Wednesday, June 27, 2007

'Mind of God' Conundrum for Invisible Hand Explanations

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Thomas Mann, a reference librarian and the author of The Oxford Guide to Library Research (Oxford, 2005), writes: 27 June:

Invisible hands” produced by “collective wisdom” in information science, however, may quite possibly lead to problems comparable to those created by the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith’s capitalism, whose operations were found to require major corrections by laws regulating hours of work, minimum wages, job-safety considerations, pollution levels, etc.; by unions closely monitoring actual day-to-day work conditions; and by enforceable codes of ethics in stock markets. History would seem to indicate that unregulated “invisible hands,” when left to themselves, always wind up holding mirrors that reflect our own non-re-engineered human nature, good and bad, rather than our utopian ideals. (We might well ask: if the “mind of God” is emerging from the collective intelligence displayed by the Web, why is it that the deity is so preoccupied with gambling, pornography, hook-ups, plagiarism, piracy of intellectual property, and Viagra knock-offs?).”

Of course, the big question hides behind the magnificent ‘If’ parenthetical tail-end sentence, about the ‘mind of God’ assertion, to which on this occasion I would add: ‘why indeed?’

Adam Smith is absolved from the ‘invisible hand’ in ‘capitalism’ because he never said anything about ‘capitalism’, a word and a phenomenon unknown to him. The word first appeared in English in 1854 because it was a mid-19th century phenomenon, associated with large-scale markets and power-driven machinery, in which capital substituted for labour to boost the division of labour and the sub-division of enterprise activities in ever widening specialisation.

If information science has adopted invisible hand explanations, I am not surprised that Thomas Mann has questions about it. Invisible-hand explanations grew out of general equilibrium economics in mid-20th century discourse among neoclassical economists. The words used by Adam Smith, two hundred years earlier (and by literary writers right back to classical times), were metaphors, used only three times in the million words he wrote, and on each occasion the metaphor had nothing to do with markets (see my paper: ‘Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand: from metaphor to myth’: for a copy email me at: gavin{At}negweb{(dot)]com), or the 'mind of God'.

If an invisible hand needs to be regulated, it cannot have anything to do with the ‘mind of God’; and if it has nothing to do with the ‘mind of God’, it clearly does not exist (as if it ever did in the form it is presented today).


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