What was the response you received to Race Against the Machine?
People accepted that technology was really accelerating and that there were going to be labor-force consequences. The broader discussion was between optimism and pessimism. Does it feel like we are heading into the kind of economy and society that we want, or the kind of economy and society that we don’t? A lot of people who commented said, “Look, if these guys are anywhere near right, we are heading into an economy that is going to be dire for a lot of people.”
What does the economy that we don’t want look like?
The spread between the haves and the have-nots continues to grow, and more importantly, the absolute standard of living of the people at the middle and the bottom goes down. That is the economy that I don’t want to head into.
What is the optimistic view?
Erik Brynjolfsson came up with a great phrase: “digital Athens.” The Athenian citizens had lives of leisure; they got to participate in democracy and create art. That was largely because they had slaves to do the work. Okay, I don’t want human slaves, but in a very, very automated and digitally productive economy you don’t need to work as much, as hard, with as many people, to get the fruits of the economy. So the optimistic version is that we finally have more hours in our week freed up from toil and drudgery.
Do you see evidence for a digital Athens on the street, in the real economy?
No. What we are seeing—and this was pretty much unanticipated—is that the people at the top of the skill, wage, and income distribution are working more hours. We have this preference for doing more work. The people who have a lot of leisure—I think in too many cases it’s involuntary. It’s unemployment or underemployment. That is not my version of digital Athens.