Etiquette, Transparency and Defaults

I’ve been having a retro-private, offline discussion with John on Girls Around Me, which has now erupted into the blogosphere. John summarizes the setup and pushes public data. 

These sorts of apps are part of the future, and it’s not all bad. Stross is also right, but he’s right in a science-fictional way – no doubt a professional hazard. Public data can be a good but I can’t get away from an ethical intuition that this data is the wrong shape. It’s a glass building that bakes its occupants at midday.

I’m really glad that at least some people using this are making a deliberate, empowered choice to make their data public because they like the benefits and are comfortable with the risks. That’s tops. You go, young gendered person.

One aspect bugging me is the discounting of defaults that has gone with the transparent school of responses. As we know, pretty much everyone follows the defaults except a few unusually committed users. This is what libertarian paternalism is all about. It’s a well recognized phenomenon in usability.

Facebook and foursquare certainly have ethical obligations around their default settings, and they are systematically failing to think through them. Their model is too crude and it invites blowback. If it really is generational, as John suggests, they should cue based on age. If it’s geographic, by place. That doesn’t even start to address the one identity aspect. Walt Whitman wouldn’t have been welcome on Facebook. He contained multitudes.

Lastly, the app itself is a problem. The transparent society is well and good but the Girls Around Me app violated a key part of it. Its asymmetry was rude. The etiquette of a transparent society as Brin envisages it is tilted against the voyeur. It’s far more embarrassing to be spying on your neighbour’s bedroom than anything he may be doing in there. The crassness of this app is its fatal flaw, precisely because the social norms are new and not well established. It’s the loser at the topless beach ogling breasts with his tongue hanging out. If the app had required you to be signed in and broadcasting your identity on Facebook and foursquare – and perhaps had more variety in its objectification of women – it would rightly not have been seen as so threatening. ((All avatars are objectifications.)) 

Even by new, transparent, social conventions, Facebook, Foursquare and especially the app are cads, sir. Cads.

Dismal, But Scientists Nonetheless

A continuing critique of economists throughout the global financial crisis has been of tunnel vision. Ideological, free market blinkers, meant economists missed the inflating bubble and fixated on irrelevancies while sailing us happily over a cliff. A fair sample of it can be found in this New York Times article from March 2009, quoting that old favourite, JK Galbraith:

“It’s business as usual,” he said. “I’m not conscious that there is a fundamental re-examination going on in journals.”

John has pointed out that this is more of an open academic secret than a staggering revelation, with William Buiter’s summary of the shabby state of the art serving as an example. Buiter used to be on the monetary commitee for the Bank of England; he’s pretty Establishment so far as economics goes, and you can see him merrily pointing holes in both Keynes and neoclassical models here.

These gaps, or gaping holes, do indeed make policy development horribly difficult, and the lives of politicians harder. This melds with old critiques of economists as somehow wooly or less than scientific. If you use Kuhn as a starting point, though, this pigheaded devotion to a model until its contradictions with reality become unmanageable is not a bug, but a feature, and a feature of science, what’s more.

Kuhn provided the terms paradigm and paradigm shift to the history of science (and a thousand failed dot com business plans), to describe the dominant worldview of normal science and the process by which it changes. A paradigm encompasses theory, conventional practice, instrumentation, and a domain of set problems and unsolved problems for the field. Different paradigms are not just competing theories but competing worldviews because they are in some sense incommensurable; proponents will often argue past each other.

It is the narrowing of focus provided by a successful paradigm that makes the activity of normal science so productive. With a professional consensus on worthwhile problems, tremendous attention and progress can be made on those problems very rapidly. Elements widely outside those areas become seen as philosophical, or at least part of a neighbouring academic discipline rather than the discipline defined by the paradigm.

Kuhn also points to why the neoclassical model is not yet academically dead. In his analysis, paradigms are always replaced by one or sometimes two victorious alternatives. Economics today (I would assert) is at a stage of one hundred flowers blooming; alternative paradigms are propagating but they are fairly wishy-washy for the most part. In part this is because some of them – Post Autistic Economics comes to mind – explicitly reject a quantitative or model centric worldview. It might be an interesting and successful policy or philosophical school but it is unlikely to meet with scientific success because it is not scientific. The trigger might be theoretical – some new technique to deal with the nasty math behind rational agents and complete markets, perhaps. Or the trigger might be empirical – the wealth of data coming out of computational sociology from social networking sites, perhaps. I’m too far away from the field to really pick a winner. But until there is a killer new paradigm which lets technical economists address a new range of technical issues or get a different traction on reality with them, I’d suggest the New Classical Model will continue to prevail.


John B points out (off-blog) a post on The New Republic that with its blend of political and technical metaphors sounds more like a post from early 21st century South Sea Republic: Wiki-constitutionalism.

