Zeynep Tufekci on Metaepistomology

I know, I know.

Here’s what metaepistomology means:

“the theory of theory of knowledge”

And you should now be asking, “what does that mean?”

The latest post on her Substack (god, I can’t afford to subscribe to all the substacks I want to!) is a wonderful essay on how she learnt about the pandemic last year, and how she learnt about how to learn – but I’ll get to that in a bit.

First things first, who is Zeynep Tufekci?

Zeynep Tufekci (Turkish: Zeynep Tüfekçi; [zejˈnep tyˈfektʃi]; ZAY-nep tuu-FEK-chee) is a Turkish sociologist and writer. Her work focuses on the social implications of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence and big data, as well as societal challenges such as the pandemic using complex and systems-based thinking. She has been described as “having a habit on being right on the big things” by The New York Times and as one of the most prominent academic voices on social media by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeynep_Tufekci

I learnt about her for the first time when I cam across a review of her book, Twitter and Tear Gas over on Aadisht’s blog. I haven’t read it yet, but I still remember this from his review, because it resonated a fair bit:

A point this book makes often is that digital tools mean that networked protests are enabled, and that protests can spring up much quicker than they used to. But prior protests used to be much more organised, because the threshold to start a protest used to be so high that it would take a long time and lots of organisation to hit it – and that meant that there would be an organisation capable of pushing for change after the protests. The digitally fuelled protests haven’t quite figured out what change to ask for, and how to push it, yet.

https://aadishtlogseverything.wordpress.com/2020/01/26/twitter-and-tear-gas-zeynep-tufekci/

(We also did a podcast about his review – and some other posts from his blog besides.)

But Zeynep’s writing reached another level altogether (both in terms of relevance and in terms of impact) during the pandemic. This, for example in the NYT (note the date!), or this from The Atlantic.

But her latest post, on the 31st of January, is worth pondering at great length. And that’s because while it speaks about the pandemic, and how she learnt about how serious it is going to be, it also contains lessons that are applicable everywhere else in life.


Please – pretty please! – read the whole post, but here are my key takeaways:

China’s attempts at downplaying human-to-human transmission and the WHO’s complicity in it are of course wrong, but this is also a good lesson in understanding why exponentials are worth learning about – if nothing else, at least because manufactured lies cannot stand up to the steep part of an exponential curve. And no matter your opinion about whether or not we underestimated the current pandemic and its impact, you should ask where else this lesson can be applied:

Let’s call this the Principle of “You Can’t Finesse the Steep Part of an Exponential,” after a Dylan H. Morris quote included in a previous article of mine trying to warn about the more transmissible variants.

https://zeynep.substack.com/p/lessons-from-a-pandemic-anniversary

Second, this sentence:

Let’s call this the “Principle of Always Pay Attention to Costly Action.” 

https://zeynep.substack.com/p/lessons-from-a-pandemic-anniversary

Principles of economics: incentives matter. Up until the point in time when Wuhan was locked down, China’s incentive was to try and suppress news about the upcoming pandemic. Wuhan being locked down was drastic action, yes, but it was also a signal. And the signal was that from here on in, China’s incentive was to warn the rest of the world about how severe and catastrophic (both in terms of health outcomes as well as economic outcomes) this virus was going to be.

Why did the incentive flip? Because the costs of downplaying the virus (in terms of being blamed for the origin, the suppression and therefore the inevitable spread) now outweighed the benefits.

Put another way, if China (if not through its statements, then through its actions) is signaling that its message has flipped, well, things must be really bad.

When it comes to political leadership, ignore what they say, and study what they do.

Political leadership doesn’t just mean governments. This applies to every single political unit, from the United Nations down until your family. Actions, as they say, speak louder than words.

Outrage and counter-outrage on Twitter is words. Action is action, and a far more reliable signal.


And I learnt from this post about the criterion of embarrassment

The criterion of embarrassment is a type of critical analysis in which an account likely to be embarrassing to its author is presumed to be true as the author would have no reason to invent an account which might embarrass him.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criterion_of_embarrassment

If the guy giving you the bad news is embarrassing himself in the process, then the payoff from making the announcement must be more than the cost of being embarrassed.

If intellectual honesty is at a low premium today in society (and if you ask me, it has always been the case) then a leader being (or allowing others to be) honest isn’t about morality, it is about the cost calculus.

