Lion of the Blogosphere

Review of The Second Machine Age

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, is significant because it’s the book that people are reading now. It’s currently #17 on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction list (but only #24 on the combined print and e-book nonfiction list).

However there’s nothing in here that you haven’t been exposed to already if you are a longtime reader of this blog. There are some more in-depth golly-gee-whiz explanations of some new technologies. For example, I’ve previously blogged about self-driving cars. While the focus of my brief blog post was on the coming unemployment of people who currently get paid to drive trucks, buses, and taxis, Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s emphasis is more on the experience of sitting in the back seat of a Google self-driving car. It’s a cool ride, but the anecdote doesn’t really tell us much about the future.

While this book is not the most clueless thing ever written about the social and economic impact of technology, there’s still a significant amount of cluelessness permeating the book. The authors at least admit that there’s a possibility that rapid advances in technology could cause increased unemployment, but that part quickly gets drowned out by a chapter advocated the usual tripe of more and better education and more immigration. That’s right, more immigration is the cure for lack of work, that’s what the authors say. Yet in a previous chapter, they were writing about how supply and demand suppresses salaries of unskilled workers because technology puts some unskilled workers out of work and then they compete in the labor market against other unskilled workers in different fields, so all salaries go down. That part made perfect sense… but then they lost their sense when it comes to immigration.

The authors need a huge wakeup call about education. It’s not like they’ve stumbled upon some original thought. For the last several decades, people have been saying we need more and better education, yet during this time period I would say that the quality of education has decreased and the cost of it has increased. Why do they think that trend is going to magically be reversed?

Maybe the authors know something about IQ, because the word “IQ” actually got mentioned once when they were talking about normal distributions, but if they know anything then they are putting a great deal of effort into ignoring what they know for the remainder of the book.

The authors mention the idea of a basic income, that’s just giving money to everybody without any needs-based assessment of whether they deserve to get a handout, but then they eagerly shoot it down with their opinion that people without jobs will become bored and behave poorly, so their answer is a negative income tax, that is giving people extra money if they are able to find a crappy low-paying job. But if they really think that automation is the future, why should the government subsidize human labor and thus repress the invention and adoption of the next wave of technology? Do they think that the government should have provided incentives not to use computers, or not to use the internet?

Of course I have previously brought up the problem of idle poor people, and that’s why I proposed the idea that the government should pay people to play World of Warcraft*. I think this is much better than a negative income tax, which is bound to lead to cheating the system, and also doesn’t address the problem of zero-marginal-value workers; those are workers you wouldn’t even want around if the government were paying 100% of their wages.

*World of Warcraft is a stand-in here for make-work activities that can be monitored by computers and provide the illusion of doing something meaningful and thereby solve the problems of people otherwise being bored and turning to gangs, crime other bad activities to alleviate their boredom. People in China are already playing World of Warcraft for a living by selling the virtual currency they earn to players in the United States, so this is not as far-fetched as it actually sounds. Of course, this idea has its problems. One problem is that World of Warcraft, and similar games like the newly released Final Fantasy XIV, are probably beyond the ability of people with below-average IQs.

Written by Lion of the Blogosphere

February 22, 2014 at 6:22 PM

41 Responses

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  1. Here’s an hour-long podcast from Econ Talk with Brynjolfsson on The Second Machine Age. When asked about what affect greater mechanization will have on low-skilled workers, at first he blathers about how people will just do maintenance on the machines but of course that doesn’t create nearly enough jobs, especially when we’re importing unskilled labor by the millions at the same time. The rest of his answer leaves a lot to be desired.


    February 22, 2014 at 7:40 PM

  2. effect effect effect


    February 22, 2014 at 7:45 PM

  3. I guess 14 can’t possibly be worse than 13. I finally quit after 13; what a colossal waste of time! Although, I guess it makes your point…it wastes time and is only slightly fun…it’s just like a real job.

    Jokah Macpherson

    February 22, 2014 at 8:03 PM

  4. Excellent post!


    February 22, 2014 at 8:17 PM

  5. I saw the authors on fareed zakaria gps a few weeks ago, but the idea of more immigration wasn’t mentioned in the interview. As many interviews as they will end up doing for this book tour, wouldn’t it be nice if ONE person would ask them how more immigration helps in a period of declining jobs due to automation?

    Mike Street Station

    February 22, 2014 at 9:08 PM

  6. Actually, education isn’t getting worse. It’s roughly stagnant. But we won’t ever see dramatic changes unless we start tiering objectives, and we won’t. The primary driver of costs is special education demands, which came straight from the feds, not the states and not the unions.

    So all those people saying we need more and better education are wrong.


    February 22, 2014 at 9:11 PM

    • It depends what kind of education you mean. College level humanities are demonstrably worse and worse by a very large margin. Engineering education remains high quality but only because the curricula and faculties must be accredited by an agency of the engineering societies (ABET).

