Race Against the Machine
I picked up and breezed through the e-book version of Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson's Race Against the Machine during my commute on the T here in Boston. The book has an incredibly long sub-title: "How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy." (I wonder what the record for book subtitles is?)
While the authors claim to be positive about the future of employment and business, I was rather bummed throughout the bulk of the book. As you might guess from the subtitle, they talk about the economy and what they are seeing from recent trends - namely the lack of job rebounds, even as businesses seem to be rebounding from the Great Recession.
The short form of their thesis is that technologies are catching up to the needs of its masters. Technology (robots, computers, automation in general) is getting faster and faster and more capable, and it is this that is helping spur the current "jobless recovery." They give examples of Google's autonomous car* or IBM's Watson Jeopardy-playing computer as being things that people ten years ago figured couldn't happen anytime soon. How long before this technology is in the hands of more than a few people? How long before it is in consumers' hands? There are many other technologies that are replacing repeatable and arduous tasks that humans traditionally do. In short, if we conceive of racing against machines, we will most likely lose.
Their argument from this point is that we should stop thinking about working in competition with machines, and think about the advantages to working with machines. And this is where the tone of the book becomes more positive. They site a few examples of people + technology as being superior to either one alone.
The book is a quick and informative read about the current state of the economy and where it might be going.
* Is there a canonical link to Google for information on their driverless car? I couldn't find anything that was like an overview page for them.
Next entry: OODA and other improvement cycles apply all over