The I-space as an evolutionary framework for an economics of knowledge : a comparison with generalized Darwinism

Naidoo, Satiaseelan (2008-12)

Thesis (MPhil (Information Science))--Stellenbosch University, 2008.


The knowledge economy is regarded by many authorities and policymakers as a significant and burgeoning aspect of the global economy. Yet there is no adequate theory of the production and exchange of knowledge; there is no adequate microeconomics of knowledge. In his 1995 work, titled Information Space, Max Boisot responds to this theoretical challenge by undertaking a bold and insightful project to lay the groundwork for just such an economics of knowledge. Boisot’s project entails two outcomes: an interwoven set of paradigmatic-ontological antecedents as a philosophical foundation; and a general theoretical framework, the Information-space (I-space), for understanding the economising principles that underlie the creation and distribution of information and knowledge. Boisot does not put forward an economics of knowledge per se. Rather, he sets out to lay the philosophical and general theoretical foundations for such an economic theory. Among Boisot’s paradigmatic-ontological antecedents is a commitment to evolutionary thinking. This is extended and adopted as a more specific commitment in the explication of the I-space. Thus, Boisot’s commitment to evolution is not trivial, and the I-space should be evolutionary in a strict sense. This thesis focuses on the I-space as an evolutionary framework and is a conceptual assessment of the I-space in relation to generalized Darwinism as the dominant contemporary conception of what it means to be evolutionary. The I-space is taken seriously as an explanatory framework, but it is assessed on its own terms as a general theory that is not amenable to a Popperian refutationist assessment. Thus, the I-space is construed as a putative evolutionary explanatory framework for an economics of knowledge. Contemporary evolutionary thinking has a long history, and is both pluralistic and polemical. However, a generalized Darwinian framework is discernable in the various applications of Darwinism in biology, evolutionary economics and evolutionary epistemology, and in the discourse of generalized Darwinism. The derivation – or extraction – of such a framework and its set of criteria is, nevertheless, a challenging task since it is not always clear what evolution and Darwinism entail conceptually, and there is no unanimity of opinion in the literature. This thesis is an attempt to identify the core logical criteria of generalized Darwinism that may be used to assess the I-space as a putative global evolutionary explanation. Though it does incorporate, or satisfy, many of the criteria identified, the I-space fails to satisfy two of them, and this thesis therefore concludes that the I-space is not a global generalized Darwinian framework. Firstly, and most importantly in terms of the conceptual hierarchy of generalized Darwinism, the I-space defines ex ante a finite set of attributes – degree of abstraction and degree of codification – as constitutive of global fitness. In other words, it regards the traits of abstraction and codification to be both necessary and sufficient to explain the differential diffusion of knowledge. Although evolutionary theory is of predictive value in local evolutionary situations, it is argued in this thesis that it is inadmissible in a global Darwinian evolutionary situation to specify ex ante the selection criteria in terms of a finite set of traits and to predict global evolutionary outcomes on that basis. In doing so, the I-space ignores the inherent contingency of the evolutionary process. More specifically, it ignores the contingency of knowledge creation and diffusion in a varied and changing environment, and makes exogenous to the I-space other factors that may also be of selective significance. Secondly, and closely related, is that the I-space does not define populations according to shared exposure to selection pressure; rather, knowledge is stratified according to shared attributes along the I-space dimensions of abstraction and codification. This presents a conceptual problem for the I-space, since it is conceivable that knowledge objects of the same degree of abstraction and codification may be directed at entirely different phenomenal domains and thus cannot be taken to be competing; conversely, knowledge objects of different degrees of abstraction and codification may be directed at the same phenomena and should thus be taken as competing. The primary implication of this outcome is that, from a Darwinian point of view, the I-space, as a local evolutionary explanation, cannot serve as a general theory for an evolutionary economics of knowledge. It may give rise to other local theories, but it will not support the development of an economics of knowledge that would operate at a higher level of generality than the I-space. A second implication, also from a strict Darwinian point of view, is that evolutionary general theory may be explanatory, but it may not be predictive; evolutionary theories may indeed predict at the local level, but not at the global level. The final implication is that the search for a microeconomics of knowledge continues, and will become more urgent as the knowledge economy unfolds, and as our ability to quantify it improves.

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