Fighting on the Internet

This week I’m taking down Google and annoying Mac users (not intending to annoy but I reckon it will happen). Here’s Google looking shy.


It’s a longer post as so much fighting over the Internet happened in March.  First up, on March 1st the government published the latest UK digital strategy. It got little coverage because, well, Trump and Brexit. Was it any good? Not really. The shadow minister for digital everything is Louise Haigh, who hasn’t had the job long, but long enough to take an informed view.  She called it recycled and meagre. There are lists of marvellous things that have already happened and the Govt would like to take credit for. There’s hopeful, wishy-washy stuff about things the government would like to happen but isn’t taking responsibility for. So they are giving consumers the right to request fast broadband. That’s not quite the same as saying it will happen, and that there’s an actual plan. Almost one in five (spun in the strategy as just over 80% who DO as that sounds so much better) of SMEs don’t have access to fast broadband.  Meanwhile, BT’s Openreach has just been fined £42 million for  commercial malpractice over fast broadband provision. I heard BT defending their position at a conference fifteen years ago, on the grounds that it was unfair for them to be forced to sort out broadband access throughout the country when their competitors might benefit. They were handed the grid’s local loops and a massive advantage when they were privatised and have been getting away with it for a very long time. This week, they committed to 95% cover but that leaves 5% who can’t all be volunteers on  reality TV shows and happy to live a slow or off-grid life. I know a couple of people who are happily like that some of the time, but then again, it also drives them crazy.

Then the ‘strategy’ has more hopeful stuff about the gender skills gap, and on digital skills training,  already outsourced to a bunch of organisations including banks (those Barclays ads) . Last year £35 million went to various outsourced providers, or in govt spending terms around half a peanut. The strategy pats itself on the back for all the great work done in libraries by staff along with volunteers  to provide Internet access and digital skills training. Meanwhile over in another universe, funding is getting cut and libraries are closing. One in 10 adults, according to the strategy, has never used the Internet. (The Oxford Internet Institute has been bringing out regular reports on the digital access gap for years.) I don’t think the ministers responsible for this strategy have a clue. I ran classes for Internet beginners in Peckham Library for a couple of years starting in 2000 and I’m sure it would cost more than a fiver each person to sort out problems of access, confidence, understanding and skills.


On March 10 the row involving Google was already simmering and at an advertising industry event, Martin Sorrell came out with this attack which got loud cheers from the audience:

The fundamental issue is that you [Google] have to take responsibility for this as a media company. You are not a passive digital engineer tightening the digital pipes with your digital spanner and not responsible for the flow through of content of those pipes, you are responsible for it. You have to step up and take responsibility. You have the resources, your margins are enormous, you have control of the algorithms, you don’t explain to people how those algorithms work. You have to change.

Google – who now own YouTube, were being criticised for letting racists, terrorist organisations, and hate-mongers of all stripes make money out of adverts on YouTube as well as making money themselves from the same ads. They were pretty slow to react. MPs on the Home Affairs Select Committee had another go on March 14, when David Winnick pretty much called Peter Barron (Google), Simon Winnick (Facebook) and Nick Pickles (Twitter) pimps. He said that they were engaged in little more than “commercial prostitution” and that he would be ashamed to earn his money in the way they did. Here’s Google’s lovely new London HQ again, in the lovely new Pancras Square with its lovely corporate fountains and  trees. It’s basically a large four-cornered smoker’s corner with a few coffee, sushi and sandwich joints.



It’s taken Google a long time to admit that it’s an advertising company, one of the world’s largest. It might not even really admit that yet with its continuing claims – see the YouTube policy info – that it is up to users to report breaches. Facebook hasn’t admitted it either. Like CocaCola only wants to bring the world together rather than sell sugary drinks, Facebook wants to build global community. Why would another vast advertising company want to do that, exactly?

