News and commentary about the Great Frontiers

ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) --- This view of Earth's horizon as the sunsets over the Pacific Ocean was taken by an Expedition 7 crewmember onboard the International Space Station (ISS). Anvil tops of thunderclouds are also visible. Credit: Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

Image Credit: ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) – Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

Race Against the Machine by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee
(Digital Frontier Press, 2012)

My Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Race Against the Machine is only 5 chapters long, but it provides perhaps the most cogent explanation yet for how technology can lead to both incredible productivity gains and an increasing divide between classes. This short book also includes a chapter devoted to solutions – something missing from most commentary about the impact of emerging technologies on human labor – and another chapter that gives reason for us to hope this will all turn out alright in the end.

The authors have found through their research that technological progress has indeed played a role in incredible productivity gains witnessed in the past few decades, and the process may stretch back over the past two centuries, but this effect has previously masked: new industries replaced old industries, new jobs replaced old jobs, and society for the most part saw quality-of-life improvements across demographics. We were able to adapt. Now, however, technology is accelerating rapidly with tools that no longer replace just physical labor but also thinking, pattern recognition, imagination and other useful capabilities previously  considered human. In some fields, one human worker can now do with technology what it used to take 500 human workers to complete. Elsewhere, humans simply are too expensive and technology is capable enough.

Technology is a force of nature, and the impact it has on humanity is increasingly extreme, including an apparent “end of work”, or at least an end of work for many classes of people. It is one thing to point this out, but quite another to begin to break this process down into understandable mechanisms, and show why this explanation is more likely than  two other views about why we experienced The Great Recession and this current jobless recovery: cyclicality and stagnation. The authors do a better job of this than I have seen in my other reading. I have long wanted a more “science of technology” approach to discussions about technology, and I found some of that in this book.

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