Collison on Government and the Internet

Patrick Collison of Stripe had a popular post last week that will also be of interest to many readers of this blog. It was entitled “Government and the Internet,” and it lists 11 ways that the internet challenges existing models of governance. Here were a few of my favorites:

6. Governments are more fragile and hence weaker. It’s almost as easy to leak a database as it is a file. It’s much harder for governments to maintain secret structures, and they must contend with the omnipresent risk of a calamitous leak.

7. Governments are more powerful and hence more likely to overreach. Because it’s now far easier to eavesdrop on communications, maintain intrusive databases, etc., it’s much more tempting to do it. Thirty years ago, you needed to adopt extreme GDR-style tactics to eavesdrop on everyone. It was logistically prohibitive, and most governments would probably reconsider when they realized what doing so would actually entail. Today, technology improvements mean that it takes much less effort—and evidently that it feels much less wrong.

11. Legislators lack the conceptual framework to reason effectively about internet and software issues. I think this might be the biggest problem of all. As industry insiders, we have an advantage: we know it’s inane to talk about “getting data back“; we know that metadata and data are often distinctions without differences; we know that large datasets are very hard to anonymize; we know that a large dataset will rarely be used only for its originally intended purpose. We know this simply because we’ve watched these issues play out many times before. Politicians haven’t, and when policy questions hinge on understanding technology, they don’t tend to fare well.

More here.

The Internet: Communication or Transportation?

The world we live in today is made of computers. We don’t have cars any more, we have computers we ride in. – Cory Doctorow (transcript)

Is the Internet a communication technology or a transportation technology? What does the answer to this question imply about Internet governance and the future of online liberty?

One thing technology does well is take multiple functions that were previously bound into the same physical process or object and split them into separate objects/subroutines, each of which does its own job so efficiently that the overall object/process works better than it did before. These chunks can also be recombined in new ways to do things that were not previously feasible.

online_communities_2An example is ebooks. Previously the storage, display, and transportation functions of a book were all combined into a single physical unit. The display of one book (its pages and ink) could be repurposed into another only by cutting it up, ransom-note style, or through a lengthy process of recycling. The display was also inseparable from the storage: if the display got wet, the data was marred forever. Transporting the information in the book could only be done by moving its entire bundle of atoms from one place to another

Enter the ebook. A single display can be used for a virtually infinite number of books. Storage is extensible, expandable, and expendable. If you want more, get it. If it breaks, replace it. And when you are ready to add a new edition to your collection it only takes a matter of seconds to transfer the bits.

Actually, the process goes back much further to when the written word disembodied message from messenger. Before this, shooting the messenger was the only primitive backspace key available. Burning books Fahrenheit 451-style can be tragic, but it is quite an improvement over burning bodies.

Is the Internet a simple continuation of this separation-optimization-recombination trend, or is it something more? The Internet is more similar to the spoken/written word jump than it is to the printed book/ebook development, because it allows the separation of consciousness from body. My body can be in almost any physical locations while my consciousness is bound up in a conversation, collaborative project, or game with almost anyone else from almost anywhere else.

In this way, the Internet is more like a transportation technology than it is a communications technology. Governing the roads was a nontrivial task for the early modern state. Then came air travel, which existed for a brief unregulated period before governments learned to exercise their control there. For more on the tension between innovation and regulation in transportation, see herehere, and here.

These early periods are open to rapid innovation, which also means that they permit risk-taking. This risk/opportunity trade-off chosen by state-avoidant peoples. States and their peoples see the opportunity but do not want the risk. Risk can be reduced or it can be hidden; the latter is cheaper and states are better at it, so it is often on that margin that they work to bring their peoples into new avenues of opportunity without fear. But by reducing the downside risk they also take away the upside of innovation.

The Internet is nearing this inflection point, if it has not already passed. It is a dangerous but promising frontier. Would you rather have pioneers as your guide, or big brother watching out for you?

Doublespeak: A Chrome App for the Orwellian Web

tl;dr: Doublespeak is a new Chrome web extension that replaces political doublespeak with plain English. It’s open source so you can help expand the dictionary of terms. 

George Orwell is well-known for introducing the terms “newspeak” and “doublethink” in his novel 1984. A portmanteau of the two, doublespeak, is more common in our modern lexicon–and unfortunately, so is the term that it represents. Another of Orwell’s works, “Politics and the English Language,” explains doublespeak using examples that seem almost quaint today (1946):

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.

Although Orwell is gone, the problems he describes are not. If anything, doublespeak has gotten worse in this age of “rendition,” TSA security theater, and PRISM.

Tim Lynch addressed this problem in the context of the War on Terror in 2006:

By corrupting the language, the people who wield power are able to fool the others about their activities and evade responsibility and accountability. Professor William Lutz, author of The New Doublespeak, notes: “Doublespeak is language that pretends to communicate but really doesn’t. It is language that makes the bad seem good, the negative appear positive, the unpleasant appear attractive or at least tolerable. Doublespeak is language that avoids or shifts responsibility, language that is at variance with its real or purported meaning. It is language that conceals or prevents thought; rather than extending thought, doublespeak limits it.”

