MRUniversity: it’s not a massive open online course, but it could be used to create one

Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, two economics professors at George Mason University, launch Marginal Revolution University. They’ll deliver free, interactive courses in the economics space, so I read on Open Culture.
Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok run the blog Marginal Revolution. Some years ago, Cowen also was a guest at the Metanomics-show in Second Life.
Users are invited to submit content. The professors don’t call their courses a MOOC, but “it can be used to create a MOOC, namely a massive, open on-line course.”

The real book is a virtual book | Race against the machine

Earlier this year we discussed professor’s Tayler Cowen’s book The Great Stagnation. He claims that the innovation in our day and age is less impressive than it seems, compared to the automobile, electricity etc. You could walk around in a house of the year 1953 and find that it is not that fundamentally different from what we are used to now  (at least not in the affluent West). Of course the internet is the big innovation of our time, but then again it does not generate the profits, revenues and employment like the emergent mass production of automobiles did.

Now I’ve been reading Race against the machine, an ebook by the MIT-researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. They seem to have a different vision:

We’re entering unknown territory in the quest to reduce labor costs. The AI revolution is doing to white collar jobs what robotics did to blue collar jobs. Race Against the Machine is a bold effort to make sense of the future of work. No one else is doing serious thinking about a force that will lead to a restructuring of the economy that is more profound and far-reaching than the transition from the agricultural to the industrial age.

However, I think that Cowen as well as the MIT-experts are all worried about jobs and are all advocating more science, research and clever innovation. As Brynjolfsson and McAfee explain, the digital development is exponential, meaning that what at first seems like a relatively slow start evolves to a more impressive pace and ends up leaving us all behind, in shock. So yes, maybe what we’ve seen as to now is just rather impressive but not completely disruptive, but the self-driving Google-car and the IBM-computer Watson (winner of Jeopardy!) point into the direction of such a disruptive change.

Here is a must-see video, featuring Erik Brynjolfsson, presenting a sheet depicting the book cover, but telling the audience that the real book is a virtual book.

Race Against the Machine from Compass Summit on


And here is Tyler Cowen, giving his take on these questions:


Here are a number of bookmarks I’m curating via Pearltrees, about the deep structural changes in technology and the economy:
deep change in tech and economy in Roland Legrand (bearbull)
So, in which vision do you believe? The idea that innovation is slowing down, or on the contrary, that it’s accelerating and creating very challenging issues for education, the labor market, politics, the economy?

Another kind of innovation

Are we sure this is a time of major, disruptive, history-changing technological innovation? Professor Tyler Cowen in his book The Great Stagnation remembers his readers how the period from 1880 to 1940 brought us electricity, electric lights, powerful motors, automobiles, airplanes, household appliances, the telephone, indoor plumbing, pharmaceuticals, mass production, the typewriter, the tape recorder, the phonograph, radio and television. If you look at a longer timeframe and include the Industrial Revolution, the changes are even more impressive – essentially a story of combining advanced machines with powerful fossil fuels which brought unprecedented change to humanity.


Today, in contrast, apart from the seemingly magical internet, life in broad material terms isn’t so different from what is was in 1953. We still drive cars, use refrigerators, and turn on the light switch, even if dimmers are more common these days.

But what about the internet? That surely must be the big innovation of our day and age?

the great stagnation coverProfessor Tyler Cowen is not dismissive of the internet. “Unlike electricity, the internet hasn’t changed everyone’s life, but it has changed a lot of lives, and its influence will be even stronger for the next generation.”

What is special about the internet, for an economist, is that so many of its products are free. People can tweet, read blogs, browse on eBay, watch music videos, experience adventures in some gaming universe, attend a concert in a virtual environment, all for free.

Cowen: “… the new low-hanging fruit is in our minds and in our laptops and not so much in the revenue-generating sector of the economy.”

“Innovation hasn’t ceased, but it has taken new forms and it has come in areas we did not predict very well. A lot of the internet is a free space for intellectual and emotional invention, a kind of open-ended canvas for enriching our interior lives.”

“Basically, we have a collective historical memory that technological progress brings a big and predictable stream of revenue growth across most of the economy.”

