Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Out of Ideas

With the world in the grip of an unprecedented economic crisis, a barrage of hype from right-leaning media commentariat, and sales of Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" surging in the early part of this year (though it has subsequently dropped out of the Amazon Top 100), one would have thought this would have been the ideal time for the Ayn Rand Institute to undertake some striking new initiative to capture the commanding heights of the public discourse.

Not content with their Atlas Shrugged Pledge on Facebook (only 1762 takers since May, with even Yaron Brook producing a not very impressive 45 out of 68 pledges himself) the ARI is now attempting to raise $2,000,000 with the amazingly original aim of..yes, you guessed it...promoting "Atlas Shrugged".

Yes, it seems that half a century after its publication, it's telling that the only trump card the ARI feel they have remains Atlas Shrugged. Even when its selling in record numbers, the Big Idea for Promoting Objectivism always comes back to...more Atlas Shrugged. And if that doesn't work, throw more, more Atlas Shrugged at the problem.

Someone at ARI HQ needs to do the math. As we at the ARCHNblog have already pointed out, Atlas has already been read by some 18,000,000 people in the USA over the last 50 years, far more than any other allegedly philosophical work (unless you count the Bible). Yet it's produced only a tiny trickle of Objectivists to date - probably less than 100,000. And even that small amount is famous for its inability to agree on much at all. In fact the ARI's Never Ending Atlas Shrugged Initiative is feeling more and more like one of those Big Government projects that is hopelessly ineffective yet continues on for year after year because of the political commitments of the players involved. If the ARI was a commercial business, with a conversion rate of just 0.5% one suspects the Atlas promotion would probably have been cancelled long ago.

The question is why, if Atlas is such an ineffective conversion tool, the ARI stick to trying to flog it as their primary strategy. One can only suspect that far from being all about ideas, it's because they're all out of them.

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

The Atlas Shrugged Pledge on Facebook is not an ARI project. What's your evidence for thinking it is. I know the person who put it together, and he did it on his own initiative. That many sign-ups from one person's effort isn't too shabby.

Even if reading Atlas has a small conversion rate, getting more people to read it will still produce more Objectivists.

It's not too surprising that there is a small conversion rate. Most people don't easily reject the predominant ideas of Western civilization. That's if they even understand the book, which most don't. Many of the authors of this blog don't understand the book.

Daniel Barnes said...

Anon:
>The Atlas Shrugged Pledge on Facebook is not an ARI project. What's your evidence for thinking it is.

Diana Hsieh, Yaron Brook etc don't often sign up for non-ARI endorsed Objectivism projects. Whose project is it then?

>Many of the authors of this blog don't understand the book.

What's your evidence for this? I would predict we get Objectivism better than you do, for example.

Cavewight said...

Anon wrote: It's not too surprising that there is a small conversion rate. Most people don't easily reject the predominant ideas of Western civilization.

People aren't rejecting Objectivism on that basis, they are rejecting it because it flies in the face of their most basic instincts. Rand had her own instincts. Everybody can't be right but everybody, including Rand, believes they are right based on their instincts.

Neil Parille said...

Dan,

I did a comparison a while ago between the sales rank at Amazon.com for Atlas Shrugged and Rand's other books such ITOE (by definition the most important book ever written on philosophy because it solved the most important philosophical problem) and it didn't appear that there was any "network effect."

In other words, just because you find a novel about independent, hard working people getting fed up with big government inspirational, it doesn't mean that it transfers into agreement with Objectivism qua Objectivism.

Ulf Åkesson said...

Greg and Daniel:

This is a little OT. I've never commented on this blog before. I just read the articles+discussions. I've read your book Greg (ARCHN), and I think it's very well written. :)

Anyway, I'm wondering about one thing and that is Ayn Rands views about intellectual property. If I remember correctly she thought that people owned their ideas (because they created them) and therefore the state should uphold intellectual property laws. However, is it correct that she believed that intellectual property should only be upheld by law as long as the creator of the property was alive? When the creator died anyone could use their intellectual creations? Is that a correct interpretation of her view?

