#1 post

some background about why i started a substack and a look at the social contract

hey everyone!

i am bryan wilson and this is the beginning of my substack. i plan to publish new posts once every week or two and will explore connections between an intentionally wide range of topics.

this week i provide some background about why i am starting this, i list a few updates of things that i have been working on, and then i talk about some ideas i have been thinking about lately that relate to the history of the social contract (i.e., the relationship between people, businesses, and government), the relative failures of adapting the social contract for the industrialization of the internet, and list a few areas that i think could be important to focus on for moving forward.

some background about why i started this ✍️

my salient background point for the purpose of this first post on substack can be reduced into the following statement: writing, editing, and publishing have become a large part of the way i live.

over the years, i got into the practice of journaling as a way to make sense of my own world and i noticed that it helped me understand myself a lot better. [1]

part of my work is writing, editing, publishing, and talking about the transformative power of law, technology, and design. [2]

get feedback from interesting folks 🔄

in doing these things, i have realized that i enjoy talking to a bunch of different people about a bunch of different topics and finding ways to co-create new understandings and ideas about the future together. perhaps the key motivation in creating this substack is actually the process of making/maintaining/curating something akin to a news letter. in the same way that the practice of writing, editing, and publishing has positively transformed my personal life and my professional life, it is my hope that a recurring substack will force me to write a bit more, to learn a bit more, and to connect a bit more on a bunch of the things that exist somewhere between personal and professional. [3]

provide updates 🔉

history has also demonstrated that i am not really good at providing regular updates about the different things i have been working on. [4] i suspect a big reason for this failure is related to my general mistrust of mainstream social media platforms. in any case, another big reason i am bad about providing updates is because i don’t like writing up summaries for the different audiences on the different platforms about whatever thing i did. i chose substack over various other platforms because the long form content makes it easier for me to publish everything in the form i want without directly competing for space in a news feed or being hamstrung to a certain number of characters. another reason i chose substack is because you, dear reader, can select how you access these meanderings. you can sign-up to clog your inbox with email updates when i make new posts, or you can bookmark this page and come back to it whenever you feel like avoiding other parts of the internet that might be even worse than this one.

so here we are.


quick updates 📻

for an outdated list of other things i have worked on, check out via my personal website — bryangw.me

work updates 📈

MIT 🔭

i have continued doing research at MIT; in the last year, the small team i work with published a bunch of articles via the MIT Computational Law Report and we recently hit a milestone of having 10,000 unique readers which is kind of astonishing to me.

this semester, i am also serving as a Colleague Instructor for MIT’s Global Ventures Course. the course itself is pretty interesting, the whole goal is to develop prototypes, business plans, whitepapers, etc. for enduring and economically viable solutions to problems faced by at least a billion people worldwide.

Kauffman Foundation 🏘️

last April, i started working on a project with the Kauffman Foundation. the project is cool and is exploring some transformative ideas around community equity. more details later on when i can talk about it more.

BrightHive 📁

i have also been doing some consulting work with a company that builds data trusts called BrightHive. the idea behind BrightHive is that people trying to tackle similar problems can work together to share insights derived from a large set of aggregated data without sharing the data itself.

RiskGenius 🎉

the insurtech company i worked at for 2.5 years, RiskGenius, was acquired in the last couple weeks by Bold Penguin. super excited because RiskGenius does really great policy-level analytics and i think integrating that into the streamlined process of issuing commercial insurance policies that Bold Penguin offers.

event updates 📆

a task force we started last year was invited to participate at the U.N. World Data Forum (going on now). below is an action shot from the presentation.

music updates 🎵

lately, i have been interested in something like a musical convergence around different moods. the mood for the playlist linked below is what i would describe as general, summer relaxing mood. there are some older tunes by The Beach Boys, Cocteau Twins, Todd Rundgren, and the Alessi Brothers and some more recent works by Men I Trust, Helado Negro, Hand Habits, and Faye Webster.

if you’re interested in adding songs to this playlist, lmk


this week’s idea(s) 💭

gardening and the balance of the social contract 🌱

back in law school, i read this book by Chuck Klosterman called But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present as If It Were the Past. the analysis that follows looks at the growth of the social contract during the late 1800s/early 1900s and the legal mechanisms that were used to reduce problems that were exacerbated by new technologies and new modes of production then and explores what some solutions to the problems we face today that are also exacerbated by new technologies and modes of production.

the social contract is basically a noun that is used to describe to think about that relationship between people, businesses, and governments. [5] my interest in the social contract emanates from a general desire to learn about how this relationship can adapt/should adapt to new technologies in ways that keep the social contract relationship at a basic level of equilibrium. my idea is that the different cycles of industrialization and the broader societal response (esp. during the late 1800s/early 1900s) can serve as sort of a template to avoid imbalance and all the negative consequences associated therein.

the following analysis notably lacks discussion beyond a Western point of view. if you have any resources that touch on these things outside of this admittedly limited canon, plz email!

industrialization as a design paradigm for how to overcome the pain of now 🏭

looking at the late 1800s and early 1900s industrialization as a design template for understanding how to balance this relationship, there are a few basic societal mechanisms that can be used to balance this relationship. many of these mechanisms have their roots in law. for example, to account for the environmental externalities of coal, new environmental regulations were enacted; to account for the change to working conditions that saw children working long hours in terrible conditions, there were a number of lawsuits (see e.g., the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire) that led to regulations being passed that gave workers basic protections; to account for the emergent monopolies taking place within the railroad industry, the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890), Clayton Antitrust Act (1914), and the Federal Trade Commission Act (1914) were introduced; to account for the wealth polarity of the Gilded Age, new citizen/individual-centric legal organizations were created/popularized in the form of Credit Unions, Labor Unions, and Mutual Organizations; to account for the inaccessibility of home ownership after the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the National Mortgage Crisis of the 1930s new lending/investment standards were developed in the form of the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934; and, to account for the inaccessibility of quality education, there was a rise in Land-grant universities.

