Jan 3 2010

The Lights in the Tunnel

I read a fascinating book yesterday called The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future by Martin Ford.  I can’t remember who sent it to me (someone did – thank you); it appeared on the of my infinite pile of books so I gobbled it down as my first book at 2010.

The first half of the book sets up the situation and the corresponding problems.  I agreed with much of the first half.  The second half proposes a solution.  I had a hugely difficult time with it.  Ford anticipated this as he regularly acknowledged (unnecessarily) throughout the second half that many people would have a hard time with his proposed solution.  Yet he marched on relentlessly.

Ford’s basic premise is as follows:

At some point in the future – it might be many years or decades from now – machines will be able to do the jobs of a large percentage of the ‘average’ people in our population, and these people will not be able to find new jobs.”

Ford does a good job of spending the first half of this book making the case for this.  He draws nicely from the notion of a technological singularity (which many of us are now calling simple “the singularity” for convenience), explains why mainstream economists (and the notion of econometrics in general) are basically historians rather than effective predictors of the future, does a nice job weaving the Luddite Fallacy into the mix,  makes a compelling argument about China’s role in this he calls the “China Fallacy”, and wraps it up by revisiting a variety of conventional views of the future while asking “do we really believe they are going to play out this way?” (answer = no).

At this point I took a break and went for a walk around the block with my dogs.  I knew the book was shifting from “problem” to “solution” (the next chapter was titled Transition) and I wanted to clear my mind so I could absorb it. I had a couple of weak ideas about where Ford was going to go, but it was pretty fuzzy to me.  So I dove back in.

The second half of the book blew me away.  Ford starts by asserting underlying his mental model – that in the future 75% unemployment will permanently exist because jobs will have been automated away – and they will not be replaceable.  So – the vast majority of people in our society will be “unemployable” in a conventional sense (as in a 40 hour / week job).  Ford asks rhetorically “Is it possible to have a prosperous economy and a civil society in such a scenario?” (answer = yes and he’s going to propose a way to do it.)

The base on which he builds his solution is the following idea:

“We will have to undergo a quantum shift in our value system.  In order to preserve the free market system, we will have to come to the realization that while work (at least for most people) may no longer be essential, broad-based consumption is essential.”

He then spends the balance of the book explaining a government-driven taxation and incentive approach that taxes companies based on their permanently lost wages (based on automation, which he asserts will increase gross margins) while incenting the unemployed to act in ways that benefit themselves and societies by paying them based on how they act and contribute in this “non-traditional job” way.  Ford suggests several simple categories, including Education (self and others), Community and Civic Activities, Journalism, and the Environment.  He then spends a lot of time explaining the implementation at a high level, including an abstract example of how a functioning free-market society could exist post the singularity.

Sometime during reading this stuff my brain exploded and I had to go take the dogs for another walk.  When I came back, I tried to explain this to Amy but couldn’t.  I tried to make the argument that all government employees (local, state, and federal) are already in this category so the jump from the federally reported 10% unemployment to 75% isn’t as big as we might think since 8% already work for the government (so let’s say the jump is from 20% to 75%).  I couldn’t do it – I just couldn’t take myself seriously.

While I love Ford’s tenacity with the idea and radical approach, I think this book would have worked better as science fiction rather than an attempt at an economic / political essay.  Ironically, I might have been able to buy the argument better in the context of science fiction; when put against the backdrop of our existing social / societal construct, it was too difficult for me to absorb.

I have a belief that the structure of what we call “modern society” will have to change post singularity.  I don’t yet have my own hypothesis for what this looks like, but many of my favorite science fiction writers have been hacking away at this for several decades.  And I’m continuing to slurp down as much stuff as I can about the singularity since I both (a) believe it will happen in my lifetime – assuming I live a normal life expectancy and (b) I hope I’ll be involved in helping create it. 

I’ll be following Ford’s blogging at his site econfuture: Future Economics and Technology. Even though I struggled with his solution, it’s another interesting input for me to ponder. And all of this also led me (via an article titled Martin Ford Asks: Will Automation Lead to Economic Collapse?) to a fun new website called Singularity Hub which has now been added to my feedreader.  Now, time for some more Philip K. Dick.