Spotify killing piracy

Via The Atlantic Wire:

Spotify is increasingly looking like a winning strategy for record companies trying to fight piracy. A new industry survey from Sweden where Spotify started reports that the rise of the streaming music service has coincided with a 25 percent drop in people stealing music over the past two years. In fact, streaming services are the most popular way for Swedes to consume music with over 40 percent of people surveyed admitting to using a streaming service versus less than 10 percent who confess to pirating. This is good news for the company that’s always billed itself to record companies and consumers alike as an alternative to stealing.

As I wrote in this screed of a post, bolstering the music industry should be seen as a major negative if you’re someone interested in the end of industrial music and a return to folk music culture. (I’m using folk to denote a model of production, not a genre.)

If your first instinct is “Well, at least the artists are getting paid” think again. It’s not at all clear that artists are winners in the Spotify model. Nor is it clear that producing music was ever really a very profitable exercise for artists themselves.

Meanwhile, Spotify is partnering with Facebook, which only furthers my concern that we are ceding too much control to a handful of companies in a way that is fundamentally at odds with what has been the ethos of the web.

(Btw, if you want to get a sense of what it actually costs to produce a record – which is relevant here if indirectly – I posed that question at Quora. Short answer: a few grand to do it decently. $20-30k for a professional-level album. However, big stars pay way more for well known producers.)

Don Draper on Facebook Timeline

This is a great scene. Not only is it a funny combination, but if you’re like me you may actually be a bit moved in favor of Timeline. But would Don really favor it? Or would he agree with this guy that forgetting is important? It is, after all, what his life is based around. For now, I’ll stick with my previous take: the important thing is that we get the filters right.


Are you psycho? Then help push this fat guy off a bridge.

I saw an interesting paper a while back, via Crooked Timber, that applied a mixture of psychology and experimental philosophy to see just what kind of people have utilitarian intuitions. The punchline:

Participants who indicated greater endorsement of utilitarian solutions had higher scores on measures of Psychopathy, machiavellianism, and life meaninglessness.

I sent a joking email to some friends, since I’m an advocate of consequentialism and therefore sympathetic to utilitarian arguments. I also noted some caveats and, satisfied that I’d justified my sanity, moved on. But the excellent Will Wilkinson picked up the topic today on his new Big Think blog, The Moral Sciences Club. That led to some noise in my Twitter stream on the subject so, while it’s outside the normal focus of the blog, I figured I should write up a few quick thoughts. First, here’s Wilkinson:

Since it seems implausible that we are best off governed by Machiavellian psychopaths, I take the findings of Bartels and Pizarro–that those attracted to utilitarianism tend toward the psychopathic and Machiavellian–as prima facie evidence that utilitarianism is “self-effacing,” that it recommends its own rejection. This is a study about how, if you are a utilitarian, you should probably do the world some good and shut up about what you really thing is best.

My assumption is that this is in good fun. So I mean my response to be taken in the same vein. Here goes…

Being a utilitarian doesn’t make you a psychopath

No one said it did, but it’s still worth calling out. In fact, the authors were careful to say as much:

Nor do our results show that endorsing utilitarianism is pathological, as it is unlikely that the personality styles measured here would characterize all (or most) proponents of utilitarianism as an ethical theory (nor is the measure of psychopathic personality traits we used sufficient to conclude that any respondents reach clinical levels of psychopathy). It is also possible that possessing these sub-clinical psychopathic traits may be of moral value insomuch as individuals who are capable of such emotional detachment, while appearing to possess a questionable moral character in some situations, may be better able to act for the greater good in ways that would prove difficult for many (such as the very situations described in our target dilemmas)

Ok, so at least we have that out of the way.

BREAKING: Every ethical theory has problematic questions

Perhaps you are drawn to utilitarianism but you get squeamish when asked about pushing a fat man off of a bridge to stop a moving train from killing five others. Every moral theory is “problematic” in the sense that cases can be raised that tend to go against our moral intuitions. Consider Kant’s brand of deontology. It is famously posited that Kant’s formulation would not allow lying, even in the scenario in which you’re hiding Anne Frank in your attic and the Nazis come to the door and ask if anyone is hiding in the attic. Telling the truth in that scenario probably violates most of our moral intuitions. I’d like to see a study where the toughest questions of all prominent moral theories were asked, so I could see if the answers of deontologists, contractualists, etc. correlate with measures of psychopathy and the like.

