Sunday, August 09, 2015

The nub

"The entire transaction cost problem in neoclassical economic theory is itself an effort to account for economic "externalities"; all that messy political and social stuff that doesn't fit the conventional economic models of isolated individuals competing in a marketplace. In Nelson's computer utopia, as in most such visions, there's little sense of any of the constitutive character of even the most immediate of those "externalities": the expensive educational systems and the massive government funding of science and defense that provided the context for all the computer-oriented experimentation, speculation, and reflection like Nelson's. The fact that computer experts are overwhelmingly well-educated middle and upper class white males working in cozy research campuses of universities and corporations is studiously ignored. The social conditions that formed the background conditions for the computer culture and its accomplishments of the `70s and `80s -- patriarchy, class relations, the wide availability of higher education in the `50s and `60s through government programs like the GI bill -- are rendered invisible. The oft-told story of Bill Gates learning about computers in high school and then dropping out of Harvard to found Microsoft is treated as an example of classic entrepreneurial pluck, as if Gates were some modern day Robinson Crusoe operating in isolation from social support; the profound difference in social power available to the young man from a wealthy family who drops out of Harvard compared to, say, one who drops out of an inner city high school, or to a woman who drops out of college to have a baby, disappears from the computer libertarian scenarios. The expensive computer that Gates learned on in high school is treated like a fact of nature, not the product of the well-funded school system of the type increasingly available only to the privileged."

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