Behavioural science Service design Technology

Contact Tracing in the Real World

Ross Anderson – Light Blue Touchpaper

This post is interesting at three levels. It is a meticulous case study of why contact tracing, and particularly pseudonymous contact tracing, and particularly app-based pseudonymous contact tracing is a hard problem (maybe even a wicked problem). It is an example of a more general phenomenon that describing a policy aspiration generally turns out to be much easier than describing, let alone implementing, a way of meeting that aspiration. And it illustrates the adage (distorted from an original by Mencken) that for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

And there is a fourth, which is perhaps most pertinent of all, which is that for problems of any complexity, technology cannot wish away human behaviour. Even if a contact tracing app were to work perfectly in technical terms (whatever that might mean), the individual and social behavioural responses may be far from what is desired. Or as Anderson puts it:

We cannot field an app that will cause more worried well people to phone 999.

That’s an insight relevant to many more problems than this one.

Systems Technology

Computer Files Are Going Extinct

Simon Pitt – OneZero

Files have been a unit of organisation for written information for generations. For a rather shorter period, they have been a unit of organisation for digital information. But after a few years in which the metaphor retained at least some connection with the underlying reality, computer files are abstracting themselves to vanishing point.

So what, who cares? Well at one level, none of us need care, that’s almost the point. At another level, those who have lived through the revolution in personalised computing can gently mourn – as the author of this post does – the loss of a way of organising and understanding information, and the sense of familiarity and control which comes with it. But as the author also recognises, all this starts to get really interesting when we recognise files are skeuomorphic (as is much of the language we use to talk about them).

But there is a more serious point too. However much we choose to abstract, in the end, the data is somewhere – and often in several somewheres. Nobody wants backups, as the old adage has it, but everybody wants restores. But the more our data becomes less apparent, less vulnerable to hard drive failures and laptop thefts, the more it becomes vulnerable to subscriptions not paid and services closed down.

This blog post has some characteristics which make it appear to be like a file. But it isn’t, it’s an entry in a database dressed up with some scripts. Its default state is not to exist, a state postponed by the application of money and electricity, but a state it will inexorably reach.

Social and economic change Technology

Internet trends 2019

Mary Meeker

Another year of Mary Meeker’s internet trends has landed with a loud virtual thump – weighing in this year at 333 slides. In what it covers it is relentlessly detailed, though the framing of the story not surprisingly is influenced by a very particular west coast world view.  It is easy – perhaps inevitable – that eyes glaze over a bit on the way through, as yet another slide about yet another implausibly named company shows a chart rocketing to the near vertical. So rather than attempt any kind of summary, here are four slides which caught my attention.

There is an elegant simplicity about this chart of global internet users, delivering a powerful message that more than half the world’s population is now online, a proportion which has doubled in the last ten years.
Advertising moves to where people spend their time, with alignment of the two much stronger in 2018 than 2010. Though even after all that, print media get more than their ‘fair share’. Even ignoring the advertising dimension, the shift in how time and attention are spent is a dramatic story in itself.
This chart stands out from the crowd, if only for being speculation rather than quantification. There’s an argument to be had about the slope and relative position of all the lines on the chart. Is the rate of change of technology increasing relentlessly? Is it already outstripping human adaptability and is the gap going to get relentlessly bigger? And most fundamentally, to whatever extent the picture as a whole captures something real, is it describing what happens to be or what necessarily must be?
And this chart is a great – though in this case rather unsubtle – example of a local perspective being treated as universal. The descriptions and comparisons in table aren’t wrong (though some are a little tendentious), but the red amber green colouring gives a pretty unambiguous message about who is to be seen as getting it right.
Systems Technology

Payday loans and the missed opportunity?

Jerry Fishenden – ntouk

Don’t be misled by the title, this isn’t really a post about payday loans. Instead, it explores the fascinating contrast between the approaches HMRC (for tax) and DWP (for benefits) have taken to opening their services to third parties. The basic story is pretty simple: HMRC has a long pre-internet history of working with third party intermediaries which it carried forward into its thinking abuot online services (at one stage their ambition was not directly to offer an online tax return service at all); DWP’s history is much more about direct delivery, and that tradition similarly has been carried forward into the online world. The post makes no pretence to neutrality on the central question of which was the better choice, HMRC is clearly seen to have won that argument hands down.

The post is good on the advantages of the open method and the opportunities that could create (including the ethical payday loans of the title). But it doesn’t address the fairly central question of whether there is a reason for the difference. After all, HMRC’s administration of tax credits, which are a benefit in everything but name, didn’t get the same open treatment as their revenue-raising lines of business. The question of whether a version of HMRC’s trust model for taxpayers and their agents could be translated to the benefits system is one well worth further reflection.

