Joho the BlogJoho the Blog - Let's just see what happens

February 18, 2017

The Keynesian Marketplace of Ideas

The awesome Tim Hwang (disclosure: I am a complete fanboy) has posted an essay
arguing that we should take something like a Keynesian approach to the “marketplace of ideas” that we were promised with the Internet. I think there’s something really helpful about this, but that ultimately the metaphor gets in the way of itself.

The really helpful piece:

…our mental model of the marketplace of ideas has stayed roughly fixed even as the markets themselves have changed dramatically.

…I wonder if we might take a more Keynesian approach to the marketplace of ideas: holding that free economies of ideas are frequently efficient, and functional. But, like economic marketplaces, they are susceptible to persistent recessions and bad, self-reinforcing equilibria that require systemic intervention at critical junctures.

This gives us a way to think about intervening when necessary, rather than continually bemoaning the failure of idea markets or, worse, fleeing from them entirely.

The analogy leads Tim to two major suggestions:

…major, present day idea marketplaces like Facebook are not laissez-faire. They feature deep, constant interventionism on the part of the platform to mediate and shape idea market outcomes through automation and algorithm. Digital Keynesians would resist these designs: marketplaces of ideas are typically functional without heavy mediation and platform involvement, and doing so creates perverse distortions. Roll back algorithmic content curation, roll back friend suggestions, and so on.

Second, we should develop a

clearer definition of the circumstances under which platforms and governments would intervene to right the ship more extensively during a crisis in the marketplace.

There’s no arguing with the desirability of the second suggestion. In fact, we can ask why we haven’t developed these criteria and box of tools already.

“ a way to think about intervening, rather than bemoaning the failure of idea markets”The answer I think is in Tim’s observation that “marketplaces of ideas are typically functional without heavy mediation and platform involvement.” I think that misses the mark both in old-fashioned and new-fangled marketplaces of ideas. All of them assume a particular embodiment of those ideas, and thus those ideas are always mediated by the affordances of their media — one-to-many newspapers, a Republic of Letters that moves at the speed of wind, even backyard fences over which neighbors chat — and by norms and regulations (or architecture, law, markets, and norms, as Larry Lessig says). Facebook and Twitter cannot exist except as interventions. What else can you call Facebook’s decisions about which options to offer about who gets to see your posts, and Twitter’s insistence on a 140 character limit? It seems artificial to me to insist on a difference between those interventions and the algorithmic filtering that Facebook does in order to address its scale issues (as well as to make a buck or two).

As a result, in the Age of the Internet, we have something closer to a marketplace of idea marketplaces “we have something closer to a marketplace of idea marketplaces” that span a spectrum of how laissez their faire is.[note.] These marketplaces usually can’t “trade” across their boundaries except in quite primitive ways, such as pasting a tweet link into Facebook. And they don’t agree about the most basic analogic elements of an economy: who gets to participate and under what circumstances, what counts as currency, what counts as a transaction, how to measure the equivalence of an exchange, the role of intermediaries, the mechanisms of trust and the recourses for when trust is broken.

So, Twitter, Facebook, and the comments section of Medium are all mediated marketplaces and thus cannot adopt Tim’s first suggestion — that they cease intervening — because they are their policies and mechanisms of intervention.

That’s why I appreciate that towards the end Tim wonders, “Should we accept a transactional market frame in the first place?” Even though I think the disanalogies are strong, I will repeat Tim’s main point because I think it is indeed a very useful framing:

…free economies of ideas are frequently efficient, and functional. But, like economic marketplaces, they are susceptible to persistent recessions and bad, self-reinforcing equilibria that require systemic intervention at critical junctures.

I like this because it places responsibility — and agency — on those providing a marketplace of ideas. If your conversational space isn’t working, it’s your fault. Fix it.

And, yes, it’d be so worth the effort for us to better understand how.

1 Comment »

February 13, 2017

Ricky Gervais's "Life on the Road": Review

[NO SPOILERS YET] Ricky Gervais’ new TV movie, Life on the Road, now on Netflix, suffers from the sort of mortifying errors committed by its protagonist, David Brent, the manager of The Office with whom the movie catches us up.

