Daniel Bell, post-industrial society, and who should pay for basic research

A few things popped Daniel Bell’s The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973) on my radar, and so I got an old copy for myself online. The edition I have is from 1976, with a new introduction from the author where he attempts to lessen the strain of the excessively heavy lifting some of his ideas were being forced to do by subsequent interpreters. What struck me is that for a 40 year old book, much the same conversations are being had, although it appears that in some respects we have leap-frogged the substantive elements in favour of nitty-gritty technical fixes. Bell’s book rewinds us to these bigger picture problems.

In the following passage, Bell sketches the basic outline of knowledge as commodity in the post-industrial society, and sees something of a contradiction in trying to apply industrial paradigms of private ownership and to information which tends more towards collective ownership. One solution, he suggests, is to put the matter into a kind of abeyance, so that economics doesn’t have to account for it at all. The muscle work is done instead in the use (manipulation?) of those mechanisms of social or collective goods, and structured so that the benefits accrue to those who previously might have been the private owner/controllers of goods. It’s a special kind of information-age peonage.

If there is less and less incentive for individual persons or private enterprises to produce knowledge without particular gain, then the need and effort falls increasingly on some social unit, be it university or government, to underwrite the costs. And since there is no ready market test (how does one estimate the value of “basic research?”) there is a challenge to economic theory to design a socially optimal policy of investment in knowledge (e.g., how much money should be spent for basic research; what allocations should be made for education, and for what fields; in what areas do we obtain the “better returns” in health; and so on), and how to “price” information and knowledge to users. [pp. xiv-xv]

This illuminates some other matters, if we turn our eyes to something like Ireland’s research and development expenditure. Historically, do we see Government Expenditure on R&D (GOVERD) and Higher Education Expenditure on R&D (HERD) taking up the slack of the private sector’s R&D (BERD)? In Forfás’s Statistics at a Glance we might get some clues, but we are missing data from 2009 onwards in some cases, and this being a not insignificant period, it’s difficult to assert connections between Bell’s thesis and the data. The best I can see is only suggestive. A longitudinal look at things has probably been done, and this would tell us more…

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5 thoughts on “Daniel Bell, post-industrial society, and who should pay for basic research

  1. What’s interesting is that with the notion of many of the ideas surrounding Learning, Intelligent, Smart cities we’re discovering that late capitalism is itself being forced toward a new collectivization program in its key aspect as a knowledge economy… think of works like Tim Campbell’s Beyond Smart Cities: How Cities Network, Learn and Innovate, Nikos Komninos’s Intelligent Cities and Globalisation of Innovation Networks, etc.

    Of course they present the side from capitalists in a more positive light, while someone like Luis Suarez-Villa in his Technocapitalism: A Critical Perspective on Technological Innovation and Corporatism shows both the benefits and the downsides from a critical Leftist appeal:

    “The socialization of experimentalism means that society as a whole becomes the laboratory of technocapitalism. This is a laboratory that is certainly quite different from the traditional labs of experimental science, not only physically but also in terms of scope, governance, and reach. And, it is a laboratory in which all of society is forcibly engaged, through the commercial compulsion of the new order. All of society, in essence, becomes the guinea pig of corporate experimentalism.”

    Either way a lot of interesting transformations going on for differing sectors.

    • I agree, but I might be inclined to view the collectivization programme embedded in these various new forms of organization have more in common with Tocqueville’s idea of concentrating power at the centre, allied with Weber’s view of rationalizing bureaucracy. It seems perverse for me to invoke older names, but I think that these Big Ideas are ignored or taken for granted in a way that later work can seem to be sorting through the details. This in turn leads some theorists open to charges of corporate cheerleading (such as the examples you pick above), since There Is No Alternative and the situation we find ourselves in is the way things are and lack of imagination ordains that this is the way they ever shall be. [As an aside, I find the increasing flood of books on cities in recent years weirdly self-congratulatory, as though we need to pat ourselves on the back for no longer thinking Robert Moses is God. Many of us live and work in cities, and that’s fine. End of.]
      That’s why I would tend towards someone like Suarez-Villa, who can look to the why and the how of these processes. The ‘socialization of experimentalism’ is a phrase that will stick with me, so thanks for that!

      • Yea, I actually have a lot of essays on everything from Taylorism, efficiency, early forms of control in 19th century, etc.

        So, yea agree it started long ago… hell, even early 20th with Mumford, Ellul, the Frankfort gang …

        I agree one needs to take in a lot more old scholarship than many are doing these days.

      • Ah, have you read the work of S.M. Amadae’s Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy, or let’s say Mirowski’s Machine Dreams? I tend to agree that the whole internalization from Kant on of the Enlightenment project needs a larger examination relating to the forms of domination and the rational have taken.

  2. In-line comments appear to be limited. I had Mirowski on my to read list, but I ended up getting his Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste instead. Working through that at the moment. STS was one of my research interests for a long time, but I have moved away from that area slowly.

    Re: the city lit., I’m one to talk, as from here I see my bookshelves groaning under the weight of Mumford, Jacobs, d’Eramo, Hall, etc. Can’t get enough of our cosmopolitan, late-capitalist sacred literature. Probably time to let it go.

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