All posts filed under: Tech

Interrogating Jane

Jane Austen, beloved English novelist of the Regency period, is now embroiled in the custody wars over the history and legacy of the British Empire. The Daily Telegraph has reported that the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire, is planning an “historical interrogation” of the Austen family’s connections to slavery and colonialism. Museum director Lizzie Dunford pointed out that the Austens consumed tea, sugar, and cotton, all of which were the products of Empire. One of the potential new exhibits is entitled “Black Lives Matter to Jane Austen.” Unsurprisingly, some Austen fans rejected this idea as decisively as Lizzie Bennet turning down a marriage proposal. During an interview about the row on TalkRadio, Welsh comedian Abi Roberts spoke for many appalled Austen fans when she declared that the museum’s curators had “gone completely bonkers.” “My father was a life-long lover of tea,” wrote one reader in a representative letter to the Telegraph‘s editor. “In addition, he spent four years in Burma and India, albeit as a private in the army … can anyone advise …

Who Is the Real Threat to Autonomy and Flourishing Online?

Is the web out to get us, or is it a force for autonomy and flourishing? Is it another instrument for the governing elite to channel the masses for political or business purposes? Is it a means for our baser nature to entrench everlasting fake news stories, political narratives, and even whole ideologies? In her 2019 book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff details what she regards as the dangers of losing our freedom, dignity, and democratic control to business by being “conditioned,” “tuned,” “nudged,” and otherwise shaped in unconscious ways to serve Big Tech and its business associates. Echoing many of her fears, the popular Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma portrays algorithmic tracking of our behaviour by Facebook and Google as a Frankenstein’s monster. The documentary has the endorsement of the historian Yuval Noah Harari, best known for his Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. He argues that the web has become a tool to further reinforce the survival of fake news, to which he thinks humans already have a strong proclivity. Who …

Can Governments Stop Bitcoin?

Since its creation more than 12 years ago, Bitcoin is undefeated. Its price has leaped from $5 to $50 to $500 to $5,000 to now past $50,000. The number of global users has eclipsed 100 million. The system’s network security, number of developers, and new applications are at all-time highs. Dozens of companies including Tesla and Square have started to add Bitcoin to their corporate treasuries. This worldwide success doesn’t mean that people haven’t tried to stop Bitcoin. The digital money project has in fact survived a variety of attacks which in some cases threatened its existence. There are two main vectors: network attacks on the software and hardware infrastructure, and legal attacks on Bitcoin users. Before we explore them and consider why they failed, let’s start at the beginning. In January 2009, a mysterious coder going by the name of Satoshi Nakamoto launched Bitcoin, an open-source financial network with big ambitions: to replace central banking with a decentralized, peer-to-peer system with no rulers. It would use a programmable, highly-fungible token that could be spent …

Big Tech and Regulation—A Response to the Quillette Editors

Donald Trump has been permanently suspended from Twitter. And Facebook, Reddit, Twitch, Shopify, Snap, Stripe, Discord, and—most crushingly of all—Pinterest. This was swiftly followed by a swathe of account purges across various platforms, ostensibly on the grounds that terms of service had been violated. Bizarrely, conservatives reacted to this development by lamenting the lack of arbitrary government intervention in private enterprise, while their liberal opponents celebrated corporate squashing of individual expression. If you don’t like it, build your own app. Arguably more important, if less sensational, has been the coordinated nuking of the efforts of those Trump fans who did, in fact, build their own app. Google and Apple banned conservative social media aspirant Parler from their app stores, effectively throttling its only viable distribution channels. Amazon then went a step further and revoked Parler’s right to host its site on its web service, AWS. For good measure, authentication service Okta and internet-to-telecoms interface platform Twilio withdrew their infrastructure too. If you don’t like it, build your own internet. The fallout has been intense and …

The Future Is Already Here

There are not many ways to cause a stir in the classroom as an engineering professor, but one of them is surely to stand in front of a room full of bright-eyed, up-and-coming engineering students and inform them that “innovation, as we popularly understood it, is essentially dead.” Nevertheless, that is what I’ve taken to doing each year. Yes, I always put qualifiers on that statement (which you can perhaps catch a whiff of in the statement itself). I have been delivering “the talk” to students for several years now, outlining exactly what I mean by it, and encouraging them to push back and generate rebuttals. I always frame it as a challenge, rather than as a pronouncement from up on the stage. I am usually unmoved by the returns. It begins like this—I will ask students what inventions have been discovered in their 20-odd-year lifetimes that they feel have fundamentally changed how humans live. They get some space to think, but inevitably offer up their smartphones, at which point I nod, having begrudgingly accepted …

