What is technology? The informational layer of everything

Here is a puzzle from economist Paul Romer for you to consider:

I’ll claim that there’s a recipe out there that you could use to just assemble carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen atoms, and that if you just use the right recipe to put them together, it will make a factory that will be smaller than a car, that will be mobile, that will seek out some renewable input, that will convert [the input] into some chemicals that humans want, that will be self-healing whenever it gets injured, that will maintain sterile conditions, and that will even make a replica of itself when one generation breaks down. So the question is, could you really put something together out of carbon and hydrogen and oxygen and atoms that would be that sophisticated?

So, is it possible? Romer:

If you describe that just in the abstract, many people will think it’s not possible. But then you point out to them that it already exists in the form of a dairy cow. And then get people to think well, what is the recipe or set of instructions for a dairy cow? Well, it’s really just a DNA sequence that has a list of instructions for how to assemble raw materials together.

That’s from From Poverty to Prosperity, a series of interviews on growth economics and innovation by Arnold Kling and Nick Shulz. I bring it up not just because it’s a neat example, but to make a related point. What is technology? Here’s Merriam Webster:

1 a : the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area : engineering 2 <medical technology> b : a capability given by the practical application of knowledge <a car’s fuel-saving technology>
2 : a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge <new technologies for information storage>
3 : the specialized aspects of a particular field of endeavor <educational technology>


Romer uses the metaphor of “recipes” to describe technological change. And the definitions above emphasize the role of knowledge. The point I’m making is that technology is in a sense just information. When we invent a new technology, we come up with a new recipe – a new set of instructions for combining things – that yields something useful. In this sense, information is at the center of technological change.

I bring this up first because I think it is clarifying. It helps us discard the notion of technology as being simply “high tech”, and leaves us with a broader, but to my mind much more useful and interesting definition. But there’s another reason I mention it. We’re seeing a fundamental restructuring of how we produce and distribute information. Yet too often we tend to think of “information” as this separate sphere of the economy. There are information goods, and there are regular goods. Software is in the former, cows are in the latter.

But the Romer example show that that is wrong. Once you start thinking of a cow as a technology, you realize that there is what we might call the informational layer of everything. And that means that the restructuring that we’re seeing that allows Wikipedia and Linux to be produced via non-market collaboration suddenly seems far less limited. It’s not just limited to a subset of goods that are “information goods” because everything is an information good.

Now, that’s not to say that we have the technology to make new cows (yet) or that if we could that it could be crowd-sourced. But I think it does give us a good way of looking both at technology and at the broader potential for new models of information production. There’s no such thing as an open source cow today, but that doesn’t mean there never will be.


More to markets than selfishness

My recent Atlantic review of Yochai Benkler’s new book on cooperation and selfishness is heavy on the assumption that evidence of our lack of selfishness poses a real problem for standard free-market models of human behavior. And it surely does. A couple bits from the review:

The Penguin and the Leviathan seeks to dismantle the pervasive assumption that humans are motivated primarily by narrow self-interest. This is a seductive axiom, from standard economic analysis to fields like public-choice theory and game theory.


While most readers should be amenable to this conclusion, it is hard to overstate the extent to which it clashes with economic dogma. Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman chastised his profession in a 2009 essay for “mistaking beauty for truth,” claiming that economists had “turned a blind eye to the limitations of human rationality.” This vision of rationalityassumes the very narrow version of selfish motivation that Benkler deflates, and yet it continues to be central to the practice of economics.

But there’s another aspect here that I had hoped to weave into the review but didn’t because of length and complexity. And that is, basically, that selfishness is only one of the two big, high-level reasons why markets work better than planning. The other piece, arguably of equal if not greater importance, is complexity. Here’s Arnold Kling in a Q&A with (yes) himself:

Q: Why are so many intellectuals hostile to capitalism?

A: Because many intellectuals do not have first-hand knowledge of economics. They have heard that “incentives matter,” and this confirms their impression that capitalism is based on greed. Even intellectuals with training in economics take away from “incentives matter” the message that “we” (meaning intellectuals making policy) should manage, or at least tweak, everyone else’s incentives.

Q: How would you break down that hostility to capitalism?

