go where workers are and organize with them

attempting to find my place in struggle

I'm four months into working for The Drivers Cooperative, an effort by thousands of rideshare drivers in New York to take control of their livelihoods and build a worker-owned platform for ride hailing. It's too early to say much about this effort–like any startup, it feels exhilarating and terrifying at the same time, all the time. But I'd like to talk about how I got here and what experiences drove me to the decision to work in mass-oriented cooperatives.

The lesson I hope to drive home is this: If you are a technologist or otherwise a person possessing skill and talent (which you almost certainly are), and if you have the means to do so while sustaining yourself (which if you worked in tech for long you likely are), and if you have come to understand that the problems facing our planet are primarily political, not technological, then what you need to do is find a group of people who are struggling collectively to shift power from entrenched tyrannies towards the masses, and then you need to use your skill and talent to make that group successful.

Against design

The Stanford d.school was founded in 2004, the same year I arrived at Stanford. The d.school teaches design thinking, which I understand to be a systematic approach to understanding the needs of a population of users and then iteratively designing solutions to those needs, usually in the form of a product.

The buzz about design thinking hit its peak, at least in my life, in the early 2010s when I joined Facebook. The company had made a series of high-dollar acquisitions of design-centric firms and the story was that design was coming to save Facebook from the sprawling mess it had become. Coming from my experience at Stanford where I was enamored with design, I joined a team focused on design. Over time, my understanding of the role of design in corporations shifted.

I have come to see design thinking as an anti-democratic system that is fantastic at delivering "win-wins" of a certain flavor but is ultimately a dead end for building emancipatory technology. The win-win is a Silicon Valley sacrament; an endeavor is worthwhile if and only if it provides positive value for all its participants. Never mind if one participant is a low-wage worker and another is a planet-scale corporation with an army of highly-trained designers, psychologists, lawyers, and lobbyists. Before the win-win, all are equal. And never mind if one side's win grows without bound while the other's shrinks to epsilon, the win-win cares only that the sign is positive.

My final project at Facebook was working on the Diem cryptocurrency and Novi consumer finance product. The company assembled an unmatched team of engineers, economists, researchers, and designers for this project. They had a lofty goal of bringing blockchain finance to the masses, with a focus on the international remittances market wherein workers leave their home countries to earn wages abroad which they remit home to their families. The fees on such transfers are often so high as to be criminal–some money transmitters make obscene profits exploiting the already most-exploited. One hope of Diem is that the price of moving money could be shrunk to nearly zero.

I was already skeptical of Facebook's ability to do good in the world after seeing up close the ways they created clever legal workarounds to employment law to exploit the thousands of service workers on campus. If the company cannot take care of its own staff, if it creates arcane legal fictions to obscure the employment relation with its own service workers, content moderators, and QA testers, why should anyone believe the corporation will do right by its users, to whom the company's obligations end at a EULA and an ever-shifting privacy policy?

But I do actually believe that beneath the layers of speculation and charlatanism, blockchain technology has immense emancipatory potential. It enables mass participation in consensus-building in environments of low or moderate trust. But most any technology has emancipatory potential–the steam engine, the nuclear reactor, and the transistor could have been used for our collective liberation instead of the construction of imperialist war machines. We have lost repeatedly on the political terrain, not in the development of new technologies. In this domain workers have excelled beyond all imagination.

What I noticed at Novi was that the belief in the power of design thinking led to workers at the company being completely comfortable making decisions for a group of users after conducting a research process upon them. Obviously rituals and practices around money and its movement vary around the world, and only by researching such practices in their specificity can they be understood and affected. But absent in this method is any actual empowerment of the users being researched. The promise of design thinking is that any sufficiently motivated and resourced designer can create products that intervene in the lives of the product's subjects to positive benefit. Modulated through the absolute requirement of the win-win, design thinking can improve others' lives so long as the result is also good for the designer's employer's shareholders. What if the interests of the users and the shareholders are at odds? Well, this must be handled artfully–not by directly harming the interests of the user, but, whenever possible, by helping the right kind of user in the right kind of way such that the win-win is preserved.

For me, the divide in the rhetoric of the Diem project and my growing understanding of US imperialism became too much. Does Venezuela really need a stablecoin to right its economy, or does it need to rise up against centuries of colonial extraction? Why do we ask how foreign workers can send money home instead of asking why does the global labor market routinely dislocate certain kinds of workers? I was burned out by my job, by attempting to organize within tech, and by organizing with DSA all at the same time. I wasn't being effective at any of them so I left Facebook to work on the Bernie 2020 campaign in DC for six weeks until lockdown and the end of the primaries sent me home.

Against technological determinism

In Silicon Valley circles it is taken as a given that the story of history is a story of technological progress. The telegraph changed everything and then the transistor changed everything and then the iPhone changed everything, again.

But technology is much more inert than that. All we can really say is that particular technologies were used in particular ways by particular actors in particular positions. It is actually social relations, mediated through technology, that move history. By understanding that social relations and technological development proceed together in a dialectical fashion, we can imagine different futures where technology is constructed and applied differently.

Without this social relations-centric understanding of technology it's easy to make mistakes and misapply ourselves. Frequently I see technologists flock to a problem affecting our society hoping to build a technical solution to it, and nearly as frequently I am certain that the solution to whatever problem is primarily going to involve changes in our social relations rather than incrementally more technological innovation.

I believe this is the case when it comes to the common belief that a techno-fix is coming to save us from climate change. Many technologists I talk to believe that the best thing they could do to help avert climate collapse is to contribute their skills towards attempts to find the techno-fix. While, say, renewable energy sources and geo-engineering solutions may be necessary conditions for avoiding collapse, they are certainly not sufficient. Looking at the causes of climate degradation at a slightly deeper level, it might make more sense to conclude that the very small number of powerful entities that control all carbon production have already decided to extract and sell every drop of accessible carbon to be found on earth. The technologies needed to reverse this course have more to do with empowering masses of people to forcibly resist extraction than with providing energy monopolists with green alternatives that they are not interested in.

We can say the same about the crisis of misinformation on the internet. Many technologists I've worked with see the problems around misinformation as primarily issues to be addressed by machine learning, or, god help us, blockchain. But it's easy to see that scaled misinformation is just the shadow of the growth tactics employed by digital communication monopolists. Rather than attempting to fix the problem with the same level of thinking that caused it, we should change the ownership and regulation structures that incentivize growth-at-all-costs shareholder-maximization corporate structures.

