Free Press vs Free Expression

Plus! Apocalypses Averted, Bureaucracy APIs, Seeing Like a State, Prediction Markets, Carta, more...

I decided to make this edition free, because it’s a on a timely  topic and because it’s important to me personally. Forwarding is  encouraged.

In this issue:

Free Press vs Free Expression

My favorite kind of writing is the sort that’s remarkable now for being unremarkable when it was written. In 1983, The New Yorker wrote a profile of Ponce Cruse Evans, better known by her pen name, Heloise.  The article describes a kind of blandly debaucherous night interviewing  Heloise and her husband: they start at a restaurant during happy hour  (“you got two drinks for every one you ordered, so the table was quickly  covered with margarita glasses”), then drive to another bar (“where it  was also happy hour”), then they drive to Fuddruckers, then three more  bars, and then the author gets lost and has some trouble with the law  (“He told me to give him my license and sit down and shut up or he’d  throw my ass in jail for public intoxication. I told him I hadn’t seen  much else but public intoxication in San Antonio that night, and his  handcuffs made a cricketlike sound as he took them off his belt.”)

All in good fun at the time, but now we’d view this behavior as unconscionably irresponsible. I’d expect even Vice to fire someone for this.

At the same time, it’s hard to condemn him so much: he put lives at  risk for fun and didn’t care about it, but it took a multi-decade PR  campaign to establish the norm that drunk driving was wrong. Since MADD  was founded in 1980, traffic fatalities per mile driven have dropped by  about two thirds. (Some of this was doubtless due to better safety, but  tighter drunk-driving regulations, and stronger social norms, certainly  had an impact.)

When technology changes, social norms need to change. Technology lets  us do more with less, but “more” is a measure of magnitude, not  direction.

So: should the New York Times publish the real name of “Scott Alexander,” the pseudonymous blogger who wrote Slate Star Codex? (Note: the blog has been deleted, except for a post begging the Times  to reconsider, but archives are floating around.) Scott says he already  gets death threats because of his blog, that irate readers have called  his workplace trying to get him fired, that it’s a standard practice for  psychiatrists like him not to let patients know too much about their  lives, etc.

Here are some good reasons not to care at all:

There are many obvious reasons not to out him, but the most important  is the least obvious: the Internet has changed how easy it is to  communicate, and what messages get amplified the fastest. And the result  is that legal protections for the media are in tension with the principle of free speech.

In an ideal world, laws start from moral principles (like “don’t hurt  people” or “don’t restrict freedom without some offsetting benefit”),  but what they actually cover are specific behaviors. “Don’t behave  irresponsibly in such a way that you put other people at risk” is a  vague precept that’s open to interpretation, while speed limits or laws  limiting the mercury content of fish are pretty straightforward.

When producing and distributing information has a high fixed cost,  the chokepoint for freedom of expression is the physical production of  books and newspapers, or of radio and TV broadcasts. But online, almost  anyone who can consume content can produce it; halting production is a  losing game. In 2007, the MPAA tried to halt the distribution of a  decryption key for DVDs and Blu-rays. They sued a few sites for  publishing it, but Digg users revolted and repeatedly circumvented takedowns to post the key. The users won; the Wikipedia article about the controversy includes the full key.

Laws designed to protect free speech when distribution is the  bottleneck will tend to have a strong bias towards letting publishers  choose what to publish. Strict libel laws, for example, make it hard to  call corrupt politicians or unethical business leaders to account. So  countries that care a lot about speech will tolerate a fair amount of  libel. But when the cost of publication drops, the cost/benefit analysis  shifts: with a small number of media outlets, all of which have limited  distribution, the odds of one of them writing something damagingly  false, or misleading, are low. When everyone can publish whatever they  want, someone will publish something terrible.

Pro-publisher norms interact with mildly-autistic writers in a very  dangerous way. The writers are productive, and have niche interests, so  they write a lot without getting much traction. Over time, if they’re  interesting, they develop a following. Eventually, they have haters. And  then two scale factors kick in:

  1. If you’ve written a million words, the most damning 0.005% of your oeuvre fits in a tweet.
  2. If 99% of people are basically decent, and there are 4bn Internet  users, that means there are 40m truly terrible people, and only one of them needs to quote something out of context to kick off the outrage cascade.