What I’m suggesting is that it’s somewhat unfair (though interesting!) to zero in on such difficult questions. What if we asked a bunch of people a question where the utilitarian answer is in line with our moral intuitions? You have $100 to distribute among yourself and 9 other people. Assume diminishing marginal utility for each dollar. How do you distribute the money? The person who answers “$10 to each person” is both a better utilitarian and less Machiavellian than the person who answers “$100 to myself.”

Don’t like pushing people off bridges? You still can be utilitarian

There’s a reason we have rule utilitarianism. It’s not 100% obvious that the correct utilitarian answer is to push someone off of a bridge to save 5 others. A rule utilitarian could argue that the disutility of people incorrectly making snap moral judgments is so great that we should have a system of rules that are themselves designed to maximize utility. And that such a rules system doesn’t require you to murder someone to save others. There are other arguments one could make as well. You might think they’re copouts, but welcome to the vague moral calculus of utilitarianism. My point is that while the results of this study are interesting, we can’t take any particular decision as the definitive utilitarian position.

Endorsing utilitarianism does not mean rule by psychopaths

Wilkinson ends his post rather strangely (quote above). Sidgwick is right that it’s possible to be a utilitarian and not recommend that others act as utilitarians (for the greater utility!) But Wilkinson makes a move that I just can’t understand. He writes:

Since it seems implausible that we are best off governed by Machiavellian psychopaths

One response would be to say that it is plausible. And we could go there. For committed utilitarians, it could make some sense. But more practically, I think we can just argue that nothing here implies that utilitarian rule must be by Machiavellian psychopaths. As the above quote from the study suggests, there’s no reason to think that all utilitarians are psychopaths. Arguably, the reason such a high percentage seem to be is because the theory simply hasn’t permeated society very deeply. In other words, utilitarianism is unpopular; very few people truly hold it, say 1 in 100. Meanwhile, there are way more Machiavellian psychopaths in the population, so 10 out of 100 people give the “utilitarian” answer in one of these scenarios. Since that group happens to answer the same way as some utilitarians to this problem, it appears that most utilitarians are psychopaths when the real problem is we don’t have enough utilitarians! So, the utilitarian would argue, we just need to go out and recruit more non-psychopath utilitarians who can then rule in a world that avoids Wilkinson’s critique.

So there you have it. A few quick thoughts. I’ve definitely done the opposite of shutting up. Whether I’ve done some good is up for debate.

Why I’m excited about Wonkblog

Over the past several weeks, Washington Post blogger/columnist/reporter Ezra Klein has both hired three reporters to work under him and rebranded his blog. It’s now called Wonkblog, and here’s what Ezra has to say about it:

The idea for Wonkblog came out of another group project: Wonkbook, the morning policy e-mail that I write alongside Dylan Matthews. Every morning, I wake up to a half-dozen stories that are clearly important and that any policy site should be trying to follow in some detail. Stories about the troubled implementation of the health-care and financial reform bills, stories about the wrangling over infrastructure spending and energy regulations, stories about the unusual power a bureaucrat or backbencher is exerting over an issue that affects us all. Stories that matter, but that I simply didn’t have the bandwidth to cover.

A few months ago, I went to my editors with a proposal to hire three reporters who could help cover those stories. At the time, I didn’t think it likely that they would say yes. But they did. I also didn’t think it possible that we could get journalists as good as Brad Plumer, Suzy Khimm and Sarah Kliff, and I wasn’t willing to go forward with the project if we couldn’t find the right people. But we did.

The first thing that’s exciting here is that the Post is willing to continue to invest in Ezra’s success focusing squarely on policy over politics. With some notable exceptions, much of my favorite policy writing happens outside of the mainstream media, on the blogs of academics or think tank fellows. Too much “Politics” coverage either fixates on the horse-race of campaigns and political strategy, or covers policy from a useless “view from nowhere.” (Another pet peeve of mine is that much of the best policy journalism takes place in the “Business” section… Leonhardt, Ezra, Derek Thompson.) So it’s good that the Post feels financially comfortable expanding Ezra’s resources.

