The Death of the Gods: Not scared of tech yet? You haven't been paying attention

New book details snatch for humanity's joystick

Book Review It has been 14 years since Google IPO'd, and nine since Donald Trump burst onto Twitter. It’s five years since both the Snowden NSA disclosures and the birth of Cambridge Analytica. Over this period we’ve had a series of major data breaches, media organisations disrupted out of existence, and the emergence of hacktivists and the alt right.

Tech, both big and small, keeps smashing its way into our lives leaving at least some of us too punch-drunk to take stock and think about who or what exactly is driving this change, and what it’s doing to us. That’s even assuming we want to, given the lurking suspicion that what we’ll find there is even worse than we imagine.

Luckily Carl Miller has dived into the murkiest depths of the net in his first book, The Death of the Gods; The New Global Power Grab. The Gods in question are the structures and institutions that have governed and shaped our world for living memory, even centuries: democratic government; business; press and media; crime and policing. These are the structures in which “power” has resided, and through which it is exercised.

Carl has form in this space. He is co-founder and research director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at left-leaning thinktank Demos, and has a broad view of how politics and society worked long before the internet messed things up.

Some of this will be familiar territory. One of Carl’s first stops is the Tech Model Railway Club at MIT. From there he takes in the leaders of Silicon Valley, and the cult of the founders who often see themselves as the true descendants of those original hackers.

He details how big tech tends towards monopoly, and the rise of the algorithm-powered data scientist has accelerated this trend - and how the founders and innovators seemingly don't seem to notice the impoverishing effect they're having on those Silicon Valley residents without the benefit of a maths or computer science background.

Less familiar, perhaps, will be characters like Burim, the proprietor of Pristina, Kosovo fake news factory which turns over as much as a few thousand Euros a day (meaning he’s one of the few characters who offer to buy Carl a coffee). Or Marianne Grimmenstein, a 70-year-old German woman who used to force changes to the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement that would preserve the role of government.

man gives lecture faces crowd

Power: The ultimate web-based commodity


He also takes a close look at the ways in which technology have changed warfare, from Russia’s theory of hybrid war, using disinformation, sock puppets, and even, yes, fake news. And on the other side, he visits GCHQ and the UK’s 77th Brigade. Of course, the latter organisations will see themselves as defending truth - or at least a version of it –that will seem familiar to us in the West.

It’s a massive undertaking. But is it telling us anything we don’t already know?

Well, many in the tech industry - whether commentators or practitioners - will declare themselves immune to the pernicious effects of the founder cult, and point out that we are too tech-savvy to be a serious victim of cybercrime or fall for fake news. And as for leaving their intimate photos resting in a vulnerable account...

But Carl brings wider context and nuance that observers coming from the business or tech end of journalism often miss out. When he talks about sovereignty, it is rooted in a real concern for where political legitimacy comes from - not another all-caps slogan in a sock-puppeted social media post.

He also conveys real terror at some of the effects this is all having. His concern for how big tech is undermining our privacy and our politics is clear - and justified.

GCHQ Benhall doughnut aerial view

INSIDE GCHQ: Welcome to Cheltenham's cottage industry


What might be more unexpected is his clear concern over the effect of cybercrime - both in its effects such as the dehumanizing nastiness of having your intimate personal photos hacked or the point-and-click ease with which you can set yourself up in the ransomware game - and the fact that many of the police he speaks to are quite open about the fact they are simply not getting on top of the problem.

Is it beach-reading material? Well, summer’s almost over. But Westminster and Washington are about to spark back into life, the cyber criminals and fake news merchants will come back from wherever they take their breaks, and the marketing algorithms have already worked out what you want for Christmas.

If you want to get a grip on what’s happening, this is an excellent place to start. ®

Other stories you might like

  • Cloudflare's outage was human error. There's a way to make tech divinely forgive
    Don't push me 'cos I'm close to the edge. And the edge is safer if you can take a step back

    Opinion Edge is terribly trendy. Move cloudy workloads as close to the user as possible, the thinking goes, and latency goes down, as do core network and data center pressures. It's true  – until the routing sleight-of-hand breaks that diverts user requests from the site they think they're getting to the copies in the edge server. 

    If that happens, everything goes dark – as it did last week at Cloudflare, edge lords of large chunks of web content. It deployed a Border Gateway Protocol policy update, which promptly took against a new fancy-pants matrix routing system designed to improve reliability. Yeah. They know. 

    It took some time to fix, too, because in the words of those in the know, engineers "walked over each other's changes" as fresh frantic patches overwrote slightly staler frantic patches, taking out the good they'd done. You'd have thought Cloudflare of all people would be able to handle concepts of dirty data and cache consistency, but hey. They know that too. 

    Continue reading
  • You need to RTFM, but feel free to use your brain too
    But I was only following the procedures!

