Strong Silent Types: Evil Robots and Their Way with Words
  • A pause for The Machine Starts

    It's been one year to the day since I last updated this blog with a new post. That's pretty shameful, isn't it? But don't be too embarrassed for me. There's good reason for this tardiness: I've simply been writing too much elsewhere. You might have read some of my work in New Scientist, BBC Future, The Economist, Wired and others.

    Getting paid to write articles for these publications let me quit my old job last May and I've been working full-time (all the time?) as a freelance journalist ever since. It's been a wild ride and I've loved every minute of it so far. [...]

  • Spike Jonze's Her: A Dream of Love for a Lonely World

    Valentine's Day, 2014. Outside the cinema a gale was blowing through the district in London where I live. Rubbish that had been strewn everywhere by the wind was now sodden, dilapidated. Skeletal ruined umbrellas lay here and there and a drunk guy laughed hysterically to himself as I went past. It felt like I had just walked into Blade Runner(1982) and, like a dirty vision of the most unloved urban mess, it felt a million miles away from the pastel landscape of Her (2013).

    Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with an operating system in a world that is smooth, lens-flared, stylish. It's a pseudo-utopia, the presumed result of years of technological achievement, a civilisation preoccupied with the attainment of simplicity, comfort and cleanliness.

    But in this IKEA catalogue future, Phoenix plays a lonely man. Theodore Twombly is a pensive thirty-something lost in an age where sentiment itself is outsourced to companies like the one where he works, While Theodore is paid to perfect the epistolary romances of strangers, his own former lover waits impatiently for his signature on a stack of divorce papers. He puts it off. He buries himself in his work, which - ironically enough - he's great at. [...]

  • The best writing about technology that I read in 2013

    So it's come to this. A list post at Well, I see no problem with celebrating truly fantastic writing from some of my favourite publications scattered far and wide across the web.

    I read quite a lot in 2013. All of the articles listed below came to me via Pocket, an app I use pretty much every day. I read these pieces on public transport, waiting for planes, in queues for something, and at home.

    The pieces I've chosen to highlight here are all ones which, for one reason or another, made me go, "yeah, this is great." (They're listed roughly in the order I read them, first to last, by the way). It's by no means a comprehensive selection, just a reasonably representative one. Have a look and - do yourself a favour - read them. [...]

  • Speech and the Law: Why the UK Attorney General has a Twitter Headache

    One week ago, the Attorney General's Office (AGO) released a statement regarding a Twitter user who had broken a legal injunction against publishing identifying details about convicted murderer Jon Venables.

    The case was brought by Attorney General Dominic Grieve and the AGO, in their statement, described the breach as follows:

    "Below and alongside the usual image of Venables as a child were different images of an adult male. These were accompanied by a tweet saying: ‘Its on bbc news about the jon venables pic on twitter saying its been removed eerrrm no it hasn't'. He then argued with other Twitter users who warned him of the consequences." [...]

  • We Are Not Anonymous

    Imagine it's 1813. Two hundred years ago today. And for whatever reason, you want to disappear. You pack your bag, you hire a coachman in the night and the following morning you walk into a town with a false name, and start over.

    OK. It might not have been quite that simple, but two centuries later, it definitely isn't. Your ability to slip through the net of surveillance has all but vanished. Means of identification, for one thing, have become dramatically more powerful and prevalent.

    This weekend, a feature of mine is being published as the cover story in the latest issue of New Scientist. The headline is, "The End of Anonymity". Within, I explore some of the reasons behind anonymity's demise. [...]

  • Facebook's Dilemma: Bloody Violence and the Idea of Community

    A video of a beheading has been expunged from Facebook. Again. Now unlikely to return after an embarrassing spate of indecision, the footage's banishment seems to encapsulate the troubled relationship human communities have historically had with depictions of graphic violence.

    In short, we don't like it. Facebook, for a moment, attempted to defend the short-lived return of the video to its pages by playing what it thought would be a trump card: it was for the good of the community. People were engaging with a piece of shocking media in order to understand the terrible truth about violence and also to condemn it.

    But as Liat Clark shrewdly comments in her assessment of the situation for, it's at this very point that Facebook's logic gets awkwardly tangled: "So Facebook is allowing beheadings and such like so we can all universally agree, murder is wrong. Doesn't really seem all that necessary, does it?" [...]

  • IRL or it Didn't Happen: Why We Still Dismiss the Digital

    Ten years ago, Stephanie Tuszynski set out on a mission that concerned the internet, sociology and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Tuszynski, an American Culture Studies PhD candidate at the time, wanted to find out what it was that drew members of an online Buffy fan group, The Bronze, together. But she also wanted to discover what the community meant to them. Why was it important? Why did they keep going back? Was it even a 'real' community?

    From the opening comments in the dissertation that resulted three years after Tuszynski began her study, it's clear that she felt it was still necessary to challenge persistent establishment dismissal of communities like The Bronze. When Tuszynski began her research, many academics refused to describe such groups as communities.

    We're not talking about the early, hesitant days of the web here. By 2006, we're talking about the post-dotcom bubble era when sites like MySpace, Facebook and YouTube were either already popular or on the brink of becoming global sensations. [...]

  • Idolatrous Design: The iPhone as Gold Standard

    There are other substances which are rarer than gold, like platinum for instance. And there are several which are worth more by weight, such as diamond, plutonium and even cocaine. But nothing quite captures the imagination like 24 carat gold.

    Gold has been the subject of coveting and fascination since at least the fourth millennium BC. From Olympic medals to wedding rings and entire monetary value systems, gold has played many thousands of roles across human culture.

    When Apple revealed three new flavours of their new flagship mobile device, the iPhone 5S, the gold edition immediately attracted attention. It was easy to understand as a statement on Apple's part - they were simply reaffirming what they have always believed to be their role in the consumer electronics space. "It's the gold standard in phones," commented Phil Schiller at the launch. Apple sets that standard, everyone else follows suit. [...]

  • Glitchland: In the Future, the Digital Will Know How to Decay

    Years ago I was at a gig. A tall African guy was on stage, about to begin his performance of traditional music. As he picked up the microphone, an abrasive snap of audio feedback shot through the speakers and caused one or two people in the crowd to flinch uncomfortably. As the glitch reverberated and a sound engineer ran around trying to fix it the African man said slowly, in a thick accent, "We like it! It is in the rhythm."

    This was long before anyone had written essays about something called the "New Aesthetic" or was making music videos like this.

    Today there is a fascination with manufacturing glitches, with imposing faults and quirks on otherwise clean and seamless media. Many have theorised that this is a reaction to the irrationally perfect landscape of the hyperreal; or a comment on the "binary" state of technology as we now know it - it either works or it doesn't. [...]

  • Some People Hate the new iPhone's Fingerprint Scanner

    Here's what Boing Boing writer Xeni Jardin said once the iPhone 5S's (long-anticipated) fingerprint sensor had been officially announced:

    "New iPhone mandatory biometrics: Can you use your middle finger?"

    Although it isn't actually mandatory, the idea of having a fingerprint scanner on a phone has got some people a little upset. @YourAnonNews tweeted a wry one-sentence review which concluded, "slightly improved battery life and camera quality isn't worth the fingerprinting." They later joked, chiming in with others, that the scanner was the NSA's "wet dream". [...]





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