Categories
Society

The four horseman of the Apocalypse for the after dark High Street

Cardiff, 2010: Those were the days (BBC)

Economists and pundits are befuddled by the decline of the UK High Street, and all the pubs and restaurant chains that have shrunk or gone bust.

Most blame high rates but I find that unconvincing. It’s hardly new.

Others point to Brexit uncertainty. While it’s true this act of gross national self-harm hasn’t helped anyone bar a few politicians, it’s surely not what’s ailing Britain’s purveyors of boozy revelry.

No, I believe it’s all about sex.

Carbon dating

Most people over 40 have no idea just how ‘dating’ – or ‘hooking up’ – has changed since we were young.

I put both terms in quotes, because these are American imports that weren’t even really a thing in the UK 20 years ago.

Like good investing, getting horizontal in Blighty used to be simple but not easy.

Boy had a few drinks. Girl had a few drinks. Semi-drunk boys and girls met somewhere social, got off, thought “you’ll do”, and hung about until they realised they wouldn’t or they got married.

Sadly, imports have destroyed this traditional British way of life.

First there was the TV show Friends, and latterly Tinder.

Nobody is putting themselves out there

I’ll illustrate via the experiences of a friend of mine.

Let’s call him Frank.

Frank has gamed the algorithms of dating apps like Tinder and Hinge.

Looking at his profile is a glimpse into what life must be like as an Instagram model with a winning way with a bikini, or as Barack Obama on Twitter.

Frank’s profile is a long stream of Likes, Matches, and interactions. He browses them at his leisure, and engages a few in chat.

When Frank has decided he’d like to meet one, he sends them exactly the same 12-word semi-witty suggestion that he has found gets the highest positive response rate.

I know… romantic.

Needless to say all his photos have been A/B tested, too.

Furthering his odds, Frank is in the demographic sweet spot for men – early 30s, works out, decent earner, still has all his own hair.

Okay, he is probably in the foothills of the spectrum, but that doesn’t matter in the era of apps. If anything it’s a boon.

He’s interesting enough to talk to in real-life, if a bit insensitive.

Frank gets lots of traction from dating apps, that’s my point.

But it is a truth universally acknowledged since Austen that when it comes to the sexual marketplace, the grass is always greener.

We don’t serve your kind in here

Frank wants to be a real-life player, like the men he read about on dodgy Internet forums when he was a teenager.

And perhaps because I’m more than a decade older, Frank decided I’d be the perfect ‘wingman’, in the parlance of such tribes, to go out with him for non-screen mediated interactions in social venues – or, as we used to call it, “on the pull”.

Our missions are a perpetual disappointment.

Of course the truth is going on the pull was almost always hugely disappointing. So Frank is getting some authentic reality right there.

Throw in a first-generation PlayStation, Blur on a CD player, and a couple of bottles of Hooch, and Frank could be living the ’90s dream.

But as one who did live that dream, I had to inform Frank after several doomed Saturday nights that this was even worse.

Because – in short, rounding down – nobody is doing it anymore.

They’ve just stopped.

Okay, I’m sure students on campus are still getting off at the college disco or whatnot, but in everyday life, women have stopped going to pubs to meet men, and men have stopped going to look for them.

If women are in pubs now, it’s to meet and socialise, and who can blame them.

Browsing long streams of “hey!”s and/or propositions on a dating app with a hot chocolate must be a ten-fold improvement for the average woman compared to being drooled on by the least shy, most cocksure, or most drunk male on a Saturday night.

As for men, I think dating apps are a cruel place for most of us in terms of garnering the attention of women, but really it was the same back in the old days. We just didn’t have apps telling us to expect anything different.

Anyway, back to my point – most people have realised the only thing they’re likely to attract in today’s near-empty pubs is a cold.

There’s probably a broader trend here, too, informed by movements in identity politics and #metoo, perhaps.

People no longer seem to signal their status like they used to, and they have less fun with / less tolerance for it all.

In other words, they don’t flirt in most social spaces.

In the long run this is probably for the good, especially for women who can do without low-level harassment in the workplace, but still it’s easy to forget how much has changed.

Twenty years ago I worked in an office where the newest recruit – male or female – was hazed by having a bunch of framed porn photos on their desk until someone newer was hired.

I didn’t work for Hustler. It was just an office of normal media people. I don’t remember anyone thinking it was especially off.

Yikes. We’ve changed.

Goodbye to all: apps

Which brings me back to my four horseman. (Can you hear their mounts stamping at the door and braying to be heard?)

I believe the epochal shift in sexual and social dynamics – mostly due to dating apps, but with a strong supporting cast – has changed nightlife forever. (It’s probably doing much else besides.)

As I mused to Frank at the end of one of our uneventful evenings, I see four apps in particular as the riders of the Apocalypse that have spelled doom for traditional nightlife:

  • Tinder – And Hinge, Bumble, Plenty of Fish, Grindr, and all the others. People no longer need to go out, spend money, and get drunk to meet to people. So they don’t.
  • Netflix – …and chill. Clues in the vernacular. Even if you’re not chilling with that special someone who made it through your Tinder funnel, you’re probably bingeing on a box set rather than trying to ring fun out of a provincial nightclub.
  • Deliveroo – Why get a sweaty kebab when you can have your favourite chain meal whisked from dark kitchen to your door in 30 minutes?
  • WhatsApp – You don’t even need to go to the pub to drown your sorrows. Cheap beer and a group of your fellow unlucky lovers will get you through those long nights of the soul.

Now I know what you’re thinking.

