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April 14, 2011

Our new instinct

MacWorld ran an article on how to set up Apples Pages to print out Avery labels. This is helpful information because Avery doesn’t have nearly as many ready-made templates for Pages as it does for Word. So the article walks the reader through the page and table settings. Excellent.

But MacWorld left out one crucial step: When you’re done, share it on the Web.

Avery doesn’t have a Pages template for its Beige Design Filing Label, Clear, 30 per sheet (#5029), so you made your own? Great! Why should we all have to re-do your work? Share it on the Web. Thanks!

By this time, “and then share it on the Web” should be a reflex on its way to becoming an instinct. The work of one can now remove a task from the checklist of millions. This is of evolutionary importance. Do it once and let the species move on.

Please. Thank you. And share it on the Web.


November 17, 2009

[berkman] Samuel Bowles on property rights in the information age

Samuel Bowles is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk called: “Kudunomics: Property rights for the information based economy.” He wants to look at how institutions are likely to evolve in the “weightless economy.”

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. THIS TALK WAS ESPECIALLY DIFFICULT for me and certainly contains howlingly wrong misrepresentations of SB’s ideas. You are warned, people.

“In an economy based primarily on embodied and relational wealth, individual property rights are difficult and socially harmful to enforce.” Adam Smith’s invisible hand fails in important ways. SB says that that’s not a new idea. The new idea is that we should be able to gain insight about the evolution of institutions by studying the reverse transition from the Late Pleistocene forager economy to the agrarian economy. So, SB thought he should run that history backwards, which he may get to talking about in today’s session. The forager economy may provide clues for the weightless economy of the future.

SB puts up an equation explaining wealth, which I could not follow or capture, a cobb-douglas production function. [I hear Ethanz typing. He’s certainly doing a far better job liveblogging this than I.] One point: Once we domesticated animals, we turned wealth into something we could own. Network wealth = the value your connections bring you. The number of people who will help you in your field, share food, etc. Embodied wealth = the value of what’s in your head that’s actionable by your body. [I’m not sure I got that, and I’m certainly paraphrasing.]

The basic idea of the invisible hand theorem is that good fences make good neighbors. Arrow and Debreu showed in 1953 that competitive market allocations will be optimal (in the Pareto sense), but only if the markets are complete (“the effects of the actions of economic actors on one another take the form of contractual exchanges”) and increasing returns to scale are absent or small [I don’t know what that means]. “Under these assumptions, goods will be priced at their marginal cost which will equal their true scarcity (social marginal cost): p=M =SMC” SB is going to show that that is not true in a weightless economy.

Much of the economy – the grain and steel economy — fits this invisible hand theorem. It works best if the goods are tangible, easily measurable in standardized ways. In this classic economy, there was sufficient competition.

But, it’s different in weightless economies, where there’s high first-copy costs, and low marginal costs. E.g., it costs a lot to produce the first copy of a CD but very little for the rest of the copies. E.g., the first copy of Windows 97 cost maybe $50M, but the second copy cost $3.

In the weightless economy, enforcing property rights paradoxically force a violation of the invisible hand theorem: You let someone charge $20 for a cd the marginal cost of which is $0.85.

In the economy of grain and steel, market structure was a mix of competition and stable oligopoly (“competition restricted to a handful of firms”). The info economy may exhibit a serial monopoly structure, but that’s not what he wants to talk about.

SB gives a summary of what he’s said so far: Dilemmas of the weightless economy: Increasing returns on both the demand and supply side make competition difficult to sustain. This winner-take-all dynamic generates lots of inequality. The critical thing: Private firms cannot conform to the p=MC rule, and property rights are both ambiguous and difficult to enforce. The institutions that have worked well for the past 200 yrs are likely to work less well in the future.

Kudu = An antelope of some sort hunted in Tanzania for its massive caloric value. When one is killed, it’s widely shared (perhaps 2/3 outside of the nuclear family). The culture of the foraging band: generosity, modesty about one’s success, sharing. Christopher Boehm (1982) wrote that group sanction is “the most powerful instrument for regulation of individually assertive behaviors.” But mobile foraging bands “and its collectivist and egalitarian norms and properties was eventually displaced by agricultural production.” The critical fact is that that increased land productivity so that a small plot of band was productive enough to live on, which provided an incentive for putting up fences and defending it. These prop rights were not enforced by states but by some form of mutual consent.

