It’s tax season! At least, for those of us in the US. If you’re reading this, you probably have to pay taxes. You don’t have a choice; it’s required by law. Beyond taxes though, how you manage your money is up to you. You can invest in the stock market, for example, but you could also buy bonds, or real estate or pork belly futures or Bitcoin. Stocks are strictly optional.
Required and optional may seem to cover all the bases, but there’s actually a third class of activities. Take credit cards. They’re not required by any law, natural or man-made. You can survive without them – I’ve done it – but it’s a pretty limited life. Modern society takes them for granted more and more every day. Ever tried to buy a plane ticket with cash? It’s not easy. Travelling in general is difficult, as is building a credit rating. Participating in the Internet is basically impossible. Even I couldn’t truly escape credit cards; I just used disposable ones that didn’t need any of my personal information. Credit cards aren’t explicitly required these days, but they might as well be.
Don’t worry, this isn’t yet another privacy rant or fake credit card scheme. Instead, I’d like to talk about this illusion of choice, these de facto requirements that are optional in theory but not in practice. This problem is known as the No Network Effect, a term Moxie Marlinspike popularized in his talk at Defcon 18.
[Mobile] phones have changed the way that people make plans. It used to be…“I’ll meet you on the street corner at this time and we’ll go somewhere.” And now, people say “I’ll call you when I’m getting off work.” So if you don’t have that piece of technology, you can’t participate in the way the society is communicating or coordinating. And so what actually ends up happening is now if I decide that I don’t want to participate in this codified communications channel, I’m victim to the ‘No Network Effect’, because I’m trying to be a part of a network that has been destroyed, that no longer exists.
So yes, I made a choice to have a cell phone. But what kind of choice did I make? And I think that this is the way that things tend to go now. What ends up happening is the choices start out very simple. Do I have a piece of consumer electronics in my pocket or not? And over time, the scope of that choice slowly expands until it becomes a choice to participate in society or not.
Did you catch that last part? The choices start out very simple…but over time…they expand until they become a choice to participate in society or not. That’s the essence of the no network effect. These de facto requirements are an insidious set of shadow laws, as powerful as real laws but exempt from the checks and balances and public discourse inherent to representative democracy.
Once [an] innovation has been introduced, people usually become more dependent on it, unless it is replaced by some still more advanced innovation. Not only do people become dependent as individuals on a new item of technology, but even more, the system as a whole becomes dependent on it. When a new item…is introduced as an option that an individual can accept or not as he chooses, it does not necessarily REMAIN optional. In many cases the new technology changes society in such a way that people eventually find themselves FORCED to use it.
To be clear, neither Marlinspike nor Kaczynski see conspiracies here. De facto requirements don’t usually have power-hungry tycoons pulling the strings behind the scenes. People may take advantage of them to profit, or gain power, but that’s about as sinister as it gets. Hell, most of the time we don’t even see them coming. For every Facebook with a Mark Zuckerberg at the helm hoping for a billion users, there are ten innovations just as big that no one expected to change the world. The inventors behind the printing press, electricity, automobiles, the Internet, and cell phones all aimed them at niche markets. Their ubiquity was unplanned.
This makes the no network effect all the more insidious. If it was just a few bad apples creating de facto requirements, we could throw them in jail. More likely, if it was a bad system, or bad incentives, we could push for reform. The culprit isn’t any of those, though; it’s progress itself. We’re constantly coming up with new innovations, discarding the ones we don’t like and adopting the ones we do. Short of bombing everyone back to the stone age, there’s no good way to stop progress.
There’s another problem too. By way of comparison, laws are the main kind of explicit requirements. They have their flaws, but they also have a powerful strength: they promote dialog. When Congress considers passing a new bill, we know we’ll have to obey it, so we have a vested interest in it. We pay attention, we debate, we lobby our representatives, we vote for candidates who promise to vote for it or against it.
The no network effect is different. When we talk about the drawbacks of credit cards, or cell phones, or any de facto requirement, someone always says “If you don’t like it, don’t get one. No one’s making you,” and with one fell swoop, they’ve taken the teeth out of the debate. We nod sagely at the wisdom of paying the entire balance each month, or muting our phone to focus on people we care about, but we never return to the question of whether to adopt in the first place. That question is dead. “No one’s making you” killed it.
