A pleasant surprise

While I was in Adelaide for the Festival of Ideas, the Advertiser ran a piece I wrote on blogs and wikis, aimed at a general audience (it’s over the fold). I was going out for breakfast the next day, and the guy behind the counter said “Don’t you write for the Advertiser?”. It turned out he’d read my piece which ran with a small picture of me from the News Limited archives, used as a dinkus.

What was particularly nice about this was that they used quite an old (that is, young) photo, so it seems age is not wearying me too much.

When the World Wide Web first came into broad public view, about ten years ago, there were enthusiastic predictions that it would make everyone their own publisher, with the capacity to broadcast their thoughts on any topic, share their creative contributions, and talk about whatever was important in their daily lives. Lots of interesting things happened, but this vision was never properly realised. Running a website and keeping it up to date is hard work, and professional site designers and IT managers soon displaced the enthusiastic amateurs who had built the early stages of the Web.

In the last few years, however, the original vision has re-emerged, thanks to oddly named creatures called blogs and wikis. A blog (this unfortunate term arose as a contraction of ‘weblog’ and has resisted periodic attempts to find a more appealing alternative) is simply a personal webpage in a journal format, with software that automatically puts new entries (‘posts’) at the top of the page, and shifts old entries to archives after a specified time, or when the number of posts becomes too large for convenient scrolling.

This is a minor change to the basic format of a website, but it turns out to make all the difference. With freely available blog software and hosting services, it takes almost no technical skill to set up a blog and keep it running. All that is required is the enthusiasm to post regularly, something interesting to say, and a willingness to respond to the readers who will, eventually, come to visit your blog.

Political bloggers (I am one) have attracted most attention from the media, since they compete directly with, and often criticise, the feature writers and opinion columnists published in newspapers like The Advertiser. But there are blogs on almost any topic you can imagine, from art to zoology, not to mention more down-to-earth subjects like babies, cats and clothes. A good place to look for blogs of interest on particular topics is Technorati

Wikis are harder to describe, but perhaps even more significant. A wiki is a site that can be edited by anyone, with the property that anyone else can easily reverse changes that are considered undesirable. Amazingly enough, this works. In four years, wiki users have built an online encyclopedia, called Wikipedia, from scratch. It is already a serious competitor for the 250-year old Brittanica, and it’s completely free. Related projects include Wiktionary, a multilingual dictionary; Wikibooks, a collection of free content textbooks; Wikiquote, a repository of famous quotes; Wikinews, a free news source; Wikisource, a repository for primary source material; and Wikimedia Commons, a repository for images and sound data.

These innovations are important in themselves. But the process of creative collaboration they represent is becoming increasingly central to technological progress in general. Spinoffs from blog and wiki development are increasingly being used in business and education, displacing proprietary content management software. Open source software is increasingly relied upon as the most secure foundation for computing projects of all kinds. The Internet itself, and even more the World Wide Web, which have driven much of the economic growth of the last decade, were produced in this way.

As we look forward to the Festival of Ideas, it’s good to know that there has never been a better time to have your own ideas heard, on whatever interest you, and to exchange ideas with others around the world.

9 thoughts on “A pleasant surprise

  1. Well then, John, what do you think of James Kroeger’s ideas/arguments describing the progressive income tax as the ideal method of taxation? Are they legitimate?

    If they are, then they would seem to be extremely useful to any who are interested in economic justice.

    If they are actually misleading or seriously flawed, shouldn’t you—as an economist—be warning others of deceptively appealing rationalizations?

    Thanks in advance for your advice on this subject.



  2. Quite a bit there, some of which I agree with and some not. Overall, I think Kroeger tends to overstate the importance of the case when aggregate income expands in response to tax policy (supply-siders do this to, but in the opposite direction).

    For most purposes, I think you can assume that revenue raised by tax is spent on publicly-provided goods and services and that private consumption is reduced correspondingly.

    However, this doesn’t apply to positional goods, which largely depend on relative income, and I assume this was the point of Robert Frank’s endorsement.

  3. Thank you for your comments. It helps to get different points of view. If you don’t mind, I wanted to ask you about one of the things you said that confused me a bit.

    I think Kroeger tends to overstate the importance of the case when aggregate income expands in response to tax policy (supply-siders do this to, but in the opposite direction). For most purposes, I think you can assume that revenue raised by tax is spent on publicly-provided goods and services and that private consumption is reduced correspondingly.”

    In his essay, Kroeger said, “…instead of causing aggregate spending to drop, an increase in tax rates actually causes it to increase. Why? Because some of the money that people receive as income from the government—that was originally obtained from taxpayers—would have been saved, if certain taxpayers (typically wealthy ones) had not used it to pay their taxes.”

    It seems like Kroeger is saying that “aggregate income expands” when taxes are increased on those who would be saving a good deal of the money they are forced to give to the government. Is that why you and Kroeger disagree on this point? Because you don’t believe increasing taxes on savers would stimulate the economy?


  4. I love Wikis. I have just set one up one internally within my company. They are a great way to capture fleeting moments of inspired insight and over time to create a powerful knowledge resource.

    Wikis also demonstrate our capacity to collaborate on a purely voluntary basis without the coersive stick of big government on our back. To me wikis are the pointer towards how what a community oriented society without big government would operate.

    In most regards I hate government. But I love Wikis.

    My brother lives and works near London. During the recent bombings I was trying to get a phone call through to him and at the same time I was surfing the web trying to get the latest news. I used the usually options such as a google news search. However for the best picture of what was happening I watched the real time evolution of the wikipedia article cronicling the event. Authors and editors from around the globe aggregated facts and figures to rapidly paint a coherent picture of what was happening. It was powerful stuff to watch.


    The next day I got in touch with my Brother. He was fine.

  5. JQ, regardless of whether they are correct in their perceptions and judgments or not, US and other home schoolers exist. These therefore represent a group who do not feel that that particular taxing and servicing is suitable, and so do not choose to reduce their private expenditure to match the free at point of sale services provided from tax revenues.

    That’s an extreme case, and there are many other smaller and harder to discern anaolgues, but for precisely that reason this one makes a good illustration. Can one really say that in general government service provision reduces private expenditure to match? At the very best it could only do that after netting off the costs of raising and applying the funds and the deadweight compliance costs and so on.

  6. John,
    I’ve had a go at dotting the t’s–or making some links— between your talk on the significance of blogs and Wiki and the ethos of the festival about informed public debate about ideas shaping government decisions.

    I’ve done so using the categories ‘public sphere’ and ‘democracy.’

    See the digital democracy post at philosophy.com.

  7. People from Adelaide have a knack of recognising people from some random occurance many years previously. I remember going into a shoe shop and the same old dear from a 3 years previously asked how my brogues were going. Just fine…I think…I vaguely remember buying them. She even remembered I was getting them for a funeral.

    Online Diaries on Open Source Editors have been around a while. Blogs and Wikis sound a bit cooler and make us feel like we’re a part of something more significant. It’s all marketing.

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