Ebola Responses & Institutional Differences

Ebola spreads because of a lack of organized health institutions. NPR recently reported on the health outcomes at Firestone’s rubber plantation in Harbel, Liberia, which has been successful in containing the disease, and on Reddit, a user explains one important part of the economic story that is left out:

A fascinating situation; Firestone was able to avoid the normal externality problems inherent in communicable diseases by fully internalizing the externality through clear property interests in having the town continue functioning. Other communities might always run into the tragedy of the commons problem where no coordinated response can occur because no one is willing to take risk in setting up quarantine areas or be able to enforce them. Additionally:

The Firestone managers had the benefit of backing and resources of a major corporation — something the communities around them did not.

This isn’t just a case of rich western company vs poor downtrodden third world citizens; the problem in Liberia is a lack of advanced infrastructure. Without that, fighting ebola is much more difficult. But in this town, while it’s true that there is backing and resources, there are also good incentive structures. The market pushed a private company to invest in infrastructure, and the value of the assets in Harbel meant that Firestone’s and the community’s incentives were aligned which made this such a success story.

Scientific Vindication Of Classical Rhetoric Studies

Pain might actually have a pro-social function:

“Our findings show that pain is a particularly powerful ingredient in producing bonding and cooperation between those who share painful experiences,” says psychological scientist and lead researcher Brock Bastian of the University of New South Wales in Australia. “The findings shed light on why camaraderie may develop between soldiers or others who share difficult and painful experiences.”

Students of rhetoric might have already suspected that, however. Pathos, one of the traditional appeals set down by Aristotle, is usually translated as emotional appeal. But ancient Greek was a preliterate language that conserved words by attaching multiple meanings onto them. This helps to explain why arete is such an expansive term. Accordingly, pathos meant both to suffer and to experience. In a small way, this study supports this ancient line of thought.

Some Paradoxes Of Nostalgia

Svetlana Boym has a fascinating article on nostalgia. Here are some choice parts:

The nostalgia that interests me here is not merely an individual sickness but a symptom of our age, an historical emotion.

Nostalgia appears to be a longing for a place, but it is actually a yearning for a different time—the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams. In a broader sense, nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to turn history into private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition. Hence the past of nostalgia, to paraphrase William Faulkner, is not even past. It could be merely better time, or slower time—time out of time, not encumbered by appointment books.

Nostalgia, in my view, is not always retrospective; it can be prospective as well. The fantasies of the past, determined by the needs of the present, have a direct impact on the realities of the future.

Interesting essay throughout.

Saying “If You’re Not Paying, You Are The Product” Is Wrong

This week I heard the phrase that haunts tech policy. You know it. If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. 

Concise? Yes. But wrong.

The product is actually an ad, positioned on the site and tailored for you. Countless weeklies across the US run under a free model and have done so for decades. The New York Times has defrayed the expense of printing by ad supplement since its beginning. And the first newspapers, which popped up in the trading ports of Venice and Amsterdam, helped merchants sell excess to offset expensive parchment.

But it makes sense why the pithy phrase has staying power.

Mull it over again.

If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.

Naturally, we wonder next, wait, am I being violated? It is a tradeoff dripping with ethical accusations. Steven Pinker gives us one way to understand it in “Better Angels of Our Nature,” when he reviews the work of political psychologist Phillip Tetlock:

Tetlock distinguishes three kinds of tradeoffs. Routine tradeoffs are those that fall within a single relational model, such as choosing to be with one friend rather than another, or to purchase one car rather than another. Taboo tradeoffs pit a sacred value in one model against a secular value in another, such as selling out a friend, a loved one, an organ, or oneself for barter or cash. Tragic tradeoffs pit sacred values against each other, as in deciding which of two needy transplant patients should receive an organ, or the ultimate tragic tradeoff, Sophie’s choice between the lives of her two children.

