Technology

The untimely death of the landline

I can count on the fingers of one hand the people I know who still have a landline telephone, and I am not among them. Getting one installed in my new home is feasible but why, my children ask, would I bother? I have a mobile phone, albeit a very basic one, and what more can a person need? To anyone under the age of 50, retaining a landline seems like a fogey-ish affectation. Indeed, one of my daughters has a rotary-dial handset, not as a back-up phone but as an ironic décor item. Because if you’re wearing a belt, why have braces? For mobile users there’s the back-up possibility

The algorithm myth: why the bots won’t take over

Google once believed it could use algorithms to track pandemics. People with flu would search for flu-related information, it reasoned, giving the tech giant instant knowledge of the disease’s prevalence. Google Flu Trends (GFT) would merge this information with flu tracking data to create algorithms that could predict the disease’s trajectory weeks before governments’ own estimates. But after running the project for seven years, Google quietly abandoned it in 2015. It had failed spectacularly. In 2013, for instance, it miscalculated the peak of the flu season by 140 per cent. According to the German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, this is a good example of the limitations of using algorithms to surveil

The ghosts that could come back to haunt Blair

I’m picturing Sir Tony Blair enjoying a fitting of his Garter robes after watching Boris Johnson stagger through PMQs. ‘I’m in the clear these days,’ he’s thinking. ‘So much water under the bridge, what could possibly come back to haunt me?’ Well, here are two items he might like to consider: the application of the 2003 US-UK extradition treaty in the case of Dr Mike Lynch; and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s statement that new sanction rules will mean ‘nowhere to hide for Putin’s oligarchs’ and their fin-ancial assets. Lynch was the founder of Autonomy, a UK software firm which Hewlett-Packard of the US bought in 2011 for $11 billion —

My Orwellian battle with Vodafone

After launching an investigation into my missing phone, Vodafone informed me it could not deal with me any further until I went through a series of checks to prove that I was who I said I was. I then became locked in an Orwellian battle with an automated system that sent email after email demanding, for example, that I confirm my email, until I gave up on my lost phone, because no amount of confirming seemed to work. Maybe it was naive to try to tell Vodafone that one of their stores had sold me a Nokia that did not hold a charge, refused to refund or exchange it, then

Will our future lives be like a video game?

A few years ago, the software company Owlchemy Labs released a computer game called Job Simulator. Its premise was simple. Players find themselves in a future world, roughly 30 years from now, in which super-efficient robots have snaffled up all the jobs. No longer needed for work, humans entertain themselves instead by donning virtual reality headsets and reenacting ‘the glory days’ — simulating what it was once like to be an office clerk, chef, or shopkeeper. The gameplay, therefore, consists entirely of, well, yeah… carrying out endless mundane tasks: virtual photocopying, virtual cooking, virtual newspaper sales. Job Simulator is pretty tongue-in-cheek, crammed full of dry, self-referential jokes. In the game,

Why cash is still king to me

I recently set out on a simple mission: to break the £10 note in my purse so I’d have a five to put in the church collection plate on Sunday. My first attempt backfired. The café, where my order was delivered with an eye-roll of metro disdain, no longer accepted cash payments. I sat at one of their pavement tables, drinking the single macchiato I’d neither wanted nor needed, and considered my next move. I’m aware that cash is now regarded as a grubby anachronism. All those hands it passes through! Eww! Of the two churches I attend, one has stayed ahead of this trend and installed payment terminals in

The tyranny of the smart phone

‘Can I ask you why you don’t want a smart phone?’ said the chirpy manager, as I stood blinking in front of him in the intensely red Vodafone shop. I took my iPhone out of my bag and explained that I wanted a second phone with no brain whatsoever. A stupid, backward phone was what I wanted. Not a scheming, conniving monster like this one. And I said this quietly, so that my iPhone didn’t hear me, because that is how frightened I am of it. ‘Ah!’ said the pin-striped tech wizard, as if he had heard of this situation before, or perhaps increasingly. Reaching for the bottom shelf, he

My strange encounter with foot fetishists

Around five years ago I started to receive requests online for photos of and details about my feet. I’ve been asked for foot pictures intermittently ever since. Most of the gentlemen are upfront about what they’re after (‘send foot pic plz’), but one man went above and beyond in his pursuits. Posing as an academic, he sent several emails to my work account claiming dozens of women in the British media had submitted their shoe size to help him with a research project. He was just waiting for my details to finish his ground-breaking study. Although I never responded, I commend his efforts. I was never able to work out

Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Twitter ban is nothing to celebrate

Marjorie Taylor Greene is nuttier than M&M World. Not your garden-variety conservative, or even a conservative at all, but a conspiracy theorist who rode these febrile times into a seat in Congress. She describes American Airlines Flight 77 as ‘the so-called plane that crashed into the Pentagon’ on 9/11, remarking that ‘it’s odd there’s never any evidence shown for a plane in the Pentagon’. She suspects the 2018 California wildfires were started by a Rothschild-funded ‘laser beam or light beam coming down to Earth’ in order to help Democrats build a high-speed rail project. Her Facebook account has liked a post proposing ‘a bullet to the head’ for Nancy Pelosi.

Rory Sutherland

Are electric cars a Columbus’s egg?

