“Who Owns The Future?” by Jaron Lanier

September 16, 2014

So, I tried to read Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations”. I got to page 160 and then gave up. I didn’t understand most of it, and what little I did understand I disagreed with.

A relief then, to turn to a different book; “Who Owns The Future” by Jaron Lanier.

I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in the current state of tech and by extension, the state of the world. It’s wise, humane, intelligent, compassionate and comprehensible.

Lanier’s central point is simple: instead of giving away our data for free to others so they can amass huge concentrations of wealth and power, why don’t they pay us for our data instead?

But the real joy of this book is the way Lanier nails every bad idea and pernicious belief coming out of Silicon Valley. Lanier is a computer scientist and  a techno optimist. He’s not an outsider just being contrary for the sake of it. It’s such a relief to hear someone on the inside critique these barmy ideas.

There are a thousand great quotes in “Who Owns The Future”, here’s just one:

There’s a romance in that future, especially for hackers… it comes up in science fiction constantly: the hacker as hero, outwitting the villain’s computer security. But what a crummy world that would be, where screwing up something online is the last chance at being human and free. A good world is where there’s meaning outside of sabotage.

Buy it and read it!

who owns the future

Cornish landscape

August 27, 2014

Possibly an abandoned WW2 installation.

The ethics of digital: round up #2

August 18, 2014

So are Facebook and Google publishers?

They’ve always said they’re not.

But when so much of people’s information is being curated and served up by them don’t they become something as near as makes no difference to a publisher?

And if Google and Facebook control so much of the information the public sees, then do they have any obligations to the public as well as to their advertisers?

For example, if there is a very important News event happening somewhere in the world, and their algorithms down play it in their users feeds and search results, isn’t that like a newspaper relegating a front page story to page 24?

Some thoughts from other people:

Zeynep Tufekci  on Medium: “Algorithms have consequences”        

David Holmes on Pando: “If Twitter implements a Facebook style algorithm you may not hear about the next Ferguson”

According to Aarti Shahani in this article for NPR Google does have a newsroom: “In Google Newsroom, Brazil Defeat Is Not A Headline”;

If you do a Google search on the World Cup game in which Germany slaughtered Brazil 7-1, the top results will say things like “destroy,” “defeat,” and “humiliate.”

But Google itself is choosing to steer clear of negative terms. The company has created an experimental newsroom in San Francisco to monitor the World Cup, and turn popular search results into viral content. And they’ve got a clear editorial bias…

…I ask the team why they wouldn’t use a negative headline. Many headlines are negative.

“We’re also quite keen not to rub salt into the wounds,” producer Sam Clohesy says, “and a negative story about Brazil won’t necessarily get a lot of traction in social.”

Mobile marketing expert Rakesh Agrawal, CEO of reDesign mobile, says that’s just generally true. “People on social networks like Twitter and Facebook — they generally tend to share happy thoughts. If my son had an A in math today, I’m going to share that. But if my son got an F in math, that’s generally not something you’re going to see on social media.”

In old-school newsrooms, the saying goes: if it bleeds, it leads. Because this new newsroom is focused on getting content onto everyone’s smartphone, Agrawal says, editors may have another bias: to comb through the big data in search of happy thoughts.”

Reddit has asked its users to “adhere to the same standards of behaviour online that you follow in real life”.

Although there does seem to be a problem if, as in real life, you try and fast forward through the boring adverts on your catch up TV:

Until an administrator changed the advice in response to questions from the Guardian, however, one rule also encouraged users to “link to the direct version of a media file when the page it was found on doesn’t add any value.”

That practice, known as “hotlinking”, is a common complaint of artists whose work regularly appears on Reddit, since it can send thousands of users to their site without a single one seeing an image credit or advertisement. The rule now only encourages hotlinking “if the page it was found on isn’t the creator’s and doesn’t add additional information or context”.

P.S. Google are looking for public comment and evidence about the right to be forgotten…

The ethics of digital: round up

July 20, 2014

What’s the right way to behave online?

If digital behaviour is different from real world behaviour what are the new rules?

The big tech giants that dominate our lives are running around trying to find answers. When they get it wrong, it doesn’t look good.

In June Google hired an ethics adviser Luciano Floridi. He argued in the Guardian for some “bold ideas”:

Most experts agree that current European data protection law is outdated. I see it as the expression of a time when there was a clear divide between online and offline. Today, that divide is being bridged in favour of the “onlife”, a mixture of analogue and digital, physical and virtual experiences, like driving a car following the instructions of a navigator.

The car metaphor is a dead giveaway. A driverless car? Like one of Google’s?

In July Google’s approach to implementing the EU’s Right to be Forgotten ruling became headline news courtesy of the BBC’s Robert Peston. The most interesting piece I read about this (apart from Robert’s own), was Andrew Orlovski’s new angle in The Register (“Google de-listing of BBC article ‘broke UK and Euro public interest laws'”)

Then there’s Facebook’s “Mood Manipulation” experiment. There was a lot of noise about this, but Jaron Lanier in the New York Times offered some humanity and humility.

