Digifesto

Values, norms, and beliefs: units of analysis in research on culture

Much of the contemporary critical discussion about technology in society and ethical design hinges on the term “values”. Privacy is one such value, according to Mulligan, Koopman, and Doty (2016), drawing on Westin and Post. Contextual Integrity (Nissenbaum, 2009) argues that privacy is a function of norms, and that norms get their legitimacy from, among other sources, societal values. The Data and Society Research Institute lists “values” as one of the cross-cutting themes of its research. Richmond Wong (2017) has been working on eliciting values reflections as a tool in privacy by design. And so on.

As much as ‘values’ get emphasis in this literary corner, I have been unsatisfied with how these literatures represent values as either sociological or philosophical phenomena. How are values distributed in society? Are they stable under different methods of measurement? Do they really have ethical entailments, or are they really just a kind of emotive expression?

For only distantly related reasons, I’ve been looking into the literature on quantitative measurement of culture. I’m doing a bit of a literature review and need your recommendations! But an early hit is Marsden and Swingle’s is a “Conceptualizing and measuring culture in surveys: Values, strategies, and symbols” (1994), which is a straightforward social science methods piece apparently written before either rejections of positivism or Internet-based research became so destructively fashionable.

A useful passage comes early:

To frame our discussion of the content of the culture module, we have drawn on distinctions made in Peterson’s (1979: 137-138) review of cultural research in sociology. Peterson observes that sociological work published in the late 1940s and 1950s treated values – conceptualizations of desirable end-states – and the behavioral norms they specify as the principal explanatory elements of culture. Talcott Parsons (19.51) figured prominently in this school of thought, and more recent survey studies of culture and cultural change in both the United States (Rokeach, 1973) and Europe (Inglehart, 1977) continue the Parsonsian tradition of examining values as a core concept.

This was a surprise! Talcott Parsons is not a name you hear every day in the world of sociology of technology. That’s odd, because as far as I can tell he’s one of these robust and straightforwardly scientific sociologists. The main complaint against him, if I’ve heard any, is that he’s dry. I’ve never heard, despite his being tied to structural functionalism, that his ideas have been substantively empirically refuted (unlike Durkheim, say).

So the mystery is…whatever happened to the legacy of Talcott Parsons? And how is it represented, if at all, in contemporary sociological research today?

One reason why we don’t hear much about Parsons may be because the sociological community moved from measuring “values” to measuring “beliefs”. Marsden and Swingle go on:

Cultural sociologists writing since the late 1970s however, have accented other elements of culture. These include, especially, beliefs and expressive symbols. Peterson’s (1979: 138) usage of “beliefs” refers to “existential statements about how the world operates that often serve to justify value and norms”. As such, they are less to be understood as desirable end-states in and of themselves, but instead as habits or styles of thought that people draw upon, especially in unstructured situations (Swidler, 1986).

Intuitively, this makes sense. When we look at the contemporary seemingly mortal combat of partisan rhetoric and tribalist propaganda, a lot of what we encounter are beliefs and differences in beliefs. As suggested in this text, beliefs justify values and norms, meaning that even values (which you might have thought are the source of all justification) get their meaning from a kind of world-view, rather than being held in a simple way.

That makes a lot of sense. There’s often a lot more commonality in values than in ways those values should be interpreted or applied. Everybody cares about fairness, for example. What people disagree about, often vehemently, is what is fair, and that’s because (I’ll argue here) people have widely varying beliefs about the world and what’s important.

To put it another way, the Humean model where we have beliefs and values separately and then combine the two in an instrumental calculus is wrong, and we’ve known it’s wrong since the 70’s. Instead, we have complexes of normatively thick beliefs that reinforce each other into a worldview. When we we’re asked about our values, we are abstracting in a derivative way from this complex of frames, rather than getting at a more core feature of personality or culture.

A great book on this topic is Hilary Putnam’s The collapse of the fact/value dichotomy (2002), just for example. It would be nice if more of this metaethical theory and sociology of values surfaced in the values in design literature, despite it’s being distinctly off-trend.

References

Marsden, Peter V., and Joseph F. Swingle. “Conceptualizing and measuring culture in surveys: Values, strategies, and symbols.” Poetics 22.4 (1994): 269-289.

Mulligan, Deirdre K., Colin Koopman, and Nick Doty. “Privacy is an essentially contested concept: a multi-dimensional analytic for mapping privacy.” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 374.2083 (2016): 20160118.

