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November 17, 2013

Noam Chomsky, security, and equivocal information

Noam Chomsky and Barton Gellman were interviewed at the Engaging Big Data conference put on by MIT’s Senseable City Lab on Nov. 15. When Prof. Chomsky was asked what we can do about government surveillance, he reiterated his earlier call for us to understand the NSA surveillance scandal within an historical context that shows that governments always use technology for their own worst purposes. According to my liveblogging (= inaccurate, paraphrased) notes, Prof. Chomsky said:

Governments have been doing this for a century, using the best technology they had. I’m sure Gen. Alexander believes what he’s saying, but if you interviewed the Stasi, they would have said the same thing. Russian archives show that these monstrous thugs were talking very passionately to one another about defending democracy in Eastern Europe from the fascist threat coming from the West. Forty years ago, RAND released Japanese docs about the invasion of China, showing that the Japanese had heavenly intentions. They believed everything they were saying. I believe this is universal. We’d probably find it for Genghis Khan as well. I have yet to find any system of power that thought it was doing the wrong thing. They justify what they’re doing for the noblest of objectives, and they believe it. The CEOs of corporations as well. People find ways of justifying things. That’s why you should be extremely cautious when you hear an appeal to security. It literally carries no information, even in the technical sense: it’s completely predictable and thus carries no info. I don’t doubt that the US security folks believe it, but it is without meaning. The Nazis had their own internal justifications. [Emphasis added, of course.]

I was glad that Barton Gellman — hardly an NSA apologist — called Prof. Chomsky on his lumping of the NSA with the Stasi, for there is simply no comparison between the freedom we have in the US and the thuggish repression omnipresent in East Germany. But I was still bothered, albeit by a much smaller point. I have no serious quarrel with Prof. Chomsky’s points that government incursions on rights are nothing new, and that governments generally (always?) believe they are acting for the best of purposes. I am a little bit hung-up, however, on his equivocating on “information.”

Prof. Chomsky is of course right in his implied definition of information. (He is Noam Chomsky, after all, and knows a little more about the topic than I do.) Modern information is often described as a measure of surprise. A string of 100 alternating ones and zeroes conveys less information than a string of 100 bits that are less predictable, for if you can predict with certainty what the next bit will be, then you don’t learn anything from that bit; it carries no information. Information theory lets us quantify how much information is conveyed by streams of varying predictability.

So, when U.S. security folks say they are spying on us for our own security, are they saying literally nothing? Is that claim without meaning? Only in the technical sense of information. It is, in fact, quite meaningful, even if quite predictable, in the ordinary sense of the term “information.”

First, Prof. Chomsky’s point that governments do bad things while thinking they’re doing good is an important reminder to examine our own assumptions. Even the bad guys think they’re the good guys.

Second, I disagree with Prof. Chomsky’s generalization that governments always justify surveillance in the name of security. For example, governments sometimes record traffic (including the movement of identifiable cars through toll stations) with the justification that the information will be used to ease congestion. Tracking the position of mobile phones has been justified as necessary for providing swift EMT responses. Governments require us to fill out detailed reports on our personal finances every year on the grounds that they need to tax us fairly. Our government hires a fleet of people every ten years to visit us where we live in order to compile a census. These are all forms of surveillance, but in none of these cases is security given as the justification. And if you want to say that these other forms don’t count, I suspect it’s because it’s not surveillance done in the name of security…which is my point.

Third, governments rarely cite security as the justification without specifying what the population is being secured against; as Prof. Chomsky agrees, that’s an inherent part of the fear-mongering required to get us to accept being spied upon. So governments proclaim over and over what threatens our security: Spies in our midst? Civil unrest? Traitorous classes of people? Illegal aliens? Muggers and murderers? Terrorists? Thus, the security claim isn’t made on its own. It’s made with specific threats in mind, which makes the claim less predictable — and thus more informational — than Prof. Chomsky says.

So, I disagree with Prof. Chomsky’s argument that a government that justifies spying on the grounds of security is literally saying something without meaning. Even if it were entirely predictable that governments will always respond “Because security” when asked to justify surveillance — and my second point disputes that — we wouldn’t treat the response as meaningless but as requiring a follow-up question. And even if the government just kept repeating the word “Security” in response to all our questions, that very act would carry meaning as well, like a doctor who won’t tell you what a shot is for beyond saying “It’s to keep you healthy.” The lack of meaning in the Information Theory sense doesn’t carry into the realm in which people and their public officials engage in discourse.

