Sachs on our policy discourse

Economist Jeffrey Sachs has a column in Scientific American complaining about the dismal state of policy discourse in the U.S.

In general, our political system regularly puts around the table people who are not the best equipped to find deep solutions to our problems. Certainly it has also done so on climate change, with the nation’s expert community kept at arms length from the legislative drafting process. As with health care, the outcome has been House and Senate draft legislation that lacks public support. The same has been true on Afghanistan: the “war cabinet” has lacked real expertise on that country’s culture, economy and development challenges, and the U.S. public has remained uninformed of true options.

As a start toward better policy making, the administration should put forward a detailed analysis justifying each major proposed policy change. That white paper could form the basis for coherent public debate and reflection, along with Web sites where outside experts would be invited to share opinions accessible to the public. The public, too, would be invited to blog about that position paper. A version of the draft legislation understandable to lay readers would also be posted (alongside the more technical and inevitable legalese) and opened to online commentaries by experts and the public. The administration and Congress would rely more heavily on external advisory panels to tap into the nation’s wealth of expertise and to draw on the views of business, academia and other sectors of society.

In our governance systems today, the intrinsic complexity of the challenges easily outpaces the gut instincts and amateurism of the existing government machinery. I would not presume or recommend that decisions be left to the purported experts, who often represent special interests or have their own biases or narrow views. Still, a systematic vetting of policy options, with recognized experts and the public commenting and debating, will vastly improve on our current policy performance, in which we often fly blind or hand the controls over to narrow interests and viewpoints.

I agree that this is a problem, and that we could do better.  But count me unconvinced that an administration white paper will make much of a difference.

Civics vs. culture

A friend objected to my post Subsidizing the Style section on the grounds that I was discounting the social value of newspapers’ cultural content.  Fair enough.  The Times, and newspapers more generally, obviously contribute to our cultural conversation and that’s important.

But if tomorrow newspapers disappeared entirely which would suffer more: our civic discourse or our cultural discourse?

To me the answer is clear.  Newspapers are much more central to civic life than to cultural life, though their role in the latter is not to be discounted.

Consideration of that hypothetical has to include consideration of which types of content would be easily replaced by other sources.  I think in the case of culture-oriented feature content the web would likely provide ample replacement for the loss of newspapers.  In the case of beat reporting, investigative reporting, war reporting, etc. I’m not convinced.  Hence my focus on subsidizing those areas.

Subsidizing the Style section

Last post I wrote about my hesitancy to pay for The New York Times, despite being a loyal, regular reader.  I’d rather be asked to donate to keep quality journalism publicly available than forced to pay to privately consume it.

NYT Style 08

In this post I want to touch on another reason why I’m hesitant to pay for the Times.  Even if I decided to mentally justify the purchase of an annual NYT subscription as a charitable donation to support quality journalism (assuming a model in which this paid for some/most of the paper to be freely available) I’d still have serious reservations.

Much of the Times’ work fits my definition of core civic journalism, the often expensive reporting that is essential to a democracy.  But much of the its work does not.

In addition to its terrific international and political reporting, for instance, the Times has a Style section, a Travel section, a Food section, and plenty of other less essential feature-oriented segments.

Even if I approached a Times subscription as a charitable donation I’d be hard-pressed to justify that “donation”, knowing that some portion of my contribution would pay for those non-essential segments.*

Think of it this way: the disappearance of the Times would be a huge civic loss.  The disappearance of the Style section would be no loss at all.

Unless there were some way to feel confident that my dollars were directly subsidizing essential, socially important journalism, I’d be hard-pressed to subscribe out of the goodness of my heart.

*Traditionally the Style section – and the advertising it draws – has subsidized foreign bureaus, investigative reporting, etc.  That model worked well for a time.  Some might even argue that since these feature segments are popular, I need not worry that they require any subsidy; more likely, one might counter, they’re still subsidizing the quality journalism I’m worried about.  Possibly.  But I worry that as the current advertising-driven model continues to erode, that arrangement will end.  And all the incumbents who work for those socially unimportant portions of the paper will fight tooth-and-nail to secure an equal share of whatever revenue the Times can find, my subscription included.

