Thursday 30 January, 2020

Warren Buffett gives up on the news business

He’s selling Berkshire Hathaway’s newspapers to Lee Enterprises. You can guess what he thinks about the prospects for journalism. NYT


Social media will impair society’s ability to control the Corona epidemic

“’It plays to our worst fears’: Coronavirus misinformation fuelled by social media” This is one of the under-appreciated threats posed by social media. And it can be weaponised by bad actors.

And, right on cue, here’s the first report

“Baseless stories claiming that the two scientists are Chinese spies and that they smuggled the coronavirus to China’s only Level 4 lab in Wuhan last year have been spreading on all major social media platforms and on conspiracy theorist blogs. One article from a conspiracy blog was shared more than 6,000 times on Facebook on Monday. “


Global (dis)Satisfaction with Democracy Report

My colleague David Runciman launched his new Centre for the Future of Democracy last night with the presentation of a pathbreaking survey of citizens’ confidence (or lack thereof) in their democracies. The report aims to provide a comprehensive answer to questions regarding one measure of democratic legitimacy – satisfaction with democracy – by combining data from almost all available survey sources.

It’s based on a huge dataset which combined more than 25 data sources, 3,500 country surveys, and 4 million respondents between 1973 and 2020 in which citizens were asked whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied with democracy in their countries. Using this combined, pooled dataset, the researchers now have a time-series for almost 50 years in Western Europe, and 25 years for the rest of the world.

Among their findings are:

  • Dissatisfaction with democracy has risen over time, and is reaching an all-time global high, in particular in developed democracies.
  • The rise in democratic dissatisfaction has been especially sharp since 2005.
  • Many large democracies are at their highest-ever recorded level for democratic dissatisfaction. These include the United States, Brazil, Mexico, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Colombia, and Australia. Other countries that remain close to their all-time highs include Japan, Spain, and Greece.
  • Citizens’ levels of dissatisfaction with democracy are largely responsive to objective circumstances and events – economic shocks, corruption scandals, and policy crises. These have an immediately observable effect upon average levels of civic dissatisfaction.
  • The picture is not entirely negative. Many small, high-income democracies have moved in the direction of greater civic confidence in their institutions. In Ireland, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, for example, democratic satisfaction is reaching all-time highs. These countries form part of the “island of contentment” – a select group of nations, containing just 2% of the world’s democratic citizenry, in which less than a quarter of the public express discontent with their political system.

The results are sobering. Since the mid-1990s, the proportion of citizens who are “dissatisfied” with the performance of democracy in their countries has risen by almost 10 percentage points globally. The deterioration has been especially deep in high-income, “consolidated” democracies, where the proportion has risen from a third to half of all citizens.

From the Report’s Conclusions…

If satisfaction with democracy is now falling across many of the world’s largest mature and emerging democracies – including the United States, Brazil, the United Kingdom, and South Africa – it is not because citizens’ expectations are excessive or unrealistic, but because democratic institutions are falling short of the outcomes that matter most for their legitimacy, including probity in office, upholding the rule of law, responsiveness to public concerns, ensuring economic and financial security, and raising living standards for the larger majority of society. Our analysis suggests that citizens are rational in their view of political institutions, updating their assessment in response to what they observe. If confidence in democracy has been slipping, then the most likely explanation is that democratically elected governments have not been seen to succeed in addressing some of the major challenges of our era, including economic co-ordination in the eurozone, the management of refugee flows, and providing a credible response to the threat of global climate change. The best means of restoring democratic legitimacy would be for this to change.

Tuesday 28 January, 2020

Remembering Seamus Heaney

We were in Dublin last weekend and were accordingly able to visit the celebration of Seamus Heaney organised by the National Library of Ireland, to which he had donated his papers before he died. (He piled them all into his car and drove them to the Library.) It’s in a wing of the wonderful old Irish Parliament building opposite Trinity College, and is an inspired piece of curation by Geraldine Higgins. It has four themes: Excavations, covering Heaney’s early work; Creativity, looking at how he worked; Conscience on how he wrestled with what it meant to be a poet from Northern Ireland during the thirty years of violent conflict now known as ‘the Troubles’; and Marvels about his later work exploring some of the ways in which he circled back to the relationships of his childhood and youth.

