John Naughton: Hypocrisy is at the heart of Facebook’s refusal to ban false political advertising | John Naughton

Executive Andrew Bosworth’s handwringing about the company’s stance should not blind us to the fact that doing nothing is extremely lucrative for it

On 20 December last, Andrew Bosworth, a long-time Facebook executive and buddy of the company’s supreme leader, Mark Zuckerberg, published a longish memo on the company’s internal network. The New York Times somehow obtained a copy and reported it on 7 January, which led Mr Bosworth then to publish it to the world on a Facebook page. In one of those strange coincidences that mark a columnist’s life, I happened to be reading his memo at the same time that I was delving into the vast trove of internal emails released by the Boeing Company in connection with congressional and other inquiries into the 737 Max disaster. Both sources turn out to have one interesting thing in common – the insight they provide into the internal culture of two gigantic, dysfunctional companies.

Trump got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period

Continue reading…

John Naughton: We’re approaching the limits of computer power – we need new programmers now | John Naughton

Ever-faster processors led to bloated software, but physical limits may force a return to the concise code of the past

Way back in the 1960s, Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel, observed that the number of transistors that could be fitted on a silicon chip was doubling every two years. Since the transistor count is related to processing power, that meant that computing power was effectively doubling every two years. Thus was born Moore’s law, which for most people working in the computer industry – or at any rate those younger than 40 – has provided the kind of bedrock certainty that Newton’s laws of motion did for mechanical engineers.

There is, however, one difference. Moore’s law is just a statement of an empirical correlation observed over a particular period in history and we are reaching the limits of its application. In 2010, Moore himself predicted that the laws of physics would call a halt to the exponential increases. “In terms of size of transistor,” he said, “you can see that we’re approaching the size of atoms, which is a fundamental barrier, but it’ll be two or three generations before we get that far – but that’s as far out as we’ve ever been able to see. We have another 10 to 20 years before we reach a fundamental limit.”

Continue reading…

John Naughton: Work for Dominic Cummings at your peril, but his take on the state’s flaws is not without merit| John Naughton

You can mock No 10’s adviser. But he’s right that Britain must adapt to survive

When Dominic Cummings arrived in Downing Street, some of his new colleagues were puzzled by one of his mantras: “Get Brexit done, then Arpa”. Now, perhaps, they have some idea of what that meant. On 2 January, Cummings published on his blog the wackiest job proposals to emerge from a government since the emperor Caligula made his horse a consul.

Related: Dominic Cummings warned over civil service shake-up plan

Continue reading…

John Naughton: Why we need to blow a Raspberry at big tech… | John Naughton

The Raspberry Pi has notched up 30m sales – fulfilling the promise of user-controlled programming and inspiring children

I’m writing this on my nice new Raspberry Pi. If you’re not a geek, this may suggest a columnist who has lost what remains of his marbles. But rest assured: I am not joking. The Pi is a fully functioning credit-card sized computer running a modern version of the Linux operating system. I bought it as a Christmas treat – and also as a project. The total cost – for the latest version, with 4GB of ram – was £114. For this, I got the highest-spec version of the motherboard, a keyboard and mouse, a micro-to-standard HDMI cable, a power supply, a case for the device, the official Beginner’s Guide and a micro SD card with the operating system on it. All I needed was a TV or a monitor with an HDMI input (which I guess most households now possess).

I bought my Pi from the Raspberry Pi store in Cambridge. Across the street (and one floor below) is the Apple store where I had earlier gone to buy a new keyboard for one of my Macs. The cost: £99. So for £15 more, I had a desktop computer perfectly adequate for most of the things I need to do for my work.

Try replacing ‘ICT’ with ‘sex’, I suggested: would you like your children to have sex training, or sex education?

Related: The Guardian view on the Raspberry Pi: small is beautiful | Editorial

Continue reading…

John Naughton: The smartphone tracking industry has been rumbled. When will we act? | John Naughton

Shadowy firms collect detailed data on where we go and who we meet through our apps. Yet where is the protest that would fuel change?

When the history of our time comes to be written, one of the things that will puzzle historians (assuming any have survived the climate cataclysm) is why we allowed ourselves to sleepwalk into dystopia. Ever since 9/11, it’s been clear that western democracies had embarked on a programme of comprehensive monitoring of their citizenry, usually with erratic and inadequate democratic oversight. But we only began to get a fuller picture of the extent of this surveillance when Edward Snowden broke cover in the summer of 2013.

For a time, the dramatic nature of the Snowden revelations focused public attention on the surveillance activities of the state. In consequence, we stopped thinking about what was going on in the private sector. The various scandals of 2016, and the role that network technology played in the political upheavals of that year, constituted a faint alarm call about what was happening, but in general our peaceful slumbers resumed: we went back to our smartphones and the tech giants continued their appropriation, exploitation and abuse of our personal data without hindrance. And this continued even though a host of academic studies and a powerful book by Shoshana Zuboff showed that, as the cybersecurity guru Bruce Schneier put it, “the business model of the internet is surveillance”.

