Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Why the World Wide West Wasn’t Won

One of the interesting things about moving are all the objects you rediscover, whose existence you had completely forgotten. I’ve just been sorting through my paperwork, hoping to find things I can now discard, and I came across the following essay that analyses why metaphors of the “frontier” and the “revolution” came to be adopted to describe internet technologies – and that also analyses how these metaphors actually may have impeded the sort of libertarian political ideals the metaphors invoked.

I have been struck for some time by the early (and, for some, continuing) faith that the technologies underpinning the internet would, by themselves, make regulation of internet speech and of intellectual property impossible. This faith in many ways replicated the faith of an early Marxism – of the sort the Frankfurt School came to criticise – that believed that the development of mass production would, in and of itself, usher in a more emancipated society. I decided to explore some of these issues in the following article.

Life then moved on – shortly after I wrote this, I finally managed to escape what had at one point looked like becoming a permanent stint as an IT consultant, and to move back into my more “traditional” community sector work – and I never got around to revising the article and submitting it for publication. I’m sure the scholarship in the field has now moved on considerably, rendering the piece most likely no longer viable for an academic journal (if, in fact, it ever was viable). I have also moved on, making some of the claims below no longer feel fully accurate or well-expressed. Still, I’m struck by the resonance of some of the basic concepts for the work I’m doing now, and thought the article might be worth airing on the blog.

I’ve spliced the main body of the text below. It’s a bit longer than the standard blog post, but not so vast as the original version… I’m happy to provide a full (and properly annotated) version of the piece on request.


You Say You Want a Revolution?: Metaphors of the “Revolution” and the “Frontier” in the Commercialisation of Internet Technolgies

Abstract: The core characteristics and purposes of internet technologies have been reinterpreted in several distinct phases over the course of the internet’s brief lifespan. Initially developed by government and academic institutions during the Cold War as a means of ensuring the continuity of military communications in the event of a nuclear war, the internet emerged as the “poster child” technology of globalisation and privatisation in the late 1980s and 1990s. Now, in the aftermath of the dot com boom, and in a period of heightened anxiety over the economy and national security, internet technologies are being reinterpreted yet again – as technologies whose potential is being held back by the very freedoms the technology seemed necessarily to embody during the boom era. This article examines the ways in which observers have attributed often contradictory qualitative characteristics to the same technology at different times, and uses internet technologies as a case study for the cultural plasticity of technology – for the ability of the same technology to be interpreted and deployed in socially divergent ways. For this reason, the article suggests, it is crucial to understand the broader social, political, and cultural context within which technologies are appropriated, in order to set appropriate public policies governing the use of key technologies.

I. New Wine in Old Skins: Finding a Vocabulary for Technological and Social Transformation

During periods of rapid social transformation, our inherited language can struggle to express the meaning of new concepts and experiences. Evidence of this struggle can often be found in those brief periods when competing metaphors and neologisms attempt to burst the bounds of our existing language and enable us, not only to express new experiences and concepts, but also to define, shape, and integrate them into our broader social lives. This struggle occurs, not simply because existing words cannot capture new meanings, but also because the meanings themselves are “up for grabs”. When we have not yet achieved a social consensus on the meaning of a new concept or experience, our choice of metaphors, phrases, and words cannot be purely descriptive – our choice of language involves a stance in broader social debate.

In the heady days of internet commercialisation in the late 1980s and 1990s, we can see evidence of such a struggle in the burst of competing metaphors used to describe the internet. A range of metaphors and neologisms were deployed during this period, both to explain the internet to those who had never used the medium, and to capture and define its essence for those who already participated in internet communities. The wide variety of metaphors bears witness to the fact that the internet introduced new concepts and experiences whose social meaning and significance was still to be defined.

The “information superhighway” appeared to be the metaphor of choice within the Clinton administration, and was commonly used to promote the commercialisation of the internet within governmental and business circles. By extrapolation from Tim Berners-Lee’s name for his hypertext environment – the “World Wide Web” – “web” metaphors were also widespread. “Cyberspace” was often used in more literary descriptions and in descriptions of communities on the web. The term also quickly became politicised in some of the earliest resistance to the commercialisation of the internet, when the term was chosen for John Perry Barlow’s ‘A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace’.

Running through most of these competing discourses, however, were two very powerful, very pervasive metaphors: the metaphor of the revolution, and the metaphor of the frontier.

The metaphor of the revolution expressed the stance that the internet represented a radical break with what had come before – and, by extension, that old rules did not apply to the new medium. This metaphor also suggested that the medium was transformative – that it would react back on the society from which it came, emancipating that society and bringing forth new and unprecedented opportunities and freedoms.

The metaphor of the frontier reinforced and complimented the metaphor of revolution. The frontier imagery evoked the wild west, a vast pristine territory open to colonisation by mavericks and pioneers, a realm of limitless resources, free of the restrictions of established society – including restrictions imposed by the economy and the law.

In the rapid expansion that resulted from the commercialisation of the internet, many people heard these metaphors before they encountered the internet itself. The metaphors shaped their expectations – and, because the metaphors were ready at hand, also shaped how many perceived and understood their actual experiences of the internet. Even for those already involved in the internet, these metaphors provided a widespread and easily referenced framework for expressing how they understood their activities in the medium.

That these metaphors of revolution and of the frontier resonated so broadly, suggests that they fell on fertile cultural ground. Here, it is significant that both the initial development of the internet, and its commercialisation, were driven by US government, business, and academic community. Images of the internet’s technological dynamism – and especially metaphors of the wild west, the frontier (and the gold rush) – could draw upon on longstanding and widely accessible popular cultural traditions that would immediately resonate with much of the US population.

These same traditions were arguably being reinforced in precisely the same moment by broader sociological transformations that had nothing to do with internet technologies: the globalisation of the market, the transformation away from a manufacturing economy, the move from heirarchical, assembly-line driven mass production to more decentralised “just in time” production and distribution systems. These dramatic transformations reinforced the pervasive sense that a revolution was under way – that old models of the economy and of the relationship between government, business, and labour were “dinosaurs” that impeded innovation and the ability to respond in the new frontier of the international market. It was widely perceived that these transformations called for a new organisation of government and industry – a reorganisation whose exact outlines were unclear, but whose essential elements seemed to be greater privatisation, globalisation, decentralisation, and flexibility. It is these elements that many people then read into internet technologies, assisted by the metaphors of the revolution and the frontier.

II. Meet the New Boss: Same as the Old Boss?

It was not inevitable that the internet should come to be perceived in this way – as the poster-child technology for the New Economy. If anything, the history of internet technologies should have weighed against it.

The core internet technologies were developed during the Cold War era, when a packet-switching network was conceived as a way for a technology to internalise a fundamental distrust and paranoia about the reliability of technological infrastructure, to pass messages through a network whose infrastructure might be partially destroyed in a nuclear exchange. Internet protocols were designed with a philosophy that would have done any Cold War espionage project proud, with each protocol capable of carrying out its own tasks and passing data along to the next protocol – whatever that protocol might be now or in the future – without any knowledge of the inner workings of other protocols. The design concepts underlying both the protocol stack and the overarching notion of a packet-switching network were designed to ensure redundancy and fault tolerance in a “global” network environment, where no part of the global network could be trusted.

Although there was certainly a “global” orientation to internet technology as it was originally conceived, global society at that period was organised very differently than in the later era of “globalisation” – in distinct and relatively closed nation states, organised in a polarised world around the two dominant superpowers. The technology was therefore initially conceived and implemented as a tool for the US military to ensure its chain of command even in the midst of a nuclear conflict, and was later extended to US universities. The technology was developed largely through government direction, and often within academic communities unconcerned with its economic potential – a model for R&D that would sit at odds with the rhetoric of privatisation and the glorification of the entrepreneur that would become dominant in the period when the internet would be commercialised.

