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Is online advertising about to crash, just like the property market did in 2008? | Social media

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Here’s a disturbing thought for those of us who are critics of the tech industry: are we unduly credulous about the capabilities of the technology as extolled by the companies and their paid evangelists? Did clever exploitation of social media really lead to the election of Trump and the Brexit vote in 2016, for example?

At one level, the answer to that has to be “no”. Social media obviously played some role in those political earthquakes, but anyone who attributes seismic shocks on that scale just to tech companies hasn’t been paying attention to what’s been happening to democratic countries since the 1970s. Nor have they been reading the political science literature. Nevertheless, the drumbeat of angst about what networked technology and surveillance capitalism are doing to society continues to reverberate.

Here and there, though, there are interesting indications of a rethinking of the presumed omnipotence of tech. A prime example is a really nice essay, You’re Doing It Wrong: Notes on Criticism and Technology Hype, by Lee Vinsel, a professor at Virginia Tech, who has become annoyed by tech criticism that paradoxically inflates hype. “The media landscape,” he writes, “is full of dramatic claims… [by boosters] about how new technologies… will lead to massive societal shifts in the near future.” But misguided critics, he argues, then “invert” boosters’ messages by retaining the scenarios of radical change but focusing instead on downsides and risks. “It’s as if,” he writes, “they take press releases from startups and cover them with hellscapes.”

Vinsel points to a thought-provoking piece in Scientific American by the veteran science writer John Horgan in which he argues that debates about whether to “improve” our mind and body often exaggerate the feasibility of doing so. The problem arises, he writes, “when pundits concerned about possible social and ethical downsides of a technology exaggerate its technical feasibility”. This happens in discussions of potentially revolutionary technologies “that might, in principle (that wonderful, all-purpose fudge factor), boost our cognitive and physiological abilities. Warnings about what we should do often exaggerate what we can do.”

At one level, you might think that these are really just philosophical problems, but an interesting new book by Tim HwangSubprime Attention Crisis: Advertising and the Time Bomb at the Heart of the Internet – suggests that succumbing to tech hype might have more serious consequences than we had supposed. Hwang argues that digital advertising, the core business model of the web, is at risk of collapsing and that its potential demise bears an uncanny resemblance to the housing crisis of 2008. Evidence he cites includes the unreliability of advertising numbers, the unregulated automation of advertising bidding wars and the fact that online ads mostly fail to work. The link with the 2008 banking crisis is that in the current online economy the value of consumers’ attention is wildly overestimated, much as sub-prime mortgages were in the years leading up to 2008. If online advertising were to implode, Hwang maintains, the web and its “free” services would suddenly be accessible only to those who can afford them.

Implausible? Not necessarily. One of the most interesting developments of the past year or so was the revelation that serious outfits such as the UK Competition and Markets Authority were launching major investigations into the hidden, high-speed advertising auctions run by the social media platforms. This suggests that there’s something rotten in there: the claims of the companies about the effectiveness of targeted advertising are, basically, too good to be true.

If so, then we are mugs to take them at their face value. And it’s time to call their bluff. Which is exactly what Sinead Boucher, the CEO of Stuff, New Zealand’s leading online news and media site, did. In March 2019, she decided to stop advertising on Facebook, a move that her peers regarded as crazy. “That action had zero effect on our traffic,” she told a seminar at the Reuters Institute in Oxford. “We were prepared for a drop in our audience but it had zero effect. It made us realise we should think more about our decisions, instead of buying into the idea that you have to work with all the social media platforms.”

Yep. And maybe the social media emperor has fewer clothes than we imagined.

What I’ve been reading

Eco worriers
Frontiers in Conservation Science has published Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future, a sobering article even for those who are sceptical about humanity’s capacity to avoid the coming catastrophe.

Things to come
Martin Rees has written Some Thoughts on 2050 and Beyond, in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, the long view from one of the wisest people I know.

Power points
The Boston Review’s Coronapolitics From the Reichstag to the Capitol is a bracing look by William Callison and Quinn Slobodian at events in the US against the backdrop of conspiracy theories in Germany.

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I can’t charge my electric car cheaply because I’m too close to an RAF base | Money

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A few months ago I decided to switch energy supplier and moved to Octopus Energy’s Go tariff, principally because it offers cheap electric car charging overnight at a rate of 5p/kWh.

I applied to have the required smart meter installed. But after being given a date, I was later declined on the basis that smart meters cannot work at my address because they interfere with the missile early warning system at RAF Fylingdales.

