Digifesto

Category: economics

Capital, democracy, and oligarchy

1. Capital

Bourdieu nicely lays out a taxonomy of forms of capital (1986), including economic capital (wealth) which we are all familiar with, as well as cultural capital (skills, elite tastes) and social capital (relationships with others, especially other elites). By saying that all three categories are forms of capital, what he means is that each “is accumulated labor (in its materialized form or its ‘incorporated,’ embodied form) which, when appropriated on a private, i.e., exclusive, basis by agents or groups of agents, enables them to appropriate social energy in the form of reified or living labor.” In his account, capital in all its forms are what give society its structure, including especially its economic structure.

[Capital] is what makes the games of society – not least, the economic game – something other than simple games of chance offering at every moment the possibility of a miracle. Roulette, which holds out the opportunity of winning a lot of money in a short space of time, and therefore of changing one’s social status quasi-instantaneously, and in which the winning of the previous spin of the wheel can be staked and lost at every new spin, gives a fairly accurate image of this imaginary universe of perfect competition or perfect equality of opportunity, a world without inertia, without accumulation, without heredity or acquired properties, in which every moment is perfectly independent of the previous one, every soldier has a marshal’s baton in his knapsack, and every prize can be attained, instantaneously, by everyone, so that at each moment anyone can become anything. Capital, which, in its objectified or embodied forms, takes time to accumulate and which, as a potential capacity to produce profits and to reproduce itself in identical or expanded form, contains a tendency to persist in its being, is a force inscribed in the objectivity of things so that everything is not equally possible or impossible. And the structure of the distribution of the different types and subtypes of capital at a given moment in time represents the immanent structure of the social world, i.e. , the set of constraints, inscribed in the very reality of that world, which govern its functioning in a durable way, determining the chances of success for practices.

Bourdieu is clear in his writing that he does not intend this to be taken as unsubstantiated theoretical posture. Rather, it is a theory he has developed through his empirical research. Obviously, it is also informed by many other significant Western theorists, including Kant and Marx. There is something slightly tautological about the way he defines his terms: if capital is posited to explain all social structure, then any social structure may be explained according to a distribution of capital. This leads Bourdieu to theorize about many forms of capital less obvious than wealth, such as the symbolic capital, like academic degrees.

The costs of such a theory is that it demands that one begin the difficult task of enumerate different forms of capital and, importantly, the ways in which some forms of capital can be converted into others. It is a framework which, in principle, could be used to adequately explain social reality in a properly scientific way, as opposed to other frameworks that seem more intended to maintain the motivation of a political agenda or academic discipline. Indeed there is something “interdisciplinary” about the very proposal to address symbolic and economic power in a way that deals responsibly with their commensurability.

So it has to be posited simultaneously that economic capital is at the root of all the other types of capital and that these transformed, disguised forms of economic capital, never entirely reducible to that definition, produce their most specific effects only to the extent that they conceal (not least from their possessors) the fact that economic capital is at their root, in other words – but only in the last analysis – at the root of their effects. The real logic of the functioning of capital, the conversions from one type to another, and the law of conservation which governs them cannot be understood unless two opposing but equally partial views are superseded: on the one hand, economism, which, on the grounds that every type of capital is reducible in the last analysis to economic capital, ignores what makes the specific efficacy of the other types of capital, and on the other hand, semiologism (nowadays represented by structuralism, symbolic interactionism, or ethnomethodology), which reduces social exchanges to phenomena of communication and ignores the brutal fact of universal reducibility to economics.

[I must comment that after years in an academic environment where sincere intellectual effort seemed effectively boobytrapped by disciplinary trip wires around ethnomethodology, quantification, and so on, this Bourdieusian perspective continues to provide me fresh hope. I’ve written here before about Bourdieu’s Science of Science and Reflexivity (2004), which was a wake up call for me that led to my writing this paper. That has been my main entrypoint into Bourdieu’s thought until now. The essay I’m quoting from now was published at least fifteen years prior and by its 34k citations appears to be a classic. Much of what’s written here will no doubt come across as obvious to the sophisticated reader. It is a symptom of a perhaps haphazard education that leads me to write about it now as if I’ve discovered it; indeed, the personal discovery is genuine for me, and though it is not a particularly old work, reading it and thinking it over carefully does untangle some of the knots in my thinking as I try to understand society and my role in it. Perhaps some of that relief can be shared through writing here.]