It describes the tremendous affection South American nations have for rewriting their constitution from scratch, at a rate of once every ten years or so.

Though it’s a catchy name, Wiki-constitutionalism isn’t a great analogy. The defining aspect of C2 or wikipedia was always progressive collaborative refinement of its documents. A rewrite from scratch is more akin to what Jefferson advocated, in Cam’s words:

Jefferson believed constitution’s should be sunsetted every 25 years, so each succeeding generation can rewrite government to be a reflection of themselves. I agree. The reason republicanism has such traction is that our constitution is a 16thC document with an elected upper house thrown in. Many of the errors, skewings and inefficiencies in our system can be traced to their constitutional origins.

To continue the analogy, and reuse one that came up on SSR more than once, it is like throwing out a creaking legacy system written in VB by a million monkeys, and having a new crack team come in and rewrite it in Python (or the tech du jour).

The example of South America is, however, not reassuring. Going back to TNR:

Latin American leaders have discovered that, by packaging ever-longer lists of promises and rights alongside greater executive functions, they can make a new constitution appealing enough to the masses that they will vote for it in a referendum. The result is constitutions that are not only the shortest-lived, but also among the longest in the world. Bolivia’s and Ecuador’s recently approved constitutions have 411 and 444 articles, respectively, and read like laundry lists of guaranteed rights, such as access to mail and telephones; guarantees for culture, identity, and dignity; and shorter work-weeks. By contrast, the U.S. Constitution, the longest-serving in the world, has only seven articles and 27 amendments.

Making most of these efforts, to complete the last lap around this allegorical track, about as successful as your typical Big Redesign In The Sky.

Would You Like Subsidiarity With That?

As it happens, the question of whether politics is a service industry once came up at the family dinner table, a number of years ago. I remember it because, on airing, my wife immediately quipped “Isn’t it a disservice industry?” and there the topic rested.

Tempting as it is to leave it there once more, given the time invested in the discussion leading to this question, let’s continue. John is after all brave and intelligent man, who like many economists struggles every day with Compulsive Quantification Disorder. He suggests here that Members of Parliament are best viewed as a kind of outsourced policy unit, a way to deal with our busy, everyday lives.

In a closing example it is asked Why do we hold an MP, who has power over our lives, to a higher ethical standard than say, a heart surgeon, who also has power over our lives?

Well, the question itself is wrong – we do hold heart surgeons to an extraordinary ethical standard, where we expect them to use their professional skills to their upmost to save their patients’ lives. And this is because saving lives and fixing dodgy hearts is at the focus of their professional role. If a heart surgeon fiddles with expenses, we are irritated because we paid more than necessary, and we feel certain general levels of professionalism have been breached, but it doesn’t compromise our mended heart. It’s also worth noting that a heart surgeon mostly has responsibilities to single patients; for our purposes she is mostly a hub, with spoke relationships emanating out to her patients.

What does an MP do? One of the roles they play is as a low tech vote proxy service for their constituents on particular votes before the Commons (or parliament of choice). John’s example is probably closer to say a mutual fund manager, making investment decisions on our behalf according to broad published guidelines, in this case a party manifesto, plus any individual pledges. On top of that, if they are in the cabinet, they also execute policy. Due to the way the Westminster system works, where the government can change without an election, this also goes for the shadow cabinet. That would be the part of government that can declare war, put you in prison for not paying your taxes, and so on. Any of these roles require good judgement and good character, and allowing people to be corrupt as a backbencher, but then reform as a minister seems an implausible reading of human nature.

Even this characterization is inadequate, however. Each and every member of parliament is responsible for the maintenance of the rule of law, to their constituents and to the common weal, whether society chooses them or not. To do that job requires respecting the law in the spirit and in the letter, its conventions and moral basis. It’s as fundamental as a heart surgeon being skilled at stitching up hearts. When you fail to respect the law – worse, the reason the law exists – then you prove yourself inadequate at an MP’s job.

Do people inevitably fall shy of this high moral standard, from time to time? Well, yes; and I’m actually pretty willing to overlook misdemeanors like claiming four pounds on dog food. I do find it indicative that one of the most centralising, box-ticking parliaments of recent times has fallen so broadly awry of exactly these sorts of pettifogging rules: it was lousy law and now we’re seeing why. Perhaps that has also fuelled some of the outrage and resentment behind this expenses scandal.

The state is larger than human at times, monstrous and casually cruel; this mortal God, Hobbes called it. To direct it, or mold this mortal god is yes, a sacred trust of sorts. It is sad when, from time to time, it chews politicians up and spits them out, the way lions, from time to time, chew up antelopes. It is sad but not unexpected.