Looking solely at the values that motivated its development, and the institutional climate within which it was developed, it would seem surprising that the internet would be so broadly embraced – and that it would generate such excitement and capture so much of the imagination – in a period in which those very values and institutional climate were being broadly rejected. Indeed, if the internet had continued to be perceived and widely interpreted as a vehicle for US government and academia, as a military tool to ensure US security in the event of a nuclear attack, and as a system purpose-designed to mistrust the global environment, it is questionnable whether it would have been as widely embraced into the 1990s.

III.How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb?

Several key decisions, however, enabled the internet technologies to transcend the climate in which they were conceived. The moves to open the internet to commercial traffic and also to privatise key governing institutions of the internet – decisions that were themselves influenced by the broader political and cultural climate – were key enablers, opening the way for a reinterpretation and broader adoption of internet technologies. By divorcing the internet from the US government, these decisions made it possible to interpret the internet as a “universal” technology – as a global, in the sense of international, infrastructure – well before this claim had any basis in fact.

The way that the internet was opened to commercialisation, as well – with several different telecommunications companies involved in developing key infrastructure – also paved the way for one of the most often-repeated early observations about the internet: that “no one owns it”. While literally true, in the sense that a number of major players owned components of the internet infrastructure, such that no one company could be said to hold a monopoly over the internet, this statement implied far more.

Commentators often jumped from the observation that ‘no one owned the internet’, to far broader claims. It was as though the absence of direct government control, alongside the absence of a clear corporate owner (as existed for the private networks like AOL or Prodigy, about which no one made these sorts of claims), left commentators at a loss to explain how the internet “worked” as a social institution. The statement “no one owns it” was therefore often juxtaposed to fairly radical interpretations of what this lack of ownership and government control might mean. Various commentators concluded (usually approvingly) that the internet was anarchistic (Elmer-Dewitt 1993, Chott 1997), that it offered total anonymity (with a presumed total lack of accountability),(‘Hitch-Hiker’s Guide’ 1993), that it was lawless (Elmer-Dewitt 1993, Sampson 1997), that it was open for the mavericks and pioneers who were ready to stake their own claims to the new territory (Allman 1993, Conhaim 1993) – that it was, in short, something akin to a “World Wide West”.

In this context, aspects of internet technologies that derived from Cold War distrust of the global environment – the redundancy of the packet-switching network and the independence of the various protocols in the TCP/IP protocol stack – came to be reinterpreted for the era of globalisation. If the need to re-route packets around damage caused by nuclear conflict no longer resonated widely, the need for flexibility and for agile adaptation to the changing circumstances of the global economy were acutely-perceived.

In this period in which businesses came to be organised more like networks, and operated within a less predictable, less controllable environment, it was a short leap for businesses to recognise their own organisational philosophies in what would appear to be the organising principles of internet technologies. The concept of the packet-switching network, which lacked a fixed map of network boundaries and which enabled rapid changes in the flow of information in response to local blockages without the need for centralised coordination and decision-making, meshed well with a business culture in which Taylorist assembly lines and factory mass production were being phased out in favour of decentralised production and distribution of goods, with a heavy reliance on outsourcing and “just-in-time” delivery to enable rapid response to unpredictable demand.

Internet technologies would eventually evolve into useful tools to help businesses confront many of the problems this new economic environment carried in its wake. Even before internet technologies were useful, however, they could resonate and appear compatible with organisational styles and with the sorts of challenges businesses were anticipating from globalisation.

The experience of “revolution” – of the overturning of an old organisation of government, industry, and social life – which had been incubated within the broader process of social transformation, meshed with the experience of rapid technological development. Both processes reinforced one another. Lay and experienced observers alike drew the conclusion that the technology was the driving force of the broader sociological shift, and that the cultural values bound together with the sociological transformation derived necessarily and inseparably from the technology. In a distinctively capitalist twist on theories of technological determination, many observers spoke as though the revolution was inevitable – the “bricks and mortar” businesses, and the social, political, and industrial organisations associated with them, would be inevitably washed away by the transcendent internet technologies and by the values these technologies appeared to carry with them.

IV. You Say You Want a Revolution?

On this side of the internet boom, it would be too simple – and too self-aggrandising – to claim that this belief in the transcendancy of internet technologies were naive, or that commentators and business leaders ought to have known better than to jump to such conclusions. The metaphors of revolution and the frontier were too dominant and too widespread to derive from simple failures of perception or analysis. I have argued that these metaphors resonated for a reason – for many reasons – to the largely American audience who embraced them so widely in the late 1980s and 1990s, and I have suggested reasons the metaphors may have been as pervasive and as convincing as they were.

At the same time, the end of the boom makes it easier to see certain weaknesses in the metaphors of revolution and of the frontier – not because we have suddenly become more clear-headed than commentators from just a few years ago, but because we are operating in an altered social and cultural space, characterised by a new set of historical experiences and the values that seem appropriate to them. Paramount among these new experiences are economic uncertainty – and particularly concern about whether our deviation from “old economy” principles has placed the global economy into crisis – and the resurgence of fear concerning national security (albeit a different kind of fear than what characterised the Cold War).

Whether these concerns will remain as strong as they are at present remains to be seen. At the moment, however, it is perhaps understandable if so many commentators perceive and evaluate the metaphors of revolution and the frontier negatively, as examples of the sort of thinking ‘that got us into this mess’. The danger is that the wisdom of hindsight will lead to more than a sober re-evaluation of the potentials of internet technology – that, in a cycle that one commentator described as “first the hype about its [the internet’s] rise, then the counter-hype about its fall” (Leonard 2002), we will throw away the valid insights of the boom, even as we recognise that the potentials of the technology were more limited than many originally believed.

In this climate of pessimism about the potentials of the internet, the character of internet technologies is being reinterpreted again. This time, however, the core perception is no longer that the key characteristics of the technology will – or should – drive transformations to other social institutions. The core debate is over how to change the technology to meet key social priorities: for stronger protections for private property – and hence less of a frontier or “commons”; for better security – and hence less anonymity; for greater control over content and online activities – and hence less freedom of expression and association. All of these proposals have implications for how decentralised, universal, and global internet technology is – or will be allowed to be into the future (Cerf 2002, Mann 2001).

The present debates over how to bring internet technology in line with current social priorities have highlighted many ways in which the internet was actually never as global, as decentralised, or as universal as the rhetoric of revolution and the frontier implied. In retrospect, the global, universal character of the internet was perhaps more a hope for what the internet could become, than an accurate description of its reality – let alone a correct understanding of the values internet technology would itself necessarily impose. For its part, the internet is once again proving more resilient than any particular set of cultural values that have shaped it particular periods: the technology is once again being reinterpreted, this time as a technology whose biggest constraint is actually the lack of enforceable property rights, decentralisation, low levels of security safeguards, and low level of legal regulation that once seemed intrinsic to the technology.

That internet technologies can prove so plastic – that they can survive and demonstrate their usefulness in such different cultural climates – is a testimony both to the resilience of the technology, and to how few limits the technology actually imposes on how it can be socially appropriated and deployed. The corrollary is that the technology itself provides no guarantees of a revolution, the preservation of frontier values, or any of the traits associated with each wave of metaphor. Instead, social choices – the decisions of businesses and individuals, as well as governmental actions – will determine how the technology is used, and which values are promoted through that use.

