Technology versus workers, or technology for workers?

Second Machine Age1389195493When will technology throw people out of work, and when can people use technology to improve their careers?  These are questions for this week’s reading from Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s The Second Machine Age (previous posts here).

As before, there are several stories from the past week’s news which bear on this book’s topics.

  • Item: some leading bankers urged automating setting of the LIBOR spread.  This key financial data has been the scene of still more misdeeds by major banks.  Perhaps, as with automated cars, an automated LIBOR would minimize humans’ capacity to cause damage.
  • Item: Bloomberg News surveys the idea of technological unemployment.  Randall references many of the authors cited in Second Machine Age, but not, curiously, Brynjolfsson and McAfee.

Now, in these two chapters Brynjolfsson and McAfee continue to explore their notions of technological bounty and economic spread, then move on to offer policy recommendations.

Chapter 11: Implications of the Bounty and Spread
This chapter begins by summoning up economic inequalities in order to ask key questions:

First, will the bounty overwhelm the spread?  Second, can technology not only increase inequality but also create structural unemployment?  And thirdly… could [globalization] explain recent declines in wages and employment? (165)

SMA gives pro-bounty (a/k/a “strong bounty”) arguments some time.  They find that relatively poor people in the United States (and, presumably, OECD nations) live far better than their recent ancestors, largely due to well-compensated innovators.  But SMA responds by criticizing concomitant lack of economic mobility and possible erosion of democratic institutions.

This chapter answers question #2 by finding that technology is causing structural unemployment as of the 1990s, and that tech’s huge growth patterns (cf chapters 3-4) will just expand that tendency.  “[T]here is no iron law’ that technological progress must always be accompanied by broad job creation.” (181)

Question #3 asks about globalization, which the authors see as a transitional stage on the way to ever-greater automation.  Nations supplying low-cost labor are especially susceptible to seeing jobs supplemented and replaced by machines.  “In the long run, low wages will be no match for Moore’s Law.” (182-185)

Chapter 12: Learning to Race With Machines: Recommendations for Individuals
With this chapter Second Machine Age shifts to its third and final section, concerned with personal and policy recommendations for thriving in the future it describes.  Here Brynjolfsson and McAfee focus on personal success in the face of ever-escalating machine advantages, which entails several observations about institutions.

What do people do better than machines?

  1. “[C]oming up with new ideas or concepts” is something machines fail at (191).   This goes beyond recombinant innovation (cf chapter 5) and is more about intuition or inspiration.
  2. A related human advantage is intuitive analysis, or what SMA calls “large-frame pattern recognition”, based on the example of store managers observing shoppers (193-4).
  3. But those kinds of ideation and analysis don’t function on their own.  Thinkers and innovators will have to take advantage of automation, ultimately working with or around machine.  SMA cites Kevin Kelly: “You’ll be paid in the future based on how well you work with robots.” (193)

“Unfortunately, though, these skills are not emphasized in most educational environments today” (194)  Here is the transition to policy recommendations, as the rest of the chapter argues for changes to schooling.

The first change is an emphasis on learner-oriented education, whereby student follow their curiosity rather than a preset curriculum.  Sugata Mitra makes an appearance with his call for self-organizing learning environments, as does the Montessori school system (from which one of the book’s authors emerged).

A second is to refocus on critical thinking.  Academically Adrift (Arum and Roksa, 2011) is the main source for criticizing colleges and universities’ methods of teaching this skillset.  Brynjolfsson and McAfee make an interesting move here, linking AA‘s conclusions to Mitra and Montessori, calling for education based on the individual, not a learning community (198-9).  The implication is that schools should support the curiosity and will to learn of individual learners, rather than driving groups through preset curricula or trying to shape classes into communities of practice.

Another way of changing schools, more implicit than explicit, is to emphasize preparation for jobs requiring a great deal of physical effort.  “[C]ooks, gardeners, repairmen, carpenters, dentists, and home health aids are not about to be replaced by machines in the short term… [M]any of these [professions] also require the skills of ideation, large-frame pattern recognition, and complex communication.” (202)

Perhaps SMA wants schools (in America, at least) to reconsider vocational classes and tracks.  This echoes my own posts on some likely future jobs (here and here). However, the authors also see those jobs as not paying well, and probably subject to downward compensation pressures in the future.

The next two chapters will address other, broader policy and social recommendations.

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