I’ve been thinking about the perspectives and schools of thought that I came to in my formative years that, for better or worse, have shaped how I think about a wide range of things. I thought it’d be useful to sketch those out, if only for myself. They’re quite different from each other — some are schools of thought or intellectual subfields, some are hazy ideas that resist easy definition.
Two are subfields of economics: behavioral economics and the economics of ideas. One is a philosophical tradition: American pragmatism. And two are related to the internet: what I’m calling the “Berkman perspective,” a set of ideas from internet scholars in and around the Berkman-Klein Center; and the “wonkosphere,” the policy blogging world that thrived during the Obama years, of which I was a voracious reader.
I’ve been deeply influenced by both the popular writing and research on cognitive bias, decision making, and forecasting. In a nutshell, I take this work to suggest:
- People do not, mostly, act in accordance with the assumptions of “rationality” embedded in standard economic theory. Instead, cognitive biases are rampant and constantly shaping our thinking
- There are some ways to be at least a little less biased — including by keeping an open mind, thinking probabilistically, following a process, aligning incentives, relying on multiple models or on the wisdom of the crowd
The economics of ideas
I’ve always been drawn to the topic of innovation and how it happens and have enjoyed a number of great books on this topic. In 2015 I had the privilege to audit a PhD course at MIT Sloan on the economics of ideas which helped me go deeper on this subject. In terms of what I’ve come to take away from this field:
- New ideas are the driver of long-run economic growth, so few questions are as important as the question of how ideas are produced, aka how innovation happens
- Ideas are an unusual kind of economic good because they’re nonrival. Some of the big assumptions that drive how we’d normally think about markets don’t apply
- Macro-theoretical models of ideas-driven growth are useful but the economics of ideas is and should be a deeply empirical field: We should look at incentives and markets and property rights but also culture and institutions to understand how innovation happens
The Berkman view
This one was the hardest to name, but I remain deeply influenced by a set of scholars and writers who studied the internet in the early 2000s and 2010s. Many, though certainly not all, were associated at some point with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard. And I’m proud to have spent part of a semester studying AI ethics and governance there as an Assembly Fellow in 2019. If I were to sum up what I took from a range of thinkers, it’s this:
- The internet was a big deal and worth studying. This seems obvious now, but it wasn’t obvious to many people even 15 years ago.
- “Code is law,” meaning software can shape behavior. It can be a form of governance, limiting what we can do or pushing us toward a particular decision.
- The internet could enable new and potentially better forms of cooperation and communication.
It’s hard to overstate how much I was influenced by the policy and economics blogging world of the late 2000s and early 2010s. In terms of what I took from it:
- Argument produces knowledge. The back-and-forth within this world wasn’t just fun to read, it showed a way to think and debate and learn (not always good of course!)
- The internet is an amazing tool for research. Reading the wonkosphere convinced me that a good faith reading of the massive quantity of high-quality information available online often produces better journalism than so-called “neutral” reporting
- There is a technocratic approach to politics that, for better or worse, musters evidence and arguments about policy questions and is skeptical of overarching ideology as a way of choosing between policies
This last one I’ll just turn over to the intro from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that – very broadly – understands knowing the world as inseparable from agency within it. This general idea has attracted a remarkably rich and at times contrary range of interpretations, including: that all philosophical concepts should be tested via scientific experimentation, that a claim is true if and only if it is useful (relatedly: if a philosophical theory does not contribute directly to social progress then it is not worth much), that experience consists in transacting with rather than representing nature, that articulate language rests on a deep bed of shared human practices that can never be fully ‘made explicit’.