Here’s an analogy. Prof. Chomsky’s argument is saying, “When a government justifies creating medical programs for health, what they’re saying is meaningless. They always say that! The Nazis said the same thing when they were sterilizing ‘inferiors,’ and Medieval physicians engaged in barbarous [barber-ous, actually - heyo!] practices in the name of health.” Such reasoning would rule out a discussion of whether current government-sponsored medical programs actually promote health. But that is just the sort of conversation we need to have now about the NSA.

Prof. Chomsky’s repeated appeals to history in this interview covers up exactly what we need to be discussing. Yes, both the NSA and the Stasi claimed security as their justification for spying. But far from that claim being meaningless, it calls for a careful analysis of the claim: the nature and severity of the risk, the most effective tactics to ameliorate that threat, the consequences of those tactics on broader rights and goods — all considerations that comparisons to the Stasi and Genghis Khan obscure. History counts, but not as a way to write off security considerations as meaningless by invoking a technical definition of “information.”

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March 9, 2012

[2b2k] Information overload? Not so much. (Part 2)

Yesterday I tried to explain my sense that we’re not really suffering from information overload, while of course acknowledging that there is vastly more information out there than anyone could ever hope to master. Then a comment from Alex Richter helped me clarify my thinking.

We certainly do at times feel overwhelmed. But consider why you don’t feel like you’re suffering from information overload about, say, the history of stage costumes, Chinese public health policy, the physics of polymers, or whatever topic you would never have majored in, even though each of these topics contains an information overload. I think there are two reasons those topics don’t stress you.

First, and most obviously, because (ex hypothesis) you don’t care about that topic, you’re not confronted with having to hunt down some piece of information, and that topic’s information is not in your face.

But I think there’s a second reason. We have been taught by our previous media that information is manageable. Give us 23 minutes and we’ll give you the world, as the old radio slogan used to say. Read the daily newspaper — or Time or Newsweek once a week — and now you have read the news. That’s the promise implicit in the old media. But the new medium promises us instead edgeless topics and endless links. We know there is no possibility of consuming “the news,” as if there were such a thing. We know that whatever topic we start with, we won’t be able to stay within its bounds without doing violence to that topic. There is thus no possibility of mastering a field. So, sure, there’s more information than anyone could ever take in, but that relieves us of the expectation that we will master it. You can’t be overwhelmed if whelming is itself impossible.

So, I think our sense of being overwhelmed by information is an artifact of our being in a transitional age, with old expectations for mastery that the new environment gives the lie to.

No, this doesn’t mean that we lose all responsibility for knowing anything. Rather, it means we lose responsibility for knowing everything.


March 8, 2012

[2b2k] No, now that you mention it, we’re not overloaded with information

On a podcast today, Mitch Joel asked me something I don’t think anyone else has: Are we experiencing information overload? Everyone else assumes that we are. Including me. I found myself answering no, we are not. There is of course a reasonable and valid reason to say that we are. But I think there’s also an important way in which we are not. So, here goes:

There are more things to see in the world than any one human could ever see. Some of those sights are awe-inspiring. Some are life-changing. Some would bring you peace. Some would spark new ideas. But you are never going to see them all. You can’t. There are too many sights to see. So, are you suffering from Sight Overload?

There are more meals than you could ever eat. Some are sooo delicious, but you can’t live long enough to taste them all. Are you suffering from Taste Overload?

Or, you’re taking a dip in the ocean. The water extends to the horizon. Are you suffering from Water Overload? Or are you just having a nice swim?

That’s where I think we are with information overload. Of course there’s more than we could ever encounter or make sense of. Of course. But it’s not Information Overload any more than the atmosphere is Air Overload.

It only seems that way if you think you can master information, or if you think there is some defined set of information you can and must have, or if you find yourself repeating the mantra of delivering the right information to the right people at the right time, as if there were any such thing.

Information overload is so 1990s.


[The next day: See my follow-on post]


February 16, 2012

Information is the opposite of information

The ordinary language use of “information” in some ways is the opposite of the technical sense given the term by Claude Shannon — the sense that kicked off the Information Age.

Shannon’s information is a measure of surprise: the more unexpected is the next letter a user lays down in Scrabble, the more information it conveys.

The ordinary language use of the term (well, one of them) is to refer to something you are about to learn or have just learned: “I have some information for you, sir! The British have taken Trenton.” The more surprising the news is, the more important the information is. So, so far ordinary language “information” seems a lot like Shannon’s “information.”

But we use the term primarily to refer to news that’s not all that important to us personally. So, you probably wouldn’t say, “I got some information today: I’m dying.” If you did, you’d be taken as purposefully downplaying its significance, as in a French existentialist drama in which all of life is equally depressing. When we’re waiting to hear about something that really matters to us, we’re more likely to say we’re waiting for news.

