‘Cowen on Culture, Autism, and Creating Your Own Economy’. Tyler Cowen interviewed by Russ Roberts in a podcast at econtalk.org. I linked to a Bloggingheads webcast on the Economy of Neurodiversity on August 10th. That was Will Wilkinson and Cowen discussing Cowen’s book Create Your Own Economy. The podcast I’ve linked today refers to that book but is rather different in content and style, but like the earlier link is just as much concerned with psychology as economics. The interviewer Russ Roberts regularly hosts podcast interviews on economics in a non-technical style, mostly with professional economists, but also other people with relevant expertise. Roberts and Cowen are both professors at the George Mason University department of economics, a department which has a concentration of economists concerned with the broad use and implications of economic reasoning, so that mathematical economics is treated as an instrument, rather than as the essence of economics.
In this podcast, the pace is slow and conversational and neurodiversity is just one part of the conversation. Cowen is interested in how conditions that have been defined as psychologically dysfunctional can be seen to be highly functional, at least in their milder forms, in the Internet world. The Internet gives everyone an ‘autistic’ experience of quickly processing and ordering information, which can take place through a blog, or social web sites like Facebook.
Later in the conversation, autism comes up in the suggestion that Adam Smith had autistic characteristics. Roberts and Cowen talk about how Smith’s theory of sympathy in Theory of Moral Sentiments may have come out of Smith’s difficulties in understanding signs of sympathy. He had sympathy in the sense that he cared about other people, but had difficulty in recognising and interpreting signs of sympathy. This led him to thinking about the theory of sympathy at the centre of Theory of Moral Sentiments. This is apparently typical of an autistic approach to the difficulties of understanding behaviour: the reaction is to create a theory of what cannot be grasped intuitively, and this can have very creative consequences.
Other topics which come up include: the place of behavioural economics, and linked the convergence of economics with psychology and sociology; the narrative pleasure of the combination of many technological information sources such as email, phone texts, Instant Messaging, social websites and so on; the different ways we have of communicating with people now, and how that enriches our relations; the positive value of relatively random surfing, and online virtual worlds, as play; the enormous increase in knowledge and information from using the Internet.