A: By de-emphasizing “Incentives matter” and instead emphasizing that “unintended consequences matter.” That is the message of Adam Smith. It is the message of Hayek. Once we embed people in complex economic and political systems, selfish intentions can turn out well (because of competition), and good intentions can turn out badly (because of imperfect knowledge).

Dismantling the assumption of selfishness raises problems for free market economics, but one still has to grapple with the Hayekian emphasis on complexity, information, and unintended consequences. I’ve written about this before, as I think the internet also raises some important questions on that assumption too. From that post:

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)

I go on to throw out some thoughts on how the internet is changing the way in which we think about information overload, and how that might be relevant to markets. But the point I want to make here is simple: my review focuses on the problems with selfishness as an assumption, and how that matters for economics. It’s a mistake to ignore the Hayekian side of the free market coin. So, even though I couldn’t fit it in the review, I wanted to raise it here. If I were a free market economist and I wanted to dismiss Benkler, I’d use Hayek.


Daddy, what’s a “job”?

Futurist Douglas Rushkoff has a column at CNN called Are Jobs Obsolete that’s worth a read. I want to endorse it as a thought exercise, which I believe is his main point. So much of our jobs debate occurs in this very narrow frame boxed in by the specific and path-dependent way that we currently structure our economic lives. Rushkoff’s thoughts are valuable as a thought experiment, if nothing else.

Here is the condensed version:

I am afraid to even ask this, but since when is unemployment really a problem? I understand we all want paychecks — or at least money. We want food, shelter, clothing, and all the things that money buys us. But do we all really want jobs?

We’re living in an economy where productivity is no longer the goal, employment is. That’s because, on a very fundamental level, we have pretty much everything we need. America is productive enough that it could probably shelter, feed, educate, and even provide health care for its entire population with just a fraction of us actually working.

Our problem is not that we don’t have enough stuff — it’s that we don’t have enough ways for people to work and prove that they deserve this stuff.

What we lack is not employment, but a way of fairly distributing the bounty we have generated through our technologies, and a way of creating meaning in a world that has already produced far too much stuff.

There are some problem bits, like noting that the corporation is a relatively new phenomenon (by that standard, what aspect of economic life isn’t?) I also think his discussion of jobs and technology is wrong in one part, but it’s not worth discussing here. There are any number of major practical objections that must be leveled if anyone tries to make any recommendations based on this line of reasoning – and I’m still puzzling over them – but I’m not sure it’s useless either.

Here’s what I wrote in my post on peer production and David Roberts’ “Medium Chill” which I see as roughly in line with the sort of speculation Rushkoff is engaging in:

Think of this in terms of the basic economics for a moment. We need to produce various useful goods and services. We rely on firms – and the market at a broader level – to coordinate the division of labor necessary to produce these things. We need managers and org charts and work plans to overcome the basic fact that, left to our own devices, we wouldn’t really be able to get much done.

That was the old assumption. It largely made sense in a world that wasn’t connected. To produce sophisticated goods requires collaboration and, pre-internet, collaboration was quite expensive. All that is changing. There’s a new model in town – what Yochai Benkler calls “commons-based peer production”, which I’ve written about here. Today, coordination within large groups is relatively cheap. That’s how we’re able to produce Wikipedia, Linux, and Ceiling Cat.

Let’s return now to the medium chill. Even pre-internet I’d find David’s formulation compelling. Even just on enjoyment alone he has a strong case. But in our new low-transaction-cost world I believe his case is even stronger. It seems at least possible that if we worked less, we would actually produce more of value. Whereas, the added spare time would have once gone almost entirely to leisure and time with immediate family or nearby friends, today much of it could conceivably be spent creating information and cultural goods like software, music, political commentary, and more. Added to all the other benefits of the medium chill, I think it sounds pretty good.

The bolded line squares with Rushkoff’s headline. All of this needs to be viewed as extremely tentative. It could all be mostly wrong; it could be 100% wrong. It’s not actionable at this point. But I’m giving some thought to how we might experiment with it around the edges.

It could also be that we don’t need to end jobs, as much as we need to end certain kinds of jobs. Perhaps some sort of information-production jobs can be peer produced while certain service jobs simply can’t be. Maybe we’ll be nurses or baristas 20 hours a week and then spend another 20 of our own free will creating information goods. That’s far fetched, but probably not quite as far fetched as many people think.