This concept – that social choices will determine how the internet is used – could seem emancipatory in its own right. Certainly, the notion that a particular technology inherently promotes certain values offers very few options for social actors: either use the technology, and deal with the consequences, or refuse to use the technology, and perhaps retain some decision-making power.

In practice, however, the realisation that the internet was not a revolutionary force, and did not technologically mandate the creation of a new frontier, has been disempowering, at least in the immediate term, for many individuals and groups.

In part, as one commentator has argued, the original faith in the power of internet technologies is actually to blame for the current disempowerment: the belief in technological determinism, that the internet was inherently revolutionary and intrinsically unregulatable, did not equip its adherents to mobilise for political action, to formulate arguments and lobby for a particular vision of the internet (Mann 2001).

In part, many groups who would benefit from a deployment of internet technology to achieve a universal, democratic, commons (as well as their less socially-redeeming counterparts (Orenstein 2001)) are not as well-positioned to fight for their beliefs in the current climate – they lack the money and the resources of the commercial interests arrayed against them. The conviction that the technology itself prevented certain forms of regulation was useful for these groups, who might struggle to participate in a social debate over the uses of technology on an equal footing with large, well-financed, and politically-connected adversaries.

At the same time, these groups must fight against a cultural current that reverses many of the priorities from the days of internet commercialisation. Advocates for values chracteristic of the boom often read as though they are swimming against the current in warning that many good qualities are being thrown out in the rejection of the boom’s excesses – including perhaps the capacity for innovation, creativity, and flexibility, the process of turning power over to consumers, a more egalitarian organisation of the corporation, principles of universal accessibilty to information, and many other values that were integral aspects of the boom era – and were reinforced by the rhetoric of revolution and of the frontier. Their argument is difficult to make because the downsides of the boom are integrally tied to the same rhetoric: the revolution, with its associated images of unbridled progress bursting through existing limitations, and the frontier, with its associated image of limitless resources and the inevitable corrollary of the gold rush, are both now implicated in current anxieties over economic and even personal security.

In the manner similar to how the rhetoric of revolution and the frontier tended to wash away objections in the late 1980s and 1990s, that rheotic now taints everything once associated with it – in effect creating the grounds for an instant objection. Dismissive – and historically quite inaccurate – comments that link the revolutionary and froniter rhetoric to “hippies” and “the 1960s counterculture” are now quite common – assimilating the far more recent faith in the internet revolution, which extended through the mainstream government and business communities, with a defeated (and socially marginalised) revolutionary movement much farther in the past.

These dismissive comments – and the framework of perceptions that underlies them – testify to the psychological distance many observers have apparently achieved relative to forms of perception and thought that would have been quite common even a few years ago. Individuals and groups that seek to preserve key values from the boom period must somehow span this psychological distance – and thus far have not located a suitable set of metaphors for communicating their goals, without evoking a whole set of discredited associations from the boom era.

If the present trend seems to be toward greater awareness that society can control technology and choose the freedoms technology will grant, I am suggesting that this trend is no more aware – and also no more blind – than the earlier conviction that the technology would drive the adoption of specific freedoms. Both are conditioned by a set of historical experiences, articulated culturally in specific ways – and both could be transcended by an analysis of why certain arguments, certain stances, certain metaphors, and even certain technologies appeal to us when they do, in the way that they do. Awareness of the factors that influence us – that cause certain things to resonate with us at certain times, but not at others – would help us to formulate a strategy for the appropriate social use of technology that could transcend the limitations of our particular moment in history.

By helping us see more clearly the issues and images that are more relevant for us than they have been for others, this approach can enable more conscious, self-aware decisionmaking about the social uses of the internet and other technologies. In a technologically and socially dynamic world – where even at the “broad strokes” level of this essay I can posit three distinct cultural moments in the course of some forty years – this approach can help us avoid the dismissal of promising potentials from an earlier period, even as we gain insights about new potentials. The process of social transformation and technological change represents “progress” only if we can learn from what came before – preserving the worthwhile insights of earlier periods, in addition to rejecting what has been demonstrated by history to be wrong or premature. Without greater insight into our own historical moment, we can remain too caught up in the present, and progress can be difficult to achieve.

Through the small example of the internet technologies and their quite different appropriation across a relatively short span of time, I have tried to demonstrate the wide factors beyond the technology itself that can influence a technological trend. I have also tried to suggest that we can play a larger and more conscious role in setting technological (and other) trends – but only if we remain aware of the broader social context within which we make decisions governing the social use of technology.

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40 responses to “Why the World Wide West Wasn’t Won

  1. MT December 30, 2005 at 1:42 pm

    I’m daunted by the length, though I mean to read it. I wonder if this kind of thing in this kind of forum wouldn’t be better serialized? I realize this particular text is one you’re trying to put out with minimal pomp, but installments can always carry a standard subtle disclaimer for the whole.

  2. MT December 30, 2005 at 1:45 pm

    Putting substance in your footnotes is worse than relying on imaginary numbers to describe the motion of a particle. It ought to be illegal.

  3. MT December 30, 2005 at 2:06 pm

    Well, I read the abstract. Knee-jerk response: Vocabulary does not necessitate policy. Also vocabulary may reflect hopeful thinking inspired by things beside and beyond the technology at hand, and so not be very telling either about how people construe the technology or how fixed their construction may be. e.g. people are messianic. To the extent sliced bread suggests the solution to all our problems, thusly we will construe sliced bread.

  4. N Pepperell December 30, 2005 at 3:42 pm

    I pretty much agree with your points.

    On length, I realise that, on a good day, I probably hit the outer limits for length of blog posts, comments, etc., in my standard posts – and this piece definitely exceeds those… It’s probably much easier to print out the post (or the attached document file) if someone’s really into the issue. It doesn’t help that, even to me, this piece sort of drags in the beginning and middle, and ends a bit stronger than it begins…

    If it were a new product, I’d serialise it or just write up a piece of the content for the blog (as I’ve been doing with my discussions of Benjamin and did earlier with Flyvbjerg). Since I probably won’t develop this particular piece any further, though, I’ve just put it up as is.

    On the footnotes issue: I should clarify that, even for my footnote-gushing self, the material in the footnotes is never necessary to understand or respond to the actual argument in the paper. The footnotes deal with side points or related, but tangential, issues – things that probably don’t deserve their own essay, but do deserve some reflection. By throwing this kind of content ruthlessly into footnotes, I try to keep the main text fairly linear and “clean” (although the text in this piece, which never quite reached final draft stage, is not as clean as I would like). But the footnotes are not required reading to get the main argument I’m making in the essay.

    And on vocabulary not dictating policy: I actually agree. There are times, though, when the way we talk and think about an issue causes us to overlook or underestimate other, really relevant and important, factors.

    The internet gold rush was perceived and spoken about in a way that (to me) seemed remarkably similar to previous technological “rushes” (railroad development was probably the most similar, but there were others) – a similar conviction that the rules of the “old” economy would be completely overturned, etc. And, of course, we periodically see social and intellectual movements caught up in a kind of technology fetish – as though political and social implications flow quasi-automatically from technical processes.

