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There’s an election in four months


There’s an election in four months.

Those are the only words you need to remember. Whenever a politician drivels before an invited audience of heart-eyed acolytes or assembly line workers glazing over on company time for half an hour, just remember: there’s an election in four months (or three, or two, or one…).

Yesterday renowned cryptographer David Cameron said there should be no “means of communication” which “we cannot read”. This has been interpreted by technically literate commentators, mostly through the medium of boggle-eyed laughter, as expressing a desire to ban encryption or enforce the addition of backdoors. I’ve seen many, many tweets setting out the stupidity of such a move, and I have no desire or need to rehash them here.

Because the only thing you need to know is: there’s an election in four months.

Cameron is talking about monitoring the internet because there is an election in four months. He wants people to vote for him. He understands — better, sadly, than those tweeting about protocols and key escrow and men-in-the-middle and laptops left in taxis — that none of all that matters. He’s not talking to that audience, the tiny audience that groks the detail and the implications. He’s talking to the other 99%, who saw the attacks in Paris last week and think (thanks to Be Vigilant And Report Darkies posters) that we’re next.

Let’s imagine Cameron is elected in May with a majority. What would he actually do? We have no idea. There’s no manifesto yet, and manifestos can’t be trusted anyway. On past experience — we have almost five years of it now — his words don’t much match his deeds. I expect there’d be a series of meetings, possibly involving token techies invited as a sop to industry, and the End Terrorism Forever Bill 2017 (probably) that would emerge would contain no clauses capable of achieving any such thing.

There’s an election in four months. That’s all Cameron is worried about.

The opposition parties (I include the Lib Dems in that category for election purposes) have the same phrase in their heads. If they want to oppose Cameron on this issue — and I’m not entirely sure the Labour party does, for fear of being labelled soft on terrorism — then there is absolutely no point in talking technology. That’s preaching to the choir.

To oppose this policy they need to do two things: pursue, with great vigour and purpose, the support of younger people (beneficial side-effect: these are least likely to be slack-jawed kippers); and tell them in specific terms which apps and services Cameron thinks they shouldn’t be permitted to use without being snooped on.

Snapchat, WhatsApp, iMessage, FaceTime, Yik Yak, Rooms, Skype, etc, etc — and also Facebook and Twitter and plain old email, of course, but with less emphasis since younger people don’t use those so much. Ignore the likes of HTTPS, Tor, and all that: too confusing for the audience you’re trying to reach.

Keep it simple. Non-technical. Personal.

Avoid greyfaces and clumping hooves of rhetoric: all an utter turn-off for the audience. Don’t make it an official party video at all. You want Cassetteboy, not Saatchi, and if you don’t know who Cassetteboy is, fire yourself.

Here’s an idea off the top of my head: take one (or more) of those ubiquitous thirty-second promo videos from an app vendor’s website — you know the ones, with the indie guitar solos and the Californian hipster voiceovers — and every time a toothy blond communicates with another toothy blond, intercut video of Cameron sitting at a computer screen.

It doesn’t matter that it’s inaccurate or simplistic: so is what he’s claiming to propose.

There’s an election in four months.



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Facebook timelines: mind the gap

Facebook’s new Timeline feature is seemingly intended as an autobiography in the automatic sense: your life distilled to a series of status updates interspersed with red-eye, all filtered and summarised by the invisible hand of logic, the unblinking, unknowing eye of the Zuck-3000.

I’m intrigued by what my own timeline will show. I don’t write the updates Facebook expects. There’s rarely a sense of where I am or what I’m doing. I never say “Sitting in Bill’s, writing a blog post about Facebook timelines.” They’re my tweets, echoed; my rants, hashtag games, rubbish jokes, and other nonsense. My own timeline is likely to consist of other people’s photos of me, some events, and a bunch of non sequiturs. Here’s me at Chris’s 40th; here’s a link to a blog about Facebook; here’s a photo of a typo. Nothing of deep historical or biographical interest, I imagine.

For eager, unjaded pubescents pouring every numbing detail of their lives into Zuckerberg’s database, the timeline will be great – until it isn’t. Until a friendship disintegrates – as it will. Until a relationship ends acrimoniously – as it will. Then the timeline becomes a sniggering, taunting reminder, Gripper Stebson poking Ro-land in his chubby face, forever.

Thus, inevitably, it will become another part of our life online that needs pruning, tending, curating, culling. It will beg for attention, Tamagotchi: The Next Generation. Users will constantly edit their lives. I am going out with Terry from form 3C, I have always been going out with Terry from form 3C.

Facebook wants your timeline to be your autobiography, but it won’t be. For most people it’ll be like a Hello! magazine puff-piece: all of the glamour and the shiny taps, and none of the hoovering.

You won’t see, perhaps, underage drinking at a dodgy party featuring a jazz cigarette, or cruelly excised former friends or partners. I think there’ll be more of the latter omissions than the former: people’s youthful indiscretions appear to be becoming less important. Clinton had to claim he “did not inhale” but Obama didn’t; Cameron successfully sidestepped questions about his own drug use and not even the Daily Mail proclaimed the End Times. I think this is a natural societal evolution, not caused by the Internet but certainly made more visible and – crucially – searchable by it.