Nissenbaum, Helen. Privacy in context: Technology, policy, and the integrity of social life. Stanford University Press, 2009.

Putnam, Hilary. The collapse of the fact/value dichotomy and other essays. Harvard University Press, 2002.

Wong, Richmond Y., et al. “Eliciting Values Reflections by Engaging Privacy Futures Using Design Workbooks.” (2017).

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It’s just like what happened when they invented calculus…

I’ve picked up this delightful book again: David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity (2003). It is the David Foster Wallace (the brilliant and sadly dead writer and novelist you’ve heard of) writing a history of mathematics, starting with the Ancient Greeks and building up to the discovery of infinity by Georg Cantor.

It’s a brilliantly written book written to educate its reader without any doctrinal baggage. Wallace doesn’t care if he’s a mathematician or a historian; he’s just a great writer. And what comes through in the book is truly a history of the idea of infinity, with all the ways that it was a reflection of the intellectual climate and preconceptions of the mathematicians working on it. The book is fully of mathematical proofs that are blended seamlessly into the casual prose. The whole idea is to build up the excitement and wonder of mathematical discover, just how hard it was to come to appreciate infinity in the way we understand it mathematically today. A lot of this development had to do with the way mathematicians and scientists thought about their relationship to abstraction.

It’s a wonderful book that, refreshingly, isn’t obsessed with how everything has been digitized. Rather (just as one gem), it offers a historical perspective on what was perhaps even a more profound change: that time in the 1700’s when suddenly everything started to be looked at as an expression of mathematical calculus.

To quote the relevant passage:

As has been at least implied and will now be exposited on, the math-historical consensus is that the late 1600s mark the start of a modern Golden Age in which there are far more significant mathematical advances than anytime else in world history. Now things start moving really fast, and we can do little more than try to build a sort of flagstone path from early work on functions to Cantor’s infinicopia.

Two large-scale changes in the world of math to note very quickly The first involves abstraction. Pretty much all math from the Greeks to Galileo is empirically based: math concepts are straightforward abstractions from real-world experience. This is one reason why geometry (along with Aristotle) dominated mathematical reasoning for so long. The modern transition from geometric to algebraic reasoning was itself a symptom of a larger shift. By 1600, entities like zero, negative integers, and irrationals are used routinely. Now start adding in the subsequent decades’ introductions of complex numbers, Napierian logarithms, higher-degree polynomials and literal coefficients in algebra–plus of course eventually the 1st and 2nd derivative and the integral–and it’s clear that as of some pre-Enlightenment date math has gotten so remote from any sort of real-world observation that we and Saussure can say verily it is now, as a system of symbols, “independent of the objects designated,” i.e. that math is now concerned much more with the logical relations between abstract concepts than with any particular correspondence between those concepts and physical reality. The point: It’s in the seventeenth century that math becomes primarily a system of abstractions from other abstractions instead of from the world.

Which makes the second big change seem paradoxical: math’s new hyperabstractness turns out to work incredibly well in real-world applications. In science, engineering, physics, etc. Take, for one obvious example, calculus, which is exponentially more abstract than any sort of ‘practical’ math before (like, from what real-world observation does one dream up the idea than an object’s velocity and a curve’s subtending area have anything to do with each other?), and yet it is unprecedentedly good for representing/explaining motion and acceleration, gravity, planetary movements, heat–everything science tells us is real about the real world. Not at all for nothing does D. Berlinski call calculus “the story this world first told itself as it became the modern world.” Because what the modern world’s about, what it is, is science.And it’s in the seventeenth century that the marriage of math and science is consummated, the Scientific Revolution both causing and caused by the Math Explosion because science–increasingly freed of its Aristotelian hangups with substance v. matter and potentiality v. actuality–becomes now essentially a mathematical enterprise in which force, motion, mass, and law-as-formula compose the new template for understanding how reality works. By the late 1600s, serious math is part of astronomy, mechanics, geography, civil engineering, city planning, stonecutting, carpentry, metallurgy, chemistry, hyrdraulics, optics, lens-grinding, military strategy, gun- and cannon-design, winemaking, architecture, music, shipbuilding, timekeeping, calendar-reckoning; everything.

We take these changes for granted now.

But once, this was a scientific revolution that transformed, as Wallace observed, everything.

