Quartet (A Model of Decorum and Tranquility)

Opening Ceremony

One running theme throughout this blog will be that of the impact of automation on work, politics, and society. The machines are coming – and not just for the kind of working stiffs who can’t get an article published in  their church newsletter, let alone The Atlantic or Harvard Business Review. Real people with real bylines and real influence networks might be getting hurt here.

The last five years has seen a small industry emerge in books on this topic – many written by economists. The first such book we will look at is Average is Over by Tyler Cowen. I am acquainted with Cowen’s blog and podcasts so I knew the Prof Cowen was… unusual in his ways of thinking. This book is a testament to the benefits and limitations of his approach. It also highlights some common assumptions about Our Glorious Robot Tomorrow (OGRT) that may or may not be true.

I Know Him So Well

The book falls into three parts:

  1. The rise of intelligence machines and how they change the dynamics of the labour market. Basically, if the machines can do your job, you are in big trouble. If the you can work with these machines, $$$ for you.
  2. How individuals can work with these machines.
  3. The impact of this new order on immigration & trade, education, science and society at large.

The second section is both extensive and narrow. The author spends much time discussing the world of… chess. In particular, the differences between traditional chess (two people, a board, some pieces) and freestyle chess* (all of the above but also computer programs such as Rybka or Shredder). This partly because chess is one of the first intellectual activities to be fully revolutionised by chess – but mostly because its an area that he knows extensively. Indeed, the book comes most alive in domains where the author has actual lived experience (e.g. chess, teaching economics). While freestyle chess is worthy of examination, not all jobs of the future will be like this.

In other subject areas, such as living in favelas, he presents as less informed. It would be great if he could do some more primary research into the issues that he raises. Starting in economics, then dipping your toe into the real world, followed by a hurried return back to economics is unsatisfying. Machines have been automating roles in manufacturing for decades – What does that look like? How do people cope? What happens next? These questions can be addressed with a little investigation.


Let me say that I agree with Prof Cowen that the structure of our labour markets are likely to be transformed. And as he is quite explicit in saying, these changes do not bode well for many in the developed world. Our economies have offered reasonably well-paid jobs for people without advanced education. In the future, these may not exist.

Cowen’s world is basically consists of a small number of intelligent machines wrangers and a large number of people providing services to them. I’d call the latter wage slaves except that they probably won’t be on wages – microsegmented piece rates with surge drops in value will be more likely. Jobs in the middle of the market – the “good jobs” that certain senior world leaders have promised to their populaces – may well evaporate.

Some parts of this book have aged very badly in the last four years – the line “hardly anyone hates free trade these days” on p. 176 being a standout. Some of the discussion of MOOCs now feels superceded by the reality of these platforms – although his general discussions around the role of the lecturer shifting from expert to coach very much resonated with me.

One Night In Bangkok

I found myself emphatically agreeing and vehemently disagreeing with Cowen – often in the same sentence. This sense of cognitive whiplash became most acute in the final chapter. As a solution to growing differences in income and wealth, the author proposes that the US create low-cost housing favelas in the sunbelt states around Texas. People will cope with reduced healthcare by eating less junk food and exercising more – woe betide them if they get a medical condition despite living lives of modern virtue. He also predicts that an ageing population will mean less violence. But that, of course, misses the high rates of gun ownership among the elderly in his nation.

What I find disappointing in this final section of the book is an unwillingness to explore different options. A placid, unequal world is assumed rather than different scenarios being actively considered. New coalitions and new forms of politics are ignored. Everything will stubble on as the cognitive elite mind-meld with machines whole everyone else watches TV.

Truly, the future is a second rate cyberpunk novel from 1987.

All this may sound unduly negative. There are ideas in this book worth savouring – with a pinch of salt.

*For which wikipedia offers the more enticing of option of “centaur chess”.

(Googling “centaur” yield far more porn than I had, with obvious naivety, expected. Thank you, internet)

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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