how transparency works

It’s no fun to argue with the dead, but sometimes it can’t be helped. Or at least, I can’t help myself.

I’ve tried to limit how much I say about Aaron Swartz’s death, because I’m not sure I have much right to say anything. I only met the guy a couple of times, exchanged a couple of emails, replied to a few tweets. We were not friends, and I understand that I don’t deserve to grieve the loss of him the way his loved ones do. That would be distasteful and presumptuous of me.

But it is true that Aaron was part of an embarrassingly small pool of technologists that I revere — people toward whom I do not feel my usual, regrettable reflex toward rivalrous, Holden Caulfieldish pissiness. Instead, I was in awe of Aaron. I told the PACER story frequently, and I read his book reviews with disbelief. (I didn’t realize it at the time, but I suppose I must have begun my Goodreads book-reviewing habit as a way of emulating him.)

I didn’t know him well, but I sort of thought that someday I would, when (if!) I had done something that earned me the right. The fact that this will never happen is something that I suspect I haven’t fully grasped.

I’ve been reading a lot of his old stuff this week, and today that included the chapter he contributed to the book Open Government, which O’Reilly Media generously open-sourced as a memorial to Aaron. Entitled “When Is Transparency Useful?”, I think it could fairly count as one of the “high-profile, public denunciations” that Cory Doctorow mentioned in his remembrance of Aaron.

Aaron began work on a project supported by Sunlight, but he ultimately decided it was fruitless and abandoned it before completion. This was all before my time, but I know it resulted in some hurt feelings. I’m sorry things ended that way, because in this case I think Aaron got it wrong. He had good company, though: people like Lessig and Clay burned out on transparency, too.

I haven’t, and I don’t think I will. My understanding of how transparency works is different, I suspect (and probably different from that of my colleagues). It might be worth writing it down here, in advance of the next ally that loses faith.

So. Let’s say we’re running a school. The school has a cafeteria, which is largely unmonitored. In political theory we would call this a Hobbesian state of nature, but never mind that for now.

Within this cafeteria we have a bullying problem. Some kids make a regular practice of socking other kids in the gut and demanding their lunch money, which is then handed over. This is against the rules, of course, but enforcement is imperfect. Sometimes a teacher will be passing through and catch a bully in the act, or a victim will muster enough evidence and courage to tattle effectively. When that happens, detention is assigned to the bully. Along with anecdotal evidence, the number of detentions forms our sense both of the extent of the bullying problem and of how effectively we’re fighting it.

Eventually, repeated petitions from the members of the Audio-Visual Club convince us that this situation is intolerable, and we agree to install some surveillance cameras in the cafeteria. We can’t monitor every moment of footage, of course, but we make a concerted effort at the start, handing out tons of detention slips. Soon the bullies wise up, the on-camera punching stops, and the detention hall sits empty.

There are a lot of potential problems with this. Maybe the bullies have taken to waiting for the A.V. Club by the flagpole after school. Maybe they’re issuing verbal threats instead of physical ones. Maybe the invasion of student privacy that the cameras represent is a substantial harm that outweighs the reduction in bullying.

But it would be pretty silly to look at the empty detention hall and conclude that it means the cameras aren’t working. And it would be downright stupid if we gave in to disappointment because we find our lack of bullies to punish less emotionally satisfying than the pre-camera days.

Besides, even if the system isn’t perfect, it’s still probably harder for bullies to catch kids when they’re running past the flagpole instead of massed in the lunchroom. If the threats are now verbal, at least fewer people are getting punched.

You can argue that other reforms would be superior, and I might agree with you. Having the school sell lunch plans that eliminate the need for carrying cash, for instance, might make this entire problem disappear. But I do think that the cameras were a useful intervention, even if they fall short of “silver bullet” status.

Obviously it’s easy for me to concoct this story. But there’s evidence that this is how transparency actually works.

It’s deeply unsatisfying, I know! Believe me, I dream about our databases leading to corrupt politicians being marched off in handcuffs. It’d make for some great stories — I suspect grant officers would much rather hear about that stuff than about unmeasurable counterfactuals (“Why should we keep paying for these videotapes when they don’t show any bullying?”). If I’m honest, though, it’s probably a better idea to raise the costs of bad behavior so that it doesn’t happen as much, rather than trying to catch bad behavior after it happens.

