How attention ate the social graph

Remember when Facebook was building the “social graph”? The idea was that it was capturing this amazing look into who was connected to whom, and that this was at the center of the company’s value. It was the idea behind short-lived products like “graph search”. Of course, connections are still supposedly at the center of Facebook’s business model. But ultimately it’s attention that the company monetizes; the social graph is secondary.

LinkedIn is a little different, but arguably something similar happened there, too. The company was building this amazing professional graph — a mapping of whole professions and  industries, a new way of examining how our economy functions. That data is still at the heart of LinkedIn’s model, but they too seem drawn to attention.

Just having this data didn’t seem valuable enough; you have to keep people attached to your application to make it useful.

This is just sort of sad. We mapped everyone’s social relationships and it turned out that in order to justify a colossal market cap it was more beneficial to just become an entertainment company. We mapped out our economy and so far it’s mostly good for recruiting (which, granted, relies on that graph) and maybe some sort of business-oriented newsfeed. We created these amazing social graphs, but what have we used them for?


Technology, markets, or business

Technology and commerce have evolved together: trade spreads knowledge and rewards invention; technology, in turn, expedites trade. But what if you had to pick one? In which are you more invested? To be more specific, what if you had to order your priorities, between technology, markets, and business? Which, to borrow from Tyler Cowen, is your most stubborn attachment?

I’ve come to think of this question as a helpful guide to intuitions on economic policy. Think of how different right-leaning groups might answer: more economics-focused libertarians would no doubt prioritize markets, as would those concerned by “crony capitalism.” Those most concerned with negative liberty and property rights might prioritize business. “Big-business Republicans” are easy. AEI would probably rank markets first, but with its commitment to “free enterprise” business probably would garner more attachment than technology per se.

Now think about business groups: The Chamber of Commerce would put business first. Finance types might be more likely to say markets — or at the very least traders would. Silicon Valley would put technology first, though with a particular form of business — the venture-backed startup — not far behind. They have much less interest in markets, and in fact often seek to disrupt or dominate them, as in Thiel’s Zero to One.

What about the center and left? None of the three is their most stubborn attachment, but the question is still revealing. Technocrats at Brookings would likely put markets first. Elizabeth Warren, in her attacks on market power, is likewise creating a “markets-first” position — with the caveat that markets need considerable oversight to be truly competitive.

To take a concrete policy issue, think about the minimum wage. Of course, the main reasons to raise the minimum wage have little to do with technology, business, or markets. The desire is to raise wages. However, the prioritization helps explain how different groups react to it. Those whose first allegiance is to business will be skeptical of it; it likely raises costs for businesses. Those whose allegiance is to markets will focus narrowly on the dis-employment effect; their opinion will probably hinge on their view of that literature. But if you prioritize technology, you’ll see something else to like with the minimum wage — as Rob Atkinson of ITIF, the tech think tank, does. Raising wages might actually be a feature for the economy, because it “it becomes more economical for him to adopt technology.”

To close, I’ll just say: think about how this prioritization explains different groups’ reaction to the big tech companies.

Notes on theory, evidence, and social science

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the interplay between theory and evidence in social science — spurred in part by reading more about David Hume and how various other Enlightenment-era thinkers thought about induction and evidence. I won’t attempt to say anything on this subject myself here, but want to clip together a few interesting things I’ve read on the topic lately:

A Brief History of the Hypothesis – Cell

Guide to critical thinking, research, data and theory: Overview for journalists – Journalist’s Resource

A mini-course on interpreting evidence –

The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect (I’ve read only a bit)

Finally, this quote from Harvard’s Gary King:

One division within science is theory versus empirics. There are whole bodies of work in academia where, for lack of direct empirical observation, we have to just make assumptions about people. For example, that they pursue their own rational self-interests. Well, a lot of the time they do pursue their own rational self-interest, but a lot of the times they don’t. If you had to make an assumption about people, maybe that’s a good one to start with, but if you have data, you don’t have to. You can go figure out what they’re doing in particular instances.

