John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for November, 2017

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Do we really want Mark Zuckerberg to run the world? | John Harris

Tuesday, November 28th, 2017

The Facebook chief executive doesn’t need to become US president. He is already way too powerful for that

The question is almost a year old, and not currently being asked in quite the feverish way it was over the summer. But let’s try it again: could Mark Zuckerberg run for US president? The founder, chairman and CEO of Facebook began 2017 by announcing his latest “challenge”: a pledge to visit the 30 US states he had never spent time in before, which has now been achieved. Along the way, he has made a point of meeting Trump voters, sampling the mood in post-industrial backwaters, and seeing at first hand evidence of his country’s opioid crisis. He now talks about the importance of community, and the need for his generation to find a collective sense of purpose, rather suggesting the leading actor in a school play about Bobby Kennedy.

Related: If Mark Zuckerberg runs for president, will Facebook help him win? | Katherine Haenschen

Related: Mark Zuckerberg says change the world, yet he sets the rules | Carole Cadwalladr

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Do we really want Mark Zuckerberg to run the world? | John Harris

Tuesday, November 28th, 2017

The Facebook chief executive doesn’t need to become US president. He is already way too powerful for that

The question is almost a year old, and not currently being asked in quite the feverish way it was over the summer. But let’s try it again: could Mark Zuckerberg run for US president? The founder, chairman and CEO of Facebook began 2017 by announcing his latest “challenge”: a pledge to visit the 30 US states he had never spent time in before, which has now been achieved. Along the way, he has made a point of meeting Trump voters, sampling the mood in post-industrial backwaters, and seeing at first hand evidence of his country’s opioid crisis. He now talks about the importance of community, and the need for his generation to find a collective sense of purpose, rather suggesting the leading actor in a school play about Bobby Kennedy.

Related: If Mark Zuckerberg runs for president, will Facebook help him win? | Katherine Haenschen

Related: Mark Zuckerberg says change the world, yet he sets the rules | Carole Cadwalladr

Continue reading…

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Meet your new cobot: is a machine coming for your job?

Saturday, November 25th, 2017

As robots slash the time it takes to complete an order at companies like Amazon and Ocado, what does that mean for their human colleagues?

Next to the M56, on the outskirts of Manchester, the future has landed. A cluster of huge distribution centres sits at the heart of Airport City, a new development part-funded by the Beijing Construction Engineering Group (two years ago, it was visited by president Xi Jinping of China). Among the biggest buildings is one of Amazon’s self-styled “fulfilment centres”. Known within the company as MAN1, it opened in September last year, but everything inside, from the chairs to the wall-mounted screens, looks as if it has just come out of a box. Deeper within the centre, beyond the reception area and meeting rooms, there is something else just as new: a great expanse of space behind a metal cage, where dozens of robots, finished in Amazon orange and each emblazoned with its own number, glide across the floor, gracefully avoiding collisions and sprinting to their next task.

Amazon employees call them “drives”, but to all intents and purposes these are droids, summoned from the dreams of science fiction and put to work. In some Amazon warehouses, workers – or, in the company’s parlance, “associates” – still pace up and down huge aisles, picking out goods and preparing them for shipment; these shifts are said sometimes to involve hikes of 11 miles. But here everything moves much more quickly. The humans in charge of the process known as “picking” now remain in closed workstations, built around a screen that tells them what they need to get next, while the robots bring the shelves – reinvented as four-sided fabric towers, full of pouches that contain everything from DVDs to dolls – to them.

There are tasks only a human can do, such as the careful packing of boxes. But for how long?

It’s not that the robot replaces the person. New possibilities open up

A lot of people who are highly skilled will gain from automation. Lower-skilled workers are likely to lose out

We’re all going to have many careers now. We will need good basic education, plus resilience, curiosity and adaptability

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‘It’s just mistake after mistake’ – stories from the universal credit catastrophe

Tuesday, November 21st, 2017

It was introduced to simplify benefits and encourage people to work. Yet from a bungled rollout to Kafkaesque rules and the infamous six-week payment delay, universal credit has caused untold misery. John Harris meets people who have had their lives turned upside down. Photograph by Mark Pinder for the Guardian

Sue hit her lowest point at the end of 2016. Unable to buy food and behind with her rent, she phoned the finance company about the debt on her car. She and her family live in a town between Bristol and Bath, the kind of place where getting around with three children – not least to the nearest jobcentre, which is nine miles away – makes having your own transport essential. But she hadn’t met her repayments for three months.

“The lady on the line said, ‘You sound really down – are you OK?’” she recalls. “She could hear I was distressed. And I basically said: ‘No – I’m going to go upstairs and slit my wrists.’ She said: ‘Don’t do that – stay on the line. I’m going to put you through to someone you should talk to.’ It was a counsellor. And I spoke to them for nearly two hours.”

What is universal credit?

Related: Chancellor, keep a million children out of poverty. Fix universal credit | Debbie Abrahams

Related: Universal credit: the homeless charity that could lose a third of its income

Related: Food banks warn of struggle to cope this Christmas due to universal credit

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Don’t just teach kids to code – teach them to question Facebook and Google | John Harris

Monday, November 20th, 2017

It’s shameful that our children are still so computer illiterate. Let’s give them the skills to take on the tech giants, and create a more democratic internet

Three years ago, before the Brexit dreams of renewed imperial glory and Vimto for all took wing, England took an uncharacteristically bold step into the future. Michael Gove was in charge of the Department for Education, and he appeared to make good his promise to revolutionise the teaching of computing in schools. He damned the subject known as information and communication technology (or ICT), which its detractors – with a good deal of justification – said was too often reducible to showing kids how to use PowerPoint. “About as much use as teaching children to send a telex or travel in a zeppelin,” said Gove. The new thing, he enthused, was computer science, and a drive to ensure that schools would now show their pupils “not just how to work a computer; but how a computer works, and how to make it work for you”.

Related: Kids coding at school: ‘When you learn computing, you’re thinking about thinking’

Related: We can teach women to code, but that just creates another problem

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