Larry Sanger, the first “editor” of Wikipedia (speaking loosely), is launching a new project to define technical sharing and interopability standards for online encyclopedias.
The aim is to create an “encyclopshere” of online encylopedias, based on the example of the “blogosphere” of online comment, and thereby route around the fairly obvious flaws with Wikipedia today.
I wouldn’t exactly buy into this project, but of course I don’t need to. Even if it is not likely to succeed, there is still a chance of it producing something valuable, either in the form of a product, or in the form of a lesson about what makes collaborative projects and search for truth work.
I’m not going to dig into it all today. It’s a large question. This post is a collection of resources, some from Sanger’s project, some from elsewhere, that I think are relevant.
Text of speech by Sanger announcing the project:
2-part post by Sanger on Slashdot in 2005 about the early history of Wikipedia:
David Chapman on subculture evolution, and Venkatesh Rao on identity
My own earliest memory of an online community becoming poisoned and dying is the Eternal September of 1993.
These are things that should be listed here but I can’t find
- Moldbug posted an idea for a site where you could basically attach commentary to articles? A sort of cross between Wikipedia and Gab’s Dissenter product (though it was long before Gab, of course). Someone actually implemented a first cut, and I used it.
- Stack Overflow set out to be an online reference of solutions to programming problems. Its founders thought quite deeply about what it would take to build the site and its community of contributors, and they were extremely successful in achieving their aims. I’m pretty sure i’ve seen a good longform account of this somewhere, probably by Atwood. This little piece gives a flavour of the way they think about things. https://stackoverflow.blog/2010/01/04/stack-overflow-where-we-hate-fun/
A few of my own pieces I think are relevant:
- Where constitutions come from and what makes them work. https://blog.anomalyuk.party/2016/09/constitutions/ . I really think this one is the most relevant — if you’re going to have rules (and you probably are), those rules should be about balancing parties’ competing interests, and those parties should be motivated to maintain the effectiveness of the rules
- Twitter and neoreaction. I think the technical properties of Twitter produced a particular effect for neoreaction. In this context, that’s an example of the relationship between technical features and the behaviour of users. https://blog.anomalyuk.party/2016/02/neoreaction-and-twitter/
- Party Leadership Elections. Odd one here, but the point is central. A group has to stand for something: if it stands only for its membership, then there’s no reason for it to be different from anything else. https://blog.anomalyuk.party/2019/05/party-leadership-elections-are-undemocratic/ . My first response to Sanger’s project also focused on this aspect: https://blog.anomalyuk.party/2019/10/decentralised-monopolies/
- Maybe relevant? “a bunch of people on the internet (1) is not an organisation and (2) is a terrible way to start an organisation. You have to _start_ with personal relationships and trust and actual resources. A real organisation can _use_ online for some purposes, but it can’t originate there” https://twitter.com/anomalyuk/status/1124333907883769862
Brief thoughts on culture & community
Each of these needs fleshing out. Some of them are discussed in the links above.
- A community has to stand for something, and have a way of making sure it will continue to stand for what it stands for. (Oh, that’s Goal-Content Integrity)
- If it’s too restrictive about what is allowed in, a few early adopters with a lot of energy will turn it into their own private club
- Conquest’s Laws
- If you let in trolls, you will end up with a community of that subset of people who are willing to put up with the trolls
- A system that works well when the real-world stakes are low will immediately fail catastrophically when the real-world stakes get high (Mtgox, arguably wikipedia)
- It would be ideal to just not have a community, just a project, but that’s not possible (one of the points from Sanger’s slashdot history)
- All the real value comes from the best contributions. But if you don’t have the mediocre contributions, you don’t have anything. Most of your project only exists in order to be the venue where the rare valuable stuff happens.
- Rules are meaningless independent of the people who follow and enforce them. Identical rules will succeed in one place and fail in another. But rules still matter.
Requirements for Encyclopedia Protocol
This isn’t remotely definitive, but I have actually tried to produce encyclopedia content, and run into obstacles I didn’t expect, so here’s some stuff to throw on the whiteboard. (“Requirements” in the technical sense of what needs the solution is trying to satisfy, not in the sense these are all definitely 100% necessary)
- Obvious stuff: rich text, embedded pictures and diagrams.
- Internal linkage. Each entry/article is a first-class sharable entity. It has a single title. It can be referenced by that title, plus source and version
- Rendering. Debatable, but personally I strongly want to be able easily to turn an encylopedia into a genuine printable format, as well as it being an easy-to-access web resource
- External links. You have to be able easily to reference external resources in a way that is compatible with standard bibiliography/citation techniques. I’ve found this frustratingly difficult.
