Surprise, surprise

From Recode:

We seem to have accepted that the robots will someday take our jobs — but it’s the men, for once, who will be getting the short end of the economic stick. Automation and artificial intelligence will affect Americans unevenly, according to data from McKinsey and the 2016 US Census. Meanwhile, many executives have been wringing their hands in public over the negative consequences that AI and automation could have for workers. But many of the suits at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos privately admit to racing to automate their workforces to stay ahead of the competition, with little regard for the impact on workers.

Usual story: corporations are full of nice, decent human beings (well, some companies are anyway). But the organisations for which they work are still sociopathic artificial intelligences. There are exceptions, but they’re rare. That’s why, among other things, we have to rethink the nature of the corporation — as thinkers like John Kay and Colin Meyer have been arguing.

What’s in a name?

On my way to Brussels to chair a discussion on Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism I fell to reading Leo Marx’s celebrated essay, ”Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept”, in which he ponders when — and why — the term ‘technology’ emerged. The term — in its modern sense of “the mechanical arts generally” did not enter public discourse until around 1900 “when a few influential writers, notably Thorstein Veblen and Charles Beard, responding to German usage in the social sciences, accorded technology a pivotal role in shaping modern industrial society.”

Marx thinks that, to a cultural historian, some new terms, when they emerge, serve “as markers, or chronological signposts, of subtle, virtually unremarked, yet ultimately far-reaching changes in culture and society.”

His assumption, he writes,

”is that those changes, whatever they were, created a semantic—indeed, a conceptual—void, which is to say, an awareness of certain novel developments in society and culture for which no adequate name had yet become available. It was this void, presumably, that the word technology, in its new and extended meaning, eventually would fill.”

Which brought me back to musing about Zuboff’s new book and why it (and the two or three major essays of hers that preceded it) came as a flash of illumination. Especially the title. What ‘void’ (to use Marx’s idea) does it fill?

On reflection I think the answer lies in the conceptual vacuity of the terms we have traditionally used to describe the phenomenon of digital technology — in particular the trope of “the Fourth Industrial Revolution” beloved of the Davos crowd, or “the digital era” (passim). For one thing these terms are drenched in technological determinism, implying as they do that it’s the technology and its innate affordances that are driving contemporary history. In that sense these cliches are the spiritual heirs of “the age of Machinery” — Thomas Carlyle’s coinage to describe the industrial revolution of his day.

That’s why ‘Surveillance Capitalism’ represents a conceptual breakthrough. It does not assume that our condition is inexorably determined by the innate affordances of digital technology, but by particular ways in which capitalism has morphed in order to exploit it for its own purposes.

Tony Blair echoes Edmund Burke

Speaking at the launch of the Edelman Trust barometer this morning:

As the Press Association reports, Blair recalled an encounter with a member of the public in which he tried to explain details of the working of the EU’s single market and customs union which made him oppose Brexit, only to receive the reply: “You’re just trying to say to me that you know far more about this than I do.” Blair went on:

I was prime minister for 10 years.

I want to say to people, I follow Newcastle United, if a game is on the TV I will watch it, but I know that Rafa Benitez has forgotten more about football in one day than I will ever know.

It’s not because he is smarter than me – though he probably is smarter than me – it’s because that’s what he spends his life doing.

You send people to parliament and that’s their day job. It’s not your day job. So if they study the detail and say this is a bad idea, they are not squabbling children, they are doing what you sent them to parliament to do.

If you explain that to people they regard this as the elite fighting back. It’s absurd. We have got to have politicians who stand up and say ‘No, that is not a sensible way of looking at this’.

Yep. In a way, it’s Edmund Burke’s Letter to the Electors of Bristol all over again.

Rule #1: stop tweeting. And if you must use Twitter, just lurk

From Farhad Manjoo:

I’ve significantly cut back how much time I spend on Twitter, and — other than to self-servingly promote my articles and engage with my readers — I almost never tweet about the news anymore.

I began pulling back last year — not because I’m morally superior to other journalists but because I worried I was weaker.

I’ve been a Twitter addict since Twitter was founded. For years, I tweeted every ingenious and idiotic thought that came into my head, whenever, wherever; I tweeted from my wedding and during my kids’ births, and there was little more pleasing in life than hanging out on Twitter poring over hot news as it broke.

