Digifesto

Tag: power

trust issues and the order of law and technology cf @FrankPasquale

I’ve cut to the last chapter of Pasquale’s The Black Box Society, “Towards an Intelligible Society.” I’m interested in where the argument goes. I see now that I’ve gotten through it that the penultimate chapter has Pasquale’s specific policy recommendations. But as I’m not just reading for policy and framing but also for tone and underlying theoretical commitments, I think it’s worth recording some first impressions before doubling back.

These are some points Pasquale makes in the concluding chapter that I wholeheartedly agree with:

  • A universal basic income would allow more people to engage in high risk activities such as the arts and entrepreneurship and more generally would be great for most people.
  • There should be publicly funded options for finance, search, and information services. A great way to provide these would be to fund the development of open source algorithms for finance and search. I’ve been into this idea for so long and it’s great to see a prominent scholar like Pasquale come to its defense.
  • Regulatory capture (or, as he elaborates following Charles Lindblom, “regulatory circularity”) is a problem. Revolving door participation in government and business makes government regulation an unreliable protector of the public interest.

There is quite a bit in the conclusion about the specifics of regulation the finance industry. There is an impressive amount of knowledge presented about this and I’ll admit much of it is over my head. I’ll probably have a better sense of it if I get to reading the chapter that is specifically about finance.

There are some things that I found bewildering or off-putting.

For example, there is a section on “Restoring Trust” that talks about how an important problem is that we don’t have enough trust in the reputation and search industries. His solution is to increase the penalties that the FTC and FCC can impose on Google and Facebook for its e.g. privacy violations. The current penalties are too trivial to be effective deterrence. But, Pasquale argues,

It is a broken enforcement model, and we have black boxes to thank for much of this. People can’t be outraged by what they can’t understand. And without some public concern about the trivial level of penalties for lawbreaking here, there are no consequences for the politicians ultimately responsible for them.

The logic here is a little mad. Pasquale is saying that people are not outraged enough by search and reputation companies to demand harsher penalties, and this is a problem because people don’t trust these companies enough. The solution is to convince people to trust these companies less–get outraged by them–in order to get them to punish the companies more.

This is a bit troubling, but makes sense based on Pasquale’s theory of regulatory circularity, which turns politics into a tug-of-war between interests:

The dynamic of circularity teaches us that there is no stable static equilibrium to be achieved between regulators and regulated. The government is either pushing industry to realize some public values in its activities (say, by respecting privacy or investing in sustainable growth), or industry is pushing regulators to promote its own interests.

There’s a simplicity to this that I distrust. It suggests for one that there are no public pressures on industry besides the government such as consumer’s buying power. A lot of Pasquale’s arguments depend on the monopolistic power of certain tech giants. But while network effects are strong, it’s not clear whether this is such a problem that consumers have no market buy in. In many cases tech giants compete with each other even when it looks like they aren’t. For example, many many people have both Facebook and Gmail accounts. Since there is somewhat redundant functionality in both, consumers can rather seemlessly allocate their time, which is tied to advertising revenue, according to which service they feel better serves them, or which is best reputationally. So social media (which is a bit like a combination of a search and reputation service) is not a monopoly. Similarly, if people have multiple search options available to them because, say, the have both Siri on their smart phone and can search Google directly, then that provides an alternative search market.

Meanwhile, government officials are also often self-interested. If there is a road to hell for industry that is to provide free web services to people to attain massive scale, then abuse economic lock-in to extract value from customers, then lobby for further rent-seeking, there is a similar road to hell in government. It starts with populist demagoguery, leads to stable government appointment, and then leverages that power for rents in status.

So, power is power. Everybody tries to get power. The question is what you do once you get it, right?

Perhaps I’m reading between the lines too much. Of course, my evaluation of the book should depend most on the concrete policy recommendations which I haven’t gotten to yet. But I find it unfortunate that what seems to be a lot of perfectly sound history and policy analysis is wrapped in a politics of professional identity that I find very counterproductive. The last paragraph of the book is:

Black box services are often wondrous to behold, but our black-box society has become dangerously unstable, unfair, and unproductive. Neither New York quants nor California engineers can deliver a sound economy or a secure society. Those are the tasks of a citizenry, which can perform its job only as well as it understands the stakes.

