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Can Foundational Physics Be Saved?

Thirty-four years ago I left physics with a Masters degree, to start a nine year stint doing AI/CS at Lockheed and NASA, followed by 25 years in economics. I loved physics theory, and given how far physics had advanced over the previous two 34 year periods, I expected to be giving up many chances for glory. But though I didn’t entirely leave (I’ve since published two physics journal articles), I’ve felt like I dodged a bullet overall; physics theory has progressed far less in the last 34 years, mainly because data dried up:

One experiment after the other is returning null results: No new particles, no new dimensions, no new symmetries. Sure, there are some anomalies in the data here and there, and maybe one of them will turn out to be real news. But experimentalists are just poking in the dark. They have no clue where new physics may be to find. And their colleagues in theory development are of no help.

In her new book Lost in Math, theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder describes just how bad things have become. Previously, physics foundations theorists were disciplined by a strong norm of respecting the theories that best fit the data. But with less data, theorists have turned to mainly judging proposed theories via various standards of “beauty” which advocates claim to have inferred from past patterns of success with data. Except that these standards (and their inferences) are mostly informal, change over time, differ greatly between individuals and schools of thought, and tend to label as “ugly” our actual best theories so far.

Yes, when data is truly scarce, theory must suggest where to look, and so we must choose somehow among as-yet-untested theories. The worry is that we may be choosing badly:

During experiments, the LHC creates about a billion proton-proton collisions per second. … The events are filtered in real time and discarded unless an algorithm marks them as interesting. From a billion events, this “trigger mechanism” keeps only one hundred to two hundred selected ones. … That CERN has spent the last ten years deleting data that hold the key to new fundamental physics is what I would call the nightmare scenario.

One bad sign is that physicists have consistently, confidently, and falsely told each other and the public that big basic progress was coming soon: Continue reading "Can Foundational Physics Be Saved?" »

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Overconfidence From Moral Signaling

Tyler Cowen in Stubborn Attachments:

The real issue is that we don’t know whether our actions today will in fact give rise to a better future, even when it appears that they will. If you ponder these time travel conundrums enough, you’ll realize that the effects of our current actions are very hard to predict,

While I think we often have good ways to guess which action is more likely to produce better outcomes, I agree with Tyler than we face great uncertainty. Once our actions get mixed up with a big complex world, it becomes quite likely that, not matter what we choose, in fact things would have turned out better had we made a different choice.

But for actions that take on a moral flavor, most people are reluctant to admit this:

If you knew enough history you’d see >10% as the only reasonable answer, for most any big historical counterfactual. But giving that answer to the above risks making you seem pro-South or pro-slavery. So most people express far more confidence. In fact, more than half give the max possible confidence!

I initially asked a similar question on if the world would have been better off overall if Nazis had won WWII, and for the first day I got very similar answers to the above. But I made the above survey on the South for one day, while I gave two days for the Nazi survey. And in its second day my Nazi survey was retweeted ~100 times, apparently attracting many actual pro-Nazis:

Yes, in principle the survey could have attracted wise historians, but the text replies to my tweet don’t support that theory. My tweet survey also attracted many people who denounced me in rude and crude ways as personally racist and pro-Nazi for even asking this question. And suggested I be fired. Sigh.

Added 13Dec: Many call my question ambiguous. Let’s use x to denote how well the world turns out. There is x0, how well the world actually turned out, and x|A, how well the world have turned out given some counterfactual assumption A. Given this terminology, I’m asking for P(x>x0|A).  You may feel sure you know x0, but you should not feel sure about  x|A; for that you should have a probability distribution.

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Open Policy Evaluation

Hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue. La Rochefoucauld, Maximes

In some areas of life, you need connections to do anything. Invitations to parties, jobs, housing, purchases, business deals, etc. are all gained via private personal connections. In other areas of life, in contrast, invitations are made open to everyone. Posted for all to see are openings for jobs, housing, products to buy, business investment, calls for proposals for contracts and grants, etc. The connection-only world is often suspected of nepotism and corruption, and “reforms” often take the form of requiring openings to be posted so that anyone can apply.

In academia, we post openings for jobs, school attendance, conference attendance, journal publications, and grant applications for all to see. Even though most people know that you’ll actually need personal connections to have much of a chance for many of these things. People seems to want to appear willing to consider an application from anyone. They allow some invitation-only conferences, talk series, etc., but usually insist that such things are incidental, not central to their profession.

