Invention as Knowledge Production

In Kenneth Arrow’s “Economic Welfare and the Allocation of Resources for Intervention,” he begins with what may seem like a bold statement: Invention here is broadly interpreted as the production of knowledge.

From this perspective, “invention” isn’t inherently about creating things, it is fundamentally about generating new knowledge. That knowledge may or may not result in new technologies or devices; knowledge itself is the creation.

Arrow uses this definition to point to a core need for the “knowledge economy.” Invention – knowledge creation – is an inherently risky business decision. As Arrow writes, “By the very definition of information, invention must be a risky process, in that the output (information obtained) can never be predicted perfectly from the inputs.”

This inherent risk multiplies. If I can’t guarantee to produce a certain knowledge you can’t guarantee to pay me for it. If you do make such a guarantee, if you agree to pay me regardless of what knowledge I create, then – under the classic economic models of utility – I no longer have motivation to generate that knowledge.

Furthermore, once and idea is generated, it is, in some respects, free. If I undertake the risk of producing knowledge and everyone profits equally from my labor, then – again, under classic economic models of utility – I no longer have motivation to generate knowledge. I’d rather free-ride off your knowledge creation.

This is, in fact, the underlying logic of the patent system: potential inventors will only have motivation to invent under a system that guarantees benefits from successful invention.

What I find particularly interesting about the “knowledge production” definition of invention, though, is that it assumes, in a certain sense, that knowledge is perfectly replicable. What’s missing from this framing is an idea that knowledge I generate can only be generated, uniquely, by me.

That’s not so say that once I generate an idea, you can’t interpret it and use it to generate your own idea. Indeed, one might say such a process is the very essence of science; as thought percolates across time and disciplines, through interpretation by human inventors. That is the very nature of progress.

Arrow’s definitions remind me of Lauren Klein’s work on Elizabeth Peabody: the transcendental scholar and educator who created impossibly complex mural charts. These charts were intentionally difficult to interpret, not as a tactic of frustration but to invite the viewer into a process of knowledge co-creation.

The interpretation of art is not the sole property of the artist; and an understanding of knowledge does not belong solely to the person who had the idea. That isn’t just an economic challenge to be overcome: it is a declaration of the very essence of knowledge. Knowledge doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it doesn’t just spring to life within one person’s brain. Knowledge only comes to be as a process of co-creation; as a slow accumulation of fuzzy recollections. It is humanity’s ultimate collective endeavor. We only make progress together.


Economics of Matching

A canonical problem in graph theory is that of matching – pairing people (or nodes) based on mutual preference. The classic example of this – framed, unfortunately, in a cis-heteronormative way – is known as the marriage problem. Assuming knowledge of the whole population, men have a ranked-order list of appropriate female partners and women similarly make a ranked-order list of appropriate male partners. The question then, is can we, as an all-knowing mathematician, make a matching in which no non-matched (opposite sex) pair would prefer to be with each other than with the partners they are matched with?

The mathematical solution to “stable marriage matching” is elegant, and worth at some point a post of its own. But for the moment, I was recently struck by the economic implications of this problem. That is, I had always considered it from the vantage point of the all-knowing observer, with the implicit understanding that such scope of vision is what makes the solution possible.

Roth’s 2008 article, What have we learned from market design?, brings a new perspective to the market failures that can result from the lack of such global coordination. Because it’s such an interesting story, I include below a long excerpt describing the history of today’s residency-matching program for medical school graduates:

The first job American doctors take after graduating from medical school is called a residency. These jobs are a big part of hospitals’ labor force, a critical part of physicians’ graduate education, and a substantial influence on their future careers. From 1900 to 1945, one way that hospitals competed for new residents was to try to hire residents earlier than other hospitals. This moved the date of appointment earlier, first slowly and then quickly, until by 1945 residents were sometimes being hired almost two years before they would graduate from medical school and begin work.