So, the “End of Theory”? Of course it’s not the end of theory. But the balance between theory and empirics is shifting toward empirics in a big way. That’s always the case in areas where there’s a lot of data. Does that make the scientific method obsolete? No — that’s absurd. Science is about inference, using facts you have to learn about facts you don’t have. So if you have more facts, you don’t have to make as many inferences as you would otherwise.

It’s never going to be the case that there’s no inference, and by definition, it’s never going to be the case that we’re not going to need science. All the data revolution is influencing is how much empirical evidence we have to bring to bear on a subject. Nobody says in astronomy when we get a better telescope that we don’t need theories of how things work out there. We just got some more evidence, that’s great.

America’s adoption of electricity

American cities and even smaller towns embraced the new technology with a speed and enthusiasm that Europeans soon found both fascinating and reckless. While the United States was no leader in the science of electricity, inventors such as Brush and Edison had not only developed the most effective working systems but backed them up with an entrepreneurial initiative, even aggressiveness, that was fast making America the world leader in the commercial development and installation of electric light. Electric lighting systems, first arc and then incandescent, became a booming business, a popular enthusiasm, and a reform crusade that swept the country in the 1880s… In one town and city after another, politicians, business leaders, and editors exclaimed, “THE ELECTRIC LIGHT–WE MUST HAVE IT!” …

The market for electric light grew in part because Americans embraced the idea that their town’s standing on the great ladder of civilization could be measured by its ability to provide residents with the latest technological conveniences. Each time one town or city unveiled the light, boosters in neighboring municipalities felt the sting of inferiority and fretted that their town might be doomed to bring up the rear in history’s march.

That is from Ernest Freeberg’s Age of Edison. Would Europeans still say something similar about America? I read Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class as arguing No.

Adam Smith on good writing

For Smith language was a crucial entry point to the development and explication of a projected science of man… Smith sees effective communication as requiring what he calls perspicuity and propriety. Perspicuity is to be achieved through a plain and unadorned style, in contrast to — a favourite target — the artificial and pompous labourings of Lord Shaftesbury in his ‘dungeon of metaphorical obscurity’. A perspicuous language is one that clearly projects, but also thereby reveals, the thoughts of its speakers. Propriety, or correctness in the use of language, fits language both to the speaker’s natural character and communicative intent on one side and to the expectations of the audience on the other. Effective communication requires the speaker to anticipate what effect their words will have on the hearer. Propriety thus carries with it a host of tacit assumptions about norms of grammar and presentation, about the speaker’s persona the occasion ,social context and audience; and it is through propriety that sympathy, that communicative bond between speaker and audience, is conveyed.

As Smith put it, ‘when the sentiment of the speaker is expressed in a neat, clear, plain, and clever manner, and the passion or affection he is possessed of and intends, by sympathy, to communicate to his hearer, is plainly and cleverly hit off, then and then only the expression has all the force and beauty that language can give it.’…

From Jesse Norman’s Adam Smith: Father of Economics.

Jill Lepore’s one-volume history of the U.S.

“Think of the American republic as a railroad train,” writes Bruce Ackerman in the first volume of his constitutional history of the U.S., “with the judges of the middle Republic sitting in the caboose, looking backward.” Time passes, the political and judicial landscape changes, judges come and go. But all the while the judges are facing backward, not in charge of the train’s direction but trying to make sense of how everything they’ve seen fits together. This notion of judges engaging in “retrospective synthesis” didn’t seem all that helpful to me when studying constitutional law — But how should the judges decide?? — but Ackerman was writing a history, and I found myself thinking of his metaphor recently as explaining part of what historians do.

Jill Lepore, the Harvard historian and New Yorker writer, has taken on an ambitious act of retrospective synthesis with her new one-volume history of the U.S. I strongly recommend it. “Some American history books fail to criticize the United States; others do nothing but,” Lepore writes. “This book is neither kind.” Instead, it is a synthesis, a telling that puts ideals and atrocities on equal footing and which returns continually to the question: By what right are we ruled?