- Revision control. You need to know who changed what, when.
I fell yesterday into the sad bitching about how big and slow software has become. This is a very old complaint — the EMACS editor used to be mocked as “eight megabytes and constantly swapping” back when eight megabytes was a huge amount of memory, but that rounds down to zero pixels on a graph of memory utilisation on a modern laptop.
I retailed the usual whines about electron and so on, but really any disagreements are at the margin: the real underlying reasons for software bloat are, unfortunately, good reasons.
Here’s a more interesting illustration: I recently watched this video. It’s a one-hour presentation by a Microsoft developer explaining MS’s implementation of the new C++ charconv header.
This is a library for converting numbers to and from decimal format. Computers internally work with fractions or large numbers in a binary floating-point format, so you have to be able to convert that format to and from a string of decimal digits.
All computers have to do that. My ZX81 did it 27 years ago (though its predecessor the ZX80 couldn’t — it worked only with whole numbers). It was part of the 8K of software built into the machine, along with the full floating-point mathematics support in software.
The new charconv library the Microsoft guy was presenting contains 5300 lines of C++, taking 221K of code and another 400K of data tables.
And — to make it clear — it’s awesome. I was glued to the one-hour video on what they’ve done. The clever bit is getting the right number of decimal digits.
The technical problem is that a fractional decimal number usually doesn’t convert exactly to a binary number. Therefore when you convert from decimal to binary — to do any calculations with the number — you’re getting a slightly different number. That’s OK. But then when you convert back from binary to decimal, you can get an exact decimal representation of the binary approximation of the original decimal number, so it’s a bit different to what you started with. That’s quite annoying. It can even cause program bugs.
The current C++ language standard says the new functions to convert binary to decimal should be able to round to the shortest decimal representation that will exactly convert back to the same binary value. That’s difficult to work out, and really really difficult to work out quickly. In fact a new method of doing it was produced by a guy called Ulf Adams at Google just in 2018, and the Microsoft team have implemented that algorithm for their standard library.
This is all very cool. But the relevance to my point is that when I, in a C++ program, decide to output a floating point number in a decimal form, maybe to save into a database or communicate to another program, and I use this standard to_chars function, I’m invoking all this mass of ingenious code to do the conversion. I may or may not notice that the rounding is now perfect in a way it never was before from 1982 to 2018. I probably won’t notice the 600K of library code that’s being used by my program. If I hadn’t happened to see this video, I would never have had any idea about any of this.
That’s for printing a number! It seems close to the simplest thing a computer program can do. Everything else in my program, dealing with text, or graphics, or networking, or anything has gone through this kind of improvement, often many times. Sometimes your program is getting real benefit from the improvements. Sometimes it’s getting the effect of the improvement, but they don’t make any useful difference for you. Sometimes you aren’t using the new functionality at all, but it still gets included when your program runs. That’s slightly unfortunate, but simplicity is valuable, and grabbing big chunks of functionality is simpler than finely selecting them.
The bottom line is that everything has a cost, even slimming down software, and if you insist on using a low-end 6-year-old computer like I do then it’s not worth most developers’ time to cater to you. I do think there is too much bloat, but it’s about tradeoffs at the margin; there will always be bloat, and that’s OK.
I don’t understand Syria, and I’m not going to, and I’m OK with that. Trump’s pullout may be bad for America for all I know.
The concrete harmful impact of Russia having a lot of influence in Syria (as it did in the 1980s) isn’t spelled out, instead we just get innuendo.
I tweeted that Kurds will always be allies in destabilising, and always be enemies of peace, because of their situation as a stateless cross-border group. That’s simplistic, but if it’s not true someone needs to explain how. Peace in any of the countries in which they have large populations has to include either (a) they give up their claim to statehood, or (b) they achieve their own state, and I have never heard anyone suggest that (b) is a realistic possibility. There is a chance in any one country that you could get an autonomy-based settlement short of statehood which is beneficial for them, but while the other countries in which they have large populations are unstable, that can’t be a peaceful settlement, because they will still be fighting in the others. As I tweeted, none of this is their fault — it seems they were completely screwed in the 20th Century but this is the position today.
If there’s any coherent view coming from the US establishment, it’s anti-Iran. They may have a good reason for that, but I don’t know what it is. The reason probably has a lot to do with either Israel or Saudi or both, but I don’t expect to ever find an answer I can be sure is true.
Syria has been a bloodbath since the beginning of the Arab Spring attempt to depose Assad. Anyone suddenly upset about the humanitarian impact this week can be dismissed out of hand.
