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Another history of online news

Seventeen years ago, I highlighted a BBC News article in which Dave Gilbert reflected on thirteen years of online news.

So much of what has come to pass since is unwittingly signalled in that article.

The shrewdest comments came from the newspaper advertising executives who wondered where the revenue would come from. It’s a question some are still asking.

In 2024, this question is posed more frequently than in 2007. Waves of news organisations have collapsed, having transitioned to a business model that siphoned their income to Google and Facebook.

We clocked very early on that it was about a global audience, audience response and encouraging feedback – Web 2.0 in fact.

The idea of ‘audience response’ feels so quaint in 2024, when many news articles are built around embedded Twitter quotes. Often, it feels like the commentary has become the news, in a way that I certainly never foresaw.

People buy newspapers for a host of reasons but reporters never know how many read their own stories. From our real-time statistics, I know exactly what the audience is reading, and the feedback is almost instantaneous.

I don’t think any of us quite understood the extent to which those statistics would come to drive the news agenda, ‘public interest’ playing second fiddle to ‘things that interest the public,’ even at the BBC. ‘Beyoncé’s country album: the verdict’ would not have been one of BBC News’s top stories in 2007, though it was yesterday.

The pace of cultural change is difficult to believe.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Media, Technology, , .

From curiosity to business model

Nineteen years ago this week, I blogged about a curious story on the now long-defunct silicon.com website site.

A burglar is today behind bars after picking the wrong house to burgle. His crime was caught in full by a webcam, which the hapless thief stole along with the computer, but not before it had sent pictures of him to a website.

A couple of decades on, it’s remarkable how twee this story seems. These days, there’s nothing remarkable about burglars being caught on webcams: Ring, Blink, Arlo and more have made it their entire business model. There are many millions of webcams set up for this exact purpose.

People often mention the pace of the change of technology, but the pace of change in how we use technology is equally astounding.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Technology.

Visions of the future

Thirteen years ago, Apple launched the iPad—the device that seemingly every technology journalist in the world was certain would be called the iSlate. This is handy, as it provides a ready-made search term for anyone interested in transporting themselves back to those days of fevered speculation of quite what such a device would do.

Even after its launch, I was certain that the iPad wasn’t for me. I wasn’t alone in thinking that the market for an oversized iPhone that didn’t even function as a phone would be minuscule. I was wrong. I’m typing this very post on one of the two iPads I used regularly, the third and fourth that I’ve owned.

Partly because of that experience, and partly because I’m older, I’ve reserved judgement as I’ve read the coverage of the launch of Apple’s Vision Pro. There’s another element, too: I can actually see a potential benefit in sitting at home and working with lots of different large computer screens without having to clutter up the house with hardware. It’s not worth the financial cost or the practical tradeoffs at this stage, but I can see a future for this kind of device that would work for me.

As so often, though, Benedict Evans’s writing on the subject widened my perspective. He makes the point that simply projecting 2D screens into 3D space is not really the point of ’spatial computing’—‘That’s cool, but it seems like using a desktop service on an iPhone. It’s not native to the experience. I can use an iPad for that.’

Evans says that the device is really for 3D work. I was—and still am, to a degree—sceptical that 3D is the future of everyday work. As he asks, ‘is our work 3D? Is your data 3D?’ I have strabismus and sometimes think that I barely see in three-dimensions to begin with, so my scepticism is, maybe, unsurprising.

But, ‘is that like looking at a colour monitor in the 80s and saying that your spreadsheets don’t need colour? Putting maps or messaging onto your phone changed where you used it and how it could be useful: what’s the equivalent for 3D?’

It was the ’spreadsheets’ line that got me. I remember being taught, in the 1990s rather than the 1980s, that one really ought not to use colour in spreadsheets. I’d forgotten all about that. These days, it’s entirely normal to see spreadsheets filled with colours: does a risk register even exist if it isn’t pasted into a spreadsheet with colour-filled RAG ratings, which the colourblind among us struggle to interpret?

I think, too, of PowerPoint presentations. These seem, in many cases, to hand supplanted Word documents as the preferred way to share lengthy text-based narratives. They’re not the logical nor most accessible option, but perhaps people find uses for the tools they’re given.

Perhaps in fifteen years’ time, the Vision Pro 15 will be as every day as iPads are today. Perhaps it will be de rigeur to present things in 3D, regardless of whether it’s actually the best approach for any given task. Or maybe the idea will fade away, like Google’s vision for Glass.

‘Of course, most people didn’t realise how big the iPhone would become, and conversely, some people thought that everyone would have a 3D printer. Predicting tech is hard, and predicting human behaviour is harder: we all do things every day that “no-one would ever do”.’

Well, quite.

