Law and technology, power and truth

I’d been looking forward to reading Between Truth and Power: The Legal Constructions of Informational Capitalism by Julie Cohen. I start out sympathetic to the key argument that the legal system is the product its society – the material economic and technological and also the political conditions. Therefore current legal contests reflect underlying changes in these same forces, and the final legal system for the digital era is still in the process of being shaped. Law and the implementation of technologies in society influence each other – the ‘rules of the game’ are not exogenous.

There are indeed some interesting insights in the book. I most enjoyed some of the earlier parts, which are more descriptive of the extension of the idea of intangibles, ideas, as “intellectual property”. This is not new – James Boyle for one has written superbly about it. But the detail here is interesting, plenty of nuggets about the US legal system and how truly, gobsmackingly awful it can be.

I also appreciated the chapter on regulation, and its basic point that many regulators are now having to “move into the software auditing business”, and indeed may have to evaluate software controls designed to evade regulation. Implications here for analysing regulation in the digital economy in terms of hyper-asymmetric information and algorithmic complexity.

On the whole though, I was disappointed. The book is almost entirely US focused – and is upfront about it – but the US system is distinctive even compared to other common law jurisdictions. Nowhere else, for instance, has its 1st Amendment fetishism. It would have been terrific to have some reflections on the extra-territoriality of US lawmaking and court judgements in the digital domain.

The book has some tantalising reflections about the limitations of law, based on concepts of individual rights, in the face of collective effects: as I’ve been arguing for a while eg here, digital power spells the end of individualism, including what we all now call the neoliberalism that gave birth to it. More on this would have been great.

There’s also just too much sub-Zuboffian rhetoric (rather than argument) about the ‘surveillance-industrial complex’. I’m all too willing to believe this exists, so all the more disappointed when the analysis is so vague. There’s also a lot of allusion to Foucault – “biopolitics”, “governmentality” –  in the book without it ever – as far as I spotted – actually citing and deploying The Birth of Biopolitics.

All in all, there’s a lot of detail in this book that didn’t, at least for me, cohere. Too many trees, not enough overview of the wood. Perhaps it’s time for me to try the highly-praised The Code of Capital by Katarina Pistor.



Angry Man

Angrynomics by Eric Lonergan and Mark Blyth is a rip-roaring read, and I wish I’d been in the pub with them as they discussed the state of the world and how to set it to rights. Not that I wholly agree with them, although disagreeing would obviously be half the fun. Normally I hate dialogue formats, as they’re usually constructed as a kind of semi-polite Punch and Judy show, presenting polarised views that are never intended to be reconciled. Lonergan and Blyth – it even sounds like a Victorian music hall act – agree on the basics so they riff of each other here in a more positive way.

Their basic thesis is that there are two kinds of anger abroad in the world: moral outrage (good) and tribal anger (bad), both reactions to the way the global economy has affected people since 1989.

Increased inequality is part of the story, genuine economic grievance in the rust belt and its equivalents, and another part is the cynical exploitation of tribalism or identitarianism by some politicians. So Lonergan and Blyth wear their left-of-centre hearts on their sleeves. The dialogues then describe and discuss the economic aspects of the political changes amply described in the now-extensive ‘decline of democracy’ literature – the micro, the macro/monetary, inequality (including, importantly, intergenerational), technological change – concluding with what to do now.

One huge gap evident right at the start is a passing parenthesis that the expression of anger is a largely male phenomenon. The book never picks this up; there is surely an important gender aspect to the way work has changed.

I disagree with dating the anger phenomenon to the collapse of communism in 1989, which removed a coherent (albeit flawed) ideology to oppose neoliberalism. Surely the hinge was the crisis of the 1970s, Thatcher and Reagan, and the early 1980s recession. That was the start of de-industrialisation, and the scarring of people’s economic prospects for the rest of their lives, and their children’s. These sea changes take time and there is never a single moment. As the book notes, too little has been reformed since 2008/9, but my view is that looking back with the hindsight of 2030, the combination of the Financial Crisis and the Covid depression will prove to be another hinge. (The book pre-dates the pandemic.)

As for the proposals, I think they get the role of competition all wrong, blaming excessive competition in tech and telecoms – whaaaaat??? – for the race to the bottom in employment practices. Amazon reports low profits because it reinvests so much revenue in continuing world domination, not because it has scrappy margins due to competitors snapping at its heels. I understand little about current monetary and alternative proposals, but as a diehard microeconomist find it hard to understand how administered negative prices in a market dominated by the state (ie central bank) can function well. Regulate the financial sector firmly – a big yes. The book has an interesting idea about government auctions of collective data rights – like spectrum auctions – which answers my profound objection to the proposal ‘create property rights in personal data and sell them’, namely that the value in data is collective, is due to aggregation.

