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Friday
May042012

Cultural cognition & expert assessments of technological innovation

There's a great blog post by Justin Fox over at the Harvard Business Review's HBR Blog.

Fox argues that cultural cognition dynamics are likely to influence not only public perceptions of risk but also market-related assessments and decisionmaking within groups one might expect to be more focused on money and data than on meaning.

As illustration, he offers an amusing (for the reader) account of the reception afforded a recent column of his on expert assessments of technological innovation in the internet era.

I wrote a post here at hbr.org on whether the Internet era has been a time of world-changing innovation or a relative disappointment. It was inspired by comments from author Neal Stephenson, who espoused the latter view in a Q&A at MIT. His words reminded me of similar arguments by economist Tyler Cowen (if I had enough brain cells to remember that Internet megainvestor Peter Thiel had been saying similarthings, I would have included him, too). So I wrote a piece juxtaposing the Stephenson/Cowen view with the work of MIT's Erik Brynjolfsson, who has been amassing evidence that a digitization-fueled economic revolution is in fact beginning to happen.

If I had to place a bet in this intellectual race, it would be on Brynjolfsson. I've seen the Internet utterly transform my industry (the media), and I imagine there's lots more transforming to come. But I don't have any special knowledge on the topic, and I do think the burden of proof lies with those who argue that economic metamorphosis is upon us. So I wrote the piece in a tone that I thought was neutral, laced with a few sprinklings of show-me skepticism.

When the comments began to roll in on hbr.org, though, a good number of them took me to task for being a brain-dead, technology-hating Luddite. And why not? There's a long history of journalists at legacy media organizations writing boneheaded things about the Internets being an abomination and/or flash in the pan (one recent example being this screed by Harper's publisher John McArthur). Something about my word choices and my job title led some readers to lump me in with the forces of regression, and react accordingly.

When I saw that Wired.com had republished my post, I cringed. Surely the technoutopians there would tear the piece to nanoshreds. But they didn't. Most of the Wired.com commenters instead jumped straight into an outrage-free discussion of innovation past and present.

That's probably because, if there is one person in the world whom Wired.com readers consider a "knowledgeable member of their cultural community," it is Neal Stephenson. This is the man who described virtual reality before it was even virtual, after all. I'm guessing that Wired.com readers were conditioned by the sight of Neal Stephenson's name at the beginning of my post to consider his arguments with an open mind. Here at hbr.org, where we don't require readers to have read the entire Baroque Cycle before they are allowed to comment, Stephenson was just some guy saying things they disagreed with.

Fox's assessment of the tendency of people to credit arguments of experts with whom they have a cultural affinity is consistent with our HPV study. But what's really cool is that the reaction of the Wired.com readers shows how a group that might be culturally predisposed to reject a particular message will actually give it open-minded consideration when they see that it originates (or at least has received respectful and serious attention) from someone with whom they identify.

Anyway, I'm psyched to learn that Fox sees our methods and framework as relevant to the market-related phenomena he writes on -- not only because it's cool to think that cultural cognition can shed light on those things but also because I really loved his Myth of the Rational Market. Was tied (with The Clockwork Universe) for best book I read all of last yr!

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