Naturally, Bourdieu’s account of capital is more nuanced and harder to measure than an economist’s. But it does not preclude an analysis of economic capital such as Piketty‘s. Indeed, much of the economist’s discussion of human capital, especially technological skill, and its relationship to wages can be mapped to a discussion of a specific form of cultural capital and how it can be converted into economic capital. A helpful aspect of this shift is that it allows one to conceptualize the effects of class, gender, and racial privilege in the transmission of technical skills. Cultural capital is, explicitly in Bourdieu’s account, labor intensive to transmit and often done so informally. Cultural tendencies to transmit this kind of capital preferentially to men instead of women in the family home become a viable explanation for the gender cap in the tech industry. While this is perhaps not a novel explanation, it is a significant one and Bourdieu’s theory helps us formulate it in a specific and testable way that transcends, as he says, both economism and semiologism, which seems productive when one is discussing society in a serious way.

One could also use a Bourdieusian framework to understand innovation spillover effects, as economists like to discuss, or the rise of Silicon Valley’s “Regional Advantage” (Saxenian, 1996), to take a specific case. One of Saxenian’s arguments (as I gloss it) is that Silicon Valley was more economically effective as a region than Route 128 in Massachusetts because the influx of engineers experimenting with new business models and reinvesting their profits into other new technology industries created a confluence of relevant cultural capital (technical skill) and economic capital (venture capital) that allowed the economic capital to be deployed more effectively. In other words, it wasn’t that the engineers in Silicon Valley were better engineers than the engineers in Route 128; it was that the economic capital was being deployed in a way that was less informed by technical knowledge. [Incidentally, if this argument is correct, then in some ways it undermines an argument put forward recently for setting up a “cyber workforce incubator” for the Federal Government in the Bay Area based on the idea that it’s necessary to tap into the labor pool there. If what makes Silicon Valley is smart capital rather than smart engineers, then that explains why there are so many engineers there (they are following the money) but also suggests that the price of technical labor there may be inflated. Engineers elsewhere may be just as good at being part of a cyber workforce. Which is just to say that when Bourdieusian theory is taken seriously, it can have practical policy implications.]

One must imagine, when considering society thus, that one could in principle map out the whole of society and the distribution of capitals within it. I believe Bourdieu does something like this in Distinction (1979), which I haven’t read–it is sadly referred to in the United States as the kind of book that is too dense to read. This is too bad.

But I was going to talk about…

2. Democracy

There are at least two great moments in history when democracy flourished. They have something in common.

One is Ancient Greece. The account of the polis in Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (1, cf (2 3) makes the familiar point that the citizens of the Ancient Greek city-state were masters of economically independent households. It was precisely the independence of politics (polis – city) from household economic affairs (oikos – house) that defined political life. Owning capital, in this case land and maybe slaves, was a condition for democratic participation. The democracy, such as it was, was the political unity of otherwise free capital holders.

The other historical moment is the rise of the mercantile class and the emergence of the democratic public sphere, as detailed by Habermas. If the public sphere Habermas described (and to some extent idealized) has been critiqued as being “bourgeois masculinist” (Fraser), that critique is telling. The bourgeoisie were precisely those who were owners of newly activated forms of economic capital–ships, mechanizing technologies, and the like.

If we can look at the public sphere in its original form realistically through the disillusionment of criticism, the need for rational discourse among capital holders was strategically necessary for the bourgeoisie to make strategic decisions about how to collectively allocate their economic capital. The Viewed through the objective lens of information processing and pure strategy, the public sphere was an effective means of economic coordination that complemented the rise of the Weberian bureaucracy, which provided a predictable state and also created new demand for legal professionals and the early information workers: clerks and scriveners and such.

