If there was an other-worldly feel to the news last week that the Pentagon was investing in an online futures exchange to reward terrorist atrocities, then the following few days have been even stranger.
Rather more than any 'sexed-up dossier', which is a dispute about the integrity of intelligence material, this episode tells us far more than we would have dared to guess about the protagonists and their motivations, and what they think 'intelligence' really is. While we've seen economists and pundits rush to the defense of the aborted 'terror casino', very few commentators have examined the curious ideological motivations behind the ill-fated Policy Analysis Market, which at times appear determined to outdo any occultist. The phrase "not of this world" might spring to mind as you read on.
Although the disgraced Iran Contra felon Admiral Poindexter duly carried the can - by Wednesday well-placed sources were leaking that he is to leave his post at the Pentagon's R&D division, DARPA - the idea was actually initiated before Poindexter arrived.
So let's meet the brainchild behind PAM, the blond haired and photogenic Robin Hanson, assistant economics professor at George Mason University. With phlegmatic good grace, Hanson announced the news on the Extropian Bulletin Board, that PAM had been axed. Hanson isn't himself an "Extropian", he says, but many of his followers are, so maybe it's a good time you were introduced. And since they're being touted as the radical out-of-the-box thinking that US foreign policy needs, we must not delay.
Yo! Hey! Meet the Extropians
"I am a 6 foot, 185 pound, 40 year-old, well-educated, married white male American, with two children. I have a wife Peggy, and sons Tommy and Andy," announces Hanson on his personal home page. All well and good so far, although you might be wondering why we needed to know his exact weight. Or that he's white. Both those details, and the fact that he's "well-educated" are pretty superfluous in Extropian circles, where the disciples are uniformly white and well educated. We're not sure if they all weigh 185 pounds, but they're certainly very, very rich.
How did it start?
A few years ago a bunch of extremely wealthy Californians met, liked the look of each other a lot, and formed a group called Extropians. Revealed to the world in a Wired article in 1994 as "a philosophy of boundless expansion, of upward - and outwardness, of fantastic superabundance," their greeting was described in some quite painful detail, for us, thus:
"Right hand out in front of you, fingers spread and pointing at the sky. Grasp the other person's right hand, intertwine fingers, and close. Then shoot both hands upward, straight up, all the way up, letting go at the top, whooping 'Yo!' or 'Hey!'"
Extropianism, we were told, expoused "extremely advanced technology" and displayed "dedicated, immovable optimism". The hated gubberment got it particularly hard from these wealthy uberkinder, for whom the State was "regarded as one of the major restrictive forces in the Milky Way galaxy."
Employees of the government were mockingly described as "entropians". They felt entitled to mock the poor or stupid, and amongst this self-selecting circle this amounted to almost everyone else, because they were confident they themselves would write the history books.
But the most interesting thing about this ersatz cult was the amount of energy that its members devoted to wanting to live forever. To flee the surly bonds of mortality, once and for all, the Extropians devoted much of their disposable income (of which, there was much to dispose) to cryogenic research - deciding how to freeze themselves for eternal life, and deciding who amongst them Shall Be First.
Time will tell if any of this elite will succeed and have themselves cryogenically reborn in a future time, but that's what they're hoping for. But give them a plaudit for their imagination. While the eugenicists of the thirties had a simple solution, which was to sterlize or isolate the poor or the ugly, or the lumpenproletariat who didn't share their happy thoughts, the Extropians have found a clean and politically-acceptable solution, one as we will see, that is endorsed by today's hygienic punditocracy.
While Hanson disavows loyalty to any '-ism', he is true to his word in thinking outside of the box. Hanson was the ideal candidate to organize an online terror futures market, because the fellow has never met a futures exchange he didn't like. Or more accurately, he's never seen a problem that can't be fixed by setting up a futures exchange.
Hanson modesly describes himself as Jungian type 'ENTP', and helpfully points us to the explanation that Jungian type ENTPs "tend to be oblivious of the rest of humanity, except as an audience." Judge for yourselves.
Take the humdrum business of democracy. He advocates replacing one-man, one-vote elections with "values exchanges" - another form of market. He also proposes an ingenious idea of bugging the undereducated, idle 'entropians' (and that must mean us) called "Tax Leisure with Time Audits" which essentially involves bugging the hell out of any 'entropian' who hasn't developed an Extropian's sophisticated spam filters:
"The government could randomly check on each person say ten times a year, and see if they are working for wages at that moment," he gushes.
Intrusive? Hell, no.
"Of course to implement this each person would, when working for wages, need to be quickly contactable at random times, such as by staying at a desk, or having a cell phone or a beeper. But since most people will have such things for other reasons, the presumption could be that the exceptions are doing it to avoid taxes, and so failure to contact will be coded as not working for wages," explains Hanson.
He's full of such good ideas.
It's easy to mock the Professor as the kind of swot who grew up without having his head dunked in the toilet by the school jocks. But this time, it's serious. Not only is the Extropian ideology now blessed with Pentagon dollars, it's defended by our finest brains, in our most respected newspapers, and here we move on to the really interesting part of tthe post-PAM defense of the mystical market.
Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft
Hanson's PAM provoked widespread public revulsion. But because it was billed as a "market" - the most mystical of things from which all wisdom must be divined - it was inevitable that interested parties who'd based their careers on upholding the divinity of the mechanism, rather than skeptics seeking to determine its flaws - should feel the most alarmed. Righteously alarmed, they didn't hang around.
First up to the plate was Berkeley economist Hal Varian writing in the New York Times. Varian, with Carl Shapiro wrote a dotcom book on marketing strategies that eschewed the dotcom hype, Information Rules. Highly recommended, and justifiably so, Varian has been excellent company when we've called on him to discuss pricing wheezes.
