A couple of weeks back I shared a link to the story of ImageNet and the importance of data to developing algorithms. Ars Technica reports on two ‘at the coalface’ battles over data access with HiQ and Power Ventures fighting with LinkedIn and Facebook over data access. I’m not advocating a position on this but, to be sure, small — and currently obscure — court cases like these will, cumulatively, end up setting the precedents which will have a significant impact on the evolution and ownership of powerful algorithms that are increasingly driving behavior and economics.
This speech from Claude Shannon at Bell Labs in 1952 has been circulating online for the past couple of weeks. It is a timeless, pragmatic speech on creative thinking which remains, 65 years later, fully relevant for developing novel computational strategies:
Sometimes I have had the experience of designing computing machines of various sorts in which I wanted to compute certain numbers out of certain given quantities. This happened to be a machine that played the game of nim and it turned out that it seemed to be quite difficult. It took quite a number of relays to do this particular calculation although it could be done. But then I got the idea that if I inverted the problem, it would have been very easy to do — if the given and required results had been interchanged; and that idea led to a way of doing it which was far simpler than the first design. The way of doing it was doing it by feedback; that is, you start with the required result and run it back until — run it through its value until it matches the given input. So the machine itself was worked backward putting range S over the numbers until it had the number that you actually had and, at that point, until it reached the number such that P shows you the correct way.
Facebook shuts down robots after they invent their own language
Facebook shuts down robots after they invent their own language has become a widely reported and wildly commentated story over the past month, referencing a story on ’Tricky chatbots’ linked here a couple of months back. For melodramatic illustrative effect, I like switching a couple of words in the Facebook headline so that it reads ‘Lehman (doesn’t) shuts down traders after they invent their own language’ as it illustrates that, in general, if you: put a bunch of agents (human or machine) together and set up a narrowly defined, adversarial, multi-player game with a strong reward function then the agents will develop their own task-specific language and protocols, keep adding complexity, lie to each other (yes, the FB bots also learnt to do that), be tempted to obfuscate behavior in order to reduce interference and maximize the reward function, and develop models which are positive for near-term reward maximization but do not necessarily deal with longer-term consequence or long tail events, and so become very hard for human overseers to truly assess…
DICK FULD (2008): I wake up every single night wondering what I could have done differently — this is a pain that will stay with me the rest of my life
FACEBOOK (2017): Hold my beer
AI: From partial to full script
Thinking more broadly about the longer-term evolution of AI (and the nature of money and contracts, per Ethereumlink last week), it has been interesting to re-read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari which charts the rise to dominance of us Sapiens with especially interesting chapters on the development of written language and money. A concept which particularly grabbed me was that written language was initially developed as ‘partial script’ technology for narrow tasks such as tax accounting, and then evolved to be full script and so capable of much more than it was originally conceived for.
The history of writing is almost certainly a wonderful historical premonition of the trajectory of AI, except with the evolution being much faster and the warning that likely “the AI is more powerful than pen.”
Relevant excerpt from Sapiens:
Full script is a system of material signs that can represent spoken language more or less completely. It can therefore express everything people can say, including poetry. Partial script, on the other hand, is a system of material signs that can represent only particular types of information, belonging to a limited field of activity … It didn’t disturb the Sumerians (who invented the script) that their script was ill-suited for writing poetry. They didn’t invent it in order to copy spoken language, but rather to do things that spoken language failed at … Between 3000 BC and 2500 BC more and more signs were added to the Sumerian system, gradually transforming it into a full script that we today call cuneiform. By 2500 BC, kings were using cuneiform to issue decrees, priests were using it to record oracles, and less-exalted citizens were using it to write personal letters.
The beautiful mathematical explorations of Maryam Mirzakhani
And finally, at the risk of turning into The Economist, we conclude this week’s Rabbit Hole with a touching obituary of the Tehran-born, Fields Medal-winning mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani:
A bit more than a decade ago when the mathematical world started hearing about Maryam Mirzakhani, it was hard not to mispronounce her then-unfamiliar name. The strength and beauty of her work made us learn it. It is heartbreaking not to have Maryam among us any longer. It is also hard to believe: The intensity of her mind made me feel that she would be shielded from death.
