Of barons and corvos, continued





Yesterday I wrote about interventions that were needed to ensure that the Second Machine Age does not accelerate inequality. Continuing to think about that, I wanted to share a few things that came my way over the past 24 hours.

First, let me add a few bits about inequality.

The Gini Index is a useful tool for looking at income inequality, and in that context I found the two charts below instructive. The evolution of the index helps us see how interventions in public policy (particularly those on rights of access and operating in community) can battle inequality.




The second chart helped me understand a little more about the rising levels of polarisation that appear to accompany the rise in inequality. I’d signalled my concerns about this trend briefly in my first post of 2014.




Second, let me do the same with the theme of technology and evolution.

While doing my weekly scan of the Economist, I chanced upon this delightful paper on The Evolution of Air Resonance Power Efficiency in The Violin and Its Ancestors. A perfect example of the selection process in the evolution of technological artefacts. My thanks to the people at the Royal Society for making the material easily accessible and shareable. I’ve had the privilege of dining there a few times (most recently earlier this week, at the annual Labs to Riches dinner), and I fervently believe that institutions like the Society will become critical in helping us rein in the dangers of growing inequality.

Third, let me go back to the theme of the Second Machine Age 

….and its propensity to foment inequality unless humanity intervenes (usually in the form of the state, but sadly not quickly enough nor often enough).

I was alerted by an erstwhile colleague to a link that Mitch Joel had shared, on the apparent “secret to the Uber economy”: wealth inequality. It’s a classic argument that comes up every time we have butterfly markets, places where the wings of demand and the wings of supply come together in small bodies of middlemen.

It reminded me of conversations I’ve had with Peter Vesterbacka of Rovio, usually at DLD Munich, one of my favourite conferences. Here I’m paraphrasing him, but the gist of what he said encouraged me. Angry Birds was something like the 53rd game out of the Rovio stable. All the others didn’t get very far. Why? Because they had to deal with 180 different middlemen to get distribution in EU alone, each of whom felt they knew more about games than Rovio did, each of whom insisted on different and unique conditions, and each of whom insisted on keeping the lion’s share of the take.

Then Apple came along. Yes, Apple, the company that is currently worth more than any other company in the world, worth more than double its nearest competitor for that title. It is instructive for me to learn that Apple made it easier for Rovio to get global distribution and at the same time lowered transaction costs sharply in relation to Rovio’s prior experience with the phalanx of MVNOs.

Platform and exchange structures per se are not the problem. It’s when that structure can retain disproportionate shares of the take. You only have to look at the music and film industries for the last 100 years to understand what that disproportionateness looks like, and why Hollywood and the RIAA fight so hard to retain their historical models.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I will never meet the customer for whose benefit region coding on DVDs was invented.

In every market, there is always the temptation for middlemen to do three things: make it harder for others to become middlemen; having protected their market, to extract monopoly rents from both sides; and to somehow claim state protection for their monopoly.

This has always been truer. And it’s truer still in digital markets with butterfly shapes. Which is why the Apple example is instructive. It’s textbook Abundance Economics rather than the Scarcity Economics played out by the film and music industries.

Finally, let me spend a little time on rules and regulations.

Today was not a good day for the England cricket team. It was an even worse day for England’s James Taylor, who was denied the chance to make his maiden ODI century, and that too in a World Cup match against Australia in Australia.

He was denied that chance because three umpires (two on-field and one off-field) could not make the right decision. Considering how long it took me to (a) find the relevant rule and (b) interpret it, I am not at all surprised.

They had to be fully cognizant with the content of The ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 Playing Conditions, a document of nearly 30 pages, with the relevant rule stuck in an Appendix:

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Now remember that this was in Appendix 6. The main body of the Rules, themselves to be read in conjunction with The Laws of Cricket (2000 Code 5th Edition – 2013), a much larger document, didn’t spend any time discussing the complete mess that administrators had made of the Decision Review System. After all, DRS only dealt with trivial stuff like whether someone should be ruled out or not. The main body, instead, had gems like this:

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A minimum of 25.15 yards. Heaven help me. No wonder the world of sport is in the state it’s in.

There was some good that came out of the incident this morning. The ICC, the Governing Body, saw fit to say that a mistake had been made. And they saw fit to put out a statement to this effect in less than 2 hours. Bravo.