“Kurds were our allies”. How is that, exactly? I asked on twitter, sarcastically, for links to the announcements of and debates of this policy. It was made ad-hoc by the military and civil service. The president never talked to the electorate about it. Quite possibly the president (Obama) never even knew about it. Which is perfectly OK. But there is sleight of hand here. The line we are getting is: “We allied with the Kurds and relied on them, now we need to stand up for them”. The two “we” in there are two different groups. The opaque Washington foreign-policy establishment allied with the Kurds, without input from or notification of the general public. Now the voters are being asked by the media to stand by some implied commitment they played no part in making.
1) So much context has been lost and recent history revised in the coverage of this growing crisis between Turkey and Syria. US always assured Ankara that their support for the YPG was ‘temporary, tactical and transactional’ – a US diplomat quoted here in my new book on Erdogan@hannahluci https://twitter.com/hannahluci/status/1184012129562775552
From around 14th October, the Kurds have made some kind of arrangement with the Syrian Government, and the narrative has switched from “it’s terrible to abandon the Kurds” to “Now the Russians are winning”. This is utterly disgraceful. It entirely proves that the complaints about the fate of the Kurds the previous days were insincere. Had the concern really been for the Kurds, then Monday would have been a day of rejoicing at their safety. Instead, the opposition to the withdrawl policy stays the same but the reasons change.
It is because of this sort of thing that I automatically disregard all foreign policy arguments that are made on humanitarian grounds. I don’t even consider the possibility that they might be well-founded. The concept of intervening internationally to protect civilians is 100% discredited in my eyes.
Around 500,000 human beings were killed in Syria while Barack Obama was president and leading for a “political settlement” to that civil war Media has been more outraged in the last 72 hours over our Syria policy than they were at any point during 7 years of slaughter@BuckSexton https://twitter.com/BuckSexton/status/1183812563261382656
Kinda telling that the intensity of Online Outrage expressed by Smart People today over the Kingsman-meme isn’t any perceptibly different than the Online Outrage they were emoting yesterday or the day before over, like, The Kurds being slaughtered@soncharm https://twitter.com/soncharm/status/1183750875321438208
it’s all a video game
Trump, though I find him amusing, I consider no more trustworthy than the rest of them. I am not able to judge whether his policies are good or bad, but he is the only person who makes arguments for his Syria policy which make sense. The arguments against are always obviously dishonest (like the ABC gun show footage), insincere, or rest on vague unstated assumptions (such as that nothing that Russia wants can be allowed).
The FSA leader who John McCain took a picture with is now part of the invasion of Northern Syria, which the hawks are insisting we must oppose.@j_arthur_bloom https://twitter.com/j_arthur_bloom/status/1183364011708080128
There’s another related point, more subtle but much more general. Modern thought does not admit of a distinction between crimes of commission and crimes of omission. To a naive rationalist, causing harm and allowing harm to happen are equivalent. But like so many arguments you hear today, the equivalence rests on an entirely unrealistic level of certainty towards the assumptions that are being made about the results of action or inaction. The potential for very large unexpected harmful effects is very much greater in military action than it is in inaction, and the expected benefits of action have to be large enough to outweigh that category of risk. That is equally true whether the harms and benefits in question are political, financial or humanitarian.
A few years back, some American sportsmen made a big deal about pushing their politics — basically BLM — during events and interviews and things.
On the right, this was quite widely seen as unpleasant. For example, “Lion of the Blogosphere” wrote two years ago on his blog:
The average NFL player is paid $1.9 million/year to entertain prole whites who love the American flag, and part of the show is that they are supposed act patriotic when the National Anthem is playing.
If I inflicted my political opinions on my employer’s customers I’d be fired, and I get paid a lot less than $1.9 million/year.https://lionoftheblogosphere.wordpress.com/2017/09/24/boycottnfl-part-2/
I happen to have picked @LionBlogosphere — I follow a whole lot of weirdos on twitter, but he is much closer to a mainstream American Conservative.
Anyway, not that it’s really any of my business, I agree with him entirely; I think that’s a totally reasonable position for him to take. And, while the whole issue has dragged on, not 100% resolved, his side has at any rate not definitively lost. I think it has come out slightly ahead, and the leagues and teams have mostly taken the view that their players should not insult their spectators.
But now, of course, we have the China thing. NBA basketball is huge in China, and there’s some kind of protest movement in Hong Kong that I don’t know much about, and some basketball people made sympathetic noises about the HK protesters, and the Chinese government was very upset.