Indeed, if the information is too surprising, we don’t call it “information” in ordinary parlance. For example, if you asked someone for your doctor’s address, what you learned you might well refer to as “information.” But if you learned that your doctor’s office is in a dirigible constantly circling the earth, you probably wouldn’t refer to that as information. “I got some information today. My doctor’s office is in a dirigible,” sounds odd. More likely: “You’ll never guess what I found out today: My doctor’s office is in a dirigible! I mean, WTF, dude!” The term “information” is out of place if the information is too surprising.

And in that way the ordinary language use of the term is the opposite of its technical meaning.


January 31, 2011

We are the medium

I know many others have made this point, but I think it’s worth saying again: We are the medium.

I don’t mean this in the sense that we are the new news media, as when Dan Gillmor talks about “We the Media.” I cherish Dan’s work (read his latest: Mediactive), but I mean “We are the medium” more in McLuhan’s “The medium is the message” sense.

McLuhan was reacting against information science’s view of a medium as that through which a signal (or message) passes.

shannon's communication diagram

Information science purposefully abstracted itself from every and any particular medium, aiming at theories that held whether you were talking about tin can telephones or an inter-planetary Web. McLuhan’s pushback was: But the particularities of a medium do count. They affect the message. In fact, the medium is the message!

I mean by “We are the medium” something I think we all understand, although the old way of thinking keeps intruding. “We are the medium” means that, quite literally, we are the ones through whom information, messages, news, ideas, videos, and links of every sort move — and they move through this “channel” because we decide to move them. Someone sends me a link to a funny video. I tweet about it. You see it. You send a Facebook message to your friends. One of them (presumably an ancient) emails it to more friends. The video moves through us. Without us, the transport medium —” the Internet — is a hyperlinked collection of inert bits. We are the medium.

Which makes McLuhan’s aphorism more true than ever. In tweeting about the video, I am also tweeting about myself: “This is the sort of thing I find funny. Don’t I have a great sense of humor? And I was clever enough to find it. And I care enough about you— and about my reputation — to send it out to you.” That’s 51 characters over the the Twitter limit, but it’s clearly embedded in my tweet.

Although there are a thousand ways “We are the medium” is wrong, I think what’s right about it matters:

  • Because we are the medium, one-way announcements, such as a tweet to thousands of followers, still has a conversational element. We may not be able to tweet back and expect an answer, but we we can pass it around, which is a conversational act.

  • Because we are the medium, news is no longer mere information. In forwarding the item about the Egyptian protestor or about the Navy dealing well with a gay widower, I am also saying something about myself. That’s why we are those that formerly were known as the audience: not just because we can engage in acts of journalism without a newspaper behind us, but because in becoming the medium through which news travels, some of us travels with every retweet.

  • Because we are the medium, fame on the Net is not simply being known by many because your image was transmitted many times. Rather, if you’re famous on the Internet, it’s because we put ourselves on the line by forwarding your image, your video, your idea, your remix. We are the medium that made you famous.

It is easy to slip back into the old paradigm in which there is a human sender, a message, a medium through which it travels, and a human recipient. It’s easy because that’s an accurate abstraction that is sometimes useful. It’s easy because the Internet is also used for traditional communication. But what is distinctive and revolutionary about the Internet is the failure of the old diagram to capture what so often is essential: We are not users of the medium, and we are not outside of the medium listening to its messages. Rather, we are the medium.


November 18, 2010

[defrag] JP Rangaswami

JP Rangaswami begins by talking about watching Short Circuit in 1986. Robots only have information and energy as inputs. What if we thought about humans as having the same inputs, JP wonders.

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.

Think about cooking as the predigesting of food — making it easier for food to be digested. Cooks prepare food in external stomachs. Our brains evolved because we discovered how to cook. Can we look at information that way?

We talk about info overload, but not food overload. Having too much food isn’t a problem so long as we make sure that people have access to the excess. As JP thought trhough the further analogies between info and food, he realized there were three schools of how to prepare food. 1. The extraction school divides and extracts food, and serves them separately. 2. Another ferments food. You put foods together, and something new occurs. 3. Raw food is like the Maker generation of information: I want to fiddle with it myself, and I need to know that it came without additives.

We can think about what we do with information using these three distinctions. Some of us will work with the raw data. Some of us will prefer that others do that for us. Information should learn from food that it needs a sell-by date. E.g., look at how the media use Twitter. Twitter is a different type of food — more like raw — than you get through the institutional delivery methods.

