Wave of the future?

I'm always a bit skeptical when anyone claims that X is "the wave of the future." This is especially true when X has anything to do with blogging.

However, Tyler Cowen made some predictions along these lines in his response to Will Baude's 20 Questions™, and he might actually be on to something. Take a look:

    I think blogs, or something like blogs, are the wave of the future in academia. Right now the lower-tier journals and presses don't perform much of a certifying function, the material in them simply doesn't get read. At the same time the best journals and presses are worth more than ever.

    I envision a world where people compete intensely for some "home runs" in the top scholarly outlets. That provides their initial certification. They then use their names to present ideas in a variety of forms, including blogs. Eugene Volokh and Brad DeLong already operate this way, they are ahead of the curve. Academic name and academic celebrity will become increasingly important. Academic "home runs" will matter more and more. Why should anyone pay $75 for a book that will sell only 600 copies? Why should anyone publish in a lower-tier journal for a handful of readers? Internet publishing, in one form or another, will sweep this earlier world away. Research home runs, followed up by blogs, will become increasingly important.

Another blog, unmentioned by Cowen, but probably the best example of this blurring line between academia and blogging is Lawrence Solum's Legal Theory Blog. But as Solum has mentioned in the past, blogging does not lend itself well to the lengthy and detailed arguments necessary for scholarly pursuits. It can, however, provide an opening for students and other interested readers to further pursue academic issues briefly discussed and summarized on the blog itself, as Solum often does. I know from personal experience that reading the blogs of academics like Solum, The Volokh Conspiracy, Crooked Timber, Brad Delong, among others, has inspired me to pursue academic ideas further than I would have otherwise.

Cowen's comments remind me of an article written by Paul Krugman seven years ago in which he predicted the future of the American economy one hundred years hence, from the perspective of a writer living in 2096 looking back on the past century. [Could that be any more confusing? -Ed.] It's also interesting to note how Krugman's predictions relate to the recent IP discussion we've been having here on Catallarchy.

    The Celebrity Economy

    This century's last great trend was noted by acute observers in 1996, yet most people failed to appreciate it. While business gurus were proclaiming the new dominance of creativity and innovation over mere production, the growing ease with which information was transmitted and reproduced made it harder for creators to profit from their creations. Nowadays, if you develop a marvelous piece of software, everyone will have downloaded a free copy from the Net the next day. If you record a magnificent concert, bootleg CD's will be sold in Shanghai next week. If you produce a wonderful film, high-quality videos will be available in Mexico City next month.

    How, then, could creativity be made to pay? The answer was already becoming apparent a century ago: creations must make money indirectly by promoting sales of something else. Just as auto makers used to sponsor grand prix racers to spice up the image of their cars, computer manufacturers now sponsor hotshot software designers to build brand recognition for their hardware. The same is true for individuals. The royalties that the Four Sopranos earn from their recordings are surprisingly small; the recordings mainly serve as advertisements for their concerts. The fans attend these concerts not to appreciate the music (they can do that far better at home), but for the experience of seeing their idols in person. In short, instead of becoming a knowledge economy we became a celebrity economy.

    Luckily, the same technology that has made it possible to capitalize directly on knowledge has also created many more opportunities for celebrity. The 500-channel world is a place of many subcultures, each with its own heroes. Still, the celebrity economy has been hard on people -- especially for those with a scholarly bent. A century ago, it was actually possible to make a living as a more or less pure scholar. Now if you want to devote yourself to scholarship, there are only three choices. Like Charles Darwin, you can be born rich. Like Alfred Wallace, the less-fortunate co-discoverer of evolution, you can make your living doing something else and pursue research as a hobby. Or, like many 19th-century scientists, you can try to cash in on a scholarly reputation by going on the lecture circuit.

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