Language in the always on world

The house is full of slightly random books. I picked up one sent to Rory, Because Internet: Understanding how language is changing by Gretchen McCulloch, a few years old now. She’s a linguist and the book is about the way being online has been changing everyday use of language. It was a surprisingly enjoyable read, very engagingly written and full of interesting observations and ideas. A few examples:

“We’re all writing for the unblinking eye of Data.” Even truer now in the era of LLMs.

The idea of ‘context collapse’ from danah boyd. A new phrase to me: “[a] term for when people from all your overlapping friend groups see all your shared posts from different aspects of your life.” The opposite of a concept I’ve found useful, ‘privacy in public’, when in the offline world we would willingly share sensitive information with certain other people but not everyone, and not in a way that different bits of information could be joined up. For instance, my GP is welcome to know details about my health but Palantir not so much unless I’m sure they can’t do me damage with it.

Ray Oldenburg’s concept of ‘third places’ (from his 1989 book The Great Good Place), social spaces where you can meet and chat with others. The local cafe or pub, the hallway at a conference. (One thing not I’ve not seen much discussed in the hype and counter-hype about Jonathan Haidt’s new book is that one reason teens are online so much is that modern society has removed all the places they used to be able to hang out in.)

And my favourite: texts and textiles have the same root, the indo-European teks (‘to weave’). (So does technology.) I’m from a Lancashire cotton mill family and thought that was why I collect blankets, towels, fabrics. It turns out that and accumulating books are essentially doing the same thing.

Others would surely pick out other things. There are chapters on emojis, memes, tone online and much else. A very nice book for anyone who likes words.

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The soul of Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley is a fascinating place. This is partly personal: I almost always have warm, sunny weather there, a treat for visitors from London. There are loads of interesting people to meet. Once you get away from the freeways and undistinguished shed architecture, the countryside is beautiful. I’ve been getting there twice a year, learn a lot, and always enjoy the trips.

It is also of course one of the cultural epicentres of the modern world, and not necessarily for the good. Fairly recently I read The Philosopher of Palo Alto, by John Tinnell, which was a glimpse into how different it might have been. My latest read is Work, Pray, Code: When work becomes religion in Silicon Valley by Carolyn Chen. It’s a really interesting ethnography of tech workers, partly – as the subtitle suggests – looking at how their work has become the nurturing community places of worship used to be; but also at the way versions of Eastern religions have been co-opted by tech firms to make their workforces as productive as can be through effectively mind-altering processes.

The first part of this looks at the wrap-around ‘maternal’ employers, whose HR functions in large part are about ordering in healthy food, providing concierge services, making sure the workplace has a gym and a dentist and yoga classes. Many tech workers hardly ever leave the embrace of their campus or HQ. All their life and their effective family is there. If works is life, no need to worry about their ‘balance’. The HR justification is that this wraparound care prevents burnout and makes life less stressful – although of course expecting fewer hours of work would be less stressful too. Chen points out though that the separation of ‘life’ and ‘work’ has been a phenomenon of the industrial age.

The second part is the use of meditation and mindfulness as a deliberate company technique to ensure employees are focused and always at peak productivity. Executive coaching is part of this; senior or high potential employees are taught how to be their ‘authentic’ selves and discover their purpose and passion (which coincides with raising investment funds or shipping new products). I don’t think I have it in me to be mindful, not that I want to completely mock the whole phenomenon; but there is something deeply creepy and late-capitalism about it being your employer who is concerned with your spiritual well-being and authentic self so that you are passionate about your life/work.

Work, pray, code is a very interesting insight into aspects of Silicon Valley work and life. There are lots of individual stories, which is of course fascinating. I found it cast a thought-provoking light on this strange place that has shaped the modern world.

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The future of the factory

I read my colleague Jostein Hauge’sThe Future of the Factory in proof and never got round to the finished book until now. It’s a very nice synthesis of the impact of four ‘megatrends’ on manufacturing. These four are the rise of the service sector as a share of output, digital automation, globalization and ecological crisis.

After an introductory chapter introducing industrial policy in historical perspective – opening with Alexander Hamilton in life as well as on stage – each trend gets a chapter on how it is shaping industrial activity. One conclusion is that the phenomenon of ‘servitisation’ in manufacturing –  including outsourcing associated high value services – is significant and can lead people to underestimate the importance of manufacturing. The book also argues that the impact of digital automation is exaggerated – it will displace some activities and tasks but there is a lot of hype. It also argues that the retreat from globalisation is similarly over-stated, and the debate disguises power asymmetries between western multinationals and firms in their low or middle income supply chain countries. And the environmental crisis is a further source of this economic and political asymmetry.

