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October 16, 2011

Sunday Book Thread

This week, I have that relative rarity in my reading world: a really bad book. I'm a pretty good judge of books, so I generally don't pick up junk, but this book fooled me. It's called Lights in the Tunnel by Martin Ford, and it's a good example as to why a lot of techies should stay far away from books about economics or sociology. (Martin Ford is a Silicon Valley software guy. He's also a HuffPo writer, which should tell you something about both the man and his intended audience.)

Ford's book is what I call a "New Age Luddite" work, in that he posits a world in the near future where machine intelligences have taken all the jobs from human beings. Other technologists and politicians have been sounding this alarm bell since the 1970's (Bill Joy, the Unabomber, and President Barack Hussein Obama, among many others). The idea is that as automation gets both better, faster, and cheaper, it will supplant many workers in jobs that are prone to automation -- not just industrial assembly jobs, but more particularly in "knowledge" and service jobs. Most economists point out that automation has actually led to an explosion of new jobs over the years as old ones are destroyed, and that it has led to a world where products are both cheaper and far better-made (think of how lousy cars used to be) while at the same time lifting billions of people out of poverty. But the doomcriers envision a future where computers and robots do all the work, leaving no way for poor humans to make a living.

I assume that Ford is a liberal because he often throws in dire warnings about global warming and the need for massive government spending to ward off this Armageddon. But it's not his liberalism, or indeed the subject-matter of the book, that puts me off: it's the really horrible logic at work. He often says things like, "You may think this is crazy, but it's true!" Well, when people preface a statement with "You may think I'm crazy", the statement that follows usually is crazy. Ford's book is no different. He constantly makes leaps of logic, and asserts outcomes, that are not supported by the evidence he presents. He posits the worst possible outcomes for trends which, up until now, have had mostly-positive results.

Ford's most elemental mistake is in thinking that automation will relentlessly drive people out of work...but with no countervailing societal benefit or creation of new industries. (In effect, he is Raymond Kurzweil's diametric opposite -- he predicts a "singularity" for computer technology, but not for human beings.) His solution? Wait for it.... Wait for it.... Massive government spending! That's right: he wants a permanent and broad-based system of welfare whereby the government simply sends all the unemployed people in America a big check so they can keep consuming stuff. It's a variant on Jesse Jackson Jr.'s idea, only vastly magnified. But here is where Ford's economic ignorance shows itself: like most liberals, he doesn't understand that "the government" has no money of its own; that all money paid out must be raised in one of two ways: by taxation, or issuance of debt. Ford obviously thinks that the rich will stand idly by and be milked like dairy cows so that Freddie Freeloader can continue to buy Lady Gaga albums off of iTunes, but he obviously hasn't thought through the reality that the rich will benefit from increased globalization and automation as much as anyone else: they'll simply take their wealth and go elsewhere.

EDIT: Ford also misunderstands the basic functioning of the supply and demand market. He thinks only in terms of consumption (if there are no consumers, how can production survive?), not in terms of new industries, value-add, peer markets, or anything else. In spite of his ostensibly cutting-edge book, his brain is firmly grounded in the Industrial Age economic model (as is most of his cohort on the left).

The Lights in the Tunnel is a deeply silly book even if it does deal with a very serious topic (the geometric progression of computer technology and automation). Readers would do better to turn to people like Ray Kurzweil or Marvin Minsky or Douglas Hofstadter or Steven Pinker, who all bring much more insight to this issue.

If I had bought this book in paper, I would have thrown it away rather than donate it to the library as I don't want to inflict it on anyone else. But since I got the electronic Kindle copy, all I could do was delete it. Pity.

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posted by Monty at 09:45 AM

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