The computer engineer who thinks we're doomed

"The Lights in the Tunnel," by computer engineer Martin Ford, suggests that technology is causing inequalities that markets won't solve. His solutions are, to say the least, radical.

It was a fullish moon when I picked up a new book called "The Lights in the Tunnel," thinking that the title was sure to lift my spirits on All Souls Day.

Perhaps I should have picked me up some Dostoyevsky.

It's not that "The Lights in the Tunnel" isn't thoughtful or interesting. The author, Martin Ford, is a computer engineer who has clearly spent many hours considering the true effects of technology on society.

It's just that a rough summation of those effects might be described as "really bloody terrible."

Essentially, he believes that technology is the direct cause of job losses that will never return. In fact, his fear is that even in those industries that are currently still labor intensive, job losses are inevitable. Which just might mean that there will be vast numbers of people all over the world who will have no money to spend at Zara. Not even at Old Navy.

Naturally, Ford has found himself in a spirited debate with economists who seem to think his arguments border on loonism.

A chap named Robin Hanson seems rather hurt that Ford isn't in the thrall of economists' thinking--you know, the optimistic stuff about how technology will always produce more jobs and more wealth because we humans are, well, so clever.

Perhaps I paraphrase a touch, but economists such as Hanson tend to believe that economic inequality might be a politically difficult thing, but it doesn't portend economic disaster: because, as Hanson says, "producers can focus on giving the rich what they want, and innovation and growth is just as feasible for elite products as for mass products."

CC Firepile/Flickr

Now of course, I'm not going to argue with economists about human behavior because it's generally akin to arguing with a hockey color commentator about creme caramel.

However, Ford, the techie whom economists dismiss, has a very interesting solution to his rather bleak human scenario. He seems rather keen on a consumption tax, or a direct tax on business that would attempt to capture the income that people would have earned if they had had a job. Then he would incentivize the unemployed to contribute to society according to their own talents and society's needs.

You need a strong heart and stomach to read Ford's book, but some small part of me cannot help but wonder whether his rather miserable prognostication might have some truth to it.

"Glenn Beck would scream," Ford told me in an e-mail. Which made me immediately wonder why his publishers hadn't put that quote on the book cover.

Strangely, Ford isn't some sandal-wearing socialist wagging his finger at the money lenders.

"Capitalism has worked out fairly well for me, and I'd like to keep it around. If the ideas in the book are correct, then I really wonder if the system will be sustainable without some type of intervention," he told me.

Here is a computer engineer who's genuinely worried about, well, human beings.

"If that underclass increases relentlessly over time, and if you start seeing more educated people getting dragged into it, then we are going to have a huge problem. I think that may happen as machines and computers keep getting better until eventually they can do the jobs of even people with lots of education and training. At that point I think you have to do something," he added.

Unfortunately, the history of the world doesn't necessarily offer too much hope for the implementation of the kind of intervention that Ford is suggesting.

So one day, you, me, Ben Affleck, Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, and Liv Tyler might be seated in a devastated landscape muttering: "How were we to know we were supposed to listen to bloody Martin Ford? He was just some computer engineer."

 

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