social technology

World Wide What???

This is a nifty example of how reality works on the interweb. I saw the poster on facebook and, like many others, for a moment thought, 'well, that's the sun all over, innit?' However, I've been gotcha'd too often by the Guardian's April 1st stories. They generally aim for a core of plausible, while tweaking the average Guardianista's sandal-wearing liberal nipples in just the right way. More than once, April 1st has seen me having a foaming rant, before eventually realisation hits, followed closely by acute embarrassment and sitting in a corner sulking at my own stupidity. (Chris Martin openly supporting David Cameron seemed particularly likely, I recall.)

It occurs to me, though, there's a parallel to how `markets' are talked about. To paraphrase Obi Wan, `market forces are are an energy field created by all living things. They surround us and penetrate us. They bind the galaxy together.' Which is to say, they're a mystical nonsense prayed to daily by people who believe in the confidence fairy. It's cargo cult gibberish. It's like turning up to some vital, knife-edge diplomatic negotiation teetering on the edge of war, cracking open a beer and saying, `chill - language will save us.'

Similar claims are made of the interwebs, and they're wrong for the same reason. There's nothing intrinsic to its structure that will produce truthiness or optimal outcomes. It can be used as a platform for doing that - but only if you actually develop tools to achieve specific aims. A trivial but suggestive example: guitar tab. The net's full of the stuff, and there are many sites with tabs for specific songs. But the vast majority of the time, they turn out to be precisely the same. That's not because they're correct, it's because the first person to dump it on the web got copied and recopied. No effective mechanism exists for improving the accuracy of particular songs. An echo-chamber is the unsurprising result, despite the fact that the net should be the perfect vehicle for some form of guitartab wikipedia. The machinery for that hasn't been built, though.

There are projects attempting to get meta on the net's inability to manage `peer review' effectively, like That's got to be on the right track if there's no magic force that can do it for us. And the same applies to markets: effective ones are quite specific structures. Often cobbled together haphazardly, they can nevertheless be tweaked and developed for specific purposes, even though - just as with good code development - you'd best stay away from attempting all-encompassing gargantuan rebuild projects (compare the approach of NHS hack day to CSC's work on NHS records).

There's so much more to write about truthiness in the wake of current Republican goings-on, all the Assange gubbins and the ongoing mismatch between the physical and political reality of climate change... another time.

Nature's admonitions

Via Paul Krugman via Joe Romm, here's the Economist from 1848:

Suffering and evil are nature’s admonitions—they cannot be got rid of; and the impatient attempts of benevolence to banish them from the world by legislation, before benevolence has learned their object and their end, have always been more productive of evil than good.

What are they complaining about? In the years before the Great Stink of 1858, the Economist was protesting about government attempts to pass housing and sanitation laws; to quote from that wikipedia article:

Part of the problem was due to the introduction of flush toilets, replacing the chamber-pots that most Londoners had used. These dramatically increased the volume of water and waste that was now poured into existing cesspits. These often overflowed into street drains designed originally to cope with rainwater, but now also used to carry outfalls from factories, slaughterhouses and other activities.

Nice. Add to that, no-one knew exactly what caused cholera. Romm got started on this responding to an argument against regulating co2: "it is almost the height of insanity of bureaucracy to have the EPA regulating something that is emitted by all living things."

Romm: what, like with sewage? Krugman: actually, it turns out, yes if the same thinkers had had their way in the nineteenth century. Which reminds me again what an amazing time for ideas nineteenth century Britain was. The nightwatchman state; great quote from Sir Charles Wood, chancellor of the exchequer around the time of the 1845 Irish famine: "the more I see of government interference, the less I am disposed to trust it, and I have no faith in anything but private capital employed under the individual charge."

Great froth of ideas; not so great smell. Anyway, this is about as perfect an example as I could hope for to illustrate an indispensable lesson about Burkean anti-meddling arguments: don't get tangled up in them too much. Life is too short and there's too much sewage in the world.

Three adaptive landscapes

Three communities I've come across in the last few years have made me see language and order in a new way. Two I've read about - Peruvian potato farmers and Balinese rice-growers. The other - Mutawintji - I visited as a tourist on an Outback safari before the PhD started. I'll get all my caveats out of the way: no in-depth knowledge of any of these; it'll seem like a pretty functionalist argument; I know almost nothing about anthropology. Given that…

The social technology of drug production: can we do better?

Last night, BBC2 aired The Price of Life, a documentary examining the NHS’s purchase of a new cancer drug. Myeloma is a cancer of the plasma cells. A US company, the Celgene Corporation, holds the patent on lenalidomide (Revlimid in the US.) People survive for an average of just over a year longer than they might have done without it.

In the programme, Adam Wishart follows a number of patients awaiting a decision from NICE, and several other players in the health market: the chair of the NICE committee making the decision, an NHS fund manager, and the head of Celgene.

We’re present at a NICE committee meeting where it’s decided the NHS can’t afford lenalidomide. There’s a specific money limit per year for treatment at certain points in life, based on Qalis - a combination of economic and social value. This leads to a specific cost limit, and this drug is too much. By the end of the programme, this situation has been reversed – back to that in a moment.

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