Privacy in public

Two very different stories have been prominent in my twitter timeline over the last few days. Despite their differences they illuminate each other and help shape answers to the perennially vexed question of what constitutes privacy in an online world. One is about our licence to analyse people’s behaviour, however benign the intention might be. The other is about what it’s like to walk down the street. They have more in common than it might first appear.

Stalking on twitter?

The first is Samaritan Radar. If you’ve missed it, it’s a new service which allows a twitter user to ask the Samaritans to monitor the tweets of people they follow (who may or may not be personally known to them) and to email alerts if any of those people show signs that they ‘may need your support’. To put it mildly, that has been immediately contentious. The subject of this analysis is not told that it is happening and has no idea that the Samaritans may be making judgements about their mental state, still less broadcasting them to people who may be complete strangers. I am not going to go into the reasons here why that might be a thoroughly bad idea – Adrian Short has three great posts which explain why both this particular service and the general approach it embodies are highly problematic. Meanwhile, the Samaritans have published an update, supposedly responding to the debate, but not in a way which really addresses the criticisms which have been made.

But is all that missing the point about the openness of twitter? Radar can only work with twitter accounts which are open, anybody can find and read anybody else’s tweets, so they are the very definition of public.  And if people speak in public, the argument goes, they can hardly complain if they are overheard. I think that view is wrong, fundamentally because it assumes that technical capability does (or should) map to social acceptability. There are three big reasons why that is not so.

Twitter isn’t simple

There is a human urge to put things in pigeon holes, to impose neatness and regularity on the world. But that can lead to confused and misleading results if applied to something which isn’t as tidy as that. I can’t improve on the description of twitter I first used several years ago:

For twitter in particular, there is a very strange collision of contexts. It is like being in the pub with some friends, being at speakers’ corner shouting at (and being heckled by) random passers by, being on the Today programme, being on Big Brother, and throwing a message in a bottle out to sea – all at once.

Twitter is different for different people, and different for the same people at different times. Radar assumes the friends in the pub case (though even that is not without its problems) and chooses to ignore the rest.

Being heckled by random passers by has become a nastier pastime since I used those fairly innocent words. Misogyny is rampant, threats have been all too real – which makes it remarkable that part of Samaritans’ response to the concern has been to assume all that away:

The aim of the app is to look for potentially worrying tweets from people talking about their problems with the hope that their followers will respond to their Tweets – which are already public – and which otherwise may be missed. Those who sign up to the app don’t necessarily need to act on any of the alerts they receive, in the same way that people may not respond to a comment made in the physical world. However, we strongly believe people who have signed up to Samaritans Radar do truly want to be able to help their friends who may be struggling to cope. [Emphasis added]

That’s a fairly breathtaking belief, if for no other reason than that the service works by monitoring all the people you follow, so even with the most benign motivation it isn’t fine grained enough to avoid providing updates about complete strangers whom you may be unwilling or unable to help in any way – perhaps, as in the example below, because they have already been dead for some time.

That takes us neatly to the second reason.

Privacy is not binary

Technically, anyone can follow anybody on twitter, all tweets are public (except when they are not) and it is all part of the panopticon. Privacy is simple: there isn’t any. Except that that isn’t the perceived experience at all. I may have no means of preventing somebody obsessively analysing my online presence, but that doesn’t make it either socially expected or socially accepted (‘but it’s legal’ isn’t terribly relevant here: there are all too many ways in which behaviour can be entirely legal while simultaneously obnoxious and objectionable). The experience of most twitter users most of the time is that their tweets are read (if at all) by a small number of people.1

Technology has a bias to the binary – your tweets are public or private, links are alive or dead, your location is visible or invisible. But  real world behaviours and expectations aren’t like that, for reasons David Weinberger captured long ago in his concept of ‘leeway’:

Leeway is the only way we manage to live together: We ignore what isn’t our business. We cut one another some slack. We forgive one another when we transgress.

