And institutuional development by Viacheslav Shironin

Things as ideas, ideas as things

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Things as ideas, ideas as things

Let us return to the above Bertin Martens’ discussion of the main modes of communication. There are three of them: (1) imitation; (2) transmission of information by means of language and other symbolic media; and (3) exchange of materialized information, i.e. information and ideas embodied in things. The latter third method has many advantages, as it allows to compress, to archive the necessary information and, therefore, it is very efficient in terms of the best use of the limited ability of people to process the information.

At the same time, embodying - reification - of ideas and exchanging of materialized ideas are as old as humanity itself. The modern market differs from the primitive one because of its institutional ‘accompaniment’ whose objective is to minimize the risks that inevitably result from a mechanism of exchange of materialized information.
The liberal order is just one of the options of institutional support, of the institutional infrastructure of the market. But perhaps the most important function of the liberal order is exactly the opposite. It creates a cognitive environment where ideas can be treated like things.
I would like to emphasize that the main feature of the ‘Western’ social order consists of its ability to turn ideas (ideal objects) into objectively existing things. I believe that in its civilizational consequences this is similar to the invention of writing which allows it to turn speech into text.
In what sense are the ideal objects transformed into things? This means that they retain their functional properties; they are separated from their producer. By writing down their words, people turn the fact of their speech into objectively existing thing which can be stored, worked with - edited, transferred, re-coded, entered into computer memory, etc. This situation is, of course, familiar and completely understandable to us. However, it is much more complicated if, for example, we write a contract. An agreement as an ideal object must preserve not only the words but also its meaning, it must always be interpreted the same way. This requires a complex infrastructure: the court, the legal profession, the corpus of documents, etc. It is this infrastructure that allows such an ideal object as contract to become a thing capable of preserving its functional properties. The same can be said about a property right which can be separated, alienated, sold or modified. In order for it to possess all these characteristics, it should be surrounded by a specific institutional environment, by a certain context.


Its ability to transform ideas (ideal objects) into ‘things’ makes the Western system programmable. That is, it has the tools for implementation of ideas.
If you invite somebody to help you to hammer a nail and hang a picture, a Russian master would probably start discussing with you where best to place it. That is, this man would not behave as a ‘programmable’ tool; on the contrary, he would feel like part of your relationship with the world. In the liberal social order programmability takes place. It makes a very strong impression on the Russian people when they face it for the first time: people who do not know how to think or do something are not allowed to.
Let us look at this problem using the following cybernetic metaphor. Recall the analog computers widely used as late as twenty years ago. Unlike modern (programmable) ones, the analog device was an electrical machine, built to solve a specific task. To calculate 2X2, it was necessary to transform these raw data into electric currents, and then the computer would issue the resulting current corresponding to the solution = 4. Within certain limits, it was possible to reprogram the analog computer (to calculate, say, 2 +2 instead of 2X2), but it needed not striking keys, clicking the mouse nor even inserting the floppy disk with the program as it is now but to physically rebuild the electrical circuit.

Picture 14. Analog computer29

As already mentioned, the basic principle of modern programmable computer consists of separation of the software from the hardware. In institution-building and politics it corresponds to the idea of separation and independence of powers - legislative, judicial and executive. This is what makes the hardware of law - which has to ensure compliance with legislation and executive decisions - neutral to their content. This makes possible for the lawmaking to be an instrument of policy. But first of all it is the neutrality of law that allows the development of the legal relationships between citizens, i.e. the civil society.
Using this metaphor, we can say that Russia's current institutional and political system is mostly as analog, not programmable computer. It does not have a ‘drive’ where a ‘flash memory’ with policy recommendations could be inserted. This system needs to be managed by switching administrative ‘wires’.

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