This is the text version of remarks given by the author on June 26, 2016, at a panel on the Moral Economy of Tech at the SASE conference in Berkeley to an audience of social scientists. The other panel participants were Kieran Healy, Stuart Russell and AnnaLee Saxenian. This piece originally appeared on the author’s blog, Idle Words.
I am only a small minnow in the technology ocean, but since it is my natural habitat, I want to make an effort to describe it to you.
As computer programmers, our formative intellectual experience is working with deterministic systems that have been designed by other human beings. These can be very complex, but the complexity is not the kind we find in the natural world. It is ultimately always tractable. Find the right abstractions, and the puzzle box opens before you.
The feeling of competence, control, and delight in discovering a clever twist that solves a difficult problem is what makes being a computer programmer sometimes enjoyable.
“The real world is a stubborn place. It is complex in ways that resist abstraction and modeling.”
But as anyone who’s worked with tech people knows, this intellectual background can also lead to arrogance. People who excel at software design become convinced that they have a unique ability to understand any kind of system at all, from first principles, without prior trainin... Read more
I am standing in the dark, looking at the shadows on the walls of this ancient cave when my pocket buzzes — Facebook wants to notify me that I’ve been invited to a play tonight. Who am I? You might say I am Plato, except, like, I also have a smartphone. Editor Stacy Hale had a great conversation with Bryan A. Knowles about AI and giving meaning to language.
Greek philosophy, among some silly things, asks the real questions, like: “What is the true nature of the universe?” This question might seem impossible to answer simply because it is impossibly vague, but in Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave
, it is explained that we can never even look upon the face of Truth — our ability to know anything is intrinsically limited by our imprecise senses, psychological processes, and non-universal language.
BK: Keep in mind that this train of thought is carried on the assumption that one true Truth exists, something that Relativity and the Uncertainty Principle and the Uniqueness Problem all contradict. Regardless, Plato’s Cave remarkably sums up much of modern scientific skepticism: There are things we can never know, such as whether any given computer code will halt when executed; there are things we can never approximate, since all it takes is a single electron counted wrong and our weather predictions will quickly be way off; and, there are things we can never expect, such as ... Read more
There is new light for the dismal science. Economics as a social science is concerned with the foundational factors underlying the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. And over the last century the application of economic analysis has spread and is seen across a diverse fields (business, finance, health care, government) and subjects (war, crime, education, law, politics, religion, social institutions, science, environment). Economics has become one of the most complex of fields to study and understand. But instead of growing more dismal, there is new light. Network scientists are providing old fields like economics with new ways to look at and understand these complex, networked systems. All too often, those furthest from the core discipline of a problem are most likely to provide an innovative solution.
In the words of MIT scientist César Hidalgo
, economics is a relatively ephemeral subject, resting on deep roots in a process that goes back to the foundations of energy and matter and information.
And in viewing the economy in such primal terms, he concludes that the factors that drive resilience and innovation in nature’s networks or ecosystems — namely diversity — should likewise be predictive of an economy’s resilience, innovation, and ability to grow.
Traditional economic measures fail to capture the kind of diversity that drives growth. Identifying factors of production such a... Read more