Sunday, December 9, 2012

The triumph of the nerds revisited: a review of Tyler Cowen's 'The Age of the Infovore'

One of the more interesting parts of the modern world and status structure is the recent elevation to not only commercial but also cultural triumph of a subset of (usually) male personality types, the 'nerd' in common jargon. The world now is run in one way or another by nerds, from Bill Gates to Sergey Brin and the late Mr Jobs, and even old stodgy outposts of a prior personality type, like investment banking, have been replaced by a similar brain trust.

As Bill Gates once said, Microsoft's main competitor in the 90's was not another software company, but Goldman Sachs, in the war for elusive, contemplative 'talent'. This rearrangement has been felt in the structure of our economy - very depersonalised, hyper rational - although not as yet in our politics (where smiles and handshakes and glistening teeth still rule the day).

Tyler Cowen, a cultured economist whose blog I follow a lot, wrote a broad book on the subject, available here, and looked at this special personality type that acts as transmission grid for the modern world. It crosses a wide range of internal, psychological, and even aesthetic areas. He argues that the modern world is girded largely by information, or more particularly by the structuring of information in little towers or bits.

To pyramid our information, and ourselves, therefore - from iPod playlists to facebook friends, to interests and time, is the elusive goal of much economic output. After a discussion of the autistic/aspergers personality type, and its elegant intertwining with our world, he goes on to give a cute and unusually unique interpretation of modern culture.

He makes three observations, 'Culture is much cheaper and more accessible than before; we engage in more and more cultural sampling; and many intelligent people complain about how ugly contemporary culture has become.'

The second point about cultural sampling was the most interesting to me, because I had not heard it mentioned before. In the modern world, with so many cultural trends and types, books, movies, art, etc, we are inundated with sampling opportunities, and therefore we take from this miasma our own, filtered, cultural 'bits'. We structure our cultural intake, tailoring it to ourselves, and our personalities, and then in turn display it 'worldward'.

As Cowen says, 'When access is easy, we tend to favour the short, the sweet, and the bitty. When access is difficult, we tend to look for large scale productions, extravaganzas, and masterpieces.' Or does the Internet usher in an era of sampling everything but understanding nothing? The rise of blogging and twitter and the noticeable condensing of newspaper articles over the past decade he points to as evidence that we are getting our cultural injection in smaller but quicker chunks than before.

And he makes a cogent case for multitasking, describing it as 'a strategy to keep ourselves interested', and also shows that algorithmising our information means less time wasted leafing through encyclopedias and so forth. Cowen confronts the simplifying argument by delineating peak from regular but positive emotional states, showing that the experience through history of high or low culture - for example a concert or performance - was not regular, or available at every moment, and that this led to a sudden spurt of cultural ingestion for one brief window, followed by a much larger downtime where nothing much happened. The ratio was skewed, and not smoothed out over a proper time frame. But now we are able to dip into the cultural pool more often, leading to a smoother intake, with less peaks and troughs.

An ominous delving into Tibetan Buddhism in Chapter 5 - something I certainly did not expect from Cowen - turned out to be quite a good exploration of the autistic persona, and even edges in a debate on the 'Inclusionist' vs the 'Deletist' philosophy in the growth of Wikipedia (self explanatory), and then into a debate on education.

This is what I meant when I described at the start the book as broad, with a lot thrown into different chapters. Indeed it is intrinsically disordered, and yet flows, and this is what I like about the blog as well.

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