Book Review: Race Against The Machine

Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy
by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

For over a century it has been standard orthodoxy in economics that automation would eliminate certain jobs or even whole industries but would create new jobs and new industries to soak up the freed labor with excess to spare. It is the mission of the two authors in Race Against The Machine to disillusion the reader of this belief, as the new age of machine intelligence enabled by the exponentially increasing power of computers is encroaching on jobs that were previously imagined to be unassailable.

This is the kind of things I read about all the time on my own, so I had already heard of the second half of the chessboard thought experiment and how mobile phones have greatly improved the market conditions (lowering prices while increasing profits) for sardines in Kerala, India. The recommendations in the latter part of the book on how to ameliorate the situation also aren’t particularly shocking or innovative (invest in education and infrastructure, remove barriers to starting new companies, etc).

For me, somebody who reads a lot of tech and economics news, there wasn’t much I hadn’t seen before in this book, though somebody who’s not too familiar with these fields would probably find a lot of interesting ideas and case studies. What I would recommend is watching the videos that this book spawned, including a TED Talk by each of the authors, as the presentation and graphics eclipse what the book is able to accomplish.

As for the issues raised themselves… I don’t know what the answer is to mass technological unemployment (nor have I heard any really good solutions, from teaching everybody to program to replacing capitalism with something else). Brynjolfsson and McAfee themselves are ultimately optimistic as is expressed in the videos below (I really recommend the videos if not the book itself, as you can get pretty much all the meat therein and have more fun doing it), though it feels like we’ll need to go through a fairly wrenching period before we get to that still more glorious dawn.

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