    Who, Me? Monday is here, and with it a warning that steadfast determination to ignore instructions might not be such a silly thing after all. Welcome to Who, Me?

    Today's story comes from a reader Regomized as "Sam" and takes us back to his first proper IT job following his departure from the education system.

    Sam found himself on the mainframe operations team for a telecommunications company. The work was, initially, pretty manual stuff. The telco wasn't silly, and had its new recruits start by performing offline duties, such as gathering tapes and job tickets for batch runs, handling payslips, "basically anything involving a bit of leg work," he told us.

    Continue reading
  • Tropical island paradise ponders tax-free 'Digital Nomad Visa'
    Live and work in Bali, pay tax at home

    The government of Indonesia has once again raised the idea of creating a "digital nomad visa" that would allow foreign workers to live and work in the tropical paradise of Bali, tax free, for five years.

    The idea was raised before the COVID-19 pandemic, but understandably shelved as borders closed and the prospect of any digital nomads showing up dropped to zero.

    But in recent interviews Sandiaga Uno, Indonesia's minister for Tourism and the Creative Economy, said the visa was back on the drawing board.

    Continue reading
  • Small in Japan: Hitachi creates its own (modest) cloud
    VMware-powered sovereign cloud not going to challenge hyperscalers, but probably won't be the last such venture

    Hitachi has taken a modest step towards becoming a public cloud provider, with the launch of a VMware-powered cloud in Japan that The Register understands may not be its only such venture.

    The Japanese giant has styled the service a "sovereign cloud" – a term that VMware introduced to distinguish some of its 4,000-plus partners that operate small clouds and can attest to their operations being subject to privacy laws and governance structures within the nation in which they operate.

    Public cloud heavyweights AWS, Azure, Google, Oracle, IBM, and Alibaba also offer VMware-powered clouds, at hyperscale. But some organizations worry that their US or Chinese roots make them vulnerable to laws that might allow Washington or Beijing to exercise extraterritorial oversight.

    Continue reading
  • Beijing probes security at academic journal database
    It's easy to see why – the question is, why now?

    China's internet regulator has launched an investigation into the security regime protecting academic journal database China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI), citing national security concerns.

    In its announcement of the investigation, the China Cyberspace Administration (CAC) said:

    Continue reading
  • Cerebras sets record for 'largest AI model' on a single chip
    Plus: Yandex releases 100-billion-parameter language model for free, and more

    In brief US hardware startup Cerebras claims to have trained the largest AI model on a single device powered by the world's largest Wafer Scale Engine 2 chip the size of a plate.

    "Using the Cerebras Software Platform (CSoft), our customers can easily train state-of-the-art GPT language models (such as GPT-3 and GPT-J) with up to 20 billion parameters on a single CS-2 system," the company claimed this week. "Running on a single CS-2, these models take minutes to set up and users can quickly move between models with just a few keystrokes."

    The CS-2 packs a whopping 850,000 cores, and has 40GB of on-chip memory capable of reaching 20 PB/sec memory bandwidth. The specs on other types of AI accelerators and GPUs pale in comparison, meaning machine learning engineers have to train huge AI models with billions of parameters across more servers.

    Continue reading
  • Zendesk sold to private investors two weeks after saying it would stay public
    Private offer 34 percent above share price is just the thing to change minds

    Customer service as-a-service vendor Zendesk has announced it will allow itself to be acquired for $10.2 billion by a group of investors led by private equity firm Hellman & Friedman, investment company Permira, and a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority.

    The decision is a little odd, in light of the company's recent strategic review, announced on June, which saw the board unanimously conclude "that continuing to execute on the Company's strategic plan as an independent, public company is in the best interest of the Company and its stockholders at this time."

    That process saw Zendesk chat to 16 potential strategic partners and ten financial sponsors, including a group of investors who had previously expressed conditional interest in acquiring the company. Zendesk even extended its discussions with some parties but eventually walked away after "no actionable proposals were submitted, with the final bidders citing adverse market conditions and financing difficulties at the end of the process."

    Continue reading
  • Singapore promises 'brutal and unrelentingly hard' action on dodgy crypto players
    But welcomes fast cross-border payments in central bank digital currencies

    In the same week that it welcomed the launch of a local center of excellence focused on crypto-inspired central bank digital currencies, Singapore's Monetary Authority (MAS) has warned crypto cowboys they face a rough ride in the island nation.

    The center of excellence (COE) was established by the Mojaloop Foundation – an open source effort to create payment platforms to make digital financial services accessible to those without access to banks. The COE aims to "accelerate financial inclusion in emerging markets" through hackathons, workshops and pilot projects while examining expanded CBDCs payment capabilities."

    Singapore's sovereign wealth fund has invested in Mojaloop, and MAS chief fintech officer Sopnendu Mohanty serves as a board advisor and the authority provides representatives to the Foundation's working group, alongside folks from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Google, and more.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022