The diversity of professions necessary for the functioning of the modern mercantile state created a diversity of forms of cultural capital that could be exchanged for economic capital. Hence, capital diffused from its concentration in the aristocracy into the hands of the widening class of the bourgeoisie.

Neither the Ancient Greek nor the mercantile democracies were particularly inclusive. Perhaps there is no historical precedent for a fully inclusive democracy. Rather, there is precedent for egalitarian alliances of capital holders in cases where that capital is broadly enough distributed to constitute citizenship as an economic class. Moreover, I must insert here that the Bourdieusian model suggests that citizenship could extend through the diffusion of non-economic forms of capital as well. For example, membership in the clergy was a form of capital taken on by some of the gentry; this came, presumably, with symbolic and social capital. The public sphere creates opportunities for the public socialite that were distinct from the opportunities of the courtier or courtesan. And so on.

However exclusive these democracies were, Fraser’s account of subaltern publics and counterpublics is of course very significant. What about the early workers and womens movements? Arguably these too can be understood in Bourdieusian terms. There were other forms of (social and cultural, if not economic) capital that workers and women in particular had available that provided the basis for their shared political interest and political participation.

What I’m suggesting is that:

  • Historically, the democratic impulse has been about uniting the interests of freeholders of capital.
  • A Bourdieusian understanding of capital allows us to maintain this (analytically helpful) understanding of democracy while also acknowledging the complexity of social structure, through the many forms of capital
  • That the complexity of society through the proliferation of forms of capital is one of, if not the, main mechanism of expanding effective citizenship, which is still conditioned on capital ownership even though we like to pretend it’s not.

Which leads me to my last point, which is about…

3. Oligarchy

If a democracy is a political unity of many different capital holders, what then is oligarchy in contrast?

Oligarchy is rule of the few, especially the rich few.

We know, through Bourdieu, that there are many ways to be rich (not just economic ways). Nevertheless, capital (in its many forms) is very unevenly distributed, which accounts for social structure.

To some extent, it is unrealistic to expect the flattening of this distribution. Society is accumulated history and there has been a lot of history and most of it has been brutally unkind.

However, there have been times when capital (in its many forms) has diffused because of the terms of capital exchange, broadly speaking. The functional separation of different professions was one way in which capital was fragmented into many differently exchangeable forms of cultural, social, and economic capitals. A more complex society is therefore a more democratic one, because of the diversity of forms of capital required to manage it. [I suspect there’s a technically specific way to make this point but don’t know how to do it yet.]

There are some consequences of this.

  1. Inequality in the sense of a very skewed distribution of capital and especially economic capital does in fact undermine democracy. You can’t really be a citizen unless you have enough capital to be able to act (use your labor) in ways that are not fully determined by economic survival. And of course this is not all or nothing; quantity of capital and relative capital do matter even beyond a minimum threshold.
  2. The second is that (1) can’t be the end of the story. Rather, to judge if the capital distribution of e.g. a nation can sustain a democracy, you need to account for many kinds of capital, not just economic capital, and see how these are distribute and exchanged. In other words, it’s necessary to look at the political economy broadly speaking. (But, I think, it’s helpful to do so in terms of ‘forms of capital’.)

One example, which I just learned recently, is this. In the United States, we have an independent judiciary, a third branch of government. This is different from other countries that are allegedly oligarchies, notably Russia but also Rhode Island before 2004. One could ask: is this Separation of Powers important for democracy? The answer is intuitively “yes”, and though I’m sure very smart things have been written to answer the question “why”, I haven’t read them, because I’ve been too busy blogging….

Instead, I have an answer for you based on the preceding argument. It was a new idea for me. It was this: What separation of powers does is its constructs a form of cultural capital associated with professional lawyers which is less exchangeable for economic and other forms of capital than in places where non-independence of the judiciary leads to more regular bribery, graft, and preferential treatment. Because it mediates economic exchanges, this has a massively distortative effect on the ability of economic capital to bulldoze other forms of capital, and the accompanying social structures (and social strictures) that bind it. It also creates a new professional class who can own this kind of capital and thereby accomplish citizenship.