So, the thumb rule: if the leader of any kind of group fesses up, be very worried. Think of it this way: map out, consultant style, two axes about public announcements.

Is the announcement good news or bad news (that is, is the leadership that is making the announcement going to be benefit from it, or be embarrassed by it)?

Second: Is the news real and credible, or is it straight out of Narnia territory? (Detecting this is a skill, and we should all possess it)

That leads us to this chart:

Three things that you need to keep in mind:

  1. The upper left quadrant will rarely be an announcement. That is why one should study what leaders do, not what they say
  2. If what the leadership is doing (or saying) matches up with our assessment of how bad things really are, get really worried, and start preparing accordingly.
  3. The third is the second last sentence in Zeynep’s post: “Everything we needed to know to act was right there in front of us, but it required not just knowledge, but a theory of knowledge to turn it into actionable, timely information.”

And that, my friends, is the point of metaepistomology.

CV’s are overrated

… as are examinations, marks, submissions, assignments and NAAC reports. I speak only of my current area of work, but this is true in all walks of life, of course.

There are two aspects to work: doing it, and showing that you have done it. A CV isn’t work, it is showing that you have done the work. So also the list above: none of it is work, it is showing that you have done the work. Meta-work, if you will.

Anybody who has conducted an interview has read the line “Proficient in MS-Office”. And each and every person who belongs to this tribe has rolled their eyes when asked about how many of the people who have written this line actually are proficient in MS-Office.

(My personal favorite among the variants of this line is “Intermediate level knowledge of MS Excel.” It signals to me that the writer is honest enough to acknowledge that they don’t know enough about Excel, but also can’t bring themselves to say that they don’t know enough.)

But ask yourself: what is a CV? It is a document that is supposed to showcase the work that you have done.

It is, as all of us know (but none among us would like to acknowledge) actually a document that showcases work that we hope will land us a job, no matter how tangentially true the content of the CV, and our association with said content.

This argument holds true for examinations as well! Examinations – and the marks you score in an examinations – are supposed to be a reflection of how well you know the subject.

It is, as all of us know (but none among us would like to acknowledge) a process in which we minimize our efforts to maximize our output. It’s even more problematic because the output isn’t learning, it’s marks.

NAAC reports that are submitted by colleges are in essence a manifestation of the many voodoo dolls that students have pricked at over the years, hoping to gain revenge for all the meaningless assignments/submissions/vivas that they have been subjected to while earning a degree. For colleges submit the NAAC reports using the same philosophy that students do while submitting their assignments:

“It doesn’t matter if it is a reflection of what reality is. It must be shown as a real thing on paper.”

We have created, as a society, a culture in which we measure the work that we do through these proxies, and collectively pretend that these proxies are a reflection of reality. Worse, we now spend a vast majority of our time on creating the proxies, rather than actually doing the work.

But to come back to my point (and yes, I do have one), the internet holds out the possibility to change this. At least where CV’s are concerned.

  • Don’t say that you are proficient in MS-Excel. Create, instead, a YouTube channel, or a blog, or an Instagram post, or a Facebook page, or a podcast where you show that you are proficient in MS-Excel. That is your CV, or at least a part of it.
  • Don’t say that you worked on project xyz with company abc. Write it up, and put it up on a blog. Writing’s not your thing? No worries, speak about it, and put it up as a podcast. Prefer video? YouTube!
  • The fact that you are reading this on an electronic device, by the way, means you do not have an excuse to not do it.
  • Worried about “how it will come out”? Do it ten times, and keep all ten up on the internet for people to see. Those ten variants of you describing your internship project is a much more powerful argument than a line that says “willing to work hard to improve myself”. And hey, if you do it ten times, it can only get better, not worse.

Showing that you have done the work tends to make you focus more on the showing, and less on the doing. Measuring work by analyzing what has been shown rather than what has been done is even more problematic, and that’s why firms tend to underrate grades (and increasingly, even CV’s).

Or, if you want to put it in economist-y terms, recruiters these days are like citizens of the Weimar republic. They know that the currency that is being issued is not worth the paper it is printed upon.

Any economist will tell you what happens next: a flight from currency, and into other assets.

That other asset in the context of the CV, is doing the work. Put it up for public consumption, and let the internet work its magic.

