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The Autistic Future

Tyler Cowen on learning to consume information in the digital age.

By 7.28.09

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Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World
By Tyler Cowen
(Dutton, 259 pages, $25.95)

Create Your Own Economy is the Freakonomics of epistemology. Instead of unearthing unusual findings using statistics, Tyler Cowen, a George Mason University economist and blogger at marginalrevolution.com, overturns common conceptions about learning and information-processing by examining the ongoing experiment of the Internet.

The Internet and other technological innovations, Cowen argues, are helping to personalize the collection and use of bits of information, ideas, and stories that otherwise would never appear in orderly form. Furthermore, Cowen outlines the similarities between these new techniques of ordering information and the ways that autistic people learn and think. Throughout the book, Cowen hints that it is his own unique and possibly autistic cognitive profile that has won him a massive online following.

Why might traits associated with autism prove useful for blogging? Blogs differ from newspapers or magazines in that they offer a running dialogue between author and audience, and contain more personalized content. The most popular bloggers, Cowen has noted, act as randomizers, sifting through vast quantities of disparate stories and media on the Internet to present a coherent and ordered mix to their audience.

His own blog provides an example. On any given day, Cowen might first offer a technically detailed post criticizing debt-financed fiscal stimulus. Then he might discuss the idiosyncrasies of a particular Mexican Amate painter known only to connoisseurs, followed perhaps by a review of D.C. area restaurants so comprehensive that the Washington Post writes it up in its food section. Most impressive of all, however, are the omnibus "favorite things" posts he produces whenever he is booked for travel, discussing a state or country's strengths in art, literature, economics, movies, music, and food. Although you may not be able to recall a single author from, say, Arkansas, Cowen not only knows them all, but he can jot off a critical overview five minutes before he has to catch a flight.

If Cowen had been born 10 or 15 years earlier, his unique (and at least slightly autistic) ability to order such diffuse information would have been more or less lost on the world outside of the academy. But the Internet and blog format allow him to command, with co-blogger AlexTabarrok, a loyal audience of hundreds of thousands.

What Cowen has achieved with his blog is exactly the injunction of his book's title. Every day, he aggregates and orders a large quantity of stories and bits of information. But he doesn't expect the reader to use any blog as one-stop shop for the day's news and ideas. The point of blogs is that the reader is free to mix and match with thousands of other possible sources, as is impossible with a one-size-fits-all newspaper.

Someone who follows a number of blogs as part of his daily aggregation of news and stories is more free to shift his consumption from material goods to a more personalized, interior kind of consumption -- to a create his own economy, using information as a product, not as an input. The idea that the future will see humanity embracing its inner autism and creating ever-more complex and personalized interior economies of information is at the heart of Cowen's narrative.

With that goal in mind, Cowen sets about reassuring his readers that they will fare better if they emulate the propensity of autistic people to collect and classify bits of information for no purpose other than their own enjoyment. Toward this purpose, Cowen shows us the ways in which we are already on this route, for instance in our compulsive organizing and reorganizing of mp3 playlists. He also notes some of the founding fathers of inner economy -- including a case study of Sherlock Holmes that will make you think that it isn't all so elementary after all. Cowen even goes so far as to claim that the iPhone has done more for visual art than Caravaggio.

The obvious criticism of Create Your Own Economy is that perhaps Cowen discounts non-autism too much. Maybe he could ease off, for instance, the claims that atonal music is as good as Mozart, or that storytelling is overrated. In fact, there's a case to be made that Cowen focuses on the transition toward consuming information instead of material goods too much, and forgets some of the big-picture aspects of personal economies -- such as career goals, love, the meaning of life, etc.

But whether or not those objections are serious or trivial, Create Your Own Economy is well worth reading if only to understand how Cowen is so successful as a blogger. And to discover why you might want to approach learning more autistically.



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About the Author

Joseph Lawler, former managing editor of The American Spectator, is editor of Real Clear Policy. Follow him on twitter: @josephlawler.