Generally, if you see a problem and you think "An app could solve this," I am skeptical.

Against folk technologism

There are currents within the workers' movement that are, in my analysis, excessively distrustful of institutions seeking power. In the world of class-conscious technologists, this can often look like a preference for the small over the large, or for decentralized structures over centralized. It can also be a preference for older, easy-to-manage technologies over technologies designed for massive scale. It can be a reticence to get entangled with capital or hire staff or transact with money. But technologists adhering to these tendencies still advocate for the development and use of technology, specifically software, towards emancipatory ends. I think of this set of beliefs as folk technologism.

Folk technologism is an analogue of what Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams identified as folk politics in their book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. From the Wikipedia synopsis:

The book begins (chapters 1–2) by critiquing dominant left-wing thinking in the West, suggesting that since the cultural upheavals of the 1960s it has been characterised by a "folk politics" which aims to bring politics down to the "human scale". By emphasising temporal, spatial, and conceptual immediacy, folk politics tends to privilege reacting to change (through protest and resistance) over imagining new long-term goals; the immediate and tangible over the abstract; personal involvement in direct action over institutional responses; single issues over complex strategies; horizontal organising over hierarchical; and the local over the large-scale. While arguing that these approaches are important and can at times be effective, Srnicek and Williams argue that they are insufficient to tackle global capitalism and specifically neoliberalism.

To paraphrase a friend to whom I related this complaint, "The world is burning. We do not have time for this." The institutions in power have steered technological development into collapse. They cannot be confronted in the small. They must be challenged at the largest scales, seized, and toppled. This means the state, logistics networks, fucking Google, all of it. We need to be thinking on industrial scales and creating projects and codebases that disrupt and replace the capitalist entities that hold power today. While we must bring immediacy to our work, affecting real workers with real needs, we must build with an eye towards scale. And we must not dampen our own prospects by pretending we can build anything at scale without access to capital and the compromises that capital will entail.

Solving a problem for a small group of people is always the first step. Small-scale solutions that exist outside the standard system of capital accumulation are an existence proof that alternatives are possible. But an act is not revolutionary unless it contains within itself a path to achieving revolutionary scale.

Agile embedded interventions

Having rejected design thinking, technological determinism, and folk technologism, what strategies can a technologist embrace towards the success of our project? My thoughts here are early, but I am coming to think of the correct strategy as being chiefly agile and embedded.

In software construction, agile refers to a set of values and principles about how projects should be pursued and how teams should operate. In agile development, software creators continuously deliver value to clients on a frequent, regular schedule. There is no one initial "planning session" where the five year plan is laid out and then followed to a tee. Any creative person with a few years experience understands that any real project that attempts to plan everything in advance is guaranteed to fail. Instead, agile developers ship little bits of value every day and get immediate feedback from their customers. Instead of getting everything right, they try to get a little better each cycle. It should be obvious that practices that lead to a faster feedback loop between experimentation and observation will outcompete those that do not. "Discover the truth through practice, and again through practice verify and develop the truth."

While taking this iterative, scientific approach to problem-solving seems obvious in theory, in practice well-intentioned people usually get it wrong. There is a venture-funded startup called Get Frank that exhibits many of the flaws I've outlined thus far. Get Frank is meant to be a workplace organizing tool. It hosts a forum for coworkers to use to organize things like petitions to their bosses asking to improve their workplaces. I have not used this product and I do not know the founders; maybe I am way off here, but it seems clear to me that Get Frank is a failure and a product of design thinking.

The Get Frank product appears to me as if its founder, a product designer from Airbnb, did a design process on workers to understand their needs, then went into an office for a year and built a product with no further feedback from workers. It is highly doubtful that this talented designer first found groups of workers attempting to organize and struggling to do so because of poor technology. If they had, and if they had struggled and organized with such workers, they would have built something more useful and Get Frank's laudatory press coverage wouldn't be about the launch of an empty website but about the victories its users had won. I suspect design thinking stood in for finding real workers and empowering them using technology. The result is a waste of time and talent that we do not have to spare.

Not only must our work be agile but also embedded. "There is something missing from tech worker organizing," writes Carmen Molinari. Issue-driven and guilt-driven organizing among high-wage tech workers have not succeeded. The reality is that not enough of us have skin in the game. Without real stakes, our organizing efforts will remain shallow. Conditions will eventually push us forward–our jobs will be outsourced, our state will burn, our investors will fund police drones, but for now our organizing efforts will remain nascent.

I have been no different. If the cafeteria workers won or lost their union at Facebook my life would not have materially changed. I could only make their plight my plight through emotional entanglement. As part of a union drive I would go to workers' houses along with another worker and an organizer to tell them about the union. I met people's families and saw the homes they would need to leave if they didn't get a contract. If they lost I would cry for them, but I would also be able to walk away.

This is how it will be until more technologists have a stake in disrupting the status quo instead of maintaining it. Eventually the same forces that led to the de-industrialization of the West will come for us tech workers, too. But if we want to make progress before then, we need to be embedded in the struggles of other workers in a meaningful way. Their problems need to be our problems.

Having something you don't want to lose sucks. Making the struggle something more than a volunteer shift when you get home from your half-mil-a-year job is painful. Making someone else's struggle truly your own is a risk, but we need to be taking risks. Not a small risk like signing a petition to your CEO. Not a fake risk like joining a post-Series-A startup with a guaranteed soft landing. I mean real risks where it will be devastating if you lose but a victory would inspire other victories at larger and larger scales.

Being agile and embedded makes priorities crystal clear. Rather than just imagining what tools and features workers fighting for self-determination might need in the abstract, being part of a real workers' struggle sharpens our senses and keeps us on the right path. It allows us to test our theories fast enough to meaningfully improve them. And by being embedded in a real workers' struggle, we will give a shit enough to bring all our talents to bear.

We've got to stop acting as if we can design away problems from a distance. We aren't going to code our way out of capitalist collapse. And we aren't going to change the world without confronting its masters at the largest possible scale. Instead, we technologists must reach out to people who are ready to organize and fight and we must make them succeed.

A lockdown-based approach to online misinformation

Envisioning an effective social platform oversight board

First off, let me hype two things I’m working on. First, tonight, Saturday night, I’m hosting a get together for socialists on the VC-heavy audio app Clubhouse. I think it’s fun and interesting to bring socialist thought into unfriendly spaces that the privileged have access to. If you’re on the app stop by tonight.

