It’s the nature of economic change. The Luddites, as we learned in school, were wrong. Or, to put it more precisely, no one could blame them for fighting the machines that eliminated their skilled textile jobs. But the broader notion – that technological advance could destroy more jobs than it creates or cause widespread economic harm – is a fallacy.
Well, what if the Luddite Fallacy was a fallacy only for the first 250 years of modern capitalism’s existence? What if we’re entering an era of geometrically accelerating technological advance in which artificial intelligence, robotics and nanotechnology will together pose much more profound threats to jobs, wages and social stability than has commonly been imagined? And what if it’s not just the “unskilled” who are at risk, but most of us?
That’s the unsettling scenario sketched by computer engineer and software entrepreneur Martin Ford in his cautionary book, “The Lights in The Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology, and The Economy of the Future.” It’s the most provocative 2009 book you’ll read in 2013.
“Tunnel” had been on my list (well, on my Kindle) for ages, but I finally got to it over the holidays – doesn’t everyone like a little dystopia with their egg nog? And be warned: You need to press past Ford’s offputting “tunnel” metaphor to get to the guts of his unconventional analysis.
But if (like me) you’re fascinated by futurist Ray Kurzweil’s arguments that accelerating technology makes this unfolding era truly different, Ford’s logic, and fears, will haunt you — and seem impossible to rule out. Is mass replacement of human work without the simultaneous creation of enough decently paid new work going to happen? If so, is the troubling inflection point 75 years away? Or two or three decades? If it’s the latter, what should we be doing about it?
“The central thesis of this book,” Ford writes, “is that, as technology accelerates, machine automation may ultimately penetrate the economy to the extent that wages no longer provide the bulk of consumers with adequate discretionary income and confidence in the future. If this issue is not addressed, the result will be a downward economic spiral.”
In essence, Ford is hypothesizing that Marx may just turn out to have been a little ahead of his time when he talked about capitalism’s “contradictions.” Eventually capital will concentrate in fewer and fewer hands (in tomorrow’s case, the robot owners’), and surging unemployment will combine with sagging wages to undermine the mass markets capitalism requires in order to function.