Implicitly, New York quants and California engineers are not citizens, to Pasquale, a law professor based in Maryland. Do all real citizens live around Washington, DC? Are they all lawyers? If the government were to start providing public information services, either by hosting them themselves or by funding open source alternatives, would he want everyone designing these open algorithms (who would be quants or engineers, I presume) to move to DC? Do citizens really need to understand the stakes in order to get this to happen? When have citizens, en masse, understood anything, really?

Based on what I’ve read so far, The Black Box Society is an expression of a lack of trust in the social and economic power associated with quantification and computing that took off in the past few dot-com booms. Since expressions of lack of trust for these industries is nothing new, one might wonder (under the influence of Foucault) how the quantified order and the critique of the quantified order manage to coexist and recreate a system of discipline that includes both and maintains its power as a complex of superficially agonistic forces. I give sincere credit to Pasquale for advocating both series income redistribution and public investment in open technology as ways of disrupting that order. But when he falls into the trap of engendering partisan distrust, he loses my confidence.

data science is not positivist, it’s power

Naively, we might assume that contemporary ‘data science’ is a form of positivist or post-positivist science. The scientist gathers data and subsumes it under logical formulae–models with fitted parameters. Indeed this is the case when data science is applied to natural phenomena, such as stars or the human genome.

The question of what kind of science ‘data science’ is becomes much more complex when we start to look at its application to social phenomena. This includes its application to the management of industrial and commercial technology–the so called “Internet of Things“. (Technology in general, and especially technology as situated socially, being a social phenomenon.)

There are (at least) two reasons why data science in these social domains is not strictly positivist.

The first is that, according to McKinsey’s Michael Chui, data science in the Internet of Things context is main about either real-time control or anomaly detection. Neither of these depends on the kind of nomothetic orientation that positivism requires. The former requires only an objective function over inputs to guide the steering of the dynamic system. The latter requires only the detection of deviation from historically observed patterns.

‘Data science’ applied in this context isn’t actually about the discovery of knowledge at all. It is not, strictly speaking, a science. Rather, it is a process through which the operations of existing technologies are related and improved by further technological interventions. Robust positivist engineering knowledge is applied to these cases. But however much the machines may ‘learn’, what they learn is not propositional.

Perhaps the best we can say is that ‘data science’ in this context is the science of techniques for making these kinds of interventions. As learning these techniques depends on mathematical rigor and empirical prototyping, we can say perhaps of the limited sense of ‘pure’ (not applied) data science that it is a positivist science.

But the second reason why data science is not positivist comes about as a result of its application. The problem is that when systems controlled by complex computational processes interact, the result is a more complex system. In adversarial cases, the interacting complex systems become the subject matter of cybersecurity research, towards which data science is one application. But as soon as on starts to study phenomena that are aware of the observer and can act in ways that respond to its presence, you get out of positivist territory.

A better way to think about data science might be to think of it in terms of perception. In, the visual system, data that comes in through the eye goes through many steps of preprocessing before it becomes the subject of attention. Visual representations feed into the control mechanisms of movement.

If we see data science not as a positivist attempt to discover natural laws, but rather as an extension of agency by expanding powers of perception and training skillful control, then we can get a picture of data science that’s consistent with theories of situated and embodied cognition.

These theories of situated and embodied cognition are perhaps the best contenders for what can displace the dominant paradigm as imagined by critics of cognitive science, economics, etc. Rather than being a rejection of explanatory power of naturalistic theories of information processing, these theories extend naive theories to embrace the complexity of how agents cognition is situated in a body in time, space, and society.

If we start to think of ‘data science’ not as a kind of natural science but as the techniques and tools for extending the information processing that is involved in ones individual or collective agency, then we can start to think about data science as what it really is: power.

developing a nuanced view on transparency

I’m a little late to the party, but I think I may at last be developing a nuanced view on transparency. This is a personal breakthrough about the importance of privacy that I owe largely to the education I’m getting at Berkeley’s School of Information.

When I was an undergrad, I also was a student activist around campaign finance reform. Money in politics was the root of all evil. We were told by our older, wiser activist mentors that we were supposed to lay the groundwork for our policy recommendation and then wait for journalists to expose a scandal. That way we could move in to reform.

Then I worked on projects involving open source, open government, open data, open science, etc. The goal of those activities is to make things more open/transparent.

My ideas about transparency as a political, organizational, and personal issue originated in those experiences with those movements and tactics.

There is a “radically open” wing of these movements which thinks that everything should be open. This has been debunked. The primary way to debunk this is to point out that less privileged groups often need privacy for reasons that more privileged advocates of openness have trouble understanding. Classic cases of this include women who are trying to evade stalkers.

This has been expanded to a general critique of “big data” practices. Data is collected from people who are less powerful than people that process that data and act on it. There has been a call to make the data processing practices more transparent to prevent discrimination.

A conclusion I have found it easy to draw until relatively recently is: ok, this is not so hard. What’s important is that we guarantee privacy for those with less power, and enforce transparency on those with more power so that they can be held accountable. Let’s call this “openness for accountability.” Proponents of this view are in my opinion very well-intended, motivated by values like justice, democracy, and equity. This tends to be the perspective of many journalists and open government types especially.

Openness for accountability is not a nuanced view on transparency.

Here are some examples of cases where an openness for accountability view can go wrong:

  • Arguably, the “Gawker Stalker” platform for reporting the location of celebrities was justified by an ‘opennes for accountability’ logic. Jimmy Kimmel’s browbeating of Emily Gould indicates how this can be a problem. Celebrity status is a form of power but also raises ones level of risk because there is a small percentage of the population that for unfathomable reasons goes crazy and threatens and even attacks people. There is a vicious cycle here. If one is perceived to be powerful, then people will feel more comfortable exposing and attacking that person, which increases their celebrity, increasing their perceived power.
  • There are good reasons to be concerned about stereotypes and representation of underprivileged groups. There are also cases where members of those groups do things that conform to those stereotypes. When these are behaviors that are ethically questionable or manipulative, it’s often important organizationally for somebody to know about them and act on them. But transparency about that information would feed the stereotypes that are being socially combated on a larger scale for equity reasons.
  • Members of powerful groups can have aesthetic taste and senses of humor that are offensive or even triggering to less powerful groups. More generally, different social groups will have different and sometimes mutually offensive senses of humor. A certain amount of public effort goes into regulating “good taste” and that is fine. But also, as is well known, art that is in good taste is often bland and fails to probe the depths of the human condition. Understanding the depths of the human condition is important for everybody but especially for powerful people who have to take more responsibility for other humans.
  • This one is based on anecdotal information from a close friend: one reason why Congress is so dysfunctional now is that it is so much more transparent. That transparency means that politicians have to be more wary of how they act so that they don’t alienate their constituencies. But bipartisan negotiation is exactly the sort of thing that alienates partisan constituencies.

If you asked me maybe two years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to come up with these cases. That was partly because of my positionality in society. Though I am a very privileged man, I still perceived myself as an outsider to important systems of power. I wanted to know more about what was going on inside important organizations and was frustrated by my lack of access to it. I was very idealistic about wanting a more fair society.

Now I am getting older, reading more, experiencing more. As I mature, people are trusting me with more sensitive information, and I am beginning to anticipate the kinds of positions I may have later in my career. I have begun to see how my best intentions for making the world a better place are at odds with my earlier belief in openness for accountability.

I’m not sure what to do with this realization. I put a lot of thought into my political beliefs and for a long time they have been oriented around ideas of transparency, openness, and equity. Now I’m starting to see the social necessity of power that maintains its privacy, unaccountable to the public. I’m starting to see how “Public Relations” is important work. A lot of what I had a kneejerk reaction against now makes more sense.

