Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Rational Ignorance

Academic life is ruining the internet for me. An example: Today I read Joi Ito’s wandering entry on money, economics, and physics, and the first thing I thought of doing was to post a bibliography of all of the reading that should have been done before that post was made. And then I realized that posting such a bibliography is the equivalent of shouting at the television. It doesn’t matter what I say about it. The TV (and the internet) can’t really hear me.

Lago reacts to an interesting point that I in fact pondered yesterday before posting my thoughts from my lunch with Seth. Is it better for me to post my superficial musings with Seth in the one hour that I had before I needed to move on to the next thing, or do I scribble them in my notebook and write a more rigorous treatment with references. I decided, as Cory often says, that my blog is my notebook and that even though many of my thoughts were half-baked, it was better to write early/write often than to back burner the thoughts and probably never get around to posting them.

If you read on in Lago's post, he does raise a very interesting way to look at the trade-offs of shallow vs rigorous. What is the cost of rigor and is it worth it?

I am not an academic. I am an extremely busy businessman who happens be lucky enough to meet quite a few smart people from a variety of fields. As one good friend has told me, my primary purpose is to connect people. It probably adds more value to society for me to spend one hour getting two people excited enough to talk to each other than to sit and ponder a notion by myself. My blog is not a rigorous treatment of the topics that I'm interested in, but rather a collection of links, questions, thoughts and points of view. A great variety of people read this blog and I'm sure that just about any professional thinker in on any topic I write about will find my treatment of the topic rather superficial. The question is to me is whether this is valuable or whether my lack of rigor could actually be a disservice to the discourse.

Getting back to my last post... I actually did think about spending the weekend dragging out my old notes from Hayek, Coase, Arrow, Chandler, Shannon, Mauss, Simon, etc. and digging into my memory and trying to tie all of this together. Instead, I posted a my rambling thoughts because I knew I'd never do it if I put it off. Also, I realize that I will never be able to compete directly with full-time academic and that it is not my position to answer these questions in a rigorous way. I suppose that if I can end up getting Seth, an economist and a rabbi to sit down and chat about world views over dinner at some point, I will have served my purpose.

I don't want to ignite a academic vs non-academic flame-war here. I'm just trying to point out, as Lago does, that we are all making decisions about how much to study in order for us to make the right decisions. I don't have the time or the ability to do "all of the reading that should have been done before that post was made." Having said that, I would encourage people to post "a bibliography of all of the reading" since I am interested and so are many other people.

sethlJohn Brockman, literary agent extraordinaire and editor/publisher of Edge introduced me to Seth Lloyd via good old fashioned email. I had lunch with Seth today.

Seth is known for his seminal works in the area of quantum computing and is visiting Japan for a year. We talked a bit about Japan, but I jumped at the opportunity to talk to him about some of the loftier things that are puzzling me these days. My first love was physics, but I dropped out when college physics turned out to be more about math than the art of physics. I'm now a repressed physics lover who can't keep up with the math. Therefore, I always jump at the opportunity to have someone explain physics to me in an intuitive way.

Seth explained that historically, physicists have always talked a lot about energy and the conservation of energy. Energy changed form, but there was always the same amount. They later found that you would lose a bit of energy over time and they attributed this to entropy. Recently, people have realized that entropy is sort of randomized molecules and looks a lot like information. Seth explained that the whole universe could be viewed as a big huge computer and you could apply information theory on physics and vice versa.

At this point I tossed out some of the questions I've been asking all of the smart people I've been meeting these days. What is money? Is economics really the way we should be analyzing and managing the exchange of value in society? How are non-financial assets such as trust, beliefs and culture created and transmitted? Does more money beyond a certain point really make you happier and if not, what is happiness?

Seth talked about how money was similar to energy in that it was conserved, at least on paper. Seth pointed out that most things that make you happy require money and energy, but that money and energy in themselves do not usually make you happy. In a sense, they are a necessary part of the process, but not the end. You do get an endorphin rush from the process of scoring more points in a game, gambling, or making more money, but the happiness you get from chasing these obsessions is not the same happiness you get when you finish a great meal or finish a session of meditation.

