Tag Archives: evolutionary theory

The Butcher, the Baker, and Bain?

The Invisible Hand (courtesy of jeff-for-progress.blogspot.com)

The Invisible Hand (courtesy of jeff-for-progress.blogspot.com)

. Old adages die hard. Just consider the longevity of Adam’s Smith characterization of the self-regulating market as an invisible hand in his classic work, The Wealth of Nations. As Smith opined, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

This sentiment, a persistent trope reverberating from one generation to the next, has become a center-piece of the American ethos as well as a mainstay of the Republican party. Nowhere is this more evident than in the on-going Republican electoral campaign. Thus, it is only by invoking the mantra of the invisible hand that Romney can criticize President Obama’s economic strategy, and get away with it, without having to lay out a strategy of his own. He claims to have the magic formula! So, instead of policy ideas, we hear the old refrain, “what’s good for business is good for the country,” or as updated by Romney, “What’s good for Bain is good for the economy.”

The Tooth Fairy  (courtesy of zazzle.com)

The Tooth Fairy (courtesy of zazzle.com)

Call me a skeptic, but having faith in the invisible hand today seems no different to me than believing in the Tooth Fairy. After all, no one can seriously claim that bankers, investors, and equity firms, such as Bain, were not pursuing their own interests when the economy went belly up. How else to explain that big business magnates increased their wealth dramatically in the wake of the 2008 recession, while those lower on the rung experienced calamitous losses. But this begs the question: if businesses were doing what they are wont to do, why then did the market fail to regulate itself? Might this be black magic?

Perhaps is is time to forego the rhetoric of the Republican Party and take a hard look at Smith’s long-standing dictum. To date, neo-classical economists offer little hope in this regard: Try as they might, they have yet to explain how individual actions at the level of the butcher or the baker translate into macro level outcomes, whether good or bad. Fortunately, some nontraditional economists, viewing the economy from evolutionary and complexity perspectives, have provided some promising new insights.

Robert H. Frank, in his book The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good, addresses the issue of the invisible hand head on. As he contends, Darwin’s evolutionary theory, especially as it relates to the role of competition, is far more accurate about the nature of economic life than Adam Smith’s account’s in The Wealth of Nations. In Frank’s words:

When the ability to achieve important goals depends on relative consumption, as it clearly does in a host of domains, all bets regarding the efficacy of Adam Smith’s invisible hand are off. Notwithstanding the uncritically enthusiastic pronouncements of many of Smith’s modern disciples, unbridled market forces often fail to channel the behavior of self-interested individuals for the common good. On the contrary, as the pioneering naturalist Charles Darwin saw clearly, individual incentives often lead to wasteful arms races.

Combining the wisdom of evolutionary and complexity thinking, economist, Erik Beinhocker points out that the equilibrium outcomes, associated with the invisible hand, are entirely unrealistic. As he notes in his pathbreaking book, The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics, the economy is not a static phenomena, but rather a dynamic, complex adaptive system, which is subject to oscillations, power laws, and phase transitions. Moreover, outcomes, as traditional economists would have us believe, are not the product of predictable linear processes; instead, they emerge from the bottom up as the result of the constant interactions and adaptations that take place at all levels of the system. Hence, policy interventions–be they Republican or Democratic–may play a role in determining outcomes, but they are only one factor in a myriad of influences on the economic system.

rough_seas (courtesy of adpulp.com)

rough_seas (courtesy of adpulp.com)

When the economy is conceived in complex, evolutionary terms, the present economic crisis makes a certain amount of sense, unpleasant though it may be. However, what makes no sense at all, given the complexity of the economy, is to blame Obama for the present state of affairs, as Romney so flagrantly does. To the contrary, in times such as these, when the seas are rough and the future uncertain, what’s needed is not someone like Romney, who flips and flops floundering with the waves in the hope that equilibrium will naturally follow, but rather a captain, such as Obama, who will be steady at the helm and stay the course.

Technology Indeterminism

the question I wrestle with is about agency–when it comes to technology, how much agency do we have? 

For me, being a professor is very refreshing. It is an occupation that never gets stale. For, even when I work with the same material year after year, I get to share it with a new class of students each of whom has unique interpretations to offer. If I am too provocative, or appear too certain, no doubt I will be challenged. Questioning whether my thoughts and ideas hold up in the face of this kind of scrutiny, I am thoroughly reengaged.

In the Communication Culture and Technology Masters Program, at Georgetown University, the topics I most frequently address revolve around technology. More specifically, the question I wrestle with most is how much agency do we have? At what points are technologies brought into question, and how can they be influenced most effectively?

This question has dominated my thinking ever since my days at the Office of Technology Assessment, when I first read Langdon Winner’s opus Autonomous Technology. Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 1977). Surveying the range of positions that major thinkers have adopted with respect to the march of advancing technologies, Winner challenges us, not to be technology somnambulists, but rather to develop our own philosophical positions with respect to technology. I try to pass this challenge on to my students.

I am a Technology Whore (courtesy of Theiss)

I am a Technology Whore (courtesy of Theiss)

To be sure, developing a coherent philosophy of technology requires a sound theoretical understanding of the relationship between technology and society. This relationship is the focus of my CCT course Technology and Society. In this class, we employ different theoretical lenses through which to consider how technology affects society and vice versa. In examining these theories, I encourage my students to approach them the way they select their clothes–that is to say, try them on for size. Each theory has its own strengths and weaknesses, but some are more suitable than others for the purpose at hand.

The Dressing Room (Courtesy of Eric Photostream)

The Dressing Room (Courtesy of Eric Photostream)

Thus, for example, theoretical approaches associated with technology determinism, such James Beniger’s The Control Revolution, can help us understand the big picture–that is, what underlies technological momentum and unintended consequences, but it says little about how and by whom technology decisions are actually made. On the other hand, while the SHOT approach (Society for the History of Technology) hones in on how concerned interests and decision-makers arrive at a consensus, it give short shrift to the role of power and the institutional and cultural environment in which decision makers act. Like the SHOT approach, Actor-Network Theory (ANT)–developed by French philosophers Michel Callon and Bruno Latour, discounts the social frame of reference. Its focus, instead, is on how actors (including technology) employ their power and resources to create networks in support of technology outcomes. Most comprehensive of all is evolutionary theory, which conceives of technology outcomes as emergent and indeterminate –the product of complex, cumulative forces.

Teaching a class on Technology and Society, I want to be able to assure my students that–yes–they can make a difference.

Teaching a class on Technology and Society, I want to be able to assure my students that–yes–they can make a difference, whatever their views about technology. And I certainly hope that they go on to do so. As well, I think that, when viewed together, the theoretical perspectives outlined above suggest a number of entry points where they might intervene successfully on behalf of technology-related issues. So I am not a pessimistic, technology determinist. But neither am I an optimistic somnambulist, ready to stand aside and give way to whatever forces come my way. After years of engaging with my students around these issues, I am existential in the face of technology. That is to say, I am–for lack of a better word–a technology indeterminist. Recognizing the complexity of the problem, and the unintended consequences of technology that are strewn all around us, I know I need to act, even if the outcome of my actions is uncertain. I draw comfort from the idea that, in a complex social environment, small changes at the local level give rise to large scale repercussions at the level of the whole.