Initially, I thought this was a joke. I have been involved with the construction of hundreds of new homes in Teesside, all of which have had smart meters installed.

Smart Energy GB, the body responsible for the rollout, has confirmed that this is very real, and smart meters installed in the area will not have had their smart capacity turned on.

I was told that a new meter is being worked upon and will eventually replace those already installed.

Meanwhile, I am having to charge my car at a premium rate of 16.76p/kWh which is costing me about £26 more a week than it would be on the Go tariff.

AM, Guisborough

Given that your house is more than 20 miles from the RAF base in question, I, too, was amazed that this could be an issue, but it is – and also in other areas close to bases.

Smart Meter GB has confirmed this is the case and says it is working on a solution – a communications hub that will enable people living near sensitive RAF sites to use smart meters.

It says these will be offered to customers “in the coming months”.

It adds those in the affected area, who had already had smart meters installed should be able to have the hubs retrofitted.

Meanwhile, Octopus has come up with a solution for your problem. It has offered to add you to the trial of these new meters, which, in turn, will allow you to go on the Go tariff.

It says it hopes to install your new meter before Christmas. It has also said that if you get the log from your charging firm, showing how much electricity you have used for the car since the switch took place, it will retroactively apply the savings that you would have gained had the smart meter worked from the start – a generous offer.

We welcome letters but cannot answer individually. Email consumer.champions@theguardian.com or write to Guardian, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU. Include a phone number. Letters are subject to our terms: gu.com/letters-terms

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China’s Yutu rover spots ‘mysterious hut’ on far side of the Moon

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Cube-shaped object is probably just a rock. Yutu will check it out anyway

China’s Moon rover, Yutu 2, has sent images of a strangely geometric object.…

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Strikepay struck gold at National Startup Awards 2021

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Strikepay, founded by fintech entrepreneurs Oli Cavanagh and Charles Dowd, scooped the top award for its fast-growing cash-free tipping tech.

Irish fintech company Strikepay has scooped the top prize at this year’s National Startup Awards.

The start-up, previously called Strike, was founded in 2020 to enable cash-free tipping without the need for a payment terminal or a new app on a customer’s phone.

Its founders, fintech entrepreneurs Oli Cavanagh and Charles Dowd, raised €625,000 in seed funding earlier this year and said they intended to seek a further €6.5m in investment by the end of 2021.

Strikepay has already begun acquiring and collaborating with other companies to bolster its product offering. In June, it acquired UK payments rival Gratsi and in April it appointed former Just Eat exec Edel Kinane as its chief growth officer.

Earlier in the year, it teamed up with Camile Thai Kitchen to enable contactless tipping for food delivery drivers and partnered with mobility company Bolt to bring its cashless tipping technology to taxis in Dublin.

Strikepay was one of several winners at the awards ceremony, which was livestreamed last night (2 December).

Other winners included health-tech start-up Stimul.ai, customer analysis tech business Glimpse, and sheep monitoring start-up Cotter Agritech, which has been participating in a new accelerator programme at University College Dublin.

As well as taking the top award, Strikepay also won Best Fintech Startup.

This year marked the 10th year of the National Startup Awards. The event was sponsored by Enterprise Ireland, Microfinance Ireland, Sage, Cronin Accountants and McCann Fitzgerald.

Last year’s top award was given to drone delivery service Manna. The start-up had been working with companies such as Tesco, Just Eat and Camile Thai to test its drones, and has seen further growth since then.

The full list of winners at the 2021 awards, in order of gold, silver and bronze, are:

Startup of the Year 2021

Strikepay

Early Stage Startup

Imvizar, CyberPie, The Fifth Dimension

Emerge Tech Startup

Xunison, Helgen Technologies, LiveCosts.com

Fintech Startup

Strikepay, ID-Pal, Itus Secure Technologies

Food and Drink Startup

Fiid, SiSú, Thanks Plants

Social or Sustainable Startup

Altra, Peer, Fifty Shades Greener

Product and Manufacturing Startup

Cotter Agritech, Orca Board, Filter

E-commerce and Retail Startup

FinalBend, The Book Resort, Nufields

Tech Startup

Glimpse, LegitFit, Examfly

Medtech Startup

Stumul.ai, SymPhysis Medical, Bonafi

Covid Pivot or Response Startup

Zoom Party/Find A Venue, KSH Group, Streat School

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