Pursuit of Truthiness

my gut tells me I know economics

Archive for the ‘elitist snobbery’ Category

Network Externalities Can Be Negative

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Economists often explain tech monopolies by reference to (positive) “network externalities”- basically the idea that the more people that use a service, the more valuable it is to each person. So, I want to use Windows not because it has the best features of any operating system in principle, but because most people use it and so lots of programs are made for it, there will be few compatibility issues working with others, et c.

Social media is often said to have the same network externality feature- I want to be on Facebook and Twitter because thats where everyone else is, so I’ll stay there even if some other site has some better features. If everyone else thinks the same way, Facebook and Twitter will maintain durable monopolies.

Network externalities are very important in social media, in that other consumers have a huge influence on how much I enjoy a site. But the externality isn’t always positive; often other users make the experience much worse by saying things that are mean, stupid, or boring, not to mention deliberately trolling.

In a way I’m just saying what’s blindingly obvious to everyone on social media: hell is other people. But I haven’t heard anyone put it this way before, in particular during the recent flurry of conversations about breaking up or regulating “tech monopolies“.

To me this actually seems like a great time to be starting a new, more selective/restrictive/smaller social network (think “the Facebook” starting out only available at Harvard- great filter). In the sea of information that is the modern internet, so much value comes from filtering and curation, and the biggest networks aren’t doing a great job here. Reddit is a great example of both the pitfalls of scale and virtues of being small and well curated- the default front page is a classic reference for what “lowest common denominator” looks like, but the site makes it easy to form small, strongly curated sub-Reddits and many of them are wonderful. It seems like someone figuring out how to implement a new, small Facebook or Twitter competitor would at least have a fighting chance if they can attract the right people and not simply try to grow as quickly as possible.

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What makes popular academics popular?

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While most academics work in obscurity, we still show up in the media more than most professions, and a few of us approach genuine celebrity status. What makes these outliers so popular?

An article in the latest New Yorker on the Jordan Peterson phenomenon makes for an interesting case study, particularly as he suddenly became internet-famous in his mid-’50’s following relative obscurity in his field and with the public.

Popularity outside the field often stems from success within it; winning a Nobel, for instance, guarantees a lot of coverage. But some academics succeed wildly with the public following an indifferent reception by their peers, as Peterson shows. He has other features common to popular academics- working on topics that a lot of people find accessible and interesting, and speaking with confidence that borders on hyperbole (most of us might as well be in a competition for ‘most nuanced’).

Another important example, especially for people who aren’t already at the top of their fields, seems to be focusing on a new communication technology that the more established players aren’t using yet. A lot of current public intellectuals are those who jumped into blogging, podcasting or Twitter early and put a lot of time and effort into it. In economics, Tyler Cowen has succeeded best at converting this internet popularity into the trappings of more traditional public-intellectual success: best-selling books and New York Times columns.

Of course, now blogging, podcasting and Twitter are relatively saturated, and no longer present such an opportunity for those that aren’t already well-known. Oddly for a platform that most Americans use, Facebook still seems underused as a platform for reaching people you don’t already know; in economics, Robert Reich seems to have gained popularity by realizing this, along with a good dose of hyperbole. For Peterson, the underused platform was Youtube- again, hugely popular but not really used by academics to popularize their work.

The most under-appreciated reason for why most academics aren’t popular is probably that most simply don’t want to be. Either they don’t see fame as a positive, or they recognize that if they get lots of attention, much of it is likely to be negative. At a minimum, anyone with much internet presence is guaranteed to get criticized in the comments, and often in the main articles. Perhaps more importantly for academics, while a few media mentions increase your standing in the field, getting too popular with the public and the press is a near-universal recipe for having your own field turn on you. This can be from jealously, envy, disappointment that you are taking time away from “real work”, or the perception that you are using too much dumbing-down and hyperbole. For instance, economists often express disappointment in Paul Krugman’s journey from great economist in the 1980’s, to good economist and good public intellectual in the 1990’s, to not-an-economist and famous-but-mediocre pundit after turning up the hyperbole in the 2000’s.

Paul Krugman, Slavoj Zizek, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Jared Diamond, Niall Ferguson, Stephen Pinker…. you can debate how much the hate is deserved vs misplaced but it is always there. For Peterson it has come with unusual speed and intensity. Is it that his hyperbole and dumbing-down is really worse than other celebrity psychologists or self-help types? Is it his “anti-radical-left” political stances? Much of it seems to stem from his audience being primarily young men. Focusing on an audience largely ignored by other academics is part of how he succeeded in the first place; most of us are targeting middle-aged NYT-reading, NPR-listening types, without explicitly realizing it of course.

The easiest way to win is always to be playing a different game than everyone else.

Personally, I hope to do work that people will find interesting enough to read and discuss, but this level of fame does not seem appealing.

Written by James Bailey

March 11, 2018 at 11:08 am

9 Books Which Have Influenced Me Most

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1. Icelandic Sagas, especially the Grettis Saga.  I admit I was pretty silly at age 18, but the tales are engaging and show how people can live and prosper in essentially stateless societies.

2. Proust, Recherche des Temps Perdu.  For the account of interior life.  Vastly superior in the original French.

3. Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus.  It was after reading this that I realized the great books were becoming my friends.

4. Herbert Spencer, Social Statics.  Ideas don’t always imply what you may think.  Spencer’s premises are so close to those of Darwin and Marx yet his reasoning leads to very different conclusions.

5. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things.  Everyone reads Discipline and Punish but Foucault’s best insights are found here.

6.Douglas Hofstader, Gödel, Escher, Bach.  I would have got more out of this had I finished high school math first.

7. Roger Penrose, The Emperor’s New Mind. Thought-provoking but in the end I was not convinced.

8. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The British Campaign in France and Flanders: 1914. All his war journalism is excellent, however in this book above all one gets the sense that Conan Doyle wants to tell the story of a few heroic characters but is unable to do so as they keep dying too quickly. Just as the Great War challenged ideas of what military conflict meant, so too did it challenge conventional ideas of heroism and narrative.

9. Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash.  For the internet, for the microstates, for the Babylonian-Pentecostal mind control, but most of all for reshaping my idea of what protagonists could be named.

Just Kidding!!!

I’ve only even read the last two.  Some of the others are on the to-read list, especially GEB.

Do check out the link though, the idea is hilarious.

Written by James Bailey

April 5, 2010 at 5:02 pm

National Embarrasments

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We all know that Americans are largely, when it comes to geography, what is known in the technical jargon as “pirate-shaming dumbasses”

But the French can now claim the greater distinction of being Copernicus-denying, Galileo-frying dumbasses.

Written by James Bailey

December 3, 2007 at 2:51 pm

American Culture, Global Poor Taste

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I’ve always heard that people all over the world love our culture, and hate us for our foreign policy; the implication when people say this is usually something like ‘the rest of the world is right; our foreign policy is terrible and our culture is great’.

I’ve always thought that American foreign policy, in spite of its very numerous shortcomings, rarely deserves the sort of rich, deep hate people manage so often to conjure up about it.

But I had also believed that American culture was as great as the rest of the world is supposed to think it is.

In a way this is true; there are many wonderful facets of our culture, truly great music and literature and film.

Unfortunately, these aren’t the things that other people love about our culture.  They like films that speak the universal languages of sex and big explosions.  They love celebrities.

Most of all, they like club music.

I’ve heard more American hip-hop and rap in a month and a half around French teenagers than I did in two years in college in the US.

It’s as if the rest of the world can only reach the golden streets of American culture by crawling though or gutters.

Written by James Bailey

October 11, 2007 at 10:14 am