Coda

In this blog post, I’ve suggested that not everybody who, for example, legally has suffrage in nominally democratic state is, in an effective sense, a citizen. Only capital owners can be citizens.

This is not intended in any way to be a normative statement about who should or should not be a citizen. Rather, it is a descriptive statement about how power is distributed in nominal democracies. To be an effective citizen, you need to have some kind of surplus of social power; capital the objectification of that social power.

The project of expanding democracy, if it is to be taken seriously, needs to be understood as the project of expanding capital ownership. This can include the redistribution of economic capital. It can also changing institutions that ground cultural and social capitals in ways that distribute other forms of capital more widely. Diversifying professional roles is a way of doing this.

Nothing I’ve written here is groundbreaking, for sure. It is for me a clearer way to think about these issues than I have had before.

thinking about Naidu on Piketty and universal basic income

Multiple sources have no referred me to Suresh Naidu’s article in the “After Piketty” anthology. It’s now high on my to-read list.

A key insight from the secondary reviews is the reminder that however capital is supplied (whether it be in liquidity, or capital “goods” like factory equipment, or land, or today in intellectual property), they are priced according to the expectation of future return on ownership. Given the diverse forms that capital can take, “expected return on future ownership” may very well be what distinguishes capital from consumer goods.

Capital accumulation is then, at its most basic, the process of strategic investment to maximize return across lots of asset classes.

Let’s assume for now the most cynical possible view of political economy, in which all political agendas are just rallying will in favor of this or that kind of capital, pushing for the revaluation of capital or policies that change its distribution. In many ways, this is consistent with Bourdieusian social theory.

Then look at the push for universal basic income (UBI). I’ve though UBI is a great idea in the past. It seems humane: everybody gets enough to live on, and people can at last be free with nothing to complain about. No problem, right?

There is the sticky concern that UBI does not address equity concerns. I’m not going to write about that now.

What I’m thinking about now, just putting myself in the shoes of an arch-capitalist for once, is that giving everybody a budget for consumer goods paid out of general taxes changes the way capital is valued. Specifically, capital that is directed towards to provision of consumer products becomes higher-value with UBI, since it guarantees a greater income stream.

This analysis is perhaps neither here nor there, so to speak. But it’s the kind of thinking I’d like to do more of. I’m coming to the conclusion that a useful analysis of political classes has to be done with a solid understanding of economic supply chains, the human parts of them especially. This is not a matter of simple polarities or binaries but rather the analysis has to take the supply topology into account.

Three possibilities of political agency in an economy of control

I wrote earlier about three modes of social explanation: functionality, which explains a social phenomenon in terms of what it optimizes; politics, which explains a social phenomenon in terms of multiple agents working to optimize different goals; and chaos, which explains a social phenomenon in terms of the happenings of chance, independent of the will of any agent.

A couple notes on this before I go on. First, this view of social explanation is intentionally aligned with mathematical theories of agency widely used in what is broadly considered ‘artificial intelligence’ research and even more broadly  acknowledged under the rubrics of economics, cognitive science, multi-agent systems research, and the like. I am willfully opting into the hegemonic paradigm here. If years in graduate school at Berkeley have taught me one pearl of wisdom, it’s this: it’s hegemonic for a reason.

