Transparent Technologies

by lsusr1 min read25th Nov 20207 comments

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PracticalWorld Optimization
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I cook my own meals because restaurant food is expensive. But there are many activities I would prefer to cheap versions independent of price.

I Like I Don't Like
bicycles cars
entrepreneurship jobs
solo adventure guides
barbells exercise machines
meditation psychoactive drugs
Linux, LineageOS Windows, Mac, iPhone
i3, CLI GUI, IDE, desktop metaphor
autodidacting school, tutors

From the perspective of someone with unusually high intelligence, activities involving skill tend to be cheap because our civilization has adequate material capital, The limiting factor of our industrial economy is intelligence.

I have to manually override my instinctual feeling that civilization is materially limited. It is true there aren't enough spaceships and private airplanes to go around. Otherwise, we have plenty of material goods. Many people own too much stuff.

Since the limiting factor on wealth is humans' inadequate cognitive ability to utilize our stuff, companies often create value by making things easier to use.

If the process ended here then we would live in utopia. But when a company provides the service of making something easier to use, it takes effective control of the distribution channel. Centralized control of distribution channels inhibits competition. Weaker competition gives companies leverage over consumers. The Invisible Hand compels companies to extract maximum profit from whatever leverage they have.

A prepackaged commercial product designed to make things easier for consumers tends to contain anti-features. Vehicles require special tools to interface with their computers. Apple employs pentalobe security screws. Universities charge fees for services you don't use and require you to take classes you're not interested in. Android distributors often won't let you root your phone.

Expending effort to worsen a product is productively inefficient. An efficient market is a market that does not do inefficient things. Anti-features are market inefficiencies because anti-features deliberately make a product worse. Anti-features are negative sum.

Rational negative sum activities are often coercive. When coercive behavior goes one direction it indicates an exploitative relationship. Anti-features are the most flagrant signal that an organization is exploiting you.

Even touching a product with anti-features makes me feel unclean. Like many moral principles, this one has tremendous long-term advantages. My life is cheaper. I am exposed to less advertising. I have gears-level models of all sorts of things.

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I agree. But...

Devil's Advocate: many anti-features of consumer products are there to protect the 99% of users who are not power users like yourself, and are a positive benefit for them. For example, the iPhone OS and UI protects most users from accidentally disabling their phones in ways they cannot understand or fix, limiting the utility of the device for them. Schools and tutors serve the great majority who have difficulty teaching themselves (and provide strong educational signaling benefits in a way that autodidacticism regrettably does not). Psychoactive drugs are second best (or third-best, or at least for many users better than nothing) meditation practice, in an analogous way to how caffeine substitutes for sleep. Jobs, by packaging tasks together, limit the search cost for people trying to find an economic niche in which they can thrive - most people want 8 hours of structured work, after which they are free to do whatever they want and can leave thinking about work at the office, as opposed to having to strive to consciously separate work and life the way entrepreneurs do.

If (a big "if") ease of use and reduction of conscious, deliberate choice has been a net positive for consumers, these anti-features are the means to deliver them. You (and I, and many other users of this site) suffer because of that, but there are enough of us to support the flourishing open source ecosystem, so the results are net gains at the level of society.

I recently finished the book The Dictator's Handbook. One thing that surprised me at the end: after many chapters examining (dys)functions of governments, the book suddenly applied the same concepts to corporations.

The main thrust of the book is that we can put countries on a spectrum from dictatorship to democracies, by examining the number of key supporters needed for the government to stay in place. Democracies predictably deliver much more value to citizens. It's a classic story of incentives.

If we look at corporate incentives, most (but not all) corporations have a small number of major shareholders. They do a pretty good job of delivering value to those shareholders.

If we look at the corporations that are more customer-owned, they do a better job of delivering value to customers. (Unlike many of the other claims in the book, this claim was not backed up with a bunch of data, only with a case study AKA anectdote. But it makes sense!)

Customer ownership is implemented by EG setting limits on how many shares any one individual can own, so that you can't get a bunch of shares accumulating in a few hands.

This was an aha moment for me: it's not economically inevitable that, as you put it, 

The Invisible Hand compels companies to extract maximum profit from whatever leverage they have.

A prepackaged commercial product designed to make things easier for consumers tends to contain anti-features.

Instead, it's a consequence of typical corporate ownership structure.

In Israel there's a journalist group called Shakuf that tries to combat exactly this phenomenon in journalism (journals having one or few owners) by crowd funding themselves, limiting the amount someone can invest to 1000 Shekels, and giving each investor the right to participate in votes. as of right now they have about 7000 investors (i myself am one, at 10 Shekels per month) and i think the model works fantastically

If I get your point correctly, adding confort to something in the current system must bring with it anti-features that just exploit our tendency to prefer less cognitive burden?

"Must" might be a little stronger than I'm going for here. It's more along the lines of how complex tools designed to reduce cognitive burden skew economic power towards the manufacturers of those tools. Then the Invisible Hand pressures those manufacturers into installing anti-features.

They are anti-features to those who can, and would prefer to, make more choices themselves. There are many things in life I don't care much about, and would just rather have a default I can live with. As long as I can choose to change them later if it becomes important, I'm ok with that.

I think there are two main paths to easier-to-use: mass production (what you're calling anti-features are mostly these) and individual customization (tends to be expensive b/c we usually can't automate this yet, and it requires knowledge about individual preferences that can be hard to gather).

Weaker competition gives companies leverage over consumers. The Invisible Hand compels companies to extract maximum profit from whatever leverage they have.

Anything that reduces competition also reduces pressure on companies to optimize only for profit. They might anyway, but there's less risk to them if they don't.

I like cars, windows out of comfort. To deal with Linux you need to know more about computation than I know. Which would probably give you utility, but I at least don’t see any immediate utility for my personal life. I like cars mainly because I am more secure and faster with them than with a bike. Also I just don’t enjoy physical activity. Given having enough money I don’t care companies screwing me in small for me insignificant aspects