The great English philosopher Michael Oakeshott described the conversation of humanity as being an ‘an unrehearsed intellectual adventure’. That conversation has been punctuated by several important events since the earliest times when humans huddled around fires away from the darkness and swapped stories.
For many millennia the conversation was localised and relied on word of mouth. Even the invention of writing didn’t help much in a world of illiteracy. The greatest contribution to our conversation and the preservation of our human inheritance was the invention of the printing press.
The printing press is a truly revolutionary change – everything since then is a variation on a theme. From textbooks to ebooks – anyone in the last 500 years would understand the concept fairly quickly.
But what a variation blogging has been. In the past ten years blogging has evolved from something slightly disreputable to the mainstream.
It turns out that people don’t only want news, they demand opinion too; and there is no shortage of opinion on the internet.
People who are curious about the world around them and can jot down a few thoughts can be bloggers. Over and above anything else that academics do, they are observers. Academics observe the world around them and theorise. Why, what, when and how is our bread and butter.
It is unsurprising then that many bloggers are academics. Those people already active in the market for ideas are likely to explore different avenues for communicating with different parts of the market.
I am aware of several Australian academic economist bloggers. The longest running blog is by John Quiggin of the University of Queensland. He has long had a regular column in the Australian Financial Review and has been blogging since 2002. Other economist bloggers include Joshua Gans of the University of Melbourne, Stephen King of Monash, Harry Clarke of La Trobe, Steve Keen of the University of Western Sydney and I’m sure there are others.
All of these people are fine economists and it is clear their blogging is a complement to their work and not a substitute. Quiggin, for example, got a book published after a series of blog posts attracted attention. He wrote about bad economic theories contributing to the Global Financial Crisis.
One of the most successful Australian academics to use the internet for self-promotion was Andrew Leigh – now a Member of Parliament representing the seat of Fraser. He began blogging to promote his book Imagining Australia: Ideas for Our Future and then started his own site where he continued to promote his own research and posted his informed opinions about the world around him.
At my own blog, Catallaxy Files, several posts on the proposed mining tax (the Resource Super Profit Tax) were picked up by the media and contributed to the debate into that policy proposal.
So blogging is rapidly becoming mainstream and making a contribution to the broader civil society.
Universities are ideal forums for blogging. They are important and broadly respected social institutions that exist to propagate and disseminate knowledge.
Yet some readers might baulk at my lofty descriptions of blogging. Blogs can be rude, sarcastic, and even somewhat indecent. Blogging may be a conversation but it is not always genteel. It is robust; it is frank. Just as markets can be a bazaar so a conversation can be a cacophony.
Many find this confronting. Greg Mankiw – the Harvard economist who started his blog to promote his best-selling textbook – doesn’t allow comments at all. What is important is that the intellectual adventure is appreciated and encouraged even if the unrehearsed component threatens to derail the conversation.
Sinclair Davidson is Professor of Institutional Economics in the School of Economics, Finance and Marketing. He is a hobby blogger at Catallaxy Files.