My thoughts are my own — how to break up social network monopolies

3D Social Networking
3D Social Networking.
A few hours ago I came home from a meeting at Maklab entitled Blether about open source, Scotland and Paul Mason’s “PostCapitalism”, and my head has been buzzing ever since.

At some point during the meeting, Alistair Davidson said something about Web 2.0 essentially being about moving all software functionality to servers instead of focusing on selling programs (compare Gmail with old-fashioned email clients). A general discussion followed, and suddenly it all clicked into place for me: In an Open Source and social media context, we need to talk less about programs and more about data.

The reason no email client could ever become a monopoly was because the email protocol is quite simple, and any decent programmer can easily write an email client.

The reason it’s so hard to compete with Facebook (even Google+ couldn’t do it although Google threw lots of resources after it, and many other efforts such as Diaspora and Ello never really stood a chance) is because it’s the social network you’ve built up inside it that’s important, not the software itself. Lots of people would leave Facebook tomorrow if they could take their network with them, but they can’t, so they don’t.

Now imagine if your social network data — your connexions, your photos, your posts, your likes and retweets — were all held on a independent server (this could be run by the UN, by a charity financed by Google, by a network of volunteers or even by a private company owned by Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn in conjunction). This server wouldn’t provide a nice interface — you definitely wouldn’t want to use it for your social networking — but it would hold all your data and interact with all the social media websites.

So if you clicked “like” on a story in Facebook, the like would get stored on this server instead of Facebook’s, and if you later decided to move to Google+ instead, your like would still be there (even if would potentially look rather different). Importantly, you wouldn’t need to know which client your friend whose update you liked was using. Effectively, all the social networks would become one from a data point-of-view. Effectively, your thoughts would again be your own and you would simply allow social media clients to interact with them.

Some people would then use one social network client for everything, while others would still use Facebook for family and friends, LinkedIn for business, Twitter for thinking aloud, Flickr for DSLR photos, Instagram for smartphone photos, Spotify for music, etc., etc. It wouldn’t matter, and you could change your clients at any time.

In order to survive, Facebook and the other websites would need to start competing on providing the best user experience rather than trying to help you build up a huge network and then make it difficult to leave. And if somebody decided to create an Open Source social media client, they would immediately have access to people’s social networks and wouldn’t need to spend time and money on building them up afresh on huge and expensive servers.

Of course Facebook and its competitors won’t like this idea, but it’s the kind of thing that antitrust legislation could force through. It would definitely be much more useful than breaking Facebook into two parts (because only the half that retained the network would survive).

Any objections?

Share Button

Did universal bilingualism give Scots an advantage in the past?

Bilingual
Bilingual.
There’s more and more evidence that being bilingual makes you smarter and keeps your brain functioning for longer. Here’s a summary from the New York Times (but there’s a huge amount of material on this topic out there, as a quick Google search will demonstrate):

This view of bilingualism is remarkably different from the understanding of bilingualism through much of the 20th century. Researchers, educators and policy makers long considered a second language to be an interference, cognitively speaking, that hindered a child’s academic and intellectual development.

They were not wrong about the interference: there is ample evidence that in a bilingual’s brain both language systems are active even when he is using only one language, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other. But this interference, researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as a blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.

[…]

Bilingualism’s effects also extend into the twilight years. […] Individuals with a higher degree of bilingualism — measured through a comparative evaluation of proficiency in each language — were more resistant than others to the onset of dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease: the higher the degree of bilingualism, the later the age of onset.

It’s also a well-known fact that Scotland punched well above its weight inside the United Kingdom. It appears to me that this started some decades after the 1707 Acts of Union and slowly started to fade out in the 20th century.

Interestingly, most successful Scots must have been bilingual (or even trilingual) during this time — you needed to know English well to succeed, but in Scotland everybody spoke only Scots and/or Gaelic (depending on where they lived). I’m not sure when Standard Scottish English started replacing Scots and Gaelic as the primary language of large numbers of Scots, but it must have been a relatively recent event. For instance, when Norn was dying out around the time of the Acts of Union, it got replaced by Scots, not by English. On the other hand, the vast areas of the Highlands where Gaelic died out after the Clearances ended up speaking English, not Scots.

