Flourishing in a sea of information

Life is getting much better in an important respect. That’s the message of Tyler Cowen’s book Create Your Own Economy. The gain is in personal enjoyment. The driver is new information and communication technology.

At the center of this is the internet, which gives us access to much more information, and more quickly and cheaply. What about information overload? Doesn’t the resulting sense of bewilderment and paralysis offset, and for some even outweigh, the benefit?

Cowen says no, because we have new ways to control the flow of information. Internet search engines let us target the particular information we want. RSS feeds allow us to focus on the websites that most interest us.

The same holds for music, books, movies, television shows, sporting events, and other types of entertainment. From iTunes you can purchase individual songs rather than entire albums. With an iPod you can then listen to those songs in a sequence of your choosing at whatever time and place you like. Kindle-type devices allow virtually instant purchasing of books and the ease of reading them whenever and wherever you please. DVRs, online rental services, and on-demand television make it possible to borrow or record movies and TV shows and watch them when it’s convenient.

Technological advances also enhance our control over communication. A telephone conversation occurs at the convenience of the caller, whereas email and texting allow you to receive inputs when it suits you. They also permit you to reflect a bit before you respond. With Facebook, chat rooms, blogs, and Twitter you can move in and out of ongoing conversations at will.

Imposing order on information is psychologically satisfying. The increase in our ability to control the amount, the content, and the timing of information and entertainment we consume may be just as valuable, in terms of our well-being, as the increase in the amount of information to which we have access.

The benefit varies across individuals. Enhanced ability to organize information is particularly valuable to people with a cognitive style that prizes order. For some of us more than for others, exerting control over the flow of information is pleasing. Greater access to information and culture is especially valuable to those with narrow and atypical interests. If you want to know a little about current political debates and what celebrities are up to, you may be able to get your fill by reading a daily newspaper or Time magazine or by watching a half-hour network news program. But if your interests are less mainstream — say, soccer in Argentina or west African music or Asian architecture — the internet makes a huge difference.

Autistics tend to be on the extreme end of both of these continuums; they often find the organization of information highly satisfying, and they tend to have narrow and unusual interests. Advances in information and communication technology are therefore likely to enhance the enjoyment of autistics to an even greater degree than of others. This, according to Cowen, suggests heightened potential for autistics, and people with similar if less extreme cognitive traits, to have a rich life experience.

Create Your Own Economy is well worth reading. Cowen’s case for optimism about the contribution of new technologies to individual well-being is stimulating and fairly compelling. The writing is engaging, and the book is more coherent than a few of the reviews I’ve seen led me to expect (and which I half-expected anyway based on the style of Cowen’s blog).

I wish Cowen had pushed further on two issues.

First, his assessment of the prospects for autistics focuses on consumption. But there’s also the matter of how to make a living.

Cowen rightly notes that autistics tend to have cognitive strengths in matters that interest them: keen perception of details and patterns, an ability to focus clearly, and a capacity to effectively store and organize information. For autistic individuals this cognitive profile may serve as a comparative advantage in a world in which production and analysis of information dominates the production of things. Cowen spends some time discussing the successes and contributions of famous innovators and thinkers and writers who may have been autistic, from Thomas Jefferson to Immanuel Kant to Arthur Conan Doyle.

But what about the earning prospects of less extraordinary autistics? Autistics tend to have a range of impediments to effective social functioning: they may read social cues poorly, lack interest in non-instrumental conversation, get easily distracted, react to imperfection or irregularity with extreme frustration, have strong sensory aversions, engage in odd repetitive motions, and some don’t develop the ability to speak. Cowen is certainly aware of the barriers these impose, and at one point he says “if you take [autistic] abilities and disabilities and stick them into a rapidly evolving market economy, you will get some people who achieve relatively high social status and other people — many others — who end up with much lower status” (p. 21). But he says little more about this.

