METANOMICS: DON'T APOLOGIZE
NOVEMBER 18, 2009
ANNOUNCER: Metanomics is brought to you by Remedy Communications and
Dusan Writer's Metaverse.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Hi. I'm Robert Bloomfield, professor at Cornell University's
Johnson Graduate School of Management. Today we continue exploring Virtual Worlds
in the larger sphere of social media, culture, enterprise and policy. Naturally, our
discussion about Virtual Worlds takes place in a Virtual World. So join us. This is
ANNOUNCER: Metanomics is filmed today in front of a live audience at our studios in
Second Life. We are pleased to broadcast weekly to our event partners and to welcome
discussion. We use ChatBridge technology to allow viewers to comment during the
show. Metanomics is sponsored by the Johnson Graduate School of Management at
Cornell University and Immersive Workspaces. Welcome. This is Metanomics.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Welcome to Metanomics. I am delighted to introduce the
Metanomics audience to one of my favorite bloggers Tyler Cowen. His blog, Marginal
Revolution, has made the Wall Street Journal’s list of the top 25 economics blogs, and
his career is an inspiration to those of us who are looking to incorporate the
nontraditional media into the very traditional world of academia. Tyler has also written a
book Create Your Own Economy: The Path To Prosperity in a Disordered World, which
speaks directly to those of us who call the internet our home, and we'll be talking quite a
bit about that. I should mention Tyler has a lot of other books. This is the one we'll be
Reading Tyler's blog and his book and talking with him last week, I'm sensing a
common thread of supporting positions that fly in the face of conventional wisdom and
traditional practice. For example, he sees no reason virtual goods should be viewed as
somehow less than other goods. He lauds cultural trends from the decline from
monumental books and symphonies to bite-sized stories and songs. And he finds
aspects to praise about autistic thinking styles. He also praises Wikipedia and blogs
despite their lack of academic credentials, always unusual for someone with tenure. He
does all of this without apology, and he recommends that you do too, hence the title of
today's hour: Don't Apologize. Tyler, welcome to Metanomics.
TYLER COWEN: Thanks for having me on. I'm very excited to be here actually.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Yeah, great! Great! Well, we're glad to have you, and I hope
my somewhat sensationalist title doesn't misrepresent you too much, but you'll have
plenty of time to characterize your views in your own words. First, I'd just like to briefly
welcome everyone who's watching on the web at metanomics.net or in Second Life at
our Metanomics Sim or any of our event partners. We'll be tracking the text chat so
keep those questions and comments coming.
Tyler, I'd like to start with your writing on autistic thinking styles, which is a central theme
of your book Create Your Own Economy. You start by noting that a blog reader,
Kathleen Fasanella, asked you very politely and intelligently to consider if you might be
described by either Asperger's Syndrome or high functioning autism. What do you think
made that thought occur to her?
TYLER COWEN: What I think of myself is what I call an infovore, someone who loves
processing information, absorbs and consumes and orders really a lot of information.
That, to me, is a lot of what blogging at least is about in some other Virtual Worlds as
well. But the more I read on the topic of autism, the more I saw that the people, who are
like my fellow infovores, are very often autistics, and I think what I call mental ordering
quite central to autism and [AUDIO GLITCH] a lot of information, and I think it's a big
part of what I'm about also.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: So the subtitle of your book is The Path to Prosperity in a
Disordered World. What do you see is the connection between disorder in the
environment, the ordering we impose and economics?
TYLER COWEN: I think what the web is and what Virtual Worlds are, it's a blooming,
buzzing confusion that can be intimidating or it can be bewildering. But the way you
make it work for you is to go out there and literally impose order on it and use good
filters, have ways of drawing from it what works for you, whether it's your Twitter feed or
RSS or what island you go to in Second Life. A world that appears completely
unordered, in fact in each of our individual minds, a high degree of coherence and
meaning, we do the ordering. It's like we create these private worlds of our culture,
using the powers of our own mind. I see technology as empowering the individual also
relates back to the autistic cognitive profile. Autistics are very good at seeing beauty or
meaning. All things are combinations of things that, to other people might see me
[AUDIO GLITCH] is another way in which the modern world has any kind of marriage
with the [AUDIO GLITCH] cognitive profile.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: You give a number of examples that link, I guess, really link
autistic thinking styles to, for example, collectors, the habits of collectors. I'm wondering
if you could just walk us through an example of how you see that connection.
TYLER COWEN: I think of myself, for instance, as information collector [of what?] I do.
It's more fundamental to what I do than being an economist or a social scientist. A blog
is one way of collecting information and ordering it for other people. I think there's a
well-known tendency in the literature on autism and Asperger's that autistic individuals
love collecting in preferred areas. Why this is, I think it's not well understood, but it's
somehow a way of creating meaning and beauty and bringing orders to worlds in ways
which are novel or powerful. I think what the web is enabling everyone to do, whether or
not they're autistic, is engage in a kind of collecting, whether it's using Flickr or, again,
your RSS feed or whatever it may be, or your island in Second Life, do that collecting in
a more powerful way, make it more appealing, make it more attractive.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: One of the lines in your book that I thought was very
interesting is that you say schools are using social means to teach kids to be more like
the autistic. Can you explain that for us?
