Monday, 31 October 2011

All power to the company that knows everything

IN the past, the world was split up into countries and run by kings, presidents and governments.
That’s the way most of us think it still is – well, without many remaining kings.
The division into countries still causes a fair amount of trouble. And so do governments, who continue to labour under the same delusion as most of us, that they are still in charge.
In the future, the world will be run by a small handful of very big companies.
One of them, maybe the most powerful of all, has learned a big lesson about power.
It knows what most kings, presidents and governments have not known. That power doesn’t have to lie in weapons, or in having a big police force.
It doesn’t necessarily lie in oil (that’s the past, and the present, but not the future).
It doesn’t even lie in money – or not directly.
Power lies in information.
This company has more information than any organisation has ever had before. And it goes on collecting it, faster and faster.
It already knows more about you, me, almost everyone, than the spy-crazy Nazis knew about the ordinary German. More than the KGB knew about the citizenry of Soviet Russia.
More even than today’s surveillance-mad British state knows about us.
It makes George Smiley, James Bond and the late lamented News of the World look like toddlers in the playground of information-gathering.
It knows about everything you’ve bought, searched for or even looked at on the internet. It knows how long you looked, what page on what site you came to it from and where you went to look next.
It knows who your friends are. Where your house is and what the street outside it looks like.
If you use all its products – and more and more people do – it knows the identity of everyone you communicate with by email, instant messaging or phone. And the content of all your messages, including voicemail.
If you carry a mobile device around with you – a laptop, a tablet computer or a smartphone – it knows where you spent last night. And every other night.
It knows everywhere you’ve been, how often and how long you spend there.
Like the sat-nav companies, it can track where you go by car. Unlike them, it can also tell where you travel by train, plane or on foot.
It probably knows your bank-card numbers, as well as your date of birth, your reading, watching and listening habits and your mother’s maiden name. You must just hope they keep these things to themselves.
Do you find all this scary, or comforting? There are, I suppose, elements of both. Depending on how far you trust the company to stick to its slogan: “Don’t be evil”.
And also how you think they might define “evil”.
Did I say this was the future? It isn’t. All this is true now.
So what about the future?
If its lawyers get its way the company will soon know the entire contents of every book ever printed, and most of the newspapers, magazines and pamphlets too.
But even that is really just part of the start.
What the company is especially good at learning is how to learn.
Every time its clever machines make a mistake – whether over your taste in music or the correct translation of a word from Lithuanian into Chinese – somebody somewhere soon corrects it for them. Probably simply by rephrasing a question or search term.
The company has machines that know how to recognise most words by sound in most languages and most accents.
Imagine how much mind-bogglingly more it could learn if it applied that know-how to every video clip uploaded to the net.
Nearly an hour of video content is added to YouTube every second. That’s a lot of video, a lot of information (of a sort).
And the company doesn’t just know about it. It owns it.
The company, as you’ve probably guessed, is Google.
It’s pretty much mapped, photographed and catalogued the world. And most of the people in it.
So what next?
Google’s research centre on the moon listens in to “the vast web of electromagnetic pulses that may contain signals from intelligent life forms in other galaxies, as well as a complete record of every radio or television signal broadcast from our own planet”.
OK, that was a joke. But it came from Google itself in the form of a job advertisement placed on April Fool’s Day.
And you know what they say about true words being spoken in jest.
Of course the moon base is science-fiction. But then doesn’t most of what I’ve described above sound like sci-fi?
It certainly would have back in 1999, when Google was merely the latest and trendiest internet search engine, with an index updated every few months. These days the update time can’t even be measured in seconds.
But about that “Don’t be evil” thing.
This morning I looked up care for the elderly, clicked on a link that should have been for the charity Age UK – and was sent by Google to an ad for a funeral service.
That’s some way short of evil in the Hitler or Stalin sense. But it’s not a good step.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Sometimes it is best just to look

