February 18, 2017
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.] (I know that’s wrong) 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.
Date: February 18th, 2017 dw