Archive for the ‘Web’ Category
Mid December Google gave the nerds of the World an early Xmas gift. It was N-gram viewer, a visualization tool to plot word frequency (and word strings “n-grams” up to 5 words) in its Google Books corpus. There is a Science article to go with it dawning a new field of “culturomics” (apparently a Harvard University object). Looking beyond the Steven Pinker enabled hype, better methods to probe corpora for meaningful subtexts and cultural themes exist, N-gram viewer is just fun.
There are plenty of clever queries out there, but I liked most the ones I found in Datavisualization. Closer to our interests are the queries of Economic History Blog. My contribution is a bit poor in imagination. But here goes.
Occasionally, the label of our community becomes a subject of debate. What best represents us: history of economics (blue) or history of economic thought (green)? From n-gram viewer the latter gets the most uses. At least until 2000 there is not much movement between one and the other, their frequencies move in parallel. I am sorry to report that our subject peaked in the mid-1990s (in books at least). [Update, 8th Feb. 2011: I included two graphs with caps and without, thanks Andrej!]
The triad of Masters programs in economics are: Micro/Macro/Econometrics, but how to these fare in mentions? I was surprised that econometrics was ahead for most of the period, and macro goes over the top only in the 1980s.
How about subjects in the work of economists (and everyone else)? Growth is the word that explodes into consciousness particularly post 1945, as Wealth slowly declines.
The classic: supply or demand? Demand of course!
Finally, a query that is not much history of economics but is important. How have the lay been referred to: as citizens and taxpayers (political), or as investors, consumers and producers (economic).
The economic crisis has a new trope. Zombies. An Australian economist, professor, blogger has published a book titled Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us. And Paul Krugman wrote a recent op-ed “When Zombies Win.” (it is not the first time he played with the term.) The message that Quiggin and Krugman express is that some ideas rise from oblivion, and just won’t go away, won’t die, i.e. zombies.
I believe I know a thing or two about zombies. I watched, at a very impressionable age, The Night of the Living Dead, credited to have originated the concept (zombies are the most modern of monsters), although I always preferred the zombie comedy not being a horror buff: Army of Darkness, Zombieland and that classic Shaun of the Dead. I am now adept of zombie videogames playing often with my main bro Left 4 Dead 2, and looking forward to play in Call of Duty: Black Ops where I will choose between JF Kennedy, Nixon, McNamara or Castro and fight for survival against zombies in an underground complex (really! no kidding!).
These are my extensive zombie credentials, and with those I feel confident to say a thing or two about the semiotics of zombiehood.
Survival. The first and last element of all zombie tales is survival. Financial crisis is dire but it seems hardly the matter for life and death struggle, chainsaw in hand. In this the analogy presses urgency, but not action. Survival in a zombie world is to escape, keeping out of sight, lay low, and wait for someone with big guns to come clean the place. This is not Krugman’s approach who wants us to go out there and fix the economy…
Sadism. In most of its comedic and particularly in its videogame versions, the real pleasure of zombiedom is sadism, and indulgence in its exploration. Zombies look like people but their status as infected or cursed allows you to dispense of them with extreme prejudice. The human body is dehumanized, and somehow it’s ok. Here is what worries me most about the zombie analogy and the crisis, that it invites some level of dehumanization of those that are your opponents, these zombies ideas are also zombie people, and it is ok to terminate them with righteous violence. I don’t predict physical extermination, but a unhesitating deletion of the other from public discourse is not implausible.
Closure. Along with sadism, the underlying theme of a zombie story is that of a loved one (or a peer) that cannot rest, cannot go in peace, and that is incensed by a hunger for your flesh. Tough call. Zombie narratives are about letting go, about forgetting. How do you kill a zombie? You destroy his brain, his memory, his mind, his idea. This is a hot subject in science studies right now: the construction of ignorance, of forgetting. Take the work of Naomi Oreskes on climate change and her Merchants of Doubt: like the tobacco companies many decades ago trying to deny the links between smoking and cancer, the climate change deniers are today attempting to turn back the clock on knowledge. Krugman and Quiggin might be claiming that pseudo-science is holding us back from knowledge, but as an historian I worry about their appeal for forgetting and closure. As an historian I sympathize with the zombies. Sure if they bite you you will get very ill, but i plan to keep my distance.
