October 17, 2003

Government Awareness

Posted by shonk at 03:21 AM in Politics | TrackBack

In response to the recently defunct Terrorist Information Awareness program, the geeks at MIT envision a Government Information Awareness program, where citizens could exchange information about State activities. I applaud the idea, though I wonder how effective it will be in practice. In theory, it could be extraordinarily effective, but then, in theory, the Internet was supposed to spark a second Renaissance (although, to be honest, I think the jury is still out on that one; the rising swell of well-written and thoughtful blogs does seem to be stimulating a greater degree of conversation and debate. Revolutions often come, as Joyce put it, "on the due instalments plan"). As you'll note from the article, one thing that's sure to affect the GIA's impact is that the creators, fearing libel suits, have decided to make it a peer-to-peer thing, which has both positives and negatives. On the plus side, it's considerably more likely to evade legal shutdowns than, say, a server-based website or forum. On the other hand, popular as P2P networks are for movies and music, web-accessible interfaces are likely to reach greater numbers of people. I'm also unsure if people are ready for "serious" content via P2P; it seems like a more active filtration and interface system would be necessary than is currently available. But, then again, I'm pretty far behind the curve on P2P stuff and all the prerequisites may, in fact, already exist.

In any case, assuming this ever gets off the ground and makes some impact, it would provide yet another counter-example to the increasingly tired idea that so-called "public goods" cannot be provided absent state coercion. I've never really bought into that notion, to be honest. To me, a "public good" is one that hasn't been adequately provided yet (or maybe shouldn't be provided at all, in some cases), not one that can't be provided. My favorite counter-example, which has been oft-ignored but never very well refuted (in my opinion, obviously) is that of television programming. Leaving aside the issue of whether we might be better off without television, people obviously want to be able to watch television. Before the advent of cable TV (you know, back when people still used rabbit ears to pick up the signal), TV programming might well have appeared as one of those supposedly insoluble public goods. After all, a TV signal broadcast through the air isn't exactly excludable. One possible solution might have been to legally prohibit anyone but TV stations from selling television sets, or at least requiring TV manufacturers to pay a license fee to TV stations. In that way, the station could be compensated for providing this "public good" from which anyone with a TV set could benefit. According to the traditional conception of how to solve public goods problems, this would, in fact, be the only way to ensure that television programming existed. As we all know, though, that wasn't really what happened. Instead, the TV stations realized that, although they couldn't very well get TV watchers to pay them, they could get people to pay them to tell TV watchers about certain products. And thus were commercials born (and yes, I hate commercials as much as anyone, but I'd rather be able to watch Game 7 of the ALCS than live my life commercial-free). All of a sudden, there is no "public goods problem". (Of course, that's not really the chronology, since TV got the idea from radio, which got the idea from newspapers, etc., but the point is the same) Hence the reason I say that a "public goods problem" is one that we haven't figured out how to solve yet, not one that cannot be solved without state intervention.

The same, incidentally, goes for the related concept of a "prisoner's dilemma". The real world doesn't operate like a prototypical prisoner's dilemma, in which there is no history, no memory and no social status affecting things. The iterated prisoner's dilemma is a better approximation, but still isn't perfect.

The point is, whenever you hear people moaning and groaning about public goods and prisoners' dilemmas, it's probably a good idea to examine things a bit more carefully.

(If you haven't noticed yet, when I say "The point is...", I mean the point that I've come around to arguing, not the point I originally may have been trying to make. I've usually long forgotten what I was talking about in the beginning of a post by the time I actually get around to a point. Let's just chalk that up to a bit of artistic free association rather than the less inpiring "lack of organization" label, okay?)