Occasionally, we meet someone who cut up all of their credit cards, or never got a cell phone, and there’s a flurry of excitement. “Wow, that’s so cool!” “I’ve always wanted to do that.” “Is it the privacy thing?” “Are you trying to avoid debt?” The no network effect may get a brief nod, but it soon gives way to logistics. “Wait, so how do you do reserve a hotel room?” “I could give up my phone, except for texting.” “Have you heard of phone stacking? That helps, right?” Any chance for a critical discussion of our adoption en masse is long gone.
It’s not all bad. For all their drawbacks, we adopt new things because they have benefits, and we think those benefits outweigh their drawbacks. Kevin Kelly highlights one particular effect of this in his thoughtful book What Technology Wants. De facto requirements may reduce our effective freedom by one choice – the choice to adopt – but they also expand our freedom by offering us new choices we didn’t have before:
[M]ost people of the world…gravitate toward technology because they recognize that they have more freedoms when they are empowered with it. They (that is, we) realistically weigh the fact that yes, indeed, some options are closed off when adopting new technology, but many others are opened, so that the net gain is an increase in freedom, choices, and possibilities.
Kelly goes as far as to rebut Kaczynski explicitly:
For 25 years he lived in a type of self-enforced solitary confinement…He may have personally been content with his limited world, but overall his choices were very constrained, although he had unshackled freedom within those limited choices – sort of like, “You are free to hoe the potatoes any hour of the day you want.” Kaczynski confused latitude with freedom. He enjoyed great liberty within limited choices, but he erroneously believed this parochial freedom was superior to an expanding number of alternative choices that may offer less latitude within each choice. An exploding circle of choices encompasses much more actual freedom than simply increasing the latitude within limited choices.
Kelly’s argument resonates with me, but I still worry about the no network effect. First off, it’s global, not local. When society unconsciously generates a de facto requirement, it applies to everyone, including those who may not like it or aren’t ready to handle it. Do you find shopping irresistible when you can put everything on credit? Do you hate that you constantly pull out your phone to check email or Facebook? Too bad. Unless you’re ready to make some big sacrifices and take a few steps in the Unabomber’s direction, you’re stuck with your credit card and cell phone.
Another problem is how we choose what to adopt, or more accurately, how we don’t choose. There’s no committee that judges new developments, no single authority that decides, “Email? Yes. Segway? No.” Instead, we get the wisdom of crowds, the invisible hand of the free market. Unfortunately, just as the quarterly reporting drumbeat dooms Wall Street to perpetual shortsightedness, our freedom to adopt biases us toward the short term too. We see something shiny, it gives us a few quick dopamine boosts, and we jump on board. The unintended consequences don’t appear until years later, when the new hotness has become so ingrained that we don’t realize it’s at fault.
The Amish may understand this better than anyone. They’ve adopted surprisingly modern innovations like GMO crops, fiberglass, folding bikes, and LED lights, but they’ve famously rejected credit cards, television, the electrical grid, and many others. Their adoption process is illuminating, and very different.
Individuals in Amish communities don’t get to adopt anything on their own. Instead, the local bishops choose a guinea pig and let them try it under close supervision. They watch the results and evaluate them against their core values of strengthening families and distancing from the outside world. If the trial seems promising, the bishops expand it, iterating in careful cycles that agile development devotees would admire.
Can we learn from them? Maybe. To start, they clearly don’t follow the Precautionary Principle, a style of regulation popular in Europe that tries to foresee and safeguard against every possible side effect before approving anything. The Amish don’t believe they can predict the future; instead, they get their hands dirty and try new things in the real world to discover their full effects. (I think they’re right.)
I also admire them for taking the long view. They know it can take as much as a generation or two to see the full effects of adoption, so they watch and wait for years, often decades, reserving the right to pull the plug at any time. I appreciate how deliberately they approach the process, identifying their core values up front and using them as measuring sticks.
Having said all that, I don’t think the Amish have actually solved the no network effect problem. They just sidestep it altogether, trading de facto requirements (and prohibitions) for explicit ones.
In the end, the no network effect may solve itself. Alan Kay famously defined technology as “anything that was invented after you were born,” and the same may be true of de facto requirements. A handful of us agonize over credit cards and cell phones, but almost no one wants to opt out of modern plumbing or electricity. Every generation has its set of angst-inducing developments, but if the goalposts of progress keep moving forward, the next generation will take those developments for granted, worrying instead about an entirely new crop of changes.
This is the “privacy is dead, get over it” school of thought, which argues that the relentless march of progress makes some things inevitable, both good (e.g. social politics) and bad (de facto requirements). I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is, I can probably get behind it. I don’t really believe in free will, after all. On the other hand, I may have finally relented and bought a cell phone a while back, but I still don’t have a credit card. So much for de facto requirements!