Customer Review

Reviewed in the United States on January 26, 2014
This covers a lot of the same ground as books such as "The Lights in the Tunnel" but in a more pop-academic style: the prose is all very accessible but the information is extensively footnoted and attributed, and there are numerous references to the work of other academics, mostly but not exclusively economists. For anyone who wonders why we're seeing record-high income inequality and jobless recoveries from recessions, this book will clear up a lot of mysteries.

As someone in the technology field myself, I found little to disagree with in the book's treatment of recent and upcoming technological advances, which occupies the first several chapters; the authors have done their homework and have visited enough research labs and company R&D departments to have a very realistic picture of what's just over the horizon. There'll be nothing earth-shattering here for readers who follow technology trends or even who read WIRED magazine, but the book looks at all these things through a somewhat different lens (its impact on human work) than the tech press usually does, and I didn't find myself skimming even when they were covering developments with which I'm already very familiar.

For me, the best stretch of the book was chapters 7 through 11, when the focus moves to the effects of recent technological advances on the economy and on the study of economics itself. The authors build a compelling case that income inequality is much more a consequence of the move to a digital economy than of any particular government policy. I found their take on globalization especially interesting: they view it as a big contributor to the rise in income of the world's top earners, but not for the reasons people usually think. I already tended toward this view, but now I'm further convinced that some of the changes we've seen in wealth distribution are primarily due to deep structural changes in the way the world works and won't be undone by tax policy.

I found the book less convincing in its final chapters, where the authors suggest steps that can be taken to avert widespread unemployment and social disorder. Their short-term prescriptions are sensible enough (basically: take steps to encourage general economic growth) but, as the authors themselves point out, these won't address the underlying problem, identified by Keynes among others, of technological change outpacing the ability of large segments of the workforce to retrain for new jobs. They offer a few examples of systems that make it easier to find occasional part-time work and suggest that these could be expanded in the future, but as far as I can tell their vision would still leave people mostly idle. They are optimistic about the ability of people to continue finding work but I didn't feel it was justified by the picture their text painted.

Still, this is about the best treatment I've found of the question of how technology is likely to affect work over the next couple decades. Highly recommended.
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