Friday, 13 October 2017

Tech giants, once seen as saviors, are now viewed as threats

David Streitfeld
At the start of this decade, the Arab Spring blossomed with the help of social media. That is the sort of story the tech industry loves to tell about itself: It is bringing freedom, enlightenment and a better future for all mankind.

Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, proclaimed that this was exactly why his social network existed. In a 2012 manifesto for investors, he said Facebook was a tool to create “a more honest and transparent dialogue around government.” The result, he said, would be “better solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time.”

Now tech companies are under fire for creating problems instead of solving them. At the top of the list is Russian interference in last year’s presidential election. Social media might have originally promised liberation, but it proved an even more useful tool for stoking anger. The manipulation was so efficient and so lacking in transparency that the companies themselves barely noticed it was happening.

The election is far from the only area of concern. Tech companies have accrued a tremendous amount of power and influence. Amazon determines how people shop, Google how they acquire knowledge, Facebook how they communicate. All of them are making decisions about who gets a digital megaphone and who should be unplugged from the web.

Their amount of concentrated authority resembles the divine right of kings, and is sparking a backlash that is still gathering force.

“For 10 years, the arguments in tech were about which chief executive was more like Jesus. Which one was going to run for president. Who did the best job convincing the work force to lean in,” said Scott Galloway, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “Now sentiments are shifting. The worm has turned.”
News is dripping out of Facebook, Twitter and now Google about how their ad and publishing systems were harnessed by the Russians. On Nov. 1, the Senate Intelligence Committee will hold a hearing on the matter. It is unlikely to enhance the companies’ reputations.
Under growing pressure, the companies are mounting a public relations blitz. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, was in Washington this week, meeting with lawmakers and making public mea culpas about how things happened during the election “that should not have happened.” Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, was in Pittsburgh on Thursday talking about the “large gaps in opportunity across the U.S.” and announcing a $1 billion grant program to promote jobs.
Underlying the meet-and-greets is the reality that the internet long ago became a business, which means the companies’ first imperative is to do right by their stockholders.
Ross Baird, president of the venture capital firm Village Capital, noted that when ProPublica tried last month to buy targeted ads for “Jew haters” on Facebook, the platform did not question whether this was a bad idea — it asked the buyers how they would like to pay.
“For all the lip service that Silicon Valley has given to changing the world, its ultimate focus has been on what it can monetize,” Mr. Baird said.
Criticism of tech is nothing new, of course. In a Newsweek jeremiad in 1995 titled “Why the Web Won’t Be Nirvana,” the astronomer Clifford Stoll pointed out that “every voice can be heard cheaply and instantly” on the Usenet bulletin boards, that era’s Twitter and Facebook.
“The result?” he wrote. “Every voice is heard. The cacophony more closely resembles citizens band radio, complete with handles, harassment and anonymous threats. When most everyone shouts, few listen.”
Such complaints, repeated at regular intervals, did not stop the tech world from seizing the moment. Millions and then billions of people flocked to its services. The chief executives were regarded as sages. Disruption was the highest good.
What is different today are the warnings from the technologists themselves. “The monetization and manipulation of information is swiftly tearing us apart,” Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, wrote this week.
Justin Rosenstein, a former Facebook engineer, was portrayed in a recent Guardian story as an apostate: Noting that sometimes inventors have regrets, he said he had programmed his new phone to not let him use the social network.
Mr. Rosenstein, a co-founder of Asana, an office productivity start-up, said in an email that he had banned not just Facebook but also the Safari and Chrome browsers, Gmail and other applications.
“I realized that I spend a lot of time mindlessly interacting with my phone in ways that aren’t serving me,” he wrote. “Facebook is a very powerful tool that I continue to use every day, just with more mindfulness.”

If social media is on the defensive, Mr. Zuckerberg is particularly on the spot — a rare event in a golden career that has made him, at 33, one of the richest and most influential people on the planet.
“We have a saying: ‘Move fast and break things,’” he wrote in his 2012 manifesto. “The idea is that if you never break anything, you’re probably not moving fast enough.”