Just as agricultural facilitated unambiguous prop rights, the info economy is reversing this process. We’re returning to the early Pleistocene economy. Most of the animals could not be domesticated. Some became more valuable when domesticated. Is an online song more like a cow or like a kudu? “Will the attempt to domesticate the modern day kudu’s prove costly and ineffective?”

Arrow: “Information is a fugitive resource.” It runs away. “We are just beginning to face the contradictions between the systems of private prop and of info acquisition and dissemination.” “If Arrow is correct, how would we expect our economic institutions to evolve under these new conditions?” Institutional change is very hard to study. There aren’t that many French Revolutions to study. He is doing Markov chain models with others at the Santa Fe Institute.

“Could between-group competition and technological advance combine to induce a new property rights revolution?” Darwin explained change via in-group revolution, while Marx looked at between-group. This is complex between there are both individual and group selection processes, so they’re almost impossible to predict using math. But you can use models. There are many quilibria. Initial conditions do not matter.

He talks about his agent-based model of institutional persistence and innovation. (You can play with his “artificial history” models here: It looks like a Windows executable you can download.) He describes three strategies in the model: bourgeois (own prop and defend it), civic (share and penalize those who do not), share. [See Ethan! Or watch the webcast when it’s posted in a day or too. Sorry.]

If prop rights are stable, then an all-bourgeois society (protect what they have) is in equilibrium. Likewise if all civics. If all civics (share and punish for non-sharing), you can drift toward all sharers because they are behaviorally indistinguishable if there are not B who are trying to protect what they have. Using these parameters (which I am expressing totally inadequately and probably inaccurately), he and Jung-Kyoo Choi have run simulations. If prop rights are stable, the system tends towards equilibrium. If they are not — a bourgeois contests ownership — there is no equilibrium, although there is some moving clustering. Summary: “Evolutionary success of the ‘bourgeois equilibrium’ depends on prop rights being unambiguous.

But this is not the right way to understand the future because we don’t know how ambiguous prop rights will be, which depends on technological advances and the legal system.

Diff institutions have diff advantages. States are good at coercing, Markets allocate well. Communities handle the ambiguity of prop rights but fail where inequalities among members are very large. The problem of the info economy is that information creates both substantial ambiguity or prop rights and a lot of inequality (winner-take-all). The ambiguity makes it hard for the state to adjudicate. The inequality makes it hard for the communitarian values to succeed.

He ends by quoting Hayek: Whether central planning or competition works depends on whether you put all the pricing info in the hands of a central authority or adjust the prices by giving the pricing info to individuals. But now we have a third player: Markets and states, but also communities. Fifty years ago, people speculated that computers would solve this problem. SB says that we need a high level of info creation as well as making it available at its marginal cost. This is the question asked for hunters in hunter/gathering societies: Why should hunters hunt if they give it all away? Understanding this activity — mirrored in today’s collaborative environment — may help solve the problem.

Q: What do we know about the scalability of communities? The ambiguity seems to grow as groups get bigger.
A: How many people work on Wikipedia?
Q: The ambiguity there occurs in small groups.
A: Hunter-gatherers can’t take advantage of economies of scale or of diversity. Can moral sanctioning be done in on-face-to-face environments? We’re finding out.

Q: Can you talk about common pool resources (Ostrom)? [and two more questions]
A: The value of the network is the number of possible connections. There are therefore huge economies of scale. That’s where you get the winner-take-all from. Ostrom took some insights of Ronale Coase and extend them beyond firms, to include things such as communities. Are the motivations for sw engineers the same for hunters? Reputation. Fun.

Q: [me] What’s a community?
A: The non-state, non-market ways that humans connect and interact. [Hugely paraphrased!]
Q: [me] Is there enough in common among all those ways to enable it to be used as a factor in your model?
A: Communities have in common that they have a public thing, they have to figure how to share the benefits of this, and they;re not doing this primarily through enforceable contracts. But I don’t want to pin it down too much. Read “Against Parsimony” by Albert Hirschman.