Just ask nicely

Despite being a huge fan of the New York Times, I’m reluctant to subscribe when the paper institutes its paywall. There are a couple of reasons for that, but in this post I’ll focus on just one: I’d rather be asked to support good journalism than forced to pay for it.NYT Office

Being asked to support a worthy cause triggers an assessment of that cause’s importance to society, whereas being asked to pay triggers a selfish cost-benefit analysis.

Is the good or service in question worth the money?  Could I find it cheaper elsewhere?

The NYT has lots of terrific content but in an information economy characterized by abundance it has to compete against lots and lots of quality, free content.  I’m constantly overwhelmed by intelligent, valuable content that I’d like to read/watch/listen to.

If managing my information intake is a matter of weighing quality content against quality content, looking for any slight preference for one feed over another, why would I select the one that requires an annual subscription?

Moreover, while reporting may still be expensive, quoting is cheap.  Even if every major news source put up a paywall, bloggers could still quote a couple key grafs on their way to offering analysis.*

In short, I believe that the marginal benefit offered by outlets like the NYT will not meet my own criteria for being “worth paying for.”

I’d much rather be asked to give to an organization whose work I want to support.

Some might see this as hopelessly idealistic.  How many people would really donate?  Perhaps it is, but so is the alternative.  I just don’t see many sophisticated readers weighing the cost of subscription against the wealth of free content online and deciding to subscribe.

One final note: the membership model at one point under consideration by the NYT strikes me as closer to what I’d like to see.  Ask loyal readers to become dues-paying members, for which they get access to extra content in exchange for offsetting the cost of keeping most of the website freely available.

*At this point I think it’s fairly non-controversial to suggest that America’s copyright regime is overly restrictive and that further restricting it, so as to prevent the sort of quoting I refer to, would be incredibly damaging.

Social media, email and relationship inflation

Umair Haque has a post at Harvard Business Review advancing the following hypothesis which he dubs “relationship inflation”:

Despite all the excitement surrounding social media, the Internet isn’t connecting us as much as we think it is. It’s largely home to weak, artificial connections, what I call thin relationships.

A year ago I was blogging as part of a class on Social Media & Business at American University and I wrote a post that touched on a related issue: how email use affects relationships.  I’ve reposted it below.

In short, I I think Umair may be right about the devaluation of the term “relationship” but I’m not convinced that the addition of thin relationships through social media has any negative impact on thick relationships, though I’d love to take a look at research bearing directly on this topic.

My original post “Online or in person? We can (and do) have it both ways” is reposted after the jump.

Continue reading Social media, email and relationship inflation

Too many cooks, too many kitchens

Imagine a society in which kitchens are rare.  No one has one in their home.  Everyone has to go out to eat three meals a day.  As a result, the society employs quite a large number of professional chefs to work in the few large kitchens, cooking food for everyone else.Too many cooks

Now imagine that technological changes enable anyone to have a kitchen.  Suddenly everyone in the society has the ability to cook for themselves in their own home.  And so cook they do.  For themselves, for their families, for their friends and neighbors.

Sure enough, many of them find they greatly enjoy cooking and are quite good at it.  They happily cook for neighborhood barbecues and picnics, expecting nothing in return but the satisfaction it brings and the community it fosters.

Some people still eat out regularly; others do so occasionally.  Yet, unsurprisingly, the demand for professional chefs decreases sharply.

Perhaps also unsurprisingly, many chefs and former chefs start to complain.  It has suddenly become much more difficult to make a living cooking.  And they are skilled chefs, after all.  Don’t they deserve to be compensated for their talents and effort?