As a former India captain was very fond of saying, it’s all about the process. The results will take care of themselves. God, as Navin Kabra reminds us, says much the same thing!

Signaling, Bundling And College

What is bundling? It’s selling more than one thing for a single price. When you buy a cup of coffee, you’re buying a cup of coffee.

But when you’re buying a cup of coffee at Starbucks, are you just paying for the coffee, or are you paying also for the air-conditioning, the Wi-Fi, the chairs and the overall ambiance? In fact, for quite a few folks who choose to work out of Starbucks, the coffee might end up being the least important of the things they’re paying for. That’s bundling.

Here’s an MRU video about the topic:

 


 

What’s signaling?

This thought experiment is borrowed from Bryan Caplan, author of the book The Case Against Education:

Take your pick: a world class education while you were/are in college, from the very best in the world in your chosen field. You get to pick your dream educators, your dream college, you get access to absolutely world class faculty, libraries, whatever. The works. But: no degree. You will never be able to show or prove your credentials to anybody. World class learning, but no proof that it took place.

OR

A certificate from whichever college and course you pick in the world. Harvard PhD? Here you go. B.Tech from the IIT of your choice? Check. But: no learning. You will never be able to attend classes and learn in that college. You’ll get the degree, but sans learning.

If you chose the latter option (I would and I do), you know what signaling is.

Here’s Wikipedia:

In contract theory, signalling (or signaling; see spelling differences) is the idea that one party (termed the agent) credibly conveys some information about itself to another party (the principal). Although signalling theory was initially developed by Michael Spence based on observed knowledge gaps between organisations and prospective employees, its intuitive nature led it to be adapted to many other domains, such as Human Resource Management, business, and financial markets.

In Michael Spence’s job-market signaling model, (potential) employees send a signal about their ability level to the employer by acquiring education credentials. The informational value of the credential comes from the fact that the employer believes the credential is positively correlated with having the greater ability and difficulty for low ability employees to obtain. Thus the credential enables the employer to reliably distinguish low ability workers from high ability workers.


 

There’s many variants of the Caplan question that are possible. For example, would you prefer to wear an original Nike T-shirt without the logo, or a fake Nike T-shirt with the logo?

If I may be permitted to veer into slightly dark territory: would you prefer to be in a happy relationship, or show that your relationship is happy?

We are, all of us, signaling all the time. Modern society wouldn’t be possible without signaling, because the cost of communicating in a world without signaling would be too high.

But education? It doth signal too much, methinks.


 

Let’s go back to bundling, and think about education. What are you buying when you enroll in a college?

If you are an optimistic sort of person (more cynical folks would call you naive), you might say you’re buying an education. If Michael Spence has made an impression on you, you might say that you’re buying the credential.

By the way, if you’ve ever asked the following question in a classroom – or even been tempted to – you’re buying the credential, not the education:

“Is this a part of the syllabus?”

And I’ve yet to meet a student (to be clear, myself included) who hasn’t asked that question.

But hey, it’s Econ101. If you’ve asked the question, you are minimizing learning. You are learning, but only to get on the path to maximize marks. Marks, I would argue, are more about credentials than they are about learning.

You’ve chosen, through your actions, signaling over learning.


 


 

The LinkedIn, Starbucks and Coursera Problem

 

  1. What is LinkedIn’s business? It’s a professional network, and as an economist, I’d argue that one of the things that it does is that it reduces the asymmetry of information. When LinkedIn allows you to “endorse” a person for a particular skill, or it allows you to post results of a test it has enabled you to take, it is allowing you to signal that you are good.
    To whom are you sending this signal? To anybody who views your profile on LinkedIn! LinkedIn is like a degree certificate from your college: you’re signaling that you know.
  2. What is Coursera’s business? It is an online service that gives you access to recorded lectures that you can listen/see on your own time. These lectures are recorded by world-class faculty, so the learning is as good as it can get. Coursera is like a classroom (but arguably a much better one) from your college: you’re learning.
  3. What is Starbuck’s business? Selling coffee? Sure, you could argue that, but it’s more than that. Remember, you’re buying a bundle at Starbucks! Starbucks’ business is providing an environment that allows people to work in a social setting. To work, to network, to relax, to converse – but what it sells you is comfortable environs where you can do what you want to. Starbucks is like the setting in the college but outside the classroom: it’s your peer environment where you can get work done.