When I studied this in Roth (1984) it was the first market in which I had seen this kind of “unraveling” of appointment dates, but today we know that unraveling is a common and costly form of market failure. What we see when we study markets in the process of unraveling is that offers not only become increasingly early, but also become dispersed in time and of increasingly short duration. So not only are decisions being made early (before uncertainty is resolved about workers’ preferences or abilities), but also quickly, with applicants having to respond to offers before they can learn what other offers might be forthcoming. Efforts to prevent unraveling are venerable, for example Roth and Xing (1994) quote Salzman (1931) on laws in various English market from the 13th century concerning “forestalling” a market by transacting before goods could be offered in the market.

In 1945, American medical schools agreed not to release information about students before a specified date. This helped control the date of the market, but a new problem emerged: hospitals found that if some of the first offers they made were rejected after a period of deliberation, the candidates to whom they wished to make their next offers had often already accepted other positions. This led hospitals to make exploding offers to which candidates had to reply immediately, before they could learn what other offers might be available, and led to a chaotic market that shortened in duration from year to year, and resulted not only in missed agreements but also in broken ones. This kind of congestion also has since been seen in other markets, and in the extreme form it took in the American medical market by the late 1940’s, it also constitutes a form of market failure (cf. Roth and Xing 1997, and Avery, Jolls, Roth, and Posner 2007 for detailed accounts of congestion in labor markets in psychology and law). Faced with a market that was working very badly, the various American medical associations (of hospitals, students, and schools) agreed to employ a centralized clearinghouse to coordinate the market. After students had applied to residency programs and been interviewed, instead of having hospitals make individual offers to which students had to respond immediately, students and residency programs would instead be invited to submit rank order lists to indicate their preferences. That is, hospitals (residency programs) would rank the students they had interviewed, students would rank the hospitals (residency programs) they had interviewed, and a centralized clearinghouse — a matching mechanism — would be employed to produce a matching from the preference lists. Today this centralized clearinghouse is called the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP).


Deliberation in a Homophilous Network

The social context of a society is both an input and an output of the deliberative system. As Granovetter argued, “actors do not behave or decide as atoms outside a social context, nor do they adhere slavishly to a script written for them by the particular intersection of social categories that they happen to occupy. Their attempts at purposive action are instead embedded in concrete, ongoing systems of social relations” (Granovetter, 1985). This “problem of embeddedness” manifests in a scholarly tension between studying the role of individual agency and the structures that shape available actions.

Consider, for example, the presence of homophily in social networks. A priori, there is no reason to attribute such a feature to a single mechanism. Perhaps homophily results from individual preference for being with ‘like’ people, or perhaps it results primarily from the structural realities within which agents are embedded: we should not be surprised that high school students spend a great deal of time with each other.

From a deliberative perspective, widespread homophily is deeply disconcerting. Networks with predominately homophilous relationships may indicate disparate spheres of association, even while maintaining a global balance on the whole. The linking patterns between an equal number of liberal and conservative blogs, for example, reveals distinctively separate communities rather than a more robust, crosscutting public sphere (Adamic & Glance, 2005).

Such homophily is particularly troubling as diversity of thought is arguably one of the most fundamental requirements for deliberation to proceed. Indeed, the vision of democratic legitimacy emerging from deliberation rests on the idea that all people, regardless of ideology, actively and equally participate (Cohen, 1989; Habermas, 1984; Mansbridge, 2003; Young, 1997). A commitment to this ideal has enshrined two standards – respect and the absence of power – as the only elements of deliberation which go undisputed within the broader field (Mansbridge, 2015). Furthermore, if we are concerned with the quality of deliberative output, then we ought to prefer deliberation amongst diverse groups, which typically identify better solutions than more homogenous groups (Hong, Page, & Baumol, 2004). Most pragmatically, homophily narrows the scope of potential topics for deliberation. Indeed, if deliberation is to be considered as an “ongoing process of mutual justification” (Gutmann & Thompson, 1999) or as a “game of giving and asking for reasons” (Neblo, 2015), then deliberation can only properly take place between participants who, in some respects, disagree. In a thought experiment of perfect homophily, where agents are exactly identical to their neighbors, then deliberation does not take place – simply because there is nothing for agents to deliberate about.


