Optimism about Social Technology

by mike_hawke1 min read27th Jun 20217 comments

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In reaction to my morning dose of negativity from [blogger's name redacted], I am compelled to share some contrarian optimism:

I see a decent chance of significant improvements to the human condition in the near future due to breakthroughs in social technology. The historical precedent that comes to mind is the widespread adoption of insurance some hundreds of years ago. (Disclaimer: I skimmed the wikipedia article on insurance a while back and don’t really remember it all that well. Corrections welcome.) Prior to insurance contracts, your only option for hedging against catastrophes was to build up social capital with family & neighbors. Maybe people could expect more automatic community support back then, but this was at a time of drastically lower social and geographic mobility. I’m really glad that I live in a world with markets for explicit insurance policies (even if those policies and markets could be a lot better).

So I have to wonder if at least one of {dominant assurance contracts, quadratic funding, prediction markets, ring signatures, attention auctions, NFTs for impact purchases, smart contracts in general, the Prósperan legal system} might catch on and be as much of a game changer as formalized insurance contracts have been.

Sometimes I read someone and think “Well no wonder you’re always so pessimistic & sarcastic...for you, the phrase 'new technology' only evokes smartphone addiction, so you keep hanging all your hopes for the future on the vagaries of national politics.”

I'm motivated to say all this because I recently read a blog post about the collapse of legacy journalism (a hot topic in my echo chamber). The writer said that journalism has devolved into a monoculture of low-paid cultural elites, who are bound by reality very much less than they are bound by their social cliques. He's not wrong, but...he said it all with a such heavy note of despair in his voice. Meanwhile, I personally can’t help but imagine what crazy, cool, more incentive-aligned media model might rise from the ashes of the current system.

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Conditional payments for paywalled content (after you pay for a piece of downloadable content and view it, you can decide after the fact if payments should go to the author or to proportionately refund previous readers)

-- Vitalik Buterin, On Radical Markets

This is genius!

Also it incentivizes you to read the newest articles, because if they happen to be crap, greater chance of refund. Wait, perhaps that is not a problem, only a balance, because the older articles will typically come recommended by someone, which also reduces the chance of crap.

OK, the actual problem with this proposal is that if you happen to read some crap, you are now incentivized to share it, so that more people can contribute to your refund. Thus the internet reverts to its usual.

If someone shared a bad article with me so I would contribute to their refund, I think I would not like them as much afterward :P

One way to keep people from sharing bad content is to display the proportion of previous viewers who paid to the author. This would be a useful way for readers to find good content, too. But the big problem I see is that, unless a reader is scrupulously honest, their payment decision is fairly arbitrary, which might lead them to refund every article (while expecting the same in return).

They wouldn't share directly with you, but on a Facebook page -- more impact. ;)

I am pretty sure humans would find ways to game any metric. For example, paying yourself for reading your own articles... increases the proportion of happy readers. It would help if you could first set the price to $0.001, give yourself 1000 happy reads, then set the price to $1 (or whatever would be usual).

I think Kleros (or another platform that works like it) will be important once transaction costs are low enough. 

If we take a problem like journalism you can set up a bunch of rules and let them be enforced via Kleros. Headlines have to representative of the article. Articles have to be factually correct etc.

This is my great hope also. 

There is a compelling narrative to be told around coordination as the super power of humanity that uses the examples of language, printed word and the internet (which are really bundles of smaller technological steps analogous to say zero knowledge proofs in crypto) as positive examples of social technology making things better.

As an enterprising EA in my 20ies I feel the pull of this narrative when thinking about how I might spend my professional efforts, but it remains to be seen if it will survive deeper thought whatever cheap tests I can think to run.

It's great to be optimistic, but its hard to look at the state of the neglected parts of the country and not be completely shocked and appalled at the state of reality for millions of other people living in the same country. I recommend a drive along the Ohio River sometime, the state of things there share a lot more with post-Soviet collapse in Russia. The anger is justified, there a few generations of neglect and loss of hope / purpose among the locals. Its no surprise opioids have devastated these areas. Its not just there either, its many parts of the country, many inner cities are also totally devastated and there has to be massive investments in education but even then, we've let several generations already lapse and that has to be dealt with head on. No amount of technology is going to quickly alleviate the justified populism coming from the decay and transgressions many millions of Americans have been living under for past several decades. The elites & the American oligarchs seem intent on continuing to virtue signal and sell fear. The politics of division, particularly from the media elite, has to end before Americans will turn optimistic. 

It may not happen either, if the American Empire is crashing the same way Rome did, well, we may be sometime in or after the Crisis of the 3rd Century now and there is a decent chance there is a long drawn out dark ages era of feudal order, just like in Medieval Europe, for the next couple generations. Florida already seems like its becoming a version of the Eastern Roman Empire, attracting a lot of big money & fully embracing Bitcoin. Perhaps this also leads to the rise of American City-States at some stage after things normalize.