Archive for the 'counterfactual' Category

The Wall Street Journal Isn’t Starbucks

I am at pains here not to seem like a big, gruesome troll. I am therefore going to avoid anything that could be even reasonably construed as an argument anything close to “information wants to be free.” That would give lazy opponents a too easy strawman, which is too bad, because what I’m really giving up, it seems, is arguments stemming from vanishingly small marginal costs. Oh well, such seems to be the price of admission to conversations about the future of news in which curmudgeons may lurk, which is certainly to say nothing at all about whether Mr. Murray is curmudgeonly. (It’s far too early in this post to poison that particular well.)

And so but my question is, “At a human level, why would @alansmurray push us into a paywall when he could avoid it?”

And Mr. Murray’s answer is, “I feel the same way about the folks at Starbucks.”

So let’s take a look at whether it’s an appropriate argument by analogy. Let’s see where it holds up and where it’s weak.

First, the folks at Starbucks rarely know their customers. No denigration to them at all—I’ve put in my time working the Dairy Queen in the mall’s food court—but they have a rote job. Starbucks the corporation may wish it hired pleasant workers, but in truth it doesn’t want to pay for them. Call me cynical or call me a member of Gen M, but low-level food-service workers are not in anything near even quasi-social relationships with buyers of coffee. It’s not their fault; they’re not really paid for their social graces or interpersonal talents. It’s a structural problem.

But Mr. Murray is in an altogether different space. He’s in a space quite literally defined by its human connections. There is little reason to be on twitter at all if it’s not to be social at some level.

And, I can say from my not-so-remote experience in food service that when folks like the folks at Starbucks do find themselves in a social context with customers, they’re deeply tempted to give away product. When I was a kid, working the blizzard machine at the tender age of fourteen, I gave away way more product than I’d like to admit. There was too much soft-serve on my cones. There was too much candy or cookies whipped into my blizzards. And I also just gave it away. Maybe it was part of a swap with the pizza guys or the sandwich guys or the taco guys. Or maybe I just handed out blizzards to all my pals, when the boss wasn’t looking. This corporate-profit-be-damned attitude was rampant across my food court on the west side of Madison, Wisconsin, in the second half of the 1990s. It’s called a principal-agent problem, and although it’s not unreasonable for Mr. Murray, an agent, to side with his principal, his analogy hides the difference, pretending it doesn’t exist. (NB. I haven’t a clue whether Mr. Murray is an equity holder of News Corp.)

Also, it’s illegal to give away someone else’s coffee. As best I can tell, however, it’s perfectly within the bounds of the law to encode a long google link within the bit.ly URLs Mr. Murray uses. It’s not against the law for Mr. Murray to route us around inconvenience rather than push us into a paywall. In fact, the route-around is perfectly normal and appropriate. Again, there’s nothing wrong or shady or sketchy about routing around the Wall Street Journal’s paywall. You don’t have to be hacker; you only have to be frugal and spend a few extra seconds and clicks.

But maybe it’s against the rules. Maybe Mr. Murray’s boss has decreed that WSJ employees shall not distribute link that route around the paywall. That doesn’t answer the question, however; it just passes the buck. For why would Mr. Murray’s boss—who is probably Robert Thomson, though I’m not certain—authorize or oblige Mr. Murray’s twittering of paywalled links if he hadn’t deemed it appropriate? Does Robert Thomson believe it makes business sense to twitter paywalled links?

Maybe it is. Maybe Mr. Thomson believes that, if Mr. Murray twittered route-around links to normally abridged articles, then fewer people would pay for subscriptions. And maybe fewer people would. It’s not impossible. Note well, however, that I’m not saying Mr. Murray should hurt his company’s finances by twittering route-around links to normally abridged articles. I’m saying that Mr. Murray might consider twittering only links to normally unabridged WSJ articles and other content around the web. But that would be odd, wouldn’t it? That would be awkward, silly even.

The Wall Street Journal leaves the side-door wide open, hidden only by slight obscurity, but charges at the front door. The Wall Street Journal is wide open. The fact that google indexes its content fully is dispositive—it’s all the proof we need. Let’s try a good old counterfactual conditional: Were the route-around not legitimate, then google would ding the WSJ’s pagerank. But google clearly hasn’t, so the route-around is legitimate.