Evaluating Communication Channels

I’ve been reading a lot lately about the communication channels people leverage to stay in touch with each other. A particularly engaging series of articles begins with panic about the results of the 2004 General Social Survey (GSS): As McPherson, Smith-Lovin, and Brashears write, the modal respondent reports having no confident with whom they “discuss important matters.” That is down from a modal response of 3 in 1985.

Perhaps the most amusing response comes from Claude Fischer, who seems to think technical or human error is the most likely culprit of the precipitous drop – a claim he validates convincingly by showing that the 2004 GSS is poorly aligned with other relevant data.

But a broader line of inquiry is raised by these findings: just what does it mean to “discuss important matters” and how has our collective understanding of that question changed?

McPherson et al argue that the decrease in confidants could in fact be an artifact of modern life:    if people interpret “discuss” as requiring face-to-face interaction, and they have replaced such modes with phone or internet communication, they may find themselves no “discussing,” per se.

There is some reason to doubt this interpretation – most notably the work of Baym, Zhang, and Lin which finds that among college students in 2004, “the internet was used nearly as often as the telephone, however, face-to-face communication was far more frequent.”

Communication, however, has changed dramatically even since 2004. A senior in college then, I was a relatively late adopter and had only had my own cell phone – a flip phone, of course – for 2 years. I had a big, clunky desktop computer and I chatted with my classmate over AIM. I wasn’t on Facebook – it wasn’t yet really a thing – and I personally didn’t use MySpace or LiveJournal. Those sites didn’t seem to be as much about keeping in touch as about broadcasting yourself. I was 19 years old and I barely knew who my self was.

Looking back now, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if most of my conversations were face-to-face. While my phone and the internet provided some shortcuts and enhancements – face to face was the only way to really have a conversation.

Now I Snapchat my nieces every morning.

Personally, I would interpret the phrase “discuss” more broadly; I discuss important matter with people over the internet all the time. But what’s more interesting in this discussion is the arguably old-fashioned reticence to let go of face-to-face as being the only meaningful mode of communication.

But that, I think, undersells the richness of communication that is possible today – and it under appreciate’s people’s ability to leverage those communication channels.

It is easy, I suppose, to roll one’s eyes and claim that kids these days don’t know what it really means to have a conversation – but I think that is too much an oversimplification; and doesn’t give nearly enough credit to young people who want to communication, who are able to communicate, and who are fully capable of leveraging new channels and technology to discuss important matters in ways that were simply not possible before.


Keeping the Public Sphere Open

Tomorrow I will be participating in a conference on “Keeping the Public Sphere Open” hosted by Northeastern’s NULab for Text Maps and Data. The conference is taking place from 9:30 am – 5:30 pm and is free and open to the public. You may register here.

Here’s the description from the conference website:

On March 24, the NULab will be hosting its first annual conference, showcasing the work of faculty, fellows, alumni, and research collaborators. The conference will include a range of panels and talks, all organized around the theme: “Keeping the Public Sphere Open.”

The keynote address will be delivered by Peter Levine, Associate Dean and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs in Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life and Director of CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement). Uta Poiger, Dean of Northeastern’s College of Social Sciences and Humanities and Professor of History, will deliver a welcome message to open the conference.

The conference will feature research from several NULab-supported projects. Ryan Cordell will speak about the Viral Texts project, Sarah Connell will discuss the Women Writers Project, Sarah Payne and William Bond will share the work of the Margaret Fuller Transnational Archive, and Elizabeth Dillon will talk about the Early Caribbean Digital Archive. There will also be talks by NULab faculty: Brooke Foucault Welles will present on networked counterpublics and the #HashtagActivism project; Nick Beauchamp will discuss his research into productive internet discourse, with Ph.D. candidate Sarah Shugars; David Lazer will talk about his work on transforming democracy by strengthening connections between citizens and town halls; David Smith will share research on modeling information cascades and propagating scientific knowledge; John Wihbey will present on the democratic role of news in an age of networks; Élika Ortega will discuss the architectures of print-digital literature; and Dietmar Offenhuber, Alessandra Renzi, and Nathan Felde will share the outcomes of a public event to digitize and tag posters from the Boston Women’s March.

