Sunday 12 July, 2020

A house full of music

This astonishing programme was broadcast on BBC1 this evening. It’s on the iPlayer for a month and is unmissable IMHO. Take an hour off and watch it.

Could juries be a solution to the free-speech moderation problem on social media?

This morning’s Observer column on Jonathan Zittrain’s big idea.

One of the most instructive experiences of my life was serving as a juror in a criminal trial. When the summons to report for jury service arrived, though, I was anything but enthusiastic. I was bringing up two young children on my own at the time and the last thing I needed was to be locked down for an unknown number of days. So I headed into the crown court feeling pretty glum.

The trial was a serious one: the charge was of causing grievous bodily harm with intent. It went on for two weeks. A number of witnesses gave evidence, much of which seemed (to me) unconvincing, sometimes contradictory, occasionally horrifying. We learned more about what goes on at night in an economically depressed East Anglian town than is good for anyone. And then, when the lawyers and the judge had summed up, we retired to reach a verdict.

What happened next was remarkable…

Read on

History of (tech) ideas?

One of the biggest treats of the lockdown has been David Runciman’s ‘History of Ideas’ podcast — a set of absorbing, enlightening and thought-provoking lectures on some of the intellects who have shaped the way we think about politics. In this first set of talks he covered:

  • Thomas Hobbes on power
  • Mary Wollstonecraft On Sexual Politics
  • Benjamin Constant on Liberty
  • Alexis de Tocqueville on Democracy
  • Marx and Engels on Revolution
  • Mahatma Gandhi on Self-Rule
  • Max Weber on Leadership
  • Friedrich Hayek on the market
  • Hannah Arendt on Action
  • Frantz Fanon on Empire
  • Catharine MacKinnon on Patriarchy
  • Francis Fukuyama on History

(The only one I would have added is John Maynard Keynes.)

If there had been a season of talks like this on the radio when I was a teenager I might have decided to study politics rather than engineering. I can imagine these podcasts having a similar impact on serious teenagers wondering what A-Levels to study now. What made the talks so good was the way they provided the context needed if one is embarking on reading, say, Hobbes or Weber for the first time.

Having really enjoyed the series, I then fell to wondering who would be the thinkers for an analogous series on computing and computation.

Here’s a first stab at such a list:

  • George Boole on logic
  • Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace on automated calculation
  • Alan Turing on computability
  • John von Neumann on computer architecture
  • Norbert Weiner on automation
  • Claude Shannon on information theory
  • Donald Knuth on algorithms
  • Vannevar Bush on associative linking
  • JCR Licklider on computers as communication devices
  • Douglas Engelbart on augmentation
  • Paul Baran and Donald Davies on packet-switching
  • Ted Nelson and Tim Bernard-Lee on hypertext
  • Hal Varian on the economics of information goods
  • Stuart Russell on AI
  • Shoshana Zuboff on surveillance capitalism

Who am I missing? Nick Bostrom on superintelligence?

With India’s TikTok Ban, the World’s Digital Walls Grow Higher

As this NYT story illustrates, censorship and politics are fracturing the global internet, isolating users and industries accustomed to ignoring national borders.

TikTok, the first Chinese internet service to have a truly global fan base, is rapidly falling victim to China’s worsening diplomatic relations around the globe. It is yet another sign that the digital world, once thought of as a unifying space that transcended old divisions, is being carved up along the same national lines that split the physical one.

Tensions between India and China have run hot ever since a border clash in the Himalayas two weeks ago left 20 Indian soldiers dead. The government in New Delhi announced a ban on 59 Chinese apps late Monday, saying they were secretly transmitting users’ data to servers outside India.

India’s decision strikes at a number of China’s leading technology companies, including Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu. But perhaps none will be more affected than TikTok and its Beijing-based parent, ByteDance, which has built a huge audience in India as part of an aggressive and well-funded expansion around the world. TikTok has been installed more than 610 million times in India, according to estimates by the data firm Sensor Tower. In the United States, the app has been installed 165 million times.

‘Balkanisation’ of the Internet picks up speed.

Imagining New York without cars

Farhad Manjoo’s imaginative essay is worth some of your time. It’s a nice example of how to tell a complex story using Web technology imaginatively.

That whirring sound you will hear is that of Robert Moses rotating at 5,000rpm in his grave.

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