It’s a wonderful exhibition which brings out the imaginative genius of a great poet. What was striking about Heaney (or ‘Famous Seamus’ as my countrymen dubbed him in an unnecessary attempt to stop him getting a big head) was the way he managed to be both earthed and sublime. His poetry is accessible to everyone and moving; and yet he was also a real scholarly heavyweight — a translator of Virgil and of Beowulf, for example, as well as a holder of professorial chairs at Harvard and Oxford. (Evidence: his Nobel lecture or his Oxford lectures, The Redress of Poetry.)

He’s my favourite poet, and I spent some of the exhibition close to tears while at the same time marvelling at the arc of his life. It was lovely to see marked-up drafts of his poems at various stages in their composition. And he had such nice handwriting — light and crystal clear. Also (something dear to my heart) he always wrote with a fountain pen.

The nicest things came at the end: readings of his unconventional love poem to his wife Marie after they were married. His final text message to her just before he died: noli timere (don’t be afraid). And a recording of him reading my favourite poem, Postscript, celebrating the magical coastline of the Burren in Co Clare.

And some time make the time to drive out west

Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,

In September or October, when the wind

And the light are working off each other

So that the ocean on one side is wild

With foam and glitter, and inland among stones

The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit

By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,

Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,

Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads

Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.

Useless to think you’ll park or capture it

More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,

A hurry through which known and strange things pass

As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways

And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

Unmissable. And it’ll run for three years.


Quote of the Day

“Don’t attribute to stupidity what can be explained by incentives”

  • Mike Elias

RIP Clayton Christensen, who coined the term ‘disruptive innovation’.

Kim Lyons wrote a nice obituary in The Verge.

Scores of notable tech leaders have for years cited Christensen’s 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma as a major influence. It’s the only business book on the late Steve Jobs’ must-read list; Netflix CEO Reed Hastings read it with his executive team when he was developing the idea for his company; and the late Andy Grove, CEO of Intel, said the book and Christensen’s theory were responsible for that company’s turnaround. After summoning Christensen to his office to explain why he thought Intel was going to get killed, Grove was able to grok what to do, Christensen recalled:

“They made the Celeron Processor. They blew Cyrix and AMD out of the water, and the Celeron became the highest-volume product in the company. The book came out in 1997, and the next year Grove gave the keynote at the annual conference for the Academy of Management. He holds up my book and basically says, “I don’t mean to be rude, but there’s nothing any of you have published that’s of use to me except this.”

Personally, I don’t think he ever recovered from Jill Lepore’s devastating critique of his theories in the New Yorker.


Monday 27 January, 2020

Does it make sense to confine Huawei to the ‘non-core’ part of a 5G network?

This seems to be the UK’s fallback position to avoid antagonising the Chinese state (though it won’t mollify the Americans). Bruce Schneier has some interesting things to say about this. Sample:

The 5G security problems are threefold. First, the standards are simply too complex to implement securely. This is true for all software, but the 5G protocols offer particular difficulties. Because of how it is designed, the system blurs the wireless portion of the network connecting phones with base stations and the core portion that routes data around the world. Additionally, much of the network is virtualized, meaning that it will rely on software running on dynamically configurable hardware. This design dramatically increases the points vulnerable to attack, as does the expected massive increase in both things connected to the network and the data flying about it.

Second, there’s so much backward compatibility built into the 5G network that older vulnerabilities remain. 5G is an evolution of the decade-old 4G network, and most networks will mix generations. Without the ability to do a clean break from 4G to 5G, it will simply be impossible to improve security in some areas. Attackers may be able to force 5G systems to use more vulnerable 4G protocols, for example, and 5G networks will inherit many existing problems.

Third, the 5G standards committees missed many opportunities to improve security. Many of the new security features in 5G are optional, and network operators can choose not to implement them. The same happened with 4G; operators even ignored security features defined as mandatory in the standard because implementing them was expensive. But even worse, for 5G, development, performance, cost, and time to market were all prioritized over security, which was treated as an afterthought.

Schneier’s view is that “It’s really too late to secure 5G networks”. 5G security, he says,

is just one of the many areas in which near-term corporate profits prevailed against broader social good. In a capitalist free market economy, the only solution is to regulate companies, and the United States has not shown any serious appetite for that.

