July 5, 2013

Thought (Memetic) Soup, July edition

From time to time, I like to reflect on reoccurring themes in society that I find curious and/or strange. I usually post these to Tumbld Thoughts, but I thought I'd post some here as well in a four-part feature called thought (memetic) soup.

I. Soft Paternalism (risk vs. safety, not risk vs. reward)

Do what I tell you with love. And take your own car. Or whatever...... Image courtesy [1]. Here is an actual quote from George Will on the risks (vs. rewards) of high-speed trains [2]:
"the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism"
Out-of-mind experience? Perhaps. But this is the more likely explanation is that when congestion pricing (considering the true costs of transportation individualism) is taken into account [3], train transportation is cheaper than driving. Nothing really nefarious here.

However, the concept of "nudging" (or soft paternalism) really does seem to be nefarious to me [4]. Is soft paternalism simply sets of smart policies crafted "for the good of the many", or a form of intentionally dishonest signaling?

It's worth distinguishing covert propaganda efforts intended to "do good" from policies that actually benefit society [5], or technological investments by government (such as high-speed rail or other public goods) that provide the potential for immense future benefit.  

II. Data Aggregation and Mental Bundling (rise of the paranocracy?)

Information is power. The power to surveil, and sell products. Or perhaps grist for paranoia. Or perhaps all of the above. There are two memes in this intellectual soup that I would like to explore in my inimitable style.

The first trend involves people displaying an irrational fear of metadata collection by the government. While this is certainly a slippery slope (in the direction of the panopticon [6] or a repressive dictatorship), this is also not greatly different from the mining of survey data or the collection of census data. In their de-identified form, these data are within the scope of ethical informatics practice (although this is open for debate). Collecting metadata aggregated from the internet is a bit like tracking people's footprints in the sand -- which is a violation of privacy only in the most general sense.

While there are legitimate criticisms to be made of this practice, there also seems to be a certain "anti-vaxxer" [7] logic to the recent uproar. Perhaps as Jaron Lanier argues in his new book "Who Owns the Future" [8], people should be paid for both the data they create and access to these data. Or perhaps the entire apparatus of internet technology and automation has destroyed society, a view I am calling "Synthetic Dystopia".

According to Lanier's worldview, the rise of free content has upended the creative and intellectual economy and concentrated the returns for these products in the hands of a few large content aggregators [9].This brings us to the second trend of the post: bigness phobia (with a technological twist). By now, I'm sure you've heard the phrases "too big to fail" and the general sentiment that bigness is bad. In my view, Lanier exhibits some of the same mental confounds and irrational fears as a bigness conspiracy theorist. 

The main confound in Lanier's argument revolves around resolving a central question: are big data and big commerce the cause of bad-for-society behavior, or a business tool for characterizes the underlying problems related to over-optimizing capital and society [10]? Whatever the role of data and the internet in our current economic discontents, drawing analogies to past economic eras (e.g. the robber barons of the industrial age) may not help us as much as people like Lanier might like to believe [11]. And in an informational vacuum such as this (e.g. where there are few historical precedents and many unknowns), people will turn to irrational mental bundling.

III. Gilbert's Mysterious Grape

I am not sure what to make of the Prudential "Stickers" ad. Originally a Super Bowl ad (2013), the ad features social psychologist Dan Gilbert (author of "Stumbling on Happiness") asking people "How old is the oldest person you know"? The point being to demonstrate that people are longer lived now than in the past (when the current retirement age of 65 was established). I don't quite understand this experiment for two reasons:

1) if you ask 1,000 people what age is the oldest person you know, how many individuals does that accurately represent? One might assume that each observation is independent. However, let us reconsider that assumption. For example, if we were to overlay a social network topology over this group of people, what would we find? We might find, for example, that a number of individual answers represent the same very old person ( a so-called "social hub").

Can this be interpreted from the data presented in the ad? Since all of the people in the same were from the same community (Austin, TX), this is very likely. While the number of long-lived people (e.g. more than 2 stadard deviations above the mean) may have increased in the past half-century, they are still relatively rare. What's more, the underlying distribution has likely not changed as much as we'd like to think it has.

2) the question begs a response that states the maximum age of the population rather than the underlying distribution. While it does uncover what people know about old age, it does so in a way that perpetuates a naive view of an aging population (which has it's own complexities a TV ad for retirement planning just won't be able to counter). 

Indeed, the MEAN age of the population has increased in the past 50 years. And the likelihood of someone living longer has also increased. But the manner of presentation exaggerates this trend. And one of the reasons that the mean life expectancy has increased is a combination of statistical subtleties: 1) a subset of the population living longer, and 2) fewer people dying in their youth. 

Additionally, consider that there are other ways to interpret these data. I have my own thoughts about what the data actually mean. What we might be observing in the image at the bottom is a "centrality-oriented frontier". "Centrality" refers to the added information from the social network consideration (many observations representing the same people, or over-represented "hubs"), while "frontier" refers to the maximum extent of values for a specific regime. In economic modeling, such curves are used to represent efficiencies and a range of possibilies in a bivariate space.

