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Monday, July 09, 2007

So many man-hours wasted.

I love evolution as much as the next Christian, but I have a disgusting secret: sometimes I prefer the work of directed intelligence. Most of human achievement consists of incremental improvements brought about by trial and error. Some of the experimenters have intuition or a slight sense of where they're headed, but rarely is anything born full-formed from the forehead of its creator.

There are exceptions to greater and lesser degree. Descartes, whatever one may think about the merits of solipsism, seems to have made somewhat of a breakthrough using reasoning, rather than groping in the dark. Rather, reasoning is a different type of groping in the dark than the usual progress. Artistic triumphs have a spark of originality that is lacking in other works that are superficially equally polished and transcendent. Hm, that's a bit different.

I stumbled across this Wikipedia entry on the information society, and it seems to open the door to a subculture of people wsting vast amounts of time discovering something that would be obvious to them if they had broader horizons. (It may seem like I'm bashing them and everything in the entry, although.. I don't disagree with a lot of it. If anything, they are making much ado about nothing.) I'm not claiming that I personally am the first one to point out what I'll write next, but I do have a tendency to gather relevant information and then gradually work into a problem, peeling away layers of abstraction one at a time until the entire theoretical onion is flawless in its own way.

The social scientists and others alluded to in that article are wandering about in n-space, trying to use their own, arbitrary knowledge sets to solve a riddle that is beyond the scope of their expertise. They should realise this and proceed in a rational process of research, but of course, they won't.

Their first mistake is in trying to define a society by randomly selected indicators from different layers of abstraction. You could define a society in terms of religious beliefs, its laws, or its economy. You cannot define it in terms of state penal codes, the percentage of Hare Krishna, and the box office receipts from last Tuesday. These are different things and no amount of philosophising is going to create a coherent theory from them.

The marxists mentioned in the wiki actually got it somewhat right with their tag of "transnational network capitalism." Information Society is not a new form of society in any way, despite the vast superficial changes that are already in progress. If the worker bees had spent any time working on their definitions of society they would already know this.

METHODOLOGY MUST ALWAYS PRECEED RESULTS. Of course, methodology must be based on previous results and updated as necessary, but it's not as if we're working in a vacuum here. The scientific method and various economic and social group descriptors have been around for many years. I'm no social scientist, but even so I'm aware of research as far back as the 1940s at the University of Michigan and other places developing social group descriptors.

Anyway, let's go at this from a logical direction. There may be better ones, but I can guarantee some level of coherence, which is apparently more than we can expect from lower-echelon academics wrestling with the concepts of "culture" and "society."

In economics, there is an assumption of rationality. But what does this mean? Information gathering and processing has a cost. It may very well be in your economic best interest to drive two towns over to buy a flat screen TV and some assorted dairy products, then swap the yogurt for fresh vegetables at a farmer's market. Even accounting for your time and fuel costs, it would still be a good idea because you like fresh produce and there's a sale on TVs in Townsburg. The problem is, you don'tknow about the sale or the farmer's market. You could spend an hour surfing the internet for electronics deals and coupons for every store in a 30 mile radius, plus fliers for farmer's markets. But that's an hour out of your day, with no guarantee that you'll even find anything worthwhile.

That's the cost of information. (If you're aware of all this, gomenasai.)

Besides the simple cost of information, which impacts supply and demand curves significantly, there is the entwined concept of "rationality vs. superrationality" which I have rediscovered and adjusted to fit into my narrow world view. Rationality says that you will select the best alternative from the available options. Superrationality, though I simplify, means finding new options and making elaborate plans and game-theory-like decisions. An anarcho-capitalist utopian society is, apparently, possible. In that it is superior to communism etc. However, it cannot exist under current conditions because it demands too much of the individual, and costs of information are too high.

This isn't, by the way, a screed in favor of my favorite crackpot utopia.

However, there are often discrete effects in economics. Normally, a small change in some variable will prodcue a small corresponding change in the market. By "discrete effects" I mean that the entire structure of a market or group will change when certain threshholds are reached. For example, when overhead costs reach a level where only one firm can operate profitably, an oligopoly will become a monopoly.

Information costs are more or less overhead, as far as I know. They would tend to have the opposite effect. The printing press, an early example of information technology, was simply a reduction in production costs that led to the Reformation, the renaissance in norther europe, and the rise of western civilization as we know it. Still, only the most popular book (singular) and government tracts and suchlike were available at first. Well, I'm not an expert on the history of the printing press, but Movable type (not the blogging software) reduced costs further and created another structural change in the dissemination of information: Daily newspapers, political tracts, the novel, and Astounding Fiction. We now have print-on-demand, which allows self-publishing.

In the beginning, the printing press caused changes in the nature of society, but the printing press itself was not the foundation of society. Democracy and our current egalitarian social order could exist if we were all functionally illiterate, but they wouldn't. A command-and-control feudal system would still be more efficient.

A counterexample would be the interstate highway system. The car culture and lack of good public transportation even in large cities is due to the interstates, and there are alot of structural differences between ourselves and Spain. But the nature of our society is not really determined by these things.

Well, those don't directly support my point, but such is the brilliance of Ether Mind(TM).

Although lowering information costs will change the structure of every market and radically reorganize things, the markets themselves still exist. The ethical systems still fight for survival, and greasy politicians still wrangle over how best stay in office. The underlying structure here is still an emasculated form of capitalism. Calling the new structures an "Information society" misses the point that that was the goal of capitalism all along, and that in capitalist dogma, nirvana consists of zero information costs and no barriers to entry.

I should also point out that IT has the tendency to reduce other overhead cost factors, and other technology is becoming more modular and scalable due to the influence of IT. That leads to more ideally flexible supply curve and markets.

Psh, information society. Join me next time for a discussion of why material goods are the same as information goods, from the perspective of the stoic.


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