Interview with Daron Acemoglu

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on January 20, 2010


Gilles Saint-Paul of the Toulouse Network for Information Technology (TNIT) sat down with Daron Acemoglu in the summer of 2009 to discuss Professor Acemoglu's interest in economic growth and innovation as they relate to information technology. Professor Acemoglu is the Charles P. Kindleberger Professor of Applied Economics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

TNIT: You have an extremely diversified and busy research agenda, which ranges from political economy to development to macroeconomics through labor markets and theory. How do you see the study of Information Technology fitting among all these different interests?

My interest in political economy, economic development, economic growth and innovation are all related. They all emanate from the question that got me into economics more than 20 years ago: "Why do some societies achieve continued economic growth, while others fail?" A complete answer to this question still eludes me, but my and others' work over the years has convinced me that useful approaches and perspectives to these issues must be based on two pillars: political economy and innovation. Innovation and introduction of new technologies have been the engine of economic growth for US and West European economies for over two centuries.

Political economy is part of the story because it provides us with answers to why this has been possible in the US and Western Europe, but strenuously resisted in other parts of the world. Information technology is not only the most important example of a radical innovation that has transformed production processes, the labor market, the product market and international trade, but it also provides us with a major platform for the new generation of technologies, ranging from biotech to green technologies, from better service delivery to further improvements in communication technologies to make the world even smaller. I therefore see the study of information technology as an integral part of my intellectual quest.

TNIT: You have recently been working on social networks. Do you believe that the explosion of Internet based social networks, à la Facebook or Twitter, helps or hinders the transmission of quality information? Any hint on open topics in this area?

Social networks, their formation, dynamics and evolution, are absolutely fascinating. They provide us with a glimpse of one possible model of future economic transactions. But most importantly, everything we do in society, in our individual choices and in our collective and political choices, relies on information, and social networks are conduits of information. Understanding how dispersed and diverse information on varied topics aggregates and evolves over social networks is as fascinating as it is important. Facebook and Twitter are just two examples of a more general phenomenon: the greater fluidity of information exchanges over social networks.

Although existing evidence suggests that social networks have not become much denser (most people now communicate via Facebook with the same friends that they would have communicated with using different mediums in the past), the frequency of interaction has increased. The direct effect of this on information aggregation is positive: information will reach each individual faster. But the indirect effect can be negative and is perhaps more powerful than the direct effect. Each individual may make up their mind on a given topic (private matters, quality of products, political and social issues) on the basis of communication with their closest friends rather than waiting for more diverse information from news sources and other "weaker" social links (and this might also reduce the market for traditional news sources, certainly an aspect of the decline of print media as we are currently experiencing). So at some level, the more fluid model of communication spearheaded by Facebook and Twitter may increase "herding" within pockets of our society and ultimately lead to less successful information aggregation and more disagreement between different pockets.

Much of the previous paragraph is based on conjectures and preliminary results. Systematic theoretical analysis, statistical empirical work and survey work on how different social groups communicate using these different mediums are all open and exciting research areas.

TNIT: What priority do you believe governments of developing countries should give to investments in Information Technology? What is your favorite project in this respect?

Information technology is also becoming more important for developing countries for several reasons. First, it will ultimately play a similar role as a platform for further technology development and adoption in these countries. Second, transfer of new technologies, traditional or otherwise, from the world frontier now requires a developing nation to have reached a certain threshold in information technology. Third, information technology provides a means of developing nation citizens to bypass the inefficiencies of service delivery as in the case of cell phones, and perhaps as an the potentially emerging model for health care delivery. Finally, information technology may also play an important role in the political economy for developing nations because it will remove the monopoly of information that was produced in the hands of authoritarian governments or monopolistic media sources.

In this light, the two projects that I think are most promising are: the continued non-profit and for-profit investments in cell phones in developing nations, which are enabling developing nation citizens to bypass traditional wireline technologies and the bureaucratic barriers, and the non-profit projects for providing a PC for every child around the world.

TNIT: Finally, a few fun questions. Any blog / online journal which you regularly read?

New York Times online. A fantastic source of information and commentary. Unfortunately, no time for reading blogs...

TNIT: To which newsfeed are you subscribed?

New York Times and the Economist.

TNIT: Just quickly respond to the following 'opposites':

LATEX or Scientific Word?

Both. Why would you want to choose one?

Apple, Vista or Linux?

None of the above. Microsoft Windows XP. I intend to stick to it until Microsoft comes up with a better product than Vista.

Outlook or gmail?

Neither. Mozilla Thunderbird.

Touch Type or Secretary?

Neither. Dragon NaturallySpeaking voice recognition. But I would be dead without my wonderful assistant.

JSTOR or paper copies in library?

JSTOR for journals. But definitely books in the library.

GPS or map?

Both. They are complements, not substitutes.

Coffee or mineral water?

Definitely coffee. Academia is hard without it.

Facebook or paper post cards?

Unfortunately neither. My social skills need work.

Twitter or not?


TNIT: Thank you very much for this interview.