A BRIGHT, blustery day of warm sun and biting wind. A day of white clouds scudding fast across the blue, of autumn leaves whisked through the air and beechnut shells crunching underfoot.
Of boats wrestling with their anchors in mid-river, tugged one way by the falling tide and the other by the wind.
Another day to wish I’d brought my camera with me, though I’ve photographed this stretch of the Deben 100 – probably 1,000 – times before. Though always lovely, it’s never exactly the same twice.
Today, among the swans jostling for the children’s bread by the boat club, a single tufted duck turns its head to fix me with its bright yellow eye. Though I’ve seen them on the fishing pond a mile or so upriver, I’ve never seen one just here before, or quite so close.
I watch him dive, and can track his course as he ploughs an underwater furrow, throwing up a smoky trail of mud in the water.
Soon afterwards a familiar squeaky whistle, like a child’s Christmas-cracker toy, tells me the wigeons are back for the winter.
And there they are, a few small families of dapper little brown ducks, the males wearing their yellow facial stripes proudly.
Where the wigeon go there are likely to be teal too, though I can’t see any today.
What I do see, though – and hear, most distinctively – are curlews. There are usually one or two hereabouts, wading in the shallows, probing the mud with their long scimitar-curved bills.
Today there are at least half a dozen within a short distance. I watch one in flight held up in the wind so it seems to hang for a long moment just in front of me.
This is when I miss my camera most, though experience tells me I may just be missing the chance of yet another badly focused blur.
And I tell myself too that sometimes it is best simply to look.
A gathering of black-tailed godwits are examining the mud along the frothy line of the water’s edge, heads done, busy beaks like hypodermic syringes. Nearby are a few redshanks, and the turnstones are back for a stopover too.
On the other side of the river wall, over the riverside meadow, a pair of kestrels are hunting. Normally so skilled at hanging still, today they are being blown about by the teasing wind.
And as I watch, a crow flies between them, making straight for the kestrel nearer me with obvious aggressive intent. At once the kestrel darts off over the river, the crow in rapid pursuit.
I’ve often watched aerial battles between corvids and raptors, and this is another, the crow clearly the attacker in a swooping, swerving contention. Once again, I reflect that watching these wild birds is like watching fighter planes in the Battle of Britain.
And once again it ends with the raptor escaping by flying away higher than the crow cares to follow.
So my eye returns to ground level – or, rather, water level – and immediately catches the humpbacked dive of a cormorant. Which surfaces again a few moments later – and in fact it’s two cormorants, coming up only briefly for air and a look around before returning to the underwater hunt.
Now, you might think I’m over-egging this description, but I can assure you it’s an entirely accurate account of things I’ve seen just before sitting down to write.
Nothing, in fact, I haven’t seen often reasonably often. But the catalogue of birds tells me as surely as the state of the trees that the season is truly changing.
I went out to walk the dog, not to go birdwatching. But in a place like this, at a time like this, how can you not take note of the birds?
And note again how the turn of the seasons and the lives of the wild things put human cares and concerns somewhere nearer their proper perspective.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Dystopia on the trading floor