It is true, of course, that dishonesty has always been a part of the human experience, but doublespeak is a pernicious variation of dishonesty. Doublespeak perverts the basic function of language, which is to facilitate a common understanding between human beings.

1984-posterLynch goes on to list several examples: “stop-loss” orders as a stand-in for conscription, the replacement of warrants by “national security letters,” and the renaming of Guantanamo prisoner suicides as “asymmetrical warfare.”

A–perhaps the–key point of Orwell’s conception of doublespeak is that words have meaning. Although this runs counter to postmodernism, it points out that language is a key front in the battle for ‘hearts and minds.’ Witness the recent discussion between a well-spoken University of Wisconsin student (‘Madiha’) and an on-campus recruiter for the NSA:

NSA RECRUITER 1: I’m focusing on what our foreign intelligence requires of [us], so…you can define ‘adversary’ as [an] enemy and clearly, Germany is not our enemy, but would we have foreign national interest from an intelligence perspective on what’s going on across the globe? Yes, we [would].

MADIHA: So by “adversary”, you actually mean anybody and everybody. There’s nobody, then – by your definition – that is not an adversary. Is that correct?

NSA RECRUITER 1: That is not correct.

Doublespeak has the power of the state behind it, which includes a great deal of technological sophistication. Until recently, I was more optimistic about the power of the internet to oppose conventional sources of political power. Although the recent Snowden revelations have diminished my confidence in technology as a political force, we can still use it as a tool to take back language.

To that end, I have developed a simple tool that you can use to counter doublespeak in your web viewing experience. It known as Doublespeak and is available as a Chrome web extension. Right now it has a small dictionary of three terms that it replaces, but can easily be extended for more. The code is also open-source on Github. When you install the extension, clicking its icon in the browser window will open a duplicate of the current page in a new tab, but with doublespeak terms replaced by their plain English equivalents.

Here are a few examples of the Doublespeak extension at work on these three pages:













Obviously it does not replace the text in images, but I think that makes the last example all the more striking. The extension should respond to titleized words, but some other special cases (e.g. all uppercase) are not handled in the current version (0.1).

If you have suggestions for new additions to the dictionary or other features, please let me know.

Reputation in Hacker Culture

I have long wanted to do a project on reputation in hacker culture. As I have delved into this further (and I still enjoy reading about it), it turns out Eric Raymond said it better than I could, nearly 20 years ago:

Like most cultures without a money economy, hackerdom runs on reputation. You’re trying to solve interesting problems, but how interesting they are, and whether your solutions are really good, is something that only your technical peers or superiors are normally equipped to judge.

Accordingly, when you play the hacker game, you learn to keep score primarily by what other hackers think of your skill (this is why you aren’t really a hacker until other hackers consistently call you one). This fact is obscured by the image of hacking as solitary work; also by a hacker-cultural taboo (now gradually decaying but still potent) against admitting that ego or external validation are involved in one’s motivation at all.

Specifically, hackerdom is what anthropologists call a gift culture. You gain status and reputation in it not by dominating other people, nor by being beautiful, nor by having things other people want, but rather by giving things away. Specifically, by giving away your time, your creativity, and the results of your skill.

Organized Crime Roundup

I have been arguing for years that organized crime has an inherently political component. Certainly I am not alone, and researchers far superior to me have made the same point–for example, Charles Tilly and James Buchanan. However, mainstream political reporting seems to have been catching onto this over the past few months. I have rounded up a few of these posts that will be of interest to long-time readers. See also my working paper on violence following targeted leadership removals in Mexico.

Are Mexican Drug Lords the Next ‘Terrorist Targets’?” by Douglas Lucas. Lucas accurately describes the framing of drug lords as terrorists to be a form of “mission creep.”

Peter Andreas responds to Moisés Naim’s essay in “Measuring the Mafia-State Menace.” I was not aware of Andreas’s work until Daniel Solomon recently shared it on Twitter but now I have several of his books (including this one) on my reading list.

Although somewhat sensationalized, Christian Caryl also has a nice overview piece on global organized crime at Foreign Policy: “Mob Rule.” Some of the statistics there seem questionable but the overall point–that students of politics should pay attention to organized crime–is a valid and important one.

Finally, World Politics Review features an interview with Brian Phillips, who argues that targeting DTO leaders in Mexico has not reduced violence. This matches my own research on the topic.

How Traveling Salesmen Complicate the Traveling Salesman Problem

traveling_salesmanThe traveling salesman problem is simple in its setup but remarkably complicated to solve. You need to visit a number of cities, say 10, and want to find the shortest route that visits all of them exactly once and brings you back to where you started. From a list of routes it is easy to find the shortest one, but it is incredibly hard to verify that it is the shortest of all possible routes.