Radar is not negotiating this minefield of tangled assumptions, slowly  adapting to changing circumstances.  It is just ignoring it. Bizarrely, their privacy page  concerns itself purely with the person doing the monitoring and not at all with the person being monitored.

Of course there is the counter-argument that anything which can be done technically, will be done, summed up in Scott McNealy’s famous line from 15 years ago:

You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.

But whatever level of privacy we have, it clearly isn’t zero, in part because we create social limits and expectations in relation to what is practically possible. Privacy has levels, not states, and it is reasonable – even necessary – to ask what level is appropriate for a service such as Radar.

Many small things make a big thing

Aggregation transforms. Individual tweets may be willingly public, but it does not follow that the analysis of a body of tweets inherits the permission belonging to each tweet individually. In the UK at least, that’s more than just a social norm (though it’s being a social norm is again separate from its legality).  As Zoë Kirk-Robinson points out, it isn’t reading or even reproducing or retransmitting tweets which is the problem, it is aggregation, analysis and dissemination which put them into difficult territory:

It’s true that tweets are public information but the Samaritans are not just passing on your tweets, they are processing the “emotional content” of the tweets and determining your mental state as a result.

It is this information – their data-mined analysis of your emotional state – that is being transmitted to a third party, not your tweets.

Harassment in New York

That brings us to the second story. A woman is filmed walking along the street in New York. Ten hours of walking is boiled down to a two minute video, in which she doesn’t say anything or do anything except walk. That video was published less than a week ago, since when it has been watched more than 30 million times. That’s because it distils what feels like relentless harassment, prompted by nothing more than a woman walking by herself.2

None of the incidents is overtly aggressive (though at least one is decidedly spooky), and a world in which any one of those incidents happened might not be a very terrible one. But a world in which they all happen, predictably and relentlessly, is one nobody should be required to accept. Nobody in the video does anything which appears to be – or should be – criminal, but cumulatively they amount to harassment (and if all those things were done by one person, their behaviour probably would be illegal).

But in the more familiar environment of the street, we can see versions of the same three factors which confuse things in twitter. The parallels aren’t exact and shouldn’t be strained too far, but do bring out some of the same tensions in a more familiar and far longer established context. In our offline lives, we don’t tend to think that what is possible is thereby right, or that what isn’t illegal is unexceptionable.

The street isn’t simple

Streets are for walking along. Streets are places to  have conversations. Streets are places to have demonstrations.  Streets can be places for very private exchanges. Streets can be places for addressing large audiences. That’s so obvious that most people don’t stop to think about it, and have little difficulty in understanding that there isn’t a single right way of interpreting what’s going on – though there are some which are just plain wrong.3 Responding to what goes on on the street based on assumptions about common purpose and motivation is unlikely to be effective.

Privacy is not binary

If I am walking along having a quiet conversation, you are not entitled to eavesdrop. You might overhear, but going out of your way to listen or follow – and particularly going out of your way to listen or follow in a way which those in the conversation are unlikely to notice – would be widely seen as socially unacceptable. Increasingly, technology makes it possible to breach that social norm – directional microphones, drone surveillance, phone tracking and more are provide the capability of eavesdropping, but don’t (at least in the short term) change our view of its acceptability. Charlotte Walker has written a post using the analogy of a café to make a similar point far more powerfully.

Many small things make a big thing

People should be able to walk around without getting harassed by anybody. One small thing is already one too many.  But aggregation transforms. The aggregated impact is very different from each of the individual impact.

And so

So where, if anywhere, does that get us?

As far as the Samaritans are concerned, I am pretty sure that Radar just gets it wrong. Having technology which enables you to do something doesn’t make it smart to do it, and this particular idea seems remarkably poorly thought through.

But I am more interested in two broader thoughts.

The first is that expectations are very inconsistent. Part of why people feel cross is that they expect better of an organisation which not only has a social purpose, but a social purpose based on empathy. Meanwhile, less worthy organisations are amassing every kind of information they can about every one of us, for less laudable and less obvious purposes. As Bruce Schneier puts it

Surveillance is the business model of the internet.