many of the conditions from that period parallel sentiments that are popular today. there’s high wealth inequality, a growing distrust of technology being used as killing machines and to wipe out the human quality of things, a rise in anticompetitive behavior among the major tech infrastructure players (railroads/internet), quality education was/is out of reach for lots of people, people lost money from speculative trading/over-leveraged lending, and home ownership was/is out of reach for many. on top of that, the Great Decoupling — the decoupling of GDP and Productivity (as well as rate of private employment and median household income) — has been increasing as new technologies are continually embedded into the fabric of society.

The Great Decoupling - AVC

however, there are some things that can be done. these conditions were once mitigated and rebalanced (to a certain degree). so in trying to find solutions to the problems we face today, i think there’s a big opportunity to examine this social contract balancing history a bit further.

tying together this thread of the idea 🖇️

to recap, here are some things that worked (to some extent) to rebalance wealth inequality, distrust of technology, lack of access to education, speculative transacting, and lack of home ownership include:

  • regulations that account for the working conditions brought about by new technologies

  • regulations that account for the new environmental externalities caused by the new technologies

  • regulations for new types of anticompetitive behavior brought about by the new technologies

  • citizen-centered organizations that help those working in the industries dominated by the new technologies, and

  • new types of financial regulations and investment vehicles that preserve trust in our financial institutions while using new ideas to make it easier to transact

exactly how these historical domains are translated into our modern context then must be the next task. computer ethicist, Walter Maner provides an overview of the ways that computers and situations involving computers are “unique” from situations that exist in the real world. he describes the 8 criteria of uniqueness in a paper that has shaped a fair amount of my thinking over the years that is called Is Computer Ethics Unique?the criteria are: uniquely stored, uniquely malleable, uniquely complex, uniquely fast, uniquely cheap, uniquely cloned, uniquely discrete, and uniquely coded.

this all sort of tracks with where we are now, too. new regulations are coming out to regulate the sharing economy; see Proposition 22: Gig Worker benefits(Cal Matters) Uber suffers another setback in the UK as a judge rules that drivers require workers’ rights(CNBC). the regulation of new environmental externalities has not quite taken off, in spite of the fact that the mining protocols for cryptocurrencies and the electricity cost for training AI models have really large electricity costs; for an overview on some of these impacts, see AI Can Do Great Things — If It Doesn’t Burn the Planet (Wired) and Bitcoin's energy consumption 'equals that of Switzerland'(BBC). new forms of algorithmic anticompetitive behavior are starting to be understood better and lawsuits against some of the big players have started to happen; see Justice Department Sues Monopolist Google For Violating Antitrust Laws (US Dept. of Justice), Data Shows Shipt’s “Black Box Algorithm Reduces Pay of 40% of Workers(Coworker.org); Thibault Schrepel also curates a great monthly list of content related to antitrust and new technologies here. citizen-centered organizations have started balancing some of the power asymmetries that have emerged with big companies;this is happening a bit in the well-known parts of the sharing economy, for example, with drivers for Uber and Lyft: The future of gig work could involve unions and co-ops (TechCrunch) and is also happening a bit in the lesser-known parts of the sharing economy, for example with workers paid by the click on Amazon Mechanical Turk: Amazon’s Turker Crowd Has Had Enough (Wired); this is also happening with data cooperatives, data trusts, and data unions. [6] there are also some interesting things happening with new types of investment vehicles and financial regulations. however, i have made the editorial decision to talk about some of those in a different upcoming post.

conclusion 🔚

in the long term, if/how these relationships play out could be different. i don’t know that the template i’ve described above is a 1:1 correlation, but i think there are probably some basic design principles that could be synthesized from other histories beyond what i’ve written down here and translated into new forms by applying an understanding of the unique features of computers, the internet, and the broader sociological context in which we find ourselves.

if you have thoughts or ideas on this or if you know people working on projects at the intersections of these domains, i’d be really interested to connect!


notes 📝

[1] if you are interested in building better habits, including journaling, i would highly recommend reading Justin Kan’s post about Feeling Good.

[2] if you are interested in checking out some of my working writing, editing, publishing, and talking about technology, i’d encourage you to check out the publication i work for — the MIT Computational Law Report.

[3] indeed, the title of this substack derives from a concept that is defined by my research boss, Professor Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland, as “[t]he propogation of behaviors and beliefs through a social network by means of social learning and social pressure. Idea flow takes into account the social network structure, the strength of the social influence between each pair of people, as well as individual susceptibility to new ideas.” In his book Social Physics, Sandy & team look at the relationships between different patterns of engagement, exploration, and the relative effect of these different patterns in achieving some success. Here’s a video of a Ted talk Sandy did on the Social Physics:

[4] the last substantive i provided on the internet was well-received by many of the people closest to me. click this link to check out my previous update

[5] part of the spark here was initially in editing/providing feedback for part of a whitepaper produced by the MIT Connection Science research group (the research group i am in) and that was later turned into a book chapter for a book that is to be called Building the New Economy

[6] a company i have been doing some consulting with, BrightHive, builds data trusts that allow members to share data with each other in order to generate deeper and richer sets of information. data cooperatives and data unions are also something i have worked at least moderately closely to. more information about those can be found in Building the New Economy