Maybe this is the best historical analogy for the digital transformation we’ve been experiencing in the past decade.

social structure and the private sector

The Human Cell

Academic social scientists leaning towards the public intellectual end of the spectrum love to talk about social norms.

This is perhaps motivated by the fact that these intellectual figures are prominent in the public sphere. The public sphere is where these norms are supposed to solidify, and these intellectuals would like to emphasize their own importance.

I don’t exclude myself from this category of persons. A lot of my work has been about social norms and technology design (Benthall, 2014; Benthall, Gürses and Nissenbaum, 2017)

But I also work in the private sector, and it’s striking how differently things look from that perspective. It’s natural for academics who participate more in the public sphere than the private sector to be biased in their view of social structure. From the perspective of being able to accurately understand what’s going on, you have to think about both at once.

That’s challenging for a lot of reasons, one of which is that the private sector is a lot less transparent than the public sphere. In general the internals of actors in the private sector are not open to the scrutiny of commentariat onlookers. Information is one of the many resources traded in pairwise interactions; when it is divulged, it is divulged strategically, introducing bias. So it’s hard to get a general picture of the private sector, even though accounts for a much larger proportion of the social structure that’s available than the public sphere. In other words, public spheres are highly over-represented in analysis of social structure due to the available of public data about them. That is worrisome from an analytic perspective.

It’s well worth making the point that the public/private dichotomy is problematic. Contextual integrity theory (Nissenbaum, 2009) argues that modern society is differentiated among many distinct spheres, each bound by its own social norms. Nissenbaum actually has a quite different notion of norm formation from, say, Habermas. For Nissenbaum, norms evolve over social history, but may be implicit. Contrast this with Habermas’s view that norms are the result of communicative rationality, which is an explicit and linguistically mediated process. The public sphere is a big deal for Habermas. Nissenbaum, a scholar of privacy, reject’s the idea of the ‘public sphere’ simpliciter. Rather, social spheres self-regulate and privacy, which she defines as appropriate information flow, is maintained when information flows according to these multiple self-regulatory regimes.

I believe Nissenbaum is correct on this point of societal differentiation and norm formation. This nuanced understanding of privacy as the differentiated management of information flow challenges any simplistic notion of the public sphere. Does it challenge a simplistic notion of the private sector?

Naturally, the private sector doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In the modern economy, companies are accountable to the law, especially contract law. They have to pay their taxes. They have to deal with public relations and are regulated as to how they manage information flows internally. Employees can sue their employers, etc. So just as the ‘public sphere’ doesn’t permit a total free-for-all of information flow (some kinds of information flow in public are against social norms!), so too does the ‘private sector’ not involve complete secrecy from the public.

As a hypothesis, we can posit that what makes the private sector different is that the relevant social structures are less open in their relations with each other than they are in the public sphere. We can imagine an autonomous social entity like a biological cell. Internally it may have a lot of interesting structure and organelles. Its membrane prevents this complexity leaking out into the aether, or plasma, or whatever it is that human cells float around in. Indeed, this membrane is necessary for the proper functioning of the organelles, which in turn allows the cell to interact properly with other cells to form a larger organism. Echoes of Francisco Varela.

It’s interesting that this may actually be a quantifiable difference. One way of modeling the difference between the internal and external-facing complexity of an entity is using information theory. The more complex internal state of the entity has higher entropy than the membrane. The fact that the membrane causally mediates interactions between the internals and the environment prevents information flow between them; this is captured by the Data Processing Inequality. The lack of information flow between the system internals and externals is quantified as lower mutual information between the two domains. At zero mutual information, the two domains are statistically independent of each other.

I haven’t worked out all the implications of this.

References

Benthall, Sebastian. (2015) Designing Networked Publics for Communicative Action. Jenny Davis & Nathan Jurgenson (eds.) Theorizing the Web 2014 [Special Issue]. Interface 1.1. (link)

Sebastian Benthall, Seda Gürses and Helen Nissenbaum (2017), “Contextual Integrity through the Lens of Computer Science”, Foundations and Trends® in Privacy and Security: Vol. 2: No. 1, pp 1-69. http://dx.doi.org/10.1561/3300000016

Nissenbaum, H. (2009). Privacy in context: Technology, policy, and the integrity of social life. Stanford University Press.