      Also, better education requires better, higher IQ students and that we don’t have. Nearly all the problems of the public schools derive from the poor quality of many of their students, many of whom are literally uneducable. An immigration makes this problem worse.

      bob sykes

      February 23, 2014 at 7:54 AM

    • The best solution, even more so than eugenics, is citizenship and residency buyouts for our soon-to-be obsolete LEGAL immigrant workforce. If they leave we don’t have to worry about managing them or control their fertility. They just leave with their families and become someone else’s problem somewhere else.

      The Undiscovered Jew

      February 23, 2014 at 7:22 PM

  7. Maybe their point about spending more money on education is to create more jobs for teachers and other school staff? And more immigration means more students which means more teachers…

    Of course, you have the issue of how to pay for it all, but we have that issue now too.

    Dave Pinsen

    February 22, 2014 at 10:17 PM

    • No, they didn’t mean that education creates jobs for teachers, they mean that education makes people smart so they can do creative jobs that robots cannot.

      Lion of the Blogosphere

      February 22, 2014 at 10:54 PM

      • I agree with you that they are grasping. Education doesn’t make people smart, and creativity doesn’t necessarily accompany intelligence. If these are the most sophisticated thoughts that our public-spirited elites are having about this issue, we’re in trouble. It’s not going to be a smooth transition..


        February 23, 2014 at 12:24 AM

      • to what end?

        this is the elephant in the room which is never addressed. there is an unspoken and unthought assumption that economic growth can go on FOREVER.

        it should be obvious that an economy which treads water will lose jobs…automation replaces human labor…and therefore that only with eternal economic expansion is full employment possible.

        the people at the top are just trained dogs. they quite literally CANNOT THINK. all they can do is parrot…assemble various terms and notions into some truthy sounding narrative. i went to school with people like this.

        jorge videla

        February 23, 2014 at 12:50 AM

      • Education doesn’t make people smart, and creativity doesn’t necessarily accompany intelligence. If these are the most sophisticated thoughts that our public-spirited elites are having about this issue, we’re in trouble. It’s not going to be a smooth transition..

        In the case of NAMs and Asians, we can see how education has not provided these 2 groups with the tools to become truly successful in America.


        February 23, 2014 at 2:56 PM

  8. has lion discovered that elite opinion is what is published and publicized, that the truth is, at best, published by a west virginia white supremacist with a really big beard?

    the big ah ha hasn’t happened for him yet…that without any conspiracies and without coercion publicized opinion and facts are as narrow and ideological in the us as they were in stalin’s soviet union.

    as noam chomsky has said, “…the american elite are more obedient…there is a selection for obedience…there are certain things you don’t say…”

    jorge videla

    February 23, 2014 at 12:47 AM

    • ‘there is a selection for obedience’

      Does he mean that there is ‘selection’ in some blind, evolutionary sense?

      Prolier Than Thou

      February 23, 2014 at 6:34 PM

      • no. for chomsky obedience or docility is a vice not a virtue. and for those who confuse those traits which make for success and virtue i ask, “have you ever seen a cockroach?”

        in the us and canada the means of measuring the quality of an academic degree is mostly the short term, idiosyncratic, low g-loaded, subjective GRADES rather than long term objective cumulative exams. so a lot of foreign students come to the us because they are TOO STUPID to pass the tests in their home countries.

        chomsky is only half right about japan.

        the american elite is smart but just as a matter of the absurd admissions criteria of america’s elite unis it is LESS intelligent than that of any other developed country.

        jorge videla

        February 23, 2014 at 8:13 PM

      • Europeans think Americans are dumb.


        February 24, 2014 at 12:36 AM

      • The inhabitants of inner city America are not particularly obedient nor docile, and “indoctrination” has barely made any inroads there. Yet Chomsky prefers to live in Cambridge, MA, one of the most docile and indoctrinated cities in the US rather than Camden, NJ or East Baltimore. I wonder why.

        Petr Akuleyev

        February 24, 2014 at 4:06 AM

  9. “…could cause increased unemployment…”

    this has already happened. 80% of the american workforce does not actually do anything. it’s similar in other developed countries but not quite as bad.

    my source:

    jorge videla

    February 23, 2014 at 1:00 AM

    • Yes, and the Europeans have less BS hours and more generous holiday pay packages than we do. Try earning a living wage grinding less than 40hrs/wk, with a 1 month vacation time to boot, here in the states.

      But honestly, I think America is a great place to develop your ruthless – dog eat dog – alpha – sociopathic acumen, if you think it’s an asset. In other industrialized countries, their citizens are more polished, but come across as more naïve, when it comes to dealing with people. Americans by nature, are generally conniving, greedier, and more suspicious of others, comparing to our European brethren. Unsurprisingly, East Asians generally do not like Americans, because they see us as a formidable rival with similar obnoxious attributes, which breeds contempt on their part.


