Scene 4: Barry and Ron

In which middle-class, Nebraskan chums Barry and Ron discuss a provocative campaign ad, and, later on, Barry delves deeper.

Political ads are always challenged. Personal learning assistants will be amazingly smart and competent.

Socialist Joe Perry, a challenger for Eva Florez’s senate seat, had a fairly conventional attack ad. A grave voice intoned, "Eva Florez wants to throw our most distressed families to the wolves. She wants tax cuts that will slash unemployment assistance across our state..."

Barry's longtime chum, Ron, waved his hand dismissively and snarled, "Perry!  Buncha crap! Socialists just want to throw away more money!"

Barry and Ron

Barry only replied with a grunt, as he was in the middle of a sip of beer. Ron commanded, "Go to the…go to the rebuttal." Barry gamely pointed, skipped over the Globalist response, and selected the Libertarian-authored response.

For all political ads, it was the law that opposing parties always had the right to insert a link to a short (350 characters or less) text response, including a link to further information. And then, that the originators of the ad had the right to insert a link below that response—though, that's where it was required to stop.

The Libertarian response read:

Senator Florez’s tax reform proposal preserves benefits for deserving families, while reversing burdensome tax increases enacted during the last Socialist administration. It is expressly false that her proposal mandates cuts in unemployment benefits. Mr. Perry's proposals, meanwhile, will discourage job-hunting and will create a permanent class of unemployable Nebraskans.    [_Learn More_]

[_Socialist final response_]

"That's it," said Ron with satisfaction. "that's what I'm saying, lazy assholes want to just live off the dole—for them and the Socialists, that's just great."

"Right," said Barry, "and we're paying for it and paying for them."


"And," said Barry, "it's all – there's so much freakin’ waste." Barry's face scrunched. "All these bureaucrats and…and boondoggles, like… like that damn Water project, a bunch of make-work shit. Sucking the life right out of the economy."

"Yeah, it's bullshit."

The men each took another thoughtful sip, and Ron settled back into the couch. Barry aimlessly clicked on the Socialist final response which, from a quick glance, had some baloney about how (supposedly) Florez’s actual proposal did in fact say yada yada…  He dismissed it.

The next day, though, Barry couldn't stop thinking about a family friend, Malik, who had been laid off almost a year ago. The economy was currently in a bit of a slump. Barry's puzzlement got the best of him, and a few days later he went to Know The System. "Why do we need unemployment assistance?" he cautiously began.

With the goal of serving Barry as efficiently as possible, the system replied:

Is your aim:

        a) to win an argument with someone
        b) to get the quick Libertarian explanation
        c) you'd like to devote some time to learn about this

Like most Americans, Barry had grown up with Know The System, and it (privately) knew Barry's opinions, biases, and preferences, and remembered all past interactions. Its algorithms also knew a lot about different categories of people—Nebraskans, Libertarians, middle-aged white men, tradesmen, and so on.

Know The System was funded by the federal government. Though it contained a great deal of educational material, its primary focus was to give citizens whatever they wanted to know, whenever they wanted to know it, and in the quickest and the most low-stress way possible.

Barry sullenly considered option "c", but pictured himself starting it, then moving it onto a "See Later" list, and then never looking at it again. So he picked "b", and a narrated animation began.

"Unemployment assistance helps people get back on their feet. But there are issues: the cost to taxpayers, and perverse incentives that cause some able recipients to not look for work. Most Libertarians accept the need to provide some assistance but think that, on balance, the money may cause people more harm than good.

Socialists' typical counterarguments are that the money actually stimulates the economy, and that the number of true 'slackers' is small and readily managed.

The basic statistics are these: the average number of months that unemployed persons get assistance is 8; the average percentage of the state budget that—"

"Stop," said Barry. He was incredulous. He thought a bit, then asked, "How… how would the money stimulate the economy?!"  In his mind's eye, he had visualized money for the unemployed as going down into a metaphorical drain, or perhaps even as dollar bills being burned up. What did it even mean that it "stimulated" the economy?

The system responded:

Do you mean:

        a) What do economists mean by "stimulating" the economy?
        b) What is our measure of economic activity and growth?
        c) If you give people money without receiving any service in return, how could that possibly benefit the economy?

Barry tried to absorb these options. The first two seemed relevant, but sounded too bookish. The third one felt patronizing, but he selected it. Another narrated animation explained that not having to quickly find a job freed the unemployed citizens' time for re-training workshops, and that most of the money given to them was immediately spent by them on goods and services from companies. Barry's heart skipped. "Make-work!" he muttered approvingly.

He was momentarily pleased by the feeling that he had recognized the hole in Socialists' claims, but his satisfaction was not complete. If the money was circulating back into the economy… He was torn between wanting insight into how the economy worked and wanting to find further justifications for his revulsion towards "make-work" schemes.

After a brief struggle, he rolled back to the "devote some time to learn" option, and put it onto his list to review later.

I fantasize a lot about Know The System. As a computer scientist who's built three very complex interactive learning systems during my career, I temper my imagination with realism. But I know that it's inevitable. What's depicted here is more advanced than anything we will be able to build in the next couple decades. But be asking yourself: doesn't it at least seem like a possibility, longer term?

(Aside: you can ignore the naming coincidence between (1) this futuristic, fictional Know The System system and (2) the real, current non-profit organization called Know The System, Inc.)

Google is a useful, present-day point of reference. Google knows quite a bit about each of us, and it intelligently brings us webpages in response to any question we ask. Often the topmost result brings us to an article in Wikipedia, or sometimes a YouTube video. Most of the retrieved content has not been developed by paid professionals; and the content creators typically assume their content will be consumed “randomly”, i.e. not as part of a designed experience, and making no assumptions about what the user saw previously.

"Personal assistants" are also appearing now, able to tell you the weather or the location of the nearest Starbucks with a voice command. Any user will admit that they are "brittle", in the sense that they often misunderstand you or get you useless links.

These assistants are basically doing on-demand database retrievals. Over time, though, something more closely resembling human understanding will evolve. Software for natural language understanding will reference "commonsense" knowledge structures, and detailed information "models" of each person will be built up over time.

Of course, what about privacy? Yes, there is a lot that will be involved in guaranteeing individuals that they can tell Know The System anything, and ensuring that they can tightly and knowledgeably manage what information is accessible to whom: to businesses; to the public; to hackers; to system managers; and, of course, to the government. These safeguards will also evolve over time, with critics scrutinizing every turn.

For such an "intimate" resource as Know The System, there are also critical issues about what each individual is told. We know, for example, that systems like Facebook have secret algorithms that selectively present you with attractive posts and links.  Which typically results in the dreaded "echo chambers" in which you only see posts and links from people with the same biases as you.

Would it be okay for Know The System to do that? What principles should apply to its algorithms and content?


cast of characters