Category Archives: Internet

Thoughts on Twitter, ten years on

I often write draft posts with ideas that I intend to come back and fill in later. Given how long a break I took from blogging, this has led to some serendipitous time capsules. Here’s an unedited note I wrote myself in 2011:

By making it impossible to publish thoughts in their proper context, Twitter will only strengthen the effect of cliques and groupthink online, since the only people who can understand the idea shorn of context are those who belong to an important subgroup.

I don’t suppose that I was the only person at the time worried that Twitter might drive polarisation, but I’m still quite pleased with how well this prediction has held up.

I can’t find good figures, but I feel like blaming Twitter for societal problems didn’t really ramp up until 2016. In 2011 the economy might not have been great, but there was still a fair amount of faith in our political institutions. Barack Obama was still in his first term and had just passed a health care reform of historic scale. The Arab Spring was still showing promise. Twitter was just 5 years old and I remember people lauding it for its role in coordinating the protests in Tahrir Square.

I don’t think my prediction was dead-on, though. For a start, I doubt that when I wrote “cliques and groupthink” I had any idea of the seriousness of the effect this might have on the real world. I also feel like I was overstating the importance of understanding the content against the more relevant issue of emotional valence. On the Twitter of today Republicans and Democrats know perfectly well what each other are saying, they just find it distasteful.

In fact, I don’t think it’s that simple. There are plenty of terms like “white supremacy” or “defund the police” where people on different sides of the argument talk past each other because they have different understandings of what these concepts entail. Not having to compress one’s thoughts into 140 (or even 280) characters wouldn’t fix this, but it couldn’t hurt.

A bigger miss in my 2011 way of thinking was overlooking that Facebook would be a far bigger issue than Twitter. The issue with Facebook isn’t to do with the lack of information within the post, but of the context the post is displayed in. In other words, my worry was that there would be too little information in a Twitter post, but on Facebook the problem is that we’re drowning in so many posts that we only pay attention to (or rather the Facebook algorithm only surfaces) the stuff that riles us up.

I’ve been complaining about Twitter for as long as I’ve had this blog, and since before most people were even on Twitter. In fact, my 2009 post about how the community is far more important than the technology that runs it was one of the thoughts that drove me to create a blog in the first place. Even my very first post contained a jab at Twitter and name-checked Neil Postman, who has lately become trendy among media commentators concerned about social media. Hopefully this raises my credibility when it comes to analysing the social media environment. But predicting something early isn’t the same as predicting it well, and I shouldn’t let my early skepticism alone determine how I see things today.

It’s a trite conclusion, but Twitter seems neither as bad as I had feared, nor as grand and transformative as its boosters imagined in the early days. To me, that’s a reminder that the relevant issue isn’t the capability of a technology per se, but the way in which society shapes and is shaped by the technology. That’s inherently a messy process with results that are hard to pin down.

Book review: You Are Not a Gadget

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You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto

Technologists who wish to talk about the big picture can sometimes find themselves in a difficult situation: In order to be taken seriously, they have to express a bold vision of the future. But predictions aren’t made in a vacuum, and the opinions of the twittering classes have gathered enough momentum that it’s dangerous to be seen contradicting them. Criticisms of the social web are terribly vulnerable to the rejoinder that the critic just doesn’t get it.

None of this seems to bother Jaron Lanier, whose 2010 book You Are Not a Gadget is a timely and much-needed analysis of the downsides to the Web 2.0 movement. Lanier, though he has form as a technological pioneer of Virtual Reality, is vulnerable to the claim that he is a hippie throwback who belongs in an earlier age. His dreadlocked appearance, humanistic philosophy and love of obscure musical instruments may seem a poor fit for the brave new world of Facebook and Google, but I believe we ignore his insights at our peril.

The book covers a lot of angles, but the overarching theme is a reaction against cybernetic totalism, the view that computer software can and should become at least as important to the world as humans, at its most extreme reducing us to components that serve a hive mind. The most approachable manifestation of this in today’s world is the way that user-generated content (in the form of blog posts, tweets, images, videos, Wikipedia edits and the like) is stripped of context and personal relevance and digested into a stream of data to be fed through algorithms, ultimately making billions for the “lords of the cloud” with zero return to the humans who produced the content in the first place. Genuine creativity is stifled in favour of endless regurgitation and mash-ups.

There’s a more fundamental point behind his argument, and one that’s more tightly bound to the nature of technology: People have forgotten, or never properly understood in the first place, that this is not the only way technology can be. As a technology evolves, choices are made that are hard to reverse, leading to a sense of inevitability where there oughtn’t to be. People have come to believe that computers are the social web, and that the social web is Facebook, or at least something not too dissimilar. This adds a note of pathos to the argument: it’s one thing to desire the hive mind as your future, quite another to believe that it’s inescapable.

To my mind, closer analysis of the argument about technological lock-in threatens to unseat Lanier’s claim that cybernetic totalism is the cause behind the problems he discusses. Where he sees a Silicon Valley elite who are prepared to sacrifice human values to speed the inevitable singularity, I see merely an unplanned marketplace that has hit upon local maxima in the field of methods to extract money from the web. It seems to me that the problems are economic, not political.

Even if cybernetic totalism is something of a straw man, the book overall remains a cogent critique, raising thought-provoking issues that are rarely seen elsewhere. This is definitely not to be missed.

What everyone seemed to get wrong about the Bitcoin crash

It was certainly a dramatic story. On 19th June, a matter of weeks after the anonymous crypto-currency Bitcoin began to make waves in the wider world, it experienced a crash that made the 2010 Flash Crash look like a blip. Bitcoin critics, even the normally measured Tyler Cowen, couldn’t resist a bit of self-congratulation. When things seemed to have settled down a few weeks later, the commentators started to ask whether Bitcoin was recovering from the crash.

The thing is, there never was a currency crash. There was a security breach at Mt Gox, one of the largest Bitcoin trading houses, which had dire consequences for their customers. But the journalists who wanted to analyse the impact on the Bitcoin market didn’t get any further than tracking the prices at Mt Gox, the very exchange that had just been cracked, and in the process mistook a bank run for a sovereign default. Limiting their view to this, it looked like the Bitcoin economy was in ruins. Looking beyond the Mt Gox exchange even briefly would have shown the rest of the economy was largely unaffected. Retailers continued retailing, exchanges continued exchanging, and coins that weren’t in your Mt Gox account were as safe as they ever were. If you considered Bitcoin to be a reasonable medium of exchange on the 18th of June, there was no reason to change your mind (though double-checking your encryption and backups wouldn’t be a bad idea).

There seems to be one sensible message to take away from the Mt Gox crash: the cyber-criminals have arrived. If Bitcoin ever was lucky enough to fly below the criminal radar, it certainly no longer is. Optimists will probably say that this moment was inevitable, and may even validate how seriously it’s being taken.

Bitcoin has very real, very interesting economic and usability difficulties that probably mean it will never be a viable currency. Suggesting that the recent security flaws in a single exchange undermine it is just lazy journalism.