It’s tempting to think that one of the factors that allowed Scotland to punch above it weight was the near-universal bilingualism. If this theory is correct, making all Scots bilingual again by supporting and promoting both Gaelic and Scots will make Scotland a more successful country in the future.

Share Button

Travel-to-work council areas

Scottish Travel to Work areas.
Scottish mainland Travel to Work areas.
Many people have been pointing out that Scottish councils are very large compared to their counterparts in other countries. For instance, here’s Lesley Riddoch’s take on it:

The average population of our 32 councils today is roughly 170,000 people. The European average is closer to 14,000. The highly devolved Germans have municipal councils of just 7,000 people. And lest anyone think our dispersed rural populations constitute an argument for larger councils, neighbouring Norway has 428 powerful local councils and 19 county councils for a smaller population than Scotland.

It’s of course hard to create perfect council areas in a country where half the population lives in a very small area while half the country is barely inhabited at all — the councils simply can’t have both a similar physical size and a similar population.

Something has to be done, however, but I haven’t seen any good proposals for new administrative boundaries.

I therefore found it interesting to discover that the ONS have worked out the current commuting (travel-to-work) areas based on information in the 2011 census (see the map above). If I’ve counted them correctly, it divides Scotland into 44 areas.

The areas are similar in size, but as a result, some of them have huge populations — for instance their Glasgow area includes not just Glasgow but also East Renfrewshire, East Dumbartonshire and other council areas. I therefore have my doubts it would be a good idea simply to turn these travel-to-work areas into new councils, but the map might provide a useful starting point.

Share Button

Lest the momentum fades

Time
Time.
Yesterday Craig Murray made some important points about the timing of the next independence referendum:

The SNP is full of siren voices arguing that they should enjoy their spoils for a decade or two while maintaining a steady trudge towards independence. They whisper that we have to await a 60% Yes lead in the opinion polls before we try again as another defeat would be disastrous.

But the greater danger is that the momentum fades. You would have to be the greatest optimist in the World to imagine a more favourable conjunction of circumstances for Independence than an extremist Tory government at Westminster, a Labour Party in meltdown, the Liberals almost eliminated and the SNP supreme in Scotland. Plus the residue of the huge momentum of the IndyI campaign, which put on 14 points in 12 months.

This dream conjunction will not last forever. The great danger is letting the moment slip through our fingers.

I think this is a very good point. If we look at the situation in other countries, everything is in a flux at the moment, and people do things they wouldn’t have dreamt of before. Syriza and Podemos wouldn’t have done so well just a few years ago, and closer to home Jeremy Corbyn wouldn’t have stood a chance against Miliband five years ago. At the same time, huge numbers of refugees are arriving in Europe and it is not at all certain what that will mean for the future of the EU and our place in the world.

People everywhere are looking for a way out of the current mess. At some point in the future, a solution will be found (let’s just hope it’s a positive solution and not a modern version of the 1930s) and things will settle down again, and by then independence could easily be off the agenda for another generation.

The time to take a leap into the unknown — and declaring independence from the rUK falls into this category no matter how many components of the UK you decide to retain after independence — is during a time of uncertainty.

Nobody knows how long the current situation will last, but I would expect things to calm down within the next decade. In other words, if the next independence referendum doesn’t get called before 2025, there’s a huge risk it will suddenly have to wait another 30 years.

I’m not arguing we should call a new referendum tomorrow. The opinion polls haven’t shifted enough yet, and there needs to be a real, tangible reason to call a referendum. However, time is of the essence.

We need to campaign for independence now as if the second independence referendum had already been called. By campaigning — and yes, that means arranging meetings, marching through Edinburgh, putting Yes stickers everywhere and chapping on doors — we can get to the 60% support for Yes that will convince our most cautious of friends that the time is right to call a second referendum, and at that point winning it will be a mere formality.