Perhaps this isn’t enough to fix things. But it really can help.

book review: Tenth of December

Paul Ford got it about right on George Saunders, I think: his gift is his ability to inspire empathy. He is sardonic and funny, and this somehow gives him license to pursue huge emotional honesty without readers dismissing the proceedings as maudlin.

This collection is very good. “Victory Lap,” the opening story, is astounding and scary and nearly overwhelming — I took it to be about the line between righteousness and self-righteousness. “Sticks” is brief, great and brutal. “Escape from Spiderhead” might be the closest to the Saunders I met in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, writing characters that shrug through corporate dystopia on their way to pathos and transcendence (here, the point seems to be about the arbitrary nature of romantic love compared to the universality of compassion, which I’m not sure I buy but was certainly moving). “Home” is lovely, and the story that titles the collection is both affecting and pretty technically dazzling.

That same technical brilliance might be the collection’s weakness, though. It’s a strange thing we do to literary authors these days, holing them up at the head of MFA programs, where they can subject their own work to endless forensic analysis. I suppose it’s one way to keep them fed, so, you know, fine. But, having read a messy, confused and deeply resonant Dick novel shortly before this book, I’m not sure how happy I am to have writers paring themselves down toward some literary tao. It occasionally manifests as a problem here, most notably in “My Chivalric Fiasco,” which seems to be purely a technical exercise. “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the longest story, pairs that tendency with the bad decision to revolve around a dream that Saunders had and found haunting (there’s a lot of nice and funny stuff in it about fatherhood, but it lacks Saunders’ typically satisfying conclusions).

So I don’t know. These stories are great, and I would recommend this collection highly. But if you’re looking for a place to start I’d probably suggest CivilWarLand In Bad Decline first (that being the only other thing of his I’ve read — Pastoralia is on the shelf, waiting…).

Ryan Avent on innovation

Ryan Avent has a very, very good article on the state of innovation. You should go read it. I come down on the pessimistic-but-waiting-to-be-surprised side — it really looks to me like fossil fuels were a one-time (and possibly impermanent) equilibrium-shifter — but Ryan makes a very strong case, and there’s really nothing I can disagree with.

I do have a handful of reactions, but they’re really just notes:

  • Moore’s Law is doing okay, but I’ve read a lot of people worrying that its translation into practical processing power isn’t. In general, silicon photolithography seems to have given people a lot of bad ideas about technological progression being inevitably governed by exponential laws. I’d really like to see a kW-per-dollar versus time plot of electrical engine performance, for instance (I haven’t been able to find one).

  • 3D printing is an older technology than most people realize, which makes me think they’re overestimating its upside. The medical applications are real and important; its implications for design processes are substantial; it will almost certainly become a useful neighborhood amenity, available at copy shops and the like. For manufacturing, its effects will be limited to expensive, small-run applications (like the aforementioned medical uses). It seems extremely unlikely to me that 3D printing’s economic significance will be greater than that of the 2D printer industry. Which isn’t nothing! But it’s not flying cars either.

  • Predictions of sudden algorithmic progress that unlock new types of economic activity are more interesting, and clouded by two things. First, the Big Data trend story, which is a conceptual distraction that a lot of tenuously-relevant activity is being shoehorned into. Second, the research black boxes that are the dot-com survivors. Google, in particular, has bought up a ton of the world’s best engineers and provided a sudden infusion of resources to scores of academics whose work would otherwise stand little chance of practical relevance. I think we still have only the vaguest idea of what this effort will produce. The performance of GOOG over the next few decades could turn out to be a pretty good test of Cowen’s thesis.

  • The extensive versus intensive distinction is new to me, so I’m probably about to apply it incorrectly. But it seems to me that fossil fuel technology is profoundly extensive in nature — it’s as if you can suddenly convert horses to a nonperishable liquid, and better still, there’s tons of it just lying around underground, free for the taking! These are new resources. Information technology, by contrast, is about intensifying existing activities by reducing communication friction. This is very important, but also the kind of thing that the market started working on in a serious way right after the telegraph was invented (and had been plugging away at before, of course, through couriers, postal systems, soldiers running back from the Battle of Marathon, etc). There’s an incredibly long tail to build here — smartphone-dispatched taxis, simplified appointments with the doctor, grocery delivery services you don’t have to think about — but it’s mostly composed of known tasks that aren’t sufficiently lucrative to merit hiring an unskilled human to coordinate. With enough of them, you can definitely make money. I’m not sure how economically significant it’ll wind up being, though (not least of all because consumers seem likely to capture a huge portion of the gains).

