Assignment 6 – Narrowcast

DUE 1 March 2010 at 12 noon via bSpace.

Socrates, you will remember, didn’t have great faith in the foresight of inventors.  He showed this when he recounted the response of Thamus: “Theuth, my paragon of inventors, the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it.”  Read the communications from Morse, Bell, and Colt about the telegraph and the telephone.  Using contributions from at least two of these writers, support or challenge Socrates’s view. Given our discussion on Tuesday, comment on ways in which the new system (either telegraph or telephone) and the use envisaged by the inventor may be subject to a version of Goodhart’s law.


It is true that often the beauty of new invention blinds us all, and yet it may actually be the creators of such inventions who are least blind to their respective faults, despite Socrates’ views that they are the most ignorant of such shortcomings . The telegraph was hailed by the government employees as something that trumped all previous scientific advancements, and by virtue of its existence it was thought “space will be… completely annihilated between the States of the Union” (Morse p. 2). Besides its technical beauty, the government did acknowledge that the technology could be used of either good or evil purposes, an idea that originally belonged to Morse himself. It was Morse who warned that the telegraph system could be subject to both corporate and government monopoly, and suggested relevant paths to try and circumvent such an outcome. Clearly such warning was not fully appreciated, as the document from 1846 shows, wherein Samuel Colt and his partner are granted by the government full control of all lines from New York to New Jersey/Long Island. Though they speak mainly of how useful this will be in reporting shipwrecks and shipping news, they also point out that “It is the custom for owners… of vessels to pay a small premium to the parties first reporting the arrival of their vessels” (Colt p. 1), something that the entrepreneurs surely capitalized upon. Goodhart’s law states that “any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes”- basically that what is seen in testing or predicting of the use of technology is not always what is seen when the technology is put into use, and society has figured out ways to exploit its features. The social factor cannot be removed, something that was brought up by Morse and yet eventually came to pass, despite his objections. The inventor of the telephone, Bell, speaks about boosting early acceptance of the telephone by selling it cheaply to houses for in-house use, as opposed to regular business pricing. He then postulates that any trickery could be avoided by marking the home phones for their specific usage and requiring their return if used for other means (Bell p. 157). Clearly, as posited by Goodhart’s law, such a rational solution would probably not stand up to real-world testing, as businesses would find any way to exploit the system for cheaper products. Inventor or not, such situations are often anticipated, but solutions cannot be found without factoring in the societal response to guidelines. -Isobel

Socrates did not have great faith in inventors because he believed that inventions could turn out good or harmful to those who practiced it. In Bell’s “To the Capitalists of the Bell Telephone Company” and Morse’s “Electro-Magnetic Telegraphs,” they both challenge Socrates’ view. Bell believed that the telephone would allow people to communicate with others in distant places. Bell counters Socrates’ view because he provides ways in which people can prevent the telephone from being misused, especially in private buildings. Bell explains, “Telephones sold for this purpose could be stamped or numbered in such a way as to distinguish them from those employed for business purposes, and an agreement could be signed by the purchaser that the telephones should become forfeited to the company if used for other purposes than those specified in the agreement” (Bell 1). As an inventor, Bell found ways to counter the misuses of his invention before it happened. Furthermore, Morse invented the telegraph and he explains, “The power of the invention, if successful, is so extensive for good and for evil, that the Government alone should possess the right to control and regulate it” (Morse 6). Morse understood the possibility of fraud, so he allowed the government to regulate his invention. Moreover, these inventions are a subject of Goodhart’s Law because they have both become so successful that they have become targets. They both cease to be good measures anymore because the government can now tap into them and control its main purposes. -Jody