      February 23, 2014 at 1:04 PM

  10. I think the long run answer is for us all to become posthuman.

    We are already not far off from being able to increase the IQs of children through embryo selection and/or genome editing. The former has the advantage that the children are the parents’ natural children, they’re just the cleverest children the parents would have had had they had more. This (combined with a moratorium on immigration) can stave off the zero marginal product for a while. Eventually I suppose we’ll all have that. But clever, civilized people can find things for themselves to do, even if they don’t need to work.

    Increasing the IQ of an adult would be harder because a lot of it is down to brain size and structure, which would be hard to change. But some must be due to the efficiency of the cells/neurotransmitters etc. Probably you could do something by changing their genes in the existing brain cells to make them more efficient.


    February 23, 2014 at 6:05 AM

    • you’ve been brainwashed by steve hsu who at this point i’m certain is eating mushrooms on a daily basis.

      jorge videla

      February 23, 2014 at 8:16 PM

  11. OT Atlantic :

    “The British economist Roger Bootle has written about the difference between “creative” and “distributive” work. Creative work, Bootle says, is work that brings something new into the world that adds to the total available to everyone (a doctor treating patients, an artist making sculptures). Distributive work, on the other hand, only carries the possibility of beating out competitors and winning a bigger share of a fixed-size market. Bootle explains that although many jobs in modern society consist of distributive work, there is something intrinsically happier about a society that skews in favor of the creative.”


    February 23, 2014 at 8:24 AM

    • But we only need one good sculptor; the sculptures can then be mass-produced in automated factories and delivered to buyers with robot-drones.

      Lion of the Blogosphere

      February 23, 2014 at 9:50 AM

      • yes. cinema and tv likely made acting much more difficult to make a living at.

        jorge videla

        February 23, 2014 at 8:18 PM

    • This sounds like “value creation” and “value transference.”

      E. Rekshun

      February 23, 2014 at 1:56 PM

    • The author, Kevin Roose, is painful to listen to / talk to. He’s spammed so many crappy threads/stories all over the internet in preparation for his new book.


      February 23, 2014 at 4:40 PM

    • This sounds like “value creation” and “value transference.”

      Lion-ism’s no longer confined to America. Now he’s taking over the UK. After that, world domination!

      The Undiscovered Jew

      February 23, 2014 at 7:05 PM

  12. People have been saying this since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The standard Econ 101 response is that our capacity for consumption is basically infinite, and that we’ll respond to increased productivity with increased demand. You, in particular, have spent a lot of time observing that people care more about relative than absolute consumption, so you should be particularly receptive to this argument.

    No one can say whether the centuries-long trend will die, but the burden of proof should be on people who think it will. The fact that you can’t easily imagine future demand for low-skilled labor doesn’t mean there won’t be any.


    February 23, 2014 at 9:57 AM


    Let me ask you a question about immigration. I see the logic, given your scenario, of more high-skill immigration. But if you’re talking about an economy where a lot of the routine jobs, low skill jobs can be done either by computer or robot, what would be the argument for the US to have more low skill immigration? How does that sort of fit with your scenario? It seems like we would need less low skill immigration, that there’s a huge risk that we would be bringing in people for jobs that might be automated away in five or 10 years.

    McAfee: I think it’s Brookings that estimated recently that illegal low skilled immigration to the US in recent years has basically been net zero because they realized that this isn’t a good employment climate for them. The idea that we’re going to continue to be flooded by low skilled immigrants – if the low skill people who are already here can’t find work, that stretches plausibility a little bit.


    February 23, 2014 at 11:56 AM

    • This seems plausible, as net migration from Mexico has reached zero.

      During the five-year period from 2005 to 2010, a total of 1.4 million Mexicans immigrated to the United States, down by more than half from the 3 million who had done so in the five-year period of 1995 to 2000.

      Meantime, the number of Mexicans and their children who moved from the U.S. to Mexico between 2005 and 2010 rose to 1.4 million, roughly double the number who had done so in the five-year period a decade before. While it is not possible to say so with certainty, the trend lines within this latest five-year period suggest that return flow to Mexico probably exceeded the inflow from Mexico during the past year or two.

      The standstill appears to be the result of many factors, including the weakened U.S. job and housing construction markets, heightened border enforcement, a rise in deportations, the growing dangers associated with illegal border crossings, the long-term decline in Mexico’s birth rates and broader economic conditions in Mexico.


      February 23, 2014 at 7:00 PM

    • This seems plausible, as net migration from Mexico has reached zero.

      They’re still growing because of their birth rates. We need negative migration levels.

      The Undiscovered Jew

      February 23, 2014 at 7:36 PM

  14. Buy fresh fruit and vegetables from hobby gardeners for a decent price, and slowly you can have a decentralized, healthier food system. Right now we have a terrible food system of corn/wheat/soybeans that makes people fat and diabetic, and the centralized food system can crash and starve millions.