The second is that the social norms of social media are still very fluid. Mapping real world social relationships and patterns of behaviour onto the virtual world sometimes works, but very often doesn’t. That’s not helped by the appropriation of words from one context to use in another – what twitter and facebook mean by the word ‘friend’ isn’t what I mean by it (and that gap may be part of the confusion behind Radar).

Those two thoughts are obviously closely related. Whether we choose to address them as social questions or technical questions will make a big difference to the answers.

  1. According to one large scale study, 80% of twitter accounts have fewer than 50 followers
  2. Over a hundred incidents in the ten hour period, so one every five minutes or so, not including ‘countless winks, whistles, etc.’
  3. Though it is sadly impossible to argue that there is a full social consensus that the behaviour shown in the video should be unacceptable – the YouTube comments are predictably pretty vile, while the comments on an Economist blog post about it exhibit better spelling but not very different sentiments.

Interesting elsewhere – 31 October 2014

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

The Hollow Men II: Some reflections on Westminster and Whitehall dysfunction | Dominic Cummings’s Blog
Politics is dominated by discussion of ‘strategy’ and ‘priorities’, but few know how to think strategically (or even what ‘strategy’ is) or how to make and stick to priorities. Misunderstanding of strategy, and the proliferation of rhetoric masquerading as strategy, causes huge problems, including with national leaderships’ attempts to define ‘national strategy’.

This is a huge gap in Whitehall but the system has gone so wrong few even realise the gap is there and those who do cannot do anything about it.

Who is nudging whom? | The Enlightened Economist
What is ‘better’? Is it the (largely) white, male, middle class experts who work in the policy world? What will the wider consequences be of adopting nudges that get ordinary people to pay more income tax and cheat less on benefits, without looking for nudges that get bankers to pay themselves lower bonuses or extract more corporate tax revenues from big companies?

Mobile Is Eating the World | Andreessen Horowitz
There is no point in drawing a distinction between the future of technology and the future of mobile. They are the same. In other words, technology is now outgrowing the tech industry.

Managing Complexity: The Battle Between Emergence And Entropy
And here is the underlying conceptual point. The more open the organisation is to external sources of energy, the easier it is to harness the forces of emergence rather than entropy. What does this mean in practice? Things like refreshing your management team with outside hires, circulating employees, making people explicitly accountable to external stakeholders, collaborating with suppliers and partners, and conducting experiments in “open innovation”.

7 things you (workplace folk) should know about the #futureofwork – #wtrends14 | Perfect Path
We’ll work anywhere. We recognise that no environment will ever be perfect, but we can make the most of any space that comes along.  Stop worrying about making somewhere that fits every need – keep it simple and we’ll adapt. But not necessarily the same “anywhere” everyday There is no single space or form of space in which people can best work.

How Does Google Handle IT for Its Workers? Ask CIO Ben Fried – WSJ – WSJ
We have this enormous and unique opportunity to set the culture of the companies we are within, with technology.

I remember years ago, when I joined Google, I looked at the personal technology that Google gave to its people. Google allowed people to use whatever they thought was relevant to them, when everyone else gave people a black laptop and a BlackBerry and said, “You are going to do it our way.”

I think that CIOs need to understand the cultural thing—they define the culture of their company by the technology they give to their employees.

How to influence policy? An interview with Owen Barder of the Center for Global Development – 80,000 Hours
I do think the transparency of government is an important issue. It just makes it much harder to make bad decisions if the analysis that underpins all those decisions is public. It becomes politically unsustainable to do stupid things.

What’s Wrong with Twitter’s Latest Experiment with Broadcasting Favorites — The Message — Medium
In tech platforms, when our signaling ability is limited to technical affordances, we adopt existing tools and transform them into social signals. Things that start off as utilities, or only “technical” affordances, soon acquire social meaning. In Twitter, this is true for both block and favorite (but not mute because it is not visible — hence it is not a signal to the other party. A signal, by definition, is visible).