The social value of an actually existing alternative — BLOCKCHAIN BLOCKCHAIN BLOCKCHAIN

When people get excited about something, they will often talk about it in hyberbolic terms. Some people will actually believe what they say, though this seems to drop off with age. The emotionally energetic framing of the point can be both factually wrong and contain a kernel of truth.

This general truth applies to hype about particular technologies. Does it apply to blockchain technologies and cryptocurrencies? Sure it does!

Blockchain boosters have offered utopian or radical visions about what this technology can achieve. We should be skeptical about these visions prima facie precisely in proportion to how utopian and radical they are. But that doesn’t mean that this technology isn’t accomplishing anything new or interesting.

Here is a summary of some dialectics around blockchain technology:

A: “Blockchains allow for fully decentralized, distributed, and anonymous applications. These can operate outside of the control of the law, and that’s exciting because it’s a new frontier of options!”

B1: “Blockchain technology isn’t really decentralized, distributed, or anonymous. It’s centralizing its own power into the hands of the few, and meanwhile traditional institutions have the power to crush it. Their anarchist mentality is naive and short-sighted.”

B2: “Blockchain technology enthusiasts will soon discover that they actually want all the legal institutions they designed their systems to escape. Their anarchist mentality is naive and short-sighted.”

While B1 and B2 are both critical of blockchain technology and see A as naive, it’s important to realize that they believe A is naive for contradictory reasons. B1 is arguing that it does not accomplish what it was purportedly designed to do, which is provide a foundation of distributed, autonomous systems that’s free from internal and external tyranny. B2 is arguing that nobody actually wants to be free of these kinds of tyrannies.

These are conservative attitudes that we would expect from conservative (in the sense of conservation, or “inhibiting change”) voices in society. These are probably demographically different people from person A. And this makes all the difference.

If what differentiates people is their relationship to different kinds of social institutions or capital (in the Bourdieusian sense), then it would be natural for some people to be incumbents in old institutions who would argue for their preservation and others to be willing to “exit” older institutions and join new ones. However imperfect the affordances of blockchain technology may be, they are different affordances than those of other technologies, and so they promise the possibility of new kinds of institutions with an alternative information and communications substrate.

It may well be that the pioneers in the new substrate will find that they have political problems of their own and need to reinvent some of the societal controls that they were escaping. But the difference will be that in the old system, the pioneers were relative outsiders, whereas in the new system, they will be incumbents.

The social value of blockchain technology therefore comes in two waves. The first wave is the value it provides to early adopters who use it instead of other institutions that were failing them. These people have made the choice to invest in something new because the old options were not good enough for them. We can celebrate their successes as people who have invented quite literally a new form of social capital, quite possibly literally a new form of wealth. When a small group of people create a lot of new wealth this almost immediately creates a lot of resentment from others who did not get in on it.

But there’s a secondary social value to the creation of actually existing alternative institutions and forms of capital (which are in a sense the same thing). This is the value of competition. The marginal person, who can choose how to invest themselves, can exit from one failing institution to a fresh new one if they believe it’s worth the risk. When an alternative increases the amount of exit potential in society, that increases the competitive pressure on institutions to perform. That should benefit even those with low mobility.

So, in conclusion, blockchain technology is good because it increases institutional competition. At the end of the day that reduces the power of entrenched incumbents to collect rents and gives everybody else more flexibility.

Exit vs. Voice as Defecting vs. Cooperation as …

These dichotomies that are often thought of separately are actually the same.

Cooperation Defection
Voice (Hirschman) Exit (Hirschman)
Lifeworld (Habermas) System (Habermas)
Power (Arendt) Violence (Arendt)
Institutions Markets

Why I will blog more about math in 2018

One reason to study and write about political theory is what Habermas calls the emancipatory interest of human inquiry: to come to better understand the social world one lives in, unclouded by ideology, in order to be more free from those ideological expectations.

This is perhaps counterintuitive since what is perhaps most seductive about political theory is that it is the articulation of so many ideologies. Indeed, one can turn to political theory because one is looking for an ideology that suits them. Having a secure world view is comforting and can provide a sense of purpose. I know that personally I’ve struggled with one after another.

Looking back on my philosophical ‘work’ over the decade years (as opposed to my technical and scientific work) I’d like to declare it an emancipatory success for at least one person, myself. I am happier for it, though at the cost that comes from learning the hard way.

