Saturday, January 31, 2009

The recession and Hayek (it's not what you think)

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.


Greg S said...

Hi Ted, Take a look at Philip Mirowski's _Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science_ if you haven't already (it was Larry G who recommended it to me several years ago) ... good on Hayek and Keynes and science ... 'do cyborgs dream of efficient markets'? ... not sure how you conceive the split of 'emergent' from 'self-organizing' (some folks speak them together) ... but, yes, I think that its moment (and the sci of self-organizing was a pretty long moment) is passing ... see work by Mark Hansen in _New Philosophy for New Media_ (especially where he takes off from F. Varela) and also Keith Ansell-Pearson's _Philosophy and the Adventure of the Virtual_ (esp around the question of duration, via Bergson)

Jonathan said...

Hey Ted,

When I think of self-organizing systems, I think of cybernetics, and especially the so-called "second order" variety that emerged in the 1970s in biology around the concept of autopoiesis. Start with Maturana and Varela's _Autopoiesis and Cognition: The REalization of the Living_ and go from there. In social theory, Niklaus Luhmann takes Maturana and Varela's theories.


Ted Striphas said...

Wow! Thanks, guys, for the great reading list. I know what I'll be doing this summer.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post and all around blog Ted.

Of a more speculative nature, strongly informed by D&G:
Manuel Delanda's "Nonorganic Life" in _Zone 6: Incorporations_, ed. Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter, (New York: Zone, 1992) 129-67.

The concept of 'self-organization' plays a central role in this piece.

James C.

Ted Striphas said...

How very kind of you, James. Thank you for the recommendation. I'll be sure to check it out.

Michael K. said...

Hey Ted,

These are great questions. I was going to suggest Luhmann as well, but others beat me to it. For a radically different take on emergence, it might be good to check out Kittler, too.

A couple related issues: to what extent does self-organization require self-representation? Does a "system" need a recursive structure, and are there different types or styles of recursivity? And of course, what do emergence and self-organization do to the concept of power?

As for Hayek, people overlook the performative contradiction (is it one?) between arguing that markets are self-organizing and demanding that conditions be carefully arranged for them to operate. But this contradiction does not invalidate the argument so much as it implies that there is no easy way to distinguish between self-organization and "intervention" by some "external" agency.

Ben Peters said...

Ah, this is rich stuff. Very rich. Let me double the call for Mirowski's rich book. On cybernetics, don't forget that Wiener himself wrote on, aside from the better known key works, economics and recursively broken patent systems in Invention: the Care and Feeding of Ideas, as well as his passable novel, The Tempter. My dissertation looks at, more or less, the cold war transformation of the term information as a keyword (read: excuse) for studying all sorts of stuff like information sciences (e.g., from Boltmann on entropy to Shannon), sociology/anthropology (e.g., Bateson on disinformation), economics (Hayek, Coase, Stiglitz, many others all use "information" importantly). Each of these involve some cool twist on the ironies and irksomeness of analyzing self-organization. Other passing notes here: Anyway, thanks for mentioning Tarde and Levy, among others. I hope we keep this up.

Ted Striphas said...

Michael: I'm still haunted by your comment (which you made to me in person last week) about how the notion of "self-organization" is premised on the abandonment of rhetoric's coordinating function.

Ben: obviously I really need to read your dissertation, as the trope of "information" is clearly central to all discussions about self-organization, especially its variants out of neo-classical economics and rational choice theory.