The digital Faustian pact

James Ball’s The System: who owns the internet and how it owns us is pretty sobering reading, not least as 2020 has turned online access into even more of a necessity than it already was. (Though I can’t be the only person in despair at the prospect of yet another Zoom/Teams/Hangout etc, & mystified as to why some people are so sure we’ll all want to stick with working from home forever now. )

Anyway, the book. It’s a nice overview of all of the dysfunctions of the modern internet – corporate and state surveillance, monopolies, hackers and fraud, and the belated beginning of tougher regulation. It’s particularly good at explaining enough of the origins and technologies to make it clear how things have turned out the way they have. For instance, the reminder that key innovations were funded by the US government so none of the pioneers thought about business models – in contrast to the older communications networks, where billing was an important engineering requirement. A fateful oversight. For hence the toxic reliance on advertising – and there’s a great chapter on this – with its constant need to get people to click.

This book is far, far better on the potential for, and drivers of, surveillance than the over-rated rhetorical doorstop of Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism book. I also really enjoyed learning from The System about some new things about the physical internet infrastructure – the Border Gateway Protocol was new to me – how packets make their way through the physical network. It’s frankly terrifying, the reliance on a short-term fix that started life scribbled on a couple of napkins decades ago and hasn’t changed too much since.

All in all, although some of the material is fairly familiar now, a very well-informed book and also really well written. For me, worth it for the chapter on advertising alone, which explains the origins of the online ad market and horrifying extent of the tracking targeted ads requires. We have a systemic Faustian pact – great free services in exchange for our souls. If I were in charge of regulating the online world, advertising and the business models would be my number one target. Regulators are supposed to be agnostic about business models – but there needs to be a mixed economy of models for that rule to apply.

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If/then

Earlier this year I read Jill Lepore’s These Truths, which made me eager to read her new book, If Then: How One Data Company Invented the Future, as soon as possible. It didn’t disappoint – although I had a couple of reservations about it. More on that later.

The book is the story of a company, Simulmatics, formed by a PR man, Ed Greenfield, and an MIT political scientists, Ithiel De Sola Pool. It aimed to apply computers to the prediction of human behaviour: feed the machine enough data and it would be possible to predict election outcomes, among other social phenomena, and more importantly manipulate them. The convergence of data, computational power and Mad Men behaviourist techniques seemed inevitable and unconquerable. The parallel with the same again this time round but more so is striking, and the book ends with the comparison.

Along the way, Lepore tells a rattling good story about American politics in the late 1950s through to the Vietnam War and Nixon, about the first application of computers to social issues (and Madison Avenue was onto the opportunities early), and also about gender politics. Right from the start, there was a culture of computer bros, hostile to women: “Women’s knowledge was not knowledge.” The cast of characters is fantastic. Many of them I’d never heard of – Eugene Burdick, the best-selling author of thrillers and leading political scientist, anyone? Lepore also writes like a novelist, and an excellent one at that.

That is in fact one of my reservations. Among the notes I was taking were notes on craft – this is genuinely a page turner. And yet ….. when the text gets into the interior lives of the wives of the men, I wonder how she knows? Are there really enough letters and diaries, or is this indeed embroidery?

The other is that I hungered for more context about the impact of behaviourism and of cybernetics, and the broader environment of computerised social engineering. For example, Stafford Beer had his own US consultancy applying cybernetics, going to Chile in the early 1970s to assist with Project Cybersyn (the subject of Eden Medina’s wonderful book Cybernetics Revolutionaries). If Then does acknowledge the early use of computers in advertising but Norbert Wiener gets but a passing reference. And even though Simulmatics failed – so many of its projects turning out disastrously – there is surprisingly little scepticism about whether computers can in fact predict and manipulate humans,  whether Simulmatics or their modern day equivalents in Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

Having said that, If Then is a wonderful book, highly recommended. Lepore was interviewed by David Runciman in a great episode of Talking Politics for those who’d like another taster – it focuses mainly on those disturbing modern parallels.

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Geography as destiny

I just read Enrico Moretti’s (2012) The New Geography of Jobs, having not done so before now because I’d read quite a lot of his papers. Anyway, now I have and it’s very good. It’s a nicely accessible survey of the literatures on trade/tech and jobs, and on the geographic aspect – the concentration of skilled people in cities and growing divergence. The evidence it cites is entirely US-centric but the drivers obviously apply elsewhere, even though their effects in other countries are not exacerbated by the  unattractive features of US society. So I would recommend this to anybody who would like a readable big-picture overview of what has been happening to jobs and incomes in recent decades. The major irritation is that the notes aren’t flagged in the text & you just have to root around at the back of the book to see if a given statement has a reference attached to it.

The conclusions are a little bleak in terms of policies to address the growing divergence between rich skilled places and the left-behinds.Being in the right place matters. There are spillovers between people, so even as a graduate you do better in terms of earnings the more other skilled people are around you, but non-graduate occupations also have higher earnings in high skill places.

