I was glad to see a column in the New York Times by Paul Krugman, entitled “The Big Meh”. It is here. Krugman is a prolific writer and a major force in economics, having won the Nobel Prize, and having been named the second most influential economist in the world by The Economist. He points out that despite all of the hype about the information economy, the computer revolution, social networking, computer games, smart phones, and other digital marvels, the U.S. economy is and has been sluggish for the last ten years, and in his mind, except for a few spikes, has been disappointing for the last 40 years.
But the hype in the media grows, and here we are, waiting for our virtual reality kits and lining up to buy the latest expensive Apple miracle. True, Apple, Google, Facebook, and such companies are boasting extraordinary cash flows, but, how much are we actually benefitting from all of these digital miracles? Krugman, in looking for reasons that our dazzling new technology does not seem to be strongly affecting the nation’s economy, states that perhaps the new technology is more fun than fundamental.
Certainly many Stanford students want to start a company and make a fast pile of money, but most of them won’t. And how about those unfortunate young people without college training who can’t find jobs —see the last Economist magazine. The cover features a drawing of a young white male sitting in a crashed male symbol, under text reading “The Weaker Sex; No jobs, no family, no prospects” . The lead article is entitled “Men Adrift”, and is here.
We are realizing that there is a social cost from automating work that was formerly done by humans, and will realize it even more when CPA’s, attorneys, truck drivers, and others capable of making more noise begin to be displaced. It seems to me that driverless trucks make at least as much sense as driverless cars, but clearly the media is a bit shy about taking on the teamsters. We are also realizing that there is a cost to us in changing our lives to meet the demands of being “connected”, and having our habits known in increasing detail so that we may be more efficiently bombarded with more marketing material, as well as having our attention fractionated in many ways. Psychologists are having a field day with the latter.
So far new technologies have taken on the order of 50 years to mature. Tim Berners Lee, a British scientist, is given credit for having invented the World Wide Web (the basis of the internet) in 1989. That is only 26 years ago. We have a long way to go before it reaches anything close to maturity. To me, it is presently becoming more difficult to use, and requiring more and more time to handle features that used to work, but are now overwhelming (e-mail), and more and more time to separate, as they used to say, the wheat from the chaff (ads, gripes, and baseless opinions). And as a tool, I find that the time I spend using it is highly compromised by the time I spend trying to keep up with changes in the software associated with operating systems, apps, and programs that by now should be mature, but are constantly showing up with new (and to me unnecessary and sometimes negative) bells and whistles. But I am an optimist, and believe that eventually it will settle down, take its place in our lives (although it will cost us to get rid of the distractions and trash bult into it), and the hype will go away.
So I agree with Professor Krugman. Let’s can the hype, figure out what we have and what we need, and make it serve us, instead of us serving it. Incidentally, I just ordered a book entitled Shadow Work; The Unpaid Unseen Jobs that Fill Your Day, by Craig Lambert. I'll give you my reactions after I read it. It concerns work that used to be done by others for you, that you now have been tricked into doing through partial automation and cleverness on the part of companies through digital electronics. Think of shopping in big box stores. Remember when there were people to help you in stores? I, and many of you, even remember when people didn't pump their own gas. When I grew up, working in a "service station" was a sought after first step into the economy. Now these jobs have gone away, along with the service.