A second note is that when I say “social explanation”, what I really mean is “sociotechnical explanation”. This is awkward, because the only reason I have to make this point is because of an artificial distinction between technology and society that exists much more as a social distinction between technologists and–what should one call them?–socialites than as an actual ontological distinction. Engineers can, must, and do constantly engage societal pressures; they must bracket of these pressures in some aspects of their work to achieve the specific demands of engineering. Socialites can, must, and do adopt and use technologies in every aspect of their lives; they must bracket these technologies in some aspects of their lives in order to achieve the specific demands of mastering social fashions. The social scientist, qua socialite who masters specific social rituals, and the technologist, qua engineer who masters a specific aspect of nature, naturally advertise their mastery as autonomous and complete. The social scholar of technology, qua socialite engaged in arbitrage between communities of socialites and communities of technologists, naturally advertises their mastery as an enlightened view over and above the advertisements of the technologists. To the extent this is all mere advertising, it is all mere nonsense. Currency, for example, is surely a technology; it is also surely an artifact of socialization as much if not more than it is a material artifact. Since the truly ancient invention of currency and its pervasiveness through the fabric of social life, there has been no society that is not sociotechnical, and there has been no technology that is is not sociotechnical. A better word for the sociotechnical would be one that indicates its triviality, how it actually carries no specific meaning at all. It signals only that one has matured to the point that one disbelieves advertisements. We are speaking scientifically now.

With that out of the way…I have proposed three modes of explanation: functionality, politics, and chaos. They refer to specific distributions of control throughout a social system. The first refers to the capacity of the system for self-control. The second refers to the capacity of the components of the system for self-control. The third refers to the absence of control.

I’ve written elsewhere about my interest in the economy of control, or in economies of control, plurally. Perhaps the best way to go about studying this would be an in depth review of the available literature on information economics. Sadly, I am at this point a bit removed from this literature, having gone down a number of other rabbit holes. In as much as intellectual progress can be made by blazing novel trails through the wilderness of ideas, I’m intent on documenting my path back to the rationalistic homeland from which I’ve wandered. Perhaps I bring spices. Perhaps I bring disease.

One of the questions I bring with me is the question of political agency. Is there a mathematical operationalization of this concept? I don’t know it. What I do know is that it is associated most with the political mode of explanation, because this mode of explanation allows for the existence of politics, by which I mean agents engaged in complex interactions for their individual and sometimes collective gain. Perhaps it is the emerging dynamics of the individual’s shifting constitution as collectives that captures best what is interesting about politics. These collectives serve functions, surely, but what function? Is it a function with any permanence or real agency? Or is it a specious functionality, only a compromise of the agents that compose it, ready to be sabotaged by a defector at any moment?

Another question I’m interested in is how chaos plays a role in such an economy of control. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that entropy in society, far from being a purely natural consequence of thermodynamics, is a deliberate consequence of political activity. Brunton and Nissenbaum have recently given the name obfuscation to some kinds of political activity that are designed to mislead and misdirect. I believe this is not the only reason why agents in the economy of control work actively to undermine each others control. To some extent, the distribution of control over social outcomes is zero sum. It is certainly so at the Pareto boundary of such distributions. But I posit that part of what makes economies of control interesting is that they have a non-Euclidean geometry that confounds the simple aggregations that make Pareto optimality a useful concept within it. Whether this hunch can be put persuasively remains to be seen.

What I may be able to say now is this: there is a sense in which political agency in an economy of control is self-referential, in that what is at stake for each agent is not utility defined exogenously to the economy, but rather agency defined endogenously to the economy. This gives economic activity within it a particularly political character. For purposes of explanation, this enables us to consider three different modes of political agency (or should I say political action), corresponding to the three modes of social explanation outlined above.

A political agent may concern itself with seizing control. It may take actions which are intended to direct the functional orientation of the total social system of which it is a part to be responsive to its own functional orientation. One might see this narrowly as adapting the total system’s utility function to be in line with one’s own, but this is to partially miss the point. It is to align the agency of the total system with one’s one, or to make the total system a subsidiary to one’s agency.  (This demands further formalization.)

A political agent may instead be concerned with interaction with other agents in a less commanding way. I’ll call this negotiation for now. The autonomy of other agents is respected, but the political agent attempts a coordination between itself and others for the purpose of advancing its own interests (its own agency, its own utility). This is not a coup d’etat. It’s business as usual.

