Category: Web/Tech

The internet, vs. “culture”

The internet gives us the technological capability to transmit digital information seamlessly over any distance.  The concept of culture is more complicated, but I mean the influences and inspirations we grow up with, such as the family norms and practices of a place, the street scenes, the local architecture and cuisine, and the slang.  Culture comes from both nearby and more distant sources, but the emotional vividness of face-to-face interactions means that a big part of culture is intrinsically local.

Rapid Amazon delivery, or coffee shops that look alike all around the world, stem in part from the internet.  The recommendations from the smart person who works in the local bookstore, or the local Sicilian recipe that cannot be reproduced elsewhere, are examples of culture.

Since the late 1990s, the internet has become far more potent.  Yet the core techniques of culture have hardly become more productive at all, unless we are talking about through the internet.  The particular aspects of culture which have done well are those easily translated to the digital world, such as songs on YouTube and streaming.  When people are staring at their mobile devices for so many minutes or hours a day, that has to displace something.  Those who rely on face-to-face relationships to transmit their influence and authority don’t have nearly the clout they once did.

The internet gaining on culture has made the last twenty years some of the most revolutionary in history, at least in terms of the ongoing fight for mindshare, even though the physical productivity of our economy has been mediocre.  People are upset by the onset of populism in world politics, but the miracle is that so much stability has reigned, relative to the scope of the underlying intellectual and what you might call “methodological” disruptions.

The traditional French intellectual class, while retrograde in siding largely with culture, understands the ongoing clash fairly well.  Consistently with their core loyalties, they do not mind if the influence of the internet is stifled or even destroyed, or if the large American tech companies are collateral damage.

Many Silicon Valley CEOs are in the opposite boat.  Most of their formative experiences are with the internet and typically from young ages.  The cultural perspective of the French intellectuals is alien to them, and so they repeatedly do not understand why their products are not more politically popular.  They find it easier to see that the actual users love both their products and their companies.  Of course, for the intellectuals and culture mandarins that popularity makes the entire revolution even harder to stomach.

Donald Trump ascended to the presidency because he mastered both worlds, namely he commands idiomatic American cultural expressions and attitudes, and also he has been brilliant in his political uses of Twitter.  AOC has mastered social media only, and it remains to be seen whether Kamala Harris and Joe Biden have mastered either, but probably not.

Elizabeth Warren is now leading a campaign to split up the major tech companies, but unlike the Europeans she is not putting forward culture as an intellectual alternative.  Her anti-tech campaign is better understood as an offset of some of the more hostility-producing properties of the internet itself.  It is no accident that the big tech companies take such a regular pounding on social media, which is well-designed to communicate negative sentiment.  In this regard, the American and European anti-tech movements are not nearly as close as they might at first seem.

In the internet vs. culture debate, the internet is at some decided disadvantages.  For instance, despite its losses of mindshare, culture still holds many of the traditional measures of status.  Many intellectuals thus are afraid to voice the view that a lot of culture is a waste of time and we might be better off with more time spent on the internet.  Furthermore, many of the responses to the tech critics focus on narrower questions of economics or the law, without realizing that what is at stake are two different visions of how human beings should think and indeed live.  When that is the case, policymakers will tend to resort to their own value judgments, rather than listening to experts.  For better or worse, the internet-loving generations do not yet hold most positions of political power (recall Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress).

The internet also is good at spreading glorified but inaccurate pictures of the virtues of local culture, such as when Trump tweets about making America great again, or when nationalist populism becomes an internet-based, globalized phenomenon.

The paradox is that only those with a deep background in culture have the true capacity to defend the internet and also to understand its critics, but they are exactly the people least likely to take up that battle.

A lot of the fear of smart phones and social media may be based on faulty data

New research shows that the fear of smart phones and social media was built on a castle made of sand. Turns out almost all of previous research never bothered to validate their assessments of smart phone use – and that appears to have been a HUGE mistake.

That is from Patrick Markey at Villanova, here is the whole thread.  Here Dr. Andrea Howard has some comments about screen time and suicide correlations.