There’s that pub near you that’s always busy, or you were out on Friday night in Shoreditch in London and it was rammed.

Yes, yes. There will always be a few successful pubs that are hubs for the local community, presuming we don’t transition to living in vats wearing VR headsets.

I suppose too that there will always be the very trendiest parts of town, the most Instagrammable new restaurants, and the odd capital letter Event that stokes your target demographic’s FOMO.

I’m talking about the continental landmass, not those exotic islands.

The waters are rising, and the end times are upon that old world.

Categories
Technology

Would you rather be killed by a robot?

Few of us want to die, but we have a greater aversion to going one way than another.

A classic example is air travel. Despite being statistically far safer than driving, many more people are afraid of flying and it is air plane crashes that make the nightly news.

Of course the safety of air travel is what makes a rare calamity headline-worthy. Just another car crash caused by a sleepy, drunk, or texting driver will be lucky to make the local papers.

But there’s also something else going on.

Drivers – and perhaps even passengers – seem to accept their agency in a highway accident in a way that many airplane travellers do not. We feel helpless at 35,000 feet, but we suspend our disbelief. We’re equally helpless at 80mph on the motorway should a lorry jack-knife in front of us, but a few seconds before we felt like we were the kings of the road.

The difficulty in making an all-terrain level 5 autonomous car that’s fit for purpose has curbed the enthusiasm of those of who thought (/hoped!) we were on the edge of a self-driving revolution.

But the squishy calculus that we apply to fatal accidents could hold back a rollout even if sufficiently viable technology comes along.

Do Androids dream of L-plates?

What’s sufficient?

In the US, the National Highway Traffic Administration estimated that 36,750 people were killed in US traffic crashes in 2018.

If the entire fleet had switched over to autonomous vehicles on January 1 2019 and the number of deaths had subsequently dropped by one to 36,749 would it be celebrated as a success?

Unlikely – although the one extra person who lived to read that statistic at the end of the year might disagree.

Even leaving aside the many complicating factors absent from this illustration (noise in the statistical data, unintended effects such as greater alcoholism as everyone could now drink and ‘drive’, an increase in drug use or suicide among newly-unemployed truck drivers) we intuitively know the US public isn’t going to accept 36,749 robot-mediated driving deaths a year.

I don’t think the American public would accept 749 annual fatalities from buggy robot driving.

Perhaps not even 49.

Obviously this makes no logical sense, but there it is.

These questions will only amplify as AI migrates further off the desktop and the cloud and visibly into our daily lives.

  • Would you be happy if a robot lifeguard saved three elderly swimmers in difficulty over your six-year old child?
  • Would you chalk it up to statistically predictable bad luck if an AI screen for breast cancer gave you a false negative, even if you’d stood a lower chance of such an erroneous result than had a friendly-faced radiologist seen the same slide?
  • Should a robot driver head towards a fatal collision with an oncoming out-of-control vehicle, killing several, or instead swerve to crush a baby in a pram?

That last example is regularly trotted out in the insurance industry, where such issues aren’t just interesting after-dinner talking points.

Someone will have to be responsible if someone is going to pay.

But for most of us, the questions are mushier. We recoil at their asking, but the machines need to know what to do.

One option is to avoid AI, even if doing so leads to worse outcomes and perhaps tens of thousands of preventable deaths.

Another is to live in a world where we come to accept the odd random destruction or death from poor or faulty or simply inexplicable AI decisions in the same way ancient people sighed and chalked up heart attacks or plagues as evidence of the whims of capricious gods.

That sounds defeatist. But it’s arguably better than 36,750 Americans dying every year at the hands of human drivers because nobody wants to be killed by a bug.

Categories
Technology

Instagram: On the node

A candid photo exposes the reality behind so many aspirational Instagram photographs set in impossibly beautiful locations:

Norway’s Trolltunga: The Instagram myth
Trolltunga: The reality

CNBC notes:

A decade ago, fewer than 800 people a year traveled to Trolltunga. Next year, that figure’s expected to hit 100,000.

People queue with dozens of others, babbling and checking their phones, to be photographed standing at Trolltunga in meditation.

What’s going on?

The 1990’s interpretation: Cheap air travel and a generation that puts more of a premium on experiences than stuff are seeking out the world’s greatest places.

The 2000’s interpretation: The explosion of information on the Internet and the ubiquity of smartphones has made people more aware of where they can visit and what sort of experiences they should pursue.

The 2019 reality: Instagram has made every place a de facto node on a real-world physical network. Social media influencers and network effects drive superlinear traffic to the most popular nodes, which only increases their subsequent popularity.

Instagram will eat the world

Twenty years ago, the National Geographic could publish a photo of Trolltunga to the fleeting interest of a magazine browser. One or two might add Norway to their holiday lists.

Today’s aspirational Instagram user identifies Trolltunga as a resource. In consuming that resource – by visiting, photographing, and posting – they make a honey trap that attracts 100 more.

Hence the most popular spots are noded and overrun, and this kind of mathematics implies they’ll be impossible within an iteration or two.

Solutions?

  • Restricted access to the most popular nodes (quotas, dollars)
  • A counter-cultural trend towards more obscure nodes (at best a delaying tactic)
  • Simulcra nodes. A fake Grand Canyon. A 3D printed Taj Mahal. Machu Picchu remade for middle-class China to visit by train.
  • The Instagram craze dies down (unlikely)
  • Eventually we all live in the matrix, anyway

Many of these solutions sound phoney.

Are they phonier than the myth of Trolltunga today?