Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.
.. In the mid-90s, I got a call from some friends at ATT, asking me to help them research the nascent web-hosting business. They thought ATT’s famous “five 9’s” reliability (services that work 99.999% of the time) would be valuable, but they couldn’t figure out how $20 a month, then the going rate, could cover the costs for good web hosting, much less leave a profit.
I started describing the web hosting I’d used, including the process of developing web sites locally, uploading them to the server, and then checking to see if anything had broken.
“But if you don’t have a staging server, you’d be changing things on the live site!” They explained this to me in the tone you’d use to explain to a small child why you don’t want to drink bleach. “Oh yeah, it was horrible”, I said. “Sometimes the servers would crash, and we’d just have to re-boot and start from scratch.” There was a long silence on the other end, the silence peculiar to conference calls when an entire group stops to think.
The ATT guys had correctly understood that the income from $20-a-month customers wouldn’t pay for good web hosting. What they hadn’t understood, were in fact professionally incapable of understanding, was that the industry solution, circa 1996, was to offer hosting that wasn’t very good.
This, for the ATT guys, wasn’t depressing so much as confusing. We finished up the call, and it was polite enough, but it was perfectly clear that there wasn’t going to be a consulting gig out of it, because it wasn’t a market they could get into, not because they didn’t want to, but because they couldn’t.
.. The web hosting business, because it followed the “Simplicity first, quality later” model, didn’t just present a new market, it required new cultural imperatives.
.. “If you want something to be 10 times cheaper, take out 90% of the materials.” Making media is like that now except, for “materials”, substitute “labor.”
“Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, or else we will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have grown accustomed to making it. And we don’t know how to do that.”
… Bureaucracies temporarily suspend the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In a bureaucracy, it’s easier to make a process more complex than to make it simpler, and easier to create a new burden than kill an old one.
In spring of 2007, the web video comedy In the Motherhood made the move to TV. In the Motherhood started online as a series of short videos, with viewers contributing funny stories from their own lives and voting on their favorites. This tactic generated good ideas at low cost as well as endearing the show to its viewers; the show’s tag line was “By Moms, For Moms, About Moms.”
.. Once the show moved to television, the Writers Guild of America got involved. They were OK with For and About Moms, but By Moms violated Guild rules. The producers tried to negotiate, to no avail, so the idea of audience engagement was canned
.. The most watched minute of video made in the last five years shows baby Charlie biting his brother’s finger. (Twice!) That minute has been watched by more people than the viewership of American Idol, Dancing With The Stars, and the Superbowl combined. (174 million views and counting.)
.. “Charlie Bit My Finger” was made by amateurs, in one take, with a lousy camera. No professionals were involved in selecting or editing or distributing it. Not one dime changed hands anywhere between creator, host, and viewers.
.. it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.
Two decades ago, the US intelligence community worked closely with Silicon Valley in an effort to track citizens in cyberspace. And Google is at the heart of that origin story. Some of the research that led to Google’s ambitious creation was funded and coordinated by a research group established by the intelligence community to find ways to track individuals and groups online.
The intelligence community hoped that the nation’s leading computer scientists could take non-classified information and user data, combine it with what would become known as the internet, and begin to create for-profit, commercial enterprises to suit the needs of both the intelligence community and the public. They hoped to direct the supercomputing revolution from the start in order to make sense of what millions of human beings did inside this digital information network. That collaboration has made a comprehensive public-private mass surveillance state possible today.
.. It is a somewhat different creation story than the one the public has heard, and explains what Google cofounders Sergey Brin and Larry Page set out to build, and why.
.. The intelligence community wanted to shape Silicon Valley’s supercomputing efforts at their inception so they would be useful for both military and homeland security purposes. Could this supercomputing network, which would become capable of storing terabytes of information, make intelligent sense of the digital trail that human beings leave behind?
.. the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA) had come to realize that their future was likely to be profoundly shaped outside the government. It was at a time when military and intelligence budgets within the Clinton administration were in jeopardy, and the private sector had vast resources at their disposal. If the intelligence community wanted to conduct mass surveillance for national security purposes, it would require cooperation between the government and the emerging supercomputing companies.
.. To do this, they began reaching out to the scientists at American universities
.. There was already a long history of collaboration between America’s best scientists and the intelligence community, from the creation of the atomic bomb and satellite technology to efforts to put a man on the moon.
.. Silicon Valley was no different. By the mid 1990s, the intelligence community was seeding funding to the most promising supercomputing efforts across academia, guiding the creation of efforts to make massive amounts of information useful for both the private sector as well as the intelligence community.
They funded these computer scientists through an unclassified, highly compartmentalized program that was managed for the CIA and the NSA by large military and intelligence contractors. It was called the Massive Digital Data Systems (MDDS) project.
.. MDDS was introduced to several dozen leading computer scientists at Stanford, CalTech, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Harvard, and others in a white paper that described what the CIA, NSA, DARPA, and other agencies hoped to achieve.
.. the program’s stated aim was to provide more than a dozen grants of several million dollars each to advance this research concept. The grants were to be directed largely through the NSF so that the most promising, successful efforts could be captured as intellectual property and form the basis of companies attracting investments from Silicon Valley.
.. Today, the NSF provides nearly 90% of all federal funding for university-based computer-science research.
.. The research arms of the CIA and NSA hoped that the best computer-science minds in academia could identify what they called “birds of a feather:” Just as geese fly together in large V shapes, or flocks of sparrows make sudden movements together in harmony, they predicted that like-minded groups of humans would move together online.
