Tag: The Guardian (page 1 of 5)

A candour affected is a dagger concealed

🤯 The Next Decade Could Be Even Worse

📝 White privilege – a guide for parents

✊🏿 Kimberlé Crenshaw: the woman who revolutionised feminism – and landed at the heart of the culture wars

👩‍💻 Working from home could lead to more prejudice, report warns

🎩 The radical aristocrat who put kindness on a scientific footing


Quotation-as-title by Marcus Aurelius. Image from top-linked post.

Much will have more

Discord screenshot

🧠 How Discord (somewhat accidentally) invented the future of the internet

😶 Parler ‘free speech’ app tops charts in wake of Trump defeat

🤖 ‘Robot soldiers could make up quarter of British army by 2030s’

🇪🇺 Europe is adopting stricter rules on surveillance tech

🏥 NHS data: Can web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee fix it?


Quotation-as-title by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Image from top-linked post.

Seeing through is rarely seeing into

Statue of a man showing bicep muscles, but the statue is crumbling

♂️ What does it mean to be a man in 2020? Introducing our news series on masculinity

🎓 America Will Sacrifice Anything for the College Experience: The pandemic has revealed that higher education was never about education.

💽 One of the world’s most cited computer scientists wants cooperatives to be the future of how data is owned

✏️ Your writing style is costly (Or, a case for using punctuation in Slack)

🔐 Taking Back Our Privacy: Moxie Marlinspike, the founder of the end-to-end encrypted messaging service Signal, is “trying to bring normality to the Internet.”


Quotation-as-title by Elizabeth Bransco. Image from top-linked post.

Reducing exam stress by removing pointless exams

In the UK, it used to be the case that children could leave school at 16. This was the reason for ‘O’ levels (which my parents took), and GCSEs, which I sat at that age.

However, these days, young people must remain in education or training until they are 18 years old. What, then, is the point of taking exams aged 16 and 18?

A group of Tory MPs has written a report, with one of the authors, Flick Drummond, making some good points:

The paper argues that preparation for GCSE exams means that pupils miss a large chunk of valuable learning because of the time taken up with mock exams and revision, followed by the exams themselves. “That’s almost six months out of a whole year spent preparing for exams,” said Drummond.


She said she was particularly concerned by the impact of exams on mental health, citing a report backed by the Children’s Society in August that ranked England 36th out of 45 countries in Europe and North America for wellbeing.


Instead, the new report says, the exams should be replaced by a baccalaureate, which would cover several years’ study and would allow children more time from the age of 15 to settle on the subjects they wanted to study in the sixth form for A-levels or vocational qualifications such as T-levels and apprenticeships, and to explore potential careers in a structured way.

Richard Adams, Tory MPs back ditching GCSE exams in English school system overhaul (The Guardian)

As a parent of children who could be affected by this, I actually think this should be trialled first in the private sector and then rolled out in the state sector. Too often, the private sector benefits from treating state school pupils as guinea pigs, and then cherry-picking what works.

Face-to-face university classes during a pandemic? Why?

Earlier in my career, when I worked for Jisc, I was based at Northumbria University in Newcastle. It’s just been announced that 770 students there have been infected with COVID-19.

As Lorna Finlayson, a philosophy lecturer at the University of Essex, points out, the desire to get students on campus for face-to-face teaching is driven by economics. Universities are businesses, and some of them are likely to fail this academic year.

[A]fter years of pushing to expand online learning and “lecture capture” on the basis that it is what students want, university managers have decided that what students really want now, during a global pandemic, is face-to-face contact. This sudden-onset fetish reached its most perverse extreme in the case of Boston University, which, realising that many teaching rooms lack good ventilation or even windows, decided to order “giant air circulators”, only to discover that the air circulators were very noisy. Apparently unable to source enough “mufflers” for the air circulators, the university ordered Bluetooth headsets to enable students and teachers to communicate over the roar of machinery.

All of which raises the question: why? The determination to bring students back to campus at any cost doesn’t stem from a dewy-eyed appreciation of in-person pedagogy, nor from concerns about the impact of isolation on students’ mental health. If university managers had any interest in such things, they would not have spent years cutting back on study skills support and counselling services.

Lorna Finlayson, How universities tricked students into returning to campus (The Guardian)

I know people who work in universities in various positions. What they tell me astounds me; a callous disregard for human life in the pursuit of either economic survival, or profit.