I’m trying hard to remain ignorant of the Hong Kong thing. A new extradition law was brought in, or something, and that’s maybe against what the Chinese government had previously promised in terms of HK’s autonomy, and there have been protests going on for a month or three, which have been getting the whole unquestioning popular support in the West that I hate so much. So my reflex view is on the side of the CPC, but of course they may really be doing something bad for all I know.
Either way, right or wrong, the Chinese government are not going to be friendly to foreigners who take sides against them. They are not going to allow them a public platform in their country, any more than they allow their enemies within the country a public platform. And if you are a basketball team that’s going to do tours and broadcast games in China, the Chinese government is your customer. And, as @LionBlogosphere said, “If I inflicted my political opinions on my employer’s customers I’d be fired”.
So I think we’re all agreed.
Except, of course, that @LionBlogosphere today retweeted Ted Cruz saying,
It is outrageous that the Chinese Communist Party is using its economic power to suppress the speech of Americans inside the United States:https://www.tedcruz.org/news/the-hill-ocasio-cortez-ted-cruz-join-colleagues-blasting-nba-for-outrageous-response-to-china/
Again, I’m not especially objecting to Lion, I just follow him and not, say, Ted Cruz, who in September 2016 said
Here’s a peaceful protest: never buy another shoe, shirt, or jersey of rich spoiled athletes who dishonor our flag. https://t.co/GrGPYX8HCh
If you are putting economic pressure on sports teams, and you expect them to respond, well, so can their other customers, and maybe it’s reasonable for the teams and leagues to respond to that too.
Surely, you can draw a distinction between #BLM and “Free Hong Kong”. The teams in question are all American, and you can demand of them a loyalty to America while they have no equivalent duty of loyalty to China. But they would no doubt claim they were being loyal to America by seeking to change it in the way they sought — the real objection is they were offending their customers. Another distinction is that it wasn’t the US government putting pressure on the teams to censor themselves, but the Chinese government is doing so. Well, the relationship between citizens and government is different in China than it is in the US. International sport has long depended on not bringing one country’s politics into another. Most Americans probably think that China should be a democracy with free speech. But it isn’t. If Ted Cruz thinks that means the NBA shouldn’t do business with China, that’s a coherent position. But if he doesn’t think that, then obviously the NBA will take steps to make their product marketable there, if there is commercial reason to. And if he thinks that this is a matter of the principle of free speech, which should outweigh that commercial reason — then why did he think the opposite in 2016?
Now, you can point to a contradiction between the relative willingness of the entertainment industry to allow opposition to the US government, and their very rapid arse-covering with respect to the Chinese government. That reflects both their own political biases, and the relative power of the US and Chinese governments over their ability to do business. But if the other side is contradicting itself, it doesn’t help to contradict yourself, even worse, in the opposite direction. Ted Cruz was right in 2016, he (and @LionBlogosphere) could very justifiably spend these weeks banging on about the inconsistency in sportsmen demanding the right to insult symbols of the American nation while being careful to avoid insulting the Chinese nation. Instead they just destroy their own previous arguments.
Finally, the 2016 argument was the more important of the two. By flipping now, they are putting themselves in the wrong for next time. You said that political protests at sporting events was a matter of free speech.
[context: I never actually made a decision to step away from blogging and twitter, I just had more interesting things to do]
Ten to twenty years ago, one of the big buzzwords was decentralisation. New communication technology means that things that used to have to be organised by a central body can now be done spontaneously between users.
By decentralising an activity, you remove the bottleneck of the central coordinator. You reduce the status war of having a “leader” (who leads Extinction Rebellion?) You can evade countermeasures.
Also, it was generally assumed, you create choice. If you can have one decentralised network, you can have two, or ten, or a million.
Some of that was hype, some of it is true. But the issue of choice has turned out to be the most interesting. Replacing a hierarchical organisation (of authority, or of communication framework) with a decentralised network does do away with the nominal leader or controller. But it doesn’t do away with network effects. Indeed, by removing some of the barriers to scale it can greatly increase them.
The result of decentralisation plus network effects is the decentralised monopoly.
Outside of one special case I’ll come back to, I think the best examples of decentralised monopolies are open-source software projects. The essence of these projects is that there is no control; anyone can take the source code, change it, build it, and distribute it. That goes even for large widely-used things like the Linux kernel or the Apache webserver. But, most of the time, there’s no good reason to do so. The result is a voluntary centralisation.