The second thing I like about this is that Ezra is referring in his initial post to “reporting” rather than opinion. I think Ezra (and from what I’ve seen so far, his staff as well) represents the blog-reporter ethos which I discussed here. Part of why political journalists get sucked into the he-said-she-said “view from nowhere” trap is because they aren’t comfortable applying any measure of their own analysis to policy questions.

Anyone who reads Ezra knows he doesn’t suffer from that. At the same time, I wouldn’t classify most of what he does as opinion. Much of his best work is what I’d call reported analysis. It’s akin to the News Analysis that Jackie Calmes and others at NYT do, but with more voice and personality (Ezra’s blogging roots show).

I mean all this in the best possible way. I think Ezra does an admirable job of keeping his opinions rather muted. He clearly has a worldview that informs his writing, but he’s doing his best to portray the facts of the matter as accurately as possible. And when he is interjecting pure opinion, he tends to caveat it as such.

The blog-reporter ethos, also known as the magazine-reporter ethos, is as follows:

* original reporting on first-hand sources
* a frankly stated point-of-view
* tempered by a scrupulous concern for fact
* an effort to include a fair account of differing perspectives
* ending in a willingness to plainly state conclusions about the subject

I believe this sort of approach is necessary to do good policy journalism. I think Ezra’s at the top of his field because he embraces this kind of ethic. That he’s able to hire three new reporters to do this kind of reporting and analysis is encouraging.

Willpower is the future

I’m excited to read Willpower, the new book by John Tierney (NYT) and psychologist and self-control expert Roy Baumeister (Florida State). I haven’t cracked it yet, but in preparation let me share a couple quick takes on motivation and why I think the future will include a lot of emphasis on hacking self-control. Here’s Jonah Lehrer:

For most of human history, the progress of knowledge was constrained by a shortage of information. Books were expensive and rare, libraries were reserved for elite scholars and communication was extremely slow. Mail moved at the speed of horses.

Now, of course, we live in the age of Google and Amazon Prime, a time when nearly everything ever written can be accessed within seconds or delivered within days. Facts are cheap and easy; the cellphone has become an infinite library.

But here’s the good news: Executive function can be significantly improved, especially if interventions begin at an early age. In the current issue of Science, Adele Diamond, a neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia, reviews the activities that can reliably boost these essential mental skills.

Yet, despite this impressive evidence, most schools do virtually nothing to develop executive function. Even worse, education departments are slashing the very activities, such as physical exercise and the arts, that boost executive function among the broadest range of students.

And here’s Tyler Cowen on “the future of work”:

Cowen also envisions job growth in the motivational sector.

I’ll be writing more about this in the upcoming weeks. If you want to learn more about this stuff in the meantime, I recommend this NYT Mag piece by Tierney, and this Bloggingheads discussion between Baumeister and experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe.

I don’t want to oversell the role that motivation plays in our lives (more on that here), but I think it’s fair to say that it’s a real bottleneck for many of us. And we’re likely to see quite a bit of willpower-enabling technology applications in the next decade or two.

Be annoying about patents

Last week Matt Yglesias had a great post offering his recommendations on what citizens can do to support their political preferences. He first offers the typical advice to contact your Congressional representatives. But his second suggestions is far more interesting:

— Be personally annoying about your political views when they’re relevant to your interactions in everyday life. I, being a jerk, will absolutely not allow someone to make a remark about the high prices, crowding, and mediocrity of DC bars without subjecting them to a discourse about the DC liquor licensing regime. Lots of people who think they’re not interesting in the DC liquor licensing regime are interested in its consequences. If you are in a car with me and we’re in a rush hour traffic jam, you are damn well going to listen to me talk about congestion pricing. This generally doesn’t work in Washington for national politics, but whatever it is you do, I’m sure you interact with lots of “apolitical” or moderately conservative people who remark now and again about things in their life to which politics is relevant. Point this out to them. Tell them who the bad guys are. Recommend some good blogs. Your friend Bob probably thinks he doesn’t care about monetary policy, but does care about the state of the labor market. Explain it to him. Be bold. Be annoying.

