A review of Race Against the Machine.

I’ve just read Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s Race against the Machine in one sitting when I have masses of other pressing stuff to do.

It is short, sharp, engaging and easy to read. Put down that Scandinavian crime novel, ignore your travel expense application issues and read this book instead. I’m perhaps reading too much into the title,  but I can’t help wondering if it isn’t a hat tip to the rock band Rage Against the Machine.  If it is, deeply nifty sub-editing coolness.   If not,  it is a lovely  unintended consequence.

The book highlights the accelerating disruption that technology brings to the workplace and to the very definition of work. There is dark side to technology, and the authors have done a nuanced job in exploring this.  It makes a worthwhile change from the technology=progress drum beat.

It was especially good to see a section on the growing gap between wage  and productivity growth.  To see disquiet about median wage stagnation from technology focused researchers is a very fine thing.  There is more than a whiff of valorization in their argument.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee make excellent use of statistics, and this work is no exception. They use numbers to illuminate, and they do it well. The Bill Gates in a bar story is a lovely explanation of mean and median. They explain, but don’t condescend.

As with much of US business academia, the book is centred on the US economy, with fleeting mentions of the rest of world.  I didn’t spot the dreaded phrase “Corporate America”, but it may have been lurking there. In particular the solution section was too US focused. Moaning about  H-1B visas etc… However suggestions 17,18, 19 are spot on.

17. Reduce the large implicit and explicit subsidies to financial services. This sector attracts a disproportionate number of the best and the brightest minds and technologies, in part because the government effectively guarantees “too big to fail” institutions.
18. Reform the patent system. Not only does it take years to issue good patents due to the backlog and shortage of qualified examiners, but too many low-quality patents are
issued, clogging our courts. As a result, patent trolls are chilling innovation rather than encouraging it.
19. Shorten, rather than lengthen, copyright periods and increase the flexibility of fair use. Copyright covers too much digital content. Rather than encouraging innovation, as
specified in the Constitution, excessive restrictions like the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act inhibit mixing and matching of content and using it creatively in new ways.

There are strong echoes of Larry Lessig in the IP section (as an aside I’d like to get the authors’ views of Lessig’s recent work on political corruption).

More broadly though I’d like to see business school academia and IT research engaging more with the rich research tapestry of sociology and political philosophy, how about more Jessop and Harvey, and Herbert Marcusse needs a serious dust off.  I fancy I heard the very faint clang of  Weber’s iron cage in this work. I’d suggest that Maslow and maybe Hayek can take a rest for a while.

This book is excellent,  but would have been seminal if it had built upon the work of that chap from Trier.

The tech industry mourns. W.H Auden said it best.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling in the sky the message He is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.