This preference for at least an appearance of openness suggests a general strategy of reform: find things that are now only gained via personal connections, and create an alternate open process whereby anyone can officially apply. In this post, I apply this idea to: policy proposals.

Imagine that you have a proposal for a better policy, to be used by governments, businesses, or other organizations. How can you get people to listen to your proposal, and perhaps endorse it or apply it? You might try to use personal connections to get an audience with someone at a government agency, political interest group, think tank, foundation, or business. But that’s stuck in the private connection world. You might wait for an agency or foundation to put out an open call for proposals, seeking a solution to exactly the problem your proposal solves. But for any one proposal idea, you might wait a very long time.

You might submit an article to an open conference or journal, or submit a book to a publisher. But if they accept your submission, that mostly won’t be an endorsement of whether your proposal is good policy by some metric. Publishers are mostly looking at other criteria, such as whether you have an impressive study using difficult methods, or whether you have a book thesis and writing style that will attract many readers.

So I propose that we consider creating an open process for submitting policy proposals to be evaluated, in the hope of gaining some level of endorsement and perhaps further action. This process won’t judge your submission on wit, popularity, impressiveness, or analytical rigor. Their key question is: is this promising as a policy proposal to actually adopt, for the purpose of making a better world? If they endorse your proposal, then other actors can use that as a quality signal regarding what policy proposals to consider.

Of course how you judge a policy proposal depends on your values. So there might be different open policy evaluators (OPE) based on different sets of values. Each OPE needs to have some consistent standards by which they evaluate proposals. For example, economists might ask whether a proposal improves economic efficiency, libertarians might ask if it increases liberty, and progressives might ask whether it reduces inequality.

Should the evaluation of a proposal consider whether there’s a snowball chance in hell of a proposal being actually adopted, or even officially considered? That is, whether it is in the “Overton window”? Should they consider whether you have so far gained sufficient celebrity endorsements to make people pay attention to your proposal? Well, those are choices of evaluation criteria. I’m personally more interested in evaluating proposals regardless of who has supported them, and regardless of their near-term political feasibility. Like how academics say we do today with journal article submissions. But that’s just me.

An OPE seems valid and useful as long as its actual choices of which policies it endorses match its declared evaluation criteria. Then it can serve as a useful filter, between people with innovative policy ideas and policy customers seeking useful ideas to consider and perhaps implement. If you can find OPEs who share your evaluation criteria, you can consider the policies they endorse. And of course if we ever end up having many of them, you could focus first on the most prestigious ones.

Ideally an OPE would have funding from some source to pay for its evaluations. But I could also imagine applicants having to pay a fee to have their proposals considered.

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Stubborn Attachments

Tyler Cowen’s new book, Stubborn Attachments, says many things. But his main claims are, roughly, 1) we should care much more about people who will live in the distant future, and 2) promoting long-run economic growth is a robust way to achieve that end. As a result, we should try much harder to promote long-run economic growth.

Now I don’t actually think his arguments are that persuasive to those inclined to disagree. On 1), the actions of most people suggest that they don’t actually care much about the distant future, and there exist quite consistent preferences (including moral preferences) to represent this position. (Also, I have to wonder how much Tyler cares, as in the 20 years I’ve known him I’ve often worked on distant future issues, and he’s shown almost no interest in such things.)

On 2), while Tyler mainly argues for econ growth by pointing to good trends over the last few centuries, many people see bad trends as outweighing the good, and many others see recent trends as temporary historical deviations. Tyler also doesn’t consider that future techs which speed population growth could cut the connection observed recently between total and per-capita growth; I describe such a scenario in my book Age of Em.

Tyler being Tyler, he is generally vague and gives himself many outs to avoid criticism. For example, he says that rights should take priority over growth, but he doesn’t specify those rights. He says he only advocates growing “wealth plus” which includes any good thing you could want, so don’t complain that growth will hurt a good thing. He notes that the priority on growth can justify the usual intuition excusing limited redistribution, but doesn’t mention that this won’t at all excuse not doing everything possible to promote growth. He says he isn’t committed to econ growth being possible forever, but only to a finite chance of eternal growth. Yet focusing all policy on trying to increase growth within some tiny-chance eternal growth scenario is overwhelmingly likely to seem a huge mistake later.

