TOC Is the Information Age structurally flawed? Your Turn

May 4, 2010

Verba volant, scripta manent (1). Were one asked for a proof that our Information Age is really different, this outdated adage would do nicely.

A generation ago we would not have been made privy to Fabulous Fab's gossips and the uncertain grasp of ethics at Goldman Sachs. David A. Viniar, executive vice-president, missed the point when, as reported by Louise Story (*), he publicly declared "very unfortunate to have on e-mail" that "Goldman employees had used vulgar terms to describe the poor quality of certain [...] deals". Beyond his startling lack of tact, he does not understand that in our Information Age "verba manent".

As corporate email simply records what employees commonly say among themselves, David Viniar seems to expect his staff to stop blowing steam even when under pressure. Can he hold his troops to a standard which Gordon Brown himself could not maintain? He "was caught on microphone [...] complaining about [a voter] who had challenged his government's immigration policy". Assuming the facts widely shared by his readers, James Blitz (**) did not mention said microphone overheard a private albeit impolitic exchange between the hapless Labor candidate and his aides.

Last week I celebrated four years of fighting in favor of eprivacy. Where to put the border between the private and the public spheres remains an open issue. We may laugh at Gordon Brown and be scandalized by David Viniar, but we have yet to come to grip with the issue. While we live today in a world the Stasi could only dream of, we still dream we may speak our mind with whom we know. A rude awakening awaits us.

Most people seem content to dream on and blow the data bubble bigger. At least the current lack of privacy is an open secret and, to redress the imbalance between the ever inflating public agora and the disappearance of all venues for sharing information in true confidence, solutions do exist. But our Information Age suffers from an even more structural imbalance which has so far received little notice.

Although blessedly, for their public image that is, upstaged by Goldman Sachs, the credit ratings agencies have lately received renewed attention from the US Senate. As John Gapper sums up the case (***), "if the crisis proves anything, it is that the agencies enjoy too much authority among investors and regulators. [...] It is time to curb the power and influence behind them".

These worthy fellows follow a business model fueled by a conflict of interest, benefit from a state mandated oligopoly, have significantly contributed to the current crisis and yet prospered handsomely from it while escaping the brunt of the reforms under discussion by the US Congress. To top it all, Aline Van Dyun reports they "are entitled to the annual "ratings surveillance" payments under the terms of the CDO contracts, even in cases the CDO has performed poorly" (****). Do his victims continue to pay management fees to Madoff on the money he pocketed from them?

No wonder Warren Buffet has lent his seal of approval to Moody's. But younger, less well-heeled imitators beware. As a Standard & Poor's employee presciently emailed in December 2006, "let's hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of cards falters". Quoted by Sam Jones and Stephanie Kirchgaesner (*****), he was speaking of the same collateralized debt obligations mentioned by Aline Van Dyun.

The lesson to draw from this debacle is not, as Henny Sender suggests (******), "that the only reliable due diligence is your own". Claiming indeed their professional advice should not have been taken blindly as a recommendation, this is how Goldman Sachs and the rating agencies brazenly deny all liability and shift the blame on their victims. Without recommendations one can trust, one is soon hopelessly drowned in dubious data. Without sound recommendation systems, the grapes of our Information Age will shrivel on the vine. Expect the coming wrath of the disabused customer.

The prize for hightlighting the paradox of the Information Age goes to Gretchen Morgenson and Louise Story (*******). Wondering "how mortgage investments that turned out to be so bad earned credit ratings that made them look so good", the journalists reveal "the rating agencies made public computer models that were used to devise ratings". This decision rendered "the [recommendation] process less secretive", a positive effect which makes redress possible.

Unfortunately the same feature also enabled the bankers "to tinker with their complicated mortage deals until the models produced the desired ratings", not to mention enabling the other agencies to tinker with their own models for competitive advantage. We have encountered this "catch 22" before. In a similar situation, Google refuses to disclose the details of its proprietary ranking algorithm to discourage gaming and competition.