The recent trend has been to recentralisation: the old centralised Television and newspapers give way to decentralised blogs and podcasts, which gives way to recentralised Facebook and Youtube. But that is still voluntary. The newspapers and television stations had control because they owned the actual infrastructure. Facebook and Google own some infrastructure, but in comparison to their actual business that’s negligible. Alphabet market cap is apparently USD 825bn, their balance sheet lists plant & equipment at USD 60bn.
That’s not really counterintuitive. It’s just network effects, and/or Schelling points. I’d love to see that recentralisation reversed, but I don’t think it’s possible — if there’s going to be a monopoly because of network effects, then a business that can pay to market its network is bound to outcompete a network that doesn’t have a central owner.
Where you have something that is made of decentralised contributions, the network effects get so much stronger than they do for pure consumers. You have to put real work into contributing, and the return on doing that work depends on the contributions of others.
Wikipedia is a prime example of this. Now it isn’t 100% decentralized, as somebody owns the servers and the domain name, so while anyone can contribute, there is an actual hierarchy with a root of sorts. But if you could design out that root authority, I don’t think it would change much. There is still just one Wikipedia, and all the work that is contributed to it can’t be contributed anywhere else instead without severely reducing its value. The decentralised selection of content (selection is of course the main work of an encyclopedia) still has to be done by those people who show up to do it, coordinated in some way that enough of them can put up with. If you fork it to produce some rival, as has been done a few times, your rival has none of the value.
That’s not to deny Wikipedia’s many flaws. There are many areas where it is systematically bad. But I think Wikipedia is what it necessarily must be. That’s the real point of decentralised monopoly — if it is not under some central control, then there is nobody who can make it other than what it is. This echoes, somewhat, the repost about political parties: how can one political party, open to anyone and run by its members, be different from any other political party open to anyone and run by its members? In a sense, complete openness is the most unyielding authority of all.
The one special case of decentralised monopoly is, of course, the bitcoin blockchain. It’s special because being decentralised and a monopoly are not incidental attributes, but the central aims of its design. As such, it bears the same relationship to a study of decentralised monopoly as dog breeding does to natural selection.
I explained the essence of what makes bitcoin before: it’s a voting system where you are fined for voting on the losing side. That rule is guaranteed to produce a consensus, and the consensus is likely to be “correct” from the point of view of the contributors. That’s the design aim, but see how similar it is to making a contribution to any other open collaborative project. Work that is put into maintaining a Myspace page, or keeping a presence on Gab, is nearly as wasted as the work spent mining an orphan bitcoin block. Either I’m contributing to the project that everyone else is using, or I’m shouting in the wilderness.
The most important aspect that drives this authority is probably not decentralisation as such, or even openness to contributions, it’s being public. Ed West tweeted yesterday that he wished he could maintain different “flavours” of his twitter stream — a toned-down one for the normies, and a more hard-hitting one for the fans. I’ve tried to do that sort of thing numerous times, but it never worked; it failed on the same point: if I wasn’t blogging or tweeting as AnomalyUK, I was losing most of my audience. Moldbug outed himself because he couldn’t resist discussing his technical work on UR. He didn’t have to do that — it is possible to be two people online, but it’s not possible to be one person with two public faces. They automatically become one under the pressure of being public.
That basically is the same point as I made about the decline of conspiracy: the political mode we are now in is the one that you get when nobody conspires to prevent it. As such, you would expect it to be the historical norm, unless it destroys itself. And it isn’t the historical norm. (This is just a restatement of Jim on left singularities).
Originally posted on Medium as Jago Couch on Aug 22, 2015. It’s potentially confusing for me to criticize something as “undemocratic”, which is why I didn’t post it here, but the argument of the post is relevant to my recent posts so I now prefer to have it here to refer to.
We’ve all had our laugh at the Labour party’s leadership election, but it’s time to get serious.
“Internal party democracy” is deeply stupid. You could even say it is undemocratic.
The purpose of a party is to provide a choice — one among several — to voters in public elections.
If every party stands for “whatever its members say”, and each party’s membership is open, then there is no reason to expect the parties to differ from each other. No choice would be provided at the public elections.
Not only at the level of voting, but at the level of support (funding, campaigning), each individual can choose which party, if any, is theirs. But that choice can only be made sensibly if the citizen can tell what a party stands for, and what it is likely to stand for in future. To have value, a party has to stand for something specific and reasonably constant. This goal is not consistent with internal democracy.
The ideal organisational form for a party is for it to be run by a small self-selecting clique. That provides both consistency and the possibility of gradual adaptation to changing circumstances. A fixed constitution is not likely to work, and if it did work would completely freeze the party, making it unable to adapt. Any other arrangement (including single-person control) will produce unpredictable changes in position, reducing the value of supporting the party.