Anonymous said...

Before reading the post I thought *you* were out of ideas. What a relief :-)

gregnyquist said...

Ulf Åkesson: "... is it correct that [Rand] believed that intellectual property should only be upheld by law as long as the creator of the property was alive?"

Rand believed that copyright should hold good until 50 years after the creator's death. As far as whether people "owned" their ideas, she seems to have made a distinction between theoretical knowledge and the practical application of that knowledge. Only the practical application, she claimed, deserved the protection of copyright.

Mistaken notions on Rand's views on copyright may have been instigated by her curious belief that individuals who wrote about her ideas were guilty of infringing on her rights. She apparently considered using legal action to stop the publication of the anthology The Philosophical Thought of Ayn Rand. Whether such an action would be consistent with her earlier views on copyright is difficult to say, given the vagueness of those views.

Anon69 said...

I find it curious that the ARI's being out of ideas would be considered noteworthy. By definition, orthodox Objectivism consists of only the philosophic ideas and convictions of Ayn Rand. Literally, there hasn't been an original Objectivist idea since 1982 (at the very latest). Broadly speaking, the movement has been "out of ideas" for at least 27 years. The point: originality is not the ARI's stock in trade, so their reliance on promoting Rand's magnum opus is hardly surprising. It's rather like noting that the church is out of ideas because it keeps relying on the Bible instead of undertaking some striking new initiative.

Daniel Barnes said...

Anon:
>Before reading the post I thought *you* were out of ideas. What a relief :-)

No fear there Anon...;-)

Ulf Åkesson said...

Greg:

Thanks for the explanation. :)

Wells said...

Anon69

The problem with the Ayn Rand Institute being out of ideas is that that Ayn Rand Institute is supposed to be the Vanguard and Leader of an Intellectual Revolution propagated by The New Intellectuals against the philosophical doctrines of the current day.
The Ayn Rand Institute (which is supposed to be a source of ideas) to be out of ideas is very much like a bank (which is supposed to be a source of money) being out of money.
When a bank is out of money, the term for that is Bankruptcy. What is it when intellectuals are out of ideas?

Anon69 said...

Wells: "... an Intellectual Revolution propagated by The New Intellectuals against the philosophical doctrines of the current day."

Smells like a first-run copy of Atlas Shrugged.

Anonymous said...

I reject your claim that it has produced only 100,000 Objectivists and assert instead that it has produced 5,000,000.

Now that we have both provided equal substantiation for our claims, should we take the average, and call it around 2.5M?

caroljane said...

And poor Eddie Willers looks like Alfred E. Newman.

Rand's hero names are strong all right- strongly ugly. "Dagny" sounds like a grunt. And if you see words as colours (is there a name for that cognitive thing?) then Dagny is a yucky brown and Hank is a dirty pink. Dag, Rag Tag,
ugh.

I'm sure I would've liked AS a little more if Dagny had been called Dominique

Anonymous said...

And if you see words as colours (is there a name for that cognitive thing?)

Yes, I believe it is synaesthesia.

caroljane said...

Thanks Anon, I wonder how common it is. I used to think everybody had it.

Btw this comment is displaced from where I originally posted (on Soon to be denounced..). I was notaphilosopher but could not use that Google account after 3 or 4 times, and no way could I figure out why, so had to create a new one. I thought maybe I was banned from here for some reason.

Xtra Laj said...

There was some interesting research by Ramachandran into the phenomenon and he has a book on some of his neurological experiments ("Phantoms in the Brain", I believe).

Just the kind of stuff I wish more Objectivists read.

caroljane said...

I looked up Ramachandran and synaesthesiology and it was so interesting! Found out that I also have another kind (there are dozens) where I see years, seasons, eras, months etc in set ways.

one more q, I've sometimes read, "Do you dream in colour?" which puzzles me, I thought it was some kind of joke I didn't get. Does anyone ever actually dream in black and white?

Daniel Barnes said...