Are we selling a kidney? No, we are giving a small part of our attention for an ad that won’t be remembered 60 percent of the time. Advertising ethically can be done, as Derek Powazek, who helped to build Technorati, points out:

There are ways to do [ad supported media] while still maintaining respect for the consumers. We’ve been doing it for years.

Saying that you are the product if you aren’t paying for it, disintegrates under just a minimum of scrutiny. It’s time to get rid of that phrase.

The Problem With Technological / Cultural Determinism

Alex Parrish begins “Adaptive Rhetoric: Evolution, Culture, and the Art of Persuasion” by recalling a story about one reaction to his book, and in doing so, helps to explain the problem of the technological/cultural determinism debate:

When I first began outlining this book, I explained to one of my colleagues what I wanted to do. I told him that I would be exploring the ways we can examine the influence of both biology and culture on the art of persuasion. After running through most of my stock examples demonstrating biology and culture cooperating or competing to guide human action, telling him about some of the intriguing work being done in the fields of ethology and evolutionary cognitive psychology, and referring some of the more popular ‘big idea’ books on the interplay between genes and culture, my fellow student thought for a moments and then, with a look of concerned semirevulsion on his face, replied, “Wow. Biological reductionism. That’s gonna be a hard sell!”

Whether it is fundamental part of the human nature to divide issues in half and only allow for one of those halves to be valid, good , or moral, this seems to be one of the tricks our brains use to navigate the world of idea. We also use this method of bifurcating topics to bring other around to our ways of thinking. The rhetorical term for this is dialysis: the presentation of an either/or figure to lead an audience to a certain conclusion (and in the case of biology and culture, it is also a false dilemma)

Parrish is right. The either/or presentation of culture and biology leads us to believe that one must take precedent in guiding behavior. The same kind of criticism can be heaped on the technological/cultural determinist deabate. Instead, a more robust conceptual way to approach technology is provided by Ian Hutchby’s “Technologies, Texts and Affordances”:

This involves seeing technologies neither in terms of their “interpretive textual” properties nor of their essential technical properties, but in terms of their affordances. I will argue that affordances are functional and relations aspects which frame, while not determining, the possibilities for agentic action in relation to an object. (Page 444)

I have a number of work projects that will be finished in the coming weeks, so I hope to explore the topic of affordances soon.

Stopping Easements Through Copyright

A Canadian artist, Peter von Tiesenhausen, has effectively stopped a pipeline through his 800 acre property by covering it with artwork and copyrighting the top six inches of his land as an artwork. Companies could gain use of his property through easements, but they are severely limited by the addition of a copyright. For lawyers and those who believe in property rights, easements are contentious.

Here is some more:

The copyright claim makes his entire property a work of art since he has covered it with visual art scupltures including “a 33-metre-long ship sculpted with willow stalks, winter ice forms, nest-like structures in trees, statuesque towers and a “lifeline” or visual autobiography composed as a white picket fence built in annual sections left to weather naturally”. The copyright also drastically increases the remuneration of around $200 for lost crops to around $600,000 for an ” artistic property disturbance”.

I am assuming they are in court, but I plan to read more about the claims.

Automation, Robot Economics & Employment

David Autor just released a new paper exploring the intellectual development and paradoxes in machine displacement of labor. The paper is especially timely given the broad discussion of labor markets economics is having post downturn.

It begins with a quote from the better of Polanyi brothers, Michael, who observed, “We can know more than we can tell… The skill of a driver cannot be replaced by a thorough schooling in the theory of the motorcar; the knowledge I have of my own body differs altogether from the knowledge of its physiology.”

In the first page, he cabins his discussion and sets out the course of the paper:

The interplay between machine and human comparative advantage allows computers to substitute for workers in performing routine, codifiable tasks while amplifying the comparative advantage of workers in supplying problem solving skills, adaptability, and creativity. Understanding this interplay is central to interpreting and forecasting the changing structure of employment in the U.S. and other industrialized countries. This understanding is also is at the heart of the increasingly prominent debate about whether the rapid pace of automation threatens to render the demand for human labor obsolete over the next several decades.