What’s more, U.S. intelligence agencies like the NSA rely on inadvertent insecurities for their worldwide data collection efforts, and law enforcement agencies like the FBI have even tried to introduce new ones to make their own data collection efforts easier. Again, near-term self-interest has so far triumphed over society’s long-term best interests.

And of course there’s also the fact that there have probably always been US-friendly backdoors in Cisco kit, as this report from the FT the other day suggests.


Sajit Javid and the ‘quiet hegemon‘ he’s clearly never heard about

Javid, who is currently Chancellor of the Exchequer, was grandstanding the other week about how the liberated UK would break free of EU red tape. In an interview with the Financial Times he warned UK manufacturers that “there will not be alignment” with the EU after Brexit and insisted that firms must “adjust” to new regulations.

Not surprisingly, this caused alarm in many business sectors whose prosperity depends on adhering to EU regulations. And so Javid — possibly under instruction from Number 10 — started to row back, saying that the government will only use the freedom to diverge if it thinks the change is worthwhile, and after the pros and cons have weighed up.

The Chancellor has form in shooting his mouth off. I remember that he spoke at the launch of the previous government’s White Paper on online harms. He was then Home Secretary (aka Minister of the Interior) and his speech was less about online harms and more about how he was the tough guy who would stamp out this kind of harm. In effect, it was part of his campaign to replace Theresa May, then on her last legs as Premier.

I viewed his Financial Times interview through the same lens. He’s like Boris Johnson during May’s tenure, perpetually in campaigning mode. There are however, some harsh realities about regulatory divergence that suggest he could be riding for a fall. Today, for example, the CEO of Volvo is reported (by the FT) as saying that certifying his company’s cars for the UK market would not be worth the cost if UK rules diverged significantly from the EU’s. The result, UK consumers would have a smaller range of Volvos to choose from. And there’s an interesting new book out — The Brussels Effect: How the European Union Rules the World by Ann Bradford, an academic study detailing how, in a world increasingly driven by standards, EU standards have quietly become global standards. (Think GDPR.)

In that way, the EU has become a “quiet hegemon” of which it seems the Westminster bubble is blissfully unaware.

Sunday 26 January, 2020

What the Clearview AI story means

This morning’s Observer column:

Ultimately, the lesson of Clearview is that when a digital technology is developed, it rapidly becomes commodified. Once upon a time, this stuff was the province of big corporations. Now it can be exploited by small fry. And on a shoestring budget. One of the co-founders paid for server costs and basic expenses. Mr Ton-That lived on credit-card debt. And everyone worked from home. “Democracy dies in darkness” goes the motto of the Washington Post. “Privacy dies in a hacker’s bedroom” might now be more appropriate.

Read on

UPDATE A lawsuit — seeking class-action status — was filed this week in Illinois against Clearview AI, a New York-based startup that has scraped social media networks for people’s photos and created one of the biggest facial recognition databases in the world.


Privacy is a public good

Shoshana Zuboff in full voice:

”The belief that privacy is private has left us careening toward a future that we did not choose, because it failed to reckon with the profound distinction between a society that insists upon sovereign individual rights and one that lives by the social relations of the one-way mirror. The lesson is that privacy is public — it is a collective good that is logically and morally inseparable from the values of human autonomy and self-determination upon which privacy depends and without which a democratic society is unimaginable.”

Great OpEd piece.


The winding path


Why the media shouldn’t underestimate Joe Biden

Simple: Trump’s crowd don’t. They think he’s the real threat. (Which explains the behaviour that’s led to Trump’s Impeachment.) David Brooks has some sharp insights into why the chattering classes are off target About this.

It’s the 947th consecutive sign that we in the coastal chattering classes have not cured our insularity problem. It’s the 947th case in which we see that every second you spend on Twitter detracts from your knowledge of American politics, and that the only cure to this insularity disease is constant travel and interviewing, close attention to state and local data and raw abject humility about the fact that the attitudes and academic degrees that you think make you clever are actually the attitudes and academic degrees that separate you from the real texture of American life.

Also, the long and wide-ranging [NYT interview)(https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/01/17/opinion/joe-biden-nytimes-interview.html) with him is full of interesting stuff — like that he thinks that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (that’s the get-out-of-gaol card for the tech companies) should be revoked. I particularly enjoyed this observation by Brooks: “ Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders here are a doctoral student’s idea of a working-class candidate, not an actual working person’s idea of one.”