Slate Star Codex has a lot of verbiage. It may not be upt to  the million-word count just yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it had  hit 500k or so. A pseudonymous blog is a way for a writer to interact  with ideas, and explore thoughts that might be weird, uncomfortable, or  dangerous; pseudonymous speech is easy to un-say. Whereas writing under  one’s own name is subject to a veto from anyone in your life who has  something to lose by associating with you: employers, friends,  landlords, even family.

Fame has always had upsides and downsides, but now the downsides  scale faster unless you intend to spend all your time being famous. If  you want to get interviews, get introductions, give speeches, endorse  products, or work as an actor, having those opportunities but dealing  with death threats and stalkers might be a fair trade. But if you mostly  write about books and weird theories, it’s terrible. So a world in  which anyone can make you famous is a dangerous one: at best, it’s a world where you have to switch jobs; at worst, it’s a world where you’re unemployable.

Connecting a pseudonym to a real-world identity in a verifiable way  unleashes potential energy proportionate to how interesting the  pseudonymous work was. A little bit of that energy is beneficial—Joe  Klein probably got more TV appearances after he got outed for writing Primary Colors), and J. K. Rowling’s pseudonymous book went from 4,709th to 1st on Amazon’s bestseller list when she was revealed as the author.

But mostly, people who become instantly accidentally famous for  something aren’t happy about it, and rightly so. Some of them become  famous for something they did that was legitimately bad, but the  Internet can’t handle proportionate response: either nobody cares, or everybody  does. It’s as if English had a term for “Yes, please,” but the only  equivalent to “No, thank you” was punching someone in the face. It’s  just a matter of virality: promoting news about a minor slight won’t get  much traction, but if a negative story starts to grow, it keeps on  growing—and a tweet that prompts 10% of its readers to retweet it might  prompt 0.1% of them to send a death threat, try to get the subject  fired, or worse.

Social media doesn’t have an especially strong chilling effect on  people who misbehave in the real world, because they’re usually not  wondering if their actions are being streamed on Facebook live. But it does  have a chilling effect on people who write online. They face “grep  risk”: the risk that someone will take a dislike to them, and search  through everything they’ve ever said for the most injudicious bits, or  even the bits that sound worst out of context.

(There are at least three prominent cases I know of where someone got  fired because they parodied people they didn’t like in a way that could  be misread as endorsing the beliefs they were mocking. This has been happening for a long time: Darwin gets misquoted all the time because his writing is full  of hedges and caveats that, out of context, sound like concessions that  evolution doesn’t make sense; “We are all Keynesians now” gets quoted a  lot more often than the full quote, which was “In one sense, we are all  Keynesians now; in another, nobody is any longer a Keynesian”;  “Information wants to be free” was one sentence in a paragraph that  started with “Information wants to be expensive,” and so on. When you  see a surprising pull-quote, prepare for a boring transcript.)

In fact, one reason for this is that the ideas that get  amplified the fastest are not the ones that obviously benefit one side,  but the ones that both sides can say confirm their priors. There’s a  great blog post on this called “The Toxoplasma of Rage,” which I’d link  to, but it was on Slate Star Codex.

It’s very good for the world if people who are interested in ideas  rather than people can write about ideas without facing personal  consequences. In the space of possible ideas, the vast majority are  nonsense, most of the rest are wrong, but every future discovery is somewhere in the space of possible ideas, so tolerating the wrong or crazy is basically the only way to accelerate the discovery of the good and novel.

Scott will probably be approximately fine, whether or not the Times  links his pseudonym to his real-world identity. Perhaps he’ll be a  full-time writer instead of a psychiatrist with a fun hobby. That would  be nice for me, and for his other fans. His life will be worse, since  he’s lost an important freedom, but it won’t be over—he’ll get more  death threats than usual, but online death threats very rarely get  carried out.

It’s bad to live in such a binary world, where Scott’s future is up  to a journalist on a deadline rather than the person who lives with the  consequences. Pseudonymity is important because it lets someone explore a  body of intellectual work long enough to build up to a useful  conclusion, without the risk that their false starts, dead ends, and  mistakes will harm their real-world ability to earn a living. Anonymity  is more complex; it has its uses, sure, but it’s a call option on  recreational harm. And nobody is more anonymous than one more  participant in an angry mob.

