What information, to whom – and do they want it?

For a bit of variety, I’ve been reading Bletchley Park and D-Day by David Kenyon, who is the Research Historian at Bletchley Park. The broad story of code-breaking at Bletchley Park during World War 2, and the contribution of Alan Turing along with many others, is now well-known. The aspect explored in this book is specifically about the intelligence provided ahead of and during the D-Day landings. This includes a lot of detail about the operation of the various bits of Bletchley Park and other arms of intelligence. In one sense, that makes it a sort of ‘inside the Beltway’ account: who reported to which officer, how the different branches of the armed services related to each other and so on will be details too far for general interest.

However, there is one kind of detail in this book that I found truly fascinating, and that is about how the flow of information was organised: coming into Bletchley Park, within its increasingly large and complex organisational structures, and going out to decision-makers in the UK central command, in the US, and of course in the field before and during the attack. For information flows are at the heart of the challenge of managing any complex organisation. And the ease and cheapness of digital information flows are translating now into a growing gap between businesses and other organisations that can make use of the information and those that can’t.

In other words, it wasn’t all about code breaking. One key role was played by (mainly) women graduates whose job was to provide a weekly Index of what intelligence had been unearthed and send that to the people who needed it. There was so much raw data – decrypted messages – that making sense of its importance became at least as important. These women didn’t have exciting new machines: just their own intelligence, pencils and index cards.

Another interesting point is about willingness to receive the intelligence. General Patton was all in favour but Montgomery was not: he thought the military alone should get the Ultra information and distrusted it because he knew Churchill and others in Government were getting it too. Luckily, he had a subordinate who paid attention to the Ultra messages received.

Anyway, I confess to skipping through some parts but overall really enjoyed the book. I have an appetite for anything about the Bletchley Park story. And what could be more relevant to thinking about information in organisations than an organisation whose whole raison d’être was information?

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When being fair to others is efficient

The title had slightly put me off the new book by David Bodanis: The Art of Fairness: The Power of Decency in a World Turned Mean. I’m not in the mood for self-improvement, given that (a) it’s January, always the worst month of the year and (b) it’s lockdown – so more in the mood for gin and chocolate. Despite my rather truculent seasonal despondency, though, I really enjoyed reading it.

The title is misleading, I think. The book seemed to me to be really about the power of making sure you get the widest range of information possible, by listening to enough people with respect and treating them well enough that they say what they think – while at the same time retaining enough scepticism about their motives. Not so much ‘do as you would be done by’ fairness, more ‘efficiency wage’ fairness – the way you treat people structures their incentives. There’s also a flavour of Team of Rivals about the argument: if you don’t listen to your opponents, or those who disagree with you, reality will bite you at some stage.

The author has his own views, though, and describes this as fairness, or as decency.  The book is structured into two halves. The first is a series of stories about effective leadership, divided into exemplars of the three skills of listening, giving and defending. Most of these are not well-known people – such as Paul Starrett, who won the contract to build the Empire State Building, or Ursula Bower, a British woman who led a team of hill tribe warriors in the mountainous North of India against the Japanese in the second world war. These tales are told crackingly well, and I raced through these chapters.

The second half works a bit less well, although still a compelling read. It starts by contrasting Goebbels and Roosevelt when young, the experiences that shaped them and how they responded, and broadens out into why Roosevelt’s leadership paved the way for the Allied victory and America’s postwar success. Perhaps it’s inherently hard to get the optimal focal length when so many volumes have been written about both men and about the war.

The book then ends with a very nice section of ‘readings and reflections’, a reading list with notes providing a sort of meta-commentary on the theme of decency, or how to be a good leader (one of Aristotelian virtue) in any context.

All in all, highly recommended. It certainly cheered me through a couple of grim January evenings.41RKfm5a9SL._SY346_

 

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Property is theft (and allocatively inefficient too)

We launched the Bennett Institute for Public Policy in Cambridge this week so it’s been a bit hectic. I still managed to read Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society by Eric Posner and Glen Weyl. It’s extremely thought provoking and clearly brilliant – yet also barking mad. This is the territory of thought-experiment rather than policy proposal.

The basic idea is Proudhon (‘All property is theft!’). Any private ownership of property contains within it the seeds of market power. Worse, “Private ownership of any asset, except homogenous commodities, may hamper allocative efficiency.” A more efficient and more egalitarian arrangement is for all property to be in effect rented from the state, by current ‘owners’ stating what they think every item is worth, and paying a tax on that amount. At any time, somebody who values it more can bid it away from them; there are continuous auction markets. For homes, there might be a notice period so people can order their affairs. There might be exemptions for small items of sentimental value such as Grandma’s fountain pen. The revenues raised from the tax would be returned as a basic income to all citizens.

