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Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science 0th Edition

4.4 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0521775267
ISBN-10: 0521775264
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Editorial Reviews


"As history, Machine Dreams is a remarkable achievement. It is hard to imagine a historian who was not an economist (as Mirowski is) being able to encompass the economics of the second half of the 20th century in its diversity and technicality." London Review of Books

"Phil Mirowski reminds me of an investigative reporter with a world-class story. He has gone straight to the heart of a really interesting problem--the emergence of economics' modern era in the crucible of World War II--and come back with a detailed account of events at The Cowles Commission and the RAND Corporation. It is news, the best that can be said quickly. It is opinion: cyborg economics (meaning purely cognitive economics) is not the sort of science Mirowski wants to see. And it is sensationally interesting. You don't have to agree with his conclusions to recognize that Mirowksi is the most imaginative and provocative writer at work today on the recent history of economics. Machine Dreams is a real-time cousin to The Difference Engine .". David Warsh, The Boston Globe

"Machine Dreams is an astonishing performance of synthetic scholarship. Mirowski traces the present-day predicaments of economic theory to its intellectual reformulation and institutional restructuring by military funding and in the crucibles of World War II and the Cold War. His demonstration that the mathematical economics of the postwar era is a complex response to the challenges of "cyborg" science, the attempt to unify the study of human beings and intelligent machines through John von Neumann's general theory of automata, is bound to be controversial. His critics, however, will have to contend with a breathtakingly wide range of published and unpublished evidence in fields ranging from psychology to operations research he presents. This noir history of economic thought will change its readers' understanding of twentieth century economics profoundly." Duncan Foley, New School University

"In Machine Dreams the most exciting historian of economic thought of our time takes on one of the most fascinating themes of the intellectual history of the 20th century--the dream of creating machines that can think and how this has affected the social sciences. The result is an extraordinary book that deserves to be read by everyone interested in the social sciences." Richard Swedberg, University of Stockholm

Book Description

Machine Dreams recounts the story of how the computer came to transform the very content of American economics, and how the mathematician John von Neumann inadvertently became the most important thinker for the economics profession in the 20th century. The narrative crosses the two genres of the history of economic thought and World War II, arguing that the Second World War and the Cold War were central to the postwar rise of the neoclassical orthodoxy in America. The treatment concludes with reflections on the ways in which the computer will further transform economics in the 21st century.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 672 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521775264
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521775267
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.5 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #185,587 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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As you can see from the previous reviews, this is a book that provokes strong feelings. As usual that's often more a reflection on the reader than on the book. You'd never guess that this book is (by intention) very funny. But it is.

Mirowski has written elsewhere that John von Neumann is the "hero" of this book. Von Neumann thought neoclassical economics was nonsense, and made no secret of that opinion. As a result, many post-war American economists have tried to write him out of history. One fruit of their effort was the beatification of John Nash as the patron saint of game theory, a process that began in the 1980s.

According to this book, the irony is that those same economists have "followed the trajectory" of von Neumann's thinking for the last five decades, even if they wouldn't acknowledge it. Through the 1970s or so they relied on fixed-point theorems and other nonconstructive proof techniques (von Neumann in the 1930s). From the 1980s to now, they have relied on game theory (von Neumann for a few years in the 1940s). Recently, they have begun to rely more on computers, particularly to study "agent"-type automata (von Neumann from the mid-1940s to the end of his life). And, as for von Neumann, military funding has been an important factor throughout this development.

Actually, this isn't "the" irony, but just one of many. If you've ever had any suspicions that neoclassical economics was kind of a crock, you'll find them well-supported in this impressively well-researched book. (Some highlights include the misplaced aspiration to axiomatize economic theory, the impossibility of computing Nash equilibria, ditto for Walrasian general equilibria, the socialist antecedents of "free market" jingoism, the bounded usefulness of V.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I've read about 250 pages and can recommend that anyone with an interest in economics and finance should read this fantastic book. The basis for the text are the contributions of Shannon, Turing, von Neumann, Wiener, Koopmans, Marshak, and Arrow. Mirowski tells us the main story of the interaction of the Cowles Commission with RAND, which Bernstein does not at all hint at in his Capital Ideas. Having praised the book, I will now concentrate mainly on a few points of disagreement. Undecidability should not be confused with noise in stochastic processes. Systems at the transition to chaos can define automata that can perform simple arithmetic. That 'cyborg' has it's origin in the physical sciences seems farfetched (the connection between Turing and physics is supposed to be via Maxwell's demon, but was Turing really motivated by the idea of Maxwell's demon?). Nonlinear dynamics and fractals ('chaos' and fractals) certainly did not evolve from cybernetics or 'system theory' ('system theory' was based at best on an awareness of equilibria and limit cycles of differential equations, and made vague, unjustifiable allusions to holism). Cybernetics cannot really be seen as the midwife of what is now loosely called 'complexity' either, rather, that (still undefined) field grew out of nonlinear dynamics, neural networks, computability theory and molecular biology. Mirowski is right that many scientists confuse simulations with experiment and observations. I have argued against this confusion in papers and books.Read more ›
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Format: Paperback
The author, Mirowski, is interviewed repeatedly in the great documentary film, "The Trap: What Happened to our Dream of Freedom?" This BBC documentary was broadcast in 3 episodes in 2007. The British filmmaker Adam Curtis is perhaps more famous for other documentaries including _The Century of the Self_ and more recently _The Power of Nightmares_ about the war on terrorism. It is available on the Internet in reduced or compressed formats.

As Curtis clearly articulates the main thesis, _The Trap_ is about "how a simplistic model of human beings as self-seeking, almost robotic, creatures led to today's idea of freedom." That is, Mirowski is not only interviewed, but this particular book, _Machine Dreams_ is the key text informing much of Curtis's documentary. I'm not an economist, but I found the film so informative and hair-raising that I purchased Mirowski's book. The book equals the film in brilliance, though it doesn't reach quite as far as Curtis's more political argument about how the economic models got adopted into political programs, and hence led to the trap suggested in his title.

Hard to say whether the film helps to comprehend the book more or vice-versa the book helps to deepen the film. I'd say both.
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Format: Paperback
Economic historian Philip Mirowski has assembled an enormous, complex work of sociological argumentation with Machine Dreams. Following (in some senses), the Foucauldian method of genealogy, Mirowski traces the history of the post-war economics profession, and demonstrates the significance and impact of two interlocking tendencies: (1) post-war orthodoxy was heavily influenced and determined by the incursion of the military into central institutions of economic research (MIT, Cowles, RAND), which conditioned a fundamentally paradigmatic shift away from the classical model of “static allocation” to informational-based technologies and research agendas. Secondly, the rise of what Mirowski calls the “cyborg sciences” (i.e., the complex of cybernetic and organicist) sciences irrevocably shifted economic orthodoxy towards computation, information, processing, and general systems theory. This is not the one-sided story of the military’s determination of the post-war economic orthodoxy (with it’s forays into game theory and war game paradigms), but rather an historicist survey of the complex back-and-forth between neoclassical economists, cyborg sciences, and the effects such contradictory paradigms effected. John von Neumann is the intellectual star here—with his vast influences on mathematics, logic, game theory, and (perhaps most importantly), the theory of automata—Mirowski argues for the unparalleled enormity of von Neumann’s thinking on post-war economics, without reducing the history to the individual. This is a fascinating, if at times infuriatingly long-winded work that should not be missed.
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