Vicarious (a buzzy Silicon Valley company developing AI for robots) say they have a new and crazy-good AI technique called Schema Networks. The Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence and others seem pretty skeptical and demand a throw-down challenge with AlphaGo (or, failing that, some peer-reviewed papers with commonly used terms and a broader set of tests).
In other AI video game news, Microsoft released a video of their AI winning at Ms. Pacman, with an instructive voiceover of how the system works.
I recently stumbled upon Carl Icahn’s Twitter feed which has the tag line: “Some people get rich studying artificial intelligence. Me, I make money studying natural stupidity.” Me, I think in 2017 this dichotomy is starting to sound pretty quaint. See: Overview of recent FAIR (Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research division) study teaching chatbots how to negotiate, including the bots self-discovery of the strategy of pretending to care about an item to which they actually give little or no value, just so they can later give up that item to seem to have made a compromise. Apparently, while they were at it, the Facebook bots also unexpectedly created their own language.
The quantum age has officially arrived
I’ve been jabbering on and pointing to links about quantum computing and the types of intractable problems it can solve for some time here, here and here, but now Bloomberg has written a long piece on quantum we can officially declare “The quantum age has officially arrived, hurrah!”. Very good overview piece on quantum computing from Bloomberg Markets here.
Your high dimensional brain
We tend to view ourselves (our ‘selfs’) through the lens of the technology of the day: in the Victorian ‘Mechanical age’ we were (and partly are) bellows and pumps, and now we are, by mass imagination, a collection of algorithms and processors, and possibly living in a VR simulation. While this ‘Silicon Age’ view is probably not entirely inaccurate it is also, probably, in the grand scheme of things, nearly as naive and incomplete as the Victorian view was. Blowing up some of the reductions of current models, this new (very interesting, pretty dense, somewhat contested) paper points towards brain structure in 11 dimensions. Shorter and easier explainer here by Wired or even more concisely by the NY Post: “If the brain is actually working in 11 dimensions, looking at a 3D functional MRI and saying that it explains brain activity would be like looking at the shadow of a head of a pin and saying that it explains the entire universe, plus a multitude of other dimensions.”
And finally, three different but complimentary technology-enabled approaches to diagnosing and fighting depression:
A basic algorithm with limited data has shown to be 80-90 percent accurate when predicting whether someone will attempt suicide within the next two years, and 92 percent accurate in predicting whether someone will attempt suicide within the next week.
In a different predictive approach, researchers fed facial images of three groups of people (those with suicidal ideation, depressed patients, and a medical control group) into a machine-learning algorithm that looked for correlations between different gestures. The results: individuals displaying a non-Duchenne smile (which doesn’t involve the eyes in the smile) were far more likely to possess suicidal ideation.
On the treatment-side, researchers have developed a potentially revolutionary treatment that pulses magnetic waves into the brain, treating depression by changing neurological structures, not its chemical balance.
AI has moved one step closer to mastering the classic video game StarCraft. Google, Facebook and now Alibaba have been working on AI StarCraft players, and last week a team from China’s Alibaba published a paper describing a system that learned to execute a number of strategies employed by high-level players without being given any specific instruction on how best to manage combat. Like many deep learning systems, the software improved through trial and error, demonstrating the ability to adapt to changes in the number and type of troops engaged in battle. Non-technical overview via The Vergehere. Original and fairly accessible technical paper here.
While an AI video game ace may not be world changing in and of itself, progress on AI intra-agent communication and coordination has potentially profound implications for markets as the approach matures, or, as the Alibaba researchers rather poetically note in their paper:
In the coming era of algorithmic economy, AI agents with a certain rudimentary level of artificial collective intelligence start to emerge from multiple domains…[including] the trading robots gaming on the stock markets [and] ad bidding agents competing with each other over online advertising exchanges.
And how do agents behave when their game playing becomes stressful? Apparently just like their human creators: Aggressively. Summary of Google’s DeepMind finds on this here.
For anyone who has ever taken general NLP algorithms, trained them on the information of the broader world and then pointed them at financial markets-type information, you will have noticed that they get kind of sad and messed up. Partly because markets-ese is odd (try telling your doctor that being overweight is a good thing) and partly because finance folks sure do love a risk discussion…and apparently no one more so than JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon. In his much re-published letter to shareholders:
It is alarming that approximately 40% of those who receive advanced degrees in STEM at American universities are foreign nationals with no legal way of staying here even when many would choose to do so…Felony convictions for even minor offenses have led, in part, to 20 million American citizens having a criminal record…The inability to reform mortgage markets has dramatically reduced mortgage availability.
