by Randall Hayes
“Finance capitalism will be as old-fashioned as Flower Power.
Some may miss it dearly, but that fondness will be little more than nostalgia.”
– Reinventing Capitalism, p137
Max Headroom was a weird 80s show about a future investigative journalist, Edison Carter, whose mind was copied into a computer program after an automated assassination attempt left him with a serious concussion of the frontal lobe. That brain damage apparently made its way into Max's irreverent artificial personality. Carter himself was something of a muckraker – a loose camera, as it were – but Max took it to a whole other level of punkeyshines.
Who was it who said, Observing the United States is like watching a movie?
Oscar Wilde? Woody Allen? Max Headroom.
Just think, they’ve got an actor for a president, economic advisors called projectionists --
Even their latest defense strategy is named after a film – Star Wars.
But why pick on that one? Why not something gentler, like Kramer vs. Kramer?
And, of course, everywhere in the world to them is just a theater of operations,
Unless they’re fighting in it, and then it’s a theater … of war.
- Max Headroom
Max was a minor sensation in the 1980s, appearing in soda commercials and hosting a talk show (where he interviewed William Shatner, among others). Computer graphics were much less sophisticated at that point, and it was easier to put Matt Frewer in uncomfortable makeup and fake-digitize him than to actually generate a digital version of him. Nobody noticed.
One of the few things that Science Fiction authors tend to agree on is that there can be too much hierarchy. Lefties like the people who made Max Headroom aim their ire at corporations, while Righties reserve it for governments, and then of course there are those who point to various religions as the ultimate expressions of rigidity in thinking and rule-making. The trappings of these various economic dystopias may differ, but the structure is always the same: the rulers get filthy stinking rich at the expense of everyone else, and the basis of their power is always some kind of lie.
More equitable future economies without money have been proposed. Star Trek is probably the most famous example. Residents of the Federation seem to regard money the same way they regard racism, as an unfortunate superstition, better forgotten along with witches and demonic possession. However, the economic details of how their post-scarcity economy works, and the history of how it came about, have never been revealed, only speculated about online.
According to the Duetschlandic Duo who provided our opening quote, economics comes from the Greek word oikonomia, meaning “rules of the house,” or the science of running a self-sufficient household, with none of the casino connotations that we moderns would attach to that phrase. Many people who write critically about capitalism conflate two concepts that these authors separate very clearly. In Mayer-Schonberger & Ramge’s formal economic terms, firms are those hierarchical organizations that centralize decision making in order to hoard wealth and information (those things we all love to hate). Firms can take many forms – corporations, governments, even nonprofits like churches and charities. Markets, on the other hand, are de-centralized mechanisms for coordinating information flows between individual buyers and sellers. Firms are aggregate actors within markets, coordinating the actions of large groups of people to generate a competitive advantage. Though M-S&R do not say so, extralegal organizations like clans, tribes, or gangs would also count; the gray and black markets where they operate are still markets. If firms get large enough, they can distort the information flows that buyers and sellers rely on, in some cases capturing an entire market in a monopoly. Everyone from Adam Smith on down has agreed that cartels and monopolies are bad for everyone, except for those few who run them. Anyone who says different either has a monopoly or wants one.
That other Greek concept, the agora – the open marketplace of ideas – is pretty much universally accepted as a good thing. The crippling limitation of economic markets as they currently exist, say Mayer-Schonberger & Ramge, has been the compression of the human agora's incredibly rich peer-to-peer data flows into a single variable called price. Some compression is necessary (currently) because of human cognitive biases and limits to our decision-making powers, as demonstrated in the work of behavioral economists like Thaler, Ostrom, and Kahneman. M-S&R say that we've taken the data compression too far. Measures of economic health like Gross National Product treat both car accidents and wars as pluses, because they stimulate spending, regardless of the nature of the spending. Pollution is likewise a plus, as long as somebody gets paid (in money or tax credits) to clean it up. Any hours spent doing anything unpaid, such as child care, are regarded as a minus, if they are measured at all. Current economic theory calls unmeasured things “externalities,” and deliberately ignores them in policy and decision making.
Their solution to these issues is to employ three current technologies to add back in all those rich data that the compressive act of pricing excludes:
1) extravagantly complete storage of these highly multi-dimensional data sets;
2) machine learning to mine those data for the behavioral preferences of buyers and sellers, without having to fill out endless questionnaires; and
3) advanced decision-making algorithms to properly weight those individual preferences and match buyers and sellers, with – and this is important – situational flexibility and nuance.
Their central claim is that honest, efficient markets crush firms and middlemen.
“When we are better able to compare what potential transaction partners have to offer along many dimensions, we'll change how we weigh information … price will become only one data point among many, rather than a bell buoy in an ocean of noise.”
- Reinventing Capitalism, p137
In other words, if buying local and buying green are really important to you, your personal AI shopper will know that about you and get the right widget for you, every time, at the right price. The right price won’t automatically be the lowest price, because unlike a human with a three-pound brain, the AI will be able to juggle ALL the numbers -- from the labor practices of suppliers, to the environmental impacts of using recycled materials, to the carbon credits needed to offset the energy required to manufacture and deliver it, to the exchange rates of whatever multiple currencies are relevant at the time. (Max Headroom, clever though he be, need not apply.)
This goes beyond simply using auctions to find single-dimensional prices more efficiently, one of the major strategies posed in another recent book called Radical Markets, by Posner & Weyl, which interestingly includes near-future fictional vignettes to help them illustrate their points. No, Mayer-Schonberger & Ramge claim that more complete data will do all sorts of seemingly magical things, like pop investment bubbles before they can wreck national economies. I am skeptical on that prediction, because human spoilers and speculators have plagued financial markets from their very beginning, and those people and their cyber-criminal agents will actively work against the decentralizing tendencies of markets. But those struggles might make for some great stories.
‘Even after 30 years, he’s still “20 minutes into the future!”’
Documentary about the Max Headroom project.
Max interviews William Shatner (starting at 4:42).
Which sort of rhymes with “Paranormia,” performed here by the Art of Noise, featuring Max Headroom.
Mayer-Schonberger, V., and Ramge, T. (2018). Reinventing Capitalism in the Age of Big Data. Basic Books, Perseus Books LLC, Hachette Book Group. New York, NY.
One chapter is available on the website below.
Each one gave a lecture about his/her work on the occasion of the prize. Click on the profile and scroll down to find the video.
Posner, E.A. & Weyl, E.G. (2018). Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
“To help readers grasp how radical these ideas are, we begin each chapter with a fictional vignette that illustrates how they might work in a future society.” YES!
Randall Hayes, PhD, did research in neuroscience and taught for roughly a decade before becoming a writer and entrepreneur in Greensboro, NC, USA. The failings of orthodox economics are an ongoing interest, and other pieces about it can be found in the PlotBot column on Intergalactic Medicine Show or at his personal blog, steemit.com/@plotbot2015.
Non-fiction by Randall Hayes:
"Oikinomia" August 2020