Internet and ambiguity: Correct and incorrect are now a matter of choice

Everyone thinks the Internet’s positive side far outdoes its negative one. That is true.

The former comprises the unfettered freedom of expression. The latter comprises a different form of the same thing, like porn and such like.

Many governments have tried to restrict the former because they don’t want to be criticised. But no one, to the best of my knowledge, ever has sought to put a nonsense filter on the Net.

The result is an explosion of nonsense never been witnessed before. The Net has made gurus of charlatans.

This would not matter except for one thing: if enough people think that all opinions are valid then, by definition, all opinions must also be invalid. This has created a huge problem for governance.

They can’t tell sense from nonsense.

Two features

I formulated two propositions a few years ago.

Rule No 1: In the economic world every statistic has an equal and opposite statistic.

Rule No 2: Every opinion has an equal and opposite opinion, including the ones opposed to those contained here.

Overall, as a consequence, the distinction between what is correct and what is not has been completely lost. Correct and incorrect have become a matter of choice.

This has led to another perverse outcome, namely, the formation of groups that listen to, hear or read only those people with whom they agree. This tendency towards self-affirming homogeneity, often led by a celebrity, is creating havoc for governance.

Indeed, these groups create the celebrity and then take what he or she says as gospel. You can check for yourself how often this happens.

Ambiguity rules

This has given a new meaning to the term uncertainty, which has been replaced by ambiguity. Roger de Coverley, a fictional 18th-century figure put it like this:

“. . . he told them with the air of a man who would not give his judgment rashly, that much might be said on both sides. They were neither of them dissatisfied... because neither of them found him in the incorrect by it...”

The last sentence holds the key to our current dilemmas, 'that neither of them found him in the incorrect by it'. Governments no longer have any definitive way of knowing what is correct and what is incorrect. My two rules above always kick in.

Demonetisation and the goods and services tax (GST) are two excellent examples of this. Whether they were good for the economy or not has become a matter of personal choice, even though it will be years before their full effects will become known.

Bank nationalisation is exactly like that, too. It created more bank branches (good) and generated greater inefficiency and corruption (bad).

Likewise, demonetisation took the petrol out of a car and the car nearly stopped. Now that the petrol is back it is moving again. So good or bad?

As for GST implementation, it is like a traffic jam. When you are in it you think you will miss your flight. But once the bottleneck goes, you reach the airport well in time.

What should be done?

I think the RBI provides the most admirable role model. Unknown to it, its behaviour is based on a theorem in economics called the Gibbard-Satterthwaite theorem.

It says no matter how democratic a system is, in the end, someone has to impose a dictatorial decision. The buck stops at some point.

The RBI unconsciously follows this theorem, which is why it has been largely successful with monetary policy. The Governor listens to everyone and then decides. The MPC notwithstanding the price of money is his decision alone, and he imposes it.

One of the most appealing things about the theorem is that it actually forbids certain candidates – in this case, ideas – from winning. The counterpart for policy-making should be that some policies are never considered, like MNREGA.

But, in real life, bad policies can’t be forbidden. Nor can a good rule be fully dictatorial.

That is why all countries now end up in situations that suit no one at all. This was always a problem.

But the Net has exacerbated it.

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