Second, I’m putting together a regular reading group on future visions of the economy, particularly looking at cooperative models for creating sustainable businesses in and outside of tech. I’m really excited about the guests we have lined up for the group and the topics we’re going to cover. We’ll meet monthly starting in January. I hope that this group could grow into a community of technologists and workers interested in building alternatives to capitalist organizational structures. Sign up to get infrequent emails about topics and meetings.

Thanks, and on to the letter.


This month we saw the Facebook Oversight Board accept its first cases and we are immediately learning the limits of the external Supreme Court approach. Particularly we are seeing that the board is not empowered to act fast or make broad decisions. Instead, it adjudicates particular cases on a multi-month timeline.

Each case will be referred to a five-member panel that includes one person from the same region as the original content. These panels will make their decisions — and Facebook will act on them — within 90 days. The oversight board, whose first members were announced in May, includes digital rights activists and former European Court of Human Rights judge András Sajó. Their decisions will be informed by public comments.

I think there is something valuable about an external board that is not under fiduciary duty to Facebook the way Facebook's Board of Directors is. But I'm not convinced that the important question in online communication is whether a particular piece of 𝜀-sized content is allowed or not. By the time a piece of misinformation content has gone viral and been adjudicated, many things have gone wrong and doubtless hundreds or thousands of similar pieces of content have succeeded as well. I think this oversight is operating at the wrong level.

Getting a handle on misinformation is going to require product-level changes to social software. Today's most popular social software seems purpose-built to spread misinformation as rapidly as possible. As social network creators got better at measuring the way people use their products, social software shifted from the 1:1 communication model of instant messaging and SMS to a broadcast model built on feeds. Critical metrics like time spent and ad revenue are all juiced by giving users tools to drive the most engagement with the least effort. This is, it turns out, exactly the kind of calculation an actor intent on spreading misinformation would make.

I'm going to propose a framework for how I understand misinformation campaigns. Then I will describe product-level mitigations that would materially impact misinformation via targeted but rigorous methods.

Framework

Let's break down the success determinants of misinformation broadly into three factors:

  • Motivated Actors

  • Public Environment

  • Product Structure

Motivated Actors x Public Environment x Product Structure = Success of misinformation campaigns

If you take away any of these factors, misinformation campaigns will not succeed.

Motivated Actors

Misinformation doesn't come from the ether; it is created by individuals acting in concert for a specific aim. Most often we hear about state-sponsored or ideologically-motivated actors spreading misinformation. In the state-sponsored case, we imagine call centers full of spammers who are paid to fill social media feeds with conspiracy theories and inflammatory rhetoric. Ideologically-motivated actors might be similar but act more autonomously and are sometimes paid and sometimes not.

But there are also misinformation actors motivated purely by profit. Gathering large ideologically-focused Facebook groups, for instance, is profitable, as the groups can be sold to other actors who mine their data or inject their own misinformation campaigns into them. It surprises people to find that the same actors will often start left-leaning and right-leaning groups and sell, for example, targeted T-Shirts in both.

Suppose the place in the misinformation formula we choose to attack is Motivated Actors. How do we find and stop state-sponsored misinformation actors, who are paid out of state budgets? I'm certainly skeptical that we can. Other states can conduct intelligence operations to discover and expose state-sponsored misinformation campaigns, but I don't see how they can be stopped. I certainly don't see how the US state can justifiably threaten other nation-states over their misinformation campaigns. A recent, surprisingly anti-imperialist New York Times Opinion piece cites Don H. Levin's argument in Meddling in the Ballot Box that the US "has interfered in foreign elections 63 times".

What about profit-driven misinformation actors? There might be some more leverage here. These actors are probably veteran spammers who have graduated from email spam campaigns to selling knockoff sunglasses in hacked Facebook accounts and now to ideologically-inflammatory misinformation content. These are people with technical skills who aren't working at normal, productive jobs and instead are producing misinformation campaigns. Making these campaigns less profitable would lessen the motivation to conduct them. One idea I heard from a Facebook product manager was to find areas where these misinformation workers are based, e.g. Eastern European countries, and invest in startups there that will offer better jobs than spamming.

I don't really think Motivated Actors is the leverage point through which to tackle misinformation. I present it here for completeness.

Public Environment

While motivated actors initiate misinformation campaigns, it is members of the public that propagate them through sharing. This asymmetry is what makes these campaigns powerful, and what makes social media engaging and profitable in general. Clearly not just any misinformation is propelled through the public at high velocity. There has to be a fit between the flavor of misinformation, the product itself, and the audience. There are doubtless niches of UFO conspiracy theorists empowered by social media, but the Public Environment does not match UFO conspiracy theories sufficiently for the conspiracies to grow to the size and impact of, say, QAnon.

So what properties of the public environment lead to fit with particular misinformation? I can think of several.

Social Immune System Deficiencies

There's a reason older people fall for misinformation campaigns more readily. They grew up in an environment where media was controlled by a smaller set of gatekeepers than it is today. While the CBS news with Walter Cronkite was certainly not ideologically neutral, it was at least singular. There were few competing narratives available through media, which gave us the collective illusion that there is an objective truth we can all agree upon. Today, you can find any community you want that will support any fringe view you want. But more importantly, these communities can find you.

When misinformation content breaks into one's world, it looks just like any other content. On Fox News it adopts the aesthetics of the nightly news. On Facebook it shows up as a link preview just like the New York Times. If you grew up in this world, you understand the signs to look for to identify the actors causing you to interact with a piece of content. If this is all new to you, you might be prone to trusting what is on your screen.

It takes years to adjust our collective understanding of media. I imagine that this media maturity rate is normally distributed, and some people will lag. It doesn't help that social media in particular is often trying to deceive users by mixing paid advertising content with organic content; the same deceptive tactics are easily utilized by misinformation actors.

If we'd like to intervene in the misinformation problem at the level of Social Immune System Deficiencies, we could educate the public on media literacy. We could also pass regulations that require paid content to be more explicitly separated, including with transparency on who is paying for content. I should be able to see all the financial backers of the Washington Post just the same as I should an ideologically-motivated small media entity.

Material Conditions

I'll take it as an axiom that healthy people with healthy minds don't spread misinformation. If you have the time and mental space to understand the world, your marvelous human faculties are quite up to the task of making sense of your environment.

