When there is no one right tool for the job

“The problem with [a] spending freeze is you’re using a hatchet where you need a scalpel.” -Barack Obama, 2007 presidential debate

The implication of the metaphor above is that it’s important to use the right tool for the job; you wouldn’t attempt surgery with a hatchet, after all. It’s a good line, especially when talking about cutting. But, of course, you wouldn’t try to perform a surgery only using a scalpel either. The list of surgical instruments is long, and the procedures are complex enough that there is no single tool that can itself get the entire job done.

McDonald’s and Wages

This idea that any single tool is likely inadequate for a complicated job has been on my mind lately, following an interesting debate about the wage that McDonald’s pays its employees. In particular, Business Insider’s Henry Blodget and Josh Barro have nicely captured this debate in competing posts (and in the short video debate below).

Blodget says McDonald’s just needs to suck it up and freely choose to make less profit in order to pay its workers more. Barro makes a standard economic argument to the contrary, suggesting that should McDonald’s do so, they will suffer for it:

Nor is the enforcement of such a moral norm likely to be an effective way to advance the interest of workers… If McDonald’s decides to pay more than it must, it can be outcompeted by competitors who will feel no such obligation.

Instead, he says, better public policy is the answer. Even there, though, there are limits. A higher minimum wage would almost certainly be good policy, for instance, but raise it too high, Barro argues, and you will start discouraging the hiring of low-wage workers. (Here’s a primer I wrote on the minimum wage a while back.)

If you care about the plight of low-wage workers, this can all be a bit depressing. Simply demanding that companies treat their workers better seems problematic, and at least some relevant public policies have their limits.

The answer, it seems to me, is to rely on multiple tools simultaneously. To pressure companies to treat workers better, while also raising the minimum wage, expanding the earned income tax credit, pursuing sound macroeconomic policy, etc. Rather than relying on any single approach to solve the problem on its own, hope that a number of levers can each make a dent.

Using the Whole Toolbox

There’s nothing original about the idea that thorny problems are unlikely to be solved via a single mechanism, and no doubt this point has been made by many authors in many contexts. But I want to build off one such formulation, offered by Lawrence Lessig in his book Code 2.0. His point, visualized below, is that behavior is shaped by laws, social norms, the market, and by physical architecture. He goes on to suggest that software defines the “architecture” of our online behavior.

Lessigs-four-forces

 

As I’ve been thinking about issues like the one above, I’ve kept coming back to Lessig’s drawing, but have mentally added several components. Here’s a very non-pretty articulation of what I’ve been thinking of:

Toolbox - Multi-lever thinkingTechnology: I’ve renamed “Architecture” here, to focus on the role that technology can play in solving a given problem.

Peer production: Though likely not relevant in the wages scenario, peer production – best articulated by Yochai Benkler – is a powerful new tool for thinking about a host of issues. It involves lage-scale collaborative production, often enabled by the internet and typically lacking hierarchical decision-making structures. Think Wikipedia, Linux, etc. I situated it between norms and technology to reflect its reliance on both.

Norms: Our commonly held knowledge, customs, expecations, etc.

Social enterprise: Situated between norms and markets, any commercial effort that is explicit in its desire to improve human well-being in ways that diverge from profit maximization. If a company decided to pay its workers more, for instance, not out of a belief that doing so would increase their share price, but because they felt it was the right thing to do, that would count. An enterprise specifically devoted to making a product or delivering a service because that product or service would help solve a certain social problem would also count.

Market: In my view, it’s wise to frequently ask, when confronted with a problem, could competitive markets solve this? And it’s wiser still never to assume the answer will be ‘yes’.

Market-based policy: Any policy that seeks to channel the benefits of markets. For example, “sin taxes” on things like booze, cigarettes, or soda seek to utilize market incentives to discourage unhealthy behavior. Cap-and-trade for climate change would be another example.

Law and policy: Any attempt to solve a problem through legislation or government rule-making.

Oftentimes, I end up approaching social problems primarily through the lens of policy. What’s the most efficient legislative fix to the issue? Or I might consider what role markets could play, or technology. But seldom do I consciously approach a problem with this entire toolbox in mind. It’s a goal of mine to do so more regularly.

I’m sure in some cases utilizing multiple tools could lead to some crowding out, where the use of one tool disrupts the use of another. But my guess is that in our messy world, we’re most often better off utilizing not just a hatchet, or even a scalpel, but the full range of tools at our disposal.

 

 

How Much Journalism is Worth Saving?

