Protocols for Living Capital

David Brooks’ December 22, 2009 column, “The Protocol Society,” hits some really great notes. There are several things worth commenting on. The first point concerns the protection of intellectual property and the encouragement of a free flow of ideas within the overarching operating system of laws, regulations, and property rights. What Brooks is getting at here is the concept of living capital.

A diverse group of writers (Hayek, De Soto, Latour, many others) contrast what they variously term socialist, centralized, and prescientific efforts to control capital’s concrete forms, on the one hand, with capitalist, decentralized, and scientific methods that focus on liberating the flow of capital defined abstractly in terms of the rule of law and transferable representations (titles, deeds, calibrated instruments, etc.). These two senses of capital also apply in the context of intangibles like human, social, and natural capital (Fisher, 2002, 2005, 2009a, 2010).

Second, the movement in economics away from mathematical modeling echoes the broadening appreciation for qualitative methods across the social sciences that has been underway since the 1960s. The issue is one of learning how to integrate substantive concerns for meaningfulness and understanding in the ways we think about economics. The idealized rational consumer typically assumed in traditional mathematical models demands the imposition of a logic not actually often observed in practice.

But just because people may not behave in accord with one sense of rationality does not mean there is not a systematic logic employed in the ways they make decisions that are meaningful to them. Further, though few are yet much aware of this, mathematical models are not inherently irreconcilable with qualitative methods (Fisher, 2003a, 2003b; Heelan, 1998; Kisiel, 1973). Scientifically efficacious mathematical thinking has always had deep roots in qualitative, substantive meaning (Heilbron, 1993; Kuhn, 1961; Roche, 1998). Analogous integrations of qualitative and quantitative methods have been used in psychology, sociology, and education for decades (Bond & Fox, 2007; Fisher, 2004; Wilson, 2005; Wright, 1997, 2000).

Third, yes, those societies and subcultures that have the capacities for increasing the velocity of new recipes have measurably greater amounts of social capital than others. The identification of invariant patterns in social capital will eventually lead to the calibration of precision measures and the deployment of universally uniform metrics as common currencies for the exchange of social value (Fisher, 2002, 2005, 2009a, 2009b).

Fourth, though I haven’t read “Smart World,” the book by Richard Ogle that Brooks refers to, the theory of the extended mind embodied in social networks sounds highly indebted to the work of Bruno Latour (1987, 1995, 2005) and others working in the social studies of science (O’Connell, 1993) and in social psychology (Hutchins, 1995; Magnus, 2007). Brooks and Ogle are exactly right in their assertions about the kinds of collective cognition that are needed for real innovation. The devilish details are embedded in the infrastructure of metrological standards and uniform metrics that coordinate and harmonize thought and behavior. We won’t realize our potential for creativity in the domains of the intangible forms of capital and intellectual property until we get our act together and create a new metric system for them (Fisher, 2009a, 2009b, 2010). Every time someone iterates through the protocol exemplified in Brooks’ column, we get a step closer to this goal.


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