This is, as usual, all about the money. With student fees and rents now their main source of revenue, universities will do anything to recruit and retain. When the pandemic hit, university managers warned of a potentially catastrophic loss of income from international student fees in particular. Many used this as an excuse to cut jobs and freeze pay, even as vice-chancellors and senior management continued to rake in huge salaries. As it turned out, international student admissions reached a record high this year, with domestic undergraduate numbers also up – perhaps less due to the irresistibility of universities’ “offer” than to the lack of other options (needless to say, staff jobs and pay have yet to be reinstated).


But students are more than just fee-payers. They are rent-payers too. Rightly or wrongly, most of those in charge of universities have assumed that only the promise of face-to-face classes would tempt students back to their accommodation. That promise can be safely broken only once rental contracts are signed and income streams flowing.

Lorna Finlayson, How universities tricked students into returning to campus (The Guardian)

I predict legal action at some point in the near future.

The discourse of disruption

Adrian Daub, a professor of literature, takes issue with the tech sector’s focus on disruption:

Most of the discourse around disruption clearly draws on the idea of creative destruction, but it shifts it in important respects. It doesn’t seem to suggest that ever-intensifying creative destruction will eventually lead to a new stability – that hyper-capitalism almost inevitably pushes us toward something beyond capitalism. Instead, disruption seems to suggest that the instability that comes with capitalism is all there is and can be – we might as well strap in for the ride. Ultimately, then, disruption is newness for people who are scared of genuine newness. Revolution for people who don’t stand to gain anything by revolution.

Indeed, there is an odd tension in the concept of disruption: it suggests a thorough disrespect towards whatever existed previously, but in truth it often seeks to simply rearrange whatever exists. Disruption is possessed of a deep fealty to whatever is already given. It seeks to make it more efficient, more exciting, more something, but it never ever wants to dispense altogether with what’s out there. This is why its gestures are always radical, but its effects never really upset the apple cart: Uber claims to have “revolutionised” the experience of hailing a cab, but really that experience has largely stayed the same. What it managed to get rid of were steady jobs, unions and anyone other than Uber making money on the whole enterprise.

Adrian Daub, The disruption con: why big tech’s favourite buzzword is nonsense (The Guardian)

Venture-capital backed tech companies providing profits through (what I call) ‘software with shareholders’ fracture our societies, destroy our communities, and enrich the privileged.

The world needs less philanthropy and more equality

I’ve been skeptical about the motives of philanthropic organisations for a while now. This article in The Guardian is a long read, but worth it.

Here’s an excerpt:

The common assumption that philanthropy automatically results in a redistribution of money is wrong. A lot of elite philanthropy is about elite causes. Rather than making the world a better place, it largely reinforces the world as it is. Philanthropy very often favours the rich – and no one holds philanthropists to account for it.

The role of private philanthropy in international life has increased dramatically in the past two decades. Nearly three-quarters of the world’s 260,000 philanthropy foundations have been established in that time, and between them they control more than $1.5tn. The biggest givers are in the US, and the UK comes second. The scale of this giving is enormous. The Gates Foundation alone gave £5bn in 2018 – more than the foreign aid budget of the vast majority of countries.

Philanthropy is always an expression of power. Giving often depends on the personal whims of super-rich individuals. Sometimes these coincide with the priorities of society, but at other times they contradict or undermine them. Increasingly, questions have begun to be raised about the impact these mega-donations are having upon the priorities of society.

Friday fadings

I’m putting this together quickly before heading off to the Lake District camping with my son for a couple of nights. I’m pretty close to burnout with all of the things that have happened recently, so need some time on top of mountains and under the stars 🏕️


Slack verticals vs Microsoft

The Slack Social Network

Slack Connect is about more than chat: not only can you have multiple companies in one channel, you can also manage the flow of data between different organizations; to put it another way, while Microsoft is busy building an operating system in the cloud, Slack has decided to build the enterprise social network. Or, to put it in visual terms, Microsoft is a vertical company, and Slack has gone fully horizontal.

Ben Thompson (Stratechery)

The difference between consulting full-time now versus when I last did it in 2017 is that everyone adds you to their Slack workspace. This is simultaneously fantastic and terrible. What’s being described here is more on the ‘Work OS’ stuff I shared in last week’s link roundup.

See also Stephen Downes’ commentary on mini-apps that perform particular functions inside other apps.


Only 9% of visitors give GDPR consent to be tracked

Advertising funded businesses are aware that the minority of visitors want to give consent.

They are simply riding the ad train and milking the cash cow for as long as they can get away with before GDPR gets enforced and they either shut down, adapt to a more sustainable business model or explore even more privacy invasive practices.

And the alternative to the advertising-funded web? Charge for services. And have your premium subscribers fund the free plans.

