By Mike Koetting January 17, 2019

A few months back, while reading the book Fly Girls, about early women aviators, I was struck by how insanely dangerous early airplanes were. They fell out of the sky quite regularly and a remarkable percentage of the early aviators died in crashes. It got me wondering, anachronistically, how the development of airplanes would happen in today’s more risk-averse world. I found that same sentiment in a complaint voiced by a Silicon Valley developer that achieving self-driving cars was being impeded by the unwillingness of society to tolerate the trial and error necessary to make autonomous vehicles a functioning reality. This is a fair comment, although it doesn’t address that the early fliers almost exclusively killed themselves; when autonomous vehicles run amok, it is unsuspecting bystanders who bear the brunt. Nevertheless, this raises the broader issue of how much risk (and for whom) is society willing to incur for technological progress.

My last post recalled an observation by Donald Michael (The Unprepared Society, 1968) that technology had increased the interconnectivity of people in hitherto unimaginable ways. His specific example was that 150 years ago there could be no black outs in major cities because someone would have had to collect all the kerosene lanterns. He had a second, related, observation in the same book that has also stuck with me over the years. He pointed out that in statistical terms, the average outcome of any uncertain event is determined by multiplying the probability of a thing happening by the magnitude of the consequence. Thus, he asserted, if an event had a large enough consequence—say the ocean rising 100 feet—even if the probability was very small, the expected value could be large because the consequence was huge.

When you combine increasing density and interconnectedness, this question of risk from new technology becomes critical. In additional to the environment, where the risk is already off the chart, two areas that trouble me are genetics and Artificial Intelligence (AI). To be clear: both have tremendous promise to do good and I am suspect of knee-jerk opposition to advances in those areas. (For instance, I think much of the discussion about Genetically Modified Food is simply hysteria. We’ve been playing around with plant breeding since the beginning of time. This simply speeds up the process.)

Still, we would be kidding ourselves if we didn’t acknowledge that the risks involved in these endeavors include consequences that are unfathomable.

Experimenting with genetics may, in some respects, be less immediately dangerous because so much of it happens in academic laboratories with relatively strict protocols and reasonable communal ethics around risk mitigation. But the truth is that only the tiniest portion of the population has considered in any thoughtful way where the science is taking us.

In the recent years, scientists have developed the ability to mess around with genetic structures in ways that were the stuff of science fiction as recently as a decade or so ago. An NIH primer on gene-editing says:

Most of the changes introduced with genome editing are limited to somatic cells, which are cells other than egg and sperm cells. These changes affect only certain tissues and are not passed from one generation to the next. However, changes made to genes in egg or sperm cells (germline cells) or in the genes of an embryo could be passed to future generations. Germline cell and embryo genome editing bring up a number of ethical challenges.

That puts it modestly. We have no idea what could happen if we start changing germline cells. A fascinating article in The Harvard Magazine reviewed the issue of whether we should try to use gene-editing to eliminate malaria. All the scientists interviewed underlined what a scourge malaria was, particularly in the under-developed world. And they all exuded relatively high degrees of confidence that science was at (or very close to) a point where a major attempt could be mounted. But they all also admitted a large degree of uncertainty about whether they should. Among other things, they conceded that even if successful, there might be unforeseen consequences. For instance, we don’t know what other species might fill that biological niche. Additionally, there was the possibility of failure—or, more likely, only partial success—which would raise a different set of concerns. Consequently, all the scientists in this article emphasized the need for world-wide public engagement. One of them said:

There’s tremendous humanitarian need for a lot of these applications…but the limiting factor may not be the time required for us to build a [genetic modification] in the laboratory. It may be the time required for society to decide whether or not it should be used.

While these particular scientists seemed relatively sanguine with the possibility that society could somehow say “No—this line of inquiry is simply too dangerous,” we should all be thinking about whether saying no is even possible. In the last decade the ability to do gene-editing has become relatively accessible in scientific settings, creating the real possibility somebody will try to use it in a not well controlled way.

