Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Your Attention, Please

Attention Economy - The Game comes from Ulises Mejias, blogger and professor at SUNY Oswego, who describes the game he created to model how online reputation management and the attention economy functions as follows:

In my course Friend Request Denied: Social Networks and the Web I have my students play a game I developed to let them explore the dynamics of building a reputation online by giving and capturing attention. It’s also a fun way for students to get to know each other. I’m posting the game instructions and materials here (under a Creative Commons license) for anyone who wants to try it. If you make any improvements, please share!

Mejias is an interesting case of what Daniel Drezner has recently dubbed the "Public Intellectual 2.0" phenomenon in the Chronicle of Higher Education. For example, his essay on "Social Media and the Networked Public Sphere" is published only on the web, although it is frequently cited. Mejias also prominently displays his support for copyleft and creative commons principles. I like the fact that he is interested in both theoretical issues and the nuts-and-bolts concerns of the librarians and instructional technologists who operate the information infrastructure of the academy.

In addition to presenting an energetic defense of academic blogging, despite the "highly skewed" nature of the "distribution of traffic and links," which Mejias's game dramatizes, Drezner's larger argument is worth reading. In particular, Drezner expresses concern that the humanities is actually retreating from the public sphere in the digital era while social scientists are becoming rhetorical actors there.

Jacoby repeatedly challenges critics of his 1987 polemic, The Last Intellectuals, to name public intellectuals born after 1940 in order to compare them with past generations. But that is not a very difficult task. At magazines and periodicals, full-time authors and contributing editors who write serious-but-accessible essays on ideas, culture, and society include Anne Applebaum, Barbara Ehrenreich, Malcolm Gladwell, Christopher Hitchens, and Fareed Zakaria. Despite the thinning of their ranks, public intellectuals unaffiliated with universities, like Paul Berman, Debra Dickerson, Rick Perlstein, David Rieff, and Robert Wright, still remain. The explosion of think tanks in the past 30 years has provided sinecures for the intellectual likes of William A. Galston, Robert Kagan, Brink Lindsey, and Walter Russell Mead. The American academy houses many intellectuals uninterested in engaging the public, but it also houses Eric Alterman, Michael Bérubé, Joshua Cohen, Tyler Cowen, Jared Diamond, Stanley Fish, Francis Fukuyama, Jacob Hacker, George Lakoff, Mark Lilla, Patricia Nelson Limerick, Louis Menand, Martha Nussbaum, Steven Pinker, Robert Putnam, Eric Rauchway, Robert Reich, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Lawrence H. Summers, and Cass R. Sunstein. Readers may easily quibble with any of the names listed above, but most cultural commentators would agree that most of the names belong on that list. Furthermore, those names only
scratch the surface.

To be sure, some important differences exist between the current generation of public intellectuals and the Partisan Review generation extolled by so many. In the current era, many more public intellectuals possess social-science rather than humanities backgrounds. In Richard Posner's infamous list of top public intellectuals, there are twice as many social scientists as humanities professors. In a recent ranking published by Foreign Policy magazine, economists and political scientists outnumber artists and novelists by a ratio of four to one. Economics has supplanted literary criticism as the "universal methodology" of most public intellectuals.

That fact in particular might explain the strong belief in literary circles that the public intellectual is dead or dying. Barry Gewen, an editor at The New York Times Book Review, for example, recently argued that one had to look to the New York Intellectuals as the standard for thinking about the current crop: "Broadly, they viewed the public intellectual as someone deeply committed to the life of the mind and to its impact on the society at large. ... That is, public intellectuals were free-floating and unattached generalists speaking out on every topic that came their way (though most important for the New York Intellectuals was the intersection of literature and politics)."

What made the New York Intellectuals stand out, however, was that they started in literary criticism and migrated to social analyses. When social scientists like Tyler Cowen or Richard Posner return the favor, they are viewed as either arrivistes or methodological imperialists. The problem here might not be in our public intellectuals but in ourselves — even a modest level of innumeracy can make the public writings of economists look arcane and mysterious.

(Thanks to Judi Franz and Ava Arndt for the links.)

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