An Economy of One’s Own

Tyler Cowen’s latest book Create Your Own Economy is chock full of ideas, many you (or I) could not guess from the title. The simplest summary is the most deceptive. It is about the virtues and utility of characteristics of autistic cognition in today’s world. That’s deceptive for most of us because we likely don’t appreciate how autistic minds think. Nor do we necessarily understand today’s world, at least not in the way Tyler Cowen does.

Rather than attempt to review the book I want to focus on one element of the world that Cowen understands better than most. Though most of us understand that today, relative to the past, information is more accessible and comes in much smaller packages, it takes special insight to see how these facts signal a new type of personalized economy or narrative.

Think web pages, e-mail, text messages, tweets, blog posts, Facebook status updates, and so forth. Today, an information lover’s or a news junkie’s day looks very different than it did a decade or more ago. It’s clear that the cutting edge of news (very broadly defined) isn’t found in newspapers anymore, and that’s one reason they’re dying. But another reason, and one Cowen makes plain, is that they’re inflexible.

A newspaper has a fixed organization, style, and daily content that may suit some fraction of the population but cannot suit everybody. Not so with digital sources that deliver information in small packages. Those can be organized on the fly to suit an individual’s taste. Each of us is free to stitch together our own “newspaper” or world narrative. Those small bits of information are not indicative of shorter attention spans, as some have claimed, rather they’re indicative of the new desire for informational autonomy, our yearning to view the world through our own lens.

Doing so puts a premium on ordering, a task, Cowen tells us, to which the autistic mind gravitates and at which it excels relative to others. Cowen’s thesis is that this and other tendencies of the autistic mind are more valuable than most of us perceive. Harnessing ordering skills, among others, one can create one’s own narrative to find beauty and harmony in the otherwise disordered (or unordered) information economy. I think he’s right.

But one should be a little careful. The brave new world may not be a beautiful one to individuals who lack the skills to navigate it. Likely to many the world is becoming more disordered and chaotic, and the familiar institutions that used to organize it–newspapers, among others–are dying just as they are becoming more necessary (for some). How many are adrift in a cacophonous sea of information? How many succeed in charting a meaningful course? How many even feel a need to do so?

Cowen does, as do I. Two simple tools, Google Reader and the iPod, have dramatically changed the nature and volume of information I receive and process. In the course of a day information from over fifty sources is presented to me, organized as I like (within the limits of the tools). In less time than it would take me to fully read a newspaper I am able to grasp the day’s events I care to notice at a deeper level than provided by traditional sources and turn some of this information into new content of my own making (on this blog, on Facebook, Twitter, and so forth), augmented with my own perspective and unique mix of knowledge. My posts are then read by others, a few of whom integrate them into content of their own.

Through this process I’ve met people and made connections I would not have otherwise, some relevant and important to my professional work. In Cowen’s view, this whole process of extracting utility from organizing disparate bits of information using a few modern tools is the creation of my own economy.

This degree of participation in the ordering and reordering of information is something new. It is born in the information age but is not of it. Some are calling it the attention age. I’m not sure that’s the right name, but it is right in one respect. It is a call to wake up and pay attention. Do you know where your economy is?

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