Maybe I’m just not connected to the edublogosphere the way I used to be, but the story of Matt Rognlie should be on every person’s front page right now, and it’s not. So let’s fix that, and talk a bit about remix along the way.
(Let me admit the title is a bit of hyperbole, but not by much. Plus, if you have other candidates, why aren’t you posting them?)
First, the story in brief.
- A scholar named Piketty produces the most influential economic work of the 21st century, which pulls together years of historical data suggesting that inequality is baked into our current economic system at a pretty deep level. It’s the post-war years that were the anomaly, and if you look at the model going forward, inequality is going to get worse.
- A lot of people try to take this argument down, but mostly misunderstand the argument.
- An MIT grad student named Matt Rognlie enters a discussion on this topic by posting a comment on the blog Marginal Revolution. He proposes something that hasn’t been brought up before: Piketty has not properly accounted for depreciation of investment. If you account for that, he claims most of the capital increase comes from housing. And if that’s the case, we should see a slowing of inequality growth.
- He gets encouragement from Tyler Cowen and others at the blog. So he goes and writes a paper on this and posts it in his student tilde space.
- On March 20th he presented that paper at Brookings. He’s been back and forth with Piketty on this. To the extent that policy is influenced by prevailing economic models, the outcome of this debate will determine future appoaches to the question of inequality.
- As of today, it seems whatever the outcome of that debate may be Rognlie has permanently altered the discussion around the work, and the discussion around inequality.
So first things first — this is a massive story that started as a student blog comment and germinated in tilde space. So why are we not spreading this as Exhibit A of why blogging and commenting and tilde space matters? Did we win this argument already and I just didn’t notice? Because I think we still need to promote stories like this.
Forward Into Remix
Of course, I need to add my own take on this, because this is a perfect example of why remix is important, and why Alan Kay’s dream of Personal Dynamic Media is still so relevant.
Here’s what the first comments on that post read like. You’ll recognize the current state of most blogs today:
Hooray for petty ad hominem attacks and the Internet that gives us them! Paul Krugman is rich, and therefore his take on Piketty is wrong. Al Gore took a jet somewhere, so climate change does not exist. Call this a Type 1 Comment.
Matt comes in though, and does something different. Matt addresses the model under discussion.
He goes on and shows the impact of this on the projections that Piketty makes. Call this a Type 2 Comment.
This is an amazing story, and an amazing comment. I don’t want to take anything away from this. No matter what the outcome of this debate we will end up with a better understanding of equality, thanks to a student commenting on a blog.
But here’s my frustration, and why I’m so obsessed with alternative models of the web. The web, as it currently stands, makes Type 1 Comments trivially easy and very profitable for people to make. The web *loves* a pig pile. It thrives on confirmation bias, identity affirmation, shaming, grandstanding, the naming-of-enemies etc.
On the other hand, the web makes Type 2 Comments impossibly hard. Matt has to read Piketty’s book, go download the appropriate data, sift through the assumptions of the data, change those assumptions and see the effect and then come back to this blog post and explain his findings in a succinct way to an audience that then has to decide whether to take him at his word.
If they do decide he might be right, they have to go re-read Piketty, download the data themselves, change the assumptions in whatever offline program they are using and then come back on the blog and say, you know, you might be right.
And it’s that labor-intensive, disconnected element that makes it the case that the most important economics blog comment of the 21st century (so far) received less comment in the forum than debates about whether Paul Krugman’s pay makes him a hypocrite.
And before people object that maybe that’s just human nature — I don’t think that’s the whole story. The big issue is that the web simply doesn’t optimize for this sort of thing. One of the commenters hints at this, trying to carry forward the conversation but lost as to how to do so. “Is this the Solow model, ” he asks, “I need a refresh, but I don’t know what to Google….”
There is a Better Way
What Matt is doing is actually remix. He’s taking Piketty’s data, tweaking assumptions, and presenting his own results. But it’s taken him a whole bunch of time to gather that data, put together the model, and run the assumptions.
Piketty does make his data sets available for the charts he presents, and that’s really helpful. But notice what happens here — Piketty builds a model, runs the data through it and presents the results in a form that resolves to charts and narrative in a book. Matt takes those charts, narrative, and the data, reinflates the model, works with the model, then does the same thing to blog commenters, by producing an explanation with no dynamic model.
Blog commenters who want to comment have to make guesses at how Matt built his model, re-read Piketty, download the data and run their own results and come back and talk about it.
I understand it’s always going to be easier to post throwaway conversation around a result than actively move a model forward, or clean up data, or cooperatively investigate assumptions. But the commenters on Marginal Revolution and other blogs like it often would like to do more, it’s just that the web forces them to redo each other’s work at each stage of the conversation.
It’s hard to get people to see this. But given Picketty’s book was primarily about the data and the model lets imagine a different world, shall we?
When Matt sees it, he doesn’t read it in a book. He reads it online, in a framework like the data aware federated wiki. He forks a graph he’s interested in, and can click in immediately and see those assumptions. He edits those or modifies those in his forked version.
When a discussion happens about Krugman’s post, he writes a shorter explanation of what is wrong with Piketty and links to his forked model. People can immediately see what he did by looking at the assumptions. They can trace it back to Piketty’s page in the fork history, and see what he has changed and if he’s being intellectually honest. If he’s introduced minor issues, they can fork their own version and fix them.
At each stage, we keep the work done by the previous contributors fluid and editable. You can’t put out an argument without giving other the tools to prove you wrong. You disagree by trying to improve a model rather than defeat your opponents.
I don’t know what the future of federated wiki is. I really don’t. I think it could be huge, but it could also be just too hard for people to wrap their heads around.
But the point is that it asks and answers the right questions, and it shows what is very hard now could be very simple and fluid.
It’s great that this comment was able to move through tilde space to have impact on the real world. But when you look at the friction introduced every step of the way you realize this was the outlier.
What would happen if we increased the friction for making stupid throwaway comments and decreased the friction for advancing our collective knowledge through remix and cooperation? Not just with data, but in all realms and disciplines. What could we accomplish?
The Remix Hypothesis says we could accomplish an awful lot more than we are doing now. It says that for every Matt out there there were hundreds of people who had an insight, but not the time to get together the data. For every Marginal Revolution there were dozens of blogs that didn’t have the time or sense to see the value of the most important comment made on them becuase it required to much research, fact-checking or rework.
This is a triumphant story for the advocates of Connected Learning — publicize it! But it’s also a depressing insight in how far we have to go to make this sort of thing a more ordinary occurence.