This is just one of many possibilities, yet none of them really get at the heart of what's bothering me about this ad. Essentially, what we get with this ad is the promotion of innumeracy on a very large (and high profile) scale. Not only is this bad science, this is also the worst type of entertainment: a reality show called "Gilbert's Puzzling Grape".

IV. The Mental "Reality" of Fairness and False Abundance

Here are two academic papers on primate brain and behavior that I have recently read. I am thinking that they fit together in some fashion. Top graphic is from the Scientific American blog "Beautiful Minds" and a post entitled "Gorillas Agree: Human Frontal Cortex is Nothing Special". Please discuss:

Steckenfinger, S.A. and Ghanzanfar, A.A.   Monkey visual behavior falls into the uncanny valley. PNAS, 106, 18362-18366 (2009).

In this paper, monkeys interact with virtual avatars and their responses are interpreted in the context of the "uncanny valley".

Brosnan, S.F. and de Waal, F.B.M.   Monkeys reject unequal pay. Nature, 425, 297-299 (2003).

In this classic paper, it is demonstrated that capuchin monkeys demonstrate a strong dislike for unequal rewards for the same task. Here is a lecture by Frans DeWaal that demonstrates this effect.

Now read the following two articles in succession. Discuss. Bottom graphic is the album art from Robert Plant's "Fate of Nations" album. Inset is from a recent article in "The Atlantic" by Charles C. Mann entitled "We will never run out of oil".

The first is an article from Bloomberg on James Hansen's critique of the new era of oil abundance and its negative consequences with respect to climate change. A bit poorly written for my tastes, but gets across the main idea that the exploitation of tar sands and other marginal fossil fuel resources is a significant gamble with consequences that are not often publicized in the media.

The second article is a bit more critical of the new era of oil abundance and the rise of "Saudi America". The focus of this article is on the practice of fracking and its negative consequences.

I'm sorry that I ended the feature on such a negative note. However, we will return to the topic of false abundance in a future post.

[1] The State is Looking After You. Economist, April 6 (2006) AND High-speed Rail in the United States. Wikipedia (2013).

[2] Will, G.   High speed to insolvency. Newsweek, February 27 (2011). via Krugman, P.  Subways Pay. The Conscience of a Liberal blog, March 27 (2013).

See also the following article: Weigel, D.   Off the Rails: why do conservatives hate trains so much? Slate Magazine, March 8 (2011).

[3] Congestion Pricing. Wikipedia (2013).

[4] Thaler, R.H. and Sunstein, C.R.   Nudge. Yale University Press (2008) AND Paternalism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2010).

[5] Soft paternalism is dishonest in the sense that it is the covert imposition of will. Just because trickery is used rather than fists and guns doesn't make it any more right.

According to "Nudge" [4], one outcome of soft paternalism is the creation of "choice architectures". But are there other ways to do this (e.g. can they be decoupled from moralistic crusades and propaganda campaigns)?

[6] For a privacy advocate perspective, please see: Rule, J.B.   The Price of the Panopticon. New York Times , June 11 (2013).

[7] The "anti-vaxxer" argument is technically a form of denying science (or more generally, facts and the occurrence of events) to support one's beliefs, but it is also apt here. In this case, big bad big data is conspiring with big brother to do something that you should not trust, regardless of the context or mitigating circumstances (e.g. likelihood of abuse). 

[8] Lanier, J.   Who owns the future? Simon and Schuster (2013). Also see the recent PBS Newshour interview with Paul Solman.

[9] I'm not sure that I am properly representing his argument, but if so there is an alternate hypothesis: digital and free access to information requires a fundamentally different economic model.

While Lanier offers a possible solution (micropayments for internet content), it seems to be a fundamentally unworkable one.This is because we are trying to attach value things which are both novel and intangible rather than extend a model of payment and profit to a new informational model.

This is problematic for a number of reasons -- for example, there are caveats to be raised in charging rents on intangible goods. For more information on this, please see: Krugman, P.   Profits Without Production. New York Times, June 20 (2013).

[10] for example, has the internet created a "winner-take-all" economy, or is the rise of the internet concurrent with the rise of zero-sum capitalism? 

[11] for a fundamentally different view on this, please see the following Moneybox blog post: Yglesias, M.   What Makes Apple, Google, and Microsoft Different From the Corporate Titans of Yesteryear. Moneybox blog, June 21 (2013).

1 comment:

  1. Dear Bradly,
    For that future post on false abundance, you might want to check out:
    Gordon, R. & B.J. Poulin (2012). Quitting cold turkey: rapid oil independence for the USA. In: The Science of Algal Fuels: Phycology, Geology, Biophotonics, Genomics and Nanotechnology. Ed.: R. Gordon & J. Seckbach. Dordrecht, Springer: 3-20.
    Yours, -Dick Gordon DickGordonCan@gmail.com