Weeknotes: Sunday 16th August 2020

I missed last week’s note thanks to a huge bout of tiredness which left me pretty exhausted and sleepy all Sunday. Sorry about that. Still a bit knackered now, so this will be a pretty short one.

Antitrust is here again

Back in the mid-noughties I spent a while covering the Microsoft/European Commission antitrust investigate, the one which ultimately led to the “browser” choice” version of Windows (where everyone naturally chose Chrome, because at the time Chrome didn’t suck).

That meant I had to learn an awful lot of antitrust law, and – as I was writing for an American site – how European rules differ from US ones. The news that Apple is being sued by Epic Games means a whole new generation of technology journalists are about the learn a lot of the same stuff. It’s fun.

One thing to understand off the bat: in Europe, there’s an assumption that competition is good for consumers, and so things which restrict competition must have a VERY clear consumer benefit. No such assumption exists in the US, where immediate consumer harm is all that really matters.

This is going to make things pretty tough for Epic, because Apple can ask “where’s the harm?” and Epic needs to do the work to show it. Just a restraint on Epic’s freedom to do what they hell they want won’t be enough. And Apple has a strong case that a single app store with a fixed fee has benefited consumers by providing developers with a clear route to market, as well as something that’s much more secure than mobile app distribution used to be. Anyone who remembers the pre-App Store era will know what a shambles it was trying to get mobile software if you weren’t a nerd.

Stuff I’ve been reading

Ars Technica has a great interview with two of Apple’s leading AI experts. It’s worth remember that Apple believes machine learning is so core to what it does that it’s built in specialised ML hardware into its processors for years.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is all in on cutting its carbon emissions and making itself carbon negative. That’s both aggressive and admirable. Satya Nadella is some leader.

I’m incredibly proud of my former colleague Thomas McMullan, who has a book coming out. Tom is proper clever and you should read his stuff.

Weeknotes, Sunday 7th June

Some notes on anger

I’ve found myself getting astonishingly angry over the course of the week. There’s a lot to be angry about, but anger never sits well on me for long. The anger is, of course, well placed. Whether you’re angry about the government’s utter incompetence over COVID-19, the structural and personal racism which oppresses black people the world over, or a famous author’s transphobia (and yes, please, let’s not call it anything else), there is much to be angry about.

I’ve come to see social media in general and Twitter in particular as forces for ill in society, not good. That puts in me a small minority: there’s still plenty of people in tech who see the effects of social media as, on balance, a social good. When you see the impact that the awful death of George Floyd had, amplified to billions of people via social media, then you can see their point. Perhaps, now, we will get real change.

But anyone who has worked in social media management will tell you that the way to maximise your reach isn’t to make well-honed arguments but to to provoke emotion, and there is no better emotion to provoke in politics than anger. Twitter is a hate machine. We mock Trump’s Twitter use, but he’s a master at it, because he understands the fundamental rule: when you have people angry, if you want to reach more people, get them more angry still. Pile anger on to anger, until the world is burning.

Social media spread the news of George Floyd’s death further and with more impact than any other medium in history could have, and that is undoubtedly a good thing. But social media doesn’t give us any way out of the anger. It doesn’t give us any “and now what”. All it can do is keep making us more angry, because it rewards making you feel, not making you think.

But anger alone isn’t enough to solve social problems and, worse still, it’s addictive. It feels good, and it overrides the moral brakes in your brain. Anger drives hate-filled cops as well as justified protests. It’s a way to feel powerful in the moment, to feel in control of things that they have no control over.

That makes it doubly dangerous. Not only does it mean you lose control and do things beyond your own moral framework, but it’s gives you the delusion that you’ve already achieved something. Protestors throwing rocks today will have no more power tomorrow than they had yesterday, but get a sense of accomplishment. They feel like they’ve already made a difference.

Getting off social media

Related to all this: Inspired by a conversation with Phil Gyford I’ve set myself the task of writing something on how to remove yourself from Facebook while preserving the benefits of Facebook.

Technically, of course, it’s easy. There’s plenty of platforms which deliver the functionality of Facebook in a more open and ethical way. The challenge is actually discoverability.

The one unalloyed good that Facebook has brought to my life is that it’s genuinely brought me closer to my family. When your parents are alive, they’re often the glue that binds together you and your relatives. They tell you what’s going on, they keep track of who is where, and who has done what to whom. Then they die, and that bond with the extend family vanishes.

Facebook lets you preserve those bonds, but also makes it easier to rediscover them. Without Facebook, I wouldn’t be in touch with my Aunt Shiela, my dad’s last remaining sibling, who lives in Cypress. I wouldn’t be in touch with so many of my cousins, who prior to everyone being on Facebook I wouldn’t have known how to contact. And none of them would have been able to find me, either.

So the real issue with replacing Facebook isn’t “how do you remake the experience” but “how do you make yourself as easily discoverable”? That’s a much harder one to crack.

Things I’ve been reading

These examples of early computing design are almost heart breaking for me. Machines like the PET had the promise of science fiction about them.

The early days of home computing – in pictures | Technology | The Guardian

Nearly Half Of The Twitter Accounts Discussing ‘Reopening America’ May Be Bots – there isn’t much doubt in my mind that social media is, on balance, bad for democracy.


I’m fascinated by Ian Schrager – from Studio 54 to basically inventing boutique hotels, via a spell in prison.

Ian Schrager Is Still Creating Buzz – The New York Times

I’ve noticed these meeting notes generated by AI creeping into Outlook at work. One of Microsoft and Google’s key words when talking about AI is “useful” – think of Google calling the Pixel 4 “the most useful phone”.

Meeting Insights: Contextual assistance for everyone – Microsoft Research

Unsurprisingly, this had the MAGA crowd foaming at the gills, and even drew a tweet from El Presidents himself.

Donald Trump, the Most Unmanly President – The Atlantic

“What I was hired to do was to create a 21st-century media company,” Lynch told me in his glass-enclosed office on Condé’s new executive floor, once the company’s dedicated gallery space. “Part of that is defining what that means, because they don’t really exist yet.”

Condé Nast’s Future Under Anna Wintour and Roger Lynch

Oh Vice.

Vice Media Was Built on a Bluff