Other talks will include the work of graduate students: Matt Simonson on social networks and cross-ethnic ties in Uganda; and Elizabeth Polcha and Nicole Keller Day on building the Digital Feminist Commons and how feminist humanists approach coding. NULab Fellow alum Jim McGrath (Brown University) will highlight some of the intersections between digital humanities and public humanities in his work at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage.


No Enemies

I was reminded this morning of Charles Mackay’s 1915 poem, No Enemies:

YOU have no enemies, you say?
Alas! my friend, the boast is poor;
He who has mingled in the fray
Of duty, that the brave endure,
Must have made foes! If you have none,
Small is the work that you have done.
You’ve hit no traitor on the hip,
You’ve dashed no cup from perjured lip,
You’ve never turned the wrong to right,
You’ve been a coward in the fight.

I think of this poem often, and I think it serves as an important reminder that sometimes it is not good to be polite; sometimes an aversion to conflict can be dangerous.

In Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he expresses a similar sentiment:

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

We should not be more devoted to order than to justice.

It is said that only 7 people attended the funeral of Raphael Lemkin, the lawyer and scholar who coined the word “genocide” and who fought like hell to introduce the U.N. Genocide Convention. He made a lot of enemies by constantly pushing for stronger measures to prevent and end genocide; he made a lot of enemies by refusing to shut up when everyone was done listening to him. He made a lot of enemies by being more devoted to justice than the niceties of polite society.

No enemies? Indeed, the boast is poor.


The Internet and Modernity

Reading Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman’s Networked I was struck by their rebuttal of the argument put forth by McPherson, Smith-Lovin, and Brashears; an argument which rings throughout the work of Putnam and other scholars: modern individuals are sad, hollow, isolated shells of humanity and modern technologies like the internet is what made this so.

Perhaps I was struck simply because this is an argument I have given so little serious attention. I am way past even considering concerns that video games make you violent, rock n’ roll leads to devil worship, or that the internet has led to the collapse of our civic infrastructure. It is interesting to consider as a factor, perhaps, to scapegoat the internet – to use Rainie and Wellman’s term – strikes me as absurd.

Rainie and Wellman argue that this “fixation on the internet” ignores “nearly a century of research showing that technological changes before the internet – planes, trains, telephones, telegraphs, and cars – neither destroyed relations and communities nor left them alone as remnants locked up in rural and urban villages.”

In defense of the internet, they point to the fact that “when asked, few people say that they, themselves, are living lives of lonely desperation.” And thus they find it wearisome  that “even with these realizations, some people – and commentators – believe that they are the exceptions and that the masses around them are lonely, isolated, and fearful.”

“There is,” they assure us, “no reason to panic.”

Perhaps what is most striking about this debate – internet: friend or foe? – is that the problem isn’t really one of the modern moment; it is more properly a problem of modernity; an era that stretches back as far as one might dare to extend the concepts of modern thought or sensibilities.

In 1854 – which is, if I’m not mistaken, before the widespread popularity of the internet – Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Thoreau went to the woods because he wished to live deliberately; because he yearned to escape the crushing speed and pressures of modern life. 1854 modern life that is. As he famously opens Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…

A contemporary Thoreau might say the same about turning of Facebook or sticking with a flip phone; it’s a challenge of modernity not a problem of technology.

1942 Albert Camus wrote of the absurd tragedy of Sisyphus, that Greek hero who was condemned to “ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight.” Camus, too, points to the challenge of modernity: “The workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.”