The conclusion is that, “in a world of technological change and disruptions, industrialization and factory-based production remains a cornerstone of economic prgoress. Jostein welcomes the recent revival of industrial policies but calls for a focus now on the global South and the place these countries have in the network of production. The book ends with a call for a fairer kind of capitalism than the current model.

All of this is packed into a compact and very readable book. And I’m glad I’m not the only person who saw Hamilton The Musical and wished there had been more economic policy in the show…Screenshot 2024-01-23 at 16.03.49

State-sponsored cyber-crime

The Larazus Heist by Geoff White is a fascinating exposition of North Korea’s role in unleashing large-scale hacking and cybercrime on the world, in its efforts to bypass sanctions and bring in money to the benighted (literally) country. The subtitle spells it out: From Hollywood to High Finance: Inside North Korea’s Global Cyber War. The author is an expert cybercrime journalist, which ensures the book is a cracking read. An early chapter describes the 2014 ransomware hack of Sony Studios, which had started trailing a movie portraying Kim Jong Un in unfavourable light. But the crimes reported are mainly about the intersection between hacking and the banking system, and organised crime, because the money has to be laundered and conveyed to North Korea or at least to places the regime can spend it. So as well as an elite computer hacking corps, the book describes the process of laundering cash through Macau casinos, or Sri Lankan charities, withdrawing notes from ATMs in central India, and trucking tonnes of cash around the Philippines. And then there’s crypto, the land where grift meets large-scale crime.

Apart from the book being a terrific read, what conclusions to take away? That too few people have really internalised the advice not to open email attachments or click on links. That the mesh of banking regulation increases the burden on the honest without much hindering the criminals. That economists/finance folks pay far, far too little attention to the criminal economy (one consequence of the profession’s laziness in studying only data that can easily been found online – looking at small questions with cool econometrics where the lamp happens to be shining, rather than the big, important questions). And that everybody should be very worried about cybersecurity. I learned so much from the book about the vulnerability of everyday life to online attacks from a hostile state like North Korea – and no doubt the other obvious potential attackers. The Wannacry impact on the NHS is a sobering example.

Finally, the book is co-published between Penguin and the BBC; the World Service hosted The Lazarus Heist podcast. In this maelstrom of misinformation we live in, the BBC is more important than it has ever been.


De-gilding the age

I’ve been reading Mordecai Kurz’s The Market Power of Technology: Understanding the Second Gilded Age, in between more summer-holiday type books (half way through Paul Murray’s excellent The Bee Sting now). Kurz’s underlying argument is one I find plausible: Technical innovation by corporations (on a platform of publicly-funded basic scientific research) drivers growth, but corporations translate innovation into monopoly power and rents. Policy alternates between lax and tough competition enforcement, the latter limiting the period of monopoly power. In between, there have been gilded ages.

The book distinguishes the return to capital productively employed from wealth, the accumulation of those rents. It argues that “all intangible assets are just different forms of monopoly wealth” – clearest for IP assets that explicitly guarantee firms’ monoplies. The book argues for prevention of tech mergers, break-up of vertically integrated parts of big corporations, and limitations on the granting of patents and copyright. Tech-based market power cannot be avoided but it should be contained.

The book combines economic and business history with an extended formal model of Kurz’s approach (and this means it is probably not a book for the general reader). The formal modelling is actually the part I found least compelling – particularly in Chapter 5, which for example assumes the monopoly producer has a constant returns to scale production function. This chapter estimates that monopoly power led to delays of 12-15 years in the diffusion of electricity in the US, but – unless I missed a key step –  the calculation seems not to take account of the impact of scale effects, which would shorten those estimates.

The previous chapter has an intriguing chart (4.9): the 50s-late 70s are reported as a period of high monopoly profits – like the 20s and the 2000s on – yet were obviously a period of strong productivity growth and rising living standards. Kurz explains these decades as not being designated a gilded age because policy ensured rising real wages and high employment. But actually if monopoly wealth brings about rapid growth through self-reinforcing technological innovation, it would be nice to have more of that. The policy lesson seems to be more about redistribution and labour market policies than about competition enforcement to limit the monopoly rents. The periods of low welath and low market power in this historical chart were periods of weak growth or worse.

I’d also like to have had more about countries other than the US, and indeed some other examples – is Walmart a tech monopoly? Or Nike? Few other countries span as much of the technology frontier as the US, so diffusion becomes the more important issue, and market power protected by IP and other tactics can be deployed anywhere. But wealth inequality is high in many countries – are all characterised by companies garnering monopoly rents and if so how?

Still, the book does set in a coherent theoretical framework the many recent books that have addressed the issue of market concentration and particularly big tech. It’s an interesting framing of current growth challenges, and one I broadly agree with. And Kurz’s call for tougher competition policy echoes many others. We will see whether it will translate into tougher enforcement and an ened to this second gilded age.

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