However, as I personally happen to agree with his main claims, at least the way I phrased them, I’d rather focus on their implications, which Tyler severely neglects. The following are the only “concrete” things he says about how exactly to promote long term econ growth:

For some more concrete recommendations, I’ll suggest the following: a) Policy should be more forward-looking and more concerned about the more distant future. b) Governments should place a much higher priority on investment than is currently the case, in both the private sector and the public sector. … c) Policy should be more concerned with economic growth, properly specified, and policy discussion should pay less heed to other values. … d) We should be more concerned with the fragility of our civilization. … e) We should be more charitable on the whole, but we are not obliged to give away all of our wealth. … f) We can embrace much of common sense morality with the knowledge that it is not inconsistent with a deeper ethical theory. … g) When it comes to most “small” policies affecting the present and the near-present only, we should be agnostic.

More “investment” and “growth”, that’s it?! We actually know of many more specific ways to encourage choices that promote long term growth, but they mostly come at substantial costs. I don’t how much you actually support faster long-term growth until I hear which such policies you’ll support. Continue reading "Stubborn Attachments" »

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Moral Choices Reveal Preferences

Tyler Cowen has a new book, Stubborn Attachments. In my next post I’ll engage his book’s main claim. But in this post I’ll take issue with one point that is to him relatively minor, but is to me important: the wisdom of the usual economics focus on preferences:

Sometimes my fellow economists argue that “satisfying people’s preferences” is the only value that matters, because in their view it encapsulates all other relevant values. But that approach doesn’t work. It is not sufficiently pluralistic, as it also matters whether our overall society encompasses standards of justice, beauty, and other values from the plural canon. “What we want” does not suffice to define the good. Furthermore, we must often judge people’s preferences by invoking other values external to those preferences. …

Furthermore, if individuals are poorly informed, confused, or downright inconsistent— as nearly all of us are, at times— the notion of “what we want” isn’t always so clear. So while I am an economist, and I will use a lot of economic arguments, I won’t always side with the normative approach of my discipline, which puts too much emphasis on satisfying preferences at the expense of other ethical values. … We should not end civilization to do what is just, but justice does sometimes trump utility. And justice cannot be reduced to what makes us happy or to what satisfies our preferences. …

iI traditional economics— at least prior to the behavioral revolution and the integration with psychology— it was commonly assumed that what an individual chooses, or would choose, is a good indicator of his or her welfare. But individual preferences do not always reflect individual interests very well. Preferences as expressed in the marketplace often appear irrational, intransitive, spiteful, or otherwise morally dubious, as evidenced by a wide range of vices, from cravings for refined sugar to pornography to grossly actuarially unfair lottery tickets. Given these human imperfections, why should the concept of satisfying preferences be so important? Even if you are willing to rationalize or otherwise defend some of these choices, in many cases it seems obvious that satisfying preferences does not make people happier and does not make the world a better place.

Tyler seems to use a standard moral framework here, one wherein we are looking at others and trying to agree among ourselves about what moral choices to make on their behalf. (Those others are not included in our conversation.) When we look at those other people, we can use the choices that they make to infer their wants (called “revealed preferences”), and then we can then make our moral choices in part to help them get what they want.

In this context, Tyler accurately describes common morality, in the sense that the moral choices of most people do not depend only on what those other object people want. Common moral choices are instead often “paternalistic”, giving people less of what they want in order to achieve other ends and to satisfy other principles. We can argue about how moral such choices actually are, but they clearly embody a common attitude to morality.

However, if these moral choices that we are to agree on satisfy some simple consistency conditions, then formally they imply a set of “revealed preferences”.  (And if they do not actually satisfy these conditions, we can see them as resulting from consistent preferences plus avoidable error.) They are “our” preferences in this moral choice situation. Looked at this way, it is just not remotely true that “ ‘What we want’ does not suffice to define the good” or that “Justice cannot be reduced to … what satisfies our preferences.” Our concepts of the good and justice are in fact exactly described by our moral preferences, the preferences that are revealed by our various consistent moral choices. It is then quite accurate to say that our moral preferences encapsulate all our relevant moral values.

Furthermore, the usual economics framework is wise and insightful because we in fact quite often disagree about moral choices when we take moral action. This framework that Tyler seems to use above, wherein we first agree on which acts are moral and then we act, is based on an often quite unrealistic fiction. We instead commonly each take moral actions in the absence of agreement. In such cases we each have a different set of moral preferences, and must consider how to take moral action in the context of our differing preferences.

