Joel Mokyr, Robert Gordon, and the Anachronistic Form of Academic Debate

I was leaving class the other day, and caught a glimpse of Joel Mokyr on a tv monitor, speaking on a panel.  I paused, then saw Robert Gordon come on screen to offer rebuttal.  If you already guessed that they were debating ‘headwinds’ and ‘tailwinds,’ congratulations: you win.

Ok.  So why do I take issue with this?

Very simply, it is a massively inefficient anachronism for academic debate to be carried out in this way.  By “in this way,” I mean: via innumerable blog posts, NBER working papers, conference addresses, white papers, popular press articles, and panels like these.  To name a few.

It made a ton of sense for debates to be carried out in this fashion 15, even 10 years ago.  Technology has since evolved, however, while academia dithers about, miles behind.

Why, when we have the internet + trusted third party intermediaries + online identity validation, are these debates not being carried out in a centralized ‘town square?’  Why, if I want to follow the latest currents of thought on innovation and productivity (and I do), must I read 50 blogs, 10 aggregators, 3 news sites, and still miss potentially new developments should I fail to look up randomly on my way out of class in one specific academic building on one specific campus in Chicago?  What is the added value, when we have existing models like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (and State of the Field), to repeating our arguments over and over in a hundred different formats and locations?

The marginal cost of publishing 2,000 extra words in a handbook?  Alright, I see why this didn’t happen in the 20th century.  But online, in a central ‘town square?’   The marginal cost would be practically nothing.  And you could not only summarize the content of what we know, and the most current debates, but indeed you could specify the implications for policy, practice, and areas of greatest funding need.  Having worked in a large, grantmaking, policy-and-practice-adjacent institution at the Kauffman Foundation, I can certify that there is a need for such a thing.

So I remain with only one more question: in all earnestness, why haven’t we done this yet?*

*I’ll be attempting this over at the Technology & Innovation section of SotF over the next couple of years.  But I suspect it will be enormously difficult, and the reason I ask my final question in genuine earnestness is wanting to know — why am I likely to fail in this endeavor, and what can I do to avoid such a fate?


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