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Saturday 25 January 2020

The ecosystem matters more than the device

I’ve been an Apple user ever since 1978. But for many years, I also used PCs, particularly during the period of Apple’s decline (the absence of Steve Jobs, I guess). I stopped using Windows entirely in 1999 and have since used only Apple stuff (and, occasionally, Linux boxes). People sometimes ask me why am I content continually to pay the Apple ‘premium’: after all, Lenovo, HP et al make pretty good stuff too. The answer is that over the years I’ve built an app ecosystem around my workflow, and any device I buy has to fit seamlessly into that.

Which is why I found “ The MacPro is more than what’s in the box” interesting. It’s written by the owner of a small video production and post-production company which for almost 20 years has been through several generations of Mac desktops (and even had a “painful period” with Windows kit). Like me, they are

entrenched in an Apple ecosystem. We have iPhones and iPads and AppleTVs and MacPros and MacBooks and Watches and peripherals and accessories and so on and so on. This harmony between all the devices adds to the overall efficiency and synergy in the office and in our personal lives. This alone is a huge cost savings to us. All the equipment works the same way with the same or similar interfaces and the same communication pipeline. We don’t spend extra time trying to figure out or adapt to new software ecosystems.

Yep. So the kit is more expensive, but when you factor in the ecosystem it’s probably worth paying the premium.


Quote of the Day

“Don’t find customers for your products, find products for your customers”

  • Seth Godin

Wednesday 22 January, 2020

What happens after the Senate acquits Trump?

I’ve just been listening to The Daily podcast about the Impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton. Am struck by the fact that there are a few similarities, but also some radical differences. The biggest differences are that (a) in the Clinton case there was cross-party consensus to avoid the hysterically partisan circus that had been staged in the House when drawing up the charges; and (b) that the two party leaders in the Senate worked together to get the job done. Clinton was acquitted because on neither count was there any prospect of a two-thirds majority. Then everything went back to normal: Clinton served to the end of his term, even though he was clearly guilty of perjury, but otherwise was regarded as a functional president.

With the Trump trial, there is zero consensus in the Senate, and the leader of the Republican majority seems to be liaising with the defendant on how the trial should be conducted. There is zero chance of conviction. And while Clinton was clearly a scumbag in certain respects, the crimes and misdemeanours of which he was accused did not involve conspiring with agents of a foreign country to act in his domestic political interests. He just couldn’t keep his trousers on.

So when Trump walks free from this charade, what next? The whole thing has been a blatant demonstration that the Constitution doesn’t protect the republic from a president who seeks to use the power of the office entirely for his own benefit. It will show that he can behave with Complete impunity. Maybe he could indeed shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still escape justice (as he once said). So what’s the difference now between the USA and a monarchy?


As Capability Brown Envisaged it

He designed this landscape.


The new MacBook Pro: thicker, heavier, better — and pricier

Starts at £2399 and goes to £5769 fully loaded. Useful review here. Can’t see any reason for upgrading from my trusty MacBook Pro.


Tuesday January 21, 2020

Mark Knopfler musing about guitars

This is one of my favourite YouTube videos. Shows you what real mastery is like. Unshowy but unforgettable.


Clearview: the astonishing (but predictable) story

The New York Times had a great story the other day about a tiny firm called Clearview AI which had crafted a program to scrape images of people’s faces from across the Web — employment sites, news sites, educational sites, and social networks including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, etc. — and built a facial recognition algorithm that derived from academic papers. When a user uploads a photo of a face into Clearview’s system, it converts the face into a vector and then shows all the scraped photos stored in that vector’s neighborhood — along with the links to the sites from which those images came. Basically, you upload a photo and in many cases you get a name — often from a social-media posting.

Not surprisingly, police forces seem to like Clearview. One possible reason for that is that its service seems to be unique. Would-be imitators May have been deterred by the fact that the main social-media sites prohibit image-scraping, something that doesn’t seem to have bothered Clearview. Either that or they had a lawyer who knew about the LinkedIn case in which LinkedIn tried and failed to block and sue scrapers. The company lost the case and the judge said that not only could they not sue, but also that they’re not even allowed to try to block scraping by any technical means. As Ben Evans, observed, “Some people celebrated this as a triumph for free competition and the open web – welcome to the unintended consequences”. This case also confirms that facial-recognition technology is becoming a commodity.

