What are markets, really?

I just finished a book called Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities Are Changing the WorldIt’s an interesting book; I learned a lot from it, although I don’t agree with everything that he says (he has both a weirdly rosy view of certain cities, and a weirdly pessimistic view of the broader situation). The section of the book that I ultimately found most thought-provoking is part of a short preface to the section about Chicago where he introduces what he thinks a market is. I’m going to quote that five-paragraph section (pp. 254-255) almost in its entirety here because of how much it interested me.

It’s best to be clear about what we mean when we talk about a market. A market can be simply understood as a regular, patterned set of transactions between a group of buyers and sellers, which results in the predictable exchange of some mutually recognized value. That’s how we normally think about markets. This makes markets seem like generic exchange mechanisms but markets are anything but [sic].

The different markets within a city — whether for fish, houses, parking spaces, or engineering contracts — are defined by local and regional customs, laws, conventions, infrastructure, and spatial relationships. Many different forces in the city, not just its buyers and sellers, shape how each market works. In turn, each market determines which business models can thrive in a city. By constraining the types of business models that succeed in a city, a market also shapes the way the city itself develops….At their most mature stage of development, different local markets cluster activities together to create unique efficiencies and synergies in the physical form of a citysystem.

To explore the local character of markets, take the example of housing in a residential neighborhood. Theoretically, the housing market involves a generic product unit, a square foot of living space. The price for that unit is determined by supply, demand, and the cost of its production….But in reality, the nature of the product, its value on the market, and how the transaction is managed are all determined by dozens of local cultural, political, legal, and institutional factors. The cultural or social background of neighbors determines whether a home in this neighborhood secures a premium price. It also determines the allowable activities and income that can be derived from the building, such as whether an owner can operate a home business or rent units. Political and legal factors determine whether and how the building can be expanded on its lot and how much it will cost to do so….Institutional factors determine the availability and cost of finance, or whether owners have to look after their own water and sanitation services. These factors are part and parcel of the residential housing market. They greatly determine its prices and the nature of the building, its ownership structure, liquidity, and sales transactions. These local factors are not separable from the market. They define and govern it as much as the market governs the moments and ways that a city can pursue transformational change. To the extent that a city can shape its markets, it can also shape its own development.

Local markets are also socially regulated, even in free market economies. There are vast differences between the forms that a particular market takes in different cities….Each distinct market uses different buildings, supports different activities, and produces different externalities, such as waste streams and noise. These condition arise from historical compromises between different ethnic and economic groups and from political accommodations to religious, mercantile, labor, and government institutions. Conceiving a market that is void of culture, historical conventions, and institutions is a truly academic or ideological exercise.

To the extent that we manage national economies and multinational companies without reference to the diverse, evolving urban markets on which they stand, we welcome a world of economic surprise.

As with some of the other writing, this gets a bit incoherent in parts, but the basic notion here that even a free market is necessarily governed by its cultural, social, and institutional context is interesting to me. I generally tend to be a bit more of a free marketeer than a lot of people who are otherwise politically similar to me, and I often start my thinking about an economic issue from the basic idea that the cost of something is largely governed by supply and demand. When supply is low, and demand is high (see: Portland real estate right now) the price rises, and interfering in that process (by introducing rent control, for example) may have undesirable results by creating strange economic distortions. Brugmann’s contention, if I understand his argument here, is that a citysystem is necessarily an active participant in creating the conditions of a market, and reacting to them (as Portland City Council is currently being asked to do) is only changing the way that they are influencing them, rather than introducing a previously absent influence, and may be quite desirable from the standpoint of the wider well-being and economic dynamism of the city.

The concept Brugmann is illustrating of course has much wider applicability than Portland’s current housing crisis or even than real estate, but it’s a convenient example of why I was struck by this passage and wanted to pull it out for later, deeper consideration. My current conception of “free market” seems to be lazy and imprecise, and I’d like to think about how revising it would improve my understanding of the economic systems in cities, and especially the role of government, citizens, and culture in driving them.

Twitter and context collapse

Returning to a theme I’ve explored previously, I recently encountered two pieces about Twitter and context:

Justine Sacco is good at her job, and how I came to peace with her
Forced context collapse or the right to hide in plain sight

The two pieces explore different aspects of the theme, but both of them are partially about what I’ve previously called notability (see more thoughts on this in part II). Notability makes the likelihood of context collapse — things you do or say in one social context (where you might have many meaning cues) percolating out to others (where you often don’t) — much higher.