Back in early 2010, shortly after launching this blog, I put pen to paper on some of the core ideas guiding my views on the future of news. Here’s one of them that I still believe is crucial and often ignored:

1) When I talk about how we will finance news/journalism I’m interested in only a very small subset of all journalism which I’d refer to as that which provides core civic knowledge.  In other words, the information that we feel is vital to a functioning democracy.*  By this measure, most of what we see in the newspapers is not an issue.  Go through a newspaper sometime and look.  We’re not talking about how to fund the sports section, the travel section, the style section, that article on some writer’s quest for the perfect espresso.  That is beyond the scope of what we, as a society, need to ensure exists going forward.

You can read the full post here.

Today, for the fun of it – yes, this is what I do for fun on a Sunday – I browsed the NYT homepage starting at the top and counted 25 headlines to see how many seemed to fit (based on headline alone, for time’s sake) my definition of civic journalism. I ended up with 12 out of 24, with one not classifiable based on headline (it was a Dowd column so we can be fairly sure it could go.)

That 12 included one story not civic  per se, but a breaking news story about an earthquake that seemed worth counting based on the idea of essential national news. You can count the top stories yourself and see what you come up with, though my screenshot below doesn’t capture all 25.

My point here is that most journalism isn’t worth saving, from a democratic perspective. Now, we might want to save it for other reasons. I’m a writer, so I’d like to have a job. I work for a startup that’s betting on the reinvention of media as a business. But whether writers have jobs and investors can get a decent return off of a content business are separate from the question of protecting capital J Journalism.

As for how to preserve that core civic journalism, I don’t have the perfect answer. (I lean toward a nonprofit model like ProPublica, and am additionally hopeful that universities will shoulder a lot of the burden.) But a lot of the discussions about how to save journalism – and about what new media experiments are worthwhile and not – become much clearer once you realize you’re really only trying to preserve a subset of existing media.

One thing that bugs me, perhaps because I work for a new media business, is that new entrants are often judged for the quality of their content without much attention to that of the incumbents. Business Insider gets panned for its slideshows or HuffPo for its celebrity gossip without any mention of the fact that the majority of traditional journalism served no civic purpose, but just existed as entertaining content.

That roughly 50% of the top stories in America’s top newspaper makes this clear. Now, I love the NYT and I’d rather read their non-essential stuff more than the non-essential stuff at various other outlets. But wanting to read a J-school grad reporting on New York’s nightlife lawyer isn’t in and of itself better than reading a Gawker writer mocking this that or the other.

The next time you have a conversation about saving journalism, or about the quality of a new media entrant, remember: the segment of media worth saving for the sake of democracy is only a very small slice of what has traditionally gone under the banner of journalism.

Examples of how media could help overcome bias

I have a piece up at The Atlantic (went up Friday) titled “The Future of Media Bias” that I hope you’ll read. I suppose the title is deliberately misleading, since the topic isn’t media bias in the typical sense. Here’s the premise:

Context can affect bias, and on the Web — if I can riff on Lessig — code is context. So why not design media that accounts for the user’s biases and helps him overcome them?

Head over to The Atlantic to read it. In the meantime, I want to expand a bit on some of my ideas.

1) This is not just about pop-up ads. The conceit of the post is visiting a conservative friend’s site and being hit with red-meat pop-ups that act as priming mechanisms. But that was just a way of introducing my point. (Evidence from comments and Twitter suggest this may have distracted some.) So while pop-ups can illustrate the above premise, the premise is in no way restricted to the impacts of pop-ups either as they exist in practice to sell ads or as they might be used in theory.

2) More on self-affirmation. I might have been clearer on how self-affirmation exercises work. Although they were not described in detail in either paper I referenced. Here’s how I understand them: you’re asked to select a value that is important to your self-worth – maybe something like honesty – and then you write a few sentences about how you live by that value. Writing out a few sentences about what an honest and therefore valuable person you are makes you less worried about information threatening your self-worth.

I want to address a few potential objections to embedding an exercise like this in media. One might argue that no one would complete the exercise (I’m imagining it as a pop-up right now.) Perhaps. But you could incentivize it. Perhaps anyone who completes it gets their comments displayed higher or something like that. Build incentives into a community reputation system. Second objection is that maybe you could get people to complete it once, but it’s impractical to think anyone would do it before every article. Fair point. But perhaps you just need people to do it once, and then it’s just displayed alongside or above the content, for the reader to view, to prime them. Finally, I want to note that this is just one random example and I don’t think my argument really rides too much on it. The reason I used it was a) there was lots of good research behind it and b) it fit nicely with the pop-up conceit of the post.

