It’s always a pleasure when a new Perspectives title arrives in hard copy, and this morning it was Travel Fast or Smart? A manifesto for an intelligent transport policy by David Metz – not quite out yet but available for pre-order.
A Perspective on transport policy
As he begins: “Britain does not have a coherent transport policy. And conventional transport economics has reached a dead end.” The essence of his plea is for joining up of planning transport investments with thinking about the geography of economic development, which sounds obvious but has never been done. A big part of the reason, David argues, is that the value of a transport investment is calculated in isolation largely on the basis of supposed savings in travel time. “But these time savings are not real. What is real and readily observed are the changes in how land is used and valued when transport investments make such land more accessible – which the economists disregard.”
So – I would say this – an excellent and concise demolition of the policy vacuum and a set of principles for a different approach. Worth reading alongside our previous title, Christian Wolmar’s Are Trams Socialist?
Interestingly, I just recently took part in a workshop on infrastructure investment in Manchester, organised by my colleague Graham Winch over at the business school. Among both academics and practitioners, there was a consensus that current appraisal methods are wholly inadequate – they are designed for marginal changes and don’t take account of system effects, non-linearities or spillovers – and this needs to be a big part of the research agenda.
Courtesy of striking French air traffic controllers, I had a longer journey back from Toulouse than I’d expected today, and managed to read the whole of Olivia Laing’s thought-provoking book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone.
It wasn’t what I’d expected from the reviews, which made it seem like a kind of travelogue about her having some time alone in New York and reflecting on modern urban life; I’m a sucker for books about sitting in foreign cafes feeling a sense of anomie while writing in one’s notebook. Instead, The Lonely City is more a sort of successor to Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor with a soupcon of Patti Smith’s Just Kids. Through her research into the work and lives of four artists who engaged with and battled with loneliness, but also with poverty, rejection, AIDS, Laing actually gives us a profound discussion of society’s inability to tolerate difference.
She also reflects on the role of our use of digital contact through social media and always being online – using it as a shield against human contact and at the same time a means of human contact. Laing notes the trajectory of Sherry Turkle’s assessment of digital tech through her trilogy, The Second Self (1984), Life on the Screen (1995) and the far more pessimistic Alone Together (2011).
Andy Warhol, one of the artists discussed by Laing, predates Twitter and Facebook. What would he have done with them, I wonder?
I’ve been dipping into Digital Keywords edited by Benjamin Peters. This is in the chapter ‘Democracy’ by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen: “Attempts to assess the effects of digital technology use on political participation have again and again found only modest effects and often a ‘reinforcement’ tendency whereby the digital technology use may correlate with political participation, but mostly in ways where already-engaged groups are even more engaged and less-engaged groups are no more engaged. Digital technologies offer easier access than anything else, but for many, apparently, access is less of a barrier to political participation than inclination (or confidence that even trying is worth one’s while).”
The circumstances in which click-ability leads to a reduction in transactions costs or barriers, and those in which it doesn’t, is surely worth some research. But while the above argument is plausible, it does seem worth worrying about the way the filter bubble can reinforce social and political chasms. This by Tom Steinberg puts it eloquently.
It’s catalogue season and the latest to arrive at Enlightenment Towers is the Fall catalogue for MIT Press. There are some intriguing-looking books ahead. Streaming, Sharing, Stealing: Big Data and the Future of Entertainment by Michael Smith and Rahul Telang will be one for anybody interested in viable business models in the entertainment industry – it promises big data techniques for finding out what viewers will pay for. Eric von Hippel’s Free Innovation is about how to enhance the social benefits of all the work done for free eg open source software.
The End of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital Economy by Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz looks fascinating. I’ve always been intrigued by the social aspects of concepts of property (when I go to a restaurant I know I’m buying the food but not the plate) and clearly digital delivery of intangible versions of goods such as books and even physical delivery of tractors with software in them means these social norms are in flux.
Among the non-econ/business titles, Information edited by Sarah Cook looks interesting – an “art-historical reassessment of information-based art in relation to data structure and exhibition curation.” I don’t understand that but the sound of an art-historical perspective on something tech and economics people talk about so much sounds promising.
The Great War still has the power to move us, 100 years on from the start of the Battle of the Somme. Listening to the coverage of the events and the memorial ceremonies (including this evocative report by Allan Little) sent me back to Paul Fussell’s outstanding 1975 book, The Great War and Modern Memory. The book is an exploration of that lasting emotional hold, traced through the wartime and post-war writing and culture which mythologized the conflict.
This section on Marc Bloch’s description of the pervasive scepticism among the soldiers seemed particularly resonant, for obvious reasons, when the book fell open at these pages this morning. Fussell quotes Bloch: ” ‘The prevailing opinion in the trenches,’ he wrote, ‘was that anything might be true, except what was printed. … governments reduced the front-line soldier to the means of information and the mental state of olden times before journals, before news sheets, before books.’ The result was an approximation of the popular psychological atmosphere of the Middle Ages, where rumour was borne by itinerant ‘peddlars, jugglers, pilgrims, beggars’. ”
Unfortunately we seem to be again in a world of rumours and lies peddled by mountebank politicians. And yet, as Zola insisted in the context of a different crisis: “La vérité est en marche….”