Finding a solution gets even more difficult when you go from a (mathematically) feasible solution to one that can be implemented in the real world. That is because you have to incorporate a notoriously unreliable component into your plans: human beings.

[I]n trying to apply this mathematics to the real world of deliveries and drivers, UPS managers needed to learn that transportation is as much about people and the unique constraints they impose, as it is about negotiating intersections and time zones….

For one thing, humans are irrational and prone to habit. When those habits are interrupted, interesting things happen. After the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minnesota, for example, the number of travelers crossing the river, not surprisingly, dropped; but even after the bridge was restored, researcher David Levinson has noted, traffic levels never got near their previous levels again. Habits can be particularly troublesome for planning fixed travel routes for people, like public buses, as noted in a paper titled, “You Can Lead Travelers to the Bus Stop, But You Can’t Make Them Ride,” by Akshay Vij and Joan Walker of the University of California. “Traditional travel demand models assume that individuals are aware of the full range of alternatives at their disposal,” the paper reads, “and that a conscious choice is made based on a tradeoff between perceived costs and benefits.” But that is not necessarily so.

People are also emotional, and it turns out an unhappy truck driver can be trouble. Modern routing models incorporate whether a truck driver is happy or not—something he may not know about himself. For example, one major trucking company that declined to be named does “predictive analysis” on when drivers are at greater risk of being involved in a crash. Not only does the company have information on how the truck is being driven—speeding, hard-braking events, rapid lane changes—but on the life of the driver….

In other words, the traveling salesman problem grows considerably more complex when you actually have to think about the happiness of the salesman.

That’s from Tom Vanderbilt over at Nautilus, and the whole thing is worth a read. Oh, and there’s also an app for that.

How “The Wire” Explains Microsoft

I cannot speak to the accuracy of this since I do not know much about the internal workings of Microsoft, but as an analogy I found it fascinating. David Auerbach on how The Wire explains Microsoft:

What does Microsoft in the Ballmer era have in common with drug kingpin Avon Barksdale’s organization in The Wire? For years, both of them had the strongest package. They owned their territory, owned their market, owned their users. They were untouchable. Then times changed, bringing new competitors with new, intense products. Their own product went weak. But they couldn’t let go. “We got a weak product, and we holding on to prime real estate with no muscle,” Avon’s cerebral second-in-command, Stringer Bell, complains to him. For the Barksdale organization, the product was heroin and the real estate was the drug-ravaged Franklin Towers housing project. For Microsoft, the product is Windows and the real estate is the PC.

More here (some language NSFW).

Phil Schrodt on the State of the Discipline

pale_blue_dotI try to avoid too many “inside baseball” posts here, but today I make an exception. Phil Schrodt announced his retirement to the blogosphere last Thursday after giving notice in March. I had occasion to meet Phil at ISA in April and have enjoyed hearing and reading his thoughts on the discipline of political science and academia more generally. The whole post (actually, his whole blog) is worth a read, but here are a couple of points that stuck out to me.

On the influence of technology and the web:

Due to technological changes, I no longer really need the resources of a large institution. Computing power?—I’ve now got a machine with 8 Gb of memory (upgradeable to 32 Gb) and a 1.2 Ghz processor. And that’s just my phone. Cluster computing I can get from Amazon or Google using my credit card; dozens of companies can provide web hosting. Penn State—at least until someone reads this essay—has allowed me to maintain access to paywalled electronic resources but I use these only rarely: all of the reference material I need, particularly for technical support, is free on the Web. Despite the library being literally next door to my campus office, I rarely set foot in it. Those 46% indirect costs go for what???

(The 46 percent refers to the amount of overhead that institutions get from grants the researcher brings in.)

On trends in academia:

[F]inally, when you find yourself beginning to feel sympathetic with many of the stereotypical negative things people say about academia, it is time to go. You start to recognize just how much of what seems trendy and oh-so-cool right now, whether theory or methodology, is utterly transient, with an expected lifespan approximating that of a gerbil, and on the theoretical side, often as not is merely a poorly updated re-hash of some school of thought current 3,000 or more years ago….

Academic institutions have changed little since the post-WWII expansions of the 1950s, while the world around them has changed dramatically.  What little change has occurred appears focused on the proliferation of pointless administrative positions whose sole purpose is to make the institution more expensive and less efficient. An imitation of the US auto industry in the 1960s. We know how that turned out.

Those left with a lingering “so what?” should see yesterday’s post.

See also: “Seven Deadly Sins of Contemporary Quantitative Political Analysis” (pdf)

Grad Student Gift Ideas

My sister is starting a graduate program this fall, so I wanted to put together a “grad school survival kit” gift basket for her. When I was looking, though, most search results for things like that were put together by gift basket companies and a large number of them include junk food as filler. While junk food can be a great stress reliever, I would not recommend making that the bulk of your gift to a grad student. Instead, consider some of the following gifts that range from practical to fun: