While on vacation, I read Race Against The Machine, a widely praised new book from MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAffee. The basic thesis is that contra the Cowen/Thiel view that we’ve had a technological slowdown, we’ve actually witnessed an acceleration of technological growth. Digital computers and information technology, they posit, should be seen as a fundamental breakthrough like electricity rather than a nifty appliance like television. They say that if we’re facing economic problems those are due not to a slowdown in the pace of advance, but to something more like the Katz/Goldin Race Between Education And Technology where skills growth hasn’t kept pace with technological progress.
I think the praise this book has gotten is largely deserved, but I do have to register one giant complaint with it. Knowing Cowen as I do and being a loyal reader of his blog and his books, I don’t think he would disagree with any of their policy recommendations. That’s because they’re all basically “sensible center” reform ideas that don’t link very tightly to the thesis.
This is a shame, because I think it actually matters a lot whether we think Brynjolfsson/McAffee are right or whether Cowen/Thiel are right! Sensible center reforms that make sense whether or not we’re experiencing a slowdown or an acceleration are all well and good, but it would be nice to really explore claims that hinge on the correctness (or not) of the core thesis.