Seth pointed out that if you are struggling to survive in a tough environment, eating fatty and sweet foods and conserving your energy are probably good things. When you have enough food, sitting around eating sweets on the couch suddenly becomes detrimental. Is there an equivalent to this with money? I believe that free markets and democracy are great things and are the foundation of civilization and progress. I believe that efficiency and greed play a big role in creating healthy economies. Having said that, I do not believe that just because we have free markets and democracies, that people will be happy or that we will have peace. My question is, at what point, if any, do you have too much money? At what point is greed pointless and destructive? Can countries and economies become addicted to economic growth or become financially obese?

Neoclassical economists tend to model human behavior with a simple formula where more money makes you happier and people will do everything they can to earn more. This is like saying that the more calories you take in the healthier you will be and that eating more makes the world a better place. It's obvious to most real people that we decide what to spend our time and money on based on a variety of psychological, cultural and societal influences. Very few of us only spend money to make more money. The question I posed to Seth was whether there were models from the study of energy and entropy or from quantum computing that could be applied to try to understand some of the issues at the edges of economics? Are there ways of measuring and analyzing non-financial, non-conservative value such as culture, love and trust? Were there non-economics models for modeling some of these things? Was there a way to determine whether certain types of pursuits of happiness tended to help the human condition more than others? Was there something in information theory that could help us understand the value of social networks or ties?

Seth said he would ponder some of this stuff and get back to me. I promised to try to render some of my thoughts into a more focused question or problem.

I'll be in Austin, Texas in March (13-16) for a conference called Wireless Future, actually a "mini-conference" that's part of South by Southwest Interactive. I think I'm on two panels. According to Jon Lebkowsky, who's one of the organizers, the conference focuses on developers, entrepreneurs, and creative thinkers who're interested in wireless technology and mobility. The program includes major presentations by Howard Rheingold (the keynote, called "Mobile Communication, Pervasive Computing, and Collective Action") and Kevin Werbach (the opening presentation, called "The Open Spectrum Revolution"). Other presenters include Cory Doctorow, Dewayne Henricks, David Weinberger, David Isenberg, Dave Hughes, and Justin Hall. We're also throwing a big EFF/Creative Commons party on March 15.

I need to figure out how to blog about upcoming conferences in an organized way. I wonder if I should have a rotating banner in the sidebar. Do you think that putting them in on my travel page is enough?

Ethan and I will be leading a discussion called Emergent Democracy Worldwide at the Digital Democracy Teach-In in San Diego on February 9. Ethan has posted a critique of Jim Moore's Second Superpower and my Emergent Democracy paper. He asks some important questions. One of the questions, which gets developed more in the comments is what made Salam Pax successful? One of the most difficult things that the we face is getting people to care about people in developing nations. Somehow, Salam Pax was able to get Americans to read his blog and get them to care in a way that statistics and objective reporting could not.

Salam Pax wrote English like a native, he was relatively well off, he shared a cultural context (his music, his humor) with his American audience. What else? Will a Salam Pax of Congo emerge? Ethan talks about the current small percentage of privileged elite who currently blog and how this is not representative. I think that Salam Pax is also not representative of the average man in Iraq. From a practical perspective, I think that we are going to have to start by finding a small number of interesting and articulate translator/bridges in each of the developing nations. These people, like Salam Pax, will most likely come from privileged positions, but if they, like Salam Pax strive to recruit more bloggers and help provide voices to those who are less technically or otherwise not currently capable of expressing themselves, this is a start.

I think the two key pieces to work on first are to report on issues in under-reported regions and to help people care about issues in these regions. As Jack Kemp once said, "It doesn't matter what you know, if you don't care." Salam Pax was able to help many Americans care and know more about Iraq. How can we seed this in other countries and increase the scale. Iraq is much wealthier and advanced that many developing nations and it is unlikely that there is a Salam Pax in every country that needs a voice. I'm looking forward to talking to and discussing with Ethan and others who are in or work in developing nations to try to think of ways to make the technology more accessibly and their voices more interesting to the rest of the world.

Ethan's post is quite long and he asks many other questions that are quite important, so I suggest you read it. I thought I would highlight just this point for now.

I'll be giving a plenary keynote at MILIA in Cannes, France on Thursday, April 1 at 9:30 AM. The title of the talk will be "Mobile Lifestyles" but, I'll build on the presentation at I gave at the Sony Open Forum and add some stuff about mobility. I'll be in Canne from March 31-April 3. If you're going to MILIA this year, let me know.

Wiki page of talking notes. Please make suggestions here.