The image at the top of the post is by Miyako Fujimiya.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Technology, , , .

In summary, no thanks

One of the commonly promoted function of generative artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT is summarising long pieces of text. Ryan Broderick recently wrote in Garbage Day:

The assumption that people want summaries of information when they receive news, is also a funny one. It seems to come around every four-to-eight years. Typically when Democrats are in the White House, I’ve noticed. This was the impetus behind Vox, for instance, with its big initial claims of inventing “explainer journalism,” which quickly just devolved into blogging, again. My own assumption here is that this is a byproduct of CEO brain. “I can’t possibly read all of the information I need to pretend to care about to run my company, so other people must treat information as a nuisance to be fixed, as well.” But, once again, that is not really the case. The internet has turned the consumption of information into its own form of entertainment — or in the context of conspiracy theories, madness.

This is something that I’ve often thought about, too.

There are some scenarios where an AI summary can be useful. Occasionally, I’m copied into long email chains with a vague subject line and have to spend time scrolling up and down to orientate myself as to what the conversation is about. I occasionally skimp on that step and end up missing the point. A couple of auto-generated sentences saying ‘this is a series of emails discussing x, with the goal of producing y, looking for input on aspect z’ can be a godsend.1

And yet, the products which advertising tends to push at me most frequently are services which offer summaries of things which I don’t think benefit from summarisation. The commonest one is books. Short books distilling the ‘key messages’ of longer books are clearly popular, and pre-date the web, let alone generative AI, but I’ve never really understood the point. The format assumes that books are about imparting a series of facts; in my experience, most are actually about encouraging readers to think differently about subjects. Even in the simplest airport bookshop management paperbacks, the identification of key messages is highly subjective.

With human-authored summaries, we can at least have a sense of whether we trust the subjective judgements of the summariser, but this becomes much trickier with the black box of artificial intelligence. Summarisation usually involves value judgements, and they are not easily ‘outsourced’ to AI. This is a problem when summarising books, but even more so in summarising news.

Alan Rusbridger recently commented on his podcast that an experiment using AI summaries to generate key points to draw people into reading Prospect articles had impressed both him and the magazine’s writers. But that’s a different goal from relying on the summary instead of reading the article. It would be a bit like relying on a headline rather than reading the full story… which seems to be common behaviour, not necessarily a behaviour for which proliferation benefits humanity.

It strikes me as unfortunate that we’re building tools—or at least promoting the ability of tools—to allow people to engage more superficially with subjects than they already do. It’s not like humanity is short of examples of the downsides of people engaging only with the headlines and glossing over the detail.

Fortunately, like Broderick, I doubt that’s what people are seeking in practice, I think people are more into ‘deep dives’. Broderick attributes the miscalculation to ‘CEO brain’; I’d attribute it, at least equally, to ‘social media brain’. The ‘BREAKING’ and ‘HUGE IF TRUE’ style of sharing information in bitesize chunk on social media might suggest that people like consuming information in vastly abbreviated forms, but I don’t buy it. I think those interactions are much more about socialisation than about assessing information.

Fortunately, generative AI can work perfectly well in the other direction, too, recommending books and sources that can help people to explore a topic more deeply. I think this would make the more interesting tool: not ‘summarise this webpage’, but ‘recommend another three web pages which explore this subject in more detail’.

The obvious difficulty in making such a tool work is the rabbit-hole phenomenon, much-discussed in the context of the YouTube algorithm. How do you imbue such as system with the sensitivity and awareness to avoid pulling people into ever-more extreme versions of conspiracy theories, for example?

It’s a difficult problem, but one that equally needs solving to make summarisation engines work in a reliable and trustworthy way. Let’s hope someone can tackle it.

  1. Experience over many years had taught me to start my own replies to email chains like that with my own couple of sentences, starting ’I understand from the below that…’. It’s a technique which can nip misunderstandings in the bud.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Technology, , .

Social connections

One of the joys of reading the news is the occasional opportunity for disparate articles to end up explaining one another.

Ernie Smith’s Tedium yesterday was about Facebook’s new project to ask users to consent to a new feature called ‘link history’. This appears to be a feature built solely to give users a unobjectionable justification for Facebook to continue to collect data which is primarily used for advertising.

Ernie linked to a Gizmodo article by Thomas Germain which said:

When you click on a link in the Facebook or Instagram apps, the website loads in a special browser built into the app, rather than your phone’s default browser. In 2022, privacy researcher Felix Krause found that Meta injects special “keylogging” JavaScript onto the website you’re visiting that allows the company to monitor everything you type and tap on, including passwords. Other apps including TikTok do the same thing.