The problems with AI are of a different sort. Less likely to create a species wide catastrophe, but certainly big enough to be enormously disruptive to society. There are very specific problems, such as the ability of AI to create so called “deep fakes” that make it almost impossible to tell if a video is real or edited or the ability to use facial recognition for truly big brother kinds of control, as China is actively doing. We simply have no social mechanisms to deal with these. Worse yet, there is a small army of entrepreneurs churning out ideas and applications at a furious pace. The only appropriate image is the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

There is also the incorporation of big data and AI algorithms developing rules hidden in all aspects of life. Think of the slightly annoying way that WORD can “spell-check” your sentence into nonsense. Now imagine what happens if rules like those are put on steroids and applied in every aspect of life.  Cathy O’Neil, a mathematician, has written a cleverly titled book, Weapons of Math Destruction, that shows these application of data are creeping into virtually all aspects of life. And there are a plethora of suggestions to wire them further into our day to day life. O’Neil sees this as severely problematic because they are opaque (the people using them often do not know how they actually work); they are invisible (you often don’t know when they are being applied to you); they are unregulated (it’s not even clear how they could be regulated); and they have a deep potential to not only reinforce, but to accelerate, the status quo because they don’t ask what should be the case but only what does the current data predict

Hany Farid, a Dartmouth College computer science professor, worries about the impact of letting Silicon Valley launch one thing or another with little sense of the consequence:

If a biologist said, ‘Here’s a really cool virus; let’s see what happens when the public gets their hands on it,’ that would not be acceptable. And yet it’s what Silicon Valley does all the time….We have to understand the harm and slow down on how we deploy technology like this.

The idea of slowing down technology is not part of the Western psyche under any circumstance. The problem is made worse by unwillingness to regulate capital and the inability of government to concentrate on really important issues. Congress has shown itself incapable of understanding, yet alone regulating, computer technology. (Part of this problems stems from Congress eliminating its Office of Technology Assessment under Newt Gingrich—leaving it without appropriate staff on these critical issues. Congress is apparently not interested in addressing even this minimal fix.)

In a sane world, governments and other entities would be making the risks inherent in this technological progress front and center. The issues that are being raised are not marginal issues. Unless we find a way to rationalize the cancer-like growth of technology, we are likely to find our species is too smart by half.

Density & Interconnection

By Mike Koetting January 9, 2019

Just before the election, a crew delivering cabinets to our next door neighbor sheared off a sprinkler head in the hall. It responded as sprinklers are designed to do. Fifteen units were affected and total damage will be between one quarter and one half million dollars. We spent a lot of the next two months living in hotels, dealing with insurance, and working with and around demolition and construction crews.

It got me thinking about the ways our society had changed over the years. As folks have moved closer and closer to each other, stacked on top of each other in our case, much of our daily lives are interconnected in qualitatively different ways from our ancestors. Population density and technology are locked in a symbiotic relationship— technology thrives on density and density breeds technology. The result intertwines people in ways never previously imagined.

This is not a new thought. In 1970, I was totally arrested by a passage in a book by Donald Michael called The Unprepared Society. He asserted that the 1965 blackout in New York City (at the time, the biggest in the city’s history) could not have happened 100 years before–because someone would have had to steal all the kerosene lamps in the city! But once there was an interconnected electrical grid, faults got magnified by being projected throughout the entire system.

But for an idea that has been around at least 50 years, its impact has been scant. People do not seem to grasp this fundamental shift in the way society operates. The gap is particularly acute in the US, where the ethic of the rugged individual and the wide-open spaces has not adjusted to the fact that we live increasingly close to each other and are inextricably more bound into our neighbors’ lives than ever before in human history. And the future suggests only more of the same.

In a very broad sense, the scope of this impact is beginning to dawn on people, say at the level of realizing that in the US, or indeed most parts of the developed world, economic growth is almost exclusively in metropolitan areas. Rural areas are left behind as rural population has declined as a share of overall population and, recently, absolutely.

The change in economic importance is even more striking. In 2000, Al Gore won 22% of the counties, but they accounted for 54% of the economy. In 2016, Hilary Clinton won only 15% of the counties, but they accounted for 64% of the economy.