But there’s no question, the issues of fake news, politicians ticking them off and the not at all fake fact that companies are cancelling adverts are getting them a little rattled.  Zuckerberg gave us a fine example of a geek’s worldview with his new manifesto. It was sweet, almost. It reminded me of a symposium I went to in Seattle, Shaping the network society, in 2002. I realised there’s a worldview (some) geeks apparently develop. At a certain point, having been totally immersed along with people like themselves in Internet technology, they start to notice other kinds of problems – social, economic, political, environmental. They then offer their worldwide technology-based solutions, as they’ve never noticed there are already other people studying and trying to deal with all those world problems. They’re totally unaware of their own ignorance. In all seriousness, they propose that their next task is to build a global community and sort all that hard stuff out. Good luck, Mark. Are you going to drop all the adverts now that you’re saving the world and not an advertising company any more?

Tim Berners-Lee’s take on alarms about fake news, bots, algorithms and data was more grounded although the Guardian gave it the stupid sub-heading ‘I invented the Internet’. He didn’t quite write that. He did write ‘I may have invented the web, but all of you have helped to create what it is today.’ He argues for control of personal data, pushing back against misinformation, transparency and more understanding in relation to political advertising. The Web Foundation started by Berners-Lee reckons there is currently a worldwide 12% gender gap in access to the Internet. I started my PhD research back in 1999 provoked by the statistic that there was, at the time, a 9% gender gap in the UK, for no good reason.

The UK strategy is supposed to address the gender gap. Maybe the brand new All Party Parliamentary Group on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, launched last week, will help sort that out too. They’re keen on improving digital everything. Here they are.


Time for some good news. The Indian state of Kerala has decreed that Internet access is a basic human right so all citizens should get free wifi access. And reading Harry Potter may help defeat Trump. You don’t even need a wand. Seriously, a study last year showed that reading Harry Potter lowers Americans’ opinions of Donald Trump.  It sounds unlikely but Diana Mutz is a real expert in political science and reported an evidence base of 1100 odd respondents. I liked this next bit as I’d wondered if she’d thought about the religious Right banning Potter books, but she’s properly bossed those variables already (my bold):

… I include control variables in all models in order to take into account potentially spurious causes of both Trump support and exposure to Harry Potter.  All models included gender (females were expected to rate Trump poorly), education (expected to negatively predict Trump support), age (expected to positively predict Trump support), and evangelical self-identification (expected to discourage both tolerance of Muslims and gays, and consuming stories about wizards).

So finally, Mac users. At those Internet research conferences I went to, it was normal to hear Bill Gates referred to as the Great Satan, quite genuinely and not all that humorously. Gates certainly didn’t have any kind of hero status. Steve Jobs did, and as a result of Apple’s brilliant marketing , Mac users were encouraged to position themselves as smarter, more creative, better. Their advertising made that explicit. Now Apple gets a cut every time anyone buys an app for their iPhone or iPad. The same goes for Android (Google again) apps, but you can get software for pcs without Microsoft getting any cut. I know what Bill and Melinda Gates have done, and are doing, with their billions. Where did Steve Job’s fortune go? Does anybody know? (Raf, if you’re reading this, you may remember the AoIR conference. After the closing speeches and thanks you said they should have thanked Bill Gates aka Satan without whom none of their Powerpoint presentations, or the conference, would have been possible.) How does it work, this division of tech billionaires into good guys and bad guys?


Fighting on the Internet

Bard in the Clink

It could easily have been a more miserable week but I had an escape from the news, spending three days on and off at UCL’s international conference on Shakespeare and the Jews. The scholars presenting were from various academic disciplines as well as different countries: Renaissance history, theatre studies, translation studies, modern literature, 20th century history, but not so much of Shakespeare studies. Here’s a flavour of the keynote lecture by Professor Oz whose main fields are Shakespeare, theatre studies and political theatre. I thought his gist was that Shakespeare was dealing with ideas about nationhood becoming based on something other than religion or tribalism and developing into a political construct that fitted the new age of commerce and trade.  Will Venice, a trading and commercial centre that has recently allowed Jews to settle there, especially those expelled from Spain and Portugal, let them become equals as citizens and professionals? Oz and other presenters suggested Shakespeare might have had London in mind.