I find it astonishing that Facebook is harvesting people’s passwords for other services, and yet this is neither major news nor has prompted a mass exodus from the platform.

Yet, I often hear people discussing with certainty the conspiracy theory that Facebook covertly analyses continuous audio recorded from people’s phones to target advertising. Confirmation bias provides ‘evidence’ for people. It’s essentially nonsense, but it’s accepted as fact by many people.

So… what’s going on here? Why would people choose to keep using a service that violates their security and which they believe to spy on them? Why are so many people still active users?

In Platformer, Casey Newton shared a link to an article by Hannah Devlin in The Guardian which answers those questions:

Almost half of British teenagers say they feel addicted to social media … The finding, from the Millennium Cohort study, adds to evidence that many people feel they have lost control over their use of digital interactive media.

People feeling addicted to products which don’t have their best interests at heart is a depressing situation, though I guess it’s a common one.

I quit social media in 2020, for no better reason than noticing that my mood after opening the apps was typically worse than my mood when logging on. I can’t claim that I’ve become a new person, reclaimed hours of time, or cast off any psychological shackles. But I can say, without a scintilla of doubt, that I don’t miss it at all.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Technology, , , , , , , , , , .

Creative control

When I was about 14, I wrote some software in QBasic to support the running of the school library. Hitherto, the library catalogue and loans had been stored in a spreadsheet. I replaced it with bespoke software.

Over the next couple of years, I iteratively tweaked the software based on feedback until I finished my GCSEs and left. I think I learned more from that process than from any computing course I’ve ever taken: I also came to love Greg Perry’s book QBasic by Example, which—ironically—wasn’t to be found in the library’s collection.

In my A-level computing course, I was required to write in Visual Basic instead. I remember finding this irritating, deriving much less satisfaction from developing software using a graphical user interface rather than a blank screen with an expectant blinking cursor. It felt like a little bit of power and control had been taken away, as though the final product wasn’t completely mine in the same way.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. These days, there’s nothing I create from scratch as I did in QBasic. The closest thing is writing for this blog: it’s only here that I start with a blank screen and a blinking cursor. Only here do I exercise complete control over every word and every pixel.

I’m sometimes surprised at my own tenacity in keeping this blog up for more than two decades. It’s not for anyone else’s benefit that it continues to exist. I’m sure no one else would think twice if it disappeared tomorrow. Yet, I’ve published over 760,000 words here in nearly 3,000 posts over more than twenty years. I suppose it must scratch a creative itch, even if I struggle to explain precisely where that itch is located.

Maybe I’m just a control freak at heart.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Blogging, Post-a-day 2023, Technology, .

Too many domain names

In 1999, I registered the domain name simonhoward.co.uk, and I’ve owned it ever since.

There was a certain amount of foresight in that decision. I was only fourteen years old, and so I’m probably lucky that I didn’t register something wackier.

There are a lot of Simon Howards, so I’m lucky to be the one who snapped that address up early—I wasn’t early enough to get the .com, which these days hosts the website of one of many models who share my name. Thank goodness it wasn’t taken by the aristocratic child abuser who already dominates search engine results.

These days, I own 23 domain names. This is patently absurd when I only have one main website. I separate my blog (sjhoward.co.uk) from my CV (simonhoward.co.uk) from the bookshop (simonsbooks.com), which accounts for a few.

Four others are domains I registered for specific temporary projects this year, which I have no intention of renewing.

A few are handy: sjh.bz allows me a very short email address, which is occasionally handy when my main one is too long.

Others are obvious variations on my main domains to avoid confusion (sjhoward.uk and sjhoward.com).

Some are addresses I just like, though with no practical use. There’s one that would make an excellent public health company name. I recently bought simon.how because it’s the first eight letters of my name, but what will I ever do with that?

This all leads back to the same point: most people in the world have no use for a domain name, and it’s clearly ridiculous to have 23 of them, no matter how I try to justify it!

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, Technology.

Sacrificing certainty for creativity

You’ll no doubt have seen that Spotify cancelled the podcast Heavyweight this week, alongside a tranche of redundancies. Ironically, I’d introduced Wendy to the show hosted by Jonathan Goldstein only a fortnight ago. I’ve listened since the start, though in a pretty on-and-off fashion. The episodes were so well-crafted and moving that it felt weirdly disrespectful to listen to them as background audio, which ironically meant that I didn’t get around to hearing them.

The best thing I’ve read on the topic is PJ Vogt’s insightful piece on the cancellation of Heavyweight and the broader state of the podcast industry. Of his Search Engine podcast, which I also enjoy, Vogt says:

We have a budget that’s good until July. After July, we’ll see.

