The intertwined themes of Diversity and Regulation are in my thoughts a lot at the moment, so this post acts as an anchor from which I expect to expand on in other posts.
We are surrounded by diversity – among people, in the objects in our daily lives, in culture and knowledge, in fortune – good or bad; and more exposed to this than in any time in human history.
I am a fan of diversity, which is a good thing, because it exists, and to deny the existence of something real is ultimately a mistake.
People come a variety of shapes, sizes, skin colours and ethnic origins, gender identifications and orientations, abilities and interests.
The objects and tools around us are more varied, and can come from anywhere in the world. Although the food we eat may (and probably should) come from close to us, the ideas and cuisines can come from anywhere in the world – or bring them together to create something totally new.
Out in the bustling streets of Oxford (pre coronavirus) I love to see the bright colours of traditional African garb, the formal western suits, the casual jeans and tee-shirts, the outrageously short mini skirts and the ultra modest burqa, all able to mingle and co-exist.
My television has some huge number of channels, covering many varied interests, and my bookshelves hold several thousand books – I have not counted them recently. My Kindle has, slightly alarmingly, well over 500 books on it, and the Internet gives me access to more information than the librarians of the Great Library of Alexandria could have dreamt of.
Oxford Phab brings me in touch with a range of people who enrich my life, and broaden my horizons.
Pressure against diversity
There are some people who do enjoy some aspects of this diversity. They do not like the way some people live their lives, or the way they dress, or the ideas expressed in some books.
In some ways this is natural – we humans spent almost all of our evolutionary lives as small bands of hunter-gathers, where anyone who was not of our tribe was a threat, and anything we did not understand in our environment was probably dangerous. When we allow these ingrained reactions to rule our actions then bad things happen.
People have tried to remove entire peoples because they believed they were inferior, or a threat. They have tried to eliminate ideas which threaten their beliefs, or those who author those ideas.
Such attempts to make the world the way we wish it was by denying reality are doomed to failure, though they can cause great harm in the process. That is not to say that we can not change the world, simply that we must work in the real world and accept that real change needs a lot of work.
During my lifetime computer software and technology has gone from something only of interest to a few ‘odd’ people, to being woven deeply into all our lives. The economics of information, for that is what software is, are different from the economics of goods, and have an even stronger tendency to form monopolies. Dealing with these issues is much more difficult than for monopolies in goods, and a large enough subject that it deserves a post of its own, still to be written.
The benefits of diversity
If we lived in a perfect world, then there might be a single best food, best item of clothing, best religion and so on. However we do not, and then variety provides versatility as our environment changes.
An example would be industrial melanism, in which different moth colourings have different survival chances, depending on their environment.
Insufficient diversity leads to a monoculture, which, in an agricultural context can be efficient, but is more risky if the environment changes, leading to consequences like the Irish potato famine.
If you talk to an engineer about regulation, then depending on the type of engineer, they might thing of voltage regulation, or a centrifugal governors, or they might think of building regulations. A politician or lawyer would probably only think of the third case, but if implemented properly they are all examples of feedback loops.
A good system of regulation takes into account a continuous measurement of the current state of something, and a desired state, and a process for getting from here to there. In the case of creating laws or rules these may constrain diversity, but should do so as little as possible.
The process of arriving at the these rules, standards, regulations or laws should be open and transparent, so that, as will happen, when flaws are discovered in the rule it can be adjusted to cover the cases which had not been considered. The process of considering hypothetical cases and adjusting rules is brilliantly demonstrated in Outnumbered Series 2 episode 1, where Ben explores the boundaries of Pete’s ‘Don’t hit people’ rule.
One of the reasons the Internet is so successful (apart from YouTube) is that the standards it uses are created through an open process, under the governance of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), and are openly published. This allows diversity in the ways the standards are followed, indeed to become an actual Internet Standard there must be two independent implementations of the standard, which must interoperate. The standard which specifies this is called RFC2026, which you can read to verify this by clicking on the link. The Internet Engineering Task Force is governed by the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), which takes the postition that ‘The Internet is for End Users‘ – published at RFC8890. This provides an excellent overview of values at the heart of the Internet (not to be confused with the values of services, such as Facebook, Google, etc which run on top of it).
By contrast there is a good reason for the current insurance advertisement saying
Do you know whether your door locks meet BS 3621
“I don’t know!” he cries. “Nobody knows!”
The customer is not entirely correct, however the British Standards Institute charges between £55 (for members) and £228 for each of the 9 standards which match a search for 3621 on their website.
When the process of regulation, particularly the introspective step of testing the regulations to ensure they meet the requirements goes wrong the results can be catastrophic. The Grenfel Tower fire, and the Great Recession are examples from fire regulation and financial regulation.
By contrast if society is over regulated, for example by a totalitarian government, it tends to stagnate, and – because it has suppressed the diversity in its society, which is where the innovation comes from, it is left behind by more open societies. Refusing to allow different voices to be heard, or actively suppressing them, cuts off a flow of information which is vital to the feedback loop. It may be uncomfortable to be told you are wrong, but if you are wrong, it is better to know.
On that topic, if I am wrong – please let me know. Comments on this blog are moderated – to prevent spam, but I do try to approve or respond in a timely manner.