Government doesn’t get complexity
Government investigations of significant IT failures do not seem to recognise the effects of complexity. Usually, problems are laid at the door of uncertain requirements, poor governance or inadequate management skills. Of course there have been straightforward programmes that have failed for these reasons but, where complexity applies, blaming these alone – and not getting to the root cause – will perpetuate failure. The problem is not in plans, people or methods – it’s in mindset. Trying to build things that really need to be grown just won’t work – no matter how they are managed.

0.019938% viral

As I was standing at the bus stop on a grey drizzly morning, there was a lorry parked on the opposite side of the road. It was an utterly unremarkable scene.

But the words on the side of the lorry were a bit strange. They almost, but didn’t quite, make an email address. They almost, but didn’t quite, make a twitter handle. They almost, but didn’t quite, make a URL.

So of course I took a photograph. It scores nothing for artistic merit. It’s not even a complete picture of the lorry. But with nothing better to do before the bus came, I tweeted it.

It got one or two retweets, one or two favourites, after which the minor interest it had occasioned should have drained quietly away. What happened next was a bit surprising. The numbers started shooting up, reaching 51 retweets and 6,612 ‘impressions’.1 For you, those numbers may be normal; for me they are more than a little extraordinary.

It turned out that that tweet was almost exactly my 10,000th, 1,975 days after joining twitter. So was it the one in 10,000 chance of random virality?

I can remember only one other tweet in that league, which was even more frivolous.  Trying to track down a late running flight, I spotted a plane on flightradar24 making the arduous journey from Gatwick to Heathrow.

This is, in fact, wholly unremarkable. Airlines move planes from one place to another for all sorts of reasons, and swapping planes between Heathrow and Gatwick is a matter of daily routine for BA.2 So nobody should have cared about that one either. But it got even more retweets than the lorry, and still more bizarrely Twitter has it down as having received 35,473 impressions, making a not very interesting flight about seven times more exciting than a not very interesting lorry.

I like to think that over the years some of my tweets have been interesting, a few even thoughtful. But they are as nothing. Whether I like it or not, these are my two sort-of-viral tweets. Making a career hit rate of 0.019938%.

Look upon my tweets, ye mighty, and despair.

  1. I suspect impressions to be a somewhat dodgy currency, but they are what Twitter counts and they are at least some indicator of scale. And still creeping upwards, now 6,858, 6,859…  
  2. As some replies were at pains to point out. Inevitably, there turns out to be a site which keeps track of these things, which is faintly alarming.

Interesting elsewhere – 8 October 2014

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

Digital and change: what to get excited about | Digital health
Sometimes we might still choose to be laggards of course. The internet will still happen around us anyway, changing the ways we can get things done. But I’d rather do the extra work to accelerate changes that particularly suit us, where they have the greatest potential to improve our work. That’s the real stuff to get excited about.

From the archive: Parkinson’s Law | The Economist
A is a conscientious man. Beset as he is with problems created by his colleagues for themselves and for him—created by the mere fact of these officials’ existence—he is not the man to shirk his duty. He reads through the draft with care, deletes the fussy paragraphs added by C and H and restores the thing back to the form preferred in the first instance by the able (if quarrelsome) F. He corrects the English—none of these young men can write grammatically—and finally produces the same reply he would have written if officials C to H had never been born. Far more people have taken far longer to produce the same result. No one has been idle. All have done their best.

Culture Stories: Introduction and Milk.
I listened to various simple, actionable, additive1 and modern sounding things we could change to the way we work. Add some tablet computers here and more video conferencing there. I worked in the digital department, and at the time I was working on our internal tools so I guess I was meant to write these things down and agree wholeheartedly. But I struggled. It felt like there was a bigger problem not being mentioned by anyone. Culture.

MOT status check: a five minute business case – honestlyreal
Shall we just reflect how far things have come that a well-intended (but clearly underinformed) blog post can pop-up – get a useful response directly from an agency CEO within a couple of hours, with not a hint of spin, snark or press officer flannel – and lead to a better informed me, and hopefully you, dear reader?