At this point the usual economists’ framework, wherein different agents have different preferences, becomes quite directly relevant. It is then useful to think about moral Pareto improvements, wherein we each get more of what we want morally, and moral deals, where we make verifiable agreements to achieve moral “gains from trade”. The usual economist tools for estimating and calculating our wants and the location of win-win improvements then seem quite useful and important.

In this situation, we each seek to influence the resulting set of actual moral choices in order to achieve our differing moral preferences. We might try to achieve this influence via preaching, threats, alliances, wars, or deals; there are many possibilities. But whatever we do, we each want any analytical framework that we use to help us in this process to reflect our actual differing moral preferences. Yes, preferences can be complex, must be inferred from limited data on our choices, and yes we are often “poorly informed, confused, or downright inconsistent.” But we rarely say “why should the concept of satisfying [my moral] preferences be so important?”, and we are not at all indifferent to instead substituting the preferences of some other party, or the choice priorities of some deal analyst or assistant like Tyler. As much as possible, we seek to have the actual moral choices that result reflect our moral preferences, which we see as a very real and relevant thing, encapsulating all our relevant moral values.

And of course we should expect this sort of thing to happen all the more in a more inclusive conversation, one where the people about whom we are making moral choices become part of the moral “dealmaking” process. That is, when it is not we trying to agree among ourselves about what we should do for them, but when instead we all talk together about what to do for us all. In this more political case, we don’t at all say “my preferences are poorly informed, confused, and inconsistent and hardly matter so they don’t deserve much consideration.” Instead we each focus on causing choices that better satisfy our moral preferences, as we understand them. In this case, the usual economist tools and analytical frameworks based on achieving preferences seem quite appropriate. They deserve to sit center stage in our analysis.

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On the Future by Rees

In his broad-reaching new book, On the Future, aging famous cosmologist Martin Rees says aging famous scientists too often overreach:

Scientists don’t improve with age—that they ‘burn out’. … There seem to be three destinies for us. First, and most common, is a diminishing focus on research. …

A second pathway, followed by some of the greatest scientists, is an unwise and overconfident diversification into other fields. Those who follow this route are still, in their own eyes, ‘doing science’—they want to understand the world and the cosmos, but they no longer get satisfaction from researching in the traditional piecemeal way: they over-reach themselves, sometimes to the embarrassment of their admirers. This syndrome has been aggravated by the tendency for the eminent and elderly to be shielded from criticism. …

But there is a third way—the most admirable. This is to continue to do what one is competent at, accepting that … one can probably at best aspire to be on a plateau rather than scaling new heights.

Rees says this in a book outside his initial areas of expertise, a book that has gained many high profile fawning uncritical reviews, a book wherein he whizzes past dozens of topics just long enough to state his opinion, but not long enough to offer detailed arguments or analysis in support. He seems oblivious to this parallel, though perhaps he’d argue that the future is not “science” and so doesn’t reward specialized study. As the author of a book that tries to show that careful detailed analysis of the future is quite possible and worthwhile, I of course disagree.

As I’m far from prestigious enough to get away a book like his, let me instead try to get away with a long probably ignored blog post wherein I take issue with many of Rees’ claims. While I of course also agree with much else, I’ll focus on disagreements. I’ll first discuss his factual claims, then his policy/value claims. Quotes are indented; my responses are not.  Continue reading "On the Future by Rees" »

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Vulnerable World Hypothesis

I’m a big fan of Nick Bostrom; he is way better than almost all other future analysts I’ve seen. He thinks carefully and writes well. A consistent theme of Bostrom’s over the years has been to point out future problems where more governance could help. His latest paper, The Vulnerable World Hypothesis, fits in this theme:

Consider a counterfactual history in which Szilard invents nuclear fission and realizes that a nuclear bomb could be made with a piece of glass, a metal object, and a battery arranged in a particular configuration. What happens next? … Maybe … ban all research in nuclear physics … [Or] eliminate all glass, metal, or sources of electrical current. … Societies might split into factions waging a civil wars with nuclear weapons, … end only when … nobody is able any longer to put together a bomb … from stored materials or the scrap of city ruins. …