It is also “meant to double as an old-fashioned civics book.” And there is no doubt that any American who reads the book will come away better prepared for civic life. But while history is an important input into civic participation, Lepore’s account also emphasizes why we cannot proceed based on retrospection alone. Americans, James Madison wrote, “have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity” — and that was a good thing. Lepore also quotes him as warning against fealty toward the wisdom of the founders. (I can’t for the life of me find the quote, but having finished the book just a couple of weeks ago I am confident it’s in there.)

The past can inform, inspire, and chasten. But civics is about the passengers on the train, not just the view from the caboose. It is up to us to choose a destination.

A limited version of objectivity worth defending

Objectivity was a major topic at the Nieman Foundation’s 80th anniversary event this weekend, especially during a panel on the line between activism and journalism. Nieman Reports has a new(ish) article on that subject, too. “Impartiality”, “fairness”, and “accuracy” were all terms that came up as possible replacements for “objectivity.” The article and the event together raised a lot of interesting questions, most of which I won’t even try to address.

I want to focus more narrowly, offering a limited defense of a certain kind of objectivity. Here’s a great quote from Harvard’s Yochai Benkler, from the Nieman Reports piece:

“Professional journalism needs to shift away from the way in which it performs objectivity. The critical move needs to be from objectivity as neutrality to objectivity as truth-seeking. That’s how you avoid false equivalencies. In a propaganda-rich system, to be neutral is to be complicit.”

“Truth” can mean many things, so I’ll narrow it even further: from objectivity as neutrality to objectivity as empirical truth-seeking.

The first advantage of objectivity as the search for empirical truth is that it flat out doesn’t apply to some key journalistic questions to which “objectivity” was offered as an answer. What stories should a newspaper cover? That just plainly isn’t an empirical question; there is no “objective” answer in the sense of objectivity as empirical truth-seeking.

A newspaper that tries to remain “neutral” in what it chooses to cover might opt to defer to other institutions like political parties to set the agenda. Claiming that this strategy is “objective” is nonsensical and harmful. That doesn’t mean “neutrality” can’t ever be defensible. A trade publication might look to trends and attention within the industry it covers to decide what it should report on. Claiming that this is being “objective” is deeply misguided, but adopting this neutral posture might make sense for the business.

Civic journalism can do better. Decisions like what to cover depend on values, and the best journalistic institutions won’t simply punt on questions of values in order to maintain some appearance of neutrality.

But those publications can still aim for “objectivity” in the sense of empirical truth-seeking, and I’m partial to that term over either “fairness” or “accuracy”. Fairness is an important value, especially for journalism, but it doesn’t proceed from the search for empirical truth. Accuracy doesn’t have that problem and so is closer, but the word can be misconstrued so as to let journalists off the hook. If you write about a thorny empirical topic like climate change or fiscal policy and you faithfully report everyone’s opinions you’ve in one sense accurately described the debate. But you may not be helping readers understand the truth.

Objectivity remains, in my view, the best word for conveying a commitment to the search for empirical truth — particularly in areas where that truth is more complicated than straightforward matters of fact. Objectivity is not an appropriate answer to many of journalism’s toughest questions but understood narrowly it can still be useful.

UPDATE: More from Benkler in a Q&A with Boston Review. This was interesting, on why objectivity-as-neutrality works less well than it once did:

Journalistic core practices have never been perfect but, broadly speaking, they have worked reasonably well. That is largely because, until recently, both political parties in the United States and the major actors—corporations, unions, nonprofits—more or less complied with a set of elite norms about how much you could attack basic foundational facts, how much you could fabricate. This meant that the model of journalistic objectivity and balance—being neutral and reporting on both sides—was not systematically biased in favor of one major party or the other. It reflected, more or less, the elite consensus range of views. Trust in media largely oscillated with the party in power: critical coverage meant that if your party was in power, your trust in journalism declined, and then rebounded when the other party took power.