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“Race Against the Machine”: A brief review

October 26, 2011

I referenced yesterday a New York Times article that discussed a new book by two very prominent MIT professors and IT business consultants, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee entitled “Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy”.  I acquired and read the Kindle version of this short work last night and recommend it for two reasons.  First, because it makes a strong case that society is heading into a qualitatively new era in which computers and automation are able to perform an ever greater number of tasks previously done by people.  We’re entering something like a “workerless world” which offers tremendous potential.  And second, because the conclusions they make on how society should respond reveal the essential sickness of our socio-economic system.  Their suggestions unintentionally reveal that capitalism is utterly incompatible with their technological new world.

As a key metaphorical tool, the authors present the ancient story of the inventor of the game of chess who convinces an emperor to pay him a geometric progression of rice in which one grain would be placed on the first square of the board, two on the second, four on the third and so on with each square getting double the previous.  The amounts obviously start small but as the second half of the chessboard is reached, the number of grains become astronomically large.  Technology is advancing at a similar speed, they claim, and there’s strong reason to think we’re now entering the second half of the chessboard.  “As technology continues to advance in the second half of the chessboard, taking on jobs and tasks that used to belong only to human workers, one can imagine a time in the future when more and more jobs are more cheaply done by machines than humans.

A number of currently existing technologies are discussed, including automated language translation, driverless cars, and partnerships for IT based medical diagnoses and law work.  The authors conclude that IT innovations are “transforming manufacturing, distribution, retailing, finance, law, medicine, research, management, marketing, and almost every other economic sector and business function” and that “the median worker is losing the race against the machine”.

I think the authors are correct in concluding we’re entering a new era of vast technological growth and their chessboard analogy is a useful way of thinking about it.  But the perspective that humans are in a race against the machine is very peculiar and only makes sense within the logic of a socio-economic system in which the machines are privately owned.  In any rational world, automation should be welcomed by everyone for its reduction of work.  Such isn’t the case though when people are mere “factors of production” forced into competing against human knowledge itself.  “Do people have any sustainable comparative advantage as we head ever deeper into the second half of the chessboard?”, the authors ask in a typically econometric perspective.  The fate of the horse after the internal combustion engine is presented as a useful example of a biological organism losing its economic purpose: “There was always a wage at which these horses could have remained employed.  But that wage was so low that it did not pay for their feed”.

So instead of welcoming the advent of a near workless utopia capable of driving living standards geometrically upward, the authors present the grim face of endless competition, a world in which “our skills and institutions will have to work harder and harder to keep up lest more and more of the labor force faces technological unemployment”.  They propose a “race with machines strategy”, a valueless and sterile rat race of “constant innovation in which people race with machines.  Human and machine collaborate together in a race to produce more, to capture markets, and to beat other teams of humans and machines”.  They glorify in a Friedmanian contest of the entrepreneur in which the “stagnation of median wages and polarization of job growth is an opportunity for creative entrepreneurs”. .. “There has never been a worse time to be competing with machines, but there has never been a better time to be a talented entrepreneur.”… “As technology makes it possible for more people to start enterprises on a national or even global scale, more people will be in the position to earn superstar compensation”.  They continue on with the standard stale paeans to education – pay teachers more, make them accountable, teach entrepreneurialism, etc, etc.

John Stuart Mill observed in the 19th century that “It is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being”, an essential insight into the nature of capitalism that was expanded much further by Marx and unwittingly supported in this work.  Unless we destroy ourselves, it’s almost certain technology will advance geometrically.  It’s outlandish to suggest ever rising insecurity and competition are the natural outcomes when common sense demands the exact opposite.  Technology gives us a real chance for a far better world.  We need to reject the notion of a race against machines or a race with machines and bring human values into the equation.

From → Wealth & Poverty

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