Reviews of “The Second Machine Age” that inspire me

Andrew McAfee, Hotel Jerome (pic by aspeninstitute-internal)

Andrew McAfee, Hotel Jerome (pic by aspeninstitute-internal)

In an earlier post (May 2014), I reviewed the The Second Machine Age, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. Recently, two other reviews came to my attention that contribute to the conversation about technology and its impacts on society. Both reviewers have unique and interesting points of view, very different from mine, which they back up with their own research. If you read the book, then I highly recommend that you also read these thoughtful reviews. While the coming technological changes are interesting, the more important issue is how to channel the power of technology for everyone’s benefit. Along with the book, these reviews inspire me to engage in the conversation and advocate for policies that make technological progress a force for good.

The first review, “To Replace or Respect: Futurology as if People Mattered,” by Frank Pasquale came to my attention on Twitter:

Pasquale writes that, “the question of distribution of the gains from automation is just as important as the competitions for dominance it accelerates” and “2MA invites readers to consider how societies will decide what type of bounty from automation they want.” This is exactly the point: we can (and must) shape our future world.

He discusses the idea that ownership of data, as opposed to innovative algorithms, is a source of competitive advantage. He says, “it is a commonplace in big data literatures to say that the more data one has, the more valuable any piece of it becomes—something Googlers would agree with, as long as antitrust authorities aren’t within earshot.” He also writes about intellectual property law, bringing up many interesting points.

Pasquale challenges the policy recommendations made by Brynjolfsson and McAfee, and I agree that the policy issues are difficult and need vigorous debate. I think Pasquale does a good job surfacing issues that cast a shadow on technological optimism. There is no question in my mind that we need to confront the issues he identifies head on.

In this review, Pasquale references “Justice for ‘Data Janitors’,” by Lilly Irani. I appreciate the hard questions Irani asks, “Will technology produce new jobs, new industries, and new forms of comparative advantage? Or will technology take away jobs and concentrate wealth among those who own the machines?” I also appreciate her distinction that, “Automation doesn’t replace labor. It displaces it.”

Irani makes the case that underpaid and hidden workers power the magic of many advanced technologies. She writes about how, “Twitter deploys an army of cultural data workers to sort and classify tweets in real time.” Such workers are organized via systems such as Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT), which allow programmers to invoke human workers for “cognitive piecework on demand.” Irani writes that, “As contractors, AMT workers are excluded from the protections of minimum-wage laws.”

Irani makes good points that deserve further discussion as she summarizes the situation this way:

The pleasures and conveniences of human-powered technology will continue to fuel a growing market for technology’s hidden laborers. Employers, driven by profit margins and stock prices, have great incentives to keep these workers off the books and out of sight. Inside the machines, inequality will persist. Unless, that is, we discredit and challenge the industry’s hierarchies of value that grant managers and programmers rock star status and wealth, while confining data workers to a life of underpayment and insecurity.

There is one point in both reviews that I believe requires clarification. Pasquale says of Brynjolfsson and McAfee, “By seriously considering the possibility of a basic income (232), they evince a moral sensibility light years ahead of the “devil-take-the-hindmost” school of cyberlibertarianism.” Irani says, “Despite the shortcomings of their analysis, Brynjolfsson and McAfee propose a weapon that could strengthen the hidden workers of the digital age: a basic income guarantee (BIG).” To be clear, what Brynjolfsson and McAfee said in the book was, “Will we need to revisit the idea of a basic income in decades to come? Maybe, but it’s not our first choice.” Brynjolfsson and McAfee consider BIG, but don’t advocate for it. There was a recent basic income experiment in India that I discussed in this blog, and the embedded video shows Brynjolfsson engaged in a discussion on this topic. I can’t read minds, but I would guess that Brynjolfsson and McAfee, if asked today, would agree that BIG needs more research and should remain on the table as an option for the future. As Irani says, “An income guarantee would allow workers to walk away, or at least starve the algorithms of their data until managers shape up.” In brief, BIG has the potential to level the playing field and empower workers.

Although both authors uncover dark sides of technological progress, the result is an inspiration to shape our future such that technology benefits everyone. Pasquale concludes:

All too often, the automation literature is focused on replacing humans, rather than respecting their hopes, duties, and aspirations. A central task of educators, managers, and business leaders should be finding ways to complement a workforce’s existing skills, rather than sweeping that workforce aside. That does not simply mean creating workers with skill sets that better “plug into” the needs of machines, but also, doing the opposite: creating machines that better enhance and respect the abilities and needs of workers.  That would be a “machine age” welcoming for all, rather than one calibrated to reflect and extend the power of machine owners.

We need more discussion about the impact of technology on society, and we need business leaders who think about more than maximizing profits. In a world where technology produces an unimagined bounty, we need inclusive policies to make sure that everyone benefits.

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