Do economists dream of electric people?

With apologies to Philip K Dick, the title for this post is inspired by turning back to a book I read some years ago, Philip Mirowski’s Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes A Cyborg Science. This in turn was prompted by reading Mary Poovey’s Genres of the Credit Economy. She traces the turn to (excessive) abstraction and rationalism in economics to the marginal revolution of the late 19th century onward, much earlier than in Mirowski’s account. For he, by contrast, blames the development of computers and the Bourbaki mathematicians in the mid-20th century.

I remembered not liking Machine Dreams when I read it. It’s heavy-going, and for my tastes too conspiracy-theorist. Still, I semi-agreed with this point in the conclusion:

“As a historian I think it would be unconscionable not to point out that every single school of economics that has ever mustered even a sparse modicum of support and something beyond a tiny coterie of developers has done so by accessing direct inspiration from the natural sciences of their own era and, in particular, from machines. The challenge for those possessing the courage to face up to that fact is to understand the specific ways in which fastening on the computer instead of the steam engine or the mechanical clock or the telephone has reconfigured our options for the development of social theory.”

Semi-agreed because I don’t think the source of inspiration needs to be physics. Biology has been a strong inspiration for certain economists – notably Malthus and Marx – and is proving so again with the interest in epidemiology and network models. Biology returns the favour, too. Darwin was famously inspired in turn by Malthus, John Maynard Smith by game theory – and, as I wrote up here, an economic model of constrained optimisation would seem the ideal model for which neurons in our brains bring what perceptual signals to our conscious attention. In fact, the interest in behavioural psychology means there is a lot of exchange between the cognitive sciences and economics right now. As for Mirowski’s basic point, that economics will always be inspired by natural science, that for me is inherently true in the claim to be scientific, and the closer economics gets to all of the natural sciences, the stronger it will be.

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4 thoughts on “Do economists dream of electric people?

  1. Perhaps the most important, but unmentioned, science-based strand is the one rooted in the acknowledgement of physical and ecological limits.

    Soddy invoked the 2nd Law of thermodynamics in “Wealth, Virtual Wealth, and Debt”, and this idea was elaborated in 1971 by Georgescu-Roegen in “The Entropy Law and the Economic Process”. Not to mention the work of Herman Daly on ‘steady state’ economics.

  2. This book seems to be the inspiration for at least two documentaries made by Adam Curtis including the clumsily titled: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. Curtis’s interpretation makes compelling viewing for me.

    It seems to me that the two authors have identified two important turning points. However, the search of the origins of problems is a game that can be carried on ad-infinitum. I’ve argued on my Buddhist blog that agriculture and living in cities was the root of our modern problems (and by modern I mean the last 10,000 years). We also see the a strong tendency to abstraction in the first civilisations. No doubt it could be taken back further. Each change brings pros and cons. Fire was a two edged sword as well.

    As an historian (of ideas) I’m interested in the contributions that social and technological changes make to the generations that come after, but the obsessions with ‘origins’ is just another abstraction. Knowing the source of the Nile does not enable us to understand Egypt. For every major change in our history there are a set of conditions that brought it about, and the chain stretches back over the horizon of what we can know.

    • A wise comment. The trouble with the cyborg origins, though, is that it makes the machinist turn in economics sound more planned or plotted than I believe it to have been – I think it was subtler than that. Hence my interest in a separate ‘origin’.