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That Funny Feeling

Brent Donnelly is a senior risk-taker and FX market maker, and has been trading foreign exchange sin
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  1. I feel like I’m in the minority here when I say: “society” has to think about restrictions on free speech or we will destroy ourselves. Perhaps this seems histrionic, but on the current path we’re on, with mutual antipathy and distrust so high, substantial numbers of people believe things that are simply not true and cause actual harm to the general public by perpetuating those beliefs.

    I feel like we are hidebound by the notion that almost any censorship is bad, something that is (IMO) a social feature of the 20th century but resting on a misunderstanding of an 18th century document. And I understand that then some entity or institution becomes an arbiter of the truth, but, as you point out, the harm is manifest so the social media companies are pursuing censorship anyway.

    Answers are elusive, but I thought this piece was a good counter-argument to the two stances I normally hear.

  2. I disagree. Put no limits on free speech; however, bring back responsibility for actions and inactions. You tend to self govern a lot better if you’re responsible for your own decisions. I don’t mean the tech censor, and I don’t mean #cancel culture. What I mean is those are your opinions. They don’t matter. What matters is when you make decisions. Those decisions should come with responsibilities and repercussions. Right now bad decision making does not come with a consequence, whereas opinions do. That needs to be inverted.

  3. I’m of many minds about free speech limits/no limits.

    How do you see this responsibility unfolding for free speech scenarios such as calls to arms or encouraging abhorrent and/or criminal behavior in a world of human frailty.

  4. I am not sure that all bad decision making escapes consequence. I think mostly consequences are inevitable. Not always, but mostly.

    Opinions made public get batted around in a public way. You express an opinion publicly, get eviscerated by the peanut gallery, it gets noticed.

    Consequence seems to be a more private affair, many will not share misfortune publicly plus casualty can be difficult to prove even without denial being present. Self governance only exists if there is self awareness and it seems to me we have bred a 100% right 100% of the time mindset that it not conducive to the necessary self examination to produce that awareness.

  5. Brent:

    I do look for parables within our popular culture. Your piece reminded me both of “Brazil” ( so don’t assume you can project insignificance on chance incidents) and " I Robot" ( the robot calculates the odds of survival and let’s the kid die and saves the adult). As someone who generates content for a living I can see how the thought of a machine judging the intent or value of your work would be very unsettling to you so thanks for pointing that out .Hope I got your point right.

  6. On free speech I am extremely hands off with very few limits. Harassment, inciting or threatening imminent violence, fraud. Those things are justifiable limits for me and subject to normal US court process with rights to defense etc. The idea of being hard to be found guilty of a violation of free speech is a feature, not a bug.

  7. I’m looking more towards consequences of our leaders actions/inactions. A glance at today’s headlines today gives a few examples of actions/inactions that should lead to serious consequences but will end with nothing burgers: Boris Johnson for locking down everyone else while throwing elaborate parties for cronies. Insider trading at the Federal Reserve. Fauci covering up his involvement with Peter Daszak and squashing scientific inquiry into Covid’s origins. Powell’s entire “transitory” fraudulent narrative. There’s so much to add to this list. Our leaders’ actions only have negative consequences on the public, rarely are the leaders themselves negatively affected. The positive consequences are usually the inverse.

  8. I think the approach here depends on which version of free speech you’re talking about. Is it free speech or Free Speech :tm:? Because they’re different things. The former is the right of every American to criticize their government (or anything else) without fear of said government silencing them. The latter is the belief that you can say anything you want on any platform and live free and unencumbered by consequences. I think Free Speech :tm: is an unrealistic expectation that is used more often than not as a cover for people to attempt to get away with being jerks, or stirring controversy, or enriching themselves through some elaborate grift.

    The bigger problem is the one that’s embedded in the sort of meta issue that you’re (not incorrectly) concerned with. It’s the feeling that ‘somebody ought to be doing something about this’. I think we all feel that way to some degree. I’m as close to a free speech absolutist as you’ll find, but even I get that uncomfortable feeling when I think about the sort of insane shit that exists on Facebook. But now the embedded problem: if Facebook/Google/Twitter/et al are in the business of controlling the flow of information, and they are, then how do we categorize them in terms of what role they’re playing in society? Those companies all operate monopolies with the tacit blessing of the Federal government. Lots of people in government don’t like those monopolies and have the regulatory power to disrupt them. But if you’re too scared or too uninformed to use your power then do you really even have it? Breaking up Big Tech :tm: is the potential energy that’s stored in the D-cell battery that fell behind the couch and you forgot about two years ago. Maybe one day you’ll find it and put it to use, but for now it will always remain in the state of readiness without having anywhere to go.

