Lazy Sunday, watching the clouds


This is one of those days when I experience radically contradictory intuitions as for my research work. One voice in my head is telling me: ‘Stay focused. You have a nice research path here, with those evolutionary models of technological change’. Still, there is another voice, who is currently watching the clouds, as they rush through the late summer sky, and is wondering what the hell is it all about, you know, universe and stuff. By the way, can a voice watch clouds? Well, basically it can, if it has eyes, and some brain behind. What I need seems to be that special kind of broad picture. You know, that kind you can come by in some social relations. Somebody frames you into some lamentable deal, you say it was really bitchy from their part, and they say something like: ‘Yes, but we should see the broad picture’. Interestingly, said broad picture is focused on providing good excuses to that person. Still there is that rhetorical technique of focused broad picture, kind of precise and kind of overarching in the same time. This is what I need, to reconcile those two voices in my head.

In a picture, I’d better sketch before putting any thick paint in it. I start sketching with defining corners and frames first, and then I create a structure inside those frames. This is, at least, what I retained from my Art classes at school. So I sketch. Corner #1: Herbert W. Simon, reputed to be the patient zero of evolutionary approach in economics, and his article of 1955[1], treating of bound rationality in economic decisions. Corner #2: Arnold Toynbee, and his metaphor of civilisations seen as people struggling to get somewhere up from a mountain ridge, contained in his monumental work entitled ‘Study of History’, first published in 1939, then abridged, during World War II,  by an enthusiastic follower, David Churchill Somervell, and published abridged in 1946[2]. I mean more specifically the content to be found on pages 68 – 69 of this abridged version. Corner #3: a recent discovery in evolutionary biology – made and disseminated by professor Adam Hargreaves from the University of Oxford – that besides the known mechanisms of evolution, namely spontaneous mutation and natural selection, there is a third one, some kind of super-fast mutation in some genes, which works takes place so bloody quickly that those genes seem to disappear from the genome as we can sequence it . Corner #4: my own research, summing up, so far, to saying that our global achievement regarding technological change, is rather in ameliorating life conditions, for example in alleviating food deficit, rather than in maximizing Total Factor Productivity.

Fine, as I look critically at those four corners, I would add some more, but a frame with more than four corners becomes a bit awkward for sketching anything inside. I wanted a picture, I have a picture. Format is format, period. I draw a first edge, from corner #1 to corner #2, from Herbert Simon to Arnold Toynbee. The edge turns out to be somehow symbolic: professor Toynbee retired from scientific career in 1955, exactly the same year when Herbert W. Simon published that article I have in mind. Herbert Simon says: we can be biased, in our choices, as for very nearly everything. The range of options we can really choose between, their possible outcomes and payoffs, as well as exogenous conditions: we can subjectively distort all of that. Arnold Toynbee says: social change is a struggle with highly uncertain outcomes, and these outcomes are observable just sometimes, as pit stops reached in an endless race. Many a human civilisation failed in assuring continuous development. This edge, connecting Herbert Simon to Arnold Toynbee, is a question: how can we climb the cliff of history more efficiently, knowing that every hold is burdened with cognitive bias? Now, I connect corner #2 (professor Toynbee), with #3, the recent discovery of super-fast genetic mutation. Once again, a question arises on that edge. What happened if, in our civilisation, our cultural success depended on something that changes so fast we can’t even say how it is happening nor how is it subject to natural selection? Next edge, from that discovery by professor Hargreaves to my own research. This time, the edge question comes to my mind quite naturally. What if the technological change that we can observe, I mean invention, obsolescence in established technologies, production function, what if all that was a sort of blanket cover for some other process of change, taking place kind of underneath? What would be that process?

Finally, the fourth edge of my canvas, from my own research back to Herbert Simon and his theory of cognitive bias in economic decisions. We know that collective intelligence, understood as learning by experimentation and interaction, can reduce the overall impact of individual cognitive biases. Does the current proportion between the input of production factors (i.e. capital and labour), and the output of technological change (patentable invention, obsolescence of established technologies) reflect some kind of local equilibrium, a production function of technological change? How is that hypothetical function of technological change specific to precise social conditions, and how can it contribute to changing those conditions?

Thus, as I walk back in my footsteps, just to check if I haven’t trodden on something interesting, I reconstitute the edges of my canvas, and I try to define some kind of central point and the intersection of diagonals. What I am looking for is a model (theory?) of technological change, embedded in broader social change, which could help in discovering some possibly unexplained characteristics of our modern civilisation, and possibly assist future social change. Ambitious. Possibly impossible to achieve with my intellectual resources. Cool. I’m in, and now, I am restating the sparse hypotheses that my internal trio – the ape, the monk, and the bulldog – has hatched over the last weeks.  Hypothesis #1: innovation helps people out of hunger. Hypothesis #2: the number of resident patent applications per year, in a given country, significantly depends on the amount of production factors available. Hypothesis #3: evolutionary selection of new technologies works as an interaction between a set of female organisms disposing of production factors, and a set of male organisms generating intelligible blueprints of new technologies. Hypothesis #4: different social structures yield different selection functions, with different equilibriums between the number of patent applications and the input of production factors, capital and labour.

Good. Now, I check if all that intellectual diarrhoea makes a coherent logical structure. I start with bringing a little correction in the last hypothesis: I replace ‘equilibriums’ with ‘proportions’. In economics, an equilibrium is supposed to be something really cool, kind of serenissime; it is supposed to be a state of at least locally optimal use of resources. I cannot prove that any proportion between the number of patent applications and the input of production factors is such a state. I can observe that this proportion is somehow specific to distinct social structures, but I cannot see any way (nor any willingness, by the way) to prove that it is an optimal state for these structures. Now, provability. I can empirically check #1, #2, and #4, but not #3 (at least I cannot see how I could check it with the data I have). The #3 seems to be a speculative hypothesis, kind of a cherry I can put on the top of a cake, but I have to bake the cake first.

I have that logical construct, made of hypotheses #1, #2, and #4, which I place in the centre of my canvas. If I was painting a landscape, it would be that beautiful [lake, mountain, horse, river, sunset, or put here whatever you want] to be presented between those four corners and four edges. Now, following the logic by Milton Friedman, what I will be doing about those hypotheses would be not so much proving them true, as absolute truth does not exist in a probabilistic world, but finding conditions for not refuting those hypotheses as false. Supposing I have proven that (I kind of have, in my earlier posts), I can now try to connect the proof to edge questions, i.e. I can try to build a speculative reasoning. Tomorrow.

[1] Simon A.,H., A Behavioral Model of Rational Choice, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 69, No. 1 (Feb., 1955), pp. 99-118

[2] Toynbee, J. Arnold. Study of history. University press, 1946.

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