However society adapts to decreasing privacy, it’s the gaps that are most interesting. Facebook doesn’t know what happens in the gaps, in the mini dark ages that pepper my history and everyone’s history. It aims to know all but does not, will not, cannot, even with the vast data-buckets that it and the internet in general can supply on-demand for each of us. Like the missing years in a CV or the crackle as an old film skips a few frames, what is absent is often far more interesting and revealing than what is present.

I therefore submit this humble prediction. Facebook’s timeline will ultimately be no tell-all semi-autobiography. It’ll be a sanitised, part-fictionalised history. Stalin’s airbrushing writ large; Big Brother’s ultimate rewrite.

And employers won’t look at your timeline to decide whether to interview you or hire you: they’ll look at your friends’ timelines.

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Facebook and the two minutes’ hate

In George Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother enforces a regular two minutes’ hate to ensure the citizen-slaves are fully au fait with the enemy of the day. It’s a term that originated in WWI’s artillery bombardments and is now mostly evident fully fourteen letters later, on that other battleground, the WWW.

Today’s enemy – as on so many other days – is Facebook. If it’s Wednesday, it must be another home page revamp. This latest change does away with those pesky ‘Top Stories’ and ‘Recent News’ options, which always used to default to ‘Top Stories’ even though I never, ever wanted anything other than Recent News. Now they’ve inflicted some cockamamy algorithmic hodgepodge that combines those two options, and the entire internet has exploded in a fireball of wtf and zomg.

This is not Big Brother’s doing: nobody at Microsoft or Google or Apple pressed a blue button marked with a cuddly sans serif f and sat back cackling with a smartphone full of white, fluffy lolcats. This is entirely a bottom-up reaction. Were I a lazy reporter desperately scrambling for a headline, I might even make some cackhanded pun on Arab Spring. But I can’t think of one right now.

People despise change because we are creatures almost entirely of habit. We might like to think we have will and self-determination and can stay up all night if we want to, you can’t stop me, mum. But we don’t. We laugh at dogs and their pavlovian reactions, and then it’s 4 o’clock and time for tea, oh and I mustn’t miss today’s Pointless I do like that nice Alexander Armstrong, don’t you? and the punched paper tape loops through our brains one more time.

Slow, gradual changes are easily accepted, embraced, like a frog being slow-boiled. I bought a cheapo wifi-capable printer last week, now perched on an ex-server in my spare room together with the military-grade safe in which I keep its priceless ink. The first few times I walked past the room my inner lizard shouted There’s something in there – it was a new, unexpected pattern on the retina and I turned my head involuntarily. Now, meh, I’ve been retrained. The new pattern is absorbed, the newness has gone, the routine is back.

More radical change takes longer to process. In a new house you’re constantly jumping and starting at its various ticks, cracks and wheezes, getting lost in cupboards and locking yourself in fridges. And all the time you’re swearing like a navvy on jankers. Your brain is clunking and clanking away rewriting the paper tape, and your eyes spin like the MacOS X hypnowheel (other operating systems are available) until the updated universe can be paged back in.

Thus it is with Facebook’s latest update. Millions of people are using the site’s various existing features, which they railed against last time they were changed, to protest these latest modifications. In a couple of days the chances are the Facebook juggernaut will thunder on to its next redesign unperturbed by self-immolating gifs and its users will wonder why they were all worked up about it in the first place.

That’s not to say I like the changes. I think they’re daft. And here’s why.

Let’s look at the UI. There are arguably four focal points: the icons at top-left next to the word ‘facebook’, which gain red numbers when something interesting happens; the list of stuff that seems to change in a way I don’t quite understand down the left (favourites, lists, apps) which gain blue-grey numbers when something interesting happens; the main body, which updates in a way utterly unfathomable to mortals, gaining and losing ‘recent stories’, ‘top news’ and other sections when something interesting happens; and the ticker on the right, which updates in a hazily understood way when something interesting happens.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a lot of something interesting and a lot of I don’t know what makes something appear here. Oh, and some of it may appear in multiple places.

I’m not interested if you have figured out how each of these sections works and when it updates. Well done, have a banana. You are special. The point is, most people don’t. To most people, the way all this works is mysterious and magical and they just hope to jebus that they can find the thing they want to when they need to. This is not because they are dumb, it is not because they are lazy. It is because they just don’t care enough to work it all out: their goal is not to understand all this. To a first approximation their goal, to use the sainted jwz’s expression, is to get laid (link is geeky, SFW!).

Facebook’s current incarnation does not make this any easier than its last. It makes it harder, because the vital goal-fulfilling information is scattered amongst the something interesting and I don’t know what makes something appear here sections.

In Joel Spolsky’s words, the fundamental rule of user interfaces is: “A user interface is well-designed when the program behaves exactly how the user thought it would”.

Facebook does not behave how users think it does, because most people have no idea how it behaves. There are too many places where slightly different, possibly overlapping pieces of information are presented in slightly different ways, and those pieces of information are chosen using slightly different, possibly overlapping, closely guarded, unfathomable algorithms.

Which brings us to the end of today’s two minutes’ hate. I think I overran. Ah well, time for a cup of tea and Pointless.

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