(this post is all the more appropriate since AMC is doing a marathon of the first season of its Walking Dead)
The beginning of a new year is always the occasion to reflect on the recent past, as the posts of my fellows Benjamin, Clément and Béatrice [to whom the opposite Calvin & Hobbes comic strip is dedicated] have shown. Though their interrogations mainly concern the purposes and practices of historians, I would like to add another one, which may be a bit more ‘philosophical’ – pardon the grand word! What has struck me during the year is the slow decline of what some thinkers call relativism.
Relativism (not to be confused with moral relativism), as I have argued here and there, is not the idea that everything is equal or that there is nothing demarcating the good and the bad, the true and the false. Instead, it is the observation that what we call truth or scientific facts or fair decisions is affected by the context in which we are located and that they can be appraised differently in different communities or cultures. It is not surprising that relativism – a term sometimes used pejoratively by its detractors – has been associated with literary theorists such as Stanley Fish, because rhetoric is where it is used more conspicuously. My literary style will greatly change depending on the people I am addressing to and, as a result, the meaning of what I am saying too. For instance, while writing a scientific paper, I can call some previous contribution ‘misleading’ or ‘unfortunate’ while in front of friends researchers, I will call it a ‘piece of crap’, and back at home, in a sign of deep fatigue and irritation, I will paraphrase Lennon and call it ‘the shittiest pile of shit ever’. Talking about Samuelson in a private correspondence, Stigler wrote Friedman: “It may merely be prejudice, but I’m inclined to write him off as an economist” [in Hammond, Making Chicago Price Theory: Friedman-Stigler Correspondence, 1945-1957, p. 97]. This is certainly not something he would have used – in spite of his renowned acerbic wit – in publication, and though Samuelson may have been conscious of such animosity he certainly did not take it into account when he called Friedman “an able scholar” and “an old friend” [Samuelson, Economics From the Heart, p. xi). There is nothing abnormal in this. Whatever our opinions are, we have different ways of communicating them to our interlocutors – from our closest friends to the scientific community and the public at large.
This, however, has seriously been threatened in 2010 and I will only mention two events that struck me in this respect: the first one is the fact that a few people have been legally fired from their jobs after talking badly about their supervisors on Facebook, the other one is the whole Wikileaks affair. In the former, it is quite striking that people who have written on their wall a few negative words about their work environment – like calling their boss an idiot, or their job crappy – have been recognized as guilty of serious professional mistakes while we know that everyday people spend most of their time at the workplace, near the coffee machine for instance, unfearfully disparaging other colleagues and immediate superiors. Why is something that is considered normal in the workplace is suddenly demonized when it is done outside of it? The wikileaks affair is quite similar, as it simply shows that when diplomats talk between then, they do not adopt the same discourse that they will use publicly. Is there anything shocking about that? I don’t believe so. You may have to deal in a friendly manner with that head of state you believe is an arrogant and disagreeable human being, especially if world peace is threatened. Similarly, you can perfectly envision with some allied country the use of the military force toward a country you are simultaneously conducting amiable negotiations with – just in case this does not work, as Clausewitz believed . The fact that these seemingly inconsistent behaviors are suddenly judged negatively by law courts and the public opinion at large will make people adopt the same discourse whoever they talk to. Whether we are blogging, writing academic papers or chatting on our Facebook walls, should we adopt the same writing style? Some people obviously believe we should and the huge informational database that is constituted on the internet seems to put some pressure upon us to do so as well.
How much our practices as historians [of economics] are to be affected by that? I believe History as we construct it is built upon the idea that things – ideas, objects, etc. – evolve and differ in different periods of time and among different communities. If they do not, there is simply no story to be told. The denial of relativism is then the denial of historicity. Happy new year!
There is a frequent bias in the history of science – and the history of economics alike. We are mainly interested in people who have published, and particularly in people having published in the main field we are interested in. People having greatly contributed to the development of departments – think of Aaron Director and Gregg Lewis at Chicago, for instance – or operating at the crossroads of disciplines are often neglected. When my co-author Loic Charles and I began to be interested in the history of visualization in the interwar social sciences in general and in the dispersion of Otto Neurath‘s pictorial statistics in the US in particular, we quickly found that one man was particularly influential in these developments: Rudolf Modley.
