secrecy and suspicion into the public sphere. As Facebook, Twitter and Instagram become increasingly theatrical – every gesture geared to impress an audience or deflect criticism – WhatsApp has become a sanctuary from a confusing and untrustworthy world, where users can speak more frankly. As trust in groups grows, so it is withdrawn from public institutions and officials. A new common sense develops, founded on instinctive suspicion towards the world beyond the group.
The ongoing rise of WhatsApp, and its challenge to both legacy institutions and open social media, poses a profound political question: how do public institutions and discussions retain legitimacy and trust once people are organised into closed and invisible communities? The risk is that a vicious circle ensues, in which private groups circulate ever more information and disinformation to discredit public officials and public information, and our alienation from democracy escalates.
This a great piece, well worth reading in full. It’s really about the ways belonging to a group changes behaviour. Will Davies is an amazingly insightful observer of our culture. And this is the best attempt I’ve seen to explore the wider significance of an encrypted app.
The warped calculus of Mark Zuckerberg and his bag-carrier Clegg
Great, impassioned piece by Julia Carrie Wong.
On Wednesday, in response to the growing advertiser boycott over Facebook’s failure to address hate speech, the executive Nick Clegg described a new kind of Facebook algorithm – one that calculates the social network’s moral worth. Writing for the advertising industry trade publication Ad Age, Clegg attempted to argue that the good on Facebook outweighs the bad.
“Focusing on hate speech and other types of harmful content on social media is necessary and understandable, but it is worth remembering that the vast majority of those billions of conversations are positive,” the former UK deputy prime minister wrote. “Look at what happened when the coronavirus pandemic took hold. Billions of people used Facebook to stay connected when they were physically apart.”
This is not the first time that a Facebook executive has hinted at such attempts to calculate the incalculable. (One imagines Clegg totting up the balance sheet at the end of the quarter: “I see that in the red we have this murder of a security officer allegedly carried out by extremists who met and coordinated their attack on Facebook but here’s one for the black: an adorable grandmother just liked a photo posted by her grandson who lives 500 miles away.”)
Take, for example, the campaign of genocide against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar. I don’t know exactly how Facebook accounts for its role in inciting the violence and ethnic cleansing that forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee the country as refugees, but I do know that no one at Facebook was fired over its deadly failures. No one resigned. No one staged a “virtual walkout”. No one put together a hastily arranged press appearance to quell outrage from advertisers.
It’s clear that according to Facebook’s moral calculus, the lives of people in the global south do not count for as much as the lives of people in its own country, but one need not struggle to find violence and harm from Facebook here, either. Let’s not forget that the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Heather Heyer was murdered, started as a Facebook event.
She’s absolutely right. And, as she says, while hate is an existential threat to those it targets, it’s no threat at all to Facebook. The only existential threat to a $650bn multinational corporation is a threat to its revenues. That’s where the real calculations are taking place right now at Facebook.
The only existential threat to Facebook is the one it will eventually face —antitrust action to (a) outlaw its business model in its current form, and (b) break it up. And if Joe Biden doesn’t do it (and based on an extended interview he gave to the New York Times ages ago, I think he gets it — see below), the the EU will do it. At the moment the head of the German antitrust agency is showing how it can be done.
Lockdown and summer reading – 1
From John Thornhill’s list in the Financial Times.
Agency by William Gibson, Viking, RRP£18.99
The Road to Conscious Machines: The Story of AI by Michael Wooldridge, Pelican Books, RRP£20. JT’s comment: “Combining a lucid explanation of what AI is all about with a sensible discussion of its likely impact, a professor of computer science at Oxford university provides a definitive introduction to the field”.
Uncanny Valley: A Memoir by Anna Wiener, Fourth Estate/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, RRP£16.99/$27
The Internet in Everything: Freedom and Security in a World with No Off Switch by Laura DeNardis, Yale University Press, RRP£25/$32
The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity by Toby Ord, Bloomsbury, RRP£25.
John Thornhill is a terrific journalist who is very knowledgeable about tech, and this is an interesting list. I’ve read Uncanny Valley and enjoyed it. Laura DeNardis’s book is important and I’ll have to read it for work. I’ve read parts of Toby Ord’s book, which is sobering in the extreme.
Joe Biden and Facebook: from the New York Times interview
Here’s the relevant passage from the long, long interview he did with the New York Times journalists way back in January.
Charlie Warzel: Sure. Mr. Vice President, in October, your campaign sent a letter to Facebook regarding an ad that falsely claimed that you blackmailed Ukrainian officials to not investigate your son. I’m curious, did that experience, dealing with Facebook and their power, did that change the way that you see the power of tech platforms right now?
No, I’ve never been a fan of Facebook, as you probably know. I’ve never been a big Zuckerberg fan. I think he’s a real problem. I think ——
CW: Can you elaborate?
No, I can. He knows better. And you know, from my perspective, I’ve been in the view that not only should we be worrying about the concentration of power, we should be worried about the lack of privacy and them being exempt, which you’re not exempt. The Times can’t write something you know to be false and be exempt from being sued. But he can. The idea that it’s a tech company is that Section 230 should be revoked, immediately should be revoked, number one. For Zuckerberg and other platforms.
(Times footnote: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act says that online platforms aren’t held liable for things their users post on them, with some exceptions. In July, The Times’s Sarah Jeong weighed in on proposed updates to Section 230, arguing that “we should reopen the debate on C.D.A. 230 only because so much of the internet has changed,” but “the discourse will be improved if we all take a moment to actually read the text of C.D.A. 230.”)
CW: That’s a pretty foundational laws of the modern internet.
That’s right. Exactly right. And it should be revoked. It should be revoked because it is not merely an internet company. It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false, and we should be setting standards not unlike the Europeans are doing relative to privacy. You guys still have editors. I’m sitting with them. Not a joke. There is no editorial impact at all on Facebook. None. None whatsoever. It’s irresponsible. It’s totally irresponsible.
CW: If there’s proven harm that Facebook has done, should someone like Mark Zuckerberg be submitted to criminal penalties, perhaps?
He should be submitted to civil liability and his company to civil liability, just like you would be here at The New York Times. Whether he engaged in something and amounted to collusion that in fact caused harm that would in fact be equal to a criminal offense, that’s a different issue. That’s possible. That’s possible it could happen. Zuckerberg finally took down those ads that Russia was running. All those bots about me. They’re no longer being run.
(Times footnote: In October, a 30-second ad appeared on Facebook accusing Mr. Biden of blackmailing Ukrainian government officials. The ad, made by an independent political action committee, said: “Send Quid Pro Joe Biden into retirement.” Mr. Biden’s campaign wrote a letter calling on Facebook to take down the ad.)
He was getting paid a lot of money to put them up. I learned three things. Number one, Putin doesn’t want me to be president. Number two, Kim Jong-un thinks I should be beaten to death like a rabid dog and three, this president of the United States is spending millions of dollars to try to keep me from being the nominee. I wonder why.
It’s an amazing interview — really well worth reading if you want to know what the next President is like.
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