Saturday, September 24, 2005

Class, capitalism and the creative commons

Raymond Williams' wonderful little book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society opened my eyes to the language of class struggle that’s implicit in the fight over digital technologies. As an example, let’s take the term “Creative Commons”.

The terms common and commons had a very early use (16th Century) as an indicator of social division, that is, the common people as contrasted with lords and nobility. Since the Left sees itself as defending ordinary folk, and the Right is aligned with the elites, it’s no surprise to see an association between left-wing politics, the enclosure of the commons, and the needs of the “digital revolution”:

The re-election of George W. Bush makes it abundantly clear that a fierce new round of pillage and plunder is about to begin. Over the next four years, market enclosure will be taken to new extremes -- oil drilling in the Arctic wilderness, more privatization of government drug research, giveaways of the broadcast airwaves, the shrinking of the public domain, among many others. (David Bollier, The Commons as a Movement.)
This analysis also shows up in specific policy arguments: Yochai Benkler conjures up enclosure in a discussion of the spectrum commons and intellectual property (see e.g. The commons as a neglected factor of information policy) and The New America Foundation, a left-wing think tank, has been active on the topic of the spectrum commons.

In such a context, the notion of creativity also has strong class war connotations. Williams gives an excerpt from Thomas Hodgskin’s Labor Defended against the Claims of Capital (1825) in his discussion of the term capitalism in Keywords (op cit.) which argues that “all the capitalists of Europe, with all their circulating capital, cannot of themselves supply a single week’s food and clothing”, and “betwixt him who produces food and him who uses them, in steps the capitalist, who neither makes nor uses them and appropriates to himself the produce of both”. By implication, the working people are the creative ones, and the capitalists are parasites. In the discussion of class, Williams quotes O’Brien in the Poor Man’s Guardian (19 Oct 1833) writing about establishing “for the productive classes a complete dominion over the fruits of the own industry” – that could’ve been Richard Stallman talking.

Last but not least: it should come as no surprise that the entrepreneurial class sees some of these trends as a threat as grave as communism, or that activists have taken on the mantle of “commonists” (sic) with pride (Google bibliography).

These political connotations in the term “creative commons” are surely intentional, and accurate to the extent that we’re seeing a political struggle over how to structure an economic system. However, the language can become misleading because many of the semantic associations are out of date. The issues at play today are not the stuff of industrial capitalism. The “capitalists” no longer control the means of production, given that the means of production in a knowledge economy is an educated mind plugged into a network of common (in the sense of shared) interest. Since many more elements of production are non-rival, it’s no longer the zero sum fight over rival resources that it used to be.

It may still be Us vs. Them, as it is in any fight, but it would be wrong to assume that it’s that Us and Them are the same social constructs (workers, capitalists) as they were in the 19th Century.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Trading apples and ideas

I came across this George Bernard Shaw quote in the proceedings of the zemos98 conference (it seems to be a Spanish cultural organization with a "Free Stuff" bent; thanks to Elastico for the link):
"If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you
and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea
and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas. "

This jumped out at me since I've been trying to wrap my head around the notion of Comparative Advantage. The quote suggests to me (and I think the Free Stuff community sometimes makes this case) that trade in knowledge goods is intrinsically different from trade in tangible goods.

The goods themselves are obviously different: non-rival vs. rival, for example, and with differences in the cost of marginal production. But the production of both goods consumes rival resources, whether a creator's time or an aquifer's water, and the value placed on the both types of goods will be a function of scarcity. Therefore, while one can expect some differences in trade dynamics based on the properties of information goods, the essentials will remain.

If that's the case, one would expect that different countries would trade in different kinds of information good, since they have comparative advantage in their production. There are signs of such specialization; Norway is, I'm told, the world leader in seismic analysis software as a result of their North Sea oil exploration expertise.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Forget about software, go run a business

The blogger Mini-Microsoft is probably not the only employee who’s riled up by Business Week’s report of a new pay scheme which will supposedly go into effect at Microsoft this Fall:

“If they meet incentive goals, the 120 or so vice-presidents will receive an eye-popping $1 million in salary a year, and general managers, the next level down, will get $350,000 to $550,000, according to a high-ranking source. But the rest of the staff is paid at market rates.”

This doesn’t surprise me (assuming it’s true) since a flat stock price and competitive recruiting by competitors encourages exceptional rewards.  It would be disconcerting, though, if the exaggerated rewards only go to senior managers, as the report implies, and not to top engineering talent as well. The dramatic performance disparities in software productivity are well known; see my entry on Engineering jobs, which ruminates on the fact that tech companies can never get enough of the very best people, while the rest of us struggle to get by.

But then again… I’ve been learning about the “Law” of Comparative Advantage, which indicates that players which produce multiple goods are better off if they trade with each other, with each specializing in the good which it produces most efficiently.  India and China probably have a comparative advantage in writing software vis a vis the US, while the US has a comparative advantage in entrepreneurship and finance.  

Applying Comparative Advantage to the software business – in a rather cavalier way, I admit – suggests that US companies will specialize in business management, while India and China will write the software.  This would mean American managers and Asian developers.

(Note: I’m not saying that India and China have an absolute advantage in software; the law of comparative advantage only requires that they’re relatively better at software than they are at finance.  They could be worse than the US at both, and it would still be to both sides’ advantage to specialize in the way I’ve indicated. In this example: If American tech managers are three times as good as Asian managers, and American software devs are only twice as good as Asian devs, then you’ll end up with American managers and Asian devs. However, invoking Comparative Advantage in the way I’ve done is a stretch, since its simple proofs focus on labor productivity in widgets/hour, which really doesn’t apply in software.)  