From this perspective, the internet and other technologies have given us increased distraction; increased refuge from the crushing reality of the emptiness that is life.  Which is not to say without these technologies our burden would be relieved; no, we would simply find other ways of burying the truth, of hiding from the void.

The problem, then – if, indeed, there is a problem at all – cannot be laid at the feed of the internet or of specific online platforms. The challenge is much deeper and much more mundane. It is not a challenge of how we live in an ever connected world, it is a fundamental challenge of modern life: how do we live an average, daily life knowing everything that we deeply know?

How, in the words of modern youth, do we even?


A Ban by Another Name

There was the expectation that Presidential Travel Ban 2.0 would be upheld as constitutional.

As NPR reports, it was specifically amended to address previous concerns: “It omitted Iraq from the list of barred countries, removed references to religion and excluded green card holders and people who already had visas, among other changes.”

So it was surprising – perhaps even shocking – when a judge in Hawaii issued a temporary restraining order and a judge in Maryland soon after issued a preliminary injunction; both of which blocked the nationwide implementation of the ban.

Proponents of the ban howled at it’s continued blockage; opponents celebrated the victory; and reasonable people from both sides wondered what was constitutionally right in terms of future present beyond the scope of this immediate issue.

The U.S. Department of Justice believes strongly that the ban is legal – indeed, they revised the previous Executive Order language with the explicit goal of issuing an order that would stand up in court. Proponents of the ban further argue that the judges who have moved to block it have overstepped their judicial bounds; issuing rulings from partisan passions rather than from the blind legal ideal.

But Judge Derrick K. Watson – the U.S. District Court judge from Hawaii who issued a temporary ban – sees the matter differently. Watson argues that he was simply considering the wider context, something which is fully within his legal purview to do.

As NPR describes: “The judge concluded, based on the historical context of the travel ban and public statements made by the president, that “a reasonable, objective observer … would conclude that the Executive Order was issued with a purpose to disfavor a particular religion[.]””

In other words, it doesn’t matter if the specific wording of the new order is carefully crafted to be technically constitutional: it’s the implementation and spirit that is everything.

While this defense may ring of judicial overreaching, I’m inclined to favor the judge’s interpretation – and I’m fairly confident my opinion isn’t simply due to my own distaste for the order.

President Trump himself has made it clear that he favors a “Muslim ban,” that he wants to block people from a specific religious group from entering the country. The injunctions against this ban say, in no uncertain terms, that such a goal is unconstitutional, no matter how you dress it up.

In the days following the initial travel ban order, there was chaos and confusion as people tried to figure out what was going on. Lacking clarity from the order itself, those tasked with the actual enforcement of the ban had a lot of leeway in how it was interpreted and how it was carried out.

There is nothing to prevent a Muslim ban which is gracefully worded to avoid the word Muslim from becoming exactly what it is intended to be. The letter of the law doesn’t need to read “Muslim,” but as long as the intent is clear – as long as there’s the risk of unconstitutional treatment at our borders – such a ban is and should be considered unconstitutional. A little window dressing doesn’t change that.


Political Engagement and The Busy Work Day

In ancient Greek philosophy, the role of citizen was both noble and consuming. You couldn’t be a laborer and a citizen, you couldn’t engage in mundane work and be a citizen. Being a citizen was a full-time endeavor, it involved keeping up on the news, participating in your community, and being informed enough to wisely rule over all those non-citizens who actually made the world work.

Our sensibilities have grown a bit more egalitarian – engaged citizenship is no longer the sole purview of gentlemen of leisure. Anyone can be a citizen, and furthermore – everyone has the right and responsibility to engage as in the work of collective rule.

But while I fully support this inclusive vision of citizenship, it does come saddled with the jaunty air of trying to have it all.

Citizenship is hard. It is a full time job. Especially now with our 24-hour news cycles and better connected world, it is literally impossible to stay perfectly informed on every subject – much less spend time thoughtfully debating and reflecting on them.