Innovation Social and economic change Technology

One Small Step for the Web…

Tim Berners-Lee – Medium

Time Berners-Lee didn’t invent the internet. But he did invent the world wide web, and he does not altogether like what it has become. This post is his manifesto for reversing one of the central power relationships of the web, the giving and taking of data. Instead of giving data to other organisations and having to watch them abuse it, lose it and compromise it, people should keep control of their personal data and allow third parties to see and use it only under their control.

This is not a new idea. Under the names ‘vendor relationship management’ (horrible) and ‘volunteered personal information’ (considerably better but not perfect), the thinking stretches back a decade and more, developing steadily, but without getting much traction. If nothing else, attaching Berners-Lee’s name to it could start to change that, but more substantively it’s clear that there is money and engineering behind this, as well as thoughts and words.

But one of the central problems of this approach from a decade ago also feels just as real today, perhaps more so. As so often with better futures, it’s fairly easy to describe what they should look like, but remarkably difficult to work out how to get there from here. This post briefly acknowledges the problem, but says nothing about how to address it. The web itself is, of course, a brilliant example of how a clear and powerful idea can transform the world without the ghost of an implementation plan, so this may not feel as big a challenge to Berners-Lee as it would to any more normal person. But the web filled what was in many ways a void, while the data driven business models of the modern internet are anything but, and those who have accumulated wealth and power through those models will not go quietly.

It’s nearly ten years since Tim Wu wrote The Master Switch, a meticulous account of how every wave of communications technology has started with dispersed creativity and ended with centralised industrial scale. In 2010, it was possible to treat the question of whether that was also the fate of the internet as still open, though with a tipping point visible ahead. The final sentence of the book sets out the challenge:

If we do not take this moment to secure our sovereignty over the choices our information age has allowed us to enjoy, we cannot reasonably blame its loss on those who are free to enrich themselves by taking it from us in a way history has foretold

A decade on, the path dependence is massively stronger and will need to be recognised if it is to be addressed. technological creativity based on simple views of data ownership is unlikely to be enough by itself.

Data and AI Social and economic change Technology

Anatomy of an AI System

Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler

An Amazon Echo is a simple device. You ask it do things, and it does them. Or at least it does something which quite a lot of the time bears some relation to the thing you ask it do. But of course in order to be that simple, it has to be massively complicated. This essay, accompanied by an amazing diagram (or perhaps better to say this diagram, accompanied by an explanatory essay), is hard to describe and impossible to summarise. It’s a map of the context and antecedents which make the Echo possible, covering everything from rare earth geology to the ethics of gathering training data.

It’s a story told in a way which underlines how much seemingly inexorable technology in fact depends on social choices and assumptions, where invisibility should not be confused with inevitability. In some important ways, though, invisibility is central to the business model – one aspect of which is illustrated in the next post.

Innovation Technology

Table of Disruptive Technologies

Richard Watson and Anna Cupani – Imperial Tech Foresight

table of disruptove technologiesHere are a hundred disruptive technologies, set out in waves of innovation, with time to ubiquity on one axis and potential for disruption on the other. On that basis, smart nappies appear in the bottom left corner, as imminent and not particularly disruptive (though perhaps that depends on just how smart they are and on who is being disrupted), while towards the other end of the diagonal we get to transhuman technologies – and then who knows what beyond.

The authors are firm that this is scientific foresight, not idle futurism, though that’s an assertion which doesn’t always stand up to close scrutiny. Planetary colonisation is further into the future than implantable phones, but will apparently be less disruptive when it comes. Dream recording falls in to the distant future category (rather than fringe science, where it might appear more at home), rather oddly on the same time scale but three levels of disruption higher than fusion power.

The table itself demonstrates that dreams are powerful. But perhaps not quite that powerful. And it’s a useful reminder, yet again, that technology change is only ever partly about the technology, and is always about a host of other things as well.


99 Things That Robots Were Supposed to Be Doing by Now

Matt Novak – Paleofuture

As a small footnote to the previous post, this is precisely what the title describes – predictions of all shapes, sizes and times about what robots should be doing, but aren’t. The inexorable path of technology doesn’t always lead where we like to think it does.

Social and economic change Technology

Self-Driving Cars Are Not the Future

Paris Marx – Medium

If you fall into the trap of thinking that technology-driven change is about the technology, you risk missing something important. No new technology arrives in a pristine environment, there are always complex interactions with the existing social, political, cultural, economic, environmental and no doubt other contexts. This post is a polemic challenging the inevitability – and practicality – of self-driving cars, drawing very much on that perspective.

The result is something which is interesting and entertaining in its own right, but which also makes a wider point. Just as it’s not technology that’s disrupting our jobs, it’s not technology which determines how self-driving cars disrupt our travel patterns and land use. And over and over again, the hard bit of predicting the future is not the technology but the sociology,