Thanks, Jamie, my algorithm just quit and immigrated to Canada.
The more serious question on this is that as natural language algorithms (of various types) become ubiquitous, at what point do business leaders begin to craft their communications primarily to influence the machine, or at least not include detailed socio-political critiques to accidentally trip it?
The nurture of reality
Clearly, our perception of reality, our world view, is substantially informed by our memories and the stories (links) we tell ourselves about these memories. We are now, for the first time, just starting to get an understanding of how memories are physically stored in the brain. Recollections of successive events physically entangle each other when brain cells store them, as Scientific Americanreports.
The Map of Physics, a joyous 8 minute video by Dominic Walliman (formerly of D-Wave quantum computing), culminates in the map below with The Chasm of Ignorance, The Future and Philosophy. Walliman points to where we must be operating if we are to break truly new ground (i.e., put the regression models down, please). And if you liked that, keep watching to Your Quantum Nose: How Smell Works
And, finally, a classic, epic, challenging, practical, piece of prose/poetry from one of the the world’s greatest philosophers and orators: the late, great, Tibetan Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa. Long treatise on Zen vs. Tantra as a system for nurturing the mind:
…the discovery of shunyata [emptiness of determinate intrinsic nature] is no doubt the highest cardinal truth and the highest realization that has ever been known…
Coming next week: The next generation of flash crashes; digital Darwinism and the resurgence of hardware.
Discovered by the Germans in 1904, they named it San Diego, which of course in German means a whale’s vagina.
No, there’s no way that’s correct.
I’m sorry, I was trying to impress you. I don’t know what it means. I’ll be honest, I don’t think anyone knows what it means anymore. Scholars maintain that the translation was lost hundreds of years ago.
Doesn’t it mean Saint Diego?
No, that’s — that’s what it means. Really.
Agree to disagree.
― “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” (2004)
Boy, that escalated quickly … I mean, that really got out of hand fast.
It jumped up a notch.
It did, didn’t it?
Yeah, I stabbed a man in the heart.
I saw that. Brick killed a guy. Did you throw a trident?
Yeah, there were horses, and a man on fire, and I killed a guy with a trident.
Brick, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. You should find yourself a safehouse or a relative close by. Lay low for a while, because you’re probably wanted for murder.
―“Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” (2004)
It’s horrifying. If men don’t trust each other, this earth might as well be hell.
That’s right. The world’s a kind of hell.
No! I believe in men. I don’t want this place to be hell.
Shouting doesn’t help. Think about it. Out of these three, whose story is believable?
In the end, you cannot understand the things men do.
― “Rashomon” (1950)
But is there anyone who’s really good? Maybe goodness is just make-believe.
What a frightening…
Man just wants to forget the bad stuff, and believe in the made-up good stuff. It’s easier that way.
― “Rashomon” (1950)
To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.
― Akira Kurosawa (1910 – 1998)
If the Emperor had not delivered his [15 August 1945] address urging the Japanese people to lay down their swords — if that speech had been a call instead for the Honorable Death of the Hundred Million — those people on that street in Sōshigaya probably would have done what they were told and died. And probably I would have done likewise. The Japanese see self-assertion as immoral and self-sacrifice as the sensible course to take in life. We were accustomed to this teaching and had never thought to question it.
― Akira Kurosawa (1910 – 1998)
Kurosawa’s Rashomon is the defining movie of an Epsilon Theory world, where Narrative dominates and Truth with a capital T is nowhere to be found. The bandit, the wronged woman, the dead samurai, and the woodcutter witness all testify at trial, and the only certainty, as unsatisfying as it may be, is that we the jury will never know what truly happened in that forest. Such is life. Such is history.
I think Kurosawa is spot on with his assessment of Japanese political culture, by the way. No anti-status quo Trump or Brexit votes there. Just the resignation of self-sacrifice and the long slow slide into irrelevance.
To Counterfeit is DEATH.
―Ben Franklin (1706 – 1790), from a 15 shilling note of his design
For 600 years, from the 13th century to 1870, the punishment for counterfeiting in Great Britain and its colonies was the same as for high treason — to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. First you’d be slowly hanged, so that you came close to asphyxiation but couldn’t end the suffering by breaking your neck, then you’d be castrated, then you’d be disemboweled, and THEN you’d be killed by beheading. And then for good measure your headless body would be chopped into four pieces.