Modley, a former student of Neurath in Vienna, moved to the US in the early 30s, where he was appointed as curator of social sciences at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, under Waldemar Kaempffert (Neurath’s cousin). Modley, after experiencing numerous difficulties, created a flourishing business in illustrating magazines, newspapers, official reports and pamphlets with Neurath-like Isotypes. The name of his corporation, Pictograph Inc., could be seen anywhere in these different medias. As Loic and I put it in our paper: “the American reader was [then] more likely to encounter Modley’s version of [pictorial statistics], rather than the original [Neurath's]“. One could dismiss Modley as someone who’s only responsible for the little men and women we find on our bathroom doors. After all, Modley’s pictorial statistics was almost completely stripped of the theoretical and political contents Neurath would attach to it. Neurath himself was quite critical of the way his former disciple used his method. On the other hand, social scientists were very interested in Modley’s enterprise. In the course of our research, we have encountered some important names of social scientists of the period (including economists) who were quite eager to participate in the diffusion of Modley’s little men. On the whole, Modley is one of the central characters in the Americanization of Neurath’s visual method, namely its transformation from a tool of conceptualization into a tool of illustration and consequently, its move from social sciences to propaganda and finally, to graphic design.
Though he was the object of only one scholarly article (Crawley 1994) and was briefly mentioned in another one (Lupton 1986), Modley has lately attracted more and more fans on the internet. You just have to google his name to find several blog posts and websites devoted to his use of Neurath’s method. By contrast, when I began being interested in Modley while finishing my PhD dissertation in late 2007, there was almost nothing to be found on the internet. Meanwhile, websites devoted to pictorial statistics are flourishing (see examples here or here). Loic and I would like to take advantage of this recent proliferation and try to gather as much information as possible on Modley from all those contributors. In particular, if some people do know whether some archives exist and if so, where they are located, that would be highly useful for further research. Besides, we would be curious to know the various background of those who have contributed to disperse Modley’s pictures on the internet and how they got interested in his work in the first place.
Websites by historians of economics are favorites of white canvas. They have the occasional quirky picture but are mostly discreet and non adventurous. They offer simple, readable text. But sometimes it becomes just too aseptic for my taste. To my annoyance, the Amsterdam School of Economics is forcing upon us all the uniformity of web design and content, they say to create a brand for the place. Some of us migrate away from the corporate (academic) confines and preppy up some personal space. So did Gilbert Faccarello. There is color and plenty of pics, some big names and big faces, some Bloomsbury art. Can’t say I like it all, but the jazz is soothing.
These days I listen to a lot of podcasts. I cycle to work and the podcasts help to distract me from traffic and make the ride more exciting. I pick up a lot of lectures from the LSE, the University of California TV system, Woodrow Wilson School, and Duke. I listen to some National Public Radio and Bloomberg and get the promo podcasts for a few magazines. I also download some science popularization but find these too hysterical to bare, so they are piling up unattended on my iTunes.
I would like to listen to more interview and roundtable discussion on history. The model I am looking for is Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time on history, or Russ Roberts’s EconTalk on economics. Does any one have suggestions?
The United Nations released its World Digital Library: an open digital library collecting materials from several different countries, in different languages and from different time periods.
This was a project proposed to the UN by James Billington, director of the US Library of Congress. It provides nowadays access to the libraries of 32 institutions. The UN has as a goal to expand the number of institutions that are part of this project.
There are different types of materials available: books, journals, manuscripts, maps, motion pictures, prints and photographs, and sound recordings. As far as I could sense, the majority of this material is from the period before the XIXth century. The items prints and photographs, motion pictures and sound recordings are probably the ones containing most of the material from the last century. I couldn’t find anything related even to famous economists (Quesnay, Smith, Ricardo, Marx, Keynes, etc). Nonetheless, as the UN promises to expand the project, this may become a more relevant source for the majority of the historians of economics.