.. Their research aim was to track digital fingerprints inside the rapidly expanding global information network, which was then known as the World Wide Web. Could an entire world of digital information be organized so that the requests humans made inside such a network be tracked and sorted? Could their queries be linked and ranked in order of importance? Could “birds of a feather” be identified inside this sea of information so that communities and groups could be tracked in an organized way?
.. The primary objective of this grant was “query optimization of very complex queries that are described using the ‘query flocks’ approach.” A second grant—the DARPA-NSF grant most closely associated with Google’s origin—was part of a coordinated effort to build a massive digital library using the internet as its backbone.
.. Human beings and like-minded groups who might pose a threat to national security can be uniquely identified online before they do harm. This explains why the intelligence community found Brin’s and Page’s research efforts so appealing
.. The two intelligence-community managers charged with leading the program met regularly with Brin as his research progressed, and he was an author on several other research papers that resulted from this MDDS grant before he and Page left to form Google.
The grants allowed Brin and Page to do their work and contributed to their breakthroughs in web-page ranking and tracking user queries. Brin didn’t work for the intelligence community—or for anyone else. Google had not yet been incorporated. He was just a Stanford researcher taking advantage of the grant provided by the NSA and CIA through the unclassified MDDS program.
.. The MDDS research effort has never been part of Google’s origin story, even though the principal investigator for the MDDS grant specifically named Google as directly resulting from their research: “Its core technology, which allows it to find pages far more accurately than other search engines, was partially supported by this grant,” he wrote. In a published research paper that includes some of Brin’s pivotal work, the authors also reference the NSF grant that was created by the MDDS program.
NSF likewise only references the digital libraries grant, not the MDDS grant as well, in its own history of Google’s origin.
.. But the grant from the intelligence community’s MDDS program—specifically designed for the breakthrough that Google was built upon—has faded into obscurity.
.. Brin’s breakthrough research on page ranking by tracking user queries and linking them to the many searches conducted—essentially identifying “birds of a feather”—was largely the aim of the intelligence community’s MDDS program. And Google succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
.. most people still don’t understand the degree to which the intelligence community relies on the world’s biggest science and tech companies for its counter-terrorism and national-security work.
.. in the most recent reporting period between 2016 and 2017, local, state and federal government authorities seeking information related to national security, counter-terrorism or criminal concerns issued more than 260,000 subpoenas, court orders, warrants, and other legal requests to Verizon, more than 250,000 such requests to AT&T, and nearly 24,000 subpoenas, search warrants, or court orders to Google.
.. In this way, the collaboration between the intelligence community and big, commercial science and tech companies has been wildly successful. When national security agencies need to identify and track people and groups, they know where to turn – and do so frequently. That was the goal in the beginning. It has succeeded perhaps more than anyone could have imagined at the time.
The future of AT&T could be shaped by two big decisions in Washington this week, with the Justice Department suing the telecom giant on Monday to block its $85 billion purchase of Time Warner and the Federal Communications Commission announcing a plan Tuesday to roll back net neutrality rules, handing a big win to Internet providers.
.. If it wins its antitrust case against the DOJ, AT&T could buy Time Warner without offering any concessions to the government. It could then benefit from the repeal of the government’s net neutrality rules, allowing it to leverage Time Warner’s massive library of shows, television stations and films like few other companies.
- Some, such as May, argued that the loosened regulations would allow AT&T to market Time Warner’s content in new and different ways that could theoretically help Americans.
- Others argue that the combination of a bigger AT&T with a more relaxed regulatory environment could simply increase the firm’s incentives to harm competitors in the marketplace.
.. “One can’t imagine that there are any broadband providers who would be eager to test the limits of what is now allowable under this regulatory regime, given the enormous risk of popular and/or regulatory or legislative backlash,” said Moffett.
.. the combined company could use its newfound control over HBO, CNN and TNT
.. AT&T’s chief executive Randall Stephenson has said that the goal of purchasing Time Warner is to build an advertising behemoth that can compete with Google and Facebook.
.. “The problem from the point of view of DOJ is that if the deal is approved, it will be very hard to police any commitment
.. “The record of such commitments is very poor. The companies do whatever they want. And that’s well understood by everybody.”
“The arithmetic for us is simple,” AT&T’s chief executive, Randall Stephenson, said on CNBC in May. If Congress were to cut the 35 percent tax on corporate profits to 20 percent, he declared, “I know exactly what AT&T would do — we’d invest more” in the United States.
Every $1 billion in tax savings would create 7,000 well-paying jobs, Mr. Stephenson went on to say. The correlation between lower corporate taxes and more jobs, he assured viewers, runs “very, very tight.”
.. this bold jobs claim merits examination. Notably, it comes from the chief executive of a company that’s already paying comparatively little in federal taxes.
.. According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, AT&T enjoyed an effective tax rate of just 8 percent between 2008 and 2015, despite recording a profit in the United States each year, by exploiting tax breaks and loopholes.
.. the company, by our analysis at the Institute for Policy Studies, reduced its total work force by nearly 80,000 jobs between 2008 and 2016
.. The company has also spent $34 billion repurchasing its own stock since 2008
.. This is money that could have gone toward research and development or hiring.
.. Because most executive compensation these days is based on stock value, higher share prices can raise the compensation of chief executives and other top company officials.
.. If claims about the job-creation benefits of lower tax rates had any validity, these 92 consistently profitable firms would be among the nation’s strongest job creators. Instead, we found just the opposite.
.. American multinationals hold $2.6 trillion in profits “offshore,” on which they would owe $750 billion in federal taxes if the money was repatriated.