But that is not the situation we have today. We are ruled by despots in a sham democracy. Our environment certainly isn't natural as in it is nothing like the environments our brains evolved to live in. Most people in the world live quite precarious lives under late capitalism. About 60% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. The gig economy has been exposed as merely white people discovering the institution of servants. The ruling elite actually are rife with pedophiles who prey upon working class young women to sexually exploit, and there are no social repercussions for pal'ing around with predators like Jeffrey Epstein and Bill Clinton.

This environment does not fit well into our minds. The contradictions of poverty in a world of plenty, of every form of exploitation conducted by the supposedly virtuous, breaks our attempts at using our faculties to understand the world. This is fertile ground for misinformation and conspiracy theories.

If we want to address misinformation campaigns through the vector of material conditions, well, then we have to address material conditions. That means a fairer distribution of society's wealth. It means holding the powerful accountable. We need to construct societies that are compatible with human nature. I know that capitalism, an inherently contradictory system, is not capable of answering these contradictions. A transition to socialism is the best way of addressing material conditions that I have studied, but reasonable people disagree.

Biases

Finally we should address the actual flaws in human reasoning. We seem to carry with us a natural xenophobic bias against people unlike us. This means we are prone to social versions of the attribution error; we see the best in people like us and the worst in people different from us.

Misinformation that plays to these biases is primed to move through social networks with the highest possible velocity. What you see around the world today, and I am sure it is coming here soon, is ad hoc groups forming on apps like WhatsApp to propagate stories about enemies, like members of ethnic minorities or abstract enemies like antifa, meant to enflame racial tensions. Sometimes, these groups take action and it leads to murder.

If we want to address misinformation campaigns by reducing human biases, we should take on anti-racist work. Material conditions are inseparable from anti-racist work, as racial animosity is the first tool oligarchs reach for when impoverishing a people.

Product Structure

iMessage is not a particularly good vector for spreading misinformation while WhatsApp is. The reasons are subtle but clear once you see them. iMessage barely has group messaging functionality (or at least it is thoroughly broken when e.g. talking to non-iPhone users). This makes it a poor tool for broadcasting. If you'd like to share a photo or link from one iMessage conversation to another, you have to long press, then copy, then open another conversation, then paste the content. It's clear that number of content shares is not a metric that the makers of iMessage have optimized very much. In contrast, WhatsApp is a pretty powerful tool for broadcasting. Groups are reliable and full-featured on WhatsApp, allowing up to 256 members and by default sending members a push notification upon every message. There are share/forward buttons all over the product. Clearly the makers of WhatsApp believe that one of their goals is to increase the amount of content forwarded on the platform.

Similarly, some products are built for broadcasting to strangers while others are built to engage more deeply with a known community. Social networks built on asymmetric relationships like Twitter's follow model assume very little trust between users. Networks built on symmetric relationships, like early Facebook, assume more trust. Today, almost all large social networks favor a broadcast model, as that has outcompeted small network models for investment and user time.

These kinds of decisions are evident throughout social products. By optimizing the user interactions required to share content, you increase the velocity of content through the network. Content that thrives in high-velocity environments will succeed.

If you've been following me for a while, you know that I think product structure is the place to address misinformation campaigns. I believe the industry-wide devotion to optimizing first engagement metrics (likes and shares) and later time spent has led to product features that may as well be purpose-built for spreading misinformation campaigns. I think a cooling down of social content velocity is necessary, and it could be done in a minimally invasive way.

Digital Lockdowns

My proposed solution boils down to limiting or disabling certain product features within regions and around topics where misinformation is rife. The various social features of a product should be broken into groups and roughly ranked along a spectrum of how much potential for abuse they carry versus the value they provide. In areas where misinformation is more rampant, the top end of the spectrums gets cut off.

Social platforms already use this strategy in an ad hoc fashion. In 2018 WhatsApp limited message forwarding to only 5 users at a time in India in response to misinformation campaigns. The limit was 20 elsewhere, and in 2019 WhatsApp brought the limit of 5 to all users. I propose doing more of this kind of limitation and applying the strategy to topics as well as regions.

Social platforms have lots of knobs to tweak like this:

  • Prioritizing original native content over links (photos of my cat instead of memes and media articles)

  • Hiding share buttons behind dropdown menus or requiring an explicit copy/paste to share

  • Throwing up roadblocks to the share interaction like Twitter has done

  • Slowing distribution of content related to a particular topic, like an election

  • Prioritizing symmetric relationship (friend) content over asymmetric relationship (follow) content

There's a debate, rarely engaged with in good faith, about whether social content producers are entitled to have their content circulate to users who have expressed some interest in seeing their content, e.g. by following them. Conservatives in particular concoct theories about being censored when not all of their followers see the content they post. These alleged "shadowbans" don't actually occur on the major social platforms, but I believe the approach has merit. I do not consider non-circulation or "blackholing" to be censorship.

Suppose a politician repeatedly posts misinformation campaigns, sometimes calling for violence. If this politician's content were blackholed but not deleted, they still have quite a platform and receive free hosting for their content. What they don't get, what they aren't entitled to, is the free distribution from the platform. Hosting is a relationship between the platform and the producer whereas distribution is a relationship between all producers, the platform, and the consumer. There's just a lot more going on there and it's hard to argue that the user would be better-served by seeing misinformation in their ranked feeds than any of the other available content.

As a concrete example, probably most broadcast content about elections should be deprioritized in ranked feeds shortly before an election. The potential for abuse is very high and no one needs reminding that an American election is occurring. If users really want broadcast information about an election they can go directly to a media entity's website or social media page. Users can, of course, converse with their friends on social platforms about elections, but broadcasting of viral content and links to external entities could be limited.

But who decides when to activate a topic-based or regional lockdown? In my mind that is actually the value of an external oversight board. With different incentives, an external board can identify different threats than the platform owners can. A truly impactful Facebook Oversight Board would employ experts to measure misinformation flows across region and topic and identify trouble spots. The external oversight board should build a transparent framework for evaluating the severity of misinformation. It could use a color code scheme similar to the system states use to evaluate the severity of coronavirus infections in the population. Content in 'purple zone' topics would lose high-velocity broadcast features. Putting this framework in place ahead of time also helps remove bias from the actions of this proposed oversight board, as there should be as much objectivity in the evaluation guidelines as possible.