[TINY SPOILERS THAT WON’T SPOIL ANYTHING] The movie is amusing in some of the main ways the original The Office was. David Brent is an unself-knowing narcissist surrounded by people who see through him. It lacks the utterly charming office romance between Tim and Dawn (Jim and Pam in the US version). It lacks any other villain than Brent, unlike Gareth in the original (Dwight in the US version). It lacks the satire of office life, offering instead a satire of self-funded, doomed rock tour by an unknown, pudgy, middle-aged man. That’s not a thing, so you can’t really satirize it.

Still, Gervais is great as Brent, having honed uncomfortable self-presentation to an art, complete with a squealing giggle that alerts us to his inability to be ashamed of himself. And Gervais sings surprisingly well.

[SPOILERS] But then it ends suddenly with Brent being accepted by his band, by the office where he’s been working as a bathroom-supply salesperson, and by a woman. Nothing prepares us for this except that it’s the end of the movie and Gervais wants to give his character some peace and dignity. It’s some extraordinarily sloppy writing.

Worse, the ending seems way too close to what Gervais himself seems to want. Like Brent, he wants to be taken seriously as a musician and singer, except that Gervais’s songs are self-knowingly bad, in the style of Spinal Tap except racist. Still, you leave the movie surprised that he’s that good a singer and that the songs are quite good as comic songs. Brent-Gervais has achieved his goal.

Likewise, you leave thinking that Gervais has given us a happy ending because he, Gervais, wants to be liked, just as Brent does. It’s not the angry fuck-the-hicks sort of attitude Gervais exhibited during and immediately after The Office.

And you leave thinking that, like Brent, Gervais really wants to carry the show solely on his shoulders. The Office was an ensemble performance with some fantastic acting by Martin Freeman (!) as Tim and Lucy Davis as Dawn, as well as by Gervais. Life on the Road only cares about one character, as if Gervais wanted to prove he could do it all by his lonesome. But he can’t.

Ricky Gervais pulls his punches in this, not for the first time. Let Ricky be Ricky. Or, more exactly, Let Ricky be David.

3 Comments »

February 1, 2017

How to fix the WordFence wordfence-waf.php problem

My site has been down while I’ve tried to figure out (i.e., google someone else’s solution) to a crash caused by WordFence, an excellent utility that, ironically, protects your WordPress blog from various maladies.

The problem is severe: Users of your blog see naught but an error message of this form:

Fatal error: Unknown: Failed opening required ‘/home/dezi3014/public_html/wordfence-waf.php’ (include_path=’…/usr/lib/php /usr/local/lib/php’) in Unknown on line 0

The exact path will vary, but the meaning is the same. It is looking for a file that doesn’t exist. You’ll see the same message when you try to open your WordPress site as administrator. You’ll see it even when you manually uninstall WordPress by logging into your host and deleting the wordfence folder from the wp-content/plugins folder

If you look inside the wordfence-waf.php file (which is in whatever folder you’ve installed WordPress into), it warns you that “Before removing this file, please verify the PHP ini setting `auto_prepend_file` does not point to this.”

Helpful, except my php.ini file doesn’t have any reference to this. (I use MediaTemple.com as my host.) Some easy googling disclosed that the command to look for the file may not be in php.ini, but may be in .htaccess or .user.ini instead. And now you have to find those files.

At least for me, the .user.ini file is in the main folder into which you’ve installed WordPress. In fact, the only line in that file was the one that has the “auto_prepend_file” command. Remove that line and you have your site back.

I assume all of this is too obvious to write about for technically competent people. This post is for the rest of us.

1 Comment »

January 23, 2017

Trump's conspirators

For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have bore the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered but the jobs left and the factories closed.

So said Pres. Trump in his inaugural address, identifying the perpetrators of the Bladerunner-esque hellscape he depicted.

It’s not clear who he means. That’s worrisome.

The “rewards of government” Trump has in mind seem to be monetary, since in the next sentence he talks about wealth, and in the one after that he contrasts prospering politicians with factory workers who have lost their jobs.

So, who does Trump thinks is this shadowy group that has controlled our nation for their own personal monetary profit? Obama and his administration? Especially in terms of personal enrichment, the Obama years were the cleanest in my lifetime. And, of course, Trump’s poised to be the most corrupt in terms of self-enrichment.