In Michael Neblo’s book “Deliberative Democracy between Theory and Practice,” I was struck by a statistic mentioned near the end of his analysis: in one survey, he finds that 42% of respondents felt they “didn’t know enough to participate” in a deliberative session. I’m fairly certain I’ve seem similar statistics around voting and jury participation, though I’m afraid I don’t have the wherewithal to track those down right now.

The current challenge of engaged citizenship isn’t just one of apathetic citizens, too unenthused to exercise their rights – it’s one of under-confidence in one’s own ability to learn, think, and engage critically and productively.

Some of this, I feel, comes from the increasing professionalization within the civic space: why muck up the works when people who really know what they’re doing are involved? But I think some this all comes from this “having it all” notion of citizenship.

Of course, I want engaged citizens to be informed and reflective – but perhaps we need a better bar of what it means to be informed. I watch, listen to, and read the news regularly, and yet I often find myself feeling badly that I am not more informed. Unlike an ideal Athenian, I’ve just got other things to do.

But below that over optimistic bar of ideal citizen and above that disconcerting low of fake news, it’s entirely unclear to me just what the informational habits of a good citizen ought to be in a world that is more crazed than ideal.


Reputation Mechanisms and the Civics Economy

In my Network Economics class, we’ve been talking about the “sharing economy” (or, arguably, the “so-called sharing economy”). Companies like Uber, AirBnB, even Ebay and the 3rd party seller mechanism of Amazon. While these companies arguably open the door for regulation loopholes and worker exploitation, in their purest, ideal, form, they allow “average people” to benefit from their unused resources: people can make some extra money driving strangers, hosting strangers, or selling miscellaneous items to strangers. In return, other average people can get rides, places to stay, or miscellaneous items.

Personally, I have a lot of questions and skepticism around the “sharing economy,” but that debate isn’t the point of my post today.

One of the core ideas that supports the sharing economy is a reputation system. The sharing economy wouldn’t work without it. It takes trust to get into a stranger’s car, stay in a stranger’s house, or send money to a stranger – and that trust is generated by a reputation system.

These markets are able facilitate exchange between strangers because participants in the system have a reputation – and upholding that reputation is worth more then the temporary gain of ripping someone off.

To be clear, reputation systems aren’t anything new – you trust a bank because it’s FDIC insured, you trust a hotel because it has a certain star-rating, and you trust a company because it, too, has a reputation to maintain in the broader market.

But what’s interesting about the modern reputation systems is that they tend to me much more individual. It is not institutions or brands earning your trust, but real, individual people.

In theory, a service like AirBnB doesn’t even have to be about monetary exchange – with a solid reputation system in place, people could use it as a place to earn and spend hosting credits, or to otherwise barter for a cheap place to stay.

Fundamentally, a reputation system is a way to quickly establish trust between people who wouldn’t otherwise have the personal history required for a trusting relationship.

Regardless of how you feel about the impacts of the sharing economy, I find this particular mechanism fascinating. And, as I am so often inclined to do, that interest immediate makes me wonder: what would this look like in a civic system?

That question could go in a lot of different directions, it it’s interesting to think about how such a system might play out:

A reputation system for good deliberators; where people who listen and provide rational arguments are rated highly while trolls are pushed to the margins.

A reputation system for urban developers; where developers who genuinely listen to community input are rated highlight and those just looking for profit are down rated.

A reputation system for every day, neighborly interactions: don’t know your neighbors but need to borrow a cup of sugar? Find out who in your neighborhood doesn’t mind being asked. …Do people still borrow a cup of sugar from their neighbors? I imagine not because people don’t know their neighbors and don’t know who to ask.

I can imagine other sorts of reputation systems which spill into the sharing economy as it exists today: a reputation system for finding a place to crash or getting a ride from the airport. These systems have the dangerous potential to turn into little more than corporate scheming to evade regulation – but taking primarily as a reputation system with a civic mission, it seems like such organization could have beneficial potential.