TYLER COWEN: Well, a lot of school is about trying to teach people focus. They're
trying to teach people how to educate themselves. Again, those are two areas where
autistic people very often are extremely powerful or extremely talented. They're like the
ultimate self-educators, again, in preferred areas, not with regard to all skills, and they're
capable of having extreme focus. So I find it ironic or strange, to say the least, that, on
one hand, you have both the popular and a research culture where autistic people are
often demonized or seen as hopeless or pitiful or whatever. Yet, on the other hand, we
turn around and each year spend many billions of dollars, in essence, trying to teach
some of the skills that autistic people have on autistics. I just thought that was worth
pointing out in my book.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: You talk about focus, and one of the issues in the internet in
general and particularly in Virtual Worlds is that it's very much a multitasking
environment, and, just to give people a sense of what I do during a Metanomics
broadcast where I'm immersed in a Virtual World. I'm looking at the text chat of all the
participants who are commenting and asking questions. I'm looking at my notes that
have my own questions and topics and background material. And often, if a guest says
something, I'll have to go Google that so I can follow up in a more intelligent way and
figure out, on the fly, what they're talking about. It seems like this multitasking and that
type of environment is almost antithetical to the type of unique sustained focus that you
attribute as a characteristic of the autistic thinking style. Do you see a disconnect there?
TYLER COWEN: Well, I think the web allows us to multitask when we want to, but also
to focus when we want to. There are plenty of people, say, who use YouTube and just
listen to the music or watch the video or people who use Google to find the one thing
they're really interested in immerse themselves in it in a very systematic concentrated
way. But other times the TV will be on, music will be playing, you're checking your
email, things popping up on Twitter, more or less all at the same time. One of the
arguments I try to make is that may appear to be kind of disconnected or incoherent, in
terms of what's going on in the individual mind [AUDIO GLITCH] very much a stream of
consciousness [AUDIO GLITCH] set of interconnected stories and narratives and
[AUDIO GLITCH] perfect sense, and we're so drawn to multitasking because it's so
much fun, powerful. It's often an efficient way of producing [AUDIO GLITCH] not how
you should do everything. It's isn't like try to assemble a bed from Ikea at the same time
while you're writing an email. But when you want to be doing it, it gets us to where we
need to go. So I think this notion of the choice and that we can switch, that multitasking
is an option when it used to not really be. I think that's a big intellectual advance [AUDIO
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: I know you have written about an article in the Atlantic
Monthly, by Nicholas Carr, called Is Google Making Us Stupid. Let me just read a
paragraph from this article and get your take on this. So again, this is Nicholas Carr
from the Atlantic Monthly, in July of 2008. So he says, "Over the past few years, I've
had an uncomfortable sense that someone or something has been tinkering with my
brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn't going,
so far as I can tell, but it's changing. I'm not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it
most strongly when I'm reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to
be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and
I'd spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That's rarely the case
anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety,
lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I'm always dragging
my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has
become a struggle."
Tyler, is Google making us stupid?
TYLER COWEN: I debated this with Carr on a TV show, and I asked him a pointed
question, "[Is Google?] making who stupid?" He didn't really have a good answer. He
was [AUDIO GLITCH]. I said to him, "Well, you heard you would be debating me, did
you go and Google my name?" He got a little embarrassed. I suspect clearly he did.
So Google is there, but none of us are addicted to Google. It's very easy just to not use
Google, but we do because it's powerful. I think it's true some people are reading fewer
longer books, but look at the Harry Potter series. They're very long. They're being read
and devoured by a generation that's grown up with Google. I don't think it obvious that
we're abandoning books. Frankly, so many long books or articles are too long. So many
books are just like magazine articles that _____ to 270 pages. We're getting somewhat
impatient with that. I say bravo that a lot of ideas can created better or more quickly in
blogs or in shorter bits, and the people who are really interested in more detail are the
ones who [personally use?] Google. So Google is both focused and multitasking.
Google is both [AUDIO GLITCH] half the picture.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Okay. Yeah, I guess I tend to agree with you on the length of
certainly what I read in the academic literature. There's rarely a paper I read, for my
work, that couldn't be half as long. I'm a big fan of "omit needless words," which is one
of the Strunk and White admonitions.
How about when we take it to music? And you talk about culture, and you talk about the
trend in your book Create Your Own Economy. You talk about the trend from sort of
these big epic works, you know, Wagner's Ring Cycle or hours-long operas and
symphonies and so on, and now it's hard to get anyone to watch anything on YouTube
that's longer than six minutes. Metanomics is an anachronism for sticking to a one-hour
format. Just sticking with music, do you think this is a positive development that we're
moving from the big epic pieces to very short pieces?
