A digital crop

Diane Coyle 29 April 2019

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First posted on: 

The Enlightened Economist, 22 April 2019

I spent the holiday weekend sitting in the sunshine reading digital economy books of various types (in between cooking for the family and playing with the 10 week-old). First up was Steffen Mau’s The Metric Society, one of the slowly expanding genre of sociology of economic measurement books. The underlying theme is the use of metrics to quantify the qualitative, and the consequences of the appearance of objectivity: “By assigning a number to the thing observed, we take a step toward objectivizing it.” At the same time, measurement ‘disembeds’ phenomena from local context and knowledge. “Numbers not only isolate information from its original context but also place it in extended comparative contexts.” The added spice in this book is the ever-growing scope of the use of data as digitalisation marches on. And, like other similar books, The Metric Society is pretty pessimistic – this implies, it suggests, a panopticon society with entrenched structures of inequality. After all, “[c]ategorical systems, once established, become extremely hard to overthrow.” However, I decided the power of numbers gives some reason to be cheerful. As Mau writes: “The nomination power invested in indicators, data and measurements can potentially restructure whole areas of society and impose new logics of action.” As Lenin said (quoted here): “We must carry statistics to the people and make them popular.” My new motto. While people might find an obsession with economic statistics a bit – nerdy – in fact it’s a revolutionary programme!

The second book was a proof copy of Democratic Capitalism at the Crossroads by Carles Boix, out next month. I probably shouldn’t give too much of a preview before its publication date, but this is about the interplay between the economics and politics of digital – as the subtitle puts it, “technological change and the future of politics”. The first half of the book compares three modes of capitalism: the 19th century Manchester variety, the 20th century Detroit variety and the 21st century Silicon Valley one. The second part discusses the interaction between digital technology, especially AI, and the labour market. Quite a lot of this covers the economic literature on the issue of the skill bias of technical change, and the resorting of jobs into tasks in extended supply chains, so this is familiar territory. The polarisation of jobs and wages is linked to populist politics and the prognosis is somewhat gloomy – the author is a bit techno-determinist, taking the ‘half of all jobs to be taken by robots’ line as more of a forecast than a thought-experiment. The book ends with some rather generic recommendations – enhance skills, pay a universal basic income. I’m sure it’s right to draw the link between the economic and political polarisations, but I’m more in the territory of taxing multinationals, capping CEO pay, enforcing competition policy, etc.

The third was How to Be Human in the Digital Economy by Nicholas Agar. It advocates ensuring there are ‘human’ jobs as more and more activities get automated – in effect, the book takes Baumol’s well-known prediction about the growing share of employment in the least productive sectors and, labelling this the ‘social economy’, argues against seeking ever greater efficiency in these jobs. Although I agree – and hence it means interrogating what we mean by ‘productivity’ in different types of job – I found the book rather rhetorical (for example, “AI is the digital superpower that thwarts traditional human responses to technological unemployment”). Whereas Boix has rather too many numbers and charts, Agar has too few. The latter’s suggestion for paying for the “less productive” social economy is the Lanier/Weyl ‘data as labour’ idea, but otherwise it is not very specific about how to create the desired social economy.

Anyway, it’s quite interesting to see this crop of books on AI/digital and the future of the capitalist democracies. No doubt there are many more to come.

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Topics:  Productivity and Innovation

Tags:  book review, technological change, robotisation, digitalisation

Professor of Economics, University of Manchester; founder, Enlightenment Economics

CEPR Policy Research