 

Now, the problem of education: when you buy a degree from college, you’re getting all three things.

College is a bundle: education | credentialing | peer networks

 


 

LinkedIn Starbucks Coursera
All logos belong to the firm in question

 

And the reason colleges haven’t gone away yet – and won’t, anytime soon – is because there is no business that I am aware of that sits at the center of that triangle as comfortably as college does.

 


 

Nowadays, it is almost platitudinous to say that the educational system is broken. Why, Peter Thiel cites it as an example of thinking that is not contrarian in his book, From Zero to One.

But here’s the thing:

College isn’t broken.

A Coursera course isn’t enough to land you a job these days: fact.

Most of us value, and almost always will value, the friends we make in college: fact.

The college still is the best place to go to to get both of these things together at the most reasonable price.

But:

Learning is broken in colleges today: fact.

 


If you want to go up against college as a business, you need to sell the same thing that college is selling. And the college sells you a bundle.

A business that seeks to do better than college must do better on all three counts, not just on learning. All of the online learning businesses – Coursera is just one very good example – aren’t able to fill all of the three vertices just yet.

And that’s why education hasn’t been truly shaken down by the internet just yet:

Because college today is more about signaling than it is about learning, and because when you pay money to a college, you are getting a bundle.

So what to do? How to solve this problem?

In the next post in this series, we’ll see what other folks who’ve chosen to battle this beast are trying to achieve.

 

1917, Value in Use and Value in Exchange

It is one of the first concepts to be taught in introductory economics – or it ought to be, at any rate. Value in use, and value in exchange, that is.

The concepts simply mean that any particular thing – “good”, as we economists call it – has potential value either because we use it, or because we are able to sell it. Water, the canonical example, has clear value in use, but as a general rule, not that much value in exchange. That’s debatable, but we’ll move on for now.

You can either consume a good, or sell a good to buy other goods. The first is value in use, and the latter is value in exchange.

Here is a short explainer.


 

One of the most powerful movies I saw this year was 1917. For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, it shows you a slice – and a rather uncomfortable one – of what life was like during the Great War, or WWI. Read the review I’ve linked to, but also please watch the movie.


 

What do the two things I’ve spoken about have to do with one another?

In the movie 1917, the two protagonists are talking about a medal that one of them received for bravery. The recipient speaks about how he sold it for a bottle of wine.

I can’t find a clip of this on YouTube at the moment, but here’s a description of the scene from Vulture.com:

“After they cross through the German trenches — a sequence that starts with the men staring at bags of shit and only gets more harrowing from there — Blake and Schofield arrive in the open countryside. It’s a view not often seen in World War I movies, which rarely venture beyond the trenches, and it provides an opportunity for the film to slow down and relax. The soldiers get into a debate about whether there’s any meaning to be found in the war. Blake, who, true to his name, is the romantic of the pair, has learned that Schofield traded his Somme medal for a bottle of wine, and berates him. “You should have taken it home,” Blake says. “You should have given it to your family. Men have died for that. If I’d got a medal I’d take it back home. Why didn’t you take it home?”

Schofield disagrees, with the bitterness of a war poet: “Look, it’s just a bit of bloody tin. It doesn’t make you special. It doesn’t make any difference to anyone.””

That excerpt is from an email I sent to Amit Varma. It was meant to be a pitch for a series that used to run on a website called ThinkPragati (no longer up and running as a magazine, alas). The series was called Housefull Economics, and it seems as if I ended up writing the last column to appear in that space.

But what can’t be written there can be written here! That clip, the one that is described in the excerpt above, is a great way to think about value-in-use and value-in-exchange. Of what use is a piece of metal to Schofield? In war torn France, no use at all – in use.

But in exchange? Why, it got him a bottle of wine!


 

There is another concept at play over here, that of signaling. Blake is clearly horrified at the idea that something as valuable as a medal could be exchanged for something as trivial (to him) as a bottle of wine. Blake is effectively saying that sure, there may not be much value-in-use of the medal right now, but it has tremendous value in terms of signaling.

About which we shall speak a lot more on the coming Thursday, for signaling is a very fascinating topic indeed. But in the meantime, please do read the rest of the columns from the Housefull Economics series – they’re a great way to learn about economics!