The point requires an underline lest we succumb to a kind of anchoring cognitive bias. The paywall is not normative. You are not stealing content by refusing to be treated differently from google. In fact, the use of terms like “front door” and “side door” subtly, but completely inappropriately, encodes moral judgments into the discussion. In fact, there are—rather obviously, come to think of it—no “doors” at all. There are, in technical reality, only equal and alternative ways of reading the news. One’s convenient, and one’s not. One’s free, save the attention extracted by on-site advertising, and the other’s not. Maybe one cushions News Corp.’s bottom line, and maybe the other doesn’t. Maybe one supports civically important journalism, and maybe one doesn’t.

At bottom, though, there’s this. Mr. Murray is a human interacting socially with other humans on twitter, saying, “Hey, read this! Trust me: it’s good!” He gestures enthusiastically toward a bolted door, his back disguising an open gateway. “Please, ignore the actually convenient way to take my suggestion that you read this really interesting piece.” Mr. Murray would rather you remain ignorant of a loophole his paper exploits in order to maintain its googlejuice but keep its legacy subscribers. (Note that I’ve pointed out the loophole to several fellow mortgage traders, asking whether they would consider dropping their subscriptions. They all declined, saying they prefer to pay rather than take the time to make the additional clicks.)

I’m not saying it doesn’t make business sense. Businesses are free to capture whatever “thin value” they can, Umair Haque’s warnings notwithstanding. I am saying it doesn’t make human sense. I am saying that particular business practice looks silly, awkward, and disingenuous on twitter. And, ultimately, that’s Umair’s point. In a world of exploding media (PDF), we’re inevitably going to come to rely more on human connections, based on real trust, in order to make choices about how we allocate our attention. Mr. Murray’s cold business logic may work, but I suspect it won’t.

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Thinking the Unthinkable Parable of the Future of News

Most of us humans profoundly exaggerate the powers of our imagination. Indeed, I submit that we’re out-and-out horrible at imagining possible worlds even modestly different from our own.

Ask yourself, “Seriously, what would the world be like had John McCain been elected president of the United States?” If you’re American, your answer is not at all easy to come by. You’ve got a whole host of possibilities and their possible ramifications to think about.

In some ways, the country would be a very different place. For one, many of those who were thrilled at Obama’s election would be depressed, while many of the rest would be elated. All kinds of conversations between friends and colleagues would be dramatically different—and not only those about politics. Of course, all manner of domestic policy would be different, as would international politics.

But in other ways, the country would be nearly identical. We’d still have an credit crisis generally. We’d still drive on the right-hand side of the road. We’d very likely still have fifty states. We would still be Christians, Jews, Quakers, Muslims, and atheists in roughly the same number.

We’d still have a mostly temperate climate, with cities, towns, and rural communities scattered throughout. We’d still have a basically functional economy, with poor, middling, wealthy, and super-wealthy folks for whom it works unevenly. Our taxes might be somewhat higher or lower, but we’d still have a populace that generally believes in paying its taxes. I’m risking a good flaming, but I submit that, in our hypothetical John McCain America, the rule of law would basically still prevail.

Up would still be up, and down would still be down. We’d still have hipsters. Red would still be a different color from blue. Time would still march forward, not backward. It would still make no sense to hear your pal assert, “It is the case that A and not-A.” And so on. Some things never change. Or they seem not to, anyway.

*    *    *

It’s kind of like DNA. We humans are radically different from one another. We’re tall and short, weak and strong, bright and dull. We’re creative and analytic, fast and slow. I’m quite I certain I can do little justice to the bewildering diversity among us.

And yet we share some overwhelming percentage of DNA. We all, generally, have brains, lungs, and bones. We eat and sleep. Even the dullards among us laugh from time to time, privately. We all, generally, recoil at morbidity and fear pain. Exceptions tend to prove the rule here, to the extent that we consider someone who never laughs alien and someone who doesn’t flinch at the prospect of death superhuman.

