Economies of Signs and Space

In the fairly random way that sometimes happens – with serendipity, to use the word once voted the nation's favourite by Radio 4 listeners – I recently picked off my shelf the 1994 book by Scott Lash and John Urry, Economies of Signs and Space. The authors are sociologists and this book is about the sociology of the changes technology was bringing about in the advanced economies – I read it and cited it in my first book The Weightless World (1996, downloadable here as a pdf). Looking back over it, the book strikes me as a more analytical and economically-literate version of the much-hyped Manuel Castell's Information Age trilogy, albeit written in the same overblown jargon of sociology with its bows to 'critical theory' and the more impenetrable French philosophers. But let me not get distracted again by how badly sociologists write compared to us economists…

Lash and Urry are particularly good on two aspects of the changes information technology has been bringing about – their impact on cities and the increasing power of agglomeration economies; and the rising value of intangible activities (which was of course my focus in The Weightless World). It's interesting that so much of what is currently happening was predicted by many authors a decade and a half ago – far longer, actually, if one includes Daniel Bell's The Coming of Post Industrial Society in the list. For example, Lash and Urry describe the “erosion of the symbolic boundaries between what was work and what was play, what was work time and what was non-work time.” The smartphone, iPad generation would relate to that!

I also liked this comment on electronic finance: “Money has become a kind of free-floating signifier detached from the real processes to which it once referred …. What is traded in no sense exists. Money is thus an exceptionally important sign interconnecting with countless other signs removed from real or material processes.” (p292)

So it might well be worthwhile going back to other texts from 10 or 20 years ago to ponder the business of identifying key long-term trends in the economy and society. Because the lesson I draw from this book, as well as others I read at the time and the one I wrote in the mid-1990s, much of the transformation we've been experiencing actually was both predictable and predicted.

I haven't read the new book by Howard Davies and David Green, Banking on the Future, but it is positively reviewed in today's Financial Times (bizarrely doesn't seem to be online) and recently in Management Today.