    So if nobody is willing or able to regulate a thing then we have to say that whatever that thing is doing has the approval of said regulators. Right now, today, the United States government approves of what Facebook/Twitter/Google/et al are doing. Doesn’t that sort of make Big Tech :tm: a form of shadow government? Is DC really our nation’s capital or is Silicon Valley truly the seat of power?

    From a purely corporate law standpoint Facebook should be able to determine what their users can say or do. It’s their toy and they can tell you how to play with it. But if Facebook is a quasi government enterprise–in operation but not in law–then does that change their right to control the content? If we view these companies as sovereign authoritarian states instead of as regular corporate actors how does that change the way our actual, real government treats them?

    There’s no clean answer because we’ve just never been here before. These guys are all the East India Company. Once you’ve handed over the rights to control trade and colonization it’s hard to walk it all back in an orderly fashion.

  9. I just listened to an interesting podcast interview (The New Abnormal E179 time 18:30-35:00) that appears to provide more illumination on this problem.

    My summary understanding in a nutshell is that many (if not all) non-subscription “engagement by enragement” websites are primarily financed by advertising $$ channeled via GooG/Facebook. What is less known is the behind the scenes ad buying companies (“dark money” if you will) doing the directing of these $$.

    Without these ad dollars supporting their “free speech”, these political grievance entrepreneurs, grifters and con artists might have to go get more socially beneficial jobs and a goodly chunk of the mis/dis information might dry up.

    An unintended consequence of this, apparently, is that Mr/Mrs small biz owner buying ads through Facebook/Google might find their ads showing up on some website or embedded in some youtube video whose political philosophy/cause they do not support or agree with at all i.e. white supremacist, Qanon etc.

  10. That sounds pretty interesting. When you think about the massive fortune that Facebook and Google have accumulated it’s useful to remember that it all started as a way to generate ad revenue. One of the things I repeat (seemingly endlessly) is that the point of any TV show, network or cable, isn’t to inform you or entertain you, it’s to sell Tide and Liberty Mutual Insurance. CNN and Fox run their dumb programming not because of some moral obligation, but instead as fan service to the marks who they hope will eventually spend a little extra money buying something made by Proctor & Gamble.

  11. Yet in the 50s-60s there was more a sense of moral obligation in TV

    And in the movies going back to the earliest days there were executives willing to face trade-offs between profits and societal obligations

    Just feels different nowadays, like money is the ONLY goal

    Note, I’m not saying that period was “the good old days”

  12. That might be a lot less than you think. It’s my understanding that while some advertisers have dropped Fox, that doesn’t matter because Fox gets the bulk of it’s money from AT&T, Verizon, Comcast (A,V or C) etc as part share of subscriber fees paid to A,V or C. So again average Joe/Jane citizen that might despise Fox News is unknowingly contributing to keeping their programming alive when they pay to have cable with A,V or C.

  13. Hi there… The problem is, as a utilities and monopolies, YouTube and Twitter are preventing free speech by censoring arbitrarily. That’s half of the dilemma here. So how do we get back to free speech now that we have lost it to the corporate AI?

  14. Thank you … yes 100%. I feel that speech is no longer free if it is censored by monopolistic utilities. Censorship should be accomplished via federal laws (child pornography, etc.) not via YouTube algo.

  15. Yes the FCC has done a decent job of regulating standards on TV throughout history, I would argue. Now, it’s been left to the monopolistic utilities and their AI.

  16. Thank you I will check it out. The incentives are grossly misaligned on a few levels.

  17. Right but the FCC handled this just fine with TV and movies. Also, yes, I believe tech monopolies in specific lanes are essentially utilities like national broadcast networks. Therefore, they should be monitored and regulated as such. I don’t see it being all that different from the way we regulate TV, radio, and movie content, tbh.