The ​vulnerable world hypothesis​ [VWH] … is that there is some level of technology at which civilization almost certainly gets destroyed unless … civilization sufficiently exits the … world order characterized by … limited capacity for preventive policing​, … limited capacity for global governance.​ … [and] diverse motivations​. … It is ​not​ a primary purpose of this paper to argue VWH is true. …

Four types of civilizational vulnerability. … in the “easy nukes” scenario, it becomes too easy for individuals or small groups to cause mass destruction. … a technology that strongly incentivizes powerful actors to use their powers to cause mass destruction. … counterfactual in which a preemptive counterforce [nuclear] strike is more feasible. … the problem of global warming [could] be far more dire … if the atmosphere had been susceptible to ignition by a nuclear detonation, and if this fact had been relatively easy to overlook …

two possible ways of achieving stabilization: Create the capacity for extremely effective preventive policing.​ … and create the capacity for strong global governance. … While some possible vulnerabilities can be stabilized with preventive policing alone, and some other vulnerabilities can be stabilized with global governance alone, there are some that would require both. …

It goes without saying there are great difficulties, and also very serious potential downsides, in seeking progress towards (a) and (b). In this paper, we will say little about the difficulties and almost nothing about the potential downsides—in part because these are already rather well known and widely appreciated.

I take issue a bit with this last statement. The vast literature on governance shows both many potential advantages of and problems with having more relative to less governance. It is good to try to extend this literature into futuristic considerations, by taking a wider longer term view. But that should include looking for both novel upsides and downsides. It is fine for Bostrom to seek not-yet-appreciated upsides, but we should also seek not-yet-appreciated downsides, such as those I’ve mentioned in two recent posts.

While Bostrom doesn’t in his paper claim that our world is in fact vulnerable, he released his paper at time when many folks in the tech world have been claiming that changing tech is causing our world to in fact become more vulnerable over time to analogies of his “easy nukes” scenario. Such people warn that it is becoming easier for smaller groups and individuals to do more damage to the world via guns, bombs, poison, germs, planes, computer hacking, and financial crashes. And Bostrom’s book Superintelligence can be seen as such a warning. But I’m skeptical, and have yet to see anyone show a data series displaying such a trend for any of these harms.

More generally, I worry that “bad cases make bad law”. Legal experts say it is bad to focus on extreme cases when changing law, and similarly it may go badly to focus on very unlikely but extreme-outcome scenarios when reasoning about future-related policy. It may be very hard to weigh extreme but unlikely scenarios suggesting more governance against extreme but unlikely scenarios suggesting less governance. Perhaps the best lesson is that we should make it a priority to improve governance capacities, so we can better gain upsides without paying downsides. I’ve been working on this for decades.

I also worry that existing governance mechanisms do especially badly with extreme scenarios. The history of how the policy world responded badly to extreme nanotech scenarios is a case worth considering.

Added 8am:

Kevin Kelly in 2012:

The power of an individual to kill others has not increased over time. To restate that: An individual — a person working alone today — can’t kill more people than say someone living 200 or 2,000 years ago.

Anders Sandberg in 2018:

Added 19Nov: Vox quotes from this article.

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World Government Risks Collective Suicide

If your mood changes every month, and if you die in any month where your mood turns to suicide, then to live 83 years you need to have one thousand months in a row where your mood doesn’t turn to suicide. Your ability to do this is aided by the fact that your mind is internally divided; while in many months part of you wants to commit suicide, it is quite rare for a majority coalition of your mind to support such an action.

In the movie Lord of the Rings, Denethor Steward of Gondor is in a suicidal mood when enemies attack the city. If not for the heroics of Gandalf, that mood might have ended his city. In the movie Dr. Strangelove, the crazed General Ripper “believes the Soviets have been using fluoridation of the American water supplies to pollute the `precious bodily fluids’ of Americans” and orders planes to start a nuclear attack, which ends badly. In many mass suicides through history, powerful leaders have been able to make whole communities commit suicide.

In a nuclear MAD situation, a nation can last unbombed only as long as no one who can “push the button” falls into a suicidal mood. Or into one of a thousand other moods that in effect lead to misjudgments and refusals to listen to reason, that eventually leads to suicide. This is a serious problem for any nuclear nation that wants to live long relative to number of people who can push the button, times the timescale on which moods change. When there are powers large enough that their suicide could take down civilization, then the risk of power suicide becomes a risk of civilization suicide. Even if the risk is low in any one year, over the long run this becomes a serious risk.