So, yeah, same old opinions from me: a lack of imagination paired with pessimism about the upside of the technologies I understand best (borne of being close enough to them that I can find their limitations dismaying).

I do think there will probably be some big unexpected thing that will make fogeys of us all. But other than driverless cars or a sudden, later-than-expected payoff to genomic medicine, I don’t see how any of the bets people are placing have enough upside to be the one that hits big.

book review: 2312

I’m still working on automating this process — all of the RSS → WordPress plugins seem to be designed for producing SEO spam; Goodreads doesn’t offer reviews-only feeds; and so I think I’m gonna have to submit a patch — so for now I’ll just post ‘em manually.

Spoilers follow, but you should probably read them instead of this book. I’m not sorry to have read this — I did it for a book club, and look forward to discussing it — but it’s pretty bad.

This is an awful book. It’s funny: Kim Stanley Robinson uses the word “autistic” as a mild pejorative in the opening pages, but that might be the single best description of this book’s aesthetic. The author consistently ignores the things that make a novel worth reading — excitement, interesting characterization, original ideas — and instead hangs little essays filled with thoughts (by turns implausible and banal) about terraforming, economics, gender and governance onto a novel-like framework.

As Ben has noted, nearly all the action occurs outside the narrative, and is simply mentioned off-handedly as having occurred. This might be for the best, since the plot makes absolutely no sense: a seemingly low-stakes real estate dispute on Venus somehow accidentally gives rise to a multi-step mass-murder plot hatched by a new class of artificial beings? But it’s not clear that there’s any intentionality behind this–perhaps it’s just a screwup. Certainly the villain (if there’s a villain?) is barely named and never confronted, seemingly because the author is tired and wants to wrap things up. Then the perpetrators–a new race of beings, maybe, who are somehow detected, surveilled and rounded up from across the solar system in a massive police action that is mentioned but not even slightly described–are shipped into exile by the inspector who was working the case, who gets to declare judgment and sentence because…?

I would like to to bag on the characters, particularly the endless, hammer-it-into-your-head repetition of Wahram’s froggy eyes as his defining trait. But the truth is that I did find that Wahram and Swan eventually emerged as distinct entities. This was particularly true of Swan, whose pervasive neuroticism was both off-putting and fairly believable. This showed the way to the most promising potential theme in the book, I thought: the cultural claustrophobia and exhaustion faced by humanity as it finishes developing the solar system’s resources and realizes that what they’ve built is a prison. Alas, Robinson flirts with this idea briefly and and then abandons it. Instead he sprints toward ridiculous nostalgia, implying mystical spiritual renewal through communion with (wholly manipulated!) nature, along the way spewing a lot of bullshit about “our horizontal brothers.”

Still, though Wahram and Swan were decently developed, the idea of romantic chemistry between them seemed absurd, and the larger treatment of relationships in the context of massively extended lifespans felt superficial.

Absent a source of excitement (plot) or emotion (compelling character mechanics), we’re left with KSR’s thoughts about the evolution of human civilization.

His musings on speciation and blurring of gender are fine, but never really deployed in a way that made me squirm, which felt like a missed opportunity. It’s all reasonable enough, but kind of boring. When Wahram and Swan finally have their weird and unnecessarily graphic hermaphroditic sex, my reaction was less about alarm over the plumbing that KSR was so anxious to explicate and more a basic dismay at having to read about a boring nebbish (Wahram) sleeping with a sure-to-be-trouble headcase (Swan). Ick.

There is a LOT of time spent talking about terraforming. And there’s a place for that kind of hard sci-fi stuff. But KSR seems to expect to be allowed to waste my time with technical minutiae the way Clarke does in, say, Rendezvous with Rama. Sadly, he doesn’t have the chops. Randall Munroe has helpfully demonstrated the impossibility of one of KSR’s schemes — making Venus rotate faster through planetary bombardment — but there’s plenty more fishiness throughout the book when it comes to masses, energy levels, speeds, distances, problems related to acceleration and docking, venting waste heat and the quantity of astronomical objects in the solar system. I haven’t done the math, but it seems pretty obvious that the author hasn’t, either. He sure pretends like he has, though.