I am in many ways a slow learner. These ideas are not meant to impress anybody. I’m not a privacy scholar or expert. I expect these thoughts are obvious to those with less of an ideological background in this sort of thing. I’m writing this here because I see my current role as a graduate student as participating in the education system. Education requires a certain amount of openness because you can’t learn unless you have access to information and people who are willing to teach you from their experience, especially their mistakes and revisions.

I am also perhaps writing this now because, who knows, maybe one day I will be an unaccountable, secretive, powerful old man. Nobody would believe me if I said all this then.

Follow the money back to the media

I once cared passionately about the impact of money in politics. I’ve blogged about it here a lot. Long ago I campaigned for fair elections. I went to work at a place where I thought I could work on tools to promote government transparency and electoral reform. This presidential election, I got excited about Rootstrikers. I vocally supported Buddy Roemer. Of course, the impact of any of these groups is totally marginal, and my impact within them even more so. Over the summer, I volunteered at a Super PAC, partly to see if there was any way the system could be improved from the inside. I found nothing.

I give up. I don’t believe there’s a way to change the system. I’m going to stop complaining about it and just accept the fact that democracy is a means of balancing different streams of money and power, full stop.

There is silver lining to the cloud. The tools for tracking where campaign donations are coming from are getting better and better. MapLight, for example, seems to do great work. So now we can know which interests are represented in politics. We can sympathize with some and condemn others. We can cheer for our team. Great.

But something that’s often omitted in analysis of money in politics is: where does it go?

So far the most thorough report I’ve been able to find on this (read: first viable google hit) was this PBS News Hour. It breaks it down pretty much as you would expect. The money goes to:

  • Television ads. Since airtime is limited, this means that political ads were being aired very early on.
  • Political consultants who specialize in election tactics.
  • Paid canvassers, knocking door-to-door or making phone calls to engage voters.

Interesting that so much of the money flows to media outlets, who presumably raise prices for advertising when candidates are competing for it with deep pockets. So… the mainstream media benefits hugely from boundless campaign spending.

Come to think of it, it must be that the media benefits much more than politicians or donors from the current financing system. Why is that? A campaign is a zero-sum game. Financially backing a candidate is taking a risk on their loss, and in a tight race one is likely to face fierce competition from other donors. But the outlets that candidates compete over for airtime and the consultants who have “mastered” the political system get to absorb all that funding without needing any particular stake in the outcome of the election. (Once in office, can a politician afford to upset the media?)

Who else benefits from campaign spending? Maybe the telecom industry, since all the political messaging has to run over it.

Maybe this analysis has something to do with why generating political momentum around campaign finance reform is a grueling uphill battle. Because the more centralized and powerful a media outlet, the more it has to gain from expensive campaign battling. It can play gatekeeper and sell passage to the highest bidder.

Taking it one step farther: since the media, through its selection of news items, can heavily influence voters’ perception of candidates, it is in their power to calibrate their news in a way that necessitates further spending by candidates.

Suppose a candidate is popular enough to win an election by a landslide. It would be in the interests of media outlets to start portraying that candidate badly, highlighting their gaffes or declaring them to be weak or whatever else, to force the candidate to spend money on advertising to reshape the public perception of them.

What a racket.

Truth vs. Power: Buddy Roemer, SOPA, money in politics and liberation technology

Buddy Roemer is a former Governor and Congressman of Louisiana who is running for president as a Republican. He has so far not been allowed to take part in any televised debates, and so is relatively unknown. The television stations say that he is not eligible to debate because he has not raised sufficient campaign contributions. This is a problem for Buddy, because he has refused to accept Super PAC money and caps individual donations at $100.

Whatever else one may say about Roemer as a candidate, there is something wrong with this picture. Putting aside the other tools of the modern campaign (advertising, for example), the debate is the cornerstone of rational politics. In these events, we pretend for a moment that we are lead by those who are able to persuade us to follow them. This is only a fantasy when reasonable candidates are barred from entry.

Of course, politics is not a fair fight for our approval as citizens. Citizens are pawns. Or, perhaps more appropriately, ants ready to swarm to any greasy slick of propaganda spewed from the orifices of power. So must we be viewed by the billionaire Super PAC donors who have been investing in the Romney campaign, shareholders ready to instate their loyal CEO.