Should we have an information diet? Would watching a single news outlet be the intellectual equivalent of the Morgan Spurlock “Supersize Me” movie? Maybe information overload is a consumption problem. We need to learn what is good for us, what is poison, what will make us unhealthy…

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November 10, 2010

Jeremy Wagstaff on incomplete calls

Jeremy Wagstaffs weekly email send this time is a brilliant post about the use of incomplete calls as a signal where completed calls are a significant cost.

Heres a snippet:

…the missed call is not some reflection of not having enough credit. Its a medium of exchange of complex messages that has become surprisingly refined in a short period. Much of it is not communication at all, at least in terms of actual information. The interaction is the motivation, not the content of the message itself. Or, as a Filipino professor, Adrian Remodo put it to a language conference in Manila in 2007 at which they voted to make miscall, or miskol in Tagalog, the word of the year: A miskol is often used as “an alternative way to make someone’s presence felt.”

Indeed, the fact that the message itself has no content is part of its beauty

One bit of data. But, in its context — Jeremy points out that the message depends upon the time of day its sent, signaling perhaps that one is leaving work — so overflowing with human meaning.

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August 6, 2010

The history of noise

I interview Kate Crawford for RadioBerkman about the history of noise and and its changed nature in the age of social media. (Noise 2.0?). (By the way, Kate co-wrote the music that intros ands outros the interview.)

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January 26, 2010

[berkman] Julie Cohen on networked selves

Julie Cohen is giving a Berkman lunch on “configuring the networked self.” She’s working on a book that “explores the effects of expanding copyright, pervasive surveillance, and the increasingly opaque design of network architectures in the emerging networked information society.” She’s going to talk about a chapter that “argues that “access to knowledge” is a necessary but insufficient condition for human flourishing, and adds two additional conditions.” (Quotes are from the Berkman site.) [NOTE: Ethan Zuckerman's far superior livebloggage is here.]

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.

The book is motivated by two observations of the discourse around the Net, law, and policy in the U.S.

1. We make grandiose announcements about designing infrastructures that enable free speech and free markets, but at the end of the day, many of the results are antithetical to the interests of the individuals in that space by limiting what they can do with the materials they encounter.

2. There’s a disconnect between the copyright debate and the privacy debate. The free culture debate is about openness, but that can make it hard to reconcile privacy claims. We discuss these issues within a political framework with assumptions about autonomous choice made by disembodied individuals…a worldview that doesn’t have much to do with reality, she says. It would be better to focus on the information flows among embodied, real people who experience the network as mediated by devices and interfaces. The liberal theory framework doesn’t give us good tools. E.g., it treats individuals as separate from culture.

Julie says lots of people are asking these questions. They just happen not to be in legal studies. One purpose of her book is to unpack post modern literature to see how situated, embodied users of networks experience technology, and to see how that affects information law and policy. Her normative framework is informed by Martha Nussbaum‘s ideas about human flourishing: How can information law and policy help human flourishing by providing information to information and knowledge? Intellectual property laws should take this into account, she says. But, she says, this has been situated within the liberal tradition, which leads to indeterminate results. You lend it content by looking at the post modern literature that tells us important things about the relationship between self and culture, self and community, etc. By knowing how those relationships work, you can give content to human flourishing, which informs which laws and policies we need.

[I'm having trouble hearing her. She's given two "political reference points," but I couldn't hear either. :(]

[I think one of them is everyday practice.] Everyday practice is not linear, often not animated by overarching strategies.

The third political reference point is play. Play is an important concept, but the discussion of intentional play needs to be expanded to include “the play of circumstances.” Life puts random stuff in your way. That type of play is often the actual source of creativity. We should be seeking to foster play in our information policy; it is a structural condition of human flourishing.

Access to knowledge isn’t enough to supply a base for human flourishing because it doesn’t get you everything you need, e.g., right to re-use works. We also need operational transparency: We need to know how these digital architectures work. We need to know how the collected data will be used. And we also need semantic discontinuity: Formal incompleteness in legal and technical infrastructures. E.g., wrt copyright to reuse works you shouldn’t have to invoke a legal defense such as fair use; there should be space left over for play. E.g., in privacy, rigid arbitrary rules against transacting and aggregating personal data so that there is space left over for people to play with identity. E.g., in architecture, question the norm that seamless interoperability makes life better, because it means that data about you moves around without your having the ability to stop it. E.g., interoperability among social networks changes the nature of social networks. We need some discontinuity for flourishing.

Q: People need the freedom to have multiple personas. We need more open territory.
A: Yes. The common pushback is that if you restrict the flow of info in any way, we’ll slide down the slippery slope of censorship. But that’s not true and it gets in the way of the conversation we need to have.