Anyway, my copy has a combination of big ticks and scrawls of ‘nonsense!’ in the margins. A very satisfying read.




The invention of taste

I’ve greatly enjoyed reading Arts and Minds, a history of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) by Anton Howes. Established in 1754, the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, was one of the products of the Enlightenment, the “Baconian Project’ of accumulating and testing knowledge that might one day be useful. The book tells its story from the beginning in a London coffee house to its activities today (although I must admit to finding the earlier chapters more interesting than the recent history – perhaps because as a member for some years I’m more or less aware of it.)

The idea from the start was to encourage the development of practical innovations, rather than seek ‘pure’ scientific knowledge like the Royal Society – this division also reflected a social divide, with the humbler artisans uncomfortable in the more aristocratic circles of the latter. Awarding prizes for what you might term everyday innovations, including things with social but not necessarily market value. As Howes notes, the Society’s ‘premiums’ have sometimes been unfavourably contrasted with patents as being ineffective compared to intellectual property rights: “The Society of Arts was never supposed to compete with the patent system nor even to promote inventions. It was supposed to encourage things that would not otherwise have been done.”

Over the decades, the interests of the Society changed, with the arts sometimes to the fore, and at other times industrial design or agricultural improvement. There was a patriotic flavour to this: part of the aim was to ensure Britain stayed ahead of the French, whose superior design skills were recognised early on.”Britain of course had many eminent artists and scientists- some of the best in the world – but it needed to diffuse science and design more widely throughout its population. French manufacturers of all kinds seemed to have superior taste; many of their working classes were provided with scientific training.” The Society played a key role in the 1851 Great Exhibition, showcasing the inventive triumphs of the world but particularly of Britain, but also aiming to educated the British public to have more sophisticated tastes in the items being purchased. The outcrop of Prince Albert-inspired and encouraged museums in South Kensington were by-products. The Society has long played a significant role in technical education, as well as encouraging designers through prizes and competitions.

I ended up concluding that the RSA is a very British institution in some ways – formed with strong central values and aims yet highly adaptable to changing needs, cherishing both tradition and innovation, an essential piece of the establishment jigsaw and yet often under-appreciated by “the elite”. The book is clearly a labour of love, and is packed with interesting bits of information: today’s nugget, highlighted on Twitter by the author, is that the rotation of modern sculptures on the 4th ’empty’ plinth in Trafalgar Square is due to Prue Leith, better known now as a judge on the Great British Bake-Off but previously an effective campaigner via the RSA for healthier and better eating in Britain. I’m an RSA Felloe (=member) too, so am fond of the organisation, but anybody interested in the process of invention, diffusion and changing tastes will greatly enjoy reading this.



Globalisation past and future

Sitting in quarantine in my office is the Piketty tome, Capital and Ideology, the book that’s so ridiculously massive it arrived with its own tote bag. I’d got far enough in to it to reach the long historical section, to which my first reaction was he didn’t need to show us all his workings in such immense detail.

Another economist who has turned to history is Jeff Sachs in his latest, The Ages of Globalisation: Geography, Technology and Institutions. Sachs has long been alert to the implications of geography for economic outcomes; in this book he adds a very long historical perspective. So long that we start in paleolithic times at 10,000 BCE. The narrative is framed in terms of seven ages: paleolithic, neolithic, equestrian (domestication of horses), classical (Rome/Han China, ocean (start of European empires), industrial and digital.

There has been a trend towards these long-perspective books in recent times: Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules (For Now), Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, James Scott’s Against the Grain, the dreadful Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. If you have read a number of these, then much of the ground covered in Sachs’s book will seem familiar; there’s only so much that is known about paleolithic times. Its great merit – especially if you haven’t read any of the others – is that it’s concise, and sends the interested reader to other sources. It doesn’t need its own tote bag, and Sachs wears his own extensive reading lightly. He’s a very clear writer, too, and the book has some lovely (colour) charts and maps.

The pitfall of taking this synoptic approach is that a lot hangs on the narrative thread and underlying argument. Sachs’s seven ages work quite well in this regard, and do include sections on China, India, and the Islamic world. The argument in this book – a bit like Martin Sandbu’s new book, The Economics of Belonging, which I am reviewing for another publication – is that we shouldn’t be turning our back on globalisation. It can be made to work better for the many, not just the few, if we take the SDGs and international organisations seriously and reform the latter.

I’m sceptical that reforming the UN will fix anything. One of the earlier threads that gets lost in the final ‘what to do’ chapter is the way technologies shape what is feasible in terms of governance as well as shaping the form of economic globalisation that occurs. Still, it’s a good thing there are still some advocates for globalism rather than nationalism, and for the global public good. It’s a pre-pandemic book but post-publication events suggest this is the time to argue for at least some parts of the international order to be strengthened.