(In Craig Murray’s blog post he then goes on to discuss the conditions for a UDI, which I think is perhaps a distraction at this stage. There are times when that might be the best solution, but at the moment we should assume that Westminster won’t fight a Scottish Government that has got the popular mandate to call another referendum. He’s also unhappy that the SNP won’t let him stand as a Holyrood candidate; I appreciate he’s a bit more outspoken that your typical prospective MSP, but I believe “it’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in,” as Lyndon B. Johnson said about somebody completely different, so I hope they’ll reconsider in the future.)

Share Button

Theories of Value

Blue Marx
Blue Marx.
One thing I didn’t discuss in any detail in yesterday’s
review of Paul Mason’s “Post-Capitalism” was his fondness of the Labour Theory of Value (LTV).

The LTV basically says that the value of something is the amount of labour that went into producing it (counting also the labour used for producing the materials and the energy used). The main competing theory is the “theory of marginal utility: that there is no intrinsic value to anything, except what a buyer will pay for it at a given moment” [p.160].

As a small business owner I must says that the LTV doesn’t make any sense to anybody who’s ever run a company — the price I can charge for a product does not depend on the number of hours I put into making it. It would be nice if I could just bill by the hour, but I cannot. It does make sense as a minimum pricing guide — I would like to sell my product at the LTV or more — but then it’s not a theory of value any longer.

The reason Paul Mason is fond of the LTV is because it assigns value to Open Source products such as Linux and Wikipedia which are not for sale and thus not assigned a value by the TMU, but it’s quite easy to work out their LTV.

Using the LTV and the fact that the nature of the info-tech revolution is continually reducing the cost of capital and labour he then makes an interesting observation:

Let’s run this spreadsheet down to an end-state, over several time periods where capital and labour get shrunk towards zero marginal reproduction costs. Now the labour expended is mainly focused on providing energy and physical raw materials. [p.170f]

Paul Mason seems to think this means capitalism is coming to an end. I’m not so sure, however. Even if robots start producing everything more or less on their own (food, energy, raw materials, products), many things will still cost money. Somebody will be owning the fields the food is grown on, the mines the raw materials are extracted from and the hills the windmills are placed on. Also, all homes aren’t equally attractive, so of course some will be worth more than others.

We might thus be heading for a situation where value derives from land (for living on, growing food on and extracting materials from) and energy (which ultimately derives from land, too). So an app or a book will be practically free, whereas a house, a gold ring or a trip to Barbados will still cost real money.

In spite of what Paul Mason is saying, we’re therefore not heading for a future without money. Even if you tried, you’d get USSR-style black markets and corruption in order to get the most attractive house or the newest smartphone before everybody else.

I guess the real question is where people will get money from in the first instance if their labour isn’t needed. Landowners will be rich, but apart from them only people doing important work (such as building and maintaining robots) will be necessary. The rest can then to some extent make money by providing personal services to the landowners and robot builders and to each other, but it doesn’t sound like a very prosperous future to me.

My personal guess is that the only real way forward in that situation is by taxing land and using this money to pay everybody a basic income. That would ensure there’s enough money in the economy, and it would enable some people to spend their time producing Open Source products for the benefit of everybody.

If we don’t do that, the danger is that we might be heading for a modern version of the Middle Ages, where the landowners are rich, most people are poor, and in addition there will be robot builders as a futuristic version of the medieval Church.

I reckon that rather than trying to resurrect the LTV, we should perhaps be starting to look again at the ideas of Henry George and the other Georgist thinkers:

Henry George (September 2, 1839 – October 29, 1897) was an American writer, politician and political economist, who was the most influential proponent of the land value tax and the value capture of land/natural resource rents, an idea known at the time as ‘Single-Tax’. His immensely popular writing is credited with sparking several reform movements of the Progressive Era and ultimately inspiring the broad economic philosophy often referred to today as Georgism, the main tenet of which is that people legitimately own value they fairly create, but that natural resources and common opportunities, most importantly the value of land, belongs equally to each person in a community.