I raise this example because whenever I suggest that amateurs should play a larger role in the production of digital culture – and that I’m comfortable with a corresponding decrease in the number of professional writers or musicians – the notion is treated as not only radical, but heartless.  Those professionals are working hard!  Don’t they deserve to make a living?

Well I imagine most people don’t feel the same way about chefs and cooking, and I want to suggest a very simple reason why: status quo bias.  We’re used to thinking about cooking as mostly an amateur activity; eating a meal cooked by a professional is the exception.  But when it comes to music or magazine writing it’s the reverse.

Now it’s not quite an apples to apples comparison. For one thing, food, unlike digital information, is a rival good.

However, the error is in thinking that the arrangement we’re used to is particularly special.  It wasn’t handed down by the gods or even a philosopher-king.  It was merely the result of an arbitrary economic arrangement that no longer applies.

Incidentally, the cooking metaphor works nicely for arguments about quality of content as well.  A professional chef is more skilled, on average, than an amateur.  But would anyone deny that there are plenty of amateurs whose cooking far surpasses that of many professionals?

The problem with political journalism

George Packer may not be right about Twitter, but he’s right on in his assessment of political journalism.  In this blog post he calls out specific writers in specific pieces for focusing entirely on political performance and perception.

Importantly, he puts this sort of empty journalism side-by-side substantive reporting on other issues in order to better illustrate its uselessness:

A war or an economic collapse has a reality apart from perceptions, which imposes a pressure on reporters to find it. But for some reason, American political coverage is exempt.

It’s not a very long post and it’s worth reading the whole thing.  In a previous post I noted that “Much of what we today consider ‘political journalism’ is junk and not very useful from a civic perspective.”

This is an entirely unoriginal sentiment, echoed constantly throughout the blogosphere, particularly during election cycles.  But it’s true.  And Packer does a nice job calling out specific examples.

For a lengthier assessment of the problem, James Fallows’ 1996 Atlantic piece Why Americans Hate the Media is a great read.

UPDATE: Jay Rosen has a nice related post titled The Quest for Innocence and the Loss of Reality in Political Journalism.  Definitely worth a read.

Why go to TED?

It may seem like a stupid question.  Why not go to TED, if you could?  It’s full of brilliant and influential people.  And celebs, if you’re into that.  Anyone who’s ever watched a TED talk knows how thought-provoking they are and how addictive watching them can become.

So why not go to TED?

Well this post by Josh Macht at Harvard Business Review got me thinking…

But why is TED so different? Partly it comes from the A-list speakers, including Bill Clinton and Bono. But I suspect it’s the variety of speakers, not the status of the headliners, that provides TED with its real fervor.

In particular it was this bit that jumped out at me:

“Prepare to have your mind blown,” says one eager TEDster while waiting in line to get our TED gift bags on the evening of the big conference.

And, again, maybe this doesn’t strike you as odd.  Wouldn’t it be mind-blowing?

I’m not so sure.  After all, what are they going to tell me that’s so special?  Not that I already know it all – I most certainly do not – but rather what are they going to convey in person that I couldn’t otherwise learn?

The talks themselves are available either live or after the fact on the TED site.  Many if not most of the presenters write books and articles, maintain blogs, or post updates on Twitter.

More generally, I have access through Twitter and my RSS reader to a diverse cross-section of the world’s brightest thinkers.  Jumping from a post by Tyler Cowen to a video by Lawrence Lessig and then over to Clay Shirky’s Twitter feed doesn’t leave much time to wish someone would organize a conference for me to hear interesting ideas.

And so what I wondered about the eager TEDster was whether he was even paying attention.

Is the TEDster oblivious to the wealth of content freely available and one good filter away?

Of course, I’d love to attend TED if given the chance. And obviously there are elements of the conference that one experiences by being there that I just can’t experience at home.

But why wait for an annual conference to get your mind blown when you can do it, for free, every day?