Q: One of the child’s first words is “mine” because that it eanables it to differentiate itself from its environment. I think your theory would change if you asked if that’s a universal.
A: It’s not. Children differentiate themselves from their mother, but they don’t universally claim physical objects as their own. Private property is incredibly recent.

Q: In your agent-based model, could you drill down to see which types of prop rights are likely to be stable?
A: Yes, but not with agent-based models. Our theory lets us address this. We just haven’t done it. You should be able to look at the nature of the project — first copy costs, e.g. — and develop a typology of the sorts of things that are hard to solve, although changes in tech or law would change this.

Q: The gov’t role has be quite diff if you an economy of cows or kudus. How does this affect gov’t regulation?

A: My preliminary ideas: I don’t think it leads to more or less gov’t. It leads into different kinds of gov’t interventions. The aim is to take seriously when designing incentives you have to take into account that people have their own motivations. And if you introduce monetary incentives, you may get worse outcomes; I’ve recently written about this for Science. The solution to problems is always some combination of incentives designed by economists et al. and the moral incentives of most humans. These two are inseparable; addressing one without recognizing this can be disastrous. Some problem are solved not just by financial incentives but by some combination of people’s incentives and motivations.

[NOTE: Samuel Bowles is way more coherent than this livebloggery makes him sound. I lack the background to follow much of what he says. Much for me was like typing in the dark. So, I apologize to him and to you. And here’s Ethan Zuckerman’s far superior bloggage.]


February 13, 2009 aggregates spoken words

Douglas Kaye, founder of IT Conversations and the Conversations Network, has launched Here’s part of the announcement:

There are perhaps millions of audio and video spoken-word
recordings on the Internet. Think of all those lectures,
interviews, speeches, conferences, meetings, radio and TV
programs and podcasts. No matter how obscure the topic,
someone has recorded and published it on line.

But how do you find it? is a new free on-line service that helps you
find, manage and share audio and video spoken-word
recordings, regardless of who produced them or where
they’re published. All of the recordings in the database are discovered on the Internet and
submitted to our database by members like you.

This is another public-spirited work from a public-spirited guy who has assembled and inspired a public-spirited collective. [Disclosure: I’m on the board of advisers.]

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January 15, 2009

Nature Magzine sets up collaborative education space

Nature Magazine, which should be the stodgiest of the stodgiest, continues to show an admirable flexibility (stopping short of doing the full open access Monty). It’s now created Scitable, “a collaborative learning space for science undergraduates.” It’s got articles, online class tools, teacher collaborative tools, student collaborative tools, discussion areas, consultable experts… I haven’t yet gone through it all.

This initial implementation focuses on genetics. Nature is planning on expanding the topics.

On top of all that, it’s great to contemplate how blase we’ve become about the primordial value of collaborative tools. Collaboration is the new greed.

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September 5, 2008

[AE] Ars Electronica

Ars Electronica is a festival with a conference embedded in it as one of dozens of tracks. It’s held in Linz, Austria, a beautiful city on Danube. Artists, geeks, academics and others gather, this year to discuss “A New Cultural Economy.” [Note: I am live-blogging, writing badly, making mistakes, missing stuff, and just generally going wrong. The conference is streamed, I believe]

This morning, Joi Ito, the conference “curator,” welcomes us. He talks about AE’s valuing of artists as those who (especially in Europe, he says) push technology forward by imagining uses. He shows a stack: Ethernet (computers), Internet (network), Web (content), and knowledge (Creative Commons). It took ten years to generate enough user-created content to be worth searching for, he says. But now we’re there. But we need to unlock the knowledge we’ve created via tech, open licensing, and the Semantic Web. We need to get past the copyright holders vs. the pirates bifurcation. We need to look at nuance and at the hybrid projects. And that’s what we’re going to do at AE, he says.

He argues against the idea that amateur vs. professional means good vs. excellent. Amateurs have access to high-quality tools and do what they do out of love. How do we adapt our culture, economy and government to adapt to a generation that would rather produce and remix than consume?

[This is a very rough overview of Joi’s remarks.]

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August 21, 2008

Open science and the competition-collaboration slider

There’s an excellent story on the front page of the Boston Globe today, by Carolyn Johnson, about scientists who just go ahead and blab about their data before the village elders have given them permission.


The article says:

Scientists who plunge into openness also risk giving a competing lab a leg up.