TYLER COWEN: Well, I think there's two effects, and maybe one is at home and what
you do outside. At home, people clearly are listening to shorter bits so the albums
[AUDIO GLITCH] much anymore [AUDIO GLITCH] have an iPod or something like
[iPod?], gather your own stream. Gets back to my point about creating your own
economy, how individuals now are empowered to create their own cultures inside their
heads. I think also people want variety. The more some people sit at home, reading
blogs or fooling around with their iPod, the more they want to get out. They want to go
for long hikes. They want to [AUDIO GLITCH] museums. They want to see long
baseball games. Or they also want to go hear Wagnerian operas.
I don't think it's everything that stretches for a long period is dead. I think a lot of it is
alive and well, live performance, live conferences, live concerts rather. They've really
been booming over the last few [AUDIO GLITCH]. You look at the average length of
movies shown in the theaters, the ones that make money, I just love 2012. That was
about two and a half hours long. The audience kept on watching. So I think, again,
there's this mixed effect. You have a lot more smaller bits, a lot more remixing, a lot
more [AUDIO GLITCH] but that also opens up the freedom in some spheres of culture
for people to get really long and extravagant. That combination, to me, is exciting.
[AUDIO GLITCH] that the long is always good, the long is always serious. I want to
counter that. I want to say that what we remix in our own minds with our own choices is
just as exciting as the long, just as potent, [AUDIO GLITCH] important.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: I definitely want to follow up on that, but first, I have to ask:
What did you think of 2012?
TYLER COWEN: Well, look, it's not a good movie. Did I see special effects that truly
wowed me? I did, and that's hard to do these days. Did it have some emotional oomph
[AUDIO GLITCH] clear manipulation of my baser side? It did. But I didn't walk out. I like
to walk out of movies. I didn't walk out. In that sense, I have to say I voted with my feet.
But would I tell a friend of mine that it was a good movie? I can't because it wasn't. So
did I like it? Hard to say. Someone's saying on the chat it was two hours, 40 minutes
long. But it was a long movie in any [AUDIO GLITCH]. I didn't know how _____ an hour.
It's a good length. Yeah.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: We'll see how we get through the hour. You talked about
people taking more control with the smaller bits. So sure, they can wear their iPod, and
they can go out walking while they listen to music actually. They can create their own
play list. They can take much more control over other people's content. Actually it
reminds me of an argument I once had way back in high school with a friend who
insisted that he could play a musical instrument, and the instrument he could play was
TYLER COWEN: That's great.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: He could choose what music went on there. He could change
the volume. He had an equalizer. There were all sorts of things he could do. And, of
course, I actually was struggling to learn a musical instrument at the time so I
disagreed. I'm wondering where you see this. Arguably now, someone who pulls
together a play list or remixes music or PhotoShops works of art, they actually are
getting much more involved in doing much more of the creation. So do you see culture
moving in that direction?
TYLER COWEN: I'm now seeing it as a skill, and I think, from our point of view as
academics, professors, over time, will become more like disk jockeys. So what it means
to be a great teacher will be more like what it means to be a great disk jockey. Like
should you give every lecture, or should you selectively use YouTube, DVDs, things on
the web, guest lecturers, whatever you can put together, creating an RSS or Twitter
feed for your students. That, in my opinion, will become a bigger and bigger part of
A lot of that will first happen outside of universities [because?] professors have so much
of a guilt mentality. It's going to revolutionize learning. I think we're all becoming much
better self-educators, enjoy the power of being part of the creative process of our own
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: I have to say I see in the text chat Doubledown Tandino, a
Second Life disk jockey and regular Metanomics attendee, seems to be ecstatic. I
always thought economics were the big imperialists who were saying whatever the field
is; it's actually a part of economics, but now Doubledown's going to be able to say, "No,
it's all a version of disk-jockeying."
TYLER COWEN: That's right. I think disk-jockeying is becoming truly fundamental, by a
very positive way.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: One more question on this what I think of as bite-size culture.
You talk, in the book, about using the Alchian-Allen Theorem in economics as a way of
understanding why we're seeing the trends we are, why people are interested in
four-minute content instead of three hours so much more. Can you walk us through the
TYLER COWEN: Well, in economics, Alchian-Allen Theorem is something technical.
Let me give you the intuitive version. Intuitive version is that, when browsing is easy,
browse a lot of small bits. But when browsing is hard, maybe you'll just take home one
long book and read it. But right now, mostly because of the internet, browsing is easy so
people do a lot of it, and they're looking at a lot of videos on YouTube, and sometimes
they don't get [AUDIO GLITCH]. This natural economics is saying if you're going to go
for a long trip, a long trip has to be worthwhile so you do something big at the end of it.