From the arguments of Alexander Graham Bell and Samuel Morse, I feel Socrates was incorrect in his assertion that the an inventor is not the best judge of the good or harm that can come of his invention. Bell acknowledged that different types of telephones should serve different purposes (business vs. private communication), and that potential trouble in misusing these types should be punished. Morse, in his Feb. 13, 1838 letter, was aware that his telegraph might be used for evil, citing speculators, corrupt government, and the sheer power of the tool. However, in light of the numerous public good he believed the telegraph would bring, outlined in his writings, he urged the government to press on, suggesting a plan of checks and balances between the government and private sector to limit potential danger from a telegraph system. It is clear that both inventors spent time discerning possible problems and socially detrimental uses for their inventions, and offered detailed external, social solutions for the internal flaws of the devices.
Bell envisioned that eventually, the public would become “accustomed to the telephone in their houses” as they recognized “the advantage of a system of intercommunication.” Goodhart’s Law may come into play here; advertising companies and solicitors could exploit the statistical regularity of people answering their phones when rung. However, this unwanted solicitation might diminish that exact behavior; people might stop answering their phones at mealtimes, or implement caller ID to screen calls first. -Charlie

I do not believe that Socrates’ view of the inventor’s perspective of their own invention is correct. As for the first reading about the telephone, it seemed that Alexander Bell had the correct idea regarding the telephone’s future. He predicted telephone wires connecting entire towns and different cities and the replacement of the telegraph by the telephone due to its ease of use and transmission of voice (Bell 156). Both of the predictions were very accurate and indicate that an inventor is perhaps the best judge as to how their inventions could be put to use.  It also seemed like Colt and Robinson were spot on with their predictions of how the electro-magnetic telegraph would be used. They had the firm belief that Morse’s telegraph system could be used for foreign and domestic news and commercial purposes (Colt and Robinson). It is certain that business transaction and transmission of news soon became two important uses for the telegraph. Again Socrates’ view is challenge as it seems that the discoverers of this new technology foresaw what it would be used for. It is easily conceivable that telegraphs, which were initially perceived as secure, could be tapped in some way. This certainly was not Morse’s intention, as he mentioned that all communications are secret (Morse 6). The same could be said for Bell’s telephone; a tapped line would result in an unintended consequence which Bell could not have foreseen. These are versions of Goodhart’s law in that the social pressure placed upon these technologies resulted in corruptions of them. -Zachary K.

While Socrates believes that the foresight of inventors cannot be trusted, oftentimes, this is due to unintended consequences unforeseen by the inventors. However, inventors generally have the best view of how their inventions should impact the world. This is evident in Alexander Graham Bell’s letter to the capitalists of the Electric Telephone Company in which he envisions that his telephone “will unite the head offices of telephone companies in different cities, and a man in one part of the country may communicate by word of mouth with another in a distant place.” (156) This was accomplished with the commercialization of the telephone. Furthermore the predecessor of the telephone, the telegraph, also accomplished what the inventor Samuel Morse envisioned, in which the “fullest and most precise information can be almost instantaneously transmitted between any two or more points” (Electro-Magnetic Telegraphs, 5) The success of a telegraph line set up in the late 1830s had generated a subscriber rate that brought in revenues of $10,000 per annum and the proprietors thought that this number could be “greatly increased when the lines are extended to more distant points…having this amount increased to $20,000” (New York And Offing Line of Magnetic Telegraph). Because this statistical extrapolation of increased revenues possibly brought in through the construction of the new telegraph line is based on the revenues generated with their current subscriber rate, the telegraph is subject to a version of Goodhart’s law. -Kasey


I agree with Socrates’ view that “the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it.” Many inventors, in an attempt to sell their invention, ignore the bad, focus on the good, and often grossly exaggerate the good. Bell claimed that “use of the telephone would speedily become popular, and that as the public became accustomed to the telephone in their houses they would recognize the advantages of a system of intercommunication” (Bell p. 157). This statement came to be true, but this is an example of only focusing on the good. There is no mention of the possibility of being contacted by unwanted individuals, such as telemarketers, which was a prominent business model and equally prominent nuisance for many decades. Colt on the other hand greatly exaggerated the future use of the telegraph when he claimed, “it is evident that the system of telegraphing news is destined to supersede, in a great degree, the publication of commercial newspapers” (Colt p. 1). Commercial newspapers are still around today, and telegraphs are not, so it is safe to say that the future didn’t quite play out how Colt imagined it would. Bell’s case can be viewed as analogous to a loose interpretation of Goodhart’s law, because when you focus so hard on the good, you tend to ignore the greater picture, and as Socrates’ believed, fail to see the “harm which will accrue to those who practice it.” -Zachary T.