The authors want to Radicalise voting as well as ownership. In place of the one person one vote tyranny of the majority, they apply the auction principle to politics as well as markets. Everybody gets an allowance of ‘voice’ which they can allocate according to their political preferences and strength of feeling about the issues. There is a quadratic tapering so I’d need four voice tokens to vote twice and so on. They like the idea so much they’ve applied it to opinion polling to elicit more accurate views – and, they write, “We have patented the use of QV and related methods to solicit opinions digitially.”

After two introductory chapters, the book applies the broad concepts to some specific areas, including the high profile paper proposing ‘data as labour’: in other words, that we should be paid by digital data harvesters for providing our time and knowledge. Each of the chapters starts with a vignette of what the Radical Market future might look like. They’re all rather dystopian, and especially the one in the data as labour chapter. Every interaction between human and digital assistant is monetised. I’m an economist – I like markets – but don’t want every minute or keystroke to have a dollar sign attached. If a click on a Like button is worth 20 cents, would I start wondering whether it was worth telling my neighbour about the great new coffee shop, because she’s not going to pay me for it? Of course the current situation is unsatisfying, but I’m still unpersuaded by this potential solution.

The most interesting chapter is the one about the concentration of share ownership (in the US) in the hands of a small number of large institutional investors. The book argues persuasively that this diminishes competition. Antitrust concentrates on the corporations, but institutional investors dilute its effectiveness, “by knitting together the interests of the biggest firms that dominate any particular market.” Here there is a policy proposal worth thinking about: restricting institutional investors to holding a maximum of a 1% stake in companies in the same market; or as much of they want of one firm but then none of its competitors shares. Very interesting idea. Don’t see what it has to do with the Radical Markets conceit.

The book ends by reflecting on markets versus central planning, alluding to the socialist calculation debate. Markets “allocate resources in ways no present computer could match.” Prices are a uniquely efficient summary of information, but markets can be improved – by having them operate continuously. “The market is the appropriate computer to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number,” but its bugs need fixing so there are fairer outcomes. Even better, common ownership makes the market outcome more efficient too.

This does glide over the fact that – should the nirvana of constant online auctions be attained – the state is there in some sense as the owner of all property and redistributor of large tax revenues raised as a sort of rent from everyone for having temporary use of, well, everything. Nor does it touch on assets owned by foreigners, or owned overseas. In fact, the book doesn’t really discuss practicalities at all because it isn’t a real set of proposals.Thomas Piketty‘s global wealth tax has more chance of becoming a reality than the permanent revolution of ubiquitous Vickrey auctions.

However, Radical Markets certainly made me think, about property, information, power. Well worth reading.

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Founder of the information age

For reasons linked to book and bag size, and journey modes and lengths, I’ve been reading three books at once – Jennifer Homans’ Apollo’s Angels (a monumental history of ballet, non-portable), a biography of Claude Shannon, and Daniel Dennett’s Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking.

I’ve finished the middle one now, A Mind At Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman, and thoroughly enjoyed it. When I described it to some friends at the weekend, to my surprise they turned out never to have heard of Claude Shannon. Those of us with interests in digital know of him as the author of a profoundly important paper launching information theory. It seems this is the first full biography, and it starts from his childhood in a small town in the midwest via wartime service in cryptograhy and then a long stint at Bell Labs to MIT. (He met Alan Turing during the war but both were doing work so secret they didn’t dare talk to each other about it.)

I’m not sure I’d seen a photo of Shannon before and he looks like a blend of Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus. He seems to have been rather reclusive, whimsical – rider of unicycles, keen juggler, creator of gadgets such as a machine to turn itself off, and so on. His most famous creation – in that it got him to public attention – was a mechanical maze-solving mouse (named Theseus) that would learn to find a piece of (metallic) cheeese. (Although, Shannon explained, the maze solved the mouse rather than the other way round. The information was in the maze, and it and the mouse formed a system.)

After 1948 when his paper was published, Shannon was a celebrity and much in demand for lectures. The book explains that he had few graduate students because most were too much in awe of him to dare ask him to supervise their work. Shannon’s paper (later a book), A Mathematical Theory of Communication picked up the idea that information is a meaningfully quantifiable entity, defined communication as the reproduction of messages, transmitted as a signal, subject to noise, to a received. Thus abstracted, all kinds of things could be interpreted as the communication of information. Importantly, Shannon introduced the role of uncertainty (information is a measure of uncertainty overcome), redundancy (uninformative but helps mitigate noise), and defined the bit, an amount of information that results from a choice between two equally likely options. A message is the elimination of all irrelevant signals from the available pool. Without Shannon’s paper, the modern era would not exist.

