Another month, another deepish dive by the three podnosticators of the SmallDataForum – who Sam describes as “Thomas = the philosopher-academic and historical context-setter; Neville = the champion experimenter and enthusiastic evangelist; and Sam = the dabbler, observer, and sceptic.”
This time, we dive into generative (as well as degenerative) artificial intelligence, large language models (LLMs) and various chat-botty applications, including Neville’s new favourite, Claude, “the most human-like experience”. Turing Test, anyone?
Scepticism, questioning, and an ever-present gnawing uncertainty whether what Them In Power tell us is the case actually is the case – these are three hallmarks of we three Podnosticators at the Small Data Forum. And these three qualities are all present in abundant spades as we enter our fourth, quarter-century of podcasts in fresh-minted episode 76.
We gather in what the British press term ‘silly season’ – in Germany Sauregurkenzeit (“sour gherkin time”), Thomas tells us – and in the hours before we gathered, President Putin had cried crocodile tears over the mysterious downing of a private jet carrying disgraced Wagner mercenary leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin; a talented man” who “made serious mistakes”, pace Vlad in full-on Marc Antony mode.
And increasingly disgraced former (and future?) President Trump had his mugshot taken (yet another first) at the notorious Fulton County jail, his fourth criminal indictment in a growing litany of disgrace, this one for “just wanting to find 11,780 votes” and gerrymander the 2020 US Election.
After seven years of vigorous podnostication, the SmallDataForum reaches its diamond anniversary. Or semi-sesquicentennial (‘half one hundred and fifty’) as Sam (of course!) informs us. Seventy-five episodes of wondering and pondering about the strange times we live in, with absolutely no end in sight.
Our almost hour-long Zoomwag starts with the battle of the micro-messaging platforms: X vs Threads, Twitter vs Meta, Elon vs Mark – the digital cage fight over the monetizable part of the networked world. Tech maven and serial early adopter and experimenter-user Neville explains it all with exemplary breadth and depth.
Social anti-social media
“Mega instant network” Threads is actually part of Instagram and should thus be called Instagram Threads. Neville highlights benefits – it’s so easy to attract an audience, just follow all your Insta friends – as well as costs: if you decide to uninstall it, it will also uninstall Instagram.
We start episode 74 of the Small Data Forum podcast – or “1 AB” as Thomas christens it; the first after B*ris – in what many are calling “the era past peak podcast”.
Things haven’t worked out as well for our medium of choice as Spotify predicted and gambled, and that includes the platform’s not-so-conscious uncoupling from the Sussexes. But we – like the relentless grind of British politics – carry on regardless.
Thomas recalls the halcyon days when democracy meant the executive, legislature, and judiciary: three, interlocking, interdependent branches that worked with checks and balances, each branch (or arm) keeping the other in its proper place.
In banana republics (like the US and UK), this breaks down when – usually – the army takes over; what was termed Gleichschaltung or a system of coordination or total control in Nazi Germany. There have been more than shades of this under the Johnson and Trump regimes from 2016 onwards.
The terrible two
Sam surveys the carnage in British politics in the past month.
Since we three last met, the House of Commons Privileges Committee has published its findings into the Partygate affair. Getting wind of a pre-publication draft, Johnson clearly saw the writing was on the wall for his political career inside Westminster, pronounced the Committee (and the report) a “witch-hunt”, and resigned as an MP.
He’d have been out on his ear when the report was published – recommending a 90-day suspension, triggering a Recall Petition and a by-election in his Uxbridge constituency – so rather than be pushed, he jumped. His pre-publication Trumpian rhetoric added to the severity of the punishment, and yet still Johnson didn’t care.
“In framing an ideal we may assume what we wish, but should avoid impossibilities.” This Aristotle quote opens one of my favourite books, Aldous Huxley’s last novel, Island (1962).
It also summarises neatly Neville’s, and to a lesser degree, Sam’s, position re the appetite and capacity for, and thus the likelihood of radical change to the British political and electoral system.
To be fair, Neville suggested not to focus on politics at all in our latest episode, and instead invest all of our podnosticating attention in the “only big news of the day”, the split of Phil and Holly. In a masterclass of persuasive communication however, Sam and I manage to talk him round to our planned discussion of the recent local elections in England and all the related fall-out.
Both Neville and Sam refer to local political evidence in their respective leafy neighbourhoods in West Berkshire and East Sussex, where Conservative councillors are all but extinct.
And yet, as Sam highlights, on the local election evidence, UK-psephologist-in-chief Sir John Curtice doesn’t quite see an outright Labour majority at the next general election.