The robots are coming? The economic and educational implications of the ‘Second Machine Age’.

untitledMartin Allen   reviews  The  Second Machine Age. Work Progress, and Prosperity in a time of Brilliant Technologies

Erik Brynjolfsson and   Andrew McAfee’s   The Second Machine Age ( Norton  2014,  ISBN  978-0-393-23935-5 ),  is  an important contribution to the  debate about the effects of  technological change on the workplace and the changing shape of the occupational structure.

Advances in computer technology are seen as being responsible for the disappearance of what were considered to be ‘routine’ jobs with Goos and Manning’s 2003 paper  about the polarisation of the occupational structure providing  the  basis for what is now commonly referred to  as the ‘hour-glass’ economy, where  increased employment in cognitively-based professional work, but also  the expansion  of new labour intensive unskilled occupations in service sectors still  dependent  on personal contact, has resulted in a ‘hollowing out’ of the middle. But Brynjolfsson and McAfee now argue that even the more highly-skilled ‘knowledge-based’   professional occupations are at risk as a result of the ability of digital technology to turn everything into ‘ones and zeroes’.  Citing Google’s  ‘car with no driver’ as one of the clearest  examples of how  human superiority is in jeopardy as  machines are increasingly able to codify distinctly ‘non-routine’ activity,  they argue that it’s wrong to assume that  jobs requiring ‘college level’ qualifications are hard to automate while ‘kindergarten’ level  employment is easy.

The MIT researchers don’t  commit to any definitive conclusion on the exact extent technology will eliminate jobs and remind us that there continue to be activities that even the most intelligent machines find difficult, from ‘walking up stairs’ to ‘picking up a paper clip’ and that humans continue to have the imagination to innovate. In their paper, Oxford researchers Frey and Osborne are more specific in their paper After examining 702 established occupations they estimate about 47% of current US employment is at risk ‘perhaps over the next decade or two’ and that ‘sophisticated algorithms could substitute for approximately 140 million full-time knowledge workers worldwide’. 

Education and the digital age

Most of those who write about the potential of technology to transform the workplace also see a need for major changes in education. Like them, Brynjolfsson and McAfee see the school system as reflecting the requirements of a previous age – the 20th century, (or even the nineteenth?). They call for new Montessori -inspired classrooms emphasising ‘self-directed learning, hands-on engagement with a wide variety of materials and a largely unstructured school day’. ‘Acquiring an excellent education is the best way to  ensure you are not left behind as technology races ahead.’ Technology is now contributing to this through the growth of on-line learning resources and open courses, pioneered by organisations like the Kahn Academy.

But while many of these recommendations would be seen as progressive alternatives to  the ‘Gradgrind’ programme of Michael Gove,  like other ‘moderniser’ approaches to education, Brynjolfsson and McAfee overestimate  the relationship between the content of the curriculum and the needs of the workplace, sidestepping the social function that education plays in the regulation of young people’s labour market chances.  As Radicaled has consistently argued, rather than educational standards struggling to keep up with technological advance,  the real  crisis for education is that young people become ‘overqualified’  for the limited number of  jobs available to them and as a result, exam certificates are increasingly devalued – an issue touched on, but not developed in the chapter on ‘Recommendations for Individuals’.

As we have also argued, the examination reforms introduced by Michael Gove are designed to control pass rates and restore more limited expectations. A consequence is that the more generic vocational qualifications promoted by modernisers are not considered as ‘powerful knowledge’ and in many schools have constituted a ‘secondary modern’ stream.  Thus, to gain status, Gove has demanded vocational qualifications become redesigned around ‘academic’ principles.  The unstructured days of Montessori, while a progressive development for some, would sharply undermine the social control function of schools. Unfortunately, many teachers would probably see this as undermining their ability to control learning and threatening their ‘professionalism.’

New economic policies are needed

A strength of The Second Machine Age is its interdisciplinary approach and the way in which a detailed explanation of technical progress is combined with more general economic policies for dealing with the collapse of employment opportunities in the 21st century as advances in technology produce winners and losers whilst income inequalities continue to widen. A range of policies are examined,  for example  proposals for a universal social income as well as the use of a negative income tax;  though the authors continue to put their faith in technological progress allowing the economy to grow and generate new jobs, particularly those with high skills and high earning power.

A weakness is a lack of attention given to the possibility of any real opposition to how new technology is used; not just from particular occupational groups that may have the most to lose, but also the opportunities for labour movement organisations to reorientate their activities and  make demands for both the sharing of work and the reduction of working time. It’s now almost 35 years since Andre Gorz’s  Farewell To the Working Class,  argued for just that.

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