    This kind of technology fetish flows fairly strongly through some strands of social theory emanating from the 1970s, with people sometimes making claims that greater historical perspective could have corrected (e.g., information is qualitatively different from other kinds of commodities, and therefore the advent of information technologies will mean the end of private property as a core economic institution, and other similar claims). Problem was, they thought they were caught up in a fundamental revolution of the social, political and/or economic order – and thus weren’t looking for historical similarities, because they were thinking we were undergoing an epochal historical break…

    I would find all of this less frustrating if it had no political implications – if these were just abstract debates about how we believe our society and economy works. I find it a bit depressing, though, to see well-intentioned and passionate folks vesting their political hopes in directions that are almost sure to disappoint… So, in this essay, I was basically trying to ask what hurt, and what could have helped, when people were trying to think through the implications of a new technology – could there have been a better approach for understanding the social and political implications of a technology?

  5. MT December 30, 2005 at 4:50 pm

    When you’re talking about a technology that’s for hire and a potential market that is the entire citizenry, dispassionate intellectuals may not have a lot of influence in the flavor of the public discourse. Was it intellectuals who puffed the hot air into the tech stock bubble? It may be that potential investments recruit boosters who invent whatever language works to elicit investment. I also doubt the soundness of treating the public discourse as a single conversation within a single population. Hackers were talking about Berners-Lee and Eric Raymond and I suppose corporate entrepreneurs had their own gurus while the FCC lived in a world of its own. I imagine groups’ vague mutual awareness might have fueled their enthusiasm if they didn’t talk the same way or to each other. I imagine the language of the financiers has a big influence on policy when you’re talking about technology that’s a candidate for infrastructure, like the railways or roads for cars, because seemingly its these folks proposing or soliciting goverment dispensations.

  6. MT December 30, 2005 at 4:55 pm

    The way you use footnotes sounds ideal, but my problem is I know of no convention and suspect there isn’t one. I don’t know how to read a book with wordy footnotes and I feel like I waste a lot of time for each author figuring out how to do it, meanwhile feeling I’m not getting out of the text what I ought, either in flow or content.

  7. MT December 30, 2005 at 5:02 pm

    BTW the popular print media seem still mostly to capitalize “Internet” and “the ‘Net.” At least there’s an argument for capitalizing being proper, and one wouldn’t want to let an pedantic opportunity slide by.

  8. jlmccreery December 30, 2005 at 5:11 pm

    I, on the other hand, like books with wordy footnotes, especially those that point to paths not taken as the author developed the main argument. It’s good to be able to read rapidly through the main argument; then, if it seems worth closer attention, to read it again more slowly, using those footnotes to understand better where the author is coming from and the choices the author has made.

  9. N Pepperell December 30, 2005 at 5:22 pm

    This is one of the things I think I didn’t do anywhere near well enough in this paper: show that these particular metaphors actually did cross discursive communities that, in other respects, probably didn’t spend a lot of time talking to one another. For that matter, I assume too much about what the reader will know (or remember) about how these things were discussed during the boom.

    I’m particularly interested in trends that cross “boundaries” – whether these are boundaries related to academic discipline, or professional community, or national identity – not by any means because these are the only interesting trends going on, but because these kinds of trends tend to break down common conceptions of causation. That said, I’ll confess that I respond more strongly when I feel that social theorists – whose “job” it is to analyse these sorts of things – make mistakes that I think could have been easily avoided. And I have a fondness for people with utopian ideals, even if I’m skeptical about how they ground them.

    On footnotes, I don’t think there’s much of a convention, either (other than the standard conventions about citing sources of concepts you borrow). There’s also a lot of variation among academic disciplines (I actually had one of my supervisors ask me whether I thought it would be “okay to use footnotes in a dissertation” – I was a bit taken aback by the question, because it had never occurred to me you could write a dissertation without footnotes but, in his field, Harvard-style citation without extensive additional footnoting is most common… In history, on the other hand, footnotes are preferred over in-text citation, even where the latter would do). I gather that I’m a bit weird, because I use Harvard-style in-text citation when all I need to do is cite a source, but I also use footnotes to cover substantive issues…

    In terms of reading books with lots of footnotes: my approach is usually to read the text first, and then read the substantive footnotes later, on their own (glancing back at the text to remind myself what was being discussed). This doesn’t work, though, for all authors – I remember a maddening time trying to work through Heinz Kohut’s work. I enjoy Kohut, but he’s a monstrous writer, who will do things like define pivotal concepts in a footnote midway through his book – and only in a footnote midway through his book…

    On capitalisation: it varies in academic writing. My general feeling is that new words and loan words from other languages tend to be capitalised (or hyphenated – remember when everyone used to write “e-mail”?) as a marker of their novelty. When that novelty wears off, so do these markers. Maybe I spend too much time online but, for me, the novelty of the internet has long worn off… ;-P

  10. jlmccreery December 30, 2005 at 5:31 pm

    On the main thrust of the argument here: The strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that the language we speak determines how we think, is wrong. If it were true, translation would be impossible, no poetry would get written, no one would ever have a thought that violated a language’s grammar/current usage. We know that every human language allows the production of an infinite number of novel utterances and that rule-violating, irregular utterances can, nonetheless, be parsed and interpreted by those who hear or see them.

    That said, there is also no question that some languages make it easier to speak or think about certain topics. Every multilingual person knows this. I, for example, find it much easier to utter an apology in Japanese and to find a form of apology calibrated to the situation in which I find myself. I also know, without having to have it spelled out, that when my daughter wants a wasabi senbei, she is talking about a Japanese cracker, traditionally baked over open coals, flavored with Japanese horseradish.

    There is no question in my mind that when “revolution” and “frontier” were used to describe the Internet, they evoked an American experience in which revolution+frontier has a special significance. It is interesting that “the Information Superhighway” was favored by politicians claiming a piece of another, later American experience, the construction of the Interstate Highway system, which was primarily a government-funded and government-controlled effort.

  11. N Pepperell December 30, 2005 at 6:13 pm

    Yes – and the process can become iterative: certain metaphors or expressions may particularly “lend” themselves to describing certain phenomena (for contingent historical and cultural reasons). At the same time, the particular metaphor or expression that emerges earliest, or comes to be taken as definitive, can also begin to “close off” potential ways of perceiving new phenomena, or can make it more difficult to recognise certain potentials, while making it easier to perceive others.

    So there’s an interaction between our means of articulating a new experience, and the social “reality” of that experience. Which doesn’t mean that experiences (or the metaphors and expressions we use to describe them) are infinitely plastic, and could potentially come to be perceived or experienced in any random way.

  12. MT December 31, 2005 at 4:09 am

    I don’t feel comfortable to proceed in the kind of analysis this paper seems out to do with a mushy and/or untested and/or unargued for theory of how vocabulary and linguistic style relate causally to thoughts, actions and policy. If the purpose of the analysis were to establish such a theory, that would excite me. But that it seems to assume it worries me and makes me dig in my skeptical heels.

  13. N Pepperell December 31, 2005 at 5:37 am

    I don’t want to over-defend this particular piece, because I don’t believe I fully met my burden of proof within it. My intention, though, wasn’t to make a strong causal claim that language dictates thought. What I actually set out to do was to argue:

    (1) when you see a large number of people contesting over what language is best to use for a phenomenon, that linguistic contestation provides empirical evidence that those people also don’t have a clear handle on the concepts they are trying to express, and that the social experience they are trying to describe is still not fully integrated or taken for granted in their everyday lives – it hasn’t become “doxic”, and its meaning is easily up for grabs.

    (2) The interim metaphors people use in these sorts of fluid situations tell you something about how they interpret – and how they will behave toward – this new experience.

    (3) You can meaningfully criticise the metaphors people choose, and the actions related to them, based on how adequate those metaphors are, when seen in the light of a stronger, more powerful explanation of the experience those people are trying to describe and interpret.

    (4) Hindsight makes it a bit easier to formulate more powerful explanations (hence, it’s easier to see some of the problems with these earlier interpretations, from the standpoint of the dot crunch).