Cowen gives a similar argument about the employment. While in the past breakthrough innovations resulted in lots of new jobs, the now famous internet companies such as Facebook, Twitter and even Google can’t be compared to the automobile behemoths of Detroit.

In a sense, we’re getting away from materialism, but that really hurts the economy and the social institutions funded by that economy. However, not everything is ugly:

  • The interest in science and engineering in India and China, their growing importance as markets for innovative products and services.
  • The internet facilitates scientific learning and communication.
  • More interest in a more efficient education policy.

Cowen also has a recommendation: raise the social status of scientists while at the same time being realistic as far as technological progress is concerned: we’re living in the new normal, or so it seems because the rate of technological progress never has been easily predictable.


What’s my take on all this? The internet is putting into question more than one aspect of our societies and economies. The most obvious changes concern education and work. In both cases the relevance of factory-like institutions is diminishing rapidly, in favor of one-person enterprises working on a collaborative basis.

There is more individualism in this sense that people will choose their own curricula, taking into account their interests and particular situation. Sometimes it will be necessary to have a certificate acknowledging a certain expertise, often the value of training or education will be evaluated by the student herself when she tries to apply what she has learned.

macrowikinomics cover

The individual will participate in shifting collaborations, project-based. Some of these collaborations will be based on non-monetary reciprocity (for instance in group learning), others will be market-oriented.

Innovation will happen in various flavors, but as the boundaries of the enterprise will become deconstructed, open innovation will gain traction. Sometimes this innovation will be like in open source, but often various degrees of compensation will be sought: using Creative Commons or more traditional licenses, copyrights and patents.

These ideas are explored by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams in their books and presentations about Wikinomics. They analyze how the market and also non-market external collaboration are often more effective that in-company solutions. Those companies which are dominated by bureaucracies wanting to keep each and every process inside the company walls, will perish while those which reach out to external collaboration (market based or not), make a much better chance to be successful (also read my previous post about Don Tapscott at the LIFT conference, commenting on the Arab uprisings).

The more difficult aspects of Cowen’s thinking seem to be almost spiritual. Even though he points out the practical problems related to a less materialistic society (who will pay for the old, the sick, the needy, for public services), he also seems to appreciate this evolution.


Related Seth Godin says: “What’s actually happening is this: we’re realizing that the industrial revolution is fading. The 80 year long run that brought ever-increasing productivity (and along with it, well-paying jobs for an ever-expanding middle class) is ending.”

Reading: network theory, vernacular video, Kindle publishing and web of flow

This is an overview of interesting stuff I found online. I’ll publish this on a regular basis (but not on a daily basis, I think).

  • Even though some people think tools such as RSS feeds Google Reader are no longer relevant in this era of Twitter-based information streams, I still use my Google Reader a lot. It still is very much my social media dashboard. Today I discovered yet another gem via Google Reader in my Delicious-network, where choconancy (Nancy White) pointed to Howard Rheingold’s Posterous and more in particular to this minicourse on network and social network literacy. In fact, the minicourse is not that very mini, especially not if you go deeper and take the suggested reading seriously.
  • The author Bruce Sterling talks about vernacular video. The video is much longer than your average viral vernacular video. It’s also sardonic and very insightful (via Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing). Maybe it’s interesting to compare this with Howard Rheingold’s thing about vernacular video.
  • Author, blogger and economist Tyler Cowen was a guest on the Metanomics show in Second Life. He’s publishing a new book, The Great Stagnation. It’s available on Kindle and not on bookstore shelves, NiemanJournalismLab talked with Cowen about this publishing strategy. Also interesting is the importance of his blog Marginal Revolution as part of that strategy.
  • is a new way to organize the media shared by your social graph on Facebook. There is of course also FlipBoard but that only works on the iPad and is more like a magazine. PostPost is part of the ‘iPadification of the web’. Another service which comes to mind is, but here the difference is PostPost’s more glossy interface and the realtime aspect of the service. Robert Scoble has this video about PostPost:
  • Which reminds me of Stowe Boyd who talks about “liquid email” and the “web of flow“. He says: “Paradoxically, the places with the strongest flow will seem the most calm, because we won’t be jumping from the stream to the browser and back again a hundred times a day: we will stay in the stream: media content will be harvested, and pulled into context for us.”