3) More examples. One paper I referenced re: global warming suggests that the headline can impact susceptibility to confirmation/disconfirmation biases. So what if the headline changed depending on the user’s biases? This would be tricky in various ways, but it’s hardly inconceivable. In fact I wish I’d mentioned it since in some ways it seems more practical than the self-confirmation exercises. It would, however, introduce a lot of new difficulties into the headline writing process.

Another thing I might have mentioned is the ordering of content. Imagine you’re looking at a Room for Debate at NYT. Which post should you see first? In the course of researching the Atlantic piece, I came across some evidence that the order you receive information matters (with the first piece being privileged) but I’m having trouble finding where I saw that now. And it’s not obvious that that kind of effect would persist in cases of political information. But, still, there may well be room to explore ordering as a mechanism for dealing with bias.

Finally – and at this point I’m working off of no research and just thinking out loud – what if you established the author’s credibility by showing the work the user was most likely to agree with, in cases of disconfirmation bias (and the reverse in confirmation bias cases)? So, say I’m reading about climate change and you knew I’d be biased against evidence for it. But the author making the case for that evidence wrote something last week that I do agree with, that does fit my worldview. What if a teaser for that piece was displayed alongside the global warming content? Would that help?

I’ve also wondered if asking users to solve fairly simple math problems would prime them to think more rationally, but again, that’s not anything based on research; just a thought.

So that’s it. A few clarifications and some extra thoughts. To me, the hope of this piece would be to inject the basic idea into the dialogue, so that researchers start to think of media as an avenue for testing their theories, and so that designers, coders, journalists, etc. start thinking of this research as input for innovation into how they create new media.

UPDATE: One more cool one I forgot to mention… there’s some evidence that hitting someone with graphical information more forcefully makes a point, such that it would basically take too much mental energy to rationalize around it. You can read more about that here. This column in the Boston Globe refers to a study concluding – in the columnist’s words – “people will actually update their beliefs if you hit them “between the eyes” with bluntly presented, objective facts that contradict their preconceived ideas.” This strikes me as along the same lines as the graph experiment. And so these are things to keep in mind as well.

Markets and Networks

Several weeks ago Steven Johnson took to the op-ed page of The New York Times to defend his excellent new book on innovation and to declare “I am not a Communist.”  The question of possible communist sympathies was raised, apparently, on a World Network imagebook tour, in reference to his support of what he dubs “fourth quadrant” innovation.  The “fourth quadrant” refers to innovations produced by networked non-market actors, a category including open-source software, among other things, which Johnson argues has an unparalleled track record in fostering breakthroughs.

Does that make him a communist?  He doesn’t think so:

the problem is that we don’t have a word that does justice to those of us who believe in the generative power of the fourth quadrant… The choice shouldn’t be between decentralized markets and command-and-control states.

And he’s right.  The rise of the web has exposed the market-state dichotomy as transparently inadequate.  Projects like Linux and Wikipedia hint at the emergence existence of a very different model of economic organization that seemingly fits neither category.

It is a model we are only beginning to understand, and yet in many ways it challenges some of our core beliefs about how to organize a society.  In the contest between markets and central planning, the market has been largely (and largely justifiably) ascendant.  Yet the lessons of its ascendancy are subtly and not-so-subtly contradicted by the ways in which we organize, communicate and produce information online.

To understand how, we have to temporarily return to the battle between market and state.  In The Future of Ideas Lawrence Lessig writes:

Over the past hundred years, much of the heat in political argument has been about which system for controlling resources – the state or the market – works best.  That war is over.  For most resources, most of the time, the market trumps the state.  There are exceptions, of course, and dissenters still.  But if the twentieth century taught us one lesson, it is the dominance of private over state ordering.*

Why?  That is, of course, a question fit for a lifetime of inquiry.  But let me take a stab at summing it up: because humans are selfish and stupid.