It makes me nervous when politicians blame a small unnamed group that controls the country and does so for personal monetary benefit. Sounds like a dogwhistle to me, especially when an anti-Semitic white racist is the president’s chief strategic adviser.

I’m struggling to make sense of this particular paranoid conspiracy theory. I’m only coming up with one answer.

Be the first to comment »

January 20, 2017

Maybe we’re not such an awful species

Wired has a post about http://astronaut.io/, a site that shows snippets of recently uploaded YouTubes that have had no views and that have a generic title.

In just a few minutes, I saw scenes from around the world of what matters to people.

Maybe I was just lucky, but what I saw is what peace is about.

Be the first to comment »

January 16, 2017

The maximalist approach to removing Trump

The list of ways Trump’s term might be cut short ranges from impeachment, to the invocation of the 25th Amendment, to personal blackmail, to a Fact Ex Machina that is so awful and indisputable that it picks him up by his ill-fitting suit and kicks him into the Loser’s Suite of his new DC hotel.

But if this past year has taught us anything — and I’m open to the possibility that it has not — it’s that we are very bad at making predictions about specific events that result from complex circumstances. We can’t know if and how Trump’s term might come to early end. For all we know, he might exeunt chased by a bear. (Hint: The bear is Russia.)

Which suggests that the most effective action ordinary janes and joes like us can take is to create the conditions under which several paths are easier to be trod.

For example:

  • Demonstrate the depth and breadth of the opposition by loyal, patriotic US citizens, to embolden Congress to oppose and remove him.

  • Extend and deepen the bonds among his opponents — emotional as well as political bonds

  • Expose as many of his lies as we can

  • Call him on his bullshit and attacks on the Constitution

  • Make heroes of his opponents, no matter what party they’re in

  • Frame him as an outsider to the American tradition and to both political parties

  • Do what we can as citizens, techies, parents, businesspeople, creators, activists, mimes — whatever is our excellence and our joy — to pursue a particular path towards Trump’s removal…and, not incidentally, to repair the damage his administration causes to our neighbors and communities.

When the future is so unknowable, we have no choice but to make it more possible.

2 Comments »

January 13, 2017

My conspiracy theory

My conspiracy theory: The purported dossier on Trump says the Russians have been cultivating him for five years. Suppose they were pressuring him to run. As a true patriot, Trump knew how disastrous it would be to have a Russian puppet as President. So, Trump did everything he could as a candidate to make himself unelectable: in his announcement speech he called Mexicans rapists, he made fun of the disabled, he called McCain a loser for being captured. He just kept upping the ante. And then we elected him.

Put differently, let me pitch a movie idea to you. It’s The Manchurian Candidate meets The Producers.

The Manchurian Producers
No Puppet. No Puppet. You’re the Puppet.

Starring Seth Rogen.
with James Franco as “The Toup”

Opening nationwide on Jan 20.

2 Comments »

January 12, 2017

Olin Library: Library as place, as lab, as local theater

I went to see my friend Jeff Goldenson — we worked together at the Harvard Library Innovation Lab — at Olin College, where he’s director of the library. Jeff’s taken a library that was an under-utilized resource and, with full Administrative backing, turned it into a playground and a lab…by learning some lessons from community theater. Most importantly, he’s turned it into a place that the community feels it owns.

Olin’s got 350 students, all engineers, half of whom are women. It’s a school that stresses hands-on learning, which turns out to work well for Jeff’s approach. The library’s got two floors, neither of them particularly large, and 15,000 volumes. (Here’s a banana for scale: My local community library has about ten times that many. Yes, it is an affluent community. Nevertheless, please keep in mind that I’m still looking for work.)

Here’s some of what Jeff — who’s background is in architecture and design — has done:

First, he has done the expected things to make the library more inviting — a place as well as a resource, as Jeff puts it. These include a media tools library, maker spaces, coffee spots, some very cool events. (Ask Jeff about the Awkward Family Photobooth :)

Second, he has encouraged students to participate in coming up with new ideas for the library and, since it is a hands-on engineering school, building them.

Third, he has taken some fantastic steps to make the library re-configurable, well beyond the usual putting wheels on everything. For example, he is not only putting things on shelves in the stacks that you won’t find in most libraries, he’s coming up with ways of enabling shelves to be generally repurposable.

