When it comes to the role the technological revolution has played in job growth, or the lack thereof, there’s good news and bad news.
Co-authors and MIT professors Andrew McAfee and Eric Brynjolfsson have written a book on technology’s role in job loss and the growth in income disparity, called “Race against the Machine.” The two attended the Techonomy conference Tuesday where they were interviewed by TechCrunch’s Andrew Keen.
First, the bad news: If you haven’t guessed it already, the technology revolution is contributing to the rapidly growing income disparity between the haves and the have-nots. So, if you’re a member of the Occupy Wall Street crowd, you may have good reason to shake your fist at your Facebook page, iPad or GMail account, all of which were created by people well ensconced among the very top of the 1 percent of high-income earners. (Full disclosure: The Washington Post Co.’s chairman and chief executive, Donald E. Graham, is a member of Facebook’s board of directors.)
“The more we looked at the employment data and the workforce data over the past several years in America, the more we realized this is an area where technology may be having a negative impact,” Brynjolfsson said.
That’s not to say technology hasn’t made life better in a variety of ways, allowing some to achieve wild success. And besides, said Brynjolfsson, “there’s no economic law that says everyone has got to gain evenly.” In fact, the bottom 50 percent have stagnated as a result of the technological revolution, he said, if they have not been made worse off. But that doesn’t mean they have to be happy about it, as the recent protests in New York, California and around the world have made clear.
“So technology has been destroying jobs for a couple hundred years,” McAfee said, “at the same time, though, it has been creating jobs for a couple hundred years as well.” McAfee cited the creation of groundbreaking technologies from the loom to automated assembly-line production.
“There appears to be a particularly sharp instance of technology diffusion leading to large-scale job loss,” said McAfee, “We wanted to focus attention on the possible ways to accelerate job creation via technology. Because there does seem to be an imbalance right now.”
Information processing tasks — roughly 60 percent of the workforce — are being affected the most negatively. But they are quickly followed by the other 40 percent, namely manufacturing jobs.
“The median American worker is a knowledge worker who does not have a college education,” said McAfee, going on to say they are “the most under threat by technology” today. A robotics revolution could replace highly technical workers, and doctors are not off the hook either, with digital technology showing some promise in diagnostics as well.
“We want to not lose sight of the fact that ultimately more wealth is being created now than ever before,” said Brynjolfsson, “the problem that we need to work on is finding ways to get more people to participate in that.”
The solution is, in large part, education.
“Education is absolutely a key to this crisis,” McAfee said, adding that the country needs to find ways to upscale older workers’ skills, and focus less on “teaching to the test” and focus more on challenge- and problem-based learning.
“We don’t see technology as being the core problem,” said Brynjolfsson. Companies’ inability to keep up was the core problem, he said. “We do not have a society or a workforce that hates technology,” said McAfee, “thank heaven for that.”
“Technology is actually part of the solution to our problems,” said Brynjolfsson, citing developments like Khan Academy and other innovations that have helped allow for greater growth and employment within the economy.
Asked to give a couple of reasons to be cheerful, both had good news and, yes, more bad news.
Bad news first: “This is a terrible time to be a worker with no special skills who potentially could see their tasks automated, “ said Brynjolfsson. The good news? “There’s been no better time to be a talented entrepreneur or somebody who’s got a passion that they’ve wanted to have leveraged with technology.”
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