Facebook dropped that motto two years later, but critics say too much of the implicit arrogance has lingered. Mr. Galloway, whose new book, “The Four,” analyzes the power of Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple, said the social media network was still fumbling its response.
“Zuckerberg and Facebook are violating the No. 1 rule of crisis management: Overcorrect for the problem,” he said. “Their attitude is that anything that damages their profits is impossible for them to do.”
Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of global public policy, said the network was doing its best.
“Facebook is an important part of many people’s lives,” he said. “That’s an enormous responsibility — and one that we take incredibly seriously.”

Some social media entrepreneurs acknowledge that they are confronting issues they never imagined as employees of start-ups struggling to survive.

“There wasn’t time to think through the repercussions of everything we did,” Biz Stone, a Twitter co-founder, said in an interview shortly before he rejoined the service last spring.

He maintained that Twitter was getting an unfair rap: “For every bad thing, there are a thousand good things.” He acknowledged, however, that sometimes “it gets a little messy.”

Despite the swell of criticism, the vast majority of investors, consumers and regulators seem not to have changed their behavior. People still eagerly await the new iPhone. Facebook has more than two billion users. President Trump likes to criticize Amazon on Twitter, but his administration ignored pleas for a rigorous examination of Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods.
In Europe, however, the ground is already shifting. Google’s share of the search engine market there is 92 percent, according to StatCounter. But that did not stop the European Union from fining it $2.7 billion in June for putting its products above those of its rivals.

A new German law that fines social networks huge sums for not taking down hate speech went into effect this month. On Tuesday, a spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain said the government was looking “carefully at the roles, responsibility and legal status” of Google and Facebook, with an eye to regulating them as news publishers rather than platforms.

“This war, like so many wars, is going to start in Europe,” said Mr. Galloway, the New York University professor.

For some tech companies, the new power is a heavy weight. Cloudflare, which provides many sites with essential protection from hacking, made its first editorial decision in August: It lifted its protection from The Daily Stormer, basically expunging the neo-Nazi site from the visible web.

“Increasingly tech companies are going to be put into the position of making these sorts of judgments,” said Matthew Prince, Cloudflare’s chief executive.

The picture is likely to get even more complicated. Mr. Prince foresees several possible dystopian futures. One is where every search engine has a political point of view, and users gravitate toward the one they feel most comfortable with. That would further balkanize the internet.

Another possibility is the opposite extreme: Under the pressure of regulation, all hate speech — and eventually all dissent — is filtered out.

“People are realizing that technology isn’t neutral,” Mr. Prince said. “I used to travel to Europe to hear these fears. Now I just have to go to Sacramento.”