This external pressure would also drive social platforms to continue investing in their efforts to automatically manage and structurally discourage misinformation. I am skeptical of automation here–I don't think people will like the result and in 2020 we all know that automation through AI is often just automated application of human biases, but there is a place for automated enforcement as topic determination for content is obviously a machine learning problem. If the oversight board declares an entire election to be in the 'purple zone', cutting off high-velocity sharing features around the topic, social platforms will be highly motivated to get the problem under control themselves so they can continue delivering value as a place to engage in civic discussions.


Mark Zuckerberg has called for more regulation of social products: “I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators. By updating the rules for the internet, we can preserve what’s best about it – the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things – while also protecting society from broader harms.” This is a nice thing to ask for 15 years into winning a monopoly and privatizing the gains from these wins. This is another instance of the regulation arbitrage that defines Silicon Valley since 2000. "Innovators" race ahead of the public and the state to soak up all the surplus value they can, then when problems inevitably arise it's the state's fault for not keeping up with the externalities, which was, of course, the entire premise and strategy of the successful private venture. 

The Facebook Oversight Board is Facebook's simulacrum of government oversight. Facebook's billionaire Board of Directors has defined the Oversight Board the way they like to see the state: toothless and slow-moving. All the important decisions remain under Facebook's control. The change we want to see involves social products themselves, but the decision-making processes that create these products are entirely privatized into corporate hierarchies. There is no space for the public except as an experiment population. The place to address the social ills of the internet is earlier in the process. Not products built by committee but organizational structures that reflect the stakeholders of social products: workers and the public, not absentee shareholders. An oversight board would be a helpful part of the formula in addressing misinformation, but it is only one piece.

Thinking with class

Understanding how California Prop 22 was constructed

First off, Democratic Socialists of America is in the midst of a membership drive. If you’re not a member of a political organization, I encourage you to join one (and the Democratic Party doesn’t count). Voting just isn’t enough when things are this bad. I have been a member of DSA for the past four years, and while it’s by no means a perfect organization, it does have 75,000 dues-paying members and it is winning victories. Feel free to ask me about DSA or any other org–I think being organized is a much more important political decision than who you vote for.

DSA-LA announces full participation in the DSA100k Membership Drive. – DSA  Los Angeles

I’ve harped on this before, but it bears repeating: when examining a social question, one of the first tools you should reach for is class analysis. If you are able to ask questions like Is there a conflict between classes at work here? What could I conclude if so?, you are already ahead of most of the mainstream discourse.

If not class analysis, then what other tool might we use? An alternative way to think about a question might be a from first principles approach. In that approach, you define some basic models for actors and decide some axioms that seem reasonable. Then you start searching for conclusions from these axioms and seeing how well they describe the real world. You can get pretty far with this approach, and it does prove useful. You could define a category of worker and a category of owner and see that a worker and an owner have conflicting interests. But you will eventually find the limitations of a first-principles approach and you will need to do additional investigation.

Let’s talk about AB5. This California law, passed in September of 2019, makes it illegal for a business to hire workers as independent contractors when they should be full-time employees unless the worker’s role satisfies a three-part test:

(A) The person is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of the work and in fact.

(B) The person performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business.

(C) The person is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as that involved in the work performed.

Clearly this applies to a company like Uber, as hiring drivers to transport paying passengers is the entirety of their business. But a coalition of gig companies are refusing to comply with this law and have sued the state to prevent the enforcement of AB5.

Prop 22 is a ballot measure funded by that coalition of gig companies that would alter the application of AB5 to gig workers. This relevant section would classify drivers as independent contractors so long as they satisfy a four-part test:

(A) The network company does not unilaterally prescribe specific dates, times of day, or a minimum number of hours during which the app-based driver must be logged into the network company’s online-enabled application or platform

(B) The network company does not require the app-based driver to accept any specific rideshare service or delivery service request as a condition of maintaining access to the network company’s online-enabled application or platform

(C) The network company does not restrict the app-based driver from performing rideshare services or delivery services through other network companies except during engaged time

(D) The network company does not restrict the app-based driver from working in any other lawful occupation or business.

Now, let’s use the first-principles approach. Maybe we can define an employee as someone who sells their labor time to an employer in a rigid way–they have to clock in and clock out and be fully dedicated to their task while they’re on the clock. A contractor, on the other hand, sells the product of their labor. They can work whatever hours they want, so long as the product is produced. These definitions feel pretty good, and if you’re prone to self-assuredness you might think you could use definitions like these to decide how the labor market should naturally function. A gig company is simply paying a worker for their product, a ride given or a meal delivered. The worker clocks in when they want and is, technically, free to take or leave an individual order. Then if you go into the text of AB5, you might see a strange list of professions excluded from the three-part test:  direct sales salespersons, real estate licensees, commercial fishermen, workers providing licensed barber or cosmetology services. You could conclude that those exceptions are arbitrary and non-sensical; this law makes no sense.

Now let’s try to contextualize AB5 within a framing of class conflict. Here’s a very brief narrative that I find helpful: As productivity and wages enter their fifth decade of divergence and it becomes clear that the recovery from 2008 only helped the top cut of society, we’re seeing any jobs that do come back return with worse wages and benefits and less stability. The shift to precarious labor is a net step back for gains workers have made over the past century. It’s unclear what to do about this, or if anything can be done under late capitalism, but it is clear that a small handful of people are getting rich off of exploiting this sectoral shift. The app platforms have brought in hundreds of billions of dollars of investment globally to build infrastructure around precarious labor, and it seems clear that if they succeed in winning the monopolies they seek, precarious app-based labor will become a permanent feature of work in America. That’s an unconscionable future—as markets soar most people will struggle at subsistence wages. Stopping this trend is critical. Any (legal) means are justified in stopping the platforms from cementing this future. It would be wise to come up with some definitions of employee and contractor that challenge Uber’s business model so we might slow down this devastating loss of workers’ rights.

US Wages Have Been Rising Faster Than Productivity For Decades

I consider this a class-sensitive explanation, whereas the first-principles approach is class-blind. Seeing the loss of power the working class is facing, representatives of the working class advocated for AB5, a law that would slow the backsliding. The class analysis comes first, the action second. So is Prop 22 a conflict between people who use class analysis and people who reason from first-principles? Certainly not. There is too much money at stake for the gig companies to disregard so powerful a tool. Uber doesn’t have some staff philosopher on payroll that defines a first-principles ontology of the business landscape and then orders the CEO to implement it.