His soft-science ideas are worse. The Mondragon, a cybernetic economy run by AIs that perfectly allocate resources, is laughably utopian — particularly when he introduces a sudden real shock into the economy by destroying the city of Terminator, but never discusses how the system responds. The ideas about governance are incredibly vague. There are plenty of allusions to human civilization’s balkanization. But the only form of government that seems to exist outside of Earth consists of tiny, tiny oligarchies — say, a dozen people on Venus, and maybe a few dozen more throughout the rest of the system. Through robotic, exposition-filled meetings and the occasional conference call these groups are somehow able to organize resources sufficient to terraform planets or stage immensely complex logistical operations (the “reanimation” of Earth). This is all the more ludicrous when one considers how implausibly dependent on human labor much of this hi-tech future activity seems to be. Seriously: Wahram, that tedious milquetoast, would be among the humans with the most governing power in history if he could do what he’s described as doing. It makes absolutely zero sense.

So yeah, it’s just a complete mess. The thing is long and boring, and the ideas on offer are either bland or half-baked. Terrible.


Just one point: this is an app idea that has been executed many, many, many times before. I could find you a half-dozen other examples if I had more time for Googling “self-destruct message app” right now.

Nothing against SnapChat! If people like it, that’s great. But it’s a good example of software success clearly driven by cultural factors rather than the inherent attributes of the app itself*. This distinction is very rarely made when people write about software fads, but it’s important.

* Sure, you can tell a story about design/business model/whatever. I don’t think I buy it.

fashion is everything

Michael Arrington is bored. About eight months ago, Alexis Madrigal was similarly bored. These guys are leaders in their field, and consequently I think their malaise is likely to spread. I suspect it has to — that it’s an inevitable consequence of the kind of mentality on display in this audio clip:

That’s from NPR’s “Best Apps of 2012” piece. I think it’s revealing: Brown picks an app in a done-to-death genre and *explicitly* says that novelty forms the basis of his excitement about it.

This statement can perhaps be dismissed as a Freudian slip, but I think it’s representative of a subtext underlying most popular writing and thinking about technology and startup culture — the elevation of “disruption” as an end in itself is just as emblematic of this focus.

And perhaps that’s fine: there’s nothing wrong with enjoying novelty. I know that I derive a lot of utility from it, and consistently base various consumption decisions on it (“What albums are on the 2012 year-end lists?” versus “Which of these albums are objectively better than my all-time favorites?”). And at Sunlight we know that novelty is of huge importance: we rely on the press and public to spread the technology we build. We know that people will only be driven to do so if it excites them, and we know that novelty is one of our best tools for achieving that end.

For aesthetic consumption industries in general, pursuing novelty seems just fine. It’s why books and music and movies and fashion organize themselves into trends and movements. It makes culture understandable and criticism rewarding. But, speaking as a software engineer, it can be an odd criterion to have to grapple with, and it has been slightly bizarre to watch its selection as the primary lens through which our culture perceives this discipline.

(It also seems like a pretty silly way to allocate financial resources when, unlike those other disciplines, reaching profitability is usually premised on a comfortably long product lifecycle, the idea of which is badly undercut by a focus novelty (though I suppose the possibility of hitting it rich as a fad does help with reaching scale). Then again, I don’t really know anything about investing.)

It might be that all of this is obvious, but hearing that report on the radio made something click for me. And I think it marks a useful dividing line for tech journalism. Was this story written because its subject is new, or because its subject is important? For me, outlets like Ars, Techdirt and MIT Tech Review immediately come to mind as publications that consistently choose the latter rationale, and I think that has a lot to do with why I prefer them.

Some people really enjoy fashion. More power to them! There’s no reason they can’t enjoy software on those terms. But I do think that this type of tech connoisseurship is ill-served by the story it currently tells itself about its true motivations, which are usually said to be about convenience, economic importance, or more far-fetched ideas about the transformation of society. The problem isn’t so much that these claims are incorrect (though they usually are) but that they ground what should be an artistic endeavor in a terminally boring bourgeois aesthetic. You are never going to get a punk rock photo app from someone who follows Fred Wilson on Twitter. In this respect, tech writers would be well-served to look to the indie gaming scene and hope that a similar miracle of independent taste and thinking can colonize the app store.

Anyway, you should give that NPR piece a listen. There might be some apps in it you enjoy. And it has some good news for Mr. Madrigal: his lightbulbs-as-a-platform startup idea seems to have come to pass.