In a connected world where the evolution of public policy has meant that people, money, goods and ideas can travel at speed, we will tend to feel that life’s getting “faster”. In business as well as in sport, in public as well as in private life, there’s a perceived need to make decisions more quickly than ever before. Which puts pressure on the people and the services that are there to help you make decisions.

It also puts pressure on the people whose job it is to make sure that the right thing is done, and that things are done the right way. Who are these people?

Regulators. Regulators the world over. Using names like umpire and referee and judge and inspector and officer. And sometimes even just plain old vanilla “regulator”.

These people are the cadre of humanity tasked with the job of making sure that humanity’s interventions are meaningful. We’re not going to stop the runaway growth of inequality as The Second Machine Age gathers “steam”, not unless we make the jobs of regulators simpler.

Which means making regulations simpler. In every walk of life. We must all realise that hidden deep in the complexity of regulation are the very tools that the Robber Barons need. We have to fight that complexity.

Which is why I found Charlemagne’s column in the latest Economist timely. I could not help but smile wryly when I learnt that Frans Timmermans, the man the EU has charged with the responsibility of helping us build those interventions,  has the title First Vice President for Better Regulation, Inter-Institutional Relations, the Rule of Law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights. You cannot make stuff like this up.


The entire article is well worth reading.

And so to my summary, following on from yesterday’s post.

The Digital Age, the Age of Information, the Second Machine Age we live in, provides us with many Good Things. But it also has an inbuilt propensity to increase global inequality. Which is Not A Good Thing. It is a downright Bad Thing.

We need to know how to hold on to the Good Things of this Age while minimising the Bad Things. We’ve seen this movie before, we know how the book ends. We need to do a number of things. Democratise access. Empower and educate communities. Protect the commons. Prevent monopolies.

That’s why the battles for net neutrality, for affordable access, for rebuilding IP law and for continuing to fight discrimination are important. Without them the Robber Barons win.

So we need meaningful regulation. Regulation that understands the nature of technology and how technology evolves. Regulation that learns from the past, looking at how the less salubrious aspects of the Industrial Revolution were contained and eradicated. Regulation  that looks to the future by, for example, avoiding the benighted pressure from incumbents to criminalise the young.

We don’t just need meaningful regulation.

It has to be kept simple.

For it is in the weeds of poor regulation that the strongest Robber Barons find food and sustenance.

Of robber Barons and Corvo antics





A few days ago someone sent me a link to Robert Reich’s piece in Slate, “America is headed full speed back to the 19th century (on the dangers of on-demand jobs and our growing intolerance for labour unions). And somewhere in my head it joined a long list of jeremiads on the evils of [choose one or more]: AI and robotics; the share economy; social networks; smart mobile devices; search engines; open source; the Web; the internet.

As is usual with such articles, once you strip away the obligatory sensationalist headline, a “reasonable” core hypothesis remains. And as is usual with such articles, I feel a deep niggly feeling. Often it’s not what the article said that niggles me, but what it didn’t say.

Evolution is about change and about adapting effectively to change. When it comes to technology, it’s worth thinking about technological change in a similar way, that it’s part of a collective “evolution”. A wave that can’t be turned back that easily by the Canutes of the day. In this context I love Kevin Kelly’s approach to thinking about how technology “evolves”, and would commend What Technology Wants to anyone who hasn’t read it. His TED Talk is a worthwhile teaser to the topic.

If I’ve understood Reich correctly, his argument is that markets were organised for the benefit of a narrow few as the Industrial Revolution hit maturity, and that it needed state intervention to change that, in terms of labour and equality and antitrust, amongst others. This was readily visible by 1950 and continued to grow till around 1980. Since then, he argues, markets are reverting to being for the benefit of the few; unless something changes, we’ll be back in 1890.


Unless something changes.

When thinking about this, I found the construct used by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee particularly useful. If you haven’t done so already, go out and buy The Second Machine Age, it’s an excellent foundation for dealing with this issue.

Following their tack, there was a First Machine Age, the Industrial Revolution. Good things followed, and some bad things. Humanity’s challenge was to try and hold on to the good things while minimising the bad. And humanity managed to do that, through shifts in public policy.

