Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Moral Economy of Tech

On his website, Maciej Ceglowski posted the text of his address to the panel on The Moral Economy of Tech at the 28th Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics conference this last weekend.

Ceglowski's address is honest and hard-hitting:

The first step towards a better tech economy is humility and recognition of limits. It's time to hold technology politically accountable for its promises. I am very suspicious of attempts to change the world that can't first work on a local scale. If after decades we can't improve quality of life in places where the tech élite actually lives, why would we possibly make life better anywhere else?

We should not listen to people who promise to make Mars safe for human habitation, until we have seen them make Oakland safe for human habitation. We should be skeptical of promises to revolutionize transportation from people who can't fix BART, or have never taken BART. And if Google offers to make us immortal, we should check first to make sure we'll have someplace to live.

Techies will complain that trivial problems of life in the Bay Area are hard because they involve politics. But they should involve politics. Politics is the thing we do to keep ourselves from murdering each other. In a world where everyone uses computers and software, we need to exercise democratic control over that software.

Ceglowski is a superb writer, and it's a very powerful speech; every word is worth reading.

Meanwhile, on the topic of morality, economy, politics, and technology, it's worth also spending some time with Mark Thoma's recent article in The Financial Times: Why the Public Has Stopped Paying Attention to Economists

The predictions from economists about the consequences of Brexit were widely ignored. That shouldn’t be surprising. In recent years the public has lost faith the in the economics profession.

One reason for the lack of faith is the failure to predict the Great Recession, but the public’s dismissal of macroeconomists is based upon more than the failure to foresee the dangers the housing bubble posed for the economy. It is also due to false promises about the benefits to the working class from globalization, tax cuts for the wealthy, and trade agreements – promises that were often used to support ideological and political goals or to serve special interests.

In retrospect the evidence for the housing bubble was easy to see and a few people tried to sound the alarm but they were widely dismissed. Even when the warnings were taken seriously the belief was that the consequences from a housing bubble collapse would be relatively minor and confined to the housing sector. Very few people believed there would be a deep and long-lasting recession.

Thoma's article isn't as incisive as Ceglowski's but it does share the same appeal for humility:

much like weather forecasters, we can provide information about the chances of good or bad weather in the near future even if those forecasts are highly uncertain.

But we do need more humility about what we do and do not know, more willingness to change our minds when the evidence disagrees with our favorite theoretical model, and the willingness to acknowledge disagreement within the profession. But most of all we need to take a strong stand against those inside and outside the profession who misuse economic theory and empirical results for political and ideological purposes.

Hear, hear.

UPDATE: Another of the panelists, Kieran Healy, has also published his address to the panel.

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