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

La Grèce n'est pas le berceau de la démocratie

Vous proposez d’abandonner l’image des racines culturelles pour adopter celle du fleuve. Pourquoi ?
Maurizio Bettini,  philologue et anthropologue : Les racines nous figent, nous attachent à un endroit, un lieu et «verticalisent» notre réflexion, alors que si nous adoptons l’image du fleuve, nous rendons compte d’une horizontalité et d’un mouvement. C’est beaucoup plus juste. L’histoire du Pô est de ce point de vue extraordinaire. On peut prendre la vision mythologique de la Ligue du Nord, qui propose toujours de revenir à l’origine de la culture padane en buvant chaque année de l’eau «pure» puisée à la «source» du Pô. Tout ça est paradoxal. Déterminer la source d’un fleuve est la chose la plus arbitraire qui soit. Un fleuve est le produit d’une multiplicité de sources. Ce qui est intéressant dans cette image, c’est précisément l’idée de la confluence : chaque affluent apporte sa part, exactement comme dans la culture des hommes.
Vous dites que la pureté est une obsession dangereuse…
C’est une idée du XIXe siècle. Il s’agit de rechercher «la» pureté originelle. Un exemple : en travaillant sur les textes de la comédie romaine, les philologues allemands du passé se sont fréquemment donné pour tâche de séparer ce qui était d’origine grecque de ce qui était romain. Alors que les textes des auteurs romains sont bien souvent des réinterprétations des auteurs grecs. Comprendre, ce serait séparer, distinguer, trier. C’est une bizarrerie absolue. Comment distinguer les influences des différents affluents qui nourrissent une culture, pour revenir à l’image du fleuve ? L’idée la plus dangereuse a été de rechercher dans le monde grec quel était le Grec le plus pur. Comme la Grèce était la source supposée de la civilisation occidentale, il fallait trouver «la» racine première. On disait «nous sommes tous grecs», mais il fallait trouver les premiers Grecs, les plus authentiques. On a désigné les Doriens, et parmi les Doriens on a dit : les Spartiates, voilà les Grecs des origines. Les nazis aussi se voulaient «purs». On sait ce qui en a découlé.
Vous contestez l’origine grecque de la démocratie ?
On veut faire de la Grèce et d’Athènes l’unique berceau de la démocratie. Récemment, Emmanuel Macron est d’ailleurs allé à Athènes pour prononcer un discours sur la refondation de l’Europe, en célébrant la Grèce comme la crèche de la démocratie. On oublie que la démocratie athénienne excluait les femmes, les esclaves et les étrangers barbares. Ça fait tout de même beaucoup de monde. Mais admettons : on a découvert à Athènes qu’une assemblée de citoyens pouvait débattre de la chose commune, c’est exact. Mais on ne peut pas oublier que l’on trouve des formes de démocratie ailleurs dans le monde. En Afrique, les Ochollos, dans l’actuelle Ethiopie, avaient institué une assemblée délibérative sans avoir lu Platon. L’idée que la Grèce est la source unique de la démocratie n’a pas grand sens. Tout ça ne serait pas très grave si ça ne devenait pas une forme d’autocélébration de l’Occident, berceau de la démocratie, face au reste du monde. Là, il y a quelque chose de dangereux à revendiquer «la vraie démocratie originelle». Nous, les Occidentaux, savons ; vous, les barbares, vous ne savez pas. Ça devient la vraie religion.
Vous rappelez que Rome, la «ville éternelle», est née d’un mélange…
L’histoire de l’origine de Rome est magnifique. C’est l’asylum. Il ne s’agit pas d’un mélange d’hommes venus d’ailleurs, c’est plus que ça. Plutarque raconte qu’au moment de sa fondation, on a creusé un trou dans lequel chacun a mis un peu de la terre d’où il venait. Les hommes ont créé la terre sur laquelle sera bâtie la ville à partir d’un mélange. A Athènes, c’est le règne de l’autochtonie : l’important, c’est d’être né là, la terre crée les Athéniens. A Rome, ce sont les hommes qui créent la terre, c’est la définition d’une ville ouverte, en train de se faire.
Vous évoquez Corte pour illustrer le choc de la tradition et du tourisme…
Je suis allé en vacances en Corse et j’ai voulu visiter Corte. Pasquale Paoli, le père de la nation corse, est un personnage pour lequel j’ai du respect. Et Corte est le berceau de la culture corse. Et qu’est-ce que j’ai trouvé ? Une ville prise d’assaut par des touristes venus de toute l’Europe, avec des gobelets en plastique et des cornets dégoulinants de glace. Et où se trouve la culture corse ? Dans un musée payant, dans lequel il n’y a pas grand monde. Elle se trouve donc enfermée. Ce qui m’a amusé, c’est de voir une ville symbole de la tradition corse devenue son exact opposé, une ville cosmopolite dont les ruelles charrient des Allemands, des Italiens, des Français… Ça m’a fait réfléchir au paradoxe de la tradition réduite à quelques bibelots que les touristes vont acheter. C’est vrai partout, à Sienne, à Rome ou à Florence.
