Race Against the Machine

Race Against the Machine (2011) by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee is another Kindle short that takes on the themes raised by The Great Stagnation and presents the authors views on how technology is changing work and employment.
Brynjolfsson and McAfee are both professors at MIT that study how IT is affecting business and their answer to the issues raised in The Great Stagnation are, unsurprisingly largely about their area of expertise in how computers are affecting business.
The two are well aware of the changing in society that technology has already brought, namely the dramatic drop in farming employment from 95% of the workforce in 1750 to about 2% in 2000 and the drop in manufacturing employment. They are also aware of the way that demand can limit growth and use the excellent quotation about one of the Ford’s showing a union rep and asking the union rep how he was going to get the robots to join the union and the union rep replying how Ford was going to get the robots to buy a car.
The book suggests that some light intellectual work will be lessened in value as computers continue to replace clerking work and more basic intellectual work while services that computers cannot do, such as gardening and high-end intellectual work will continue and in the case of high-end intellectual work the value will increase.
Their suggestion is that people need to work out how to harness computers so that people and computers work together as a team is highly sensible and is in fact what is happening. They don’t really have an answer for how to reduce current levels of US unemployment but then again no one really does. Somewhat disappointingly they don’t look at how other countries have handled the great recession. They are also aware that in 2007 when technological conditions were little different employment was far higher.
The book also suggests that fixing the US patent system, improving education by paying teachers more and making them more flexible, increasing school hours, improving entrepreneurship, improving US communications links and increasing the numbers of educated foreigners allowed into the US. These are all fairly common suggestions. The book doesn’t look at why some of the steps may have little impact. Little is said of how the US already leads in exploiting technology in computing and other areas even though US schooling is not great. Still, the book isn’t a bad read. The two are experts in their field and write well.

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