Marko Saric

This is interesting, and backs up the findings in this journal article about the ‘dark patterns’ prevalent around GDPR consent on the web. The author of this post found that only 48% of people clicked on the banner and, as the title states, only 9% of those gave permission to be tracked.


Oak National Academy: lockdown saviour or DfE tool?

There are some who are alarmed by the nature of the creature that the DfE has helped bring to life, seeing Oak as an enterprise established by a narrow strata of figures from DfE-favoured multi-academy trusts; and as a potential vehicle for the department to promote a “traditionalist” agenda in teaching, or even create the subject matter of a government-approved curriculum.

John Morgan (TES)

I welcome this critical article in the TES of Oak National Academy. My two children find the lessons ‘cringey’, not every subject is covered, and the more you look into it, the more it seems like a front for a pedagogical coup.


The More Senior Your Job Title, the More You Need to Keep a Journal

Journal entries should provide not only a record of what happened but how we reacted emotionally; writing it down brings a certain clarity that puts things in perspective. In other cases, it’s a form of mental rehearsal to prepare for particularly sensitive issues where there’s no one to talk with but yourself. Journals can also be the best way to think through big-bet decisions and test one’s logic.

Dan Ciampa (Harvard Business Review

When I turned 18, I decided to keep a diary of my adult life. After about a decade, that had become a sporadic record of times when things weren’t going so well. Now, 21 years later, I merely keep my #HashtagADay journal up-to-date.

But writing things down is really useful, as is having someone to talk to with whom you don’t have an emotion-based relationship. After nine sessions of CBT, I wish I’d had someone like my therapist to talk to at a much younger age. Not because I’m ‘broken’ but because I’m human.


Rome burning

Top 10 books about tumultuous times

There’s nothing like a crisis of survival to show people’s true natures. Though I’ve written a good deal about tumultuous times, both fiction (English Passengers) and non-fiction (Rome: a History in Seven Sackings), I can’t say I’m too interested in the tumult itself. I’m more interested in the decisions people make during such crises – how they ride the wave.

Matthew Kneale (THe GUardian)

I don’t think I’d heard of any of these books before reading this article! That being said, I’ve just joined Verso’s new Book Club so my backlog just got a lot longer…


Full Employment

Keynes once proposed that we could jump-start an economy by paying half the unemployed people to dig holes and the other half to fill them in.

No one’s really tried that experiment, but we did just spend 150 years subsidizing our ancestors to dig hydrocarbons out of the ground. Now we’ll spend 200-300 years subsidizing our descendants to put them back in there.

Cory Doctorow (Locus Online)

I’ve quoted the end of this fantastic article, but you should read the whole thing. Doctorow, in his own inimitable way, absolutely eviscerates the prediction that a ‘General Artificial Intelligence’ will destroy most jobs.


Header image by Patrick Hendry

Using WhatsApp is a (poor) choice that you make

People often ask me about my stance on Facebook products. They can understand that I don’t use Facebook itself, but what about Instagram? And surely I use WhatsApp? Nope.

Given that I don’t usually have a single place to point people who want to read about the problems with WhatsApp, I thought I’d create one.


WhatsApp is a messaging app that was acquired by Facebook for the eye-watering amount of $19 billion in 2014. Interestingly, a BuzzFeed News article from 2018 cites documents confidential documents from the time leading up to the acquisition that were acquired by the UK’s Department for Culture, Media, and Sport. They show the threat WhatsApp posed to Facebook at the time.

US mobile messenger apps (iPhone) graph from August 2012 to March 2013
A document obtained by the DCMS as part of their investigations

As you can see from the above chart, Facebook executives were shown in 2013 that WhatsApp (8.6% reach) was growing rapidly and posed a huge threat to Facebook Messenger (13.7% reach).

So Facebook bought WhatsApp. But what did they buy? If, as we’re led to believe, WhatsApp is ‘end-to-end encrypted’ then Facebook don’t have access to the messages of users. So what’s so valuable?


Brian Acton, one of the founders of WhatsApp (and a man who got very rich through its sale) has gone on record saying that he feels like he sold his users’ privacy to Facebook.

Facebook, Acton says, had decided to pursue two ways of making money from WhatsApp. First, by showing targeted ads in WhatsApp’s new Status feature, which Acton felt broke a social compact with its users. “Targeted advertising is what makes me unhappy,” he says. His motto at WhatsApp had been “No ads, no games, no gimmicks”—a direct contrast with a parent company that derived 98% of its revenue from advertising. Another motto had been “Take the time to get it right,” a stark contrast to “Move fast and break things.”

