Leo Marx Career Development Assistant Professor of Science, Technology, and Society (STS)
William Deringer is an Assistant Professor of Science, Technology, and Society. His research focuses on economic and political knowledge and the practices through which they are made, especially calculations. His research ranges from the early-modern period to the present, and his particular interests include the history of the social sciences, historical and social studies of finance, and the history and sociology of quantification.
Deringer’s first book, Calculated Values: Finance, Politics, and the Quantitative Age, 1688-1776 (under contract with Harvard University Press), is a history of how numbers became an authoritative medium of knowledge. Focusing on Great Britain, Calculated Values argues that a pervasive, public reverence for “facts and figures” first emerged in the half-century following the Revolution of 1688, through political debates about public finance. Examining the numerical controversies that frequently arose in British politics, including during prominent events like the Union of England and Scotland in 1707 and the 1720 South Sea Bubble, Calculated Values offers a new explanation for how numbers became so esteemed in public life: their use in antagonistic argumentation. While in the 21st century, we are likely to assume that numbers get deployed in political arguments because numbers are seen to be an especially “objective” form of knowledge, in the 18th century this process worked in the other direction. Eighteenth-century Britons came to believe that numbers were a special form of knowledge because of how they were deployed in political arguments. Paradoxically, a common belief in the honesty and disinterestedness of numbers grew out of a political culture in which partisan calculators used numbers to do cynical and highly interested things.
For his second book, Deringer plans to look at the very long history of a single computational problem: present value, the problem of determining what future property out to be worth today. (How much would you pay today in exchange for $100 a year from now? Ten years? One hundred years?) Over the past three centuries, one preeminent technique for solving that problem, exponential discounting, has become perhaps the single most important calculation in modern economic life. Based in the logic of compound interest, it is also a calculation that encodes a powerful and sometimes disconcerting view of the future, with peculiar implications for how we think about economic value, public welfare, intergenerational ethics, and rationality. It is a calculation that has only gained more significance, and scrutiny, amid contemporary debates about the present costs of climate change. That project, tentatively titled Discounting: A History of the Modern Future in One Calculation, looks to follow the history of exponential discounting as it developed across four centuries and migrated between many different intellectual and practical domains, including not only finance and economics but also mathematics, civil engineering, public policy, psychology, philosophy, and environmental science.
Deringer’s other recent research interests include the history of eighteenth-century political economy, the history and epistemology of financial bubbles, and the history of computational technologies, notably computer spreadsheets, in 20th-century finance.
Deringer received his A.B. summa cum laude in History from Harvard University (2006) and his M.A. (2009) and Ph.D. (2012) in History of Science from Princeton University. Before graduate school, he was an investment banking analyst at the Blackstone Group in New York. At Princeton, he was awarded the Porter Ogden Jacobus Fellowship, Princeton’s highest honor for graduate students. From 2012 -’15, he was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at Columbia University, before joining the MIT faculty in 2015.
RECENT PUBLICATIONS / ARTICLES
Calculated Values: Finance, Politics, and the Quantitative Age (under contract with Harvard University Press; publication planned for late 2017).
Science and Capitalism: Entangled Histories, co-editor with Lukas Rieppel and Eugenia Lean, for the 2018 issue of Osiris, the annual thematic journal of the History of Science Society.
“It Was Their Business to Know’: British Merchants and Mercantile Epistemology in the Eighteenth Century,” revised and resubmitted to History of Political Economy.
“Pricing the Future in the Seventeenth Century: Calculating Technologies in Competition,” Forum on “Paper Technologies of Capitalism,” ed. Seth Rockman, Technology & Culture (forthcoming, Spring 2017).
“For What It’s Worth: Historical Financial Bubbles and the Boundaries of Economic Rationality,” Focus Section on “Bounded Rationality and the History of Science,” Isis 106, no. 3 (Sep., 2015): 646-56.
“Finding the Money: Public Accounting, Political Arithmetic, and Probability in the 1690s,” The Journal of British Studies 52, no. 3 (Jul., 2013): 638-668.