You don't have to go for a long trip, you're willing to make a smaller, shorter visit. The
Alchian-Allen [AUDIO GLITCH] so it's really about how people use the web. It wasn't
invented by Alchian and Allen with that in mind. They wrote [AUDIO GLITCH]. I think it's
really the best application, the best way of understanding [AUDIO GLITCH]
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Well, I have to say, as a cost accountant in teaching, I always
love to see people working fixed and variable costs. So I’d like to follow up on one more
issue resulting from this notion of the much lower sort of hurtle costs, browsing costs
and so on. If I’m understanding you correctly, you then go on to argue that medium
matters more than ever before. Did I understand you correctly, and if so can you give
me the intuition for that?
TYLER COWEN: When you have so much choice, you know, things find the medium
they do best at. But maybe in the old days, so much of culture was network TV. Stuff
got crammed onto TV. But now there are so many ways in which we consume culture,
whether it be like iPods or the internet [AUDIO GLITCH]. There's web TV, or there's
Second Life. A lot of different Virtual Worlds. There's [AUDIO GLITCH]. So [a given?]
cultural outputs, it goes where it ought to be, and they're tailored for the different media
pops up in Second Life just isn't like something that pops up in a lot of computer games
[AUDIO GLITCH] so people get attached to media because they like what's in that
medium. That, to me, is a very positive development. It's a way of expressing a greater
diversity, that you can have so many different media [AUDIO GLITCH] sometimes are
called virtual, but I think [AUDIO GLITCH] term would play [AUDIO GLITCH] process
through the human mind [AUDIO GLITCH]
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Okay. Let's see. I'm having a little bit of trouble hearing that
last part. Okay. It looks like our sound engineers are on it, so we'll keep plugging away.
But my understanding is, everyone can hear you but me, I think. So we should be all
I'd like to move on to another topic. You brought up Second Life, and, more generally,
we can talk about virtual communities and also virtual goods. Actually, we opened our
season of Metanomics with a show about virtual goods, and I started that conversation
off with a quote from your book, when you quoted the Portuguese author
Fernando Pessoa, who says, "The buyers of useless goods are wiser than is commonly
supposed. They buy little dreams." I'm wondering what you see as the nature and the
future of virtual goods.
TYLER COWEN: Well, I think we're usually buying little dreams. We not only buy food
and shelter, but when we choose styles or when we buy clothes with any kind of
fashion, when we decide how we're going to have our hair cut, we're all, in a way,
buying virtual goods because their importance exists only insofar as they are interpreted
by other human beings. What's important about them it's not like their physical
attributes, but, again, how they are interpreted by other people within this common
framework of meaning.
So what Virtual Worlds do is, they take that common framework of meaning and
somehow make that more explicit technologically, like there's an actual virtual space.
But I think it’s copying something we've been doing all along, I think that's a big part of
why it's powerful, actually very natural. It's very biological, I think. People think of Virtual
Worlds as like contrary to biology or contrary to what they call [ink?] space. I think it's a
kind of [nascent power?] we actually as biological beings. Again, I think that's why we
find [AUDIO GLITCH] it was always virtually created, most of the stuff, to begin with.
That make sense?
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Yeah, it does. And I guess I'd like to follow on with that by
pointing out that actually another personality on Treet.TV, Pooky Amsterdam has
referred to Second Life as "Selected Life." And I think what she meant by that is that we
select to be here in Second Life, and we can select our persona. We can select a
career. I certainly never thought I would be any sort of talk-show host before I came
across Second Life. Much of what you're talking about, and I know I'm going to go all
Hansonian on you now, but for those of you who don't know, one of Tyler's colleagues
at George Mason University's Economics Department is Robin Hanson, who now
focuses a lot on signaling arguments, that much of what we do we think we're doing for
substantive reasons or because we enjoy it or because it's good for society. We're really
doing it to signal our worth, our intelligence, something like that, to others and maybe
even to ourselves.
And I guess one of the things I'm curious about your take on this conjecture, which is
because we have so much more opportunity to select options in Second Life, I can look
like I am now. I can be taller, shorter, fatter, thinner. I can dress however I want. I can
be an animal or a washing machine. I saw a table the other day. And so signaling is
much more flexible in Second Life and in the virtual in general. How do you see that
playing out, if at all, in more important economic ways?
TYLER COWEN: Well, that's a good point. I would say now it gets to what, for me, is
sometimes a reservation that’s about Virtual Worlds for myself, not a reservation for
social point of view, but I feel like a certain degree of pressure in Second Life and in
other Virtual Worlds. You know in real life, at some point, I can just say, "Look. I'm not
actually any more attractive than this." Or, "This is the best I can do." In some sense,
the World just has to live with that. But when it's known you can make your avatar as
nice, elaborate, well-dressed, whatever as possible, at low cost, for a lot of people that's
fun. But, for me, again, I feel like it forces me to pay attention to a lot of things I don't
necessarily want to pay attention to.