*Coders*, by Clive Thompson

The list of small-person or one-person innovators is long…[long list follows]…

The reason so few people can have such an outsize impact, Andreessen argues, is that when you’re creating a weird new prototype of an app, the mental castle building is most efficiently done inside one or two isolated brains.  The 10X productivity comes from being in the zone and staying there and from having a remarkable ability to visualize a complex architecture.  “If they’re physical capable of staying awake, they can get really far,” he says.  “The limits are awake time.  It takes you two hours to get the whole thing loaded into your head, and then you get like 10 or 12 or 14 hours where you can function at that level.”  The 10Xers he has known also tend to be “systems thinkers,” insatiably curious about every part of the technology stack, from the way currents flow in computer processors to the latency of touchscreen button presses.  “It’s some combination of curiosity, drive, and the need to understand.  They find it intolerable if they don’t understand some part of how the system works.”

The subtitle is The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, I enjoyed the book very much, you can order it here.

The best sentence I read today

Mark [Lutter] has a PhD in Economics from George Mason, but don’t let that fool you into thinking he’s conventional.

Here is the full bit:

Mark Lutter (29) and Tamara Winter (23), United States
Mark and Tamara are building charter cities — a concept where cities are governed by their own charter rather than general law. Imagine a world with dozens of new cities, each with their own distinct style, governance and populace. Mark and Tamara are working to make that vibrant future a reality.

Noteworthy: Mark has a PhD in Economics from George Mason, but don’t let that fool you into thinking he’s conventional. He’s a disagreeable, life-long adventurer. He decided to do his own thing after questioning the profit share in his previous company. He moved to Honduras while it was the murder capital of the world. Now he’s stumbling through Africa looking for city settlers.

They are part of the third cohort of Pioneer winners, congrats to Justin Zheng too and all the others, read through the list for some fascinating ideas and projects to come.  Tamara is a Mercatus alum, follow her here on Twitter, here is Mark.  Here is their institutional website.  Here is various information about Pioneer — apply!

Amazon bans some anti-vaccine books

Amazon has now joined other companies navigating the line between doing business and censoring it, in an age when, experts say, misleading claims about health and science have a real impact on public health.

NBC News recently reported that Amazon was pulling books touting false information about autism “cures” and vaccines. The e-commerce giant confirmed Monday to The Washington Post that several books are no longer available, but it would not release more specific information.

I cannot say I am entirely happy about that (grossly underreported) development.  Here is the full WaPo story by Lindsey Beyer.

Facebook and the new privacy revolution

It seems to me that the new, pending reconfiguration of Facebook will bring much more user privacy, most significantly from the forthcoming integration of all of the Facebook messenging services.  More concretely, WhatsApp is way better than Facebook Messenger as it stands, so why not make Messenger more like WhatsApp?

In some ways this will mean considerable sacrifice for the company.  Facebook has been pushing through this plan for general, end-to-end encryption, even though one of the top product people at the company just resigned for exactly this reason, a very real loss to the building process.

There are inevitable trade-offs between “ability to control messages,” and “promoting user privacy.”  In the longer run I think company control of messages does not face objective standards that can command social consensus, or for that matter survive competition from less salubrious and less mainstream alternatives.  I fear also that company control of messages will evolve all too suddenly into government control, First Amendment or not.  Even with a non-activist government, a large and publicly visible company cannot help but look over its shoulder, and consider the possible regulatory or antitrust reaction from the government, when making post/not post decisions.

General encryption and thus user privacy is the right way to go.  Of course there will be public relations bumps along the way, and probably today we are seeing one of them, namely the personnel shifts.  Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg are currently in a kind of PR trap where any decision, any announcement, can and will be taken the wrong way and as a sign that some value or another simply isn’t being served the proper way.  We all know that negative news typically has more clicks and longer legs than positive news.  But if you’ve been talking about user privacy, I think this is a decision you have to favor.

You can debate whether there should be one, two, or three cheers here, but the actual reality is we are taking some pretty big steps toward truly private internet social media.