On the surface, this paradox has a solution I have long recommended. The more decentralized the recommendation system, the more personal the links between the three parties to a recommendation, the easier it is to safeguard each recommendation and lay responsibility where it belongs.

Deeper though, the paradox is found to be structural. Human recommenders are intrinsically limited in their knowledge and their time. Promising limitless productivity in the processing of information, recommendation systems included, our Age has come to depend on ever higher levels of automation which, like a drug, will eventually waste away its abusor. Remember that to process information is to engage in pattern recognition, a sure way to generate mistakes. Left unchecked, automation multiplies errors to a point where responsibility simply vanishes.

Senator Carl Levin's comparing the rating agency process to "a conveyor belt" is spot on. Are Toyota assembly workers accused of the recent spat of defects at the car manufacturer? The flaw of course is at the design level. Having billed a customer for $18,000 without warning, "Verizon officials said the charges were legitimate" reports Megan Woolhouse (********). Will we blame the software analyst whose program runs Verizon? Having designed systems myself, I know how hard it is to write truly foolproof solutions. Which of Verizon or its consumer is the fool is besides my point.

Measures may still be found to prevent or remedy these specific cases. Break up the rating agency conveyor belt, shame Verizon into swallowing the costs of its correct but irresponsible billing. But who is accountable for prostitution on Craigslist? Quoted by Brad Stone (*********), Jim Buckmaster said "misuse of Craigslist for criminal purposes is utterly unacceptable". Wishful thinking by the CEO perhaps, but it does not make him responsible. Yet the pressure is building to ask Internet access providers to deliver justice and YouTube to censor its users, all automatically (2).

Turn now to "Senator Chris Dodd's basic bill [which] runs to more than 1,300 pages". Gillian Tett pleasantly compares the financial reform to a novel (**********). Actually this is more like a quixotic attempt to write a software program (3)(4). That the US do not like principles on principle is not true, witness the religious reverence in which it holds its own constitution. But rules, it is assumed, are more efficient. Think how much it costs to settle on principle the fate of a 1934 cross "more than 10 miles from the nearest highway", in Adam Liptak's words (***********)?

Our embrace of productivity requires automation, yet machines can but fail to match human judgment. Is the Age of Information flawed at heart?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ...................... Goldman Sachs On the Defensive As Senators Ask Blunt Questions, by Louise Story (New York Times) - April 28, 2010
  • (**) .................... Brown in struggle to salvage campaign, by James Blitz (Financial Times) - April 30, 2010
  • (***) ................. Time to rein in the rating agencies, by John Gapper (Financial Times) - April 29, 2010
  • (****) ............... Fees flow to ratings agencies, by Aline Van Dyun (Financial Times) - April 30, 2010
  • (*****) ............. Ratings agencies' Nixon moment, by Sam Jones and Stephanie Kirchgaesner (Financial Times) - April 24, 2010
  • (******) ........... The Goldman lesson is rely on your own due diligence, by Henny Sender (Financial Times) - April 24, 2010
  • (*******) ......... Rating Agencies Shared Data, And Wall St. Seized Advantage, by Gretchen Morgenson and Louise Story (New York Times) - April 24, 2010
  • (********) ....... Family, Verizon far apart over nearly $18,000 phone bill, by Megan Woolhouse (Boston Globe) - April 30, 2010
  • (*********) ..... Sex Ads on Craiglist Pay Off In More Revenue and Scrutiny, by Brad Stone (New York Times) - April 26, 2010
  • (**********) ... Financial reform in US could be buried under a mound of paper, by Gillian Tett (Financial Times) - April 30, 2010
  • (***********) . Justices Tangle Over Cross in Desert, by Adam Liptak (New York Times) - April 29, 2010
  • (1) "What you say goes away, what you write ever stay".
  • (2) Craigslist claims to check all sex ads manually. Volume, profitability and results point to reviewers acting as automata, in agreement with my argument.
  • (3) for a more detailed comparison between law and software writing, see my lecture on The Law for the layman
  • (4) developed from committee driven specifications with external influences, the bill contains a minimum of 1,300 bugs, i.e. loopholes, by my estimate.
May 2010
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