November 6, 2011

Losing the Race Against the Machine

There's a new ebook out that's attracting attention, in part because its conclusions are so startling, in part because its conclusions come from an unexpected quarter. The title is Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. Its authors, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, are two professors from one of the academic epicenters of tech, MIT.

I haven't read the book, but I have read the three excerpts on The Atlantic magazine's web site (links below). I would definitely recommend them, both because they're clearly written and because they document in a dispassionate way some of most important effects of our ever-increasing social and economic commitments to technology.

(If you do read the excerpts, you might want to do so backwards, starting with the third and ending with the first, because for reasons unknown that's the order in which The Atlantic seems to have edited them. Key points alluded to in the first two excerpts don't get made until the third. The Atlantic also gets the book's title wrong.)

I'll list here a few of the points from Race Against the Machine that jumped out at me, all consistent with arguments I make in my book regarding the nature of technology.

•  The headline of The Atlantic's third excerpt, "Why Workers Are Losing the War Against Machines," is remarkable in that it appears to acknowledge that there is a war between workers and machines. This is not the story we usually get in the current era of technological enthusiasm. Nonetheless that's the essence of Brynjolfsson and McAfee's argument.

  The authors say that economists have argued almost since the days of the original Luddites that workers need not fear technology because in the long run fewer jobs will be lost to machines than will be created by them. This assumption ignores what Brynjolfsson and McAfee call "a dirty little secret": Those new jobs don't necessarily provide a sustainable income. Nor, I would add, do many of them provide decent working conditions.

"There is no economic law," Brynjolfsson and McAfee write, "that says that everyone, or even most people, automatically benefit from technological progress." This is a realization, they add, that regular people seem to understand even when economists do not. Perhaps that's because it's regular people whose jobs are eliminated or degraded thanks to various forms of mechanization.

According to Brynjolfsson and McAfee, losers in the war between workers and machines could ultimately constitute a majority – perhaps more than 90 percent – of the population.

  Lest anyone discount their findings as the ravings of neo-Luddites, it should be noted that Brynjolfsson and McAfee initially set out to write a book affirming traditional economics wisdom by documenting how "the cornucopia of innovation" of the digital era would produce legions of new jobs and fresh waves of economic prosperity. (The title of their book retains traces of that initial thrust.)

According to an interview with the authors in the New York Times, they were surprised when their research led them to the opposite conclusion. "The tone of alarm in their book is a departure for the pair," the Times reports, "whose previous research has focused mainly on the benefits of advancing technology."

  In The Atlantic's second excerpt the authors say that the positive aspects of technological growth include its encouragement of "efforts toward superstardom" and "capital accumulation." When you get to excerpt #3 you see their more fundamental point: that these same two factors contribute to a radical skewing of the social balance between rich and poor.

Exploitation of modern technological systems enables the expansion of "winner-take-all markets," Brynjolfsson and McAfee write, in which economies of scale squeeze out all but the most dominant players. "Aided by digital technologies, entrepreneurs, CEOs, entertainment stars, and financial executives have been able to leverage their talents across global markets and capture reward that would have been unimaginable in earlier times."

•  Brynjolfsson and McAfee also note that exploitation of modern technological systems enables a radical shift in the balance of power between labor and capital. This is hardly news to the millions of corporate workers who for years have been doing steadily more work for stagnant pay, a ratio typically applauded by investment analysts as "increased productivity."

The authors cite studies suggesting that the wages of unskilled workers in the United States have trended downward for over 30 years. Another study they cite suggests that recent spending on equipment and software has soared by 26% while payrolls have remained essentially flat.

A few concluding remarks:

Would-be tech superstars aspiring Mark Zuckerbergs –  are fond of saying that they've come up with the next truly "disruptive" technology, one that will profitably overthrow some segment of the social or economic status quo. Race Against the Machine provides a somewhat broader understanding of what technological "disruption" means for those who don't manage to achieve superstar status.

I mentioned above that conclusions in Race Against the Machine are consistent with arguments made in my book regarding the nature of technology. I was thinking there of one point in particular: that it is in the nature of technology to expand its sphere of influence. As the philosopher of technology Langdon Winner has put it, “If there is a distinctive path that modern technological change has followed it is that technology goes where it has never been. Technological development proceeds steadily from what it has already transformed and used up toward that which is still untouched.”

Brynjolfsson and McAfee address some of the reasons this is so, but there are others. For example: their focus is on the direct replacement of human workers by machines. What they don't discuss, at least in The Atlantic excerpts, is the dehumanization of workers so that they conform more readily to the requirements of the machine. Thus transformation of the human being is an aspect of technology's inexorable drive toward (to use Jacques Ellul's word) "completion."

Given the palsied state of labor power in the United States today, it's difficult to foresee any significant resistance emerging to stop management's moves toward automation, despite warnings such as those issued by Brynjolfsson and McAfee. And of course they are far from the first to warn that workers might not emerge victorious in their "war" with technology.

Among those who preceded them was an earlier professor at MIT, Norbert Wiener (1894-1964). For those who don't recognize the name, Wiener was the inventor of cybernetics and thus a founding father of the automation technologies discussed in Race Against the Machine. He was unusual in that he spent almost as much energy worrying about the technologies he helped unleash as he did unleashing them.

Wiener talked often of the potential impact of smart machines on employment. Automation, he wrote in 1950, represents "the precise economic equivalent of slave labor." Thus workers who compete with machines will have to accept the economic conditions of slave labor. As unpleasant as this might be for the slaves, it admirably serves the needs of the slave owners. "Those who suffer from a power complex," Wiener wrote, "find the mechanization of man a simple way to realize their ambitions."

Wiener warned that our traditional attitudes toward business would have to change if catastrophe is to be avoided. Two attitudes he mentioned specifically were our worship of progress and our belief in what he called the "fifth freedom" – the freedom to exploit. Absent those changes, he said, we can expect levels of unemployment that will make the Great Depression "seem a pleasant joke."

The Wiener quotes here are from his book, The Human Use of Human Beings. The Langdon Winner quote is from The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Era of High Technology. For close-to-the-ground documentation of the sorts of economic disruptions discussed in Race Against the Machine, see Barbara Ehrenreich's, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, and Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the American Meal. Note, too, Kurt Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano, a dystopian fantasy about the end of meaningful employment as the result of automation. It mentions Wiener by name.

Race Against the Machine, excerpts:


©Doug Hill, 2012


  1. Doug:

    Norbert Wiener was my "godfather" and I've done a lot of work on his HUoHB book, which changed his life (as well as others), which I'd be happy to discuss if you'd like.


    1. Thanks Mark...appreciate it. I'm in rewrite mode at the moment so not focused on Norbert, but will be again before too long. A prophetic voice! What sort of work have you done on him?


  2. Excellent. I first studied Wiener and Ellul 40 years ago in a course about technology and the future at Loyola University New Orleans taught by William Kuhns. That future is now upon us - with a vengeance. I also read Race Against the Machine last year, which confirmed its effect on employment and the economy. Your points here are cogently and persuasively presented.

  3. Thank you. I encourage you to read my book for more on both Wiener and Ellul, among many other philosophers and historians whose work is worth considering.