Charles Gutjahr

Melbourne, Australia

Welcome to my website. It's a collection of my photos, writing, opinions, presentations from me, Charles Gutjahr. More about me...

Charles Gutjahr

A short opinion

AI enhances us, it doesn't replace us

I am so happy to see the Robodebt disgrace is finally over with a class action settled by the Government this week. There are a pile of lessons to learn from that saga, but here's the one most relevant to me and my industry: algorithms and artificial intelligence are tools, not brains.

AI can help us make better decisions, but it cannot and should not make decisions for us. Robodebt should stand as the canonical case study into why that is true: most of the decisions this system made were wrong. Previously the ATO would use algorithms to identify potential fraud and mistakes, then a human would follow up and decide whether to pursue the matter. Robodebt took humans out of the loop and the result was a disaster: hundreds of thousands of Australians wrongly accused of fraud, trauma for our most vulnerable people, and billions of dollars wasted.

It scares me that this is going to happen again. Some other system in some other area is going to mess up peoples lives because we make a computer responsible for decisions that it is not capable of. We need to change people's impressions of what algorithms and AI are; they can enhance us but they cannot replace us. Robodebt was just a dumb income-averaging algorithm, but even a state-of-the-art AI cannot justify its decisions or explain its thinking. We must not dismiss people because they do not fit into the narrow scope that a computer system can handle, and the only way to do that is to keep people in the loop for all decisions.

Charles Gutjahr

Temple Brewing Company
I think “get on the beers” might be the next slogan for Victoria’s numberplates

Charles Gutjahr

A short opinion

The man who mistakenly thought he ran the USA

Goodbye to Donald Trump, the man who mistakenly thought he ran the USA.

Amid the sea of lies we heard from Trump it was perhaps too easy to ignore the lie we too often tell ourselves: that a prime minister or president runs their country. They do not. They steer the ship, they guide its course; but they are a small part of the much bigger machine that is the government, the state, society.

A leader is a reflection of their people, not the boss. Trump could never have been US President if people didn't want that. He didn't create Trumpism, he just inflamed it and stuck his brand on it. So getting rid of Trump doesn't fix the underlying problems, it's the other way around: America has to fix its problems to avert another Trump.

I reckon it is a dangerous fiction to let voters think a political leader has total control. The leaders start to believe it themselves. It gives political sides a mistaken belief that they will make everything better when it's their turn to eat. But that fails because the result is half the people telling the other half what to do, and if that other half doesn't want to do it then it's not going to happen.

This is not to say the leader does not matter. It was surely necessary to get rid of selfish Trump before America could tackle its problems, but it is no end in itself. What makes me sad for the USA was not Trump but the culture that put him there, a culture which is as strong today as ever.

Many of my Aussie friends are obsessed by US politics, for you fans I do hope that you're enjoying the Biden victory. It is a moment to savour that there is hope and progress in the world. I don't want to take away from that, but I can't help thinking that we shouldn't care so much about the USA. It's not our country, not our problems. USA has some wonderful institutions and great people who dedicate their lives to fixing their problems; they've got this. But who is looking out for us? Only we can deal with Australia's problems. My hope for today is that we can all forget about the USA for while and work on ourselves instead. We should start on the first nations voice in the Australian constitution. That will come about when we the people demand it. Our leaders, as always, will follow us.

Charles Gutjahr

A short opinion

The draft news media bargaining code in Australia

Wow this ruckus over publishing Australian news on Facebook and Google is... weird.

Usually any time Aussie technology becomes a big story I'm all over it with opinions, but I haven't known what to think about this one. After letting it stew in my brain for a few weeks I've decided: Australia should go hard and regulate Facebook and Google; even though the ACCC code is unworkable nonsense it just might be the shakeup the internet needs right now.

Now for a long, arcane justification for why I think that:

Once upon a time, newspapers in Australia were big and powerful and earned "rivers of gold" from selling classified advertising. These ads paid for quality journalism (or at least lots of journalists) in a nice symbiotic relationship: the ads paid for the journalists who brought in the readers who attracted more ads. When the internet came along Australian media was slow to embrace it; they lost many lucrative job and real estate ads to early websites like Seek and REA. But the big collapse in advertising occurred when Google and Facebook arrived a few years later; they could sell ads more cheaply (with no printing costs and no expensive journalists) which were also better targeted (due to sometimes invasive tracking of who you are and algorithms guessing what you might want). The classified advertising which once made up 90% of Fairfax's advertising revenue has almost completely disappeared now — and effectively moved to Facebook and Google ads. Hundreds of Aussie newspapers have closed and many thousands of journalists have lost their jobs.

In late 2017 the Federal Government told the ACCC to do something about it. The ACCC recommended media companies negotiate with Facebook and Google to develop a code of conduct to address power imbalances; when negotiations dragged on without a result the Government told the ACCC to develop a mandatory code. The result is the ACCC's draft news media bargaining code, which "would allow news media businesses to bargain individually or collectively with Google and Facebook over payment for the inclusion of news on their services."

Facebook and Google responded by having a conniption. Facebook said they'd block any news being shown on Facebook or Instagram in Australia. Google Search and YouTube were saturated with alarmist advertising (though Google's open letter was more nuanced).

Meanwhile I'm watching this play out and I can't decide whose side I'm on. It's fashionable to hate on Facebook these days, and I'm a proud patriotic Aussie. So shouldn't I be rooting for this code?

It's not that easy. There are a lot of problems in the ACCC's draft news media bargaining code, and it may be completely unworkable. Explaining why requires a lot of detail, but fortunately for me a lot of commentators piled on and pilloried the draft code so you can refer to one of them if you want to know this detail. Ben Thompson's article on Stratechery is a good example. I agree with some of his arguments, and disagree with some others.

