Monday, May 26, 2014

The Robots are Us!

Imagine a world in which there are two kinds of people – employers and workers. The workers are identical and there is a fixed number of them. They enjoy buying things but they don't like to put any effort into their work. Each worker is either employed or unemployed.

I could go on with the features of this so-called efficiency wage world but I won't bother. It is, as the reader may have gathered from the brief description, a very sparse and mechanical kind of world. It is the world Philip Mirowski, in Machine Dreams, likened to the  Neues Zaubertheatre from the Steven Millhauser story, "The New Automaton Theater":
…the town is the American profession of academic economics, the classic automaton theatre is neoclassical economic theory, and the Neues Zaubertheatre is the introduction of the cyborg sciences into economics.
Except, Mirowski was wrong. The workers in this mathematical model world are not "clumsy, amateurish automatons" with "jerky, abrupt motions." They are not automatons at all. They have no motions of their own. Instead it is the model builders, the robotic academic economists, who enact the clumsy, jerky motions of amateurish automatons as they display their phantom models.

In an earlier story, "August Eschenburg," which is also about a virtuoso automaton theater, Millhauser describes a cruel toy that fascinated Eschenburg as a young boy:
A hollow paper figure represented a clown, or a fireman, or a bearded professor. When you put a captured bird inside, the poor creature's desperate attempts at escape produced in the paper figure a series of wild comic motions.
The hollow paper figures are the micro-founded models that academic economists concoct. The captured bird inside is the data, whose frantic attempts to escape its makeshift cage produce a travesty of action in the figure of the representative agent.

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