For those interested in innovation, I would highly suggest reading all of it.


The (Robot) Revolution Will be Televised

A lot of stories about robot economics have popped up in the past couple weeks. Here is a couple of the most interesting:

And for those who are interested, there is a blog dedicated to robot economics, called appropriately enough RobotEconomics.

With Technology, the Past is No Longer a Foreign Country

Novelist L. P. Hartley once wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Ironically, we may no longer live in his world:

This omnipresence of the past has weird effects on contemporary culture. Take any genre of music, from death metal to R&B to chillwave, and the cloud directs you not just to similar artists in the present but to deep wells of influence from the past. Yes, people still like new things. But the past gets as much preference as the present—Mozart, for example, has more than 100,000 followers on Spotify. In a history glut, the idea of fashionability in music erodes, because new songs sit on the same shelf as songs recorded five, 25, and 55 years ago, all of them waiting to be discovered. In this eternal present, everything can be made contemporary.

Perhaps the biggest result of the history glut is that managing all that history becomes the crucial act, both commercially and intellectually. Wikipedia is cataloging history, but to do so it needs to keep up an epic accounting of its own history—the billion-plus edits, each a record of human activity, that have built the encyclopedia over the years. Companies like Spotify and Netflix are mining the past as they host it, looking at their own enormous usage logs and analyzing that data to draw connections between types of people and types of music.

There’s an irony here: All of the data we’re collecting, all of the data points and metadata, is history itself. Much as we marvel at Babylonian clay tablets listing measures of grain, future generations will find just as much meaning in our log files as they will in the media we consume. Sure, Frank Sinatra sang a bunch of songs; sure, Jennifer Lawrence was a big star in 2014. But the log files tell you who listened, and when, and where they were on the planet. It’s these massive digital archives—and the records that show how we used them—that will be the defining historical objects of our era.

Telecommunication’s Regulatory Cat and Mouse Game

My former colleague Jon Henke has reviewed “The People’s Network: The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age” for Reason. I haven’t read the book, but his take has placed it on the top of the list. As anyone who has read about the history of telecommunication regulation, policy formation is and has been a cat-and-mouse game between regulators and the regulated. Jon explains:

The history of telecommunications is a long story of progressives and populists demanding “public interest” regulations that produce and protect monopolies, followed by progressive and populist demands for regulations to fix the problems that their earlier regulations created. At each step, activists were coached and coaxed by the political and business interests in question.

What can this history tell us? A lot, actually:

Progressives today are traveling the well-worn policy path of trying to fix old mistakes by making new ones. They demand competition while promoting municipal public utility broadband systems. “Open access creates competition,” they claim, never minding that the unbundling requirements that force providers to lease their systems to competitors only create “competition” by turning an existing provider into a de facto monopoly. The goals of the modern net neutrality movement—which in effect seeks to prevent Internet Service Providers from providing anything but lowest-common-denominator service—might as well adopt the same early slogan of monopoly-era AT&T: “One System, One Policy, Universal Service.”

The urge to make carriers a public utility or regulate them as such remains deeply embedded in telecommunications policy today. After all, if the telephone networks required the guiding hand of regulators, how could the Internet possibly work without regulations to mandate interconnection, to require settlement-free peering, to set prices, or to dictate which services providers are allowed to offer?

And yet the comparative regulatory anarchy of the Internet does work. We all enjoy a global network of independent systems that interconnect almost entirely through contractual agreements. And yet activists seem determined that, in order to prevent gatekeepers from “destroying the Internet,” the Federal Communications Commission must become the gatekeeper of the World Wide Web.

My post on the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA) hits on a couple of these key issues for video law. Changing consumer preferences is ultimately undoing the myriad and complex rules put in place by the FCC under the guise of public interest. Like so many other areas of telecommunication law, the laws governing video must be updated to meet the 21st century marketplace.