I highlight one detail that isn't in that piece: hyperlinks. A lot of this 'publishing' of news by Google and Facebook is just links to articles on newspaper and broadcast media websites. I feel very strongly that publishing a link to something must not be restricted or limited by copyright. A link is just a reference saying 'go look over there'. It is completely up to the publisher to decide whether or not to provide the article 'there', and they can change their mind at any time. A link to a newspaper article does not take away control from the publisher but gives them a chance to sell ads and subscriptions; any link should be good for the publisher yet this code implies that publishers should be paid if you want to link to their articles.

The problem with all that argument is it's right down in the weeds; it's missing the big point which is this: Google and Facebook are killing journalism in Australia. It was probably inadvertent; a market failure not an evil plan. But it is the job of the Australian Government to fix such failures, and losing news is a critical failure with dangerous effects on our democracy.

Perhaps the problem here is that sometimes governments want to be seen to be doing something, whether they are actually doing something is less important. They correctly identified a big problem but they failed to come up with a workable solution for it.

Except... actually they might have. I don't think the code can work as currently drafted. However the chain of events it set off might well lead to salvation.

The reaction from Facebook, in particular, backfired because it highlights the big problem: their immense market power. Facebook can block all news in Australia because they are more powerful than the media. Google could do the same. Market power isn't bad in itself, but if it can be used to block news — or worse, manipulate news — then it is fundamental danger to democracy. That probably sounded like a crazy conspiracy theory a few years back, but Facebook just turned that into a real threat.

The problem for Facebook is that blocking news could be fatal for them.

First up there's the political aspect. A foreign-owned, widely-disliked company suddenly shutting off the news source for two-fifths of Australians is easy political fodder. That would just open Facebook up to more and harsher regulation; it gives the Australian government cover to make changes that perhaps the public wouldn't have supported if Facebook was still just that company which shows you cute cat pictures.

The secondly and more importantly Facebook and Google face an existential threat if they are no longer the first place Australians turn to. Let's say Facebook and Google did actually block news. Would you decide you're never going to look at the news again? I'm guessing no: instead sometimes instead of going to Facebook you'll open up the ABC app or the Herald Sun app etc instead. When a friend mentions some big thing going on you'll open up The Age website and look there. Most of us value news, even if we don't pay for it. Take it away from us and I don't think the result will be we stop wanting news; I think the result is that we'll stop relying on Facebook and Google to bring it to us.

And that must give those companies nightmares. Facebook and Google have different business models but they both rely on you turning to them first. The tables are turned if you start going directly to the source — instead of them — as then it would be their advertising at risk.

Facebook's model is to keep you on Facebook at all times. You can see that in the implementation: view a news article on the Facebook app and it shows up inside the app, it doesn't let you leave. Yes the news publisher can control what is shown and they can show ads, but Facebook encourages you to dip into one article then return to Facebook for more Facebook ads. Facebook's other big app Instagram doesn't even honour links, you're stuck there until you make the conscious decision to leave.

Google Search might seem like the opposite: its whole point is to find you something quickly and then let you leave immediately to view it. But like Facebook its power is that it's first; it mediates the experience, it decides what you see. Google Search gets first dibs on the ads, perhaps dozens of times a day. And Google's other big app YouTube is just like Facebook in that you stick around instead of leaving and watching videos directly in the publisher's app.

Facebook claims they do not need news. "The ACCC presumes that Facebook benefits most in its relationship with publishers, when in fact the reverse is true" is what they said in their press release. They are wrong. Publishers are stuck in a prisoner's dilemma where any one of them leaving Facebook is bad for that publisher, but all of them leaving Facebook would instead be bad for Facebook.

Right now you can browse Facebook and it has everything you want in one place. You can settle in with YouTube and watch anything that interests you. You can search Google and find anything you want to know. They're comprehensive. But if they shut off news then suddenly you have to go elsewhere for news, and you going elsewhere is a fundamental threat to their businesses. You opening a newspaper app instead of their app means you might get hooked on a different news feed, a compelling real news feed, causing Facebook and Google to lose all those eyeballs and all those ad dollars.

So perhaps ill-thought out regulation from the ACCC is exactly what we needed. If it causes Facebook to block news then it could help news publishers by returning some of their audience. Alternatively it could cause Facebook to negotiate a fair deal with publishers to avoid losing their precious monopoly on our time.

It's not the prettiest way to make this sausage, but I'm glad it's underway. If we didn't have this draft news media bargaining code then I think Australia would be stuck with the status quo while the fourth estate slowly dies.

Charles Gutjahr

Putting this orchid on the shower bench has been a surprisingly good plan... it’s very happy and flowering again in its new spot.

Charles Gutjahr

Didn’t know I needed David Walsh’s mug on a mug, but these are strange times.

Charles Gutjahr

Blog post

Pandemic words week #4: Essential

3 Aug 2020 — a 1 minute read on COVID-19 Words


Essential services, essential workers, essential supplies... the Victorian Government repeatedly used the word "essential" while announcing the latest restrictions in Victoria. So what is essential, who gets to decide, and why?

I suppose you could say essential is whatever the 3000 word document issued today says it is. But what I think is more interesting is that we all seem to have an instinctive sense of what is essential, and it's not the high-paying jobs like corporate lawyer or management consultant. Almost everyone agrees it is the nurses, the cleaners, the grocers, the teachers who have proved essential — but they are rarely well-paid jobs. I think it shows we undervalue the essential things in life.