John Naughton: It’s time to face the facts about our digital world | John Naughton

Cyberspace and the physical world have now converged, so let’s ditch the Orwellian cant about ‘gig workers’, the ‘sharing economy’ and ‘reaching out’

For me, the tech stories of 2017 turned out not to be really tech stories at all. Mostly they were about politics, as the non-tech world woke up to the fact that this digital stuff really affected them. As, for example, when they realised that for a mere $30,000 the Russians could beam subtle political messages to as many as 126 million US voters in an election year without anyone (including Facebook) apparently noticing. Or when big consumer brands suddenly realised that it wasn’t a good idea to have their ads running on YouTube alongside beheading or white supremacist videos. Or when parents woke up to the fact that not everything running on the YouTube Kids channel was wholesome or harmless.

That people were so surprised by these discoveries suggests that the perceptual time lag between technological change and public awareness is longer than we had supposed. The internet, after all, is more than four decades old. For the first 20 years of its existence, cyberspace and the physical world were parallel universes. One was a virtual space with no crime, warfare, violence, politics, espionage or government regulation; the other was exactly the opposite. But from about 1993 onwards (when the web began to take off) things changed, and the two universes merged to produce the networked world we now inhabit – a place where it no longer makes sense to distinguish between offline and online activity. It’s all just stuff that happens. The technical has become social.

Two marvellous essays appeared this year that suggest promising stirrings in our own literary undergrowth

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Owen Jones: ‘Sir’ Nick Clegg? A true sign of how Britain’s elite rewards failure | Owen Jones

He deceived voters, facilitated austerity and caused untold suffering. A knighthood for him would shame the country

The establishment is a safety net for the shameful and the shameless. Once you’re in, you’re in: and even if you played a prominent role in plunging your country into crisis, and inflicting injustice on your fellow citizens, there are still baubles to be had.

Former chancellor George Osborne got his own newspaper, and ex-deputy prime minister Nick Clegg is reportedly to be made a knight of the realm. It has become fashionable in certain liberal circles to rehabilitate both as courageous warriors against the calamity of Brexit. But here are surely two architects of our crisis-stricken nation.

Related: Nick Clegg to be knighted in New Year honours, say reports

A man who uses human misery as a chess piece should, in a decent country, lose their privileged position in public life

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