Overcoming the gaps requires a Big Push, the book concludes (I like this allusion to Rosenstein-Rodin, although that literature doesn’t seem to be cited here). Only governments can do these, given the amount of co-ordination involved. Many interventions are just too small scale to have a hope. Looking at the Big Push of the Tennessee Valley Authority, Moretti and his colleagues concluded it was successful in raising productivity in the region but not wages, because the labour supply increased as workers moved in from elsewhere. However, a couple of pages later, he points out that the prominent successful clusters of today did not come about because of a Big Push. Most were organic developments, albeit aided of course by government investment in R&D or defence – see Margaret O’Mara’s book The Code on Silicon Valley which I described in the previous post.

So this is rather sobering. My hunch is that policies will need to rest on a better understanding of the relationships between human capital investments (a college degree is the key variable seemingly driving so many outcomes from earnings to voting pattern to subjectove well-being), social spillovers, intangible assets, amenities including nature and housing, and produced capital especially communications infrastructure. In other words, what assets are there available to people living in in a given place, and to what extent do these complement and substitute for each other?

Anyway, I enjoyed the book even if it left me feeling a bit glum.

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Holiday reading

I’ve spent the past few weeks absorbed in preparing a book manuscript (out next year I hope…), so here is an all-in-one round-up of recent books read (non-fiction – a few Maigrets and also Smoke and Ashes by Abhir Mukherjee slipped in too).

Uncanny Valley by Anna Weiner is a readable memoir of a young non-tech woman’s experience of moving from the publishing industry in New York to marketing in Silicon Valley. Her account confirms expectations & she seems to me to capture that tech world culture pretty well. The book doesn’t name names of companies (or people) but describes them well enough that it’s clear who they are – which is a bit annoying. Other than that, I enjoyed it.

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Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum is a terrific book, also with elements of memoir (the subtitle explains – the parting of friends). It’s a short account of how the respectable right in a number of countries – Poland, Hungary, US, UK – turned into the authoritarian-heading-toward-fascism right. She essentially tells a tale of second-rate people grabbing opportunities to dethrone those at the top – “the elite” – so they can enjoy the spoils themselves. Looking at the US in the days since I read this book, it’s hard to feel any optimism about where it’s heading. As for us, ominshambles with menaces seems to have become a constant.

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96,196 Words: Essays by Emmanuel Carrere. A random purchase – I’d never heard of this French journalist. Perfectly readable essays, albeit with more about his sex life than I was really interested in.

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The Code by Margaret O’Mara is a terrific history of Silicon Valley exploring the reasons tech happened there, having started much stronger around Boston. If you’ve read a lot of history of tech (I have) some bits of this are very familiar. But she puts together a persuasive story of how several factors combine – happenstance, Stanford’s presence, defence spending helping other local firms like Lockheed, a few investors to seed the VC scene, and networks of people who know people developing and becoming embedded over time. It thoroughly undermines the idea that any one intervention – set a mission! create a DARPA! – will create an extraordinary burst of innovation. It’s a much more contingent story.

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And non-economics books: Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty and House of Glass by Hadley Freeman.

Of all of these, the Applebaum and O’Mara books would be my top recommendations.

 

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Law and technology, power and truth

I’d been looking forward to reading Between Truth and Power: The Legal Constructions of Informational Capitalism by Julie Cohen. I start out sympathetic to the key argument that the legal system is the product its society – the material economic and technological and also the political conditions. Therefore current legal contests reflect underlying changes in these same forces, and the final legal system for the digital era is still in the process of being shaped. Law and the implementation of technologies in society influence each other – the ‘rules of the game’ are not exogenous.

There are indeed some interesting insights in the book. I most enjoyed some of the earlier parts, which are more descriptive of the extension of the idea of intangibles, ideas, as “intellectual property”. This is not new – James Boyle for one has written superbly about it. But the detail here is interesting, plenty of nuggets about the US legal system and how truly, gobsmackingly awful it can be.

I also appreciated the chapter on regulation, and its basic point that many regulators are now having to “move into the software auditing business”, and indeed may have to evaluate software controls designed to evade regulation. Implications here for analysing regulation in the digital economy in terms of hyper-asymmetric information and algorithmic complexity.

On the whole though, I was disappointed. The book is almost entirely US focused – and is upfront about it – but the US system is distinctive even compared to other common law jurisdictions. Nowhere else, for instance, has its 1st Amendment fetishism. It would have been terrific to have some reflections on the extra-territoriality of US lawmaking and court judgements in the digital domain.

The book has some tantalising reflections about the limitations of law, based on concepts of individual rights, in the face of collective effects: as I’ve been arguing for a while eg here, digital power spells the end of individualism, including what we all now call the neoliberalism that gave birth to it. More on this would have been great.

There’s also just too much sub-Zuboffian rhetoric (rather than argument) about the ‘surveillance-industrial complex’. I’m all too willing to believe this exists, so all the more disappointed when the analysis is so vague. There’s also a lot of allusion to Foucault – “biopolitics”, “governmentality” –  in the book without it ever – as far as I spotted – actually citing and deploying The Birth of Biopolitics.

All in all, there’s a lot of detail in this book that didn’t, at least for me, cohere. Too many trees, not enough overview of the wood. Perhaps it’s time for me to try the highly-praised The Code of Capital by Katarina Pistor.

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