What is the internet worth

McKinsey, best known for dubious advice (they convinced GE that they had no problems and were chief advisers to Enron, to name but two), have produced a report trying to calculate the economic value of the internet. A daunting task, and there are some serious methodological challenges involved, but there might be interesting things in the exercise itself.

The main findings are that the internet accounts for

  • 3.4% of GDP in 13 countries
  • 21% of GDP growth
  • 2.6 jobs created for each destroyed
  • 10% intra-business productivity gains
  • A consumer surplus of €20/month per user
  • That last one is particularly slippery. Consumer surplus has a very specific economic definition, but there are certainly benefits (and costs) to internet use that are difficult to measure. For one provocative take on this, check out this economic paper on the correlation between increased internet access and rape.

    (via Marginal Revolution)


    Because we all like a good detective story

    At the always excellent Skulls in the Stars blog, here is a fantastic story of a “scientific” swindler operating in the US in the 1880s. It’s a long, but fascinating read.


    In the 1880s, a fascinating chain of letters appeared in the magazine Science and in other publications, including the New York Times. The scientific community was being victimized by a clever confidence man, who was working his way into members’ trust and then stealing from them. The exploits span at least 7 years and stretch over much of the United States. Most surprising about it, however, is that the con artist was so successful because he was apparently trained as one of their own.

    The swindled scientists actually end up admiring the conman, as he is obviously a talented paleontologist. Here’s a quote from one of the last letters about the man:

    Don’t know where he went, but he certainly is very gifted and smart, and is well posted in paleontology, and would make the best I have ever known provided he stuck to it and honesty.

    Impressive history writing from a consistently good blog.

    Dispatches from the ivory tower

    The filmmaker Errol Morris has posted the first of a five-part series on what he calls “The Ashtray Argument”. I have no idea where this will go in the next posts, but the first piece is worth reading for its (not very positive) description of Thomas Kuhn alone:

    I asked him, “If paradigms are really incommensurable, how is history of science possible? Wouldn’t we be merely interpreting the past in the light of the present? Wouldn’t the past be inaccessible to us? Wouldn’t it be ‘incommensurable?’”

    He started moaning. He put his head in his hands and was muttering, “He’s trying to kill me. He’s trying to kill me.”

    And then I added, “…except for someone who imagines himself to be God.”

    It was at this point that Kuhn threw the ashtray at me.

    Not only is the whole thing funny, it also seems to be developing into an interesting critique of Kuhn, a thinker I never found as convincing as many others seem to do.

    It’s also interesting that Morris attended Saul Kripke’s lectures that would later turn into Naming and Necessity, the only philosophy book I have read more than two times, and one of the very best. I’m usually not into analytical philosophy, but this is so much more, and the fact that the book is compiled from the notes of a student listening to the lecture, which Kripke gave without notes, is simply astounding. It is a tough but mercifully short read, which is why I’ve reread it several times, but recommended to anyone who believe that the study of language has nothing to do with real life.

    Climategate, again

    In a short opinion piece today, two colleagues write about the Climategate “scandal”. It’s Norwegian only, but the gist is that the media misunderstood the function of the internal debate over different ways to interpret climate data, and used it to create an impression of cheating, politically motivated scientists. When will they ever learn? (Answer: never.) If you can read Norwegian, it is hereby recommended.

    Everything counts in large amounts

    This just in: Seems like the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Via Boingboing I find out that the son of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi, Saif, has a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics. It now turns out parts of the thesis might be plagiarized, and a wiki is already set up to comb through it in search of more. Internet, you make me proud.


    Paul Mason of BBC makes some interesting points about what makes political dissent more feasible in modern autocracies than before. Of course, one of his main points is that Internet Changes Everything, a claim so common that I always become suspicious when I see it: what lazy thinking is this trope hiding? But in this case there are real truths here, albeit somewhat overblown. And he is careful to qualify his point:

    What happens to this new, fluffy global zeitgeist when it runs up against the old-style hierarchical dictatorship in a death match, where the latter has about 300 Abrams tanks? We may be about to find out.

    One other interesting idea is that the demographics in these autocracies are now beginning to look like those of the “Western” world fifty years ago: larger middle class, better-educated youth. One should be careful in drawing historical analogies too far, but it is interesting to consider. Also, remember that here the middle-class and the well-educated are facing a much worse situation than the baby boomers, with a large percentage not really having a secure future.

    Bruno Latour, secret agent

    The excellent OrgTheory blog has a post on Bruno Latour where they imagine what the world looks like for a man who rejects anthropocentric agency (but not anthropogenic climate change?). I don’t think these things are easy to talk about, too many pitfalls of language, but I have wondered about the same things (even if I don’t like the way people dismiss this as bullshit out of hand). Quote:

    Bruno has gotten so good at practically deploying this new conceptual scheme (along with the radically new ontological partition of the world that it carries along with it) so as to transpose this newly acquired and newly mastered habits of perception and appreciation to discover evidence of the agentic capacities of those entities that were previously thought not to exercise it, in the history of Science and Politics. He has even uncovered evidence of humans being aware of this evidence, but then he noted that they proceeded to hide this evidence by creating elaborate systems of ontology and metaphysics in which non-human agency was explicitly denied, and in which it was explicitly conceptualized as being an exclusive property of so-called “persons” (where persons is now a category restricted to humans) only.

    Some of the comments are illuminating in a way the post is not.