The new status symbol: it’s not what you spend – it’s how hard you work

24. April 2017

Date: 24-04-2017
Source: The Guardian

The rich used to show how much they could spend on things they didn’t need. Today, a public display of productivity is the new symbol of class power

Apple CEO Tim Cook says he starts each day at 3.45am, while Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer had talked about her 130-hour workweek.

Almost 120 years ago, during the first Gilded Age, sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption”. He used it to refer to rich people flaunting their wealth through wasteful spending. Why buy a thousand-dollar suit when a hundred-dollar one serves the same function? The answer, Veblen said, was power. The rich asserted their dominance by showing how much money they could burn on things they didn’t need.

While radical at the time, Veblen’s observation seems obvious now. In the intervening decades, conspicuous consumption has become deeply embedded in the texture of American capitalism. Our new Gilded Age is even more Veblenian than the last. Today’s captains of industry publicize their social position with private islands and superyachts while the president of the United States covers nearly everything he owns in gold. Read the rest of this entry »

Why are ‘innovative’ tech companies still struggling with diversity?

11. April 2016

Date: 11-04-2016
Source: The Guardian

Technology might like to think of itself as the antithesis of the stuffy east coast old boys’ network, but really it’s just a reimagined, west coast version of it

Will the industry follow up on public actions with a prolonged commitment to redressing the bias that exists?

The more diverse we are, the better we are at making smarter decisions. So why, oh why, is what should be our most innovative industry – technology – also our most homogeneous?

For decades, the research has been demonstrating the advantages of diversity. It isn’t just that people from a variety of backgrounds bring different kinds of information and ways of thinking to the table, it’s the fact that when we have to deal with people who aren’t just like us, we ourselves do better: we do our homework more rigorously, we bolster our arguments more thoughtfully, we may prepare ourselves for a more lengthy process of reaching a conclusion.

You’d have thought the tech set, of all people, would have seen the data. But even when technology companies do recruit members of minority groups, they find themselves still at a disadvantage. Read the rest of this entry »

Thinking machines: the skilled jobs that could be taken over by robots

13. November 2015

Date: 13-11-2015
Source: The Guardian

Analysts warn that automation is now affecting mental labour as well as physical. So what tasks are vulnerable?

Fear of mass unemployment has been proved wrong as automation makes the economy stronger

The fear that robots will destroy jobs and leave a great mass of people languishing in unemployment is almost as old as automation itself. And yet, from the Luddites onwards, the fears have been eventually proved wrong, and the economy has ended up stronger than before.

But more and more analysts worry that this may be about to change. And on Thursday the Bank of England’s chief economist warned that this wave of automation is threatening skilled roles. The jobs of the middle classes, with their expensive university educations, are now at risk. As a result, a huge number of jobs that were previously thought safe from machine-led disruption are firmly in the firing line. Read the rest of this entry »

Artificial intelligence: ‘Homo sapiens will be split into a handful of gods and the rest of us’

9. November 2015

Date: 09-11-2015
Source: The Guardian
A new report suggests that the marriage of AI and robotics could replace so many jobs that the era of mass employment could come to an end

If you wanted relief from stories about tyre factories and steel plants closing, you could try relaxing with a new 300-page report from Bank of America Merrill Lynch which looks at the likely effects of a robot revolution.

But you might not end up reassured. Though it promises robot carers for an ageing population, it also forecasts huge numbers of jobs being wiped out: up to 35% of all workers in the UK and 47% of those in the US, including white-collar jobs, seeing their livelihoods taken away by machines. Read the rest of this entry »

Google’s founders on the future of health, transport – and robots

9. July 2014

In a rare dual interview, Larry Page and Sergey Brin reveal that a young Google could have sold out to Excite, and explain how computers will enable us all to work less

google founders
Google’s founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page discuss self-driving cars, robots, health and relationships. Photograph: Paul Sakuma/AP

When Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, sat down for a rare frank and open chat with the veteran technology venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, they admitted, among other things, that Google is interested in healthcare but scared of its intense regulation.

Page and Brin displayed their quite different personalities: Brin the maverick and head of Google X – who attempted to kite-board his way to the interview – and Page the business-focused executive now CEO.

The dynamic duo have been together for 16 years, and described their relationship as a bit like an old married couple. “You don’t get agitated about one little thing or another,” said Brin. “We work through it.”

Google almost sold to Excite

Before the company had really started becoming the dominant search engine and the portal to the web, Google almost sold itself to a search engine company called Excite. Read the rest of this entry »

The web giants pumping us for data

2. September 2013

Date: 02-09-2013
Source: The Guardian

As society becomes more networked, the information available to the Googles, Amazons and Facebooks of this world will increase exponentially

Rich resources … Like an oilfield, big data offers potentially huge profits for the corporations tapping into it.

