September 14, 2013

On Small Changes

Democracy via Newspaper

Before newspapers, people could (and did) distribute hand-written bulletins. In fact, the only major advantage of newspapers was the volume that could be produced. The sorts of things that could be written about didn't change, the labor-intensive means of distribution were the same. And yet, this small change may have been enough to make the rise of democratic nation-states possible. Elihu Katz summarizes this argument (as made by Gabriel Tarde):
But Tarde takes a further step in this role, in asserting that the newspaper overthrew the monarchy. His argument is based on the idea that only the king — the representative public sphere — had had knowledge of what was going on in the various villages and regions of his realm; he had spies and bureaucrats to tell him, and he was in no special hurry to let Village A find out what Village B was thinking. The newspaper did exactly this and thereby undermined the king, says Tarde: it made him redundant. (Katz, 2000, p. 126)
The claim is that the king was in a position to bridge structural holes, and to decide how and when to distribute what information between villages. This information asymmetry provided power and control, and when newspapers removed some of that asymmetry, the monarchy was too weak to survive.

Similar claims have been made about the power of technologies to alter societies. For example, Eisenstein's description of the printing press or Putnam's argument that TV killed socializing.

My point is not to discuss the merit of any of these arguments (although I think all 3 are fascinating and compelling). However, I think that the underlying theme behind them is important and interesting: Changes in communication technologies have subtle effects on the way we see each other, and the way we see the world. And these subtle changes can make a huge difference in the way we choose to work, play, and govern ourselves.

? Via The Internet

My next question, naturally, is what aspects of the Internet (if any) have the potential to have these sorts of long-term impacts (with the caveat that by their nature these changes are hard to see when you are in the midst of them)?

Some ideas:

  • Global information and communication → Weakening of Nationalism → Less wars 
  • Filter Bubbles → Strengthening of Zealots → More wars 
  • EBay → Temporary view of posession → Collaborative Consumption → Weakening of capitalism/consumerism → ? 
  • Digitization of activity → Surveillance (by states and others) → Distrust of government 
  • Digitization of activity → Surveillance (by states and others) → Less crime 
  • Digitization of activity → Surveillance by algorithms → Less crime? 

What else? Are some big effects already occurring?

Katz, E. (2000). Media multiplication and social segmentation. Departmental Papers (ASC), 161.

May 7, 2013

Exploring Dead Ends

Photo via C.G.P. Grey
Imagine you and I were playing a dice game. You could choose between two sets of rules. In the first set of rules, you would get $5 no matter what number I roll. For the second set of rules, if I roll a 1,2,3,4, or 5 then you would lose $50, but if I roll a 6, then you win $10.

Unless you have an unhealthy belief in your good luck, this is a simple choice - for rational actors, when faced with a choice, it makes the most sense to choose the option with the highest expected value. A sure $5 is much better than the likely loss of $50, even though the maximum gain is less.

One of the reasons that I think evolution-type processes are so powerful and interesting is that they are too dumb to avoid bad decisions. Evolution "chooses" the second set of rules - it explores lots of dead ends, lots of poor designs, but because it is willing to suffer these losses, it also discovers options and makes advances that rational algorithms will always avoid.

January 12, 2013

Diffusion of Community

As mentioned in my last post, I've been reading about early online communities, specifically "The Well". In these early days, you didn't connect to "The Internet", but you used your modem to dial into a specific computer. When you got on The Well, you were on The Well. There were different topics to discuss, etc., but it was just one "place", all designed and run by the same people.

My suspicion is that the narrowness of the community helped to give identity and cohesion to the members of The Well. The online landscape of today is strikingly different, and there are a few ways that I think make community-building more difficult.

First, community cohesion means choosing a community that is "yours", and with so many communities, I think it's easy to try to be a part of all of them, without really joining any of them. I have edited Wikipedia articles and answered questions on Quora and written blog posts, and taken Udacity courses, etc., without becoming involved in any of the communities.

Second, our experience of communities is in many cases individualized. Our Facebook news feed isn't the same as anyone else's, nor is our Twitter feed, Quora homepage, etc. Part of community is shared experience, and our filtered versions of the world mean that we experience online community differently.

I'm not sure whether this is good or bad. I guess, as I read these memoirs of the early days of Internet life, it makes me wish that that same sense of deep belonging still existed, and has led me to think about what has changed.

January 9, 2013

The Longevity of Conversation

For one of my classes, I've been reading about The Well, and other early online communities (yes - it's very cool that I get paid - a little - to study this stuff). It is incredible to me that many of the archives of this and similar communities still exist. You can see, for example, Linus Torvald's first post proposing Linux. We can view and replay significant moments in incredible detail.

And most incredibly, we can do this with the benefit of hindsight. "Everything" is saved, so conversations (like Linus's) that seemed unimportant at the time, are still around, and can be analyzed in the context of their realized importance.

This memory of the web does have some downsides, however. One of the striking things about The Well is just how open and passionate people are, and that passion built a vibrant community. Before posting to the Web, I find myself self-censoring, because the medium can be so unforgiving, and I don't engage as fully as I think I would if the Web forgot.