John Naughton: Been duped on Facebook and Amazon’s platforms? Well, you’re not alone | John Naughton

Allowing third parties access to the online giants is as risky as it is profitable

Digital networks have two significant properties: they can expand very rapidly, given the right conditions, and, if they do grow, powerful network effects kick in very quickly. A network effect is the phenomenon whereby the value of a network increases according to the number of people using it. In the 1980s, Bob Metcalfe tried to quantify the multiplier effect of additional users with what became known as Metcalfe’s law, which says that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users. A network with 10 users has a value of 100, but one with a thousand users has a value of a million (1,000 squared).

Ever since the web arrived, the overriding mantra of online entrepreneurs has been “get big fast”: recruit users or customers as quickly as possible to get to the point where the network effect kicks in and discourages potential competitors. For most of the successful firms, the way to achieve this was to offer free services. This was the route chosen by Google and, later, Facebook and YouTube. For Amazon, growth was achieved by low prices, efficient dispatch, good customer service, prompt delivery and a colossal inventory.

Continue reading…

Sajid Javid cowers behind net curtains as Cummings ‘gets ready’ for the final act | Marina Hyde

Prorogation and summarily sacked advisers offer the latest evidence that this is a ruthless, shameless government

Barely three months ago, the work and pensions secretary, Amber Rudd, gave a speech in which she explained that “Being in a job gives a person dignity”. Does it always though, Amber? There is currently no job in the UK with less dignity than cabinet minister. Desperate people are doing things for crack rocks round the back of disused warehouses that are significantly more dignified than signing up to Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament, even when you said it was the last thing you’d ever do about 10 minutes ago.

So who are they, this prorogue’s gallery? In one sense, they’re anyone who hasn’t resigned when a minority government lies in order to execute this dick move – which is to say, literally all of them apart from George Young, a whip in the Lords who quit on Thursday. To put that in perspective, Young once reportedly described the homeless as “the people you step over when you are coming out of the opera”. So anyone who hasn’t walked from this government has been morally outclassed by that guy.

Related: Sajid Javid was not told in advance of adviser’s sacking by Cummings

Related: Is there a way out of the Epstein mess? Prince Andrew hasn’t put his fat finger on it

Continue reading…

John Naughton: Douglas Adams was right – knowledge without understanding is meaningless | John Naughton

Using supercomputers to explain life, the universe and everything takes us into territory previously only laughed at

Fans of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy treasure the bit where a group of hyper-dimensional beings demand that a supercomputer tells them the secret to life, the universe and everything. The machine, which has been constructed specifically for this purpose, takes 7.5m years to compute the answer, which famously comes out as 42. The computer helpfully points out that the answer seems meaningless because the beings who instructed it never knew what the question was. And the name of the supercomputer? Why, Deep Thought, of course.

Machine-learning may soon enable us to accurately predict how a protein will fold. But it won’t be scientific knowledge

Continue reading…

John Naughton: Behind the Screen review – inside the social media sweatshops

Sarah T Roberts’s vital new study demonstrates how online content moderation is a global industry that operates on the back of human exploitation

“All human life is there” used to be the proudest boast of the (mercifully) defunct News of the World. Like everything else in that organ, it wasn’t true: the NoW specialised in randy vicars, chorus girls, Tory spankers, pools winners, C-list celebrities and other minority sports. But there is a medium to which the slogan definitely applies – it’s called the internet.

The best metaphor for the net is to think of it as a mirror held up to human nature. All human life really is there. There’s no ideology, fetish, behaviour, obsession, perversion, eccentricity or fad that doesn’t find expression somewhere online. And while much of what we see reflected back to us is uplifting, banal, intriguing, harmless or fascinating, some of it is truly awful, for the simple reason that human nature is not only infinitely diverse but also sometimes unspeakably cruel.

A key question is whether the moderation task is ultimately a futile, sisyphean one

Continue reading…

John Naughton: Tech giants despise politics? Hardly – they are in the thick of it and being called out | John Naughton

Silicon Valley’s countercultural aura is gone now that Google develops AI for China and Palantir helps monitor immigration

If there was one thing that united the founders of today’s tech giants in their early days it was contempt for politics, manifested as suspicion of government and a pathological aversion to regulation (not to mention paying taxes). In part, this was a product of their origins in the counterculture of the 1960s. But the aversion endured as the companies grew. One saw it, for example, in the US poet and cyberlibertarian John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. “Governments of the Industrial World,” it began, “I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

For many years, Silicon Valley companies didn’t even bother to have lobbyists in Washington. As late as 2015, Eric Schmidt, then the executive chairman of Google, was predicting that authoritarian governments would wither away in a comprehensively networked world, which made some of us wonder what exactly Dr Schmidt was smoking.

Google’s bosses were running a secret project to build a search engine that would be acceptable to Xi Jinping and co. Eventually, it was scrapped

Continue reading…