A problem with this blog is that it is too esoteric. It has not been written with a particular academic discipline in mind. It draws rather too heavily from certain big name thinkers that not enough people have read. I don’t provide background material in these thinkers, and so many find this inaccessible.

One day I may try to edit this material into a more accessible version of its arguments. I’m not sure who would find this useful, because much of what I’ve been doing in this work is arriving at the conclusion that actually, truly, mathematical science is the finest way of going about understanding sociotechnical systems. I believe this follows even from deep philosophical engagement with notable critics of this view–and I have truly tried to engage with the best and most notable of these critics. There will always be more of them, but I think at this point I have to make a decision to not seek them out any more. I have tested these views enough to build on them as a secure foundation.

What follows then is a harder but I think more rewarding task of building out the mathematical theory that reflects my philosophical conclusions. This is necessary for, for example, building a technical implementation that expresses the political values that I’ve arrived at. Arguably, until I do this, I’ll have just been beating around the bush.

I will admit to being sheepish about blogging on technical and mathematical topics. This is because in my understanding technical and mathematical writing is held to a higher standard that normal writing. Errors are more clear, and more permanent.

I recognize this now as a personal inhibition and a destructive one. If this blog has been valuable to me as a tool for reading, writing, and developing fluency in obscure philosophical literature, why shouldn’t it also be a tool for reading, writing, and developing fluency in obscure mathematical and technical literature? And to do the latter, shouldn’t I have to take the risk of writing with the same courage, if not abandon?

This is my wish for 2018: to blog more math. It’s a riskier project, but I think I have to in order to keep developing these ideas.

technological determinism and economic determinism

If you are trying to explain society, politics, the history of the world, whatever, it’s a good idea to narrow the scope of what you are talking about to just the most important parts because there is literally only so much you could ever possibly say. Life is short. A principled way of choosing what to focus on is to discuss only those parts that are most significant in the sense that they played the most causally determinative role in the events in question. By widely accepted interventionist theories of causation, what makes something causally determinative of something else is the fact that in a counterfactual world in which the cause was made to be somehow different, the effect would have been different as well.

Since we basically never observe a counterfactual history, this leaves a wide open debate over the general theoretical principles one would use to predict the significance of certain phenomena over others.

One point of view on this is called technological determinism. It is the view that, for a given social phenomenon, what’s really most determinative of it is the technological substrate of it. Engineers-turned-thought-leaders love technological determinism because of course it implies that really the engineers shape society, because they are creating the technology.

Technological determinism is absolutely despised by academic social scientists who have to deal with technology and its role in society. I have a hard time understanding why. Sometimes it is framed as an objection to technologist who are avoiding responsibility for social problems they create because it’s the technology that did it, not them. But such a childish tactic really doesn’t seem to be what’s at stake if you’re critiquing technological determinism. Another way of framing the problem is the say that the way a technology affects society in San Francisco is going to be different from how it affects society in Beijing. Society has its role in a a dialectic.

So there is a grand debate of “politics” versus “technology” which reoccurs everywhere. This debate is rather one sided, since it is almost entirely constituted by political scientists or sociologists complaining that the engineers aren’t paying enough attention to politics, seeing how their work has political causes and effects. Meanwhile, engineers-turned-thought-leaders just keep spouting off whatever nonsense comes to their head and they do just fine because, unlike the social scientist critics, engineers-turned-thought-leaders tend to be rich. That’s why they are thought leaders: because their company was wildly successful.

What I find interesting is that economic determinism is never part of this conversation. It seems patently obvious that economics drives both politics and technology. You can be anywhere on the political spectrum and hold this view. Once it was called “dialectical materialism”, and it was the foundation for left-wing politics for generations.

So what has happened? Here are a few possible explanations.

The first explanation is that if you’re an economic determinist, maybe you are smart enough to do something more productive with your time than get into debates about whether technology or politics is more important. You would be doing something more productive, like starting a business to develop a technology that manipulates political opinion to favor the deregulation of your business. Or trying to get a socialist elected so the government will pay off student debts.

A second explanation is… actually, that’s it. That’s the only reason I can think of. Maybe there’s another one?

The Data Processing Inequality and bounded rationality

I have long harbored the hunch that information theory, in the classic Shannon sense, and social theory are deeply linked. It has proven to be very difficult to find an audience for this point of view or an opportunity to work on it seriously. Shannon’s information theory is widely respected in engineering disciplines; many social theorists who are unfamiliar with it are loathe to admit that something from engineering should carry essential insights for their own field. Meanwhile, engineers are rarely interested in modeling social systems.