So I think you've got to kind of sort, and people who want to signal in those ways, like by
showing how good they are at design and love Virtual World shopping and creating
these very imaginative portraits of things, get to do it, people like me, they can narrow
an area that's the blogosphere where I feel in that like I feel very well, very good with
print media. I think I'm much less good with design. I think I could spend a year on my
avatar, and it would still be kind of awful. Thank you having made one for me. I'm sure
it's better than I could have done. And that makes sense. People sort according to the
kind of signals they want to send.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Well, let me be the first to admit that whatever your visual
and graphic art skills are, mine are worse, and a team of people over the last couple
years has made this avatar.
TYLER COWEN: Okay. So then to the question.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Oh, go ahead. Mm-hmm.
TYLER COWEN: You all know more about this than I do. But [how are avatars?] judge
in Second Life? I'd love to see something [very systematic] in on that. I'd be very
interested in the question. Say you're judged poorly, which ways then are you worse off
dealing in Virtual Worlds, like is it harder to get into groups? Or do you talk differently in
chat rooms? Or is it more strictly egalitarian? I haven't spent that much time in Second
Life. I don't know. But I think that someone could do some very good social science on
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: That's actually great timing for you to ask a question of the
audience because we're halfway through the hour. We're going to take a very short
break, and I would like to ask our audience. I'm sure many of you have thoughts on the
questions Tyler just asked. I know I do, but please do share them with us in chat, and
we'll take a look and maybe discuss those after the break.
For right now, this is in the midst of our third year of Metanomics. We have been taking
the opportunity to take a quick look back at prior episodes. So we'll be returning
momentarily with Tyler Cowen, author of the book Create Your Own Economy: The
Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World. But, first we're going to listen for a minute or
two, to Mitzi Montoya, a professor who is an expert in virtual collaboration and was on
Metanomics last summer. So join me as we take a moment for looking back.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: With Metanomics now in its third season, we thought it’d be
fun to take a look back at some of our past shows and guests, since September of
2007. With over 80 episodes to choose from, we chose some of the most interesting,
engaging and occasionally contentious discussions. As always, you can see the
complete episodes at Metanomics.net or on our iTunes channel.
DO VIRTUAL WORLDS PROVIDE MEASURABLE VALUE?
INSIGHT FOR ENTERPRISE WITH DR. MITZI MONTOYA
MAY 27, 2009
MITZI MONTOYA: So yes. And part of what started us down this path, as my colleague
Anne Massey and I started looking at Virtual Worlds, is, we started looking at the
research, much of which has been done in the gaming and military simulation context.
One thing you see is this idea of presence seems to be a desirable attribute as some
kind of self-evident goal and a pervasive belief that more sense of presence is good.
But we could not find any consistent way to assess that, like there were many different
measures and studies from all sorts of angles, but no validation using fairly standard
measurement development techniques.
So part of what we started doing is, we looked at the literature which suggests that
presence is a very complex notion, and we started talking about it as presence as
metadata. It really has everything to do with your sense of the context around you and
the information around you and others around you and how those things are all
interrelated. Presence includes input from multiple sources so it’s not just sound or text
or visual; all of these things can create a sense of presence. And so this is a very
individual factor. The more we studied what others were looking at and what has been
said, we’ve broken it down into three major dimensions of factors that we think sit
underneath this concept of collaborative virtual presence. And our focus is on
collaborative so not just my sense of awareness in a virtual space, that I’m here to work
with someone else. So my ability to collaborate in the collaborative virtual presence that
might be a part of that.
So we’ve broken it down into three pieces and the idea that there are three relationships
that are essential to collaborative work and how presence might contribute to that. And
that is the relationship between self and the environment, and that’s described as
immersion, and it’s the degree to which I am immersed in the environment and feel
myself to be there. And second is the relationship between myself and the task, and we
call that absorption, and that’s the degree to which I get lost in what I’m doing and what
I’m working on with you in this virtual environment. And then the third dimension has to
do with the relationship between self and others, so that’s my awareness of others in
this space with me. And so we’re defining collaborative virtual presence along these
three dimensions: immersion, awareness and absorption, which are a function of my
relationship to other things: people, the task and the environment.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: We are back with Tyler Cowen, blogger at
marginalrevolution.com, author of Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in
a Disordered World, and I realize, somewhat embarrassingly, I forgot to mention right
up at the top also a professor of economics at George Mason University.
Now, Tyler, you ended that last segment actually be asking questions about how
people's avatars and the attractiveness and design of avatars are viewed in Second
Life. We do have a few answers here. So let's see.
Gac OnTheWeb says, "I bet people judge avatars just like people judge people in real
life. They just don't chat about it." I'm not so sure that's true. I hear lots of chat about it,
and, in fact, I know that there is a blog post on, I want to say it was the New World
Notes just last week, talking about--and I know this is a family show, but I'll still say
it--breast size and the effect, the selection of and the effect of breast size on female
avatars in Second Life. I think there are about 35 or 40 comments on that thread.
Clearly a very big issue. So keep comments coming on that topic, and we can return to
I'd like to pick up another question that is asked by Dusan Writer, because we talked a
little about virtual goods and online economies. Dusan asks, "Isn't the concept of the
long tale an incredible oversimplification of online economies, which should be
discarded as a popular concept?" What do you think?
