Siva Vaidhyanathan on Thorstein Veblen
and the idle talk of the internet.
The economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen wrote a book in 1921 that hardly anyone read at the time, and few people read today, The Engineers and the Price System. I don’t recommend it, but in its pages he poses an interesting idea. In 1918, during World War I, Veblen served in President Wilson’s Food Administration, quitting before the war ended. He had gone to Washington nearly a Deweyan Democrat, with great hopes for the power of democratic politics. By 1920, he was deeply disillusioned.
A notoriously grumpy man, Veblen decided that the idea of a democratic polis being fit to make important decisions about the direction of society (and about such critical questions as resource distribution) was naïve. World War I had shown the pernicious power of demagogues and taught that political beings can’t necessarily be trusted to take a disinterested view, or even a long one. Veblen cast a look around society to figure out who could be trusted, and he came upon the engineer. What we need, he said, are councils of engineers. (The unfortunate phrase he used was a “soviet of engineers.”)
It is a fascinating idea that, as the world grows increasingly complex, we should outsource important decisions. How do we learn to trust these engineers? How do we make sure they aren’t captured by interests other than the public good? These are political questions beyond Veblen’s consideration.
Yet we already outsource a great deal of judgment to the soviet of engineers. Take, for example, the people who work at Google. It’s a fact that there can be no such thing as a neutral algorithm, and, as it happens, Google’s algorithms end up favoring the outrageous statement. The currency of Google is the link, and in our culture the outrageous statement (on any subject) draws attention out of proportion to its truth, attention that is manifest in a high volume of links. The result is that if you do a search on Google for, say, “autism and vaccination,” you will get a lot of misinformation that has caught the attention of people who search in this area. Google doesn’t have a way of filtering for truth. It can only filter for what its developers would call relevance—which is to say, popularity.
Use Wikipedia instead. In addition to filtering out the internet's idle talk, it's algorithms don't favor advertising.