Basic Industrial Resources Of The USSR. By Theodore Shabad. New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1969. xiv, 393 pp. $20.00
Demitri B. Shimkin
Slavic Review: Interdisciplinary Quarterly of Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies
Tower of Babel. They employ a bewildering variety of economic languages, codes, and classifications, and (as the authors of Ekonomicheskaia semiotika are quick to point out) the meaning of a term or a message may differ widely depending on which agency uses it. The resulting semantic noise causes economic waste, but its source is a problem in semiotics, the theory of systems of signs which has been known since John Locke. It was left to Soviet mathematical economists, during the last five
... to outline the new and exciting discipline, or rather interdisciplinary approach, of economic semiotics: the study of signs through which participants in the economic process, both humans and computers, communicate. This new approach to an old problem combines the tools and concepts of such diverse fields as economics, cybernetics, mathematical linguistics, and, of course, information theory. Economic semiotics is concerned not merely with the amount of information carried by a message in a planned economy but, mainly, with its meaningfulness and usefulness to the recipient. The actual usefulness of a message to the decisionmaker depends, among other things, on the amount of related knowledge he has already accumulated in his specialized vocabulary ("a thesaurus"), and on its timeliness (information is a highly perishable commodity!), its importance (how necessary it is for decisions to be taken by the recipient), its reliability, and, last but not least, its cost. V. M. Zherebin would then appraise the value of information contained in an economic indicator (e.g., a factory's rate of profits) as a weighted sum of these various characteristics (p. 62). M. V. Kharkhardin would measure it according to how much it contributes to the attainment of the economic system's objective function (p. 133). Most authors have a Gestalt view of information-it makes sense only within the context of a given economic system: "the concept of information is inseparable from that of a system" (p. 14). System analysis leads semiotics into its most vital tasks-the construction of the most efficient economic languages and the optimal systems of classifying, encoding, and decoding economic indicators. Shastova, for example, has an interesting discussion of the relative advantages of constructing a uniform system of industrial classification versus a number of subsystems, each industry branch being equipped with a language of its own and communicating with other branches via translators (pp. 166 ff.). "The ability of a system to 'understand' and generate information, to appraise its importance and usefulness for the purpose of achieving certain objectives . . . is analogous to the functioning of simple and conditioned reflexes in a living organism" (p. 133). The development of economic semiotics itself is a healthy reflex to the current difficulties of central planning. While moving on a high level of generality and abstraction, Soviet scholars may eventually make possible a real breakthrough in the practice of economic planning and management, by revolutionizing the system of information flows and acquiring a deeper understanding of the costs and benefits involved.