Sunday 21 February, 2021

Signs of life

Spring is on the way.

Quote of the Day

”Sceptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.”

  • Carl Sagan, 1980* 

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Paul Simon and Miriam Makeba | Under African Skies | Live from The African Concert, 1987.

Link Wonderful song and a lovely combination of two great musicians.

Long Read of the Day

Paul Graham: What I Worked on

Lovely autobiographical essay by one of the few good essayists the tech industry has produced. Sample:

I knew that online essays would be a marginal medium at first. Socially they’d seem more like rants posted by nutjobs on their GeoCities sites than the genteel and beautifully typeset compositions published in The New Yorker. But by this point I knew enough to find that encouraging instead of discouraging.

One of the most conspicuous patterns I’ve noticed in my life is how well it has worked, for me at least, to work on things that weren’t prestigious. Still life has always been the least prestigious form of painting. Viaweb and Y Combinator both seemed lame when we started them. I still get the glassy eye from strangers when they ask what I’m writing, and I explain that it’s an essay I’m going to publish on my web site. Even Lisp, though prestigious intellectually in something like the way Latin is, also seems about as hip.

It’s not that unprestigious types of work are good per se. But when you find yourself drawn to some kind of work despite its current lack of prestige, it’s a sign both that there’s something real to be discovered there, and that you have the right kind of motives. Impure motives are a big danger for the ambitious. If anything is going to lead you astray, it will be the desire to impress people. So while working on things that aren’t prestigious doesn’t guarantee you’re on the right track, it at least guarantees you’re not on the most common type of wrong one.

Why Clubhouse looks like Facebook 2.0

My column in this morning’s Observer

So, are you on Clubhouse, the social-media sensation du jour? No? Me neither. But – I hasten to add, lest there should be any doubt about my social status – that’s not because I wasn’t invited to join. A generous friend had a few invitations to extend, and she offered me one. After that, she had an attack of what one can only describe as donor’s remorse, because in order to be able to extend the invitation to me she had to grant Clubhouse access to all her contacts!

When I opened the app it asked me if I would like to grant it access to my contacts, an invitation I declined – as I always do. At which point it was made clear to me that I would not be able to invite anyone else to join. As Vox’s Sara Morrison succinctly put it: I had been invited to join Clubhouse, but my privacy wasn’t welcome. At which point I deleted the app – on the Groucho Marx principle that I wouldn’t join a club that would have such a schmuck as a member. (There was also the thought that Clubhouse’s behaviour, rules and operation seem to make it illegal under the GDPR – not that a small matter like that will trouble a US-based data-hoovering startup.)

Do read the whole thing.

Australia shows that it’s the job of governments not big tech to run democracies

My OpEd in this morning’s Observer

The tragedy is that the passage of Morrison’s law is actually a pyrrhic victory. One of the principles of warfare 101 is never to fight on territory chosen by your opponent. Democratic governments have been ignoring this, allowing discourse about technology and society to be captured by a deterministic narrative which says that tech drives history and society’s only role is to mop up after it has wreaked its “creative destruction” (to use Joseph Schumpeter’s famous phrase). In the process, governments everywhere bought into the myth that to challenge the arrogant intrusiveness of tech companies carried with it the risk of being portrayed as opposed to “progress”.

Since 2016, there has been a growing realisation that this narrative has to be challenged. The question now is not how can democracies mitigate the harms inflicted by tech companies on society, but what will democracies permit – and, more importantly, prohibit – tech companies to do? Which business models will we deem acceptable, and which will we outlaw? What, in other words, does democracy want from tech, not the other way round?

Applying that to the Australian case, the argument that the government should have been making was not about payments for linking to news outlets but that a vibrant, functioning democracy needs independent journalism capable of providing reliable information to citizens. Given that the social media giants have polluted the public sphere with disinformation, hatred and lies, and destroyed a business model that once funded good journalism, the companies should be subjected to a tax used to support that same good journalism. A bit like the BBC licence fee, in other words. It is the price they have to pay for the consequences of their ultra-profitable business models and insane profit margins. And for the privilege of being allowed to exist in a democracy.

The dominance of the five tech giants represents the same existential threat to liberal democracy that Louis Brandeis saw in the huge industrial trusts of early 19th-century America. The Silicon Valley narrative that sees democracies in the role of the guy who followed processional elephants during the Indian Raj, sweeping up their dung, is as ridiculous as it is pernicious. It is high time we called the industry’s bluff.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Programming in Turbo Pascal in your browser. Not for everyone but if, like me, you enjoyed programming in Turbo Pascal, then this is a lovely emulator. Link
  • Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework. Douglas Engelbart’s original, seminal, 1962 paper. Link. Given that there have always been two ways of thinking about computers and humanity — one which sees them as replacing humans, and one that sees them as augmenting our capabilities (Doug’s vision) it’s lovely to be reminded of it. I haven’t read it since 1995 when I was working on my history of the Internet.

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