Academic journal article The Journal of Philosophical Economics

Observing Productivity: What It Might Mean to Be Productive When Viewed through the Lens of Complexity Theory

Academic journal article The Journal of Philosophical Economics

Observing Productivity: What It Might Mean to Be Productive When Viewed through the Lens of Complexity Theory

Article excerpt

Abstract: The paper tries to explore options and preconditions for a theoretically thoroughly grounded conception of productivity that is able to account for its observer-dependency and thereby meets the needs of a dynamic and highly differentiated modern society. It does so in respect to insights from Cybernetics and Complexity theory, thereby taking up charges about the contradiction of economic productivity and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In respect to epistemological consequences of contemporary levels of productivity, a seemingly paradoxical constraint is put forward: the constraint that productivity is conditioned on being observed as such, with the observer in its turn being conditioned on productivity. The assumption is that this paradoxical constitution helps to keep productivity adaptive to the changes it itself incites in economy.

Keywords: productivity, complexity, observer-dependence, cybernetics, economic theory, computation, anticipatory systems


While theoretically quite simply defined, the economic concept of productivity, as referring to value-adding processes [1], poses problems on practical grounds. Statisticians concerned with national accounting for instance, as well as politicians concerned with social and financial issues, and ordinary people worrying about their economic future no longer agree about what it is that counts as productive [2]. The modern world's economic upswing seems to be paradoxically accompanied by a differentiation of perspectives. Is it land, labor, material goods, technical progress, knowledge and whatever can be measured in money, or is it happiness, democratic freedom, less labor, overall wellbeing, the chance for self-determination, fresh air, clean water, health, longevity that drives economy? While most national and supranational accounting systems still focus on money, a growing number of well-being indices is suggested and competes for an unambiguous definition of wealth. Furthermore, with rich nations discussing "degrowth" and "a-growth" concepts (Van den Bergh, 2011) while developing countries try to replicate their material output, it appears that what counts as productive in one context may not be productive in others (Füllsack, 2008).

The clear-cut distinction of productive and unproductive labor with which Adam Smith tried to explain the causes of wealth, and which Marx momentously passed on to Socialism as a core principle of administered labor, has dissolved in the plurality of perspectives that modernity provides. In short, the epistemology of modern society - conditioned on and embedded into its productivity, as we shall see - seems to oblige us to specify to whom, and in regard to what, productivity is considered productive. Hence, I argue in this paper that speaking about productivity today necessitates specifying its observer.

This argument seems to call for a philosophy of science to clarify the conditions of observation. Attempts to analytically observe these conditions however, lead into the dreaded circle of using these conditions while trying to clarify them, and produces the insight that the observer is paradoxically constituted (Foerster, 1981; Luhmann, 1995, and below). What is more, conceptualizing the observer in terms of productivity - or at least in terms of a condition that defies entropy, as we shall see -, reveals that productivity is a much more complex conception than is usually conceded in economic textbooks. In respect to this insight, I assume that the aforementioned problems could be alleviated to some extent with a more fundamentally grounded conception of productivity.

Even with such a conception however, the central problem addressed in this paper, that is, the problem that productivity is observer-dependent, cannot be evaded. In this text, I try to express this point not only in terms of content, but to some extent also in terms of its own demeanor. By not claiming to present a clear-cut result or solution, this paper might deviate slightly from the usual terms of scientific reports; At least partially I will leave it to the reader to decide if it can be considered productive. …

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