    (5) Nevertheless, I think it ought to have been possible for people to develop better interpretations at the time – by, for example, looking more carefully at historical evidence, and examining evidence from their own time more carefully and critically. Doing this kind of critical work is particularly important for people who have policy-making responsibilities or political goals, as they need this kind of perspective to plan in any meaningful way for the future.

    So the core argument, for me, was not a uni-directional one: I’m not saying, e.g., “if only there were better words in the English language, things would have turned out better”. I’m saying, instead, that the internet – like any technology – does not dictate how we interpret it in practice. Historically, due to various accidents about where the technology was developed, and the period in which it came to be commercialised, certain interpretations were more likely to arise, and to spread, than others. These interpretations functioned as guides to action – and therefore came to shape expectations people had, and therefore actions they took, or did not take. We can now see that some of these expectations were, at best, naive – and functioned to delay, by several pivotal years, a more activist conventional politics over the uses of the internet.

    Now, I may not have actually made this case in the article above, or I may not have expressed the case clearly enough – as I said, I don’t want to overdefend this particular piece. But the sorts of causal claims I’m trying to make are a bit different to the ones that, I think, are making you nervous. Which doesn’t mean that you should now drop all objections and agree with me… ;-P

    I actually, personally, think the case for the kind of explanatory framework I tend to use would never be fully established in a single article, or a single book – so any individual piece would have to be read with a degree of “wait and see”… The “proof” of an interpretive framework comes through using the framework widely, to make sense of a large number of different kinds of phenomena, while demonstrating that competing interpretive frameworks are not similarly powerful. Whether I’m up to this sort of theory development is another matter… But this is the general idea…

  14. MT December 31, 2005 at 7:19 am

    That sounds sensible and comforting, in particular the ‘graph beginning “So the core argument. . . .” Thanks for walking me through your rationale. I bet your intentions would be clear enough to critical studies people. I imagine it’s a common mode of writing to simply demonstrate a framework. Being suspicious and not from these parts, I guess I just insist a little too hard on knowing what kind of ride I’m being taken on.

  15. MT January 1, 2006 at 2:17 am

    Note though your headline promises to explain “why” not “how” the WWW was won. That’s liable to subliminally heighten stakes for literalist sticklers like myself…though I know one has to to cut a headline slack and not to blame the son for the sins of the father.

  16. N Pepperell January 1, 2006 at 5:15 am

    But that would have interrupted my nice flow of “w” in the title… ;-)

    I’m not sure, though, that using “how” would have let me off the hook to any greater degree – just as I don’t really provide a strict causal explanation, I also don’t outline the “mechanics” of exactly how the process unfolded… So I suspect the piece could have been found wanting from either perspective.

    And since my concern was with why the internet was *not* won by more libertarian political movements, the explanatory burden isn’t quite as high (I think). When people believe very strongly that history (or technology) is trending is a certain direction, they tend to be less prepared to launch an active political campaign to achieve their goals. So all I sought to explain was why the development of this more concerted political action was delayed, by pointing to an exaggerated faith in the potential in the technology itself…

    As always, though, the fact that this was my intention, doesn’t mean that it was adequately expressed or substantiated in the paper…

    I’m not personally as convinced that my intentions would be clearer to critical studies people. Both because I don’t think this paper does its job as well as some others I’ve written, and because I occasionally receive some… interesting reactions even to fully-cooked pieces. My favourite reaction thus far (this happened some years ago) was to an essay on the timing of the emergence of the anti-globalisation movements. I wrote this for a course that happened to be jointly taught by a postmodernist and a Marxist. The Marxist commented that he was distressed by the way in which the paper ignored the economic dimensions of history in favour of a largely culturalist interpretation, while the postmodernist complained about the way in which the paper crassly reduced culture to a function of the economic sphere… I’m not sure whether this means the paper was a complete failure, or whether I was on to something… ;-P

  17. MT January 1, 2006 at 5:50 am

    Suddenly I feel like I’m blocking others’ view of your poster. Maybe someone in back actually knows something about the historical events you’ve focused on and would like to get in a more germane point or question? Anyway, nice font! Maybe see you at the free food table after the plenary?

  18. jlmccreery January 1, 2006 at 3:45 pm

    N. Pepperell writes,

    the particular metaphor or expression that emerges earliest, or comes to be taken as definitive, can also begin to “close off” potential ways of perceiving new phenomena, or can make it more difficult to recognise certain potentials, while making it easier to perceive others.

    On the other side of the argument, changing material circumstances can radically alter the significance attached to particular expressions. For me, the locus classicus of this observation is Joseph Levenson’s trilogy Confucian China and Its Modern Fate, where, for example, the terms ti and yong (roughly translated “substance” and “function”) meant one thing in the 18th century, when they referred to different aspects of a single Chinese cosmos envisioned as an organic whole, and something radically different in the late 19th and early 20th century, when ti referred to a “Chinese essence” contrasted with yong, which now referred to Western technology.

  19. N Pepperell January 1, 2006 at 4:26 pm

    I think this is very true – although I don’t tend to like the standard dichtomy that tends to get set up between “material circumstances” and “meaning” (not to say that you would set up such a dichotomy, but many theoretical approaches do set one up).

    In very (very!) broad, abstract strokes, I think that transformations of material life and culture relate to one another in something like the following way: some innovation in collective practice takes place – an innovation that makes cultural and practical sense within the context in which the innovation originally arose. The innovation, however, entails innovations in how we think, as well as how we behave – not because our behaviour “causes” our thoughts, or because our thoughts “cause” our behaviour, but because we are creatures in whom behaviour and thought are intrinsically linked.

    New habits of thought, however, are – as mental constructs – potentially portable beyond the practical context in which they originally arise. Once a form of perception or thought becomes available to us, it can potentially be extended to other realms of social experience. The degree to which a new form of perception and thought succeeds in extending itself depends on a variety of historically contingent influences, and needs to be analysed on a case-by-case basis.

    There can be, however, a “nothing succeeds like success” element to the extension of new concepts: the more successfully new forms of perception and thought “realise” themselves and come to be expressed in a wider and wider range of social practices, institutions, and cultural expressions, the more “intuitive” and “commonsense” these forms of perception and thought come to be – making it more likely that still further institutions will be transformed in their image.

    Dramatic social transformations – of the sort we went through beginning around the late 1960s, for example – involve initially small changes in collective practice that reinforce particular forms of perception and thought, that then make it more likely that people will transform institutions and practices in a particular direction, which in turn reinforces those forms of perception and thought, etc.

    So changes in “material life” and “culture” are intrinsically related – but not in a way that one could easily capture through uni-directional or linear notions of causation. Nothing in your comment suggests you have such a linear concept of causation in mind – but many social theoretic traditions unfortunately do, and then spend a great deal of effort trying to figure out how to “transcend” this dichotomy, when the very postulation of the dichotomy may actually be the problem…

    Back to the more “micro” topic of how the internet was articulated socially: my article obviously would support an interpretation that, as “material circumstances” changed, so did the cultural significance of the technology. While these material circumstances, to use Lakoff’s phrase, probably did “motivate” the cultural articulation of the technology, they did not completely dictate that the technology must have been seen in one, and only one, way – multiple interpretations were potentially available (although some interpretations were more likely than others). In criticising the political implications of some of those interpretations, I am, in effect, urging people to make the best use they can of all of the perceptual and conceptual tools their historical moment makes available to them, rather than just reaching for what feels most commensical, or exciting, or intuitive, at that instant…

    (But now that we’ve entered broad-brush territory, I suspect that MT’s skeptical hackles will again be rising… ;-) )

  20. jlmccreery January 1, 2006 at 10:14 pm

    This is, of course, the territory in which relations between thought and circumstance were described as dialectical.

