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Valuation and Virtue in the New Economy

Tyler Cowen’s “Good and Plenty” promotes the use of market mechanisms to fund culture. He’s recently turned his attention to valuation problems raised by time spent on the web:

Much of the Web’s value is experienced at the personal level and does not show up in productivity numbers. Buying $2 worth of bananas boosts GDP; having $20 worth of fun on the Web does not. And this effect is a big one. Each day more enjoyment, more social connection, and, indeed, more contemplation are produced on the Web than had been imagined even 10 years ago. But how do we measure those things?

Today, Facebook creates lots of voyeuristic pleasure, but much of the “work” is done by software and servers, and the firm hasn’t transformed Palo Alto. Web 2.0 is not filling government coffers or supporting many families — and may be hurting some. (Just ask a newspaper reporter.)

That all sounds scary, yet there is a bright side; I call it the “human capital dividend.” The reallocation of consumer time into the “free sector” on the Web will liberate the efforts of many producers and intermediaries, just as the automobile’s advent shifted workers out of making buggies for the horse. In fact, it’s an economic miracle that Twitter can get by with no more than 50 employees. It’s not quite a perpetual-motion machine, but if other parts of the economy were equally efficient, we’d all be swimming in free or near-free stuff. A second part of the human capital dividend comes from our productivity as Web consumers. Billions of people are rapidly becoming more knowledgeable and better connected to one another.

I think Cowen is right to the extent that our capabilities are undoubtedly enhanced by connectivity and computer power. But what if we embrace a more critical perspective on time spent on the web? What if some experience the need to facebook, tweet, IM, etc as a burden? What if our online presence in each area is in part a form of conspicuous display, as Thorstein Veblen modeled luxury spending? If education can be modeled as a “positional arms race” where the real goal is not to learn substantive skills, but to do better than others, then certainly we can talk about certain experiences of the web in similar terms.

In the “real economy,” we used to have a pretty rich ethical vocabulary for distinguishing between luxury and necessity. (As Christopher J. Berry notes, “luxury has changed from being essentially a negative term, threatening social virtue, to a guileless ploy supporting consumption.”) Perhaps we need a spectrum of value for web-based activity: from supra-economic aspirations (for love, political engagement, spirituality etc), to productivity, to entertainment, to distraction and addiction. But that might be too Arendtian or Maslovian for our relativistic times.

PS: For those interested, we plan to discuss such issues in some detail at a conference entitled The Internet as Factory and Playground. Here are some initial planning discussions.

4 thoughts on “Valuation and Virtue in the New Economy”

  1. Hi Frank —

    I find this sort of thing interesting, personally. That conference looks interesting too.

    On a side point, one incredible benefit of the Web to productivity has to be the way it provides access to obscure forms of knowledge and expertise. Today, I know I must not be alone in my conviction that the answer to almost any pressing question requiring human expertise is only a few clicks away. There was a time, not so many years ago, that if I wanted to know more about the history of X place or how Z worked, I would assume that it would take far too long to find out. Now I know that if I want to know, I can know — and, in cases where I need to know, I learn. Repeat that understanding throughout human civilization, and I think the Web (including 2.0) puts us in a much better place than we were before.

  2. to connect that thought back…

    the Web puts us in a much better place, *by any sort of reasonable economic measurement*

    Personally, despite anecdotal evidence, I doubt that Twitter and Facebook are doing a great deal to aid the economy or even to build social capital. They are changing some of the ways that people socialize and share information, but much of that was already covered in early discussions of, e.g., usenet and listservs.

  3. I agree, Greg, that for many people there are enormous benefits. I’m just trying to get more attention to the dark side of these technologies.

    As an academic, I am totally thrilled by the “access to obscure forms of knowledge and expertise”–I remember recently settling an armchair debate on early 20th century refrigeration by finding a 1922 treatise on ice hauling on Google Books.

    However, to what extent does the experience of intellectuals on the web bias (positively) their view of its overall social impact? As the Pew blogs study showed, most of the blogs out there are pretty inane navel gazing….or worse:

    “In order to enter the ‘information era’ as people, existing on Facebook requires one to turn ones life into information. Unfortunately, the fundamental commonality of human experience means that it becomes extremely difficult to make your information particularly different from a million other users.”

    “The response to decaying avenues of self-expression came in the largely unsurprising explosion of Twitter. Twitter is Facebook’s polar opposite, in which users are encouraged to write 140 character ‘tweets’ that describe the minutiae of their daily lives. Twitter allows people to utterly indulge in the business of self-representation, with any potential thought being fair game for a ‘tweet’.”

    “It is an insular world, in which minutiae is glorified, recorded, photographed and celebrated. Lacking even the narrative structure of a diary, Twitter is an unfiltered stream of information – self-reflection in its purest form. In the postmodern era, selfhood is already considered by many to be fragmented and unstable – Twitter directly reflects this idea by presenting the dissonant randomness of consciousness in an observable format. ”

    And even when it rises above this, doesn’t it often play into a new panopticon of manipulation and control:

  4. Well, I’m not as pessimistic as David Elliot, I guess. And to the extent that people are navel-gazing and become bores with blogs and Facebook, that sort of behavior has a long history. Back in the days of the telegram, people wrote short messages to each other. People have been keeping diaries for a long time. I know that all of these don’t exactly resemble the current moment, and I’m not trying to sound like a booster for Twitter, but I think the dark side of all of this is not so far from the dark sides we’ve always had.

    I’m happy you’re so interested in the ethical quandaries raised the adoption of social software, though. The place I might start, though, is with some general theory of virtue. You cite to Veblen and Arendt in the OP — those two had two very different notions of value.

    Questions of new technology and ethics push us to come up with some kind of position with what our proper goals should be — only if we share a sense of what it means to have time well spent can we know what it means to waste time blogging. Or commenting on blogs — even worse! 🙂

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