Now consider yourself: you. Changing around your DNA within the tiny fraction that makes you unique—i.e., that you don’t share with other humans—is akin to America electing John McCain. You’d pretty much be a different country—maybe better, maybe worse, depending on your views and whether they’re wrong—but at least you’re still here on earth. At least you’d still have a circulatory system and a central nervous system. You’ve got a home. You have friends, if you’re nice, though they’re probably different friends. You still have or had parents. If you were born here, you speak some dialect of English, though you may say “pop” instead of “soda.” You might not be as attractive or witty, but you know what beauty is and you have some grasp on the levity of brevity. If you’re the right age and able-bodied, you’ve got a job. In short, your hypothetical life is very different, but it’s still roughly normal. Because these changes are relatively modest, they’re said to the stuff of close possible worlds.

Mucking around with the rest of the DNA that you do share with others is like imagining the Soviets won the Cold War or like imagining cold fusion were perfected years ago. It might be good or bad—utopian, dystopian, something odd in between, or something wildly outlandish—but, most importantly, it’s very likely simply radically different. It’s tough to imagine possible worlds like this. Not only would you pretty much be a different country, as above, but it’s not even clear that you would still be on earth—or on an earth in a form anything like what actually prevails today.

Your whole biological nature could be different—no blood, bones, no brain. You might not be carbon-based. You might be part of hive-mind. All manner of good and bad science fictional possibilities abound. Because these changes are severe, they’re said to the stuff of distant possible worlds.

* * *

Since it’s very hard to imagine such far-out possible worlds, good storytellers have developed rhetorical devices to help us broaden our view. They put us in the mood, push us toward an open mind, offer us the widest frame.

We need the widest frame in order to think about the future of news. Recently, @cshirky and @jayrosen_nyu have offered us just that.

Shirky asks us, more than mildly paradoxically, to consider an unthinkable scenario. At first, he puts his scenario on offer as a hypothetical possible world, someone else’s nightmare, suggesting just that we peer into its void as they do, vicariously.

“As these ideas were articulated, there was intense debate about the merits of various scenarios. … In all this conversation, there was one scenario that was widely regarded as unthinkable, a scenario that didn’t get much discussion in the nation’s newsrooms, for the obvious reason.”

Oh, and what might that nightmare look like to them? What possibilities do they see? Well—still in the mind’s eye of newspaper executives—it “unfolded something like this….”

Then Shirky warns us about being closed-minded. “Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception,” he writes. When Soviets win the Cold War or when you wake up in the Matrix, the world is sharply different, and concocting explanations about how it’s actually the same doesn’t work. “When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry.”

Only then, after hundreds of words of set-up, do we get the punch: “One of the effects on the newspapers is that many of their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away.” Your world is going away.

Shirky takes a stroll through some history, pointing out a previous occasion when the future broke from the past, and comes back with devastation. “When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. … They are demanding to be lied to.”

Then, ultimately, we get the distinction here. These newspaper folks know something’s got to give, but they’re still only willing to imagine close possible worlds. They can handle John McCain. They can handle being taller or shorter, leaner or fatter.

From the perspective of industrial newspapering—in which “the core problem publishing solves” is “the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public”—the internet might as well be Jupiter. It is a distant possible world.

“Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. ”

* * *

Imagine a world, if you feel sufficiently creative, without newspapers. And imagine a world without newspaper companies—or with companies whose DNA used to be newspapers but is now seriously different. Still, though, imagine that world needs journalism nevertheless.

In other words, imagine a world that is distant but not so very, very distant that we don’t need journalism. That makes our creative job easier. In fact, Jay Rosen reminds us that not all is lost. He intends to give us a head start in imagining exactly this possible world—in which newspapers are out but journalism is still very, very in.

Whereas Shirky jerks and drags our imaginations to think the unthinkable, Rosen encourages us to look inward, contemplatively, offering simple parable of a fishing village. He does it with @davewiner in a podcast the two have come lately to recording on Sunday, and it’s worth taking in as a whole:

I like to try to understand things at their origins. When I think about news and the collection of news, I try to go back and imagine the conditions in human affairs and human settlements that cause people to need news that is collected by somebody, as an occupation.

If you think about a small fishing village, with several hundred people, around a harbor, there’s news every day. But it is communicated naturally, as it were. That is, people going about their day will find out when a new ship is in, and at the end of the day, they’ll know what’s happened in that town. There doesn’t have to be an articulated social function of news gatherer because people do it themselves.