  18. The thing is, TV content is regulated by the FCC. So there is precedent for a higher standard (kind of).

  19. I don’t think you’re crazy for having that stance, but I’m trying to imagine a world in which what you wrote actually gets turned into a viable law that applies to these companies AND maintains a robust market. I live in a suburb of a smaller metropolitan area and I have one electric provider, one gas provider, and one cable option. Public utilities have a benefit to be sure, but there is zero incentive for anyone else to even bother entering the market. Once you go down that road whatever big tech is available at the time of the new law is what you’ll still have 10 years later. So on the one hand you’ll definitely have put some controls on Facebook, but you’ll also have guaranteed them that their monopoly lasts forever. I don’t know just how ready people are to make that particular deal with the devil.

  20. Perhaps a combination of strong legislation and breakup would do the trick? If you broke YouTube into the three competing video sharing services, and had an FCC that set some clear rules for them… Would that work maybe? I agree the monopoly is the structural problem. If they were not monopolies, competition would mostly take care of this. Remember the entire goal of big tech, as stated by Peter Thiel and others, is to build a monopoly. “Competition is for losers” is the mantra.

  21. I feel like YouTube is an easier problem to solve than something like Facebook or Twitter. Maybe that’s entirely misplaced. But your solution sounds pretty straightforward and looks a lot like what was done to Ma Bell. The hard part for me is once you leave the higher barrier tech–and YouTube requires more time and effort than simply sending out a tweet–you run into the problem regulating the ones that really feel like speech in the public square. That’s entirely an optics problem and the legal difference between sending out a long tweet thread vs making a video is I presume almost zero. But for some reason I feel like silencing someone on Twitter is more censorious than if the same is done on YouTube. It’s not, and yet that’s how I feel. Now the question is why do I feel that way? What is it about how these services are sold to us makes me believe regulation on one is good but on the others it’s more complicated? I’ll ask this: am I the only one who sees these things as differentiated services rather than as one sort of nebulous blob? If so then it’s entirely a ME problem and we can move on. But if others are also drawing these weird (and sometimes imaginary!) distinctions between each form of social media then how do we approach that from a regulatory standpoint? Sorry, I have way more questions than I have answers, which isn’t terribly helpful.

  22. I think we actually agree on your premise of AI censorship. My reply was to someone’s argument that supported limits on speech.
    On your question of overcoming AI/Tech Censorship… Fred Wilson over at USV had a post on this that I thought was good. He suggested enforced open up instead of break up

  23. Avatar for O.P.A O.P.A says:

    Agreed, Interoperability would create a new field of competition. If I can take my facebook account, my network of friends, and post history, and move that to any other compatible service; or maybe make a tweet from my Instagram profile and then someone else reply to the tweet on tiktok, and have that message and response show up on all three platforms… then it really tears down the established moats.

  24. The only thing worse than a politician operating under political pressure are corporations trying to guess how best to protect their bottom line under political pressure.

    Fear of censorship caused “liberal” Hollywood to do worse to itself than any governmental censor could have…all “voluntarily.”

    We’re here again. Fear of governmental action has big tech doing dumb and dumber than government ever could, “voluntarily.”

    That Big Tech uses AI to wash its hands of the effects of its allergic reaction to the spectre of regulation is a nice 21st century twist. But it’s not like there were lots of successful appeals of the blacklist.

  25. Hi Brent, just finished reading “That Funny Feeling.”
    Well done. I’ll share my reading along similar lines & hope I’m not duplicating a contribution from another ET member.

    The Masterswitch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires. Authored by Tim Wu.

    Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Authored by Dr. Neil Postman.

    After reading Postman’s book some years ago, I stepped up my active censorship of what televised content I consume and how I consume it, whereas I’ve been an avid reader for decades and read as widely as possible to find high quality writing/thinking.

    Wu’s book added specific US history on this subject, along with a thoughtful comparison to the rise of the BBC and the differences between the respective media models, then he moves the reader forward to discuss the Internet, the regulatory environment, and a master switch. Enjoyable, thought provoking.

    Again, appreciate your essay. Well done.

  26. Computer says no.

    Artificial Intelligence may be artificial but it’s not intelligent. By reducing decisions to “code”, point-in-time propaganda is encoded to predicted future events.

    The ongoing flow of evidence of future events is cut off entirely once the code is written. The future seldom follows predictions as expected.