Twitter makes content produced by millions of different people both publicly-available (if not publicly-owned) and accessible (there’s that notion of accessibility again). Reporters then pick and choose from that content to create stories. Sometimes they create scandal sensations like Biddle did with Sacco. He was able to do that because he didn’t have any context for what she wrote, and without context, it could be read as being horrible. Almost all of us, from time to time, say things that can be read this way (as the author of the article later found out, when he did it). Sometimes we say them in the safety of a context that doesn’t collapse easily.

Sometimes we forget, and we say them in a medium where context collapses are easy. As Tressie’s piece points out, whether journalists have a legal or moral right to take advantage of this — either to do quality reporting, as I’m sure many of them do, or to create scandals or quick-and-easy thinkpieces or funny articles/listicles (ala Buzzfeed) is a somewhat complex question. One of the things that Tressie’s piece seems to be asking, to me, is whether journalists have the moral right to make someone notable, either at all, or because of something they did or said on Twitter. Do we have the right to hide in plain sight? We have difficulty having good conversations about this because of the slipperiness of the language around it, the issue I tried to address when writing my posts, and an issue that Tressie also raises in her tripartite division of the question: legal authority, moral authority, and economic responsibility.

Notability is an interesting part of that area of inquiry, because journalists often make people notable (although of course a lot of the time they merely write about people who are already notable). But usually in the past, you had some idea that you were about to become notable, because they wrote a story about you or about an issue you were highly involved in, interviewed you or at least asked you to review it…all those things journalists usually do when they do stories about or heavily involving people. Even so, sudden notability in the era of the Internet can have effects people don’t anticipate. But what if you have no idea you’re about to become notable? I wouldn’t be too surprised if my Twitter feed contains things I wouldn’t really want broadcast to the world, in spite of the fact that technically speaking I did broadcast them to the world. The context of people who read my Twitter feed is small (425 accounts right now, according to my widget) and it’s biased toward people I personally know, and who therefore have some idea of what I’m like, and what kinds of things I’m likely to say and think. People who can guess whether I’m being ironic.

To quote Tressie:

I sign up for Twitter assuming the ability to hide in plain sight when my amplification power is roughly equal to a few million other non-descript [sic] content producers. Media amplification changes that assumption and can do so without my express permission.

When I’m unnotable, my content being both publicly-available and easily accessible doesn’t matter. If I suddenly become notable, it does. If I make myself notable or embark on an activity likely to make me notable, that’s one thing — I have the chance to consider the possibility of context collapse before I experience it. If someone else does it for me, using their power they strip me of the chance to consider that it might not be possible anymore for me to hide in plain sight (a description I like for what it means to be unnotable). And not only journalists do this but other private citizens (Gamergate harassment being one of the hugely scary examples of this recently).

What happened here, I think, is that we all (by which I mean, anyone who publishes their thoughts on the Internet such that they’re publicly available) became published authors, at the same time as it became far easier to spread published information (and the two changes are obviously closely intertwined). Any published author has always been at risk of this type of stripping of context since their words can be taken out of their original work and quoted and spread. When becoming an author was a process, becoming notable was a known possible (and maybe often desired) quality of it. Now that it’s not much of a process, most of us just aren’t thinking of the possible consequences when we undertake it.

Even more stickily, it’s frequently legal to republish something published, under the doctrine of fair use, although it depends on what use you’re putting it to exactly. More practically, it’s very difficult to get people to stop doing that once they start, if the content generates a strong social reaction. If someone takes a tweet of mine and publishes it in a related news story, how likely am I to get it taken out? Not freaking very. This story chronicles one photographer’s attempt to get Buzzfeed to compensate him for use of a copyrighted photo. It was a lot of effort, and that’s a case where it’s much clearer that the site needs to get permission (because it’s a full reproduction of a copyrighted piece of content for commercial gain, and because licensing terms on Flickr are more clearly spelled out than they are for tweets).

We don’t have an existing legal right, that I know of, to hide in plain sight unless we consent to fame. I’m not even sure it’s possible to create one, let alone desirable, because the problem here isn’t really legal, it’s social. But considering the possible consequences, maybe we should at least be talking about it.

Mees 3: Have your cake and eat it too?

The quote that first caught my eye from this chapter was:

However, the same citizens who are most concerned about sustainable transport are often the fiercest defenders of leafy, low-rise neighborhoods.