Q: [charlie nesson] How do you create this space of playfulness when it comes to copyright?
A: In part, look at the copyright law of 1909. It’s reviled by copyright holders, but there’s lots of good in it. It set up categories that determined if you could get the rights, and the rights were much more narrowly defined. We should define rights to reproduction and adaptation that gives certain significant rights to copyright holders, but that quite clearly and unambiguously reserves lots to users, with reference to the possible market effect that is used by courts to defend the owners’ rights.
Q: [charlie] But you run up against the pocketbooks of the copyright holders…
A: Yes, there’s a limit to what a scholar can do. Getting there is no mean feat, but it begins with a discourse about the value of play and that everyone benefits from it, not just crazy youtube posters, even the content creators.

JPalfrey asks CNesson what he thinks. Charlie says that having to assert fair use, to fend off lawsuits, is wrong. Fair uyse ought to be the presumption.

Q: [csandvig] Fascinating. The literature that lawyers denigrate as pomo makes me think of a book by an anthropologist and sociologist called “The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach.” It’s about embodied, local, enculturated understanding of the Net. Their book was about Trinidad, arguing that if you’re in Trinidad, the Net is one thing, and if you’re not, it’s another thing. And, they say, we need many of these cultural understandings. But it hasn’t happened. Can you say more about the lit you referred to?
A: Within mainstream US legal and policy scholarship, there’s no recognition of this. They’re focused on overcoming the digital divide. That’s fine, but it would be better not to have a broadband policy that thinks it’s the same in all cultures. [Note: I'm paraphrasing, as I am throughout this post. Just a reminder.]

A: [I missed salil's question; sorry] We could build a system of randomized incompatibilities, but there’s value in having them emerge otherwise than by design, and there’s value to not fixing some of the ones that exist in the world. The challenge is how to design gaps.
Q: The gaps you have in mind are not ones that can be designed the way a computer scientist might…
A: Yes. Open source forks, but that’s at war with the idea that everything should be able to speak to everything else. It’d

Q: [me] I used to be a technodeterminist; I recognize the profound importance of cultural understandings/experience. So, the Internet is different in Trinidad than in Beijing or Cambridge. Nevertheless, I find myself thinking that some experiences of the Net are important and cross cultural, e.g., that Ideas are linked, there’s lots to see, people disagree, people like me can publish, etc.
A: You can say general things about the Net if you go to a high enough level of abstraction. You’re only a technodeterminist if you think there’s only way to get there, only one set of rules that get you there. Is that what you mean?
Q: Not quite. I’m asking if there’s a residue of important characteristics of the experience of the Net that cuts across all cultures. “Ideas are linked” or “I can contribute” may be abstractions, but they’re also important and can be culturally transformative, so the lessons we learn from the Net aren’t unactionably general.
A: Liberalism creeps back in. It’s acrappy descriptional tool, but a good aspirational one. The free spread of a corpus of existing knowledge…imagine a universal digital library with open access. That would be a universal good. I’m not saying I have a neutral prescription upon which any vision of human flourishing would work. I’m looking for critical subjectivity.

A: Network space changes based on what networks can do. 200 yrs ago, you wouldn’t have said PAris is closer to NY than Williamsburg VA, but today you might because lots of people go NY – Paris.

Q: [doc] You use geographic metaphors. Much of the understanding of the Net is based on plumbing metaphors.
A: The privacy issues make it clear it’s a geography, not a plumbing system. [Except for leaks :) ]

[Missed a couple of questions]

A: Any good educator will have opinions about how certain things are best reserved for closed environments, e.g., in-class discussions, what sorts of drafts to share with which other people, etc. There’s a value to questioning the assumption that everything ought to be open and shared.

Q: [wseltzer] Why is it so clear that it the Net isn’t plumbing? We make bulges in the pipe as spaces where we can be more private…
A: I suppose it depends on your POV. If you run a data aggregation biz, it will look like that. But if you ask someone who owns such a biz how s/he feels about privacy in her/his own life, that person will have opinions at odds with his/her professional existence.

Q: [jpalfrey] You’re saying that much of what we take as apple pie is in conflict, but that if we had the right toolset, we could make progress…
A: There isn’t a single unifying framework that can make it all make sense. You need the discontinuities to manage that. Dispute arise, but we have a way to muddle along. One of my favorite books: How We Became Post-Human. She writes about the Macy conferences out of which came out of cybernetics, including the idea that info is info no matter how it’s embodied. I think that’s wrong. We’re analog in important ways.


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.]


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