Metanomics Transcript Nov 18 2009


Published on

Metanomics November 18, 2009

Host Robert Bloomfield interviews guest Tyler Cowen

Published in: Technology, Health & Medicine
  • Be the first to comment

  • Be the first to like this

No Downloads
Total views
On SlideShare
From Embeds
Number of Embeds
Embeds 0
No embeds

No notes for slide

Metanomics Transcript Nov 18 2009

  1. 1. 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 Metanomics. 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 talking about. 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. 1
  2. 2. 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 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 2
  3. 3. 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 3
  4. 4. 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 GLITCH] 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 4
  5. 5. 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 the stereo. 5
  6. 6. 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 teaching. 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 learning. 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 reasoning? 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. 6
  7. 7. 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 right. 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. 7
  8. 8. 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 8
  9. 9. 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 that. 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. [BEGIN VIDEO] 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 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 9
  10. 10. 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. [END VIDEO] ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: We are back with Tyler Cowen, blogger at, 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 10
  11. 11. 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 that. 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, 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 particular examples. TYLER COWEN: Well, it's to get through Graham's list. It's be careful with cofounders. 11
  12. 12. 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 link. 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 have developed? 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. 12
  13. 13. 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 13
  14. 14. 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 otherwise. 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 academic? 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 unclear. 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 14
  15. 15. 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,, 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 democratizing. 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 15
  16. 16. 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 16
  17. 17. 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, and you can download them from iTunes as well. Thanks, everyone. Bye bye. Document: cor1073.doc Transcribed by: 17