This is a particularly pertinent note for Portland, especially right now in light of the discussion around the code allowing developers to build apartment buildings without on-site auto parking (one of which I’ll soon be living in!). These buildings, which allow greater density and improved urban form, including a better pedestrian environment without ugly parking lot gaps and ‘blank faces’ on buildings, are fiercely opposed by inner SE homeowners who believe it destroys the character of their neighborhood and clogs their streets. (Let’s leave aside for now that the former is completely subjective and the latter is false based on research by the city.)

These same neighbors, to stereotype just a little, also recycle, compost, shop at New Seasons, have chickens in their backyards, collect water in rainbarrels, buy Priuses, and have a school in their midst called the Sunnyside Environmental School…in short, they care about the earth on a personal level. But heaven forfend someone should try to change the development pattern so that it’s better for long-term sustainability. That, to them, is “like a rape.” (Yes, someone really said that, and yes, it makes me want to throw up.)

So, are these neighbors super lucky? Yes they are. Because Mr. Mees is here to tell us that you can have your leafy low-rise neighborhoods and your public transit too, if you design your transit cleverly!

The bulk of the chapter is devoted to dissing other possible solutions, like road pricing and electric cars. He’s unsurprisingly down on electric cars, saying:

The global effect of a large shift to electric cars would be to increase greenhouse emissions, since coal is still the main source of power.

He’s also surprisingly down on road pricing, saying that while it’s been a modest success in reducing car travel into city centers, it motivates people who can afford it to continue to drive, because they can just buy their way out of congestion. If you can’t buy your way out of congestion, you just have to live with it, and you’re more likely to actually seek out alternatives.

Vancouver reduced journey times by promoting congestion, while the other Canadian cities increased them by planning for higher speeds.

This is also pertinent for Portland, since our land-use rules and urban growth boundary tend to create greater congestion within the boundary, but they also shorten journeys, leading to an overall reduction in travel times. Vancouver saw the same effect, simply by failing to build more roads further out — when congestion is a factor in the central city, people choose to live closer in and select transportation alternatives. So even though my life would be easier if we could clear out some of the cars from downtown at 5pm, maybe I shouldn’t really be wishing for that — unless it’s because they’re riding bikes instead.

Finally, Mees tars public transit with some of the same brush as cars, particularly low-occupancy buses:

A bus with half a dozen passengers will be no more efficient, in greenhouse terms, than if the passengers travelled in cars at average occupanies…Walking and cycling produce no greenhouse emissions and are the only truly sustainable travel modes.

I’m with him there, but only up to a point. Jarrett has made a case that the purpose of public transit is to extend the reach of the walk, and if walking and cycling are the primary local modes, public transit is the necessary long distance complement unless you want to have tiny towns and cities, and also keep everyone’s car in a giant lot on the edge of the city, which sounds pretty expensive and dumb to me.

So, we can have our leafy low-rise neighborhood and our public transit too, but we can’t have our auto incentives and our transit incentives too:

The only way to produce mode shift is to combine transit incentives with auto disincentives.

Ten is cool, seven is cool

Xtracycle on Twitter today pointed me to a great blog post from Doug about his seven years as a car-free commuter (in Minnesota, no less).

I mentioned to someone recently that it’s been nearly ten years since I owned a car. (Actually, I’m not sure I ever technically owned a car, since the car I drove in high school most likely still belonged to my parents at the time that I was driving it. But I was its primary driver.) I hadn’t realized it had been that long until I thought back over it and remembered that the accident that totaled our 1987 Acura Legend happened in August of 1999, and it’s now August of 2009.

I don’t think my story is as impressive as Doug’s. For most of the time, I haven’t lived anywhere with an icy/snowy winter, and I haven’t bike-commuted to work every day. First I lived on campus at Rice for two years, then rode a mile or two on my bike each day from the Violin House* to campus, then went back to living on campus for a year. One summer I borrowed a friend’s car.**

For the summer after college, I drove the family car when I went to work or out. Then I lived in Edinburgh, Scotland, within 15 minutes walk of the Linguistics building at the university, for two years. Edinburgh has an excellent bus system which I frequently took advantage of, or I walked a lot; I didn’t ride during those years. (Cycle on the left side? No way! :)

When I came back, I drove the family car again for a few months before I moved to the Bay Area. In the Bay Area, I starting cycling again, often to work (and even in winter rains), but I usually took the train part of the way. I frequently rode along with other people in cars to get places that had proven to be annoying or impossible to get to via transit or cycling.

