April 2015 Reading

Wow — I only read one book this month. That’s a great indication of how busy I’ve been this month at home.

Very busy.

1. Race Against the Machine

Get Race Against the Machine on Amazon.

Race Against the Machine, by authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, is a book that explores how the increasing power of technology is affecting employment and income in the US. The big question the authors address in this book is: does technology actually help or hurt? Does it employ more people and lead to better wages, or does it do the opposite?

Unlike many of the big technological advances (think steam power and the industrial revolution) the authors contend that computers are increasing in capability so fast that income levels may look better on paper, but they certainly don’t lead to an increase in employment.

To illustrate this point, Brynjolfsson and McAfee use the example of Bill Gates walking into some random bar. Once Gates arrives, the ‘average’ income among the crowd in the bar suddenly goes up. So, when looking at income averages among a large group of people, when the income averages rise, the change may sometimes be the result of a small part of that group with high earnings skewing the results. The authors of this book propose that’s exactly what’s currently happening in the US economy.

Secondly, they contend that because of the rapid change in job skills, workers displaced by computer power are not able to train into new fields fast enough to curb the employment numbers. In previous revolutions, people were often able to learn new skills quickly enough to keep up with technology.

It’s more than just retraining, though. With computers being increasingly utilized to do things formerly in the domain of humans (think self-driving cars or voice-to-text programs as far-out examples) there is simply less need for lower-skilled workers in many industries. Less demand for those lower-level skills (now being done by machines) is creating a huge downward pressure on the income of workers still attempting to make it fields where computers are capable of performing the work.

In this book, the authors even offer up ideas for transforming the effects of this change, such as spending more on schools or more funding for entrepreneurs. The problem with these ideas is that with so many good ideas to fund, the US (and not only the US) continues to spiral deeper into debt. At some point you have to set a limit on funding to programs.

Besides, people don’t care enough about entrepreneurship or schools to make sure they’re funded properly. If they did care, we wouldn’t be having this discussion about funding them because people would push their representatives in government to get it done.

Overall, this is an interesting book to read. Lots of things to think about and wrestle with as you decide how you see the economy/employment/wages progressing — and how you’re going to make sure you’re in the right position for changes to come.