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June 23, 2002
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Hollow Men?

Coming back to my university after some years away, I remember asking a knowledgeable friend in the autumn of 1971 what had happened to the student rads. Only two years before they had led a massive strike. In previous Aprils they had nearly shut things down again over Cambodia and Laos. Yet suddenly things were quiet.

One day an especially clever bunch of less politically-minded students (or, rather, differently politically-minded students) paraded an elephant around the grounds draped with a banner bearing the motto, “Let Saigons be Saigons.”

So where was the leadership of SDS? “Oh, they’ve all gone underground to Vis(ual) Stud(ies),” explained my friend. “They are reading Hegel and studying perception.”

In the wake of the Reagan Revolution, more than a few of the brightest Lefties turned to the history of economic thought. Now, one of the most interesting intellectual histories in many years has appeared, little-heralded, to demonstrate how fruitful a determined critical stance can be.

Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes A Cyborg Science, by Philip Mirowski, doesn’t have the finely balanced, sherry-like quality of Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, which won the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction last year. Mirowski’s book is more like raw Sicilian wine smuggled up the river in five-gallon jugs to avoid taxation. But otherwise the projects resemble each other in many ways.

Menand teaches at the City University of New York, Mirowski at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Both books are concerned with the social context in which scientific and legal high ideas emerge, and the subsequent interplay among those ideas and events. Both want to explain the effects of the Cold War with the Russians and Chinese on American intellectual life. Both are somewhat intoxicating to read. For a time you feel in touch with the secrets of the universe.

And if the tale that Machine Dreams has to tell is not as well-modulated and persuasive as The Metaphysical Club, it shouldn’t be surprising. The events in Menand’s story began unfolding more that 125 years ago, in the aftermath of America’s Civil War. Mirowski is concerned with the legacy of World War II.

The Metaphysical Club locates the social origins of the broad movement we know today as pragmatism in the experience of the war. The story is told through linked portraits of three members of a short-lived conversation club (and their friends) — the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the psychologist William James and the philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce. John Dewey, the philosopher of education who shared their values, came later.

For these men, the war was an object lesson in the violence associated with abstractions. The new doctrines of statistical mechanics and Darwinism taught them to mistrust precision in general. They described themselves as “betabilitarians,” prepared to wager — to bet — that ultimate sense could be made of the universe, but by no means certain of it. The values they devised were contingent, relative, temporary, tolerant — “fallible constructions, good for some purposes and not so good for others,” writes Menand. And in three-quarters of a century, their Doctrine of No Doctrines came to be recognized as the quintessentially American point of view.

That ceased to be the case with the advent of the Cold War, according to Menand. Ambiguity and tolerance were values not highly prized by a democracy locked in a twilight struggle with an implacable foe. And for the next fifty years, he writes, Holmes, James, Pierce and Dewey were viewed as having been naïve.

But then the Cold War ended, he continues, the pragmatists’ ideas re-emerged as suddenly as they had been eclipsed. An architecture with many competing belief systems suited the 1990s, he adds, not “just two.” Skepticism, Menand asserts, regained its importance overnight.

Mirowski has quite a different view. For the telegraphic purposes of this column, we may as well take seriously the Marx-like motto he sets up as a straw man at one point — it is stretching his point only a little. “The handmill gives us society with a feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist; the computer, society with the miltary analyst.”

First of all, what’s cyborg? Think “$6 Million Man,” as in the old television show. The term was invented in 1960, he reports, to describe “persons who can free themselves from the constraints of the environment to the extent that they wished” — thus all the sci-fi tricks ever conjured by which men and machines are linked together as “cybernetic organisms.”

Cyborg sciences are those whose ambitions began to exhibit a certain pattern in the years just after World War II: information theory, molecular biology, neuro-physiology, operations research, computational ecology, sociobiology, computer science and game theory. Herbert Simon described them as “the sciences of the artificial.” It isn’t cyborg science, Mirowski says, if it doesn’t somehow involve a fundamental reference to the computer.

If you think that the cyborg label is silly, you’re right. It is Mirowski’s bad luck to have read far too much William Gibson, the postmodern science fiction writer whose 1984 novel Neuromancer brought George Orwell’s bleak vision of the future up to date. That is to say, the economist’s playfulness knows no bounds, no bounds at all. After a while — say, after the first “you, dear reader” on page 2 of the 655-page book — it becomes tiresome.

But it is also the case that Mirowski seems to have read nearly everything written by and about the men — they were almost all men — who made modern economics. He’s a superb guide to the intricate disagreements among a generation of extraordinary thinkers. And if this happens to be your thing — if you are interested in how economics went high-tech — then there is nothing else like it on the market.

The core of Machine Dreams, like the core of The Metaphysical Club is a series of portraits. But, with the exception of the genius John von Neumann, the actors in the drama in the twentieth century have become entire research groups. Mirowski concentrates on the hopes and fears of the Statistical Research Group, at Columbia University; the Cowles Commission, at the University of Chicago; and the Rand Corporation, in Santa Monica. Meanwhile, at the Radiation Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the agile Paul Samuelson manages single-handedly to take control of the conversation for forty years. How he did it doesn’t interest Mirowski very much. His sights are set elsewhere.

The American military is the dark force behind Mirowski’s drama. The moral that he draws about our times is just the opposite of that of Louis Menand. The Pentagon, he says, “was never a monolithic taskmaster” in seeking to fashion a new economic orthodoxy in the years after the war. “The scientists who accepted its largesse were often themselves consciously at odds with it.” Nevertheless, he recommends that economists’ disclaimers that there was no untoward influence should be taken with “the same grain of salt that we imbibe when a child of the affluent suburbs testifies that there was no trace of racial prejudice in post-war America when he was going up.”

In this externalist/internalist argument, there are the usual problems with the direction of causation. Drawing on Frances Saunders’ book The Cultural Cold War, Mirowski writes, “The fact that the CIA opted to promote Abstract Expressionism as America’s answer to Socialist Realism in the Cold War battle for hearts and minds need not detract one whit from my conviction that Jackson Pollock was one of the most imaginative painters of the twentieth century.”

But what if Pollock was reacting more against Picasso and Norman Rockwell than to Allen Dulles? Who then was running the show?

So what would non-cyborg science look like? It is clear that Mirowski believes that the superiority of market to all other forms of social organization has been overstated, that the rights of the tribe and the community ought sometimes to take precedence over individual freedoms, that affluence in general is prized too highly and that re-humanization should be the order of the day. As it happens, so do I.

What then will deliver us from the relentless press of the cyborg program? Mirowski is pessimistic. “Nothing seems poised to reverse the neoclassical hollowing out of human beings into hulking mechanical shells,” he writes. “Not experimental economics, not evolutionary game theory, not Herbert Simon, not Robert Frank, not Amartya Sen, not the Santa Fe Institute, nothing.” A little “Envoi” at the end of the book is taken from computer scientist Danny Hilles: “Whatever you imagine virtual worlds will be like, or whatever I imagine, is likely to be wrong.” You can’t get there from here.

You can’t tell how exactly we’re going to proceed from reading the likes of George Orwell and William Gibson — or, for that matter, Philip Mirowksi. But you certainly can learn something useful about where we’re headed. Sure enough, those Commies in my university back in 1971 eventually succeeded in turning the undergraduate major into Visual and Environmental Studies. We get our science, environmental and otherwise, from the departments. But moral concerns still come most often from the rads.

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