Was concentrated big business behind the Nazi rise?

No, there isn’t much evidence for that now-common claim:

As I show below, the claim that big business contributed to the rise of the Nazi Party is simply inconsistent with the consensus among German historians. While there is some evidence industrial concentration contributed in Hitler’s ability to consolidate power after he was appointed chancellor in 1933, there is no evidence monopolists financed Hitler’s rise to power, and ample evidence showing industry leaders opposed his ascent.

Here is the longer essay, with much more additional detail, from the soon-to-be-better-known Alec Stapp.

The third cohort of Emergent Ventures recipients

As always, note that the descriptions are mine and reflect my priorities, as the self-descriptions of the applicants may be broader or slightly different.  Here goes:

Jordan Schneider, for newsletter and podcast and writing work “explaining the rise of Chinese tech and its global ramifications.”

Michelle Rorich, for her work in economic development and Africa, to be furthered by a bike trip Cairo to Capetown.

Craig Palsson, Market Power, a new YouTube channel for economics.

Jeffrey C. Huber, to write a book on tech and economic progress from a Christian point of view.

Mayowa Osibodu, building AI programs to preserve endangered languages.

David Forscey, travel grant to look into issues and careers surrounding protection against election fraud.

Jennifer Doleac, Texas A&M, to develop an evidence-based law and economics, crime and punishment podcast.

Fergus McCullough, University of St. Andrews, travel grant to help build a career in law/history/politics/public affairs.

Justin Zheng, a high school student working on biometrics for cryptocurrency.

Matthew Teichman at the University of Chicago, for his work in philosophy podcasting.

Kyle Eschen, comedian and magician and entertainer, to work on an initiative for the concept of “steelmanning” arguments.

Here is the first cohort of winners, and here is the second cohort.  Here is the underlying philosophy behind Emergent Ventures.  Note by the way, if you received an award very recently, you have not been forgotten but rather will show up in the fourth cohort.

Writers vs. entrepreneurs, publishers vs. venture capitalists

Henry Oliver asks:

In what ways are writers and entrepreneurs similar? Why doesn’t publishing have more of a VC structure and attitude? Could authorship be made more productive and better quality with VC in publishing and theatre? Are movies better at this?

Publishing has one feature in common with venture capital, namely that most financed undertakings are failures and the most profitable successes can be hard to predict in advance.  Furthermore, publishers are always on the lookout for the soon-to-be-hot, hitherto unpublished author, the next Mark Zuckerberg so to speak.  And books, like software and also successful social networks, are rapidly scalable.  You can sell millions with a big hit.  But here are a few differences:

1. A lot of VC is person-focused.  The VC company builds a relationship with a young talent, and in some cases the hope is that the second or third business makes it, or that the person can be steered in the proper direction early on.  Authors, in contrast, are more mobile across publishers, and the publisher usually is buying “a book” rather than “a relationship with the author.”  Some wags would say that a publisher is buying a title, a cover, and the author’s social media presence.

2. Entrepreneurs commonly have more than one VC, but authors, for a single book, do not have multiple publishers.

3. For the vast majority of books which do not make a profit, this is evident within the first three weeks of release or perhaps before release altogether.  The publisher may drop its resource commitment to the author very quickly, and even yank the PR people off the case.  This further loosens the bond between the talent (the author) and the funders of the talent (the publisher).  In contrast, VC rounds can last five or ten years, with commitments made in advance and possibly a board seat as part of the deal.

4. Venture capitalists will introduce their entrepreneurs to an entire network of supporting talent and connections.  Publishers will edit and advise on a manuscript, but it is much more of an arm’s length relationship, and a publisher might do very little to bring an author into any kind of network.

5. The major publishing houses are clustered in Manhattan, just as the major venture capitalist firms are clustered in the Bay Area.  But the publishers don’t find a pressing need to have their authors living in or near NYC, though for some other reasons that is convenient for the author doing eventual media appearances.