Publishing and Reading — Medium
No book need ever be out of stock, or out of print, anywhere in the world. It used to be that if you were OK with people in Podunk having inferior access to books than people in Brooklyn, you were just a realist about the difficulties of making and shipping physical stuff. Now if you’re OK with that, you’re kind of an asshole. In the twenty-first century, not being able to correctly stock or distribute a product whose main ingredient is information suggests a degree of technical and managerial incompetence indistinguishable from active malice.

The permit’s in the post

The question of whether there should be a local version of the Government Digital Service rumbles on. I wrote about it a couple of months ago, and lots of other people have too, most of them far more expert on the question than I am. That amounts to a lot of well-informed and passionate commentary, but much of it is quite abstract. This post comes at the issue from the opposite direction: if solving problems such as those described here is the question, is a local GDS the answer?

That thought was promoted by going through a new digital service offered by my local authority. I was delighted to find that it existed (it replaces queueing up in an office half way across the borough). It seemed to work (though at the time I wasn’t entirely sure since fulfilment remains firmly undigital and took a long time to happen). Some of it felt quite liberating (not needing to provide the same evidence of identity for the umpteenth time as for the first). And some of it seemed designed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. This starts as a story about a website, but it turns out to be much less about that than it might first appear.

So first a few reflection on being a user of the service. And then a few more general thoughts on what that might point to for doing digital better.

The story

I want to buy some parking permits. Not for my own car, because I don’t have one, but so that occasional visitors can park in residents’ spaces.

At first blush, the new modern looking service might have come out of the GDS stable. But on closer inspection – or actually using it – it’s riddled with small details (and one or two very big ones) which make clear that it’s actually a very different kind of beast.

Lambeth parking permit landing page

Let’s begin at the beginning. “Do it online” the landing page exhorts, followed mysteriously by “(external site)”.1 A couple of screens later, you get to choose what kind of permit you want, in a two-dimensional menu, the like of which I have never seen before. Clicking on “Visitors vouchers”2 has the unexpected effect of making the page scroll down, to prompt either logging on or continuing without an account. The chosen option is in fact highlighted – but on my reasonably large screen, the scrolling goes far enough to make that invisible, introducing another sense of uncertainty about what might actually be going on. Moving on, they want to establish that I am entitled to buy permits in the first place. This is genuinely a big improvement: instead of scrabbling around to find old gas bills, they just do a credit reference search.3

Lambeth parking permit selection

Then it gets really strange. The next screen allows me to select the number of parking vouchers I want. Or does it? It’s the same two-dimensional tiled menu as before, but this time clicking on any of the options has no apparent effect whatsoever. There is a basket on the right of the screen which remains resolutely empty with an amount due of £0.00 as I try to choose ever larger quantities of permits. Nothing happens. In the end, since there is nothing else to do, I click on ‘Continue to terms and conditions’. Two things happen on the screen which follows. The first is that the basket now shows the number of vouchers and the price. But since I was randomly clicking around trying to get some kind – any kind – of reaction on the previous screen, the number in the basket is much larger than the number I actually want to buy.

The second thing which becomes apparent is that there is no way back. None. Not then, not at any subsequent point in the process. Having made an invisible choice for an invisible basket, the only way of correcting that choice is to abandon the process and start all over again. But if you try that, there is a further sting in the tail. I kept going with the wrong amount as far as I possibly could, in the expectation that at some point there just had to be a a way of updating the quantity. I was wrong. But it then turned out I was worse than wrong. These permits are rationed – 50 per household per year. This new system keeps a running total of how many I have bought and thus of how many I am still entitled to buy. And it has deducted from my total the permits I didn’t buy, as well as those I subsequently did.4

But eventually I did get to the end, ready to buy the permits I wanted, though with my confidence a little shaken by the effort it had taken to get there. The payment process did not offer quite the reassurance I had been hoping for – “Redirecting to Payoffshore……” it proclaimed, flourishing a name which could have been invented by a Nigerian spammer on a particularly unimaginative day.5