One of the comforts of working as a doctor is the confidence in future employment. Even in public health, which is undoubtedly the rockiest of medical specialties in those terms, it’s easy to have a high degree of confidence that doctors will always be required in the system somewhere, even if the system is dismantled every five years or so.

Podcasting, by contrast, sounds terrifying: most of my job is about dealing with uncertainty, but I couldn’t sleep if I had no idea if my job would still exist in a few months. The creative drive of people like Vogt and Goldstein, their willingness to sacrifice certainty to make journalistic and artistic products, is truly something to behold.

I’m reminded of how fortunate I am to have a job that allows me to pursue my interests while maintaining a degree of personal assurance. Most people aren’t so lucky.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, Technology, , .

Twitter as a social mobility tool

James O’Malley opens his latest Substack post:

Twitter’s most underrated function is that it is a tool for social mobility.

After graduating into the financial crisis, I moved to London and I didn’t know anyone. My parents are not super wealthy, I went to a normal comprehensive school in the Midlands – and then to a post-1992 university. So when it came to getting a job and building a professional network, I was essentially starting from scratch.

But the one asset I did have was that I was a Twitter early adopter. Through the platform I discovered an entire professional world that would historically have been closed off to me, and as I followed journalists, politicos and other high-flyers, I was able to glimpse into their world, learn the industry gossip, identify the behind-the-scenes power-players and master the terms of art. Scrolling my timeline was like having a permanent spot at the water-cooler of London’s political and media elite.

I’ve never previously considered Twitter from the perspective of social mobility, but now that James has pointed it out, it seems obvious. Indeed, when I was active on Twitter in the early stages of my career, it helped me to make professional connections in a similar way. Public health in England is a small professional world, and as a result, it is disproportionately London-centric. Twitter helped me to make professional connections even from afar.

Yet, looking back, many of the people I made professional connections to were the—for want of a better phrase—‘extremely online’ colleagues, who were often not as influential, switched-on or expert as they thought they were.

Last week, we heard complaints at the COVID inquiry about politicians’ inability to distinguish between absolute and relative risk. Not many years ago, I did my best to explain the same to an uncomprehending prominent professional by direct message on Twitter. They may have been rarely off the telly and hugely popular on Twitter, but the conversation revealed their grasp of the basics to be a little loose. Another told me that a study they shared was significant because of a wide confidence interval, which they believed to demonstrate a very high level of confidence: an almost perfect inversion of the true meaning.

I came to learn that the people with deep knowledge and real, lasting influence tended not to be active members of the Twitterati. In my field, at least, when ‘extremely online’ people reach positions of real-world seniority, it can become somewhat fraught. Public health is a naturally complex, subtle and political field which perhaps doesn’t reward talent for brief, blunt, off-the-cuff responses. There are exceptions, of course, and I’m not inured to the irony of writing all of this in a blog post.

In politics and journalism, public engagement is the job, so naturally, excellent practitioners will often do well on social media. In these fields, Twitter is a perfect tool for social mobility, precisely as James describes. In medicine, I’m not so sure.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, Technology, , .

Human failings

Three news stories have played on my mind recently:

All three of these stories are similar: they are presented as though the problem is with computers when it is actually with management. In all three cases, managers knew about concerns with the computer systems, yet the organisations involved did not take timely corrective action.

I don’t know the inside story behind any of these incidents, but I’m willing to bet that all involved managers saying something like ‘I’m not good with computers’—and failing to engage as a result. In some organisations, it’s a daily occurrence to hear senior leaders say things like, ‘Ooh, I’m not sure how to share my slides; is it working?’ That discomfort writ large means that they subject IT processes to less scrutiny.1

The irony is that the consequences of all three failings were in the real world, not inside a computer. In all three cases, it seems likely that a reasonable and non-technical workaround would have been to stop using the computer system until it was fixed. The real-life resolution required no knowledge of how the systems worked.

One can’t imagine the same managerial non-response to a problem if, say, the underlying issue was secretaries who weren’t bothering to type letters or an accountancy team consistently failing to produce reports.

And therein lies the issue. Even in the third decade of the twenty-first century, it is still acceptable in many organisations for senior leaders to freeze up over any problem involving computers. Nobody expects them to be IT experts, but they ought to be experts in leadership and management and not simply give up when the situation involves a computer.

The greater development of artificial intelligence means that ever more processes will be completed in an automated fashion in the coming years. This will result in progressively less oversight of day-to-day work within organisations whose senior staff seize up over this stuff. For them, it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

  1. Unfamiliarity with the tools required for daily work is, in itself, deeply problematic. It ought to be no more acceptable to playfully boast about one’s lack of ability to use basic computer functions than to boast about being unable to chair a meeting or manage people. It’s your job!

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Post-a-day 2023, Technology.

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