I’ve recently discovered an opportunity to work on this problem through my dissertation work, which is about privacy engineering. Privacy is a subtle social concept but also one that has been rigorously formalized. I’m working on formal privacy theory now and have been reminded of a theorem from information theory: the Data Processing Theorem. What strikes me about this theorem is that is captures an point that comes up again and again in social and political problems, though it’s a point that’s almost never addressed head on.

The Data Processing Inequality (DPI) states that for three random variables, X, Y, and Z, arranged in Markov Chain such that X \rightarrow Y \rightarrow Z, then I(X,Z) \leq I(X,Y), where here I stands for mutual information. Mutual information is a measure of how much two random variables carry information about each other. If $I(X,Y) = 0$, that means the variables are independent. $I(X,Y) \geq 0$ always–that’s just a mathematical fact about how it’s defined.

The implications of this for psychology, social theory, and artificial intelligence are I think rather profound. It provides a way of thinking about bounded rationality in a simple and generalizable way–something I’ve been struggling to figure out for a long time.

Suppose that there’s a big world out the, W and there’s am organism, or a person, or a sociotechnical organization within it, Y. The world is big and complex, which implies that it has a lot of informational entropy, H(W). Through whatever sensory apparatus is available to Y, it acquires some kind of internal sensory state. Because this organism is much small than the world, its entropy is much lower. There are many fewer possible states that the organism can be in, relative to the number of states of the world. H(W) >> H(Y). This in turn bounds the mutual information between the organism and the world: I(W,Y) \leq H(Y)

Now let’s suppose the actions that the organism takes, Z depend only on its internal state. It is an agent, reacting to its environment. Well whatever these actions are, they can only be so calibrated to the world as the agent had capacity to absorb the world’s information. I.e., I(W,Z) \leq H(Y) << H(W). The implication is that the more limited the mental capacity of the organism, the more its actions will be approximately independent of the state of the world that precedes it.

There are a lot of interesting implications of this for social theory. Here are a few cases that come to mind.

I've written quite a bit here (blog links) and here (arXiv) about Bostrom’s superintelligence argument and why I’m generally not concerned with the prospect of an artificial intelligence taking over the world. My argument is that there are limits to how much an algorithm can improve itself, and these limits put a stop to exponential intelligence explosions. I’ve been criticized on the grounds that I don’t specify what the limits are, and that if the limits are high enough then maybe relative superintelligence is possible. The Data Processing Inequality gives us another tool for estimating the bounds of an intelligence based on the range of physical states it can possibly be in. How calibrated can a hegemonic agent be to the complexity of the world? It depends on the capacity of that agent to absorb information about the world; that can be measured in information entropy.

A related case is a rendering of Scott’s Seeing Like a State arguments. Why is it that “high modernist” governments failed to successfully control society through scientific intervention? One reason is that the complexity of the system they were trying to manage vastly outsized the complexity of the centralized control mechanisms. Centralized control was very blunt, causing many social problems. Arguably, behavioral targeting and big data centers today equip controlling organizations with more informational capacity (more entropy), but they
still get it wrong sometimes, causing privacy violations, because they can’t model the entirety of the messy world we’re in.

The Data Processing Inequality is also helpful for explaining why the world is so messy. There are a lot of different agents in the world, and each one only has so much bandwidth for taking in information. This means that most agents are acting almost independently from each other. The guiding principle of society isn’t signal, it’s noise. That explains why there are so many disorganized heavy tail distributions in social phenomena.

Importantly, if we let the world at any time slice be informed by the actions of many agents acting nearly independently from each other in the slice before, then that increases the entropy of the world. This increases the challenge for any particular agent to develop an effective controlling strategy. For this reason, we would expect the world to get more out of control the more intelligence agents are on average. The popularity of the personal computer perhaps introduced a lot more entropy into the world, distributed in an agent-by-agent way. Moreover, powerful controlling data centers may increase the world’s entropy, rather than redtucing it. So even if, for example, Amazon were to try to take over the world, the existence of Baidu would be a major obstacle to its plans.

There are a lot of assumptions built into these informal arguments and I’m not wedded to any of them. But my point here is that information theory provides useful tools for thinking about agents in a complex world. There’s potential for using it for modeling sociotechnical systems and their limitations.

