America the inventive

More from Age of Edison, on why the U.S. surpassed Europe in invention:

Europeans often conceded that Americans displayed a remarkable aptitude for invention, particularly in the field of labor-saving devices. The country had not produced many philosophers, as one Englishman put it, “but her practical men may be numbered by the hundreds. If a Yankee has an idea, he likes to put it into practice. He is not content to read a paper, and let someone else work out his theories.” Pioneers in industrial innovation, the British still made better products, and sold the world many more of them. But they conceded, with evident concern, that “it is from America that all the new inventions come to us.”

…As one educator put it, “very great inventiveneness” had become a defining national trait…

Many explained America’s inventiveness as a by-product of its expanding market and its chronic labor shortage…

Others attributed American inventiveness to the nation’s more democratic educational system…

Americans were fast passing the Old World in technological creativity, many argued, because the U.S. economy offered these rewards not just to a small educated elite and those who inherited titles of nobility, but to all those entrepreneurs who served their fellows through the marketplace… In a variation on the American dream, some people joked that every true American man would feel ashamed to go to his grave without at least one patent to his name.

(Pages 144-154.) Here’s my previous post on the book.

How attention ate the social graph

Remember when Facebook was building the “social graph”? The idea was that it was capturing this amazing look into who was connected to whom, and that this was at the center of the company’s value. It was the idea behind short-lived products like “graph search”. Of course, connections are still supposedly at the center of Facebook’s business model. But ultimately it’s attention that the company monetizes; the social graph is secondary.

LinkedIn is a little different, but arguably something similar happened there, too. The company was building this amazing professional graph — a mapping of whole professions and  industries, a new way of examining how our economy functions. That data is still at the heart of LinkedIn’s model, but they too seem drawn to attention.

Just having this data didn’t seem valuable enough; you have to keep people attached to your application to make it useful.

This is just sort of sad. We mapped everyone’s social relationships and it turned out that in order to justify a colossal market cap it was more beneficial to just become an entertainment company. We mapped out our economy and so far it’s mostly good for recruiting (which, granted, relies on that graph) and maybe some sort of business-oriented newsfeed. We created these amazing social graphs, but what have we used them for?


Technology, markets, or business

Technology and commerce have evolved together: trade spreads knowledge and rewards invention; technology, in turn, expedites trade. But what if you had to pick one? In which are you more invested? To be more specific, what if you had to order your priorities, between technology, markets, and business? Which, to borrow from Tyler Cowen, is your most stubborn attachment?

I’ve come to think of this question as a helpful guide to intuitions on economic policy. Think of how different right-leaning groups might answer: more economics-focused libertarians would no doubt prioritize markets, as would those concerned by “crony capitalism.” Those most concerned with negative liberty and property rights might prioritize business. “Big-business Republicans” are easy. AEI would probably rank markets first, but with its commitment to “free enterprise” business probably would garner more attachment than technology per se.

Now think about business groups: The Chamber of Commerce would put business first. Finance types might be more likely to say markets — or at the very least traders would. Silicon Valley would put technology first, though with a particular form of business — the venture-backed startup — not far behind. They have much less interest in markets, and in fact often seek to disrupt or dominate them, as in Thiel’s Zero to One.

What about the center and left? None of the three is their most stubborn attachment, but the question is still revealing. Technocrats at Brookings would likely put markets first. Elizabeth Warren, in her attacks on market power, is likewise creating a “markets-first” position — with the caveat that markets need considerable oversight to be truly competitive.

To take a concrete policy issue, think about the minimum wage. Of course, the main reasons to raise the minimum wage have little to do with technology, business, or markets. The desire is to raise wages. However, the prioritization helps explain how different groups react to it. Those whose first allegiance is to business will be skeptical of it; it likely raises costs for businesses. Those whose allegiance is to markets will focus narrowly on the dis-employment effect; their opinion will probably hinge on their view of that literature. But if you prioritize technology, you’ll see something else to like with the minimum wage — as Rob Atkinson of ITIF, the tech think tank, does. Raising wages might actually be a feature for the economy, because it “it becomes more economical for him to adopt technology.”

