Sunday, 15 November 2015

Orrin Klapp as Seer

Orrin Klapp (1915-1997) won attention in the 1970s and 80s for his sociologising of the digital revolution. But his first book, Heroes, Fools and Villians, is also remarkable, for its seeing-round-corners glimpse of developments barely heralded in 1962.

Klapp’s contentions are wholly American in reference, but they are all bottomed in a general vision of any society as a Weberian struggle for role and type, and thereby status. Three pieces of foresight stand out:

1. Bowling in a Lonely Crowd.
Klapp uses his Weberian vision to moot a lamentable decline in American culture of the emulative power of the Hero type relative to that to what he calls the ‘Good Joe’ (in modern  parlance, the ‘great guy’ or ‘loveable guy’). He states without enthusiasm that ‘the persistent effort to be liked ... is one of the strongest straits in American character’, and contends that an empty geniality has become an object of aspiration.  He uses this conclusion to boldly call out as hollow the apparently vigorous American civil society of the the fabulous fifties: ‘When joining and belonging seem at an all time high, we must consider most of this organisation as pseudo' (p112). Klapp's dismissal amounts to a warning of the subsequent collapse of ‘the nation of joiners’ that was painfully chronicled a generation later by Robert Puttnam.

2. Boys will be Girls.  
Klapp uses the residual strength of the hero role to contend that the status race is subversive of traditional sex roles.  Heroes, he stresses, are almost always masculine in quality. ‘It is still a man’s world when it comes to handing out medals.’(p.97). The plain implication is that women will want to assume masculine roles - and yet that implication begs the question as to why such a wish was only becoming manifest in the latter 20th c? A lead is provided by Klapp’s contention that although we will be typed (whether we like it or not) we nevertheless have some choice over type. Increasing education had expanded the type-choice of women - the low status type wife-mother was no longer an almost inevitable typing - and so accommodated flight of women from low-status traditional roles. The upshot is the unremarkable suggestion feminism is about women becoming men-like, but he adds an extension that applies to bizarre role-assumption seen by men in recent  years, and barely envisageable in 1962 :  ‘with increasing Congresswoman, woman executives, lady athletes cowgirls and so on it seems reasonable to expect further convergences of the sexes – perhaps even to the point of men imitating women’. Indeed.

3.Pixelation not Perspiration. 
In keeping with his belief that the rigour of the hero is ceding prestige to the affable ‘Good Joe’, Klapp predicts ‘our future Edison may well devote his talent to improving pin ball machines’ (p.102). In the light of the fact that 34 million ‘core’ gamers in the United States are ‘playing video games for an average of 22 hours every week’ ( , Klapp’s prediction would not  be a total mischaracterisation of what Jobs and Gates have wrought.

It was only in his last decade of activity that Klapp took on with both hands the informational evolution. In the 1970s Klapp pictured society choosing its 'boundaries' so as to make the most of its informational context. In economists' terms this notion amounts to optimising over the size of the information set. The foundational premise of such an optimisation is that there exists an ‘opportunity locus’ between information of value and informational junk, and that the slope of the locus is positive: to have more information of value (‘news’, ‘data’) is to get (and have to get) more informational junk (moronic remarks posted on Youtube, Facebook trivia, pseudo-measurements of the unmeasurable). Obviously, information of value has positive utility, while informational junk  has negative utility. The optimisation problem is clear: just as the investor chooses over the risk-return locus to maximise utility, so society chooses a point on the ‘information opportunity locus’ to maximise utlity.  (This choice of society might be implemented formally - by banning  production of excess information -  or, more probably, by applying a social sanction to such excess: ‘silence is golden’, or an ethic of ‘point’ and ‘relevance’).

One might try to apply Klapp’s pre-internet theorising to the extraordinary increase in information production over the past 25 years, and with doleful conclusions. I suggest the informational locus in information of value –informational junk space has shifted left.  That is, the acquisition of moderate amounts of information is now concomitant with more informational junk than before. Could the utility-maximising response to such a shift be the choice of less information of value and more junk?

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