If you imagine that town expanding in its social scale so that it’s not just a fishing village anymore, but a big metropolis, you realize that, at a certain point, the only way you can have news about your own environment—not a distant land, but your own environment—is if somebody actually collects it. The need for news is intimately related to the scale on which we live. As we live on a bigger and bigger scale—not just metropolitan but a national and global scale—our needs for news grow because we are not self-informing.

But, if tools of awareness grow, like we had when we were a fishing village, then the idea of the self-informing public, which was operable at a certain scale, is perhaps operable again. And so if you understand news not as an industrial product or the handiwork of a profession, but as intimately related to human settlement and the social scale people live on, we’ll be able to navigate better in the future of news.

When they gave birth to the United States, a huge experiment in scale, they imagined that part of the reason that you could have a voted-in government over a territory stretching from New England to Georgia was the press, which gave us ways of connecting. So when we try to reboot news, don’t think about rebooting the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Go back to the origins of why people need news in the first place and your own experience with news hunger.

Yes, go back to your own personal news hunger. Skirky admirably yanks our imaginations out of their slumber. That’s the real merit of his piece. Now, however, think not of the more or less terrifying abyss Shirky points at, yelling, “Wake up!” Instead, for now, consider yourself and your community. Consider that we are just groups of people, overlapping social circles composing different human settlements, conducting our own affairs. Consider that we always live on some scale. Sometimes it’s big, as now. Other times it’s small, as it was long ago, and as it is in Rosen’s parable.

And remember that the scale on which we live matters relative to our everyday “tools of awareness.” Better tools mean a self-informing public at larger scale.

* * *

Consider that sources, authors, and readers are all people. Consider that the internet gives us tools so that one person might be all three. When Winer says, “Sources go direct,” he’s pointing out that one person can be both the source and the author of a story. But we’re readers and authors simultaneously too.

Consider that people are busy, that our time is scarce. We make decisions about allocating our attention on the margin. In a fishing village, we’d love it if all our friends could find a central place to gather in order to swap stories at the same time, efficiently. All our friends, yes, but probably not all our fellow villagers, some of whom we don’t like or don’t trust. In other words, we like to aggregate our news, but mostly among our friends and trusted experts.

Consider that people like hearing the news from their friends or from experts whose judgment they trust on particular matters. We like to trust the news and want to be engaged with their storyteller to cultivate that trust. To the extent that we can only get a piece of news from a fellow villager we dislike, we appreciate it when a trusted friend verifies the facts or shores up the analysis. So, too, do our friends appreciate it when we return the favor.

Consider that social relationships are sometimes one-way. We often have less time for others than they have for us. This is especially the case for widely trusted experts on particular matters. This is the general asymmetrical social stuff of celebrity, which is surely an archaic notion, inherent in even the simplest of villages. As society scales, moreover, consider the natural—or, potentially, the morally optimal—distribution of those asymmetries of attention.

Consider that people like the news new. We want to hear what’s happening now, not what happened last week or yesterday or an hour ago. But we also want our facts to be true and our analysis to be sound, so we’re willing to wait for real verification and for wise interpretation. We’re imperfect, though, so sometimes excess haste or caution will blind us to better priorities.

Consider that we mostly don’t really care whether we get our news as a written note or as a verbalized recounting. We care about the topics and events the story discusses. We care about the people, businesses, and other organizations it mentions&mdas;the “newsmakers,” as it were. Politics exists even in modest fishing villages, and we care about the political persuasions of our storytellers. That knowledge helps us bring the appropriate level of trust to our use of their story.

Consider that people are social. We like to gossip about trite matters, and we like to debate serious affairs. We like to consume the news, sure, but we also like to spread it around and add our own perspective. We also like to use the news as a medium for our wills—as a kind of substratum for own meaning. We like to be heard, respected, admired, and loved. We also like to be paid.