As the case of the invention and application of the telegraph shows, Socrates’ lack of faith in the foresight of inventors is justified. It is difficult to fully predict the scale of change, both that a new technology can effect, and that a society can affect. In the case of the telegraph, its revolutionary nature was not underestimated, but the fields in which it could be supplied, it’s systemic growth, and the systems which it would be used to operate were hardly conceived of by its American inventor, Samuel Morse.
Firstly, on page 9 of Morse’s letter, he lays out predicted costs for the laying of 50 miles of telegraph wire. Imagine using this metric for predicting the costs of laying a transamerican or even transcontinental telegraph system, which soon occurred! Is this a situation in which Goodhart’s law can apply- a collapse of the statistical regularity of such a cost would likely occur. The first page of Colt’s letter to the public also includes some financial figuring, predictions that I predict actually broke down quickly under the increased efficiency and expanding uses of the telegraph line they planned!
While Colt’s letter does hint at the variety of sources and uses of the telegraph- reporting ships in distress or economic news, the eventual extent of the telegraph’s role would be difficult to predict. In fact, the telegraph soon began to operate in many key arenas of society- personal communication, a huge military command role, inter-ship communications, the prevalence of morse code- none of these systems, their good, their scale, or their popularity were or could be predicted by the inventor, who was concerned with just trying to make it work -Nikola

Goodhart’s Law explains how the success of the telegraph was hard to quantify or predict. This law states that if something is chosen as a measure of success than it will eventually break down upon further emphasis or play a completely different role at a future measurement. Colt demonstrates this fallacy in measuring the future success of the telegraph. Due to the telegraph’s ability to reduce distance of communication and time from input to output, Colt predicted that the telegraph would supersede the newspaper. Although this seems to be a logical conclusion, it fails to acknowledge all the complication that would arise to prevent it (Colt). In this case, Socrates was right to say that inventors misjudge the reality and use of their inventions. Even Alexander Graham Bell described a ridiculous method for labeling phones by their intended use (i.e. business vs. pleasure) and allowing usage based on this purpose (Bell). The Committee on Commerce hyped the telegraph up to be a social and political revolution, declaring the telegraph as the single most revolutionary human invention (CoC). Goodhart would explain these extraordinary claims as harking to a single facet of the invention that is then extrapolated to the forefront of the invention’s utility, misunderstanding the invention’s implications as a whole. -Justin

While many inventors may believe their inventions will change society and the world for the better, history has shown otherwise. As Socrates explains, “ the discoverer of an art is not the best judge” because they want to believe they have created something original and innovative. They tend to exaggerate its technology and overlook any possible negative side effects. This case can be seen with the similar exclamations for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and Morse’s electrographic telegram. Bell asks Congress to fund the national telephone system because it would benefit society “in a way never previously attempted.” However, Morse used the same argument when asking for funding of his telegraph a mere 50 years before. These so-called original and advanced technologies would both create “intercommunication” (Bell), “instantaneous transmission” of precise information (Morse), and “complete annihilation of space” (Morse). Bell fails to see how his invention has already been around in a different form that did not revolutionize society and Morse fails to acknowledge how his telegraph may be just as important or unimportant as the to other telegraphs invented before his. They not only claim that their inventions would be widely accepted by the public and create a way of transmitting correct and full information instantly, but also that the revenue it would take in would surpass the large amount of funding needed to set it up across the States.
Although the telegraph and the telephone were widely used, they did not live up to their expectations of “a revolution… of moral grandeur” (Morse). The inventor’s ideas of what their inventions would do for society follow Goodhart’s Law because they neither became the most important technology nor created a more perfect society. Their secure networks for the accurate and immediate transfer of information were many times infiltrated. As discussed in class, the British hacked into the Germans special system of Morse code and the U.S. government has used the telephone to spy on its own citizens. Phone tapping can be said to benefit society because it is used to capture criminals or terrorists but many people, especially those who know their information should be hidden from the government, learn how to recognize if their phone has been tapped and can thwart the government’s control. -Alejandra

