John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for March, 2019

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The global battle for the internet is just starting | John Harris

Tuesday, March 26th, 2019

Two competing visions of our digital future have emerged from China and Silicon Valley. But are they really so different?

If only for a moment, set aside the comparatively parochial drama of Brexit, think about the giant swath of humanity that now uses the internet, and consider one of the most basic facets of how 4 billion of us live our lives. This is a 21st-century story, but it will ring bells with people old enough to remember the cold war: how people understand their own experience and events in the wider world is increasingly decided by the version of the internet they use.

On one side sits the system used in China, which produces vast amounts of personal data and blurs into a huge apparatus of state surveillance and censorship. This model is centred on two online behemoths, whose dominance partly comes down to the fact that Chinese consumerism is all about paying via your smartphone, rather than an old-fashioned plastic card. There’s the e-commerce conglomerate Alibaba, and Tencent, which owns WeChat, the platform used by more than 1 billion people every day. It does so many things – payments, social networking, messaging, travel booking, gaming – that participating in society without it seems all but impossible.

Related: Instagram users will be able to buy from brands on platform

Related: Facebook stored hundreds of millions of passwords unprotected

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Brexit breakdown: a big day in the north – video

Friday, March 22nd, 2019

Some hardcore remainers think they have heard enough from leave-voting northern towns, but people in those places are still desperate to be heard: about poverty, cuts, and how and when we might leave the EU. As Theresa May’s deal hits the skids, Anywhere But Westminster hits Wigan: 64% leave, and still waiting for the answers

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Britain’s Brexit crisis is rooted in the power of our public schools | John Harris

Monday, March 18th, 2019

Learning from this mess, we must cut the ties that bind the state and key professions to a tiny number of schools

Among the myriad absurdities of Brexit, one has repeatedly taken the whole thing into the realms of the surreal: the gifting of the whip hand to the Tory faction known as the European Research Group. At the start of yet another watershed week, it is still this 90-strong band of ideologues that holds the keys to both Theresa May’s political future and the fate of her deal. Faced with a third meaningful vote, will they accept that their only remaining options are the prime minister’s version, or such a long delay that their dream will start to fade? Once more the spotlight will shine on their de facto leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg. This one-man embodiment of the mess into which we have all been dragged is reportedly coming round to supporting the withdrawal agreement, and “seeking a ladder to climb down”.

Where did he come from, this human museum piece? His late father William’s editorship of the Times, conducted according to instincts described by one obituarist as both “economically dry” and “socially conservative”, is one part of the story. Another goes even further back, to the roots of the Rees-Mogg family wealth, in the ownership of coalmines in Somerset. This is the same county where Rees-Mogg now represents such fading former pit towns as Radstock and Midsomer Norton, places replete with the ghosts of a lost industrial past and the consequences of the austerity that he has enthusiastically endorsed. At university, Rees-Mogg was a nightly presence in the debating hall of the Oxford Union. His apparent skill in matters of high finance – which, according to a recent edition of Channel 4’s Dispatches, has earned him an estimated £7m since the referendum, assisted by the fall in the value of the pound – goes back to childhood dealing of stocks and shares, and time spent in Hong Kong and the City. The most telling element of his background, however, is surely the school that saw to the key five years of his education – Eton College. This institution sits at the heart of the Brexit mess and the dismal political failings that led to it. What comes to mind at the mention of Eton? Tailcoats? The eternally mysterious wall game? Or the angry lament contained in the Jam’s Eton Rifles, with its Larkin-esque opening line: “Sup up your beer, and collect your fags / There’s a row going on, down near Slough”, that lyrical portrait of a working class serially defeated by privilege (“All that rugby puts hairs on your chest / What chance have you got against a tie and a crest?”). Eton chiefly symbolises the unbroken English link between private education and power. To quote one old boy, who did his time in the 1980s: “Kids arrived there with this extraordinary sense that they knew they were going to run the country.”

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Local communities are being silenced. We’re in the age of the ‘Unplace’ | John Harris

Wednesday, March 13th, 2019

Towns and cities across the country are losing their radio shows. Who will tell their stories now?

If you want to understand a country’s basic pulse, listen to its commercial music radio. In the US, whatever genre of music they play, the stations crowded on to the FM waveband mix crass adverts with waves of songs uncluttered by any talking, suggesting that the only really important things are calmly getting through another very long drive while thinking about what to buy next. In Italy, what you hear is often hyperactive to the point of absurdity, as if there is simply too much to say and too much music to play, and the clock must endlessly be raced against.

And Britain? Beyond the BBC’s Radios 1, 2, 3, 6 Music and its city and county stations, there are set-ups traditionally grouped under the heading of “independent local radio”: stations whose output suggests that a lot of us crave something that can distract us from whatever crisis the country has fallen into, while demanding little in return apart from keeping the dial where it is.

Related: Scores of UK radio stations to lose local programmes

Related: Distinct radio voices: why we need local heroes

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Could robots make us better humans?

Tuesday, March 5th, 2019

Machines can already write music and beat us at games like chess and Go. But the rise of artificial intelligence should inspire hope as well as fear, says Marcus du Sautoy

As Marcus du Sautoy greets me at the entrance to New College, Oxford, his appearance is a quiet riot of colour. His clothes rather suggest someone who ran into White Stuff or Fat Face and frantically grabbed anything he could find – in this case, a salmon zip-up top, multihued check trousers and shoes that are a headache-inducing shade of turquoise. When we settle down to talk in a nearby meeting room, he repeatedly glances at a notepad – whose pages, just to add to all the garishness, are a bold shade of yellow.

They are full of what look like scrawled equations, mixed with odd-looking shapes: the raw material, he explains, of a project involving very complicated geometry. “There’s an infinite symmetrical structure that I’m looking at,” he says, “and I think the top bit of it will tell me everything that’s going on inside it. It’s almost like an infinite lake, and I should be able to know everything that’s happening in it by looking at the first centimetre.”

There is no fundamental reason why at some point in the future we can’t make a machine that is conscious

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