Political middlemen and dart-throwing chimps

Martha Gill's "Irrational Animals" column.

Predicting the weather was once quite an interesting profession, needing skill in reading the instruments, intuition in deciphering the skies and years of experience in putting it all together. Now it’s the kind of job Nick Cage’s character would be given in a heavy-handed satire of the American dream, possibly also starring Michael Caine. We don’t need these skilled individuals any more – computers do all that. We just need an algorithm and a mouthpiece.

And so to Nate Silver – one of the biggest winners of the US presidential election. As the race neared its end, becoming “too close to call”, with money and opinions frantically changing hands, the New York Times blogger was calmly and correctly predicting voter outcome in every single state. He had what others didn’t – a formula to convert polling information into probabilities – and it turned out to be dead-on. He was not alone in getting it right but he was among the few. Many failed spectacularly.

Here’s Newt Gingrich on Fox News on 25 October: “I believe the minimum result will be 53-47 [per cent] Romney, over 300 electoral votes, and the Republicans will pick up the Senate. I base that . . . on just years and years of experience.” And here’s the GOP strategist Karl Rove in the Wall Street Journal on 31 October: “It comes down to numbers. And in the final days of this presidential race, from polling data to early voting, they favour Mitt Romney.”

These were not small errors. These people were standing in pre-hurricane wind and predicting sunshine. Are pundits more often wrong than not, or was it just this particular election that threw them? And how often do the statistics spewed out by experts hit the mark? One study found a statistic for it.

Algorithm blues

In the 1980s, a psychologist called Philip Tetlock took a group of journalists, foreign policy experts and economists – 284 of them – and spent the next two decades bombarding them with questions: would the dotcom bubble burst? Would George Bush be re-elected? How would apartheid end?

After analysing 82,361 predictions, Tetlock found that his experts performed worse than random chance. In short, they could have been beaten by dart-throwing chimps.

The reason was confidence. Tetlock found that the more often pundits appeared on TV, the more likely they were to be wrong. Their strong opinions were causing them to ignore dissenting facts or explain them away, leaving them trapped, he said, in the cage of their preconceptions.

Now, semi-expert middlemen are being squeezed out as the focus shifts to minute data analysis. Silver is one of the winners of this change but on the losing side is a whole industry of political forecasters. And it’s not just true of politics. Finance has been moving that way for a while. In UBS’s recent swath of job cuts, at least one trader, David Gallers, was replaced with an algorithm.

Difficult times for the old school, but what of the new? Silver expressed his concerns to the Wall Street Journal: “You don’t want to influence the system you are trying to forecast.” Only one problem with the new machines, then – accuracy. They’re so good that they might start controlling the weather.

Newt Gingrich opining away on Fox News. 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 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

Show Hide image

Records, books and handwritten notes: the rise of low tech

When new technologies emerge, the old ones are meant to fall by the wayside - but sometimes, they manage to rise from the ashes. 

No one was surprised when HMV went into administration in January 2013. The chain was just one victim of the seemingly inevitable changes in our shopping habits: the decline of the high street; the rise in online shopping and digital formats; the decline in people actually paying for their music and films. Most of us probably assumed that this was the end for the music and film giant. After all, these aren't the kinds of trends that reverse. 

But this year, HMV is making a comeback. Among the arsenal of changes made to its business model lurks an unlikely secret weapon: vinyl records, which the store wants to "take back to the masses". This may seem a little improbable to anyone used to the decline and fall of old formats, but, based on numbers alone, it could well be a savvy move - sales of records have climbed steadily in the US and Europe since 2008, after they declined to almost nothing in the mid-noughties. 

Waterstones should, by rights, have been struck down by the rise of Amazon and the e-reader long ago, and yet saw an upturn in the 2013/2014 financial year after years of losses. This month, the retailer announced it will stop selling Kindles in its stores following "pitiful" sales figures, and plans to fill those shelves with physical books again. Last December, print sales were up 5 per cent on the previous year.

A not insignificant number of people, it seems, want to go into bookshops and buy  books they can hold. They want to scratch large, delicate discs with a needle to hear their favourite albums. And judging by a clutch of recent book releases like the Art of Typewriting or this new Comic Sans typewriter, they want to punch out their thoughts on paper-and-ink pre-computers, too.

Even tech start-ups are cashing in on throwbacks to near-obsolete technologies. Inkpact allows customers to order handwritten letters through a web portal, which are then written by the company's army of letter-writers (who work from home) and posted to the recipient.

So why the affection for the old, the physical, the clunky? The blog Cyborgology has run several pieces about hipsters and their "nostalgic revivalism", which hypothesise that those searching for the new and cool aren't content with things which are actually new - to move backwards in time with your technologies is, inherently, to go against the flow. It's notable, too, that this trend mostly applies to luxury products, rather than functional ones. There's no sign of a revival in landlines, nor of vinyl-loving music fans rejecting other new technologies like laptops for the sake of nostalgia. Instead, it seems that if someone has a passion for music or writing, they want to indulge it using less functional, more romantic tools.

These older technologies also cater to a notion of uniqueness and individualism. No two photos on a film camera are quite the same, and they're far harder to replicate than a digital file. A document from a typewriter is always unique. As PJ Rey writes at Cyborgology:

The fetishization of low-tech is about the illusion of agency; it provides affirmation for the hipster whose identity is defined by the post-Modern imperative to be an individual, to be unique.

Nostalgia and individualism certainly account for part of the trend towards low tech and new surges in old technologies. Yet that still doesn't explain the absence of of other, potentially romantic and defunct products from these revivals: it's hard to believe we'll ever see a sudden demand for videos or cassettes. Instead, it seems that those technologies that survive have genuine advantages over their replacements. The technology that came next didn't quite tick all the boxes. 

Digital cameras, for example, offer none of the quirks of individual film cameras - but old film cameras, or Instagram filters which replicate them, do. E-books haven't quite managed to replicate the visual quality of physical books, in terms of cover illustration (most cheaper e-readers are still in black and white) or fonts, still carefully chosen by the publishers of physical printed books.

So it's not clear that records and attractive hardbacks will hang around forever. After all, there's no reason why new, experimental technologies (like, say, e-readers or Spotify) would engage the whole market, especially if it involves a leap from physical to digital. It's easy to put the popularity of low tech down to a society-wide nostalgia, but it's perhaps more accurate to park it at the door of pure capitalism. People buy products they like, and which fill their particular needs - always have, always will. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.