Now we’re in the Second Machine Age. Good things are following. And some bad things. Humanity is challenged again to hold on to the good while minimising the bad. We’ve seen this movie before. If we want to stop Robber Barons from getting stronger and stronger, if we want to prevent the world from becoming even more unequal, some intervening actions are required.

What intervening actions?

It’s not that hard a question. The technological evolution that has been taking place for the last sixty-odd years, the Second Machine Age, is a digital one. One that is based around information. So perhaps we should start with public policy interventions that relate to that digital infrastructure.

Interventions to do with access, like Net Neutrality. If you want to know more, read Tim Berners-Lee’s recent post, the latest in a decade’s debate on the topic.

Interventions to do with access, like Intellectual Property Rights. If you want to know what’s wrong with the current picture, this piece, on the continuing criminalisation of the “not 1%”, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is a good place to start.

Interventions to do with access, like education. We have to celebrate institutions from codecademy through to Khan Academy, techniques from Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to Minimally Invasive Education (MIE). We have to get behind institutions like the Web Science Trust and the Open Data Institute. We have to learn from, disseminate and act on the research available on things that go wrong in the digital age, from cybersecurity through to bullying, from privacy and confidentiality issues through to the right to be forgotten. We have to continue to learn, and to teach, about “literacy” in a digital world.

The maturity of the First Machine Age was to be seen in public policy shifts that reduced many forms of discrimination, that democratised access and that empowered connected communities.

The maturity of the Second Machine Age will be seen in public policy shifts that reduce many forms of discrimination, democratise access and empower connected communities.


Except this time it’s in a digital rather than physical context. A context of the abundance of digital rather than the scarcity of physical.

What hasn’t changed is that it’s still about people, about reducing inequality, about ensuring that markets function for the benefit of the many rather than the few.

When you look at the battlefield of cyberspace over the past quarter of a century, when you look at the skirmishes and engagements to do with access and property rights and culture in digital space, and you wonder which side is right, keep asking yourself this: Does this increase or decrease human inequality?

In every one of the battles to do with IPR or Net Neutrality, there’s a scenario where a few stand to gain, and one where many stand to gain. Ask yourself which scenario will ensure that the continuing “evolution” of digital infrastructure reduces rather than increases inequality.

Imagine a world where developed countries signed up to “equality targets”, promising to reduce inequality by a meaningful number of basis points every year. Most of the intellectual property law changes over the past twenty years wouldn’t have made it into a first draft. There wouldn’t have been any need for debates on net neutrality. Digital divides would have been prevented. Digital literacy would have been seen as a fundamental right on the road to equality.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably at the point where you say all this doesn’t matter, we’re all going to be taken over by robots anyway.

I’m not sure about it. Not until I can sue a robot, as I’ve said before. Follow the money.

Not until a robot can laugh at this Only Fools and Horses sketch, as I’ve said before.

Me, I’m going to wait until I read a headline that says “Roof-surfing robot caught on tape”

Dallas Taylor: RIP




Dallas Woodrow Taylor Jr passed away last month. Many of you may not know of him or remember him, but he was the session drummer on some of the finest albums of the late 1960s and early 1970s:




I remember the first time I heard Deja Vu, and couldn’t help noticing then that Taylor and Reeves were given credits on the front cover. That wasn’t normal, and it signalled to me that these two weren’t normal musicians. [In fact, other than the Manassas album above, the only time I’d seen front-cover credits for sessions guys was on Traffic’s Welcome To The Canteen, another fabulous album from that era.


It should come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I’m a big fan of CSNY, individually as well as collectively. Over the years I’ve now managed to watch them many times in different combinations, and every time I’ve done so I’ve been grateful not just for the opportunity but for the memories. It’s hard to describe how I felt when I heard those albums for the first time.

Serendipitously, I’ve been able to renew my acquaintance with some of those feelings, listening to this:


Yes, it’s a Pono. And yes I know the jury’s still out on whether 24/192 is snake oil or not. Time will tell. I paid the Kickstarter price for a numbered “signed” edition by one of my favourite bands, pre-loaded with some of their music, and I’m happy with how it sounds and feels, especially if I crank up the volume.