Fourth, Jeff being Jeff, everything he thinks of or builds is done in open, shareable ways. (Jeff undoubtedly doesn’t want me to be as cagey as I’m being in this post.)

Fifth, when you have a chance, ask Jeff about cardboard. And vinyl. And other materials that lets him and others alter the physicality of the library — the library as place — the way a local theater company creates sets. For example, once a week the Library turns a structure in the lobby into a coffee shop. It’s very popular, but it still looks like a library structure repurposed as a coffee shop. But with the magic of some cardboard, paint, and just a few inexpensive touches — e.g., some cheap hanging lamps — the structure and the space are transformed. It’s set design, with the library as the theater. This way of thinking lowers the cost and risk of altering the perceived meaning and feel of the place.

The result is not just a supercool library but a model for how existing libraries without lots of resources can give themselves over to their communities…and become a point of pride for them.

Be the first to comment »

January 11, 2017

[liveblog][bkc] Kishonna Gray

Berkman

Kishonna Gray [#KishonnaGray] is giving a Berkman-Klein [#BKCHarvard] Tuesday lunch talk . She’s an ass’t prof and ML King Scholar at MIT as well as being a fellow at BKC and the author of Race, Gender and Deviance in Xbox Live. She’s going to talk about a framework, Black Digital Feminism.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

She begins by saying, “I’ve been at a cross roads, personally and intellectually” over the Trump election, the death of black civilians at the hand of police, and the gaming controversies, including gamergate. How did we get to this point? And what point are we at? “What matters most in this moment?” She’s going to talk about the framework that helps her make sense of some of these things.

Imagine we’re celebrating the 50th birthday of the Berkman Klein Center (in 305 yrs or so)? What are we celebrating? The end of online harassment? The dismantling of heteronormative, white supremacy hierarchy? Are we telling survivor narratives?

She was moved by an article the day after the election, titled “Black women were the only ones who tried to save the world Tuesday night,” by Charles D. Ellison. She laughed at first, and retweeted it. She was “overwhelmed by the response of people who didn’t think black women have the capacity to do anything except make babies and collect welfare checks.” She recalled many women, including Sojourner Truth who spoke an important truth to a growing sense in the feminist movement that it was fundamentally a white movement. The norms are so common and hidden that when we notice them we ask how the women broke through the barriers rather than asking why the barriers were there in the first place. It’s as if these women are superhuman. But we need to ask why are there barriers in the first place? [This is a beautifully composed talk. I’m sorry to be butchering it so badly. It will be posted on line in a few days.

In 1869 Frederick Douglass argued that including women in the movement for the vote would reduce the chances of the right to vote being won for black men. “White womenhood has been central in defining white masculinity. ” E.g., in Birth of a Nation, white women need protection. Self-definition is the core of intersectionality. Masculinity has mainly protected its own interests and its own fragility, not women. It uses the protection of women to showcase its own dominance.

“Why do we have to insert our own existences into spaces? Why are we not recognized?.” The marginalized are no longer accepting their marginzalization. For example,look at black women’s digital practices.

Black women have used digital involvement to address marginalization, to breach the boundaries of what’s “normal.” Often that is looked upon as them merely “playing around” with tech. The old frameworks meant that black women couldn’t enter the digital space as who they actually are.

Black Digital Feminism has three elements:

1. Social structural oppression of technology and virtual spaces. Many digital spaces are dominated by assumptions that they are color-blind. Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name are attempts to remind us that blackness is not an intrusion.

2. Intersectional oppressions experience in virtual spaces. Women must work to dismantle the interlocking structures of oppression. Individuals experience oppression in different ways and we don’t want a one-size approach. E.g., the “solidarity is for white women” hashtag is seen as an expression of black women being angry, but it is a reminder that feminism has too often been assumed to be a white issue first.

3. The distinctness of the virtual feminist community. Black Digital Feminism privileges women’s ways of knowing. “NotYourAsianSidekick” is rooted in the radical Asian woman tradition, insisting that they control their own identity. Black women, and others, reject the idea that feminism is the same for all women, disregarding the different forms of oppression women are subject to based upon their race, ethnicity, etc. Women have used social media for social change and to advance critical activism and feminism.

