From book burning to memory guardians

Richard Ovenden’s Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack is really interesting. The author is the librarian of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, which was the first big, scholarly library I used after my local lending library in the Lancashire mill town of my girlhood. I love libraries and have alsways loved the joke that humans are the means by which libraries reproduce.

Burning the Books is fundamentally a warning about present vulnerabilities to the loss of knowledge. It is roughly historical, from the ancient loss of the Library of Alexandria to the fate of the archives in Iraq and Sudan recently. On the way, of course, the Reformation, other wars, and the Nazi book burning. Record keeping started as an administrative matter of course, and the requirements of states to measure, assess and record grew over the centuries; but over time too came the idea of records as a public good and vehicle for accountability. There are stories of loss but also of rescues, painting a picture of the importance of archives and libraries as vehicles of historical memory and cultural identity.

The book ends with a sober chapter about the difficulty of archiving in these digital times, both because of the volume and the ephemeral nature of digital records. And also, importantly, because the historical record has been privatised and outsourced to the big tech companies. So the author ends with two excellent proposals: that tech companies should be required to ensure public bodies charged with the responsibility have access to all the data records – this shouldn’t be a matter of serendipitous web scraping; and that a tax on the tech giants should pay for these important memory guardians.

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Keynes as you’ve never read him

When Emma Barnes, the author of Mr Keynes’ Revolution, got in touch to tell me about her new novel about an episode in the life of Keynes, I was a little sceptical although always happy to read a new book. Because it isn’t as if people haven’t tried to turn economics into fiction before. There are the very jolly Marshall Jevons crime novels, and Russ Roberts’ The Price of Everything and The Invisible Heart. However, these examples use fiction to teach readers economic concepts. Barnes’ novel is different: it’s a novel about a remarkable character in turbulent times. And a very good novel too, one I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

The book starts with Keynes storming out of the Versailles Treaty discussions in despair at the shape of the settlement, his arguments about the need not to make it impossible for Germany to recover, and writing The Economic Consequences of the Peace. It ends with his similar failure to win the argument about not returning Britain to the Gold Standard. In between, he meets ballerina Lydia Lopokova and eventually marries her. We are served some (Keynesian) economics, with a light touch. Ms Barnes is a Cambridge economics graduate; she makes Keynes’s arguments seem like common sense, and manages to drop hints about how The General Theory, published a decade later, took shape in Keynes’ mind.

But there is nothing of the worthy wholemeal about the economic thread in the novel. If you want the ins and outs there is no shortage of books about Keynes, from Skidelsky’s magisterial biography (in one volume or three) to more recent examples such as Richard Davenport’s Universal Man or Backhouse and Bateman’s Capitalist Revolutionary. The point of Mr Keynes’ Revolution is the story – the Bloomsbury background (they all emerge as dreadful people), and above all the unlikely romance. As I read, I thought the book would make a terrific film or TV series, and the afterword admits it was first conceived as a film script. It also promises a sequel. I look forward to it!

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If/then

Earlier this year I read Jill Lepore’s These Truths, which made me eager to read her new book, If Then: How One Data Company Invented the Future, as soon as possible. It didn’t disappoint – although I had a couple of reservations about it. More on that later.

The book is the story of a company, Simulmatics, formed by a PR man, Ed Greenfield, and an MIT political scientists, Ithiel De Sola Pool. It aimed to apply computers to the prediction of human behaviour: feed the machine enough data and it would be possible to predict election outcomes, among other social phenomena, and more importantly manipulate them. The convergence of data, computational power and Mad Men behaviourist techniques seemed inevitable and unconquerable. The parallel with the same again this time round but more so is striking, and the book ends with the comparison.