The Flawed Reasoning of the Techlash and Progressive Movements

Around the globe, governments are looking for ways to tax, fine, regulate, or break up Big Tech—part of a reaction against companies like Google and Amazon that has become known as the “techlash.” This represents a huge shift in economic policy thinking, potentially the most significant in the West since the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s. Although they may seem unrelated, there are striking parallels between this techlash and progressive activism (so-called “woke” culture) that attempts to radically alter Western social norms. On their own terms, both movements rest on similar reasoning concerning moral responsibility, fairness, and protection of the vulnerable from the powerful. In other words, even though their proponents only partly overlap (the techlash has notably gained significant traction on the Right), similar underlying forces appear to be driving both movements. Tales of oppressors and oppressed Both progressive activism on the Left and the techlash on the Right view the world as one in which privileged individuals or corporations unfairly oppress an unfortunate minority (the works of Hegel and Marx loom large).  Consider the following self-descriptions. …

Why Do Progressives Support the Unfettered Use of Private Property?

In mid-October, Twitter took the unprecedented step of preventing its users from sharing a link to a New York Post story reporting allegations about the Biden family’s foreign financial interests. Whenever controversies about social media censorship arise, a mantra is repeated in their defence, usually by progressives: these are private companies and, as such, they can regulate speech on their platforms however they wish. Notice that this claim does not simply maintain that companies can restrict information in pursuit of specific policy aims (like thwarting criminal activity such as human trafficking efforts or combating terrorist networks). Instead, they can restrict expression on their platforms simply because those platforms are company property. Among the most familiar responses to this argument is the view that, even though these tech giants are private entities, they function like public forums in which free expression should be upheld. Here, I spell out a different approach: that while social media companies are indeed private entities, they should nevertheless be unable to regulate non-criminal activity on their platforms for a variety of moral …

The Life and Death of Unus Annus

We live our lives taking each second for granted. But what would you do if you knew how much time you had left? Unus Annus. One year. This channel, much like all of you, has a limited amount of time. And every day we march ever closer to this channel’s inevitable doom. That means we’ll be uploading every single day until the clock strikes zero. And then, it’s game over. Bye, bye. Finito. Finished. Curtains. Gone, gone. Night, night. Dead. Forever. Make no mistake, this doesn’t mean that we’ll just stop uploading. When time runs out we will be deleting this channel and every single video on it. And you’ll never be able to see them again. Because much like death, you can’t take it with you. And all we’ll have is the memories that we make along the way… so the clock starts now. But the choice is yours. Will you join us? Or will you miss out on your one chance to be a part of Unus Annus? Because time is already running …

OnlyFans and the Changing Face of Pornography

Late last week, I warily opened the latest article to be written about OnlyFans, a platform that allows creators to monetise social media posts behind a paywall. I began using the site back in 2017 when it was still in its infancy, and when no one outside the freelance modelling community was talking about it. This year it became big enough to interest the mainstream media, and I have waded through numerous misbegotten attempts by writers to explain the phenomenon. I’ve seen journalists fixate anxiously on the large sums some creators are earning, express concern that it might harm teenagers (though under-18s are locked out of the site), and agonise over the possibility that users might ask creators to do things they don’t want to do (a hazard in many service jobs). The latest example of this trend is an article by Louise Perry for the New Statesman entitled “How OnlyFans Became the Porn Industry’s Great Lockdown Winner—And at What Cost?” Reading it, I barely recognised the site I now use on a daily basis. …

On the Cusp of a Vaccine—and a Historic Scientific Triumph

More than a century separated the first wave of Spanish flu in 1918 from the emergence of COVID-19 in early 2020. Yet as Nicholas Christakis writes in his new book, Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live, there are people who’ve been laid low by both plagues, and even lived to tell the tale. These include Marilee Harris, who caught the Spanish flu as a six-year-old child in Chicago. She survived, then a century passed—during which time she became a sculptor, got married (twice), wrote a book about her life, and moved to Washington, DC, where, still a working artist at age 107, she was hospitalized with COVID-19. Doctors called her daughter with the grave news that she only had hours to live. (The COVID-19 death rate for those aged 85 and over is estimated to be 630 times higher than for young adults.) Amazingly, she survived, went home, and lived another five months before passing away on September 11th. As Christakis shows, there are some aspects of …