Motivation

Markets motivate us by aligning incentives.  We are more likely to exert effort when doing so directly benefits us.  A considerable portion of social science revolves around this tenet, which might be expressed short-hand as Most of us are self-interested most of the time.  We often tend to simplify even further by treating selfishness as profit maximization.  As Harvard’s Yochai Benkler explains it in his masterpiece The Wealth of Networks:

Much of economics achieves analytic tractability by adopting a very simple model of human motivation… Adding more of something people want, like money, to any given interaction will, all things considered, make that interaction more desirable to rational people.  While simplistic, this highly tractable model of human motivation has enabled policy prescriptions that have proven far more productive than prescriptions that depended on other models of human motivation — such as assuming that benign administrators will be motivated to serve their people, or that individuals will undertake self-sacrifice for the good of the nation or the commune. (pg. 92)

Information

Markets prevail over central planning in large part due to the stupidity cognitive constraints of central planners.  We can only gather and process so much information.  Which means our actions have unforeseen consequences, the future is hard to predict, etc.  Here I’ll lean on Cass Sunstein channelling Hayek in his book Infotopia:

Hayek claims that the great advantage of prices is that they aggregate both the information and the tastes of numerous people, incorporating far more material than could possibly be assembled by any central planner or board… For Hayek, the key economics question is how to incorporate that unorganized and dispersed knowledge.  That problem cannot possibly be solved by any particular person or board.  Central planners cannot have access to all of the knowledge held by particular people.  Taken as a whole, the knowledge held by those people is far greater than that held by even the most well-chosen experts. (pg. 119)

Similarly, in his 1977 book “Politics and Markets”, political scientist Charles Lindblom describes the “key difference” between markets and central planning as “the role of intellect in social organization” with “on the one side, a confident distinctive view of man using his intelligence in social organization [central planning]; on the other side, a skeptical view of his capacity [markets].” (pg. 248)

The Networked Information Economy

At the macro level markets continue to maintain these advantages over planning.  But is there another game in town?  What we see on the web challenges us to at least reconsider the unassailability of markets, both with respect to motivation and information.  Asks Benkler:

Why can fifty thousand volunteers successfully coauthor Wikipedia… and then turn around and give it away for free?  Why do 4.5 million volunteers contribute their leftover computer cycles to create the most powerful supercomputer on Earth, SETI@Home?

Econ 101 has a hard time answering.  The high profile success of these and other projects forces us to remember that the simplistic model of human motivation, central as it is to our faith in markets, was never universally true.  Further, they invite us to revisit the usefulness of such an assumption, and to strive for a more complete model of human motivation.  We create and produce for any number of reasons beyond profit, including altruism, status, or even – in a world of low transaction costs – boredom.

Just as the market’s claim to dominance in motivating us is starting to be challenged, some are revisiting its dominance in aggregating information.  Sunstein explores the subject in Infotopia and highlights increasing efforts to aggregate human preferences online, including Amazon and Netflix.  If it’s obvious that we are doing better and better at aggregating information thanks to the Net, it’s less obvious how this might challenge the role of the market.

Imagine that Netflix has a small, set number of a rare movie to rent, and that it’s in high demand.  Who should get it first?  Auction the privilege off to the highest bidder, responds the free market advocate.  And, particularly in a scenario where customers have equal wealth at their disposal, this method has a lot to recommend it.  The market is incredibly efficient at allocating resources under ideal settings.  Tremendous gains in human welfare have been predicated on this fact.  But Netflix is developing sophisticated algorithms to use your preferences for movies you’ve seen to predict what movies you’ll like.  Is it so hard to believe that some day in the future an algorithm could – given the aim of maximizing viewer enjoyment – “beat the market” in determining how to distribute the movie?

We are undoubtedly in the early stages of understanding what motivates us to collaborate online (and off), and probably even less far along in our efforts to manage and make useful the wealth of information online, including identifying and aggregating our preferences.  I’ve been purposefully vague here in describing the new model I’m discussing.  Better defining that model will be the topic of a future post.

My argument here is simply that our increasingly connected world – what Benkler calls the “networked information economy” – invites us to question some of the most basic premises that have led us to organize our society around the market.  It would be foolish to let those premises, and the new models that challenge them, go unexamined.

*Lessig is explicit that he is talking about consumption, not production.  It’s a useful distinction, however the two are more related than he seems to admit in this instance.
**In borrowing Lessig’s words here I don’t mean to subscribe to any aggressively free-market worldview.  The choice between a centrally planned economy and a mostly privately organized one may be settled.  The battle over where to draw the lines in the mixed economy rages on.

Future of news – various thoughts

I may not own an NBA team, but since everyone and their grandmother seems to be weighing in on the future of news and journalism, I figured I’d share some thoughts.  That’s a big part of what this blog is supposed to be about, after all.

It’s not intended to be a unified theory and the points don’t necessarily even relate to one another.  But they are all things I stress whenever I discuss the topic with anyone.

So here we go…a very rough overview of my thoughts on the future of news and journalism…

Continue reading Future of news – various thoughts