Should you be looking for an example of hucksterish cynicism, then the mantra that “data is the new oil” is as good as they come. Although its first recorded utterance goes as far back as 2006, in recent times it has achieved the status of an approved corporate cliche, though nowadays “data” is generally qualified by the adjective “big”. And if you want a measure of how deeply the cliche has penetrated the collective unconscious, ponder this: a Google search for “big data” turns up more than 1.5bn results. And a search for “data mining” turns up 167m results.

The idea of big data as a metaphor for oil is seductive. It’s also revealing in interesting ways. Given that the oil business is one of the biggest industries in the history of the world, for example, the metaphor hints at untold future riches. But it conveniently skates over the fact that oil wealth overwhelmingly benefits either ruling elites in corrupt and/or authoritarian countries, or huge corporations in democratic states.

But at least oil is a physical, non-renewable resource that is extracted from the earth. Big data, on the other hand, is extracted from the activities of people and machines. As society becomes more and more networked, and as the so-called “internet-of-things” evolves, the amounts of data available to be “mined” will increase exponentially. And, unlike fossil fuels, these data reserves are infinitely renewable.

“Big data”, says Kenneth Cukier, co-author of the best book on the subject to appear so far, “will transform how we work, how we live and how we think”. He argues that, at least in the case of data, “more is not just more; more is different”, by which he means that quantitative abundance can lead to qualitative change. The availability of huge amounts of data turbocharges machine learning; for example, turning hitherto impossible tasks – like accurate, instantaneous language translation – into delivered realities.

The key question about any major technological development is: who benefits? The answer in the case of big data is: huge corporations – the Googles, Amazons and Facebooks of this world, which are the only outfits (outside of the US National Security Agency) with the computational resources to mine, analyse and process the data torrents unleashed by us as we go about our networked lives. The companies don’t talk about it this way, of course. Instead they have soothing patter about how their analytical capabilities enable them to serve you better: how the ability to analyse the web searches conducted by you and your friends enables them to provide better search results, for example; or how analysis of your online behaviour enables Amazon to suggest products that you might like; and so on.

All true, of course, but skilfully avoiding the awkward fact that you are the resource that is being mined and that the playing field that is cyberspace is tilted in favour of the corporations who have come to dominate it.

Which brings us to another aspect of the subject: open data. Since 2005, activists have been campaigning for “open government data” initiatives – demanding the publication of public datasets in machine-readable, freely reusable formats. The argument for this is impeccable: the data is collected by public bodies; it should therefore be available to the public that paid for it. The motivations behind the campaigns are likewise admirable: if the data is available, then civic-minded geeks can do useful things with it.

The open government data campaigns have been surprisingly successful in both the US and the UK. Huge swaths of public data are now available. I can download a vast spreadsheet containing details of every contract worth more than £500 entered into by my local authority, for example. And in many cases, people have already developed useful services on top of public data. For example, provides a helpful online tool for planning a journey by bus in London.

There’s lots more in that vein, and it’s all good stuff. At first sight, therefore, open government data looks encouraging. But there are a couple of flies in the ointment. The first is that there is a difference between open data and open government. The current Hungarian administration, for example, has been quite good at publishing public data, but is morphing into one of the most secretive and authoritarian regimes in Europe.

And then there’s that awkward question again: who benefits? Certainly the public, to some extent. But there are signs that open government data favours private companies bidding for local authority contracts. The companies know what it costs the authority to collect the refuse, for instance; but their own finances are opaque, so it’s impossible to judge whether they would really be more efficient than a public body.

And the moral? Be careful what you wish for.

Just because something has value doesn’t mean it has a price

9. January 2013

Date: 09-01-2013
Source: The Guardian by Cory Doctorow

If every last shred of incidental online value is given a price tag, we’ll never harvest the full fruits of our ingenuity
googleGoogle is a case-study in harvesting positive externalities.

When future economists look back on the dawn of the internet era, they will marvel that an age of such technological marvel was attended by a widespread, infantile mania for preventing positive externalities.

“Externalities” are the economist’s catchall term for the spillover effects experienced by the people who are affected by others’ activities. Most of the 20th century was spent locked in battle with the corporate vice of externalising negative costs. Companies are beholden to their shareholders, and so they are meant to save every penny they can, even when saving that penny might cost the rest of society several pounds. The classic example is toxic waste: processing industrial waste before it leaves the factory is a costly proposition, and so, whenever it is possible to do so, companies have defaulted to dumping their waste into the wider world. This is a much cheaper option — for the company.

For the world, it’s vastly more costly. After all, when the offensive sludge is all neatly gathered at the effluent pipe’s head-end, it is concentrated and handy, and can be gathered and fed into whatever decontamination or sequestration system is appropriate. Read the rest of this entry »