“Maybe somebody has discovered some interesting gene and doesn’t want to blab to the whole world about why it’s interesting,” said Michael Laub, an assistant professor of biology at MIT. He says his lab is not overly secretive, but does not post “all the gory details of what someone is working on, because I don’t want my grad students necessarily to be scooped by someone else.”

Laub is just saying what everyone knows.1 But the fact that everyone knows it and we’re ok with it is a sign of the problem with the system: The system we want maximizes knowledge and innovation, but the system we have swerves in order to preserve credit for individuals. From the discovery of the shape of DNA to AIDS research, we’ve seen some of the problems with the competitive model of science. But we also routinely see the benefits, as scientists work overtime in order to get credit for a discovery.

And yet, the mix seems wrong. The competitive model made more sense when it was more difficult to share data anyway. The collaborative model is proving itself in unexpected places. It’s clear that a mixed model works — some competitive, some collaborative — but it’s not clear how far we can push the slider toward the collaborative side. My hunch, and my hope, is that it’s way further than we would have thought, especially since experience shows that the satisfaction of being recognized as a continuously generous member of a network can at least equal that of authors of intermittent, officially-sanctioned publications.

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1I’m totally guessing about his, but I suspect that Laub actually talked with Johnson, the reporter, mainly about the virtues of open science, but noted that his group doesn’t give away absolutely all of its data…and it was only the last part of the sentence that made it in. As I say, I’m totally making this up, but the quotation had that sort of ring to it.


June 24, 2008

Berkman lunch: Karim Lakhani and Ned Gulley on collaborative innovation

Karim Lakhani of Harvard Business School and Ned Gulley of MathWorksMathLab are giving a Berkman talk called “The Dynamics of Collaborative Innovation: Exploring the tension between knowledge novelty and reuse.”

Karim begins by looking at research by Meyer on the airplane’s hidden collaborative history: It didn’t spring whole cloth from the brow of the Wright brothers. E.g., Chanute served as a hub for pre-Wright research and innovation. The Wright brothers actively corresponded with him. Once the Wright brothers patented their inventions, innovation moved to Europe (which is why so many of our aviation terms are French … l’fusilage, anyone?).

Ned talks about the contest MathLab (where he works) runs every six months– sixteen times so far — designed to encourage the free flow of ideas. It’s a week-long open collaborative competition for MATLAB programmers. Entries are displayed, scored, and ranked immediately. Anyone can modify anyone else’s code and resubmit it as their own. The leader is determined objectively by putting it through some hidden tests that judge its efficiency. (They don’t make the optimization suite public because they don’t want people to “game” it.) The prize is a t-shirt or baseball cap, although the real prize is reputation.

Ned shows a graph of entries and processing times. It’s quite a dramatic set of cliffs. On the other hand, there are lots of dots representing people who make “improvements” that aren’t improvements. This may be people with bad ideas or people whose ideas happen not to work the way MATLAB prefers.

The winning entries on average have contributions from 30 people. Ned says that when some code leaps ahead, you’ll see “splash” as tweakers try to improve it marginally, often making it marginally worse.

Q: In the commercial realm, what happens when an early innovator patents it?
You don’t get collaborative innovation.

People name their entries, and sometimes sell social signals with them: “Tweakfest” or “I wish I knew how this works.”

Ned says that if a chicken is only an egg’s way of making another egg, then a hacker is only code’s way of making more code.

Karim talks about some statistical analysis of entries into the contest. He looks at how many lines an entrant borrows and how many times the entry’s reused. There is a power law distribution: A few lines are used thousands of times, but most are used zero to three times. His analysis shows that when it comes to entries that become leaders, borrowing pays off more than novelty.

Q: Have coders evolved in these games?
Yes. More collaborative. And more sophisticated in their gaming of the contest. uses this model to develop code solving practical problems. [Tags: ]


May 25, 2008

Peer produce the star of tomorrow

Massify is a collaborative site for filmies. For example, you might view this audition tape and decide that Jannette Bloom should be given a role. If enough of you do, she will. The competition ends at midnight on Monday. The fact that Jannette, who is a really talented director who also sings real nice, is a friend of my daughters really shouldnt influence you.

Go, Jannette


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