    Artificial Intelligence, as applied by Tech media to discussions of policy, is really not intelligent. It’s simply automated decision-making. Artificial Intelligence is adequate for making money selling products. Social media consumers enjoy these promotions. “Caveat emptor”.

    But Artificial Intelligence now also modulates awareness of far-reaching, significant ideas in the public square by design. It channels then reacts by preconceived rules.

    The ongoing problems that the public expects the government to manage, (meaning keeping them open to emerging evidence), become Tech media bureaucratized: Rules and reactions. The ongoing government-public problems are thus not managed well at all. Valuable participation is blocked by reductive rules. For what modern government costs, more is expected. Skilled management, not reductive bureaucracy.

    If Tech media cannot open up to a broader range of clearly legitimate ideas in the public square, then they should really step aside, for their own reputations. They do not want to be known in the future as the agents of institutionalized public disappointment and failure. A simple and elegant course correction is possible.

  27. As for book recommendations take a look at “If Then” by Jill Lepore

  28. As I posted previously with expectation of this becoming an issue, we have been here before… sort of.

    A private business, even private property, that became the central clearing house of public debate and free expression of ideas, taking it from the town square. And yes, there’s Supreme Court precedent. And yes, the trial court arguments include substantial back history.

    It’s about a group soliciting signatures for a petition, but at a private mall. Pruneyards v. Robins

    As I suggested in my prior post, to really have a well informed perspective on it, one only needs to browse the history detailed in Paul William Davies’s doctoral dissertation - free to download. As a writer for Shonda Rhimes and Netflix before at least skimming it.

    “My history of the shopping mall is ultimately about how we demarcate and contemplate public and private space. It is nowhere better situated than within the legal drama of Pruneyard v. Robins.”

    On page 38 he revisits the history going back to Greek agoras that were both places of commerce and public debate.

    So please, if this issue really matters for you, then do yourself a favor and read a free pdf download that will arm you far better than most to meaningfully engage a debate that has been going on for centuries. And if not, that’s fine. But please don’t claim this is something completely new, when the foundational issues are not.

  29. Reality TV show host Donald Trump was the President of the United States. Meme stocks had a meaningful impact on markets. Jpegs of apes are selling for more than houses. A plurality of Senators want to eliminate the filibuster to, I swear to God, “save democracy”. Big Tech knows you* better than you know yourself. You have no privacy. You* have no secrets they cannot find because you will willingly give them over to them. The search history of every member of Congress is available to Google. They know what porn sites every member of every committee has visited. Mark Zuckerberg knows how many Senators have a strained relationship with their daughters, which Congressman are cheating on their wives, and which cabinet secretaries have a son hooked on opioids. The information asymmetry has never been this wide. This is a different world entirely.

    The “foundational issues” you speak of are ants building a hill next to a construction crew working on a new six lane highway. None of the guys working there have even noticed the ants let alone pondered what it was they were doing or if they could learn something by observing them. You guys can talk about Greek agoras and what nine dead people said 40 years ago all you want, this entire debate is going to be happening light years away from anything we’ve experienced. This response reminds me of the primaries in 2016. Some bright GOP hopeful would lay out his 10 point plan for fixing problem X and Trump would give him a silly nickname, mock him, armpit fart into the microphone, then go up another 6pts in the polls the next two days. Not one person in all of the GOP smart set realized that the game had changed. Don’t repeat that mistake. Recognize when the water in which you swim has been polluted. Giving a doctoral dissertation on the importance of clean water won’t mean anything when you’re floating belly up in the tainted lake.

    (I’m sorry for mixing so many metaphors, I know it looks sloppy as all get up)

    (Also, I will absolutely read what you linked because I enjoy learning more, but unless it was written in 2032 and sent back in time I am skeptical of its usefulness to something that is truly unique and dangerous)

    *not literally you, the Royal you, the editorial

  30. I am sorry for what I now realize was a curt statement. I could have just as easily quoted many other statements by others in this thread to point out the apparent application. I do really appreciate you letting me know that you will read the dissertation. Please share after if you think I am way off or not.

    I think a writer of Scandal, a show fantasizing dark corners of DC, including the unfettered information available to intelligence, probably has some good insight to share. Then he wrote and produced We The People, calling the judicial system to its better self. And now he is back with Shonda Rhimes at Netflix. That he has a PhD in history from UC Berkeley and a law degree from Stanford, and worked in law for a material period before writing, suggests that he might have some ability to frame our current reality in historical context. Or maybe better said, he has the insight to help us apply relevant history to this unusual world we find ourselves in.

