Clay Shirky on Powerlaws

Clay writes a excellent overview of some of the means for engineering the shape of the power-law curve. It’s nice to see another voice talking about that problem rather than just railing about the meer existance of the curve.

While I have a few minor quibbles with Clay’s posting I’m so pleased!. For example I’m pleased by his collection of examples of mechanisms people use to try and reshape the curve. A large collection of such mechanisms is key to informing a strong intuition about what you can do to fix extreme cases or inequality, failed growth, polarization, etc. One scale free network is not like another.

He misses the issue of how network design biases who will capture the new growth in the network – some designs encourage the emergence of a more egalitarian distribution.

He touches on the issue of volitility. This is a two edged sword; you want stablity – since network participants pay a cost to reshuffle the network – and you want moblity/oportunity. I believe, but I don’t have enough data or a reasonably model that the distribution of volitility in most of these networks is similar to that found in the distribution of firm sizes from year to year. Small firms change size a _lot_ more than large firms – it’s a double expodential. If that’s the right distribution for the volitility then the design problem is to manage the constants in that distirbution.

He provocatively introduces the idea that conservatives have a tolerance for inequality. I think that’s far too generous. I think that conservatives have an enthusiasm for inequality. That they believe that elite status is the rightous reward rather than a happen stance of system design. That a more severe slope to your power-law curve will drive people to increased striving and they are blind to the extent that a more egalitarian slope enables innovation, creation, diversity, and reduced social tension. Since what happens if you encourage diversity is the emergence of many many loosely joined power-law networks sorted out by different arts there is a deadly tendency of conservatives to encourage competititon between these arts that leads to a monotheistic world with a single dominate network and ranking.

That in turn brings me to the information issue. I wish Clay had mentioned that one way to reduce the slope of the curve is to improve the information available to the network members. That encourages members to link to things that are more diverse. I.e. the habit of linking to the “more popular blogs” is less egalitarian than the habit of linking to the “most popular blogs that discuss my interests.” You can’t do the latter if you don’t have good information.

There is a meta issue, like the one about how many networks you think exist about the size of your network/community. If you regulate your network; by increasing the information, innovation, limiting it’s upper or lower bounds, etc. etc. that implies you have drawn a boundry around it. That you have converted it from a public-good into a club-good. That you have given it a cell membrane. You can do that with pricing, certification, etc. etc. You can’t ignore these membranes.

I was surprised that he doesn’t use the word innovation, he has before, to talk about one of the goals of your network design.

0 thoughts on “Clay Shirky on Powerlaws

  1. Clay Shirky

    “He provocatively introduces the idea that conservatives have a tolerance for inequality. I think that’s far too generous. I think that conservatives have an enthusiasm for inequality.”

    Well, I take your point, but don’t mistake the current political situation for a permanent pattern. The Berkeley study from which that claim was drawn (http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2003/07/22_politics.shtml) was really studying conservative views, not Republican ones.

    And if they’re right, then the growing body of evidence that says that a certain kind of inequality is inevitable will have a similar effect in the political domain as the telescope did in the religious one: whole bodies of current political thought are going to be revealed to be measurably false.

    And though I’m on the Dean advisory team, I also recognize that most of the willful equation of inequality with unfairness is on the leftish end of the political scale.

  2. Lindon

    “a more egalitarian slope enables innovation, creation, diversity, and reduced social tension”

    ..and innovation is the important issue here I think. Umair Haque over at Bubble Generation (http://www.bubblegeneration.com/) spends a fair amount of time examining the commercial implications of falling innovation (eg the toy industry) to great effect (well I find it interesting anyway).

    Clay points out an interesting tension on the left of politics between the “powerlaw reality” and oft-proposed left-wing interventionist management especially when considered with these issues of stiffled commercial innovation. Umair seems to think the USA is going to take a beating soon if it doesn’t get its innovation-act together this may in the end force a change in the thinking on the right of politics as much as on the left.

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