6. Publishers often care a great deal about an author’s preexisting platforms, such as Twitter followers or ability to get on NPR.  Venture capitalists realize that a very good product can overcome the lack of initial renown.  When Page and Brin started Google, they didn’t, believe it or not, have any Twitter followers at all.  In fact, you couldn’t even Google them.

What else?

Hypnotist markets in everything

Those new service sector jobs:

This hypnotist charges half a bitcoin for helping you remember your lost cryptocurrency password…

“If you’ve got, you know, $100,000, $200,000, $300,000 worth of bitcoin in a wallet and you can’t get access to it, there’s a lot of stress there,” he says. “So it’s not just as simple as saying, okay, we’re going to go do a 30-minute hypnosis session and enhance your memory.”

Miller declined to specify the exact number of participants in his bitcoin password recovery program or how much money he’s recovered, citing client confidentiality. However, he says that there are currently “several people” in his program, who are experiencing varying degrees of success.

Generally, a person who created their password more recently will have an easier time unlocking this memory, he says. Likewise, a client who is feeling low stress will have an easier time remembering their password than one under high stress.

Miller is located in Greenville, South Carolina.

For the pointer I thank Nick Glenn.

Tech and economic growth in the Book of Genesis

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, worth reading as an integrated whole.  Here is one excerpt:

The stories have so much religious significance that it is easy to miss the embedded tale of technology-led economic growth, similar to what you might find in the work of Adam Smith or even Paul Romer. Adam and Eve eat of “the tree of knowledge, good and evil,” and from that decision an entire series of economic forces are set in motion. Soon thereafter Adam and Eve are tilling the soil, and in their lineage is Tubal-Cain, “who forged every tool of copper and iron.”

Living standards rise throughout the book, and by the end we see the marvels of Egyptian civilization, as experienced and advised by Joseph. The Egyptians have advanced markets in grain, and the logistical and administrative capacities to store grain for up to seven years, helping them to overcome famine risk (for purposes of contrast, the U.S. federal government routinely loses track of assets, weapons, and immigrant children). It is a society of advanced infrastructure, with governance sophisticated enough to support a 20 percent tax rate (Joseph instructs the pharaoh not to raise it higher). Note that in modern America federal spending typically has run just below 20 percent since the mid-1950s.

Arguably you can find a story of quantitative easing in Genesis as well. When silver is hard to come by, perhaps because of deflationary forces, the Egyptian government buys up farmland and compensates the owners with grain.

Most of all, in the Genesis story, the population of the Middle East keeps growing. I’ve known readers who roll their eyes at the lists of names, and the numerous recitations of who begat whom, but that’s the Bible’s way of telling us that progress is underway. Neither land nor food supplies prove to be the binding constraints for population growth, unlike the much later canonical classical economics models of Malthus and Ricardo.

There is much more at the link.

The culture and polity that is Arlington, Virginia

Arlington officials say Amazon’s arrival will boost the number of visitors staying in hotels, motels and other lodgings. Starting in June 2019, 15 percent of any increase in its “transient occupancy tax” would go to Amazon, if the company meets specific targets for how much office space the new headquarters facility occupies.

The agreement says Amazon needs to occupy 64,000 square feet of office space by July 31, 2020, in order to qualify for the 15 percent payment. The required amount of space increases to 252,800 square feet by July 31, 2021, and to 5.576 million by July 31, 2034, the last year of incentive payments.

Here is more from WaPo.

Google decides it is underpaying its men

When Google conducted a study recently to determine whether the company was underpaying women and members of minority groups, it found that more men than women were receiving less money for doing similar work.

The surprising conclusion to the latest version of the annual study contrasted sharply with the experience of women working in Silicon Valley and in many other industries.

In response to the finding, Google gave $9.7 million in additional compensation to 10,677 employees for this year. Men account for about 69 percent of the company’s work force, but they received a disproportionately higher percentage of the money. The exact number of men who got raises is unclear.  [TC: I don’t fully understand the metric here.]

But the study did not tell the whole story of women at Google or in the technology industry more broadly, something that company officials acknowledged.

That is from Daisuke Wakabayashi at The New York Times.