What happens at Uber is what happens at any firm under capitalism. The CEO is a manager appointed by the class of shareholders to represent their interests. The interests of Uber’s shareholders overlap strongly with the interests of all owners of capital. The interests of Uber’s drivers are sometimes overlapping and sometimes conflicting with the interests of Uber’s owners, and the drivers’ interests are mostly overlapping with the interests of most other workers. Knowing that his job is to maximize returns on capital, the Uber CEO orders their PR and legal teams to come up with a set of laws and arguments and propagandas that accomplish the goal of minimizing payouts to workers and thus maximizing profits. Uber proposes a set of definitions that interact to produce a set of conclusions that they can stay on the right side of by introducing a variety of abstractions that satisfy the letter of the law.

Uber may not prescribe […] a minimum number of hours during which the app-based driver must work, but its task-assignment algorithm is designed to use monetary incentives to make sure drivers are on the road when they want them to be. Uber may not require the app-based driver to accept any specific rideshare service, but if a driver habitually rejects rides they will be penalized. Drivers are free to drive during non-incentivized hours or to only take certain rides, but the design of Uber’s pay structure guarantees that a driver will not make a living wage by doing so. The incentives end up mattering a lot because average driver pay falls over time in mature markets, as once Uber has won a regional monopoly (or half of a duopoly) they stop subsidizing drivers’ wages in the region. Finally, Uber touts the importance of flexibility for its drivers, but the vast majority of rides sold through Uber are sold by full-time drivers (ed: previously I stated that most drivers were full-time; this is not the case).

By placing the Prop 22 debate in the historical context of the rise of precarious labor, we can see that Uber’s goal is to get essentially the same kind of labor that a full-time employee would provide but to pay them for their output rather than their time. This shifts risk from the class of Uber’s owners onto the class of Uber’s workers. If Uber were to pay an hourly rate but a driver doesn’t get any rides, Uber has lost money. But as it is if a driver sits at the airport for an hour and gets no rides, they have lost their time but Uber has paid nothing. In this class conflict, each side wants to push risk onto the other.

This makes the question of Prop 22 pretty obvious to me. It’s a conflict between workers and owners, and it will have spillover effects that will affect me. If another worker’s wages are lowered and more of their pay is shifted to owners, then the price I can seek for my own labor is lowered as I now have to compete with a worker who makes less. I have a lot more in common with an Uber driver than I do a major Uber shareholder, so it’s clear to me that I will vote no on 22.


I like to use this newsletter as a way to discuss what could be instead of just what is, so I’d like to consider what a “better” gig economy would look like. One defense of the gig economy is that gig companies have found new business models that add value to people’s lives—mobility through rideshares and the convenience of food delivery are quite nice. Today, these companies are unprofitable even with the poor labor practices they embrace, but it’s useful to imagine what would be necessary to create a comparable amount of value without the hyperexploitation.

One model would be a Cooperative Labor Contractor (CLC). It’s kind of like a staffing agency that’s run by its workers. A group of workers would form a CLC which would be owned solely by the workers and managed through democratic means. The CLC then enters into contracts selling various labor-based products to gig economy companies. If I were an entrepreneur with a novel idea for delivering, say, on-demand pharmacy prescription refills, I could contract the CLC to perform the labor-intensive aspects of my business that are core to it. In this model, the entrepreneur owns the brand and the business, but the labor is provided by the CLC. The CLC would pay workers as its own employees and it would be responsible for representing the workers’ interests with the delivery business. If the workers don’t like the incentive structure proposed by the delivery business, they would simply vote against taking the contract (or vote out managers who take unsatisfactory contracts).

This model is better in several ways. It makes innovation easier, actually; rather than managing a massive workforce, an entrepreneur manages the unique aspects of their business and only has to sign one contract with the CLC. With CLCs active, we should expect to see a flourishing of new ways to apply labor. Call centers would hire from CLCs, as would AI companies. The CLC is also less vulnerable to exploiting employees (though not immune to it) since it has democratic oversights built in, whereas today’s gig companies and corporations are totalitarian in nature. We would see actual innovation in gig companies for the first time, as well. Today’s gig companies innovate on new ways to arbitrage around labor regulations; by guaranteeing satisfactory labor practices, companies would have to compete on value rather than exploitation.

We need solidarity-entrepreneurs to start CLCs and we need new regulations that give CLCs legal structures analogous to the variety of legal structures available for legacy capitalist corporations. We also need to pull gig companies off of hyperexploitation and onto CLCs; this is a place where regulation would also be useful. After having seen the inability of gig companies to take care of their workers in times of distress like the pandemic, any politician should see that we need less precarious ways to organize gig labor. Over the next decade, I could see states and municipalities making the operation of non-cooperative gig companies more and more onerous until they are forced to hand over their staffing to worker-directed enterprises like CLCs. Stopping Prop 22 is just a tiny step along the way.

Robustness in a time of collapse 

A personal newsletter this week

Last Wednesday I woke up, like a few million other Bay Area residents, to a red-orange sky and drastic air quality warnings. After going through the better part of a year of interesting times, I’d like to share some of the ways I’ve changed my thinking and my life to adapt to a world where chaos is closer to me and more is likely to come. I think it might be useful to calibrate with others in order to avoid under/over-reacting.

Self-reliance is a community virtue

A few years ago I took the San Francisco Fire Department’s Neighborhood Emergency Response Team training. The training was spread over six weeks of weekly 3-hour classes where we learned how to respond to emergencies like earthquakes. After the training, NERT volunteers can be activated to triage emergency scenes, survey damage and call in rescues for survivors, and generally provide support. If you’ve seen civilians in green vests in the city’s parks during the pandemic/heat wave/fires, they’re likely NERT volunteers.

Community Emergency Response Team | Ready.gov

Beyond the practical lessons on turning off gas lines and performing basic first-aid, the thing that stuck with me the most was a few ways to think of my relation to the community in the case of emergency.

The trainers from SFFD were adamant that we be realistic and conservative about what aid we can render. I’m not a trained professional. If I run into an unsafe situation, like a damaged building, I risk creating a situation where I also need to be rescued, which endangers others. Protecting myself has to always be my top priority.

The trainers also stressed that just by not needing assistance in an emergency, I am fulfilling my responsibility to others. In California our institutions are still strong enough that we can be confident that in the case of, say, a major earthquake, the state will provide emergency aid and rations to the population. It will probably not be pleasant–maybe I’d have to wait hours in line to receive supplies, but California will probably not let people starve. But if I’m in line, I’m taking up resources in a time when distributing resources is particularly difficult. Merely by not burdening our systems of resiliency I am benefitting my community.