TYLER COWEN: Well, I wouldn't quite say discarded. I think what online media often
do is, they make the most popular things way more popular so they [thicken the popular
part of the tale, but also [in this culture?] has a real chance to be disseminated. _____
middling stuff that gets cut out. I would say there’s a the thickening of the middle in the
tales of the distribution at a hollowing out of the middle. So if you're just saying the long
tale is the effect, I think that's wrong. But if you just ask, is the internet [making each?]
culture more possible? Absolutely. In that sense, I think it's completely on the mark. The
book itself I don't think makes that distinction clearly enough. But stuff can go viral or
global now way more quickly, and that means the most popular stuff has a lot more
force too. It's new kind of mass culture. Well, that's a long tale.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Okay. Thanks for your answer to Dusan's question. I'd like to
turn the discussion to virtual communities. According to websiteaccountant.com, you
started your blog Marginal Revolution, at least you registered it in late summer of 2003,
and you have something on the order of about 30,000 page views a day. I don't know
how reliable their numbers are, but does that sound about right?
TYLER COWEN: _____ text 40,000 on a weekday, but I don't trust any of these
counters. I don't know. And all [CROSSTALK] dominate anyway.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: I'm with you on that.
TYLER COWEN: It's important not to worry about it.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: I was hoping for some insight on what it is like to manage a
blog which, in many ways, really means managing a virtual community in providing
contact. Even when all you do is put up a post which is a bunch of links, you'll get a
dozen people willing to comment, and many times you'll be in the many dozens or break
a hundred of really quite insightful commenters and to get some insight into your
community. Once you linked to an article by Paul Graham, that is called What Startups
Are Really Like. And the title of your link was Marginal Revolution is a Startup. When I
looked at the article, it was basically a list of different things you need to think about,
advice for people running startups. And so I just wanted to ask you, first, just generally,
why did this article speak to you? And then maybe we can walk through some of these
TYLER COWEN: Well, it's to get through Graham's list. It's be careful with cofounders.
Alex, my co-blogger is great. Startups take over your life. It's an emotional rollercoaster.
That one's not true. Very calm. It can be fun. Absolutely, it's a blast. There's a _____
key 110 percent. Think long term, like don't check your--view stats very much. Lots of
little things: You've got be like [AUDIO GLITCH] or funny or make good little points, not
just have great big grand arguments. Start with something minimal. [Big users?] blogs
do that. There's this great line, "If you're not embarrassed when you first put it out on the
market, you're waiting too long." Change your idea over time. Don't worry about
competitors. So almost everything he said seemed to me to be correct so I put up the
I think Marginal Revolution is one of the few blogs that has good comments, and there's
a few reasons for that. We try not to make commenting too easy, like we don't make the
[caption?] too easy. We try to set a better tone and to actually be really reasonable.
Maybe we don't succeed. We don't try to [inflame?] people. We don't put a post about
Sarah Palin or whatever. And I think very, very often the comments are better than we
are. That's part of what makes the blog work, and we're willing to realize that also.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: When I think of startups, and remember I'm coming from a
business school so I think a lot about entrepreneurial strategy and targeting specific
markets and so on, how strategic are you in identifying a community, trying to identify
content that will speak directly to that community? Or should I think of this more as the
person writing the great American novel, who just writes what they feel, and people end
up loving it or not?
TYLER COWEN: Maybe the latter. I'd say it's deliberately not strategic, which is maybe
the ultimate strategy. People respond to voice and tone, and that has to be genuine. So
whenever I catch myself thinking strategically, I slap myself on the wrist, sort of like
[AUDIO GLITCH] so that's that weird thing you were thinking about. Very often those
are the more popular posts. So it's hard to keep, in a way, kind of distant from what the
audience wants, but I think you have to do it or otherwise you end up chasing all the
same things that everyone else writes about. You lose all that freshness.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: And how would you characterize the community that you
TYLER COWEN: I don't know who a lot of these people are, but, like I said, really very
often they're better than we are. I think, in a way, of the blog as an advertisement which
attracts excellent writers and thinkers. In a way, what we're good at doing is writing the
ad. Whatever you write the ad is by thinking non-strategically, just being somewhat
weird and maybe a little bit excessive, by processing a lot of material and just putting it
out there. So that's how I think about it. It's a very different style from journalism or
academia. You've got to get to the point with the first sentence. Got to be quirky. You
have be a natural kind of quirky. Forced quirky is [AUDIO GLITCH]
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Yeah. So authenticity.
