Arts & Entertainment
Book Review - Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee
This brief but important volume was originally an e-book and then made its way to paper and print. Authors Brynjolfsson and McAfee are knowledgeable technophiles from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They have an urgent message: We are on the verge of evermore complex and astounding technological developments. And the rate of change is getting faster. Tasks once the domain of human labor will increasingly become the domain of refined machines.
Many human beings may be unable to keep pace with accelerating technical innovations. For these people, finding viable employment in the rapidly evolving technosphere will be difficult if not impossible. “Many workers, in short, are losing the race against the machine.”
You may have heard variations of the following tale: A peasant has performed something that pleases the king. To reward his subject the king asks the peasant to state what he would most desire. The peasant says that he would like a quantity of rice to be determined by placing one grain of rice on the first square of a chess board.
That is to be followed by two grains on the second square, four grains on the third square, and so on until the final square. The king is amused by the seemingly modest request and agrees. Of course, it soon becomes obvious that there is not enough rice in all the kingdom to finish the exercise.
Brynjolfsson and McAfee maintain that in terms of computer and related technological innovation, our society is about to enter the second half of the chess board. Already there are signs that “technological unemployment” is contributing to the plight of many who remain jobless after the supposed end of the Great Recession. The authors aver that economic cyclicality and stagnation are not adequate to explain the situation. It is the enormity of recent technological progress that is a significant factor.
The authors cite Jeremy Rifkin’s 1995 book “The End of Work.” Rifkin predicted: “In the years ahead, the more sophisticated software technologies are going to bring civilization closer to a near-workerless world.” Rifkin stated that the travail of millions of unemployed workers will likely “be the single most pressing social issue of the coming century.” Many economists are still not fully tuned in to this concern. Yet as early as 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes warned of a “new disease” in which rapid technological change would outrun the economy’s capacity to find “new uses” for displaced labor.
Brynjolfsson and McAfee are not indifferent to disparities pervading American society, how “the top 1% of U.S. households got 65% of all the growth in the economy since 2002.” They are aware that widespread unemployment and economic distress can threaten “the social contract of the economy and even the social fabric of society.” Rather than provide a blueprint to redistribute wealth among idle citizens, the authors argue for a system that will allow workers to race “with” evolving technologies and provide opportunities for education and employment since there is “the psychological value that almost all people place on doing something useful.”
Access to decent health care is a necessity. Interestingly they endorse Denmark’s health care system, a socialized program accessible to all citizens.
Infrastructure improvements are needed, and many workers could be employed in such a massive project. Their proposed action agenda covers 19 points, which in addition to education and health care touch upon entrepreneurship, funding for basic research and other topics.
The authors say that their purpose is to initiate a conversation about technology. They perceive vertiginous technological change as inevitable and are unapologetic in their zeal for the technological fruits of scientific pursuit. Though they readily admit potential perils they “are confident that most of these changes will be beneficial ones, and that we and our world will prosper on the digital frontier.”
In a more humane political context, no technical innovation would come about simply because it accorded power or profits. More profound questions would have to be addressed: Would people lose their jobs? Would the environment suffer?
In 2000, Bill Joy, a founder of Sun Microsystems, had become so alarmed at the pace of technological evolution in robotics, genetics and nanotechnology that he penned a controversial essay with the unsettling title “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.” He proposed a halt to all cutting-edge efforts in these areas of research and development in order to review and better understand their implications. Joy called this proposed moratorium “Relinquishment” and hoped it would “limit development of the technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge.” Joy’s call has been ignored.
More recently, at Cambridge University, the Center for the Study of Existential Risk has been inaugurated. The center will attempt to analyze potential hazards lurking in high-tech fields.
The fact that something can be done does not mean that it should be done. Inherent within the myth of Frankenstein’s monster is the perennial warning that brilliant people and their impressive inventions can generate awe and benefaction as well as danger and disruption.
The wonders spawned by technology should not make us oblivious to the darker possibilities of the digital revolution.
Despite their admission of difficulties in store for many of us, Brynjolsson and McAfee remain ultimately mesmerized participants in a most uncertain race.
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