If I am safe in my home for a week while workers in our recovery systems do the most urgent work, I’m someone they don’t have to worry about. If I can check in with my neighbors and lend support in a completely decentralized way, I’ve lessened the burden on recovery. Due to the inequities of our unjust society and of life in general, in a crisis there will inevitably be people in need. My first responsibility is to not be one of them, and my second responsibility is to assist others, which I can only do if I’ve taken care of myself first.

But robustness is a property of populations, not individuals

The prepper community seems to me to exhibit tons of unhealthy viewpoints and behaviors. The focus on guns, gadgets, and individualism is ultimately a retreat from a world that is out of our individual control. In the extreme, it seems like preppers have a man vs. society fantasy of surviving as individuals even as shit hits the fan, or SHTF in prepper parlance. I admit I relate to this fantasy, but I recognize that robustness is a property of populations, not individuals.

SHTF – Dictionary.com

One way to think about robustness is as a measure of how many things can go wrong before I’m affected. Preparation helps, but handling the unexpected requires a group of people with diverse roles and skills. As a common sense example, imagine that I’m completely alone and I break my leg. I would be in serious danger. If I’m part of a community where people can care for me, I’m probably fine. The mutual dependence of a community creates robustness.

A short story in Cory Doctorow’s Radicalized makes this point well. (Spoilers rest of paragraph) In the story, a collection of wealthy professionals set out to survive a pandemic in a well-stocked survival compound. After some fun playing with guns, they encounter the unexpected in the form of a cholera outbreak. The main character has practiced survival skills obsessively but no one in the compound knows the first thing about designing a sanitation system. In contrast, a nearby open community struggles through losses but ultimately thrives. Big problems are made up of small problems, and in a broad community, someone will be able to solve the small problems as they come up.

In real life, the tempo of urban life can work against robustness. As the social division of labor increases, there’s a tendency to outsource the functions we rely upon to stay alive. Over time, the graph that describes the movement of resources around the planet, to me and away from me, becomes more and more complex. It’s hard to evaluate robustness in such a complex system; there are more and more nodes in the network that I rely upon, but there are more alternative nodes through which to access resources I might need.

Instinctually, I felt that my former lifestyle was not hitting the right point on the curve of self- vs. system-reliance. On a typical day I used to commute on a private bus 90 minutes each way. At my job, all of my meals were prepared for me by food service workers. I had my laundry done through my workplace. I had so little free time in my home that I ended up outsourcing most of my quotidian responsibilities to other workers through commercial services. Half a year outside of tech conglomerates, it feels like that lifestyle was unsustainable in a lot of ways. During quarantine I’ve had time to reestablish more habits of self-sufficiency in my life.

Where on the curve should I be?

Then, there’s the factor of alarm. I experience a constant barrage of new information on the internet, and the information I see is generally presented with poor devotion to scale. One way I’ve tried to calibrate how much I react to new circumstances is to place myself on an adoption curve.

Do I want to be an innovator when it comes to reacting to negative news? Not in most things; that feels paranoid to me. Preppers are innovators and I think they’re kind of weird. But I will watch videos made by preppers, so I guess I’m an early adopter. In other areas I can be a late adopter. I don’t have to decide whether to send kids to school, so I can afford to lag in deciding whether public spaces are safe.

But suppose things get worse. If it starts to look like remaining in a place isn’t safe, where on the bug out curve do I want to be? Leaving too early would be majorly disruptive to my life. Leaving too late would be dangerous. DHS building a dossier on a member of DSA San Francisco helps me calibrate what time it is–we’re at the thinking about coming for the socialists phase. My solution for now is to have options. What would a plan be if I needed to get out of my home with almost no notice? With a week of planning? A month?

So what have I done?

I’ve had time off from work since the pandemic started so I’ve been able to turn some of my thoughts into action. I’ve tried to optimize for things that improve my life in most possible futures. Some of the things I’ve done:

  • Stocked a ~6 month supply of dry goods using, among other things, heat-sealed mylar bags, oxygen absorbers, sealed storage buckets, and other methods that are easy to learn about on YouTube.

  • Generally increased my supplies on hand. I used to embrace the just-in-time delivery lifestyle of Amazon Prime. Now, this strikes me as fragile while stocking better is a cheap luxury. If supplies are constrained in the future and I don’t have to change my toothpaste brand, I’ll be able to hold on to a little bit more of a sense of normalcy.

  • Learned to bake more basic goods. Also learned to cook and freeze larger quantities of meals so I don’t have to go out as often.

  • Started studying to renew my amateur radio license; I hadn’t used it since I was a kid. Got a couple of radios.

  • Got a spare tire and built an emergency kit for my car. 

  • Prepared a go bag.

  • Completed a firearm safety course.

  • Got to know my neighbors. Whether it’s dealing with supply shortages or noticing when the police come for you, the people physically close to you are your first line of defense.

  • Improved my practical home skills. YouTube is an unbelievably good resource for learning practical skills. I’m not particularly handy, but I have the confidence now that I can figure out common problems that need a tool to fix.

  • Improved practical skills within my specialty. I’ve asked myself, what skills in my wheelhouse might be useful in a situation where infrastructure becomes unreliable? I had a local ISP install a backup wireless dish on my roof. As a hobby project I converted phone lines in my house to ethernet. For more practice I did the same for my neighbor (in return for a case of beer). I’ve researched how one might build a network to connect a lot of people in a place with minimal infrastructure.

  • Started rucking. I figure walking a long way carrying stuff is a useful skill in a lot of situations.

But our individual choices won’t matter much

Changing your own behavior will have some effect but it’s ultimately very small. No single person is responsible for the burning air in California. No single person can stop the political unrest. We are subject to the whims of forces much larger than ourselves.

I’ve been frustrated by the tendency of some people in the mainstream to look for a savior. It seems to me there’s been a hero coming to save us for a while now–Comey, Mueller, Fauci, or whoever. I’m so sick of this belief that someone else will solve problems that we are either suffering from or complicit in (and in America you are one or the other or both). I’m tired of being told to vote. People with the resources and capacity need to do a lot more than vote. We need to be organizing each other into formations that can challenge and disrupt the forces that are killing us.

The real way to optimize for our individual survival is to be part of an organization that is dedicated to freeing us and helping us survive our impending crises. It can be a church or a fraternal order or a revolutionary political party, but being a part of something bigger than oneself is probably the best way to build robustness.