Avec Livourne, vous racontez comment la nostalgie personnelle se heurte à notre époque…
Livourne est la ville où mon père est né, c’est la ville de mon enfance où nous nous promenions pour aller acheter des cornets de moules qui coûtaient trois fois rien. J’y suis très attaché. C’est une vieille ville de Toscane, dont le centre est «envahi», comme me disent mes amis, par des étrangers et des kebabs. Mais, il faut savoir que Livourne était un village et est devenu un port important quand les grands-ducs de Toscane l’ont décidé, au XVIe siècle. La liberté de culte y est alors reconnue et les marchands, d’où qu’ils viennent, vont bénéficier d’avantages fiscaux. Les Leggi Livornine, les lois de Livourne, ont attiré des Juifs venus d’Espagne et du Portugal, des Maures venus d’Afrique, des Arméniens, c’est un asylum très ouvert. Ce que je vois à Livourne aujourd’hui, dans certains quartiers que j’ai connus dans mon enfance, ce sont des Maghrébins, des gens venus d’Afrique et des Roumains. Donc la population a changé et ça pose évidemment des problèmes de cohabitation. Alors mes amis me disent : «Tu dois être content, toi qui es pour les mélanges de cultures.» Je me suis demandé pour quelle raison est-ce que je suis attristé. La réponse est simple : je vois disparaître mon passé, et j’éprouve de la nostalgie devant le temps qui passe. Et en même temps, je crois qu’il ne faut pas faire de confusion entre les sentiments personnels, l’anthropologie et la politique. Ce sont des choses fondamentalement différentes et je me dis : mets de côté ta nostalgie et rappelle-toi qu’au XVIe siècle, Livourne était une ville remplie d’étrangers. La raison me commande d’accepter ce qui arrive.
Le goût est aussi sans frontière. Ou ses frontières ne sont pas celles que l’on connaît aujourd’hui ?
C’est l’histoire de la polenta, de la tomate ou de l’huile d’olive. La tradition est une histoire actuelle. Communément, nous sommes convaincus que le goût est attaché à une terre, à un terroir. Là aussi on dit : «Ce sont nos racines.» Mais cette conviction est erronée. Par exemple, la polenta, cet étendard identitaire de la Ligue du Nord, s’opposerait au couscous qui est une semoule de blé. «Nous» mangeons de la polenta et les «autres» mangent du couscous. Mais c’est quoi la polenta ? Une semoule de maïs qui est arrivé d’Amérique centrale en Europe au XVIe siècle. Mais elle a été introduite par les Portugais beaucoup plus tôt en Afrique, au Mozambique et en Angola, où on fait une semoule de maïs tout à fait comparable à la polenta que l’on trouve en Lombardie. Au Brésil, on trouve aussi une semoule de maïs. Donc si la polenta est un plat identitaire, il faut la partager avec l’Afrique et l’Amérique latine. Plaute, le poète romain, parle de la polenta carthaginoise. Et les Romains se moquaient des Carthaginois, les Tunisiens d’aujourd’hui, en leur disant : «Vous êtes des mangeurs de polenta.»
Le fleuve peut s’assécher, les langues et les cultures meurent ou disparaissent. C’est malheureux ou heureux, mais cela permet une dynamique ?
C’est une belle question. Les deux aspects sont vrais. Si on pense à la quantité de langues qui meurent, on doit admettre que c’est attristant, évidement. On ne va pas se réjouir de la disparition de centaines de langues en Amérique du Nord. On va aujourd’hui accuser l’anglais de tuer des langues et c’est incontestable, mais il faut se souvenir que le latin, qui est une langue dite «morte» - et je suis latiniste - a tué beaucoup plus de langues que l’anglais. Le Français a tué des langues, l’Italien aussi. Il faut se tenir sur la ligne de crête : il est triste de voir des langues disparaître et il est heureux de voir se créer des cultures nouvelles. «Ceux qui louent en permanence le passé» - on dit en latin les laudatores temporis acti - risquent toujours de perdre de vue ce qui émerge de nouveau devant leurs yeux. Et nous revenons à la question de la pureté, la pureté absolue de la langue française : elle n’existe pas, elle n’a jamais existé et n’existera jamais. Les langues changent, voilà, on ne peut pas poser la question en termes de «pureté». Comme la pureté supposée d’une culture n’existe pas, n’a jamais existé et n’existera jamais.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Oracle's school of the future

