Communication and the Transformation of Economics: Essays in Information, Public Policy and Political Economy.

AuthorDennis, Ken

This is a timely and useful collection of 12 papers, eight published between 1983 and 1995 (all but two since 1993), augmented by another four previously unpublished papers. Pursuing the theme of the "transformation of economics," the author seeks to integrate informational and ecological theory into the setting of evolutionary/institutional economics, and though this ambitious undertaking is not likely to be judged the last word on such a vast subject, it nonetheless constitutes both a fascinating and an encouraging exercise.

The chapters are divided into four parts. The first is an all-out assault on the mainstream obsession with commoditizing information and trivializing ecological problems into mere externalities. The term "information," much like "value" in the classical literature of the early 1820s, is certain to dominate economic discussion for years to come. Babe wisely steers clear of the classical folly of searching for truth in definitions. After reviewing a long list of narrow and seemingly precise definitions of this broad and flexible term of common usage [pp. 15-18], he then guides us through its many subtleties and ambiguities. With generous help from Kenneth Boulding (whose presence is felt throughout this book), he methodically demolishes the mainstream's "impoverished conceptualization" of information as, for example, a mere "reduction in uncertainty" [pp. 22, 34], proposing instead that neoclassical economics "be taken captive" by showing that its basic concepts are nothing more than "specialized and reductionist renderings of broader communicatory phenomena" [p. 27].

To commoditize information, one must be able to measure it. By ignoring its qualitative content and "force-fitting information into the commodity mode" [p. 39], neoclassical theorists only confuse information with the units by which it can be stored and transmitted [p. 31]. They are unable to deal with the fact that information is immaterial, indivisible, epiphenomenal to matter and energy, and yet infinitely reproducible-something akin to a public good [pp. 12-17, 37-8]. And what could the marginalists' "optimal amount of search" possibly mean without a workable measure of the marginal value of information [p. 35]?

And yet, despite these failures of mainstream theory, one might ask: Is it not true that the activities of gathering, assembling, and marketing specialized information to special users have become "service commodities" in some of the fastest...

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