Note I’m not arguing against parties having large membership, or against the membership having influence. I am arguing that ordinary potential party members have *greater* influence by being able to join a party with a consistent predictable position, than by having a vote that can be overwhelmed by random motivated entryists. Because membership in a party is and should be voluntary, it is a case where influence should be entirely exerted through the force of “exit”, rather than “voice”. It is better to be a member of a party that is controlled by a small self-selecting clique whose opinions you know and agree with, than to be a member of one which is controlled by a vote of thousands of members, including yourself.
The Labour Party organisation is attempting to be reasonable about choosing which new members should be able to vote, but it is impossible because there is no rationale for allowing any of them to vote at all. If it’s legitimate for a member to change the direction of a party, then it’s legitimate to join the party in order to change its direction.
This contradiction has been brought to a head by Labour’s introduction of very low subscription fees to join as a voting “supporter”, but charging more is not an absolute defence against hostile entryism. It just postpones things until there’s an election which is close enough, and for high enough stakes to make an attack viable. Of course, the internet makes organising such an attack as easy as creating a hashtag.
I had to explain again in response to a comment on my “Decline of Conspiracy” post that, no, the Cathedral is not a conspiracy. It makes more sense to say that the Cathedral is the opposite of a conspiracy. It is what you get when there are no conspiracies 1.
The word “conspiracy” is basically clickbait, but I’m going to stick with it anyway. Be aware, though, that I don’t mean anything really weird by it. The management of any company is a conspiracy, in that the members discuss plans in private and only publicise them if it is advantageous for them to do so 2. @drethlin pointed out on twitter that HBO were able to keep the secret of the ending of Game of Thrones for months, despite hundreds of people needing to know it to make the episode.
In this sense, conspiracies are normal and common, though not quite as common as they used to be. That was my argument in the earlier piece: that as recently as a decade or so ago, a political party (or at least a faction within it) could agree an agenda in private and make confidential plans to pursue that agenda. That capability seems, since then, to have been lost. The key debates between leading politicians of the same party over what goals should be pursued and what means should be employed to pursue them are carried out in public.
I stand by that point. But on reflection I think it’s a much bigger deal. This is a recent development in a much longer trend. As I wrote yesterday in a comment, the Cathedral is defined by its lack of secrecy. The distinctive role of the universities and the press is to inform the public, and to do so with authoritative status. It is not defined by its ideology. However, its ideological direction is a predictable consequence of its transparency. A public competition for admiration causes a movement to the extreme: the most attractive position is the one just slightly more extreme than the others 3. This is the “holiness spiral”
The breakdown of conspiracy, then, is not just a phenomenon of the last decade that has given us Trump and so on. It is the root cause of the political direction of the last few centuries.
What is the cause of the breakdown of conspiracy? If I had to guess and point at one thing it would be protestantism. That, after all, was largely a move to remove the secrecy from religion 4. Once democracy got going, that removed much more secrecy. But it’s still an ongoing process: democracy until recently was mediated by non-public formal and informal institutions. The opening of the guilds can be seen as part of the same trend. Many of the things I have written about in the past may be related — the decline in personal loyalty, for example.
That produces a feedback loop — a belief in equality and openness brings more decision-making into the public sphere, which leads to holiness spirals, which leads to ever increasing belief in equality and openness. But it seems to me that the openness comes first, and the ideology results from it. The Cathedral is a sociological construct, not an ideological one.
Openness has benefits, of course. The advance of knowledge, and of commerce, were made possible or accelerated by the decline of secrecy. But it’s still useful to keep secrets.
Restating the “decline of conspiracy” argument in this context: until recently, the Cathedral, being fundamentally transparent, was subject to the peacock’s-tail type holiness spiral5 as defined above. Through democracy it caused politics to follow. However, the actual powers of the state were immediately in the hands of the civil service and political parties, who were not transparent, and exerted a moderating influence. There were self-perpetuating groups of powerful people — conspiracies — who could limit the choices open to the electorate and therefore slow the long-term political trends driven by the Cathedral. Today, as a result of internal democracy in political parties (particularly in the UK, a very recent development), and of unmediated channels of communication, those conspiracies have been broken open. A politician today is fundamentally in the same business as a journalist or a professor — he is competing for status by means of public statements. The internal debates of political parties are now public debates. In the past, in order to become a politician, other politicians had to accept you. Now you can be a TV star or a newspaper columnist today, and be a politician tomorrow. The incumbents can’t quietly agree to stop you, any more than they could quietly agree to have pizza for lunch.