The explosion in remote and flexible working accelerated by the pandemic slightly supports my assertion that the most important limits to future innovation may be psychological and behavioural, not technological. I am among a number of people who believe that the newly widespread use of video-conferencing is of great economic significance. A few economists and commentators agree, but all of us suffer mild social embarrassment whenever we make our case: it feels faintly absurd to evangelise a technology which is more than 20 years old, rather than pontificating about the ‘metaverse’ or some other fashionable guff. Yet history bears us out. Because, bizarre as it may seem in retrospect, most

The hypocrisy of Elon Musk

Tesla’s sleek, if expensive, electric cars are leading the battle against climate change. Its batteries are moving renewable energy into the mainstream, while its founder Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, likes to present himself as a free-thinking radical. It is hard to think of a company more right on than Tesla — well, okay, perhaps Unilever — or one that depends more on its politically correct credentials. But hold on. There turns out to be one opposed minority that Tesla couldn’t care less about: China’s Uighurs. Most of the corporate world will sooner or later have to make a tough decision: do they care about human rights? The company has landed

Reality check: could our universe be a simulation?

Are we all living in a computer simulation? Is the world we imagine to be real simply virtual reality instead, an elaborate computer program? That sounds ridiculous, but nonetheless it’s what many clever people actually think — or at least, think possible. One of them, the philosopher David Chalmers, has just written a book on the subject, Reality +: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy. Chalmers is a serious intellect. He won a bronze medal in the International Mathematical Olympiad as a child and did his undergraduate studies in Pure Mathematics before turning to philosophy. Part of his argument is that we are already building simulated worlds ourselves —

Sense and sensibility: Steven Pinker and Rory Sutherland on reason vs instinct

Steven Pinker’s latest book is called Rationality. Rory Sutherland is The Spectator’s Wiki Man. We arranged for them to meet at the Cucumber restaurant, where they discussed the logic of monarchy, gender-bending, and why academics are unreasonably obsessed with wine. Steven Pinker: Part of the reason I wrote Rationality was to ask, how there can be so much irrationality in an era that has the resources for unprecedented rationality. We invented a vaccine for Covid in less than a year. So why do people today believe in conspiracies like QAnon? Rory Sutherland: Conspiracy theories aren’t always irrational, and instinctive responses can serve you well. An instinctive person with no knowledge

Rory Sutherland

Everyone should be sick in the street once

I learned a great deal at university, about half of it from a man called Raymond Foulk. Ray was not Professor Foulk or even Dr Foulk: Ray was a near contemporary — he was in the year below me — but a mature student, then aged about 44. Shortly before he arrived at the beginning of my second year to read architecture, the college investigated his past life and sought to exile him to first-year accommodation far outside the college walls to prevent him corrupting the youth. There was nothing remotely illegal or nefarious about his past — but he had created and run the three Isle of Wight Festivals

A tale of bitter brotherly rivalry

For early humans there was no distinction between spirit and matter. There was no idea of self; no barrier between consciousness and the world. Eventually, evolving self-consciousness and thought put a barrier between the two. Object was irrecoverably divorced from subject. Or so I’ve read somewhere. Something like that anyway. Very recently yet another barrier has been erected between human consciousness and the world in the form of the smart phone touch screen, putting us at not one but two removes from reality. No wonder everyone’s lost the plot. On Sunday, at the very forefront of the evolution of human consciousness, I took human evolution a step further by watching

Are we ready for the metaverse?

Facebook has rebranded itself as Meta and last month chief executive Mark Zuckerberg announced the creation of 10,000 jobs to help build the ‘metaverse’ — a concept so radical nobody yet knows what it really is. People in the media tend to describe it as ‘a 3D version of the internet’. Facebook describes it rather vaguely as a network of ‘virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you’. Some suspect it might actually be hell. The term metaverse first appeared in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, in which future humans distract themselves from economic collapse by submerging

The real harm in the Online Harms Bill

Following the killing of Sir David Amess, MPs were quick to point to the ‘corrosive space’ provided by social media, the ‘toxic’ conduct of politics, and the general phenomenon of people being cruel to them online. Of course our parliamentary representatives don’t deserve to face waves of abuse for doing their jobs. They shouldn’t receive racial abuse, or threats of violence, or even simple insults for doing their jobs. This goes without saying for any worker, whether serving customers in a supermarket, helping commuters with their tickets, or indeed governing the country. It is difficult to see why else the Conservative party would accept a proposal so tailor-made for its political

New tactics are needed for the wars of the future

The strategic bankruptcy of the West has twice so far this century demanded that our brave soldiers risk their bodies and minds to fight unwinnable wars. The lessons to be learnt from Iraq and Afghanistan, and indeed from Libya, Syria and the Sahel, are many; but the original sin was hubris, born of post-Cold War military preponderance and successes in Sierra Leone, Ulster and Kosovo. The consequence of our arrogance, when 9/11 demanded action, was that we failed properly to interrogate, and so to grasp, either the character of the specific conflicts into which we jumped, or the fundamental nature of war itself. Lack of understanding of the particular dynamics

Frances Haugen: a very convenient whistleblower

Facebook wants to move its business model towards the metaverse, that virtual future in which we will all hang out online through headsets and pretend it isn’t weird. The trouble is, we already appear to live in an alternate reality created by communications specialists with highly political agendas. Just look at the clearly PR-orchestrated Online Safety vs Facebook story which the media is playing out before our non-digital eyes. This week’s protagonist is Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee who appeared yesterday in parliament to give evidence to MPs scrutinising the Online Harms Bill. That is the bill through which the government says it intends to regulate social media companies to

Banning anonymity creates more problems than it solves

There are growing calls to end internet anonymity in the wake of Sir David Amess’s death. The Tory MP Mark Francois argued in the Commons this week for a ‘David’s law’ to do this, to try and bring back civility into politics. Today, Matt Hancock and the Labour MP Rupa Huq have stated that the Online Harms Bill should tackle ‘anonymous abuse’. But outlawing internet anonymity would be a mistake. Two members of parliament have been killed in the past five years. This, one long-serving MP laments, is the kind of statistic you would expect in a failing state, as I write in the magazine this week. Many MPs — even