    Then, too, there are similar notions labeled cognitive dissonance (Leon Festinger), assimilation and adaptation (Piaget), and normal and revolutionary science (Thomas Kuhn). All envision a process in which, up to a certain threshold, information that appears to contradict established assumptions is ignored or made to fit through reinterpretation of “the facts.” Beyond that threshold, however, the assumptions themselves are altered.

    There is also the issue of temporal scale to be considered. The whole of the business of describing the Internet as a revolution, frontier, or information superhighway lasted at most a decade or two. The changes in Confucian thought that Levenson describes span two centuries. This difference raises the complex question of the relation between the depth of change (Is the Internet example simply more superficial? More emphemeral?) and the speed with which change occurs (In The (Mis)behavior of MarketsBenoit Mandelbrot, for example, points out how market fluctuations display a fractal geometry, displaying the same pattern whether market time is running fast (periods of intense activity) or slow (periods of inactivity).

    Lots of interesting stuff to ponder here.

  21. MT January 2, 2006 at 5:53 am

    Fractals and the dialectic clearly have been established as insufficient to address the true complexity that exists at the pyschosocioeconomic interface. Hence my ongoing advococy of a quadrupolectical approach.

  22. N Pepperell January 2, 2006 at 6:14 am

    Yes – although, too often, the term dialectical seems to get tossed around for interpretative frameworks that are more mechanistic than they need to be (all the “base” – “superstructure” approaches, no matter how sophisticated, and others).

    I’ve referenced Kuhn here before as a kindred spirit, and I keep meaning to write about him at greater length, but haven’t gotten around to it (or, for that matter, Ian Hacking, who in some ways remains more aware than Kuhn does of the broader historical context in which scientific knowledge production takes place). My concern with Kuhn is that he often focusses on processes within scientific disciplines – which is fair enough, but often understates (I think) the homologies between transformations in scientific thought, and simultaneous transformations in other kinds of thought and practice going on at around the same time. As a result, Kuhn doesn’t provide as strong an explanation as I believe he could, for the timing of scientific revolutions. I think that his framework, though, allows a deeper exploration of this issue, so this isn’t a fundamental criticism.

    I’m extremely interested in the cognitive dissonance literature, although I haven’t examined it in a number of years, and have been meaning to get back to it in the next several months. Although I find the concept of cognitive dissonance very theoretically productive, last time I looked, it seemed as though some serious empirical objections had been raised? If you’re more current with the literature, I’d really appreciate some pointers for recent readings in the subject.

    I did some work at one point of the history of the development of fractal geometry – basically looking at when papers were being published, etc. Aside from the whole issue of whether fractals make a good metaphor for markets, I think (or, at least, I thought at the time – maybe I’d come to a different conclusion if I looked back at the field now…) that it’s also possible to argue that it’s easier to… er… “think fractally” in periods when we have easily available and widespread social experience of markets.

    On the timescale issue: yes – I have to admit that my “natural” tendency is to think in really large timescales (one of my professors became positively apoplexic when I asked for comment on a paper that, among other things, offhandedly described a @300-year trend in the middle ages as a “temporary phenomenon”…). I think there are (socially) objective reasons that timescales for large-scale transformations become smaller with the modern era, so that it becomes possible to trace several meaningful transformations during a single century, for example, as well as more localised shifts quite frequently.

    In terms of the internet, I think the example is more superficial – but that’s because I believe that the technology was caught up in a transformation, and appeared more revolutionary than it was, precisely because a lot of things genuinely were changing around it – just not, in a narrow sense, because of it. So the internet (and the information and communications technology industry) operated as a kind of technological synecdoche for the excitement and energy of a larger transformation…

    I’m currently trying, though, to figure out how to tell slightly smaller stories within the general theoretical framework I’m developing, for both practical and substantive reasons. Substantively, I think people have an easier time absorbing concepts and following arguments if I am (at least sometimes) speaking about smaller-scale narratives and, since I am trying to communicate something about how we can make better decisions about policy and politics, this is important. Practically, because I want to be able to communicate through journals (and blogs), in addition to monographs, and smaller stories are required if I want to meet the burden of proof in shorter pieces… But I’m perpetually drawn to the accounts that – as you’ve mentioned with Levenson – span very large periods of time.

  23. MT January 2, 2006 at 9:06 am

    Might as well bring in educational psychology and the age old traditions of teaching, which posit that people assimilate concepts with greater or less ease depending on the way and the context in which they’re presented. My impression is that educational psychology has been around a long time and yet I can’t think of any accepted principles of teaching that might have emerged from it. Teaching methods and curricula seem to come and go and return like fashions. “Cognitive dissonance” seems to me like two dissonant ideas together, one that new ideas can be unwelcome and another that the more gruesome the encounter in which an idea inveigled itself into your world view the more unwelcome will be future ideas that clash with it. I don’t see any synergy in combining them and I don’t see either individually as telling us anything we didn’t already know, if not from life itself then from Freud, for example, who provided the added value of an explanation for phenomena like denial and phobias–phenomena that strike me as the same stuff that “cognitive dissonance” was coined to describe (cults and the like).

  24. MT January 2, 2006 at 9:31 am

    Mandelbrot’s fractals don’t seem to have made anybody any money or have an obvious and useful explanation (I also vaguely recall them being debunked or an artifact of a certain sampling frequency of market data…although don’t trust me on that). Anyway, the insight is statistical, like the appreciate the many things in nature vary according to a Gaussian distribution. I’m sure social scientists would love to have something like the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution of molecular velocities in ideal gas, but I’m dubious that such highly macro statistical insights would have direct application to policy–unless ito argue humongous choices such as communism vs. the free market. That would be nice, but it doesn’t seem like the scale of insights your looking for e.g. in the interplay between language and thought. It seems to me the analogy between cultural evolution and biological evolution is irresistable. Evolutionary history is complicated but mechanistically simple, we think, and it exhibits apparent instances of causation. But the system is so big and so sensitive to inevitable random events that the best explaining we can do so far is after the fact. It seems bold to hold higher aspirations for social science.

  25. jlmccreery January 2, 2006 at 10:15 am

    First, allow me to clarify. I was not proposing either the dialectic or cognitive dissonance or anything else I mentioned as THE ANSWER. I was simply noting that the issues have been around for a long time and been explored by a variety of (at least semi)serious thinkers. One useful exercise might be to review the history of the problem and see what progress has been made.

    mt seems to believe that no progress has been made and, therefore, that none can be; all that the history of ideas reveals is a lot of pointless thrashing around.

    My own views on the metaproblem of how the problem might be approached have been shaped primarily by three authors, whose words left a strong impression on me.

    Warren McCulloch, the founder of automata theory, remarks in Embodiments of Mind that he is forever constructing machines that behave in the way that humans do. So far, all of his machines have fallen short of this goal. He observes, however, that when his machines fail to do this or that something that humans do there are two possible reactions. One is to leap to the conclusion that no machine could possibly do what humans do. The alternative, he says, is what people like himself do; he goes out and builds a better machine.

    On similar lines Nietszche has a wonderful image in (I recall without trusting my memory) The Birth of the Drama and the Genealogy of Morals. He compares the scientist and the metaphysician to two men watching Salome perform the dance of the seven veils. The scientist enjoys being tantalized as one veil after another is slowly removed. The metaphysician is the boor who wants her to take it all off – NOW!