Considering Socrates’ reasoned view that “the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it,” in conjunction with Professor Samuel F. B. Morse’s invention of the electro-magnetic telegraph and Alexander Graham Bell’s development of the telephone, it is certain that the inventor will harbor a biased prediction of the utility of his work, focusing on the benefit of such an accomplishment to the betterment of society. For Morse, the superiority of the electro-magnetic telegraph had the power to actually “save human life” by assisting in overseas communication during stormy weather, at night, in rains, snows, and in fogs (Morse 4). Unfortunately, he also made the notorious claim that in the future, “space will be, to all practical purposes of information, completely annihilated” (Morse 2), falling victim to the classic assumption that information technology is the correct lens with which to organize the future course of historical change. However blind-sided Morse was to the changing nature of information, he did take into account that the potential “good” of his invention could also be counterproductively used for “evil.” In realizing both capacities for power, Morse insists that “future ownership” of the invention should belong to the government, in order to “control and regulate” (Morse 2) its influence, naively assuming that the government is free from the corruption of corporate monopolies. Thus, as the discoverer of the telegraph, Morse is both acutely aware of its capability to enhance the reception and transmittance of communication, “making one neighborhood of the whole country” (Morse 9), but fails to fully acknowledge that this power will never be fully secure whether in the hands of individuals or an administration.
Similarly, Bell praises the superiority of the telephone because “it requires no skill to operate,” making it easily accessible to the common household; and while the telegraph needs to be interpreted, “the telephone actually speaks” (Bell 156), presumably eliminating the risk of faulty translation. He then makes the logical, but flawed, jump that the telephone “can be utilized for nearly every purpose which speech is employed.” Again, the discoverer misjudges the good of his work, by masking the true nature of relaying information, which is always subject to the variability of human error and miscommunications whether face-to-face or mediated by technological conveniences. For every problem, there is an answer that is simple, elegant, and wrong. -Erica

I support Socrates’ view in that inventors often “not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it”. From the three sets of letters that we’ve read, it appears that Bell, Colt, and Morse all envisioned the positive impacts of the telephone and the telegraph. However, there was little mention of how the invention might have a negative impact upon its users. For the most part, their predictions of how the inventions were used was not far off.
Morse saw the American Telegraph taking over the entire nation, and that everyone would benefit from it. He described the telegraph wires as “nerves” that will “diffuse, with the speed of thought, a knowledge of all that is occurring throughout the land; making, in fact, one neighborhood of the whole country” (p9, Morse’s letter). Since he saw the American Telegraph as a very powerful system, he also realized that it might fall into ill use, such as the technology being monopolized. Therefore he decided the government should control the use of this technology. In addition, he suggested a private telegraph solely for the government so that there will be “a system of checks and preventives of abuse” (p9). This suggestion and the technology together probably had a big impact on how the government monitors the citizens. A measure that is meant to protect information and secure the country clearly produced some unintended consequences. As of today, the issue of surveillance continues to be a heated topic.
Bell saw that telephones can be used “in every way speech is employed”, and envisioned that the telephone would be so popular that networks of telephone cables would be established just like the water or gas pipes (Bell’s letter, p156). What Bell did not notice was that there was a downside to increasing the ease of communication. Because it is so easy to find any recipient to call,  individuals and commercial businesses take advantage of the system with prank calls and telemarketing. As a result some users feel harassed and constantly experience the negative side of this technology.
In addition, Goodhart’s law can be applied to the telephone, along with Bell’s prediction. Bell urged the phones to be distributed to the ‘public’: “bankers, merchants, manufacturers, …” (p157). This indicates that Bell predicted the telephone would grow popular with only the business or professional sectors. In this case, popularity within these sectors were seen as “statistical regularity”, and Bell tried to control this trend by perpetuating the pattern. However, the telephone became even more widespread than Bell imagined, such that every household has it. In fact, even individuals have it and the purpose of the phone shifted to become more personal in nature. -Melissa