I’m listening to it right now, and Dallas Taylor is on drums. And I’m taken back 40 years, to a time of delight. Delight that Dallas Taylor was part of.

Delight that Dallas Taylor will always be part of.

By the time I connected with Dallas, briefly, five or six years ago, he’d been doing something completely different for thirty years: helping people solve problems of substance abuse and addiction. He still had time to read my tweet and to respond. He still had time to put a smile on my face, just like he did forty years earlier.

Thank you Dallas Taylor. RIP.

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Isn’t Life Strange?

Isn’t life strange?

A turn of the page

Can read like before

Could we ask for more?

Isn’t Life Strange? [J.Lodge] The Moody Blues Seventh Sojourn 1972

The Moody Blues. Good group. Gave me many hours of peaceful enchantment in my youth, even managed to see them “live” a few times in the 80s. Some people today will not know them, some will only remember them for Go Now or  Nights in White Satin. But they had many great songs; my personal favourites include Voices In The Sky, Question, Dr Livingstone, I Presume, Dear Diary, Eyes Of a Child, it’s a long list. In fact the whole of Seventh Sojourn is magical, made at a time when people made albums, not singles. For My Lady, Lost In A Lost World and New Horizons are each worth listening to, making up (along with Isn’t Life Strange) the rest of just one side of the album.

As I proceed towards grandfatherhood, and as I watch my children become parents in their own right, I’m presented with new opportunities for reflection. Last night and this morning, I was thinking about the world my grandchildren are coming into, and how that’s different from the world I came into.

I love being nostalgic, while living life in the present, and always, always looking forward to the future. A part of me, the incessant learner, the passionately curious one, looks at everything I’ve experienced as having one very important purpose: to prepare me for what is to come. That perspective allows me to look at the past with fondness not just for the “good times” but for everything else in between.

And so I was thinking. Wow. My grandchildren will come into a world where things happen with a click. Hmmm. I was born into a world where things happened with a click. My father, and his father before him, clicked his fingers, and things happened.

My grandchildren will have their groceries delivered to their door. Hmmm. I remember how fresh milk was delivered when I was young. It was pretty fresh. It came wrapped in some unusual packaging. A cow.

My grandchildren will be able to be in touch with people all over the world, with the sequels to Facebook and Twitter; some of them will be from strange lands and cultures with unpronounceable names and unspeakable diets. Hmmm. We used to be able to send letters to people and they actually got there and were opened and read and answered. We called that the postal system. And some of us had penpals, in strange places and with strange customs.

My grandchildren will be able to buy custom products and services delivered specifically in keeping with their preferences and context. Hmmm. When I was young everything I wore was tailored for me. As it was for everyone else, whatever their upbringing or socio-economic class. India hadn’t quite acquired the off-the-shelf habit yet.

My grandchildren will be able to eat fresh, organic, preservative-free food, exercise at will, live healthy, satisfying lives. Hmmm. When I was growing up, some people had refrigerators, a few had air conditioners. They looked very nice. But they weren’t much use. We had very little electricity, and that which we had was needed for industrial things. Or so we were told. So we had a lot of fresh preservative-free organic food.

My grandchildren will be able to enjoy entertainment wherever they are, at their fingertips, music, books, magazines, shows. Hmmm. In between the cows and the grocery bringers, we had snake charmers and monkey tamers and even the odd bear or three. And something called a radio, a device that knew how to whistle and snap, crackle and pop, a device that knew how to suffuse the environment with an aroma that entranced and lingered and made you feel warm. And travelling libraries.

My grandchildren will be able to experience and relive events of the past, in magical and wondrous ways. Hmmm. We used to have Pathe newsreels before every film. And places like the British Council and the USIS and Max Mueller Bhavan and the Alliance Francaise, who’d replay events pertaining to their culture and context.

You get my drift.

Every generation will have their wonders and their enchantments.

Of course paradigms shift. Of course there are technological discontinuities. Some more important than others.

People who lived in the time of the discovery of penicillin had their reasons to sing hallelujah. People who will live in the time of smart-machines-meet-biotech-and-nano will have their reasons to sing hallelujah.

The internet, the web, affordable ubiquitous connectivity, these are different. They represent something precious.