Net neutrality

What do I think of net neutrality?

I think it’s bad for my personal self-interest. I am, economically, a part of the newer tech economy of software and data. I believe this economy benefits from net neutrality. I also am somebody who loves The Web as a consumer. I’ve grown up with it. It’s shaped my values.

From a broader perspective, I think ending net neutrality will revitalize U.S. telecom and give it leverage over the ‘tech giants’–Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon—that have been rewarded by net neutrality policies. Telecom is a platform, but it had been turned into a utility platform. Now it can be a full-featured market player. This gives it an opportunity for platform envelopment, moving into the markets of other companies and bundling them in with ISP services.

Since this will introduce competition into the market and other players are very well-established, this could actually be good for consumers because it breaks up an oligopoly in the services that are most user-facing. On the other hand, since ISPs are monopolists in most places, we could also expect Internet-based service experience quality to deteriorate in general.

What this might encourage is a proliferation of alternatives to cable ISPs, which would be interesting. Ending net neutrality creates a much larger design space in products that provision network access. Mobile companies are in this space already. So we could see this regulation as a move in favor of the cell phone companies, not just the ISPs. This too could draw surplus away the big four.

This probably means the end of “The Web”. But we’d already seen the end of “The Web” with the proliferation of apps as a replacement for Internet browsing. IoT provides yet another alternative to “The Web”. I loved the Web as a free, creative place where everyone could make their own website about their cat. It had a great moment. But it’s safe to say that it isn’t what it used to be. In fifteen years it may be that most people no longer visit web sites. They just use connected devices and apps. Ending net neutrality means that the connectivity necessary for these services can be bundled in with the service itself. In the long run, that should be good for consumers and even the possibility of market entry for new firms.

In the long run, I’m not sure “The Web” is that important. Maybe it was a beautiful disruptive moment that will never happen again. Or maybe, if there were many more kinds of alternatives, “The Web” would return to being the quirky, radically free and interesting thing it was before it got so mainstream. Remember when The Web was just The Well (which is still around), and only people who were really curious about it bothered to use it? I don’t, because that was well before my time. But it’s possible that the Internet in its browse-happy form will become something like that again.

I hadn’t really thought about net neutrality very much before, to be honest. Maybe there are some good rebuttals to this argument. I’d love to hear them! But for now, I think I’m willing to give the shuttering of net neutrality a shot.

Marcuse, de Beauvoir, and Badiou: reflections on three strategies

I have written in this blog about three different philosophers who articulated a vision of hope for a more free world, including in their account an understanding of the role of technology. I would like to compare these views because nuanced differences between them may be important.

First, let’s talk about Marcuse, a Frankfurt School thinker whose work was an effective expression of philosophical Marxism that catalyzed the New Left. Marcuse was, like other Frankfurt School thinkers, concerned about the role of technology in society. His proposed remedy was “the transcendent project“, which involves an attempt at advancing “the totality” through an understanding of its logic and action to transform it into something that is better, more free.

As I began to discuss here, there is a problem with this kind of Marxist aspiration for a transformation of all of society through philosophical understanding, which is this: the political and technical totality exists as it does in no small part to manage its own internal information flows. Information asymmetries and differentiation of control structures are a feature, not a bug. The convulsions caused by the Internet as it tears and repairs the social fabric have not created the conditions of unified enlightened understanding. Rather, they have exposed that given nearly boundless access to information, most people will ignore it and maintain, against all evidence to the contrary, the dignity of one who has a valid opinion.

The Internet makes a mockery of expertise, and makes no exception for the expertise necessary for the Marcusian “transcendental project”. Expertise may be replaced with the technological apparati of artificial intelligence and mass data collection, but the latter are a form of capital whose distribution is a part of the totality. If they are having their transcendent effect today, as the proponents of AI claim, this effect is in the hands of a very few. Their motivations are inscrutable. As they have their own opinions and courtiers, writing for them is futile. They are, properly speaking, a great uncertainty that shows that centralized control does not close down all options. It may be that the next defining moment in history is set by the decision of how Jeff Bezos decides to spend his wealth, and that is his decision alone. For “our” purposes–yours, my reader, and mine–this arbitrariness of power must be seen as part of the totality to be transcended, if that is possible.