Facebook also wanted to sell businesses tools to chat with WhatsApp users. Once businesses were on board, Facebook hoped to sell them analytics tools, too. The challenge was WhatsApp’s watertight end-to-end encryption, which stopped both WhatsApp and Facebook from reading messages. While Facebook didn’t plan to break the encryption, Acton says, its managers did question and “probe” ways to offer businesses analytical insights on WhatsApp users in an encrypted environment.

Parmy Olson (Forbes)

The other way Facebook wanted to make money was to sell tools to businesses allowing them to chat with WhatsApp users. These tools would also give “analytical insights” on how users interacted with WhatsApp.

Facebook was allowed to acquire WhatsApp (and Instagram) despite fears around monopolistic practices. This was because they made a promise not to combine data from various platforms. But, guess what happened next?

In 2014, Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19b, and promised users that it wouldn’t harvest their data and mix it with the surveillance troves it got from Facebook and Instagram. It lied. Years later, Facebook mixes data from all of its properties, mining it for data that ultimately helps advertisers, political campaigns and fraudsters find prospects for whatever they’re peddling. Today, Facebook is in the process of acquiring Giphy, and while Giphy currently doesn’t track users when they embed GIFs in messages, Facebook could start doing that anytime.

Cory Doctorow (EFF)

So Facebook is harvesting metadata from its various platforms, tracking people around the web (even if they don’t have an account), and buying up data about offline activities.

All of this creates a profile. So yes, because of end-ot-end encryption, Facebook might not know the exact details of your messages. But they know that you’ve started messaging a particular user account around midnight every night. They know that you’ve started interacting with a bunch of stuff around anxiety. They know how the people you message most tend to vote.


Do I have to connect the dots here? This is a company that sells targeted adverts, the kind of adverts that can influence the outcome of elections. Of course, Facebook will never admit that its platforms are the problem, it’s always the responsibility of the user to be ‘vigilant’.

Man reading a newspaper
A WhatsApp advert aiming to ‘fighting false information’ (via The Guardian)

So you might think that you’re just messaging your friend or colleague on a platform that ‘everyone’ uses. But your decision to go with the flow has consequences. It has implications for democracy. It has implications on creating a de facto monopoly for our digital information. And it has implications around the dissemination of false information.

The features that would later allow WhatsApp to become a conduit for conspiracy theory and political conflict were ones never integral to SMS, and have more in common with email: the creation of groups and the ability to forward messages. The ability to forward messages from one group to another – recently limited in response to Covid-19-related misinformation – makes for a potent informational weapon. Groups were initially limited in size to 100 people, but this was later increased to 256. That’s small enough to feel exclusive, but if 256 people forward a message on to another 256 people, 65,536 will have received it.

[…]

A communication medium that connects groups of up to 256 people, without any public visibility, operating via the phones in their pockets, is by its very nature, well-suited to supporting secrecy. Obviously not every group chat counts as a “conspiracy”. But it makes the question of how society coheres, who is associated with whom, into a matter of speculation – something that involves a trace of conspiracy theory. In that sense, WhatsApp is not just a channel for the circulation of conspiracy theories, but offers content for them as well. The medium is the message.

William Davies (The Guardian)

I cannot control the decisions others make, nor have I forced my opinions on my two children, who (despite my warnings) both use WhatsApp to message their friends. But, for me, the risk to myself and society of using WhatsApp is not one I’m happy with taking.

Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Header image by Rachit Tank

Saturday scrapings

Every week, I go back through the links I’ve saved, pick out the best ones, and share them here. This week is perhaps even more eclectic than usual. Enjoy!


Marcus Henderson

Meet the Farmer Behind CHAZ’s Vegetable Gardens

Marcus was the first to start gardening in the park, though he was quickly joined by friends and strangers. This isn’t the work of a casual amateur; Henderson has an Energy Resources Engineering degree from Stanford University, a Master’s degree in Sustainability in the Urban Environment, and years of experience working in sustainable agriculture. His Instagram shows him hard at work on various construction and gardening projects, and he’s done community development at organic farms around the world.

Matt Baume (The Stranger)

I love this short article about Marcus Henderson, the first person to start planting in Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone.


The Rich Are ‘Defunding’ Our Democracy

“Apparently,” comments [journalist David] Sirota, “we’re expected to be horrified by proposals to reduce funding for the militarized police forces that are violently attacking peaceful protesters — but we’re supposed to obediently accept the defunding of the police forces responsible for protecting the population from the wealthy and powerful.”

