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Tyler Cowen: Which Changes from the Internet Are We Neglecting?

April 10, 2018

tyler cowen

George Mason University Professor, author, and economist, Tyler Cowen, sparked a provocative discussion –ranging from the state of historical norms to current online behavior—at a recent MIT IDE seminar.

Cowen encouraged academics to view new ideas and innovations critically, and noted that often, the value of these ideas is only clear in hindsight. For instance, as the Internet become more integral to daily life, will it also become “more real” than the world of ideas it is mirroring? And what happens when a simulated system becomes more real than the system itself?

Cowen offered these and other divergent perspectives in his talk considering “Which Changes from the Internet Are We Neglecting?” No one anticipated that blogs, Twitter, or online chats would become pervasive and valuable communication sources, he said. Now, debates center on centralized control or decentralization of social media, as well as regulation and access.

The rise of social media in academic fields –such as science and economics–also means that these “simulations” need to be taken seriously as a form of experimentation, Cowen says. When something goes viral online it often has greater weight and gets more immediate attention than a formal journal paper, for instance. What gets picked up from science? Which ideas are complemented by social media?

He also raised the notion that before innovations can improve things, they may make them worse. As examples, he cited fast food, Twitter, or Linked In—which weren’t seen as improvements, or even useful at first. Acceptance time varies. Some product innovations –such as computers–succeed more rapidly than others because their value is apparent, while innovation in architecture or music may be more subjective. “Simulations help you see where [innovations] will lead,” and what the tradeoffs may be in terms of price or quality, Cowen says.

Watch the full video of Cowen’s presentation here. 


Biography: Tyler Cowen is Holbert L. Harris Professor of Economics at George Mason University and also Director of the Mercatus Center.  He received his Ph.d. in economics from Harvard University in 1987.  His book The Great Stagnation: How America Ate the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better, was a New York Times best-seller.  He was recently named in an Economist poll as one of the most influential economists of the last decade. 

His books with tech themes include: The Age of the Infovore, and Average is over: Powering America out of the Great Stagnation. He co-writes a blog at  and he has initiated an on-line economics education project,