So I hope the prospective outing of Scott Alexander is a Schelling  Point for reconsidering social norms and legal rules around media and  privacy. The media can make someone famous, whether they like it or not;  social media can make them infamous in a matter of hours. Most people  don’t play the lottery, because they recognize that the odds are against  them, but viral media enroll everyone in a downside lottery. Your  ticket probably expires worthless, but every day there’s a new big  loser.

In the interest of full disclosure: I don’t have any direct  relationship with Scott, although we have a few dozen acquaintances in  common. I’ve linked to SSC in this newsletter a few times. Scott has  also linked to something I wrote once—under a pseudonym.


The Apocalypses That Weren’t

Two interesting bear theses a month or two ago were 1) that online  advertising would be hit harder in 2020 than it was in 2008, and  ad-driven tech companies would see lower profits and multiple  compression, and 2) that renters wouldn’t pay rent, leading to a spiral  of defaults. Neither one played out, but for every different reason. In  digital advertising, the Covid crisis dragged the future forward, making more retail spending either online-first or online-mediated. And so far, PPP and unemployment insurance have kept renters current.  But these are very different outcomes: advertising was a step-function  change that’s likely to be somewhat sticky; shoppers accustomed to  curbside pickup will be more likely to browse inventories virtually even  if they pick up goods in person. But the rent situation appears to be a  function of fiscal policies that have a definite expiration date.

Bureaucracy APIs

DoNotPay has raised $12m for its “robot lawyer” product,  which helps customers contest parking fines, file for unemployment,  cancel gym memberships, and otherwise replace paper chases and hold  music with a simple interface. Some of the systems DoNotPay assists with  are designed to be abusive; gyms and the New York Times  clearly make cancellation hard to reduce their churn rate. But in other  cases, DoNotPay is helping institutions skip a generation: unemployment  claims were automated decades ago, so they run on un-maintainable legacy  codebases. Building an API that gracefully handles the system’s quirks  may be easier than replacing the system itself.

(As a side note, DoNotPay’s founder, Josh Browder, is the great-grandson of the former general secretary of the American Communist Party. I’m glad the family has continued the tradition of fighting for the little guy, albeit in a more effective way.)

Big Tech Sees Like a State

A long-term Diff theme is that big  tech has similar incentives to big government: make reality richer (so  there’s more of it to tax) and legible (so taxation is easier). Two recent headlines in this vein:

Facebook’s Prediction Markets

Capital markets are the best prediction market in the world, because  they combine three important questions: are you right, are you right  about how wrong everyone else is, and are you right about something that  matters? But prices project a high-dimensional reality onto a number  line (or, if you want to get fancy using options, the two-dimensional  space of price and timing). So markets are not a great place to find  specific predictions about exactly what will happen. Facebook is trying  to conquer this particular curse of dimensionality with a reputation-based prediction market. Google has tried this internally  in the past, though it doesn’t appear to be active today. Prediction  markets are a challenge in part for the dimensionality reason above: if  you don’t control for how important and contrary a bet was, you select  for traders who have an edge because they’re either good at estimating  the consensus or good at predicting events that ultimately don’t matter.

Outflanking Carta

The most impressive thing about Carta is that to compete with them  today, you have to somehow outrun a network effect they’ve been building  for years. (See my writeup from May for more.) AngelList may be able to do just that: they’ve launched  a cap table management product, targeting the Indian market. It’s free,  it gives AngelList information they can use for their core product, and  it means that in at least some geographies, they’ll be ahead of Carta  if they try to make a market in private company stock.

Japan and Corporate Espionage

Japan is requiring universities to disclose foreign funding before they get research subsidies from the government. The US has had a few cases of professors who received undisclosed funds from the Chinese government. (Everyone has a weakness. For some of us, it’s competitively growing enormous pumpkins.) China’s increasingly autarkic technology policies  make sense in light of deteriorating relationships with the US and (to a  much lesser extent) its allies, but they give the CCP a very strong  incentive to keep up-to-date on other countries' research.