Sunday, July 25, 2010

Intellectual Networks and the Internet

My friend Shana Carp has a laudatory post about me (which I, in no way deserve), discussing my recent back and forth with Dr. David Friedman. What particularly impressed Shana was the fact that the internet could afford the opportunity for me, a not very sociable lay person, to talk to a leading economist.

Apparently, on the internet, no one knows you are a _____________. BZ is the son and grandson of a pair of prominent rabbis who went to get a doctorate in history (not economics or political theory).  His biggest achievement right now is being almost done (and on time with the almost done) while being funded through the process.  His whole life is ahead of him.  And yet, apparently even he can make an impression on a really good economist.  He got the attention because he was smart and is using the internet to reach out.

It is a situation that can happen to anyone, with enough effort.  Expertise seems to be slowly shifting to those who will open themselves up as both being open to learn, open to criticism, and open to creating real resources for scholarship.  Further, it will both make scholarship communities both smaller (IE, Dr. Friedman and BZ talking about sci-fi) and larger (IE BZ is now connected, even if only peripherally, to mainstream Economics scholarship).  It means that the production of scholarly material will be produced by a mixture of experts, amateurs, and in betweeners, with a lot more community sorting taking place.  


I agree that one of the interesting aspects of the internet is its ability to "democratize" scholarship by offering a forum for lay people to participate. A good example of this is Wikipedia, which, for better or for worse, offers the collective knowledge of society by allowing anyone to edit and write encyclopedia articles. That being said, I see this less as something revolutionary than as a continuation of one of the major themes of Enlightenment modernity. The Enlightenment saw the empowerment of the public sphere in Western politics, exemplified by the rise of coffee houses in the eighteenth century. Coffee houses provided open forums for lay people to discuss the ideas of the day and even to meet with Enlightenment intellectuals. (Voltaire was an avid coffee drinker.) This led to a major shift in Western political thought with the notion that there existed a lay public with a political consciousness, setting the stage for the notion that governments are answerable to this "public." I find it ironic and I am not sure it is a complete coincidence that accompanying the internet revolution has been the rise of the Starbucks coffeehouse. Might I suggest that the internet is the Enlightenment 2.0, with the open discourse of the coffeehouse brought online? (See Jorgen Habermas on the transformation of the public sphere.) From this perspective it is hardly shocking that leading intellectuals will be found talking to educated lay people; what else would you expect from this new Enlightenment. (See A Confession of Personality.)

I would place my conversation with Dr. Friedman within a pyramid model of the flow of ideas. At the top are the experts, those with a comprehensive knowledge of the workings of their field. This allows them to not only understand their field but to be creative with it. Just below them are those people capable of understanding the technical literature of the given field. These are very narrow groups of people and in many fields it is quite plausible that together they consist of only a few hundred individuals. (Most academic books have print runs of only a few hundred copies.) Furthermore, while there can be exceptions to this rule, the very training and intelligence that allows the experts and their readers to be what they are ironically serves to isolate them from society at large. As such experts and their direct readers in of themselves would be useless unless there were some means of transposing their ideas to a wider audience. For this we need the next step down in the pyramid; these are the popularizers, writers of mainstream print books and articles as well as the advisors for politicians. Such people may lack the technical expertise to truly understand a topic from the inside, but they are capable of having it explained to them and, of the most crucial importance, they can impart that understanding to a wider audience. For example Voltaire lacked the mathematical training to read Newton for himself, but he had a mistress who could explain it to him and he in turn could pass on the main ideas to the wider public. This wider audience consists of educated lay people, who read non-fiction. One hopes to find at least the more sophisticated sort of politician in this category. One has to realize, though, that even with our educated lay people, we are only dealing with a percentage of the population ranging in the single digits. The vast majority of the population is incapable of reading and understanding material written for the "general public." Thus for ideas to become successful, we are going to need educated lay people, the "general public," to serve as the "Mavens" and "Connectors" to society at large by reaching out to their friends, family and acquaintances. (See my discussion of intellectual networks in Sabbatian Tipping Point.) Ironically this makes those people in the middle, the popularizers and educated laymen, the most critical people on the networks, more so maybe even than the experts who formulate ideas. The success or failure of an idea depends upon what happens when it reaches the populizers and educated laymen and how they receive it.


In this intellectual network pyramid, it is possible to occupy more than one position. I would see Dr. Friedman as an expert with the ability to serve as a popularizer. In terms of economics and political theory, I would see myself as a high end educated layperson, capable of engaging some of the academic literature. Thus we have a meeting along the network. Dr. Friedman, as an expert, is attempting to pass along the idea of anarcho-capitalism, that all government, even the police and the courts, should be privatized. I am familiar and interested enough in the issues to try reading Dr. Friedman and, as a libertarian, I am somewhat sympathetic to his ideas. If I could be converted then I could serve to reach out to people below me on the network, who might not be inclined to read Dr. Friedman, but do interact with me (either in person or through this blog). Such people might be open in turn to embrace anarcho-capitalism. Get several thousand small time popularizers and educated lay people on board with anarcho-capitalism and it is possible to form a serious movement capable gaining the attention of society at large. I have not been converted to anarcho-capitalism; thus what happened was a potential connection on the intellectual network that failed.


David Friedman said...

"I have not been converted to anarcho-capitalism; thus what happened was a potential connection on the intellectual network that failed."

My father told me, long ago, that anyone who could be convinced in one argument wasn't worth convincing--someone else would convince him in the opposite direction in the next argument. He also told me that the objective was not to convince someone but to provide him with the arguments with which he would later convince himself.

On a different subject, related to what your and your friend's post imply about your background ... . You might be interested in my recent blog post on the Furnace of Akhnai story.

Izgad said...

I often tell people that myself. Who knows, I might end up an anarcho-capitalist yet. Lord knows it took me years to become a libertarian and accept things like the fact that I had no real justification for any drug laws. Your father worked for the New Deal so I think this former nine year old supporter of Bill Clinton is coming along fine. :)

Rodney Stark makes the similar argument about religion. Quick converts to religious movements usually do not last very long, mainly because they have no social network to keep them there.