When I look at the hatred and intolerance humans have for other humans, I feel sad. When I look at how much of this is fuelled in the name of faith or science, I feel sadder still. When I look at how we can’t solve problems to do with climate change or nutrition or disease or obesity, I feel sad. Science and faith.

We’ve had robber barons before, we have them now and we will have them in time to come. They go by different names and styles and professions. But you know something? I’ve never seen or heard of or met or read about a happy robber baron.

So why do I feel optimistic for the world my grandchildren will inhabit.

Education. Access to education. Access to information. The ability to be informed, and to act on that information. Freedom of speech and expression. The power to connect and form groups and to act in community.

The internet, the web, ubiquitous affordable connectivity. Those cats are well out of the bag.

The internet, the web, ubiquitous affordable connectivity. They’re alive in the freedoms of opportunity and choice and expression that they represent, in the ability to share and support and grow and act as community,

The infrastructure used to make all this happen is not them, whoever owns them. The arguments about ownership and funding and taxation do not represent them.

The laws sought to control that infrastructure is not them.

The robber barons that seek to exploit the infrastructure is not them.

You are them.

We are them.

Our children and grandchildren, their children and grandchildren, they are them.

They are the internet, the web, ubiquitous affordable connectivity.

They are the makers.

Many of the things they will experience will have been experienced by prior generations.

But one thing is new for them. They are the internet, the web, ubiquitous affordable connectivity.

And it can’t get taken away from them. Because “it” is not in the infrastructure. “It” is in them. It is them.

The age my grandchildren are being born into has its new challenges, often variants of old ones, but some no one has explored or conquered before.

Problems of identity and relationship and trust. Problems of relating to oneself and to others. Problems of understanding what the group you belong to will tolerate and what they won’t. Problems of dealing with all that even if the group you belong to appears to have no other members.

How to trust people. Whom to trust. What to share. What not to share. How to know what is true, and what is not. How to know what matters, and what doesn’t.

New things. Perhaps. The scale has changed. Perhaps. The reach has changed. Perhaps.

What has changed for sure is the propensity to be educated, to be informed, to have choice, to be able to exercise that choice.

All this may sound very first-world and Utopian and rose-coloured-spectacles while sitting in comfort somewhere in the Home Counties. And maybe it is all that.

But it’s more than that. The internet, the web and ubiquitous affordable connectivity, the powers and freedoms they represent, mean as much to those oppressed in the East as in the West, in the North as in the South. You may argue about Je Suis Charlie vs the victims of Boko Haram, about people dying of malnutrition in Africa or dying of obesity, about the dangers of failed states or the dangers of failed two-party systems of governments.

But when you argue, it is possible that you may be arguing from a better position than you would have been in generations prior. It’s become harder to control information, to hide the truth. Of course we have to learn more about developing our own abilities of filtering and curation and bullshit detection; education education education.

I want to keep reminding myself that I must do everything in my power to ensure that my children, and my children’s children, and their children, will share in that propensity, in the freedoms bestowed there.

The ability to learn is a precious gift. More than anything else, that’s what we have to fight for, to preserve. Some of the new tools of our age have the propensity to raise that ability in incredible ways. It’s happening already, in incredible ways. In every walk of life, from healthcare to politics and welfare, from manufacturing to agriculture, from the very large to the very small.

It all begins with education. In a world where knowledge is power, in a world where privilege is about information and learning, the freedoms represented by the internet, the web and ubiquitous affordable connectivity are precious.

Education is first and foremost about learning; teaching is the word used to describe the enabling of learning. Where no learning is taking place there is no teaching taking place.

Education doesn’t just take place in educational establishments or even just in homes. It takes places in hearts and minds, in the imagination, in dreams.

I read every day that the internet is about to fail, that web is dead, that governments and spies and bad actors have messed everything up.

I read every day that the infrastructure that our world of connected knowledge “relies on” is underpowered and about to collapse, that there have to be concessions and sweeteners and tax deals to compensate.

I read every day that the powers-that-be have only their own personal interests at heart, and that they will enact laws that will take everything away from everyone.

I read every day that the age of meritocracy is dead in a world where information and education is the new privilege.

And there’s a bit of truth in all this.

But  as I said some years ago, it’s over.

It’s still over.

And I look forward to seeing my grandchildren and spending time with them.