To close, I’ll just say: think about how this prioritization explains different groups’ reaction to the big tech companies.

Notes on theory, evidence, and social science

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the interplay between theory and evidence in social science — spurred in part by reading more about David Hume and how various other Enlightenment-era thinkers thought about induction and evidence. I won’t attempt to say anything on this subject myself here, but want to clip together a few interesting things I’ve read on the topic lately:

A Brief History of the Hypothesis – Cell

Guide to critical thinking, research, data and theory: Overview for journalists – Journalist’s Resource

A mini-course on interpreting evidence –

The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect (I’ve read only a bit)

Finally, this quote from Harvard’s Gary King:

One division within science is theory versus empirics. There are whole bodies of work in academia where, for lack of direct empirical observation, we have to just make assumptions about people. For example, that they pursue their own rational self-interests. Well, a lot of the time they do pursue their own rational self-interest, but a lot of the times they don’t. If you had to make an assumption about people, maybe that’s a good one to start with, but if you have data, you don’t have to. You can go figure out what they’re doing in particular instances.

So, the “End of Theory”? Of course it’s not the end of theory. But the balance between theory and empirics is shifting toward empirics in a big way. That’s always the case in areas where there’s a lot of data. Does that make the scientific method obsolete? No — that’s absurd. Science is about inference, using facts you have to learn about facts you don’t have. So if you have more facts, you don’t have to make as many inferences as you would otherwise.

It’s never going to be the case that there’s no inference, and by definition, it’s never going to be the case that we’re not going to need science. All the data revolution is influencing is how much empirical evidence we have to bring to bear on a subject. Nobody says in astronomy when we get a better telescope that we don’t need theories of how things work out there. We just got some more evidence, that’s great.

Update: Via Paul Bloom’s intro psych course, here’s an entry from a free psych textbook on science, theory, etc.

America’s adoption of the electric light

American cities and even smaller towns embraced the new technology with a speed and enthusiasm that Europeans soon found both fascinating and reckless. While the United States was no leader in the science of electricity, inventors such as Brush and Edison had not only developed the most effective working systems but backed them up with an entrepreneurial initiative, even aggressiveness, that was fast making America the world leader in the commercial development and installation of electric light. Electric lighting systems, first arc and then incandescent, became a booming business, a popular enthusiasm, and a reform crusade that swept the country in the 1880s… In one town and city after another, politicians, business leaders, and editors exclaimed, “THE ELECTRIC LIGHT–WE MUST HAVE IT!” …

The market for electric light grew in part because Americans embraced the idea that their town’s standing on the great ladder of civilization could be measured by its ability to provide residents with the latest technological conveniences. Each time one town or city unveiled the light, boosters in neighboring municipalities felt the sting of inferiority and fretted that their town might be doomed to bring up the rear in history’s march.

That is from Ernest Freeberg’s Age of Edison. Would Europeans still say something similar about America? I read Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class as arguing No.

Adam Smith on good writing

For Smith language was a crucial entry point to the development and explication of a projected science of man… Smith sees effective communication as requiring what he calls perspicuity and propriety. Perspicuity is to be achieved through a plain and unadorned style, in contrast to — a favourite target — the artificial and pompous labourings of Lord Shaftesbury in his ‘dungeon of metaphorical obscurity’. A perspicuous language is one that clearly projects, but also thereby reveals, the thoughts of its speakers. Propriety, or correctness in the use of language, fits language both to the speaker’s natural character and communicative intent on one side and to the expectations of the audience on the other. Effective communication requires the speaker to anticipate what effect their words will have on the hearer. Propriety thus carries with it a host of tacit assumptions about norms of grammar and presentation, about the speaker’s persona the occasion ,social context and audience; and it is through propriety that sympathy, that communicative bond between speaker and audience, is conveyed.

As Smith put it, ‘when the sentiment of the speaker is expressed in a neat, clear, plain, and clever manner, and the passion or affection he is possessed of and intends, by sympathy, to communicate to his hearer, is plainly and cleverly hit off, then and then only the expression has all the force and beauty that language can give it.’…

From Jesse Norman’s Adam Smith: Father of Economics.