Along the way, Lepore tells a rattling good story about American politics in the late 1950s through to the Vietnam War and Nixon, about the first application of computers to social issues (and Madison Avenue was onto the opportunities early), and also about gender politics. Right from the start, there was a culture of computer bros, hostile to women: “Women’s knowledge was not knowledge.” The cast of characters is fantastic. Many of them I’d never heard of – Eugene Burdick, the best-selling author of thrillers and leading political scientist, anyone? Lepore also writes like a novelist, and an excellent one at that.

That is in fact one of my reservations. Among the notes I was taking were notes on craft – this is genuinely a page turner. And yet ….. when the text gets into the interior lives of the wives of the men, I wonder how she knows? Are there really enough letters and diaries, or is this indeed embroidery?

The other is that I hungered for more context about the impact of behaviourism and of cybernetics, and the broader environment of computerised social engineering. For example, Stafford Beer had his own US consultancy applying cybernetics, going to Chile in the early 1970s to assist with Project Cybersyn (the subject of Eden Medina’s wonderful book Cybernetics Revolutionaries). If Then does acknowledge the early use of computers in advertising but Norbert Wiener gets but a passing reference. And even though Simulmatics failed – so many of its projects turning out disastrously – there is surprisingly little scepticism about whether computers can in fact predict and manipulate humans,  whether Simulmatics or their modern day equivalents in Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

Having said that, If Then is a wonderful book, highly recommended. Lepore was interviewed by David Runciman in a great episode of Talking Politics for those who’d like another taster – it focuses mainly on those disturbing modern parallels.

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Economics for social animals

I’ve been reading the latest book by Robert Frank, Under the Influence: Putting Peer Pressure to Work. Although I greatly admire his work, and he has a knack for catching the moment – as with Luxury Fever or The Winner Take All Society –  I must confess I found this one a bit dull. This is nothing to do about disagreeing with the idea, which is to bring together thinking about social norms, altruism, positional goods and behavioural peer effects together to tease out policy implications, or rather policy approaches. This all seems blindingly obvious to me, and indeed one of ten lectures in my public policy economics course (one chapter in my Markets, State and People) covers exactly these social influences. I agree, too, that more economists ought to be more aware of social influence: we are not isolated individuals in making choices.

There are some deep questions for economists, once you accept the seemingly incontrovertible evidence that social norms can change, advertising works to persuade us to buy things, and positional arms races occur. What does it imply for a discipline whose models and welfare analysis are based on the concept of fixed preferences? For example, the way price indices are calculated – used to calculate in turn ‘real’ growth and productivity – assumes fixed preferences; but there are constant innovations and new goods, and there is no settled way of taking these into account in dividing pounds or euros spent into price and ‘real’ components.

Back to the book, though. Yes, of course to ensuring economics and policy advice are consistent with evidenced insights from social psychology or cognitive science or evolutionary theory. Yes, of course context affects how people make economic choices. But ….perhaps it was my frame of mind this week, but Under the Influence didn’t sing to me. It seems very long-winded. In fact, the prologue claims as a virtue the repetition in the book, arguing it will help get the message to stick. Students who are not familiar with the material might really enjoy this and find it sinking in. But not one for me.

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Fictional mobility

This post is slightly off topic but it is about social mobility. I just devoured Elena Ferrante’s new novel, The Lying Life of Adults, having been a total devotee of her bestselling Neapolitan quartet. Like all the best fiction, the novels are all crunchily specific about their context and yet also universal. The new one is also terrific.

One common reaction to her work is that it’s about the lives of girls and women, which of course it is. The new one is the best I’ve read about the relationships between adolescent girls and women, certainly since Margaret Atwood’s Cats Eye not to mention their interior lives. Yet to me – and perhaps the reason I find them so absorbing – is that they are just about the best fiction I’ve ever read about social class. Ferrante captures the textures of working class life, the imperative some young people feel to escape their roots (usually by education), how big a challenge that is (soft skills galore needed as well as intellect) and the price they pay for that deracination in feeling alienated from both old and new cultures.

Anyway, if you liked Ferrante’s previous work, you’ll like The Lying Life of Adults too.

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