Hannah Kuchler

I had low expectations last month when I donned a hard hat for a tour of the Design Tech High School (d.tech): the first school built on a tech company campus. Once construction is finished, a three-year-old local public high school will move in and educate 500 pupils aged 14 to 18 on Oracle’s Silicon Valley site in a building paid for by the software maker.

From “ed-tech” start-ups to billionaire philanthropists, many digital entrepreneurs are funding education projects in an attempt to better equip the next generation for a changed world. Technology is moving so fast that we don’t know what jobs will be available in the future but most agree that the current education system, designed in the 19th century, will not help students thrive in the 21st.

The d.tech school is unique: students will spend their days in a tech company office park. From January, the high-schoolers will share a conference centre with Oracle staff. This is not an extended version of bring-your-child-to-work day: Oracle workers’ children will not be prioritised and, in fact, the school, which is free to attend, is trying to get permission to select students from poorer backgrounds.

My experience of the company’s cloud application software — a monthly misery tackling its iExpenses process — had not particularly convinced me that Oracle had the potential to inspire a new generation. Nor did the building’s grey and glass façade make it seem a fun place to learn.

But I entered to find a light-filled, flexible space, designed in collaboration with children, teachers and Oracle employees. I was impressed by how the building has creativity at its centre. Instead of a large lecture hall, there is a “design realisation garage”. The garage, so-called because all the best start-ups were founded in them, has a large floor for metalwork, woodwork and circuitry, while, upstairs, students can design and code.

What intrigued me the most, however, was that Oracle believes its staff will learn just as much from the schoolkids as students will from the workers. Instead of finding the noisy teenagers a disturbance, Colleen Cassity, executive director of the Oracle Education Foundation, believes they could help disrupt working practices in a good way. “Instead of [our employees] going back to school, the school is coming to them,” she says.

Oracle and the students are already working together to create an internship programme and the teens could even end up leading design challenges for the company. Eventually, Oracle wants to connect each of its campuses with a school.D.tech follows a theory pioneered by Stanford’s design school.

The method focuses on solving problems and building empathy for your users, thinking always of how to design for their needs. Ken Montgomery, co-founder of d.tech, tells me that at Stanford, where he did his PhD, MBA students often start with “constraints in their head” and need to be shaken up to encourage “wild ideas”. Teaching high-schoolers, he has to do the opposite. “Working with kids, we have to get [them] to think about the constraints, because they believe everything is possible.” For example, the school did not agree to the kids’ wish to install a zip line and a rooftop pool on the campus.

One example of balancing kid-like instincts with adult-like constraints is a wearables project that a group worked on at the high school. A 14-year-old girl presented a problem: her partially sighted grandmother couldn’t distinguish between denominations of dollar bills. Her team created a wearable device that scanned the notes for their underlying colour — and played a different song for each one. Now her grandmother can hear the Mario Kart tune every time she grasps a $5 note.

As an employee, I’m unsure that I would want my serene shuttle to work turned into a school bus. But as an Oracle user, I would welcome a kid’s fresh approach. Perhaps the company can ease the tedium of filing expenses by playing a Mario Kart tune each time I enter a claim for a taxi ride. I can only hope Oracle’s adult minds will be opened by the children on campus.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Low-cost airlines are altering the economics of flying

Micah Maidenberg
For more than three years, the average one-way fare between Detroit and Philadelphia never dipped below $308, and sometimes moved higher, topping $385 at one point.

But then, early in 2016, fares suddenly started to fall, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. By the end of the year, the average one-way ticket between the two cities stood at just $183.

What changed? The primary factor was Spirit Airlines.

The low-cost carrier began operating flights from Philadelphia International Airport to Detroit in April 2016, offering one-way fares for less than $100, in some cases. Spirit’s move into the route pushed down average ticket costs at all carriers on it, including Delta Air Lines and American Airlines.