Is it going too far to say that these Romney shareholders aim to turn a profit on the presidency? We could consider the alternative: that these are philosopher-king oligarchs, who have spent their lives earning their billions through honest business only to turn their attention to national politics and endorse Mitt Romney. Out of selfless benevolence, they seek a consistent champion of middle and lower classes. Some of them think Gingrich would be a better one.

No, that seems unlikely.

If there is any iron law of politics, it is that those in power aim to keep themselves in power. Companies that succeed will try to maintain their market power, even when their products face obsolescence. Unions that triumph will shift demands from workers rights to the excluding the unorganized. Non-profits that form out of genuine selfless action contort themselves to chase funding and become whatever will justify their existence. Prison systems will fight to incarcerate more people. Political parties will try to maintain control of political messaging to keep out political diversity. And so on.

Truth erodes the grip of power. By recognizing these patterns as what they are, we can choose to deny them. We can liberate ourselves by holding institutions of power to account.

However, truth is something we transmit to one another. Truth travels as information. In our era, that means the spread of truth is controlled by mass media and information technology. But media and IT are themselves part of our economy and politics. Herein lies the problem.

SOPA is a good example of this. Media companies that want to use the power of the state to enforce monopolies on their works (Hollywood, the RIAA, etc.) are battling with Internet companies that profit from easy sharing of information across networked users (Google, Facebook, Twitter) over control of the Web. The media companies have been playing politics for much longer than the internet companies. One friend of mine explains to me that the Hollywood lobbyists are physically older than Google’s. They have been on K Street longer. They have better connections with legislators and other lobbyists. So they are winning.

Buddy Roemer is trying to expose this truth about how politics works–that policies are determined not by citizens but by lobbyists paid for by the rich and powerful. He has other politics but he has ripped this plank from his platform and sharpened it into a spear fit for the head of Mitt Romney.

But the media companies by and large control the spread of truth. These media companies are in their tangle of alliances with powerful political parties and corporations, they have no incentive to let in a candidate who is so eager to blow the lid off the whole complex. So they raise the requirements of debate eligibility to exclude anyone who isn’t playing their power games.

So Roemer has turned to non-mass media to launch his campaign. Roemer has been working hard on his Web campaign, using social media (especially Twitter) to get his message out.

Perhaps Roemer’s faith in this alternative structure is due in part to his witnessing of the Occupy movement. I believe it can be uncontroversially said at this point that social media was necessary (though not sufficient) for the successes of the Occupy movement, whether in organizing, gaining publicity, and in responding tactically to suppression. Its success in raising the issue of inequality in national politics has been due largely to its independence from centralized media. It continues to use the Internet to organize itself over the winter in order to plan its next moves for 2012. Perhaps Roemer can raise awareness about political inequality through similar channels.

It is worth watching and studying these events because the question of whether and under what conditions information technology can be liberation technology will determine our future. Is it possible for a message that is true but unpopular with power to spread? Under what conditions? This is not just a question of theoretical interest. It is a strategic question for those concerned with their own freedom.

We have many clues to this question already. We have the efficacy of the open Web, as opposed to centralized media channels, in assisting politics of truth. In SOPA, we see how the centralized hub of the Internet, its DNS system, is where it is most vulnerable to attack by powers that are threatened by it.

On the other hand, open data programs by governments show that there is also a politics of mutual empowerment through sharing information with citizens. Government transparency initiatives allow the kinds of analysis and awareness of money in politics that show us who is supporting SOPA and help us verify the claims of Buddy Roemer and the like. And SOPA has shown examples of industries that are able to gain power by benefiting openness and wage political battles to defend it.

What technologies are needed to further embolden truth? What strategies will get these technologies into the hands of those that can use them? How can truth be sifted from fiction, anyway? Can we find out before a growing concentration of power stamps out our ability to search and disseminate our answers?

I am eager to discuss these topics with anyone interested and collaborate on solutions.