Participating in the online symposium “Coding Freedom”

I had the good fortune to be invited to participate in the online symposium on Gabriella Coleman’s excellent book Coding Freedom. My first post in the symposium was published yesterday:

The title of the book, Coding Freedom, seems to imply that the hacker culture is positively correlated with the increase of freedom in our societies, but in fact it seems as a critical reader could argue the opposite is true. Are we more or less free today than we were at the beginning of the hacker revolution? It does really seem possible to argue that the rise of hacker culture coincides with the rise of state surveillance, filtering and the proliferation of control across the networks. Let us leave aside, for the moment, if that is statistically accurate or not and see if there are any explanations in Coleman’s analysis that would help explain such an seemingly contradictory correlation.

The book is a great read, and I hope to post one more post before the week-long symposium is over.


“Valuable speech” – a note on legal mechanism design

I am reading a series of essays on free expression on the Internet. One of the authors repeatedly uses the ideas “low value speech” and “valuable speech”. I feel great unease. I wonder why, but think that it is because such a dichotomy assumes that we can say that this piece of speech is valuable and this other piece lacks value. Am I more comfortable with thinking about this problem in terms of “speech” vs “criminal threats / defamation”? Oddly I think so. I would like my speech with as few qualifiers as possible, and then I would like to define that which should not be protected as something else. As criminal defamation or illegal threats, or something else.

I think the reason is fairly straightforward: it imposes an intellectual discipline on the legislator, and associates limiting speech with a threshold test. It is a question about design.

In general there seems to be at least three legislative design strategies here: one is to try to categorize and qualify the speech as such according to its inherent value, one is to concentrate on the medium in which it is expressed (Mill actually seems to have been leaning towards this strategy, favoring deliberative debate in the newspapers of his time over talk in the street) and one is to simply define everything as speech (and thus protected) that is not criminalized, making a point out of differentiating between what is speech and what is not. All three systems can rule that something should not be protected, but in different ways – and it seems to me that the method, the algorithm, the mechanism design here really matters.

Perhaps we spend to little time thinking about legal mechanism design.

Metrics, Models and Methods – Wired for Innovation

But what is it?

Tech policy poses a number of different challenges. The perhaps most interesting one is that we do not agree on what the subject is and how to measure it. What is technology? How does it impact things like our economy? In Wired for Innovation Erik Brynjolfsson and Adam Saunders try to attack that issue in a number of different ways, essentially saying that our old measure of, for example, GDP, fail to capture the majority of the values created by technology brings to the table. The perhaps most powerful example in the book is E-bay. Brynjolfsson and Saunders note that research shows that Ebay creates 4 dollars of consumer surplus value (notoriously hard to measure) per transaction, totalling, back in 2003, 7 billion USD. The actual captured value in GDP for Ebay the same year? 1 billion USD. New services and products may well create something like 7 to 10 times the value that is captured in our old measures. This will necessarily lead us to make decisions that are at best suboptimal, and at worst really hurtful. When the likes of Nicholas Carr argue that technology does not matter, or, in fact, that it is crippling us, he does so from these old measures (and not only of economics, but also from an old conception of what culture and thinking is).

Getting the numbers right thus needs to be a priority. And getting them right means new models for value creation and capture.


In Wired for Innovation the authors note that there are now new methods being developed for capturing these new values. Measuring consumer surplus by looking at time is one. Currently, in our GDP-model, the value of Internet Access is equal to the fees that consumers pay for internet access, they note, and nothing more. That is roughly 100 dollars a year and consumer, which then becomes the value economists will say that the Internet has to that consumer, too. Added up that makes 0.2 percent of GDP. That is the value our models have of the Internet.

The average time people spend on the Internet of their leisure time is 10 percent. That means that we spend 10 percent of our (free) time on something that is worth 0.2 percent of GDP. Not necessarily insane, right, but still thought provoking. Measuring time gives another estimate of worth however, and with this method the average value of internet access to a consumer is 3000 USD a year. 30 times the GDP-estimate. Now, all of these methods are in their infancy, but they are usable, and should be – as the authors argue – developed in much greater detail.


It is well worth while to follow the work in MIT on this issue, here.