In legend, Newton watched the apple fall from the tree but he actually saw something quite different: an invisible force powerful enough to draw the apple to it. Had he been a Silicon Valley engineer or an economist, it’s likely he would have been captivated by the falling object — “Wow, look at this cool apple!” He might have written a treatise on the aerodynamic properties of dense spheres, developed an algorithm to simulate its motion, or calculated the efficiency of its earthbound path. Instead he endured accusations of medievalism and sophistry to assert the theory of universal gravitation, identifying an unseen force intrinsic to every material body and able to exert its power over hundreds of millions of miles with no detectable mechanisms or means of transmission. To consider the electronic condition, it helps to think like Newton— especially when it comes to the economy and our prospects for the future. Like gravity, hidden forces pull digital technologies and determine how they “fall” into our economies and our jobs. We have to detect and name these forces , if we want to challenge an shape them.
A sense of doom and helplessness has planted itself in our public conversation. We watch like deer caught in the headlights, as economists, technology mavens, and CEO’s enthuse deliriously over the new digital capabilities. They say the machines will be able to perform nearly all our jobs, and that the implacable laws of the market favor replacing people with ever-cheaper digital power in the form of robots and algorithms. In this telling, humans are pitted against the machines in a deadly race. Some of these folks even seem puzzled about what kind of contribution humans can even make to this robotized future. They are so saturated in the machine world, that they can’t recall what humans do or why.
Losers of the new economy
Earlier this month, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page participated in a rare public “chat” with fellow billionaire and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. Page, explaining Google’s investments in machine learning and robots, anticipates a world in which machines do nearly all the work. With nothing left to do, he suggests that people will be happy to “have more time with their family or to pursue their own interests.” Page’s utopia omits a critical element: most of us are not billionaires. Will the owners of capital really redistribute their profits so that we can all take a permanent vacation from jobs that, in Page’s opinion, are mostly unnecessary anyway? If Page were to abandon his bubble for a day, he might be interested to discover that for the rest of us unemployment does not mean leisure; it means struggle, insecurity, and ever increasing social inequality. Not even those at the very top of the occupational heap are safe from this new anxiety. As Bill Gates recently put it, “20 years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower.”