The tenets of Black Digital Feminism cannot detach from the personal, communal, or political, which sets it part from techno- and cyber-feminism.

These new technologies are not creating anything. They are providing an outlet. “These groups have never been voiceless. The people in power simply haven’t been listening.” The digital amplifies these voices.

QA

Q: With the new administration, should we be thinking differently?

A: We need to identify the commonalities. Isolated marches won’t do enough. We need to find a way to bring communities together by figuring out what is the common struggle against structural oppression. Black women sacrificed to support Trump, forgetting the “super-predator” stuff from Hillary, but other groups didn’t make equivalent sacrifices.

Q: Does it mean using hashtags differently?

A: This digital culture is only one of many things we can do. We can’t forget the physical community, connecting with people. There are models for doing this.

Q: Did Net Neutrality play a role in enabling the Black community to participate? Do we need to look at NN from a feminist perspective…NN as making every packet have the same weight.

NN was key for enabling Black Lives Matter because the gov’t couldn’t suppress that movement’s language, its speech.

Q: Is this perceived as a danger insider the black feminist movement?

A: Tech isn’t neutral, is the idea. It lets us do what we need to do.

Q: Given the work you’ve done on women finding pleasure in spaces (like the Xbox) where they’re not expected to be found, what do you think about our occupying commercial spaces?

A: I’m a lifelong gamer and I get asked how I can play where there aren’t players — or developers — who look like me. I started the practice of highlighting the people who are there. We’re there, but we’re not noticed. E.g., Pew Research showed recently that half of gamers are women. The overwhelming population of console gamers are black and brown men. We really have to focus on who is in the spaces, and seek them out. My dissertation focused on finding these people, and finding their shared stories: not being noticed or valued. But we should take the extra steps to make sure we locate them. Some people are going to call 2016 the year of the black gamer, games with black protagonists. This is due to a push from marginalized games. The resistance is paying off. Even the Oscars So White has paid off in a more diverse Golden Globes nominees set.

Q: You navigate between feminist theory and observational work. How did the latter shape the former?

A: When I learned about ethnography I thought it was the most beautiful thing ever created — being immersed in a community and let them tell their own stories. But when it came time to document that, I realized why we sometimes consider ethnography to be voyeuristic and exploitative. When transcribing, I was expected to “clean up” the speech. “Hell no,” she said. E.g. she left “dem” as “dem,” not “them.” “I refer to people as narrators, not ‘research participants.'” They’re part of the process. She showed them the chapter drafts. E.g., she hasn’t published all her Ferguson work because she wants to make sure that she “leaves the place better.” You have to stay true to the transformative, liberatory practices that we say we’re doing.” She’s even been criticized for writing too plainly, eschewing academic jargon. “I wanted to make sure that a community that let me into its space understood every word that I wrote.”

Q: There’s been debate about the people who lead the movement. E.g., if I’m not black, I am not best suited to lead the movement in the fight for those rights. OTOH, if we want to advance the rights of women, we have to move the whole society with us.

A: What you’re saying is important. I stopped caring about hurting peole’s feelings because if they’re devoted to the work that needs to be done, they’ve checked their feelings, their fragility, at the door. There is tons of work for allies to do. If it’s a real ally dedicated to the work, they’ll understand. There’s so much work to do. And Trump isn’t even the president yet.

Q: About the application of Black Digital Feminism to the law. (Intersectionality started in law journals.)

A: It’s hard to see how it translates into actual policy, especially now. I don’t know how we’ll push back against what’s to come. E.g., we know evaluations of women are usually lower than of men. So when are we going to stop valuing the evaluations so highly? At the bottom of my evaluations, I write, “Just so you know, these evaluations are filtered through my black woman’s body.”

Q: What do we get things like”#IamMichelle”, which is like the “I am Spartacus” in the movie Spartacus?

A: It depends on the effect it has. I focus on marginalized folks, and their sense of empowerment and pride. There’s some power there, especially in localized communities.

Q: How can white women be supportive?

A: You’ve to go get your people, the white women who voted. What have you done to change the thinking of the women you know who voted for Trump? That’s where it has to begin. You have to first address your own circle. You may not be able to change them, but you can’t ignore them. That’s step one.

