Charles Dodgson: The New York Times Keeps on Page

Charles Dodgson: The other day I came across a somewhat befuddled but nevertheless  interesting op-ed in the New York Times titled “The Protocol Society” (22 Dec. 2009). The idea is that nowadays industry not only makes physical things but packages sets of instructions. An obvious example is a piece of software. So is a car, most of the value of which is tied up with the knowledge that goes into its design. The steel and plastic are not worth much unshaped. There are important difference between physical and information-rich products. The former are costly to produce, the latter cheap once the design is there. Metal and glass are costly to produce and transport. But an idea, once formulated, can travel at the speed of light and be copied endlessly at essentially zero cost. The pharmaceutical industry is another example. The first pill can cost billions to develop but from there on producing copies costs less than a dime a dozen. 

My only objection at this stage of the article is that physical culture has always had elements of the protocol economy. The first sewn clothing must have been a creative act of genius but because imitation is easier than invention it could spread to the hoi polloi. The ingredients for simple tools are often readily available, but not the knowledge about how to make them. The Neolithic was an economic and lifestyle revolution driven by the spread of innovations. Population density rose 100 times with profound ramifications for human evolution, as argued by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending in their  recent book, The 10,000 Year Explosion.  My point is that the protocol economy is not new, just accelerated. 

Then the article veered off into the fascinating subject of social implications. It also became horribly befuddled where before it had been middling. 

Protocols are intangible, so the traits needed to invent and absorb them are intangible, too. First, a nation has to have a good operating system: laws, regulations and property rights.

Oh really! Ideas are intangible. Does it follow that the brains that produce them are intangible? What a remarkably silly thing to say. And how did nationhood enter the conversation? The author, whose name I had not yet noticed, was using the nation concept loosely to say the least. The term crops up 5 times, once in a book title. It seems that any state is a nation. The New York Times was making the same error as George W. Bush who throughout his presidency called anything with a government a “nation.” More of the distinction between state and nation in a future post. 

Then came the paragraph that made me look for the author’s name. 

A protocol economy tends toward inequality because some societies and subcultures have norms, attitudes and customs that increase the velocity of new recipes while other subcultures retard it. Some nations are blessed with self-reliant families, social trust and fairly enforced regulations, while others are cursed by distrust, corruption and fatalistic attitudes about the future. It is very hard to transfer the protocols of one culture onto those of another. 

The article does not hint at the possibility of tangible differences between societies. Consistent I suppose. What possible effect could genes and brain characteristics have on a population’s production of useful ideas? Or for that matter what could stable family life and general altruism have to do with,  say, hormone levels and evolutionary history? 

The thing is that this ignorance is willful. Someone who has been around as long as David Brooks knows the evidence or knows where to find it. In addition the NYT does not publish all the news fit to print on such matters. Such people together with such publications create synergies of lies and deception. 

The author is David Brooks. Here he is:

The rewards for towing the line are considerable. Mr. Brooks has an illustrious career providing Americans with an outlook designed to lead them away from their vital interests. Here is one career trail of this “conservative” and very well-connected columnist: 

     The New York Times Columnist (2003-)
    The Weekly Standard Senior Editor (1995-2003)
    The Wall Street Journal (1986-95)
    Atlantic Monthly Contributing Editor
    Newsweek Editor (former)
    National Review
    The New Yorker
    The Washington Post
    The Washington Times  

He is currently a commentator on “The Newshour with Jim Lehrer.” He is the author of Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (basically a portrait of people from his ethnic group — combining “the values of the countercultural sixties with those of the achieving eighties) and On Paradise Drive : How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense, both published by Simon & Schuster.

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