Cognitive economy and the production of stupidity

Peter Wolfendale has posted a “short” piece on his new blog Dialectical Insurgency (his short pieces are longer than most bloggers’ long ones) on cognitive economics and stress. The tumblr format unfortunately doesn’t allow comments so I thought I’d make a couple here.

1. I think the concept of ‘cognitive economy’ can help to explain Deleuze and Guattari’s remarks in Anti-Oedipus about capitalism producing “flows of stupidity”. It doesn’t just mean that capitalism produces stupid products or products that appeal to people’s stupidity, it means that it produces “cognitive noise” that makes it harder to make intelligent decisions.

2. I think it’s also relevant to the future of science. Scientists are increasingly being evaluated based on citation indices and patents produced by their research rather than on anything like the scientific value of their work. Science in the 20th century was on the whole characterized by a high degree of cognitive freedom which allowed scientists to pursue a variety of lines of research — just think of Barbara McClintock working in her cornfields for 40 years — but this freedom may be disappearing. Scientists will be under the same stress to produce “results” as other knowledge workers and will increasingly favour research that will produce publishable data, no matter how trivial or boring, over riskier fields that may provide new understanding but may also be dead ends. As Isabelle Stengers points out somewhere, already today, in fields like biotechnology it’s more important to have “promising” research that attracts investors than to actually create knowledge. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, spend a large portion of their “research” budgets on producing variations on existing drugs that will be covered by new patents (“line extensions”) or on new conditions that old drugs can be prescribed for (“drug repositioning”), rather than on developing new drugs that solve new medical problems. (See the National Institute of Health Care Management report here; apparently 65% of the drug applications reviewed by the FDA between 1989 and 2000 were for drugs containing the same active ingredient as drugs already on the market.) Scott Bakker has presented a distopian future in which neuroscience has run amok, with powerful corporations and secret government agencies controlling our brains. This is an important possibility to bear in mind, but I think a more likely future under capitalism is simply that science as we knew it in the 20th century will go extinct. There will still be research but it will simply be a form of marketing. The prospect of extinction is why I feel that science must be one of the primary sites of the “major form of resistance” that Wolfendale recommends: “the pursuit of cognitive liberation through progressive collectivisation”.


2 thoughts on “Cognitive economy and the production of stupidity

  1. I completely missed this post at the time, sorry! I’m in complete agreement. Indeed, this is precisely the point on which I (and as you point out, D&G) disagree with someone like Nick Land: capitalism might be a highly complex information processing system composed of interlocking market and industrial dynamics, but that complexity does not always amount to efficiency, or intelligence. Capitalism is very good at squandering cognitive resources, for instance, by ploughing them into various market feedback loops, in which increasing cognitive resources must be consumed in order to fuel the arms-race dynamics of competition, while producing no increasing efficiency at the level of market-as-resource-allocation-mechanism.

    It’s worth thinking through this stuff in more detail at some point. Thanks for the comments!

    1. No worries, I write mostly for myself anyways.
      There’s an interesting article ( about some of the “market feedback loops” you mention that have been set up by the financialization of capitalism since the 1980’s. It seem that the same thing is going on to some extent with scientific research now, whereas throughout the 20th century the “management” of scientific research, ie. the researchers themselves, had a fair amount of independence from its financial backers.
      The economics of knowledge production (and maybe more important, ignorance production) is an important area of research that to my knowledge has barely been studied. I’d definitely be interested to see your take on the subject.

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