PICTURE a trading floor at a major financial centre – the City of London, say, or New York’s Wall Street.
Chances are your mental image will be filled with testosterone-charged men in striped shirts and braces all talking fast and loudly into several phones at once. Somewhere there will be a giant screen with revolving numbers, on which all gazes are more-or-less fixed most of the time.
It’s an image derived mostly from the movies, and is as 1980s as big hair, shoulder pads and Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
Today’s reality – or so I’m led to believe – is just as male-dominated, but a great deal quieter. Phones hardly figure and though screens do, they’re all individual monitors like the PC I’m writing this on, not one big departures board.
The new calm in the financial office is only outward, however. It’s no sign of greater maturity or stability.
The real activity is not merely as frantic as it was before – it’s more, a great deal more, frenetic.
But it’s all going on electronically, computers talking to computers, with humans merely there to supervise and very occasionally intervene.
Though how one supervises, or intervenes effectively, in deals that take place in fractions of seconds and over global distances, I’m really not sure.
Of course human brains devised the computers and the programs that run on them. But most of the activity is out of human hands now.
In the words of Robert Harris: “The digitised financial machine doesn’t work for us: we work for the machine.”
It sounds like a science-fiction dystopia, and in a way it is. Except that it’s the real world we live in now.
A world which politicians can only pretend to have any control over.
Which might in itself be no bad thing if the machine was programmed with morals. With a social and environmental conscience. But of course it isn’t.
Robert Harris has an arresting metaphor for all this.
He describes the global debts the financial markets have created as a suicide bomber’s vest strapped to the Western economies.
But then Harris, a bestselling writer of highly polished thrillers, is naturally good at arresting metaphors.
I enjoyed one or two of his early novels. And his closeness to New Labour, followed by his falling-out with most of its central characters, makes his political commentary occasionally interesting.
So I was interested to read his analysis of the financial world, its changes and dangers.
His article in The Daily Mail was essentially publicity for his new novel, The Fear Index. But he’d done the research for the book, so should presumably know what he’s talking about.
Well, up to a point.
Specifically, it was at the point where he mentioned “algorithms” that I started having doubts.
“Algorithms,” he explains, “are sophisticated programmes designed to predict the behaviour of the markets.”
You what?
In my dictionary, an algorithm is “a rule for solving a mathematical problem in a finite number of steps”. Or, in its specifically computer-related sense, “a set of instructions designed to provide a method of solving a problem or achieving a result”.
Plenty of algorithms involved in the writing of those sophisticated programs he talks about.
But I wouldn’t trust someone who didn’t know the difference between a sparkplug and an engine to fix my car. Or to tell me how it worked.
It’s a pity really. Because in many ways I find Harris’s vision of a world tipped towards approaching calamity by “a collision of brilliant but unworldly scientists and aggressive financial traders” quite persuasive.
But then he does want us to buy his book along with his theory.
And the irony is that those aggressive traders want us to buy into the Fear Index too.
Because if Harris is right – and in this I’m sure he is – they make their biggest fortunes by predicting accurately what people do when they panic.


WITHIN minutes of Liam Fox bowing out of his government position, one of his former ministerial colleagues was on the radio defending him.
Junior minister Andrew Robathan was firstly keen to repeat what we’d been hearing for days, that Fox was “an excellent defence secretary”.
That is a matter of opinion, and a highly debatable one. Even if you accept that he was no worse than recent predecessors, that’s hardly praise.
Robathan then went on to insist that now he was gone, there was no further need to investigate Fox’s relationship with Adam Werritty.
No need to question any more who paid for Werritty’s many trips with his friend and why; the nature and status of his “advisory” capacity; what advantage, if any, might have been taken of his unofficial closeness to the wheels of power.
This is an interesting argument, which solicitors throughout the land might be tempted to try in court.
“Since Mr X was caught he has stopped doing it, so the case against him should be dropped. Oh, and by the way, he was very good at his job.”
How would that sound as a defence of someone accused of, say, burglary? Or fraud.


IT’S been a poor day for spam so far. Only one bad speller has asked me to correct (i.e. give away) my bank details.
Not much else but an offer of a “diploma” from an un-named American university.
Nobody has asked for my help in freeing their family fortune from red tape in West Africa. There hasn’t even been a Russian bride on offer.
Maybe my spam filter is getting more efficient. Or maybe the purveyors of soft drugs, hard porn, willy extensions and boob enlargements have finally given up on me. Which would be a relief.
Bit ironic, though, just as I was toying with the idea of making Spamwatch a regular feature of this column.
And here’s a question.
My internet provider’s filter isn’t great at keeping filth out of my in-tray, so why should I trust its offer to make my browser safe for kids?
What’s more, it dumps so many genuine messages in the spam folder that I always have to check it before I delete. So who’s to say what good stuff might be censored?