“Without the low-cost carriers, we would have been looking at a pretty significant downturn in activity,” said James Tyrrell, chief revenue officer at Philadelphia International Airport.
Frontier Airlines, another low-cost carrier, had also added flights from Philadelphia, Mr. Tyrrell said. Without such airlines, he added, “you would have absolutely seen a different pricing structure.”
Even as a wave of mergers has cut the number of major carriers to four and significantly reduced competition, lower-cost airlines continue to play a role in moderating ticket costs.

While such airlines offer a no-frills passenger experience and charge plenty of fees for such luxuries as additional bags or extra legroom, they are able to stimulate new demand from occasional fliers with relatively cheap prices and even take passengers from the major carriers.

This dynamic is not new: In 1993, researchers at the Department of Transportation called the same trend the “Southwest effect,” named for Southwest Airlines, which grew rapidly thanks to basic, low-cost flights. A recent study by a University of Virginia professor and a consultant at the Campbell-Hill Aviation Group calculated that average one-way fares are $45 lower when Southwest serves a market with nonstop flights. Researchers have shown other low-cost carriers also push down fares.

“It’s impossible to underestimate just how important the effect of low-cost carriers are on a given route,” said William McGee, the aviation adviser for Consumers Union.

Carriers like United and American do not compete with carriers like Frontier and Spirit on every type of passenger. Lucrative corporate accounts are owned by the big carriers, and business travelers avoid the cheaper airlines, often choosing to pay premium prices at the last moment to get seats on the flights that best fit their schedules.

But the low-cost carriers nonetheless force the big airlines to figure out a way to draw the most price-sensitive fliers in any given market — those who scour the internet for the cheapest tickets possible. Those customers make up a significant portion of travelers, meaning the major carrier cannot just ignore them.

“Those passengers certainly are important,” said David Weingart, an economist at the aviation consultant GRA. “The larger airlines have proven that in how they’ve reacted, in how they’ve tried to capture or recapture those passengers.”
Of all the major carriers, United is fighting on price the most aggressively.

Scott Kirby, who was appointed as United’s president a year ago, has shifted the carrier’s strategy toward the low-cost airlines, mirroring one he helped to drive when he served as a top executive at American.

Pushing back against Wall Street’s wishes to limit capacity growth, United is adding seats in a number of its major markets across the country. It has, for example, swapped out smaller jets for larger planes to increase the number of seats it has available to sell, and matched fares offered by low-cost carriers.

By expanding capacity, United aims to get back to what Mr. Kirby calls its “natural” share of passengers in some of its hubs. The carrier now expects to increase its seat capacity in the domestic market by as much as 4.5 percent this year over last year, double the 2 percent growth Delta has forecast. American does not expect its capacity to change.
            
“We’re just returning to where United’s natural market share is,” Mr. Kirby told stock analysts in April. “We’re going to be very careful to calibrate how it’s working and how we’re doing.”

United’s new approach has put it into direct competition with Spirit in Newark, Houston and Chicago, according to analysts and executives. Spirit has certainly noticed.

“While we are not surprised that the environment remains very competitive, it is surprising to see our competitors resort to the unusual level of discounting we are currently seeing, especially since we are still in the summer peak period,” Matthew Klein, chief commercial officer at Spirit, said during a call with analysts in July.

Denver has also emerged as a battleground. Frontier, a privately held carrier, announced in July that it planned to add 21 flights from Denver International Airport, mostly to smaller cities like Albuquerque; Louisville, Ky.; and Charleston, S.C. The company said that it planned to double the number of nonstop routes it operates to 314 and its total number of routes to 1,000 by next summer.

Because of the underlying strength of the economy in the Denver area, United, Southwest and Spirit have added flights there in recent years as well. Kim Day, the chief executive at the Denver airport, said fares at the hub are now 15 percent below the national average.
“They’ve all found their niches,” she said. “If they can make money here, they’re going to continue to flow connecting passengers in here.”

The current skirmishes do not amount to a broad-based fare war. Many routes in the United States are dominated by a single carrier, insulating them from price competition.