- related: Personal and Collective Power, on coordination problems
It’s widely accepted that politics over the past 5–10 years has taken a turn to the crazy. The political debate has moved significantly from questions of economic interest to questions of identity. Unconventional figures are succeeding in elections: Donald Trump is president of the USA, Boris Johnson is joint favourite to be next Prime Minister of Britain.
The chief mechanism of this shift has been the destruction or bypassing of the old centres of power. The institutions and informal hierarchies that used to be important to politics no longer are. Obama was said to have bypassed the Democratic establishment with an internet and grass-roots campaign (though is that really true?) Trump undoubtedly ran against the Republican establishment and won, and his ad-hoc campaign seriously outperformed the institutional support behind the Clinton campaign. 1
Money is still important, in US politics, but the fund-raising establishments that mediated it are much less so. A candidate can appeal to donors directly, whether rich donors in person or large numbers of small donors via the internet. The money isn’t flowing through kingmaker fund-raisers who could influence the direction of a party with other people’s money.
From the other side, donors can get influence through big-name candidates, or through pressure groups that set the media agenda, better than through party institutions.
In the UK it’s access to media rather than money that gave the party establishments real power, but that power has declined in the same way: the old gatekeepers can be bypassed.
These are material causes, but there are also social causes. The political parties were once socially important — politicians believed in the party as a force in society, and as a kind of class consciousness. Politicians in a party were insiders, everyone else was an outsider, and insiders knew what was going on in a way that outsiders didn’t. The important people in the party were those who could organise and persuade in private2. That has faded: the parties have become more diverse in every sense, and there is much less in the way of solidarity and social ties to political institutions. 3
That’s the first element: the loss of power of political institutions. That certainly goes back more than the timescale of 5–10 years that I referred to. But its effects are still playing out. The new, open, meritocratic political mechanisms have given rise to a new style in politics.
When politics was carried out within powerful institutions with social and organisational coherence, political factions could keep secrets. They could plan to carry out actions, and to present arguments, without publicly announcing what they were going to do. Today that is not the case. Because political factions are open and meritocratic, collective decisions can only be reached in public.
The effects go further: because all communication within a faction is essentially public, the only way to advance within the faction is through public statements. If you can plan privately and then act, you can be responsible for the consequences of your actions. If you can only contribute to a public debate, then you are responsible for nothing but your public statements. The loss of institutional power has led, through the loss of secrecy, to a loss of responsibility.
The other significant effect of the loss of secrecy is a catastrophic decline in dishonesty in politics. It’s no longer possible to pretend to adopt a political position but to secretly work against it. It’s not possible to express a claim confidently as a bargaining position, and yet negotiate to minimise the risks. If you have publicly expressed confidence, you have to publicly act in line with that expressed confidence. And you can only act publicly.4
“It is a feature of any large movement that pretending to believe something is effectively the same as believing it.”5 — though size of movement isn’t the whole point, the lack of selection into the movement is as important.
Because there is no longer a line between political insiders and outsiders, a majority of your faction are people who haven’t been selected by anyone and who aren’t necessarily in a position to understand compromise or complexity. Your public statements — and therefore your actual actions — have to be simple, clear and extreme.
The failed coup against Trump is a good example of the phenomenon: If there was an actual conspiracy it was tiny, and most of the work of making the Russia frame stick on Trump was done by people who genuinely believed it was real, and therefore adopted the wrong tactics. At a stretch, it’s possible there was no real conspiracy at all: Hillary and her team were making up excuses for their failure, and some intel people were just nuts (an occupational hazard) or were showing off to their friends. It’s important to understand that the publicly claimed positions get internalised. Even if they start as cynical lies, in the absence of private meetings where everyone agrees, “yes we said that, but it’s not really true”, people end up really believing what they pretend to believe.6
What this means is that the purity spirals that characterise the Cathedral have now migrated directly into party politics itself. In the old model, the “Modern Structure“, the political agenda is ultimately driven by the Cathedral, meaning elite academia and the prestige media. They set the common understandings of the electorate and society, which in turn compel politicians to follow. But as politics shifts from private compromises to public debate, the distinction between media and politics dissolves. Every politician is a pundit, and not really anything more. This development has been going for years 7, but only reaches its full effect when the politicians become conscious of it, or have carried on their whole careers under these conditions.
So that ultimately is the cause of the insanity: The old political class which followed the ideological line produced from the Cathedral but with a delay and a practical, moderating influence, has been dissolved into the Cathedral itself.
