It's been awhile since I've written something "academic" here on D&R. I'm not altogether sure why this is the case, given the title and origins of this blog. In any event, I thought it might be nice to close out the month with a more thoughtful post, or really to audition an idea.
Some time ago I read Mark Andrejevic's wonderful book iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era (University Press of Kansas, 2007). Ever since I've been preoccupied with an idea he introduces there: "the recession of causality." Mark borrows the phrase from Thomas L. Haskell, who uses it to describe the experiential change in scale that accompanies the rise of indistrial socieities. In a nutshell, as populations grow and spread out, and as socieities become increasingly complex, it becomes ever more difficult to determine why something happens. In other words, the causes of something happening here always seem to come from some generalized--perhaps unascertainable--elsewhere. Causality recedes, as if with the outgoing tide.
I've also been doing some reading on the topic of "self-organizing systems." From my sniffing around I gather a major proponent of the idea was the economist Friedrich Hayek, who coined the term "catallaxy" decades ago to characterize the self-organizing properties of markets. More recent books, ranging from James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds to Pierre Lévy's Collective Intelligence and beyond, build upon and extend the idea, whether paying homage to Hayek or not. (Of course there are other lines one might follow here as well, from Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, Gabriel Tarde's The Laws of Imitation, or Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class.)
My question is this: do "systems"--be they markets, traffic patterns, the internet, or what have you--truly self-organize, or come togther orginically, emergently? Or do claims such as these actually evidence the accuracy of Haskell's insight, namely, that today causes seem so remote that many researchers have simply given up looking for them?
I'm intrigued by, but increasingly doubt, the idea of self-organizing systems, for reasons implicit in the latter question. I should add that this is only speculative doubt at this point, as I haven't undertaken the sort of research that would disprove the supposedly self-organizing properties of social, economic, or communicative systems. But that does raise a further, methodological question: how would one go about undertaking that type of research? How, in other words, would one chronicle causes in an age of diffuse, recessive causality?
My initial response is to begin thinking along the lines of symbolic interactionism, but that will have to be a post for another time.