This is a big problem for world or universal government. We today coordinate on the scale of firms, cities, nations, and internationals organizations. However, the fact that we also fail to coordinate to deal with many large problems on these scales shows that we face severe limits in our coordination abilities. We also face many problems that could be aided by coordination via world government, and future civilizations will be similarly tempted by the coordination powers of central governments.

But, alas, central power risks central suicide, either done directly on purpose or as an indirect consequence of other broken thinking. In contrast, in a sufficiently decentralized world when one power commits suicide, its place and resources tend to be taken by other powers who have not committed suicide. Competition and selection is a robust long-term solution to suicide, in a way that centralized governance is not.

This is my tentative best guess for the largest future filter that we face, and that other alien civilizations have faced. The temptation to form central governments and other governance mechanisms is strong, to solve immediate coordination problems, to help powerful interests gain advantages via the capture of such central powers, and to sake the ambition thirst of those who would lead such powers. Over long periods this will seem to have been a wise choice, until suicide ends it all and no one is left to say “I told you so.”

Divide the trillions of future years over which we want to last over the increasingly short periods over which moods and sanity changes, and you see a serious problem, made worse by the lack of a sufficiently long view to make us care enough to solve it. For example, if the suicide mood of a universal government changed once a second, then it needs about 1020 non-suicide moods in a row to last a trillion years.

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Social Media Lessons

Women consistently express more interest than men in stories about weather, health and safety, natural disasters and tabloid news. Men are more interested than women in stories about international affairs, Washington news and sports. (more)

Tabloid newspapers … tend to be simply and sensationally written and to give more prominence than broadsheets to celebrities, sports, crime stories, and even hoaxes. They also take political positions on news stories: ridiculing politicians, demanding resignations, and predicting election results. (more

Two decades ago, we knew nearly as much about computers, the internet, and the human and social sciences as we do today. In principle, this should have let us foresee broad trends in computer/internet applications to our social lives. Yet we seem to have been surprised by many aspects of today’s “social media”. We should take this as a chance to learn; what additional knowledge or insight would one have to add to our views from two decades ago to make recent social media developments not so surprising?

I asked this question Monday night on twitter and no one pointed me to existing essays on the topic; the topic seems neglected. So I’ve been pondering this for the last day. Here is what I’ve come up with.

Some people did use computers/internet for socializing twenty years ago, and those applications do have some similarities to applications today. But we also see noteworthy differences. Back then, a small passionate minority of mostly young nerdy status-aspiring men sat at desks in rare off hours to send each other text, via email and topic-organized discussion groups, as on Usenet. They tended to talk about grand big topics, like science and international politics, and were often combative and rude to each other. They avoided centralized systems to participate in many decentralized versions, using separate identities; it was hard to see how popular was any one person across all these contexts.

In today’s social media, in contrast, most everyone is involved, text is more often displaced by audio, pictures, and video, and we typically use our phones, everywhere and at all times of day. We more often forward what others have said rather than saying things ourselves, the things we forward are more opinionated and less well vetted, and are more about politics, conflict, culture, and personalities. Our social media talk is also more in these directions, is more noticeably self-promotion, and is more organized around our personal connections in more centralized systems. We have more publicly visible measures of our personal popularity and attention, and we frequently get personal affirmations of our value and connection to specific others. As we talk directly more via text than voice, and date more via apps than asking associates in person, our social interactions are more documented and separable, and thus protect us more from certain kinds of social embarrassment.

Some of these changes should have been predictable from lower costs of computing and communication. Another way to understand these changes is that the pool of participants changed, from nerdy young men to everyone. But the best organizing principle I can offer is: social media today is more lowbrow than the highbrow versions once envisioned. While over the 1800s culture separated more into low versus high brow, over the last century this has reversed, with low has been displacing high, such as in more informal clothes, pop music displacing classical, and movies displacing plays and opera. Social media is part of this trend, a trend that tech advocates, who sought higher social status for themselves and their tech, didn’t want to see.

TV news and tabloids have long been lower status than newspapers. Text has long been higher status than pictures, audio, and video. More carefully vetted news is higher status, and neutral news is higher status than opinionated rants. News about science and politics and the world is higher status that news about local culture and celebrities, which is higher status than personal gossip. Classic human norms against bragging and self-promotion reduce the status of those activities and of visible indicators of popularity and attention.

