Sunday, January 26, 2014

Degrowth and the Internet

Internet provocateur Evgeny Morozov endorses the Degrowth movement:
For a very long time, the assumption of infinite growth—with GDP as the sole benchmark for assessing government policy—has ruled supreme here as well. The first dissident voices in the early 1970s quickly drowned in the free-market sloganeering of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, but the critical questioning of growth as the sole focus of economic activity resumed during the last decade, driven by concerns over global warming.

Today, this critical agenda is being pursued by the adherents of the “degrowth” movement—popular in Europe but enjoying very little traction in the United States. The goal of this movement is not just to scrutinize the ecological wisdom of continuing in the current pro-growth mode but also to question the wisdom of using indicators like the GDP to assess and formulate public policy. As Yves-Marie Abraham, a Canadian sociologist and one of the proponents of the degrowth agenda, puts it, “[T]his is not [about] the decline of GDP, but the end of GDP and all other quantitative measures used as indicators of well being.”

This is not the time or place to assess the merits of the degrowth agenda with regard to the economy. But it's hard to deny that it has presented many interesting intellectual challenges to mainstream economics. A robust defense of the pro-growth agenda today requires addressing concerns over climate change as well as explaining why there's no simple linear relationship between growth and happiness. If more growth doesn't make us happier, why should it guide our economic policy?

As an alternative paradigm for arranging productive activity, the degrowth agenda has resulted in at least some provocative new thinking about politics and economics. There is no such alternative paradigm with respect to information yet. The existing efforts to think of different ways to relate to technology and information smack of privatized and transcendentalist solutions that work at the level of individuals, not collectives: We are encouraged to explore “digital detoxing” to reinvigorate our sense of reality, to install apps that would make us more “mindful,” to spend time in camps that ban gadgets from their premises.

None of these solutions offers a coherent intellectual alternative to the current paradigm of “more information is always better.” Degrowth theorists invoke the convenient but real bogeyman of global warming to reorient our thinking process. The vision of such a disaster, however, has so far been missing from the information debate. All we see are concerns about personal health, shortening attention spans, distraction. These are concerns about individuals, not collectives. No wonder they lend themselves to private solutions like apps to regain mindfulness.
Why You Should Embrace the "Degrowth" Movement (Slate)

Although I'd have to agree with this comment: "I wonder if the author's back is hurting from all the stretching required to maintain that very awkward parallel. Both the information theory and macroeconomic topics are great but the only thing they really have in common here is the issue of "growth". Maybe it was assigned as two essays but the author ran out of time and just combined them to up the word count." I don't see the parallel either, except that ever-more information is no better than ever-more stuff - both are subject to diminishing returns. But it's good to see the idea of growth being criticized by more people, even if it probably won't do any good.

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