start as we mean to go on

I remember watching Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me at a very particular age. Old enough to understand what sex was, and some of the, y'know, physical realities of it. But still young enough to know that there was plenty I didn't really get, and constantly being on the look out for new information.

Anyway, that's how I came to believe that one's "mojo" was a physical thing that could be removed and stored in a vial of red liquid.

[Originally, I took as given that my audience would know the plot of The Spy Who Shagged Me encyclopaedically, but a straw poll suggests this isn’t the case, so to précis: Austin Powers’ nemesis, Dr Evil, hatches a plan, involving time travel, to steal Powers’ mojo while he is frozen between the 60s and 90s. A new operative, code-named Fat Bastard – the joke is that he is fat, and that he is Scottish – breaks into the secure facility where Austin Powers is stored and extracts his mojo using a long silver needle.

Incidentally, if one were to remake Austin Powers now, it would involve a spy from 1990 being frozen and reawakening in 2020. The world turns, we are all corpses, and everything we know and love will someday be dust.]

I should be clear that I understood metaphor, and knew that the phrase "I've lost my mojo" – so frequently uttered in Myers' 1999 classic – was a figure of speech. But I was also firmly convinced that there was something physical that really could correlate with that, and that the film was playing on that double entendre. (A fairly reasonable belief, imo. After all, "I've lost my manhood", to give one example, would genuinely lead to that conclusion. Also, I was… nine? Cut me a break, judgy reader)

What brought this recollection to mind after more than two decades? The straight answer is "someone said 'I've lost my mojo' on a years-old episode of a mediocre Dungeons and Dragons podcast that I'm listening to out of an awful collector's-mentality desire to eventually be listening to the mediocre Dungeons and Dragons podcast in real time". 

The more poetic answer is that I've spent so much time tweeting over the past few years that I'm somewhat afraid mojo really is a physical thing that was extracted from me in the night by Mike Myers in a far suit. Disastrous.

I write a lot for work, but the scope of what I can work on is necessarily limited by the fact that I'm an editor on the news desk. Scoops are great, but I cut my teeth blogging and I miss that. As, I hope, do some of you; I know there are some people who still wish I had a similar position to the one I had at the New Statesman, years ago, where I was paid to blog (ostensibly about economics, but by the time I wrote about how all I could see were hexagons because of a video game it's fair to say there had been some feature creep.)

So what do you get? An email. Weekly for this first year, at least. Links out, when there's something to link out to. Essays, when there's something write an essay on. Lists, probably all the time, because who doesn't like a list. My goal is to settle on something half as engaging as Caroline Crampton's No ComplaintsRobin Sloan's now-departed Year of the Meteor, or Ben Thompson's Stratechery. The fact that those three emails are about as different as can possibly be should suggest something about my focus, here.

There's another reason I'm starting this newsletter as we go in to 2020, but I can't share that yet.

Changing minds. Well, mind.

Last year, the Guardian asked me to write about a thing I'd changed my mind on over the previous year. I'm pleased to say that my contribution still holds up one year on: I admitted I'd been wrong about deepfakes, and come round to the view that, impressive though the technology may be, the real vulnerability in the information ecosystem is just good old fashioned lying.

I think the last year has proved that correct. There have been innumerable destructive lies in the public realm over 2019 – certainly in the UK and US, at any rate. But not one single example has included fancy-pants AI fakery. My favourite one was when the Conservative party edited a video to make it look like a Labour politician didn't have an answer to a question – by just cutting the video short before he did answer it. Or maybe when Channel 4 (accidentally, to be clear) wrongly subtitled a video of Boris Johnson talking about allowing "people of colour" not "people of talent" into the country. Technology's wondrous. 

In fact, the only deepfakes we have seen in the public realm have been impressive creations, broadcast on the BBC or FX, ostensibly to raise awareness of the problem, or something. When the problem doesn't exist in the wild, and a much bigger problem is the fractious information ecosystem that allows mendacious cynics to simply deny the truth and expect their outriders to agree, I'm not sure it helps much. But wasn't it funny to see Jeremy Corbyn telling people to vote for Boris Johnson?

The Guardian didn't repeat the exercise for 2020, which is a shame, because I think there are some doozies. (I would have dearly loved to see some of the UK's political class being honest with themselves.) But for what it's worth, my entry would have been about smart speakers. In January 2019, I was an optimist: I hadn't used my Echo all that much in recent months, but I saw it as the future of computing anyway, and naysayed people who were worried about the privacy implications, noting (accurately, at least) that the mic was never secretly activated.

In hindsight, that didn't matter. I've since spent enough time speaking to people who work on grading the recordings of smart speakers, and personal assistants, and phone calls (PHONE CALLS) to know that an awful lot of sensitive information really is being picked up by these things, and sent to poorly-vetted people working in call centres in Ireland, or Berlin, or worse. (And, as a story I've got coming out in the next week will reveal… it gets worse). 

I've turned off the Alexa functionality on my Sonos, disabled Hey Siri on my iPhone, and started suggesting others do the same.

Year gone

I read some good books that came out last year. 

Becky Chambers' To Be Taught, If Fortunate was melancholy, optimistic science fiction, showing a world that is better than our own. It's rare for that to happen, these days. Rarer still for that optimism to be borne out of progressive values. Chambers pulls it off in this short novella.

The Great Firewall of China by James Griffiths is a fantastic introduction to one of the wonders – in a non-normative sense, at least – of the digital world. Ten years ago, we were confidently declaring that "the internet sees censorship as damage, and routes around it". Now, that seems foolhardy. This book came out months before the Hong Kong protests and the discovery of TikTok's foreign censorship regime, each of which feel like they could make a fantastic epilogue chapter in a second edition.

She's a pal but that doesn't mean Marie Le Conte doesn't deserve all the praise she gets for Haven't You Heard?, a look at the role of gossip in Westminster. Like all the best books on narrow subjects, it's really about so much more: in this case, how Parliament works. It's just… people.

Tamsyn Muir's Gideon the Ninth is… look, it's hard to say "lesbian necromancer hunger games with the tone of a Tumblr shitpost" and make it sound positive, but honestly, it was my favourite discovery of the year. And if that does sound positive to you, why haven't you read it already?

Right

That’s enough of that. Happy new year, and thanks for joining me on this journey.

See you next week,

Alex