The cost of a round-trip domestic ticket averaged more than $490 in the first half of the year, up slightly compared with 2016, according to Airlines Reporting Corporation, a company that settles flight transactions between a number of carriers and booking services like Expedia.

The jostling, however, has left airline investors skittish. As the publicly traded airlines in July reported earnings for the second quarter, shareholders sold off their shares, worried about the fight over fares and capacity increases.

But anxiety among investors is good news for fliers. Travelers on routes that are competitive will probably be able to snap up good deals.

“I don’t see the prices really rising that much from year to year, based on that ability to have that competition and keep prices at a normal level,” said Merritt Pullam, a real estate agent who lives with his wife and two young children in Denver and flies to places like California and Hawaii for vacations.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

‘The Model’ — Kraftwerk’s prototype for modern pop

Helen Brown

“She’s a model and she’s looking good.” In February 1982, the sophisticated deadpan of Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hütter hovered like a drone over a UK top 10 that included Bucks Fizz and Shakin’ Stevens. “The Model” was originally released on the band’s classic 1978 album The Man Machine, but EMI revived the song as a B-side to “Computer Love” (the tune Coldplay recycled on their 2005 song “Talk”).

DJs preferred “The Model”, so the label reissued it as the double A-side and created the first UK number one for an all-German group — although, as multilingual young men from cosmopolitan Düsseldorf, Kraftwerk identified as “a European band with German passports”.

The Kraftwerk story began when Hütter met flautist and “sound fetishist” Florian Schneider at music school in the late 1960s. Their “European industrial folk music” was inspired by the pioneering electronic composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and the crisply suited Italian/English artists Gilbert & George’s mission to “bring art into everyday life”. Coming from a wealthy and highly cultured family, Schneider bought a synthesiser in 1970 when the price tag was beyond the reach of most musicians.

British and American critics initially struggled to accept synth sounds (Lester Bangs called Kraftwerk music’s “final solution”) but were soon forced to concede that the routine pleasures and elegant melancholy of the band’s pristine soundscapes were resonating with young people.

“It is emotional,” Hütter explained earlier this year. “People a long time ago had difficulties finding the sensitivity of electronics. But when you go and see your doctor and he does a heart test, it is electronics that are very sensitive to this. It’s the same with an instrument. That’s why we should use the tools of today’s society to create music — otherwise it is just antique.”

“Das Model” (in its original German version) evolved from a poem the band’s artistic collaborator Emil Schult wrote about the high-fashion models he observed in a Cologne nightclub. Some feminists claim the song objectifies its subject: a woman who only exists for the male gaze, smiling for money. Others defend it as a critique of the consumer society which reduces women to nameless automatons.

As a song about a human being, it’s certainly an oddity in the catalogue of a band more comfortable addressing architecture and technology. As one fan blogger joked: “Forget the Bechdel Test; the majority of Kraftwerk songs don’t even pass the Turing Test.”

But there’s no debate about the catchiness of the song’s grinding hook and twinkling melody. (For the geeks, that’s probably a Micromoog on bass, Polymoog on lead and a Minimoog playing the melody that comes in at 1:30, but the band are pretty secretive about their gear.) Kraftwerk may have disdained the charts, but they provided the prototype for modern pop.

Devotees have covered the song in almost every conceivable genre. YouTube yields versions by Finnish accordionists, medieval recorder ensembles, ukulele groups and klezmer bands.

Surrey punks The Members (whose 1979 protest song “Offshore Banking Business” went viral in 2015 in response to the “Panama Papers” scandal) gave it a brass-backed reggae makeover in 1983. The Balanescu Quartet used classical strings to replicate every synth line on their recently reissued 1992 album, Possessed, and have performed the song live with David Byrne: Google a video of this for the ultimate lesson in robot dancing. German industrial metalheads Rammstein roared it to near-obliteration in 1997, while Swedish indie band The Cardigans added a cheeky harpsichord effect in 2003.

The original has proved unbeatable, though. On their 2017 tour, Kraftwerk bolstered other material with modern dance beats, but left “The Model” alone. Like its subject, the song remains untouchable.