A recent New York Times article described the issue most succinctly:

This is the inescapable reality of agglomeration, one of the most powerful forces shaping the American economy over the last three decades. Innovative companies choose to locate where other successful, innovative companies are. That’s where they can find lots of highly skilled workers. The more densely packed these pools of talent are, the more workers can learn from each other and the more productive they become. 

I note this in this context less because of what it says about the economy but to underline the forces increasing density—and why we need to understand how density and technology are changing the fabric of life. The tolerance for fault decreases (the worse thing that would have happened in an unsprinklered building would be a small gouge in the wall) and the spread of the impact increases (15 units).

These trends aren’t going to reverse. We aren’t going back to a spread-out, agrarian society and technology isn’t going to abate, at least not short of some catastrophe we’d just as soon not contemplate. Moreover, I pretty much like the ability to pay my bills by computer, to fly to California in an afternoon, and to be able to choose from multiple cultural offerings in Chicago any day of the week. Or consider the miracle of fresh water on demand, something we basically take for granted. The story of Flint has been correctly understood as a story of racism and venal politics. But it is also a reminder of how things we take as a basic, fundamental part of how we live are dependent on a web of interconnected phenomena, no one of which can ultimately be taken for granted. In short, we need to learn to live with this hitherto un-invented, hyper-connected society.

I am not entirely sure what helps us address these concerns. Maybe some of you have better thoughts to share. But a couple things do come to mind.

First, as a society we need to acknowledge that we live in a qualitatively different world than previous generations. Getting the admission, of course, is trivial. Politicians regularly use the rhetoric of changing times. But few are willing to tackle the profundity of the implications. (And some would even lead us in a collective fantasy that some halcyon past can be recovered by wishing it so.) Instead, we need to think more systematically about the web of connections that are part of density and technology that have the capacity to un-end everyday life. It would be helpful to make a real cultural commitment to a way of life that is specifically not “rugged individual” and “wide-open spaces”. Whether these were ever what they are remembered to be is a fair question. (See, for instance, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year History of Class in America.) But accurate or not, it is time to relegate these memes to our history. We need to collectively embrace the fact that we are densely connected by a web of technology that is much bigger than any of us. Eyes must be on the future not the past, real or pretend. And the future is dense and unbelievably connected.

Second, we need a way to call a truce in the war between urban and rural. This is much more complicated than splitting the country into the city and countryside. As Colin Woodard and others have pointed out, these are complicated by sectoral cultural histories and other local factors. But, underneath these important nuances, three generalities remain:

  • Population is moving from less dense to more dense
  • Rural areas are losing economic vitality—and it makes them grumpy
  • The historic structure of American government over-represents the rural areas

I don’t see much that can be done about the first and the last, so we need to find ways of making life better for rural folks. Again, this isn’t easy—particularly given the direction of the economy. But if we don’t, the differences will continue to keep the country from thinking more clearly about how to address the problems of urban density.

Finally, more broadly, we must proactively incorporate the reality of density and interconnectivity into virtually all our policies. There are the obvious examples—gun ownership makes less sense in a crowded city than on the frontier–for instance. But there are countless other ways that we are just starting to think about. Michael Lewis’ sobering article in Vanity Fair details, among other things, the fragility of our electricity grid—and the lack of coherent oversight. Think for just a moment about our dependence on electricity. At every turn in our daily life, we’re totally wired into the grid. But that is in no way reflected in the reality of our government policies. When Donald Michael talked about the impact of the electrical grid on the connectivity, I don’t think he had any idea exactly how unprepared society was—and is—to deal with these consequences.

We must find ways to see policy issues not in isolation from one another, but as part of a web of densely connected policies and technological interfaces. Society is now evolving more in the shape of man than through the historic forces of natural selection. We are more closely packed, have more powerful technology and are a much greater risk to one another–and the species. These bring mostly good things, but we must keep an eye on the risks.

Certainly Blue Wave-ish

The downside of setting out my criteria for a Blue Wave ahead of time is that, given the results, I look like a curmudgeon if I stick to those, which show the Democrats just a hair short of my reasonable, but arbitrary, standards. In any event, the measure is not unambiguous and by any standard, the Democrats had a strong election. To recap:

U.S House   I said a wave would be a pick-up of 40 or more. As I write this, Democrats have won 37 and may pick up one or two more.

