In my four decades of working life, I have rolled through each successive wave of new technologies. I get irritated when I must adapt again, but I do not fear technology. However, I do fear and resent rising inequality.
This is why Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies is a useful analysis of what we can anticipate from automation and information and communication technologies (ICT). Will this Second Machine Age be simply disruptive, requiring good and necessary changes as the Industrial Revolution did, or will these technologies destroy more businesses and workers than are created? If you haven’t read this book, you can get the gist from this excellent overview Bryan Alexander prepared to drive an Association of Professional Futurists online discussion.
Brynjolfsson and McAfee are bullish on Moore’s Law and project positive results from technological progress or what they call bounty. We get bounty when we use ICT to access an increasing number of ideas, services and capabilities to combine into new innovations—what they term recombinant innovation. Their advice is to learn to race with the machines. Once IBM’s Watson is successfully programmed to do a fast and accurate medical diagnosis, doctors will work alongside this machine to deliver better care.
However, the authors also delve into socioeconomic division and inequality or what they call spread. Economic productivity and median income moved upward in sync until the 1970s when they became decoupled. Today people who have capital, those we popularly label the One Percenters, are doing great. Many others are losing their livelihood with few good prospects for employment. Brynjolfsson and McAfee try to reassure us that some low skilled jobs may not be destroyed because programming robots to do them is still a tough technological challenge--jobs like making a burrito or providing home healthcare.
While I do not know if the Second Machine Age is an apt description for our times, I am certain we are in a messy period of discovering how all this will work. All economic systems have winners and losers, but we have to question who has power and privilege in them and why. When great forces of change like those described in the Second Machine Age disrupt our world, we should not blame the victims for not getting with the new program fast enough. Automation and ICT might eventually create more jobs than they destroy and move us out of this nearly jobless recovery into a new period of job creation.
It is not our technologies we have to fear; it is our failure to examine and manage their unintended consequences. Inequality is not a necessary consequence of this change. We should fight it if we care about the future of our democracy and a secure and just society.