But the lush era of experiments is over, and somehow we found Varian throwing some extraordinary contortions in his Op-Ed piece last week.
Varian insists that "markets" provide answers… answers we can't collectively work out for ourselves. Not only are they aggregators of knowledge, but they divine knowledge we couldn't arrive at through any other means, he says.
Marching into the firestorm of whether the PAM could help us predict terrorist atrocities, Varian offered us this:
"Markets do an awfully good job of forecasting many events and trends." So far, so speculative, but do carry on. "There is good reason to believe that a market set up to forecast the sort of political instability that leads to terrorism might work well, too."
Anything wrong with this picture?
Well, give him credit. Varian is quick on his feet: the forecast of events has been neutered into the far less specific forecast for "the sort of political instability" that might lead to an event, in other words, a terrorist atrocity. What sort, you might ask? OK, Varian now seems not to be claiming that the model predicts terrorist acts but the "sorts" [sic] of instability that might lead to a terrorist act. But to believe that, you have to believe there's a causal connection. Afghanistan, which after twenty years of civil war was probably at its most 'stable' when 9/11 struck, kinda disproves this. But let's see where Varian is heading. He's a man with a mission, only he's hedging his bets.
About a third of the way through, he tells us:
"If you were a potential target, wouldn't you want the best possible forecasts of possible attempts on your life? I would."
Ah, so. After all that, it seems, he's now decided that the market can inform us of specific terrorist atrocities and by cutting off its funding, we are all putting ourselves in grave danger.
Although Varian can't make up his mind whether PAM is good enough to predict possible factors "that might lead" to terrorism, or the devilish acts themselves, we must give him the benefit of the doubt and conclude that he is not suffering from multiple personality disorder, but merely producing rhetoric to serve his ideological cause. That might explain, if not forgive, his striking inconsistencies. He's committed to the idea that some collective intelligence, which we cannot explain rationally, resides in the market.
The San Jose Mercury's Dan Gillmor, for once gave up his redoubtable moralism to plead, "give them a chance". Dan, temporarily we hope, believes the approach deserves merit, although he doesn't say how, and he implies that there's power in the "hive mind". He doesn't say where you can find this wisdom, and this is the beauty of link-and-run blogging: you rarely have to explain yourself to your readers.
But a more coherent analysis is offered by Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist to the World Bank, and Nobel Prize winner:
"If trading is anonymous, then it could be subject to manipulation, particularly if the market has few participants — providing a false sense of security or an equally dangerous false sense of alarm. If trading is not anonymous, then anyone with information about terrorism would be, understandably, reluctant to trade on it. In that case, the market would not serve its purpose."
Then, amazingly, Hanson himself added that PAM couldn't affect futures because the sums were so small. An acidic Stiglitz wondered how the market could be so omniscient, if it had to rely on good old fashioned government defense pork in the first place.
Harmless fun? Well, over the past twenty years
economists have faced several choices. If you follow the funding and tinker over the minutae of how markets work, and create elaborate mathematical models based on the metaphysical, then you can if you're lucky, land yourself a tenure.
But all actions have their consequences, and to pursue such a path requires a certain hardening of the heart.
This week I've heard from one Silicon Valley engineer who has been downsized to work at Target, for $7.50 an hour. Breaks are regimented, and in her elderly fifties, she wondered if she could keep on her feet all day. I don't blame her. Another staffer told me she was being called in to work at Hewlett Packard - a crown in the jewel of Silcon Valley - just so she could retrain her replacement in India.
How is this so? If you want to be a Gillmor, you have to trust someone else to come up with the answer. However economists who want to ask why, and probe a little further, and ask why our economies keep failing, and our bubble keep bursting, typically don't get the opportunities that Hal Varians enjoy. There isn't an awful lot of money to sustain bad news bears. Some might even want to probe even deeper, and ask how we can maintain sustainable development, or even hope to motivate and train a prosperous middle class.
The Extropian answer is simple: such dunderheads will be left behind as we all lift off into space, making giddy whooping noises as we ascend.
Well, until last week we could dismiss these techno-utopians as a freakish cult, but now we know two things: they have they ear of the Pentagon, and they have powerful defenders in the shape of the New York Times op-ed page, and West Coast columnists. But there's an even more tantalizing narrative we can't entirely ignore.
When the current US administration decided it was going to invade Iraq, it set itself in direct opposition to the kind of institutionalized intelligence gathering which the CIA regarded as its preserve. Whatever you might think of the CIA, it is undoubtedly an American cultural institution, in the sense that terrible shame will be wrought upon those sons of the East Coast patriarchy who fail the clan.
Don't underestimate these Langley folks. The CIA may easily be satirized as an anonymous army of Agent Smiths, replicating at random, but this view underestimates the strong psychological sense that the CIA, and yes, it might be a paragovernment, capable of all the anti-democratic crimes that MI5 indulged in as it sought to undermine Wilson's democratically-elected Labor government in the mid-1970s, still feels ancient obligations to preserve The Republic. Like we say, you don't have to agree with it, you just have to grok that it feels its nose is very much out of joint right now.
Now what are they faced with? We have the 'Office of Special Plans', a short-circuited, privatized intelligence authority reporting directly to the executive. And, here, fresh on the scene, is a whacko Pentagon-funded research project that claims to know the unknowable - backed up by top columnists! - all through the power of markets. Or some such voodoo, they that can't even agree on.
Want to place a bet on how this one will work out? Contact our all-knowing, RSS-enabled Futures Exchange, please. We'll set one up as soon as we've parked your 'Hive Mind'.
But the last word must go to a researcher friend who must remain anonymous, when I ran the op-ed pieces by him last week.
"Let's send them up on their own in a plane. Then they can form a futures exchange to discover how to land it." ®