I don’t now what kind of difficulties lie ahead. I think some things will get worse before they get better. I think a lot of systems we rely upon are fragile. I think chances are good we’ll wake up on November 4th in a chaotic situation. There is a multiple-victim shooting most days in this country; if one occurs on November 3rd, anything feels possible to me. Preparing for the absolute worst case–collapse or revolution–is impractical, but there’s a smart bet on things mostly staying the same but occasionally getting worse. I want to keep my head but I also want to take care of myself and those close to me, and to not be a burden to others.


(Substack has comments. I’d be interested in hearing how you’re changing your life for what may come.)

Every Blockbuster is a policy failure

The top companies in tech don't trust markets. Why do we?

Blockbuster Video was founded in 1985. Its physical media rental stores expanded rapidly throughout the 1990s, peaking at 9,094 locations.

TCP/IP, the protocol that forms the backbone of the modern internet, was developed throughout the 1970s and became the standard on ARPANET in 1983.

The discrete cosine transform algorithm, which undergirds MPEG video coding standards and makes digital transmission of video practical, was developed in 1974 and productionized in 1988.

Broadband internet was developed in the 1990s. Household penetration of broadband reached 4% in the US by 2000 and 50% by 2007.

Netflix began its DVD-by-mail service in 1997, swiftly cutting into Blockbuster’s market. Automated rental machines like those from Redbox were installed in grocery stores across the country, further decimating Blockbuster’s sales.

YouTube was launched in 2005. Netflix began its transition to streaming content in 2007.

Today, every Blockbuster store except one has closed. Their hundreds of thousands of employees (peaking at 84,300 in 2004) have had to find new jobs. The locations, usually found in high-traffic shopping centers, have been converted into other national chains, or sit empty.

Blockbuster store locations are uniformly hideous. Built in an era of rapid expansion of suburban shopping centers, the buildings’ inefficient footprints made poor public spaces even when they were open. We will be stuck with these monuments to poor technological planning for generations to come.

If our society had a robust technological planning apparatus, technical planners could have seen that what was a business in 1990 would not be a business in 2010.


It became apparent that the production of society at large was ruled by absence of plan, by accident, by anarchy; and this anarchy grew to greater and greater height.
Frederick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific


This year Apple announced that Macs, like iPhones and iPads, would now be built around chips designed by Apple. Technical planners at Apple have been preparing for this change at least since 2011, but probably for years before that.

Over the decade that this transition has been in the works, Apple has applied its vertically-integrated engineering organization to preparing for the switch. Chip designers signal new features to operating system developers five or more years in advance so that when chip manufacturing processes are scaled the software that runs on new chips can take advantage of technical advances. Technological breakthroughs advance from material science to design to manufacturing to operating system software to application platforms to client applications in an orchestrated process.

Apple has integrated this process because the anarchy of the market cannot deliver innovation at a pace that can take advantage of society’s technical advancement.


If only Walmart’s operational efficiency, its logistical genius, its architecture of agile economic planning could be captured and transformed by those who aim toward a more egalitarian, liberatory society!
People’s Republic of Walmart


Let’s imagine a new kind of job in a different kind of society. A Technical Planner absorbs information about technology and society and synthesizes it into predictions about the future. The planner uses their technical expertise to make estimates of what science and technology will make practical in the future. They use their understanding of society to investigate the conveniences people want from technology and how they prioritize these wants. The planners combine these insights into advocacy for bets they believe will provide value in excess of the required investment. The best bets receive investment and then are measured. Groups of planners who consistently make bets that return positive value are revered for their skill and are empowered to make more and more substantial bets.

This job might sound like that of a venture capitalist, but it is not. A venture capitalist uses all the knowledge that society has invested in them to make bets not on what will return value but what will return capital. An investment could ultimately waste resources relative to the value created, like 9,094 Blockbusters-cum-eyesores, but it would, over the time horizon of interest, deliver growth on capital invested. A capitalist would embrace such a bet and hope to get out of it before the crash.

A technical planner has to understand value more accurately, and over a longer time horizon, than a capitalist. The planner serves society, and you can’t get out of society at the top of the market. Planners have to imbibe the complexity of the world and balance all the competing interests that entails.


Let’s imagine a different world of electronic entertainment, starting in a fictional 1980s. Seeing the development of digital media in the forms of magnetic and then optical storage, arts organizations fight for expanded entertainment options in their communities. People demand new ways to unwind after working and they deserve access to the artistic creations of our society. They agitate to planners that they want physical locations to exchange media. They want a Blockbuster full of media in their neighborhood.

Library Planners, looking to keep their offerings fresh and relevant to young people, advocate for creating Entertainment Centers. They’re like small libraries focused on popular media, and they want to build thousands of them rapidly, as delivering content to people is the goal of the library system. The librarians push the technical planners to develop mass manufacturing of physical media, and they push space planners to find locations for the new microlibraries.

Technical planners absorb the demands for new forms of media and evaluate them. They look at the state of physical media in the 1980s. It’s understood that magnetic tape cassettes have a theoretical maximum of data density that is too low to store high-definition video in a cost-effective way. The trendlines of the underlying material science show magnetic tape is not the future. Optical storage, where digital data is encoded on a compact plastic and metal disc using a laser, seems likely to succeed magnetic tape cassettes as the premiere form of physical media within the decade.

The technical planners also note that the density of networked computers is increasing superlinearly. The quality of video that can be sent over a digital connection is low but increasing in 1985. The trendlines say networked video would match physical media in quality in between one and five decades. The planners also evaluate the physical resources that go into the manufacture of optical storage: non-renewable fossil fuels and metals that are expensive to extract. Some planners publish a recommendation: investment in physical media distribution is a waste of society’s resources, and physical media will be replaced by networked distribution in a timeline that makes investment in physical media distribution centers a waste. Don’t build the Blockbusters.

The arts organizations dissent, saying this is a denial of a citizen’s right to the fruits of artistic production. Community groups complain that their communities are stagnating without sufficient investment. Librarians defend the importance of public spaces over the digital. A political process ensues to evaluate what kind of investments to make into entertainment media.

We know now that the skeptical technical planners would have been right and everyone else wrong. It was probably not really possible to know this for sure in the 1980s, but what’s a shame is that we didn’t even try. We ceded the decision-making responsibility to the market, and the market made locally-optimal, globally-suboptimal decisions. Billions of dollars changed hands; some owners got rich, some owners lost money, and our communities are left with the blight of abandoned storefronts.

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