Consider all of this and more. Consider how distant the relevant possible worlds may be, and then consider all of them in that sphere. Consider the Cluetrain too. Consider that people, governments, and corporations will always be able to profit from secrecy. Even if we come to demand, and even very naturally expect, transparency as a broad ethical matter, powerful operators will have an incentive to fake it. That seems true even of modest fishing villages, in which a tribal or quasi-political elder may benefit from offering false reasons for important decisions. Consider that people spreading the news about powerful operators make friends with them in so doing. There’s potentially less baked-in profit motive.

Consider that information is an experience good. Consider that it’s a public good. Consider (again) that news is non-durable. Consider that one person’s report of a story has very close substitutes in others’ reports on the same story or nearly equally interesting stories.

Some things change. And some things stay the same the more everything else changes around them. So, most of all, consider dropping the fabulist notion that the future will look very much like the past. The time has gone when we can offer arguments aimed at the future but grounded in the present and the part. Aside from what we share with distant worlds—including my considerations above—the tastes, habits, patterns of readers, journalists, and newspaper companies are moot. Your world is departing, and a fishing village is arriving.

Taking Twitter Seriously: What if it really were a really big deal?

Maybe @davewiner does wring his hands too violently about twitter’s recommended users. Maybe it is too early to worry about unintended consequences.

But maybe not. Either way, if we take a slightly different view of his worries, I think we can take them to heart much more easily. If we can shift tenses, it might help.

While @davewiner talks about twitter, he may be talking about it now in the present tense. Let’s try another: a kind of conditional tense. Let’s try a counterfactual conditional: Would this thing work if it were the case that…?

After all, to detect a problem in any system, we’ve got to imagine that system working at full scale. Whether it’s a database, a message board, or a social network like twitter, we’ve got to imagine its ideal—when everyone’s using it for any purpose that’s difficult to police cheaply.

When @davewiner worries about twitter’s editorial adventures, as he does here and here in conversation with @jayrosen_nyu, he’s taking it extraordinarily seriously. It’s a great compliment, I think. He’s sees a twitter that’s currently critical to very many people. That’s the present tense.

OK, so some of us don’t yet share that view. But I bet we can offer our own great compliment and imagine very many people using it—or maybe even virtually everyone using it. At the end of every day, I think many of us have less and less trouble imagining that.

So, if virtually everyone were using twitter—if it really were the “Future News System of the World,” again, as difficult as that might be to imagine—we might really insist that it refrain from the editorial business. If twitter really were that big, then it really would be critical. And if it really were critical, its closed nature would probably violate all kinds of praise-Murphy rules about leaving our data, our businesses, and our lives in the hands of a for-profit company, its secret business plan, and its fallible servers.

We’re not casting aspersions at what most everyone regards as an essentially fair and just company. Of course, that goes for @me too; I love twitter.

This is simply why we have the notion of a “common carriage.” For centuries, we’ve demanded ultra-reliable commodity transportation services. We’ve been so insistent on the reliability and the even-handedness of transportation that we’ve often saddled the carrier with the de facto burden of liability for losses, which raises its price to us. This is why we care about network neutrality.

If we really take twitter seriously, then we think it’s possible that twitter could be the next big deal. The trouble is that—at scale—big deals attract all manner of mischief—with potentially everyone using them for all things selfish and spammy.

If twitter could be the next big deal, we need to start thinking about safeguarding it now.

PS. That’s what tunkrank, which was conceived by @dtunkelang, is for.

Innovation, Gladwell, and Those Nasty Things Called Patents

Gladwell’s article is a good read, and his prose is as tightly threaded as ever, even if it sometimes colors itself purple come paragraph end. Gladwell is the prince of grand one-liner metaphors that bring down the curtain on his sections’ endings, and I don’t mind that one bit.

Stop reading this, and go read that. A duplicative summary is a waste.

I read Mike Masnick regularly and consistently enjoy his writing on the nature of innovation and how it happens. But I’m not sure about one of his main criticisms of Gladwell’s piece—that, “if these ideas are the natural progression, almost guaranteed to be discovered by someone sooner or later, why do we give a monopoly on these ideas to a single discoverer?

So let me make a surprise leap to the defense of Gladwell. Let’s suppose, probably correctly, that the purpose of intellectual property is to stimulate innovation.