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

Network Theory and the Social Sciences

OK, I admit it: I have to work on writing better titles for my posts.  “Network Theory and the Social Sciences” sounds a bit dry.  And the last time I tried to write about network theory it didn’t exactly produce a riveting post.  But Will Wilkinson and James Fowler’s diavlog on Bloggingheads makes the topic not only accessible but entertaining.

The topic of the talk is Fowler’s book Connected: The Surprising Power of our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives (co-authored with Nicholas Christakis).  The book and the talk are about real world social networks, not online social networking, and pretty much all of the ground they cover is extremely interesting.

Early on they discuss the value of network theory to the social sciences.  To quote Wilkinson:

One of the things that I liked a lot about the book was the idea that thinking about networks and the way they affect us offers a kind of ‘third way’ between a couple of extremes in the social sciences.  So, on the one hand, the extreme atomistic individualism of homo economicus.  On the other extreme there’s a kind of radical holism of certain kinds of sociologists or anthropologists.

As Fowler puts it:

The last few centuries in social science have been sort of like a tennis match where we’ve been going back and forth between the individual and the group… Physicists came on the scene in the late 20th century… and made the whole scientific community realize that to understand complexity you needed to move beyond the individual but not all the way up to the group.  You needed to focus on the relationships between groups and how those relationships structure interactions and how they cause things to flow from one node to another in a network.  And for human beings what that means is that what we should be thinking about is these social contagions: things like political behavior, things like emotions, things like love and sex and your health behavior

Here’s a four-minute clip of the section I’m quoting but the whole thing is well worth a look.  Fowler’s work shows how ideas and behavior ripple through social networks such that you not only influence your friends but your friends’ friends.  Rather than trying to summarize and risk misrepresenting the research, I suggest you check out the diavlog or the book for yourself.

At one point in the discussion Wilkinson takes issue with the application of the language of “contagion” to emotions or eating habits, especially given the lack of a clear transmission mechanism.

How is this different from just the fact that people pick up norms and habits from their immediate social milieu?  Is that the same thing as ‘catching’ something? …So why isn’t this just a story about people adopting norms?

Whether the language is appropriate is an interesting question, but what I really want to focus on is the question “Why isn’t this just a story about people adopting norms?”  And what I’d suggest (though as an amateur I suppose I should insist rather than suggest so people will believe me) is that the difference has less to do with the phenomena being examined and more to do with the methods being used in the examination.

In other words, the question isn’t whether my eating habits are the result of me adopting norms or the result of social contagion.  It’s whether or not network science offers a useful framework for explaining and predicting patterns of human behavior.

I suspect Fowler would agree, based on his response, which focuses on the utility of network science to the study of culture:

I think this goes back to the discussion we were having about this change that we’re trying to get people to see in the sciences… I really think that what network science is ultimately going to help us to do is to help us think scientifically about the evolution of culture.

And shortly thereafter Wilkinson captures it more directly:

Just saying that people tend to download norms from the ambient culture really does leave it very vague where they’re getting their norms from or where they’re getting their ideas about what’s acceptable.  And so I like the idea that the network gives you something more specific to look at.

To conclude: Fowler’s story is different than a story about norms not because he’s looking at different phenomena, but because he’s applying a different scientific framework to those phenomena.  This might seem obvious but there’s one last point that, I think, is worth making in light of Will’s comment about network theory as a “third way” in social science.

The “third way” between atomistic individualism and group identity is extraordinarily appealing.  None of us wants to feel that we are only a member of a group, that we lack all individuality.  Most of us also recognize and accept that, at least to some extent, our lives are influenced by the complexity of circumstance.

And so the “third way” of the network seems appealing, even true.  What we must strive to remember is that it is no more “true” than any other research method.  It is simply a tool, to be embraced or discarded based not on whether we find its level of analysis intuitively appealing, but on the extent to which it allows us to explain and predict human behavior.

UPDATE: Here’s a fun article from The Washington Post on how loneliness is contagious within a social network.