A political agent can also attempt to actively introduce chaos into its own social system. This is sabotage. It is an essentially disruptive maneuver. It is action aimed to cause the death of function and bring about instead emergence, which is the more positive way of characterizing the outcomes of chaos.

the “hacker class”, automation, and smart capital

(Mood music for reading this post:)

I mentioned earlier that I no longer think hacker class consciousness is important.

As incongruous as this claim is now, I’ve explained that this is coming up as I go through old notes and discard them.

I found another page of notes that reminds me there was a little more nuance to my earlier position that I remembered, which has to do with the kind of labor done by “hackers”, a term I reserve the right to use in MIT/Eric S. Raymond sense, without the political baggage that has since attached to the term.

The point was in response to Eric. S. Raymond’s “How to be a hacker” essay which was that part of what it means to be a “hacker” is to hate drudgery. The whole point of programming a computer is so that you never have to do the same activity twice. Ideally, anything that’s repeatable about the activity gets delegated to the computer.

This is relevant in the contemporary political situation because we’re probably now dealing with the upshot of structural underemployment due to automation and the resulting inequalities. This remains a topic that scholarship, technologists, and politicians seem systematically unable to address directly even when they attempt to, because everybody who sees the writing on the wall is too busy trying to get the sweet end of that deal.

It’s a very old argument that those who own the means of production are able to negotiate for a better share of the surplus value created by their collaborations with labor. Those who own or invest in capital generally speaking would like to increase that share. So there’s market pressure to replace reliance of skilled labor, which is expensive, with reliance on less skilled labor, which is plentiful.

So what gets industrialists excited is smart capital, or a means of production that performs the “skilled” functions formerly performed by labor. Call it artificial intelligence. Call it machine learning. Call it data science. Call it “the technology industry”. That’s what’s happening and been happening for some time.

This leaves good work for a single economic class of people, those whose skills are precisely those that produce this smart capital.

I never figured out what the end result of this process would be. I imagined at one point that the creation of the right open source technology would bring about a profound economic transformation. A far fetched hunch.

consequences of scale

Here’s some key things about an economy of control:

  • An economy of control is normally very stable. It’s punctuated equilibrium. But the mean size of disruptive events increases over time, because each of these events can cause a cascade through an ever increasingly complex system.
  • An economy of control has enormous inequalities of all kinds of scale. But there’s a kind of evenness to the inequality from an information theoretic perspective, because of a conservation of entropy principle.
  • An economy of control can be characterized adequately using third order cybernetics. It’s an unsolved research problem to determine whether third order cybernetics is reducible to second order cybernetics. There should totally be a big prize for the first person who figures this out. That prize is a very lucrative hedge fund.
  • An economy of control is, of course, characterized mainly by its titular irony: there is the minimum possible control necessary to maintain the system’s efficiency. It’s a totalizing economic model of freedom maximization.
  • Economics of control is to neoliberalism and computational social science what neoliberalism was to political liberalism and neoclassical economic theory.
  • The economy of control preserves privacy perfectly at equilibrium, barring externalities.
  • The economy of control internalizes all externalities in the long run.
  • In the economy of control, demand is anthropic.
  • In the economy of control, for any belief that needs to be shouted on television, there is a person who sincerely believes it who is willing to get paid to shout it. Journalism is replaced entirely by networks of trusted scholarship.
  • The economy of control is sociologically organized according to two diverging principles: the organizational evolutionary pressure familiar from structural functionalism, and entropy. It draws on Bataille’s theory of the general economy. But it borrows from Ulanowicz the possibility of life overcoming thermodynamics. So to speak.

Just brainstorming here.

what if computers don’t actually control anything important?

I’ve written a lot (here, informally) on the subject of computational control of society. I’m not the only one, of course. There has in the past few years been a growing fear that one day artificial intelligence might control everything. I’ve argued that this is akin to older fears that, under capitalism, instrumentality would run amok.