British counterfeiters during the American Revolutionary War were known as “shovers” for their efforts to “shove” fake dollars into circulation and destabilize the Colonial government. One infamous shover, David Farnsworth, was arrested with more than 10,000 counterfeit dollars, a not-so-small fortune in 1778. George Washington called for Farnsworth to be tortured to death, but Farnsworth got off easy and was simply hanged.
The largest counterfeiting operation in the history of economic warfare was Operation Bernhard, a German plan during the Second World War to destabilize the British economy by flooding the global economy with forged Bank of England notes. The forgeries are, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable from the originals.
Alves dos Reis, instigator of the Portuguese Bank Note Crisis of 1925 and my choice for the greatest counterfeiter of all time. ADR didn’t print fake Portuguese currency. He printed fake instructions to the official banknote printers (famed London firm Waterlow and Sons) to print REAL notes equivalent in value to almost 1% of Portugal’s nominal GDP, and ship them to him directly.
It may please your majesty to understand, that the first occasion of the fall of exchange did grow by the King his majesty, your late father, in abasing his coin from six ounces fine to three ounces fine. Whereupon the exchange fell from 26s 8p to 13s 4p which was the occasion that all your fine gold was conveyed out of this your realm.
― Sir Thomas Gresham (1519 – 1579), letter to Queen Elizabeth I
Gresham’s Law: bad money drives good money out of circulation.
Hunt’s Law: fake news drives real news out of circulation.
What is unexpected about medieval houses, however, is not the lack of furniture but the crush and hubbub of life within them. Households of up to twenty-five persons were not uncommon. Since all of these people lived in one or at the most two rooms, privacy was unknown. How did people achieve intimacy under such conditions? It appears that they did not. Medieval paintings frequently show a couple in bed or bath and, nearby in the same room, friends or servants in untroubled, and apparently unembarrassed, conversation.
―Witold Rybczynski, “Home: A Short History of an Idea” (1986)
In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council of the Catholic Church decreed that everyone, king and commoner alike, should practice individual confession. In a very real sense, the IDEA of privacy — the concept of an internal life of the mind as a social good — did not exist in the West before this pronouncement.
They say the Nile used to run
From East to West
And you know I’m fine
But I hear those voices at night
The star maker says it ain’t so bad
The dream maker’s going to make you mad
The spaceman says everybody look down
It’s all in your mind
― TheKillers, “Spaceman” (2008)
Illustration of a wolf trap from Le Livre de la Chasse (c. 1407). An entire pack could be captured by laying a blood trail through a one-way wicker door in a circular fence built around a central pen with a scared, bleating sheep. The design ensured that individual wolves could not see each other until it was too late, each wolf believing that it was on a uniquely rewarding path. I’m pretty sure this painting now hangs in Mark Zuckerberg’s office.
On December 30, the Washington Postpublished a story claiming that Russian hackers had “penetrated the U.S. electric grid” through an “attack” on Burlington Electric, a Vermont utility.
In a statement that night Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) said, “Vermonters and all Americans should be both alarmed and outraged that one of the world’s leading thugs, Vladimir Putin, has been attempting to hack our electric grid, which we rely upon to support our quality-of-life, economy, health, and safety. This episode should highlight the urgent need for our federal government to vigorously pursue and put an end to this sort of Russian meddling.”
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) said he was briefed by Vermont State Police on Friday evening, and announced via statement that “This is beyond hackers having electronic joy rides — this is now about trying to access utilities to potentially manipulate the grid and shut it down in the middle of winter. That is a direct threat to Vermont and we do not take it lightly.”
According to Vermont Rep. Peter Welch (D), the attack showed that Russia “will hack everywhere, even Vermont, in pursuit of opportunities to disrupt our country. We must remain vigilant, which is why I support President Obama’s sanctions against Russia and its attacks on our country and what it stands for.”
Wow, even Vermont. Those Russian bastards.
