The Tyranny of Systems Architecture

April 23, 2003

In 1970, Jo Freeman wrote an article called Tyranny of Structurelessness, in which she discussed how the lack of explicit structure in the feminist movement allows smaller networks of people to coopt the movement for their own ends. She advocates active decision making about representation and leadership rather than passively allowing structure to emerge. In The Invisible Dogma, Mitch Ratcliffe issues a similar call to arms about technology deployment. He categorizes the various ways in which technology can affect group behavior and dynamics and suggest we be more alert to these effects as we design systems.

  • Participation and modality biases:

    Technology, because it is usually deployed en masse is a blunt force instrument that often treats everyone the same way. This is especially apparent within the confines of a small group, where individual differences are starkly evident and can be exaggerated by the introduction of a tool that favors one form of participation or mode of dealing with knowledge over others.

    My favorite example of this problem is the street lights that change in response to cars but not bicycles. Mitch’s favorite example is the interruptive nature of IM and the “walkie-talkie-like press-to-talk” feature of Nextel and other new mobile phone systems and the fact that many people find the interuptions utterly counterproductive. Applying Freeman’s analysis here, we should think seriously about how and why these architectural decisions get made and try to explore ways of making these decisions that best serve all members of the group.

  • Time and skill biases: Some people have more time and energy to devote than others. Systems can be more or less responsive to their active users as opposed to their more passive ones. Here is Freeman on the subject:

    Elites are nothing more and nothing less than a group of friends who also happen to participate in the same political activities. They would probably maintain their friendship whether or not they were involved in political activities; they would probably be involved in political activities whether or not they maintained their friendships. It is the coincidence of these two phenomena which creates elites in any groups and makes them so difficult to break.

    These friendship groups function as networks of communication outside any regular channels for such communication that may have been set up by a group. If no channels are set up, they function as the only networks of communication. Because people are friends, usually sharing the same values and orientations, because they talk to each other socially and consult with each other when common decisions have to be made, the people involved in these networks have more power in the group than those who don’t. And it is a rare group that does not establish some informal networks of communication through the friends that are made in it.
    [These] informal structures have no obligation to be responsible to the group at large. Their power was not given to them; it cannot be taken away. Their influence is not based on what they do for the group; therefore they cannot be directly influenced by the group. This does not necessarily make informal structures irresponsible. Those who are concerned with maintaining their influence will usually try to be responsible. The group simply cannot compel such responsibility; it is dependent on the interests of the elite.

    Rather than simply responding to those with energy, perhaps systems need to be designed so that the energetic compete to represent the group. Moderation and electoral systems become increasingly important in making sure the group does not get hijaacked.

  • Semantic biases: Human vocabulary is fairly fluid. A common phrase among accountants is that profit and loss is fiction; cash-flow is fact. Computer systems implement particular definitions of profit and loss that may or may not be relevant to the decions made by its users. Orwell made the point that you have to remember that the state’s definitions are not your own. The same is true of computers and their programmers.
  • Historical bias: Mitch notes that tradition is not a justification. However, channelling Edmund Burke, I would note that revolution is risky too. It is important to find a balance. Proper allocation of decision making authority among the stakeholders facilitates finding this balance. From a historical perspective, there have been no successful revoltions; you can have liberal democracy and all the annoyances that go along with its due process and iterative decision making or you can have the Terror and all the fun of mass slayings. Its up to you.

Diseconomies of Demand

April 23, 2003

Tim Oren critiques Ross Mayfield’s review of the various valuation models for social network topologies: Sarnoff, Metcalfe, and Reed’s laws. Oren notes that these models all predict untrammeled growth, but that is not what we see. He explains this contradiction by noting that these oversimplified models don’t take into account commons failure (think spam), scaling issues (moderation and representation systems), and competition among various networks.

There is a simpler explanation. When economists talk about value (or price), they are generally talking about marginal value. In the case of a network, this marginal value would be the highest amount the next person would pay to join the network or the lowest amount you could pay someone to leave it. Assuming that the demand curve for these networks has a typical reverse S-shape to it, even a network whose value grows exponentially with an increase in membership will run into demand that decreases exponentially as prior parts of the curve are saturated.

Even this demand curve model is actually optimistic about customer adoption. It assumes a smooth distribution of demand. In practice, market tastes are frequently clustered. A network that connects physicists together is of little interest to Britney spears fans and vice-versa. Patrick Ball’s paper on “circuits” of reported killings in Kosovo shows that not all social groups have overlapping membership, meaning that increased participation by one group is of no value to members of other groups.

Lastly I would note that all of these models fail to take into account time. If the cost of joining is going down sufficiently rapidly (think Moore’s Law), I may be willing to trade the present value of the network for the discount in the future. If a large number of potential members choose this route, this decision becomes self-justifying.

Iraqi Subcontractors To Receive Bulk of Contracts

April 21, 2003

The NYTimes reports(Reg. Req.) that most of the payments will end up in Iraqi hands. This information won’t quiet the more strident of the Bush/Cheney-fought-the-war-to-enrich-their-cronies crowd. But for everyone else, this should be good news.

Specialist Insider Trading at the NYSE

April 21, 2003

The WSJ reports that specialists (the people who match buyers and sellers) are taking advantage of their priviledged position to trade for their own account. The article says computers and decimalization are crowding the profits out of the core business so these specialists have to make money through trading for their own accounts. My suspicion is that the computers just made the illicit behavior much more visible.

The problem here is the humans and not the intermediation of the specialists. There is no reason why the exchange couldn’t modularize and outsource specialization to whichever firms are willing to bid on the business. They could maintain the NYSE’s economic structure but get rid of the human inefficiencies.

Will Genetic Engineering Kill Us

April 21, 2003

Wired reports on a symposium on The Future of Human Nature held in Boston. Somce scientists are concerned that we will modify ourselves into different species that will choose to kill one another. Personally, I think we already have enough differences to justify killing one another whenever we want to without reference to the artificial content of our genes. Perhaps greater diversity will lead to less contention rather than more as different human species contend for different resources.

Either way, I think the last generation of humans is coming quickly.

Bioterror Expert On Trial

April 21, 2003

The WSJ reports(registration required) that a careless Bioterror expert is on trial for losing some vials of plague. What would otherwise be a simple case of abesnt-minded professor, is now a major issue. How do we handle the smart careless people upon whom we rely to advance technology?

The Real Hussein

April 21, 2003

If you know Eminem, Just go there. If you don’t, go there anyway.