HI caroljane

We certainly didn't ban you, so obviously some weird Google thing...;-)

Xtra Laj said...

carolJane,

Just another example of the limits of rationalism. We all tend to assume that others are like us or sometimes, *should* be like us. Probably an inbuilt assumption to enable interaction and communication. But had I not been referred to Ramachandran's work, I would never have understood that people have ways of seeing the world that I can't experience because I don't have their abilities.

But do Objectivists appreciate how damning this kind of thing is to their approach to human nature?

caroljane said...

No, I doubt that they do, our perception of reality is primarily sensory and these experiences can't be marshalled neatly into Rand's system.

I never understood her weird views on music for example; I assumed she just had a tin ear, her taste was so limited and arbitrary, plus she was really judging the supposed views of the composers and not their actual works.

Anthony Burgess put it best; I forget his exact quote but it was to the effect that music is morally neutral. Hearing great music is a mental rapture like the physical rapture of sex; straight connection between the body and brain, no conscious intellect required. But to Rand apparently no experience could be disconnected from the conscious intellect.

Xtra Laj said...

No, I doubt that they do, our perception of reality is primarily sensory and these experiences can't be marshalled neatly into Rand's system.


I agree, though I would put it differently: Objectivism tries too hard to separate the sensory aspects of perception from the perceptual parts in order to argue that everyone senses the same thing, but integrates it differently to arrive at correct and incorrect conclusions. I think the truth is more that the whole system is an information processing system with strict delimitations between sensation and integration being arrived at more by reflection on wrong judgments and less by the fact that there is a real segregation of the systems. Dennett actually argues, for example, that beer doesn't taste the same way the first time you taste it and later when you learn to enjoy it.

Anthony Burgess put it best; I forget his exact quote but it was to the effect that music is morally neutral. Hearing great music is a mental rapture like the physical rapture of sex; straight connection between the body and brain, no conscious intellect required. But to Rand apparently no experience could be disconnected from the conscious intellect.


She came close to admitting this when she argued that music is an example of pure, undiscriminated sensation or something like that in The Romantic Manifesto. Rand was an intelligent person - she just didn't understand how to deal critically with conclusions she strongly held.

Jeffrey Newholm said...

"The Ayn Rand Institute (which is supposed to be a source of ideas) to be out of ideas is very much like a bank (which is supposed to be a source of money) being out of money.
When a bank is out of money, the term for that is Bankruptcy. What is it when intellectuals are out of ideas?"
Absolutely. Objectivists need to stop fawning over Rand and correct Objectivism--to the extent that it can be done, that is--to account for the findings of psychology. Atlas Shrugged was a great book, but times change. The rail industry is kaput (although the people who made the film couldn't bring themselves to modernize the book), environmentalsim is a potent modern movement (almost never mentioned in Atlas, although to be fair Rand talked about it later and Objectivists still deal with it today) and most importantly we learn more about what is man.

The whole closed system thing is stupid. The world has moved on from Rand, but ARI seems to be frozen in time, sadly.

Herb said...

Statistically speaking, I think 0.05 % maybe about normal for a direct mail list _response rate_ (per mailing), which may be a reasonable comparison for the 'conversion rate' mentioned. Each mass market paperback copy of _Atlas Shrugged_ contains an Ayn Rand Institute mail-in response card, doesn't it?

stuart said...

Yes, that sounds about right. I wonder if there has ever been any other novel whose distribution has been so steadily subsidised over such a long period of time, landed on schools in truckloads.
Meanwhile the "open Objectivists" are betting the farm on the movie version of guess what - that same novel. Will the 0.05% be the same for them?
-caroljane

stuart said...

Further to this,imagine if a Margaret Mitchell Institute had been pursuing the same strategy with GWTW for lo these many years. The internet would be abuzz with such topics as "What is the political significance of Aunt Pittypat Hamilton's fainting spells" and "Would Scarlett have married Pork if he had had $300?" And of course, endless debate about the "rape scene."

Robert Lee Beauregard would be president, and the US would be on the brink of secession again.

caroljane