Wednesday, June 05, 2013

The Rewards of Advanced Information Technology

Evgeny Morozov thinks advanced IT poses unforeseen risks.  I heard him make his case at the World Affairs Council with lots of points based on his books The Net Delusion and To Save Everything, Click Here, but I don't necessarily concur with his conclusions.

He noted the trend of embedding sensors everywhere but didn't call it "the Internet of things."  Most analysts would put it in that context because the way sensors collect data will be linked to Big Data in a cloud.  He also noted how the sensor trend intersected with social media to redefine ethical behavior (with incentives pushed by gamefication).  I just don't see why he finds the private ownership of this problem-solving architecture so objectionable.  The free market can incentivize beneficial behavior in real time without waiting for any one-size-fits-all public policy prescription.

Mr. Morozov notes that fact-checking databases are widely available and browser apps can tap them while you read articles on time.  I'm not convinced that political bias in any of those databases is some kind of problem that invalidates their utility.  Users can tweak their media feeds to collect articles from across the spectrum and check them against a similarly broad array of databases.  The information consumer in an open society is free to make an informed choice.

The kind of high-level thinking Mr. Morozov would apply to public policy might work if policy were customizable for every citizen.  We see the results of such an effort in tax codes and environmental regulations whose complexity and exemptions require a cottage industry of consultants to interpret them.  High-functioning lobbyists have customized plenty of exemptions into those laws that will never apply to most people.  The IT revolution of sensors, Big Data, IOT, and social media allow citizens to seek customizable solutions to their problems in real time.  Advocating high-level thinking might resonate in the Bay Area, home to the most highly educated people in the world.  It will not resonate with the vast majority of humans who use heuristics to make it through the day.  Advanced IT enables workable microeconomic solutions for the vast majority of people who won't benefit from high-level public policy.

It is a fundamental attribution error to believe mass behavior is rational.  There's enough evidence from evolutionary biology to show that humans act first and then rationalize their actions immediately afterwards.  Attributing high-level ethical thinking to mass behavior is a leap in logic that scientific study of the human mind cannot justify.  I believe that advanced IT allows for situation-specific solutions to human-scale problems that public policy cannot and should not solve.  Besides, some problems are just good to have.  If a startup IPO netted me piles of money, finding a way to use it is a much better problem to have than wondering how to pay my bills.  I don't need public policy to guide my thinking in that event.  I need social media apps that connect me to Big Data so I can study open source intelligence in real time.  .