Sometimes this premise gets misunderstood. Lessig explains how this misunderstanding works in Free Culture:

Creative work has value; whenever I use, or take, or build upon the creative work of others, I am taking from them something of value. Whenever I take something of value from someone else, I should have their permission. The taking of something of value from someone else without permission is wrong. It is a form of piracy. … This view runs deep within the current debates. It is what NYU law professor Rochelle Dreyfuss criticizes as the “if value, then right” theory of creative property—if there is value, then someone must have a right to that value.

This concept of “if value, then right” gets causation exactly backwards. In these terms, the statement formulated correctly would look more like “iff right, then value.”

What does that mean? It means that there should be this set of intellectual property rights if and only if there would not be the value without them. Of course, this works on the margin and actually looks something like this: The actual world should be the possible world with some set of intellectual property rights if and only if that set of rights means greater value than what’s in some other possible world that’s identical but for lacking that set of rights.

In other words, we ask, Is the value of the stimulated innovation greater than the deadweight loss from monopolistic price-setting of the innovation that would have happened anyhow?

“Multiplicity,” however, seems to make for stark evidence against the need to stimulate. It seems to say that the value would be around even in the absence of the right: “The sheer number of multiples could mean only one thing,” Gladwell writes. “Scientific discoveries must, in some sense, be inevitable. They must be in the air, products of the intellectual climate of a specific time and place.”

Multiplicity says that possible worlds that are like ours but that don’t have something like our set of intellectual property rights probably have about as much value—if not more.

But why is this so? The mere fact that people in our actual world tend to have the same ideas at the same time surely doesn’t imply as much. So what if nine people invented the steam engine and two invented the telephone at once?

They were all presumably looking to create value for the world and keep a part of it for themselves—probably enough, on average, that they could consider themselves rich. Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray worked within the same legal incentive structure. As Gladwell writes, “the two filed notice with the Patent Office in Washington, D.C., on the same day.”

Even if the ideas themselves are inevitable, it’s not at all clear that the pace at which we as humans arrive at them is also inevitable.

Do patents speed up that pace? How much? Enough, on average, to compensate for the deadweight loss they create at any given time-slice T compared to T-1?

And what about pure scientific discoveries? Gladwell quotes William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas, who compiled one of the first lists of “multiples”: “The law of the conversation of energy, so significant in science and philsophy, was formulated four times in 1847…. They had all be anticipated by Robert Mayer in 1842.”

That’s all fine and good, but none of them was chasing a Nobel. Had the prize been around in the middle of of the nineteenth century, is it possible that one of them, or someone else, would have endured a few more sleepless nights, hustled a bit more, and put together the law earlier?

Of course it’s possible. But the way to know about whether intellectual property regimes, or fancy academic prizes, stimulate creative and innovative thinking must be comparative. It must be measured across possible worlds.

In the end, Masnick helps me make my point: “Yet, if Gladwell’s premise is correct (and there’s plenty of evidence included in the article),” then inventors’ “efforts shouldn’t be seen as a big deal. After all,” he continues, if it weren’t for some inventors, “others would very likely come up with the same thing sooner or later.”

I take no position on whether our set of intellectual property rights is ultimately helpful (though I doubt it is). The point is that there probably is some set of rights that is helpful—precisely because other inventors really would come up ideas later without it.

Right and Wrong on Attention

Wrong: Our attention spans are hopelessly on the fritz.

Right: The internet has brought our world more information choices. Sure, we give the average choice less attention because it’s competing with a larger number of alternatives. But we abandon reading one newspaper article not because it bores us to death but because an alternative article in some alternative publication presents itself as more interesting.

So we may read less of your newspaper article before we decide that another one looks better. The switch results from a marginal cost-benefit judgment between alternatives, not from a stunted conclusion that whatever in front of us is beneath us.

In other words, a fancy counterfactual: Imagine a possible world much like the one in which you posit that people still have healthy attention spans—a world circa 1958, for example, fifty years ago. Now imagine that your possible is world is different from the actual 1958-world only insofar as the people who inhabit it have as many (analog) sources of information at their fingertips as we do (analog and digital) sources of information. I claim that the people in your world give their average information choice about as much attention, not much more and not much less, as we do ours in our actual 2008-world.

Thanks to Jeff Jarvis for inspiring this post.

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