Sunday, June 5, 2011

Validating The Next Revolutions

From my hopefully not overly-insular vantage point, the two books which have had the biggest impact in the first half of 2011 have been Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's Academically Adrift and Tyler Cowen's The Great Stagnation.

There are many similarities between them. They both address broad, ongoing trends in American society, in higher ed and macroeconomics. They have both been read largely in e-book format, AA due to the prohibitive price of the print version, and TGS due to some brilliant/lucky marketing. And, oddly, their approaches both owe at least some homage to the views of entrepreneur and raconteur Peter Thiel, who has widely-discussed qualms with higher ed, and who won the dedication of TGS for his insight into the lack of innovation and growth in our economy.

This last point deserves some drawing out. For all the hype, the overarching theme of neither book is necessarily novel. Arum and Roksa make many points that were assumptions, not conclusions, of conversations at Vassar's cafeteria. No one ever wondered with incredulity, "wait, instructors are gaming their end of semester ratings?" The case is similar for Cowen's thesis. Individuals who decry the sluggish innovation and dormant middle class prospects in America are hardly in short supply. Just notice how many express fears that America doesn't "make anything" anymore.

But what both books do accomplish is to make these everyday arguments more rigorous. And, perhaps because the authors are academics, they also serve to validate what might otherwise be seen as merely mumbles and whimpers amongst the broader populace.

The impact of these books also speaks to the fact that we as a culture are still only barely embracing the brave new world of the internet. Content-wise, these both could easily have been "merely" articles. Publishing in some gated academic journal would obviously have reached few, but even if they had been published in the popular press, I doubt they would have had the same success. Regardless of the e-book format, we still love the idea of the book. For instance, I get expontentially more comments and questions IRL about my shelfari page than my page, although I've surely invested more time and energy into curating the latter.

Cowen himself says, on his blog, that, "we’ve yet to really organize our economy around the internet, as we someday will, and then the gains will be enormous." Perhaps the impact of these e-books could be considered Exhibit A of both our current lack of mobilization around the internet idea economy, as well as its potential once we do get our act together.