Analogia

What future do AI and pervasive digital technologies have in store for us humans? This question is at the heart of George Dyson’s Analogia: The Entangled Destinies of Nature, Human Beings and Machines. I found this a fascinating book but am hard pressed to sketch its argument. It’s a melange of personal memoir (and what a life, my goodness), historical accounts of early Russian and western exploration and ancounters with native populations (that overlap with Dyson’s own experiences, particularly in and around Vancouver and the British Columbia coast), and reflections about the history and trajectory of digital technology.

I’m not sure whether I ended up optimistic that digital machines can never mimic the complexity of analogue life, nature. Or exactly the opposite, that they can’t yet but will evolve that way, having been set loose in the world replicating themselves – just as digital genetic code can create analogue humans. “There is no escaping the machines,” Dyson concludes. It’s impossible to encode particular analogue outcomes – Godel’s conjecture about different kinds of infinities is called in to explain why: “How is ‘better off’ defined? What value function defines a won?” And yet, the machines can play their own game.

I loved Dyson’s earlier book, Turing’s Cathedral – reviewed here. Turing’s Cathedral noted: “Turing proved that there is no systematic way to tell, by looking at a code, what that code will do. That’s what makes the digital universe so interesting, and that’s what brings us here.” Analogia is more enigmatic. But its theme is the same: what does the history of digital technology imply about its, and our, future?

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And the winner is…. Enlightened Economist Prize 2020

It has been a tough decision this year. But for the combination of reading pleasure, new things I learned from the book, and crunchiness of the argument and scholarship, I’ve opted for Boom and Bust: A Global History of Financial Bubbles by William Quinn and John Turner. Congratulations to them, and the prize lunch is on me next time we get to meet in person.

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Needless to say, I do recommend all the books in the longlist post, all excellent in their different ways. That list could have been even longer; it’s been a good year for the kind of books that interest me. And plenty of time for reading too.

 

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The 2020 Enlightened Economist Prize – (very) longlist

It’s the time of year when I look back over 12 months of reading and nominate a ‘winner’. The rules are: this is entirely arbitrary. It depends what I liked best (for ideas, quality of writing, provocativeness, accessibility etc) from what I happen to have read (publication date irrelevant). There is a prize: I offer to take the author(s) to lunch if we happen to be in the same city.

This year’s list is quite long. There is an actual longlist of 11 books (in the order I read them), then some supplementaries.

The longlist:

  1. Deaths of Despair – Anne Case and Angust Deaton. My review here.
  2. The Sum of the People – Andrew Whitby. My review here.
  3. Frank Ramsey – Cheryl Misak. My review here.
  4. The Economics of Belonging – Martin Sandbu. My review here.
  5. Arts and Minds – Anton Howes. My review here.
  6. Angrynomics – Mark Blyth and Eric Lonergan. My review here.
  7. If/Then – Jill Lepore. My review here.
  8. Boom and Bust – William Quinn and John Turner. My review here.
  9. The Code – Margaret O’Mara. My review here.
  10. Rentier Capitalism – Brett Christophers. My review here.
  11. The Mismeasure of Progress – Stephen Macekura. My review here.

Not much overlap with Tyler Cowen’s list. Mine reflects my leaning towards statistics and tech.

Supplementary lists.

Two books everyone should read before being allowed to hold or express any opinions about numbers in public life – compulsory purchases:

Three terrific books about democracy and its decline:

There are many good recent books about AI, but only one that can make you fall off your chair weeping with laughter. Great Holiday Season present to yourself:

There were a number of bubbling under titles, and a whole bunch of good books I read about logical positivism, the Vienna Circle, and the 1920s. But it was time to draw a line. I’ll select an overall winner in a week or so.

 

 

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Accounting for progress

I read Stephen Macekura’s The Mismeasure of Progress: Economic Growth and its Critics in proof, and just enjoyed reading it again now it’s been published. People who know about my work won’t be surprised to hear that this is just my cup of tea. The question preoccupies me as much as it ever did – what counts as progress and how do we count it? – along, increasingly, with the issue of who gets to answer the question.

There are now quite a few books about the limitations of GDP, or history of GDP, or both (eg as well as my GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History, Matthias Schmelzer’s The Hegemony of Growth, Philip Lepenies The Power of a Single Number, Ehsan Masood’s The Great Invention, Brett Chrostophers’ Banking Across Boundaries, and more). So Macekura has this recent literature to build on as well as older classics including Alain Desrosieres and Theodore Porter. What he brings is a unified story about the critics of GDP and the System of National Accounts told from the 1940s on, and particularly including the perspective of the economists and statisticians working on or in developing economies.

That the arcana of economic statistics matter is clear from the start: “Accounting and accountability are closely intertwined,” Macekura writes. His framework is James Scott‘s powerful concept of state ‘legibility’. This makes the imperialist habit clear when it comes to the history of national accounting in the colonies of western powers. As one Colonial Office official put it, the UK had to ‘level up’ its colonies, and would do so by increasing their GDP growth. Hmmm. That term is oddly familiar.

The heroes of the tale in some ways are economists such as Phyllis Deane of NIESR and Dudles Seers, founder of the Institute for Development Studies, for their appreciation that economies are not all the same. The fabric of life in low income countries was profoundly different from the standard framework it was supposed to fit. However, western critics of the focus on economic growth – whether for this reason or because of the increasing concern with environmental limits – were in turn criticised by some economists and others from the countries concerned, who considered that to not prioritise growth was a western luxury. “The Limits To Growth report [1972] prompted a strong backlash from experts in the Global South,” Macekura notes. He goes on to argue that, “Growth critics often sought to replace one set of numbers in governance with another. They mounted a technocratic critique of technocracy that claimed the basic problems of contemporary life could be resolved through the use of socially relevant and more specialized data.”

The book ends with a picture of the critics of growth and of GDP (overlapping but certainly not identical sets) in recent times, flagging questions such as the measurement of the financial sector, as well as the ever-more pressing sustainability issues. He ends with a call for a wider set of metrics but also for enfranchising people to participate in the debate about progress. There is certainly quite widespread interest in matters of measurement, for all kinds of reasons, now. GDP is rapidly losing its legitimacy but the need for the social accounts that enable accountability is more important than ever.

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What you need to know about Strongmen

I’m biased about this one: my dear friend Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat at New York University has a new book out. It’s Strongmen: How They Rise, Why They Succeed, How They Fall. The book looks at how personal authoritarian regimes come about in democracies or  through democratic processes, and covers strongmen ranging from Hitler and Mussolini, Mobutu and Pinochet, to Putin and Trump. It’s an illuminating approach because the book discusses their common tactics and features across time and space – for these types learn from each other – and also tracks changes, for instance in the use of different types of media over time. The book also ends on a cheerful(ish) note: strongmen do fall. And the more personal their authoritarianism, the more inevitable that end is. Their methods are counter-productive in the end because they do not govern well, people can eventually lose their fear of opposing publicly the regime and resistance has an impact, and they age: posing with no shirt doesn’t work so well as muscles sag.

Anyway, do read it. It’s so relevant. I’m not going to celebrate Trump’s defeat until he actually goes. There are a lot of wannabe authoritarians around elsewhere as well as the ones we have currently in countries such as Hungary or Turkey. This book has great insights about the dynamics of strongmanism, which I fear will not go away any time soon.

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