Recently, thinking a little more seriously about what’s implied by an economy of control, I’ve been coming around to a quite different conclusion. What if the general tendency of these algorithmic systems is not the enslavement of humanity but rather the opening up of freedom and opportunity? This is not a critical attitude and might be seen as a simple shilling for industrial powers, so let me pose the point slightly more controversially. What if the result of these systems is to provide so much freedom and opportunity that it undermines the structure that makes social action significant? The “control” of these systems could just be the result of our being exposed, at last, to our individual insignificance in the face of each other.

As a foil, I’ll refer again to Frank Pasquale’s The Black Box Society, which I’ve begun to read again at the prompting of Pasquale himself. It is a rare and wonderful thing for the author of a book you’ve written rude things about to write you and tell you you’ve misrepresented the work. So often I assume nobody’s actually reading what I write, making this a lonely vocation indeed. Now I know that at least somebody gives a damn.

In Chapter 3, Pasquale writes:

“The power to include, exclude, and rank [in search results] is the power to ensure which public impressions become permanent and which remain fleeting. That is why search services, social and not, are ‘must-have’ properties for advertisers as well as users. As such, they have made very deep inroads indeed into the sphere of cultural, economic, and political influence that was once dominated by broadcast networks, radio stations, and newspapers. But their dominance is so complete, and their technology so complex, that they have escaped pressures for transparency and accountability that kept traditional media answerable to the public.”

As a continuation of the “technics-out-of-control” meme, there’s an intuitive thrust to this argument. But looking at the literal meaning of the sentences, none of it is actually true!

Let’s look at some of the reasons why these claims are false:

  • There are multiple competing search engines, and switching costs are very low. There are Google and Bing and Duck Duck Go, but there’s also more specialized search engines for particular kinds of things. Literally every branded shopping website has a search engine that includes only what it chooses to include. This market pressure for search drives search engines generally to provide people with the answers they are looking for.
  • While there is a certain amount of curation that goes into search results, the famous early ranking logic which made large scale search possible used mainly data created as part of the content itself (hyperlinks in the case of Google’s PageRank) or usage (engagement in the case of Facebook’s EdgeRank). To the extent that these algorithms have changed, much of it has been because they have had to cave to public pressure, in the form of market pressure. Many of these changes are based on dynamic socially created data as well (such as spam flagging). Far from being manipulated by a secret powerful force, search engine results are always a dynamic, social accomplishment that is a reflection of the public.
  • Alternative media forms, such as broadcast radio, print journalism, cable television, storefront advertisting, and so on still exist and have an influence over people’s decisions. No single digital technology ensures anything! A new restaurant that opens up in a neighborhood is free to gain a local reputation in the old fashioned way. And then these same systems for ranking and search incentivize the discovery over these local gems by design. The information economy doesn’t waste opportunities like this!

So what’s the problem? If algorithms aren’t controlling society, but rather are facilitating its self-awareness, maybe these kinds of polemics are just way off base.

economy of control

We call it a “crisis” when the predictions of our trusted elites are violated in one way or another. We expect, for good reason, things to more or less continue as they are. They’ve evolved to be this way, haven’t they? The older the institution, the more robust to change it must be.

I’ve gotten comfortable in my short life with the global institutions that appeared to be the apex of societal organization. Under these conditions, I found James Beniger‘s work to be particularly appealing, as it predicts the growth of information processing apparati (some combination of information worker and information technology) as formerly independent components of society integrate. I’m of the class of people that benefits from this kind of centralization of control, so I was happy to believe that this was an inevitable outcome according to physical law.

Now I’m not so sure.

I am not sure I’ve really changed my mind fundamentally. This extreme Beniger view is too much like Nick Bostrom’s superintelligence argument in form, and I’ve already thought hard about why that argument is not good. That reasoning stopped at the point of noting how superintelligence “takeoff” is limited by data collection. But I did not go to the next and probably more important step, which is the problem of aleatoric uncertainty in a world with multiple agents. We’re far more likely to get into a situation with multi-polar large intelligences that are themselves fraught with principle-agent problems, because that’s actually the status quo.