How I read

Last year The Atlantic Wire ran a terrific series in which it asked various thinkers and bloggers to write up a description of “What I Read.” From Clay Shirky to David Brooks, every response was interesting in its own way. Go read them all.

I’ve been meaning for a while to write my own answer, and my media diet has shifted a bit lately, so now is as good a time as any. You’ll notice I titled this post “How” rather than “What”. My aim is to focus more on the technologies and strategies than on the content (though there will be plenty of that baked in). That way, you can take any suggestions you like and plug in your own content based on your own interests.

So here’s how my information diet works…

NPR Hourly News Summary

As I leave my house on the way to work every morning I plug headphones into my Android phone and open up the (free) NPR app and click “Hourly News Summary”. This gives me a 5 minute rundown of all the biggest news items and corresponds absolutely perfectly with my walk to the subway (up here in Boston, we call it the T).

Morning Email Newsletters

I have about a 20-25 minute subway trip to work, and here’s why that’s tricky: I’m underground almost the whole way, without 3G. So I need ways to read that don’t require my mobile browser.

For that reason, I subscribe to a couple of daily newsletters. Normally, I HATE mixing my info diet with my inbox, but I make a couple of exceptions for the sake of my commute.

I start by reading Ezra Klein’s Wonkbook, a morning roundup of public policy-related news and analysis. I just added The Boston Globe’s top headlines email, since everyone I work with will have seen the Globe’s front page by the time I get to the office. I’m considering adding Politico’s Morning Energy to my inbox, since I work in clean energy; right now it’s in my RSS reader.

Once I get through the newsletters, I usually go to Everpaper on my phone. More on that later.


As soon as I get to work, I fire up both Twitter and Google Reader. For a lot of people, Twitter is their primary news source. I’m not there yet. I follow maybe 150 people through two different accounts, and have them broken into lists like “Friends”, “Professional Contacts”, and “Influencers.” I follow these lists with Tweetdeck.

I use Twitter to share lots of what I read, to comment on stories, and inevitably to find links. Who I follow on Twitter is biased towards who I actually interact and converse with, like David Roberts at Grist or Nick Jackson at The Atlantic Tech.

I also occasionally use Twitter to try out new bloggers or news sources, to see if I want to make them a staple of my reading. Which gets me to a major point: I try not to ever rely on Twitter for my reading. I’ll explain what I mean in the next section.

Google Reader

I’m a big RSS-addict and Google Reader is still far-and-away the backbone of my reading. But even I spend less time in it than I used to, due to Twitter. So while I don’t necessarily read every item in my Reader every day, I think of it as my backstop at this point. If I’m busy at work, I may miss most of what’s being shared on Twitter; my RSS reader is the place I go to catch up on whatever I may have missed.

At this point I’m picky about the feeds I subscribe to for that reason. My RSS Reader is my “bare minimum” reading, the stuff I’ll make sure to get to at least once a week, whether or not I have time to take in all the stuff that passes through my Twitter feed.

If you do care about the “What” in addition to the “How”, here are my feeds by topic area: General, Politics/Policy, Internet/Media/Tech, New York Times, Climate/Energy (that last one is way more than bare minimum since I rely on it for work) plus I subscribe to some Boston-specific news.


With no 3G on the subway, Instapaper is a lifesaver. (Actually, since I have an Android not an iPhone, I use Instapaper+Everpaper, which works well.) I come across a lot of articles throughout the day via Twitter, RSS or email that are too long to read on the spot, so I add them to Instapaper, using a plugin for my browser. Instapaper saves all the text from the article and then Everpaper downloads the articles directly to my phone. So on the way home from work, I usually dig into a magazine-length piece I found earlier in the week.


I’d be remiss if I declined to mention that I find a lot of great stuff via friends on email and Facebook. Though, truth be told, that’s secondary to my evolving diet of RSS and Twitter feeds. Also, I swear I do read books, although almost exclusively nonfiction. If I’m in a good book, I usually read that on my way home from work, instead of a magazine article on my phone.

How do you read?

