Collective Awareness

Economic failures cause us serious problems. We need to build simulations of the economy at a much more fine-grained level that take advantage of all the data that computer technologies and the Internet provide us with. We need new technologies of economic prediction that take advantage of the tools we have in the 21st century.  

Places like the US Federal Reserve Bank make predictions using a system that has been developed over the last eighty years or so. This line of effort goes back to the middle of the 20th century, when people realized that we needed to keep track of the economy. They began to gather data and set up a procedure for having firms fill out surveys, for having the census take data, for collecting a lot of data on economic activity and processing that data. This system is called “national accounting,” and it produces numbers like GDP, unemployment, and so on. The numbers arrive at a very slow timescale. Some of the numbers come out once a quarter, some of the numbers come out once a year. The numbers are typically lagged because it takes a lot of time to process the data, and the numbers are often revised as much as a year or two later. That system has been built to work in tandem with the models that have been built, which also process very aggregated, high-level summaries of what the economy is doing. The data is old fashioned and the models are old fashioned.

It's a 20th-century technology that's been refined in the 21st century. It's very useful, and it represents a high level of achievement, but it is now outdated. The Internet and computers have changed things. With the Internet, we can gather rich, detailed data about what the economy is doing at the level of individuals. We don't have to rely on surveys; we can just grab the data. Furthermore, with modern computer technology we could simulate what 300 million agents are doing, simulate the economy at the level of the individuals. We can simulate what every company is doing and what every bank is doing in the United States. The model we could build could be much, much better than what we have now. This is an achievable goal.

But we're not doing that, nothing close to that. We could achieve what I just said with a technological system that’s simpler than Google search. But we’re not doing that. We need to do it. We need to start creating a new technology for economic prediction that runs side-by-side with the old one, that makes its predictions in a very different way. This could give us a lot more guidance about where we're going and help keep the economic shit from hitting the fan as often as it does.

J. DOYNE FARMER is director of the Complexity Economics programme at the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School, professor in the Mathematical Institute at the University of Oxford, and an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute. He was a co-founder of Prediction Company, a quantitative automated trading firm that was sold to the United Bank of Switzerland in 2006. J. Doyne Farmer's Edge Bio Page