TYLER COWEN: Even authenticity so talked about. Authenticity is the ultimate
phoniness in a way. [AUDIO GLITCH] has to realize that. Authenticity is a nineteenth
century concept that's dead. Like someone once said, "What's so real about
Los Angeles is that it's so wonderfully phony." But you have plastic Los Angeles an
authentic city. I think, in a way, it's like our most authentic city. They've got that big
rolling doughnut, art deco thing near the airport, everything else. To me, it's totally
authentic, whereas, other people see it as totally phony.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Interesting point. I wanted to ask you a little bit about
polarization. New Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert summarizes the view of Cass Sunstein,
saying, "At the same time the web makes more news available, it also makes more
news avoidable." And so Sunstein and others have argued that, with people creating all
these virtual communities, they'll be able to create, and they'll join a community of
people who are exactly like themselves and become even more siloed and find
themselves surrounded by yes men. I understand you disagree with that.
TYLER COWEN: I very much disagree. People saying that, they're basically political
people who have political connections, and they're assuming everyone else is like they
are. Those connections _____ of most Virtual Worlds, they're not organized by political
party or conservative, liberal, libertarian, progressive. They're organized on other bases,
whether it's music or fashion or just a fun group of people, or they'll put a little of
intellectual interest in the topic.
Then if you get people of different politics mixing, something they talk politics,
sometimes they don't. But it brings them together, and it makes people realize they're
human beings too, and you might be wrong, and they might be right. So I'm pretty much
a web optimist. I don't see polarization. [At least?] if you look at politics. The last time we
elected a President, no matter what you think of him, he very much ran as being a
non-polarizing candidate, and he won decisively. So I don't think we're in an age of
intellectual polarization, though, if you go to Washington, it might appear that way, but
Washington is not the world.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: I guess you would know since you live right on the boundary
of it, right, or just over the water from it.
TYLER COWEN: [It's the best thing?] to live here.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Yeah, because of the--
TYLER COWEN: It's a reason to go to Virtual Worlds. It's like the ultimate company
town. To live this one way, you have to get a look at other things.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: I'd like to talk a little bit about what you are doing at George
Mason University, not just you, but the people in your department and where you see
higher education, both the research and the teaching going. You talked a little bit about
teaching before, about teachers maybe becoming a little more like DJs. I guess I'm
wondering, the time you spend on your blog is time you're not trying to write a paper
that would be published in a peer-reviewed academic journal, which is the normal
currency that we trade in as academics at research institutions. So I guess, first, how
does George Mason view your activity as a blogger?
TYLER COWEN: Well, I've had to work harder so I've kept up the other things I do,
writing of books and articles, but it definitely means every day more time spent writing. I
think writing a blog is a lot less time than people think. What's difficult is taking in
enough material to have something to say. But most of that I did anyway so, in that
sense, blog to me is never a burden. You're reading seven or eight hours of stuff a day,
and then you blog it, it works. You're not reading that much a day to begin with, then it
doesn't work. So that's why not everyone can blog, I think.
My department's been very nice to me. I've no complaints, and I've been respected
there. Most of them read the blog. I also see that it has helped promote what they're
doing. Students [through other?] faculty members. You know, like Paul Krugman,
Steve Levitt, [Mankiw?]. A lot of famous economists read Marginal Revolution, so they
also read in there what's going on at George Mason. It's publicity we would never get
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: What do you see as the larger picture? Do you think that
there will be more academics blogging, or will there be pushback? What would you
recommend to an untenured professor who is trying to have a permanent career as an
TYLER COWEN: If you're an untenured professor, I would say you could only write a
blog if you think it can be the best blog in the area you're blogging in. Otherwise, it may
not help you that much. But it can be, it can help you a lot. You just need to have good
judgment and not go around attacking your colleagues and peers [AUDIO GLITCH]. I
think, in higher ed, [AUDIO GLITCH]. I don't think anyone knows really where it's going.
I think it will make professors into DJs. What it will mean for research to be published is
I think publication per se won't count for that much in the future. It'll just be, "Have you
done one or two important things that everyone talks about and knows about?" What
counts as something published will become much vaguer. So reputation will maybe be
more informal. Some people will become a lot more famous, and a lot of kind middling
level work that is fine, but not exciting, I think people will lose interest in it, and it'll just
fall away. It will be like more people trying to shoot for home runs.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: You've said to me, during our phone conversation last week,
"Why publish in a third-rate journal if you can get in a first-rate blog?" So is that, when
you talk about the middling work, is that what you're referring to?
TYLER COWEN: Absolutely. So if I think of my own publishing, I spend less time trying
to write for lower-tier outlets and more time trying to write for higher-tier outlets. That's
probably a healthy influence of blogging on what I do. The lower-tier journal, some of
these journals _____ ten people read your articles. Sometimes I think it's even zero. At
some point, the world is waking up and saying, "Why are we doing this? The library
subscribes to the journal and pays $2,000 a year for it; it's crazy." It cannot be efficient.
And blogging is one of many ways. The world is backing out of _____ equilibrium.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: One of the things that has happened in academia over the
last decade, especially in economics and in business, is the Social Science Research
Network, SSRN.com, which is pretty much where everyone goes now to read papers.
Do you see that as having changed the definition of success in academia?