Sam Pizzigati (Inequality.org)

A lot of people have been shocked by the calls to ‘defund the police’ on the back of the Black Lives Matter protests. The situation is undoubtedly worse in the US, but I particularly liked this explainer image, that I came across via Mastodon:

Teapot with label 'Defund the police' which has multiple spouts pouring into cups entitled 'Education', 'Universal healthcare', 'Youth services', 'Housing', and 'Other community investments'

Peasants’ Revolt

Yet perhaps the most surprising feature of the revolt is that in-spite of the modern title, Peasants’ Revolt didn’t gain usage until the late nineteenth century, the people who animated the movement weren’t peasants at all. They were in many respects the village elite. True, they weren’t noble magnates, but they were constables, stewards and jurors. In short, people who were on the up and saw an opportunity to press their agenda.

Robert Winter

I love reading about things I used to teach, especially when they’re written by interesting people about which I want to know more. This blog post is by Robert Winter, “philosopher and historian by training, Operations Director by pay cheque”. I discovered is as part of the #100DaysToOffload challenge, largely happening on the Fediverse, and to which I’m contributing.


Red blood cells

Three people with inherited diseases successfully treated with CRISPR

Two people with beta thalassaemia and one with sickle cell disease no longer require blood transfusions, which are normally used to treat severe forms of these inherited diseases, after their bone marrow stem cells were gene-edited with CRISPR.

Michael Le Page (New Scientist)

CRISPR is a way of doing gene editing within organisms. sAs far as I’m aware, this is one of the first times it’s been used to treat conditions in humans. I’m sure it won’t be the last.


Choose Your Own Fake News

Choose Your Own Fake News is an interactive “choose your own adventure” game. Play the game as Flora, Jo or Aida from East Africa, and navigate the world of disinformation and misinformation through the choices you make. Scrutinize news and information about job opportunities, vaccines and upcoming elections to make the right choices!

This is the kind of thing that the Mozilla Foundation does particularly well: either producing in-house, or funding very specific web-based tools to teach people things. In this case, it’s fake news. And it’s really good.


Why are Google and Apple dictating how European democracies fight coronavirus?

The immediate goal for governments and tech companies is to strike the right balance between privacy and the effectiveness of an application to limit the spread of Covid-19. This requires continuous collaboration between the two with the private sector, learning from the experience of national health authorities and adjusting accordingly. Latvia, together with the rest of Europe, stands firm in defending privacy, and is committed to respecting both the individual’s right to privacy and health while applying its own solutions to combat Covid-19.

Ieva Ilves (The Guardian)

This is an article written by an an adviser to the president of Latvia on information and digital policy. They explain some of the nuance behind the centralised vs decentralised contact tracing app models which I hadn’t really thought about.


Illustration of Lévy walks

Random Search Wired Into Animals May Help Them Hunt

Lévy walks are now seen as a movement pattern that a nervous system can produce in the absence of useful sensory or mnemonic information, when it is an animal’s most advantageous search strategy. Of course, many animals may never employ a Lévy walk: If a polar bear can smell a seal, or a cheetah can see a gazelle, the animals are unlikely to engage in a random search strategy. “We expect the adaptation for Lévy walks to have appeared only where they confer practical advantages,” Viswanathan said.

Liam Drew (QUanta Magazine)

If you’ve watched wildlife documentaries, you probably know about Lévy walks (or ‘flights’). This longish article gives a fascinating insight into the origin of the theory and how it can be useful in protecting different species.


A plan to turn the atmosphere into one, enormous sensor

One of AtmoSense’s first goals will be to locate and study phenomena at or close to Earth’s surface—storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, mining operations and “mountain waves”, which are winds associated with mountain ranges. The aim is to see if atmospheric sensing can outperform existing methods: seismographs for earthquakes, Doppler weather radar for storms and so on.

The Economist

This sounds potentially game-changing. I can see the positives, but I wonder what the negatives will be?


Paths of desire: lockdown has lent a new twist to the trails we leave behind

Desire paths aren’t anything new – the term has been traced back to the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who wrote of “lignes de désir” in his 1958 book The Poetics of Space. Nature author Robert Macfarlane has written more recently about the inherent poetry of the paths. In his 2012 book The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, Macfarlane calls them “elective easements” and says: “Paths are human; they are traces of our relationships.” Desire paths have been created by enthusiastic dogs in back gardens, by superstitious humans avoiding scaffolding and by students seeking shortcuts to class. Yet while illicit trails may have marked the easier (ie shorter) route for centuries, the pandemic has turned them into physical markers of our distance. Desire paths are no longer about making life easier for ourselves, but about preserving life for everyone.

Amelia Tait (The Guardian)

I’ve used desire paths as a metaphor many times in presentations and workshops over the last decade. This is an article that specifically talks about how they’ve sprung up during the pandemic.


Header image by Hans Braxmeier

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