Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Race Against the Machine 


Luddites Smashing Looms
In Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee pose a troubling alternative to theories about why the economic recovery is stagnating: many jobs that existed before the recession are now gone.

In the last chapters of the book, the authors note that they had intended to write a book about the benefits of technology and how it is improving our lives. During the initial stages of research for the anticipated book, the writers (both scientists with the MIT Center for Digital Business) examined wealth and employment data to uncover their conclusions about the economy. In brief, they argue that the economic recovery is stalled because employers are using accumulated wealth to invest in technology that mechanizes many jobs that existed before the recession. The authors point out these jobs may be gone for good.

They go on to argue that the global economy is experiencing a shift as significant as the introduction of steam power to the industrial revolution. Steam allowed the mechanization of many kinds of tasks performed by humans and animals, resulting in significant concern about the future of employment (e.g., Ned Ludd smashing mechanized looms).

As in past periods of mechanization, it was difficult to discern where humans would fit into the future. The point of Race Against the Machine is to offer prescriptions and recommendations about how humans can respond to the current shift in use of technology to replace jobs.

Contrary to the appearances given by the title of the book, the authors portray themselves as technological optimists. They start their chapter on prescriptions with a 1922 quote by Havelock Ellis: The greatest task before civilization at present is to make machines what they ought to be, the slaves, instead of the masters of men.

According to the authors, the human losers in the current economy are folks trained to do routine tasks in maintaining information systems, directing users to information, manufacturing, and providing services to humans and other machines (i.e., doing jobs where someone tells them what to do and they do it). Technology is  also making significant in-roads into areas that were considered the domain of highly skilled specialists in the 20th century. Pattern recognition used in medicine, law, and other pursuits is one such example.

Humans maintain an edge over technology in decision making skills and in the affective realm. At this point in their argument, the authors bring in the concept of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) as the right vision for the future. Per the authors, "...softer skills like leadership, team building, and creativity will be increasingly important. They are the areas least likely to be automated and most in demand in a dynamic, entrepreneurial economy."

The authors go on to recommend nineteen steps for "accelerating organizational innovation and human capital creation to keep pace with technology." The steps, which are too long to type in here, are categorized in the domains of education; entrepreneurship; investment; and laws, regulations, and taxes.

I recommend the book, which appears to be available in electronic format from Amazon. I was surprised and delighted to see two management/economic scientists embrace the potential of STEAM.

The question for educators is, what does an analysis like this say about how you prepare students for the future? Do you agree with this analysis? If so, why? If not, why not?

Steven Moore, Ph.D.
CEO, Science Approach

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