The civil service is still—for now—out of this: it can still form policy in quiet and carry it on. It is now the last remaining holdout against true popular democracy. It used to be able to make deals with the political class in private, though. The exposing to the public of all political decision-making has taken that mechanism away from it—the question of “what is the official advice” is now part of the public debate on every major issue. It’s also worth noting that it has always been more directly influenced by the Cathedral proper than the old political class was.
Note: This is a summary of several posts I wrote in late 2007/early 2008
I was watching Channel 4 news, and what struck me for the first time was that Channel 4 appeared to have a more clearly defined and clearly expressed position on the issue they were reporting than did any of the politicians they were interviewing.
But why should that be surprising? Channel 4 has more resources to devote to policy than does any political party. Channel 4 spends 54 million pounds a year on news, documentary and current affairs programming. The two main parties each spend something like 10 million a year, but most of that is spent not on “content”, but on content distribution – posters, leaflets, etc.
British political parties’ policies are being constructed on an almost totally amateur basis, compared to the media – and I think it shows. There are think tanks, but I don’t think they turn over tens of millions a year.
(It must be noted that in the US they spend a lot more on politics, but don’t seem to get noticeably better policies.)
MPs get paid by the government, which is extra resource to the parties not counted in their budgets, and The civil service plays a role in developing policies for the ruling party, but MPs are paid to be MPs, not to develop policy, and the civil service has its own goals and constraints and is not under the control of the Labour party.
It seems that Channel 4’s 2007 policy on higher education was the product of more research and investment than went into the Labour party’s. It’s also relevant that political parties have an incentive to be vague about policy, whereas media organisations can afford to be more specific and clearer – they gain more by being provocative than by being right. This means that media are in a way more motivated to work out detailed policies than parties are
What does this mean?
First, I should be less sceptical than I have been about the “power of the media”. I previously felt that, since the media is constrained to doing what gets it audience, its independent influence on policy is small. However, if what it needs to do is to provide some alternative policy with which to challenge politicians, but it has relative freedom to choose which alternative to develop, then its independent influence is greater than I had thought.
Next, why is it the case that we (as a society) invest more in reporting politics than we do in politics itself. Either something is seriously screwy, or we value politics as entertainment more than as a way of controlling government. Or both.
I think it’s quite clear that the population does treat politics mostly as entertainment. The resemblance between Question Time and Never Mind the Buzzcocks is too close to ignore. If someone arrived from another planet and had to work out which of the two concerns how the country is governed, I think they might find it tricky. (I think they get similar numbers of viewers). There are even hybrids like Have I Got News For You to make it more difficult still.
Further, I think voters are correct to see politics primarily as entertainment. Since my attempt to construct an argument that voting could have a non-negligible probability of affecting an election – the infamous correlation dodge – died a logical death, I am left with the usual reasons for voting – primarily how doing it makes me feel. Those reasons apply equally well to voting for Big Brother or Strictly Come Dancing.
Boris Johnson’s election as Mayor of London in 2008 is consistent with the theory that politics is a branch of the entertainment industry. Boris won because people liked him on TV, not because they had any confidence he’d do a good job. In fact, it simply doesn’t matter whether he does a good job or not.
Whatever the budget of the GLA, the actual amount of cash he can shift from one activity to another over the next four years is probably on the order of only a few millions. He can change a few buses, approve a few “don’t knife each other, there’s good chaps” posters, approve or deny one or two large buildings.
On the other hand, he will be on television a lot, and get a lot more attention, because now he’s (drum roll) In Government. And if you treat each of his appearances as a light entertainment programme, value it as equivalent to an equally entertaining non-political celebrity appearance, and multiply up the number of such appearances over the four years, his entertainment value to the voters easily outweighs whatever costs might be imposed on the voters if he is a Bad Mayor in a policy sense.
And in fact the predictable cost of Boris vs Ken is near enough zero. Who knows, Boris might even be better. While the predictable difference in entertainment value is huge – not only is Boris more entertaining than Ken on a level playing field, but more importantly the Ken show has run for eight years and we’ve seen all the best bits.
My point is that (a) Boris has been elected because he’s funny and people are bored of Ken, and (b) This is, with apologies to Bryan Caplan, rational voting.
And of course, it is nothing new: Ken was elected in 2000 for just the same good reason.
In conclusion, I think our system of government is one which selects leaders and policies as a byproduct of the entertainment industry. This might not be a bad thing: the traditional alternative is to select leaders and policies as a byproduct of the defense industry, which has its own problems.
Original three posts:
- December 13, 2007 News and Politics and Money
- December 15, 2007 Democracy and Entertainment
- May 4, 2008 Entertainment and Policy