Bell’s and Morse’s letters stating the importance of the development of the telephone and telegraph systems support Socrates’ belief that inventors are not good at predicting the use of their inventions. First, both inventors had agendas in their letters. Since Morse was trying to convince the government and Bell was trying to convince a corporation to invest in developing the telegraph or telephone systems so that Bell and Morse could continue and expand their work, they would obviously want to show how widespread, effective, and useful their system would be. Thus they may be exaggerating the practicality of their system. For example, Morse describes the telegraph as “a revolution unsurpassed in moral grandeur by any discovery that has been made in the arts and sciences (Morse, Pg. 2).”
Secondly, they both believe that everyone else will find their inventions as great as they do. Bell states, “It is probable that such a use of the telephone would speedily become popular, and that as the public became accustomed to the telephone in their house they would recognize the advantage of a system of intercommunication (Bell, Pg. 157).” But as we saw with the postal system, it takes time for people to adopt new technologies and adjust their communication behaviors (Henkin, Lecture February 25th, 2010). Thus Bell and Morse may be overestimating the speed and spread of their systems.
Also, Morse references a test of the invention to prove that the telegraph was something that the government should invest in (Morse, Pg. 8). This test focused on achieving a certain distance of communication, and Patteron’s letter also references distance as the biggest advantage of the telegraph (Morse, Pg. 3). By Goodhart’s Law, measuring success by this variable of distance (and often cost) may mean that other variables like the quality, reliability, or feasibility of communication may be overlooked. -Rachel

Given the accounts of Bell, Colt and Robinson, and Morse, it seems as though Socrates’s view regarding the foresight of inventors is supported. Socrates’s argues that inventors are not the best judges of how their work may be put to use. It appears as though for the most part inventors forget to take into consideration how their inventions might be used outside of their intended scope.

Samuel F. B. Morse was very aware of the possibilities that his invention created, although he stated that it would be presumptuous to gauge the usefulness of the telegraph, he understood that it would have wide implications for social, political, and commercial life (Morse p. 2). Morse even acknowledged what most other inventors overlook, the idea that his invention could be used maliciously, a matter he proposed the Government would take care of. Although he acknowledged this, I do not believe he understood it completely. Morse firmly believed that every communication via telegraph would be “secret”, meaning it was only accessible by those for who it was intended, but telegraph messages were sometimes intercepted. I also do not believe that Morse understood what the idea of instantaneous information could evolve into. Tom Standage describes the telegraph as The Victorian Internet in his book by the same name. This is because he believes it was the first true global network.
In his letter to the capitalists of the Electric Telephone Company, Alexander Graham Bell, makes very true predictions of the spread and usefulness of the telephone. He was correct in believing that whole cities would be connected via telephone, and he even acknowledged that they were only scratching the surface of telephone use by stating, “Although there is a great field for the telephone in the immediate present, I believe there is still greater in the future” (Ithiel de Sola Pool et al. p. 157) But much like Morse, I do not believe Bell understood the true scope of the telephone. Bell made no mention of how telephones could be tapped for use in surveillance or how it could be put to commercial use. Bell also didn’t see what the implications of being constantly reachable by voice were, now most people carry around cell phones and could not imagine life without one.
I have spent the length of this response commenting on unintended consequences of both Morse’s telegraph and Bell’s telephone. I feel that unintended consequences are a version of Goodhart’s law. For the most part the usefulness of an invention isn’t understood until the invention has been widely released. -Aaron

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