    Finally, there is Clifford Geertz, who challenges Levi-Strauss’ assertion that the anthropologists aim is to substitute simple models for complex realities, arguing instead that our goal should be complex models of complex realities that exhibit, however, the clarity that simple models appear to offer.

    From this perspective the paths that lead from the dialectic to, for example, Mandelbrot writing in The (Mis)behavior of Markets or Gary Klein, writing on response-primed decision making do demonstrate considerable progress. That neither leads to the last word is not surprising, since science/scholarship proceeds by approximations, and no approximation is ever the last possible word.

    It is clear, by the way, that mt has not read The (Mis)behavior of Markets or he would know that many of Mandelbrot’s ideas have been taken up by financial analysts who have both made and lost large sums of money attempting to predict markets, which doesn’t surprise Mandelbrot, who argues throughout the book that markets are much more risky than conventional Gaussian distribution models imply because power law distributions based on multifractal geometries describe available data with greater precision than those which assume a normal curve, one important result being that markets fluctuate more wildly than conventional models assume.

    Happy New Year.

  26. MT January 2, 2006 at 10:58 am

    I’d have volunteered that I haven’t read Mandelbrot’s book. It doesn’t follow that I know nothing of his findings or econometrics. I know a little. I know for example that at least as of a few years back Mandelbrot was old news and the fat tails of the not-quite gaussian distributions of market fluctuations were getting fit to a varierty of formulae. With my only a superficial knowledge of these goings on, I don’t know that the use of any of these tail formulae implies a rejection of the fractal work, but it tells me that Mandelbrot’s theories only go so far and the statistics of market fluctuations (at least until when I stopped paying attention) remained mysterious and/or highly disputed. Actually I think one issue is time scale. You get different distributions if you sample a stock price once per month versus once per day. My casual and qualified statement about money making using Mandelbrot wasn’t about whether traders had ever employed the theory. If people have made and lost large amounts with Mandelbrot, that’s consistent with the theory being useless, in the way I was thinking about it. Until recently and maybe even now the big brokers were pricing derivatives and calculating risk with gaussian statistics (Black-Scholes). Who knows what goes on in secret though, and there’s a huge value in secrecy. Incidentally, I think social processes are hugely worth studying and that we’re bound to discover a lot we don’t yet know, I just have certain expectations about the kind of insights we’re likely to obtain and hence where efforts are best spent. I haven’t had to put money on my bet, and everybody else is quite free to ignore me. People working on certain hypotheses just wouldn’t want me on their thesis committees, I suppose.

  27. N Pepperell January 2, 2006 at 5:07 pm

    I think the Geertz example is salient – though the Levi-Strauss-style theory-as-simplification concept is still what most people automatically think of, when they think of theory. This leads to an unfortunate tendency to focus on thick, rich detail at the expense of theory, or to focus on theory as classification…

    In terms of the “profitability” of fractal geometry (and related fields like chaos theory) – my understanding was that, although the underlying mathematics may have attracted some very abstract folks, the applications of the mathematical concepts have actually been very practical. So, whether stock market speculation specifically has benefitted, other fields have.

    My personal interest in the field is more (like Hacking’s interest in the emergence of probabilistic thinking) why core concepts – fractional dimensions, self-similarity, recursiveness, irregularity, etc. – begin to appeal to mathematicians – or appeal to more mathematicians, or to more creative mathematicians, etc. – at particular times, so that you tend to see rapid development in a particular mathematic field at a particular time.

    To me, there are some strong homologies between the forms of perception and thought that seem to underlie the development of this kind of math, and a number of other intellectual movements occuring at the same time, but without any obvious direct connection to one another. I say this with the caveat that, although I did look into some of these similiaries at one point, I have never conducted the kind of systematic research that would be required to substantiate this kind of claim.

    On cognitive dissonance: I haven’t looked at these studies in a very long time. My memory is that a relatively strong case had been made that the same experimental data could be interpreted to signify very different underlying mental processes (behaviorist ones), and that there was a general feeling that the concept of cognitive dissonance might fall into the “empirically unprovable” category, because no one had yet come up with a good potential means of falsifying the concept. But I’m really presenting a memory of a memory here – I’m not “up” on this area right now.

    What I did like about the cognitive dissonance experiments is the same thing that draws together all the various theoretical perspectives I like: it suggested an interesting question, in this case, the question of whether people, under certain circumstances, might convince themselves that they enjoyed something, or that something was worthwhile, or that something deserved their time and effort, when other evidence suggested that they weren’t as completely convinced of these things as they seem to assert.

    Adorno did a bit of work on this kind of question, in an article titled “Sociology and Psychology” (from memory published in New Left Review in the 1970s), but within a very different interpretive framework to the cognitive dissonance literature. From memory (again, it’s been quite a while), Adorno is trying to understand periodic outbreaks of hostility toward vulnerable populations. His immediate concern is understanding the emergence and mass appeal of fascism, but similar concerns have been raised on less dramatic level, for example, in the Australian press from time to time, under the catchphrase “downward envy” – a phrase that captures, e.g., widely expressed anger toward people on the dole, because they receive an income but don’t work, etc.

    Adorno argues that this kind of anger toward those whose lives are, by almost any standard, worse than your own, suggests an intense resentment toward your own life, in circumstances where you are (socially) powerless to make meaningful changes in your life. Under these circumstances, Adorno argues, some people – perhaps many people – will adapt by consciously expressing intense satisfaction with their lives, but will betray their dissatisfaction by lashing out at anyone whose life suggests that other choices might have been made. (Please note that Adorno is a dense, complex writer, and I have not read this article for some time, so I’m sure I’m not capturing all the steps in his argment.)

    Marx has a throwaway footnote somewhere that gestures in a similar direction – he comments on how, when the revolutionary movements of 1848 failed, “the tables started shaking” throughout Europe – in other words, that the failure of revolutionary movements (which might have allowed people to take active, conscious, political actions to govern their lives), was followed by a resurgence of spiritualism – which, in effect, ennobled the powerlessness that people were experiencing at the time.

    All of these projects – cognitive dissonance, Adorno’s article, and Marx’s throwaway line – ask a similar question, which is, basically: how do people adapt to situations they resent, in circumstances where their resentment is caused by a social situation (and therefore by a cause that is, at least on some level, subject to human control, even if it is not subject to their individual control)? None of the answers provided by these three examples may be useful – but I would argue that an interesting question is always useful, even if the answer initially proposed has to be discarded.

  28. jlmccreery January 2, 2006 at 5:48 pm

    Could you spell out those expectations a bit and provide a few examples of the sorts of hypotheses to which you object?

    FYI, The Misbehavior of Markets begins with the following


    To the Scientific Reader: An Abstract

    Three states of matter – solid, liquid, and gas – have long been known. An analogous distinction between three states of randomness – ”mild, slow, and wild” – arises from the mathematics of fractal geometry. Conventional financial theory assumes that variation of prices can be modeled by random processes that, in effect, follow the simplest “mild” pattern, as if each uptick or downtick were determined by the toss of a coin. What fractals show, and this book describes, is that by that standard, real prices “misbehave” very badly. a more accurate, multifractal model of wild price variation paves the way for a new, more reliable type of financial theory.

    Understanding fractally wild randomness, also exemplified by such diverse phenomena as turbulent flow, electrical “flicker” noise, and the track of a stock or bond price, will not bring personal wealth. But the fractal view of the market is alone in facing the high odds of catastrophic price changes. This book presents this view in a highly personal style, with many pictures and no mathematical formula in the main text.