The next day, the Washington Post amended their original story. Turns out that there was no “penetration of the U.S. electric grid.” Turns out that a Burlington Electric employee discovered that his notebook computer, which had never and would never be connected to the grid, had a virus on it. And that virus was probably written in Russia. It’s the same type of virus that lifted John Podesta’s emails. It’s the same type of virus that could lift my emails if I clicked on a “Free Gift From Amazon!!” link. That’s it. That was the “attack on our country and what it stands for.” A Burlington Electric employee clicked on a bad link inside a scam email and downloaded a virus.
So was this Washington Post article fake news?
This may surprise regular Epsilon Theory readers, but no, I don’t think it was. It was fiat news, which is to “real news” what fiat currencies like dollars and euros and yen are to “real money” like a gold coin. Fake news is something different. Fake news is counterfeit news, which is to fiat news what counterfeit bank notes are to fiat currencies.
I think this distinction between fiat news and counterfeit news is an important one. Why? Because when we conflate fiat news with counterfeit news we talk past each other. If we equate the WashingtonPost’s obviously partisan slanting of news with Russia’s obviously interventionist creation of news, as if both are simply purveyors of “fake news”, then we end up in the ridiculous position of apologizing for one, tacitly or explicitly, when we complain about the other. Democrats (and they’re mostly Democrats) justifiably upset about Russia stealing DNC emails and interfering with our election inevitably find themselves required to defend the Washington Post as some paragon of journalistic integrity. Republicans (and they’re mostly Republicans) justifiably upset about the Washington Post casually equating criticism of the Obama administration with being a treasonous stooge inevitably find themselves required to defend Russia as some falsely accused innocent abroad. So long as both Russia and the Washington Post are evaluated on the same simplistic dimension (is it fake news or real news?), we are forced into contortions of cognitive dissonance to criticize one without tarring the other.
My view: both Russia and the Washington Post deserve as much tarring and as much criticism as humanly possible. My view: both Russia and the Washington Post are bad actors. My view: both Russia and the Washington Post present a danger to a well-functioning American democracy. But they present different dangers, with different dynamics, with different strategic interactions, and with different likely policy responses, because they operate on different dimensions of Information Theory. Oh yeah, one more … my view: there are lots of Russias and there are lots of Washington Posts out there.
Russia is in the counterfeit news business. They are trying to influence our political process to their sovereign benefit, just like the United States is in the counterfeit news business inside Russia and every other corner of the world. Russia is always a foe to a status quo American regime, regardless of which party is in the White House, as their sovereign self-interest requires constant competition. If you trust Putin, you are a fool.
The Washington Post is in the fiat news business. They are trying to influence our political process to their institutional benefit, just like the Wall Street Journal and every other mainstream media institution is in the fiat news business. The Washington Post is never a foe to a status quo American regime, regardless of which party is in the White House, as the regime bestows on them the authority to issue fiat news. Still, if you trust the Washington Post, you are no less a fool.
The fiat news business is booming. As a result, the counterfeit news business is booming, too. And if the history of fiat money and counterfeit money is any guide, we ain’t seen nothing yet.
The fiat news business is a centerpiece of Epsilon Theory, from “Uttin’ On the Itz” to “Catch-22” to “The New TVA” to “My Passion Is Puppetry” to “When Narratives Go Bad”, so I won’t repeat all that here. But I’ll repeat some. This is from “Stalking Horse”, one of my all-time favorite Epsilon Theory notes, back in September 2014. I think it holds up pretty well as a definition of fiat news, or what I (and the Fed) have called “strategic communication policy” in the past:
“Once you start thinking about what’s happening in markets and the world as an inextricable weave of fundamental events and political efforts to shape our interpretation of those events to achieve a political end, you start to see stalking horses everywhere. A Fed QE program ostensibly to reduce unemployment and help Main Street? Stalking horse. A regulatory Big Data program ostensibly to identify brokers who churn accounts? Stalking horse. A Chinese banking program ostensibly to liberalize currency exchange rates? Stalking horse.
And it’s not just actual programs or actual market behaviors like the Chinese purchase of U.S. Treasuries. When words are used for strategic effect rather than a genuine transmission of information you create a virtual stalking horse. This, of course, describes every use of words by every politician and every central banker. This is what Bernanke and Yellen and Draghi and Abe and Obama and Merkel mean when they refer to communication policy. Communication policy is the strategic use of words to shape perceptions and expectations. It’s a focus on how something is said as opposed to what is described. It’s a focus on form rather than content, on truthiness rather than truth. It’s why authenticity is as rare as a unicorn in the public world today.