I’ve been prodded to revisit The Black Box Society, which I’ve dealt with inadequately. Its beefier chapters deal with a lot of the specific economic and regulatory recent history of the information economy of the United States, which is a good complement to Beniger and a good resource for the study of competing intelligences within a single economy, though I find this data a but clouded by the polemical writing.

“Economy” is the key word here. Pure, Arendtian politics and technics have not blended easily, but what they’ve turned into is a self-regulatory system with structure and agency. More than that, the structure is for sale, and so is the agency. What is interesting about the information economy is, and I guess I’m trying to coin a phrase here, is that it is an economy of control. The “good” being produced, sold, and bought, is control.

There’s a lot of interesting research about information goods. But I’ve never heard of a “control good”. But this is what we are talking about when we talk about software, data collection, managerial labor, and the conflicts and compromises that it creates.

I have a few intuitions about where this goes, but not as many as I’d like. I think this is because the economy of control is quite messy and hard to reason about.

energy, not technology

I’m still trying to understand what’s happening in the world and specifically in the U.S. with the 2016 election. I was so wrong about it that I think I need to take seriously the prospect that I’ve been way off in my thinking about what’s important.

In my last post, I argued that the media isn’t as politically relevant we’ve been told. If underlying demographic and economic variables were essentially as predictive as anything of voter behavior, then media mishandling of polling data or biased coverage just isn’t what’s accounting for the recent political shift.

Part of the problem with media determinist accounts of the election is that because they deal with the minutia of reporting within the United States, they don’t explain how Brexit foreshadowed Trump’s election, as anybody paying attention has been pointing out for months.

So what happens if we take seriously explanation that really what’s happening is a reaction against globalization. That’s globalization in the form of a centralized EU government, or globalization in the form of U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. If the United States under Obama was trying to make itself out to be a welcoming place for global intellectual talent to come and contribute to the economy through Silicon Valley jobs, then arguably the election was the backfire.

An insulated focus on “the tech industry” and its political relevance has been a theme in my media bubble for the past couple of years. Arguably, that’s just because people thought the tech industry was where the power and the money was. So of course the media should scrutinize that, because everyone trying to get to the top of that pile wants to know what’s going on there.

Now it’s not clear who is in power any more (I’ll admit I’m just thinking about power as a sloppy aggregate of political and economic power. Let’s assume that political power backing an industry leads to a favorable regulatory environment for that industry’s growth, and it’s not a bad model). It doesn’t seem like it’s Silicon Valley any more. Probably it’s the energy industry.

There’s a lot going on in the energy industry! I know basically diddly about it but I’ve started doing some research.

One interesting thing that’s happening is that Russia and OPEC are teaming up to cut oil production. This is unprecedented. It also, to me, creates a confusing narrative. I thought Obama’s Clean Power Plan, focusing on renewable energy, and efforts to build international consensus around climate change were the best bets for saving the world from high emissions. But since cutting oil production leads to cutting oil production, what if the thing that really can cut carbon dioxide emissions is an oligopolistic price hike on oil?

That said, oil prices may not necessarily dictate energy prices because the U.S. because a lot of energy used is natural gas. Shale gas, in particular, is apparently a growing percentage of natural gas used in the U.S. It’s apparently better than oil in terms of CO2 emissions. Though it’s mined through fracking, which disgusts a lot of people!

Related: I was pretty pissed when I heard about Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil, being tapped for Secretary of State. Because that’s the same old oil companies that have messed things up so much before, right? Maybe not. Apparently Exxon Mobil also invests heavily in natural gas. As their website will tell you, that gas industry uses a lot of human labor. Which is obviously a plus in this political climate.

What’s interesting to me about all this is that it all seems very important but it has absolutely nothing to do with social media or even on-line marketplaces. It’s all about stuff way, way upstream on the supply chain.

It is certainly humbling to feel like your area of expertise doesn’t really matter. But I’m not sure what to even do as a citizen now that I realize how little I understand. I think there’s been something very broken about my theory about society and the world.

The next few posts may continue to have this tone of “huh”. I expect I’ll be stating what’s obvious to a lot of people. But whatever. I just need to sort some things out.