    Imagine being the person standing on a soapbox in a busy city complaining about some government policy or corruption. But nobody can hear or even see you as they walk by with their Oculus AR (not VR) glasses on- because META fact checker algorithms cancelled you, which is their right because they own the private platform. People can see a crack in the pavement that hasn’t been cancelled, but you don’t even exist. That’s exactly where we are going. Frankly, that’s where we are. It just doesn’t feel so extreme having a video taken down from YouTube. And that’s the tension addressed in his thesis. No it isn’t spoon fed with today’s construct. But to me, that’s what makes it so compelling and timeless. The small solo attorney took this all the way to the US Supreme Court and won against big law by rediscovering the entire known history of the tension between public and private (especially commercial) spaces, even to considering the architecture. Sadly, it’s not a Pelican Brief story, where the mall owners get arrested afterwards. Cheers on the SCOTUS steps that “We can get petitions signed in the mall!!” would be one bomb of a movie.

    So then, much of this IS still about “how we demarcate and contemplate public and private space.” Whether personal activities and information of officials, corporate leaders, or regular citizens. It’s about spaces that may be physical or in a metaverse, owned by a non government entity, but have replaced the public square as the location to speak freely and be heard.

    Oh and it was first a ruling about California laws in context of 1A Constitutional rights. A few social media companies happen to be located in CA. It all seems almost providential to my mind.

    Trust me, I am not blind to the current reality of information flow, the powerful interests, or this unusual period of history. My experiences these past 6+ years wouldn’t allow that- no matter how much I wish. And I certainly don’t have the luxury of even pretending I have a private life anymore. At some point after filing complaints with the FBI and other officials, a number of US gymnasts discovered that they became the primary subject of investigation. My situation isn’t nearly as tragic, but that part is exactly the same.

    And yes, I did well on FB from @ $20 in 2013 when analysts debated advertising on then small mobile screens that was getting more DAUs. FB was hiring every expert in social connections and influence and data mining. At the time their FB labs social maps looked like ET Zeitgeist webs. It was obvious that FB would know more about individual people and about how relationships and influence and opinions work than anyone, including those users. I didn’t consider the natural temptation to realize they could nudge clusters in certain directions to hit or beat earnings targets.

    So intelligence agencies / gov officials and FB, GOOG have a cold war. Both sides know too much about each other. Both know how to influence narrative. Social media might be holding the keys to the kingdom especially with the dying influence of MSM. But gov has a few guns to their head for now. The figurative one of regularly reminding them that not collaborating means antitrust breakup. Or the literal one that gov can disappear someone under the guise of a hostile threat to US national security (Terrorist!). And that’s what would happen the moment an exec would try to feed some confidential info on the wrong person, er “revealing sources and methods” to the public. Assange is their perfect cautionary tale. I’m guessing some people were very happy when Zuck started a family, especially with the Bill Gates honeypot almost empty.

    But thank you for questioning. I’m far more confident now about how relevant it is.

  31. I didn’t take it that way at all. You’ve been here a while and I would never question your sincerity or your good faith in any discussion.

  32. Thank you so much I’ll grab these ASAP

  33. Wow this looks great thank you

  34. Got it. Will read this weekend thanks

  35. Avatar for Laura Laura says:

    Don’t think I had read this piece before but it’s another great one @BrentDonnelly1! Very interesting to read for a first time almost 1.5 years after publication. The more things change…

    I was watching a clip of Frank Zappa on Larry King about censorship of the 80’s flavor, à la Tipper Gore and the PMRC, and wishing we could wake up from this dumb fractal version of groundhog day that we’ve been in the last 4 decades since “the Gipper” made that Faustian bargain with the Apocalypse!™ televangelist crowd. I’m pretty sure Frank would also blame Reagan, as I do.

    I wondered if this post should rather go in the Libertarians and Satanists topic, but ended up posting here as I think Brent’s piece is really worth a re-read in our current moment.

  36. Thanks Laura!! Ben’s decisions to post my pieces often rests on how evergreen they are, so your ability to find value so much later after publication means Ben is good at his job. :grinning:

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