Look, I understand why politicians and bankers have completely abandoned authenticity, an uncommon quality even in the best of times. The Great Recession was a near-death experience for the global economy, and slamming a syringe of adrenaline into the patient’s heart — which was basically what QE 1 did — doesn’t happen without long-term side-effects. To switch the metaphor around a bit, this was a war to preserve the System, and as Aeschylus said 2,500 years ago, the first casualty of war is truth. I really don’t think Bernanke or Draghi came into office thinking that their public statements would become the most powerful weapon in their arsenal, or that they could train markets to respond so positively to words presented strategically for effect, but there you have it. This is what worked. This is how the war was won.
So … I understand why politicians and bankers have adopted a stalking horse technique to shape market expectations and behaviors, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. And while I am happy to condone the use of emergency powers to win a war and save the world, I am not at all comfortable with their continued use once the crisis is over. Unfortunately, I believe that is exactly what has happened, that “strategic communication policy” has mutated from an emergency measure designed to prevent an economic collapse into a standard bureaucratic process designed to maintain financial stability. Is this banal assumption and routinization of power a natural bureaucratic response to a crisis, something we also saw in the aftermath of the Great Depression? Yes, but I’ve got examples going the other way, too. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus in 1861, and good for him. But in early 1866 — less than a year after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox — the U.S. government stood down and restored Constitutional protections. I am really hard-pressed to understand how the exigencies of recovery from the Great Recession, now more than 5 years on, are somehow more deserving of ongoing emergency policies than the immediate aftermath of the freakin’ Civil War.
Wait a second, Ben. Are you seriously equating the government’s use of “strategic communications” to a suspension of Constitutional protections? Doesn’t that seem a tad over the top? Yes I am, and no I don’t think so. The bedrock assumption of limited, representative government is that we, the people have an inalienable right to make an informed decision about who will make policy decisions on our behalf. Of course this is an imperfect process, and of course the information we use to make these decisions will be mediated and skewed by all sorts of competing interests. But it makes a big difference if the government itself is fully committed to mediating and skewing this information. And it makes all the difference in the world if relatively apolitical institutions like the Fed and various regulatory authorities — institutions which have been granted a vast array of powers over the years precisely because they have been viewed as relatively apolitical — now embrace the highly political act of mediating and skewing information in service to theirown particular visions of stability and status quo preservation. This is the danger of strategic communication policy. This is the price we pay for a loss of authenticity within our most important institutions.”
Like I say, holds up pretty well, particularly after this last election cycle. If I rewrote it today, the only change I’d make is to explicitly add news organizations like the Washington Post or CNN to the list of privileged institutions that “now embrace the highly political act of mediating and skewing information in service to their own particular visions of stability and status quo preservation.”
So where does it all go from here? I’ll take a cue from the history of fiat money and its counterfeits and hazard three predictions. After all, prices and news are both just signals when seen through the lens of Information Theory, and the same dynamics and “laws” should apply to both.
First, there’s no reason to believe that the breadth and scope of fiat news won’t grow to the same level of ubiquity as fiat money. There’s really no such thing as “real money”, i.e., gold and silver as a medium for exchange or a store of value, in existence in the world today. That used to be the meaning of gold, but those days are long gone. Today fiat money completely and utterly dominates all global commerce and exchange. Why? Because it supports the existential aims of government: taxation (sovereignty), price control (stability), and liquidity provision (growth). Without the invention of fiat money, global GDP today would be at … I dunno, maybe mid-18th century levels? Something around there, I’d guess. Fiat news serves exactly the same existential aims of government, just in a less overt (but more powerful for being hidden) fashion. There’s just too much at stake for status quo regimes, what with modern referenda like Brexit and national elections like we just experienced in the U.S. and are forthcoming this year throughout Europe, for regime institutions to do anything other than double-down in their embrace and promulgation of fiat news.
Ten years from now we will be awash in “news” to a degree that we can hardly imagine today. That’s what happened with fiat money, and that’s what I think happens with fiat news. The exponential growth in fiat news is still ahead of us, not behind us.