All of us engaged in research over networks must commit to finding a way to modernize the process of informed consent.  Instead of lowering our standards to the level of unread click-through agreements, let’s raise the standards for everyone.

Duncan J Watts in “Lessons Learned from the Facebook study” said that the experiment may not have been as bad as the noise suggested but:

What we need is an ethics-review process for human-subject research designed explicitly for web-based research…

(Credit to @dianecoyle1859 for this link)

David Banks has some intelligent thoughts and practical suggestions on the ethics of wearable technology. I’d disagree with his suggestion that police forces should be banned from using Google Glass. Law enforcement might be the only place Google Glass serves a useful purpose, rather than just being an annoyance.

I couldn’t write this without mentioning Model View Culture, the online magazine set up by @Shanley. It’s a must read: a combative critique of the values, practices and morality of Silicon Valley. I don’t agree with all of it, but it’s an essential antidote to the complacency and lack of self awareness of too much of the tech scene.

The technology giants are relatively young (even “immature”? ). When you’re an adolescent you haven’t worked out the right thing to do yet. The BBC, like many other mainstream media organisations, has been trying to answer these questions for a lot longer. David Jordan, Director of BBC Values and Standards (Disclaimer: I use to work in that team), recently outlined the BBC’s guidance on removing content online (“Should the BBC unpublish any of its content online?”). It’s rational, nuanced, sensible and, mature.

Bold ideas? I’d rather have some old ones.


“Dad, can you lend me a fiver?” in a world without cash

June 20, 2014

“Dad, can you lend me a fiver?”

In a world with cash:

“Yes of course just let me dig through my loose change, there’s always some hanging about in the drawer”

In a world without cash:

“Oh, err, I’ll have to switch the broadband on… hang on a minute the wifi’s down, err… what about my phone… err, the Bluetooth isn’t working again I can’t sync our accounts together… err… where’s that contactless payment card,… err… it won’t let me transfer anything we must be over our limit… err… sorry… ”

“Contactless payment” assumes we all have more money than we need.  Most of us are not in that happy position.

Cash is good!

Now, where did I put that tenner? I must have dropped it somewhere…

“Raw Power” by Iggy and the Stooges: a family tradition

May 20, 2014

I must have been 15 or 16 when I bought a copy of “Raw Power”. For some reason I can’t remember I bought it on cassette.

I remember bringing my portable cassette player into school and playing “Raw Power” very loud during lunchtime. I liked to turn the volume up right at the end of the title track where James Williamson’s guitar sounds like it’s been plugged directly into the mains. I remember one of the teachers coming in and telling me to turn it down.

Thirty years later.

My teenage daughter gives her mother a birthday present: a second hand vinyl copy (in good condition) of “Raw Power” on the CBS Embassy label.


A family tradition has been established.


Perhaps because, more than any other performer, Iggy Pop embodies the idea that the individual has a right to self expression. Despite adversity, despite appalling behaviour from both the individual and from everyone connected with him, and despite a legion of people who thinks the individual is an idiot who will never accomplish anything.

I got a right.

“Sonata for Jukebox” by Geoffrey O’Brien

April 5, 2014

There have been times in my life when I’ve felt guilty for paying more attention to the music around me than the people in front of me.

If you have too, you should read this book.

Geoffrey O’Brien looks back at his life, right from his earliest years through his memories of (mostly) recorded sound and songs.

It’s a bitter sweet book, and at times almost too moving to read.

Sometimes perhaps it’s too florid, over written. But how do you write about music anyway, except somehow “over” it?

Music is invisible, you can’t see it or hold it, although you can sometimes feel it. Whatever we say about music can never capture its’ essence. Does something so insubstantial, yet so powerful, have an essence?

So we write and write and talk and talk about music, turning over adjectives again and again that somehow never really fit. We make lists to try and capture it. But in the end music always eludes us. 

I’d like to thank my friend Simon Hopkins for giving this book to me.


“A drainage issue…”

March 23, 2014


If you’re a vegetarian look away now 2

March 16, 2014

A gigantic slab of pig…


Microgifts 2

February 24, 2014

So I’m parking my car in the supermarket car park and I’m standing by the ticket machine umming and ahhing.

I need 50ps worth of time. I have got got 50p in change but some of my change is 5p pieces. But the machine won’t take 5p pieces.

Just as I’m about to pay for more time than I actually need a stranger drives up and says “would you like a ticket? It’s until 2″.

“You’re a star!” I say.

The pound I would have spent on time I didn’t need is then spent on a pie, thereby stimulating the local economy.

A cashless world where all transactions are digital might be more efficient. But it would be harder for strangers to give each other gifts.


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