    February 23, 2014 at 4:00 PM

    • I think the real reason has to with Americans and their insatiable lust for junk food and refined sugar. Walk into a Whole foods and the first thing you encounter are baked goods. Of course, it’s all organic!


      February 23, 2014 at 9:48 PM

      • It’s not just Americans – it’s human biology. Most people have to be trained not to stuff their faces with carbs and sugar. The food industry all over the world is taking advantage of that. The growth in potato chips, fast food and other sugary crap in Europe and Asia over the past two decades is staggering.

        Petr Akuleyev

        February 24, 2014 at 4:10 AM

  15. Lion,

    Paying people to play video games is an interesting idea and one that would likely not need an enforcement mechanism. A young man with a contract to play World of Warcraft for 40 hours a week would probably happily play for 50 hours.

    You wrote: “Do they think that the government should have provided incentives not to use computers, or not to use the internet?” I’m becoming increasingly convinced that governments may try to ban technologies, or at least the ones perceived to be job destroyers. Obviously, this would have to be done globally, or those countries which didn’t ban new technologies would have an advantage over those that did, but I don’t see that as an insurmountable problem. The same problems relating to cheating apply to arms control treaties, but they’ve been made to work. More generally, we seem to be heading towards global governance, with governments increasingly co-operating on matters like taxation. It would be a short step to extend that co-operation to technology.

    Right now, this seems highly unlikely. Every country wants its very own Silicon Valley and is willing to give tax breaks to companies on the off-chance it might get one. Politicians, meanwhile, love a photo-op in a modern, high-tech factory full of industrial robots. But attitudes can change – and quickly. The history of the tobacco industry is an instructive example.

    Banning Google’s self-driving vehicles, for example, would enable bus, truck and taxi drivers to continue to make a living. De-automating the ‘phone system would create opportunities for telephone operators. This might sound far fetched, but it’s already happening in farming, where the organic food movement is simply a mechanism to reduce agricultural productivity.

    And I’m sure that, despite what they may say to the contrary, a lot of governments would just love to curb the internet, if only because it makes it far too easy for people to communicate and spread ideas they would rather were not spread.

    Schrodinger's Dog

    February 23, 2014 at 4:02 PM

  16. Surprised no one has mentioned sexbots or some other kind of sexual diversion for the masses. While it may be true in times past people became agitated when unemployed, in the past there wasn’t the option of having as much sex as you wanted with something close enough to real to fit the bill. People won’t be playing video games when they are replaced by robots, they’ll be having sex with other robots, possibly even robots given to them by the state for the purpose of keeping them quiescent.

    BS Inc.

    February 23, 2014 at 9:11 PM

    • Cherry 2000 here we come.

      Lion of the Blogosphere

      February 23, 2014 at 11:17 PM

    • Being circumcised reduces sexual pleasure to the point that sexual intercourse feels barely more pleasurable than masturbation and in some instances less pleasurable. Therefore, sexbots could be a viable alternative to real sex for the masses of circ’d Americans.


      February 24, 2014 at 2:47 AM

  17. Technologist are an optimistic bunch aren’t they?

    The labor situation would not be such a big deal if the energy that runs those technology is cheaper. The lack of cheap energy is probably the #1 reason why we do not have full employment (minus the actual deadbeats). In a world where we have declining cheap energy (especially oil), there is a greater premium on technology so as to maximize the work and efficiency of those precious gallons of fuel, btus, watts. This greater premium on efficiency rewards higher IQ workers (or at least more specialized). The problem is not too much technology, but too few cheap energy that fuels it, particularly for transportation.

    I remember looking at a chart showing per capita oil consumption in the US has steadily decreased since the 70s. Even when GDP has increased since then, we have felt poorer when taking a look at what those dollars actually buy.

    With cheap fuel, we can reach full employment. Those deserted houses far from the centralized city services can be reached again with cars cheaply. We could built more housing cheaply and farther away from public transportation corridors and the central city.

    Look at Saudi Arabia and some of the gulf states awash in oil. People there simply get paid, no strings attach.


    February 24, 2014 at 4:19 AM

  18. i don’t understand why ‘make-work’ to combat idleness needs to exist. I wasn’t working for a quite a bit and I was in the best shape of my life. took time making meals from scratch, working out 2-3 hours of the day or going on long hikes and runs.

    i know quite a number of ‘proles’ native to ski-towns who work a crappy customer service job but it gives them just enough money to share an apartment with others like them and be outdoors all the time in their free time doing physical activity and also partying with others like themselves or with rich tourists who fly in.

    if basic income was instituted, think of the freedom the fitness/outdoors set would get in terms of time.


    March 3, 2014 at 11:12 AM

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