Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 148: A new era for the internet; against experts; public intellectuals in the internet age; and more...

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A new era in the politics of the internet

Ben Thompson of Stratechery has a brilliant essay on politics and the future of the Internet. Do read it. Thompson uses Fukuyama’s much misunderstood End of History as a framework to think about the future of technology. As Thompson says, Fukuyama did not argue (in 1992) that history was “over” in the sense that there would be no more conflict or great events. His argument was that liberal democracy represents a natural endpoint that best balances human desires and needs - but one that it is nevertheless vulnerable to internal conflict or attack on its core tenets.

Such conflict - as we’re seeing in the final days of Trump - can upset the liberal democratic equilibrium, even if it doesn’t threaten its logic. Thompson’s argument is that the internet is in a similar position. Its natural endpoint, as Thompson laid out last year in the (also excellent) essay “The End of the Beginning”, is dominance by a handful of aggregator platforms. But that endpoint, like democracy’s, is vulnerable to political conflict. In the case of the internet, that conflict arises from individuals and states fearing the power of big US tech companies (greatly on display recently, of course).

The consequence, says Thompson, will be a shift to decentralised platforms and open protocols. I’m less sure. As Thompson shows, (non-US, non-China) nation states have more to fear than (almost all) individuals from the power of Facebook et al - and decentralised solutions don’t solve their problems. I agree that European governments will fail in build local alternatives to internet platforms, but they’ve shown that they can they can be annoying enough to shift platform behaviour. I suspect the internet’s future is even messier and more chaotic than democracy’s. 

Should you trust experts?

Reflecting back in March in TiB 108 on the failure of key institutions to take coronavirus seriously from the beginning, I said:

Developing an epistemology that takes unusual ideas seriously without falling for them all will be one of the important challenges of the coming decade

This turns out to be very difficult. Alvaro de Menard has a superb pair of posts - Are Experts Real? and Unjustified True Disbelief - on how to think about when to trust established institutions and experts and when to doubt them. Both are worth your time.

Are Experts Real?” argues that true expertise requires tight feedback loops and a close connection between the outcome we care about (e.g. “truth”) and the metric that generates prestige (e.g. citations). Sadly, says de Menard, many fields of academia (and other institutions) lack both. As a result, many published findings are false, but status remains sticky.

But, unfortunately, there’s no easy solution. As de Menard argues in “Unjustified True Belief”, deciding to ignore the experts wholesale and embrace heterodox thinking is, on net, harmful (e.g. you might avoid believing false psychology results, but if it makes you an anti-vaxxer, it’s not worth it). And if it were easy to distinguish between the cases where the experts are right and those where they’re wrong, there wouldn’t be a problem in the first place. I suppose it’s a form of epistemic learned helplessness. Some commentators are less pessimistic, but de Menard’s frustration with his own conclusion shows what a difficult and important problem it is. 

How the internet changes intellectuals

Episode two of the TiB podcast is out: it’s a conversation with Anna Gat, founder and CEO of Interintellect (II), a global community of curious people that’s reshaping what it means to be a public intellectual today. Interintellect members host “salons” online to discuss topics from the urgent to the esoteric (As it happens, I’m hosting one tonight on what we can learn from the medieval period). Anna is one of the deepest thinkers I know on how the internet is changing the way knowledge and community are created and communicated.

One of the things I found most interesting in our conversation was Anna’s point about how II changes the incentives that public intellectuals face. Arguably in the first wave of internet-era public intellectuals the only viable “business model” was to generate outrage or partisan attachment. By creating a means to monetise niche interests, II allows for a more diverse and moderate ecosystem of voices. You can think of this as a mashup between Adam Smith’s famous maxim about specialisation and Cowen’s Law of Interesting Content.

We cover lots of ground in the conversation, including:

Enjoy! All feedback welcome - I’m still getting the hang of it… (I was surprised and delighted by the reception to the first episode) 

Quick links

  1. The Science of Science. Stunningly rich Michael Nielsen Q&A thread on what science tells us about science.
  2. Like a patient etherized upon a table. How AI visualises poetry.
  3. When the moon hits your eye. Beautiful diagram of every known object in the solar system larger than 10km.
  4. Opium of the people? Striking map of religious belief in Germany (file under "Long run impacts of place")
  5. Open Open AI? Interesting initiative in open source artificial intelligence (Thanks Ian Hogarth for the link)

What do you think?

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Until next week,

Matt Clifford

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