There are many calls to break up tech. Break up what, exactly? Regulate tech? Regulate what? There’s a lot of polarization about what to do about Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Google. That polarization is in part driven by anger. Dig a bit deeper and see fear. Maybe you’re feeling it. Here’s how I see it.

The Assumptions

  • People are heterogenous.
  • Peoples’ beliefs are heterogenous.
  • Peoples’ willingness to believe are heterogenous.
  • Peoples’ inventiveness and imagination are heterogenous.
  • Peoples’ willingness to tell or repeat stories are heterogenous.
  • Peoples’ susceptibility to stories, and to storytellers, are heterogenous.
  • Peoples’ need to belong are heterogenous.
  • People form networks because they need to belong.
  • Information (Gossip, facts, stories) is transmitted along those networks.
  • These variables (information, networks, needs) often form a system that reinforces upon itself.
  • Homophily, the tendency of birds of a feather to flock together, is a product of that reinforcement.
  • Homophily is powerful because of these reinforcing variables.

What Is Changing

The technology is what’s changing.

Whenever somebody ushers in a new way of communicating, boom, we get an explosion of progress. And then another boom, we get an explosion of conflict. Somebody invents moveable type and within thirty years everybody is killing each other in Germany. Somebody invents wireless radio and within a few decades everybody is killing each other. Somebody invents the newsfeed, and within a decade, teenagers and octogenarians alike are radicalized, and killing each other.

Every burst of technological progress brings positive change and negative residue. This latest one we’re experiencing is no different. There has been some positive change. We’re accumulating some very bad residue.

The explosion of network linked machine readable data has increased the bandwidth of our social networks. It’s not that we all have more connections than ever before – (though many are now able to maintain a lot more connections) – it’s the amount of information flowing along those ties that is so much greater.

This flow of information is hitting people who were always latently susceptible to stories. It’s a trait that’s a continuum – from the gullible to the cynical. Expose a couple million people who always leaned gullible to a firehose of misinformation and pretty soon you got people shouting about flat earth and swearing off vaccines. Aim that same firehose at the cynical, and they shut off from it.

This new technology has granted a generation of people the opportunity to amplify their influence. The barriers have never been lower – and have come down over the past 600 years. The capital investment required to run a printing press in the 15th Century must have been quite high. The social capital was high. The marginal cost, both in terms of paper and precision engineering of metal, was especially high. The cost of distribution, given that not a lot of people knew how to read, because society couldn’t afford to teach people how to, was extremely high. Today, many more people can publish their thoughts to the world – though they need a smartphone, a data plan, and around five minutes to get started. The cost of distribution is far lower. We now live in an era where somebody with as few as 400 instagram followers feel like they are entitled a freebee for being an influencer. Or, a teenager in Macedonia can make a killing on the ad market just by telling a bunch of people exactly what they want to hear on Facebook. Truly, what an era to be alive.

This technology has enabled more people to make up more new stories, and have them diffuse faster.

Finally, communitarianism has been in retreat for awhile. This has made more people are more lonely. Many people really want to belong. Is it any wonder why virtual communities have grown up around stories that lend group identity? Is it any wonder why such groups may be collectively susceptible? Fearful populations polarize and confidence men often organize.

What It Means

There’s a call to break up Facebook and Google. There are counter calls to leave them alone. There’s a middle ground that is calling for regulation. Let’s start there.

Regulate what?

Stories. Tools. Education. Income.

In nearly every state with laws, speech and stories, are regulated. One can’t say certain things in certain environments. In Canada, one can’t say things that seriously undermine collective security. And for good reason. Our collective security is our ultimate risk pool, and is of paramount importance. Through this lens, individual liberty has a hard bound, an injustice that is tolerated by the majority in order for the whole to prevent wholesale enslavement and extermination.

(Just because memories of attempted enslavement of the British Empire have receded does not mean that the threat has disappeared.)

The best line of defence against confidence men and tyrants is an intelligent population. It’s our collective responsibility, as citizens (and small l liberals) to create greater intelligence and advance liberty. Individuals have the liberty to be as ignorant as they want to be, but they may not have the right to cause harm to others or generate externalities at no cost to themselves. In some senses, the social polluter must pay.

We may need to mandate the creation of new tools for citizens. We may need to develop new curriculum in our schools to enhance the way people understand and remember stories. Perhaps the answer to fighting fear and tyranny is through greater empowerment and enlightenment.

We may have to make adjustments to tax policy to pay for these tools and social capital. Great wealth has been generated through the productivity growth caused by this technology. A portion of those gains, perhaps, need to be redirected away from offshore islands and directed back into schools, tools, and programmes? Would that be fair?

If, as I have been saying all along, that homophily is a powerful force, can we realize that we’re all in it together? Will the citizens of a nation choose to be better off together on some fronts, together, by sacrificing some autonomy, in order to get collective benefits? What’s that right balance between autonomy, wealth, and certainty? Can we come to some sort of agreement, rationally, that is Pareto Optimal?

What do you think? What do you think of the twelve assumptions? What do you think of the trends as described? Do you believe balance between autonomy, wealth, and certainty is desirable? Possible?