Second, while counterfeit news will continue to suffer the same official opprobrium and punishment as counterfeit money has endured over the centuries, we’re going to see a lot more of it in the years to come. In the same way that it’s easier to counterfeit fiat paper than gold or silver coins, so is it easier to counterfeit fiat news. I mean, the bang for the buck that Russia got from their email hacking and dissemination exploits in 2016 is just … staggering. What Russia did with counterfeit news is the same thing that the British did during the American Revolution with counterfeit dollars. It’s the same thing that the Germans did during World War II with counterfeit pounds. It’s the same thing that I’m sure the U.S. has done in more countries and more conflicts than one can easily count. But what Russia has shown is how easy and cheap it is to counterfeit news for yuuuge sovereign benefit when ALL news is constructed and slanted to some degree. Trust me, this lesson is not lost on China. Or Germany. Or France. Or India. Or Brazil. The Information Wars are just beginning, and the equivalent of hydrogen bombs are both crazy cheap to build and the technology is fully proliferated. There’s no putting this genie back in the bottle.
Is this a potential casus belli? Absolutely. Counterfeit strikes at the heart of what it means to be a sovereign government, whether or not we’re talking about money or news, particularly when the counterfeiting is done by another government. My guess is that the next level of counterfeiting, one that could spark a shooting war, will take the form of something like the Portuguese Bank Note Crisis of 1925, where the real printers of the real money were tricked into printing massive quantities of real notes for a fake customer. This was non-forgery counterfeiting, and it’s the future of sovereign-directed counterfeit news.
Third, Gresham’s Law applies to news as well as money, meaning that fake news drives real news out of circulation. When Thomas Gresham wrote Queen Elizabeth I in 1560 to deliver the bad news that “all your fine gold was conveyed out of this your realm” because her father Henry VIII had debased the currency by lowering the silver content of his coins, he didn’t mean that people packed up their gold and shipped it to France. He meant that people hoarded the old (good) silver coins and didn’t spend them. He meant that people hoarded their gold (or any trusted store of value) and refused to exchange them for Elizabeth’s coins. Elizabethan citizens lost trust in ALL commonly exchanged coins, no matter what the coins looked like or who offered up the coins, because Elizabethan citizens were good game players. If you’re willing to exchange an unknown silver coin for my bad silver coin (or something priced in bad silver coins), then either you’re stupid or that’s also a bad silver coin. Let’s assume you’re not stupid, so I’m going to treat your coin as bad regardless of whether it’s truly a good coin or not. And if you truly have a good coin, there’s nothing you can say to me that will convince me it’s a good coin. You can’t spend your good coin for fair value even if you wanted to. It’s exactly the same with news today. We know that the news has been “debased” through strategic communication policy, through the intentional slanting and mediation of primary news by officially sanctioned sources like Fed Chairs and CNN anchors in the service of stability and status quo maintenance. As a result, we’ve lost trust in ALL commonly exchanged news, no matter what the news is about or who offers up the news. Even though we’re awash in news, just like Elizabethan England was awash in coinage, the exchange value of ALL news has been diminished regardless of its “truth-content”. “Real” news today is diminished in value simply by the act of dissemination. You can’t spend your real news for fair value even if you want to, so it makes no business sense to spend real money to collect real news.
It’s this third point that is the most important, because it points to a potential transformation in the way that we THINK about news, a change in the IDEA of news as a social good. These transformations happen rarely — the invention of privacy, for example, in the 13th century — but they ARE inventions, no less so for being conceptual than the tangible invention of the steam engine or the semiconductor. And when these conceptual transformations do occur, they change the entire course of human civilization.
I’m using the social invention of privacy as a prominent example because I think that this transformation in the idea of news as a political good is connected with a similar transformation in the idea of privacy, both of which are being reinvented by technology. It’s no accident that Facebook is at the center of both.
We believe providing more context can help people decide for themselves what to trust and what to share. We’ve started a program to work with third-party fact checking organizations that are signatories of Poynter’s International Fact Checking Code of Principles. We’ll use the reports from our community, along with other signals, to send stories to these organizations. If the fact checking organizations identify a story as fake, it will get flagged as disputed and there will be a link to the corresponding article explaining why. Stories that have been disputed may also appear lower in News Feed.