Lambeth parking permit selection

But that’s finally the end of the process. Or rather it’s just the beginning. I have asked for – and paid for – some permits. But I don’t yet have the permits and there is some back office work to be done. Now as it happens I know roughly how long that takes, because in the old system I used to queue up in an office and watch somebody do the work on the spot. Five minutes is plenty. Ten minutes would be generous. Fifteen minutes would be absurd.6 Apparently, though, it may take them up to ten working days to find the five minutes needed.

And remarkably it turned out that they needed every one of those ten working days. Counting actual days and time in the post, which is what matters to me, it took 17 days for those permits to get to me. It’s rather a good thing I wasn’t in a hurry.7

The moral

I have told that story not because the details are important but because it’s a really good illustration of lessons at three different levels. Only one of them is ostensibly about the web service, which is a good reminder that ‘fixing the website’ is rarely a good way of framing the problem.

Detail matters

At the first level, though, even if fixing the website isn’t sufficient, it’s certainly necessary. User confidence is a product of complex cues and responses to them which are not always conscious. No one of the problems I have described – or of the several more I could have described – breaks the process and any one of them is surmountable. But cumulatively they do a lot to undermine confidence. I have no idea what the completion rate is, but I am willing to bet it could be a great deal higher.

This is also a good illustration of the principle that if you are going to use non-standard interaction design, you need to be really confident that it works, which includes making absolutely sure that it offers the right affordance.

Fulfilment matters

One level up from that, it’s pretty clear that polishing the website will not address the problem that it is a veneer over a broken process. A process time of five minutes should not go with an elapsed time of 17 days, particularly when the old, slow inefficient manual process has an elapsed time of about 90 minutes, including travelling and waiting. It looks as though somebody has designed a web transaction. It doesn’t look as though anybody has designed a service. 

Imagination  matters

But we shouldn’t stop there. I am not really buying small cardboard rectangles, which need to be physically delivered. I am buying the right to park in certain circumstances, which doesn’t. Tax discs are in the same category and it seems auspicious that this post is being published on the day they are being abolished. Long before there was any prospect of that happening, but when it was first possible to renew the tax disc online, William Heath was pithy and precise:

Hurrah for the car tax disc renewal process. It used to be both inconvenient and pointless. Now it’s just pointless.

It’s always a bad sign when a piece of information held by government is converted into physical form in order to allow the same or another part of government to convert it back to digital. Why have a shiny new service to issue parking permits when it would be so much better to have a shiny new service to not issue parking permits?

The moral of the moral

This has been a pretty limited story. It is one person’s experience of one service offered by one local authority. But that service is newly redesigned and newly automated, and I am pretty sure that it’s not yet as good as it could be or as it needs to be. More specifically, I doubt that it would meet the GDS digital by default service standard. That’s not to say that this is a job for GDS, still less one that only GDS could do. But as local authority services go, this is at the simple end of the spectrum, and it looks as though something better is needed to get things right.

Is a local GDS the solution? I made slightly heavy weather of the general answer to that question in my earlier post. Coming at it afresh from this slightly different perspective feels easier in some ways – but only in some. It is much harder to do this stuff well than to write blog posts criticising the doing of it. Concentrating and amplifying that expertise has much to commend it. But the other thing which GDS critically has is a licence to operate. It has renewed and extended that licence over time, but it did not create it – the initial spark has to come from elsewhere.

On balance, the story told here makes me more inclined to the idea of a local GDS. It would have to find ways of being local. It would have to find ways of not being GDS. It would have to be as concerned about back office processes as about visible interactions. But if it could be all those things, there is no shortage of great work waiting to be done.