Related: The privacy paradox: why do people keep using tech firms that abuse their data? | John Naughton

The scope of the New York Times study is incomparably wider than Die Zeit’s: 12 million people are tracked in the not-so-distant past

Continue reading…

John Naughton: The law that helped the internet flourish now undermines democracy | John Naughton

Section 230 of the 1996 US Telecoms Act is just 26 words long – but its impact has been incalculable

In October 1994, an unidentified user of a bulletin board hosted by an online service provider, Prodigy.com, posted an item that was to have far-reaching consequences. The post claimed that a Long Island brokerage firm called Stratton Oakmont had committed criminal and fraudulent acts in connection with the initial public offering (IPO) of another company.

Stratton Oakmont sued Prodigy and the unidentified poster for defamation – and won. Prodigy argued that it couldn’t be held responsible for what anonymous users posted on its platform. The judge disagreed, arguing that the company was liable as the publisher of the content created by its users because it exercised editorial control over the messages on its bulletin boards in several ways and was thereby potentially liable for any and all defamatory material posted on its websites.

Continue reading…

John Naughton: To err is human – is that why we fear machines that can be made to err less? | John Naughton

Algorithmic bias can be fixed more easily than the prejudices of people – so why do we still have a problem with it?

One of the things that really annoys AI researchers is how supposedly “intelligent” machines are judged by much higher standards than are humans. Take self-driving cars, they say. So far they’ve driven millions of miles with very few accidents, a tiny number of them fatal. Yet whenever an autonomous vehicle kills someone there’s a huge hoo-ha, while every year in the US nearly 40,000 people die in crashes involving conventional vehicles.

Likewise, the AI evangelists complain, everybody and his dog (this columnist included) is up in arms about algorithmic bias: the way in which automated decision-making systems embody the racial, gender and other prejudices implicit in the data sets on which they were trained. And yet society is apparently content to endure the astonishing irrationality and capriciousness of much human decision-making.

The same human confronted with a decision on different occasions will often decide inconsistently

Continue reading…

John Naughton: Sorry, but I’ve lost my faith in tech evangelism

There are too many worrying developments in tech – traumatised moderators, AI bias, facial recognition – to be anything but pessimistic about the future

For my sins, I get invited to give a few public lectures every year. Mostly, the topic on which I’m asked to speak is the implications for democracy of digital technology as it has been exploited by a number of giant US corporations. My general argument is that those implications are not good, and I try to explain why I think this is the case. When I’ve finished, there is usually some polite applause before the Q&A begins. And always one particular question comes up. “Why are you so pessimistic?”

The interesting thing about that is the way it reveals as much about the questioner as it does about the lecturer. All I have done in my talk, after all, is to lay out the grounds for concern about what networked technology is doing to our democracies. Mostly, my audiences recognise those grounds as genuine – indeed as things about which they themselves have been fretting. So if someone regards a critical examination of these issues as “pessimistic” then it suggests that they have subconsciously imbibed the positive narrative of tech evangelism.

Continue reading…

John Naughton: ‘Clive James would have been a national treasure if only he’d taken himself more seriously’

The wit and wisdom of the man who turned TV reviewing into a new cultural form

His description of the naked Arnold Schwarzenegger as “a brown condom full of walnuts” is what most people cite when you ask them about Clive. But it was just one in an endless litany of memorable wisecracks.

Remember the one about Enid Blyton looking like “a hunched crone maniacally covering paper while being fed through a hole in her cell door”? Or Margaret Thatcher’s voice, which struck him as “the condescending explanatory whine which treats the squirming interlocutor as an eight-year-old child with personality deficiencies”?

Memories of his witticisms tend to obscure the fact that he was also a gifted, insightful critic

Continue reading…

John Naughton: Podcasting refreshes the parts that radio cannot reach – but for how much longer? | John Naughton

Fifteen years after its invention, the medium with ‘higher cognitive bandwidth’ is falling prey to corporate interests

I’ve just been listening to what I think of as the first real podcast. The speaker is Dave Winer, the software genius whom I wrote about in October. He pioneered blogging and played a key role in the evolution of the RSS site-syndication technology that enabled users and applications to access updates to websites in a standardised, computer-readable format.

And the date of this podcast? 11 June, 2004 – 15 years ago; which rather puts into context the contemporary excitement about this supposedly new medium that is now – if you believe the hype – taking the world by storm. With digital technology it always pays to remember that it’s older than you think.

Podcasting can often convey more intellectually challenging ideas and content than broadcasting

Continue reading…