I endorse this. It’s a bit tricky, as you have to find that line between being annoying enough to get people a bit outside of their comfort zone and being so annoying that they tend to dismiss your arguments. After all, the messenger matters in politics. Even with your friends, colleagues, and broader social network.

But while Yglesias mentions congestion and liquor licenses as good examples, I want to offer an issue that I think offers a great opportunity to use this strategy, at least within certain networks. It’s patents. Here’s Reihan Salam at NRO, passing along this study:

(1) As if you needed any more reason to oppose patent trolls, they’ve looted half a trillion dollars over the last two decades from the productive sectors of our economy.

Some of my own thoughts on patents are here. But here’s the gist: we give out too many patents, especially in areas like software that probably shouldn’t be patentable at all. More specific to patent trolls, there is a whole industry sprouting up around a business model that secures patents in order to hold innovation hostage. For me, this is a prime issue on which to be annoying.

One of the biggest reasons is that, not unlike those Yglesias mentions, this issue isn’t yet ruined by partisanship. It’s not a big enough issue that Republicans and Democrats have instinctive views on the subject, as they might on healthcare, taxes, etc.

The second issue is particular to my network, so it may or may not apply for you. For whatever reason a lot of my friends touch on technology, law, and innovation. Do you know any corporate attorneys? Entrepreneurs? Software developers? Ask them what they think about patents. Particularly for attorneys (and potential attorneys) I think this is important. There is a lot of money in IP law. Should there be? Arguably, no. If you have friends who work in and around IP, don’t be afraid to get a little annoying. Ask them what they think about patent trolls, and how they would get rid of them. Ask them if they think patent terms are too long. Ask them if they think software should be able to be patented. Remind them that the point of IP is squarely to incentivize innovation, and NOT AT ALL to reward inventors. If we’re ever going to fix the myriad of issues with our current IP policy, we’re going to have to be annoying.

(Most of this is equally applicable to copyright. So if you know content creators, many of these same lines of annoyance/inquiry can also be beneficial.)


Code is control: on Facebook and media

A friend asked me recently what I think of Facebook’s new plan to unveil a new media sharing platform on their site. Dan Gillmor’s column in The Guardian captures most of my thoughts thus far:

If you buy a refrigerator for your home, it’s yours. And once installed, it’s going to work the same way for the rest of its working life, letting you organise perishable food inside a cold space.

But in the world of technology, once you buy something – or, even more, become a user of a web-based service – there is a very good chance that it will change. And increasingly, the changes come with a take-it-or-leave it choice – which is to say, little to no choice at all.

The point is this: the more our products contain software – and increasingly, code is integral to the things we buy – the more likely it will be that these products are not really ours anymore. The companies that sell them (or, in the case of web services, allow us to use them) will increasingly make decisions that they can change at a whim, or a court order. Probably the most infamous example to date took place whenAmazon reached into its customers’ Kindle book readers in 2009 to delete copies of – irony alert – George Orwell’s 1984, which, it turned out, were being sold illegally by one of its online vendors.

I don’t expect bad faith to rule. Most of the changes will be upgrades, no doubt. But we will have no choice but to accept them. That’s the problem.

This is the right framework to think about this. We already give up so much control with our reliance on Facebook. This change seems likely to increase that. A couple things I’d add…

The refrigerator metaphor is interesting because even though you own your ‘fridge, you can’t use it without electricity. We can think about electricity as a fairly open framework; no single corporation can dictate the rules for devices plugging in. Similarly open standards – more open really – exist online. The web itself is governed by a set of open protocols driven forward by rough consensus (and running code). What we need to fear is the open standards web approach giving way to the corporate standards app approach. Every additional layer that we cede to single corporations is a step backward. That’s part of why I’m worried about Spotify.

The second thing I have to add… With respect to media, I’m particularly worried about Facebook and its approach to copyright enforcement. Will Facebook take an aggressive approach akin to Apple’s with iTunes and iPods? Or will it sit back and let the burden sit with the users? If Facebook tries to enforce IP rights as part of its sharing platform it will be truly damaging and a  step back for online culture. Users will presumably pressure them not to, but content creators (and their industry groups) will take the other side, and will be better organized. So that’s a piece I’ll be closely watching as this rolls out.