The conference presenters’ consensus seemed to be that as an unquestionably antisemitic play it’s no longer possible to put on The Merchant of Venice any more, but they also noted from a more global perspective that while that’s true of other countries it applies less to the UK. Malkin and Voights, who have been asking the views of current theatre practitioners for their project on hyphenated cultures, quoted Nicholas Hytner as saying he couldn’t stomach ‘being in the world of the play’ as everyone seems to be antisemitic, in contrast to the treatment of Othello. In that other play Venice uses ‘Moor’ as a simple descriptor, not a term of abuse. The conference summed up 20th century re-versionings as apologetics, and what came across very strongly was that Shylock’s famous speech, supposedly pivotal, far from redeeming the play actually worsens the antisemitic effect by humanising the character and making him appear more plausible rather than a crude stereotype. That reminded me of an incident years ago when my son’s class – 10 year olds, probably – took part in a staging of the play at the Globe Theatre, along with other Southwark primary schools. He was the only Jewish child in his class. The borough’s drama adviser no doubt thought it was a good choice. I vaguely remember we challenged it but the adviser’s case was that pupils would be ‘workshopping’ scenes and discussing the problematic aspects. It is and was a rubbish argument given that the entire play is irrefutably and structurally racist.

Interestingly the presenters who described much more radical new versions with playwrights ‘writing back’ at the play agreed that they tended not to work either dramatically or in terms of getting the audience response they wanted. That was even true of an Israeli-German production in Buchenwald where the audience were local Germans and the idea was to bring home the links between Nazi ideology and Shylock imagery. The director thought it was a failure. There’s a new book out, Wrestling with Shylock, on Jewish responses to the play. The cover uses Jacob Kramer’s haunting painting. Here’s a tiny glimpse.


I wondered about the attachment to Shakespeare in the English theatre and English literature studies and whether it’s more difficult in the UK to accept that Merchant of Venice is unplayable. Is Shakespeare such a heroic figure that people want to believe in  his virtues too much? (Katherine Duncan-Jones once wrote a very funny piece about the contortions some writers have tied themselves in to try and make Shakespeare out as a robust heterosexual.) I saw the 2008 Royal Shakespeare Company production which Michael Billington described as morally evasive. It was worse than evasive. The most shocking moment was the curtain call at the end. The audience booed Shylock. Producers and directors need to wake up to their responsibilities. No point in blaming Shakespeare. Here he is in a wonky mural seen yesterday in Clink Street, not far from the contemporary Globe.

Clink Street Bard


Bard in the Clink

Experts, and LSE gender politics fail

The LSE is having its annual literary festival this week on ‘Revolutions’, basically shaped around various authors with new books out although there is much more to it. I went to ‘Was Brexit a Populist Revolution?’ (two people on the panel of four said yes but gave different interpretations). The attempt at gender balance failed even though the chair said he was trying to take questions from men and women in turn, because the panel consisted of two male professors, Simon Hix and James Tilley, who knew stuff and made definitive informative statements, and two women, Mary Dejevsky and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, who told anecdotes and gave their opinions. The anecdotes cancelled out and the opinions were often contradicted by the evidence the other panellists cited. The professors tended not to state any opinions but said when they didn’t know, didn’t have evidence or it was outside their area of expertise. Next time, LSE, try to do better and find some actual female experts if gender balance is an issue (as it often should be). They do exist.

Key takeaway points: most voters haven’t changed their minds since June 2016 and if anything there is very slightly more of a Leave majority. There has been an anti-EU majority amongst working-class voters for decades but elections haven’t reflected that as they are about so many other issues. The north-south voting divide reflected class and income divisions as much as anything.

Experts, and LSE gender politics fail

New Crick on the block

From the bus stop opposite over the last few years, by the taxi queue outside St Pancras, you could see the amazing new Francis Crick Institute being completed behind the British Library. It went up rapidly for such a huge building. The website says it can officially be known as the Crick as well as by its full name, so in years to come it will probably join those other buildings named after people, where the building replaces the person as the primary referent. I don’t like the cleverly balanced double-helixy lump of rusty metal in the forecourt but I do like the strips of jewel colours in the windows at the front. George Osborne posed on site in a hard hat when he was Chancellor and claimed credit but the project was of course launched much earlier under the Blair and Brown Labour governments.


Yesterday I went to visit. The first public exhibition (free) on biomedical imaging gives glimpses of how research teams are visualising and analysing what goes on in cells, healthy or not. Recommended.

New Crick on the block