Deep Thoughts, Privacy and Protection, Second Life

The General Theory of the Second Best

Only the second best will do for virtual environments like Second Life – or that according to Robert Bloomfield who closed last week’s Metanomics with a resounding call for complexity:

The bottom line is that we live in an imperfect world, and we will never eliminate all government regulation and other imperfections. The general theory of the second best tells us that we need to look at each regulation in all its messiness, in the context of the other regulations and imperfections we have to suffer.

So I’m not against freedom. I’m just skeptical of simple arguments. So those of you who want to maintain the highest degree of freedom in your virtual lives, your greatest degree of privacy, I applaud your sentiment. But take a lesson from Adam Thierer. Don’t just argue for freedom because freedom is good. Lay out the mechanisms by which your solution will lead to good outcomes, the tools and hard work people will need to undertake to make your view work. If you’re a fan of regulation, lay out in all its gory messiness how the regulation will work, how it will adapt to quickly changing technology.

Bottom line: I am a skeptic. I don’t believe people when they tell me that a new regulation will improve our lives, and I don’t believe people when they tell me that getting rid of an old regulation will improve our lives. At least, I don’t believe them if their arguments are simple. I want their arguments to be messy, complicated and uncertain. Because in the end, those are the arguments that are going to be least wrong.

Now, I agree in general: I often find myself fighting against dualism or black and white truths, because the interesting stuff is usually in the middle somewhere.

But the ‘general theory of the second best’ is hardly something to rally around. And simplicity and elegance are important because they give us a short-hand around which we can rally: simple rules of thumb or quick descriptions of world views. We can leave the complexity and obscure measurements to the economists and accountants, I suppose – and in the meantime keep our eyes open for false notes amongst the leaders who are able to articulate broad and often complex themes in one or two notes.

The challenge, as Bloomfield rightly points out, is to make sure there’s ’steak with the sizzle’ – to back up calls for content protection, for example, with the specifics for making it so. This doesn’t negate the need for big visions, but it aligns with a need to do more than vaguely talk about things like a ‘content protection road map’ and then forget to fill in the details. And on that point Bloomfield and I are in agreement: because without details they are, indeed, platitudes, and we deserve more than second best.


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