Now, in Portland, I walk and ride the bus a lot as well as cycling, and I (finally) have access to Zipcar. I’m not a frequent user, but it’s nice to know I can haul stuff or drive to remote destinations myself, without depending on the kindness of others. Of course, if I had an Xtracycle I could do more hauling, but I don’t see hauling four kitchen chairs even with an Xtracycle. I love Zipcar for being 90% of what Doug describes a car as:

Even though I didn’t drive much, having a vehicle sitting there, just in case I needed it, provided my mind with a feeling of security. It provided a mode of transportation that was convenient, easy, and available all the time. Peace of mind.

Zipcar claims that each of their cars takes 20 cars off the road (they ask when you sign up if you will be getting rid of your car). Pretty amazing, and a great way forward for letting go of your car without letting go of all that peace of mind.

Even though I’m much more impressed by Doug than I am by myself, I don’t think this is a contest of who’s the most impressive. I certainly don’t do it to prove anything or make milestones, and he clearly doesn’t either. We’re both happier when we’re not behind the steering wheel of a car, and for me that is and will always be the main reason I don’t drive much. I hope in ten years I’ll still be car-free and that even more people will find it a viable option for themselves, and discover their joy in a different kind of freedom from the kind a personal motor vehicle offers.

* The house in West U I lived in during my junior year of college. With a lot of violinists, hence the name.
** Partly as a favor to him so he didn’t have to drive it back to Oregon. And I locked myself out of it once — in the middle of Tropical Storm Allison.

Privacy, etc. II

I got some offline feedback on my last entry, with the effect that I rethought a few things. Here are some of the new thoughts:

Anonymity. The way I defined this previously was “being out in public without being notable”. This isn’t a very good definition, because, as Gavin pointed out, anonymity actually has a more technical definition that’s important to preserve, namely: being in public without being known. So works of art can be anonymous, in that they are well-known but no one knows who made them (they are completely unsigned). Or a person can be anonymous by being in disguise or otherwise completely unrecognized. Or information can be made anonymous, “unconnected to an identity”, by purging it of identifying information, like aggregated web search data unconnected to IP address or other similar identifiers.

Gavin suggested that the concept I defined previously could be described as being “unnotable” or “unnoticed”. Perhaps a better word is needed, but having both concepts is certainly more useful.

Another concept that I didn’t define explicitly, but left under the umbrella of privacy, is pseudonymity. This is a very important concept in modern web communications since so much information these days is attached to usernames. When is a pseudonym truly unconnected to a person’s “real identity”? This can be a challenge to determine, and a lot of pseudonymous information is poorly protected because of subtle identifiers in the information or interconnection between pseudonymous information and information filed under a “real name”; it can also become an issue when pseudonym or username is used for multiple sites, services, or types of works. It’s often easier to find a person’s data on the web once you know one of their common usernames than it is when you know their name. Usernames are, by their nature as keys to a specific record, more unique than names.

I also am not that fond of my definition of notability. It doesn’t seem to me to require numbers, but only a certain level of significant interest. However, that’s pretty hard to describe and define.

Finally, Dave wrote me an extensive discussion of yet another concept relating to accessibility: risk.
Risk is what you have when information is accessible to some people, but not others, because there’s a risk of failure of the safeguards that prevent it from being accessible to everyone (loss or deliberate breakage), as well as a risk of legal decision that the safeguards must be removed (search warrants, subpoenas).

Dave sums his discussion up thus: “Heightened accessibility, even if it is well-understood under normal conditions, still creates the prospect of lowered privacy.”

This is, I think, one of the big deals about accessibility that makes people pitch a fit about sudden increases in it.

Privacy, Accessibility, and Notability

As a result of some long-ago and more recent conversations with smart friends of mine, I came up with some interesting thoughts about privacy.

I don’t fully understand the legal umbrella of privacy, but it seems to me that there are a few distinct concepts that it would be useful to introduce into quasi-legal/common-sense discussions of privacy, and potentially to the legal arena too, in the long run.

First, a brief rundown of the concepts, before we get into their interactions and complications.

Privacy. Things that are private are things that you do on private property not visible from a public space, or public spaces where you have “a reasonable expectation of privacy”, and that you don’t speak or publish about in publicly-accessible forums — or if you do, those forums are specifically unconnected to your “real identity”. Also, things are private which are defined by law to be private, but that’s less important here than the nontechnical definition.