  1. Clicking the link does indeed take you to a separate subdomain, but not in the normal “if you click this link, you’re on your own and we wash our hands of the consequences” sense. So the only thing those words can do is generate a little pointless FUD.
  2. No, no apostrophe.
  3. But strangely, having gone through the process once and created an account, on subsequent visits name and phone number are retained, address is retained but deselected, and date of birth is thrown away and has to be re-entered. The overall effect is bizarrely random.
  4. Even if this bit of record keeping was not broken, which it clearly is, it would carry a more subtle problem: the limit is now, it seems, hard coded, and leeway is therefore abolished. The limit of 50 existed in the old world too, but I strongly suspect that there it meant ‘we reserve the right to stop selling you more if you are clearly abusing the system’. Now it probably means ’50’.
  5. And when the payment appeared on my bank statement, the description was  “WWW.E-PAYCO , BALT.COM , INTERNET GB” which doesn’t sound a great deal better.
  6. And that’s for the old process, which was necessarily more labour intensive than the new.
  7. Of course, if I had actually been in a hurry, I wouldn’t have used the new online service at all – I would have got a bus to the council office, spent twenty minutes in a queue and left with the permits in my hand.  That process certainly isn’t perfect, but it is spectacularly faster.

Interesting elsewhere – 9 September 2014

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away… — Medium
The fact that hardware and software is being professionally designed to distract was the first thing that made me willing to require rather than merely suggest that students not use devices in class. There are some counter-moves in the industry right now — software that takes over your screen to hide distractions, software that prevents you from logging into certain sites or using the internet at all, phones with Do Not Disturb options — but at the moment these are rear-guard actions. The industry has committed itself to an arms race for my students’ attention, and if it’s me against Facebook and Apple, I lose.

You Are Not Late — The Message — Medium
Right now, today, in 2014 is the best time to start something on the internet. There has never been a better time in the whole history of the world to invent something. There has never been a better time with more opportunities, more openings, lower barriers, higher benefit/risk ratios, better returns, greater upside, than now. Right now, this minute. This is the time that folks in the future will look back at and say, “Oh to have been alive and well back then!”

The last 30 years has created a marvelous starting point, a solid platform to build truly great things. However the coolest stuff has not been invented yet — although this new greatness will not be more of the same-same that exists today. It will not be merely “better,” it will different, beyond, and other.

The spirit of the age | Flip Chart Fairy Tales
It’s not just funerals and retirements that change attitudes. The process by which whole societies change their minds about things is much more interesting than that. Generational attitudes waver and people move with the times. The word zeitgeist translates as spirit of the age. That spirit moves in mysterious ways.

Beyond belief – towards a new methodology of change | Matthew Taylor’s blog
Perhaps the biggest challenge to the beyond policy paradigm is that it requires fundamental changes not just in the way we do policy, but in how we think about politics, accountability and social responsibility. The solidity of traditional policy making is contained within a wider system which cannot easily contend with the much more fluid material of ‘beyond policy’. When, for example, I tell politicians there their most constructive power may lie not in passing laws, imposing regulations or even spending money but on convening new types of conversation, they react like body builders who have asked to train using only cuddly toys.

Already Here: the importance of ordinary innovation | Native
I’ve grown to learn that the greatest innovations are not always with the new ways to tell stories, or the new ways to make a noise. Instead, the truly revolutionary are often somewhat banal. They’re the innovation that disappears as soon as it happens, that arrives and makes us immediately forget what it was like to live without it. Not showy, but subtle and just-so.

How to Harness the Wisdom of Crowds in Public Services
Polls, referenda and consultations request individuals’ views on a subject. They ask citizens to express the level of their support for a particular measure, or to state their preference from a list of pre-set options. Gathering such qualitative responses may be helpful in revealing the strength of public opinion on a specific issue. But the pressing need for good policymaking is having ideas and information. A more interesting and potentially fruitful approach would therefore be to ask citizens to provide facts or answers to specific questions; to provide knowledge that government alone could not find for itself.