TYLER COWEN: That's the new journal. Yeah, that's the new journal, and it's how
many people who read your work that matters. So like _____ said, "The old model was
like first filter, then publish. The new model is first publish, then filter." And that's what
we're seeing. So the advantage of being at a top school is much less than it used to be
because the advantage of having personal connections is probably less. Very open and
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: We're closing in on the top of the hour. I do have one
question I'm almost reluctant to ask, but feel I have to. One of the things you mentioned
to me last week, I asked how has blogging changed your life, and you said that you now
get inundated with speaking requests. On a typical day, you may get five. You say no
I’m sure to almost all of them. Why did you say yes to Metanomics?
TYLER COWEN: Because this is more important and virtually all of the ones I get. I
don't mean a pun with that word "virtually." I think there's some new kind of intellectual
community being created here [AUDIO GLITCH] more generally. And, from my point of
view, to be part of it is an honor. I wanted to experience what it would be like also.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Great!
TYLER COWEN: I like to keep up on things.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: The archive, when you see it afterwards, will give a very
different experience as well, as you see the look and feel. I just have to say I'm honored
to work with the production crew that we have here. It's really just totally topnotch,
spread around the world, and makes it all work like one seamless enterprise. So we're
just about out of time. I guess I'd just like to ask you: Is there any point we haven't
gotten to that you'd like to make in closing?
TYLER COWEN: Well, I love what this guy Tandino says, "If you're a blogger, why do
they want you to speak? Why not hire you to go to a large stadium and have a massive
monitor of you writing a blog note?" [AUDIO GLITCH]
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Well, I think the way people communicate, whether they're
bloggers or academics and, as the barrier between them comes down, it's going to be a
very interesting next ten or twenty years. And I'm just delighted, Tyler Cowen, that you
could join us on Metanomics, to talk about your work and share your thoughts. I look
forward to seeing what you write in the coming years on Marginal Revolution. So thanks
a lot for joining us.
TYLER COWEN: Thanks so much. I really appreciate it. Take care. Bye.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Bye bye. So that was Tyler Cowen, George Mason University
economics professor, author of Create Your Own Economy and blogger at
Now I'm going to close the show, as I usually do, with an opinion piece, Connecting The
Dots. And this one is called The Age of Exploration.
I'd like to start by stating, for the record, that I find Tyler Cowen's career choices an
inspiration, as is the entire Economics Department of George Mason University. The
department has had great success with what is basically a constellation of blogs
addressing a range of topics, from the traditional to just this side of bizarre and maybe
beyond. But, above all, they are innovating. They are exploring off the beaten path,
searching for the future of their industry, which is, in this case, a higher education in
economics. So I want to close the show today with a few remarks about the Age of
Exploration as seen through the lens of one of the most fundamental concepts in
economics: opportunity costs, which are the costs of the alternatives you are not
pursuing because you're doing whatever you are doing.
So my first point is, times like these are excellent opportunities for exploration. This is
truly the next few years an Age of Exploration because the opportunity costs of
exploring are low. Some of you are unemployed. More of you are probably
under-employed. Believe it or not, now is the time for exploration because, again, what
do you have to lose? What's the opportunity cost?
There's a second meaning to the Age of Exploration. The very young, by which I mean
the 20-somethings, are filled with energy and ambition and creativity, but exploration is
every expensive for them because, at that age, they get so much value from the pursuit
of traditional credentials, like degrees from George Mason University, that they're
unlikely to want to devote the time and effort to truly exploratory innovation.
But, if you're listening to this, you're probably in the 35- to 60-year-old range, and you
really could be devoting far more of your time to exploring new opportunities because,
again, the opportunity costs are lower for you. This goes double, triple, if you are an
academic with tenure. The whole point of tenure is to enable you to take risks. And, if
that's not what you're doing, you are failing your institution, you're failing your
colleagues, and you're failing the society who's probably paying your salary through
taxes and donations.
One more word on credentials. The people with the most prestigious plaques on their
wall also face a higher cost of failure. They like their reputations, and they don't want to
mess them up. So they also have high opportunity costs. Now I know many of you might
feel that you won't be taken seriously if you try something new, unless you have the
fancy letters after your name, from the fancy institution or a fancy job. Well, there is
some truth to that, but remember your opportunity costs are lower.
And my last point is, I'd like to emphasize exploration is a privilege that not everyone
can pursue. It's fun, but it's also a social good. We're counting on you, those of you who
have the privilege, the opportunity to explore, we're counting on you to help pull us out
of these troubled times and give us new ways to work and live when we get to the other
side. So think of this. Think of entrepreneurship exploration as a social good and good
for our society. I hope you will take these words to heart because we'll all be better off
for it in the next ten or twenty years.
That is the end of today's Metanomics. We'll be taking a week off for American
Thanksgiving, but we will be back the following week, at the regular time. So thanks, all.
Don't forget there are almost 90 episodes of Metanomics on metanomics.net, and you
can download them from iTunes as well. Thanks, everyone. Bye bye.
Transcribed by: http://www.hiredhand.com