U.S. Senate   I said a wave would be a net loss of 1 or fewer. Assuming Mississippi turns out Republican, the net loss will be 2—but only by the barest of eye-lashes. And, as FiveThirtyEight points out, even in states they lost, Democrats overperformed in terms of the state’s historic “lean”.

Governorships   I said a net pick-up of 5 or more would constitute a wave. The pick-up was 7, including a number of states Trump carried—Michigan and Wisconsin among them.

Legislatures    I said a net pick-up of 5 or more legislative chambers would constitute a wave and the net pick-up was exactly 5.

In other words, as close to hitting my criteria as possible without actually making it. Continue reading “Certainly Blue Wave-ish”

Blue Wave….Or Not?

By Mike Koetting       October 30, 2018

I really want a blue wave. Really.

Blue Wave

But I have no intention of predicting whether it will or will not happen. There are people out there who follow it more closely and have access to a lot more data. And, as Nate Silver reminds us, the degree of uncertainty is much more than anyone wants to believe, certainly more than the media acknowledges.

Moreover, perhaps more than some other elections, this one is going to be decided by turnout. It is indisputable that the country is deeply divided and votes will be cast accordingly. But a blue wave will require a lot of turnout by people who don’t usually vote their weight—young people and minorities, particularly Latinos. I don’t know if there are good ways of predicting that, but I certainly don’t have access to any of it.

Accordingly, the goals of this post are very much more modest. I am going to set down my idea of what a blue wave would like before the election. Afterward, we can look at what happened and see how we want to score it. Continue reading “Blue Wave….Or Not?”

How Do We Remediate Toxic Waste?

By Mike Koetting        October 11, 2018

Like the vast majority of Americans who have been paying attention, the events of the last week have been profoundly discouraging. For me, the ascension of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is awful. But it isn’t just that.

It is also that the process was so ugly. It certainly tarnished both the Senate and the Supreme Court, two institutions that are key to democracy. It even managed to get the #Me Too movement entangled in a very partisan way, something that may not be helpful to the movement in the long run. As a consequence of the hearings, the two sides hate each other more and the vast majority of the population leaves the hearings even more pessimistic, and more cynical, about the future of American political society. Continue reading “How Do We Remediate Toxic Waste?”

What Could We Get From Trade Policy

By Mike Koetting        September 25, 2018

I am still no expert on trade policy, but I have found the spinning out of the recent NAFTA discussions fascinating. You may have already forgotten about them because issues with China have taken center-stage in anything about trade that could be heard over the Kavanaugh furor. But, as will be discussed below, expect NAFTA to return.

First, repeating a mantra from earlier posts on the topic, there is simply no such thing as completely free trade. All trade happens under some rules. So simply incanting “free trade” doesn’t really shed much light on the full range of discussion. This is important because the stickiest points in the current NAFTA discussion are not around tariffs per se, but around the rules under which tariffs stay low—not that you could tell that from most of the media coverage, which continues to portray this as a cartoon contest between free trade and protectionism, with little coverage of the actual issues at stake. Continue reading “What Could We Get From Trade Policy”

Who Owns the Future of Work?

By Mike Koetting    September 12, 2018

One of the articles I read when I was preparing for my Labor Day post was “It’s Not ‘The Future of Work’, It’s the Future of Workers That’s in Doubt.” by Sarita Gupta, Stephen Lerner, & Joseph A. McCartin, all three labor advocates. Given that I have had several posts devoted to “The Future of Work,” it’s not surprising that this article got my attention.

They argue we should be less focused on the abstract “Future of Work” and more focused on making the world safe for workers. Without this, they suggest, inequality grows and that inevitably threatens democracy. They do not gainsay the looming issues of technology change but they say:

It is the concentration of wealth and power in this new economy, not computerization or artificial intelligence, that represents the gravest threat to our future. It is that concentration that will determine how innovative technologies are deployed and in whose interests they operate. The future of work will be determined by who wields power and for what purposes. Continue reading “Who Owns the Future of Work?”