Good news for Microsoft VPs and GMs, but not for Redmond developers.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Social conservatives vs. Market conservatives

The second term of a US President whose party controls the US Congress is always fun to watch.  The easy wins, the ones where all loyalists agree, have been won; items  remaining on the agenda are potentially divisive.

The strain is beginning to show at the FCC, for example.  Kevin Martin, the President’s loyal Chairman, intends to limit “indecency” on cable TV.  According to Slate, “he has been quietly meeting with religious activists and industry leaders to organize a push for new standards for broadcast, cable and satellite television”.  This is family values politics, one of the mainstays of the Republican party.

The other mainstay is laissez faire markets, and the business lobby is beginning to grumble.  Adam Thierer worries on the PFF blog that Chairman Martin & Co’s attempts to rethink regulation in the context of media convergence “level the playing field in the direction of less freedom of speech instead of more.” He continues, “The problem with this "regulate up" solution to the level playing field problem is that it means almost any type of speech or media outlet in the future will be fair game for regulators.”  Market conservatives hate few things more (taxes, say) than government regulation of industry.

More contests are coming between the social and fiscal wings of the Republican party.  One can only achieve far-reaching social goals, eg on abortion, speech content, and codes of behavior, through far-reaching regulation.  However, such regulation goes against the grain for small-government conservatives.  A likely flash-point: States’ rights.  Republicans have for historical reasons (eg the New Deal) resented federal intrusion in states’ autonomy to act in ways conservatives prefer.  However, this preference may well fade once the Right wants to impose its vision on the whole country, just as the Left did 80 years ago.    

Friday, September 02, 2005

Theory, practice, and the stories that connect them

I’ve just returned from an introductory training course in vipassana (vi-PAH-shu-na) meditation, and it’s helped me tease apart the distinction between theory and practice.  

The course teaches a technique which, it is said, can be used by anyone regardless of their religion or beliefs. While most of the course was devoted to the mechanics of meditation, the evening lecture was couched in Buddhist terms.  For a while I found some tension between the ostensibly value-free technique, and the extensive philosophical framework in which it was placed. If this were just a technique, why then all the Pali words and extensive taxonomies?

I found it helped to distinguish three distinct topics: (1) the practical technique, (2) the theory that explains how and why the technique works, and (3) heuristics derived from the theory to support practitioners in the technique.

Since I’m a complete novice, the following example is almost certainly inaccurate, but is hopefully still illustrative: (1) Students are taught how to attend to the sensations (or lack of sensations) on the surface of the body.  (2) The theory describes the sensations in terms of a four-fold sequence in which consciousness leads to perception, then to sensation, and finally to reaction. (3) Students are encouraged to maintain their equanimity in the face of discomfort by the theory’s explanation of how sensations which are ignored will lead to a reduction in deep-rooted misery.  The application of the theory in this heuristic makes the pain bearable because it makes it meaningful; but the pain borne for any other reason would have a similarly beneficial effect.

Since the theory merely sets out to explain the technique, the truth-value of the theory doesn’t affect the efficacy of the practice.  The theory could be wrong, and the technique would still work. There might also be other theories that are equally or more plausible explanations of the success of the practice; for example, one might be able to construct a neuro-physiological rationale for the effectiveness of meditation that would appeal more than Buddhist spirituality to a hard-headed scientist.  After all, plausibility is in the eye of the beholder.

However, different theories, even if equivalent in explanatory power, will lead to different tips-and-tricks to support the practice.  The heuristics that result from different theories may be more or less effective in advancing the practice.  Their effectiveness will vary by their sophistication, and plausibility to a particular person.  Buddhism has had 25 centuries to hone its stories, but most Westerners find the Buddhist cultural context to be alien.

Technique and theory are more closely linked than this superficial categorization suggests, of course. There is a feedback loop; a technique can lead to a theory, which then suggests further techniques which, if effective, could require extensions to the theory, more new techniques, etc.  The model constrains the kinds of practice which are discoverable and observable.  The practicalities of technique will lead to emphasis of certain parts of the theory over others, and thus constrains the model. The heuristics are the bonds which tie the two together.

Theory and technique develop jointly. Thus, an explanatory theory isn’t simply a replaceable module which can be swapped out without loss for another theory – though in practice one may use other theories (eg neurophysiology) to explain a practice in part.  In this sense, vipassana’s claim to be simply a technique which can be practiced without committing to a theory/philosophy is an over-statement, and Buddhism’s claim to be non-sectarian is a stretch.

On a related note, this taxonomy helps one distinguish words used as descriptions vs. as explanations.  For example, after some practice it is said that vipassana practitioners can experience a “vibration” over part or all of their body.  This is a description of the sensation. However, the term is also taken as an explanation of the source of the sensation, eg the very rapid coming-into-being and disappearance of sensations; in some cases, this thinking is extended to recruit quantum mechanics to justify the theory.  The description relates to the practicalities of the technique; the explanation relates to the theory, and may or may not be plausible.

The three-fold distinction applies in the sciences, of course, and can also be used to analyze other concerns such as software development practices.  There are at least two techniques which are successful in creating large complex code bases: proprietary software development within a firm, where coordination happens by fiat backed up by organizational authority; and an open source approach where development is distributed and coordination is more reputation-based.  Each has its own theory (myths?) of why its technique works: in the proprietary case it’s traditional economics and organizational psychology, where innovation is considered to be scarce and chaos the natural state; in the open source case it’s the “economics of abundance”, theories of altruism, and a world where innovation happens spontaneously.  Either or both theories may be wrong; that doesn’t vitiate their respective practices.  Both schools are tied to their theories by the heuristics and lore that has grown up in gap between the theory and the practice.

In all these areas – Buddhist meditation, science, and software development – weakness of a model should not blind one to the effectiveness of a practice.  One may find the motivating theories implausible or distasteful, but that doesn’t mean that the technique doesn’t work.