I read the news today oh boy





I read the news today oh boy.


Last week I took my family to the Royal Albert Hall to see the latest Cirque de Soleil, Kooza. A great evening’s entertainment in one of my favourite venues. I would go back and see the show again just for the “Wheel of Death”. Stunning.


Over the years I’ve seen many wonderful acts there, each visit was special in its own right. And yet every time I went there, as I entered the place, a part of me went somewhere else in time. Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire. Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall. And all the verses in between.

It’s a fabulous song. Perhaps I should say it’s a fabulous two-songs-song, since it represents the merger of two completely independent sections. For people like me, part of the attraction of the song is the story behind it. The stories behind it. Here are two of them:

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The tragedy of Tara Browne’s fatal car crash, as reported in the Daily Mail in December 1966, was apparently the trigger to Lennon’s writing the first half; the report on “The holes in our roads” a few weeks later, also in the Mail, gave rise to the memorable line. Over the years, we’ve learnt bits and bobs about the details behind the song: the triggers and catalysts, the “muses”, the independent parts, the way they were brought together, the engineering behind it, how the alarm clock wandered in and stayed. if you want to know more about the song, the Wikipedia article is a good place to start.

Some of you know I collect books. I’m a very oddball collector, with some very narrow collecting habits. For example, I have hundreds of Don Quixote items, ranging from many many different editions of the book, figures and figurines, buttons, medals, pens and writing materials, illustrations, buttons, plates, bookends, tables and t-shirts. I’m fascinated by how illustrators over the past 400 years chose to interpret the character, and that’s what led me to start the collection: one of my wife’s ancestors illustrated a 19th century Scandinavian edition of the book.

As with songs, part of my fascination with books are the stories behind the books. What made someone write the book; the context of the book; contemporary reactions; changes in reactions through the ages.

That fascination shows up in many different ways: I collect “association” copies of books, usually unusually autographed or annotated, often forming part of unusual collections in their own right. So for example here are two different copies of the same book:

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We live in an age where not everyone knows who the Beatles were. So names like Jawaharlal Nehru, Dwarkanath Chatterjee, Julian Huxley may not mean much to everyone. But they mean a lot to me. And they will mean a lot to some people in time to come, people who care not just about the book but about the stories behind the book. When the book is physical, these stories take dimensions other than just the narrative in them or the impetus before them.

So I have Kerouac’s copy of Gulliver. And Pirsig’s copy of Kerouac. And a book signed by Burroughs sitting alongside a machine made by the company his father founded, a company I once worked for. Books signed by people to people everyone knows. And books signed by people to people nobody knows.

Stories. Stories about stories. Stories about people and stories. Kindle, eat your heart out.

I read the news today oh boy. Talking about reading the news, I’m still getting used to how the news comes to me now. News, like peace, comes like a river to me.

A newspaper of the fish-wrapping kind proved to be a song-catalyst for Lennon. One of that ilk floated this story past me recently:

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I’m hoping that the headline turns out to be wrong in a strange way. The underlying data, taken from 2014 UCAS acceptances as reported in the Times, suggested that men outnumbered women substantially in engineering and computer sciences; and women redressed the balance when it came to social studies, creative arts and education. Web Science is all about bringing those disciplines together into a functional and meaningful whole, thereby rendering the headline irrelevant. Perhaps I will ask Dame Wendy Hall and the rest of the Trustees of the Web Science Trust to opine on this. [I’m one of them, so I’m biased. This world needs Web Science, and in a way that diversity of many forms is protected and cherished, beginning with gender].

In other news, coming to me via a friend on twitter:

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Fascinating. Perhaps there’s something in it for all those who fear AI growing unchecked and untrammelled. “Conquer” the machines by creating an addiction, a dependency, one that only their masters can supply them.

The first time the phrase “Mr Watson, come here, I want to see you” was uttered, it was a momentous occasion. Perhaps in time to come we will be commanding other Mr Watsons in more imperious ways. [I remember coming across a story that the reason why Bell called Watson was because he’d done himself an injury, as if the first words ever spoken on a telephone were accidental. But I can’t remember where I saw it or whether it was true. So I’ll leave it for now and hope that someone reading this will illuminate me].

From twitter to Facebook, which is where I came across this, shared by a friend:

Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.