The mostly young male nerds who filled social media two decades ago and who tried to look forward envisioned high brow versions made for people like themselves. Such people like to achieve status by sparring in debates on the topics that fill high status traditional media. As they don’t like to admit they do this for status, they didn’t imagine much self-promotion or detailed tracking of individual popularity and status. And as they resented loss of privacy and strong concentrations of corporate power, and they imagined decentralized system with effectively anonymous participants.

But in fact ordinary people don’t care as much about privacy and corporate concentration, they don’t as much mind self-promotion and status tracking, they are more interested in gossip and tabloid news than high status news, they care more about loyalty than neutrality, and they care more about gaining status via personal connections than via grand-topic debate sparring. They like wrestling-like bravado and conflict, are less interested in accurate vetting of news sources, like to see frequent personal affirmations of their value and connection to specific others, and fear being seen as lower status if such things do not continue at a sufficient rate.

This high to lowbrow account suggests a key question for the future of social media: how low can we go? That is, what new low status but commonly desired social activities and features can new social media offer? One candidate that occurs to me is: salacious gossip on friends and associates. I’m not exactly sure how it can be implemented, but most people would like to share salacious rumors about associates, perhaps documented via surveillance data, in a way that allows them to gain relevant social credit from it while still protecting them from being sued for libel/slander when rumors are false (which they will often be), and at least modestly protecting them from being verifiably discovered by their rumor’s target. That is, even if a target suspects them as the source, they usually aren’t sure and can’t prove it to others. I tentatively predict that eventually someone will make a lot of money by providing such a service.

Another solid if less dramatic prediction is that as social media spreads out across the world, it will move toward the features desired by typical world citizens, relative to features desired by current social media users.

Added 17 Nov: I wish I had seen this good Arnold Kling analysis before I wrote the above.

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Can You Outsmart An Economist?

Steven Landsburg’s new book, Can You Outsmart An Economist?, discusses many interesting questions. For example, in this nice and real example, median wages for all workers only rose 3% from 1980-2005, yet they rose 15% or more for each race/sex subgroup. Because the relative group sizes changed:

Taking the book title as a challenge, however, I have to point out the one place where I disagreed with the book. Landsburg says:

In a recent five-year period on the Maryland stretch of I-95, a black motorist was three times as likely as a white motorist to be stopped and searched for drugs. Black motorists were found to be carrying drugs at pretty much exactly the same rate as whites. (A staggeringly high one-third of stopped blacks and the same staggeringly high one-third of stopped whites were caught with drugs in their cars.) This was widely reported in the news media as clear-cut evidence of racial discrimination. … If you believe that people respond to incentives, then you must believe that if blacks were stopped at the same lower rate that whites were, more of them would have carried drugs. …

If [police] were single-mindedly out to maximize arrests, they’d start by focusing their attention on the group that’s most inclined to carry drugs—in this case, blacks. … If blacks are still carrying more drugs than whites, the police shift even more of their focus to blacks, leading the gap to close a bit more. This continues until whites and blacks are carrying drugs in equal proportions. … If you want to maximize deterrence, you’ll concentrate more on stopping whites, because there are more whites in the population to deter, … which would deter more whites from carrying drugs—and then the average white motorist would carry fewer drugs than the average black.

I’m with him until that last sentence. I think he is assuming that each choice to carry drugs or not is chosen independently, that choice is deterred independently via a perceived chance of being stopped, that potential carriers know only the average chance that someone in their groups is stopped, and that police can’t usefully vary the stopping chance within groups.

If a perceived stopping chance could be chosen independently for each individual, then to maximize deterrence overall that chance would be set somewhat differently for each individual, according to their differing details. But the constraint that everyone in a group must share the same perceived stopping chance will prevent this detailed matching, making it a bit harder to deter drug carrying in that group. This is a reason that, all else equal, police motivated by deterrence may try a little less harder to deter larger groups, who are harder to deter, because they have more internal variation.

Landsburg instead argues that you’ll put more effort into deterring the larger group, apparently just because there is a larger overall benefit from deterring a larger group. Yes, of course, deterring a group twice as large could produce twice the deterrent benefit in terms of its effect on the overall drug-carrying crime rate. But that comes at twice the cost in terms of twice as many traffic stops. I don’t see how there is a larger benefit relative to cost from focusing deterrence efforts on larger groups.

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