What Makes It Happen?

In his review of Why Information Grows, by MIT researcher and physicist César Hidalgo, University of Virginia Media Studies scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan discusses Hidalgo’s presentation of the development of the iPhone and comments that:

Hidalgo makes no mention of the state-funded research that, in reality, sparked the technology that underlies just about everything in the iPhone. He does not consider that some countries have strong university systems that sustain a class of engineers and leaders and that others do not. He also ignores the rampant corruption in postcolonial societies that sucks economic surplus into Swiss banks. To Hidalgo, the iPhone just “grew”—i.e., emerged organically from Northern California’s social networks. This matrix of self-reinforcing virtue is the secret ingredient that generates social capital, allowing a small number of entrepreneurial souls to exploit the agglomeration of personal data and produce crystallized imagination.

The attitude Hidalgo reflects lies behind much of the contemporary disdain for American universities—and schools in general, for that matter. This myopia amazes those of us who, like Vaidhyanathan, recognize the political, historical and cultural underpinnings of technological (and business) successes. But it is standard today, a legacy not only of Ayn Rand but of a culture enslaved by its long-standing myths of individual creativity and accomplishment.

In his review, Vaidhyanathan also discusses The Zero Marginal Cost Society by Jeremy Rifkin, writing that:

Ayn Rand took the state seriously—too seriously, as it turned out. Rifkin, like Hidalgo, pays no attention to the contributions and contradictions of the state in his vision of a changing world economy. For someone like Rifkin, who first rose to prominence on the momentum of the left-wing antiwar and environmental movements of the early ’70s, that’s stunning.

Read the whole review. Vaidhyanathan is continuing a long-term theme of his, but it’s an important one, significant to the future not just of our universities, but to modern societies as a whole.

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By Timothy Vollmer (originally posted to Flickr as Siva Vaidhyanathan) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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