Interestingly, Peter Thiel is an investor in, and a board member of, Clearview.


There’s a subreddit Reading Group for Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1920 edition)

Marks the centenary of the edition. Find the Reading Grouo here


UK government policy on electric vehicles is based on magical thinking

Take, for example, the UK pledge to move entirely to electric vehicles by 2050. I’ve been puzzled for a while about the electricity-generation capacity that would be needed to charge all those vehicles. And then I stumbled on a remarkable letter from a group of relevant scientific experts about the resource implications of such a commitment which was sent to the IPCC in June last year. And I realised that generation is only a smallish part of the story.

It’s well worth reading in full, but here are some of the highlights. To meet UK electric car targets for 2050 the UK would need to produce or acquire just under two times the current total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production. Oh – and 20% increase in UK-generated electricity would be required to charge the current 252.5 billion miles to be driven by UK cars.

Like I said, magical thinking. Wishing doesn’t make something happen.


Could Mike Bloomberg beat Donald Trump?

Maybe. At least he’s rich enough. But be careful what you wish for. As Jack Shafer neatly points out, Bloomberg is a surveillance addict. A guy who amassed a $54 billion fortune by collecting petabyte upon petabyte of sortable data, would be very keen on enhancing a high-tech surveillance state that would collect personal data as aggressively and as expansively as he and his company do financial data.


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Monday 20 January, 2020

Dennis Hopper was a great photographer. Who knew?

Not me, anyway. But last month Mark Rozzo had a fabulous piece in the New Yorker about a new collection of Hopper’s photographs edited by the photographer Michael Schmelling, to whom Marin Hopper (Dennis’s daughter) granted unlimited access to the archive. Hopper received a Nikon F as a gift on his twenty-fifth birthday, in May, 1961, from the actress Brooke Hayward, who would become his first wife. Her father, the agent and producer Leland Hayward, was “a camera nut”, and Brooke paid $351 for it. (Don’t you just love the fact-checked precision of the New Yorker — right down to that last buck!) “Dennis had the greatest eye of anyone I’ve ever known,” Hayward told Rozzo for a story he wrote last year about her marriage to Hopper. “He wore the camera around his neck all day long.” Some of the shots that illustrate the piece are really terrific. Result: one book sold to this blogger. It also reminded me that I have a Nikon F2 that badly needs servicing. Now where did I put it…?

Joe Biden really doesn’t like Silicon Valley

I’m beginning to warm to him. The NYT team did a really extensive on-the-record interview with him (transcript here). Here’s an excerpt from a passage where he’s been asked about his experience of dealing with Facebook about some stuff published on the platform containing false claims that he had blackmailed Ukrainian officials not to investigate his son.

Biden: 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 ——

Charlie Warzel (NYT guy): Can you elaborate?

JB: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.

CW: That’s a pretty foundational law of the modern internet.

JB: 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?

JB: 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.

That’s interesting. Revoking Section 230 is the nuclear option in terms of regulation. It would reduce Facebook & Co to gibbering shadows of their former selves. And of course provoke hysteria about the First Amendment, even though Facebook has nothing to do with the Amendment, which is about government — not corporate — regulation of speech.

The EU is considering banning use of facial recognition technology in public spaces

According to Reuters, a White Paper by the European Commission says that new tough rules may have to be introduced to bolster existing regulations protecting Europeans’ privacy and data rights. During that ban, of between three to five years, “a sound methodology for assessing the impacts of this technology and possible risk management measures could be identified and developed.” Exceptions to the ban could be made for security projects as well as research and development.

Why are Apple & Google wanting you to use your phone less?

Nir Eyal (the guy who wrote the book on how to create addictive apps and subsequently seems to have had an attack of developer’s remorse) argues that it’s because they are trying to get ahead of users’ concern about addiction. He sees it as analogous to what happened with seat belts in cars.

In 1968, the Federal Government mandated that seat belts come equipped in all cars. However, nineteen years before any such regulation, American car makers started offering seat belts as a feature. The laws came well after car makers started offering seat belts because that’s what consumers wanted. Car makers who sold safer cars sold more.