But Twitter is not that carefree clubhouse for journalism anymore. Instead it is the epicenter of a nonstop information war, an almost comically undermanaged gladiatorial arena where activists and disinformation artists and politicians and marketers gather to target and influence the wider media world.

And journalists should stop paying so much attention to what goes on in this toxic information sewer.

WhatsApp tries damage limitation

This morning’s Observer column:

In the last two years, around two dozen people in India have been killed by lynch mobs inflamed by rumours on WhatsApp, the encrypted messaging service owned by Facebook. WhatsApp has also been fingered for its role in other hateful or unsavoury episodes in Brazil and Pakistan. In each case, the accusation is essentially the same: disinformation and lies, often of an inflammatory kind, are effortlessly disseminated by WhatsApp and obviously believed by some of the recipients, who are thereby encouraged to do terrible things.

In terms of software architecture and interface design, WhatsApp is a lovely system, which is why it is a favourite of families, not to mention Westminster plotters, who are allegedly addicted to it. Its USP is that messages on the platform are encrypted end to end, which means that not even Facebook, the app’s owner, can read them. This is either a feature or a bug, depending on your point of view. If you’re a user, then it’s a feature because it guarantees that your deathless prose is impenetrable to snoopers; if you’re a spook or a cop, then it’s definitely a bug, because you can’t read the damned messages.

A few years ago, WhatsApp added a key new feature – an easy way to forward a message to multiple chat groups at once…

Read on

The staircase

Walking through St John’s College last night after a dinner I came on this. Shot on an iPhone, and a reminder that the best camera is always the one you happen to have with you.

One reason why the Brexit referendum vote was inevitable

Because the British First-Past-The-Post electoral system provides no safety valve for dissatisfied or disaffected voters. As Andrew Gamble points out in a seminal article on “The Realignment of British Politics in the Wake of Brexit”:

Other third parties have had bursts of success, but have not been able to break the stranglehold of the two main parties. The most recent example is UKIP. Despite its success in winning more seats in the European Parliament than any other party, and winning four million votes in the 2015 general election, it only won one Westminster seat, and that was a seat held by a Conservative defector. If seats had been allocated proportionally in 2015, UKIP could have expected to win more than eighty. The main impact of third parties has been to reshape the policies, leadership and electoral strategies of the two main parties, rather than to replace them. Could Brexit change this?

Four million votes — and one MP.

Trump meets his match on social media

Interesting column by Jack Shafer on Politico:

Setting aside for a moment the fact that Trump and Ocasio-Cortez don’t agree on anything, the two New Yorkers with Queens connections have a lot in common. Both made their political marks as outsiders, collapsing traditional power structures from within to become political celebrities. Both ran thrifty campaigns, substituting news coverage for advertising. Trump proved at the ballot box that Republican voters held no real allegiance among to the usual conservative stands on trade, immigration and foreign policy. Ocasio-Cortez likewise toppled a tenured insider, Joe Crowley, in a primary by catching him coasting.

Both command Twitter brigades in the millions—Ocasio-Cortez 2.63 million (up from 379,000 in July) and Trump 57.7 million—and use their audiences to delight their friends and aggravate their enemies. Ensconced in Washington, the pair has sustained their newsworthiness by jousting against their opposition and their putative allies, and this tension adds to their media appeal. On any given day, there are probably as many high-ranking members of their own party gunning for them as high rankers from the other side of the aisle. From mid-December to mid-January, reported Axios, Ocasio-Cortez generated 14 million interactions (retweets plus likes), twice as many as Sen. Kamala Harris, and almost six times as many as Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer. To give you a sense of scale, CNN generated only 3 million interactions in the interval.

He also reveals something interesting about Trump — that he immediately spotted the significance of AOC:

Last August, Trump told Bloomberg News of his first encounter with her in his usual rambling style, and it’s unusually flattering:

“So I’m watching television, and I see this young woman on television. I say, ‘Who’s that?’ ‘Oh, she’s campaigning against Joe.’

“You know who Joe is, right? So Queens. Crowley. So I say, ‘Ah, let me just watch her for a second’— wonderful thing, TiVo. So you go back —‘huh, tell him he’s going to lose.’”

As they say, it takes one to know one.

Quote of the Day

“Too much is at stake, especially for those who don’t live in the wealthier parts of white America, to let our technological world to become merely a shopping mall where we buy things and exchange half-truths.”

Cindy Cohn, Executive Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Foreword to The End of Trust.