I really do recommend reading The Atlantic Wire series. But I also recommend sharing your own methods. How do you manage your intake of information? I’m always adjusting my process (podcasts and email newsletters are both relatively new for me) and I’d love to hear how others read. Feel free to share tips in the comments, or if you write your own post, leave me a link to it. Or let me know on Twitter (@wfrick).


On Wikileaks

I’ve held off posting anything about Wikileaks, as the subject’s complexity is a little daunting.  I still don’t have any polished thoughts, but I’ll offer a few unpolished ones alongside some reading recommendations:

If you haven’t been following this story, check out The Beginner’s Guide to Wikileaks at The Atlantic.

One of the basic aspects of the story I was missing at first was the extent to which Wikileaks worked with media organizations and even governments to redact the documents and decide what to publish.  To learn more about that, read Glenn Greenwald here.

The one question that consistently hurt my ability to think clearly about this story was Is Wikileaks good or bad? or, put another way, Should these cables have been published? So my advice is to put that aside for now and focus on a few other interesting aspects of the story, like…

Is Wikileaks a new kind of media organization or a new kind of source? The New York Times treats it as “a source, not a partner”, according to NYT executive editor Bill Keller.  An excellent summary of his comments on Wikileaks is available at the Nieman Lab.  For a different perspective try Matthew Ingram of GigaOM arguing “Like It or Not, WikiLeaks is a Media Organization”. NYT’s David Carr has thoughts here.

Another interesting line of inquiry looks at how governments can exert indirect control over organizations like Wikileaks in cases where they lack the ability to exert direct control.  Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber has a good post on this topic.

Another thing I’ve been pondering is what predispositions predict one’s opinion of Wikileaks.  This post by Tom Slee, which I found via both Clay Shirky and Crooked Timber, puts it this way:

Your answer to “what data should the government make public?” depends not so much on what you think about data, but what you think about the government.

I think he’s only partly right.  What you think about government matters tremendously.  But I wouldn’t downplay data.  I’m finding, in reading and conversations, that what you think about it does also hinge on what you think about technology.  All else equal, if you’re bullish about technology’s prospects for improving the world, you’re more likely to approve of Wikileaks’ data dump.  Ditto if you’re already sympathetic to hacker culture.  Or if you generally view increased access to information as crucial to improving society.

Put these two items – thoughts on government and thoughts on technology – together and I think it explains much of the disconnect between the standard Washingtonian’s view of Wikileaks and the standard geek view.  The latter is dominated by a combination of liberals and libertarians, both of which are likely to harbor deep suspicions about the government’s handling of international affairs.  Add to that a predisposition towards technology – contrasted with a view where tech can cause as many problems as it solves – and a true disconnect is revealed.  For these two reasons, the geek world has a much stronger bias towards transparency than the beltway insider.

I don’t mean “bias” in a pejorative way, and certainly don’t mean to suggest that one or the other view is closer to being right.  My own sympathies in this case are all over the map.  But I’d love to test my theory.  How much power would questions about Iraq and waterboarding have in predicting sympathy to Wikileaks? I imagine quite a lot.  But what about one’s reaction to a statement like “information wants to be free”? I’d bet that has some predictive power as well.

In closing, in place of any master synthesis or confident opinion, I’ll simply link to Clay Shirky’s post on the topic, which I think lays out the issues nicely.

For more reading, The Atlantic has a terrific roundup of reactions here.  My Delicious links on Wikileaks are here.


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.


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)


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.

Tyler Cowen on cultural literacy

I’m reading Tyler Cowen’s book Create Your Own Economy and I’ll be posting thoughts and snippets as I go.  Here’s Cowen on the new cultural literacy:

What cultural literacy means today is not whether you can “read” all the symbols in a Rubens painting but whether you can operate an iPhone and other web-related technologies.  The iPhone, if used properly, can get you to website on Rubens as well.  The question is not whether you know the classics but whether you are capable of assembling your own blend of cultural bits.  When viewed in this light, today’s young people are very culturally literate and in fact they are very often the cultural leaders and creators. (pg. 59)

I’m only a few chapters in, but I’m greatly enjoying the book.  And, of course, I can’t recommend Cowen’s blog, Marginal Revolution, highly enough.