In the book’s final chapter Cowen writes:

You may know that the division of labor is a key idea in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Smith’s notion of the division of labor referred to increasing specialization in economic production. He gives the example, from a pin factory, of how each worker performs a very specific and repetitive task in the interests of greater productivity for the factory as a whole.

It’s not what Smith intended, but I read this discussion of the pin factory as a parable of autism and the rising returns to autistic cognitive strengths. If you can perform a repetitive task with the proper skills, you can earn a decent income because you are no longer expected to be a jack-of-all-trades or to master a wide variety of skills. It increases the chance that you can have a “dysfunction” and still do well in life and in your career…. Today it’s often enough to be very good at one specific professional task. In other words, the division of labor provides disproportionate benefits to people with specialized cognitive talents and that includes many people along the autism spectrum. (pp. 215-16)

I think there may be something to this, but it strikes me as a pretty thin reed on which to hang an optimistic conclusion. I want to hear more.

Throughout the book Cowen argues for greater appreciation of neurodiversity. Partly this involves recognition that autistic traits are part of a continuum; they differ in degree rather than in kind. It also means we should pay better attention to the cognitive strengths of autistics.

That would be a good thing, but surely more is needed. Early diagnosis and intervention are now widely agreed to be critical. So too are teachers and aides in K-12 schools who foster social development in autistic children without stifling their interests and skills. Less discussed but potentially very helpful is an ongoing shift toward individualization in the administration of government benefit and service provision. Citizens and policy makers in the United States and many western European nations have increasingly wished to encourage employment by able working-age adults. A key lesson from their efforts to do so is that incentives are useful but often insufficient. If you want people to work, it helps to facilitate that with individualized assistance and monitoring. Individualization gives caseworkers better information about what types of help — at-home support, financial assistance, training, job placement, transportation, and so on — are likely to be of greatest benefit. To maximize opportunities for autistics, and to ensure the best possible utilization of their skills and strengths, we need not only the wider appreciation of neurodiversity that Cowen commendably encourages but also a helping hand from the state.

Second, I wish Cowen had addressed the worry that creating your own prosperity will come at the expense of the greater good. Specifically, the internet and other individualized forms of information sharing and communication might hasten the erosion of social capital. Researchers have found links between social capital and economic and political health (though these associations and their magnitudes are by no means a settled issue). If we spend more and more of our time glued to our RSS feeds, iPods, Kindles, and on-demand movies, will we engage less in human interaction, communication, and participation in social groups and activities? Are we heading toward a future of browsing, listening, reading, and viewing alone, bereft of face-to-face connections and civic engagement?

Maybe. But the new technologies might help to offset any such loss. For one thing, they enable us to identify and interact with a better-targeted set of compatriots. We now have fewer widely shared if shallow experiences, such as attending PTA or Elks Club meetings. They may be replaced by more fulfilling ones shared with smaller groups: interacting in a Facebook friend network or an online chat group, emailing or instant messaging with people who you’ll never meet in person but who share your particular passion.

By allowing us to locate other people with similar interests, new information and communication devices also help us to feel connected in a way that, for some, may not have been possible before. Attending church or a committee meeting can be highly interactive for some people. But others may experience them as boring or even alienating. For the latter, reading Facebook or blog or Twitter posts may create a greater sense of connection, of belonging, of membership, of community.

The internet and new communication technologies also make it easier for some people to actively contribute. A person who sits silently in the back of a PTA meeting might experience more engagement and efficacy by writing a blog post, commenting on someone else’s post, editing a Wikipedia entry, reviewing a book, posting photos, or participating in a chat room dialogue.

Perhaps, then, we’re moving toward not less social capital but simply a different form — more fulfilling to some of us and no less useful for sustaining a healthy society.

3 thoughts on “Flourishing in a sea of information

  1. Uhhhhhh… I hate to pick nits, but in the 13th paragraph of this post, you stated “they may read social queues poorly” – shouldn’t that be “cues” (vs “queues”)? I know people stand in queues all the time, but I’ve never thought people tried to read that in some sense.

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