The book does a good job at explaining the ideas in combination with rattling good storytelling about the life of someone who was clearly an extraordinary character. Shannon settled down at MIT into an enjoyable life of making gadgets, attending conferences and playing the stockmarket. He does deserve to be far better known and this biography is a great place to start.

 

 

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The information economy

I very much enjoyed reading Cesar Hidalgo’s

. It’s a very original perspective on the process of secular economic growth, bringing together not only several strands of the economics literature – growth theory, institutional economics, social capital etc – but also physics, biology and information theory. So it’s certainly ambitious, and I found it largely persuasive.

[amazon_image id=”B00R3C1V0Q” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies[/amazon_image]

Hidalgo’s first point is that we are misled by thinking of the information economy as ‘weightless’ (a term I think I coined, or at least popularised, in my 1996 book The Weightless World) into forgetting that information is nevertheless physical. “Information is not a thing; rather, it is the arrangement of physical things. It is physical order.” He links the order of the economy to the order of the universe that can exist in pockets despite entropy. Economic order comes about through information embodied in things (‘crystallised imagination’) and in the way people organise themselves to apply knowledge and know-how. The first section is rather poetic. Hidalgo describes a tree as a computer powered by sunlight. “A tree processes the information that is available in its environment.” He describes a colleague at MIT who lost both his legs to frostbite while mountaineering, and built his own prosthetics: “He is walking on solidified pieces of his own imagination.”

The book goes on to consider products imported and exported by countries in terms of ‘crystallised imagination’, which requires “an enormous amount of knowledge and know-how.” Knowledge is the set of instructions – a book describing how to play a guitar – and know-how is the practical experience enabling application – the process of learning and practising playing to produce lovely music. Hidalgo introduces the concept of a ‘personbyte’ – the limit to the knowledge and know-how that can be embodied in one individual. For an economy to go beyond that requires collective organisation. He argues against the normal economic argument that economic development is the process of acquiring the ability to consumer more goods and services. “Economic development is based not on the ability of a pocket of the economy to consumer but on the ability of people to turn their dreams into reality.” (This part doesn’t wholly convince me – it’s an appealing case but surely consumption matters too.)

The book then turns to the idea of the economy as a social and technological system for amplifying knowledge and know-how, and looks at institutional economics and the role of social capital in growth in this context. Conveying know-how is difficult, and becoming more so as time goes by and the economy becomes more diverse and complex. The “computational capacity” of the economy needs to grow, but it is constrained by the ability for knowledge and know-how to be embodied in networks of people – hence the value of trust, as it makes that easier.

Hidalgo’s work on the

enters here: there is a strong positive correlation between a complexity index and long term growth (over 10 years). The falling cost of communications and the emergence of standards have increased the number of long-distance market links (instead of transactions within single firms), and this know-how transfer is made far easier by high trust, which enables larger networks. Low trust economies are often characterised by more family firms and rely more on the state to spread knowledge and know-how through its support for industries.

There is a very nice analogy of the economy as a jigsaw. “Moving a complex industry is like trying to move a jigsaw puzzle from one table to another. The more pieces in the puzzle, the harder it will be to move it, as the puzzle falls apart when we fail to move all the pieces at the same time.” It is easier to move just a few pieces to another table that already has part of the puzzle in place. Thus economies mostly grow out from their earlier set of products, which embody the know-how they already have – they already have some of the pieces. The description of this process would very much appeal to evolutionary economists.

A final point that very much intrigues me is measuring growth. Hidalgo makes the same point as the final chapter of my 

book, that in adding things up in terms of their monetary value we are not capturing the value of diversity: three spoons are not as valuable as a knife, fork and spoon. He says that using market price denomination to aggregate implicitly assumes there is friction-free trading; but this is often not possible, especially with stock variables. He advocates looking at the disaggregated economy via input-output tables.  “The mix of products exported by a region’s industries represents a fingerprint of its productive capacities that does not suppress the identity of the economic elements involved.”

So a highly recommended read for anyone interested in economic growth and development. The insistence on the embodied-ness of knowledge and know-how is surely correct, and also a useful corrective to overly-abstract accounts of economic development, including quite a lot of the newer institutional literature (as

argues, this often amounts to the advice to poorer countries to “be more like Denmark”, ignoring the trajectory from here to there). It’s also a pleasure to read such a well-written economics book; from now on I’ll be envisioning the economy in terms of crystals of imagination.

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