Over on nettime-l, a list for those who once thought "tactical media" was the way forward, the old question of men and machines has been revived with due acknowledgment to Marshall McLuhan. One contributor exclaimed that "of course the machines won" and another said this was "simplistic Luddite rubbish". This was my response.

I can't speak for Mark Stahlman, but I don't imagine that anyone who can write so interestingly would dream of a world without machines. "Machines" should rather be taken as a metaphor for the organized attempt to reduce human beings to working on machines or like machines. Will machines serve people or people serve machines? At some risk of oversimplification, Marx's project was based on the observation that what matter in our world are people, machines and money. As things stood then and still do, money buys machines and people work on them. The political task is to reverse the order, to put people in charge of machines and money. Marx hoped that machine production might generate the social conditions for this revolution and so do we. Maybe we can dispense with the apparatus of party, classes etc, but that is history.

Philip Mirowski's cumbersome but essential book, Machine Dreams: How economics became a cyborg science, explains how operations research (OR) in World War 2 spawned a family of social models built on an analogy with machines: cybernetics, game theory, systems theory etc. These were incorproated into the management of production and of society more generally, nowhere more than in the United States. The economists, building on a mathematical revolution of the 1940s, launched by Tinbergen and Koopmans during the war, happily adopted this family of approaches. Their version of it was "rational expectations" theory or the "efficient market hypothesis" and we all know what happened next. In this sense the twentieth century, and especially its last half, saw the machines win.

But not irreversibly. Thomas Sargent was just interviewed about his Nobel prize this year. Even the economists are no longer triumphalist in the face of the damage done to the world economy by governments and corporations blindly following the dictates of the rational expectations model. Sargent admitted: “We experiment with our models, before we wreck the world.” If I share the aspiration to build a human economy fit for all of us, it would not be one without machines or money. It would just put human interests first.

You can read this long and interesting article from the Globe and Mail, "Economists have met the enemy and it is economics".

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Comment by ryan anderson on October 22, 2011 at 5:13pm
I guess the point I'm making is that we shouldn't waste a lot of time rehearsing complaints about an economics that is now, itself, in a state of creative ferment. The heirs of operations research have not given up their goals. They have, instead, upped their game. We anthropologists need to follow their example, at least in that regard.

John, that's a good point. Especially about the need to up the game rather than just repeat the same old critiques and complaints. Thanks for the sources too.
Comment by John McCreery on October 22, 2011 at 10:15am
I now find myself reading a book that looks like a splendid complement to Machine Dreams, James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. I have just read the chapter on Cybernetics that describes, among many other things, the meeting of a society formed in the early 1950s to consider the implications of computing and information theory on the human sciences and brought together such disparate figures as Margaret Mead and Claude Shannon. It is fascinating to revisit the zeitgeist of an era in which folks like Von Neumann, Norbert Weiner, and Shannon were public figures and shaping the context in which operations research developed.
Comment by Keith Hart on October 19, 2011 at 10:25am
That is true, John. I agree that anthropologists often waste their time beating up on a dead stereotype. The article explores some of the most impressive deviations of late. As I like to say, some of my best friends are economists. But look at the trend of the last three so-called Nobel prizes in economics. First Krugman who now rages impotently from the oped columns of the NYT; then Williamson (Orstrom was a fig leaf) for taking Coase's theory of the firm to the level of a program for corporate self-government; and now Sargent et al for coming up with the cause-effect model underpinning rational expectations (which is itself pure Newtonian metaphysics). Stiglitz won the prize 10 years ago when he was chief economist at the World Bank and now addresses OWS protestors, the French government and anyone else with a beef. A blog post generally has to be about one thing not many.
Comment by John McCreery on October 19, 2011 at 9:45am

"But not irreversibly." That's an important point. Within the last few decades, economics has gone from rational expectations and the efficient markets hypotheses to the study of asymmetries in access to market information (for which Joseph Stigler won his Nobel prize), behavioral economics, which starts from the assumption that economic actors do not behave rationally, recognition of the importance of positive (as opposed to negative, equilibrium-inducing) feedback in markets (Brian Arthur and the Santa Fe Institute) and growing awareness of mathematical chaos and complexity (a good primer can be found in Benoit Mandelbrot and Richard L. Hudson (2004) The (Mis)behavior of Markets: A Fractal View of Risk, Ruin,and Reward).  All of this work converges nicely with work on recognition-primed decision making (Gary Klein (2001) Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions), soft systems analysis (Peter Checkland and Jim Scholes (1990) Soft Systems Methodology in Action) and spin-offs like Peter Senge et. als "Fifth Discipline" thinking. This partly explains the excitement surrounding more recent announcements of neuroscience results indicating that emotional decisions drive reactions that take place before, not after, rationalizing thinking occurs. What's most important to me, when thinking about the current state of computational modeling of complex systems is John H. Miller and Scott E. Page's observation in Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life that most current agent-based simulations depend either on too-simple heuristics or too-sophisticated game-theoretic models, since how to model what goes on in human minds and brains falls somewhere in-between, in an awfully complicated middle ground that remains only poorly understood. 

I guess the point I'm making is that we shouldn't waste a lot of time rehearsing complaints about an economics that is now, itself, in a state of creative ferment. The heirs of operations research have not given up their goals. They have, instead, upped their game. We anthropologists need to follow their example, at least in that regard.

Comment by ryan anderson on October 18, 2011 at 4:59pm
"If I share the aspiration to build a human economy fit for all of us, it would not be one without machines or money. It would just put human interests first."

Exactly, and the discipline of economics needs to start putting actual humans into their equations, rather than the ideal, virtual, hypothetical humans that fill their models and assumptions. But are they going to do this? Are economists going to actually change or rethink any of their methods? Are they going to start taking account of history again, and maybe actually reading what earlier economists wrote (like Smith)? This is where economic anthropologists have something to offer, whether the econs want to listen or not. We'll just have to start putting ourselves in the middle of the conversation, one way or another.

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