In practice this means that four established fiat news institutions — Associated Press, ABC News, the Washington Post, and the Tampa Bay Times (Politifact) — together with a smaller media company, Snopes.com, will share the responsibility for determining what stories are “disputed” and dropped into the memory hole of a lower ranking in News Feed. More fact checkers, particularly more fiat news institutions, will undoubtedly be added to the list, as the process is designed to encourage fiat news institutional participation (The Poynter Institute, developer of the “Fact Checking Code of Principles” at the heart of Facebook’s efforts here, owns the Times Publishing Company, which in turn owns the Tampa Bay Times and Politifact). My sense is that these fact checkers can do a pretty good job of identifying counterfeit news (for example that’s why Snopes.com was started, albeit in an urban legend and email hoax context), but will fail miserably at policing fiat news, for obvious reasons. Not that Facebook cares about the distinction, of course, as they will become the preeminent fiat news provider themselves when all is said and done.
Facebook’s erosion of privacy settings and protections is a long-running saga, reflecting Mark Zuckerberg’s many public statements that privacy is “no longer a social norm.” He’s probably right, which is exactly my point in writing about it in this note and linking it to a change in social norms regarding political information and news. But my concern isn’t that Facebook prevents me from maintaining privacy with regard to other Facebook users. My concern is that Facebook prevents me from maintaining privacy with regard to Facebook and other regime institutions, both corporate and governmental, so that the fiat news I receive is curated and distributed to successfully elicit a specific response from me.
I know, I know … if you don’t want your actions and preferences exposed to The Controllers, don’t use Facebook. And I don’t. But in the same way that there are lots of Russias and lots of Washington Posts out there, so are there lots of Facebooks. Plus the Facebook and the Amazon and the Google are getting harder and harder to avoid. Each of these companies has designed a wonderfully effective Medieval wolf trap, complete with blood trail and bleating sheep, to lure all of us wolves into the pen, and I’m certainly no exception to that. It’s brilliant, really, even if horribly depressing.
What’s happening here is reflective of a prominent feature of American political culture, namely that we tend to trust anything technology or business related, and correspondingly mistrust anything that comes from the government. It’s a big part of the Trump phenomenon, as lots of people have noted, but it goes back literally a couple of hundred years. What’s Hamilton’s core appeal? He’s a self-made man, the highest praise you can offer in the American political tradition. My view, of course, is that it’s absolutely nuts to trust billionaires to devise or administer your social policy, whether it’s Donald Trump or Mark Zuckerberg or Eric Schmidt or Jeff Bezos or whoever, more or differently than you trust permanent members of the political class like the Clintons or the Bushes or whoever. Actually I take that back. I trust technology billionaires like Zuckerberg and Schmidt and Bezos LESS than I trust the Clintons and the Bushes when it comes to my political interests and democracy-supporting social policy, which is really saying something. Why? Because gridlock. I love gridlock. I love the checks and balances embedded in our political machinery, because it prevents government from doing as much as it otherwise would to interfere with and upend my life. There’s no gridlock at Facebook or Amazon or Google, and this is where you’ll find the road to smiley-face authoritarianism. Where are we going? It’s not George Orwell’s 1984. It’s Dave Eggers’ The Circle. A world awash in fiat news as administered by government-licensed technology behemoths with a dissemination “platform”. We don’t trust the news, and in the back of our minds we know we’re being played, but boy, is it an entertaining and compelling delivery.
So what’s to be done? Not much in a political sense. Proposing some “plan” to roll back Facebook and Google and Amazon’s usurpation of fiat news dissemination makes about as much sense as proposing a plan to roll back the Catholic Church in 1215. As a citizen pretty much the best I can do is ring the cow bell with Epsilon Theory and try to convince other citizens to see the world through the same Rashomon-esque lens. As Akira Kurosawa said, to be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes. Ditto for a liberty-loving citizen.
As an investor, though, I hope to do more than just add more cow bell. I think it’s possible to use new technologies to track and analyze the dynamic of fiat news dissemination, i.e., the Narrative, within the discrete social system of capital markets. It’s the same family of new technologies that Zuckerberg and Schmidt and Bezos are using to shape our entire society, just applied for analytical purposes rather than shaping purposes. Plus a wee difference in scale. I’m applying these technologies to a very specific social dynamic — the Common Knowledge Game — that I believe dominates policy-driven markets and story-driven stocks. I call this the Narrative Machine, and it’s the centerpiece of my investment activities for 2017 and beyond. Here’s the Epsilon Theory note that launched the project, and I hope you’ll find this a useful research project to track in the Brave New World ahead.