It probably isn’t. And if it Really isn’t, that may be the best argument for something like the postmodern breakdown of all epistemes. There are at least two strands of postmodern thought coming from the denial of traditional knowledge and university structure. The first is the phenomenological privileging of subjective experience. This approach has the advantage of never being embarrassed by the fact that the Internet is constantly exposing us as fools. Rather, it allows us to narcissistically and uncritically indulge in whatever bubble we find ourselves in. The alternative approach is to explicitly theorize about ones finitude and the radical implications of it, to embrace a kind of realist skepticism or at least acknowledgement of the limitations of the human condition.

It’s this latter approach which was taken up by the existentialists in the mid-20th century. In particular, I keep returning to de Beauvoir as a hopeful voice that recognizes a role for science that is not totalizing, but nevertheless liberatory. De Beauvoir does not take aim, like Marcuse and the Frankfurt School, at societal transformation. Her concern is with individual transformation, which is, given the radical uncertainty of society, a far more tractable problem. Individual ethics are based in local effects, not grand political outcomes. The desirable local effects are personal liberation and liberation of those one comes in contact with. Science, and other activities, is a way of opening new possibilities, not limited to what is instrumental for control.

Such a view of incremental, local, individual empowerment and goodness seems naive in the face of pessimistic views of society’s corruptedness. Whether these be economic or sociological theories of how inequality and oppression are locked into society, and however emotionally compelling and widespread they may be in social media, it is necessary by our previous argument to remember that these views are always mere ideology, not scientific fact, because an accurate totalizing view of society is impossible given real constraints on information flow and use. Totalizing ideologies that are not rigorous in their acceptance of basic realistic points are a symptom of more complex social structure (i.e. the distribution of capitals, the reproduction of many habiti) not a definition of it.

It is consistent for a scientific attitude to deflate political ideology because this deflation is an opening of possibility against both utopian and dystopian trajectories. What’s missing is a scientific proof of this very point, comparable to a Halting Problem or Incompleteness Theorem, but for social understanding.

A last comment, comparing Badiou to de Beauvoir and Marcuse. Badiou’s theory of the Event as the moment that may be seized to effect a transformation is perhaps a synthesis of existentialist and Marxian philosophies. Badiou is still concerned with transcendence, i.e. the moment when, given one assumed structure to life or reality or psychology, one discovers an opening into a renewed life with possibilities that the old model did not allow. But (at least as far as I have read him, which is not enough) he sees the Event as something that comes from without. It cannot be predicted or anticipate within the system but is instead a kind of grace. Without breaking explicitly from professional secularism, Badiou’s work suggests that we must have faith in something outside our understanding to provide an opportunity for transcendence. This is opposed to the more muscular theories described above: Marcuse’s theory of transcendent political activism and de Beauvoir’s active individual projects are not as patient.

I am still young and strong and so prefer the existentialist position on these matters. I am politically engaged to some extent and so, as an extension of my projects of individual freedom, am in search of opportunities for political transcendence as well–a kind of Marcuse light, as politics like science is a field of contest that is reproduced as its games are played and this is its structure. But life has taught me again and again to appreciate Badiou’s point as well, which is the appreciation of the unforeseen opportunity, the scientific and political anomaly.

What does this reflection conclude?

First, it acknowledges the situatedness and fragility of expertise, which deflates grand hopes for transcendent political projects. Pessimistic ideologies that characterize the totality as beyond redemption are false; indeed it is characteristic of the totality that it is incomprehensible. This is a realistic view, and transcendence must take it seriously.

Second, it acknowledges the validity of more localized liberatory projects despite the first point.

Third, it acknowledges that the unexpected event is a feature of the totality to be embraced, contrary to pessimistic ideologies to the contrary. The latter, far from encouraging transcendence, are blinders that prevent the recognition of events.

Because realism requires that we not abandon core logical principles despite our empirical uncertainty, you may permit one more deduction. To the extent that actors in society pursue the de Beauvoiran strategy of engaging in local liberatory projects that affect others, the probability of a Badiousian event in the life of another increases. Solipsism is false, and so (to put it tritely) “random acts of kindness” do have their effect on the totality, in aggregate. In fact, there may be no more radical political agenda than this opening up of spaces of local freedom, which shrugs off the depression of pessimistic ideology and suppression of technical control. Which is not a new view at all. What is perhaps surprising is how easy it may be.