Computer Says “You’re Fired”

2011-11-03T08:56:00+00:00 November 3rd, 2011|

Note: A few days after posting this, I learned that the unnamed “Dutch technology professor” mentioned in the first paragraph died on October 8, 2011. Kees Overbeeke was a professor at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, and just 59 years old. Three years ago, after giving a speech in Amsterdam, I spent the better part of an afternoon in Eindhoven with Kees and his students. An inspiring thinker and teacher, he gave me a whole new perspective on design (his specialty), technology and people. On the memorial page put up by his colleagues, the photo captures the mix of impish intelligence and personal modesty that made him unforgettable. I dedicate this post to Kees.

One of the pithiest pop-culture commentaries on digital life is “Computer Says No,” a series of British TV sketches about a rude customer-service rep who takes all her orders from her screen. I first heard about it several years ago from a Dutch technology professor who viewed it as a metaphor for all the ways our gadgets can dehumanize us, if we’re not careful.

More recently, I learned from my 14-year-old son that “Computer Says No” has a following among his middle-school classmates, who not only watch the videos but find all kinds of uses for the refrain. Screen frozen? Can’t get a signal on your smartphone? Just blurt out “Computer says no” in a broad English accent and you feel instantly better. I’ve tried it and it works.

If technology does indeed pose a threat to our happiness, this is how we’ve been trained to think about it – our machines will rob us of our humanity. We’ve been living with machines for a very long time, and that hasn’t happened yet (though sometimes, after an intense day at the screen, I climb into bed feeling quite a bit less human than I was at sunrise). However, in recent years, our machines have been removing something extremely valuable from society: jobs. Yet we haven’t been talking about this very much. After all, computers are popularly viewed as engines of prosperity, creators of jobs, tools for making all kinds of businesses more profitable.

In their new e-book, Race Against The Machine, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, both of MIT, argue that we need to pay a lot more attention to the rising competence of technology in the workplace. Robots and other kinds of digital “employees” have already made huge inroads into the labor market, and as they grow ever more sophisticated, the trend is only going to accelerate.

Because machines increase productivity and growth, as they’ve been doing for many years, it might seem paradoxical to claim they’re causing economic damage. Yet the authors make a compelling case that this is precisely what’s been happening: “While digital progress grows the overall economic pie, it can do so while leaving some people, or even a lot of them, worse off.”

I met McAfee last year when we were on a panel together at the Boston Book Festival, along with Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows. After the festival, Andy was headed to Madrid and I recommended that he go for a drink at that city’s breathtaking Palace Hotel. He not only took me up on the tip, but while imbibing at the Palace, used his phone to send me a photo of the place. It was one of those nice interpersonal moments when you’re reminded all over again that the world has been pulled together in a completely new way, and our excellent digital adventure has only begun.

Andy and I have since become friends, and this past summer, when he told me that he and Brynjolfsson were working on a book about technology’s threat to the human labor market, I have to admit I was a little skeptical. Sure, there will be displacements, but isn’t that a normal part of any huge technological shift? If we’re shooting text and images across the world at unheard of speeds, surely we can figure out how to keep ourselves in the picture, and the economy humming.

I still believe that, as do the authors, both self-professed tech optimists. But by the time I was halfway through their book, I was convinced that something insidious and significant has been happening beneath the surface of the economy and, in the short term, the ride could get a lot bumpier. In one dramatic harbinger of the labor future, a Chinese electronics manufacturer recently announced that it’s buying one million robots over the next three years to replace a large chunk of its workforce.

Once upon a time, when the economy grew thanks to technological advancements and the efficiencies they produce, the benefits were widely shared. Today, for several different reasons that the authors incisively lay out, the gains are accruing to an ever-smaller slice of the population – you guessed it, the super-wealthy. Thus, even though we’re all enjoying our iPads and Androids, in the larger economic sense, this “revolution” is making the rich a lot richer, and the unemployment lines longer.

There’s much more to the authors’ argument. Suffice it to say that this is a very cogent and persuasive read – and at just 54 pages, a quick one. And its larger message is not bad news. The book ends with a hopeful nod toward a future in which we humans learn to collaborate better with our technologies, rather than viewing them as the enemy – and an agenda for getting there. If we use our gadgets to tap our own uniquely human strengths (e.g. the creativity and leadership skills that no machine can match), in the long run, there’s no way we can lose.

“We still firmly believe in the promise of the digital frontier. . . . Around the world, economies, societies, and people’s lives have been improved by digital goods and high-tech products; these happy trends will continue, and likely accelerate.”

It’s an inspiring vision, one to which all of us, computers included, should be able to say yes. I can’t think of a better first step than reading this important, eye-opening book.

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Race Against The Machine can be purchased here.