Cameron needs to stop rewarding the lucky

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

If we’ve learned anything in the past few weeks, it’s that life at the top is even better than we thought and life at the bottom is probably just going to keep getting worse.

The thought for the day was brought to you by David Cameron, who seems to be operating under the healthy, no-nonsense, fresh-air-and-cold-showers theory that removing housing benefits from the unemployed will make them all the more determined to do well (rather than, say, depressed to the point of comatose). The super-rich, on the other hand, deserve gold stars for their achievements, and tax law like a cable-knit jumper. It’s motivational.

There are many problems with Cameron’s approach but, in the interests of staying within my word count, I’m going to distil them into one – which is that he is not the headmaster of a small private school. The world of work, you see, operates a little differently. A recent study from Oxford’s Saïd Business School highlighted how, in professional life, ending up at the very bottom or the very top is much more to do with luck than whether you pull your socks up and stop smoking behind the sheds.

Such is the power of luck that society’s biggest failures share a surprising similarity in approach to society’s biggest successes. To demonstrate this, the experimenters created two computer models, simulating five million players of differing skill going through a win/lose game of 50 rounds. The “success” of each person was then modelled on how many rounds they won.

The first model showed that in careers where success builds on previous success (ie, most jobs), luck has a vastly magnified impact on those at the top. Those giving “exceptional performances” were of lower skill, on average, than those giving merely very good performances. The important factor was an early chance success, which then snowballed. Similarly, “extreme failures” (the long-term jobless) were not the least able – they were just unlucky early on.

Highs and lows

The second model looked at careers in which there is an element of risk (investment banking, for instance). Results showed that both the highest and lowest achievers took the riskiest paths. The experimenters noted again that huge success did not correlate well with skill.

They concluded that we should be more careful about dismissing the failed and praising the exceptional, writing of the danger that “high rewards for exceptional performance may tempt other people to deliberately take risks or to cheat because they are unlikely to achieve extreme performance otherwise”. Instead, we should strive to copy the second- or third-in-command.

What can we take from this? Well, first, we should throw out our Mark Zuckerberg biographies and fill our shelves with titles such as Making It to the Middle: How I Only Gave Up on Some of My Dreams and Reaching for the Stars: How I Once Groped John Barrowman. But perhaps we should also take another look at Cameron’s penchant for punishing the unlucky and rewarding the already fortunate. Lady Luck is a harsh mistress, and the day she is allowed to dictate policy is the day she becomes a tyrant.

This article appeared in New Statesman edition 02/07/12

Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Clegg the martyr

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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

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“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.