Joho the BlogFebruary 2017 - Joho the Blog

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.

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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.

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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.

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