Five Books

by Henry Farrell on May 4, 2020

The website Five Books did an interview with me on the five best books on the politics of information. It was an interesting experience. Picking the best five books means that you have to go back and re-read them, and figure out how they fit together.

What I decided to do was to take this essay by Ludwig Siegele in the Economist’s Christmas issue, and start from the question: If you wanted people to build out from that essay, what books would you have them read? The essay is influenced by Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, and the Crooked Timber seminar that followed from it (in particular: Cosma’s essay): what it sets out to do is to ask whether the socialist calculation debate helps us to understand current fights about democracy, autocracy, markets and machine learning. Like Ludwig, I believe that it does: “Comrades! Let’s Optimize” is an excellent starting point for understanding how people in Silicon Valley today think about the transformative power of software. I also think that Red Plenty is an excellent starting point for thinking about these questions because it is a novel rather than a tract. As Francis said in his reply, writing fiction gives you access to negative capability: rather than stating an argument or a principle, you can have a multiplicity of voices and experiences, providing a kaleidoscopic rather than a synoptic understanding of the problem. When it’s a complex problem, that’s helpful.

A certain kind of autobiography can pull off a similar trick: hence the structure of the interview is that it starts off with Red Plenty and finishes with Anna Wiener’s wonderful account of living in Silicon Valley, sandwiching the social science between these two more complicated narratives. It’s a long interview (about 10,000 words!) and has nothing about coronavirus (it was conducted in February), but I think it worked out well. Read if interested; ignore if not.



linus owens 05.04.20 at 5:49 pm

i’ll have to take some time to read the full list, but i just gave a quick read on your take on anna wiener’s book, and am really glad you recommended it. anna is a former student and was generous enough to visit my digital sociology class via zoom last week to talk about her book and her reporting in/on silicon valley. anna is a smart, wonderful person who wrote a great book and she deserves all the attention she gets.


Russell L. Carter 05.04.20 at 7:55 pm

I recommend the interview, and following the links, if you want a deep breath of humane not-stupid in these very inhumane stupid times. Thank you Henry.

Mapping Spufford’s and Cosma’s analysis onto Silicon Valley is fascinating. I suspect that strain of thought might extend to the Democratic Party leadership’s abdication of policy making to technocrats, as well.


roger nowosielski 05.04.20 at 11:00 pm

“According to the Economist article you mentioned, Leonid Kantorovich was the only Soviet to win the Nobel prize in economics.

That’s absolutely correct.”

What about tjis fellow, however:


roger nowosielski 05.04.20 at 11:03 pm

correction: … this …


Stephen Frug 05.05.20 at 2:20 am

I like 5 books a lot, although the interviews vary in quality. This was a particularly good one, though. Of course, any list with Red Plenty on it has pretty much won my heart already.

But my main comment is: you mention Cosma Shalizi in the interview. Why haven’t they asked him to do such an interview! On, really, any topic of his choosing. (His “books to read while algae grow in your fur” are fabulous.) Since you know know the people involved, maybe suggest it? (Pretty please?)


LFC 05.05.20 at 4:45 am

This may be a stupid question, based on a quick read of parts of the interview late in the evening, but I don’t understand why there’s any necessary connection between the theme of “what markets can and can’t do” and the theme of the politics of information in the present period.

The Lindblom book seems to be about the omnipresence of “the market system” as a coordination mechanism, and also about the virtues and limits of markets. These are issues that way predate the digital era and Silicon Valley, obviously, as the interview points out.

I just don’t really see what the connection is between the debates on the role and place of markets, on the one hand, and the issues surrounding algorithms and Silicon Valley on the other. Sure, they’re both about “information” in some sense, and humans’ ability or lack thereof to process and use it, but as a connective tissue binding these five books together that seems pretty general and weak to me.

On a more positive and less critical note, it is nice to see a political scientist not at all bound by a narrow disciplinary straitjacket. Of course any reader of Crooked Timber already knows that about Henry Farrell without having to read this interview.


Chris Bertram 05.05.20 at 8:03 pm

FWIW I think the immigration chapter in Posner and Weyl is pretty dreadful. Some of the dreadfulness is polemical and presentational (the stuff about Marx is appallingly inaccurate) but their version of the openness-rights tradeoff pretty clearly opens the door to something like indentured servitude and in practice would lead to appalling abuses (something they wave away). Branko Milanovic, Martin Ruhs and Dani Rodrik all have better versions of the essential argument, although I disagree with them all in this paper:


Henry 05.05.20 at 9:08 pm

LFC – some of the context is better explained in that Economist article, which is unfortunately paywalled. Short version is that Jack Ma among others is now suggesting that we don’t need markets because machine learning allows for far more efficient planning in the past. This is a (crude) intervention in an old debate – but also one that usefully shows how many of the arguments made for the benefits of ML are strongly reminiscent of those made by an earlier generation of planning theorists. And while I don’t dwell on this enough in the interview, I think Simon’s Sciences of the Artificial makes a good case for thinking about markets, hierarchy and AI in a common frame.

Chris – Danielle Allen also had some similar pushback – – I believe that Weyl was convinced by her counter-argument and think (though I may be mistaken) that they have some samizdat piece that they have co-authored on this somewhere or another.


LFC 05.05.20 at 10:22 pm

Thank you for the reply, that’s helpful.

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