Not just the government’s playbook – O’Reilly Radar
Whenever I hear someone say that “government should be run like a business,” my first reaction is “do you know how badly most businesses are run?” Seriously. I do not want my government to run like a business — whether it’s like the local restaurants that pop up and die like wildflowers, or megacorporations that sell broken products, whether financial, automotive, or otherwise.

Net present value

The train now approaching platform 2 has been delayed for 155 years.

A few weeks ago, I found myself on the Cornish Riviera, the fastest train from Cornwall to London, stopping only at Plymouth, Exeter and Reading between the Tamar and Paddington, and timetabled to go from Penzance to London in exactly five hours.

Splendid. Except that the distance is a shade over 300 miles, so the average speed is a less than dizzy 61mph. And even that average covers some interesting variation. Looked at section by section, the speeds tell a powerful story.

Distance (miles) Time Speed (mph)
Penzance to Plymouth 79½ 2h 40
Plymouth to Exeter 52 57m 55
Exeter to Reading 137¾ 1h 38 81
Reading to London 36 25m 86
Penzance to London 305¼ 5h 61

Some of that variation is explained by the fact that the train stops eight times between Penzance and Plymouth and not at all between the other pairs of stations, but on any basis, a supposed express taking two hours to cover eighty miles is hardly impressive.

This isn’t about the trains. They may be forty years old, but they are still capable of reaching 125mph and they certainly don’t get close to that anywhere west of Exeter.  So it comes down to the track and, more specifically, to a set of design decisions made in the 1840s.  The terrain was not easy, with lots of steep valleys perpendicular to the line of route, money was short, and construction costs were minimised. Apart from the curves, other obvious signs of those constraints remain today – the splendid Royal Albert bridge across the Tamar is an engineering masterpiece, but it is only single track, as was the entire line in Cornwall when first built.

In making those design decisions, did the promoters of the line give any thought to the fact that they were investing for the next two centuries or more? Of course they didn’t – what, after all, had posterity ever done for them? With the benefit of those two centuries of hindsight, would it have been rational to have invested more at the outset in order to secure a long stream of higher benefits? Almost certainly, and if the capital markets were not capable of doing that, we can now see that it would have made good sense for the government of the time to have borrowed to make more effective investment possible. Leaving aside the fact that that’s not what governments in the 1840s saw their job as being (we are already well into the realm of fantasy here), the very long range value of some kinds of investment decisions, combined with the very long term constraints some of those decisions bring means that the there is a long-term skew to sub-optimal levels of public investment.

Meanwhile, Daniel Davies has written a beautiful essay, summarising Switzerland in 18 vignettes. The whole thing is a delight and well worth reading, but a couple of sentences prompted me to think again about my Cornish experience:

The SBB, great though it is, is not the real miracle of Switzerland compared to the dozens of little cantonal and sub-regional railways that serve even the smallest little towns on rails carved into the roads or running alongside them. This sort of infrastructure asset doesn’t depreciate if maintained properly, and it keeps providing the services for which it was intended in all economic climates. It’s a classic illustration of a point that John Quiggin has regularly made – that classic “risk-adjusted” discounted cash flow analysis will always overstate the risks of government spending and result in underprovision of infrastructure.

Devon and Cornwall provide a different example of that point with the closure of the line between Exeter and Newton Abbot earlier this year when a stretch of track was washed away. There was once some redundancy in the system which could have routed round the damage – but that has long since been removed, leaving rail access to Plymouth and beyond vulnerable to a single point of failure. Again, we can only speculate about the long term return there would have been on keeping the line across Dartmoor open.

This isn’t a post mourning a pre-Beeching world, where trains puffed across sunny rural landscapes, pausing from time to time to pick up a few milk churns. Seeing how the past might be valued differently is not the same as valuing everything that is past. Trying to understand the long-term value of infrastructure is not the same as saying that all infrastructure has long-term value.

Indeed, this isn’t really a post about the past at all. The railway line across Cornwall, curves, gradients and all, is what it is, and nobody is going to build another one. So this is a post about the future: can we find ways of being smarter about the long term value (and costs and risks) of our investment choices?