    In thinking about what Mandelbrot claims to have done, I find it useful to consider the framework proposed by Gerald Weinberg in An Introduction to General Systems Thinking(2001:18-19). Briefly, Weinberg conceives of knowledge as falling into three regions, depending on its objects.

    “Region I is the region that might be called “organized simplicity” – the region of machines, or mechanisms. Region II is the region of “unorganized complexity” – the region of populations, or aggregates. Region III, the yawning gap in the middle, is the region of ” organized complexity” – the region too complex for analysis and too organized for statistics. This is the region of systems.” [In the narrow and specific sense used in this book.]

    It is important to recognize that when Weinberger refers to “analysis” and “statistics,” he is talking about mathematics, calculus and differential equations on the one hand and theory of probability on the other. His Region III is a zone in which the calculations required by [mathematical] analysis explode exponentially and because events in this region do not occur independently of each other, the usual assumptions of Gaussian probability theory are violated. What Mandelbrot seems to be about is trying to develop a still largely missing mathematics for Region III. If he succeeds, we will be looking at one of those quantum leaps in knowledge like that which took place when the mathematics of physics changed from Euclidean geometry to analytic geometry and calculus or later, with the quantum theory, incorporated probability as well. To grumble that because it hasn’t been done it can’t be is to sound remarkably like one of those who insist on a flat Earth and Intelligent Design because (not really, they haven’t really read it), their Bible tells them so.

  29. MT January 2, 2006 at 6:17 pm

    I never said fractals lacked a good marketing team, and any grumbling you heard probably was my stomache. As for spelling out my expectations, I’ve done that a little in comments scattered around this site and my own, although not in the way of a project because I don’t have one. What do you want to know? If you just want me to concede that it’s easier to criticize other people’s theories than to come up with your own, I cheerfully hereby do so. If you’re after something specific and it strikes me as appealing or easy to write about, I will…although it’s nighttime up over and it will involve some delay.

  30. jlmccreery January 2, 2006 at 6:53 pm

    No rush, mt. It is just that when you mentioned that, “People working on certain hypotheses just wouldn’t want me on their thesis committees,” I was curious just what those hypotheses might be.

  31. MT January 3, 2006 at 8:39 am

    I just meant I have my areas of robust skepticism and have a natural scientists’ bias(es) toward the concrete and falsifiable.

  32. MT January 3, 2006 at 8:52 am

    What I did like about the cognitive dissonance experiments is the same thing that draws together all the various theoretical perspectives I like: it suggested an interesting question, in this case, the question of whether people, under certain circumstances, might convince themselves that they enjoyed something, or that something was worthwhile, or that something deserved their time and effort, when other evidence suggested that they weren’t as completely convinced of these things as they seem to assert.

    At least a couple thinkers over at Edge brush up against this: Robert Trivers’ sociobiology of self-deceit and a bunch of a cognitive and otherwise neuro-scientists responding to Libet’s precognition and the idea of singularity of the self being an illusion concocted by a consciousness that exists to do just that.

  33. MT January 3, 2006 at 8:53 am

    Sorry for the length of my sentence. But I know you critical types can handle anything.

  34. N Pepperell January 3, 2006 at 10:19 am

    Yes – I’m very interested in the recent work on the “problem” of self-awareness/consciousness, etc. This work doesn’t directly challenge the sorts of theoretical questions I ask – since I’m mainly interested in how things change over time, if it should turn out, for example, that consciousness is program our body runs for whatever purpose, or one of the other parallel hypotheses being floated at the moment, this doesn’t undermine the exploration of how and why the specific narrative of this “program” changes over time. (How’s that for a convoluted sentence?)

  35. MT January 7, 2006 at 1:09 pm

    After reading a blog friend eulogize a dearly departed dog, I had the thought that you could under “cognitive dissonance” also the stronger sentimentality one feels for a pet that destroyed your clothes and furniture and ost you jobs and friendships. It fits the thumbnail definition.

  36. N Pepperell January 7, 2006 at 5:54 pm

    Well, at least until this point, I’m not finding myself feeling any fonder of the Australian telephone company that: (1) can’t even manage to tell me whether I’m eligible for ADSL in my new home until after I’ve moved (2) won’t begin to process (or allow any other carrier to process) my application for ADSL until the new phone is actually active – from which point it then apparently takes at least three weeks to activate the service, and (3) finding itself with the option of three potential telephone outlets to connect, does not ask which I’d prefer, but instead randomly chooses the one behind a massive wardrobe, in the smallest bedroom at the rear of house… Perhaps the cognitive dissonance has yet to kick in…

    Cognitive dissonance aside, if I’m a bit slow to post responses or new content for a couple of weeks, you’ll know why…

  37. MT January 8, 2006 at 5:36 am

    If you’re like me it only makes it worse to learn of any plausibly reasonable aspect to the mistreatment you’re receiving, but our quest is knowledge, is it not? The phone company might have to wait for your phone because your house is at the unexplored frontier of the DSL coverage map. The signal quality decays over distance and when it runs through crappy wires, which includes a house’s internal wires, which vary house to house. Also seemingly individual city blocks can be weird. So companies don’t (or ought not to) promise you DSL until you’ve connected your phone or modem and the can “ping” or otherwise test the circuit. Still, I hate my local phone company, which screwed me so endlessly over DSL I went to a third-party provider who deals with the phone company on my behalf.

  38. N Pepperell January 8, 2006 at 9:45 am

    This would make sense – except that they did exactly the same thing to me at my previous two addresses, where the previous tenants had their own active ASDL connections before I moved in. The phone company insisted that, even though ADSL had been available to them, it still might not be available to me… The current move is a bit riskier for me, as I don’t know for sure whether DSL has ever been connected here, and this is an older house (although the wiring seems to have had a recent upgrade in other respects).

    I’d love to shift to an alternative phone company. Unfortunately, I really like my ADSL provider and, the way the Australian system works, if I change to a different base phone company, I won’t be able to use the same provider for ADSL (even though the DSL provider and the phone company are not otherwise related companies…).

    If DSL falls through for me and I have to shift to cable broadband (and therefore lose my DSL provider anyway), I’ll give this phone company the boot, as well. For the moment, I have the long wait to see whether things will work…

  39. MT January 8, 2006 at 12:36 pm

    My ISP is a re-seller. It sells me the phone company’s DSL service, but they answer the phone and take care of problems when I have them. I don’t know if that’s a down-under option. Awhile back I heard satellite was an option some places. Certainly on a grad student stipend the sky’s the limit.

  40. N Pepperell January 8, 2006 at 4:39 pm

    Most Aussie providers are dependent on one main telephone company for the copper wire between your home and a central exchange. That main telephone company has to enable the telephone connection for the service, and also provide a connection through the central exchange (which is, I gather, what actually causes the multi-week delay, as they seem to operate at near-capacity, and then wait until enough new customers queue up, wanting new ASDL services, before they expand their capacity to accommodate new connections…).

    This places the main telephone company in a bit of a monopoly rent situation, although things have gotten much better over the past several years (among other things, the fee due to the main telephone company for arranging the DSL connection is about 1/6th what it used to be, and most metro areas now have DSL capacity, so the risk of losing DSL when you move is much lower now – though individual homes can still have dodgy wiring). My DSL provider handles all direct communications with the phone company, and is generally very good at letting me know where things stand.

    Satellite is available in the bush… ;-P If my fieldwork carries me into the wilderness, maybe I’ll consider applying for a grant… ;-P I’m waiting for my provider to roll out wireless in my area, as this will provide a potential means of bypassing the phone company…

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