Sunday 19 January 2020

How to choose

I’m a subscriber to The Browser, a daily email reading list. It’s curated by Robert Cottrell, who reads about a thousand Web pages a day, from which he selects five things that he thinks are worth reading. He was asked on a podcast recently how he goes about this. Here’s his reply:

Orwell, Trump and the English language

Simon Kuper, the Financial Times columnist, describes himself as “an Orwell nut”. Like me, his favourite essay is “Politics and the English language”, one basic premise of which is that clear speech enables clear thinking and prevents lies. Trouble is, he says in this weekend’s edition of the FT, Trump and Dominic Cummings have proved Orwell wrong. Clear speech (“BUILD THE WALL”, “GET BREXIT DONE”) can enable lies. What Trump demonstrates, Kuper has concluded, is that “simple language can encourage simple thought”. Agreed, except that I’d have said ‘simplistic’.

Hypocrisy is at the heart of Facebook’s refusal to ban false political advertising

This morning’s Observer column. Based on a sceptical reading of Andrew Bosworth’s faux-agonising internal memo about whether Facebook should modify its policies to stop politicians lying on the platform.

Why you can’t believe anything you read about the royal family in British tabloids

Good piece by Alan Rusbridger. There’s a reason why the royals are demonised, he says. But you won’t read all about it because they won’t admit why they’re hostile. Among other things, Harry is suing some of them. I hold no brief for the royals, but I can understand what Harry is doing in stepping back from his role: he doesn’t want the British tabloids to do to his wife what they did to his mother. And I don’t blame him.

Dave Winer’s sci-fi plot

An alien race from a faraway galaxy visits earth. We know they’re coming and where they’ll land. When they show up, they walk by the humans and greet the dogs. Turns out dogs are the master species of earth. And of course the aliens are canines as well.

Neat idea. Only one thing wrong with it. The story should be about cats, who have such supercilious bearings because — as P.G. Wodehouse revealed many years ago — they know that the ancient Egyptians worshipped them as gods. If you doubt that, ask our cats. This one, for example.

Quote of the Day

” When Donald Trump was running for president, he told voters he would run the country like he ran his business. Two years later, it’s one of the few promises he’s actually kept.”

Saturday January 18, 2020

The enigma that is Twitter

In relation to Google and Facebook, Twitter is a minnow. And yet it dominates our politics and public discourse, in ways that seem increasingly dysfunctional. Writing in The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer argues that that’s because “it’s a machine for misunderstanding other people’s ideas and identities”. Developing the idea led him to dig into the ideas of Walter Ong, a linguist and Jesuit priest who died at 91 in 2003. “Ong spent his life trying to understand the revolutionary technologies, such as the television and radio, unleashed during his lifetime. But he did so by looking far from modern America—and by studying the difference between human cultures rooted in orality and those rooted in literacy. His topic matters for Twitter more than you may think.” Oral conversation is very different from text-based interactions, and the problem with Twitter is that it fuses the two. “The rot we’re seeing in Twitter”, as Bonnie Stewart puts it, is “the rot of participatory media devolved into competitive spheres where the collective ‘we’ treats conversational contributions as fixed print-like identity claims.” Sounds pretentious, maybe, but isn’t: and worth reading in full. permalink

Trolling, epilepsy and human nature

The Internet holds a mirror up to human nature, and much that is reflected there is truly revolting. If you want an insight into the depths of human depravity, then thisis is pretty good illustration. Epilepsy sufferers have been plagued by trolls who target them with strobing GIFs which can trigger epileptic attacks. Last week the trial opened of a guy named John Rayne Rivello who had sent a GIF that triggered a serious attack to a journalist who had posted material critical of Donald Trump. The GIF strobed violently across his computer screen, flashing a red, yellow and blue geometric pattern behind the words “YOU DESERVE A SEIZURE FOR YOUR POSTS.” The attack could have been fatal if the victim’s wife had not discovered him in time. Rivello is expected to plead guilty, making this the first conviction for this kind of inhuman behaviour, but what’s even more revolting is that Rivello’s supporters — among them, neo-Nazis and white nationalists, including Richard Spencer — have been arguing that the issue here is about freedom of speech. In an amicus brief to the criminal case, the First Amendment Clinic at Duke University School of Law put the boot into this idiotic claim: “A brawler who tattoos a message onto his knuckles does not throw every punch with the weight of First Amendment protection behind him,” the brief stated. “Conduct like this does not constitute speech, nor should it. A deliberate attempt to cause physical injury to someone does not come close to the expression which the First Amendment is designed to protect.” permalink


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