Half Right

According to Shapiro and Varian’s Information Rules, “Technology changes. Economic laws do not” (2).

Well, they’re half right.

The “laws” are not laws. They’re observations about how people act. And as Shapiro and Varian’s text itself demonstrates, people act differently under different circumstances. Shapiro and Varian’s assertion about unchanging economic laws is a foolish and mistaken attempt to bluster out an assertive and authoritative ethos in the face of the fact that economies and cultures change. It strikes me as something akin to Covey’s claims about the Seven Habits: a rhetorical system composed not so much for the way it might produce knowledge as for the way it might sell books.

In fact, economic “laws” — or, more properly, observations about the ways economies work — change. In a culture driven by the engine of slave labor, understandings of scarcity, competition, and social welfare shape economic activity in ways profoundly different from the ways in which our contemporary understandings of the same phenomena — scarcity, competition, social welfare — shape economic activity.

And Shapiro and Varian’s suggestion of a constancy of economic principles is interesting in a volume that seeks to engage and understand the ways that economic change influences the way we produce, distribute, and use information. For example: they make the point that “production costs of an information good involves high fixed costs but low marginal costs. The cost of producing the first copy of an information good may be substantial, but the cost of producing (or reproducing) additional copies is negligible” (3). Sure; yes, we know this. But according to Shapiro and Varian, the capitalist must therefore “price your information goods according to consumer value, not according to your production cost” (3). OK: so when we produce an information good — a text — its value is reckoned out there in the world, and in terms of what it does for other people. And we know that information goods, especially as essays, carry higher value when they proliferate; when they’re non-scarce. In that sense, textual value is, to a degree, social and affective: when a hundred people read a personal essay, whether it’s poorly written or a polished piece, the value of that personal essay — because of the affective connection those readers are making to what the author’s saying — increases.

This understanding of textual value as social and affective might offer interesting ways for us to think about Lester Faigley’s worries in “Judging Writing, Judging Selves” that as writing teachers, we tend to like (value) the personal essay perhaps too much and for inappropriate reasons. (Yes, I admit that’s a crude and reductive summary of Faigley’s point.) But it should also point us toward the ways Amy Robillard uses Julie Lindquist’s College English essay on “Class Affects, Classroom Affectations” to re-think the affective value of student’s written labor/work, and remind us that student work is part of that immense below-the-waterline portion of the diverse economic iceberg described by J. K. Gibson-Graham following Duncan Ironmonger’s time-use studies demonstrating that less than half of gross domestic product consists of cash-commodified market transactions. It might even help to counter the arguments of those who see Peter Elbow’s points in “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking” as somehow frivolous, uncritical, or silly, given that the behaviors Peter describes are, in fact, elements of the construction of one form of economic value as aspects of consumer choice — although, again, we should understand that that form of economic value is not the only one.

And this goes back to the concern Faigley raises and Robillard elaborates: it’s easy to see and acknowledge the affective value of the personal essay, but we’re not often inclined to admit the affective value of other genres, the affective value of other forms of intellectual labor. Which is foolish, because the ways that we like instances of those other genres is an affective relationship, as well, and those ways contribute to their increased value. This is the toughest move for me to make, though: I’m not sure how willing I am to admit that simply liking a circulating instance of intellectual labor/property is an economic act.

Shapiro and Varian help me out, though in some of the key strategies they offer for entrepreneurial success. Here are two:

  • Personalize your product and personalize your pricing. This is easier to do on the Internet than on virtually any other medium since you communicate with your customers on a one-to-one basis.
  • Know thy customer. You can learn about your customer demographics by registration and about their interests by tracking their clickstream and search behavior analysis. Analyze this information to see what your customers want. (43)

Information is social, we know, and they indicate that the ways we shape and circulate it are simultaneously personal and economic. Shapiro and Varian’s advice, while grounded in a market-based perspective, offers us some interesting ways of thinking about writing and its value. Certainly, it’s in one way the same old “know your audience” advice rhetors have been familiar with for 2000 years, but when we put it into the cycle of work, appropriation, ownership, and use, it takes on a different meaning. And I love that phrase “tracking their clickstream” and want to apply it to our discipline’s thoughts about process, reading, and citation, which I think I’ll try to do in my next post.

Until then, I’ll close and say that I very much like the following texts:

Elbow, Peter. “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting out Three Forms of Judgment.” College English 55.2 (1993): 187-206.

Faigley, Lester. “Judging Writing, Judging Selves.” College Composition and Communication 40 (1989): 395-412. Rpt. Landmark Essays on Voice and Writing. Ed. Peter Elbow. Davis, CA: Hermagoras, 1994.

Ironmonger, Duncan. “Counting Outputs, Capital Inputs and Caring Labor: Estimating Gross Household Product.” Feminist Economics 2.3 (1996): 37-64.

Lindquist, Julie. “Class Affects, Classroom Affectations.” College English 67 (2004): 187-209.

Robillard, Amy. “Young Scholars Affecting Composition: A Challenge to Disciplinary Citation Practices.” College English 68.3 (2006): 253-70.

Shapiro, Carl, and Hal R. Varian. Information Rules: A Strategic Guide to the Network Economy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School, 1998.

Half Right

3 thoughts on “Half Right

  • January 28, 2007 at 2:18 pm

    Ah, another Manifesto. One of these days, I’ll put together a course on manifestos and rhetoric, if somebody doesn’t beat me to it. Sure, I knew about the book, having occasionally run into the writing of Doc Searls and Rageboy on Teh Internets — but Rageboy kinda scares me because my impulses are so close to his. Bérubé drew a distinction between bombast and snark, and you know my impulse is to go bombast all the way — well, Rageboy is bombast at its ultimate end, pure social and relational affect, the unfettered blogging id, and in that way, Rageboy’s writing kind of offers that Ozymandias caution, saying to me, “As you are now, so once was I, and as I once was, so you shall be.” Quod sum eris.

    At the same time, though, I know Christopher Locke is a very, very smart person, and his constructed online persona is just as thoughtful and careful a construct as yours. (And make no mistake, Ms. Ratliff, people are in awe of the way you’ve crafted that persona, that affective narrative about your professional self.) All of which means, of course, that I need to go read that book.

  • January 30, 2007 at 11:46 am

    Okay, well if you do design that course, be sure to read Janet Lyon’s book.

    My persona is boring lately. Several people have de-blogrolled me, and I can’t blame them.

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