To echo Yann’s reflection on wikipedia, I want to say a few words on my difficulty using economic blogs as an historical object. There are the very few posts I publish on this blog and there are the numerous I trash before they reach the playground. One reason for this is that I’m often left wondering about the significance of the opinions, anecdotes, controversies and disputes I find on the web, and on economists’ and journalists’ blog in particular –from Mankiw and de Long’s blogs to New York Times columns including Krugman’s,to the freakonomics and marginal revolution blogs and others. Does such and such opinion reflect a wider one within the profession (and which professin matters: academic economists, economists working in administrations, banks, columnists, journalists…), does such and such event reflect a general move, a cultural evolution, an historical trend ? What are the blogs that matter and how do they matter? I remember this discussion we had with Tiago on wikio, technorati, and other ranking tools, where “authority” (in technorati) is estimated by counting the links to a blog within the last 6 months or 30 days. We discussed the limits of such tools (you have to ask to be registered, so what if you don’t want to enter the game?), in particular the use of links as a yardstick (what if a blog function as a forum where people discuss in the comments rather from blogs to blogs, what if “visual” content such a charts or videos is generally more “linked” that columns or texts), and most important, we discussed the meaning of such ranking. Tigao found them useful as measures of conversation, social networking. I found them limited and problematic as measures of influence (as regards the spread of ideas, the impact on decision makers, for instance), popularity and power. There are two sets of questions recurring with my everyday use of blogs:
-How do we use them in a research on the history of current economics? Will they replace Friedman’s Newsweek columns? Or do they vividly display science in the making the way the minutes of the first Mount Pelerin Society or Herbert Simon’s handwritten notes of meetings at the Ford Foundation do? Or rather opinion in the making? How to make sense of the comments which feed blogs when then are mostly anonymous. How are we to handle the multiple identities of those researchers-academics-columnists-bloggers-citizens-public intellectuals? Are blogs a separate forum? Do they replace others or get a new function?
-How do you proceed to feel the zeitgeist of our times? Do you have a list of blogs and sites to eat up with the morning coffee ? If so, how does such list evolve over time? Do you just swin with the tide, jumping from links to links? What media and ideas do you choose to remember our times and how?
This is the wordle of the playground, i.e. the cloud of most common words we use here. From now on I intend to write ever other sentence with: Smith, knowledge, book, science, one, one.
Reviewing (i.e. bashing) David Warsh’s Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations for the Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Philip Mirowski (2007: 492), concluded:
I pity the poor student of modern economics, trying to make some sense of what can only appear to the outsider as cryptic oracular pronouncements emitted from people who claim to be experts in the nature and validity of knowledge.* But when you get your news from Jon Stewart, your history from Paul Krugman, and your research facts from Wikipedia, maybe the nature of knowledge has itself changed.
The end of the sentence is tinged with what I believe is Mirowski’s utter disdain for popular culture. It takes, however, just a few days for a non-American person to realize that Jon Stewart’s Daily Show is certainly a better source of information than any other cable news (CNN included …), though I personally prefer the Colbert Report.
But my question is: what about Wikipedia? I have to confess I use it quite frequently, for some basic research at work as well as for some more silly inquiry about music, cinema or celebrities at home. Of course, I never take the information that is given there as granted and I think it is rather crucial to double check it with a more formal source of information, but I have largely benefited from the bibliography that is often provided at the end of articles. I am fairly impressed by the fact that some anonymous people have spent some time writing on E. Roy Weintraub or Waldemar Kaempffert, sometimes advertising the works of others without any reward. All in all, there is an underlying model of disinterestedness scientists should be proud (or envious?) of … Why, on the contrary, they spend so much time bashing it is therefore a mistery to me. Where does this idea that an increasing dissemination of knowledge corresponds to a degeneration of its substance come from? Jealousy? Elitism? Declinism? Conservatism? Repugnance for the “neoliberal” ideology they think such modes of dissemination sustain?
PS: Thanks to Wikipedia, for example, I learned that philosopher of science Susan Oyama has been married to the late great contemporary composer Luciano Berio from 1966 to 1972. Pretty interesting …
* I should point out that Mirowski is not referring to David Warsh here but to Paul Krugman, though his using the plural of “experts” is quite intriguing.