Perhaps Paul Mason’s Marxist vision of a Post-Capitalist society will ultimately only be realised if we follow Henry George instead of Karl Marx.

Share Button

Post-Capitalism

Paul Mason’s “Post-Capitalism” is an interesting book. It often feels like a work in progress, and I often disagree with his ideas, but it is the kind of book that makes you think, so it’s definitely worth reading even if you don’t think you’re likely to agree with his conclusions.

Marxism revisited

The book at times reminded me of a course I had to take back in 1991 in the “theory of science of the humanities” as part of my linguistics degree at Aarhus University. My teacher was a young Marxist who was completely freaked out by the collapse of Communism and spent most of the time insisting that Marxism was right and that the collapse must be due to some specific errors made by later interpretations — Marx himself had to have been right.

Paul Mason seems to view Marxism in a similar fashion (but he is much more convincing that my teacher was back in 1991). His heroes are people like Ricardo, Marx, Kondratieff and Bogdanov, but he’s very critical of Lenin and especially Stalin and his acolytes. There’s nothing wrong with that per se (I don’t care where an idea comes from so long as it is good) but at times it’s like Paul Mason is willing them to be right — he seems to be hoping the financial crash of 2008 will be the event that triggers the advent of real Communism as envisaged by Marx.

Sometimes I agree with his hopes. As somebody who has been part of the Open Source movement for a very long time (I installed Linux for the first time in 1994, made my first Wikipedia edit ten years later and participated in the first Wikipedia conference, Wikimania, in 2005), I would dearly want the future to be a place where intellectual collaboration replaces suffocating uses of copyright and patents. However, I’m not entirely sure this is enough to make it happen.

History

The historical chapters are very good and explained several things to me that have been puzzling me. For instance, I never quite understood why the moderate social-democratic parties basically gave up the will to life after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, given that it was a very specific variant of Communism that had been discredited, not everything based on Marx’s ideas. However, Mason explains it well:

Both wings of the labour movement became wedded to the belief that socialism could be introduced by taking control of the state and the organized market. […] This was the idea that died after 1989, with the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the rise of globalization and the creation of the fragmentary, marketized and privatized economy we see today. The progression Hilferding imagined, which had implicitly guided socialism for eighty years, has been broken and indeed reversed. [p.60]

His also points out that neoliberalism wasn’t just an accidental and natural extension of old-fashioned capitalism:

Neoliberalism was designed and implemented by visionary politicians: Pinochet in Chile; Thatcher and her ultra-conservative circle in Britain; Reagan and the Cold Warriors who brought him to power. They’d faced massive resistance from organized labour and they’d had enough. In response, these pioneers of neoliberalism drew a conclusion that has shaped our age: that a modern economy cannot coexist with an organized working class. Consequently, they resolved to smash labour’s collective bargaining power, traditions and social cohesion completely. [p.91]

Cycles

One specific problem I have with this book is the length of the economic cycle.

In 2010, the Russian researchers Korotayev and Tsirel […] used a technique called ‘frequency-analysis’ to show convincingly that there are powerful fifty-year pulses in the GDP data. […] Cesare Marchetti, an Italian physicist, […] concluded in 1986 [that his data] reveals cyclic or pulsed behaviour in many areas of economic life, with cycles lasting roughly fifty-five years. [p.44]

However, Strauss and Howe argue rather convincingly in “Generations” that the normal cycle length in human societies is about 80 years (because this is the time it takes for everybody who remembers the errors made last time to have died (or at least have grown so old that nobody will listen to them). I find it much easier to find current parallels with 1935 than with 1960-65. This matters because one of Paul Mason’s main arguments is that the normal capitalistic cycle seems to have been broken because the economy doesn’t look at all like it did in the sixties — if the cycle length is different, that argument doesn’t hold.
The effect of combining two different cycles, one lasting 50 years and the other one lasting 80.
Of course, there could actually be two overlapping cycles, an economic one lasting 50-55 years and a societal one lasting 80, but in that case we’ll have to go back a great many years to find a close parallel to the situation we’re finding ourselves in today (see the graph above).

