Ben Bernanke Is Right About Interconnective Innovation

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I’d just like to double down on Ben Bernanke’s comments on why he is optimistic about the future of human economic progress in the long run:

Pessimists may be paying too little attention to the strength of the underlying economic and social forces that generate innovation in the modern world. Invention was once the province of the isolated scientist or tinkerer. The transmission of new ideas and the adaptation of the best new insights to commercial uses were slow and erratic. But all of that is changing radically. We live on a planet that is becoming richer and more populous, and in which not only the most advanced economies but also large emerging market nations like China and India increasingly see their economic futures as tied to technological innovation. In that context, the number of trained scientists and engineers is increasing rapidly, as are the resources for research being provided by universities, governments, and the private sector. Moreover, because of the Internet and other advances in communications, collaboration and the exchange of ideas take place at high speed and with little regard for geographic distance. For example, research papers are now disseminated and critiqued almost instantaneously rather than after publication in a journal several years after they are written. And, importantly, as trade and globalization increase the size of the potential market for new products, the possible economic rewards for being first with an innovative product or process are growing rapidly. In short, both humanity’s capacity to innovate and the incentives to innovate are greater today than at any other time in history.

My reasons for optimism for the long run are predominantly technological rather than social. I tend to see the potential for a huge organic growth in the long run resulting from falling energy and manufacturing costs from superabundant alternative energy sources like solar, synthetic petroleum, wind, and nuclear, as well as decentralised manufacturing through 3-D printing and ultimately molecular manufacturing.

But Bernanke’s reasons are pretty good too. I see it every day. Using Twitter, the blogosphere and various other online interfaces, I discuss and refine my views in the company a huge selection of people of various backgrounds. And we all have access to masses of data to backup or challenge our ideas. Intellectual discussions and disputes that might have taken years now take days or weeks — look at the collapse of Reinhart & Rogoff. Ideas, hypotheses, inventions and concepts can spread freely. One innovation shared can feed into ten or twenty new innovations. The internet has built a decentralised open-source platform for collaborative innovation and intellectual development like nothing the world has ever seen.

Of course, as the 2008 financial collapse as well as the more general Too Big To Fail problem shows greater interconnectivity isn’t always good news. Sometimes, greater interconnectivity allows for the transmission of the negative as well as the positive; in the case of 2008 the interconnective global financial system transmitted illiquidity in a default cascade.

But in this case, sharing ideas and information seems entirely beneficial both to the systemic state of human knowledge and innovation, and to individuals like myself who wish to hook into the human network.

So this is another great reason to be optimistic about the long run.

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Thoughtcrime is Real

I am careful what I say on Twitter especially, and the internet in general.

The sad reality is that the internet is not the place for expressing views that you do not want the wider public — including law enforcement and intelligence agencies — to know you hold.

We already know that the National Security Agency will soon capture all communications — phone calls, search histories, web history, e-mails, passwords, etc — in their Utah data centre.

In Britain, a dangerous precedent is being set.

From the BBC:

A teenager arrested over a malicious tweet sent to Team GB diver Tom Daley has been issued with a warning.

Dorset Police said the 17-year-old boy was held at a guest house in the Weymouth area on suspicion of malicious communications and later bailed.

After coming fourth in the men’s synchronised 10m platform diving event on Monday, Daley, 18, from Plymouth received a message on Twitter.

It told him he had let down his father Rob, who died in 2011 from cancer.

Arrested and cautioned for expressing an opinion. Not for threatening violence. Not even for racial or sexual abuse — as happened in March when a student was convicted of incitement to racial hatred after he tweeted a series of racial slurs.

Just for expressing an opinion that the authorities found to be distasteful. 

I admit, it was a distasteful comment. But the idea that the government should arrest the person who made it is far, far, far more distasteful still.

Meanwhile, the number of bankers arrested for rigging LIBOR remains at zero.

This is a very salient example of the problems with the internet in its present state. If the state has the opportunity to gather and index citizens’ thoughts, these cases in Britain — supposedly a free country — illustrate that it is a very short and slippery slope toward the state punishing citizens for expressing their opinions.

While the First Amendment might seem to protect speech, the United States has already got involved in policing expression. And the First Amendment has a massive loophole — it only restricts Congress’ ability to legislate against speech. Other agencies — like the TSA — would seem to be be able to restrict speech under “administrative” grounds (the same rationale they use to gut the Fourth Amendment and search travellers without probable cause).

From the BBC:

Holidaymakers have been warned to watch their words after two friends were refused entry to the US on security grounds after a tweet.

Before his trip, Leigh Van Bryan wrote that he was going to “destroy America”.

He insisted he was referring to simply having a good time — but was sent home.

Trade association Abta told the BBC that the case highlighted that holidaymakers should never do anything to raise “concern or suspicion in any way”.

The US Department for Homeland Security picked up Mr Bryan’s messages ahead of his holiday in Los Angeles.

The 26-year-old bar manager wrote a message to a friend on the micro-blogging service, saying: “Free this week, for quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America.”

US law enforcement represents the overwhelming majority of requests to Twitter for users’ private information.

From Reuters:

Law enforcement agencies in the United States are behind the overwhelming majority of requests for Twitter users’ private information, the social media company revealed Monday in its first ever public report on the subject.

Of the 849 total government requests for user information during the period spanning January 1 to June 30 this year, 679 — or 80 percent — took place in the United States, typically for use in criminal investigations, Twitter said.

Japan was in second place after the United States with 98 requests filed by police, followed by 11 requests from law enforcement agencies in the United Kingdom and the same number from agencies in Canada.

Speech on Twitter — and on the internet in general — isn’t free.

UPDATE: It would seem that the arrested party did later make some threats. Whether he was arrested for these or his initial messages remains to be seen — he was cautioned for “malicious communications” which means “causing anxiety or distress”, and so could easily apply to the first tweet — as opposed to intimidation or criminal threatening, which he was not cautioned for.