Links for September 2019

Will Oremus dissects that often repeated phrase, if you aren’t paying, you’re the product. While the piece is stellar, I don’t really agree with Oremus when he says that an alternative vision would “view ourselves as customers of Facebook, paying with our time, attention, and data instead of with money.” That assumes a payment system. Instead we should think of it as exchange. For better or worse, we still use the rhetoric of payments. Rather, we should understand it as a barter. In economics the term is double coincidence of wants. We exchange because we each have something the other wants.

Jim Harper explores the problems of creating property rights in data, a response to Mark Jamison.

By way of someone, here is a talk from Jonathan Blow about the importance of tacit knowledge. In it, Blow recalls a section from Robert Colwell’s oral history, about the loss of knowledge in the early computer industry:

Eventually, Rich Lethin and I made a pilgrimage down to TI in Richardson, Texas and we said as best as well can tell many of your chips don’t work properly. And does this come as a surprise to you? I half expected them to say, “what you are out of your mind! You’ve done something wrong. Come on, you don’t know what you’re doing. Go use somebody else’s chips.” But no, they said “Yeah we know, let me see your list.” And they looked at the list and said “here is some more that you don’t know about.” And we went “Thank you very much. This is what we needed.” At lunch I asked them “how did this happen?” and by the way it wasn’t just TI. Their parts were no worse than anyone else. Motorola’s were no good, Fairchild’s were no good, they all had this problem. And so I asked TI, “how did the entire industry fall on its face at the same time?” We are killing ourselves trying to work around the shortcomings in your silicon. And the guy said “the first generation of TTL was done by the old gray beard guys that really know what they are doing. The new generation was done by kids who are straight out of school who didn’t know to ask what the change in packaging would do to inductive spikes.”

Are AI worries overblown? Scott Alexander is coming around to the idea and I think you should too. Also, here is a great section: Paul Christiano “worries that AI services will be naturally better at satisfying objective criteria than at ‘making the world better’ in some vague sense. Tasks like ‘maximize clicks to this site’ or ‘maximize profits from this corporation” are objective criteria; tasks like ‘provide real value to users of this site instead of just clickbait’ or ‘have this corporation act in a socially responsible way’ are vague. That means AI may asymmetrically empower some of the worst tedencies in our society without giving a corresponding power increase to normal people just trying to live enjoyable lives. In his model, one of the tasks of AI safety research is to get AIs to be as good at optimizing vague prosocial tasks as they will naturally be at optimizing the bottom line.”

In CityLab, Jonathan English explains the Marchetti Constant, the general finding that people are willing to commute for about a half-hour, one way, each day.

“The Internet is marked by an unholy intimacy between readers and writers. By the simple act of tweeting an article, or sharing on Facebook, readers can address all parties simultaneously: writers, editors, publishers, and the world. And in thus sharing, readers can be ‘glib, disingenuous, mocking, cruel, pedantic, self-righteous, and derogatory.’ Flippancy, ‘that most hopeless form of intellectual vice,’ say the editors, ‘cares for nothing but what can be made a matter of ridicule.’ Internet reading, thus, is marked by bad habits: impatience, deliberate misreadings, mindlessly admiring repetition, or trollish ill will. In the frantic give and take, conclude the N+1 editors, ‘we are left with little sovereignty over our own opinions.'” (link)