Thoughts on “Race Against the Machine”

Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy” is the brainchild of Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. Please note that I have not read this book, and that this article references their recent talks at TEDxBoston, TED and  McKinsey & Company.

Also, make sure to scroll to the end of this article to watch macroeconomist Robert Gordon‘s take on technology, as well as to read a short passage from Warren Weaver, published in 1948, that succinctly captures my thoughts.

Brynjolfsson’s interview with McKinsey & Company is accessible here: “Charting technology’s new directions: A conversation with MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson.”

In their talks, McAfee and Brynjolfsson highlight the impact of accelerated technological progress on the labor force. As Brynjolfsson delicately summarized it in the “Productivity Paradox” (McKinsey & Company interview), we are in a new era where technology, with increased productivity, is no longer a guaranteed ticket to job creation.

“We ain’t seen nothing yet when it comes to technology’s impact on the labor force.” — McAfee

However, as techno-enthusiasts, both believe that digital technologies will take us to a utopian future. Technologies, as an extension of human muscle and brain power, will free us to do more important things: reducing poverty, drudgery and misery around the world, while living more lightly on the planet.

“Technology is a gift of God. After the gift of life it is perhaps the greatest of God’s gifts. It is the mother of civilizations, of arts and of sciences.” — Freeman Dyson

Technology is a gift of God; it allows us to use our creative and collaborative energies, it is empowering as there are no boundaries, it is creation of something out of nothing where anything is possible. And I love the reference to the Star Trek economy — where no man has gone before. But, for a techno-realist, technology by itself is not the answer, as demonstrated by the notable absence of the mythical paperless office.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” — Einstein

For every positive example of technological progress, there are similar stories of technology’s negative impact on society. In order to reduce the negative effects of technological progress, we have to be technology critics shaping and directing it to better align with human values. But, that alone is not enough, as our economic system and cultural values drive what we consider as good, valuable and successful.

The macroeconomist Robert Gordon asks us to question the state of our innovations, and whether they can continue to power the economy as previous inventions did. This is certainly a very different perspective than the idealism of Brynjolfsson and McAfee. To illustrate this, we have a debate between Robert Gordon and Erik Brynjolfsson on what may lay ahead.

On a personal note, while growing up, I remember spending part of my summers visiting my grandparents in a small village in central Turkey. They did not have indoor plumbing [omg!]. Frankly, as a child from the city who had to spend several hours a day to carry water from a nearby spring, and who used a pit toilet instead of the lovely porcelain fixtures we had at home, I would not abandon my current plumbing for a bit of Internet. What are your thoughts regarding our future relationship with technology?

The following passage from Warren Weaver beautifully summarizes my perspective. Though the passage refers to science, technology is its cousin; the side effect of applied science. This articled was originally  published in 1948, in the American Scientist “Science and complexity.”

“Yes, science is a powerful tool, and it has an impressive record. But the humble and wise scientist does not expect or hope that science can do everything. He remembers that science teaches respect for special competence, and he does not believe that every social, economic, or political emergency would be automatically dissolved if “the scientists” were only put into control. He does not — with a few aberrant exceptions — expect science to furnish a code of morals, or a basis for esthetics. He does not expect science to furnish the yardstick for measuring, nor the motor for controlling, man’s love of beauty and truth, his sense of value, or his convictions of faith. There are rich and essential parts of human life which are alogical, which are immaterial and non-quantitative in character, and which cannot be seen under the microscope, weighted with the balance, nor caught by the most sensitive microphone.

If science deals with quantitative problems of purely logical character, if science has no recognition of or concern for value or purpose, how can modern scientific man achieve a balanced good life, in which logic is the companion of beauty, and efficiency is the partner of virtue?

In one sense the answer is very simple: our morals must catch up with our machinery. To state the necessity, however, is not to achieve it. The great gap, which lies so forebodingly between our power and our capacity to use power wisely, can only be bridged by a vast combination of efforts. Knowledge of individual and group behavior must be improved. Communication must be improved between peoples of different languages and cultures, as well as between all the varied interests which use the same language, but often with such dangerously differing connotations. A revolutionary advance must be made in our understanding of economic and political factors. Willingness to sacrifice selfish short-term interests, either personal or national, in order to bring out long-term improvement for all must be developed.

None of these advances can be won unless men understand what science really is; all progress must be accomplished in a world in which modern science is an inescapable, ever-expending influence.”

Weaver, W. (1948) “Science and complexity”

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