Cycles are very interesting, but I think much more research is needed before we can conclude that the normal cycle has been interrupted.

What now?

After spending most of the book addressing the history of Marxism and neoliberalism, exploring different theories of value (which I’ll discuss in a separate blog post) and using this and cycle theory to argue that capitalism is dyring, in chapter 9 (“A Rational Case for Panic”) he points out that the current model is also collapsing in other ways, such as climate change and the demographic time bomb.

This was very convincing, and I was looking forward to getting a convincing answer to everything in the last chapter. However, it was somewhat underwhelming. His best proposal is a computer simulation:

We need an open, accurate and comprehensive computer simulation of current economic reality. […] It would start by attempting to construct an accurate simulation of economies as they exist today. Its work would be Open Source: anybody could use it, anybody could suggest improvements and the outputs would be available to all. It would most likely have to use a method caled ‘agent-based modelling’ — that is, using computers to create millions of virtual workers, households and firms, and letting them interact spontaneously, within realistic boundaries. […] The prize […] is an economic model that does not just simulate reality but actually represents it. […] Once we are able to capture economic reality in this manner, then planning major changes in an accountable way becomes possible. [p.271f]

He does make some other suggestions, but it does make sense to focus especially on this. If we had such a model, we could answer many questions much more convincingly. For instance, during the Scottish independence referendum, we would have been able to respond to Project Fear’s scaremongering in a much more authoritative fashion if such a model had been in place. We would also be able to show exactly why austerity is the wrong answer in the present situation and why benefit sanctions don’t increase employment, so this is definitely worth doing.

Conclusion

I disagree with many specific ideas in Post-Capitalism, but that’s not a problem. The purpose of this book is to make you think, and it achieves that extremely well. I would definitely recommend reading this book, even if your purpose is to fix capitalism so that it starts working in everybody’s best interest again.

Share Button

The Independence Institute

Yes Govan
Yes Govan.
I can understand why Yes Scotland was closed down after the referendum — it was expensive and yet not that good at coordinating the grassroots. However, nothing has filled the void left behind.

The SNP is of course doing incredibly well, but at the end of the day it’s a political party and not only an independence organisation. The same holds true for the Greens and the SSP.

As a result of this, you haven’t see any official SNP involvement in the marches and rallies that have been held since the referendum — and partly as a consequence of this, Tommy Sheridan has several times taken the opportunity to up his profile by being a big presence at the rallies.

It’s also not quite clear how much effort is going into dissecting all the flaws of the first independence campaign to ensure we do better next time.

At the same time, many people — myself included — are clearly waiting impatiently for independence, and yet we understand that we must wait until there’s a clear Yes majority in the opinion polls before calling a new referendum.

So we need a rallying point. However, setting up Yes Scotland Mark II is probably not a good idea — we don’t need a campaign organisation at this stage.

I would instead propose that we set up an Independence Institute with the following remit:

  • To organise events (conferences, workshops, perhaps even rallies) where pro-independence parties, organisations, bloggers and individuals can meet up and exchange ideas.
  • To analyse the first independence campaign and figure out how to do better next time.
  • To produce badges, car stickers and other materials that supporters can use when the don’t want to use party-branded stuff.
  • To liaise with all the pro-independence parties to ensure they’re all remain committed to the cause and are ready once the second campaign gets called.
  • To push support for independence up over the 60% mark that will probably trigger a new referendum.

The Independence Institute would probably be a mixture between a think tank and a campaign organisation. Once the second indyref gets called, it can hopefully easily transform itself into Yes Scotland II.

Share Button

Scottish Independence with a Scandinavian Slant