Q: I always like your work because you hearken back to a rich pedigree of black feminism. But the current moment is distinct. E.g., the issues are trans-national. So we need new visions for what we want the future. What is the future that we’re fighting for? What does the digital contribute to that vision?

A: It’s important to acknowledge what’s the same. E.g., the death of black people by police is part of the narrative of lynching. The structural and institutional inequalities are the same. Digital tools let us address this differently. BLM is no different from what happened with Rodney King. What future are we fighting for? I guess I haven’t articulated that. I don’t know how we get there. We should first ask how we transform our own spaces. I don’t want the conversation to get to big. The conservation should be small enough and digestible. We don’t want people to feel helpless.

Q: If I’m a man who asks about Black Digital Feminism [which he is], where can I learn more?

You can go to my Web site: www.kishonnaGray.com. And the Berkman Klein community is awesome and ready to go to work.

Q: You write about the importance of claiming identity online. Early on, people celebrated the fact that you could go online without a known identity. Especially now, how do you balance the important task of claiming identity and establishing solidarity with your smaller group, and bonding with your allies in a larger group? Do we need to shift the balance?

A: I haven’t figured out how to create that balance. The communities I’m in are still distinct. When Mike Brown was killed, I realized how distinct the anti-gamergate crowd was from the BLM. These are not opposing fights. They’re not so distinct that we can’t fight both at the same times. I ended up working with both, and got me thinking about how to bridge them. But I haven’t figured out how to bring them together.

Be the first to comment »

January 8, 2017

Make policies, not deals

We can argue about whether president-elect Trump’s deal to save 800 jobs at Carrier?—?ten years of tax breaks and other incentives worth $7 million to the company?—?was a good one or not. We can get riled up about Trump taking credit for keeping open a Ford plant that wasn’t closing. But our real concern should be about deals substituting for policy.

A deal results from a negotiation between the contesting parties. Policies result from decision-making processes by an institution that does not directly benefit or suffer from the outcome; those who do are supposed to recuse themselves.

Deals differ depending on those negotiating them. Policies are the same for all concerned.

Deals are therefore unpredictable. It is usually a good practice not to state honestly what your expectations or limits are. That’s why deal-making can be called an “art.” Policies aim at predictability. They announce their intent and the mechanisms for achieving that intent.

Deals are negotiated using techniques that play upon the personality quirks of the negotiators.”Deals are negotiated using techniques that play upon the personality quirks of the negotiators. Because policies apply more broadly, they are not predicated on individual weaknesses, although the tactics used for achieving policy objectives might.

Deals can fail. One side or both can walk away from the table. The conflict of interests then continues, often without a fallback for how to resolve it. Policies can fail to achieve their goals, but they survive particular failures. They may even be amended and improved based on cases where they proved themselves inadequate.

Deals are done by individuals. Policies are created by institutions.

Donald Trump fancies himself a deal-maker. He has exhibited no interest in or aptitude for policy.

This is dangerous.

On the positive side, because deals deal with particulars, they can hew more closely to the precise needs of both sides. Policies can steamroller the particularities of a case the way a law can be applied evenly but unjustly if there are extenuating circumstances. That’s why we amend policies, and hand their implementation to dedicated career professionals?—?people candidate Trump has disdained as stupid and corrupt.

But even that positive attribute of deals does not scale. As others have pointed out, president-elect Trump has gotten widespread praise for intervening to save 800 jobs, while President Obama has gotten little credit for policies that have contributed to the creation of 15 million jobs. If President Trump made one 800-job deal a day, he would have to be president for 51 years to equal President Obama’s achievement.

Most dangerous of all, a government that works by making deals is a government in the pocket of a strongman who thinks that he alone can save us. “A deal-driven government is all exceptions all the time.”A deal-driven government is all exceptions all the time.

President Trump’s experience in office is unlikely to teach him the weakness of governance by deal-making, for he is going to spend his time making deals and repeatedly exulting in his successes, while excusing his failures by excoriating those who did not accept his terms.

We can only hope that the American public sees through this. The Art of the Deal is in this case indistinguishable from the Ego of the Despot.



I’ve posted this also at Medium.

Be the first to comment »

Next Page »