Accessibility (or Ease of Access). Things that are accessible are things that are easy for the average person or user to find. This is not a great term because “accessible” also has a technical binary definition related to privacy: if information is not at all accessible, it is private. But bear with me for a while, and suggest a better word if you have one.

Notability. Things that are notable are things that a substantial percentage of people (in the whole population or some subgroup) is interested in knowing about.

Anonymity. Being out in public without being notable.

The complexities of online “privacy” often come up when something besides privacy is involved, namely accessibility or notability. In my old journal, I wrote an entry about Google Street View (and Facebook News Feed, to some extent) in which I used the terms “theoretical privacy” and “actual privacy” rather than using the word “accessibility”, although I did notice, on re-reading the comments, that I start to talk about information being “(easily) accessible”.

GSV and FNF are iconic examples of things that “raised privacy concerns” without actually doing anything to change whether information was private or not. All the information on GSV and FNF was always available (to anyone who set foot in a place, in the case of GSV, and to anyone who previously had access to the info, in the case of FNF). What they did do was make it incredibly easy to find things out that previously had required a lot of effort to find out: what a place looks like at ground level, and what your friends are doing on Facebook. So the information became accessible (in the sense defined above) where before it had been inaccessible.

Notability is implicated in most problems where accessibility becomes an issue. If information is not notable (no one is really interested in knowing it), it doesn’t matter if it is easily accessible or not: no one cares, either way. Dave sent me a link today (which spawned this whole thought process on my part) about a guy whose information suddenly became notable. The guy didn’t mind, but it gave him pause for thought, as I’m sure it would most of us.

In the FNF and GSV cases, nothing became differently notable, just differently (more easily) accessible. This is closer to a form of privacy loss, because it makes something notable easier to find, and if something notable is found, you have much easier access to it. BoingBoing readers had many things to say about it, some of them wondering if we need new laws, or a new area of law, to deal with accessibility of information, since it isn’t covered by traditional privacy law.

Personal conduct in public, combined with YouTube and other video-upload services, illustrates a different set of circumstances. Most of us who live in largish urban areas, most of the time we’re in public, are anonymous: out in public without anyone particularly caring who we are. We feel restricted in our activities by our visibility, but don’t need to worry very much about anyone caring what we’re up to, even if we’re eating cookies when we’re supposed to be on a diet, or smoking when we said we quit. The situation isn’t the same in smaller communities, of course. In small communities, it’s hard to be out in public without being known.

Even in larger communities, recording and uploading a person’s behavior to a video site like YouTube makes it more accessible, but doesn’t necessarily make it more notable (consider all the incredibly boring YouTube videos that no one watches). Likewise, a person’s behavior becoming an object of attention/controversy would make it more notable but not more accessible: you’d still have to actually find the person to see what they were doing. When you get the simultaneous combination of accessibility and notability, you get something like the recent BART shooting video + controversy or the Caltrain cyclist arrest. But another worrying situation is when something goes up earlier, and then later becomes notable (like the guy’s photos as linked above, or like Facebook photos of undergrads drinking which get them in trouble).

How do we live our lives in a world that is increasingly a participatory panopticon? How do we act in public? What do we publicize and what do we keep private when things could become far more accessible or notable in the future than we ever imagined?

Two things that are fantastic

I’ve had kind of a crazy week — maybe kind of a crazy month, really — and two things this week were particularly fantastic:

Dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes from Ella Bella Farm

These tomatoes are expensive compared to most of the heirlooms and organic tomatoes at the Menlo Park Farmer’s Market — they cost I think $3 or $3.50 a pound. But they are SO WORTH IT. OMG. They are fantastic and amazing and so flavorful and with great structure and they are great alone or in tomato-basil-mozzarella sandwiches and they pep up anything they are in, making a salad into a fun hunt-the-tomatoes experience.

XKCD Store‘s customer service

A while back I ordered the Regular Expressions shirt from the XKCD store and I got it when I got back from Portland, but I hadn’t worn it until this week (everyone at work loves it, incidentally). When I did I found a small hole in the shirt. I wrote to the XKCD store person saying, hey, I found this hole, I don’t think I made it but I can’t be sure, and they said, basically, “No worries! We’ll send you a new shirt right away! Feel free to keep the old one!” How awesome is that? Love.

Wall-E should probably make this list too, because it is really sweet and funny and I liked it a lot, but foodie geek that I am, the other two things actually make me happier. Tomatoes and XKCD FTW.